A BATMAN WITH TEETH - a review of Batman - Nosferatu by STEPHEN R. BISSETTE

(c) 1999 Stephen R. Bissette

My thirteen-year old son Daniel picked up the latest Elseworlds entry Batman: Nosferatu with evident suspicion. This didn't look like the real Batman, and that can't be the Joker silhouetted in that window, can it?
   As he began to scour the pages, he raised his voice.
   "Dad, what the hell is this?", he said, adding with a sarcastic urgency, "'Bruss Wayne-Son? What the hell is a Bruss?  Ha! DIRK Gray-son... what IS this??"
   He kept looking, though, thanks to Ted McKeever's compelling renditions of these alien creatures. When he got to the Laughing Man -- this Elseworld's Joker -- he pressed me for an explanation.
   And after I told him about the original silent films The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, and Metropolis, he spent the better part of an hour absorbed in the Elseworlds Nosferatu.
   When he was done, he demanded I dig out the Elseworlds Metropolis, and asked if we had the films I had mentioned in our video library.

   Given what I've read on the internet of late, Daniel's initial reaction to the Elseworld's Nosferatu isn't too far from many other younger readers' response.

   Kingdom Come, this isn't.
   But Batman, it most surely is.

   This is, in fact, truer to the original dark impulses that led to Batman's creation back in 1939 than any Batman in recent memory since Frank Miller reestablished the character's ruthless vigilante origins in his seminal The Dark Knight Returns. Though the creators of the Elseworld Nosferatu aren't aspiring to those lofty heights -- whatever I say here, Nosferatu is clearly intended as a diverting entertainment, not a thesis on Batman's origins -- they have cut to the heart of the Batman character and pop culture mythos with surgical precision, bringing a completely fresh take to the overly-familiar trappings.
   The wedding of the Batman with his obvious vampiric roots and brethren never manifested itself in the character's golden or silver age. The first overt exploration of the link was, perhaps, in the Man-Bat stories so vividly delineated by Neal Adams in the early 1970s. Man-Bat was an obvious reversal, in name and concept, of the Batman, a lycanthropic embodiment of Batman's most elemental being.
   Subsequently, there have been a number of Batman-becomes-a-vampire tales (most memorably illustrated by Gene Colan and most recently by Kelly Jones), but none of these have made much of a dent in the mythos. Much remained unsaid and unexplored -- until now.
   For my money, the Elseworlds Nosferatu marks the first effective evocation and exploration of Batman's vampiric origins and affiliation.

   Building directly on the bedrock of the first installment of their Germanic Elseworlds universe, Superman's Metropolis (1996), the Elseworlds Nosferatu proposes a new origin for this Metropolis' "bat man," the Nosferatu.
   For Metropolis, the Lofficiers, Roy Thomas, and Ted McKeever re-invented the familiar origins of Superman within the context of the original 1925 silent German sf classic film, Fritz Lang's Metropolis. The conceit was a fresh one, and absolutely appropriate on a number of levels: after all, Siegel and Shuster had lifted the name for Superman's urban home from the Fritz Lang film, and the "superman" archetype was rooted in the philosophy of German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche.
   Siegel and Shuster's original Superman was also borne out of the Depression and its legacy of joblessness and the often violent clash of the growing labor union movement and powerful anti-union capitalist factions.  Lang's Metropolis was a parable about the privileged artistocracy's exploitation of a drone-like worker class, living in subterranean urban squalor (an inversion of the very class struggle caricatured in H.G. Wells classic novel The Time Machine). Thus, the Elseworlds Metropolis recreated Superman's origins amid the utopian ideals of Siegel and Shuster's teenage dreams, pitched against the dystopian horrors of Lang's Metropolis. Clarc was the foster son of Metropolis' patriarch Jon-Kent; Fritz Lang's mad scientist film villain Rotwang became Lutor; Lois was recast as the passionate leader of the revolt; etc. This Elseworlds Superman's awakening erupted from the ruthless struggle between the exploited and exploiters of Metropolis, and the result was one of 1996's mainstream "sleepers" -- an excellent comic that sold well enough to earn its keep (and spawn a sequel, Nosferatu), but was unheralded amid the wasteland of comics criticism.

   As was the case with Elseworlds Metropolis, in Nosferatu the Lofficiers and McKeever have inventively drawn from the true roots of the Batman mythos with their Teutonic "Elseworld" universe.

