Hi, and welcome to Comics You Should Own, a semi-regular series about comics I think you should own. I began writing these a little over fifteen years ago, and I’m still doing it, because I dig writing long-form essays about comics. I republished my early posts, which I originally wrote on my personal blog, at Comics Should Be Good about ten years ago, but since their redesign, most of the images have been lost, so I figured it was about time I published these a third time, here on our new blog. I plan on keeping them exactly the same, which is why my references might be a bit out of date and, early on, I don’t write about art as much as I do now. But I hope you enjoy these, and if you’ve never read them before, I hope they give you something to read that you might have missed. I’m planning on doing these once a week until I have all the old ones here at the blog. Today it’s time for the short but amazing Barr/Davis run on Detective Comics. This post was originally published sometime in early 2006. As always, you can click on the images to see them better. Enjoy!
Detective Comics by Mike W. Barr (writer), Alan Davis (penciller), Terry Beatty (penciller, issue #572), Carmine Infantino (penciller, issue #572), E. R. Cruz (artist, issue #572), Paul Neary (inker), Dick Giordano (inker, issue #572), Al Vey (inker, issue #572), Adrienne Roy (colorist), John Workman (letterer, issues #569-572), Todd Klein (letterer, issue #572), Romeo Francisco (letterer, issue #572), and Richard Starkings (letterer, issue #573).
Published by DC, 6 issues (#569-574), cover dated December 1986 – May 1987.
Look upon the first cover of the Barr/Davis/Neary Detective Comics run. Batman is in the forefront, glaring back angrily at the Joker, who holds an unconscious Catwoman in his arms. Batman kneels over Robin, who is wrapped in something sticky and gazing wide-eyed at the reader, obviously in some distress. Robin and Batman crouch on one playing card, while the Joker stands on another. Several Joker cards swirl around them. The sheer genius of this cover is breathtaking, and it signals the absolute thrilling issues that are to come, certainly some of the best Batman comics of the past 35 years.
My love for Alan Davis should be well-known by now, and I have written about a Mike W. Barr-penned book in this column as well. The fact that both of them (ably abetted by Neary’s marvelous inks) were linked on Detective is a wonderful moment of comics synergy, and the fact that Davis left the book somewhat prematurely is a shame. They worked on only seven issues together, but they created comics that we can still read and love, for the sheer joy of the medium. (Issue #575 was their last collaboration, but as it was the first part of “Year Two” and that story is only intermittently decent, it doesn’t get a mention here.) Barr, like Steve Englehart in my last column, understood that even though Batman’s past can be goofy, there was no reason a smart writer couldn’t incorporate it into a modern, more gritty tale of our favorite Dark Knight.
Barr throws Batman and Catwoman right into the wringer. These issues were coming on the heels of Doug Moench’s first run at Batman, one in which he wrote both titles for a few years and turned Batman into a long-running soap opera, with plenty of love interests (from Nocturna to Julia Pennyworth to Vicki Vale and finally Selina) and a lot of crossing over between the two books. Denny O’Neil must have had enough of this, because he brought on Barr and Davis to revamp Detective while allowing Frank Miller to tear down Batman and rebuild his origin in “Year One,” which came out about the same time as this. “Year One” gets all the press, but what Barr and Davis did with Batman is much more entertaining. In issues #569-570, Barr takes Selina and turns her back into a villain. The Joker steals a catscan machine, and the evil Dr. Moon recalibrates it so that it, in his words, “enable[s] one to ‘reprogram’ a patient’s mind, if you will, as though it were a computer.” That dastardly Dr. Moon! No hero would ever do something like that! [Edit: Obviously, I wrote this around the time Identity Crisis came out.]
The plan works, of course, and Selina goes back to being the villain we all know and love. I’m not terribly sure if the story was ordered by DC editorial mandate or if Barr himself was sick of Selina making goo-goo eyes with Bruce, but the story works well because the Joker is nicely maniacal and Selina is done well, both as a good girl and a bad one. Barr understands that even when she was good, there was still a lot about her that was evil (much like cats themselves, actually), and of course, Davis drawing her helps immensely. This is a nice use of the Joker, too, because he doesn’t actually kill anyone, and he has an evil plan that doesn’t involve slaughtering hundreds of people. He just wants Selina back to being evil, and he succeeds – even though he does get captured in the end after contributing to a happy ending, which depresses him to no end.
