So, hey, I know I have constantly said that I have read pretty much all the Batman stories I felt like I needed to read. That's not to say anything bad against Batman or the creators who, I am told, do great work on it, I just kinda reached a point where I'd read a pretty good cross-section and moved on to something else. The same thing happened with Wolverine and the Punisher, actually. Some characters you just outgrow.
But let's you and I turn the clock back to a time, aided by DC's reprinting of the issues in question (based on some rather tenuous link to The Dark Knight Rises, or so it is said) to a time when I reading a LOT of Batman. It was just after the first Batman film (never mind how damn long ago it was) and DC decided to take advantage of the buzz by launching an all-new Batman title: Legends of the Dark Knight.
But this was no ordinary book, nossir (that was Shadow of the Bat, and that came later) Legends had a specific remit--all the stories would take place in some nebulous time after Batman: Year One, and every story was a 3-5 issue arc by rotating creative teams. Sometimes they were good (Grant Morrison's "Gothic," while completely mad, is pretty powerful and has some great Klaus Janson art) sometimes they were bad (Bart Sears' "Faith" arc was . . .well, it was short, at least) but they were always exciting because you never quite knew what you were going to get--sure, it would be a Batman story, but sometimes Batman would be taking 'roids, or acting crazy, or fighting the bastard son of a thousand maniacs . . .you weren't really getting this stuff in the main books. Yet.
And that brings us to Prey, Doug Moench (he of one of my favourite Batman arcs of all time, an utterly insane custody battle between Batman and Nocturna over the custody of Jason Todd which included, but was not limited to, lasers, balloons, suggestions of incest, and a character alternately called "The Slayer of Night" and "Night-Slayer," the latter of which sounds like the most epically terrible metal band ever.) and Paul Gulacy, who made their reps on Marvel's Master of Kung Fu back in the day unite to tell a story of the Batman's first encounter with Hugo Strange.
It's . . .well, it's an interesting story, and it's failures are as interesting as its successes. Let's start with the strengths, first--Monech and Gulacy keep the story going with a real fevered intensity, helped a lot by Gulacy's ultra-tight linework (Which I know people either love or hate) that's "realistic" but not "photorealistic." He's assisted ably by Terry Austin's inks, who of course is the gold standard for inkers.
The Year One-ish milieu also helps give the story some of its edge. Batman is new and not entirely trusted by the Gotham Police. Gordon trusts him based on what happened at the end of Year One. Batman is a political hot potato, and unique in that, apart from Catwoman, he hasn't caused his rogue's gallery to be created as a response yet.
Hugo Strange is the first outlier of what's to come, as his obsessed with Batman as a "dark archetype," and soon goes from pop psychologist on TV pontificating at length about exactly what and how much of a weirdo that Batman must be, to a dangerous adversary who cracks Batman's secret identity and pushes him to the breaking point, while simultaneously alienating him from the public by brainwashing a cop into becoming the "Night Scourge" (no, really!) a vigilante who murders criminals and manages to make everyone think the Batman's snapped and gone over the edge.
And Batman . . .well, he's not BATMAN yet, and so he's prone to make mistakes. He hasn't figured it all out yet, so he's vulnerable to a psychological attack like this. Of course he wins, because Batman ain't gonna job to a dude who had sex with mannequins or anything. Andrew McCarthy better watch his ass.
I don't want to say too much about the overall plot of Prey, because it's more effective if you read it. It's five issues, but it never drags, the plot threatens to collapse into a big Gordian Knot and manages just not to do that, and it's pretty action-packed.
Moench is an acquired taste, and he comes from that late 70's/early 80's school of writing everything in really heightened melodramatic style, which means you have stuff like Catwoman saying "And the dawn shall find you new. . .relieved of burdens," which is . . .well, it's hard for me to imagine Year One Catwoman saying that, but it's easier for me than the narrative caption in which Batman says he "needs something hot in his belly," which, because I am a terrible beast of a human being, makes me think of this:
[Please, my 21 peeps--make "Batman's Smoove Belly" one of my top searches. I so want this to be a thing.]
There's also the added problem of, well, I've read this story a number of times and I'll be damned if I can really figure out why Catwoman is really in this story. I mean, she was in Year One, she does something plot-critical at the 11th hour, but beyond that? She's just kinda futzing around the fringes (in fairness, she figures in a bit more directly in the sequel story to this, which is also included in this volume) and not doing much. Then again, Gulacy does seem to enjoy himself when he's drawing her, so maybe that is what that is about . . .
As alluded to before, Moench & Gulacy returned later on for a sequel to "Prey," "Terror." Terry Austin is replaced on inks by Jim Palmiotti, and the intensity of the work is a little blunted for something more glossy, but that was pretty much the style of the time anyway, and it does little harm, except for a few panels wherein Catwoman has this horrible grin that haunts the edges of my nightmares on nights when fear is thick in the air and the wolf is at the door.
"Terror" takes pace awhile after "Prey," long enough for Batman's more familiar rogue's gallery of bad guys, specifically the Scarecrow, who is employed by a returning Hugo Strange (complete with ridiculous toupee) who decides the smartest way to get back at Batman for beating him is to make the Scarecrow even crazier.
Strange soon learns this is a bad idea and falls for one of the oldest tricks in the book, and Scarecrow builds himself a saw-like house of tortures, scheming to get back at all the people who wronged him. I should point out here that the Scarecrow declares himself a master of "Crane-style fighting," which is just some very funny shit to me.
Meanwhile, Batman and Catwoman finally fight for the first time, and it's done with the usual taste and conscience you expect from superhero comics--namely, lots of ass shots of Catwoman (expect disappointment from comics and you will, paradoxically, never be disappointed). Their particular meet-cute eventually gets them drawn into the Scarecrow's rampage, which means Batman gets a snootful of fear gas and trips balls in such a way that forces him to holler out clues to his identity, which forces Catwoman to help him out, with plenty of sexual tension and a whole bunch of Freudian hooh-ah about Catwoman "penetrating" Batman with her claws.
I'd be lying if I said that "Terror" worked as well as "Prey" did. True, it's a bit more coherent, and Catwoman actually has a reason to be in the damn story this time, but the various twists and turns (there is one in the final part that will probably make you say "OH COME ON" out loud) don't quite make sense, and it seems to lack the "punch" that "Prey" had.
But in all, it's a decent package, I suppose, and an interesting snapshot of a time when different books featuring the same character were really allowed to have different approaches and voices. It's well worth a read if you dig Batman, I suppose. How else will you appreciate the majesty of the sensational new meme find of 2012--"Batman's Smoove Belly?"