   Their cinematic source material here are two classics of the German silent horror films, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari  (1919) and F. W. Murnau's unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, Nosferatu (1921).
   The former is acknowledged as one of THE first international classics of the horror film. It is about the evil Dr. Caligari and his hypnotically-controlled somnambulist, a narrative that unreels within the framework of a tale told by a madman in an asylum; in the end, it is revealed the story's nominal hero is the madman telling the tale, and that Caligari is the head of the asylum. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari established  many themes subsequent horror films explore to this day, and was a sensation around the world for its unprecedented (in the cinema) design, working with boldly-designed painted backdrops and exaggerated perspectives to evoke the world as seen through the eyes of a madman. These theatrical settings were drawn from the Expressionist painting (and related theatrical) movement, and indeed introduced the movement's aesthetic to mass audiences of the 1920s and our popular culture.
   Nosferatu was a more conventional horror film even in its time. It was a fairly faithful adaptation of Stoker's novel. What distinguished it from later adaptations and eventually elevated Nosferatu to the ranks of the classic horror films, however, was director F.W. Murnau's imaginative visuals and genuinely dreamlike approach to the material. Its most unforgettable figure was that of Nosferatu, a terrifyingly and truly monstrous incarnation of Dracula which can still conjure nightmares for viewers today. With his skeletal ratlike visage, impossibly long claw-like fingers, and completely inhuman manner, Murnau's Nosferatu remains the screen's most horrific Dracula.
   Though the title of the Elseworlds Nosferatu refers to Murnau's classic film, the opening quote, significant plot elements, and "look" of the comic are borrowed from Caligari. The Lofficiers' revamping of the familiar Batman names for their Teutonic Elseworlds universe certainly presents a number of stumbling blocks for the young and uninitiated -- as they did for my son -- but by the time we have been introduced to the overtly Caligariesque Dr. Arkham and have entered his theatrical"Cabinet," where the elite of Metropolis gather to hear Arkham's psychomancer The Laughing Man predict their respective futures, the story is well underway. Though it certainly helps to have some orientation to their source material, this is a gripping read throughout, building to a marvelously-orchestrated series of climactic confrontations.
   Here, once again, is Clarc/Superman and his Lois from the Elseworlds Metropolis, lost in the seclusion of their utopian dreams. Here, too, is Lutor/ Rotwang, relevant here as the Frankenstein-like creator of the Laughing Man. Commissioner Gordon is Eschevin Gord-son, whose daughter Barbara is torn between the infatuations of the haunted duo of "eminent Doktor" Bruss Wayne-Son and his young associate Dirk Gray-Son.
   Though I shan't give away any more, it should come as no surprise that Bruss' fate lies below the streets of Metropolis, where he will be resurrected as this Elseworld's "bat-man" Nosferatu -- skull-faced, taloned, and utterly inhuman.

   These overt references to two silent German films are neither inappropriate or pretentious. The fact is, both films are essential precedents to the Batman universe as we know it today, and the only real surprise is that no one had thought to connect-the-dots in quite this manner long before now.
   From its debut, Bob Kane's Batman always revelled in an exaggerated graphic style evocative of the German horror films of the silent era. The shadowy streets of Gotham City and cavernous hideaways of the Batcave were patterned after an imaginative landscape associated with characters precious few contemporary comics readers have any meaningful reference to.  The long shadow of Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse spills over Batman, from the bizarre flourishes of the 1950s adventures to Frank Miller's satiric television references in The Dark Knight Returns (Mabuse makes a cameo appearance in the Elseworlds Nosferatu as Doktor Psykho, complete with his cabaret Palace of Sin; for a moment, when it seems the underworld itself may rally to solve the murders committed by Arkham and the Laughing Man, one cannot help but recall Fritz Lang's M).
   These are not obscure or tenuous links; they were vital to Batman's very existence. Bob Kane repeatedly acknowledged his debt to Roland West's The Bat Whispers (1930) and Tod Browning's Dracula (1931; see DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World's Favorite Comic Book Heroes by Les Daniels, Bulfinch Press, 1995, pages 32-33). Both films drew their striking atmosphere and imagery directly from the German silent horror film tradition, in which Caligari and Nosferatu were landmarks (Dracula was, in fact, photographed by German immigrant Karl Freund).
   Furthermore, the design of Batman's arch-nemesis the Joker was lifted verbatim from the silent feature The Man Who Laughs (1928; as noted by Daniels in DC Comics, pages 38-39). The Man Who Laughs was directed by Paul Leni, one of the many German talents who fled their native country in the mid-1920s to reestablish their cinematic careers in Hollywood. Leni had already made his mark on the German horror silents with Waxworks (1924), and he had even greater success in America with his version of the Broadway hit The Cat and the Canary (1927), which critic Carlos Clarens properly declared "the cornerstone of Universal's school of horror" (in his definitive An Illustrated History of the Horror Film, G.P. Putnam's & Sons, 1967, page 56). Thus, the legacy of the German expressionistic silent horror films like Caligari and Nosferatu was extended into the distinctive look and feel of the Universal horror classics Dracula, Frankenstein (1931), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), etc., as well as horrific borderline genre efforts like The Bat Whispers.

