Monday, November 16, 2020

Batman in the 1980s Issue 15: March 1981

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

Detective Comics #500

"To Kill a Legend"
Story by Alan Brennert
Art by Dick Giordano

The Phantom Stranger explains to Batman and Robin that, in an alternate universe, Thomas and Martha Wayne are about to be killed in front of their only son, Bruce, in a matter of days. The Stranger offers Bruce Wayne a chance to travel to that other dimension and prevent the murders from happening yet again. In this way, Bruce might be able to purge the nightmares and guilt from his own past. 

The Dynamic Duo arrive and immediately look up the Waynes. Dick Grayson is startled to see a spoiled rotten youth named Bruce Wayne, obviously heading for a future as a spoiled rotten millionaire playboy. While perusing the Gotham library, Robin makes a startling discovery: this universe contains no planet named Krypton. No Superman will be arriving on Earth. Robin explains to Batman his notion that if they interject in the killing, Batman will never exist in this alternate world. But Batman scoffs and explains that if he can save one child's misery, he'll risk anything.

Batman tracks the assassin, Joe Chill, down only to discover him dying from a gunshot wound. Chill explains that his boss, Lew Moxon, heard some freak in a cape was asking after Chill and decided to eliminate any obstacles to killing Thomas Wayne. Moxon hires another killer, but Batman and Robin arrive in time to prevent the murder. The Phantom Stranger arrives to tell the Caped Crusaders that their job here is done. In the alternate universe, a small boy named Bruce Wayne dumps his toys and, using the giant bat-man as inspiration, begins a tough regimen of workouts and caviar.

Peter: 500 issues for any comic magazine is amazing, but this happens to be the title that gave us the greatest superhero of all time and, so, a reason to celebrate. The first issue of DC, dated March, 1937, sporting a "yellow peril" illustration on its cover, featured the adventures of Speed Saunders, Cosmo (the Phantom of Disguise), Bret Lawton, Bruce Nelson, Gumshoe Gus, Bart Regan, Eagle-Eyed Jake, Buck Marshal (Range Detective), and Slam Bradley. 68 pages for one thin dime! None of those characters became the icon that would be introduced a couple of years later in issue #27. We'll get to that anniversary as well in about two years' time. 

Well, I guess it was inevitable that, in an anniversary issue like this one, we'd have to get yet another reimagining of the mythology. But at least, with the help of Alan Brennert, this one is entertaining and clever. I like that, in this "infinite Earth," Bruce Wayne is going to grow up to be the antithesis of our Bruce Wayne. In fact, as Robin remarks, this alternate dimension will play host to the guy that Bruce Wayne pretends to be in order to hide his alter ego! Giordano's art is dazzling, as always. I believe this is the first time we've been exposed to the work of Alan Brennert, a guy who had a few stories published in DC Comics (Wonder Woman, for one), but had also broken into TV scripting (Wonder Woman as well!). In my mind, Brennert's greatest achievement was successfully rebooting The Twilight Zone in the late 1980s. 

Jack: "To Kill a Legend" will easily make my top ten (top five?) of 1981. I was very confused by the timing at first, with the Waynes being killed 20 years ago when Bruce was eight years old, thus making Batman 28 in 1981. Then the Phantom Stranger popped by to remind us all about Earth One and Earth Two, which (sort of) helps clarify matters. I love the idea that there are no superheroes on the third Earth and that Bruce is a spoiled brat; I also love the conclusion, where Batman's intervention sets things in motion to provide this world with its first costumed hero. Giordano's art is as good as I've seen it, making this an instant classic.

"The 'Too Many Cooks' Caper!"
Story by Len Wein
Art by Jim Aparo

At his retirement party, Police Inspector Archie Evergreen is shot and killed by, it would be presumed, his arch-nemesis, the mobster Victor Dominion. Archie left behind quite a few friends and admirers and a handful of those team up to track down Dominion and avenge their friend's death. 

