Much like Die Hard, Batman Returns is a movie that is firmly set at Christmastime, with events and settings and decor that evoke the holiday season. Yet both films seem to pose the same question every single year: “is this really a Christmas movie?” (They are)
The debates are generally good-natured, and I can personally understand the arguments and rationale on both sides, so it’s all in good fun.. Even if they aren’t actually Christmas movies (they are), they’re still solid entertainments and well worth adding to your list of annual Christmastime viewing.
Because they are Christmas movies.
Usually I’d say “but that’s beside that point” after such an introduction, but… it kind of is the point for this particular book review. You see, Insight Editions have released Batman Returns: One Dark Christmas Eve, which adapts the story of Batman Returns into a picture book.
A picture book with prose that is set to the tune of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” which is– of course– a Christmas carol.
So even if it is up for debate whether Batman Returns is actually a Christmas movie (it is), this book is decidedly a Christmas story.
And it is an absolute blast.
Ivan Cohen adapts the screen story admirably, and even more so considering he does so in verse. The structure and melody of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is on the more complex end of Christmas carols, with a recognizable and defined rhythm and lilt to its meter. Cohen hits all of the major plot beats from the movie to great success, sticking to the established flow of the song while relaying the plot from the birth of the Penguin to Bruce and Alfred’s closing conversation. It’s light-hearted and fun, to be sure, with some really clever turns of phrase sprinkled throughout (one of my favorites is during the “mistletoe can be deadly…” scene, where Cohen writes “The Cat says mistletoe’s a poison thing– Foreshadowing!– Oh vengeance interferes with romancing!”)
The back cover says that this is a “delightful storybook for adults,” and while grown-ups can absolutely appreciate and enjoy the book, Cohen is a deft writer of all-ages material so it’s not just a storybook for adults. He side-steps most of the movie’s weirder grotesqueries and innuendos, so kids would be able to enjoy it too.
The colorful, whimsical illustrations from J.J. Harrison are a huge part of the book’s appeal too, as his visual storytelling perfectly complements Cohen’s writing. Rather than going for caricature with the character designs, Harrison’s figures are simple yet exaggerated, clearly emulating the actors from the film without trying for an exact likeness. This works to the book’s benefit too, as we get some really fun designs for Max Shreck and the Penguin in particular, with the former looking almost like a ghost with his pale skin and huge tuft of hair, and Cobblepot looking… kind of adorable, not gonna lie. Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle are clearly modeled on their respective actors without being strictly beholden to their features, and Catwoman and especially Batman look positively incredible under Harrison’s pen. Truly, this is one of the best Batsuits I’ve seen on the printed page in some time, which is fitting because the Returns suit is my favorite live-action suit of them all.
What I appreciated most from Harrison’s art was how faithful it was to the story, without littering the backgrounds with jokes, Easter eggs, and gags. I don’t have an issue with that in principle– it’s one of the things that makes me enjoy Dan Hipp’s work with Teen Titans Go! illustrations, for instance, and a well-placed reference can take a good scene and make it great in many cases– but Harrison is more focused on style and storytelling that winking to the audience. Looking at his Facebook page, he says he “explored mixing a range of media and textures including watercolor, gouache, comic ink and halftones,” and those disparate styles give the book a distinct visual character. On one page, the giant Christmas tree in Gotham Square has a sprinkling of snow, evoking the wintry weather, and on another the limited color palette used in a car chase with the Batmobile heightens the action and danger. Each page is a feast for the eyes, if you’ll pardon the cliche, and that makes the book as much fun to look at as it is to read.
With clever writing and art, it speaks well of the book when my sole complaint is “why was Chip Shreck omitted?
But I suppose he isn’t integral to the story, so his absence shouldn’t impact the holiday cheer.
Overall: A quick, fun read that’s destined to become an annual Christmas staple, Batman Returns: One Dark Christmas Eve successfully adapts one of the more controversial Batman films into a holiday fable for all ages. Clever verse from Ivan Cohen and creative illustrations from J.J. Harrison combine to make One Dark Christmas Eve a joy to read and experience for Batman fans and lovers of the Christmas season alike.
Disclaimer: Insight Editions provided a copy of this book for review.