    Part of my fascination with the Lofficiers and McKeever's (and, I hasten to add, Roy Thomas, who co-authored Metropolis and is acknowledged in the indicia for Nosferatu) Teutonic Elseworlds series is its immediate context in the current comics scene.
   The 1980s and 1990s ushered in a wave of expressionistic mainstream work that consciously and unconsciously drew from the German Expressionist imagery, along with an inexplicable eruption of comic book adaptations of German film classics. European comics had often evoked their roots in this tradition (including a futuristic science-fiction reinterpretation of Nosferatu by the French master cartoonist Phillippe Druillet), but this was an unexpected development in the context of the American comics industry and environment.
   Though Berni Wrightson had embraced the German horror aesthetic throughout his career, it was Wrightson's Studio partner Mike Kaluta who arguably heralded this wave with his lavish illustrations for an oversized reprint of Von Harbou's novelization of Metropolis. Within the decade, Jon J. Muth painstakingly recreated Fritz Lang's M as a painted four-issue series for Eclipse Comics, and Mike Hoffman adapted The Cabinet of Caligari as a mini-series for Fantagraphics' short-lived Monster Comics imprint.
   These emerged in a marketplace already ripe with a sort of new comics expressionistic movement that permeated the mainstream publishers like DC and Marvel as much as the independents. Classical representational approaches to the superhero genre gave way to less representationally illustrative, more emotionally expressive drawing styles. The attributes and deformations of heroes and villains alike were exaggerated to grotesque extremes, as if their very flesh and the environments they struggled within had been twisted and distorted by their respective interior aberrations.
   At its most extreme, artists like Kevin O'Neill established niches for themselves without adhering to house styles, delineating the adventures of characters like the Green Lantern in a manner closer to S. Clay Wilson than Gil Kane. Keith Giffen lifted from the Spanish cartoonist Munoz, and however one cares to assess or revile the artistic thievery involved, there can be no doubt that the intrusion and acceptance of such stark expressionism into the pages of once-staid established titles like Superman and Spider-Man paved the way for more adventurous (and original) artists in comics that never would have welcomed their ideosyncratic work.
   By this time, Frank Miller had already incorporated (unconsciously or not) the powerful Expressionistic graphic stylings popularized by Caligari into his own fresh take on the Batman character. Indeed, Miller's Dark Knight was a hideous grotesque, closer to the corruptive pen-and-ink art of German artist George Grosz than the heroic ideal of Neal Adams. Likewise, Miller's Gotham City was ink-slashed out of the sewers of Lang's Mabuse series and the akimbo walls and streets of Caligari's world. Oddly enough, this horrific Batman seemed truer in spirit to the Kane original.
   In all media, the Batman's revitalization in the 1980s was fueled by the resurrection of the same striking conceptual and graphic elements that had sparked the character's birth. Much of what the public responded to in Tim Burton's Batman movie was clearly derived from the German tradition I've just outlined (and most of what that same public found equally compelling and repelling in Burton's sequel Batman Returns was just baring a little more of that same tradition's real teeth).
   In this context, I see the Elseworlds Nosferatu as the culmination of a rich vein of contemporary work which has been steeped in the source material the Lofficiers and McKeever aggressively acknowledge and embrace with abandon.

