The greatest comics of all time don’t appear on bestseller charts or canon lists or big-box bookstore shelves. They are the property of the back issue bins and thrift store crates and convention tables of America, living like the medium itself in the unseen crags and pockets of publishing history…
Batman, by Josh Simmons. Dated 2006-'07. Self-published.
Best single image:
Hard to argue with this comic's screenprinted cover drawing, actually...
Suggested soundtrack to this comic: This
How acquired: I just walked into the comic shop one day and found a copy of this one, disappointing anecdote as that may be. Of course, it's a little more interesting than that -- I'd been reading about this comic for a long, long time and always just assumed I'd never get a chance to own it in real life. An illegal bootleg Batman comic made without permission or oversight from the Dark Knight's corporate masters at Time Warner, only a few hundred copies were ever printed. The only one I'd seen in person before snatching the one I now own up resided under glass in a back room at a comic shop I'd worked at, and my desire to see what was inside only grew every time I saw it after reading Simmons' fantastic feature-length interview in The Comics Journal #291. The only reason I was ever able to get one is probably that I shopped for a few years at the same store in Los Angeles that Simmons himself did.
The history lesson: There's more of one than you'd expect for a comic that's barely five years old. As I've said, Batman was originally released as a limited-run bootleg print comic that did most of its sales by mail order and might as well have had "connoisseur's choice" spray-painted on its cover. After gaining no small amount of notoriety in that form, it got a second life as a free webcomic, which I have to imagine got the story more reads than the printed version ever could have. Then after being mysteriously removed from the internet, it emerged in slightly altered form (retitled Mark of the Bat with a few small dialogue alterations for legal reasons) onto its most prominent stage yet, as part of the recent Fantagraphics collection of Simmons' ultra-disturbing horror comics work The Furry Trap. The real "comics history" that Batman forms a crucial chapter in is that of the bootleg superhero comic, a 21st century breed of comic if there ever was one. Simmons' book is part slash fiction and part underground comics, wearing the danger that unsanctioned takes on corporate characters always carry right on its sleeve.
Why it's the greatest comic of all time: Batman isn't just the best of the recent crop of bootleg superhero minis by prominent alternative-comics creators, it's also the best entry another prominent new comics genre, superhero deconstruction, has seen since Watchmen, the one that started it all. Simmons' entrenched stylistic identity as an alt-comics guy is a huge part of what makes this book work. Unlike the crop of mainstream horror-comics writers who've made careers out of stealing scenes from horror movies that even my mother has seen, Simmons learned to make genuinely scary comics by trial and error, over years and years of scratching away at the same basic apocalypse scenarios and learning a bit more about what to do and what not to do every time. Make no mistake: Batman has superheroes, but it's first and foremost a horror comic about the terrifying reality of vigilante justice, and how the moral choices underpinning all superhero comics are ones only a sociopath would actually make.
Simmons' art is key to the fully realized world he manages to build up in just sixteen pages. Relying heavily on readers' previous impressions of Batman's visual milieu, this comic adds just the right amount of true darkness to the gothic soundstages we're used to seeing these characters prance across. Pitched somewhere between the stylings of alt-comics greats like Chester Brown and Tony Millionaire and the crude expressionism of the nightmarish earliest Batman comics, Simmons' deep-shadowed black and white drawings nail Gotham City from the first panel with an accuracy that few others have managed. Batman's world under Simmons' pen feels both like a real modern city in the advanced stages of urban decay (see also: Detroit, Cleveland, Mexico City), and a Tim Burton dreamscape built by artists and madmen sometime long ago. None of the illustrative polish and sheen that's snuck into superhero art since the advent of digital photo-referencing is present here: there is only black ink on paper, approximations of the human figure that do little more than crouch and punch and curl up in corners.
This is the last Batman comic, the story of where the character's lunatic drive and willingness to violate the law for justice inevitably ends up. It's Batman gone rogue, divorced from the regular human contact that keeps him sane, possessed by the idea that it's become necessary to identify criminals before they can commit crimes, inventing a new bat-gadget to help him do just that. This comic's action is the same thrown punches in dark alleys that all the best Batman stories trade in, and it depicts a Batman who walks the same line between true vision and madness that Frank Miller and Doug Moench and Grant Morrison and Alan Moore have all set him on -- but here both the character's actions and the creator's outlook put him on the wrong side of the equation, finally gone too far, fallen into the abyss he's gazed on for the better part of a century. Batman is incredibly violent comics (though crucially, not worse than some of the ones DC has put the character in), but the violence here is far from entertaining. It hits like real violence does, as something that shouldn't be happening, and by forcing the audience to recognize it as such, it casts our gaze back from Simmons' bootleg onto all the "real" Batman comics we've read. There's no denying Simmons "gets" the character he's writing, and seeing such a faithful rendition of the Batman tropes we know and love taken to the far end of the psychological disturbance that powers is is an unforgettable, harrowing experience.
And now, somewhat astonishingly, it's an experience everyone can share in, thanks to the recent reprinting of Batman in a book that isn't impossible to find on the shelves of your local Barnes & Noble. Still, that iteration of this story -- which I rush to mention is still a great one, better than just about any other Batman comic you might choose to read -- is one that lacks some of the original print edition's power. Though it's obvious who Simmons is talking about in Mark of the Bat, so much of the first version's power comes from reading a comic that's so subversive and disturbing but still somehow features the word BATMAN stamped in blazing red and black on its cover, from seeing the exact same characters we've all known since childhood finally being stripped down to the bones, and from holding something printed by one man, not a company, in grainy Xerox on overly slick paper underneath a strangely porous cover. This comic is a powerful object, one that stands in utter defiance of the corporate culture that extends its reach further into comics every day. It does what it does with no permission and no apologies, and it does it as well or better as anyone who ever got the go-ahead from the people in charge. The proof is here: comics isn't about "creating IP" or "managing franchises," and it never will be. It's about making as bold a statement as you possibly can with nothing more than ink and paper.