Monday, December 12, 2022

Batman in the 1980s Issue 68: May-June 1987


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

Batman #407

"Year One, Chapter Four:
Friend in Need"
Story by Frank Miller
Art by David Mazzucchelli

Jim Gordon's life is a series of contradictions. He has apprehended notorious narcotics dealer Jefferson Skeevers, but his affair with Sergeant Sarah Essen is torturing them both so much that she has requested a transfer out of Gotham City. D.A. Harvey Dent lets Skeevers out on bail, allowing Batman to track him down and threaten him. As a result, Skeevers asks for a plea deal and offers to reveal the truth about corrupt Detective Flass.

Police Commissioner Loeb doesn't like any of it and tells Gordon he knows all about Sgt. Essen and has pictures to prove it. Gordon and his pregnant wife, Barbara, pay a visit to Wayne Manor, where playboy Bruce Wayne puts on a good act of not being Batman's secret identity. On the way home, Gordon confesses his affair to his wife. Weeks later, she gives birth to a boy. Meanwhile, Catwoman has stolen the commissioner's valuable collection of pop memorabilia, and she is unhappy that her crimes are being attributed to Batman. Her next target is a man known as the Roman, who has "a fortune in old stuff," but her robbery is interrupted by Batman, who ensures that she is not harmed by several violent crooks guarding the Roman.

Batman was trying to learn what criminal act the Roman had planned and, soon enough, we find out: Gordon's baby is kidnapped and his wife is held at gunpoint. Batman arrives, out of costume, on a motorcycle; Gordon shoots the men holding his wife, but another crook drives off with their baby. Gordon shoots Wayne, unaware that he's not part of the gang, and hops on Wayne's cycle to chase the man holding his baby. Bruce recovers and follows; Gordon fights the criminal on a bridge and all fall into the water, where Wayne emerges, holding the healthy baby. Gordon tells him to make himself scarce.

In court, Flass turns on Loeb and reveals the commissioner's misdeeds. Gordon is promoted to captain, he and his wife start marriage counseling, and he ponders the rumor about a new villain in town named the Joker.

Peter: "Friend in Need" brings to a close what might be the best Batman arc of the 1980s, certainly the best story I've read so far by a country mile. Miller's script isn't overly complicated, but it's clever and the writer takes advantage of the fifty years of history behind this character (and the Selina and Gordon characters as well). If there's only one misstep, it might be the Gordon affair. I get that Frank wants to hammer home that no one in this world is a saint, but the thread seems forced. It's a minor quibble in a fabulously creative story.  

Jack: I agree that it's a great story with terrific art. In writing the summary, I thought that some of the plot points were a bit hard to understand, though. The story would work just as well without Catwoman, but I'm glad to see her. The real question I have is why Batman was not in his costume when he was on the motorcycle at the garage. It was clearly a setup to allow Gordon to discover his identity, but it didn't make sense to me that he would chase criminals dressed as Bruce Wayne. Still, it's a minor point and it did not dampen my enthusiasm for the story.

Davis & Neary
Detective Comics #574

"...My Beginning... and My Probable End"
Story by Mike W. Barr
Art by Alan Davis & Paul Neary

After Robin is shot by the Mad Hatter (see #573), Batman must race him to a doctor before the kid bleeds out. But where does a superhero go for first aid? Luckily, Bats knows Leslie Thompkins, the woman who became Bruce Wayne's foster mother (just go with it, revisionist haters) after the Waynes were gunned down in Crime Alley. Thompkins now runs the Thomas Wayne Memorial Medical Clinic, funded by the Wayne Foundation. Leslie knows that Batman and Bruce Wayne are more than best friends, so a long story about the circumstances can be bypassed.

