Monday, April 10, 2023

Batman in the 1980s Issue 76: September/October 1988


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

Batman #423

"You Shoulda Seen Him..."
Story by Jim Starlin
Art by Dave Cockrum & Mike DeCarlo

A young Black man named Kenny stands on the railing of the Gothamboro Bridge, threatening to end his life with a leap into the water far below. Batman appears and tries to talk Kenny out of jumping but he leaps into the abyss; Batman leaps after him and saves him by means of a harness and a very long rope. "'You Shoulda Seen Him...,'" says one cop to another next morning at Willy's Diner. But the other cop has a story of his own.

Early that morning he was called to defuse a hostage situation at a deli; Batman disarmed three punks and saved an old woman from being shot and killed. A third cop joins the duo at their table and tells a very different Batman story. This officer was chasing two runaway children through the warehouse district when Batman appeared out of nowhere. The Caped Crusader took his time and listened to the kids, eventually learning that their parents had died and they refused to be separated by a social worker. Instead, they have been living in a packing crate under the highway. Batman promises to have them returned to an aunt so they can stay together. The cops are surprised to hear about three very different sides of the famous crimefighter; at Wayne Manor, Bruce checks on the children and Alfred asks if "'the avenging Dark Knight of Gotham'" has gone soft!

Peter: The Cockrum/DeCarlo art on "You Shoulda..." is the pits, the very definition of the low-grade art that permeated the major comic companies in the 1980s. Who is that guy who's supposed to be Bruce Wayne in the final panel? Search me. The story is maudlin and cheesy and tells us nothing new about the Bruce/Bats character. Dateline 1988: Batman's a good guy at heart... he's selfless... he helps people... he's got a soft spot for orphans. Get me back to the violent and edgy Starlin quick.

Jack: Call me sentimental, but I enjoyed this slice of life story that shows the different sides of Batman. He can be direct and effective, as with the young man who jumps off the bridge; he can be brutal and violent, as he is with the hostage-takers; or he can be sensitive and patient, as he is with the children. A tear even slips out from beneath his mask! The art by Cockrum and DeCarlo isn't the best we've seen, but it is nowhere near the worst and I'd take it over some of the other art combos we've seen recently on the monthly books.

Detective Comics #590

"An American Batman in London"
Story by John Wagner & Alan Grant
Art by Norm Breyfogle

Syraqui terrorists break into the Gotham Vets Club and mow down 20 defenseless men before committing suicide. The man responsible for arming the gunmen is Syraqui diplomat Abu Hassan, granted diplomatic immunity. That "Get Out of Jail Free Card" means nothing to the Batman but Hassad has already hopped a plane back home to London. Before you know it, Bruce Wayne is landing at Heathrow.

Since Wayne has arrived in England on Guy Fawkes Night, the city is alight with fire and, unbeknownst to our hero, it may get even hotter in the old town. Fresh from his American massacre, Hassan plans to do what Guy Fawkes only dreamed of: blow up Parliament.

The Batman slips into the Syraqui Embassy and confronts Hassan, who lets slip his plans for the night. Hassan argues that the Caped Crusader's land of milk and honey perpetrates worse acts of terrorism every day in the name of the red, white, and blue and the hero's resolve falters. Could this madman be right? One of the terrorist's henchmen attempts to garrote the Dark Knight but our man in London flips him over his shoulder... right into Hassan, causing him to crash through the window and fall to his death below.

The Batman hurries to Parliament to stop the attack and arrives just after the Syraquis have killed off security. Batman steers a car into the machine gun-wielding quartet, setting off the explosives meant to destroy Parliament. London is safe once more but the Batman ponders his place in a world full of selfishness and greed.

Peter: Despite the preachiness, I liked this adventure very much and I'm not a funny book reader who really cares for his capes and cowls to be mixed with politics. Bruce Wayne/Batman seems to come off as more than just a little naive, not understanding the definition of a diplomat and his immunity; his rant in front of the FBI agent and Gordon is childish. The massacre at the Vets' Club is pretty violent stuff; there's no looking away here. I'm not sure why Wagner and Grant have to concoct a phony country since we all know who they're talking about circa 1988. There's quite a bit going on for a one-off story. Breyfogle's pencils remain (literally) sketchy. Just when I think he's gotten over the hump, the shadow of Frank Robbins descends yet again.

Jack: Breyfogle's art is too stylized for me and in places it's just plain ugly. Some portions of this story remind me of the work of Alex Nino at Warren; impressionistic page designs that get in the way of clear storytelling. Still, Wagner and Grant tell a good yarn and the 22 pages rush by with a propulsive fervor. It's a good story but the art keeps it from being great. The cover is in the running for best of the year, however.

