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As a character, Batman has now been around for over 70 years (he first appeared in Detective Comics 27, May 1939) and whilst his essential storyline has remained consistent over that time, the villains and situations he has faced have expanded enormously.
This table top book from Dorling Kindersley is designed as a kind of reference tool to help highlight and keep track of some of the key people, places and events of Batman's lifetime in comics. It looks at the villains he has encountered, the people who help him and some of the key storylines in which he is involved.
The book is arranged into four different sections. Part one focuses on Batman and his world, examining how Bruce Wayne came to be Batman and the equipment that he uses in his fight against crime. Part two looks at friends and allies, such as Alfred and Robin, whilst Part 3 highlights the colourful parade of villains he has encountered over the years. Whilst some of these focus on the major villains you would expect (The Joker, The Penguin etc.), space is also given over to minor foes. Finally, there is a look at how Batman has changed over the years, from the Golden Age of Comics through to the darker Gotham of the 90s and 2000s. Various sections also reflect on some of the most important Batman story arcs, although many of these only look at more recent events (such as the No Man's Land tale which saw Gotham devastated and abandoned following an earthquake).
Splitting the book up in this way gives it a real "pick up and read appeal". Sure, you can read it from cover to cover in one go if you wish (there's probably not more than a couple of hours reading here), but you will get far more pleasure from it by dipping in and out, just reading the entries that appeal to you at that moment.
Information and entries are well presented. Each individual character or location is given a double page spread. This is lavishly illustrated, using a mixture of images taken from various comics together with some artwork which has been specially created for this book (such as an anatomy of Batman's Utility Belt). This gives the book real visual appeal and you can get just as much enjoyment from just sitting flicking through and admiring the artwork as you can from reading the text.
Entry text is well laid out and incorporated into this illustrated approach. Rather than trying to provide an exhaustive history of each character or place (an almost impossible task given how often they have been revised over the past 70+ years), a basic overview of key characteristics, storylines or events is presented instead. When looking at the villains, for example, most will briefly outline their origin story, special powers and some of the key storylines in which they have been involved. Textual information is presented in bite-sized chunks, rather than dense passages of text. This will encourage children to read about their favourite characters, rather than simply look at the images
The text is well-written and informative. It's not difficult to understand, so younger children will enjoy reading it, but neither is it overly simplistic or patronising, meaning it can still be read and enjoyed by adults. Personally I found the information on characters much more interesting than that on equipment, which I found a little technical and boring, but that's just my personal preference.
Of course, a book like this is only ever intended to give an overview of each character and not be an exhaustive exploration of every aspect of their personality. It's really meant as a kind of "quick guide". As such, if you are a regular Batman reader, then there's probably not much here that you don't already know. However, for casual fans, it's a useful way of filling gaps in your knowledge and even for regular Batman readers, it's a useful reference tool; and the Batman Timeline at the end will be a great guide for anyone who wants to see how the character has developed since he first appeared in 1939.
The concentration is also very much on the current version of Batman's world (rather than how it has been portrayed in the past), so if you have been away from Batman for a while, some characters might not the back-story that you remember! However, this makes the volume a useful tool if you've not read a Batman comic for a while, but fancy getting back into them. If you try and leap straight into Batman's current world (which is very different from the one from even 10-15 years ago) then today's comics may well confuse you. This book acts as a handy guide to bring you up to date(ish) with some of the key recent developments.
This does bring up a slight issue. Although an updated edition, this book still only runs up to 2005 and an awful lot has happened in Batman's world since then (not the least of which was the "killing off" of Bruce Wayne, the return of the "long dead" Jason Todd and a new person taking on the identity of Batman.) Since these tales all happened after 2005, they are not included in this book, so in some regards it is quite badly out of date and crying out for a new edition.
Finally, if you were being really picky, you could take issue with the book's subtitle of The Ultimate Guide to the Dark Knight. Batman's history, back-story and pantheon of villains is so full and complex that it would take a lot more than a 144 page book to be The Ultimate Guide! Still, I understand that's just publishing hyperbole to get people to buy the book, so I'll let it pass this once!
As a snapshot of both Batman's past and his position in the middle of the first decade of the new century, this is an interesting, well-presented book. As a long-time Batman fan, I didn't learn anything new from it, but it did remind me of a couple of facts that I had forgotten as well as proving an enjoyable read. The luscious illustrations make it visually attractive and even people who are not Batman fans will probably enjoy flicking through it and admiring the artwork.
There's no way that this is an essential purchase and with an RRP of £14.99, it is quite an expensive table-top book. However, kids will enjoy the images and the chunk-sized information, whilst for adults it's a useful context-setter for the Gotham City of today. If you're lucky, you can pick this up for a lot less than its RRP (I got mine for £2 from a charity shop) and the cheaper you can get it, the bigger the bargain it is. Not essential, certainly, but a very nice book to own.
Batman: The Ultimate Guide to the Dark Knight
Dorling Kindersley, 2005 (updated edition)
(c) Copyright SWSt 2011