Batman: Nine Lives is a DC Comics production from the Elseworlds line. Elseworlds takes superhero characters and tears them from their familiar continuity and places them in "what if" situations. This particular graphic novel presupposes that Bruce Wayne and his contemporaries are living their lives back in the 1940s (which is how it originally started anyway). The impetus of the storyline is the murder of the promiscuous, Kit Kat club manager Selina Kyle. Selina, it seems, has been privy to dangerous secrets, and her death results in a whirlwind of furious activity from the underworld denizens. Now, Batman must chase down treacherous clues and doggedly track down the killer. But even for the Caped Crusader, it won't be easy.
Batman - a down and dirty urban crimefighter - has always resided on the outskirts of the film noir genre. Only now, the creative talents have deliberately mined film noir in crafting this gritty pastiche. A profusion of dark colors are utilized, and much is drawn in shadow, to accentuate the bleak moods of the story, with the flashback sequences done in somber red/burnt umber tones. To quote writer Dean Motter: "Each page will be against a black surround to create the ambiance of a darkened movie theatre." Dean Motter and Michael Lark unfold a mystery that pays homage to film noir gems such as Out of the Past, D.O.A. and The Narrow Margin. The writing is accordingly lean and hardboiled, and the images are stark and stylishly, simplisticly rendered, somewhat recalling to mind the wonderful art of David Mazzucchelli from Batman: Year One. Other than Bats himself, there's nary a whiff of the superhero elements. This actually is more reminiscent of the Shadow and Spider pulp novels of yesteryear.
As in other Elseworlds offerings, some things are the same, some things are vastly different. Gotham is still steeped in corruption. Bruce Wayne is still the theatrical Darknight Detective - oh, maybe a bit more primitive in his crime-fighting methods and perhaps more focused and ruthless in his business empire dealings. Gordon is still Gotham's Police Commissioner. But, the rest of the cast are a tad off-key: here, Dick Grayson is an ex-cop turned private eye, with no sighting of Robin or Nightwing to be found. Barbara Gordon is his faithful girl friday; Selina Kyle, before her death, was a gone-to-seed club manager, who resorts to blackmail to maintain her lofty lifestyle; costumed villains such as the Penguin, the Joker, Mr. Freeze seem more like common thugs and gangsters. Killer Croc is a former circus freak now lurking in the sewer systems of Gotham.
The actually mystery itself isn't all that gripping, to be honest. Instead, the allure and fun of this graphic novel is in seeing these somewhat familiar characters doing their thing in this somewhat new 1940s backdrop. I get a particularly big kick out of our narrator, Grayson, as the somewhat mangy private dick. He is pretty much threatened and beat up for much of the story, yet he still presses on. Classic shamus behavior. Batman: Nine Lives is great, diverting stuff and is an ample tribute to the film noir genre.