Batman: Creature of the Night (#1 – 4) – Kurt Busiek

4 out of 5

Whenever I have dipped into the works of Kurt Busiek, I tend to go through a similar cycle: of immediately falling in love with the concept and depth of what I’m reading; of looking up other Busiek books I’ve started and stopped, or books that’ve been much praised and I’ve missed; of questioning why its taken me so long to hop onto the Kurt bandwagon; and then of reading further into what I’m reading and… to understand why I’d abandoned previous forays down this path.

Which sounds heavily critical, and it is, but just in terms of what I’m looking for from comics, and what Busiek’s writing flirts with… but ultimately, for me, doesn’t provide. I’m very fine with lightweight fare, or stuff that’s pure popcorn. Entertainment that’s arted and written expressly for that purpose, and with the smarts to back it up, can be aces. When things get more cerebral, I tend to like it to pursue that to the extent I feel is promised by it. The creatives might not get where I’d hoped, but as long as they keep pushing, it seems a worthwhile journey.

Busiek, from the limited works I’ve sampled, is an amazing comic book writer, and truly does elevate the genre. But he does so by painting comic book worlds with cerebral elements… only to steer things back toward the safety of the genre. Which is, in itself, quite brilliant: it’s wonderfully accessible, and pushes readers to view things and think things that are maybe a bit out of their usual ballpark, while giving them the satisfaction that comes from a typical book. It’s an approach that always tends to miss the mark for me, but I appreciate the craft behind it.

This cycle persists with Creature of the Night, a “Batman” elseworlds-ish title that, I swear, finds a new way to explore the Batman mythos. But, y’know, see above: kinda. In Busiek’s world, Batman exists – as a comic. As a franchise. And we have a giant fan of the character in child Bruce Wain…wright, who loves to pause just like that when telling people his name, and likes to call his Uncle Alton by the name Alfred. Unfortunately, fiction mimics the reality too closely in a particular regard, when Bruce’s parents die. That the police officer who rather hurriedly interviews the child has a name with Gordon in it can’t soothe much; and “Alfred” cannot be Bruce’s caretaker for various reasons…

Sure, the typical route here, given this setup, would be to build this alterna-world Bruce into a Batman as inspired by Batman, but Busiek dissects it much more intelligently: Bruce manifests a frightening being that looks like Batman, and which acts as his protector. He assumes this to be an imaginary friend of sorts, except he can begin to see through the being’s eyes, and the criminals he’s attacking – rather viciously, as this being is more a specter of haunting eyes and sharp claws and shadows – are, indeed, showing up in newspaper reports and whatnot as having been assaulted. After time, Bruce learns that he can communicate with the creature, and control it to a degree, and the pursuit to put general wrongs right forms…

This might seem like a small wrinkle, but physically separating the Bat from the Man is brilliant. It allows new insight into the character’s motivations, especially from a self-aware perspective in which Bruce knows this manifestation has taken this particular shape because of a comic book; that his own actions – taking on a suitor named Robin, for example – are perhaps shallow for the same reasons. And Busiek takes this apart and reconstructs it patiently, allowing the story to be very dark, and never far away from magnifying the troublesome persona that would live this life.

Until, y’know, the aforementioned alluded to bit where the story retreats somewhat. This doesn’t mean an easy or happy ending, and it is in no way illogical, or poorly written. It absolutely tracks. It also makes Creature of the Night more “familiar,” though, and I fell out of page-turning immersion at that point, while still enjoying the book very much. And it’s late in the read – the fourth book out of four – so it’s definitely past the point of reader buy-in; not a bad thing, but indicative of why I’m not a Busiek addict. Then again, for fans, that suggests it will be indicative of why they are.

J.P.Leon’s art, for those who are familiar with it, would go without saying is excellent throughout. Leon’s line is brilliantly controlled here, the thickness of his inks a perfect match for the tone of story. And while I wish the color use was a bit more targeted – the covers suggest each issue will have a color theme, and that doesn’t happen – the limited palette is a fun tribute to classic comics without it being distracting at all; you could mistake the red / blue / yellow (/green?) look as purposefully chosen despite the comic book tie-in. Often times this “realistic” look can limit a grounded book when it needs to stretch into fantasy, but Leon is able to bring full, believable life to his human cast, and also make the Batman an incredible frightening creature.

Absolutely a worthwhile experience, and despite my main critique, should be considered part of the library of Batman must-reads alongside such classics like Dark Night and the like.