As life during the pandemic rolls on, I’m seeing all sorts of stuff online about what a horrible drag it is for people to be ‘trapped’ at home.
Those people are clearly just not doing it right. By and large, we love being home.
After all, Julie and I are both still working, and doing so under frankly scary conditions. So home is the same refuge it’s always been.
For us, lockdown mostly just means spending more time in the home library. And there have been a number of new arrivals lately, virtually all of them comics collections. Part of them are pre-orders placed over a year ago, part of them have been remaindered super-cheap impulse buys, and a few of them were deliberate efforts to help prop up this or that indie bookselling concern. I thought I’d spend the next few weeks going through them and writing about them here.
Most of them are Batman books. Like I said a couple of weeks ago, I’m a Bat guy. So we’ll start with those. There are a lot of them, so chances are I’ll be spreading this out over a couple of weeks. They kind of came in a wave, which delighted my inner eleven-year-old in the same way that most kids react to Christmas morning. I hate Christmas but I love getting a huge pile of books in the mail. Check out this one day’s haul.
Some of these I’d read before but not for years; in some cases not since their first appearance on newsstands, decades ago. Apart from that, despite what some people say, I don’t read everything. So a lot of these were actually new to me, and I enjoyed the new stuff quite a bit more than I expected to.
Join me in the Batcave and I’ll give you the rundown.
Batman: Creature of the Night by Kurt Busiek and John Paul Leon.
This is the long-awaited follow-up story to Superman: Secret Identity that apparently got hung up for all sorts of reasons, both before it ever got on the schedule and then again when it was actually coming out. Fortunately, since my comics retailer packed it in a few years back and I became one of those filthy trade-waiting readers, none of that frustration entered my orbit at all. I just got to sit down and read it as a book. At my own pace. Like grownups do.
I said it was a follow-up to the Superman book, but not set in the same fictional continuity or anything like that. It’s only in the sense of the theme and premise– what if a DC superhero had to operate in the real world? Also it plays by the same rules– that is to say, it’s what’s known in science-fiction circles as a one-gimme story, where you get one fantasy element that you then have to place in as grounded a setting as possible and extrapolate outward from there. Think the monolith in 2001, or the time machine in Timeless. Like that.
In this case, it’s the Batman creature that somehow manifests as a function of young Bruce Wainwright’s desire to get revenge on the crooks who murdered his parents.
Which might sound good at first, but as Kurt Busiek ruthlessly extrapolates Bruce’s life from that point on, he shows us the ugly truth all of us Batman fans have taught ourselves to ignore– Batman would never actually work, it’s a terrible idea, and trying to live out that fantasy, no matter how noble your intentions, mostly just would change you into an awful person.
It’s a gripping story, and I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to tell you it’s a melancholy and ultimately tragic one. It’s stunningly crafted and the art from John Paul Leon makes every page a wonder just to look at.
It’s definitely not a feel-good kind of story and not even really a Batman book at the end of the day. But still very much recommended.
Batman: Universe by Brian Michael Bendis and Nick Derington.
This Batman book, on the other hand, is absolutely a feel-good story. It is frankly a romp. I wasn’t going to bother with it because I didn’t think Brian Bendis would be a good fit for Batman, honestly, but Mike Gillis over at Radio Vs. The Martians was so high on it that when I ran across the hardcover remaindered for pennies on the dollar, I thought oh why not? And I’m glad I did, because after the first couple of pages I was grinning like an idiot.
It starts as a simple story of Batman tracking down the Riddler but slowly spirals out into an intergalactic chase throughout space and time across the entirety of the DC Universe, with other heroes coming in and out of the story as needed, and Batman always the coolest guy in the group.
Really it almost feels like a huge multipart story from the animated Brave and the Bold television show, but even smarter and funnier… and the art from Nick Derington is incredibly kinetic and clever, as you can see with this dimension-crossing fistfight between Batman and Vandal Savage.
It was the perfect palate cleanser after Creature of the Night. Julie loved it too.
I’m in the tank for all the Tales of the Batman collections, especially the ones spotlighting writers. (The ones spotlighting artists I don’t enjoy as much because very often you only get partial stories, such as with the Gene Colan books.) But I was especially pleased to have these latest two featuring Marv Wolfman and Steve Englehart.
Englehart’s run with Marshall Rogers on Detective is legendary, of course, and DC’s been pretty good about keeping it in print in various collections. It’s often overlooked that it wasn’t Englehart’s first swing at writing Batman, though. That was “Night of the Stalker,” which he scripted over Sal Amendola’s plot and is the story that leads off the book.
(Quick aside– I bought this off the stands back in 1974 and to this day it’s one of my favorite Batman stories ever. I was utterly starstruck and delighted to have Mr. Amendola get in touch with me years later about the complimentary things I’d written about it. Our correspondence eventually led to me writing it up at length at the old stand.)
And of course that’s followed by the run with Marshall Rogers on Detective, which stood for a decade or so as “the definitive Batman.” I kind of wish it had stuck longer (Overwriting it with the Frank Miller version did a lot of lasting harm, honestly; it violates the basic rule of don’t-break-the-toys. With continuing characters someone’s always got to follow you, so don’t leave them a smoking pile of wreckage.) I think the Englehart/Rogers Detective is the peak of the Bronze Age Bat stuff, or at least tied with Archie Goodwin’s Detective, but going back and looking at it I realized that maybe if Englehart’s take on Batman himself didn’t last as the template, he certainly gave us a bunch of definitive Bat-VILLAINS. DC’s been going back to that well ever since.
Of course you have “The Laughing Fish,” a classic story which DC editorial is now required to include in every Joker collection ever.
