I was surprised when Man-Bat popped up as one of Robin, Nightwing and Oracle's Network operatives in the recent Gotham Gazette: Batman Dead one-shot. Last time I looked he was a tragic anti-hero rather than a trusted ally, but there he was. This comic explains what he was doing on Gotham's streets, battling dull street gangs.
And it doesn't reflect well on him, truth be told. Kirk Langstrom is presented as a weak man, crippled by fear of his dark side, Man-Bat, and constantly worrying about his wife Francine (in-house scientist and well able to take care of herself, being an occasional Woman-Bat). He has terribly cliched worst nightmare dreams and an awful Seventies inner monologue ('Who thought becoming so strong . . . would feel so weak?'). There's more Seventies naffness with the closing 'Not the end . . . Please!
But he grabs his anxieties by the balls and gets out there when Francine vanishes in answer to Oracle's plea for reinforcements. Happily, Man-Bat's whining comes to an end when he's bashed on the head by a surprise villain - at fist I thought it was Crime Doctor/Unknown Soldier wannabe Hush, but it's someone far more interesting.
It's when the villain shows up that I started enjoying Joe Harris' script as Kirk displayed the gumption and brains I associate with him, showing that all those years of batty hearing haven't been wasted. It's a shame, then, that before the issue is out Kirk has a Jean Gray moment, proclaiming: 'I am LOOSED. I am RAGE. I am MAN-BAT.'
You corny old Man-Bat, you.
Jim Calafiore drew the moment wonderfully, though, his Man-Bat is intense, fierce, a true creature of the night. And with colourist Guy Major, he produces one of the best versions of the surprise villain I've ever seen. Letterer Steve Wands also deserves credit for a fine job, particularly on the opening splash.
Oh, and hurrah for the best bit of sound-effect art since Wonder Woman 27 (see December 2008 reviews). Squeemendous! Overall though, while this is an efficient comic book, it feels inessential. Kirk Langstrom is scared of his own shadow at the start, and while he rallies in the middle, at the end he's a bit of a scaredy-bat once more. And Man-Bat deserves better.