Monday, June 1, 2020

Batman in the 1980s Issue 3: March 1980

The Dark Knight in the 1980s
by Jack Seabrook &
Peter Enfantino

Batman #321

"Dreadful Birthday, Dear Joker...!"
Story by Len Wein
Art by Walt Simonson & Dick Giordano

Commissioner Gordon receives an invitation to the Joker's birthday party and the Joker himself is not far behind, flooding Police Headquarters with laughing gas and kidnapping the commissioner right under Batman's nose. It turns out that the Clown Prince has also kidnapped Robin and, that evening, he breaks into Bruce Wayne's penthouse and spirits away Selina Kyle and Alfred the butler.

At the Joker's Ha-Hacienda, he has his four victims tied to a Victim-Go-Round, which will facilitate his eliminating them all on his birthday the following day. Placing an ad in the paper promising free samples, the Joker attracts a huge crowd to Gotham's coliseum where, the next evening, he paralyzes the crowd with gas and begins his celebration. "Dreadful Birthday, Dear Joker...!" is an appropriate salutation for the nut who displays his enemies tied to giant candles on an oversized cake, ready to be ignited and burned to a crisp.

Enter the Caped Crusader, who volunteers to stand in for the others and finds himself tied up as well by the double-crossing fiend. Batman manages to escape and rescues the others in the nick of time by means of a well-thrown Batarang that cuts the fuses; he chases the Joker to the docks, where an attempted escape by boat ends in a conflagration. Is this the end of the Joker?

JS: Thank goodness it isn't! I thoroughly enjoyed this story, which zips along at a rapid clip and which features delightful artwork by two of my favorite Bat-artists. The Joker's elongated face shows the influence of Irv Novick's work in the 1970s, but Len Wein's decision to revive many of the fun Batman elements from the mid-'60s Bat-Mania days just adds to the story's entertainment value.

PE: It may just be that I love the character so much but it seems as though any funny book story is lifted into another realm of quality when it co-stars the Clown Prince of Crime. "Dreadful Birthday..." is entirely enjoyable (though I do have to ask why Batman bothered breaking into Joker's party, only to zip away on his rocket), one of the best Batman adventures I've read in years. The Walt Simonson-Dick Giordano art is fantastic, but then most everything Simonson touches turns to gold. Could we just have a 12-part Joker saga now instead of all these one-and-dones?

The Brave and the Bold #160

"The Brimstone Connection"
Story by Cary Burkett
Art by Jim Aparo

Returning home from his nightly vigil, Batman rescues a man who has been thrown through the window of a high building. Before he dies, the man tells Batman that he's a government agent and that he was tracking the path of the formula for an experimental rocket fuel. It was being sent through Gotham City in four parts along a secret route and the man makes a cryptic reference to "The Brimstone Connection."

Not finding any clues, Bruce Wayne is flummoxed until Linda Danvers bursts into his office to ask for his help in locating her foster father, who has been kidnapped. Bruce's ears perk up when she mentions that her Dad was working on a rocket fuel formula. A caramel apple's core left in the wastebasket of Supergirl's foster father leads Batman to a cheap hood named Casbeer and the duo track down the crook at his arcade. They find a map with clues to the rocket fuel's route and Batman realizes that brimstone is an old term for sulphur, leading to the assumption that the villainous Colonel Sulphur is behind the theft!

Supergirl just read our review of this issue.
Tracking Sulphur to an abandoned arms factory, Batman is captured and tied up in a booby trap with Fred Danvers (Supergirl's foster father) but, of course, the Dark Knight saves himself and the scientist. Supergirl foils Sulphur's escape by submarine, ensuring that both her foster father and the secret formula are safe.

JS: The cover boasts: "Together Again--The Team You Demanded!" but I have to wonder who was demanding this team-up. As Peter understands, "girl" comics were not very appealing in the 1970s to us boys, and Supergirl was particularly troubling--she could be super-attractive but also super-dull. I remember the ten-issue run of her series in the early years of that decade to be particularly boring. In this story, she doesn't serve much of a purpose beyond making up the other half of this month's team-up. Aparo doesn't seem to have a good handle on how to draw her, either; his Batman is great, as are his male crooks, but his Supergirl is not one of his better efforts. I know that Supergirl will become a much better character later on (see Crisis on Infinite Earths) and I liked the first season of her current TV show, but as of 1980, she was not a great partner for Batman.

