I have a very deep fear that I’m afraid to tell you about.
No, it’s not the fear related to cannibalism, or the phobia I have about snow, or this weird image I’ve had the last few weeks about being chased by zombies and having to flee barefoot through the pit of a rattlesnake farm. (Gah, I couldn’t even type that without doing a full-body cringe.)
It’s about…well, any comic geek worth their salt can tell from my post title that it’s about Batman. And it is. You see, it’s…well, let me give you some context first.
Most nights when we got to bed, Edi and I have a little pre-sleep ritual that I’ve begun calling (to myself) “Who’s Kidding Who?” (Because it’s a ritual that happens right before bed, I think it’s allowed to be exempt from the rules of grammar.)
In “Who’s Kidding Who,” Edi and I get into bed (as previously established). I lie down and close my eyes, usually because (a) I get up really early on mornings where the day job is involved; and (b) I need more sleep than Edi does, anyway. Edi, by contrast, picks up a book or a magazine or even a Trader Joe’s Fearless Flyer and begins to read. After a certain amount of time (during which I pray to God she turns out the light so I can go to sleep and God reminds me Edi’s her own person and he wouldn’t dream of telling her what to do), I decide to open my eyes, sit up, take a book out of my nightstand and start reading.
And now, my friends, it is on. Because now that I am up and reading, I have anywhere from 15 seconds to four minutes before my wife decides to put down her reading material and go to bed. “You can keep reading,” she murmurs as she now does what I’d been secretly pleading for her to do.
(Wondering about that very deep fear that’s related to Batman? Don’t worry, my friend, it’s coming.)
Of course I join her almost immediately. And but so the trick is: what book can I have on my bedstand that I may only be able to read between (at least) fifteen seconds and (at most) four minutes but will nonetheless somehow be enjoyable, and which I will always want to read but have no problem putting down in a hurry.
This is a pretty good choice, right? Depending on how long I think I have—PROTIP: longer when she’s reading a magazine than when she’s reading a book (which seems counter-intuitive), and, depending on what day of the week it is, the Trader Joes Fearless Flyer will either be longer or shorter than either—I will either tuck into an early action-packed ten pager, or a later, longer eighteen pager. (Good thing I already read you many times, “Player on the Other Side,” because I will never, ever even turn to you under these conditions.)
There is just one problem.
I cannot stop hate-reading “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” by Brad Meltzer and Chip Kidd.
For those of you who don’t know (and how I envy you, Mr. and/or Ms. Blissfully McIgnorant), Brad Meltzer and Brian Hitch took a swing at retelling the very first Batman story for the New 52 Detective Comics #27, an issue from earlier this year that is an all-star salute to corporate paychecks. I was not crazy about that particular story—there is no faster way for me to lose interest in a comics page than to realize it is drawn by Bryan Hitch—and so cannot believe that it was made worse…and made worse by Chip Kidd, no less. CHIP KIDD.
I mean, sure, I have some vague memories of him saying something kind of condescending and bitchy once. (Oh hey, look, it’s my podcasting partner explaining the whole situation!) (Although weirdly, I feel like I was thinking of something else? Didn’t he say something at some talk he was giving about the comic book logos he designed or something?) (And then Chip Kidd saw his best friend drown? And there was a guy nearby who could’ve helped save Chip Kidd’s best friend from drowning but he didn’t? And so then when Chip Kidd gave his TED Talk on cover logo design, he invited the guy who didn’t help his friend to the Talk and he sat him in the front row?)
But I’m insanely grateful to Chip Kidd for rescuing Jiro Kuwata’s Batman comics from obscurity: I feel a little crest of gratitude literally each and every week as a new issue comes up on DC Digital. And don’t even get me started about how I probably wouldn’t even be a fan of either Cormac McCarthy or Haruki Murakami if the covers to both All The Pretty Horses and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle hadn’t been so amazing I had to pick them up. And I was reading Ellroy before him, but ooftah that cover to White Jazz, and—well, anyway, here’s a cover gallery from his website, you’ll see what I mean.
So I’d like to say that in this scenario what happened is Chip Kidd, in taking the dialogue and captions from Brad Meltzer’s story and then working them into a high-quality scan of the original Bob Kane/Bill Finger story, did his very best but just couldn’t trump the terribleness of Meltzer’s storyteling…but Chip Kidd actually made it worse. Much, much worse. In an article over at Comics Alliance about the creation of the remix, Kidd says:
[I]t became a real interesting puzzle for me, because I had to make a lot of what I would call editorial decisions. Brad just sent me his script for the story that ran in the New 52′s Detective Comics #27 that was drawn by Bryan Hitch. And there’s lots of things in there that don’t correspond to panels in the original story, i.e., Commissioner Gordon has an assistant who has dialogue…well, that sort of had to go. So it was interesting.
But the main conceit of the text of that story, is that mantra that Bruce Wayne/Batman keeps repeating in different versions: “I do it because…” So that all stayed intact, and that to me was the core of what Brad brought to that.
