The Nightmarish Genius of Kelley Jones’s Batman

One reason digital comics will never replace print comics is because, unlike magazines, newspapers, or novels, comic books can’t simply be reduced to “plot” or “information.” A comic book story can, of course, be translated to a digital medium, but something is necessarily lost in that translation. And that loss is greater than the loss suffered by a novel or newspaper. If this weren’t true, there would be no such thing as comic book collecting.

Our attachment to print comics is an attachment to physical objects, to the tactile experience of holding pictures and turning pages. Many people aren’t content to store all their personal photos on a hard drive: they want some of them framed. Many people aren’t content to look at paintings on Google Images: they want to hang them on their walls. Just so, it’s unlikely we’ll ever get to a place where comic collections exist exclusively in a digital form. Comics aren’t like novels or DVDs, because of the art.

This meditation on comic book art has led me to think about some great, underrated comic book artists. Take for example, Kelley Jones, the artist who defined the look of Batman in the late 90s.

I remember Jones best for his cover illustrations. They’re weird and dark. Jones gives us a funhouse mirror vision of the Batman’s Gotham, and it stays with you. The more I read comics, the more I’ve come to recognize that I love style. I don’t just want good art, or realism, I want art that has meaning, art that builds a world. That’s style, and Kelley Jones has it.

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Two things come up when people talk about Kelley Jones’s Batman: the cowl and the cape. Jones elongated Batman’s “ears” and his cape became an almost overwhelming heap of liquid black and blue. It’s not realistic, but it is stylish. And there’s meaning in that incarnation of the costume: Jones draws Batman the way the criminals of Gotham see Batman in their nightmares. His is the Batman of bad dreams. His Batman is a ghoul, a demon. He looks like he just stepped out of a scary story, and he should, because Batman should be scary.

Jones may be best known for his work on the Knightfall storyline. He really defined the look of Bane. Jones draws Bane as a hulking mass of muscle. It was fitting for a guy addicted to super steroids. Bane’s size and stature are overwhelming; he looks like a man capable of breaking the Bat. 

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In this next one, which I love, Bane looks like a dark god or a devil rising up from the Inferno. Even the Batman of bad dreams looks tentative and defensive when confronted by the giant, glowering villain.

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I’m sure there are some people out there who really dislike Jones’s exaggerated style. The case against him would, I suspect, be that his costumes and figures defy reality. Think for a minute, though, about that criticism. Comic book art has never had much to do with realism. Jack Kirby’s figures are overwhelmingly geometric. His male figures are barrel-chested he-men, all foreheads and jawlines. His females are stacks of trapezoids – hourglasses with poofy haircuts. Understand that I’m not trying to insult Kirby here. I’m merely pointing out that superheroes have always been stylized. Some styles are more realistic than others, yes. But to compare comic art to reality is a bit like comparing bicycles to Harley Davidsons. Yes, some bicycles are more like Harleys than others, but none of them are very much like Harleys. 

The exception that proves the rule might be Alex Ross. Ross paints beautiful realistic superheroes. But think about how unprecedented and unusual Ross is within the industry.

It’s not that good comic book art is “realistic” and bad comic art is “exaggerated.” It’s that certain artists like Kirby or Ditko have such compelling styles that they make an imprint on our brains. The great comic book artists have a powerful influence on how we imagine heroes and villains. It’s because great artists leave such a mark that it’s sometimes hard to appreciate the virtues of alternative or original styles. I think those who are resistant to Jones’s style are resistant because they’ve been so powerfully seduced by other styles like Neal Adams’ or Jim Lee’s. 

Kelley Jones had a incredible, original vision. He did some amazing stuff with Batman. His covers are dark and beautiful. I’m happy to have them in my collection, so that I can hold them in my hands and look into the dark.

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2 thoughts on “The Nightmarish Genius of Kelley Jones’s Batman

  1. Pingback: The Comic-Verse: Awesome Art & The Top 15 Featured Links (03/08/14-03/14/14) | The Speech Bubble

  2. Very well written article. I’ve never had much love for the art of Kelley Jones, but you have given me a newfound appreciation for his style. Still not my favorite depiction of Bats, but I will be keeping this article in mind next time I revisit the Knightfall arc. A+ . Cheers.

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