SotB 19

The 90s were an interesting time. I was young then, finding my first taste of comics through the television each Saturday morning. Later I would discover the nearly laughable pains that Marvel went through to replicate the Jim Lee era X-Men comics, but little did I know, at the time, that things in the world of Batman were very different from what I knew. As the first season of Batman: The Animated Series came to a close, the role of Batman passed to a young man named Jean-Paul Valley in the second act of DC’s mammoth Knightfall storyline.

One of the fascinating elements of Knightfall is the story’s relationship with Jean-Paul. Since a number of writers all tried their hand at writing “Azbats”, there were many perspectives on what it means to have another man under the cowl. Some writers seemed to resent Jean-Paul almost as much as their readers, while others took a more even-handed approach in declaring Bruce the one true Batman.

It’s particularly interesting to look at how politics seemed to inform their writing. Chuck Dixon was a famously conservative comic writer (to the degree that he mocked the idea that the inmates of Arkham Asylum could be victims rather than monsters). Doug Moench’s views are a little harder to suss out, but his fascination with conspiracy theories and arcane cults points to, at least, an anti-government bent. On the other side there was Denny O’Neil, in many ways the father of modern comic book liberalism, who managed the entire storyline. And finally there was Alan Grant who at the time, had taken up anarchism following a philosophical revelation.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, Dixon and Moench tended to be more critical of Azbats, however O’Neil and Grant tended to treat Jean-Paul as a victim of trauma and abuse. I doubt I’ve disguised my feelings on the issue well, but ultimately that’s unimportant to this conversation. I find Grant’s contributions to be the strongest section of Knightsquest: The Crusade because of the attention paid to Jean-Paul’s character. Whether you think of Azbats as a hero or a villain, I find him much more interesting as a tragic one and that’s what Grant provides. And so I turn your attention to Grant’s first contribution to the Knightquest storyline, “The Tally Man.”

SotB 20“The Tally Man” ran in Shadow of the Bat, a monthly comic that tried to shine a light on some of the less appreciated elements of Batman’s world and, as such, the titular rogue provides much of the drive behind it. The Tally Man was obviously never going to become a new Joker. This was a character who really used up most of his potential with this story, however, I really like him as a villain. Though he’s certainly visually iconic, his gimmick is actually pretty limited, requiring him to set himself apart though skill alone on the battlefield (read: waterfront warehouses). The other thing he’s got going for him is a simple but effective backstory and a distinctly troubled relationship with it.

The Tally Man’s origin is the kind of thing that would become amazingly tedious if brought up the way Batman’s is, however, given the themes of the issue and the way that Grant writes it, I quite enjoyed it. The tale of the Tally Man clearly reflects Grant’s anti-capitalist viewpoint. Though the characters are parceled out into good and bad clearly enough to avoid scandal, there’s no denying the fact that the Tally Man is a victim of a system that monetizes life. For an economically depressed metropolis, Gotham City stories have a surprising tendency to be affluent stories, narratives of the upper-class. Part of that is the reluctance of many writers to feature a rich man in a cape beating up the homeless and call it heroism, but even that doesn’t smooth it over entirely. It’s unclear if the Tally Man is even a native of Gotham, but the city’s themes of social Darwinism and necessary cruelty shine through regardless of the actual location.

Unlike Bruce Wayne, the ultimate child of privilege, whose idyllic life was ruined by a single instant of needless cruelty, the Tally Man’s wretched childhood came crashing down around him for the sake of a lone act of kindness – comforting a sick child. And where Alan Moore theorized, in his classic “For the Man Who has Everything,” that Bruce Wayne’s greatest fantasy would be to see his parents violently defended, the Tally Man receives that opportunity, only to find that things work differently for people like the Waynes.

Indeed, what makes the Tally Man’s origin work for me, rather than seeming excessive and classically ‘grimdark’, is the clear mental instability Grant presents in the character. Especially for such a politically conscious writer, it seems impossible to believe that Grant was ignorant of how often this sort of story would play out in Gotham. There must be tens, if not hundreds, of children like the Tally Man in Gotham. For all the power of the Bat, the system does and will continue to fail these children, but Grant will deal with that in the second great Knightquest story he penned, for now, what’s important is merely to notice that the Tally Man’s anonymity only serves to increase his everyman nature. It’s almost as if he’s tried to lose himself in a system of simple rules, so as to turn his back on a broken world. In many ways he’s another subtle mirror of Batman.

