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Batman, The Grey Knight

Longbox Graveyard #57

The Dark Knight Rises is in theaters this week, the third and final chapter of Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman, which with its bazillion dollars in box office has clearly become the consensus view. Few characters have sported as many different tones as Batman, and fewer still so successfully — between comics, TV, and movie series, there must be a half-dozen different versions of the Batman. The current grim-and-gritty motion picture Batman traces its roots to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, though Nolan’s series has gone on to become a thing of its own, thanks to its not-a-superhero-but-really-a-crime-picture story beats, and a transcendent performance by the late Heath Ledger in the trilogy’s middle installment.

Batman wasn’t always this way, and the Batman of old didn’t become today’s Batman overnight. A couple weeks ago I spotlighted the late 1970’s Steve Englehart/Marshall Rogers run in Detective that arguably began Batman’s transformation into his modern form, but where was Batman after that series and before Frank Miller put his indelible stamp on the character?

The Batman of the early 1980s was defined by writer Doug Moench. Teamed with a number of pencillers — most notably Gene Colan — Moench’s 80-issue run, published twice monthly in the pages of Detective and Batman, gave us a final look at Batman before Crisis on Infinite Earths and Frank Miller’s vision helped bring down the curtain on the “Bronze Age” of comics.

Overshadowed as it was by the Dark Knight phenomenon, this Doug Moench era has been forgotten by many, and I think unfairly, as it has moments of rich characterization and a couple single-issue stories that hold up well today. To their credit, DC didn’t boot Moench to the curb, no matter how many times Dark Knight went back to press with the flavor fans clearly preferred. Moench’s run came to a celebratory end in Batman #400 … but then it’s like he was never there. Following Moench would be Batman: Year One, and then a run by crime novelist Max Allen Collins, and the modern age of Batman had well and truly begun.

nice cover by Don Newton, who did some of his final work on this series before his untimely death in 1984

So who was the Doug Moench Batman, this transitional shades-of-grey knight before the darkest dawn of our current era?

The familiar Bat-tropes are all on display. Bruce Wayne still moonlights as Batman, hangs around in a cave, and responds to Commissioner Gordon’s Bat-Signal. Gotham City is still menaced by the finest rogue’s gallery in comics, and Batman himself is obsessively driven to bring them all to justice. Batman roars around in his Batmobile accompanied by his young partner, Robin. There are plenty of fist-fights and shadowy show-downs with warehouses full of mooks up to no good, and one or two Gene Colan pages with costumes swirling all over the place.

yes, Harvey Bullock has three hands in that panel, but this is the masterful Gene Colan — just go with it!

Where this Batman most differs from the more recent vintage is in his humanity, or at least his emotionality. Far from the grim workaholic of contemporary Batman stories, Doug Moench’s Batman wrestles with his dual roles as Bruce Wayne and superhero, wondering if he can ever be happy so long as Batman is a part of his life. Themes of mortality and exhaustion are repeated throughout the run, as Batman comes to understand that he may be at his physical peak, but that he’s wearing down under the constant grind of battling Gotham’s crazies. He especially agonizes over whether he should allow Jason Todd to become his partner as Robin, and he gets positively tied in knots shifting his affections between four different women each appealing to a different aspect of his soul.

There’s plenty of crime, punishment, and superheroic punch-outs in this run, but it is in this handling of Batman’s interior life — and the lives of the book’s many supporting characters — where Moench is at his best.

Commissioner Gordon nurses a bad heart and works overtime to bear up under the gaze of his boss, the corrupt Mayor Hamilton Hill, who makes Gordon’s life miserable by saddling him with the piggish and disgraced Harvey Bullock as his assistant. Alfred Pennyworth is distracted from pressing Bruce Wayne’s trousers when his estranged daughter, Julia, re-enters his life. Jason Todd has mood swings and generally acts like a little kid, earning him a contempt from the audience that would famously end in his death by popular demand in a DC Comics telephone poll, but also painting an emotionally accurate portrait of an insecure and needy young man.

Four women form the points of Bruce Wayne and Batman’s emotional compass in this series. Bruce’s relationship with Vicki Vale goes downhill quickly, with Vicki proving demanding and strident; it isn’t long before Bruce has thrown her over, first for a momentary infatuation with Alfred’s daughter, Julia, then for a more serious involvement with Nocturna, one of several new characters Moench adds to the cast in this run.

Nocturna is introduced as a tiresome emo girl, physically and psychologically altered by an astronomy accident (!) rendering her skin white … but she recovers from that ridiculous beginning, and does what many of Moench’s characters do: change and grow as the series evolves. Nocturna puzzles out Batman’s true identity, then tries to ensnare Bruce by mounting a custody challenge for Bruce’s ward (and Robin-to-be) Jason Todd, only to find that her emotional needs are better met trying to be mother to Jason than paramour to Batman.

