Monday, January 24, 2022

Batman in the 1980s Issue 45: October-November 1983


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


Batman #364

"The Man of a Thousand Menaces"
Story by Doug Moench
Art by Don Newton & Alfredo Alcala

Jason Todd has run away and joined the circus, but all is not well In Zuma, Indiana, where the big top is set up this week. While Jason flies through the air with the greatest of ease, a crook who calls himself the Chimera picks a patron's pocket and burgles his house. Jason has uncovered a pattern and sees that similar crimes have occurred in each town the circus has visited; he is determined to unmask "The Man of a Thousand Menaces" when Alfred the Butler shows up to try to talk the young man into returning to Gotham City.

Jason wants to solve the crimes, however, in order to demonstrate to Batman that he is worthy of joining him in his career fighting injustice. Little does he know that the Caped Crusader has followed Alfred and, once he realizes that Jason has uncovered a series of crimes, he decides to keep an eye on the young man and help crack the case. Batman catches the Chimera and fights him in the big top; the Dark Knight manages to get the best of a lion but is knocked out by the Chimera's gun butt and left to be food for a pride of lions while Jason discovers that the Chimera is really Waldo the Clown.

In subplot land:
  1. Vicki Vale realizes her relationship with Bruce Wayne is going nowhere, so she accepts a field assignment to Guatemala;
  2. Harvey Bullock plays a prank on Commissioner Gordon, who has what appears to be a heart attack at his desk;
  3. A mysterious visitor appears at the door of Wayne Manor.
Jack: A strong issue of Batman starts with a cover that recalls the classic Adams/Giordano cover of Green Lantern #86. The mystery of the Chimera's identity isn't hard to solve, but having the story play out mostly at the circus is a welcome change from the usual Gotham City location. I like that Jason Todd wants to prove his mettle by solving a crime and the subplots are not as annoying as they have been in the past. The art isn't top-tier, but it's certainly above-average. My only complaint is that the Chimera is able to knock Batman out cold with a gun butt--the Dark Knight is a better fighter than that.

Peter: Well, Waldo sure had all of us fooled, didn't he? I'm not sure why a clown would feel the need to disguise himself to commit crimes, particularly to become such an unfocused villain as Chimera. The Vicki Vale, Jason Todd, and Harvey Bullock subplots are all dreary, particularly the latter's participation in what we'll soon discover is Gordon's stroke. The only sub-plot worth noticing is "Who's at the door of Wayne Manor?" but I assume it's gotta be Dick, since he's been missing for a few issues. If not for the art, this one would be a skip.


Detective Comics #531

"The Face of the Chimera"
Story by Doug Moench
Art by Gene Colan and Alfredo Alcala

Simultaneously, Batman manages to stare down and escape the lions who have been let out of the cages and Jason gets the upper hand over the gun-toting Chimera. The Dark Knight goes back into the shadows and Jason tests his detective skills, attempting to discover the true identity of the clown calling himself Chimera. Is it really Waldo? Jason just can't believe his friend is a cold-blooded killer.

Meanwhile, Vicki Vale searches for intrigue in Guatemala and Gordon fights for his life, slipping into a coma after suffering a stroke (in this month's Batman). But enough about that nonsense. The real story here is Jason Todd honing his Batman-like (or Sherlock-like) skills of detection by eliminating any suspects in the Chimera sweepstakes. 

It's all a moot point when Jason rummages through Waldo's trailer and comes across Chimera, who explains that he intends to ransom the boy to Bruce Wayne. But Batman arrives, utilizes a clever trick ("Look out behind you, Chimera!") to disarm the bad guy, and the Caped Crusader and his future partner mop the floor with the dope.

Peter: Like its first chapter, "The Face of the Chimera" is strictly average scripting saved by some nice graphics. Seems like such a waste of time and space to create a new villain (admittedly one with a familiar trick, that of "master of disguise") to exist only to threaten a ransom. Obviously, the draw here is the easing into a new Robin and, in that area, Doug excels. Hard to believe this is the guy we moan and groan about in our Warren posts. Gone by 1983 seems to be the Moench-wand of pretension. The "Vicki Vale in Guatemala" sub-plot becomes a three-part "saga" beginning in the next Batman.

Jack: Since this is Detective Comics, after all, I'm happy to see Jason thinking like a detective and trying to eliminate suspects from among the circus folk. The last scene between Batman and Jason, where Batman agrees to take him on as partner, is well done, and Moench is juggling the subplots effectively. The art, of course, is very nice.

