This writeup contains spoilers. It examines many aspects of the plot of the first issue of the Batman: Nevermore comic book. If you have do not wish to have pretty much the whole damn thing explained to you, read no further!
YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!
Chapter the First: Once Upon a Midnight Dreary
Written by Len Wein
Drawn by Guy Davis
Lettered by John E. Workman
Coloured by Jeremy Cox
Editor - Bob Schreck
Assistant Editor - Nachie Castro
Released in June 2003
The Elseworlds series has seen some of DC's best known characters extracted from the canon of DC continuity and placed in unfamiliar surroundings. In this story we find the Batman in 19th century Baltimore investigating a series of gruesome murders. Also on the case is the young Mr. Edgar Poe, a writer and poet fallen upon hard times who takes a job with the Baltimore Sun. The two are destined to cross paths in a city where danger and depravity lurk in every shadow shrouded alley.
The Plot (Did I Mention the SPOILERS!)
It's the Autumn of 1831 and the city of Baltimore is living in fear of the bizarre and horrific Raven Murders.
Edgar Poe, a young writer and poet fallen upon hard times has taken a job as an apprentice reporter with the Baltimore Sun. He approaches his editor and requests that he be allowed to report on the murders, but is turned down. The editor wants him to go the the prestigious Gotham Club, a group comprised of some of the city's most prominent gentlemen, and report on a charity ball they plan to hold.
This suits Poe's purposes. Both victims of the Raven Murders were members of the Gotham Club. One was found bricked up inside a stone wall with his cat, which had survived by eating his flesh. The other was found under the floorboards of a boarding house, his chest cut open and his own heart clasped between his hands. In both cases the investigating police constables glimpsed an inhuman shadow, like a giant black raven, in the vicinity of the scene of the crime.
At the Gotham Club Poe encounters Bruce Wayne, heir to the Wayne family fortune, Professor Jonathan Crane, a pioneer of the new science of psychiatry and Dr. Roderick Usher, respected biologist. Poe makes a few clumsy enquiries about the murders, receiving somewhat dismissive answers from everyone except Crane, who breaks into a disturbing monologue concerning the killer's motives.
Seeing that the Professor's words have had an upsetting effect on Poe, Dr. Usher escorts him outside, where Poe is introduced to the doctor's daughter, Lenore. There seems to be a subdued spark of attraction between the young lady and the impoverished reporter.
Poe's interest, however, remains with the story of the Raven Murders. He visits the scene of the latest crime and encounters something that makes his blood run cold. Crouched in the corner of the dark room is a hunched, cloaked figure. Its shape is not that of a raven but of a bat. Poe tries to flee, screaming that he will alert the authorities, but the strange bat-man begs him to wait. He tells him that he too is investigating the Raven Murders, and that given the incompetence of Baltimore's police, he may be more able to discover the murderer than the official investigators.
Poe concurs, suggesting that the pair form an alliance to investigate the crimes. The Batman says he will consider it before disappearing into the shadows.
Continuing his investigations, Poe goes to the house of Dr. Usher, where he encounters the doctor's extremely unpleasant assistant, Hubert. He is lead to Dr. Usher's laboratory, which he finds filled with animals used for experiments. He questions the doctor about the murdered members of the Gotham Club, but Usher cuts him off, saying that he has more pressing matters to attend to.
Poe leaves the house, frustrated. He finds his thoughts wandering to Dr. Usher's daughter, Lenore when, without warning, one of Usher's animals leaps over a wall and attacks him. It is a panther. It knocks the reporter off his feet and all seems lost when, from nowhere, the Batman charges at the beast providing a moment for Poe to escape with his life.
In the final panel, however, the Batman grapples with the beast. It is far more powerful than any man, and its teeth are drawing close to the Dark Knight's throat.
Len Wein is the creator of some of the most enduring characters in comics. He is the co creator of Swamp Thing and the New X Men, so if anyone is qualified to play around with the setting and background of one of the most iconic characters in comics, it's him.
The first issue of "Nevermore" is a very well rounded comic. The use of Edgar Allan Poe as the narrator is very effective. Poe is established as a completely insignificant character, and he genuinely seems out of his depth fraternising with the elite Gotham Club or creeping around murder scenes.
What is evident throughout the issue is Wein's knowledge of both Poe and his work. There are numerous references to the books and poems that Poe would go on to produce, as well as elements of Poe's own life which ring very true and add to the depth of the character. For example, Poe chooses not to be known by his full name since "Allan" was the name of his hated stepfather. The narrative voice seems loyal to much of Poe's work. Len Wein seems to have been able to get inside the writer's head and this adds a touch of believability to the story.
The fact that it is Poe, not Batman, who serves as the central character in Nevermore is a welcome break from the reader omniscience that can sometimes plague the main Batman titles. For one thing it means that the Batman himself remains something of a mystery. By the end of the book we have not even discovered his true identity. Sure, there's a character called Bruce Wayne, but are we being deliberately led to assume? Another effect of Poe's narration is that the reader is not an impartial third person. Instead, the reader knows only what the narrator knows, and as a result we are connected with Poe to the extent that we can feel his fear - fear which manifests itself in the style of true gothic fiction, not as brief moments of punctuating horror but as an inescapable, creeping dread.
"Nevermore" had the potential to be a very disjointed comic. Combining the intertwined threads of a murder mystery, an accurate portrayal of a historical figure and a faithful representation of a modern fictional character is no mean feat. Len Wein copes admirably, and the result is a genuinely chilling and gripping comic.
The team of Guy Davis and Jeremy Cox have produced some highly appropriate art for Wein's plot. There's a slight sketchy quality to much of the book which adds almost imperceptibly to the general feeling of unease and anxiety.
Shadow is also used effectively. There are some dark scenes with a high level of detail in which not everything in the panel becomes immediately apparent. This presents a fear of the unknown that we're all familiar with on some level.
The setting is excellently portrayed in the artwork. Baltimore is a city of imposing houses, gas streetlamps, run down buildings and swirling mists. Much of the city contains more detail than the characters and this leads to the reader feeling immersed in the story. I actually found that this effect was disrupted by the ads to a certain extent, and I plan to buy the collected edition if DC eventually release one.
The design of the Batman's costume is worth mentioning. Nevermore's Dark Knight is, of course, devoid of the technological enhancements of his modern day counterpart. His costume consists of a long, dark grey coat under a leathery looking cloak. His mask covers significantly more of his face than we are used to and features a hooked, pointed nose. The costume appears much more cumbersome than that of the Batman of the DC Universe.
One thing which struck me as I read "Nevermore" was that much of the artwork would have been just fine, possibly even more effective, if it had not been coloured. This is not a criticism of the colouring, which is generally quite subtle and understated, but I feel that in a story such as this there's something to be said for the stark contrast of black and white.
The first issue of "Nevermore" is intriguing and disturbing. I wish I'd picked it up when it was first published. Thankfully, my local comic book store still has the remaining issues, and I'm going to pick them up on my next pay day.
If you're a fan of Batman then you will probably find something to connect with in this book. It is written in the true spirit of Batman, which, in my opinion, is the spirit of gothic literature. You won't find any kung fu fight scenes, guys with flaming swords or seductive female criminals in skin tight spandex here. What you will find is a subtle, well crafted story told in the graphic medium, and isn't that what comics are supposed to be about?
Final Rating: 8/10