But he also completely re-imagined Deadshot, a version that has stuck since it first hit newsstands back in 1976.
The irony is that the Deadshot story was basically an afterthought. Englehart only whipped it out because he ended up getting one more issue assigned than he thought he was going to. Originally it was going to segue directly from the Penguin to the Joker.
And my very favorite of the lot, Englehart’s revival of Hugo Strange. The only villain smart enough in the history of superheroes to yank off the hero’s mask as soon as you have the guy down.
Today, of course, all sorts of people seem to know Bruce Wayne is Batman– some days I think everyone in Gotham knows except for Commissioner Gordon and Harvey Bullock– but that was a big damn deal back then. To this day I think it stands as one of the five or six times reading comics I really felt like Batman was in serious danger.
Sadly, the rest of the book’s just not as good, though I still liked it. There were a couple of times Englehart tried to recapture the magic– notably reteaming with Rogers for Dark Detective, as well as a sort-of sequel to his “Laughing Fish” Joker story, “The Fishy Laugh,” where Aquaman gets involved. And there’s the three-part Riddler story with Dusty Abell, where Englehart tried to do for the Riddler what he did for the Joker and Hugo Strange and Deadshot, but it didn’t quite land. Pity.
Nevertheless, they’re not BAD stories by any means and it’s nice to have them all in one place.
(Another aside: I really, REALLY wish someone at DC would figure out how to make the Riddler work. I hate Tom King’s current take with the burning fury of a thousand suns. As far as I’m concerned the last really good Riddler story– you know, with actual puzzles that challenge Batman as well as the reader– was Doug Moench, here. At least he grasped that a Riddler story should be structured like a whodunit, planting clues that pay off and so on. Most writers are too lazy to try, any more.)
The Marv Wolfman book is another one that I was very much looking forward to because almost everything in it has never been collected before (I used to have the stuff in single issues but they got lost in a move back in the mid-1980s.) Wolfman himself is lukewarm about the work included here; he says he never really felt like he had a good handle on Batman. The main subplot is the return of Talia, daughter of Ra’s Al Ghul, and how that led to a rift between Batman and Robin.
This built up to a big climactic arc, “The Lazarus Affair,” one of the very few Ra’s al Ghul stories I really like that wasn’t from Denny O’Neil.
This first tenure on the book didn’t last long and Wolfman wasn’t able to really resolve the Batman-Robin quarrel until a little later, in the Titans-Outsiders crossover… also included here.
But even though Wolfman’s not that happy with the run, I liked it a lot, even though the art from Irv Novick was a bit of a letdown; he was not served well by his inkers here and it shows.
Still, I’m sentimental about these stories because it was this run, along with Wolfman and Perez on Titans, that brought me back to comics in the early 1980s after a hiatus of three years or so. I’d flip through them at the newsstand, while waiting to catch my bus home from a really shitty job. Finally caved and started actually buying them again a few months later. Anyway, it’s nice to have these stories all here again, and since it’s volume one and it concludes with the 1990s “Batman: Year Three,” I’m assuming the second Wolfman run that introduced Tim Drake is on deck. Certainly I’ll be in for that one too.
Best for last. No, really.
I’m dead serious. Off all the books I’ve talked about in this column, Batman: Detective Comics Vol. 3: Greetings from Gotham from writer Peter Tomasi and a variety of artists, is the one that I enjoyed the most. It just made me happy.
Tomasi never seems to get any of the fan worship, but for my money he deserves every bit as much praise– more, really, as far as I’m concerned– as Tom King has been getting for his Batman work. Here’s why. Unlike King– and Scott Snyder before him– Peter Tomasi seems to grasp that his brief is not to ‘re-imagine’ one of DC’s signature characters or rewrite the origin or anything like that. He’s just supposed to write good Batman stories.
Which is all I want.
It really is possible to do this without Big Event bullshit. Tomasi’s Detective is wonderfully self-contained, and he understands that you can have a great time just playing with the toys in the box without wrecking everything in the room doing it. His story where the Spectre asks Batman to help him track down a missing Jim Corrigan was a clever twisty horror-mystery. The one where Deadshot crashes a plane full of business types, including Bruce Wayne, on a Pacific island where Bruce has to figure out how to take him down and protect the other passengers without giving away his secrets is the kind of cool premise that almost writes itself, and showcases the smart, tactical thinker Batman is supposed to be but hardly ever gets to be any more. The two aged survivors of World War Two that Bruce finds living on the island, and ends up allying with to rescue the other passengers, were wonderful, and they also gave the story a title that made me laugh out loud.
But the one I adored was the Joker story. Simple and straightforward: the Joker has taken a carnival hostage and put explosive collars on all the people there, because he wants Batman to come and play his game. Nobody gets any faces sawed off, there’s none of the I’m-your-dark-mirror crap that’s polluted every Joker story for the last fifteen years. The Joker just wants to screw with Batman because he thinks it’s funny. Here are the two pages where Tomasi just nails it.
And these two. I suppose this counts as spoilers but I don’t care. When Batman pulls out the win.
Tomasi is just ticking all my boxes here. Smart Batman, evil villains, real stakes, clever variations on old standbys that don’t feel tired. Everyone’s in character, it’s never dull, and I can read a single issue and feel like I actually had a complete reading experience.
Come to think of it, Tomasi might be my favorite writer working at DC right now. I loved his Green Lantern Corps, I loved his Batman and Robin, and I especially loved his Super-Sons… but I think this run on Detective may be his best yet.
Well, this is getting a little long, so I think I’ll stop here. Back next week with another big pile of Bat-books, and in the meantime, don’t forgeet your mask if you MUST go out. And for God’s sake wash your hands.