Friday, August 06, 2004

Eddie Campbell, Batman, and Comics for Kids

You wouldn't know it, but there's a new Eddie Campbell book out there from DC called BATMAN: THE ORDER OF BEASTS. I'd heard that Eddie was working on a Batman story, but I wouldn't have known it was out if bbkaro hadn't asked me if I'd picked it up yet. So, I went out, picked it up, and read it.

It's far, far better than Eddie's recent CAPTAIN AMERICA stint, but that's mainly because the folks at DC let Eddie be Eddie. THE ORDER OF BEASTS is foggy and scratchy and mysterious, with the art handled entirely by Eddie; it was co-written with Daren White. CAPTAIN AMERICA was written by Robert Morales and involves some sort of strange time-travel story that doesn't even make sense in a super-hero comic; Eddie had art assists from Stewart McKenny and colorist Brian Reber. There's a heavy Kirby-influence in the CAPTAIN AMERICA book, especially in the first issue when Cap and Iron Man are palling around, but I honestly wouldn't pick it out as an Eddie Campbell book unless I already knew it was beforehand. THE ORDER OF BEASTS, on the other hand, stands out as Eddie's work even though it involves Batman swinging around London. That doesn't even seem that strange. It's not that action-heavy, and the action that takes place seems awkward-but-natural, in an Eddie Campbell sort of way, if that makes sense to anyone.

I was looking for something to link this article to, but the closest I could find was a message board over the Comics Journal website where the consensus is that it's pretty to look at, but it's a pretty lame story. But there's been a growing rumble in the world of comic books that, after decades of trying to prove that comics aren't just for kids anymore . . . actually, some comics ARE still for kids. Or, at least, they should be. This argument was put forward wonderfully by Michael Chabon at this years Comic-Con. The transcript is now available for all to see. THE ORDER OF BEASTS isn't quite that kind of comic book--it's not a particular kid-friendly book, on the surface--it's a murder mystery in which Batman spends more time sipping tea with police inspectors in London, learns the local slang, and changes into his costume in the back of rented cars, than he does battleing Nazi spies. But at the same time, it's a very Batman-kind of story. Batman solves the crime, he is feared by the cowardly criminals and earns the respect of the local police, and Bruce Wayne charms the local female singer without even realize he's doing so. It would work well with kids because it's not trying to. It's just a straight-forward, if quirky, super-hero story that is self-contained and entertaining. It's a Batman story that doesn't try so hard to be a Batman story.

Unfortunately, it's also carrying a $5.95 price tag for 48 pages of story between two glossy covers. It was buried at the bottom of the rack at my local comic shop underneath something else. No kid will pick it up, but it's precisely the sort of story that would have appealed to me when I was nine years old--appealed to me because it wasn't trying to appeal to me, and also not trying to appeal to some 30-year old dude who buys Batman because he's always bought Batman. But the only folks who are going to buy it are either Batman completists or Eddie Campbell fans--the Batman completists won't like that Batman isn't dressed in black and brooding, and the Eddie Campbell fans will wonder when the next used-to-be-called-ALEC book is coming out. If only someone could figure out how to get a book like THE ORDER OF BEASTS into the hands of the kids who will appreciate it.

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