Monday, August 24, 2020

Batman in the 1980s Issue 9: September 1980

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

José Luis García-López/
Dick Giordano
The Untold Legend of the Batman #3

"The Man Behind the Mask!"
Story by Len Wein
Art by Jim Aparo

After the explosion in the Batcave that totaled the Batmobile, Batman is on the warpath, determined to discover the identity of the man (or ghost) who wants him dead. His journey takes him to see his connections on the street, but they are no help; Commissioner Gordon can only offer up a "good luck" and ponder his first meetings with his friend; Lucius Fox, who similarly recalls his rise in Bruce Wayne's business; and, finally, his Pop, who turns up at the old mansion to remind him of the good he's doing for the folks of Gotham.

Actually, that last is a cheat since it turns out it's actually Dick (in his Robin suit under the vintage Batman suit!), who's figured out the big twist here and is trying to snap his partner back into reality. Yep, it's Batman himself, a bit dazed after a warehouse explosion left him with "temporary schizophrenia with paranoid delusion," who's been behind all the shenanigans. Brought back to reality, the Dark Knight thanks his "old chum" and hits the rooftops to ponder his future in crime fighting.

Peter: The wrap-up (and accompanying exposition) is ludicrous but, unfortunately, predictable. I had a feeling it would end up being someone like Alfred or Dick trying to remind Bruce why he's a crime fighter in the first place. The idea that the Caped Crusader would blow up the Batmobile (and nearly put an end to Robin's career as well) is darn right silly but is par for the course when it comes to Len's scripting at this time. The highlights, to me, were Gordon's flashback (where his hair turns from black to grey literally overnight) and Jim Aparo's stunning art. Say what you will (and I will) about the quality of scripts, at least Joe Orlando keeps the visuals at a high level. It's also good to see some acknowledgement of outside help, as in the reveal of stunt man/car crafter Jack Edison. So, to sum up the three issues of Untold Legend of the Batman, I would utter a profound "Meh."

Jack:  Once again, Aparo's art uses a mix of sharpness and shadow to good effect. The first meeting of Batman and Commissioner Gordon is certainly memorable, as is the origin of Batgirl, but the first meeting of Bruce Wayne and Lucius Fox doesn't quite seem in the same category. The big finale, where it's revealed that it was Batman behind everything all along, reminds me of the story arc that led up to Detective 1000. And who knew that Batman had a guy to build Batmobiles on demand?

Batman #327

"Asylum Sinister!"
Story by Len Wein
Art by Irv Novick & Frank McLaughlin

Batman has infiltrated Arkham Asylum in the guise of criminal Shank Taylor, and he quickly wiggles out of his strait-jacket and picks the lock on his cell door. After some quick snooping among the other inmates, he returns to his cell and is taken to see Professor Milo, who now runs the place. Milo reveals that he has replaced the real director and now runs a scheme whereby the inmates are let out to commit crimes. Batman/Shank plays crazy and refuses to comply, unaware that Milo knows full well who he is.

Sneaking into the cell of the supposedly-dead Joker, Batman dons a Batsuit that fits perfectly, but he quickly passes out from what turns out to have been poison on the handle of a cup of tea that Professor Milo served to him. Batman is put in a strait-jacket again and taken to Milo's office, where the other inmates of Arkham and Milo do their best to convince the Dark Knight that he has gone insane. Figuring out that he has been drugged, Batman fights back, knocks out a couple of orderlies, and gets a woman who thinks she's Joan of Arc to cut him loose from his strait-jacket. The Caped Crusader chases down Milo, who tries to gas him but who is soon set upon by the other inmates. When they let him up, he is hopelessly insane--done in by the very gas he wanted to use to drive Batman crazy.

Jack: As predicted, Shanks is Batman in disguise. After trying to make it a big secret last issue, it's revealed right away this time. Unfortunately, the main story in this issue cannot hold a candle to that gorgeous cover by Joe Kubert. Batman's ability to come and go while inside Arkham Asylum seems absurd, and Professor Milo never seems like a very dangerous adversary. There is also an odd page where Alfred keeps the real Shanks Taylor sedated in the Batcave. Novick's art is about what we've come to expect, but the last page is impressive.

Peter: One gigantic load of forgettable hooey. There are just so many coincidences and inanities the human mind can absorb at one point and I think Len has just exploded my brain. Please tell me that I didn't imagine that Arkham not only keeps Joker's cell open for him when he's readmitted but that they let the Clown Prince of Whatever keep a life-size dummy of Batbrain to "take shots at!" How brilliant! That's definitely late-20th-century psychology at its finest!