Peter: Listed as a Slam Bradley vehicle, "The 'Too Many Cooks' Caper!" could almost be viewed as a Justice League of tenth-tier back-up stars. The characters include: Slam Bradley (who appeared in the very first issue of Detective back in March 1937!); Gotham PI Jason Bard (Detective, early 1930s); Captain Mark Compass (a regular in early 1950s' Star-Spangled Comics); TV Detective Roy Raymond (Detective, early 1950s) pilot Rick Carter a/k/a Mysto the Magician (mid-1950s' Detective Comics); Christopher Chance, the Human Target (Action Comics, early 1970s); and Pow-Wow Smith, Indian lawman (early 1950s' Detective). Not quite an all-star cast, but the idea is intriguing. The plot isn't bad, but the reveal is ludicrous (Archie was dying of cancer and knew he couldn't nail Dominion before he shuffled off, so he killed himself in a theatrical way, hoping his super-smart buddies would track down and eliminate Dominion for him) and now I know why superheroes have costumes; that way, you can tell them apart. Everyone here (aside from Chief Pow-Wow, who looks more like a cowboy than an Indian) resembles either Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne. Don't get me wrong... I still enjoyed this oddball team-up; I just wish I could have known who was who.

Jack: I had the same problem. It was fun to see all of the back-up feature detectives in one place, but the story is run of the mill, which makes it consistent with most of the stories these characters appeared in to begin with!

"Once Upon a Time..."
Story by Len Wein
Art by Walt Simonson

Jack: This two-pager is not worth a summary, but I think it's worth a mention because it gives us the opportunity to see Walt Simonson draw Batman again, however briefly. Simonson was one of the best Bat artists of the 1970s.

"The Final Mystery of Edgar Allan Poe!"
Story by Mike W. Barr
Art by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez

Ralph Dibny, the Elongated Man, attempts to find the party responsible for assaulting the world’s number one fan of Edgar Allan Poe. Turns out the Poe boy had found valuable plates that the famed writer had created to print a new magazine. Since the plates contained a never-before-published EAP story, the value is priceless. Dibny nabs the guilty party with the help of his stretchable nose and ears and the world will soon gasp in wonder at the uncovered Poe.

Peter: “The Final Mystery of Edgar Allen Poe,” drawing on facts in the bizarre death of the writer, is lightweight fun. Dibny never really does anything that a half-dozen other heroes (or regular people, even) couldn’t do. He uses his nose to open a lock and his ear to catch a falling paper. But I think that’s the idea. Dibny is a self-loving nerd who digs attention and revels in what little fame he’s been allowed. The art, by José Luis García-López, is fabulous, so much better than the low-budget art we’re used to on these back-ups. 

Jack: I agree--the art by Garcia-Lopez definitely makes the story more enjoyable. Half the fun with Elongated Man is seeing how he uses different parts of his body to create handy objects. It's a fun mystery story that is a notch above what we usually see from this character.

"The Batman Encounters--Gray Face"
(Text Feature)
Story by Walter Gibson
Art by Tom Yeates

Commissioner Gordon has gotten word that the legendary Chinese pirate, Gray Face, has arrived in Gotham and is terrorizing the merchants of Chinatown. The Batman tracks Gray Face to his lair and attempts to quash his reign of terror.

Peter: Here's something new: a novella-length prose Batman thriller with a decidedly pulpish atmosphere. Of course, that's down to its writer, Walter Gibson, creator of and main writer for The Shadow pulp magazine. I liked the plot and Gibson's action sequences, which harken back to his 1940s' style, but could have done with a little more creative writing. Gibson's sentences seem to exist only to describe what's going on in a scene. That may sound like a strange complaint, but it's tiring, after four or five pages of text that reads like "The Batman picked up a shoe. The Batman threw the shoe at the bad guy. The bad guy ducked and pulled his .44 on The Batman." I'd have to go back and look, but I don't think Gibson ever labeled our hero as anything but "The Batman." Of course, Gibson's famous character was a major influence on the creators of the Dark Knight, so it's fitting that "The Batman Encounters--Gray Face!" was actually a never-published Shadow story that Gibson rewrote for this anniversary issue. The spot illustrations, by Tom Yeates, are the highlight.