Batman: The Cult #1

Story by Jim Starlin
Art by Bernie Wrightson

Why are homeless people and criminals disappearing from the streets of Gotham City? It's not Batman's doing--he's been chained to an overhead pipe in an underground sewer for a week, barely kept alive by men who worship Shaman Blackfire. He used to be Deacon Blackfire, who ran a shelter for the homeless in crime alley, but now he has poor souls convinced that he's the messiah.

Ridding Gotham City of violent criminals by killing them in the streets is a mode of operation that causes various reactions, from Batman's ("'It's wrong...'") to regular citizens ("'It's about time the honest folks got a break in this city.'") Shaman Blackfire and his disciples use tried and true brainwashing techniques on Batman and finally, with the aid of drugs, they appear to convince the Dark Knight that their cause is just. But what is Blackfire's real goal? When he tells his colleague that "'the competition is weakening,'" does that mean he's eliminating the opposition and plans to run the crime world himself? And will a mind-altered Batman be at his side?

Peter: "The Cult" explores the "What is a Vigilante" themes that were suddenly in vogue in the 1970s and 1980s, so there's nothing startlingly original in the plot (at least so far), but it's still got my interest. Starlin was obviously influenced by The Dark Knight (especially in how he handles the Gotham media) but, by this time, who wasn't? The Wrightson art is the key to the success or failure of The Cult, in my opinion. So far so good, but can Bernie sustain the quality for (ulp!) 188 pages?

Jack: I was excited to see that Bernie Wrightson drew this extra-long comic (46 pages!) and, while some of it looks great, I don't think it entirely plays to his strengths, which lay in depicting the weird and ghoulish. His regular folks look like any other well-drawn DC comic characters of the late 1980s. He certainly doesn't draw a great Joker, who appears briefly in a dream sequence early in the story. I was shocked by the four-letter words sprinkled through the story and I guess DC had, by this time, decided that these non-newsstand comic events were geared toward adult readers. Starlin's story is intriguing but not at the level of The Killing Joke, at least not in part one.

Batman #424

"The Diplomat's Son"
Story by Jim Starlin
Art by M.D. Bright & Steve Mitchell

Responding to a woman's screams, Robin bursts into the home of Felipe Garzonas. While Felipe is no match for the Teen Wonder, his partner has a knife! Fortunately, Batman was keeping an eye on his young partner and quickly dispatches with the goon. In a bedroom, Robin finds a model named Gloria Stanson, whose black eye came from Felipe's fist. At the police station, Commissioner Gordon explains that Felipe's father is Jose Garzonas, the ambassador from Bosatago, so Felipe is free in no time.

Robin is not used to the bad guys getting away so easily. Batman explains to him that Felipe was high on cocaine and, in the days that follow, the Dynamic Duo surveil Felipe until they discover where he's buying his drugs. Batman and Robin burst in and dispatch with the drug dealers before taking Felipe to be arrested. Although he is out quickly, he'll be recalled to Bosatago. On his way out of the station, Felipe telephones Gloria to say he'll see her tonight; Batman and Robin rush to her apartment and found that she has hanged herself. Robin pays a visit to Felipe at home and, next thing we know, Felipe takes a long, fatal fall from his balcony to the pavement. Batman arrives and Robin says Felipe fell, but the Dark Knight isn't so sure.

Peter: A hard-hitting, well-written story; I never saw that climax coming. Hopefully, writer Starlin and editor Denny don't water down the impact, but I find it hard to believe they'd leave a big question mark hanging over Jason Todd's head. Could Batman ever be aligned with a legit killer? We'll see next issue when the conclusion appears. The art, while not spectacular, is certainly miles more palatable than the swill we were sold last issue.

Jack: This is excellent! Steve Mitchell once again cleans up some shaky pencils, as we've seen him do with other artists, and the result is better than what Breyfogle is doing in Detective. Starlin's story is very good, and I'm also intrigued to see what happens next issue. I especially liked the wordless fight sequence on pages 12-14.

Detective Comics #591

Story by Alan Grant
Art by Norm Breyfogle

Bruce Wayne is throwing a charity function at the home of Mr. Kerry Rollo, a man who owns the largest collection of antiquities in the world. One of Rollo's prize possessions is the "Power Bone," an Aborigine relic dating back fifty thousand years. 

Coincidentally, an Aborigine is stalking the streets of Gotham, looking for that aforementioned curio and stopping at nothing to track it down. The Batman gets wind of an incident in a local gym and investigates, finding one dead and two seriously wounded, all three victims of the Aborigine.

The foreigner finally tracks the Bone to Rollo and bursts into the collector's apartment, demanding the return of his sacred relic. Once the Bone is in hand, the Aborigine is ready to dispense some outback justice when the Dark Knight bursts through the door and engages the giant in combat. The Aborigine stops the fight long enough to relate the true story of how Rollo acquired the Power Bone. Despite his disgust at Rollo's murderous ways, the Batman protects the man from his attacker. But the Aborigine pushes the Caped Crusader aside and, grabbing Rollo, smashes through the window of the skyscraper. Rollo SPLATS on the sidewalk far below but the Batman can find no sign of the Aborigine. Our hero once again ponders whether some kind of justice was meted out.