"Express to Nowhere"
Story by Mike W. Barr
Art by Dick Giordano & Steve Mitchell

Bruce Wayne is there at the station to meet Dick Grayson when he takes the train home during a break from college. Bruce says hello to John Taggart, VP of the train company, who complains that the recession is hurting business. Bruce notices a couple of crooks board the train, which suddenly departs the station early. Donning their costumes, Batman and Robin hop on top of the train as it gathers speed and soon they are inside, battling the crooks. It seems a government stool pigeon is on board and was their target. The crooks are defeated and the stool pigeon saved by some heroics from the Teen Wonder; back at the station, Taggart is revealed to be behind the attempt to stop the stool pigeon: he took money to try to save his train line and engineered the whole scheme.

Jack: Not a bad little back-up story--"Express to Nowhere" contains no real surprises but features decent pencils by Giordano and uneven inks by Mitchell. It's nice to see Batman and Robin work together, but when Robin saves the stool pigeon it stretches credibility; the man falls out the window of a moving train and Robin manages to keep him from landing on the ground. I was not convinced by the way the Teen Wonder pulled it off and think the crook would really have gone splat.

Peter: Not bad; a fairly entertaining adventure. I had a big laugh at that save by Robin as well, but how about when Bats watches as one of the thugs falls (from a speeding train) and theorizes that the guy will be okay cuz it was "a short fall!"? A short fall from an out-of-control train is no big deal? I'm going to test this theory and will be back next week to give my findings.

The Brave and the Bold #166

"Requiem for 4 Canaries!"
Story by Michael Fleisher
Art by Dick Giordano & Terry Austin

There's been a jailbreak at Gotham Penitentiary! Batman helps round up the escapees, but one prisoner--inmate #23147, a/k/a the Penguin--is gone. Batman knows that the arch-criminal will make his way to Star City to find and eliminate his four henchmen who turned state's evidence and put him in the slammer.

The Penguin promptly takes over a gang in Star City and, the next evening, he kills the first of the four stoolies by means of poison gas hidden in a sugar shaker. He does not know that Dinah Lance, a/k/a the Black Canary, is at the same club where the man is killed; she changes into her costume and gives chase. Batman comes to her rescue after she is knocked out, and the Penguin escapes.

Getting info from an informant, Black Canary locates the other stool pigeons, but the Penguin eliminates one with a bomb before the heroes can get to him. That leaves two, and Batman and Black Canary decide to take one each. The Penguin sends a fake Black Canary to try to distract Batman, but the Dark Knight is on to her ruse and tracks down the Penguin in his hideout, where he has Black Canary tied up. Batman makes short work of the fowl fiend and his henchmen, with a bit of aid from the nearly naked Black Canary and, before you know it, Star City is safe and the Canary is planting a big smooch on the Bat's kisser.

Jack: "Requiem for 4 Canaries!" packs a lot of fun into its 17 pages and manages to avoid the worst cliche of the team-up books, that of the misunderstanding and brief fight between the heroes. Instead, we get plenty of gorgeous drawings of Black Canary--in and out of costume--and some hijinks by the Penguin, who dons a couple of disguises along the way. One question, though: if the goal of Batman and Black Canary is to find and protect the "4 Canaries" whose testimony put the Penguin behind bars, isn't this mission something of a failure? The Penguin manages to kill either two or three of the informants (it's not clear exactly how many)! And one more thing: what does Black Canary do to keep her blonde wig on? The Penguin, for some unknown reason, strips her down to her undies and ties her to a chair, but the wig stays put? How does that work? And Terry Austin's inks over Dick Giordano's pencils look much better than Steve Mitchell's in this month's Batman backup story.

Peter: And how is it again that Black Canary keeps a secret identity? She's a gorgeous dame who dresses as a gorgeous dame in tights. No mask. No hoodie. Almost as perplexing is the Penguin's disguise at the nightclub and pawn shop. Why bother when you can't cover up that schnozz? Award for most complete Rolodex in the world goes to Max for his card on Blinky, including the info that the Blink owns a "fencing operation out of a small antiques shop over on Pearl Street!" Nothing like a little discretion. My biggest chuckle this issue was Batman's assertion that what tipped him off about the bogus Canary was that the phony had blonde roots. So would the real Canary have pulled the whole "Oh, Batman, you're so strong and I'm so scared. Hold me!" routine in the middle of a dangerous adventure? On the plus side, you get some great PG-13 cheesecake and a nastier Penguin than the Burgess Meredith model.