"Survival of the Fittest II: Shelter from the Storm!" 
Story by Joey Cavalieri
Art by Jerome Moore & Mike DeCarlo

Green Arrow uses his magical toys to stop the missiles from launching and then heads into the sewers to track the militant survivalists who are hoping to start WWIII. He finds them in their bunker, but they get the upper hand and are about to ventilate our hero when...

Peter: I thought I'd reprint the caption box from the conclusion of last issue's first part of "Survival of the Fittest," all the better to hammer home my proclamation that this arc is the biggest rip-off in comics outside of variant covers. The exciting apocalypse promised turns into a ludicrous last-second save and the Green Arrow series returns to mediocrity. The art is the pits as well. I'd say 80% of the DC artists of this era pumped out the same lifeless graphics; it's tough to tell one strip from another.

Jack: Yes, it's pretty bad. The story almost got interesting for a panel or two before it slipped back into mediocrity. My favorite part was when Green Arrow shot an arrow at the control panel and blew it up. One of the workers said that they could've done the same thing with a gunshot and GA replies, "Oh well!" This backup series defines "page-filler."

Batman #365

Story by Doug Moench
Art by Don Newton & Alfredo Alcala

Vicki Vale is in Guatemala to photograph what she thinks is a shipment of Russian arms to support rebels. Sneaking aboard a truck, she finds herself in a Mayan pyramid, where she is quickly captured and put in a cell. She overpowers a guard and escapes; outside, she drops a note for a tourist to pick up before she is again caught by the rebels.

Back in Gotham City, Harvey Bullock is remorseful about his part in triggering Commissioner Gordon's stroke. Bruce Wayne has just returned to Stately Wayne Manor with Jason Todd when he gets the news about Gordon's stroke and rushes to the hospital, where Bullock reports that headquarters received word that Vicki Vale is in trouble in Central America.

Bruce tells Jason he can't come along and flies the Batplane to Guatemala, where he is quickly met by a group of angry natives. Batman makes short work of them and heads for the "Ruins" of Zyanya, where the rebels sic Jaguars on him. Catfight over, the Caped Crusader enters the pyramid, only to be greeted by the Joker, who holds Vicki Vale hostage and who is thinking about taking over the country.

Peter: This issue's first chapter of the new Joker thriller all hinges on comics' biggest problem: the coincidence. Unless we discover otherwise, Vicki Vale just happened to be investigating secret militia stuff that just happens to be run by the Joker. Why would Gotham's Prince of Crime be holed up in Guatemala? This better be good. Harvey's personality gets a make-over when he apologizes to Gordon the vegetable; softening the bad cop doesn't make him a more interesting support character. Alfredo Alcala's greatest backdrop has always been the jungle; his inking over Don Newton's art is aces.

Jack: You had me at the Joker! And a three-part story no less. Once again, Moench handles the various subplots cleanly; rather than wasting a couple of pages on Bullock and Gordon, he has Bullock deliver the news about Vicki to Bruce Wayne, thus giving reason for the scene at the hospital and setting Batman off on his next adventure. Art and story mesh well as we get clues to the bad guy's identity in a few panels where we see those familiar purple gloves on the hands of the man in charge. The final panel, a full-page display of Joker lunacy, is terrific.


Detective Comics #532

"Laugh, Killer, Laugh!"
Story by Doug Moench
Art by Gene Colan and Bob Smith

The Joker unveils his latest mad scheme to a captive audience of Batman and Vicki Vale. The Clown Prince of Crime has decided that Guatemala would be the perfect place not only for a safe domain for criminals but also for a Joker amusement park.

To that end, the villain ties Vicki to a railroad track and places Batman, his hands tied with wire, atop the train itself. The Dark Knight has only moments to unshackle himself and save Vicki. With the help of the ace reporter (and a few machine guns), Bats brings the Joker's cave hideaway down on his head and saves the day for Guatemala. Or does he? To be continued...

In the "Meanwhile" department, Alfred visits his long-lost daughter, who's holed up in a Gotham apartment, and Harvey Bullock continues to pour his heart out to a comatose Gordon. Barbara Gordon enters the hospital room and comforts the gruff but (suddenly) loving cop.

On its surface, "Laugh, Killer, Laugh!" seems like just another dumb 1980s Batman script and, for the most part, it is. But I bought into the Joker's lunatic scheme of transforming Guatemala into JokerLand. It's completely mental and that's what you want from the most dangerous, insane, DC comic villain. Of course, I still don't buy that the whole thing is built on coincidence upon coincidence, but then that's the nature of the beast, isn't it? When Batman tells Vicki to run to safety after they've destroyed the Joker's hideout and she tells him he's nuts if he thinks she'll miss out on the story of the century, I laughed out loud. Good touch there, Doug.

