Monday, May 8, 2023

Batman in the 1980s Issue 78: December 1988


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

Batman #426

"A Death in the Family,
Chapters 1 & 2"
Story by Jim Starlin
Art by Jim Aparo & Mike DeCarlo

Robin is a bit too aggressive in mopping up a kiddie-porn ring, so Batman decides to suspend the Boy Wonder from duty, something Jason Todd does not appreciate. Meanwhile, the Joker escapes from Arkham Asylum yet again. He's the proud owner of a nuclear cruise missile that he plans to sell to a terrorist in the Middle East to raise money, since the authorities have been seizing his hidden funds.

Jason heads back to Crime Alley, his old neighborhood, where a neighbor of his deceased parents gives him a box of their possessions that she managed to save. While Batman searches for clues as to the Joker's whereabouts, Jason goes through the box and finds his own birth certificate, which lists a different woman than he thought as his mother. He returns to the Batcave and uses the Bat-Computer to search for the woman, since all he can read on the certificate is that her name starts with "S." He narrows it down to three women, all out of the country.

As the Joker is flying a plane with his nuclear missile toward Lebanon, Jason is riding first class on a different plane to search for his birth mother. Batman finds the Joker's hideout and figures out what's going on. He returns to the Batcave to learn that Jason has run away. He must make a hard decision between chasing the lad or the Joker. Of course, he chooses the Joker, but by the time the Caped Crusader gets to Lebanon, the Clown Prince of Crime has disappeared with his warhead. One of the women who could be Jason's mother is a secret agent in Beirut, so Batman, Robin, and the Joker all converge in the same city.

Bruce soon runs into Jason, who explains his mission. Coincidentally, Sharmin Rosen, the secret agent who might be Jason's mother, is spotted with Peter Brando, a man who has offered to sell the warhead. Batman and Robin follow the pair to a camp near the border with Israel, where the Joker sells the missile for a cool million to a terrorist. The Dynamic Duo make short work of the crooks but Sharmin Rosen is held at gunpoint after she kills a sniper who had Batman in his sights. Robin rushes to her aide as a terrorist is about to launch the missile, which blows up on its launcher--it seems the Joker did not reassemble it properly. The Joker's million dollars burns up in the explosion and he wanders off into the desert, muttering to himself. Sharmin confirms that she's not Jason's mother and Jason vows to track down the other two women. One is in Beirut and the other is in Ethiopia, where the Joker just happens to be going as well.

Peter: There's a lot going on here and you can just feel it's working up to... something. I found the usually reliable Aparo and DeCarlo to be rather bland this issue. Too many really tiny panels. The script keeps things moving but there are a few too many coincidences for my taste. Robin just happens to be in that country at the same time as Bats and then super-agent/maybe Robin-mama shows up as well. It's a small world. The irony here is that, just as I'm warming up to the Jason Todd character, the powers-that-be decide he has to.... whoops, almost spoiled it. Stay tuned! Love that Mike Mignola cover, by the way.

Jack: You like that cover? Seriously? Batman's mouth is all wrong. I enjoyed the story and I agree with you about the art. Perhaps the editors at DC were asking too much of their reliable artists and the results look rushed. Aparo, like Wrightson in The Cult, was churning out too many pages to make them as crisp as usual. My biggest problem with this story comes near the end, when the NUCLEAR WARHEAD explodes on the launch pad and nobody is hurt! There's no radiation, no fallout, nothing. Oh well, a nuclear bomb blew up over there! Hey, let's keep looking for my mom! The other problem is with the Joker wandering off into the desert and Batman not going after him. Excuse me, this is the guy who recently crippled Batgirl and then murdered eight guards at Arkham to escape! You just let him wander off so you could ask Sharmin Rosen if she ever had a baby in Gotham City? No wonder there's a crime problem in Gotham.

Detective Comics #593

"The Fear, Part Two:
Diary of a Madman"
Story by Alan Grant
Art by Norm Breyfogle & Steve Mitchell

The Batman tracks Cornelius Stirk to his apartment, but he's a few minutes too late. Stirk has just finished slaughtering his latest victim and is dumping the body at a nearby construction site. Bats finds evidence of the murder brewing in a giant pot: the victim's vital organs!

Meanwhile, at the aforementioned job site, a security cop witnesses Stirk trespassing and confronts him. The madman uses his "psi-power" to cloud the cop's mind, projecting an illusion of a gorgeous blonde who invites the rent-a-cop to her apartment. He quickly agrees.

Back at that apartment, the Batman lies in wait, hoping to catch Stirk unawares. Unfortunately, the beautiful blonde act tricks the Dark Knight as well and Stirk gets the drop on our hero, shooting him in the leg and knocking him unconscious. Stirk ties the Batman up and promises to gut him, but first he attempts to elicit fear in the Caped Crusader. The Batman's greatest fear is to be unmasked before the world and to become helpless to save the innocents. 

