Monday, September 5, 2022

Batman in the 1980s Issue 61: June 1986


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

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns #1

"The Dark Knight Returns"
Story by Frank Miller
Art by Frank Miller & Klaus Janson

Ten years after the retirement of the Batman, Bruce Wayne finds himself a bored man. What he wouldn't give for a little action. His best friend, Commissioner Jim Gordon (who now knows the real identity of the Caped Crusader), is days away from retirement, Dick Grayson and Bruce are not on speaking terms, Harvey Dent's disfigured face has been fixed and he's has been found legally sane, and a new breed of street terrorists calling themselves the Mutants are spreading death and destruction across Gotham. The Batman's archenemy, the Joker, sits in Arkham, waiting. 

When Harvey goes missing shortly after his release and the nightly murders weigh on his conscience, Bruce Wayne dons his cape and cowl for the first time in a decade and heads out into the night to kick ass! And kick ass he does, breaking limbs, busting jaws, and severing arteries throughout the alleys of the city. The people of Gotham are split on the return of the Dark Knight; some see him as a savior amidst an unending wave of violence, while others see our hero as an unthinking, fascist vigilante who takes the law into his own hands.

A mysterious face on the news, calling himself the leader of the Mutants, promises to kill both Gordon and the Batman. Not one to wait for the battle to come to him, the Dark Knight enlists the aid of Gordon to track down this leader. Could it be Harvey? All Gordon knows is that two military helicopters have been stolen and an air attack on Gotham seems imminent. The Batman kicks in the teeth of one of Harvey's henchmen and learns enough to stake himself out on one of Gotham's "Twin Towers." Sympathetic to his old pal Harvey's diminished sanity, the Batman vows to take Harvey Dent alive. 

The copter lands and, using hallucinogenic pellets, the Batman takes out the crew of the first helicopter before they can cause mischief, but then he comes face to face with the bomb. He uses a freezing agent to keep the bomb from detonating and then sets off to find Harvey. Rather than hide, Harvey opens fire on his foe and then leaps for the landing skid of the bomb-laden helicopter, which is exiting stage left. Dent misses the skid and soars head-first toward the ground until the Batman catches him and deposits him safely in one of the tower's office suites. Miles away, the copter explodes, killing its villainous occupants.

Peter: What a breath of fresh, original, and vibrant air this project provided in those semi-dark summer 1986 days. I vaguely remember the hoopla leading up to the release, but you have to remember that this was three years before Tim Burton made Batman a worldwide phenomenon and most folks thought of the Caped Crusader as that jokey Adam West thing from a couple of decades before. Neal Adams and Denny O'Neil had hinted at how dark this knight could be, but it took Frank Miller to jettison the good guy and transform our 55-year-old playboy into a ruthless, bone-breaking machine who actually admits to himself that he misses hurting bad guys.

There are so many layers to unwrap, unlike with the monthly comics which (for better or worse) just lie there and present their narratives with little to no depth. It's not a flawlessly told story (I had to read the climax three or four times to figure out what was going on with the two copters and the henchmen), but it is damn near perfect. It's no wonder that every scriptwriter and director from Burton to Nolan to Reeves "borrowed" elements and atmosphere from this and Miller's Year One (coming soon to a blog near you); it's a veritable smorgasbord of great ideas and visuals. Did Gordon's throwaway comment about "what happened to Jason" lead to the decision to kill the kid later on? According to Denny O'Neil, nope. But you have to wonder. Miller wasn't a fan of Todd's killing, calling it the "ugliest" and "most cynical thing" he'd ever seen in comics. It's been thirty-five-plus years since I first read this novel, so I'm eager to see if the quality holds up.

Jack: It's certainly a tremendous, landmark achievement, but was it really $2.95 for a 52-page comic book? I think it was printed on card stock and square bound, but still, $2.95 was a lot of money for a comic that was half the size of the 100-pagers we got in the '70s for 60 cents. That aside, the cover is unlike anything we've seen recently, if ever. Questions about whether Batman was a vigilante had been percolating in the regular comics for some time, and the spike in crime that serves as the catalyst for the story was topical in 1986, even if the story itself is supposed to take place at some future date. That's never clear--is it 20 years after 1986? Or has Bats been gone since 1966? Everything looks like the mid-'80s to me.

It's interesting that there seems to be an underlying theme that excessive heat provokes crime; this was used by Ray Bradbury in a story decades before. The storytelling and art are dynamic and this issue is obviously a landmark development in the limited series format that would become so prevalent in years to come. When Batman says he's "born again," that's a nod to the '80s revival of Protestant religion in the USA.

I don't care for Miller's politics (except when he's on my side), but that's Monday-morning quarterbacking. This is unquestionably a great comic and I can't wait to read the next issue.

Batman #396

"Box-Office Smash"
Story by Doug Moench
Art by Tom Mandrake

Batman and Catwoman are too late to stop the Film Freak from attacking Al Jacobs and they are duped by the FF when he pretends to be Jacobs and sends them on a wild goose chase. Meanwhile, Robin and Harvey Bullock follow a clue left by the Film Freak on a videotape in a room across the alley from police HQ. Tired of the two-tiered approach to crime fighting, Commissioner Gordon brings the teams together and gives them a stern lecture.