Along the way, Batman discovers he’s interested in Nocturna only when she’s playing the bad girl, an obsession thrown into stark relief when Catwoman returns to Batman’s life, but our hero finds the old sparks aren’t striking, largely because Catwoman has reformed and the thrill has gone along with her villainy.

Catwoman’s return doesn’t work out so great for anyone

Supporting players get their spotlight time, too. He’s changed a bit since his introduction here, but Harvey Bullock is Moench’s signature and enduring creation in this run. Initially a foil for Commissioner Gorden, the incompetent Bullock changes his tune after driving Gordon to a heart attack, and seeks to atone for past sins by becoming a genuinely dedicated cop. He’s used for comic relief, storming in at the worst moment and trampling on evidence, but he proves to be a genuine and emotionally reliable character, even revealing an interior thoughtfulness through his love of classic film …

… and inspiring a boyish loyalty from Jason Todd, who might see in Bullock a surrogate father more approachable than the remote Batman.

The bad guys are appropriately street-level, with most of their darkness on the inside. There’s the cop killing (and ex-cop) Savage Skull, and the aforementioned Nocturna and her ninja henchman, Night-Thief. Black Mask goes whacko and fashions a mask for himself from his father’s coffin lid, which is pretty wonderful. Moench trots out Batman’s traditional villains, too, but at times this feels compulsory. Batman’s battle with the Riddler was an off-the-shelf tale (though it is hard to be anything but formulaic with a written backwards-by-the book Riddler story), and Moench’s Joker story was a feathered fish, with that villain incongruously trying to set off a Guatemalan civil war. Poison Ivy fared a bit better, as did Deadshot.

Moench’s take on Two-Face was his best of all.

This is a Batman book, so of course it has its gothic shadows, but they aren’t so front-and-center as in contemporary books. This is an old fashioned series, employing storytelling conventions long out of style — like compressed story arcs that rarely run more than an issue or two, and copious use of thought balloons. So, too, is Batman a bit old fashioned, at times daring to smile and even seem happy to do what he does. On his first night’s patrol with his new Robin, Batman is positively giddy compared to the grim Dark Knight of page and screen this past quarter century. Batman even works in a photo opportunity after he and the Boy Wonder clean up a den of inequity.

To be fair, this isn’t a classic run of comics. A few of the storylines overstay their welcome, and the Green Arrow back-up feature in Detective is forgettable, save for a two-part Alan Moore story, and a delightful turn in Detective #559 — a full-length tale where Batman and Oliver Queen go after each other harder than they do the bad guys.

Select single issue stories stand out, like Batman #383, where we see an exhausting night in the life of Batman, or the excusably heavy-handed Detective #550, where Moench tries to get to the heart of what led an otherwise ordinary street thug into a life of crime. A two-part tale in Batman #393-394 reuniting Doug Moench with his Master of Kung Fu partner Paul Gulacy has some tasty art, but the espionage thriller story is a bit muddled.

Moench & Gulacy bring some Master of Kung Fu-style to Batman

In all, though, this is an average run of superhero comics, nudged to just-above-average grade owing to its length, and consistency. I am a big Gene Colan fan, but even Gene is less than extraordinary here, possibly limited by inadequate inkers (the forceful Alfredo Alcala, especially, is a poor fit for Gene’s flowing fog style). Approaching the end of this run in my recent re-read, when the “red skies” of the Crisis on Infinite Earths meta-event signaled that the end was near for the old order at DC, I found that I didn’t sadly shake my head or mourn for what Batman was about to become. I enjoyed this run, and I rank Doug Moench among my favorite comic book authors, but Batman is one of the few comic characters that I think is genuinely better served by his current incarnation. The contemporary Dark Knight may be a little short on melodrama and self-examination, but we have plenty of other superheroes running that playbook. Batman has evolved into a remote and unapproachable legend, but he’s earned that status, and it’s a big part of what makes him unique. Despite my love of Bronze Age comics, I think I’ll stick with the current take on Batman

… but if you want to see Batman before the legend overtook the man, you could do worse than to hunt down this particular run of Bat books, which do offer their own leisurely, introspective, and slow-burning rewards.

  • Titles: Batman & Detective Comics
  • Published By: DC Comics, 1937-2011 (curse you, “New 52” reboot!)
  • Issues Reviewed By The Longbox Graveyard: Batman #360-400, Detective #527-566, June 1983-October 1986
  • LBG Letter Grade For This Run: C-plus
  • Own The Originals: Detective & Batman

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #58 Panel Gallery: Holy Hannah!

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About Paul O'Connor

Revelations and retro-reviews from a world where it is always 1978, published once a month or so at www.longboxgraveyard.com!

Posted on July 18, 2012, in Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 34 Comments.

