Saturday, 22 March 2014

Guest Blogger Lee Robson On "Batman Vs Predator", by Dave Gibbons & Andy and Adam Kubert

In which the writer of the graphic novel "Babble" - and all-round top chap - Lee Robson returns for a second, welcome guest blog, once more on the sometimes under-appreciated cross-company team-ups of the Nineties. If you've not come across it before, Lee's first post at TooBusyThinking - about the decade's Batman/Spider-Man tales - can be found here;

  
So, Colin has been gracious enough to let me return for another guest post, and this time, I want to talk about another inter-company crossover, Batman vs Predator...

Yeah, I can already see peoples eyes rolling and starting to click away from the blog, but I'm more than prepared to stake my claim here and say that, while it's still fondly remembered by some, it's one of those books that's been unfairly overlooked by the majority of comic readers down the years due to the very nature of it. I know people reading this will be thinking "it's a novelty comic, right? Batman fighting the alien from the films? How good could it be?" Well, pretty damn good, actually…

What a lot of people may not know about Batman vs Predator is that it was actually written by Dave Gibbons and the art was by Andy and Adam Kubert (Andy on pencils, Adam on inks and letters; Sherilyn Van Valkenburgh provides the colours). By today's standards, those three would be classed as superstar creators and the news of their teaming up on anything would be a Big Thing in the comics world, but, back in 1991, when this was originally released, Gibbons was only starting to make his mark as a mainstream writer and the brothers Kubert had yet to put their stamp on the X-Men universe. That, in itself, makes Batman vs Predator an interesting mini-series, as we're getting to see these creators on the cusp of becoming the stars they are now.


Of course, it would've been easy for them all to just phone in their work on something like this. After all, inter-company crossovers can be fun, but it's clear that, sometimes, the creators involved are just there to cash cheques and fill pages. But Batman vs Predator has a very different feel to it, as if Gibbons and the Kuberts are determined to use this to show the world (and editors) the full extent of their skills, and that approach lifts this up to a different level, one that you really don't expect; you can almost feel the creators collective hunger for bigger and better things radiating off the page (it's telling, too, that the 1995 sequel by the then established creative team of Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy feels very dull and hackneyed by comparison).

The main problem with the superhero vs Predator comics is that the creators have to come up with some way to either disable the superhero's powers to give the Predator even the remotest chance of being a threat to them, or do something to the Predator to enhance it; in Superman vs Predator, for example, Superman is infected with an alien virus that gradually drains his powers, while in JLA vs Predator, we're introduced to the concept of Meta-Predators, who - and I can't believe I'm actually going to type this - have the powers of the JLA. But, as we all know, Batman doesn't have any superpowers (although, cleverly, JLA vs Predator skips over the fact Batman has a Predator with his "powers" by...never actually mentioning it), so, right off the bat, we're in the familiar wheelhouse of the Predator films, with a "regular" guy being singled out for the hunt.

But, as anyone who's read Batman vs Aliens knows, a simple concept can go radically wrong (the dark streets and alleys of Gotham are the perfect place for Aliens to hide, so, of course, that story transplants Batman to the jungle...). Fortunately, Batman vs Predator manages to avoid that by simply borrowing the basic premise from the much maligned Predator 2: a heatwave hits Gotham City, attracting the attention of the alien hunter, but, rather than Danny Glover proving he doesn't need Celebrity Anti-Semite Mel Gibson to be in an action film, it comes up against The Dark Knight.


While the Predator is pretty much the same monster from the films - right down to the strange hunters code it follows and the additional weaponry from Predator 2 - we're introduced to a very 90's take on Batman. He's not the still slightly camp character of the early part of the 1980's, but nor is he the All Conquering Bat-God of the 2000's; this is a Batman that has the focus and determination of his Year One self, but one who's older and wiser, and very much at home at street level, tackling organised crime. This is also a Batman who seems to exist in a world without other superheroes to call on (but, let's be honest: he just wouldn't call on them for help, because, well, he's Batman); with no Bat-Villains included, either, and the Bat-Supporting cast pared down to its bare bones (both problems the two Batman vs Predator sequels never really got around), the whole story becomes lean and tight, which gives the narrative a real pin sharp focus that serves it well.

The story opens with a boxing match (which is thematically appropriate, if a little on the nose), which not only introduces all of the cannon fodder main supporting players. Alex Yeager and Leo Brodin are criminals gone legitimate (or, in Brodin's case almost legit), but both are rivals and both are backing the fighters, which many see as another shot being fired in their fued; when the Predator kills Yeager's champion, Marcus King, Brodin is immediately put in the frame, until his fighter is killed by the alien, leading the police to think there's a new serial killer in town. Then, of course, Batman gets involved and the Predator turns its full attention to him, and gives us one of the cooler moments of the comic:
  

I think that's kind of fun, that Batman's got this so down now, he can lose a Predator without even trying.