Leslie performs an emergency brain operation on Jason and discovers there is no brain procedure and she and Bats wait to see if Jason makes it through the night. While they're waiting, Leslie simultaneously derides our hero and praises him for the job he's doing in Gotham. Bats once again wonders why he lets a kid help him in such dangerous adventures, but once Robin awakens, there's no doubt they make a Dynamic Duo and just as soon as Jason's perforated lung and ruptured spleen are healed, they're gonna hit the streets!

Peter: There's no doubt this flashback-heavy, ponderous tale was submitted to fit in with the nostalgic tone set by Frank Miller's Year One and the impending Year Two arc. I found it to be a wee bit pretentious and padded, but I did like the art a lot. If I didn't know better, I'd say John Byrne handled the Leslie Thompkins chores. There's an odd scene midway through, where Bruce digs the gun used to kill his parents out of a bush, that goes absolutely nowhere. Maybe this is a set-up scene for something addressed in Year Two? Otherwise, it's clumsy and random. The cover, for those not in the know, is a nod to the classic "Robin Dies at Dawn" cover of Batman #156. 

Jack: If I were Batman, top crime fighter in Gotham, and I had unlimited financial resources in my secret identity as Bruce Wayne, I'm not sure I'd take Robin to the clinic in Crime Alley. Why not rush him to the top hospital in Gotham, where he could be patched up by a crack trauma surgeon? The retelling of the murder of the Wayne parents is powerfully done, but the business about Leslie having been Bruce's foster mother comes out of left field, as do the scenes showing Bruce in high school and college. The story seems like filler, but it's much better than the usual filler issue. In the letters column, Denny O'Neill tells us that the events in Year One occurred five to six years ago, which would mean that Batman started his mission and met Gordon circa 1981-82. Now, wouldn't that mean that Gordon went from captain to commissioner to retired awfully fast?

Hannigan & Giordano
Batman #408

"Did Robin Die Tonight?"
Story by Max Allan Collins
Art by Chris Warner & Mike DeCarlo

Some time ago, as Batman battled the Joker on a Gotham rooftop, the Joker shot Robin, and Robin nearly fell to his death. Back at Wayne Manor, Bruce and Dick (Grayson, that is) discuss letting the public think that Robin really is dead. Bruce wants to protect Dick, but Dick has other ideas and is already envisioning himself as Nightwing.

Batman becomes a solo crime fighter and is vilified in the press; Vicki Vale even asks Bruce Wayne to chair the Committee of Concerned Citizens Against the Batman! He declines and nearly gives himself away when he chases down a purse snatcher on the street. It happens to be the anniversary of the Wayne parents' death (that again!), so Batman makes his annual trek to Crime Alley, where the crooks are taking the night off, well aware of the Dark Knight's tradition.

The ever-changing look of Vicki Vale!
Batman meets Ma Gunn, an older woman from Down Under who has opened a school for wayward boys. He walks back to the Batmobile and finds that its two front tires have been stolen by none other than young Jason Todd, a tough, streetwise kid who lives alone in a tenement room. Batman drops Jason off at Ma Gunn's school, unaware that it's a haven for crooks.

Peter: I'm not a fan of this time-shifting reboot retcon whatever, especially knowing, as a Monday Morning Quarterback, that Jason Todd will become persona non grata very soon. Though I really liked Max's scripts for the issues pre-Year One, this installment is weak. Bruce's lunch dialogue with Vicki is cringe-worthy ("Why don't you just say it, Vicki--I'm a classic victim of liberal guilt."), and the Joker's appearance is wasted. Why is it that I suspected Ma Gunn long before the world's greatest detective? Was it maybe her surname? The Warner/DeCarlo art is good, certainly better than the Mandrake atrocities we were subjected to several months ago, but it's not very dynamic, is it? Ironic that DC has subtitled this book "The New Adventures" when it's dealing with water under the bridge.

