I was in the mood for reading some great Batman tales over the weekend, so I pulled out and reread my favorites.
Batman #241. May, 1972. DC Comics.
Reprint: “The Case of the Honest Crook,” from Batman #5, Spring 1941.
Writer: Bill Finger. Artist: Bob Kane.
My comic book collecting career began at the age of 10 during the Spring of 1972 in Kayenta, Arizona, just outside of director John Ford’s beloved Monument Valley. Instead of dessert for dinner one evening, I took the seventy-five cents my parents offered me and bought three comics in the Holiday Inn gift shop. This was one of them. The reprint here is a true classic of the Golden Age. Batman sets out to clear the name of a framed young man, Joe Sands, a good kid caught up in a gangster’s escape. The Dark Knight learns who was behind the framing, Matty Link, and sets out to intimidate his boss, Smiley Sikes, and hopefully wrangle out a confession. Convinced that Smiley is behind the framing but short an admission, Batman leaves. Sikes fears that Batman will now go after Matty, so he orders Matty killed. After Matty is gunned down, Bruce Wayne sends Robin to scope out the murdered criminal’s pad, hoping to find something that will link Matty and Smiley with Sands. But Sike’s cronies are already at the boarding house looking for the same thing. They brutally strike Robin down. Batman soon arrives, concerned that his partner hasn’t returned. The Caped Crusader finds his ward on the floor, unconscious, bleeding from a head wound. Batman is devastated, but there is still life in Robin, so he rushes him to a doctor. Then Batman goes after the gangsters. I had never seen Batman like this before, neither in the campy TV show in the 1960s, nor on the Saturday morning cartoons. He had “become a terrible figure of vengeance,” strong enough to burst a wall of wood and sustain three gunshots. He takes down the mobsters, gets a signed confession proving Joe Sands’ innocence, drops the paper off at the Gotham Police Station, returns to find Robin okay, then collapses. The doctor saves Batman’s life. A remarkable story, better than the all-new lead features.
Batman #251. September, 1973. DC Comics.
“The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge.”
Writer: Denny O’Neil. Artist: Neal Adams. Editor: Julius Schwartz.
In a comics world saturated by appearances by the Joker, it’s hard to believe there was a time when Batman’s greatest foe didn’t appear, with the exception of reprints, in comics. After his hand in coaxing Snapper Carr to betray the JLA in Justice League of America #77 in the Fall of 1969, the Joker didn’t make a new appearance in comics until the Spring of 1973, over three years later. Hard to believe, huh? But what a comeback. This is one of the definitive Joker stories, highlighted by an excellent O’Neil script and knockout artwork by Neal Adams. O’Neil’s Joker is unnerving to listen to and Adam’s depiction of the Clown Prince of Crime is downright scary to look at. There’s nothing clownish about him here. Having escaped from prison, he’s out to murder the man who sent him there. But why waste time trying to figure out which one of his former cronies ratted on him (as he would in a kinder, gentler comics era); just kill ’em all, the Joker concludes! Cesar Romero never would’ve approved of this. But this is the way the Joker was originally handled, the way he was meant to be. This one story opened the floodgates: the Joker would soon be making additional appearances in The Brave and the Bold, Batman, and, get this, his own comic book! This tale has many classic moments in both story and art, including a spectacular full-page spread of Batman chasing the Joker across a polluted beach (sans utility belt, the Batman is quite the imposing figure; I’d just give up if he was coming after me). Notorious at the time for running late in publication due to Adams’ slow, meticulous hand, this classic comic was worth the wait.
Detective Comics #439. February-March, 1974. DC Comics.
“Night of the Stalker.”
Writer: Steve Englehart. Artists: Sal Amendola and Dick Giordano. Editor: Archie Goodwin.
A personal comic book tradition: I read “The Night of the Stalker” every year at Christmas time, and have done so for over 25 years. Two violent murders occur on a brisk late November afternoon, brutally reminiscent of the murders a young Bruce Wayne witnessed of his parents. The Batman seeks justice. The Dark Knight doesn’t say a word in this story. The last lines of narration are perfect in tone and poignancy. “…in truth, Bruce Wayne long ago learned to live with the agonizing fact of his parents’ demise. But when he thinks of the boy crime left sobbing on the street at dusk — and the other boy crime left sobbing before the Batman’s vengeance hours later — he remembers a third boy crime left sobbing so many years ago, and in this gray-lit, lonely tower, for this single moment in infinity…he is that boy again.” Amidst all the psychological excavation of the Batman’s psyche over the years, it’s easy to forget one vital point: Bruce Wayne was robbed permanently of his childhood in one devastating instant.
