Monday, July 24, 2023

Batman in the 1980s Issue 89: October 1989


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

Batman #440

"A Lonely Place of Dying, Chapter One: Suspects"
Story by George Perez & Marv Wolfman
Art by Jim Aparo & Mike DeCarlo

Batman fights a masked villain named the Ravager high atop a dam and barely escapes with his life. Elsewhere in Gotham City, a mysterious man sits by a vintage radio, receiving instructions to kill Batman. The Dark Knight isn't doing so well in the aftermath of his big dam battle; Alfred tends to his wounds and tells him he's tired of playing nurse, but Batman ignores his butler's good advice and heads out for more punishment.

At the opera, a rich mobster is told that two troublesome gang members will be wiped out the next morning at the Zwei Brothers Warehouse, with Batman's death thrown in for good measure. Elsewhere, a mysterious man watches Teen Titans headquarters and wonders where Dick Grayson/Nightwing could be. Batman appears at the warehouse and catches two thieves stealing books; he makes short work of them and walks away in good health, much to the disappointment of the mysterious man behind all of this--Two-Face!

Batman visits Gordon to ask about any leads to Harvey Dent's whereabouts, while Starfire tells an inquisitive visitor that Nightwing flew the coop. That visitor then deduces that Dick Grayson has returned to the Haly Circus, which is on the verge of closing.

Peter: Maybe it's that we've had enough Two-Face lately to last us a while or maybe Alan Grant has jaded me; whatever the reason, this latest Marv-sterpiece leaves me (like the last) bored and with wandering attention. To be fair, it's not just Marv's script but also the dreary graphics. Oh, don't get me wrong, Aparo fans, it's not awful in a Tom Mandrake sort of way. It's just ho-hum. Again, that might be due to my excitement over what's going on in the other title right now, but I certainly don't have any motivation to find out what Harvey's latest doomed-to-fail scheme might be.

The New Titans #60
Jack: Peter, you're the Marvel expert, so tell me, what happened to Marv Wolfman? Didn't he write some good Dracula and Crisis comics? "Suspects" is the first part of a five-part story and I really don't have a strong grasp on what's going on. I thought the art was fine but nothing special, though I'd take a story drawn by Aparo and DeCarlo over one drawn by Broderick and Bair any day of the week. I guess I have to read The New Titans #60 to keep up with the plot!

In part two, which appears in the Titans issue, the mysterious person seeking Dick Grayson finds him at the circus and turns out to be a boy. Unexpectedly, the boy helps Dick solve a murder at the circus and knows more about Dick/Robin/Nightwing and Bruce/Batman than he should. The boy tells Dick that Batman needs his help and shows him photographs he took of the battle with the Ravager at the dam. Who is this boy and how does he know what he knows? To be continued in Batman 441! The Titans issue is more straightforward than the Batman issue and features sharp art by George Perez that makes it more enjoyable to read.

Detective Comics # 606

"The Mud Pack, Part Three: Killer Clay!"
Story by Alan Grant
Art by Norm Breyfogle & Steve Mitchell

Robin appears before the eyes of a shocked Batman on the steps of Gotham Plaza. Of course, it can't be Robin, rationalizes the Dark Knight, since Jason is dead and Dick is Nightwing. So, it must be Clayface 4 (a/k/a Lady Clayface/Sondra Fuller), who can absorb the abilities and appearance of whomever she chooses. Batman decks her. 

Unfortunately, there's still Clayface 3 (Preston Payne) to deal with, and he's outfitted with a super-strength gizmo that allows him to overpower the Batman, Once Clayface 4 awakens from her snooze, she transforms into a giant bird and flies away, her enemy in her claws. She takes him back to the theater, where Basil Karlo, a/k/a Clayface l'Originale, is waiting. The two tie up our hero and Karlo has Clay 4 tap into his bat-brain, pulling from it his greatest fears.

A little Frank Robbins in there, no?
When he awakens, the Batman is forced to watch a giant movie screen projecting those evils visually: Jason's murder, Joker's attack on Barbara Gordon, the Batman's rogue gallery resurfacing to drive him insane. Bat-Mite. Across town, Looker is pow-wowing with Commissioner Gordon, soaking up all the facts on the case and trying to pinpoint the Caped Crusader's location. Looker visits the Gotham Plaza and finds clues that lead her to the theater. 

Meanwhile, Basil Karlo offers champagne to Clayface 4 in celebration of the job they've done. The drink is laced with a knockout drug and she quickly collapses. While she's out, Karlo takes a vial of her blood and then does the same with the slumbering Preston Payne (Clayface 3, for those who need a scoresheet). He then scurries out of the theater. Payne awakens, compares notes with Clay 4, and the two develop a fondness for each other just before they set out to find and kill Karlo. Looker, having found the theater, stumbles upon the bound Batman, who now appears hopelessly insane.

Peter: While not quite the powder keg the first two chapters were, Chapter 3 is still very enjoyable and sets us up for a heck of a finale. Karlo is a fascinating character, maybe even more insane than Joker, and I love that he stabs everyone in the back. Not sure why all the crap that has been floating around in the Batman's head for months would suddenly drive him... um, batty... but it makes for a great final panel. I'm sure we'll find next issue that he's not quite as crazy as he looks. Norm Breyfogle continues to dazzle and, if I didn't know better, he finds places to plant homages to previous Bat-artists. I can even see some Frank Robbins in a few of those panels. A much-constrained Robbins, but still...

