By John A. Butz
“No rest for the wicked…nor those who dare deal with them.”
Pacing a story properly is a challenge. You need to create the right sense of timing, build the rhythm in the proper places, hit people with the right revelations at the right moments, keep the momentum going, and know exactly when to spike the adrenaline and action to really drag in the reader. Things have been moving so fast that we know, by now, that there is no way it can be sustained. Not even Batman is able to keep operating at this unforgiving tempo, right?
Red Slash is all about that question.
I attribute the successful pacing of the first four episodes of KnightFall to the editors. For this issue, Denny O’Neil is joined by Gorf himself, Joseph B. Gorfinkel. Known primarily for conceiving the Batman storyline No Man’s Land and the comic series Birds of Prey, Gorfinkel coordinated the Batman franchise throughout the ‘90’s. He is also the writer and creator of Everything’s Relative, a newspaper strip published since 1996.
Norm Breyfogle returns to do the art, and it is just as good as always. Doug Moench is back in the saddle, and Red Slash bears all the hallmarks of a good Moench vehicle – it is a tightly paced action story with a strong plot and a clearly defined antagonist.
The classic Rouge’s Gallery that has opposed the Dark Knight Detective over the years must have proven frustrating to use in the face of modern criminals, crime syndicates, and serial killers. After all, no matter how much you modernize a man who dresses like a character out of Through the Looking Glass, or uses umbrellas as gimmick weapons, or leaves clues in the form of riddles at all his crime scenes, they are fundamentally Silver Age characters. Penguin, Riddler, and the Mad Hatter, alongside their contemporary baddies, were almost always comical and rarely seemed truly dangerous. This is most evident when you watch them in the mid-60’s Batman TV series, but is also typical of the comics of the time.
Although modern adaptations of the Joker, Two-Face, and Scarecrow have been depicted as truly scary, dangerous and intimidating, they still don’t bear any true resemblance to the criminals we read about in history books or the Sunday paper.
It’s not that we expect Batman to get into a fistfight with Bernie Madoff so much as we know in our hearts that most of Batman’s enemies are forever bound into the pages of the comics. They can’t possibly be real. This is one of the fundamental struggles of the comic book industry and a big part of the transition between the Silver and Bronze Age of comics, and the Modern Age.
More often than not, instead of going for more realistic villains, writers have opted to have their super-villains grow increasingly darker and more violent. DC is somewhat infamous as the originator of a concept whereby a character, usually female, is killed horribly by a bad guy just to show how evil said bad guy is. (This is known as “Woman in the Refrigerator Syndrome”, and it originated in ’94 with the death of Alex Dewitt, Kyle Rayner’s girlfriend, at the hands of Major Force. She was subsequently stuffed into a ‘fridge for Kyle to find. The originator of the term is Gail Simone, one of the premier writers of the 2000’s, known for her time on Birds of Prey and Wonder Woman, among other things).
I think that this is the primary reason that I dislike Moench’s use of the Joker – he is just trying too hard to make the Clown Prince of Crime appear insane. In doing so, Moench falls increasingly into caricature. However, given a type of insanity that is just close enough to reality to be recognizable and Moench can really make that villain seem terrifyingly real.
Red Slash is a prime example, as it brings us face to face with Zsasz, Gotham’s resident serial killer.
Red Slash is a showcase for Moench’s storytelling talent. Like The Freedom of Madness, it is a tightly knit action story, very strongly paced and full of suspense. Moench wastes no space, and manages to not only show us the Batman’s increasing weakness, but also reinforces the idea that Bane is always watching, waiting, prepared to pounce as soon as the Caped Crusader is ready to fall.
Taking place immediately after Puppets, Red Slash opens on Batman desperately racing time as he tries to reach the Bates School for Girls before Zsasz can kill again. He slings the Batmobile recklessly through the streets of Gotham, all-the-while delivering a stream-of-consciousness monologue that gives the reader insight into the weakened, exhausted and possibly delirious state of Bruce’s mind.
Zsasz, a self-mutilating killer, has captured a dozen young women, and he intends to murder them. The developing hostage situation has Mayor Kroll putting the pressure on Commissioner Gordon. If any hostages die, Gordon will lose his job. Under the alternately lurid and washed out colors of Adrienne Roy’s wonderful police lights, several cops enter the school hoping to save the girls, only to be added to the tally that Zsasz keeps on his skin.
Batman and Zsasz eventually face off, with Officer Renee Montoya in the middle as a hostage. Zsasz’s cunning and insightful dialogue, as well as his fighting and hunting style, help illustrate to the reader how similar the Batman is to those he opposes. The Dark Knight is every bit the predator that Zsasz is, stopping just short of the actual act of killing. Exhausted, alone, and scared, Batman finally beats Zsasz into unconsciousness, stopping his assault only when Montoya intervenes to prevent the Caped Crusader from going too far.
Breyfogle is excellent as always. As one of the creator’s of Zsasz, he is ideally suited to drawing the character. His art is just stylized enough to be evocative and full of meaning, and just realistic enough to have visceral punch. Adrienne Roy continues to use colors well, and again I love her use of pinks, reds, and washed out blues to depict the police lights.
Red Slash is a great story, easily among my top three in KnightFall. I like everything about it, not the least how it depicts the Gotham Police Department. Batman tends to get all the credit for crime fighting in Gotham, and I enjoy these moments where the cops are depicted doing their job. Being an avid fan of Batman: The Animated Series I have a soft spot for Officer Montoya and Detective Bullock, and both officers get some good camera time in Red Slash.
Additionally, the story is proof that Moench can write a good crazy man. He uses Zsasz to highlight some of the darker sides of the Dark Knight, and plays the two similar characters against each other with a scalpel-like precision. I begin to wonder if it is just the Joker that is hard for Moench to write. After all, his Mad Hatter wasn’t too bad, either. Moench just can’t seem to find the balance between outrageous and lethal necessary to tell a good Joker story. Give him a simpler villain, with a really strong gimmick or quirk, and his work shines.
Red Slash ends with Robin hot on the heels of Bird, Batman sitting stunned on the roof of the Bates School, and Zsasz in custody. The next couple episodes won’t be as sharp and well-executed as these first comics, but we will soldier on, because on the other side of them, through a gauntlet of villains and danger, lies Bane, the orchestrator of the madness himself.
“Missed it…by inches. But wherever my grave is…someone’s standing on it…waiting on it…stomping the hell out of it. Someone named Bane.”
There are nine and sixty ways of constructing a Batman story, and every single one of them is right.
Next time – Killer Croc, Bane takes public transit, and Robin the Boy Hostage. Tune in!