Monday, October 3, 2022

Batman in the 1980s Issue 63: August 1986


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

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns #3

"Hunt the Dark Knight"
Story by Frank Miller
Art by Frank Miller & Klaus Janson

The new police commissioner has issued a warrant for the arrest of Batman for various misdemeanors; the President of the United States has ordered the Man of Steel to bring his old friend in for the good of America; the Sons of Batman have been assassinating jaywalkers; and Robin 6.0 has a mind of her own and thinks nothing of disobeying her mentor. It's been a hell of a day for the Dark Knight.

Add to that the simply asinine decision by psychiatrist Dr. Wolper that the Joker is a cured man and perfectly safe to appear on the David Endochrine Show. Of course, the Clown Prince of Crime uses his deadly smile gas to kill the entire audience and then vanishes. While attempting to apprehend the lunatic, Batman is attacked by the commissioner and the entire police force. He and Robin narrowly escape.

While visiting Selina Kyle, who's hung up her Catwoman suit and become a high-priced madam, Batman learns his former lover has been forced to aid the Joker and that the evil clown's next target is the county fair. The dynamic duo race to the fairgrounds, where the Joker is already mid-terrorism, having murdered dozens with poisoned cotton candy and attaching bombs to roller coaster rides. Robin manages to save most of the coaster riders while Batman sets off after Joker, who has ducked into the House of Mirrors.

With the guilt of knowing that if he had only killed the Joker years before, thousands would still be alive, Batman heads into the attraction with murder on his mind. The two old enemies have a vicious tussle and the Dark Knight is gravely wounded, but Batman just can't commit the final act. With a heavy sigh of disappointment, Joker kills himself.

Peter: There's a whole lot going on here, much more than a short synopsis can contain. As with the first two chapters, this is heavy, heavy reading with Frank Miller tearing away at everything we've learned and believed about superheroes for (at that time) nearly fifty years. Miller's questions about vigilantism and law and order aren't that far off from Don Siegel's Dirty Harry. Laws might need to be broken to bring in the bad guys, but how much force should be used and who should use it? Superman's transformation from morally-grounded world-saver to brainwashed pawn of a crooked politician is startling; I'd forgotten just how startling. And Joker's suicide by self-inflicted broken neck is perfect (Nolan used Batman's inability to kill the Joker to great effect in The Dark Knight), leaving Batman feeling almost guilty for not giving in to his inner rage. We've got one more installment left (which was delayed until December 1986, so we won't discuss that until the Halloween day post) but, to me, this is the strongest, most powerful and memorable chapter yet.

Jack: I didn't dislike this issue as much as I did the last one, mainly because the Joker is such a strong character. Still, I had a negative reaction to Miller's wholesale attack on the icons of the Batman universe. Selina is old and fat and she runs an escort service? Not for me. I like Batman's relationship with the new Robin, but I question how much training she really got and why he lets her participate in such dangerous activities. Miller uses a lot of women in roles previously filled by men; there's the topless Nazi villain with swastikas on her breasts and buttocks; Robin, of course; and the new commissioner. Still, it seems like the women are either evil, stupid, or naive, and I don't think that advances the feminist cause.

Miller's worldview is so dark that it infects every aspect of the story and there's nothing fun about reading it. I don't like the Joker being a mass murderer and the way the world is depicted is much too dark. If one were to argue that this is more realistic than comics had been in the past, stop to think a moment: has anyone ever murdered an entire TV audience? Or killed a large group of kids at an amusement park? It's not realistic--it's hyper-violent and it's done to try to demonstrate that violence and vigilantism are justified in the face of such horror. I don't think that was true in 1986 and I don't think it's true now.

Miller's plotting is good and his artwork is very good, but I think even Peter would have to admit that these pages look very mid-'80s and have dated quite a bit.

Batman #398

"About Faces!"
Story by Doug Moench
Art by Tom Mandrake

Catwoman is annoyed that Batman isn't willing to commit to being her partner in love as well as in fighting crime. They call a truce and head to see Commissioner Gordon on the roof of Police HQ, where Batman explains that he has a plan to capture Two-Face. Meanwhile, Circe and Two-Face head to the Gotham Museum to steal an Egyptian sarcophagus, though Two-Face is unaware that Circe is working with the Caped Crusader and this is all a setup.