Jack: This old-fashioned text piece with illustrations fits in well in this nostalgic issue of Detective; those old text pages that were stuck in to meet a mailing requirement were what I always skipped reading. Not this time, though! It was a great idea to bring things full circle by having Walter Gibson write a Batman story, and it's pulpy and fun, filled with booby traps and Chinatown scenes. The story pulled me in and I really enjoyed the spot illustrations, though I kept thinking they should be in black and white.

"The Strange Death of Doctor Erdel"
Story by Paul Levitz
Art by Joe Kubert

Katar-Hol and Shayera, a/k/a Hawkman and Hawkchick, hope to solve "The Strange Death of Doctor Erdel." There were only two suspects in the suspicious death of Erdel: his lab assistant, Fred, and the scientist's niece, who stood to inherit Erdel's great wealth. Though there was never enough evidence to convict either one, Hawkman wants to use his super intelligence and detective work to investigate further. Once Hawks is satisfied that neither suspect actually committed the murder, his attention turns to the computer Erdel was working on when he was electrocuted. Sure enough, when the Hawk-couple slip into Erdel's lab, a giant creature known as a Wyrd-Beast (from Alpha Centauri) pops up and confesses to the crime. The thing attempts to kill Shayera, but Hawkman uses his mace to destroy the monster. 

Peter: When Joe Kubert is the artist, the story becomes secondary, and this little bit of nonsense sure benefits from the drawing hand of the master. I assume DC-aholics who are more familiar with the 1950s' and 1960s' DC mythos will be a little less lost than I was (the J'ohn J'onzz tie-in at the climax went way over my head), but I'll just shrug and look at Kubert's renderings of Hawkchick a few more times.

Jack: I love to see Kubert drawing Hawkman again and his art in this story is just gorgeous. Unfortunately, the story is not up to the quality of the art. Kubert had not lost anything over the decades; if anything, he got better, unlike Carmine Infantino.

"What Happens When a Batman Dies?"
Story by Cary Bates
Art by Carmine Infantino & Bob Smith

The Batman lies dying in a Gotham hospital after he's bitten by a dog injected with poison. Robin and Gordon keep watch over their friend, but there's really nothing they can do. Despite lapsing into a coma, Batman manages to get a message out to Robin through his EKG (no, seriously!) to contact Deadman. The message is intercepted by Deadman himself, just as Batman flatlines, and the hero must meet his friend halfway to the "shining light" and talk him out of giving up. Martha and Thomas Wayne appear to give their son a pep talk and remind him how much he's needed back on Earth. Batman's soul re-enters his body and the doctors give Gordon and Robin a much better prognosis. Before one sigh of relief is heard, though, Deadman takes over Robin's body and has the Boy Wonder inject the Dark Knight with a boatload of adrenalin. Deadman then takes over the Caped Crusader's body and Batman bolts out of bed. Together, the two heroes track down the assailant, a man named Stryker, and take a sample of the poisoned dog's blood, enough to analyze for an antidote for Bats. Deadman gets the Dark Knight back to the hospital for some r 'n' r.

This is a really busy story; there's a lot going on here and some of it makes little to no sense. I'm doubtful that even the world's greatest detective can manipulate his own EKG (while he's in a coma, yet) to emit Morse code messages. How do you train for that? And what is the motivation behind Stryker's attack on our hero? It's a pretty grand scheme, involving henchmen and exotic toxins and trained canines. Yet we never learn the why behind this plot. Did it have anything to do with Bruce Wayne asking his foundation's board for a two-million-dollar donation to the city's cops? I don't know. Why you asking me?

The art is a bit sketchy as well (pun intended). In spots, it reminds me why I've always liked Carmine's Gil Kane-esque penciling, but Bob Smith's inks do not do Mr. Infantino any favors. The story is divvied up into "atmospheres": we get a very 1950s' vibe from the early panels of the Caped Crusader heading out in the Batmobile, a stark blue and black for the flashbacks, and a weird red and yellow for the scene set in the dimension between life and death. I must say the latter is effective despite also being nearly imperceptible. Overall, the 500th issue of Detective Comics is an enjoyable package and a worthy anniversary souvenir.

