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BATMAN: WAR ON CRIME (1999)

Written by Paul Dini & Alex Ross, Illustrated by Alex Ross

In their first over-sized graphic novel, Superman: Peace on Earth, Paul Dini and Alex Ross provided a look at Superman's introspective side as he attempted to solve the world's hunger problems and realized it's not an easy issue to resolve even with super powers.

The team returned with a second over-sized book, Batman: War on Crime, dealing with a darker hero and an issue less global in scale, but the story is no less introspective and perhaps even more moving.

A routine patrol in Gotham City brings Batman to the scene of an armed robbery in a depressed neighborhood. He's in time to catch the crook, but it's too late for the husband and wife who ran the small grocery. They're dead, and their young son, Marcus, saw them die. It's a reflection on the incident which, years before, stole away Bruce Wayne's happy childhood and set him on the path to becoming an intense, obsessed crimefighter.

Dini's story reads on several levels. There's Batman's very personal interactions with Marcus over the next few days and his attempts to steer the boy clear of an easy but ultimately self-destructive path. There's Batman's full-scale war on crime in that neighborhood -- a war he realizes he can't ever win, but he's determined to win enough battles to make a difference. And there's billionaire Bruce Wayne's investment opportunities which could have a dramatic impact on that neighborhood's future -- an impact in many ways more vital and far-reaching than Batman's zealous crimefighting efforts.

The story is, as I mentioned, an introspective one, and much of the action takes place on the periphery of the reader's view. It's moving and powerful and laden with messages for anyone who cares to notice them.

Once again, Dini's text is superbly rendered by Ross, who brings characters to life with extremely vivid and realistic paintings. The large format of the book proves an excellent canvas for his work; a standard-sized comic book would be too confining for these scenes.

It's always nice to see the comics industry providing books which vary from the usual formula: quipping spandex-clad hero pummeling outrageously garbed and gimmicky villains into submission. The story and art are both a cut above the norm, and I hope Dini and Ross continue this series of collaborations for a good, long time.