   Ted McKeever has been prominent among the artists who have fed and been fed by this vein, and it is exciting to see him stretch his muscles in such an overt celebration of the German expressionistic horror iconography Batman emerged from. Along with contemporaries like Kevin O'Neill, Charles Burns, and Richard Sala (among others I could name who draw in an equally expressionistic manner), McKeever's drawing and painting style embodies a distinctive new "Gothic" school in the 1990s comics scene.
   Intrinsic to McKeever's own body of work, however, is a personalized fascination with the super-hero genre that is foreign to the other artists I've just mentioned. Indeed, the first of McKeever's solo efforts I had the pleasure of reading was the remarkable Eddy Current, which from its first issue brought a genuinely original approach to the tried-and-true vigilante superhero archetype that was both frightening and hilarious. Though McKeever has since left his mark in more terrifying turf in other genres closer to the Gothic tradition (including some of the best material to grace Marvel's Clive Barker series Hellraiser), he continues to explore the superhero ethos at its most primal. His often elegant work on the Elseworlds Metropolis was among his finest achievements, though I prefer the raw, bold strokes of this Nosferatu. McKeever is clearly in his element here, freed (rather than inhibited) by his affinity with the cinema sources he and the Lofficiers are consciously evoking.
   Among those cinema sources, one more bears particular attention. For Universal's adaptation of Victor Hugo's The Man Who Laughs, director Paul Leni cast fellow German expatriot Conrad Veidt as the rictus-grinning Gwynplaine, from which the Joker was derived. Veidt had previously made his mark in cinema history in his role of the somnambulist Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, clothed neck to toe in black; with his pasty features, shock of black hair, and distinctive lanky frame and zombie gait, Veidt created the first original screen monster from which all others derived.
   The Lofficiers and McKeever are hardly straining to tie Caligari's Cesare and the Joker together as the murderous Laughing Man, the catatonic "psychomancer" under Arkham's control. This is, in fact, one of their most resonant concepts, and it anchors their powerful reinvention of the Batman mythos here.

   The Elseworld Nosferatu is, to my mind, a more engaging and potent read than the Elseworld Metropolis, which was an excellent effort in and of itself. After McKeever and the Lofficiers succinctly establish the nightmarish Metropolis landscape and introduce the revamped Batman cast of characters, Nosferatu's narrative plunges into its own brisk pace and quirky rhythms, gaining remarkable momentum in its final acts. If the reader is in any way familiar with Caligari and Nosferatu, the cumulative effect of the imagery and ideas appropriated from the German films the Elseworld Nosferatu draws from enrich and enhance its own unique identity, and adds considerably to its impact. Though it wears its inspiration quit proudly on its sleeve, the Elseworld Nosferatu is a strikingly original work.
    By comparison, the Elseworld Metropolis drew far more directly from its source material, inheriting its strengths and weaknesses. Though their meticulous reinvention of the Superman mythos within the cinematic Metropolis universe was quite clever and engaging, the writers were weighed down by their allegiance to their cinematic source material. Adhering faithfully to the particulars of Fritz Lang's film and the text of Thea Von Harbou's dogmatic screenplay and dialogue, the Elseworld Metropolis faltered over the very elements that compromised the Lang/Von Harbou
   Such is not the case with the Elseworld Nosferatu, which plunders only what it needs from its unholy trinity of inspirational texts (Caligari, Nosferatu, and Batman) and takes off on its own hellish rollercoaster ride.  Indeed, the pirated film elements are so appropriate to the established Batman universe that it seamlessly incorporates the familiar icons (including Arkham inmate cameos from Poison Ivy, Man-Bat, the Scarecrow, the Penguin, Killer Croc, and others) without missing a beat. These "new" monsters belong in the Batman rogues gallery, and have, in a way, been there all along. Touchstone moments from Kane's original 1940s run up to those associated with 1980s classics The Dark Knight Returns (the stark physical and ideological clash between the Batman and Superman) and Arkham Asylum (the bloody impalement) resonate here, too, without interrupting the head of steam the narrative builds.

   The Elseworld Nosferatu stands as one of 1999's finest comics thus far, and deserves to be ranked alongside the more comfortably popular revisionist Batman efforts (including The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke). I eagerly await the final installment in the proposed Elseworld Teutonic trilogy from the Lofficiers and McKeever.
   But first, I have to dig out those videos for my son to watch...
   -- Stephen R. Bissette, The Mountains of Madness, Vermont (March, 1999)


[Note: If you aren't familiar with the German films the Elseworld Nosferatu was inspired by, I urge you to seek them out at your local video store, or purchase them for your own collection. There are a number of relatively inexpensive "public domain" transfers of both The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu (and, for that matter, the original Metropolis); the best versions currently available are from Kino Video. Kino's Nosferatu is definitive, and without a doubt the most complete. I can also recommend the Republic Picture Home Video version of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, as well as the Vestron Video release of composer Giorgio Moroder's rock-scored restoration of Metropolis. Though long out-of-print, Moroder's Metropolis is the version most video stores still rack, and its bracing 1980s score may make the film more accessible to younger viewers. Enjoy! -- SRB]