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BATMAN: HOLY TERROR (1991)

Written by Alan Brennert. Artwork by Norm Breyfogle.

DC's Elseworld line -- one-shots and mini-series featuring familiar DC characters in alternate reality settings -- was inspired by Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Gotham by Gaslight. But the "official" beginning of the line was this 1991 story. Holy Terror is set in a United States that is a religious police state. As he is about to enter the clergy, Bruce Wayne learns that his parents' long ago deaths may not have been a random mugging as he believed, but a state sanctioned execution. He dons a bat-costume to investigate, which takes him into the heart of the seat of government...the massive building known as Cathedral.

Labelling this (in my mind) as a graphic novel, I was disappointed by an O.K. but kind of undeveloped story. However, taken as just a slightly long, off beat comic book tale, it's an entertaining enough read.

I had been looking forward to it thanks to the presence of Brennert, a writer for print and TV, as well as comics, who's written some nice stories before such as "To Kill a Legend" (Detective Comics #500) and one of my all-time favourite comic book stories, "Time, See What's Become of Me" (Brave and the Bold#181). He's also written episodes of the revived Outer Limits TV series but, hey, no body's perfect.

The setting is off-beat, and Brennert crafts solid, mature dialogue. The story is briskly-paced, easily sustaining interest. The opening scene, restaging the deaths of Batman's parents -- well, the minutes after the murder -- manages to inject freshness into this oft-portrayed incident. "Do you remember what he (the killer) looked like?" asks inquisitor Jim Gordon. Then, seeing Bruce's face, remarks: "Yes, I...I suppose the real problem will be in forgetting."

I enjoyed Breyfogle's art more than I expected to based on other work I'd seen by him. It's moody and his utilizing of the religious theme in sets and costumes is striking. Conversely, there may have still been a slightly arms-length approach to his work, that didn't quite allow me to be totally drawn into this world and these characters. Also I quibble with his slightly redesigning Batman's costume since you lose some of the weirdness of seeing Batman in this unorthodox world...'cause he doesn't entirely look like Batman.

The colouring by Lovern Kindzierski is rich and atmospheric.

But Brennert hasn't really crafted a stand alone story, built up of little scenes all pushing us toward an exciting climax. Sure, 48 pages isn't a lot to work with, but he could've done more with them. There aren't many supporting characters, or a romantic interest, or anything. And it doesn't quite evoke its "Heart of Darkness" structure when Batman travels deeper into Cathedral and his mental journey becomes conceptualised as a physical one. Intellectually I recognise that was probably Brennert's intention, viscerally it didn't quite register.

I was disappointed by how heavily Brennert utilized the DC universe. That's part of the point of Elseworlds stories, but eventually there was a feeling that the story, and the themes, take a back seat to presenting familiar DC characters in unusual ways -- with Barry (the Flash) Allen and others in significant parts.

And not just familiar characters.

A mad scientist crops up who's Prof. Elder. Elder (unless he's been reimagined in recent years) is an obscure DC character only significant for bringing the Martian Manhunter to earth. Such name dropping can be fun, but here it's distracting (though it may be intended as a red-herring involving references to a "Green Man"). In another scene we are treated to an obligatory martyr/crucifixon symbol, but in the context of this story, it seems precious rather than profound.

As the story progresses, the whole milieu seems a little wasted. It's not clear why this has to be a religious tyranny as opposed to any other kind of oppressive regime. The whole thing is kind of soft-peddled, carefully drawing a line between God and religious fanatics. If they wanted to show the dichotomy between true religious teachings and how fanatics twist them, Brennert should've done so with examples, making the story richer, more challenging. Of course, the problem is that, for all Batman's protests, fanatics don't generally misconstrue biblical teachings, they merely adhere to them selectively.

A decent read but, to my surprise, not a great one.