But it also shows the limits of the Predator technology in a way that I don't think has been explored anywhere else (and I'll put my hands up and admit I've only read a handful of the Predator comics from Dark Horse, so I may be completely wrong about that). It can track heat signatures and the shapes people give off, but if someone changed their shape - like by taking off a stylised cowl - the Predator wouldn't actually know it was the same person. It's actually a pretty clever piece of work, and just one of many that Gibbons throws into the script.

Another thing that strikes you about the writing is how quickly everything's put into place. By the end of the first page, we're introduced to Yeager and Brodin, while on the next two, the Predator "introduces" itself and finds a place to operate from (a scrap yard, with the boxing match continuing on a TV set to punctuate the action and provide the alien with the cue to get the story rolling). Going back to the boxing match, we're introduced to Commissioner Gordon, Bruce Wayne, the Mayor and the various relationships they have with each other (Gordon and the Mayor don't get on, while the latter is quite friendly with Yeager, and neither of them really know Bruce Wayne outside of his playboy image). In just four pages the stage is completely set and we're ready to go.

Gibbons pushes the narrative along by packing each page with panels, which gives you a lot more story for your buck, but at the same time, does feel as if it's limiting the artists ability to cut loose. However, the script adopts a more cinematic approach, dropping internal narrative captions and relying on dialogue and sound effects to tell the story - and keep it in the general ballpark of the Predator films - which, in turn, allows the Kubert's stunning, crystal clear visuals to carry the weight. It's a canny move by Gibbons, and it's clear his time working with a wide variety of writers has given him a unique perspective on sequential narrative that he brings to bear here; this is a series written by an artist for an artist. But it's also written for the readers and, crucially, it never loses sight of that.

And, of course, it also gives us some pretty great moments - including the cliffhanger from the end of the first issue:

  
After Batman escapes, he goes off to lick his wounds and is actually relegated to the background for the most part, leaving us with a strange second issue that actually gives the rest of the cast a chance to shine, and their stories to be fleshed out more. Before they're all killed off.

No, really.

By the end of the second issue, all of the new characters introduced are dead at the hands of the Predator. It seems kind of odd, on the surface, doing that, but it's a brilliant narrative move that takes you off guard and really ratchets up the tension for the big finale. The characters and their relationships are drawn out enough with the first two issues to give you a sense of who they are and why they're in the story (and they all serve a purpose), which does make their deaths that little bit more of a surprise, but - more importantly - it also serves to push the narrative on; the creators give the Predator a clear goal rather than just have it perform a series of grisly deaths to fill pages, and it sees it through with singular focus that actually reminds you of a certain Caped Crusader…

Things regarding Gibbons scripting really become clearer with this second issue, too, as you realise that he's saving splash pages for big, dramatic story beats, rather than just throwing them in because they look cool or because a page count needs to be met (and that's something a lot of writers could learn). Take for example, the first of the two splash pages from the same issue:



There's a palpable sense of something building up to that moment, with the Predator going after the rest of the crime families, Gordon becoming desperate to find Batman and Alfred determined to keep Bruce away from it all in case he gets himself killed. And then, we have the above page, which punctures the tension that's been growing throughout the issue and leaves us thinking that maybe, just maybe, Batman is actually gone.

It also leads into one of the best sequences in the book, with the Predator going after Jim Gordon. It's established in the first few pages of the very first issue that this is not the milquetoast Commissioner Gordon of the old Batman TV show, but rather an older version of the battle hardened, world weary Gordon we were introduced to in Year One; he's tough and cynical, not afraid to speak his mind to those above him, but also knows to pick his battles carefully


But he's also Batman's friend, and the Predator making an attempt on his life genuinely feels personal, somehow, like it's crossing a line - and, given that the rest of the cast have been wiped out, it does leave you wondering if Gordon is in the frame to be next (with this being out of continuity, it was possible. Unlikely, but possible). That scene also serves to bring Batman back into the story proper and set the stage for the final showdown; even though he's not fully recuperated from his previous encounter, he comes back to take down the Predator once and for all, with a brand new Bat-Suit:


With the final issue, the decks are cleared for Gibbons and the Kubert's to floor the accelerator and really let rip, showing us why this mini-series is, indeed, called Batman versus Predator.

Of course, it's not a straight knock down fight - he might be Batman, but even he's never going to win a toe-to-toe punch up with a seven foot tall, super strong alien killer - but it is an issue of wall-to-wall action that has a real kinetic fluidity that never lets up until the final page. Gibbons paces the issue perfectly injecting it all with a real sense of drama and tension, while the Kubert's bring it all to brilliant, vivid life on the page. Their storytelling remains clear as glass through it all, reminding you - as if you needed reminding - why they're so acclaimed as artists.

