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Evolving hero

June 12, 2005|Nick Owchar | Nick Owchar is deputy editor of Book Review.

I never was much for Robin the Boy Wonder, but after reading "Batman Cover to Cover: The Greatest Comic Book Covers of the Dark Knight" (DC Comics: 240 pp., $39.99), I realized that Batman wouldn't have lasted very long without him. Robin cast some sunshine into the life of this grim, brooding vigilante. "I can hardly wait till we go on our next case!" Robin beams in Detective Comics No. 38. Or else he sounds a cautionary note, as he does on the cover of Detective Comics No. 244: "Batman, you're not going to use Batarang X, are you?" As the book's editors explain, "The presence of an optimistic ally has kept Batman from tumbling into the dark realms of obsession."

From Robin's appearance in 1940 through the 1970s and 1980s, the cover illustrations were mostly bright and circus-like, the story lines heroic and incredible. However, when Robin was killed off in 1988 in an issue titled "A Death in the Family," Batman fell into an abyss. The mood and tone of the covers that followed seemed to change after the Dark Knight lost his cheerful sidekick. A host of magnificent artists -- Mike Mignola, David Mazzuchelli, Bill Sienkiewicz and Frank Miller among others -- unleashed a teeth-gnashing, elegant demon in Gotham City. Many of the covers from this period are done mostly in shades of black and gray. Familiar villains such as Poison Ivy are still around, only now she looks like a Penthouse centerfold, and the Joker is a sadistic ghoul, the stuff of nightmares.

The DC editorial staff has collected more than 250 covers for this book, along with interviews and commentary from such guests as illustrator Neal Adams, "Star Wars" actor Mark Hamill and Christopher Nolan, director of "Batman Begins," which opens in theaters on Wednesday. The only drawback: The stories behind the covers aren't here. Hopefully, you saved your comics stash from when you were 12, or maybe you can convince your spouse that it'd be a good investment to purchase some back issues for the boys (yeah, she'll buy that one).

"Batman Cover to Cover" offers an excellent sense of the Dark Knight's evolution, starting as a hero for kids and then being taken to another level by storytellers who've recognized that the caped crusader needs to be as menacing as the villains he's facing. *

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