Review - Six Interpretations of Batman in 'Gotham Knight'

BATMAN: GOTHAM KNIGHT (2 DVDs) (WB)

Stating the obvious but one of the reasons Batman has survived for so long is while there are some set rules regarding his character, there’s still much that can be left to interpretation. There’s a lot of difference between Denny O’Neill’s version of the Dark Knight when compared to Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s. One can say the same for Frank Miller’s versus Dick Sprang’s.

Getting down to brass tacks, there are virtually hundreds of different variations on Batman. One of the few things they all had in common is everyone who’s worked on him has been North American. With Batman: Gotham Knight, that just changed.

As any fan worth his Batarang well knows, this direct-to-DVD features six different American writers: Brian Azzarello, Alan Burnett, Jordan Goldberg, David S. Goyer, Josh Olson, and Greg Rucka. The main twist is all the animation is by six different up-and-coming Japanese animators. Another twist is each of the six stories contained inside can be seen independent of each other, although they are all loosely interconnected.

Now one thing should be said and said clearly. While anyone with the slightest knowledge of Bat-lore has heard of most of the American writers, the animators are all comparatively new. While it probably would have been a kick to see the likes of an Oshii, Kon or Matsumoto do their personal interpretations, they aren’t there. That doesn’t mean they aren’t talented. As you’ll soon see, it’s quite the opposite.

WARNING: LOTS OF SPOILERS

So let’s get to the blow-by-blow:

Story #1: “Have I Got A Story For You”

Written by: Josh Olsen

Animator: Shoujirou Nishimi

Probably the most radical from a design point of view, yet the most conservative story-wise. Three young skateboarders meet a fourth at a local skate park. It turns out the reason the three are late is each one had a run-in with guess who. Yes, you’ve seen this story before. A different version of the tale was called “Tales of the Dark Knight,” and it was part of the Adventures of Batman & Robin series that ran about a decade ago. Exec producer Bruce Timm doesn’t deny it either. He includes the domestic episode in the set’s extra content.

The big difference here is the American version was an homage to various past incarnations of Batman. This one has one solid visual style, thanks to Nishimi, whose past credits include last year’s amazing film Tekkon Kinkreet. I wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprised if American fans find his style incredibly ugly, particularly when it comes to character design. Personally, I find it wonderfully expressive and plastic. Just watch how the Bat moves when one kid describes him as a moving shadow. It’s also an interesting commentary within the set as Olsen and Nishimi provide four different versions of Batman within that one little bit.

“Crossfire”

Written By: Greg Rucka

Animated By: Futoshi Higashide

In many ways, probably the most traditional of the six different segments. Two Gotham MCU detectives find themselves in the worst position possible, smack dab in the middle of the DMZ between two warring gangs. Just when one is about to break out the rocket launchers, guess who shows up to save the day.

This segment probably has the least dialogue of all the segments and positions our hero at his most iconic. Higashide loves long takes of Batman surrounded by fire or standing on top of buildings looking down at all going below him. His animation style is probably the closest to American. Still, it’s some wonderfully violent eye candy.

“Field Test”

Written by: Jordan Goldberg

Animated by: Hiroshi Morioka

Lucius Fox comes up with a new technological innovation, one that could make Batman nearly as invulnerable to bullets as a certain other superhero. Bats decides to take this tech on a field test, taking down the two gangs he met up with in “Crossfire.” The results end up being a lot more successful than he and Fox could have hoped for. That’s not necessarily a good thing.

Animation-wise, this is a major change for Morioka, who made his bones as an animator on such series as Tsubasa Chronicles and various chapters of the .hack franchise. Then again, the man also worked on the crime shows Madlax and You’re Under Arrest. So while his character design is much closer to American concepts, his sharp use of action is deeply ingrained. Lots of fun.

“In Darkness Dwells”

Written by: David S. Goyer

Animated by: Yasuhiro Aoki

In many ways probably the most spectacular spectacle of the set. In this segment Batman goes into the sewers of Gotham to hunt down the Scarecrow, who has kidnapped a cardinal. Thing is Scarecrow is more than ready for him, he has been using his fear treatments on Killer Croc, turning the monster into a beast that’s even more dangerous than ever.

Aoki is no slouch when it comes to Japanese animation. His work can be seen on projects ranging from Ah! My Goddess and Neon Genesis Evangelion on to the “Beyond” segment of The Animatrix. For this segment, he channels the incredible style of no less than Mike Mignola, and makes it his own. Seeing Batman working through the Gotham underground with a major does of the fear venom in his system is wonderfully nightmarish. His interpretation of Croc and Scarecrow are wonderfully horrific. A personal favorite.

“Working Through Pain”

Written By: Brian Azzarello

Animated by: Toshiyuki Kubooka

If ever there was a perfect counterpoint to “In Darkness Dwells,” it’s this masterwork by Azzarello. Having taken a nasty wound from his confrontation in the sewers, Batman now is trying to get to a pre-assigned meeting point with Alfred and get home. Along the way he reminisces about his training with an Indian holy woman who attempted to teach him some valuable lessons about confronting his own limitations.

Kubooka, who’s past experience includes the Nadia series, comes up with a visual style that’s a solid counterpoint to the gothic mayhem of “Darkness.” His design of a young Bruce and his mentor are incredibly realistic compared to what previously just went down. That doesn’t mean the story lacks in its share of action. At the same time though, it probably has some of the strongest personality writing of all of the six chapters. If anything, special kudos must be given to Azzarello for the final sequence, which shows a side of Batman that’s seen way too rarely.

“Deadshot”

Written by: Alan Burnett

Animated by: Madhouse

When it comes to action, it’s hard to find any studio that rivals Madhouse. If you don’t believe, source out copies of their previous effort Black Lagoon (soon to be reissued by FUNimation).

Plot-wise, the gangs are back. They hire one of the DC Universe’s best assassins to take out guess who. It all leads to a mano-a-mano between the two that one wishes could have been a bit longer, but is no less satisfying. While we’re at it, it gives us a final point on the use of guns and just how easier it is to coldly kill someone instead of following Batman’s much more difficult path…and why.

END SPOILERS

Before going, one has to say it’s just a plain thrill to hear Kevin Conroy voicing Batman one more time. His deep, gravelly range is still in excellent form. Let’s hope we hear more of it in the very near future.

As for this latest release? I’ll be glad to say this is the best release from the DCAU in ages. Yes, hardcore fans will probably see bits of past work throughout the six episodes, but each segment has a strong story to work with and some incredible eye candy when it comes to the various animation styles.

It should also be noted that the DVDs give us a sneak peak at the upcoming Wonder Woman release. If the pencil sketches and hints of plot are anything to go by, Timm’s group is happily back on track. One gets the feeling that if they keep on putting out releases like this, there’s going to be some great viewing for some time to come.

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