Jack: I agree about the issue as a whole, but not so much about Infantino's art here. Bob Smith's inks definitely fix more problems than those of Steve Mitchell in this month's issue of The Brave and the Bold; that said, the pencils are still not great. Infantino was a giant in the industry and his earlier art was classic, but by this point it wasn't looking so hot. The pages in black and white and the pages in the great beyond are hard to look at. Still, it's a very good story and I'm almost always happy to see Deadman. Paul Levitz's text piece on the last page providing more info on characters and creators is terrific!

The Brave and the Bold #172

"Darkness and Dark Fire"
Story by Gerry Conway
Art by Carmine Infantino & Steve Mitchell

Batman runs into private eye Jason Bard, who explains that he's investigating Professor Martin Stein for a prospective new employer. Stein has been having mysterious blackouts and disappearing. Batman is investigating Firestorm, his fellow JLA member, who recently confided to his teammates that he is also suffering from blackouts. Firestorm enters a hospital and steals a pair of mechanical hands that can handle radioactive materials; as Jason Bard begins to suspect there is a connection between Prof. Stein and Firestorm, Batman follows Firestorm to a decommissioned nuclear reactor.

It turns out that the reaction that fused Ronald Raymond and Martin Stein into Firestorm also created a sentient being that has been living in the reactor. It managed to take control of Firestorm's mind and ordered him to bring it the pair of mechanical hands so it could work with radioactive material. The being senses Batman's presence and tells Firestorm to kill him, but a blast from Firestorm's hands misses Batman and silences the core of the reactor, ending the threat. Back to normal, Stein and Raymond thank Batman, who warns them about Jason Bard's investigation. They show up together and stall Bard's concerns for the time being.

A classic Infantino Bat-pose on the splash page.

Jack: I was excited to see Carmine Infantino back on Batman in "Darkness and Dark Fire," but after the splash page the art goes downhill fast. I remember thinking his work had really deteriorated when he was doing Marvel's Star Wars comic in the late '70s and, unfortunately, his art here isn't any better. He can draw Batman just fine, but his faces are awful and I don't think Steve Mitchell's inks help. As for the story, it reads like the editor told Gerry Conway he had to cook up something quick with Batman and Firestorm and he didn't have any good ideas. I don't know if Peter is familiar with the character, but I think you need to know him somewhat to follow this story.

Peter: I know nothing about Firestorm and, after reading "Darkness and Dark Fire," I have no desire to learn anything. I thought the art was adequate (it's certainly better than Novick/McLaughlin) but, you're right, it's not Carmine's finest hour. Nor is this Gerry's. So, the nuclear reactor grew a brain. No need to tell us how that happened or what the thing's plan was, Gerry? One thing that's always puzzled me. The action in this episode takes place in New York. I always thought Gotham was supposed to be Manhattan but then what's Metropolis? So, now I learn that New York is a place in the DC Universe as well? I need a map. And a drink. Oh wait, Nemesis is up next. Make it a double, bartender.

"Pirate's Peril!"
Story by Cary Burkett
Art by Dan Spiegle

Nemesis in disguise
Despite his gunshot wound, Nemesis manages to overpower some goons and drive off safely with Valerie in tow. Her brother, an ex-Army medic, removes the bullet and stitches Nemesis up. Valerie insists on staying with Nemesis, so she is there when, several days later, he is in one of his disguises to steal a piece of film from a movie studio. He quickly teaches her how to pilot a helicopter and they use smoke bombs to cause a car to crash. Nemesis retrieves pirated video tapes from the car's trunk and calls M.C. Curtis, who is in charge of the piracy ring, to set up a meeting.

In yet another disguise, Nemesis shows Curtis the piece of film he stole from the studio, and it turns out to be a shot from an upcoming science fiction blockbuster. Curtis agrees to team up with Nemesis to steal the whole film and sell pirated video tapes, but Nemesis double crosses him and ends the pirate's career when the police arrive.

Jack: I want Nemesis on my team! He can teach someone to pilot a helicopter in no time and his disguises are beyond belief. In "Pirate's Peril," Valerie comments that he looks like a completely different person when he's disguised, and she's right. Forget that none of it makes any sense. The art is as bad as ever, so it's a good thing we have the (retrospectively) funny thought of selling pirated video tapes for profit to entertain us.