Still, for any craft present in the Tally Man, Grant’s greatest work is with Jean-Paul. Though it was clearly a universal decision within the bat-offices, Jean-Paul’s growing sense of ownership over the mantle of the Bat was a huge part of the Knightsaga. Though I can’t say where this sentiment was first implemented without doing quite a bit of reading, I will say that, having read all of Knightquest: The Crusade, “The Tally Man” is one of the clearest instances in the early section of the sprawling event. As he puts down a gang of street toughs, Azbats thinks to himself, “Sometimes when I ride the night — –I feel like I own this city. That Bruce Wayne was only filling in until I came along.” This line of thinking is the core of Azrael’s slow decent into madness, but it is a slow one. While we readers, desperate for Bruce to reclaim his rightful place, may see the supreme arrogance in Jean-Paul’s thoughts, the character sees no chance that a paraplegic Wayne could ever return to the streets. It’s only natural that he should try to fill the role in his own way, as Dick Grayson tried to do when Wayne vacated the role once again, in the aftermath of Final Crisis. And, as Scott Snyder showed us, Jean-Paul is hardly the first Batman to overestimate his importance to Gotham and his sense of control. Distressing as it is, Jean-Paul, at this stage, is not so different from a young, green Bruce Wayne.

But there is a crucial difference. As Jean-Paul notes to himself, “Wayne knew his own strengths — his abilities — his limits.” At this stage Jean-Paul still subjugates himself to “the way of the bat,” seeing that Batman is bigger than he could ever hope to be.

In a very literal way, Jean-Paul doesn’t know his limits. Jean-Paul’s abilities are derived from a complex and arcane subconscious conditioning known, quite vaguely, as “The System.” The System allows him to perform feats of strength and speed far beyond that of normal men and women and its secrets were never revealed to him, for the Order of St. Dumas, the cult which made him, did not see a need to teach a tool why or how it functioned. And so, at this point and through the first of a number of odd contrivances, Grant takes Jean-Paul on a journey to the center of the mind.

It’s hardly original stuff, and though beautiful, the storytelling power of Vince Giarrano’s art falls short of its potential. So what makes it worth it? It’s the ring of betrayal in Jean-Paul’s narration. The relationship between Jean-Paul and his implicitly abusive father is one of the most crucial elements of the character, and one that Grant showed a particular fascination with from the early stages. As Azbats dives deeper into his own psyche he is confronted with the abuses his father inflicted upon him and, though he has clearly resigned the hope of a father’s love – or even a half-decent parent – at this point, he is unready for what he finds. It’s subtle, I’m sure some readers skim right over it without feeling it at all, but it’s there and I find it all too potent.

These two narratives are tied together by a roll of debts that the Tally Man must collect and a series of strange coincidences. I feel like Grant is fairly honest about his time saving devices in this story, after all, it’s not terribly common for mobsters to advertize their sale of black market isolation chambers straight out of the warehouse (at least not to my knowledge). It’s unfortunate that Grant couldn’t manage to find a smoother way to connect things, but if you can reconcile yourself with it, it won’t spoil the issue for you.

The dialogue has something of a melodramatic edge to it, but it’s generally pleasing to the ear. The seriousness of Azbats and the Tally Man is absorbing without falling too deep into clichés. The Mahoons and the issues’ various thugs don’t fair quite as well. “Big Mike” is straight out of the Silver Age with none of that era’s charming whimsy and Grant’s attempts to give Johnny or the gangbangers some color read awkwardly. Even the Tally Man can’t survive contact with them, giving Johnny one of the most ridiculously generic one-liners at the end of part one. In this regard, the second issue is far better than its predecessor, as it focuses largely on our two masked protagonists’ duel. Excepting one strange mid-battle declaration that probably was added for clarity, the dialogue is much stronger here.

Indeed, much of what works about this second issue is the twin commentaries running through it. There’s something classical about their struggle, as if reaching out for the works of Sophocles. Each man has their separate tragedy, a way in which their father doomed them to the life they lead, and now they collide. Tragedy is often what happens when conflicting principles are brought together. Hearing the thoughts of both combatants forces us to consider each of them as hero and villain to one another and shows us how avoidable the whole thing was. Jean-Paul even peers behind the curtain for a moment, in one of the issue’s greatest lines, and realizes what a farce it all is, but, in the end, he must play out his part.

The themes that Grant was playing with are fascinating, but these issues wouldn’t be half as memorable if it weren’t for Vince Giarrano’s art. Giarrano certainly embodies the best and worst of the early 90s. His sharp angles, harsh shading, and exaggerated proportions are undeniably Liefeldian. However, where Liefeld’s Cable became the poster boy for the muscle-bound machismo of 90s excess, Giarrano’s art focused on sharpness rather than boxiness and leanness rather than pure muscle. There’s also the matter of the anatomy being stronger than Liefeld’s work from the same era.

