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Batman: Masque (1997)

     by Mike Grell

And you all thought Sherlock Holmes or Dracula were going to be the weirdest crossovers.


As I've said before, I love comic books, so I'm always excited by a comic interpretation. However, as is probably obvious, this one's a little different; rather than being a retelling of the Phantom story in comic form, as all the previous ones have been, this is an odd little story wherein Grell transplants a few characters from DC's beloved Batman universe into Leroux's story. This is from DC's Elseworlds series, which delights in putting familiar characters into settings and time periods they don't normally inhabit.


At the core of this little jaunt, unsurprisingly, is the fact that both the Phantom and Batman traditionally wear a mask. The reasoning is inverted; Erik wears a mask because he is hideous and shunned by society, and can only hope to have any semblance of normal social interaction if he hides his physical deformities, while Batman wears the mask in order to intentionally inspire fear in his enemies and to hide his true identity, Bruce Wayne, who is a very rich and societally lauded social butterfly. In Erik's case, the mask isn't truly important in and of itself; it's merely a means to an end, the barrier that enables him to hide his face, while in Batman's case there is a question that the mask may, in transforming Bruce into his caped alter-ego, possess some sort of personality of its own (even if only metaphorically). While these are fundamentally opposed approaches to the mask, the themes of twin opposing viewpoints and social and behavioral barriers are explored in both characters, and when one adds the very obvious shared physical symbol of a mask, it's not hard to see why Leroux's story appealed to the comic's artist as a crossover opportunity.


It's immediately apparent, due to trappings like severely altered costumes (it's a bit discombobulating to see Batman wearing, essentially, a tuxedo with opera cape and the normal mask) and horse-drawn hansom cabs, that the time period has been set back to the nineteenth century of Leroux's original novel. It should be noted that this is definitely based almost exclusively upon Leroux's book; there are a few hints of some of the earlier film sources, but no whispers of the novels or musicals preceding this one are apparent.


Rather than going the opera route (which, while much more faithful to Leroux's novel, is admittedly difficult to render visually without being able to spend large portions of the page on descriptive text), the performing company around which most of the action centers is a ballet troupe performing Masque of the Red Death (which, of course, is drawn from the Edgar Allen Poe tale and used here because of Leroux's usage of the Red Death's costume for Erik in his original novel). I've searched quite a bit, but I don't seem to be able to come up with which ballet this might be; the story is both old and popular, and I presume there must be ballets out there for it, but most of the references I've found seem to refer to much later pieces, written years after Grell's comic, let alone the time period of Leroux's book. The most likely candidate seems to be H. Owen Reed's 1936 ballet The Masque of the Red Death, which is quite a few years later than Leroux's novel's setting, but it's entirely likely that there were other versions before that one that are either lost to posterity or just more deeply buried than I can unearth in an hour with an internet connection. At any rate, another familiar face (hee!) from the Batman universe is involved: Harvey Dent is dancing the lead in the ballet, opposite of Miss Laura Avian (whose name is not the only bird-like thing in this story; the ballet girls are all wearing feathers and birdlike masks, the better to create a more ethereal image), our Christine character.


After Laura receives some flowers from a mysterious admirer, they go on and dance for opening night, but in a tragic turn of events that will surprise exactly no Batman fans, Dent's cape catches fire from the gas footlights and he is badly burned on one side of his face, thus bringing him to the familiar Two-Face character. But now, as he limps off for medical care and everyone talks about how horribly scarred he is, we have a conundrum; the prologue and beginning were setting Batman up very neatly to be the Phantom, but suddenly we have a man with a badly scarred face who was obviously at the top of his profession. The plot thickens.


It turns out that what Grell is actually doing is exploring the Phantom character through both Bruce Wayne (Batman) and Harvey Dent, using each of them to explore different facets of the character. It's a choice reminiscent of the similar splitting of the character in de Palma's 1974 film Phantom of the Paradise, though in that case the characters were obviously intended to be two facets of the same character, while here Batman and Dent are entirely separate characters that just happen to share characteristics of Leroux's famous masked man. Just as de Palma's characters represented good and evil sides of the character, Dent and Batman represent two different common perceptions of the Phantom; Batman fulfills the role most common to fans of Lloyd Webber's musical and its descendants as a brooding, tortured, but ultimately well-intentioned outcast, while Dent takes on the traditional horror version role of the deranged yet pitiable killer.