With just two issues, Barr showed that he understood the characters he was writing and that he was easily able to make them in turns light-hearted and gritty. Batman isn’t a lonely avenger of justice who is more than a little obsessed. Barr gives us one of the funniest Batman jokes ever: When the Dynamic Duo finds out that the Joker is planning on robbing the public library, Robin says “Holy Gutenberg! Let’s go!” Batman stops him and, very sternly, says “Never do that again!” Robin is suitably perplexed, but the readers are laughing at the nod toward the old television show. Barr shows us that Batman cares very much about Selina and even more about Jason. When Jason is trapped in the Chinese finger torture goop that we see on the cover of issue #569, Batman must figure out how to get out of it while ignoring the pleas of Jason at his side. Later, when Jason is shot by the Mad Hatter, Batman is almost overcome with grief, and this leads to issue #574, which tweaks Batman’s origin slightly but also shows us how much he cares for Jason. Barr does very well with Jason as well, giving us a young boy who doesn’t quite know how to be Robin but throws himself into the action with abandon and enthusiasm. He’s very naïve, as twelve-year-olds are, but Batman guides him through the perils of Gotham City like a father. In a wonderful scene at the beginning of issue #570, Batman leaves Robin in the front of a bar while he speaks to someone in the back. Robin orders milk, and a hooker, Rhonda, backs him up by ordering one herself. Later, Robin asks Batman if Rhonda is a … and before he can voice the word, Batman says, “She’s a lady, chum.” Yes, he calls Jason “chum.” It’s nice exchanges like this that show us the connection between Batman and Robin and why they can be a great team in the hands of a good writer.
This brief run is steeped in the Silver Age, but Barr, like Englehart before him, understood how to bring these concepts into the modern age without making them silly and while still telling gripping stories with more weight than those of the 1950s. The Joker is gleefully insane, while his favorite henchman dresses like a clown in one scene and Rambo in another. Even though Straight Line (the henchman) is also nuts, he is as devilish as the Joker. Dr. Moon uses a classic Silver Age scheme to “change Selina’s mind,” but it’s tinged with a modern creepiness and subtext – this is an almost sexual violation of Selina, and although Barr doesn’t come out and call it rape, we can easily make the connection. The Scarecrow, who is wonderfully twisted in issue #571, comes up with a chemical that removes fear from the brain, and he uses it on Batman and sends him through an elaborate death trap, much like villains did in the 1950s. Finally, the Mad Hatter continues to use hat themes in his crimes, but in an inventive way, and we get a much weirder and deadlier Jervis Tetch than we’ve seen before. [Edit: I guess this is the “imposter” Mad Hatter, not the real one, but for the purposes of this story it matters not a whit.] In issue #570, Batman punches out a bodyguard by telling him first that his shoelaces are untied, but when that doesn’t work, Bats says that his own shoelaces are untied, which works. In the same issue, the Joker has set up shop in a novelties factory, which allows Robin to kick huge billiard balls around at the bad guys. All of these touches are distinctly Silver Age, but Barr has updated them wonderfully and inserts them easily into the story.
However, because it’s the 1980s Batman, everything is not all cheery. Selina becomes a bad guy, Batman beats the Joker severely because of it, the Mad Hatter shoots Robin, and Leslie Tompkins berates Bruce while Jason is fighting for his life. The Scarecrow story is particularly interesting because Crane kidnaps Jason and makes Batman run through his death trap without any common sense. Batman, however, overcomes this by thinking of the worst fear he can conceive. He never tells Jason what it is, but as they walk away, we see a gravestone with Jason’s name on it. This is all part of Barr making Batman more of a father figure, and it segues easily into issue #574, when Leslie and Bruce debate turning Jason into Robin and why Bruce became Batman in the first place. Barr’s “new origin” doesn’t change too much, except that Bruce kept the gun that killed his parents (which is simply there so it can be important during “Year Two”) and that he could never allow Bruce Wayne to be too interested in knowledge, so he disguised himself in college. One thing it does, however, is let us know how lonely Bruce was during the years following his parents’ death, even though he had Alfred and Leslie, and how he does not want anyone to go through that. This is something we’ve always suspected about Bruce, but it’s rarely touched on. Why does he take in these kids and train them like he does? It’s not so they can avenge their parents’ deaths, it’s so Bruce can give them a “family structure” (such as it is) that he lacked. It’s a nice glimpse into Bruce’s character that we don’t often see. Usually it’s the death of his parents and the weird avenger of the night, but not much else in terms of psychological insight. Barr deepens Batman’s character with very little effort, and it adds a great deal to the story.