PE: A police profile that spotlights a "penchant for caramel apples" and a criminal so stupid he'd leave one at the scene of a kidnapping? A goon that talks smack to a girl with a big yellow "S" across her bust? Batman connects the words "brimstone" and "sulphur," ergo the bad guy involved must be Colonel Sulphur, a 6th-tier baddie Bats hasn't faced since 1973! Sounds like a 1980 DC script to me. To be fair, Supergirl is not a character I've ever warmed up to (nor do I have a soft spot for Aqualad, Kid Flash, or Atom Boy); I'd just as soon Bats team up with a character a little more in his range like Ra's or next issue's Adam Strange. At least Jim Aparo is on board to make things look shiny.

Detective Comics #488

"The Spook's Death Sentence for Batman"
Story by Cary Burkett
Art by Don Newton & Dan Adkins

When convicted murderer and terrorist Simon Thatcher writes a best-selling memoir from death row, his publishers decide they just have to have a sequel. But, with Thatcher to be executed the very next night, it seems unlikely. Enter... the Spook, who guarantees to break Thatcher out of Gotham Penitentiary for a high price. Luckily, the Spook himself designed the prison and knows where all the nooks and crannies are. As a diversion, the criminal mastermind incites a prison riot and Batman comes to the rescue. While the guards are all standing around soaking up Batman's atmosphere and sheer physical prowess, the Spook unleashes his Hypno-Ray on the men and, suddenly, they see the Caped Crusader as Simon Thatcher.

Quicker than you can say "false imprisonment," Bats is thrown into a cell and told to wait for his execution. Stymied, the Dark Knight can think of only one man to get him out of his bind: Commissioner Gordon! The prison guard allows Bats one phone call. Unfortunately, Gordon picks that time to have a heart attack and so cannot rescue his super friend. When the Spook pays a visit to Bats' cell to gloat, Batman uses some crafty subterfuge to escape the prison and head to Gordon's house. Together, the two figure out the shady characters behind Thatcher's breakout and Batman lowers the boom on the publishing world: no sequel. Turns out, Thatcher was never pulled from the Pen but rather moved to another cell until he could be safely extracted. The Spook is apprehended and sent to Gotham Pen to "cool his heels in Thatcher's old cell!"

PE: "The Spook's Death Sentence for Batman" has to be one of the dumbest, most confusing, and confounding Bats adventures I've read since the Frank Robbins days. This could be the only piece of fiction that features the deadly triad of literary agent, ghost writer, and publisher. How about Gordon's heart attack? It was the Spook impersonating Gordon! Bats finds Gordon tied up in his living room and comes up with some cockamamie hypothesis about the Spook slowing his own heart rate down at the hospital and then escaping when no one's looking. Why the hell would he bother doing that? Wouldn't that send up a red flag? Hello, Commissioner Gordon just ran out of the ER after nearly dying! Why not just conk Gordon on the head and ignore the phone when Batman rings? Better yet, move on to the next exciting adventure in this issue.... um, well...

Then there's the Spook himself (last seen in Batman #304). Every action of this villain is based on preposterous coincidences and devices (just like the similar Gentleman Ghost). His disappearing act is only explained when it's convenient to the plot (such as when he visits Bats in his cell and it's revealed that the Spook has actually slipped an inflatable balloon in through a cell window and the thing floats right over to the correct spot and starts speaking) and the powers of the Hypno-Ray are equally questionable. Is there a dial-the-villain setting that allows for people to see what he wants them to see? And are the only victims of the Ray those who were present when the beam caught their eyes (brain?). If so, how would the Spook pull off Bats' execution when none of the witnesses were in the yard when the Ray went off? I'm still enjoying the art of Newton and Adkins. It's edgy at a time when DC was playing it safe; reminds me of the work of Val Mayerik.

JS: What intrigued me most was that, for the second time this month, we see Selina Kyle lounging around Bruce Wayne's pad and this time there is a reference to her being the former Catwoman. How long till that wears off and she's back in the game? As for the Spook, does he advertise in the Yellow Pages? How do crooks know they can just up and hire him to do their dirty work? And what a coincidence! The Spook is hired to bust a guy out of a prison he just happened to have designed. Good thing the bad guy didn't hire the Riddler! I thought it was clever to have Batman trade places with the convict but the Spook's powers overall seem far-fetched.