It would've been easy for all of the creators to lapse into self-indulgence here, especially with some of the imagery (the picture at the top of this post, taken from a two page spread, is probably as close as they come), but it's abundantly clear they're all committed to telling the story and bringing it to it's natural conclusion - and the ending does feel like a natural conclusion, with only one clear winner (although, I think we can guess who it is).


The script continues its use of elements from the two Predator films to reach that ending, though: Batman leads the Predator out of the city (with a couple of moments that bring to mind scenes from Predator 2), heading into the outskirts and the grounds of Wayne Manor, where he lures the alien into some carefully laid traps (much like Dutch at the end of the original Predator), before they end up in the Batcave. Rather than hang lampshades on these bits, Gibbons smooths them into the story effortlessly by mixing them with various pieces of Bat-Lore (one of the traps includes Batman using a device to stir up some bats and take the Predator off guard), and makes them feel like an organic part of the narrative. It also makes the whole thing feel like a real mix of the two "worlds" rather than just a Batman story that happens to feature an alien hunter that could be any generic monster (again, something the two sequels never seemed to get around).

Of course, Batman being Batman, he has a pretty extensive bag of tricks at his disposal (sonar to detect the Predator when it goes invisible, tranquilisers to try and knock it out and steel cages to trap it), but you can't help but feel that it's all building up to a pretty silly joke:


Batman grabs a bat to take on the Predator in the final pages. I mean, yeah, you could argue that it's symbolic and saying something about the different types of sport and the characters attitude to it, and even continues the sporting theme that's been running through the series, but, really, it's just Batman with a bat. Although, you can't help but wonder if Gibbons would've preferred it to be a cricket bat..

The ending, however, is another scene reminiscent of Predator 2, with the wounded alien's compadres turning up... I won't say any more on that front, because it'll give too much away (if you can truly spoil a comic that was released over 20 years ago), but that whole sequence shows off the Kubert's beautiful storytelling; it's so simple and elegant, but also drips with tension, as you wonder - if you haven't seen Predator 2, of course - what's going to happen. But, to find out, you'll have to read the series...


Looking back on this now, Batman vs Predator still holds up beautifully. It really does showcase what a terrific writer Dave Gibbons actually is (anyone wanting to learn how write and pace action sequences in comics could do worse than check this out), while the Kubert's just take you to school with their panel-to-panel storytelling and page compositions.

But they all do this with an unashamed passion, not just for the characters involved, but also the comics medium as a whole. The creators put their egos to one side and just get on with telling the story they've got to tell, rather than trying to "improve" what they didn't like about the Predator franchise without really understanding the basics of it. Because of that approach, Gibbons and the Kubert's give us a razor sharp and completely unpretentious comic series that goes beyond the novelty of just seeing two pop culture icons in a comic story together and into the realms of "must read NOW".

However, Batman versus Predator does leave you with a burning question: what if the aliens return...?


Lee Robson is the north east based writer and co-creator of the critically acclaimed indie graphic novel Babble, published by Com.X in 2013. He's also a regular contributor to the Eagle Award nominated anthology FutureQuake, its sister publication, Something Wicked and the acclaimed Accent UK series of themed anthologies (Robots, Western, Predators and Zombies 2 are out now). There's a link to his daily Judge Dredd strip with Bolt1 here, and his Tumbler is here. You can also find his blog at http://www.imaginarystories.co.uk or follow him on Twitter, @lee_robson.

I really appreciate Lee bringing his enthusiasm and insight to this final week of TooBusyThinking. Lee, you're an egg! Should you want to know more about Lee's projects, you could do worse than follow this link to the TooBusyThinking interview with both his good self and artist Bryan 'Brigonos' Coyle. There the two discuss Babble and a great deal more.

2 comments:

  1. Good post, Lee. You really got to the heart of what made Batman vs. Predator work. I like the sequels a bit more than you (especially III, with too-rare Rodolpho DMaggio art) but they're just not as good as he first.

    Ever read Magnus Robot Fighter/ Predator? That was a fun 2-parter, with great art by Lee Weeks. The reveal of the prize was cool.

    - Mike Loughlin

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  2. Thanks, Mike!

    I'll admit, I think the Damaggio art is probably the saving grace of III, but, story wise... It just didn't do much for me, I'm afraid. Although the Predators being unable to see Mr Freeze was clever...

    I DID read the Magnus/Predator crossover and quite enjoyed it - although, to my eternal shame, that was my first real exposure to Magnus and his world... I know! I know! But, in my defence, I think I'm going to check out the new series coming from Dynamite. But I absolutely LOVE Lee Weeks' art on that Magnus/Predator mini - and his work in general! :)

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