The homage to the Silver Age and even the Golden Age reaches its apex with issue #572, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of Detective Comics #1 from 1937. As Barr explains on the inside front cover, Batman is the most famous hero to appear in the comic, but he wasn’t always the main star. Therefore, Barr reaches back to the past and brings us Slam Bradley, who, a few years ago, enjoyed a Renaissance in the pages of Catwoman [Edit: Obviously, longer than a few years ago now] but at this time was in the dustbin of comics. Ralph Dibny shows up, which is nice, and they all join up to solve a mystery that has its roots in Sherlock Holmes – 1987 being the 100th anniversary of the first Holmes story. Holmes himself appears at the end, and although the story is slight on its own, Barr again shows us how good he is at characterization – Jason tries to show Slam that he’s worthy of Slam’s respect, and Batman is humbled when he meets Holmes. Little touches like this help humanize Batman and make his relationship with Jason even more powerful.
Although Barr’s writing is superb, Davis’s art elevates the stories to true greatness, because Davis is able to translate Barr’s scripts into a beautiful reality filled with the details that Davis is famous for. It begins with the wonderful cover to #569, which shows everything that happens in the book with great clarity while still remaining a powerful image. Davis brings back splash pages at the beginning of the books that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the story – in issue #571, he shows the Scarecrow in what appears to be an apothecary’s shop mixing all sorts of potions while Batman and Robin swoop down on him; #572 shows Batman and Robin, the Elongated Man, and Slam Bradley crouching on an open copy of the Doomsday book while Sherlock Holmes, in profile, hovers behind them; and #573 has Jervis Tetch escaping from the Dynamic Duo while he brings down hundreds of hats on top of them. These pages add just that touch of Silver Age to the stories, and because Barr is so economical in telling the story, they don’t feel like wasted pages. Davis also does wonders with the characters. These few issues have more panels of Batman smiling than probably any since O’Neil and Adams turned him back into a grim avenger. That’s not to say they are all mirthful smiles – it’s Batman, after all – but some of them are, and it’s nice to see. He smiles when he has fooled the bad guys and is about to pounce. He smiles when he sees Rhonda – this Batman has a soft spot for the prostitutes in his town. He smiles when he’s threatening Profile, who is an “information broker” in Gotham’s underworld. When Jonathan Crane doses him with the gas that takes away his common sense, he smiles as he runs through the Scarecrow’s death traps, which is the most unnerving use of his smile, because he’s not thinking clearly. Davis is brilliant at showing both the arrogance of a Batman who knows he’s the best and the joy of a Batman who is teaching a young boy how to be a man. Davis draws Jason like a twelve-year-old, too, and his Batman is muscular but not bulky, while his Joker is creepy and angular – some letters complained about his ridiculously long legs, but Davis is showing him as a contrast to Batman and it’s not meant to be too realistic. Selina, like all of Davis’ women, is beautiful and sexy, and his Scarecrow is disjointed and jerky, like a puppet with its strings cut. This is Davis’ book as much as it is Barr’s and the two have a wonderful relationship that makes these comics both action-filled, tragic, yet gloriously hopeful as well, which we don’t see too often anymore in Batman books. Even though Selina returns to the dark side, in the process a young girl in a catatonic stupor wakes up, and even though Jason gets shot by the Mad Hatter, he comes through stronger and more ready to beat up the bad guys.
This homage to the Silver Age couldn’t last, of course, and Davis left the book (presumably to work on X-Men and Excalibur, although my dates could be off) and Barr wrote “Year Two,” about which we probably should leave well enough alone. Even though the Barr/Davis/Neary team didn’t last long, they left an indelible impression on the character. And their departure allowed DC to assign a new team to the book, one that is the subject of my next column. So it all worked out for the best. I’ve been looking around, but it does not appear that these issues have been collected in a trade paperback, which is a shame [Edit: Yes, this continues DC’s horrible policy about not reprinting 1980s and early 1990s comics because of reprint rights and such. Sweet Fancy Moses, they’re cheap!]. Dig through the long boxes next time you’re wondering if there are any good Batman books out there that you might have missed!
Will the archives’ reconstruction be completed soon? No, but I’m working on it!
[Hey, look, I actually wrote a little about the artwork! Huzzah! And I shouldn’t have been that cruel to “Year Two” – it’s not great, but McFarlane drawing Batman (and his cape!) will never not be entertaining. These issues did eventually get collected in a nice hardcover (along with some other issues), which I linked to below, but it’s probably pretty easy to find them in single issues, if that’s you’re jam. These are terrific comics, and it’s still too bad this team didn’t do a lot more Caped Crusader stories.]