Most of DC’s adventurous work—adventurous meaning boundary-testing, not “The Adventures of Superman”—is kept to its Vertigo imprint. The segregation makes sense, since writers are allowed to get R-rated over there. DC books tend to get no more risque than a pair of too-tight tights.
However, at DC’s Elseworlds imprint, writers are allowed to explore ideas outside the somewhat restrictive boundaries of the DC Universe. Here, a new idea can be floated without streams of mail flooding in, arguing that The Flash never would have said X about Y, because in 1948 he was pro-Dewey.
In other words, fun can be had.
Writer Len Wein has grasped the freedom like none before. With Batman: Nevermore, he removes Batman from his modern context and sizeable mythology, and drops him into Edgar Allen Poe’s oeuvre. Gone are the Joker’s madhouses and hard-boiled Gotham cops. Instead there is a serial murder in 19th-century Baltimore, trailed by a bumbling young reporter by the name of Poe.
What hasn’t changed are the deep Gotham shadows that serve as Batman’s conduits. Poe’s Baltimore has more than its share of dinge for criminals and caped crime-fighters. Wein easily slides Batman into Poe’s milieu, and makes fast friends of the two larger-than-life figures.
The story runs parallel to the standard Batman tale. There is a series of murders, and the public misunderstand Batman’s role, thinking he may be the homicidal maniac. Batman entrusts the young reporter Poe, and uses him in an overtly “Boy Wonder” role.
As Poe and Batman peel away the mysterious layers of the murderer, more and more characters from Poe’s stories emerge, as do Poe’s tropes. Lenore is visible this time as the object of young Poe’s desire, and another scene explicitly plays out the thrust of the Telltale Heart.
Tackling such a project should be daunting. Wein attempts to write a comic book using Poe’s old-fashioned lyricism, throughout, as if the famous poet lifted his quill from the House of Usher to pursue police beat reporting. The effect is magical. Wein never slips, maintaining a literary tone rarely seen in comics.
Guy Davis’ work on the series is equally astounding. His pencils darkly portray the streets of Baltimore, and he tweaks the Batman costume enough to transform it from the modern-day superhero model and into a 19th century masquerade get-up. Since this comic is a bit more adult than the standard DC fare, there is also enough gore here to do justice to Poe’s gothic legacy. Davis does a tremendous job of making the murdered victims appear gruesome, yet removes the details, creating a strange blurred effect on the disfigured deceased. As in real life, the worst things that happen to the human body never seem real.
That’s not to say this series is perfect. Nevermore can sacrifice character exploration, at times, to make sure each plot twist is packed into a 22-page issue. Most of the players are introduced as names with occupations and temperaments; the rest are ancillary. It’s true that most are recognizable, either pulled from Batman’s or Poe’s history, but a little more time spent would have increased the intrigue. If the danger comes from thin information, there isn’t much there to peg a fear. Frights and shocks work best in mysteries when the character is known. When a character surprises the reader with a dark side, that’s when a mystery takes off.
However, it’s heartening to see DC play so freely and so creatively with what’s really become its hallmark character. While Superman always seems too perfect, too Hollywood, even in his darkest incarnations, Batman gives DC a chance to play with a flawed hero who likes being flawed.
This series proves that while comic publishers may be getting more “extreme,” DC is clearly making broad strides to update comics in an intelligent manner. So many comics are labeled mature nowadays, presumably in the same way End of Days was “mature.” People curse and talk sex, but the question remains: is it possible for outlandish characterization and endless hyperbole (both in dialogue and action) to really be the mark of a more mature product? Does mature mean more sophisticated, or simply more anything?
The majors still have a lot to learn from the fantastic indie comics published year in and year out. There will always be people who flinch at reading something with Batman in the title, but Frank Miller knocked down a lot of those walls years ago. It’s time the big guns listened. With its Vertigo line and this, the latest Elseworlds release, DC is establishing itself as a mainstream publisher making a case for comics as literature. That’s a lot for a five-issue series to shoulder.