Batman: Kings of Fear video review

Well, now, isn't this a nice way to kick off the weekend? (A: it is if you're me or Kelley Jones.)


Probably goes without saying, but just in case: lots of spoilers in there. (Including one for Spider-Man: Far from Home.) 

The Storytelling Genius of Genius Artist Tim Levins

You know what I love? Besides genius artist Tim Levins and genius artist Tim Levins's artwork? I love when other people recognize the genius of genius artist Tim Levins and his genius artwork. I love that a lot.
If there is one Batman run that doesn’t get enough praise, it’s the strand of highly entertaining stories published in Gotham Adventures #15-60, from 1999 to 2003, written by Scott Peterson, mostly with pencils by Tim Levins, inks by Terry Beatty, and colors by Lee Loughridge. Adapting the characters and visuals of The New Batman Adventures animated show, these were action-packed comics that steadily delivered exciting standalone tales without talking down to their audience. The ultra-compressed narratives – effectively carried by taut dialogue as well as by an art style of crisp lines and low average of panels per page – were a lesson in minimalistic storytelling, spinning twist-filled yarns that were rich in characterization yet never felt overloaded.  
Of the many outstanding features of this run worth pointing out, today I want to focus on Tim Levins’ ability to bring to life ‘silent’ (i.e. wordless, without even sound effects) sequences that go on for pages. Scott Peterson clearly trusted his artists to convey all the necessary information and knew that readers enjoyed visually-driven set pieces, so his scripts provided Levins (and the rest of the creative team) with plenty of chances to shine.  
Levins rose up to the challenge.
Damn right he did.

Tim Levins’ deft pencils inject this sequence with peerless vitality through tilted angles and, in the second page, tilted borders (as the layout smoothly establishes the scene’s rhythm). Notice how Levins uses a small number of panels, letting the pages breathe, yet suddenly multiplies the images of the Caped Crusader, which gives the impression of a quick (yet clear) succession of graceful movements. Besides creating a loop for the readers’ gaze as it follows the action across the page (thus further increasing the dynamism of the reading experience), this neat trick efficiently illustrates an incredible acrobatic feat, underlining how athletic and cool Batman is.
Spot on. I'd add that in addition to all that, Tim notably refrained from having any elements breaking the panel borders, a technique which can be extremely effective in adding excitement to a layout, but which would have completely unnecessary here. Moreover, it's frequently used incorrectly even by some very good artists, because if not done just right, it can easily lead the reader's eye away from where it's supposed to go and into an area it's not. Such common gaffes are not for the likes of Monsieur Levins, however.

Without exception*, Tim took whatever I asked for and made it ever so much better than I ever could have imagined. After working together on just a handful of issues, I started paring my shot descriptions back further and further because there just kinda was no point—I could describe in the minutest detail what I was looking for and he would deliver it perfectly and it would look spectacular...or I could write "Batman and the bad guy fight" and he would deliver something even better than merely spectacular.

Tim's going to hate this post, incidentally. That's another reason I'm so happy about it.

[*there is actually one exception. Tim knows what he did.]

Batman: Kings of Fear review

Look, since I wrote Batman: Kings of Fear, I'm not going to say this guy's right about all this...I'm just going to say he makes a highly persuasive case, which has the added benefit of not being wrong at all

***
[A] consequence of having so many Batman books flooding the market is that potential readers are not aware of which of those comics are worth investing their time and money. An excess of merchandise by the same brand can lead to some good stories being lost in the mix and that approach is counterproductive.  
Let’s take this 2018-2019 miniseries, Kings of Fear, written by Scott Peterson and drawn by Kelley Jones: it flew under the radar while it was published and it has not gained any major hindsight from critics in the last couple of months, which is a shame given that this book provides us with some very fascinating insight on Batman as a character and delivers a conclusion that is actually quite refreshing for those of us that perhaps are not very thrilled with the direction the character over the last few years. 
What sets Scott Peterson apart from the rest of the current Batman writers (with a notorious exception being Peter J. Tomasi and his exceptional Detective Comics run) is the fact that he acknowledges these criticisms of Bruce’s war on crime, but he also offers us the chance of viewing the other side of the coin, as if this were a debate of sorts. This results in great scenes like Batman helping a little girl and her showing that his motivation is to prevent kids from going through what he went through, that his villains don’t keep coming back because he creates them or prompts them but rather that they are just insane and a scene with a professional in Arkham that tells him that his husband actually did time in jail and never committed another crime again because he was still terrified of the Batman, becoming a family man and a honest worker.  
You also get Gordon’s take on the matter, which seemed like a callback to Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, in my view, and, most importantly, Alfred’s take, which to me defines the whole argument: that Batman might not be the most pleasant solution, but is one that has given a lot of possibilities and help to Gotham as a whole, often hidden beneath Bruce’s obsession to do more and never-ending quest to push himself even further.  
This is what I find the most appealing about Kings of Fear: it tackles a topic that has been discussed for years among comic book fans and it delivers an answer that is actually counter-cultural in these modern times, showing Batman as a force that has provided good to the city that he has sworn to protect. All through the Scarecrow’s classic psychedelic lens 
In a market that is filled with Batman titles, Kings of Fear is short and yet entertaining book that also offers a major insight into the Dark Knight’s motivation and place as a hero.  

mad editing and lettering skillz

So I had a problem.

