When rumors were swirling around the story and themes of The Dark Knight Rises, one of the more popular theories was that it would be inspired by the events of Prey, and that Tom Hardy (later revealed to star as the mercenary Bane) would play the villain Hugo Strange. For those unfamiliar with the comics, this came as a bit of a surprise, as the character hasn’t featured in any other motion picture and wasn’t a star in the iconic 1960s TV show, despite being in existence at that time. Prey is often considered to be the crown jewel for this long-standing character, and for it to be influential enough to even be contemplated for inclusion in a comic book movie, it clearly has quite a reputation, but does the content of the book match the impressive cult following it has achieved over the years, or is it just another instance of the fandom grasping at straws?
Prey takes place early in Batman’s career. Outside of Jim Gordon, he finds himself a target of the police, has no allies to speak of, and hasn’t developed many of his most famous gadgets. Psychologist Hugo Strange is one of the leaders of the anti-Batman brigade, making appearances on midnight talk shows to attack him as just another deranged lunatic, armchair-diagnosing him and tarnishing his reputation among the inhabitants of Gotham. Strange’s plan has some bite to it too, as he, along with his extremely aggressive ally in the police force, do their best to sully Batman’s reputation in deed as well as perception. Strange has his companion dress up as the caped crusader as he executes a scheme to kidnap the mayor’s daughter, an event which turns the entire city against Batman and forces him to work against the clock to save her.
There is a mental aspect of the story that is just as entertaining as the race against time. It turns out that Strange’s barbs have hit home with Bruce, causing him to rethink his motivations and even question his sanity. It makes for a great bit of character development and a more interesting conflict, and it’s a great way to show that Strange has some potency without having him somehow beat Batman up. Alfred really shines here as the voice of sanity, though of course in the end it’s Bruce’s indomitable willpower and fanatical devotion to his cause that wins the day in a showing more impressive than all the fighting in this book combined.
Hugo Strange is an engaging, fresh, and completely enjoyable villain, while the segments focusing more on Batman do a decent job of expanding his story. There’s a lot to like here, as the script balances the grimmer moments with humor, dark and otherwise. Outside of a few more ham-fisted moments, this is Batman writing that is as strong as you’re likely to find. Doug Moench may not utilize the deeper meanings and symbolism that a writer like Grant Morrison does, but he is certainly capable of delivering an awesome batman story.
For as good as most of the story is, there are a few misfires. Catwoman shows up throughout the book and accomplishes basically nothing besides rocking an awful outfit straight out of the cheesiest ‘80s workout videos. Her inclusion feels like an editorial mandate of some sort, because she just doesn’t fit in this book in any way, and it doesn’t help that her portrayal is just about as one dimensional as possible.
The major selling point of Prey is the central antagonist, Hugo Strange. Strange has been around for a very long time, but this comic, published fifty-odd years after his debut, is often cited as his standout performance. And why not? This book showcases a villain unlike anything we’ve seen in a Batman book. His worship of Batman, his unrelenting jealousy, drives him to an incredibly bizarre place, and unlike most villains he has no greater ambitions or goals beyond usurping Batman’s mantle. Adding to the tragic air of this character is the fact that he doesn’t possess any martial skills and must rely on others to take down the man he loves/hates so much. Of course, that’s just the razor’s edge of his many neuroses, as his mannequin companion and kidnapping fetish reveal an even more depraved mind.
The man enlisted to do Strange’s fighting is a bit less iconic. Night Scourge is an interesting case study of a GCPD officer gone wrong, but otherwise fairly forgettable. He is pretty clearly intended to be little more than the brawn behind the operation, and the time we spend with him reveals a wholly one dimensional baddy with a colossal mean streak. Make no mistake, this is Strange’s book through and through, perhaps even more so than it is Batman’s.
Paul Gulacy is a familiar artist for fans of the Star Wars universe. He lent his pencilwork to the highly successful Crimson Empire trilogy. Surprisingly, his artwork hasn’t changed all that much in the twenty years separating Prey and Crimson Empire III. Expect to see some solid action, intricate settings, and sleek vehicles (the construction of the Batmobile plays a minor role in this book and Gulacy’s rendition of it is quite good.) His work showcasing the swordplay of the villainous Night Scourge is a clear prelude to his work depicting the members of the Imperial Guard in Crimson Empire. Scourge’s costume even looks somewhat similar to the training outfits that the guardsmen wear.
Unfortunately, anyone with knowledge of Gulacy’s work on Crimson Empire is also aware of his one fatal flaw- quite possibly the worst eyes ever depicted in the comic book medium. His faces are anywhere from mediocre to good, but when it comes to eyes something goes wrong and it leads to some absolutely hilarious panels in this book and most others he has worked on. This problem befalls Bruce quite a bit early on, as one scene’s poor facial construction makes him look like he is at least forty years older than he really is, while another gives him an utterly creepy gaze. Perhaps the most humorous use of Gulacy’s horrific eyes comes in the two cheesecake scenes this book presents. On two separate occasions, an (unnamed) woman is shown nude, with only creative posturing and framing preventing this book from entering R-rated territory. Gulacy draws their bodies decently, and it’s clearly intended to be eye candy, but it’s totally hamstrung by the poor faces and even worse eyes. There’s nothing appealing about a character who has misshapen eyes half the size of her head.
Another problem concerns the lettering. While most of the book has lettering that Is unobtrusive and perfectly acceptable, Prey makes use of a near-illegible cursive font to capture the inner thoughts of Bruce Wayne. Was this really necessary? Are we supposed to believe that Bruce is keeping a live-action journal of his experience, with this nearly impossible to decipher text lending authenticity to his musings? It’s gimmicky and more than somewhat pretentious, not to mention a huge eye-sore and time waster.
Prey is a worthy tale set early in the Batman timeline. Although the villain isn’t the most powerful, he’s certainly one of the most memorable and delightfully deranged, and with the addition of some solid character moments for Batman, awesome action, and the beginnings of the Batmobile, Prey probably shouldn’t be the first Batman book you read, but it’s a rock solid effort that will entertain the greater majority of fans.