Bats and Cats wait and watch as Circe takes out a gold mask from the mummy case and gets Harvey Dent to try it on, hypnotizing him into thinking his good side can prevail. Unfortunately, Two-Face is determined to be a bad guy and he smacks Circe, at which point Batman, Catwoman, and Robin burst in and a fight ensues. Two-Face is defeated, and Catwoman departs, leaving Batman to wonder about the future of their partnership.

Peter: "About Faces!" brings to an end yet another forgettable arc. Nothing new here. Harvey Dent struggles with his duality, then spends quite a lot of time making up his face for a ten-second masquerade, only to become evil Harvey again. Catwoman continues to waffle between loving partner and jealous pain in the arse. Ditto Robin. To make matters worse, Doug opens the story with a rambling dialogue between Batman and Catwoman about... well, I don't know what it was about. Doug's time on the Bat-titles is coming to a close and he's done some good work here and there, but he's not going out with much of a bang.

Jack: This was much more fun to read than The Dark Knight Returns! Mandrake still struggles with his art and I imagine the Batman face on the cover has a bit of help from an uncredited Dick Giordano. The interior artwork reminds me of something we'd see in 1940s comics, where it looked charming and unspoiled. The improvements in comic art over the decades make Mandrake's work look amateurish. I enjoyed most of the banter between Batman and Catwoman and I still think Two-Face is a great villain, so I was glad Moench had room to expand the story. As my summary shows, not much happened, but I liked it anyway, perhaps as an antidote to all the darkness from Miller.

Detective Comics #565

"The Love Killing"
Story by Doug Moench
Art by Gene Colan & Bob Smith

Batman investigates the grisly murder of Mona Lamont, an airline stewardess; not an ordinary crime of passion... this woman was beheaded! Bats's chief suspect is Roy Spivey, the dead woman's ex-boyfriend, but the Dark Knight can find no evidence and the man seems to stay inside his apartment, night and day. 

Meanwhile, the rift between our costumed hero and his lady love, Catwoman, seems to grow wider every day. Now Selina won't even prowl the streets on patrol with him and she's spending more time with her panther. As for Jason, he finds himself falling more and more in love with Rena every day, with his Robin duties suffering as a result.

Unbeknownst to all parties involved, Roy Spivey has been keeping a secret safely hidden in a bucket of solution in his apartment basement. Spivey reaches in and reveals the shrunken head of Mona Lamont!

A truly batshit tale and, even as goofy as it is, a welcome rest from the same ol' same ol'. I have no idea what Roy Spivey's game is but, for the first time in a really long while, I can't wait to read part two in Batman #399. The reveal of Mona's teensy tiny head is a macabre shocker. The Rhett Butler/Scarlet O'Hara nonsense with Bats and Cats takes up way too much space; it's repetitive and sappy. In issues past, Bats was giving Cats the cold shoulder and now it's flipped. I get it, Doug wants to point out (several times in this issue) how love can destroy love... that is what he's trying to say, right? Let's just get back to Catwoman being in the Rogues Gallery rather than a sometime squeeze.

Jack: The issue starts off with a great cover by Colan and Giordano, and Colan and Smith keep up the level of quality inside as well. They sure make Harvey Bullock a real slob, don't they? Unlike Frank Miller, Colan has the murder occur off-camera, but it's still effective. I like the way Moench compares the breakdown of the relationship between Batman and Catwoman with the developing relationship between Jason and Rena, all set against the backdrop of the destructive relationship between murderer and victim. I really liked the panel with the severed head, too!

"Death by Misadventure"
Story by Joey Cavalieri
Art by Stan Woch

Green Arrow survives the exploding door (see last issue) and discovers that behind it is none other than Rick O'Connor (a/k/a Hi-Tek) and Mayor Bolt's son Bruce, watched over carefully by the gorgeous Professor Cuthbertson. Meanwhile, Steelclaw's henchmen turn against him after they believe the villain has killed Black Canary (he hasn't, though; he's only given her a knockout drug, because he's really good guy Mayor Bolt, who everyone thinks is a bad guy but he's just acting like a villain so that he can infiltrate the underworld and clean up the city he runs) and left the city wide open for running drugs and guns and all sorts of bad stuff. Both men empty their guns into Steelclaw and beat a hasty retreat. Having heard the gunfire, Green Arrow exits the building to find the unconscious Canary and the apparently-dead Claw. Meanwhile, across town, Onyx reveals exactly nothing to her friend Tommie.

