Quarantined in the Batcave

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

14 Comments

  1. Greg Burgas

    Couple o’ things: Is that Creature of the Night the hardcover, and when did you order it? I don’t think it’s been in Previews, because I’ve been waiting for the trade. I saw an issue come out not too long ago, and I guess it was the final one, but I’m jealous that you got the trade. I like to get it through my comic book store, so I hope Previews offers it soon!

    “Dark Knight, Dark City” is a good Riddler story, mainly because everyone is weirded out by how un-Riddler he’s acting. The Gaiman origin story is terrific, but of course he doesn’t commit any crimes in that one. I like how Dini turned him into a P.I. and I wish he still were; his fatal flaw is that he thinks he can outwit Batman, but if he got over that, he could easily be a great detective. I’ve mentioned before, but when I’m a world-famous comic book writer, I’m going to pitch a Riddler, P.I. title to DC. It will rule!

    1. It is indeed the hardcover; I ordered it from a dealer through Amazon about three weeks ago and it got here last week.

      I dunno, maybe I’m not putting it across. I want the ACTUAL Riddler. I don’t want stories where he’s not acting like himself, I don’t want stories where he USED to be the Riddler (although Dini’s idea was interesting, I didn’t love it as much as you)… I want the Riddler to be the guy that really IS smarter than Batman, or at least his equal. We almost never get to see him. Really what I want is stuff like the Englehart/Rogers “Malay Penguin,” which would have been close to my platonic ideal of a Riddler plot except that it was actually starring the Penguin. They give the Riddler’s schtick of taunting Batman with clues away to other villains who already have their own thing, then they can’t figure out what to do with the Riddler.

      This is kind of tied up with my larger pet peeve, which is that the World’s Greatest Detective seldom if ever uses evidence, clues, or deductive reasoning to catch bad guys. There ought to be actual mysteries in the regular Bat rotation.

      1. Greg Burgas

        Good to know about the book. I hope the softcover gets offered soon!

        Yeah, I get it, I was just spitballing a little, especially because I can’t even think of a good Riddler story like you’re talking about in … forever? You know I agree with you about Batman actually being a detective, and I would love a story about the Riddler outsmarting him or at least almost outsmarting him (obviously Bats would get him in the end). I keep hearing King sort of turned him into the Joker, which makes me so very, very angry. Grrr.

  2. Edo Bosnar

    I didn’t even know about Creature of the Night. A Busiek Bat-story in the style of Secret Identity? I’m in.
    And I can’t believe you’ve got me interested in reading a Bendis story.
    Otherwise, I’ve been hearing a lot of good things about Tomasi recently; one of the hosts of a comic podcast episode I was listening to last year (forget which one, but it was from the Fire & Water network) was really touting a Superman story by Tomasi set on Dinosaur Island. How does he compare to another writer whose work I’ve discovered relatively recently – Jeff Parker?
    So, great. More stuff I’ll end up putting on my want list.

    By the way, I totally agree about Dark Detective. I was so excited many years ago when I scored a super-cheap copy of the tpb on eBay and then when I started reading, I remember thinking, ‘When is this going to get good?’ Even the art was disappointing – somehow flat, in contrast to the original run on Dectective, when it seemed to just jump off of the page…

  3. Jeff Nettleton

    Part of why I fell out of reading a large swath of superhero titles was that none of used their brains anymore. I think it is more than just lazy writers and editors; it’s symptomatic of the dumbing down of adventure stories in this country, in favor of big scenes of explosions. Comics followed the same trends as movies and tv and even books. Why write clever when I can write stuff that blows up (real good)? Sad to think that the old SCTV Farm Film Report was spot on about what the audience will settle for.

    I miss heroes that use the lump of feces above their shoulders. James Robinson got it, with Starman, which was the last series I followed regularly. He even brought us back Adam Strange, who used his knowledge of science to solve problems and employ technology, while helping defend Opal City from Culp.

    A recent poll on the Classic Comics Forum asked about the best Superman story and I opted for the unlisted Superman novels, from Elliott S! Maggin. That is a real thinking man’s hero. Superman has the tremendous power; but, Maggin got into the strategy of how he employs specific powers to solve problems, which often come in multiples. For instance, in the first novel, Last Son of Krypton, Luthor sends a squad of men to rob a series of banks, from the air. Superman must deal with attacks at multiple locations and also see that no one gets hurt. He disables their rotor packs and drops them on rooftops, then fuses the lock to the roof access so they can’t get down. Others he disables, then calculates how long it will take them to fall, while he sets up his cape as a net, collecting several. He works out the sequence to take them out with minimum casualties. In another sequence (in Miracle Monday, I believe) he faces a tidal wave. He dives into the wave at high speed to create a vaccum, to suck back some of the volume. He blasts a trench into the ocean floor to cause a further part of the volume to divert. Then, he uses his heat vision to vaporize a portion of the wave, creating vapor clouds, which he then uses his breath to direct towards a drought area, where the subsequent rain will aid conditions. He can’t eliminate the entire wave; but, he reduces the total volume enough for it to be manageable. That’s a thinking man’s Superman.

  4. Tom King’s Riddler is godawful (vented about it here: https://frasersherman.com/2018/03/28/why-didnt-they-shoot-him-the-war-of-jokes-and-riddles/). The reductio ad absurdum of “every great Batman villain has to be a murderous sociopath.” Riddler PI at least gets us away from that.
    I hated Moench’s run so I doubt his Riddler would be any different.
    How did I miss that Englehart wrote “Night of the Stalker” which was indeed a great piece of work?
    While I wasn’t a big fan of Brubaker’s Kill or Be Killed, I did like the protagonist’s difficulties in being a vigilante killer in the real world (how do you find people to kill, for instance?).

  5. Swario

    I’m with you regarding Tomasi. I haven’t thought about who my favourite DC writer (or Marvel writer) is mostly because none of their flagship titles have impressed me in a long while. I don’t read many superhero comics anymore because so much of it tries so hard to do things I don’t care about.

    I’ve lamented the absence of good Batman comics in recent years and this post was perfect for me. The Library has a bunch of these and I know how i’ll be spending my evening. Thanks for the recommendations.

  6. Peter

    For current Batman stories, I enjoyed Creature of the Night and I thought that Universe was supremely fun – incredible art and the best Bendis writing I’ve seen in years. I haven’t heard that much about Tomasi’s Detective run, but I just saw it was available from my library’s e-Book program. It sounds like it’s up my alley! It’s refreshing to read a nice self-contained superhero yarn once in a while that just worries about being a good story.

  7. MATTHEW OHARA

    DETECTIVE COMICS #140 is Riddler’s first appearance and origin by Bill Finger and Dick Sprang. It sets up something that I think is lost in his later stories. The Riddler isn’t that smart, but it’s very important to him that everyone believes he is (and he’s very good at cheating). Much more unique than portraying him as a super-genius in a battle of wits with Batman. Much harder to pull off, too.

  8. jccalhoun

    I’ve never been a fan of Batman. I was just more into Superman. I checked out the Batman: Black Mirror trade electronically from my library. I was surprised that it was actually kind of a mystery. But the (re?)introduction of Jim Gordon’s son was just too grim-dark and cliched for my tastes. I think right now with all the Coronavirus stuff going on, I’m not in the mood for anything with a dark underbelly.

  9. conrad1970

    Man, I love those Tales of the Batman books.
    Will have to keep watch for a cheap copy of the Wolfman tpb as I don’t have that one yet.
    The Legends of the Dark Knight series that featured Jim Aparo and Norm Breyfogle’s work are amazing as well.

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