Batman Confidential #s 44 to 48, $2.99 US, published by DC Comics
Writer: Kevin VanHook; Pencils & Inks: Tom Mandrake
Rating 4 out of 5 stars
Batman Confidential appears to be fulfilling the role that Batman: Legends Of the Dark Knight used to, namely serving as a Batman-related anthology title with a new creative team on each story arc. Quite why LOTDK had to be canceled and replaced with a series with such a drab title as Batman Confidential I cannot fathom. But at least it once again provides creators with an opportunity to produce Batman stories that are not tightly beholden to the continuity of the other Bat-titles.
The latest arc in Batman Confidential is “Batman vs. the Undead,” written by Kevin VanHook, and illustrated by Tom Mandrake. The story is a sequel to their 2008 miniseries Superman & Batman vs. Vampires & Werewolves, but, to quote Tom Mandrake on Facebook, it is “infinitely easier to discuss ’cause saying Batman vs the Undead doesn’t slow the conversation down.”
Besides the fact that I enjoyed (deep breath now) Superman & Batman vs. Vampires & Werewolves, I am also a fan of both creators’ work. VanHook wrote some great stories in the early 1990s for Valiant Comics on Bloodshot, Eternal Warrior, and Solar: Man of the Atom. As for Mandrake, his distinctive artwork has been seen on such series as Grimjack, The Spectre and Martian Manhunter. So seeing them paired up again on Batman Confidential was a promising prospect.
The villain of “Batman vs. the Undead” is Professor Herbert Combs (most likely named after actor Jeffrey Combs, who among his numerous genre roles portrayed Herbert West in the Reanimator movies), a scientist obsessed with resurrecting the dead. Previously, he created a horde of rampaging vampires and werewolves using the blood of creatures summoned from some sort of alternate dimension. Now, released from Arkham Asylum (man, the cells in that place really do have revolving doors on them), Combs has traveled from Gotham City to New Orleans, his focus shifting from vampirism and lycanthropy to zombies. His end goal is to amass an army of the undead to conquer the world. Combs may be a crackpot, but at least he’s an ambitious one.
Batman is on Combs’ trail, following him to the Big Easy. Also pursuing the mad scientist are Dimeter and Janko, the first vampire and werewolf, respectively, that Combs created, and the only ones who managed to retain their human sentience. Both hope to force Combs to develop an antidote for their mystical afflictions. Also along for the ride is Liv, a vampire groupie who has hooked up with Dimeter, but who soon finds herself in way over her head.
Oh, yes, and a certain Man of Steel also makes an appearance. Batman, realizing that a swarm of reanimated corpses might be just a little too much for him to handle on his own, calls in Clark Kent for aid in thwarting Combs latest mad scheme.
VanHook’s writing is a roller coaster ride of Grand Guignol, with Batman and his allies encountering all manner of grotesqueries resurrected by Combs. It is an effective blending of superheroes and gory horror. For the most part, it is quite good, although at times perhaps a bit too over-the-top.
VanHook is a somewhat sparse on logic as far as Combs’ motivations go, since the mad scientist doesn’t seem to have developed his plans beyond A) creating a zombie army and B) taking over the world. But that sort of flimsy planning is probably more a reflection on Combs’ character, who is none too sane, and probably couldn’t be bothered to take the time to figure out the intricacies of global domination.
That said, there is a subplot going one where Combs is trying to capture Dimeter because the scientist needs the blood of a vampire to do, um, something. It isn’t very clear. And there are a couple of unresolved plot points at the end of the story. But perhaps VanHook is leaving them open for another sequel.
Tom Mandrake’s artwork is, as always, moody and atmospheric. Mandrake is an artist who excels at vividly illustrating the unusual and grotesque. He certainly did that in Creeps, a truly bizarre miniseries published in 2001 by Image Comics. Mandrake’s collaborations with VanHook have provided the artist with the opportunity to draw some of the most graphically bizarre creatures since then. Combs’ zombie forces, who are in varying states of decay and/or dissection, are drawn by Mandrake in a very revolting, unnerving manner.
And then there is Mandrake’s rendition of Superman. In contrast to all the dark, bizarre, and twisted elements of story, Superman is depicted as a heroic, square-jawed, muscular figure. I expect it is a deliberate choice. Superman is a being with origins rooted in science, with a progressive, optimistic outlook. He is quite apart from the rest of the cast, who are involved with magic and the supernatural. Even Batman, a normal human being, deliberately shrouds himself in darkness, presenting to his foes the image of a preternatural, unearthly entity. Superman, though he is of alien origin and possessing extraordinary powers, is the most human member of the cast, and Mandrake draws him as such.
Mandrake also excels at storytelling in these five issues. There are some very effective layouts and compositions to his pages that serve to heighten the suspense and dread of scenes. For example, in issue #44, there are two pages of Combs and the curator of a museum walking through a macabre exhibit of corpses, mummies, and fossils. Mandrake draws this scene with such interesting and unusual “camera angles” that there is a palpable air of tension to it.
Some of Mandrake’s art on “Batman vs. the Undead,” especially certain layouts, reminded me of the work of Gene Colan, who has long been considered one of the foremost horror and mystery artists in the comic book biz. So if Mandrake is evoking Colan’s artistry, even unconsciously, it is an appropriate usage.
Perhaps some would consider this a minor point, but I was glad to see that Mandrake drew Combs as using an inverted pentagram in his spells. A regular pentagram is a symbol of mystical protection, and is used in benign magical practices. An upside-down pentagram, on the other hand, is often associated with dark or Satanic magic. Considering his gruesome practices, as well as his invoking of unholy forces, it is much more appropriate for Combs to utilize the inverted pentagram.
Oh, yes, the coloring by David Baron is also highly effective, complementing Mandrake’s art perfectly. Baron’s coloring helps in successfully establishing the mood and atmosphere in many of the story’s scenes.
All in all, aside from some minor points, “Batman vs. the Undead” is an entertainingly macabre tale that will definitely appeal to fans of horror, especially those who enjoy the zombie sub-genre. Hopefully, as with the Superman & Batman vs. Vampires & Werewolves miniseries, “Batman vs. the Undead” will receive the trade paperback treatment. And I certainly wouldn’t mind if Kevin VanHook and Tom Mandrake made a trilogy of this with a follow-up to the Batman Confidential arc. I’m sure that the demented Professor Combs is good for a third and final go-around with Batman and Superman.