Peter: This is just odiferous stuff. The art. The script. The "action." All third-rate. It's good for some larfs at least. Two hours after major surgery to remove a bullet (probably performed without anesthesia), Nemesis is hanging off a helicopter ladder, plugging bad guys with "toxin bullets!" I love when our hero tells his make-shift surgeon, when asked for a name, "if you've got to have a name, you can call me Nemesis!' And he says it with a straight face yet! All this drama over some pirated VHS tapes of Raiders of the Lost Ark!

Batman #333

"The Lazarus Affair, Chapter Two:
The China Syndrome!"
Story by Marv Wolfman
Art by Irv Novick & Frank McLaughlin

In Nepal, a mysterious man in a trench coat turns on a radio receiver and picks up a signal not heard in over a decade. Meanwhile, in Switzerland, Batman is disguised as Kruggerand, Falstaff's assistant. He tries to infiltrate a high-security bank for criminals but is quickly found out. He manages to escape a death trap and skis down the side of a snowy mountain, avoiding assassins on skis with laser-guided rifles.

Returning to his hotel, Batman finds Talia waiting for him and their dinner that night is interrupted by a man with a machine gun. Once again, Batman survives, and he and Talia fly to Nepal, then on to the mountains on the border of China. They hike towards Hong Kong, swim a shark-infested river, and outsmart a patrol helicopter. Finally reaching Hong Kong, Bruce Wayne visits a man on a Chinese junk and promptly passes out from a gas attack.

"The China Syndrome"

 "The China Syndrome" is an exciting read with fewer subplots and distractions than we saw in part one. Other than the brief, mysterious opening, this episode is straightforward, following Batman and Talia as they make their way from Europe to Asia. The escape down the snowy mountain recalls On Her Majesty's Secret Service, with Batman replacing James Bond, and the relationship between Bruce and Talia is unusually adult for a DC comic. It's quite clear that the two sleep together in the hotel before heading off to Hong Kong. Novick's art is serviceable, as usual, and I'm looking forward to part three.

Peter: Once again, my friend, we disagree over the quality of a funny book. You make comparisons to Bond, and that's apt, but this is bad Bond (read: Roger Moore), the one I'd never give a rewatch to. Marv desperately wants to craft a globe-trotting epic but there's no substance here. Why would Bruce Wayne announce his presence at the junk in Hong Kong harbor? Won't he then have some explaining to do when both Bruce and Bats are reported in the same area at the same time? And the greatest detective in the world can't seem to help walking into traps everywhere.

Story by Marv Wolfman
Art by Irv Novick

At Gotham City Jail, Robin and Catwoman find a convict who admits to Lucius Fox's son that the claim about Bruce Wayne being a slumlord was a lie. Lucius and his son reconcile and Commissioner Gordon tells Robin that King Faraday wants to see Robin in Shanghai. Robin and Catwoman fly to Shanghai, where they meet Faraday, who turns out to be the mysterious man in the trench coat from this issue's Batman story. The radio signal led him to an inflatable raft (remember last issue's Batman story?) that had the word "Batman" scrawled on it.

Seeking information, Catwoman takes Robin to visit a Chinese fence named Chin Ho at an opium den. Catwoman wants to know who Falstaff's boss was, but the tea they are served is drugged and, before you know it, our heroes are under attack and soon find themselves tied to tables, where Ho's stooge is about to inject them with fatal doses of cocaine.

Jack: I like that the lead story and the backup story are connected; having Marv Wolfman write them both and Irv Novick do the pencils on both certainly helps. When Catwoman and Robin visit Chin Ho, Robin appears to be in disguise as... who? I read "Shanghaied!" twice and I'm still not sure. The Batman story in this issue is the better of the two, but I'm intrigued to see where this all leads and how Wolfman ties the features together.

Peter: Robin was obviously disguised as... Nemesis! I liked the back-up a lot more than the lead-off this issue. The script is a bit confusing (wait, who's this Faraday cat and where did he go?) but the art is pretty sharp. This shows that Robin can carry (or co-star in) a back-up if the writer leaves out all that boring and inane college tripe.

Next Week...
Can these two series
get even dopier?
You have no idea!

No comments: