Today, Michael and Spencer are discussing Justice League: Gods and Monsters Batman 1, originally released July 22th, 2015.
Michael: There are a couple of questions we face when we read an “Elseworlds” tale in regards to the main continuity. What’s the point of any of this? Why does any of this matter? We are presented with alternate versions of the heroes that we know and love and wonder, “what the hell does this have to do with anything?” The worst case scenario is that we follow the exploits of a character that has a familiar name, but is absolutely nothing like what we know, and just different for difference’s sake. The best case scenario is that the character — while different from what we know – resonates with us to a certain truth at their core. Justice League: Gods and Monsters Batman 1 stars a different Dark Knight that circles a lot of familiar Batman tent poles.
The Batman of Justice League: Gods and Monsters is Kirk Langstrom. The cure that he crafted to cure his cancer also turned him into a vampire, instead of the traditional Man-Bat. He hungers for blood and tries to channel that hunger into something productive by preying on the scum of Gotham. Dubbed Batman by the newspapers, Langstrom dons a simple black mask and faces off against crime boss Lew Moxon. Langstrom kills Moxon and feeds on Moxon’s top hitman Joe Chill, who later returns from the dead as a vampire himself. He befriends Lew Moxon’s son Jeremy, feeling guilty for robbing him of a father. The two get become as close as brothers, trying to find a cure for Kirk’s vampirism, but Kirk eventually discovers that Jeremy has taken over his father’s criminal empire and remorsefully kills him.
The direct-to-video animated film Justice League: Gods and Monsters was released earlier this week. While I have not yet watched it, I have been following the considerable amount of promotion that DC has been putting out for it, such as the companion online shorts and the digital comic book series and spinoffs (including this issue, which collects all three digital issues of Justice League: Gods and Monsters Batman). The Justice League of this world is a darker version of the one we know, so how do we make Batman even darker? Answer: make him a tortured vampire.
Ugh, just typing out the words “tortured vampire” makes me recall the absurd things we have done to vampires in pop culture lately, but I think that J.M. DeMatteis and Bruce Timm do a good job not laying on the vampire stuff as thickly as they could. Langstrom isn’t a vampire of myth after all. He turned himself into a vampiric creature through science – basically he’s the DC equivalent of Morbius, the Living Vampire. Langstrom reminds me less of Morbius and more of Dexter Morgan from Dexter, who just so happens to be played by Michael C. Hall – the man who voices Langstrom in the Justice League: Gods and Monsters movie. Like Dexter, Langstrom tries to marry his murderous appetite with vigilantism; it’s probably why DC picked Hall for the role.
Unlike Dexter Morgan, Kirk Langstrom was once a “normal man,” so he still has a little bit of humanity left in him. Just like vampires crave blood, we as a culture crave stories about the internal struggle of monster versus man. Langstrom is like any other tragic hero/monster/vigilante: he doesn’t get a happy ending. The story I’ve described so far might not sound much like a Batman story to a lot of you, but it carries a lot of the same themes of consequence, death and rebirth. There is of course the age-old argument that “Gotham wouldn’t have any supervillains without Batman” – which is completely valid. In the same way that Batman has been directly or indirectly responsible for some of his rogues gallery, Langstrom is also culpable. I really enjoyed the tangled web of Langstrom-Lew Moxon-Joe Chill-Jeremy Moxon; the interconnectedness of it made the story feel more personal. Whether he’s been caught, killed or never found – Joe Chill has always remained a specter for our traditional Bruce Wayne Batman. While Chill doesn’t mean the same to Langstrom as he does to Bruce, Timm and DeMatteis take that motif and literalize it by making Chill an undead supernatural force.
As much as there are stories about Batman relying on his friends, there’s also an equal amount that basically send the message that he is alone and shouldn’t count on anyone else; depressing, really. Justice League: Gods and Monsters Batman 1 serves as an origin story that also sends that message. Normally the tortured Kirk Langstrom would at least have his wife Francine, but in this reality she is nothing more than an ex-girlfriend; a missed opportunity. Then of course Langstrom makes a friend who knows everything about him – blood and all – but learns that Jeremy Moxon isn’t being completely honest with him. Though Jeremy’s friendship was genuine, Langstrom ultimately chooses to be alone – partially because Jeremy is a criminal and he can’t trust him, but ultimately because he uses it as an excuse to give in to the monster.
Spencer! Did you dig this issue? Any thoughts on Matthew Dow Smith’s art? I found it to what I often refer as “Gotham Central-y.” I dug the mirroring of Langstrom’s loneliness at the beginning and end of the story. Any other Batman parallels you noticed in this story that I missed? Speak your mind my friend!
Spencer: I can definitely see the comparisons to Michael Lark’s work on Gotham Central when it comes to Smith’s art, Michael — and while that should speak for itself, I’ll just reiterate how much of a compliment that truly is. Smith makes fantastic use of shadow to bring to life the oppressive darkness of both Gotham City and Langstrom’s life in general, but my favorite moments come when the setting leaves the shadows of Gotham.
The world doesn’t get much brighter and cheerier than Nebraska, but even in the diner, where everybody else stands in broad daylight, Kirk is still draped in thick shadow. At this point he’s providing his own darkness, and that seems to be a reoccurring theme throughout the issue, both with Kirk and with Joe Chill as well.
After all, while Kirk’s vampirism-serum is what technically turned these two men into monsters, they both had a darkness within them long before their transformations. For Chill it’s easy to trace — he’s a psychopath with nothing to lose — but while I wouldn’t call pre-serum Kirk a monster, he was still far from “normal.” We can see how poorly Kirk fit in both at home and with his peers, but I was most stricken by how oddly Kirk reacts to Jeremy’s grieving process.
Kirk seems to think only in absolutes. Jeremy’s father was a monster, there’s no denying that, but Kirk can’t fathom that Jeremy could still love his father even if he was evil or even if Jeremy did disagree with his father’s lifestyle; likewise, he’s flabbergasted that a monster like Lew Moxon could love anybody, even his own flesh and blood (I get the feeling that Kirk may be projecting his own self-loathing feelings onto Lew in this particular instance). Or early in the issue, when Kirk saves a woman from her abusive husband, Kirk is quick to condemn her when she shows concern for her husband, saying that she’s as bad as him instead of figuring out that she’s been battered and made emotionally dependent and fragile. My point is, Kirk clearly cares about people and feels sympathy for them, but he doesn’t seem to have much in the sense of empathy or understanding, or the ability to put himself in others’ shoes.
In that sense, it seems like all Kirk’s serum did was give Chill’s sociopathy and Kirk’s isolated loner nature physical form, and feels like one of the aspects of this issue that’s truest to the general mythology of Batman. After all, what is Batman but Bruce’s sense of justice given the most effective form possible? What’s Two-Face but a physical manifestation of Harvey’s Dissociative Identity Disorder, or Clayface but a physical manifestation of Basil Karlo or Matt Hagan’s identity crisis? Kirk appears to have always felt disconnected from humanity; his transformation and accompanying bloodlust just finally forces him to confront those feelings. The result isn’t pretty, but then again, I guess that’s a fairly classic Batman move as well.
So I suppose this issue has a lot of what I typically search for in “Elseworlds” stories. DeMatteis and Timm take this in a direction that’s quite different from your typical Batman story, but keep just enough of the classic Batman themes around so that the story isn’t entirely unrecognizable. I think I like the differences most of all — I’ve read a zillion Batman stories, so the most interesting part of reading an Elseworld story is finding the way it differs from a more traditional approach. I don’t know if this particular issue has done much to interest me in the world of Justice League: Gods and Monsters (in fact, I’d almost prefer to see Langstrom’s story end here; the conclusion is the perfect kind of melancholy for the character), but in terms of providing an unique, compelling take on Batman, I’d say it’s a success.
If nothing else, it actually got me to pick up a vampire story, and that’s always an impressive feat.
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