The Comic Book Club: Night Animals and Batman Inc.

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This is what happens when Techland goes to the comic book store: we end up discussing what we picked up. This week, Evan Narcisse, Graeme McMillan and Douglas Wolk talk about Brecht Evens’ Night Animals and the third issue of Batman Inc.

EVAN: I didn’t know anything about Night Animals when Douglas suggested it, except that he described it as a not-for-kids take on Where The Wild Things Are. After reading it, it seems serendipitous that it came out during Mardi Gras week. Both the wordless stories are about the depths–literally for the first one–that libido will take a person to, and the mishaps that happen on the road to what we think we want. The book’s chockablock with visual puns, starting with the subtitle (“A Diptych about What Rushes through the Bushes”) and the frontispiece image of a beaver/woman hybrid.

DOUGLAS: The only things I’ve seen by Evens are this and The Wrong Place, the graphic novel that Drawn & Quarterly published a few months ago, but they’re both fantastic. I love his sense of color and wit, and the way his stories always end up going places where they don’t look like they’re going. Since my brain is wired for This Thing Is Like That Other Thing, I kept seeing riffs on Where The Wild Things Are all over the book: the bunny-suit guy in “Blind Date” is Max in his wolf suit, the dance with the beasts in “Bad Friends” is the Wild Rumpus, the shift back to the bedroom and then the outdoor scene mirrors Max’s bedroom and the final image of leaves in Sendak’s book. But, of course, there’s a lot more going on here too. (Also, I could have sworn the woman’s pose on the cover–that link’s NSFW, by the way–was from some Sendak thing or other, but now I can’t figure out what.)

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EVAN: “Blind Date” struck me as the weirder of the two stories, unfolding like a wet dream from a furry-obsessed Craigslist personals ad. Maybe it’s the video game critic in me, but the glowing arrows were a great device to let the reader know that they’d be leaving reality far behind. (And, no, the bunny suit was not enough. Rabbit Guy could’ve been going to a cosplay convention.) The puns in the book serve as jokey signifiers, like the demon reading Michel Houllebecq in the sewer. Two pages later, there’s Ahab lashed to Moby Dick in the background and you’re thinking, “Man, this ain’t gonna end well for Rabbit Guy, huh?” (And is it too pretentious to see a connection to Updike’s perpetually horny Rabbit novels? It feels like Evens is channeling Gaugin for a few panels in “Blind Date,” too.) By the time you reach the freaky giant hare near the end, and that last fateful arrow, you’re bracing yourself for something truly transgressive to happen.

DOUGLAS: …And, of course, it ends up being a much sweeter and funnier punch line than you’d have guessed any time before the last couple of pages. I love the premise, which boils down to “you actually can get the particular weird thing you want, it’s just that it’s not necessarily going to be easy to get to it,” and I love all the visual gags: the descent through the bathroom of a creepy bar (and hey, bunny-boy seems to have dropped the flower that turns up again at the end of the book), the cloacal “tunnel of love,” the sweetheart vulture family, the humping bunnies. Evens’ linework is wonderful–the expressions on bunny-boy’s face when he meets the entity he thinks is his mystery date are priceless–but his coloring is even better, giving each scene a different tone with just the choice of a single shade.

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GRAEME: I will just add to the love above. This is a great story, and it’s all about the execution more than the essentially meaningless plot. Evens’ art is beautiful; I see the shout-outs you both mention above, but also see something older as an influence, old woodcuts or something similar, especially in the forest scene. There’s some Ronald Searle in there, too. I love that the art is so full of… not exactly in-jokes, but details that serve no purpose other than adding to the depth of the world. There’s detail here that’s just beautiful and impressive, and the lovely color work really brings it alive even further. I wasn’t sure where this was going when I started, but somewhere along the way, I started enjoying the experience so much that I stopped caring about the destination.