Story by Cary Burkett
Art by Dan Spiegle

Thomas Tresser sends a small statute of the scales of justice to the widow of murdered lawman Ben Marshall, promising to avenge her husband's death. In the guise of "Nemesis," Tresser impersonates a bum to track down a hit man named George Peal, but his disguise is uncovered and he barely escapes with his life. When crime boss J.R. Ogden assigns Peal the job of killing businessman Sidney Shelton, a bug that Nemesis placed on Peal's body leads to Ogden being caught and arrested for attempted murder. Enraged, Ogden shoots and kills Peal, ensuring that he'll go to jail. With Ogden in prison and Peal dead, Nemesis is satisfied that the men responsible for Ben Marshall's death have been punished.

Jack: "Nemesis" reminds me of one of those backup stories in a mid-'70s Charlton comic (like E-Man), where Steve Ditko or someone like him would create a new hero who would disappear after an issue or two. There's nothing special about Nemesis and the story is set up and ends quickly, with mediocre art to match. How long will this hero last? Keep watching this space.

Peter: There's a bit of intrigue to go with the hokeyness of Nemesis. Why a guy who hides in the shadows or goes the Mrs. Doubtfire route needs a uniform (with a scale on the chest, no less) is beyond me. I'd say he has just as many marbles loose as Ogden, but that may be the message... if there is even a message here. I liked that scripter Burkett didn't hold back when it came to the homicide but it would have been sweeter if we knew that was the plan of Nemesis to begin with. The Spiegle art is about average for one of these back-ups, static figures with bland faces.

Detective Comics #494

"The Crime Doctor Calls at Midnight!"
Story by Michael Fleisher
Art by Don Newton & Bob Smith

Where do thieves and heisters go if they want the perfect crime planned? Who ya gonna call if your jewelry store break-in has gone pear-shaped? Never fear, "The Crime Doctor Calls at Midnight!" Dr. Bradford Thorne, respected physician and (coincidentally) call-out for Batman's personal doc is, when duty calls, the Crime Doctor! Commissioner Gordon gets intel that someone is supplying criminals with really good plans and asks Batman to look into it. At that very second, word comes in that there's a robbery down at the docks and someone dressed as a physician may be on scene. The Dark Knight heads down to the docks. The Crime Doctor has already left the scene, but Bats puts the kibosh on the robbery. His shoulder is injured in the fisticuffs and, the next morning, Alfred sends Bruce for medical assistance.

Bruce meets Thorne, who patches the billionaire up, and the two make chit-chat. Thorne is well known for giving piles of dough to charity and Bruce has invited the doc to the next Wayne Foundation benefit. While the ball is on, the Bat-signal appears in the sky and Thorne gets a buzz from a gang he planned a job for. Both make hasty exits. Thorne interrupts the shady trio at the Monarch Drug Company while they're preparing to lift a very expensive drug called Interferon. Thorne reminds the burglars that the idea was to crack the safe at Monarch, but their leader explains that things change. The Dark Knight arrives and a battle royale ensues. The Crime Doctor tries to put a scalpel into our hero but only manages to graze his shoulder. Yep, that shoulder. While a shocked Thorne exclaims that he was the one that put that bandage on that bicep, Bats drops his guard long enough for one of the goons to bash in his skull. The thugs exit, but the brains of the outfit has a surprise for his two companions: he sets off a bomb and the Monarch Drug Company explodes.

Peter: If you can set aside the ludicrosity of a villain who writes out prescriptions for his victims (it helps when you remember the other villain who uses umbrellas as a weapon) and the silly coincidences, you'll enjoy the heck out of "The Crime Doctor Calls at Midnight!" Someone must have told Mike Fleisher that they wanted him to tone down the splatter for this title. No one gets chainsawed or gutted; in fact, the violence is kept to a minimum. Mike takes the Batman mythology and gives it a spin. Thorne is a rich guy who gives lots of money to his favorite charity and has an elaborate underground lair where he invents tech-gizmos that help his alter ego stay ahead of the game. Sound familiar? Sure, he's a "villain," but he's got a heart. He stays behind to tend to an injured Caped Crusader at great risk to his well-being. I smell a team-up in the air. I like the art a lot; Don Newton is just aces. And I'm really pleased we get a two-parter for once.