Certain that the Film Freak plans a "Box-Office Smash" that will kill his former director during his big movie premiere, the foursome head to the theater. Batman saves the day and prevents a catastrophe when a reel of film explodes. Across town, the Film Freak is dressed as King Kong when he attacks Julia Pennyworth and carries her to the building's roof for the big finish. With help from Catwoman and Robin, Batman knocks FF out cold and ends the menace.

If this were just another Bat-month, "Box-Office Smash" would come off as your usual mediocre Moench script and fair-to-middling Mandrake art but, coming after the launch of The Dark Knight Rises, the story accentuates the slump the titles are in. Nothing of consequence happens and the events that do occur come off as stupid and/or petty. Why in the world would the Film Freak go to the elaborate lengths he does? There might be reasoning somewhere, but after three mindless and boring chapters, I've lost the plot. Similarly, Tom Mandrake can be a perfectly average penciler if he avoids close-ups. In one panel, Catwoman looks like a bug-eyed male and Bats is obviously taking his toys and going home. 

Jack: You make a good point. Without Miller's work to compare it to, this issue of Batman would be below average, but in light of The Dark Knight Returns, it looks pretty bad. There are a couple of panels where Bullock is twice the size of the Boy Wonder. I don't know how long this team-up between Batman and Catwoman will last, but unless Moench does something interesting with it, it seems like a pointless diversion. I think it's time for a new writer and definitely a new artist.

Detective Comics #563

"Free Faces"
Story by Doug Moench
Art by Gene Colan & Bob Smith

Jason Todd's having problems with his Geography grades and it doesn't seem to be the nightly crime raids that are the culprit, but rather that ol' debbil, Love! Every time Jason's eyes wander to prepubescent beauty Rena he sees stars; in fact, during a particularly heated homework session in Jason's room, the dopey kid almost shows the girl his Robin suit. Alfred is worried and lets Master Bruce know what's going on; Bats shrugs and promises he'll get on the kid right away, but duty calls.

The Dark Knight meets Catwoman at the graveyard headquarters of Black Mask's crew, the False Face Society. The search reveals nothing untoward, as the tomb is empty, save the crew's empty masks. But as Bats and Cats turn to leave, they see a funeral wreath hanging on the mausoleum door. And it wasn't there when they entered!

During all this melodrama, Harvey Dent, a/k/a Two-Face, uses some "colloidal make-up" and his supremely gullible lawyer to break out of prison. Making his way back to his apartment hideout, Dent tells his right-hand man that they'll be going out for a heist. Flipping the coin, Two-Face determines that the robbery will involve a party committing illegal activities. His target becomes Candyman, the pusher who's been supplying Gotham High School with its drug supply. Since Robin has been trailing Shane, a fellow classmate, he witnesses the violent attack on Candyman by Two-Face. Knowing he's outnumbered, Robin heads off to let his boss know who's back in town.

Peter: Though most of its length is spent filling readers in on past events (including a way-too-long retelling of the origin of Two-Face), I liked "Free Faces." It's certainly a more substantial story than the abysmal "Film Freak" arc we just mercifully finished and the art is a heck of a lot better (although, in the panel I've reprinted below, you'll see that Rena seems to have been yet another victim of Two-Face). More time is given over to Jason who's been, for the most part, ignored the last few months. I'm intrigued by the Rena character. 

I'm not sure why Batman felt the need to bust into the tomb of the False Face Society other than the fact that it gave Doug the chance to introduce yet another subplot to be explored somewhere down the line: the much-requested return of Circe, I guess.

Jack: At first, I thought it odd that Two-Face would turn up in two comics in the same month, but then I realized it's fitting! He's such a great character and his origin story never fails to fascinate me. Colan's art is as impressive as ever and the drug dealer is depicted as grotesque, though not as horrible as post-acid bath Harvey Dent. The Detective stories, even though they're 15 pages, often seem like the setup or wrap-up to the Batman stories, which are only seven pages longer.

"Winner and Still Champion"
Story by Joey Cavalieri
Art by Jerome Moore & Dell Barras

Green Arrow fights the Champion and beats him pretty easily. Afterward, Ollie and Dinah (a/k/a Black Canary) discuss the victory and inadvertently work out the secret identity of baddie, Steelclaw. 

Peter: An odd installment in that most of the seven pages are given over to post-battle discussion around the kitchen table. As I've said before, Joey Cavalieri has a knack for pulling off the "talk around the table" more assuredly than his action scenes. The Champion is tricked and beaten rather quickly, but I'm not complaining, since he was a tenth-tier villain we could do without. Now, hopefully, Joey will do the same with the equally useless and cliched Steelclaw.

Jack: This is not a good entry in the Green Arrow backup series, just as I was starting to think it was improving. It's just a quick fight and then talking heads. I thought some of the house ads were intriguing and they show DC moving in the direction of more limited series, such as The Last Days of the JSA, which sounds cool.

Next Week...
More Nino Madness!

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