"The Last Duty!"
Story by Denny O'Neil
Art by Johnny Craig

It's "The Last Duty!" for veteran Gotham subway cop, Clem Schenectady, and he imagines it will be just as uneventful as the previous 9,000 days in the underground. Boy, is he wrong! A spy nabs a boatload of top secret papers from the U.N. (don't they have a locker room for that stuff?) and he's riding Clem's train. It's up to our hero, who grew up idolizing Sherlock Holmes, to figure out which of the passengers is the crook.

PE: Lightweight fare, again, from Denny, "The Last Duty!" is the first in a series of "Tales of Gotham City" shorts highlighting everyday characters from Gotham. I assume everyone in Gotham is named so subtly, so we'll look forward to the adventures of trash man Bobby Tribeca, pizza deliver girl Susie Brooklyn, and sympathetic dope dealer Paco Manhattan. The reveal is so confusing, I had to reread it a couple times and then asked myself, "Why bother?" "Tales of Gotham City" will run steadily until Detective reverts back to normal size. The most jarring aspect of the tale is not that Denny once wrote the best Batman stories on the planet but that Johnny Craig has wasted away to what could best be described as a 1980s Jack Kamen. This work bears no resemblance to the classic stuff he pumped out for EC and Warren; it's lazy and flat.

JS: Peter! How could you? This was my favorite story in the issue and, based on about five minutes with the Grand Comics Database, it is very nearly the last new story Johnny Craig ever drew. I thought the story was a delightful character piece and Craig still knows how to tell a good tale.

"The Leader of the Dark Lords"
Story by Jack C. Harris
Art by Jose Delbo & Frank Chiaramonte

Babs Gordon is having a hard time keeping her mind on her political career when her alter ego, the "Daughter of Darkness," Batgirl, keeps swinging into bad situations. This time out, the Cowled Coquette must come between two warring street gangs, hell-bent on wiping each other out. Can Babs/Bats head off a major brawl and make the streets peaceful again?

PE: "The Leader of the Dark Lords," like "The Last Duty," is typical, pedestrian comic book storytelling; just enough to fill pages with nothing extra on the bone. All that can be salvaged from the strip is Batgirl's final monologue to the gang members, delivered as if by a congresswoman. That's a nice touch by scripter Jack Harris, but I'm not sure two-syllable-plus words won't be wasted on these thugs. Doubtless this storyline is brought on by the phenomenal success of Walter Hill's The Warriors, which captured America's eye and brought the JD gangs back into a popularity they hadn't enjoyed since the early 1960s. Again, Batgirl's segment in Detective seems to be the only series that embraces continuity.

JS: I did not even think of The Warriors, but you're right! Now I won't be able to get "Warriors! Come out to play!" out of my head for the next day or two. I thought the interactions between Barbara Gordon and her father, Commissioner Gordon, were more interesting than the murder mystery involving the street gangs, and the overarching story arc is promising.

"Minus One Miracle Car!"
Story by Mike W. Barr
Art by Eduardo Barretto & Joe Giella

Ralph Dibny is enjoying a rare day off from crime-fighting as the Elongated Man by taking in a test performance of a brand new, dynamite "miracle car" that runs on fuel made from garbage (I assume bundles of 'tec #488 might have found their way into its system). Of course, no day is complete without someone committing a crime in front of the E-Man and the test car is stolen right out from under the manufacturers' noses. It's up to Elongated Man to slide into spots Batman couldn't, to squeeze into soda machine slots Superman would have problems with, and to lie flatter than a pancake, something Wonder Woman could never do! In the end, a very complicated plot is unraveled to a legion of readers who fell asleep on the second page.

PE: Unless I've missed something in my notes, this is the first new E-Man story to come our way since Detective #444 way back in 1975. The strip was handled by Barr and artist Ernie Chan at the time and I must say that, though I wasn't exactly floored, the previous installment is head and shoulders above this tripe. Barretto & Giella have that same pablum sheen so many artists brought to the DC Universe in the '70s and '80s. There's not one bit of unique style here; most of the art looks unfinished (and if it's not unfinished, that's an even worse scenario) but, good news is this is a one-and-done. I love how the crooks let "Hey, you can't stop me, Elongated Man!" just flow off their tongues. By the time they get the sentence done, E-Man has punched them with a sixty-foot-long fist.