Jack: The crime doctor is an intriguing character, mixing medical ethics, philanthropy, and thrill-seeking behavior. There's a nice bit of parallel action when both Bruce Wayne and the crime doctor are called at the same time. The story is exciting and very well illustrated and I'm looking forward to part two.

"(Untitled) Tales of Gotham City"
Story by Jack C. Harris
Art by Dan Spiegle

Flip is a pinball wizard (he's got such a supple wrist!), but he's also a drug runner for Artie, arcade owner/drug tycoon, and a package needs to go out pronto. But Flip ain't got no distractions and just wants to watch those digit counters fall, so one of his minions, little Juan, volunteers to run the parcel over to Regelski's joint while Flip scores three trillion more. Later, Artie receives a call from a source who says his runner is gonna get hit before he gets to Regelski's joint. Flip puts his crazy flipper fingers right through the glass and heads out the door. He finds little Juan, about to be ventilated by Rooster and Huggy Bear, and saves the little runt's life, earning a bullet in the bargain. As he is dying, Flip hands Juan a metal ball, thus crowning a new Bally table king.

Peter: How these things ever got past the editorial desk is a wonder unto itself. Jack Harris, obviously still falling asleep to Starsky and Hutch reruns, mines every cliche known to Caucasian crime fiction and then hands over his five-minute script to the equally inept Dan Spiegle. Flip treats this little kid like crap until... he doesn't. There's a complete 180 right out of the blue that seems as realistic as Artie's hideous tie. When Spiegle's pencils aren't scratchy and ugly (as in the Shaggy-esque Flip), they're bland and lifeless (as in the Hostess Twinkie ad version of ghetto child Juan). There has yet to be a Tale of Gotham City that has floored me (most are average or slightly entertaining), but this is just the pits. A maudlin mess full of stereotypes and nonentities.

Jack: While the story is well-told and suspenseful, Dan Spiegle's art continues to disappoint me and there are more unfortunate examples in this tale of Black characters sporting flamboyant clothes and using ghetto language. That doesn't age well.

"The Lesser Evil!!!"
Story by Cary Burkett
Art by Jose Delbo & Frank Chiaramonte

Gordon tells Batgirl he's convinced that the fire in the apartment building (last issue) was started by men hired by Boss Vance. But he can't get the proof! Babs tells her pop she'll look into it, but first a stop at Jeff's Garage, where Batgirl keeps her Batcycle, and then off to see a little girl who's having issues. Since that poor little girl was rescued from the apartment fire (also last issue), her mind won't allow her to walk and Babs believes it's all psychological and the toddler needs a friend. As she leaves the girl's apartment, the precocious kid tells her Dad she would really like a friend like Babs. Dad, with a strange look in his eyes, concurs. On her way back to the office, Barbara Gordon passes the protestors in front of the condemned Winston Theatre and gets some intel from one of the sign-wavers. They're being paid by a shady character on the periphery of the panel.

Barbara follows the man back to the home of Ray Beeler, chief rival of Boss Vance. The picture is becoming a bit clearer, but Batgirl decides to break into Vance's mansion to pore through his files. The papers uncover some decidedly shady deals going down, but her perusal is interrupted by Vance, who holds a shotgun on our gorgeous gal. In one of those lovely expositions we're getting so used to, Vance spills the beans about everything including his part in the apartment fire. Batgirl disarms the Mafia goon and makes her way back to City Hall, where she urges the City Council to vote for the original proposal and keep the Winston open. Later that day, Ray Beeler gets a note from Batgirl: "You're next!"

Peter: I think Gordon must have a list on the little refrigerator in his office that tells him which incredible assignments to give to Batgirl or Batman (are there some liquor store robberies he hands over to Robin when he's in town?). What would happen if the Dark Knight popped into Gordon's office and said "I think I'm going to investigate the stuff that's going on with Boss Vance!"? Would Gordon sputter out, "Uh erm, I gave that one to Babs!" A lousy script and barely-professional art. I should have that line on speed-paste. The plot is needlessly complicated; sometimes that's a good ploy for distracting us from the fact that there really is no plot, but here it just becomes frustrating. The only aspect of Burkett's script I liked was the visit to Jeff's Garage; it's a keen little bit of trivial backstory that (like a similar scene in this month's Untold) fills in some of the gaps and makes Batgirl just that much more... real.