Detective Comics #443. October-November, 1974. DC Comics.
Writer: Archie Goodwin. Artist: Walt Simonson. Editor: Archie Goodwin.
The concluding chapter of the ‘Manhunter’ saga, co-starring Batman. One of comics’ greatest adventures, ‘Manhunter’ garnered multiple awards, rave reviews, and enduring respect. Gripping, minimal narration complements taut dialogue; it is a literary and visual feast. Nothing’s wasted here. The use of Batman is superb; Goodwin works with the Caped Crusader’s strengths as a master crimefighter (detective, escape artist, a symbol of fear) without having Batman for an instant believe that this is a ‘killing’ mission (as does Manhunter). But this is Paul (Manhunter) Kirk’s triumph. Killed, resurrected, robbed of eternal peace, cloned, forsaken any individuality, his crusade comes to a violent end as he extinguishes the scientific geniuses behind the Council, an organization driven to control the world.
Detective Comics #476. March-April, 1978. DC Comics.
“Sign of the Joker.”
Writer: Steve Englehart. Artists: Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin. Editor: Julius Schwartz.
The concluding installment of the classic Englehart/Rogers series. Batman has defeated the Joker (albeit temporarily), been cleared of charges perpetrated by corrupt Gotham politician Boss Rupert Thorne, and lost possibly his greatest love, Silver St. Cloud. She is deeply in love with Bruce Wayne, but cannot continue their relationship knowing he is the Batman. The final shot of Batman swinging between Gotham skyscrapers is spectacular, yet a glint of light prevents us from seeing his face. Is his expression grim, driven, full of exhaustion, or anguish? We don’t know. But it’s a startling scene, as powerful as any great cinematic ending.
The Dark Knight Returns. 1986. DC Comics.
Writer/Artist: Frank Miller. Inker: Klaus Janson.
As the years have passed, I have developed one major problem with The Dark Knight Returns: It was too influential. At the time of its release, it was remarkably original. Frank Miller enriched the standards of Batman’s origin, history, supporting characters and villains while remaining faithful to them and raising the artistic bar at the same time. Everyone took notice of this new look, and everyone ran with the concept. From the harrowing night that changed young Bruce Wayne’s life forever to the bat symbolically crashing through a Wayne Manor window to the psychological profiles ad nauseam that make up the Batman’s psyche, every story and storyline involving Batman from late 1986 to the present seems to swell from the landmark that was The Dark Knight Returns. It has made for some wonderful stories, true, and I can show you the stacks. But it’s also made for way too much of some particular scenes. (How many times in comics have you seen Thomas and Martha Wayne’s violent death in the past fifteen years? How many times do you recall seeing it from 1950 to 1985?)
Yet after rereading The Dark Knight Returns for the gazillionth time, I couldn’t help but think, “Wow, what a great story.” It’s as good now as it was when it was first published. Miller’s handling of familiar characters; the structure of Gotham City; the media; and U.S./world politics some ten to fifteen years beyond current DC continuity is extraordinary. It’s simply a great comic, one of the best ever produced.
Batman: The Killing Joke. 1988. DC Comics.
Writer: Alan Moore. Artist: Brian Bolland. Editor: Denny O’Neil.
As good as this comic is, as classic as it has become, it remains one disturbing journey. There are certifiably chilling moments throughout The Killing Joke: the grisly expression of the carnival owner after the Joker has killed him; the Joker shooting Barbara Gordon (who would have thought that arguably the most shocking scene in comics would be the crippling of Batgirl?); the Joker’s reaction to his wife’s death (in his origin sequence); Commissioner Gordon’s grit when he tells Batman to bring in the Joker “by the book”; and the Joker’s complex look at Batman when the Dark Knight offers to help him…these visual impressions have always haunted me. What’s always troubled me is that the Joker’s joke at story’s end is actually pretty funny, but I’ve never been able to laugh at it because by the time I get to it I’m just emotionally drained. This may sound horrible, but I’ve always kind of hoped (every time I reread The Killing Joke) that the Batman would snap the Joker’s neck. Look closely at the last page, he appears to be doing just that!