I love the Colan art as usual, but the exaggerated vertical length of the Joker's lower jaw was ludicrosity's finest hour. Not since the dopey zombie/vampire/whatevers of Will Smith's I Am Legend has the facial anatomy been so off-putting. The guy literally never has his mouth closed. When he talks like a guy at the dentist, how come Bats doesn't say "Huh?" And, as usual, the sub-plots distract from the main story in a bad way. The Alfred's daughter thing is maudlin and, without a lot of back story, utterly wasted, while Harvey Bullock's transformation from dirty, conniving cop to hospital crybaby is just stupid.

Jack: "Laugh, Killer, Laugh!" is in the running for one of my top Bat-stories of 1983. The cover is fantastic and the Colan/Smith art inside is delicious. I agree that it looks weird to see Colan draw the Joker (Jokula?), but I love the plan to turn the entire country into a Joker theme park. I was intrigued by the subplot involving Alfred and in the back of my mind I feel like there was a story where Alfred was doing some heroics in France in WWII. Am I imagining that (Nope. And it ties in to your favorite female comic character of all time, Mlle. Marie!-Petulant Pete)? Did he get busy with a French lass? Moench is doing a good job with the subplots, though having Harvey Bullock hear about Joker's escape and keep it from Gordon stretches credulity. That would be big news! The train escape sequence is exciting, and I love seeing Vicki go wild with a machine gun. What a great story!

"Survival of the Fittest III: Soft Targets!"
Story by Joey Cavalieri
Art by Jerome Moore, Adrian Gonzales, & Sal Trapani

With his particular set of skills, The Green Arrow foils the (still somewhat sketchy) plans of a survivalist group and restores order to Star City.

Peter: A perfect example of how to take a thrilling opening chapter and transform a three-parter into mindless pap. Even after 25+ pages, I couldn't tell you what the grand scheme of the world's most inane terrorists actually was. The world domination was taken off the table early and then it was just a matter of running through a whole lot of corridors and ducking trick arrows. I hesitate to bring up the rushed climax because at least it brings this one to an end, but that only means we'll get the start of another crappy back-up arc next issue. No matter who makes up the art team (a different one each chapter, I think), the Green Arrow feature always looks like your basic DC comic book of the 1980s.

Jack: Just how many different kinds of arrows does GA lug around in his quiver? It seems like he'd be bent over from the weight of them all. You used the perfect panel to illustrate how bad this story was--these guys were going to start WWIII and end up being sprayed with water? C'mon, Len Wein, we expect better from our editor.

Next Week...
Jack and Peter search for a gem
in a mound of manure.


andydecker said...

I hate circus stories in every media, so this two issues do nothing for me. They were competently written, no doubt, but that every little crook can knock the Batman out is getting tiresome. I am not sure I buy the underage Jason can do whatever he likes, but this is DC land, so whatever. Also his little emotional blackmail is weak drama.At least Doug tried to put some surprises into his straightforward script and the twist was okay. The cover raised expecatations which the story couldn't deliver.

The art was atmopheric, no complaints here. Alcala manages to make Newton look good, which is even more apparent in Batman #365. Ruins" looks very nice. Quite in contrast to Colan's Joker. What's with the jaw? He looks like he is transforming into Dracula's bat form any second. Again I think that Bob Smith was the worst inker for Colan. He made the loose pencils even looser, and it just doesn't look good.

Jack Seabrook said...

That jaw is freaky, isn't it? Wait till you see it on the Joker copter! I don't know how the darn thing can land.

John said...

I loved this "Jokerland Guatemala" saga too. It is such a page-turner and definitely one of those above-average stories that the Clown Prince of Crime deserves. Especially the art of Batman #365 "Ruins" from Don Newton & Alfredo Alcala is something to remember. The jungle, the fights, the wild animals, the splash-page, everything looks top-notch !
Joker's freaky jaw in "Laugh, Killer, Laugh!" also is something to remember, but for entirely different reasons.. (Also how can a man laugh non-stop for 49 minutes ??? Must be a Guinness record ! )
All this fuss with Gordon's heart-attack episode is clearly the changing moment of Bullock's persona from corrupt and devious to loyal, brave and a friend of Jim in the future.

The Chimera storyline was predictable and Jason's bratty behavior is really annoying.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, John. I really liked "Ruins," too.