That I'd have a problem isn't news to anyone who's ever met me. But this one was pretty unique.

As others have picked up on, I like the comics I write to be as sparse as possible, when it comes to dialogue. I don't care for sound effects, generally speaking, and I hate thought balloons. (Yeah, I still like first-person captions, in some contexts, at least. What can I say? Comics from the mid-to-late 80s were very formative.)

Batman: Kings of Fear was a bit different. Since it was set as Doctor Jonathan Crane's dissection of the Batman's psyche, it was always intended to be more dialogue-intensive than most of my works, but still with large stretches of silent or nearly silent panels or pages and even entire scenes. And when I'd get the pencils from Kelley Jones the great and terrible, I'd pretty much always say, yup, that's exactly what I was looking for! And then be amazed when he'd suggest I add some dialogue. I mean...why clutter up his phenomenal art with [what I saw as] unnecessary copy?

Still, I'm all about the cooperation, so I generally did as he requested, no matter how wrong he was, because, as Immanuel Kant once asked and answered, "what is going to achieve one's goals? Working together as a cooperative unit."

And then we got to the final issue. Here's what I wrote for the opening:
Page One
Panel One
Batman, out of control, has the Scarecrow by the front of his costume and is screaming into his face, out of control. Or maybe he’s got at least one hand around his throat? This is a scary, violent image.
            BATMAN: yaaargh [dialogue to be tweaked, presumably, after being pencilled]


Page Two
Panel One
The Batman is very clearly just about to kill the Scarecrow....when…

Panel Two
…he glances over or up or whatever works logistically and sees the guard all trussed up over in the corner, nearly forgotten.

Panel Three
And the danger passes. Because the sight of the victim (or at least a witness) makes the Batman remember who and what he is. (A damn hero is what, Kelley, you cynical, jaded son of a gun.) So a similar pose but now all the tension is gone.

Panel Four
Sad tired Batman is sad and tired. He drops the Scarecrow, who falls on the ground in a heap.
            BATMAN: Why?


Here's what Kelley drew:

 

Perfection! Print it! (Well, I suppose inking and coloring it first might be advisable. Especially considering how good the inker and colorist were for this issue—namely Kelley Jones and Michelle Madsen, respectively.)

And then Kelley said those dreaded words: "I think he should be saying something in the first panel of the second page." I grimaced. I scowled. I looked at the pages again. And for once I didn't entirely disagree.

It really did look like it could use a tiny bit of dialogue, that the Scarecrow should be saying—perhaps babbling—something. But what?

I thought for a moment, and then I wrote:

            SCARECROW: i'm sorry okay oh my god i'm so sorry please don't hurt me please don't hurt me please don't i know i probably deserve it and you’re probably really mad and i don’t blame you but please don't you're really freaking me out i'm so sorry
And I thought...yeah, I kinda like that. 

The problem was, that wouldn't look good in a word balloon. First of all, there's simply too much copy. And I could cut it way down, obviously, but I thought having the Scarecrow word vomit all over the dark knight was the most effective way to go, and trimming that overly copious copy down too much would kneecap its efficacy.

So. What to do, what to do? Well, one of the nice things about working in this business is that after a while you tend to develop a group of peers to whom you can turn for advice, whether it's in the initial spitballing or looking at an entire storyarc to make sure it works on a structural level or who'll be willing to go over an individual line of dialogue with you and pick it apart and put it back together over and over and over again until it shines like the top of the Chrysler building.

In this case, I turned to the utterly indefatigable Devin Grayson. I explained the problem to her, sent her the page and the dialogue. She looked at it for about half a second and then suggested:
what if there's no actual dialog, but the background is a faded scroll of Scarecrow blather. Like the whole background, in a very faint font, is just all "no please don't okay you win just don't hurt me"? Almost like Scarecrow's blathering on but Batman doesn't even really hear him, it's all just in the background, wallpaper...
And I thought, oh hell yes.

But that brought up the next problem. Which was that lettering that was likely to be pretty tricky, which meant it might not work out at all the way I wanted, and could really annoy the letterer, something no writer ever wants to do (and all writers do anyway).

Fortunately, in this case, I had (my apologies to all the other very fine letterers working today) the best letterer in the biz on the job: the great and hirsute Rob Leigh.

I ever so politely asked if he could take the babble and fill the second and third panels with it...and this is what I got:


I am a very lucky man.

(Writing this just now, I discovered a note to myself during an earlier draft, where it's all silent, except for the Scarecrow whispering, very softly, in one of the first two panels, "you're scaring me." I like the final version much better...but I must say, that amused me.)