JS: Agreed, this is the worst story in the issue, just six pages of filler. I never much liked Elongated Man, even though he was in my beloved Justice League. Once DC got the rights to Plastic Man it seemed pointless to keep going with Elongated Man. And stop calling him E-Man! That's a different (much better) comic. (P.S.: I think there were some more stories after the one in Detective 444.)

PE: E-Man! E-Man! E-Man!

"The Great Campus Kidnap!"
Story by Jack C. Harris
Art by Kurt Schaffenberger & Vince Colletta

Jack Harris hacks the
Batman '80s blog
On campus to get his class card, Dick Grayson gets word he's supposed to report to Kenmore Hall. A bit perturbed (as that's where the bad boys get sent), Dick trots over to the building but sees a lovely distraction on his way: the super foxy new student, Jennifer Anne. Dick crosses the street to make time with the babe but his move is interrupted by a van full of thugs who grab Jennifer and toss her in the back. Turns out Jennifer ain't the only one to be kidnapped that day so Dick changes into his Robin costume and investigates. He uncovers a pack of scumbags who are nabbing students and demanding ransom from their rich folks. With a little help from the campus fuzz, Robin saves his fellow students and fills a few more cells at Gotham Pen.

PE: Not much to say about this one that I haven't already said about the other back-ups, other than "The Great Campus Kidnap!" adds fuel to my belief that no one really cared about these support strips, in either the script or art department. There's virtually nothing to distinguish the Schaffenberger/Colletta art from the work done by Barretto/Giella or Delbo/Chiaramonte or Johnny Craig. It's uniformly pedestrian, with virtually no pizzazz. I have no idea, if I was a fan of this stuff, how I would defend such weak graphics and lazy writing. No distinguishing characteristics at all. Have a look at Bruce Wayne in the final panel; he looks just like Dick, ferchrissakes. Really awful stuff.

JS: I'm no fan of Schaffenberger and I know you're no fan of Colletta, but I think this was slightly better than the tale that preceded it, probably because it was four pages longer and had to tell more of a story. In comparing this issue of Detective to the prior one, I thought this was an improvement and, in the letters page, Paul Levitz admits that they're trying to get Robin and Batgirl back on track. I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and comment that the preview of next issue's team up between the two looks promising.

Next Week...
We give our fans a chance to debate
as Peter reveals his favorite Warren story
of all time! Be there!


Abe Lucas said...

“Dreadful Birthday, Dear Joker” has got to be one of the best characterizations of The Joker ever. Yes, it's a late Bronze Age tale with all the trappings of that wonderful era but few writers get down the twisted, psychotic humor of the Clown Prince of Crime like Batman scribe Len Wein does here. Every one of The Joker's lines of dialogue is either a delightful quip, like the line about killing everyone who has caused him trouble being the best birthday gift he could get, other than the catcher's mitt he wanted.

Everything about Wein's script gives us a sense of the character. Wein's Joker is always "on." I hope that the next actor to take the role in the movies has read these old comics and constructs his performance with these stories in mind.

All of the other Joker trademarks are present in "Dreadful Birthday, Dear Joker...!" The wonderful Joker Car, the same face on the giant birthday cake on which Robin, Commissioner Gordon, Alfred, and a slew of others are tied, the perfunctory tense-but-funny scene Joker always has to have with one of his goons, and the Joker's classic purple suit--he even wears the rarely-seen Zoot Suit-style hat. There's also the acid-squirting lapel flower, "Bang! You're Dead!" gun, and the falling-off fake hand.

This was the first story with art by Walt Simonson I ever recall reading. Walt’s work is delightfully creepy and distinctive. The panel with the Gotham police officers laughing and the red "HA HA HA" covering the background is among many notable panels.

Len Wein provides a masterclass-level lesson in storytelling with his opening lines. He gives a concise history of the Gotham City police headquarters in just two lines while simultaneously creating the perfect atmosphere for the Joker's entrance. The Joker has much more “on screen” time than Batman does and the reader would not even notice, such is the effectiveness of Wein's dialogue for Joker.

"Dreadful Birthday, Dear Joker...!" is a classic comic of my childhood, and upon reading it again recently, remains a classic today, some 40 years later.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, C.K.! We really enjoyed the Joker story too.