Peter: An enjoyable seven pages, with a whole lot of interesting twists. Well, the Onyx stuff is annoying rather than interesting, but the rest of the events are intriguing. I assume Mayor Bolt/Steelclaw is not dead since the reveal once he's unmasked would leave him a villain in the eyes of everyone living in Star City, including his kid. The art, by newcomer Stan Woch, is very good. Standout is the two-panel page of the thugs icing Steelclaw. Dynamite!

Jack: I didn't think much of the art, which seemed a step back from what we've been seeing recently in this series. I don't like how Cavalieri wraps up the main story and then sticks in the obligatory Onyx page at the end.

Batman Annual #10

"Down to the Bone"
Story by Doug Moench
Art by Denys Cowan & Alfredo Alcala

Stockholders in the Wayne Foundation are scared into selling their holdings to a mysterious person who succeeds in taking control of the corporation. Bruce Wayne knows something is not right, so Batman and Robin decide to visit the former stockholders to try to find out what's going on. Alfred receives a visit from the man behind the scheme and is so shocked by his identity that he has a stroke.

Soon, Bruce Wayne is bankrupt and Wayne Manor is sold to the highest bidder, leaving Amanda Groscz to notify him that he's no longer a fit guardian for Jason Todd and the boy will be placed elsewhere. Bruce walks the streets and learns just how little he can buy with $37 in 1986; as Batman, he visits the former stockholders, only one of whom is not too scared to tell him anything much. Once he learns that the man who bought Wayne Manor and took over Wayne Foundation used the name Steven Strangways, Batman proves why he's a great detective and quickly deduces that Hugo Strange is not dead and is behind it all.

Batman grabs Robin from the orphanage and the duo are soon attacked by one of Strange's Mandroids, disguised as the Caped Crusader and riding the Bat-Cycle. The dynamic duo return to Wayne Manor and the Batcave, where they confront the real Strange (and some more Mandroids). Strange escapes in the Batmobile but Batman and Robin chase him in the Bat-Copter (or Whirlybat) and knock him out. Commissioner Gordon arrives to take Strange to the pokey where the villain is convinced that Batman hypnotized him into thinking that the Dark Knight's secret identity is Bruce Wayne, something he realizes cannot be true. Alfred recovers from his stroke and returns home to find Stately Wayne Manor in ruins.

Peter: Despite having 38 pages to breathe, Doug Moench's script feels empty. Hugo Strange doesn't even show up until the closing pages, so perhaps it might have been more of a surprise if his face hadn't been plastered across the cover. Doug gets in plenty of digs at Ronnie Reagan, the rich, and even health care, with his overcooked and cliched observations (In this modern world, objective and subjective are one and the same, inextricably merged, the symbol supplanting reality. Money is not just yachts and VCRs--it is food and shelter and even the life-sustaining care which should come from love and concern... but which actually derives from the goal of a physician's paycheck...).

Batman questions whether an
eight-year-old Robin was a good idea.
The "Bruce Wayne loses everything" storyline has been done before and will be done again; what's interesting to see is if the destruction at Wayne Manor or the life-altering events that led to Batman sleeping on a dirty mattress in a belfry will ever be reflected in the regular titles. The art is top-notch (there goes my Alcala love again), but I will say... yet again... someone at the editor's desk should be hanging post-its around the artists' easels to remind them of Jason Todd's age. Within this single story, the kid seems to age from a toddler to a grown man.

Jack: I had high hopes for "Down to the Bone" due to the excellent cover, but the interior story and art were only fair. When Robin first appears, he looks exactly like the college-age Dick Grayson, but soon it becomes clear that he's Jason Todd and he ages in reverse as the story unfolds. I had a hard time getting worked up over Wayne Foundation's financial troubles and agree that it will be interesting to see if this is a one-off or if the regular titles continue the story. I suspect it will never be mentioned again.

Next Week...
Prepare yourself for disaster!

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