Stirk promises to make the Batman's fear come true by slitting the security guard's throat while the hero is trussed up and helpless. Overcoming immense odds, the Batman breaks his shackles and wallops Stirk before the maniac can kill. Later, in his Arkham cell, Stirk discovers that his greatest fear dresses like a giant bat.

Peter: I enjoyed this second chapter much more than the first. Alan Grant's writing is electric (That's another thing I've noticed about being sane--people like it when you adapt yourself to their wishes and expectations. My doctors liked it; they said I was well again.) and very, very violent. This is about as bloody as the regular titles have gotten, pushing the "Acceptable for All Ages" tag aside. Stirk cannibalizes his victims in order to draw energy for his powers. Haven't seen much of that in the mainstream funny books. I'd still like these stories to have more room (well, I mean the good stories) to breathe; they just get started and they're over too quickly. There were far too many six-syllable medical terms and I'd rather have gotten more back-story on the Stirk character. Breyfogle's art continues to grow on me, resembling that of Tom Sutton more and more every issue. 

Jack: I think Steve Mitchell's inks make Breyfogle's pencils more palatable, but his style is still too outlandish for me. I agree that this is an excellent story and the art kind of fits. It's definitely more gruesome than we've grown used to. By the way, did you see the ad for a comic book based on The Prisoner? Now that's intriguing!

Batman: The Cult #4

"Book Four: Combat"
Story by Jim Starlin
Art by Bernie Wrightson

Bruce Wayne wakes from a nightmare in which his ghoul-like parents chide him for giving up, so he tells Alfred that he's returning to Gotham City tomorrow night to take care of Deacon Blackfire. Things are dire in Gotham, where Blackfire has enslaved or killed most of those who did not evacuate. Bruce and Jason test out some new weapons before suiting up and heading for the city.

Under the streets, Blackfire tells his followers that he wants to die so he can become a martyr. That night, Batman and Robin drive across the bridge to Gotham City in their new monster truck/Batmobile, firing tranquilizer darts at Blackfire's army and launching missiles at any property in the way. Making their way toward Blackfire's underground hideout, they are unaware that their target awaits them in an arena, where he hopes to face off with Batman.

Batman and Robin make their way down into the sewers and fight off what seems like an army of Blackfire's followers. Robin is injured and Batman must proceed alone, but when he meets Blackfire in the arena, the Dark Knight refuses to kill his enemy. Instead, he beats him so viciously that the deacon begs him to stop, thus losing the faith of his followers. They finish the job, acting as a mob and murdering their leader. Order is restored in Gotham City and things slowly return to normal.

Peter: Everything about this series has screamed The Dark Knight Returns Wannabe, from its epic scope to its tedious news reports (which only tell us what we're already seeing) and ludicrously large new "Batmobile." That dopey four-wheeler might be every truck driver's wet dream, but all I could think was "Whoever delivered it to Wayne Manor might be able to connect the dots when the damn thing shows up on TV!" 

The problem is, The Cult is missing all the key elements: a good story, a memorable villain, and a strong supporting cast. In the end, we have no idea who or what Deacon was or why he wanted Gotham so badly. What was his end game? Just the martyrdom he continually begged for? Bernie's art (which isn't near the top of his legendary skill here; witness the awkward and stiff full-page fight scene between Bats and Deacon) can only hold my interest for so long before I have to go back to reading those words.

At least we get the obligatory "This is what motivates our hero" interlude to remind us how Batman got his start. Whenever Wayne/Batman doubts himself, you know it'll all come down to a few panels devoted to that alleyway. All in all, for a prestige format series and with the talent involved, The Cult is a major disappointment.

Jack: I agree with you as far as the entire series goes, but I thought part four was better than the three issues that preceded it, mainly because Wrightson's art sticks to his strengths in spots. The first two pages, with Bruce's parents as ghouls, are classic Bernie, and the full-page panel midway through, where Batman stands above a kneeling crook and tells him to give Blackfire a message, is excellent. The panels with the talking heads are awful, though, and the deacon is not a believable super-villain. It's odd that they'd set it up in earlier chapters that he was able to live extra-long by bathing in blood, but this never gets explained. Overall, The Cult was a disappointment, especially from two of the better creators of 1970s-1980s comics.

The Best of the Brave and the Bold #3

"The Sleepwalker from the Sea!"
Story by Bob Haney
Art by Neal Adams
(Reprinted from The Brave and the Bold #82, March 1969)

Jack: Another winner from 1969 features gorgeous, groundbreaking art by Neal Adams. There was no one else like him in comics at the time. This story uses the tried-and-true misunderstanding between heroes to set up a brief dispute between Batman and Aquaman; the dispute is quickly solved and it turns out that the villain of the piece is Aquaman's half-brother and greatest foe, Ocean Master. I was never much of an Aquaman fan so, while I recognize the bad guy's costume, I'm not familiar with his story. Fortunately, a giant aquarium comes into play at the climax, allowing Aquaman and Batman to do some swimming.

Next Week...
How will you vote?

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