As in the London story last issue, "Aborigine!" finds Batman in a quandary during his signoff. Just how far can one push this justice stuff without crossing the line into "Judge, Jury, and Executioner?" I like that Grant hints that some supernatural force might be at work here. I'm also curious as to why the team is avoiding the Rogues' Gallery, instead focusing on contemporary "real world" problems like drug addiction. Perhaps because they felt the Gallery had been overused and wanted to prove themselves capable of playing in the sandbox without the usual toys? Good job so far. And, weirdly enough, I'm getting used to Norm Breyfogle's art, which is still just as rough as Jerry Grandenetti's was back at 1960s Warren, but which shows signs of brilliance now and then.

Jack: An excellent story from start to finish, but I just can't seem to warm up to Breyfogle's style. I'm starting to feel like a crank. I liked seeing Alfred driving the Batmobile to pick up Batman so he could change into his civvies in time to get to the party! It's interesting how prevalent drugs are becoming in the late 1980s Batman stories--the trend mirrors what was going on in the U.S., I guess. Maybe I'll get used to Breyfogle's art eventually, but for now I prefer everyone else's work.

Batman: The Cult #2

Story by Jim Starlin
Art by Bernie Wrightson

Now part of Blackfire's cult, Batman somewhat unwillingly finds himself participating in the wholesale murder of a group of Mafia criminals. His attempt to think clearly after returning to the underground lair is interrupted when he is asked to accompany one of Blackfire's men to kill a man described as a drug fiend and pimp; after the other man commits murder, Batman knocks him out, saving a policeman who happens on the scene.

Still drugged, Batman punches the cop and heads off to find some food. The pimp killer tells the cops about Blackfire's plan to take over Gotham City, but when it hits the news, the fine citizens support the vigilante's mission. Robin goes undercover and underground as Batman's head clears and the Caped Crusader knows that he, too, will have to return to the sewers. While Blackfire riles up the homeless masses, Batman discovers that the deacon has been living in extreme luxury. Suddenly, the Dark Knight is hit from behind and knocked unconscious by one of Blackfire's men.

The mayor is killed when his car explodes and the members of the City Council are killed soon after; Blackfire announces that the deaths are linked to organized crime. Batman fights back against his captors and escapes into the water running underground; Robin dives in after him and finds Batman among a pile of rotting corpses.

Jack: Another 46 pages and I'm beginning to think "The Cult" is too long and overblown. I'm not convinced that Deacon Blackfire and his group of homeless people could do what the Joker, the Penguin, et al. could never do, and that's drug and starve Batman into changing his personality. The scenes where Batman is addled or in a daze don't work well; he's too strong-willed to be acting like this. The story also seems to go nowhere fast and has many of the same things we've seen before, such as the talking heads on TV shown in pages of small panels. I'm happy to see Robin doing more than just following Batman around but, again, this doesn't seem like Jason Todd as much as Dick Grayson. We'll see what part three has in store, but I'm not holding my breath that "The Cult" will suddenly get very interesting.

Peter: We are in total agreement here, Jack. Why would this Deacon guy be able to control Batman so easily? This is weak for a "prestige" project. Way too long and Bernie's art is lackluster. Knowing how incredible a talent the guy was, I'm sure it had to do either with the deadline or the inker. The only standout from this overblown chapter is the final image we have of Batman and Robin. That is Bernie Wrightson!

Detective Comics Annual #1

"Fables Part 1: The Monkey Trap"
Story by Denny O'Neil
Art by Klaus Janson & Tony DeZuniga

In 19th-Century Manchuria, a captain in the Japanese Army makes a promise to his dying prisoner. In present day, that captain (now a sensei) and his pupil, Shiva, make their way to America on a junk. Their goal: to meet the Batman.

Meanwhile, in North Africa, Ra's Al Ghul tells his daughter Talia that she must travel to Gotham to meet up with Oswald Cobblepot, who has stolen a deadly drug from Ra's. The serum, when injected into a bird's bloodstream, becomes a killing virus that affects only women and small children. Talia agrees, but hopes (out loud) that she doesn't have to meet him, that masked guy she used to be in love with.

In Hub City, The Question enters a bar and orders the men within to relinquish the charity money they stole. They refuse and a brief contretemps ensues, with the faceless hero surviving the skirmish unblemished. He meets up with gal pal Lady Shiva outside the bar and she tells him he must help her locate the Batman for some mysterious reason. The Question relays a message to the Dark Knight (who had aided him in an adventure some months before) and a meeting is set up at a Gotham pier.