Suiting his characters, a wishy-washy boy trying to be a hero and a ‘momma’s boy’ stuck enforcing the rules, Giarrano’s work is more malleable than Liefeld’s, introducing a feminine fluidity into the harsh masculine obsession of the style. Giarrano’s Azbats conveys the frightening determination that fuels this man. Giarrano does a fairly impressive job of working without a mouth. The eyes find a language of their own that allows Azbats to emote freely, despite his constant scowl. Of course the most memorable elements of this costume, and Giarrano’s take on it especially, are the gauntlets. Knightfall enjoyed toying with the over-the-top adjustments that Jean-Paul would make to the bat-suit, but no other artist made it as clear how dangerous this Batman was. Prefiguring Jean-Paul’s eventual origin, Giarrano placed Azbats clearly at the nexus between the human, the bestial, and the divine.

Of course, Jean-Paul wasn’t the only one to benefit from Giarrano’s style. The Tally Man would return in later stories, but he would never be as cool as he was here. In fact, it’s kind of a miracle that a character based on an English tax collector could ever be cool, so good job, Vince.

In these issues the Tally Man is little more than a shadow, a slithering creature of coiled muscle and fabric. Some will no doubt find the Tally Man’s clear disregard for skeletal anatomy a turn off, but there’s something impressive about this figure nonetheless.

The art style is surprisingly variable as well. Scenes like Big Mike’s birthday party or an admittedly uncomfortable visit with Johnny’s wife prove that Giarrano can draw more than Gotham’s shadow-clad specters. Even so, I think we do need to talk about the opening scene of the story arc.

With the shadows of The Dark Knight Returns; Do the Right Thing; and, most recently, Akira still hanging over pop culture at the time of publication, it’s not entirely surprising to see this retro-futurist Batman fighting a gang of racist motorcycle riding punks. All the same, it’s not quite an excuse. Though the flow of the storytelling is actually quite superb, it’s very hard to read this section with a straight face. People make fun of the Azbats suit for being too spiky and extreme, how are we supposed to take this gang leader seriously then? I mean how many spike-studded items does this character demand? Add in a mulleted thug covered in piercings and wielding a ridiculous “Crocodile” Dundee knife and you’ve got a one-stop code for threatening early 90s counter-culture. The shopkeeper whose store they vandalize isn’t inherently uncomfortable, but given the he’s the only character portrayed in such a stylized fashion it’s pretty uncomfortable.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t, at least quickly, mention Adrianne Roy’s colors. I don’ know the last time that I was so aware of, not to mention pleased by, the presence of yellows in my Batman comic. Despite the grim avenger of the night angle that Knightfall was aiming for, its worth mentioning that the Azbats suit and the world it inhabits this issue are both much brighter than the standard Bruce Wayne stories that preceded it. Admitedly comics did tend to be more colorful back then, but it’s actually quite shocking. The deep seafoam green of the Gotham sky is not only beautiful to look at but highlights the blue of our dueling masked men and the way that light is present throughout the artwork.

Though I seriously doubt that it was a conscious choice, it is truly interesting to see Gotham so illuminated. Oftentimes Batman is a creature of the shadows, but, realistically, Gotham would be aglow in its own light pollution. In fact, part of what’s so horrible about Gotham is the degree to which crime occurs out in the open, whether through legitimate channels or merely without fear of retribution.

Roy’s unusual color choices create a fascinating palette for the Gotham night, transforming it into a setting as distinct and brilliant as Arkham Asylum or any of the hideouts or warehouses that usually host the Batman’s escapades.

“The Tally Man” is not a Batman story for the ages, but it is one of the stronger stories of its era. In a simple two-part tale, Grant and Giarrano humanize our unpopular new Batman and introduce a new villain to the franchise. Even as Azbats battled the Joker, the Trigger Twins, and a newly revived Mr. Freeze, the Tally Man held his own and actually provided a much more interesting challenge for Jean-Paul.

The strong themes and striking visuals made it a stand out in Jean-Paul’s story. The ideas explored here would reappear in Grant and Giarrano’s next collaboration, the similarly excellent “Rosemary’s Baby,” but if you want to see Azbats’ best and smartest confrontation with a villain, this is my pick.

Knightquest was long uncollected, but with the release of The Dark Knight Rises, DC finally saw fit to put out a new and updated Knightfall collection. You can find “The Tally Man” in Batman: Knightfall vol. 2 – Knightquest (mouthful, ain’t it?). You can also probably find the issues in your local comic shop, as long as they have a decent back issue selection. The trade goes for $30.00 while the limited demand and high print runs have kept the single issues hovering between $2.00 and $3.50. The trade does neglect the Bruce Wayne sections of the story, dubbed Knightquest: The Search, and the deep binding may get in your way from time to time, but, especially if you’re interested in the Knightsaga, it is a pretty fantastic value.

Regardless of how you pick it up, “The Tally Man” is one of the great Azbats stories and a charming little piece of history.

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