Jack: We were spoiled by the four issues of Year One, and this is a letdown. The art is mediocre, which is a disappointment after Mazzucchelli's work and in comparison to the art by Davis and Neary in Detective. It seems odd to reboot Jason Todd's story so soon after he first appeared. I turned to Wikipedia for an explanation and now I understand that this is related to the Crisis on Infinite Earths series and the decision to reboot various characters. Having not read these comics before, I would not have known that Jason was heading toward a reader poll-induced death next year, but it will be interesting to see how this develops. I just wish the art were better, since I suspect we'll be stuck with these artists for a while.

Davis & Neary
Detective Comics #575

"Year Two, Chapter One:
Fear the Reaper"
Story by Mike W. Barr
Art by Alan Davis & Paul Neary

Having established a working relationship with (now Commissioner) Gordon, the Batman goes to work ridding the streets of vermin and general bad guys. 

Meanwhile, Bats's alter ego, millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, begins molding Gotham into his town, building skyscrapers and establishing the Wayne Foundation with his foster mother, Dr. Leslie Thompkins.

Leslie drops in at the home of her friend, Rachel Caspian, in time to meet Rachel's father, who's in town to see his daughter make her final vows and become a Gotham nun. Unbeknownst to all involved, Judson Caspian is the Reaper, an antecedent to the Batman and an extremist who acts as judge, jury, and executioner for any party he deems to be a bad seed. The Reaper has been absent from Gotham for twenty years, but something has brought him back out into the streets to offer up some bloody justice.

The Batman prowls the back alleys for any hint of the deadly vigilante and finally gets lucky when he witnesses the skull-masked assassin attack a prostitute. The two masked men trade blows and, in the end, the Reaper gets the better of Gotham's new caped crusader. The Dark Knight limps back home to Wayne Manor and decides that maybe his no-guns policy might have to be amended.

Peter: A very exciting and well-illustrated first chapter of Year Two. Mike Barr had some mammoth boots to fill and, while he stumbles a couple of times, he does an excellent job of maintaining the atmosphere that Frank Miller created in the first arc. Re-imaginings usually don't float my boat (especially when dealing with a hero who's had his origin and mythology mucked up as many times as the Dark Knight), but Barr does a good job introducing Caspian the Reaper and Rachel the nun. So good, in fact, that I had to check Wiki to see if these characters had appeared before, but no, both are original to this storyline. The Davis/Neary art remains stellar, but I am intrigued by Todd McFarlane's arrival next issue.

Jack: Year Two is a letdown from Year One, but the art remains superb and the story has its good points. The Reaper is a cool character, but I'm not sure I want to see as much of Leslie Thompkins as I fear we'll be seeing. One thing I like about both story arcs is the way Batman makes mistakes and loses fights--it demonstrates that he's still learning. Jim Gordon sure got promoted fast!

Next Week...
A throwback to the
"good old days?"


Anonymous said...

For me, the thing that stood out the most about ‘Year One’ was that it felt more like a Police Procedural than a superhero comic. Every aspect of it felt grounded in the ‘Real World’, in a way that I don’t think had ever been attempted before. It’s like an 87th Precinct/Hill St. Blues story directed by Martin Scorsese. There is just the merest touch of fantasy in it, it’s all just a teeny-tiny bit ‘Larger Than Life’.

Even the way Batman himself is drawn — he looks like an honest-to-goodness real human being in a costume made of actual cloth, not an idealized bodybuilder with his clothes spray-painted on. Mazzuchelli’s approach to the art is like a weird mix of Gray Morrow and Alex Toth aesthetics that really shouldn’t work, but totally DOES.

‘Year Two’ suffers in comparison ONLY because they slapped that label on it. It’s a perfectly solid, entertaining Batman story, with dynamic Neal Adams-ish art. But the naturalistic dialogue and street level verisimilitude of ‘Year One’ are gone. We’re right back in status quo DC Comics World (which is completely to be expected).


Jack Seabrook said...

The Toth comparison is a good one. There's an interesting note on one of the letters pages by O'Neill that says the events of Year One occurred a few years ago and the events of Year Two occurred a year later.