At the pier, the Batman arrives to find Shiva and her silent partner, the 150-year-old Sensei. Since the Batman has a reputation for skillful battle and Shiva fancies herself a mistress of the martial arts, she has a go at the Caped Crusader. Bewildered and somewhat annoyed, the Detective fights off her advances and then listens as the old man mumbles some odd mumbo-jumbo about monkeys and cages. Deciding he's had enough of this David Lynch movie, he takes his leave. But something nags at the back of his mind.

At the Penguin's lair, the master criminal reveals his secret plan for Gotham-wide murder and destruction to the man who sold him Ra's's virus. The scientist explains that Ra's is closing in on him and he needs more dough. Penguin promises that Ra's won't harm a hair on the man's head and then releases his two pet falcons, who tear the scientist to pieces. 

Later, at the Gotham morgue, the Batman examines what's left of the falcons' lunch and pulls a few clues from the corpse. just as Talia emerges from the shadows and tells her ex-lover about the Penguin's plan. From the clues on the body the Dark Knight determines that Penguin is hiding out in a local shoe factory (no, seriously, he got that from the dead guy's shoes!) and he and Talia hop in her rental. 

Penguin's henchmen put up a fight but, in the end, they're no match for the brawn and skills of the Batman. The two falcons, however are another story. While Bats is attempting to fight off beaks and claws, Oswald injects Talia with the toxic bird virus. Bats defeats the falcons and then gives the Penguin a right that darn near puts the portly criminal through a wall. Our hero rushes Talia to a hospital and has the doctor pump her full of testosterone. She makes a full recovery in about five minutes and then gets right back to wooing her Caped Bohunk, who rejects her advances in the name of truth, justice, and the American way. What a dope!

Peter: What a load of crap this story is. It's confusing, meandering, bewildering, boring, and a whole bunch of other -ings I can't put into words. To be fair, this is part one of a three-part "epic" crossover between the Detective, Green Arrow, and Question annuals, so the story might become clearer in part two or part three. The problem becomes that nothing in these 40 pages makes me want to read the rest. Bats doesn't even show up until a third of the way through the story; odd, since this is his title. 

The section involving the Question makes no sense at all. He's introduced, has a conversation with Shiva, and then disappears. I was a Question fanatic back in the 1980s when DC resurrected the character, but I don't remember this storyline. There's a reason for that. There's no mention of Green Arrow in this first part, so I have no idea what his role in this arc will turn out to be. There are a lot of moving parts to "The Monkey Trap" but it doesn't look like Denny had a grasp of what he wanted to do with those parts.

When did the Penguin become anything but a practical joker, a criminal who would pull off umbrella factory heists (in fact, I'd say the DC character and the Burgess Meredith version were the closest any of the 1966 TV show characters came to their funny book counterparts) but avoid any serious terrorism. Mass murder of innocent children sounds more like the work of the Joker. The art is good and bad; the characters are all competently drawn but the action is stiff. This is definitely not the sexy Talia drawn in the 1970s by Neal Adams; here she's just another dame after the Dark Knight.

Jack: Doesn't it seem like the folks at DC drag out Ra's and Talia whenever it's time for a big event? I was happy to see the Penguin but I agree with you that it's uncharacteristic of him to be so ruthless. One interesting facet of this story is the early glimpse of what would soon become the Internet; one character explains to another what a "modem" is. The art by Janson and deZuniga is pretty good, though it looks more like deZuniga to me than Janson, whose pencils have never impressed me as much as his inks. I must have missed a story arc because I don't recall why Batman is so mad at Talia. I thought the last time we saw her she was having his baby! There are plenty of wordless panels and pages, making this a quick read; overall, it's not a classic but I liked it better than you did.

I skimmed the Green Arrow and Question annuals that completed the story; Batman barely appears in either issue and so I didn't pay much attention to how it all comes out. I can say that Talia disappears after this issue.

The Best of The Brave and the Bold #1

"The Senator's Been Shot!"
(from The Brave and the Bold #85)

This issue features great art in four reprint stories. The last three are by Kubert and Heath and are pulled from the first and fifth issues of The Brave and the Bold way back in 1955 and 1956, but the first is the one that interests me--it's a Bob Haney/Neal Adams story from a 1969 issue, so we haven't covered it before. Adams does both pencils and inks, so it's not quite as amazing as the Adams/Giordano work on Batman or Green Lantern from the early '70s, but it's still great to look at. The story concerns a senator who is shot (not fatally) right before he is to cast a key vote on an anti-crime bill; Batman and Green Arrow team up to catch the man behind the shooting. Two things are of interest: Bruce Wayne plays a major part because he is appointed temporary senator to replace the injured man, and this is the first time readers got to see the "new look" Green Arrow, with the beard. It's pretty cool.

Next Week...
We blow holes in our final
issue of Creepy!

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