Jack: These writers sure are getting a lot of mileage out of Jason's death and Batman's PTSD, don't you think? Not to mention the constant replaying of the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne. It seems like we replay one or both scenes in practically every issue. What would the writers have done if the readers had voted to keep Jason alive? Breyfogle has fun with Batman's nightmare and seems to be at his best when depicting extreme figures and expressions. Once again, Alan Grant's humor is most welcome, such as the panel where Clayface 3 tells Clayface 4, "'Don't cry. You'll make your face run...'"

Detective Comics #607

"The Mud Pack, Part Four: The China Clay Syndrome"
Story by Alan Grant
Art by Norm Breyfogle & Steve Mitchell

Looker finds a mentally-deteriorating Batman in the theater and does a quick stroll through the hero's brain, cleaning out the rough stuff and bringing him back to sanity. Returned to the real world, he uses his detecting skills to accurately guess what happened while he was watching his own private movie. He and Looker head out, searching for Basil Karlo.

Speaking of the devil, Karlo has landed at Gotham General and holds a dagger to the throat of Dr. Lowell, threatening to spill some of the Doc's blood on the lab floor if he doesn't cooperate. Karlo orders Lowell to mix the various Clayface blood samples and then inject them into Karlo's vein. Lowell warns him that the results are unpredictable, but Karlo insists. 

The Batman has arrived at the hospital but is told there's no Clayface of any kind on the grounds and that blood expert, Dr. Lowell, is alone in his lab. As Bats exits the building he looks up and sees two shadows at Lowell's window (yes, I'm sure he carries a map of the hospital's suites). 

Karlo's transformation is immediate, stretching out like a clay Mr. Fantastic and burning Lowell to death. The Batman bursts in, but Karlo (who has dubbed himself "The Ultimate Clayface") is too strong and it's only when Looker shows up and searches through Karlo's brainpan that the fight evens out. In the end, Looker's brain-visit "overloads" Karlo and his powers become uncontrollable. Bats pushes him out the window and Clayface burns through the street. The Batman dryly suggests they call China to warn them of the Ultimate Clayface's arrival. Meanwhile, across town, Preston Payne (Clay 3) and Sondra Fuller (Clay 4) enjoy the sunrise and a snog, beginning their new life together. 

A wonderful capper to a thoroughly entertaining arc, one of the best of the 1980s. Lots of bits work here: Looker's sudden power shutdown in front of a couple of security guards ("Uh... this is a little embarrassing... but could one of you call me a cab?"); Batman's insanely detailed verbal recreation of what happened in the other room between the Clayfaces, all derived from a sip of wine; Looker realizing she doesn't have enough to pay the cabbie; and the peaceful climax with two "Most Wanted" criminals enjoying a newfound and completely inexplicable love (I don't even want to think of how they'll, you know, consummate their passion on their Clay-filled honeymoon) while a battle they once had an interest in rages miles away. That fade-out reminds us just how good a writer Alan Grant is. Good stuff happens even to the baddest people. Give me more!

Jack: The panel where Karlo transforms into the ultimate Clayface is cool and I appreciate Grant's humor, especially Batman's crack about informing the Chinese authorities. I like how the end leaves doors open for Clayface (where will his burning descent end?), Batman and Looker (will they work together again?) and, especially, the two Clayfaces, newly in love.

Secret Origins Special #1

"Original Sin"
Story by Neil Gaiman
Art by Mike Hoffman & Kevin Nowlan

A TV news crew decides to do a story telling the criminals' side of things, despite a nocturnal visit from Batman to the producer warning him that it's a bad idea.

Jack: The frame story for this issue is written by Neil Gaiman, but it doesn't set things up very well and even has one character comment on how Batman's villains are misunderstood, something Alan Grant satirized in Detective 607. After Bolland's gorgeous cover, the interior art is sub-par.

"The Killing Peck"
Story by Alan Grant
Art by Sam Kieth

The Penguin has captured the man who bullied him as a boy and plans to torture and kill him in return. Timely intervention by Batman saves the crook's life.

Jack: Unusual art that is almost Corbenesque marks this odd origin story for the Penguin. He was a timid lad with a long nose whose mother made him carry an umbrella to protect him from the pneumonia that killed his father. He loved pets and was cruelly bullied, so he became a super-villain. Perhaps the strangest passage is when he trains as a fighter and bodybuilder in order to beat up the bully, only to find his beloved pets killed.

"When is a Door"
Story by Neil Gaiman
Art by Bernie Mireault & Matt Wagner

The TV news crew visits the Riddler and tries to learn his origin story, but he babbles on and gives them nothing but entertainment!

Jack: The art is even more amateurish/underground comix-like in this segment, but it fits the story perfectly! The Riddler is going bald and what hair he has left is grey. He laments the good old days and lists several villains from the TV show before asking, "'Where did they all go?'" Gaiman has fun with this story and the closest thing we get to an origin story is a memory that the Riddler shares about when his father asked him a riddle.

Story by Mark Verheiden
Art by Pat Broderick & Dick Giordano

When a crook named Perry kidnaps Harvey Dent's wife, Two-Face springs into action. Grace Dent later tells the story, and Two-Face's origin, to the TV news crew.

The TV news report is broadcast and, after a cross-section of citizens of Gotham City say what they think of the villains, the Joker passes by the host of the show and gasses him, leaving the man laughing uncontrollably and with a big smile plastered on his face.

Jack: Unfortunately, the recently over-exposed Two-Face is trotted out again and the last story is drawn by Pat Broderick; even Dick Giordano can't salvage these pencils. Two-Face's origin story is well-known, so the only thing new here is the portrayal of his loving and devoted wife.

When I saw the lineup of writers for this special issue I was intrigued, but I don't think it was worth $2.00 in 1989!

Next Week...
Legends of the Dark Knight!

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