EVAN: “Bad Friends” comes across as feverish, lurid and terrifically manic. The cartoonishness at the beginning completely set me up for the sucker-punch of a shock ending. The little girl’s sudden puberty gets played for laughs, with one breast popping out in surprise followed by the other. You feel sorry for her, but feel like things might work out once she falls asleep with her stuffed animal. Then a creepy Pan-figure shows up with a phallically-placed flute, and away we go again. I loved the birds spelling out “YMCA” at the top of one page. A lot of this story feels like classic kids’ literature characters coming together for their version of Hedonism, with this poor little girl as the main course. Again, this one had a ending I didn’t see coming. In retrospect, the truly horrific finale is totally telegraphed if you read this as a fable–Pied Piper, anyone?–but the visual tumult on the pages distracts you from that.

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DOUGLAS: The ending, to me, seems more like not-quite-horror disguised as horror: a metaphor for “wait, where did her childhood go, it was just here.” But yeah, the form of the story is “and then she goes back to her own bed and everything’s normal again,” as in Sendak, and that’s not what happens. I didn’t notice the YMCA birds until you pointed them out, but that’s fantastic–one thing Evens does both here and in The Wrong Place is tuck telling details in everywhere, just to do it. There’s a lot of great kids’ literature whose subtext is about what’s going to happen to those kids a couple of decades later; both “night animals” and “bad friends,” as titles, could refer to the creatures we see in the girl’s room. (That Pan-figure, by the way, is straight out of Sendak.)

Maybe my favorite thing about this story, though, is the way Evens uses just two colors, red and black, in incredibly inventive ways: absence of color as light (the lightning bugs!), a shift from red as a shocking spot in a black-and-white world to the dominant color in that sexually charged demimonde, and finally the presence of the solid red sex-beasts as transparent phantoms in the monochrome line-art world. Gorgeous, disturbing, brilliant.

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GRAEME: This really is a disturbing story, almost from the start for me. (A start that really reminded me of Kate Beaton, actually. Am I alone in that?) The sudden maturation of the girl didn’t seem comedic to me, but more… worrying, perhaps? Worrying for the girl, I mean, and that set me up for the idea that something was going wrong. If anything, I read the story in reverse, and thought that as she followed the Pan character to the (more colorful, more adult, more sexual) nightworld, she was beginning to enjoy herself more, and that it was a metaphor for coming to terms with sexuality, and then there’s that ending, which just… Oof. It’s incredibly powerful, not once, but twice; firstly, when the family discovers the girl is missing, and then the search, with the ghosts of all those who have kidnapped her hanging around, as if to tease that they’d just been there. It’s an impressively powerful story – especially after the danger-defused-into-whimsy ending of the previous one – and one that’s going to stick in my brain for awhile.

EVAN: One story starts off bizarre and winds up happily (er, kind of), and the other story starts off mundane and ends tragically. It’s creepily compelling how Evens throws Maurice Sendak, Edward Gorey and Hustler into a blender and comes up with this. Night Animals grossed me out a lot but entertained me even more.

DOUGLAS: One other detail: I am delighted that this slim 48-page entity is a genuine comic book, staple and everything. It somehow feels more special that way than it would if it were a, you know, “graphic novel.” I can’t explain why. But it’s the sort of thing I would be only too happy to find next to my Batman comics every week. Speaking of which: let’s talk about Batman Inc. #3!

EVAN: (Introductory side note: Those hands at the beginning of Batman Inc. #3 totally belong to G.I. Robot. I’m calling it.)

Man, that Grant Morrison is something. He starts off the issue by pulling off a trick he’s the master of, which is suggesting a whole other superhero history that lives adjacent to the mainline universe. “Oh, you never heard of Mr. Albion or Captain Carnation before? They’ve always been here.” They’re pastiches–Captain Britain, Doctor Who, a little bit of Morrison’s own Zenith–that feel unique to Morrison’s brain. Sure, they wind up being so much cannon fodder, but I wanted to know more about them.

And the other thing Morrison’s doing in this book is a hot-blooded fusion of superhero/pop culture traditions from around the world. Yes, the interpretations of Japan in the first two issues and now Argentina are broad enough to rub up against stereotype, but the whole premise of Batman Inc. walks a tightrope of near-campiness. So what if El Gaucho is ‘muy macho’? Morrison balances the tones just right so that nothing feels offensive. It’s tricky and brilliant.