It's Bruce Wayne that keeps a private box for performances, steals Laura away to his underground lair (the Batcave, naturally), gives her his mother's jewelry, and eventually lets her go for her own good rather than let her be consumed by his own obsession (in this case, with justice). Conversely, it's Harvey Dent that has loved her from afar for a long time and is forced to see her with a new paramour, who murders members of the theatre to get his way, who injures the prima ballerina to get Laura a role and teaches her how to dance, and who brings the chandelier down in an attempted murder/suicide (reminiscent of the 1983 Markowitz/Schell film, especially) when he realizes that she has spurned him (incidentally, this is a new choice in Phantom literature; the Phantom, while perfectly happy to kill other people that might get in his way, has not to date ever been able to threaten Christine or her stand-in character directly, being much too besotted with her in most versions). The splitting of the characters allows the reader to approach the players much more simply; we can feel a little bit bad for Dent but are mostly glad when he is eventually vanquished, and we can feel all the pathos and noble sacrifice of Batman's version of the character without any of those pesky moral quandaries that so plague Leroux's original character.


The solution is a bit too neat, in my opinion; I like a much more complex character, one which requires the reader to evaluate his or her own morals and reach a conclusion of their own. However, the split here is done cleverly and doesn't feel in the slightest bit lazy. Rather, it seems that Grell is capitalizing on the themes already inherent in the DC characters, using them to replay Leroux's story and point out where the ideas in classic literature are really the same as the ones being used today, and that's perfectly all right with me.


Grell is very faithful to the source material and the time period despite the liberties taken to match the characters; I especially noted the rampant gossip about Laura's relationship with Bruce Wayne and the immediate assumptions that go along with it (as one of the managers says of her relationship with their wealthy patron, "Our little understudy has been working nights as well."), one of the original story's major motivators for Christine not feeling she had much of a support system in place. The fact that Bruce Wayne fulfills most of Raoul's role from the original novel is not as confusing as it at first seems, since he takes over the Raoul functions when he's Bruce Wayne and only provides insight into the Phantom character when he's busy being Batman (handy, a character that is two characters in one!). This helps illustrate the idea that Raoul and Erik are, in Leroux's novel, polar opposites whose qualities do not coexist, the same way that Bruce Wayne and Batman don't coexist; they can't, since to become one means abandoning the other for the time being.


Of course, this could be subject to plenty of lively debate over exactly how much Bruce's two personas coexist within his skull or whether or not they can both even be said to be full fledged personas, but I'll leave that sort of thing for the very dedicated Batman fan community to hash out. This also lends weight to Dent's character, especially during the final confrontation between the two masked men in which he can quite successfully accuse Batman (whom he knows to be Bruce because the Phantom sees everything, yo) of using his money and society influence to take Laura away from the ballet, which is where her true passion lies.


By the end of the tale, the roles have reversed once again; Dent has been defeated, but when Laura tries to return to Bruce, he rejects her and sends her back to live her life at the ballet, saying that his darkness would consume her were he to try to keep her with him. At this point, Laura is a Christine who has chosen to remain with the Phantom and is trying to bring him to the upper world (she actually says, "Let me lead you from the shadow," which made me snort but which may just be an accidental paraphrase since I don't see any other real Lloyd Webber influence in the comic), and Bruce refuses that choice (which is what Erik, who wanted a wife to walk with him on Sundays, had always declared that he wanted). It's the Batman themes that win out in the end, of course - this is really about Batman, not about Leroux's story so much - but even so, it's done well.


The art is serviceable and enjoyable, though it's nothing spectacular enough to make me glow over it. I will say that the change to ballet was a very good choice for Grell's storytelling style, as he favors dynamic scenes and active panels, often with very little or even no dialogue at all. And who am I to say his art isn't great, anyway? I certainly couldn't do it, and he did both the writing and the art himself.


In the end, it's not achieving any really new leaps or throwing out any radical ideas either in interpretation or presentation; but it does what it does well, doesn't fall into the many logical and chronological traps and pitfalls that many later versions do, and it's an enjoyable half an hour. Thumbs up from me.

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