Batman: Nine Lives
by Dean Motter, Michael Lark
(DC/Titan, 2002)

Nightclub owner Selina Kyle has been murdered. The man she hired to be her bodyguard, retired-cop-turned-private-eye Dick Grayson, who was involved with her in more ways than one, hunts her killer through the streets of the most noirish Gotham since the 1940s pulp comics. Is the murderer the mysterious Bat Man, an urban myth said to haunt the streets of Gotham at night? Or was it one of her many lovers and blackmail victims: Edward Nigma, Jack Napier, Oswald Cobblepot or millionaire Bruce Wayne?

This graphic novel is a masterpiece on several levels: it's as close to the gritty, noirish world that gave birth to the Dark Knight as you can get without actually reading a comic book produced from that particular period. It also features perhaps the toughest, clearest portrayal of Bruce Wayne ever seen since that period. This is the story Murderer/Fugitive wanted to be. It's far more intriguing and so well written that it could have been used as a blueprint for that much-hyped story arc. It's also far more suspenseful and much more true to the character of Batman (sadly).

Perhaps it's an effect achieved by setting the story in the 1940s, in corrupt world of back-stabbing con artists and characters so slimy you want to wash when you're done reading. Perhaps it's because the theme of a darkly violent revenge tragedy is more at home in the world of noir fiction. Perhaps it's because writer Dean Motter is excellent at evoking the disillusionment and alienation that are part of the world of the private eye: the mean streets and dark alleyways, the urbanized landscape full of violence, death and desires.

While Harvey Dent is not physically disfigured, he is still a coin-flipping lawyer whose morality is confined to a coin toss and whose dealings are shady, his internal disfigurement concealed by an outward calm. Not Two Face the costumed villain, but a "two-faced" manipulator of people. This is how Motter approaches the question of villains and costumes; he lets the action speak louder than the words and leaves the costuming up to the dark and deeply obsessed Bat Man. The characters are defined by their actions, not by their costumes or their posturing. In fact, there are no costumes at all, save for the Bat Man who haunts the Elseworlds version of Gotham City by night and dates (scandalously) Selina Kyle by day. The only superheroes are the everyday ones like Grayson, a Chandler-esque style hero who walks the mean streets but is not himself mean, who uses his head and his instincts to track down which of Kyle's many lovers has murdered her.

One of the most fantastic things about the book is the way it makes neat, highly functional use of both present day and past developments, such as portraying Grayson, a police officer on the Bludhaven PD, as a retired cop-turned-private-eye ("Private Dick"), or the Batman film franchise version of the Joker, Jack Napier, as a card sharp who's down on his luck. Everything fits, sometimes even better than it does in the "real," ongoing continuity world, only one of the many unsettling effects of Motter's story that sucks you in from page one. There are no throwaway references. Every one of them has a place; even if it's there just out of respect, there's a functionality to its place in the plot. TV show and film nods fly as fast as bullets, in parody as much in earnest, yet Motter never falters. None of his references condescend to the reader, being both immediately recognizable and near perfect in helping to evoke a scene or a mood. Each reference is done so seamlessly that the book could serve as a primer for illustrating how such references should be used. Motter brilliantly uses them to further the plotline and color in his characterization, without letting anything descend into campiness. The "Boy Wonder," for example, is just something Grayson used to be when he was in the circus, though his background as a circus performer does come into play. There's a great deal of respect and forethought in the way he ties them all together, using them to further the plotline and color in his characterization, such as using Selina Kyle in her Milleresque incarnation as a prostitute while simultaneously referencing the infamously campy TV show by naming her nightclub the KitKat Club.

The art is perfectly matched to both the period and the story, each complementing each so naturally that it seems effortless. Yet Matt Hollingsworth's muted colors and Michael Lark's even-handed, clear lines flow like a Zen master's haiku. The panels are laid out in a sideways, movies storyboard way that keeps the story moving at a good clip and really goes a long way toward creating a very intriguing atmosphere.

Lark (who also pencils the Ed Brubaker/Greg Rucka series Gotham Central) truly earned his Eisner nomination for best inker, and Hollingsworth (Catwoman, Daredevil, The Filth) his nomination as best colorist. Nine Lives scooped up a hatful of Eisner nominations: for best publication design, et al.

This is the best Elseworlds story yet written and a must read for anyone, Batman fan or not. Anyone who loves pulp fiction or hard-boiled detective novels will enjoy this book.

- Rambles
written by Mary Harvey
published 27 September 2003

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