This is why, before I go to bed, I keep picking up the book and flipping back to this story. The “mantra” that Brad Meltzer writes is the absolute worst kind of writing exercise horseshit, a bad idea he saw through to the end because, I don’t know, he had to make another crazy conspiracy show for people to enjoy at a deeply ironic level. (Shout-out to my podcasting partner again! Man, this post has managed to get all passive-aggressive about Graeme, Edi, and Chip Kidd. Hey, everyone, look at how hilariously I am failing at this whole “humanity” thing!) I mean:
“I do it because I’m brave. I do it because I’m terrified.”
I mean…how can you even use the word “brave” with Batman and not follow it with the word “bold.” Right? I mean it was only a comic book that ran for more than fifteen years with Batman in it, and then as a recent cartoon series from 2008 to 2011 with Batman in it. Is Meltzer’s idea of a crazy swerve to make you think he’s going to use “bold” and then when he breaks out “terrified,” you’re supposed to turn to your wife, perusing the latest information about frozen potato pancakes, and utter, “I say, my wife, Mr. Meltzer certainly beaned me with a narrative knuckleball, figuratively speaking”? If so, then perhaps Mr. Meltzer should not have bothered to with countless earlier “I do it because I am [one thing] / I do it because I am [antonym of the first thing]?” “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” a la Meltzer isn’t a Batman story, it’s an Alanis Morrisette song: it’s fucking “One Hand in my Pocket” set to awkward Bob Kane art! Don’t get me wrong, “I do it because I’m brave. I do it because I’m bold.” would be hilariously awful, but all the more reason to spend that extra minute and reconsider the word choice altogether.
And, of course, the whole horrible capper is that the remixed story makes far less sense to me than the original—okay, I admit it, maybe because I’m reading it with one eye on the way my wife is lingering on the description of cookie butter ice cream (not her thing)—but I have no idea why things are happening in the remixed story, because Kidd has to cut all that pesky stuff like Commissioner Gordon’s assistant. Because there are two different style of captions and both are Bruce Wayne but that’s not really clear at all, it is actually possible to read this story and come to the conclusion that Commissioner Gordon is The Batman!
Yet, night after night, I turn to this god-damned 31 page “story,” the one displacing another, better story that could’ve been in this collection (my current pick is Batman #47, where Batman confronts Joe Chill, but I’ve also considered Batman Inc. #7, the Chief Man-of-Bats issue, or The Brave and The Bold #118 where, as Mark Andrew so memorably and accurately put it:
Batman and Wildcat are forced into boxing (complete with ring) each other with Cestus (spiked metal gloves from the Roman Coliseum, apparently) to stop the Joker from shooting THE ONLY PUPPY IN THE WORLD whose blood contains antibodies that can save a prison full of sick inmates, including one former boxer who lost the title to Wildcat on a technicality and is now a henchman of the Joker, poisoned so he can’t talk.
You know what that’s called in a Haney/Aparo story? Page 13.
And when I’m not doing that, I’m imagining Brad Melter doing the happy dance from Spaced all the way to the bank with his DC check…even worse, I know that, thanks to Chip Kidd, he is going back for the second time.
Yeah, sure, that’s pretty terrible, you say. But what about the fear, Jeff? We were promised some very deep fear!
My fear is this: decades ago, back when I was a kid, there was this crummy paperback book I bought of old Spider-Man reprints, and there was a story in it about a robot that gets set loose in Peter Parker’s high school. “This is a really dumb story,” I thought the first ten times I read it. “All these people look creepy and ugly,” I said to myself somewhere around the thirtieth time. “I don’t even know why they chose to republish this story,” I scoffed as I finished my fifty-eighth or fifty-ninth reading. “It’s pretty dumb.”
And that is how I was introduced to the magic of Steve Ditko.
I’ve got sadly similar stories about Jack Kirby. Jim Aparo. Joe Kubert. Guys who I just didn’t like, or easily disregarded, but there was some primal chip of comic book magnet that kept pulling at some ferrous part of my soul. I kept coming back to their work, all but helpless, again and again.
So now you see it, don’t you? My very deep fear?
What if I keep going back to that god-damned story night after night…not because I hate it, not because it always seems like by the time I decide to start “Who’s Kidding Who” there’s already less than forty-five seconds to go; not because, seriously, there are, like, half-a-dozen Haney/Aparo stories I would love to see in that collection…but because it’s actually Ditko-level brilliant and I can’t see it? That it touches on the way Batman is a palimpsest, the way that all superheroes are just palimpsests, and we just erase a layer and rewrite that layer (and we do so more and more terribly as we grow more successful)? That every comic book creator is really just telling one story over and over again, and the brilliance of “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate (the Ignition Remix edition)” is that it makes you think it’s the first Batman story the creators have to re-tell but it’s not: the story you have to re-tell is the one that never made any sense to you, the first time you encountered a work of art and you didn’t understand. That’s the piece that stuck with you more truly than all the other works you did.
Is that because your blind spot with that piece of art is the same blind spot you have about yourself? Will one unlock the other? Or are both of them perfectly and distinctly sealed, unable to allow you to use one to access the other?
Who’s kidding who?