Jack: It's at about this point in every one of these giant issues of Detective that things start to go downhill. The art by Delbo and Chiaramonte is acceptable--like Don Heck's work, but smoother-- and the story is fairly good, but the villains Batgirl faces never seem very dangerous and thus it's hard to get too invested in her stories.

"The Hazing Homicide!"
Story by Jack C. Harris
Art by Charles Nicholas & Vince Colletta

During some downtime at a local swimming hole, Dick Grayson and his gorgeous squeeze, Jennifer, happen upon the body of a classmate floating in the water. The cops think it's a routine drowning but Dick knows better; the dead kid is the captain of the University's swim team. He can't drown! Robin uncovers the real facts: the murderer is Biff Braddock, hazing victim. Biff also confesses to Robin that the vic was out to steal his girl. The police haul Biff away and shake their heads that anyone could hang a name like that on their kid.

Peter: Just another day at the office for Messrs. Harris, Nicholas, and Colletta. This is what you get when you've scraped the bottom of the barrel and there's nothing left. I did snicker at the thought of Dick Grayson having sex in his van or Jennifer suspecting such. The rest of it is best skipped.

Jack: Once again the low point of the issue, the Robin story is just plain disappointing. The van Dick Grayson drives around campus is hilarious and makes me wonder if real vans ever looked like that. Fraternities were a big deal in the years following Animal House and the movie is even referenced in this story, but the killer and his motive ("'He stole my girl!'") are strictly from hunger.

"Explosion of the Soul!"
Story by J.M. DeMatteis
Art by Gerald Forton

Black Lightning tries to put an end to the career of the new vigilante on the street, the Slime Killer (no, seriously!), a costumed psycho who's offing any criminal he can get his hands on. Matters become complicated when Lightning discovers the Slimer is, in reality, the father of his prize student, Jon Davis. When the obligatory showdown occurs, it's not Black Lightning that ends the short (but colorful) career of the Slime Killer but the Killer's son.

Peter: Hats off to J. M. DeMatteis for a script that avoids the usual stereotypes (outside of the obligatory street slang) and presents a well-meaning, well-told story. The Slime Killer might be one of the stupidest monikers in DC history (and how did that costume not elicit letters from Marvel's legal crew?) but he's the real deal. He doesn't maim the crackheads, he cracks their heads. I kept waiting for the Hallmark Movie of the Week mush to arrive but, thankfully, it never arrived. One of the best back-ups we've seen so far.

Jack: I really enjoyed this story! I like the ghetto setting and the nearly all-Black cast--the only white characters turn up in the next-to-last panel, and one is a policeman--of course. Things get very interesting when we see Black Lightning in his secret identity as a school principal trying to help a troubled young man, and the story takes a fascinating turn when that bullied kid's father turns out to be a costumed vigilante. Black Lightning may not have super powers anymore but he's becoming quite a fascinating character, and the stories are done without the sort of ghetto theatrics we see in this month's "Tales of Gotham City."

Next Week...
Now in his own series...


andydecker said...

"Untold Legends" 3 is surely not the most idiotic kitchen-sink psychology story done in comics, but without doubt in the top 10. How could Len write this nonsense with a straight face? Guess Batman also has a guy for building his cave, but the trap-door behind the clock seems a bit much. One typo on the access panel and Alfred is Bat-goo? Or shall we believe that Robin build this over night?

But the art is sharp. Did Aparo often ink himself?

Speaking of art, Batman # 327 must be among of the worst books produced by Novik and McLaughlin. Absolutely forgettable in every regard. While Wein did great work as an editor in the 80s, this writing here is not much better as the C-listers.

Jack Seabrook said...

I don't know about Aparo and inkers, but at this point DC was relying on him to sell comics--he was drawing most of the Bat-covers. Novick may not be Neal Adams, but I'll take him over Frank Robbins any day!

Anonymous said...

Robbins... why does it always have to be Robbins...

I like Novick fine, usually. But I LOOOOVE Frank Robbins. So there!

Aparo practically ALWAYS inked his own work. All through his Charlton years, and at DC too, on Phantom Stranger, Spectre, Brave and Bold, both runs on Aquaman, etc. For years he even lettered his own books too. Toward the end of his career, he was doing pencils only, for some reason. Maybe he was just getting old and tired or losing interest. Dunno.

That Garcia-Lopez cover sure is nice too, innit.


Jack Seabrook said...

b.t., I applaud your bravery in admitting you love the work of Frank Robbins. It must be lonely in that Robbins Appreciation Society!