The recurring sensation so far when reading Batman Inc. is to think, “Christ, this crap should be so corny.” I mean, the parrot coughing up the vital clue? The Tango of Death? You can practically hear the Adam West voice in Batman’s speech balloons. But, at the same time, there’s that dangerous macabre edge waiting to cut further down the line. Still, there’s so much fun here. Gaucho smirking at Batman’s “poor” secret-identity maintenance when just about anyone can figure out he’s Don Santiago Vargas. Batman uttering the line “…before he fainted.” It all just works so well.

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DOUGLAS: This is a puzzle-box of a comic book, and I have no objections to that–I admire how quickly Morrison has set a tone for this new series that’s significantly different from both his Batman and his Batman & Robin. And it’s so video-game-ish I can practically sense the cut-scenes. But it works here, yes! I think what’s helping it click is that Morrison’s totally earnest about even his camp: the whole story feels cooked down from something looser and slower into a hyper-condensed, hyper-compressed meteorite. (I’m curious, though, about what took this issue so long to get done; the next one’s due in two weeks, and it’s odd that Pere Perez ended up pinch-hitting for a two-page scene of exposition 3/4 of the way through the story.)

A few observations:

*Curious that Morrison never comes out and says that the opening scene takes place in the Falkland Islands (it’s just “in time of war,” but that’s what the map is of, and that’s where it’s Atlantic/Stanley time), but if you’re bringing characters from Britain and Argentina together, it’s an appropriate location.

*When I see the name “Dedalus” next to a tower on a rocky shore, I can’t help thinking of James Joyce’s Telemachiad in Ulysses. Joyce and Jorge Luis Borges in my Batman comic? Yes please. (Espartaco Extraño is a Morrison invention rather than a creation of the Florida group–and Borges wasn’t one of their regulars–but I’m willing to roll with that.)

*The opening scenes of this issue remind me very strongly of Seven Soldiers of Victory #0: the team of slightly too few hapless second-raters heading into a fatal trap, the spider’s web (“Spyral”/”Spyder”), Knight’s “super-toys” like Merry/Gimmix’s, the presence of a double agent, the mountainous landscape, Papagayo’s face-kerchief and hat recalling Vigilante’s… that can’t be an accident. (Also, J.H. Williams III, but that’s a little bit more of a happy accident. I love that he’s still drawing El Gaucho in a Howard Chaykin style, too.)

*This is, on the other hand, the second time in three issues we’ve had a cliffhanger centered on a drowning deathtrap. Maybe it’s a motif? Have we seen any other scorpions in Morrison’s stuff since King Mob’s scorpion tattoo back in The Invisibles?

GRAEME: I agree with the Seven Soldiers feel to the opening. Everything up until the appearance of Batman, in fact, feels like it’s come from that project, whether it’s the previously unseen, doomed British superteam (complete with two Maggie Thatcher shout-outs! “The lady’s not for turning” indeed) or the villain’s speech before El Gaucho and Batman appear. I’m not complaining in the slightest, as I loved 7S, but it’s somewhat surprising nonetheless. Maybe fitting, too: the tonal shifts of that uber-series, with all its moving parts, may suggest a guide to where Batman Inc. will end up going.

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This seemed pretty much in keeping with everything Morrison set up in the first couple of issues – Batman appears in foreign country, teams up with local superhero to deal with local menace and uses that as an introduction to the idea of joining Batman Inc. – but it feels more serious, somehow. The first couple of issues felt more campy to me than this one, which is surprising considering the high camp of the Tango of Death (that, and the parrot, really reminded me of Seaguy, while I’m drawing comparisons to Morrison projects), but there’s something here that’s closer in tone to the first few “Batman RIP” issues, for some reason. I’m not sure how I feel about that; I like that it suggests that we’ll get an over-arching story in the end, but I wanted this to be light throughout, I guess. Unsure whether I just need to read this again in a better frame of mind, to be honest.

Also: Pere Perez’ pages don’t really jump out too badly in terms of fill-ins, but what is going on behind the scenes here? This issue is two months late and it still has fill-in pages?

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