  1. excellent read, I stopped after Englehart and only picked up Miller’s Batman since, interesting to be filled in

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    • This was a tough review to write — I went into the series with nostalgic self-assurance, which yielded to disappointment as I came to understand this was one of those books that wasn’t going to measure up to my memories of the past. The result is an ambivalent review, of a series leavened by a high point or two but which overall is distinguished mostly by its consistency and length of service.

      I was surprised that I walked myself around to deciding the modern version of Batman is superior. I guess I am now locked and loaded for Dark Knight Rises!

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      • I am hearing your story. There is a strange relationship between our formative reading experience with comics – usually when we were younger – and our more mature ‘critical’ reading when we have grown up and become all sophisticated. Our formative reading opened our minds and eyes (BECAUSE it was ‘formative’), it has an emotional patina which nevertheless informs our critical appraisal of the strip. But the strip has moved on, new writers artists editors readers, and yet we think IN CONTINUITY about the strip: ‘it is the same character that I used to read and jump around the rooftops with, but everything about the strip feels alien’. I found this also with earlier stories of Batman: I couldn’t quite ‘fit’ the 40s 50s 60s 70s Batmen together into one narrative, but I wanted to because it was the same character, the character I had become strongly affiliated with in the 70s. I wanted it to be a whole tapestry. And it just isn’t. And it can’t be, lasting as it has for over 70 years. Marvel were a bit better at culturing continuity but they couldn’t sustain it beyond three decades – they’re rebooting like crazy now. It seems to be unique to this form (not even soap operas last as long as this) … I don’t know where I’m going with this but it is a fascinating, as well as slight headache-making, consideration …

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        • I was well into my twenties when I first read these Batmans, but I suppose a patina of childish nostalgia might still color my initial assessment.

          The topic of continuity and re-invention in comics is a fascinating one, and a topic I’d like to develop in a future blog or podcast. I think it is unique to this field, due to the idiosyncratic demand that comic book characters age and evolve over time (and why we expect the tales to be realistic in this aspect while bizarre in so many others is part of this form’s particular pathology). No one expects Charlie Brown to grow up. Maggie Simpson has been a baby for twenty television seasons. But we comics fans get in a twist when encountering an old comic book that has Reed Richards fighting in World War II, and the longer the books go on, the less elastic time can be made to seem. The reboot genie got out of the bottle with Crisis on Infinite Earths and there’s been no stuffing it back in.

          Overall I think an adherence to continuity does more harm than good in this field, but it may be an inevitable artifact of monthly comic book production. Unlike, say, the recent Amazing Spider-Man film reboot, comics don’t have the luxury of staying out of the public eye for five years at a time while concocting a fresh start — they have to reboot on-the-fly, like that old television commercial where the construction crew is building the airliner while it’s in flight. I happily discarded any pursuit of continuity years ago and now just cherry pick good stories for their own sakes, but I understand why DC and Marvel keep going down the continuity/reboot rabbit hole — they have to appease those few fans they have left, and these reboots are definitely part of the sales-boosting playbook. In entertainment as well as politics, we vote with our wallets and get the results we deserve.

          Given the longevity of these properties, a change in creative teams is inevitable, and it is a testament to the strength of characters like Batman and Tarzan and Spider-Man etc. that we’re always interested in seeing the old tales told again. And when comic book reinventions are pulled off successfully the results can be spectacular — Frank Miller’s Dark Knight, Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, and Chris Claremont’s X-Men are all pop culture masterpieces. Those series, though, weren’t part of the marketing-driven, line-wide reboots that we see now, which seem to be change for its own sake, and for the sake of goosing sales with a new raft of #1 issues. I do think each of these editorial reboots is a little “brand withdrawal” and a new paradigm needs to be struck, one that doesn’t require strict adherence to convoluted and dull continuity but at the same time does not discard the rich heritage of these precious characters.

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  2. Locked and loaded, P? Guess you weren’t the only one? What a most sinister coinicidence.

    Crushed by the Chaos at Midnight, Batman. What to make of a Joker’s Colorado cinema, smoke-screening slaughterhouse? A terrifying testament to the hold the Dark Knight has on our souls, our psyches? Dark times? Troubling, indeed?

    Much ❤❤❤❤❤ to any and all affected. To the families, fans, founders, filmmakers… All of us. Ouch. 💜😢💋

    ❤ your Batman Blog, Batman. 😜 lol

    I kinda ❤ ’em all. In print and screen. Wasn’t all that big on Keaton and Kilmer… But, still 😍 the Batman, cats and kittens. I can’t explain. I just ❤❤❤❤❤ Batman. The light stuff. The dark stuff. Because even then, when he’s dark, it’s STILL what he chooses to do, right? No one’s forcing him. Then again, quite possibly he’s compelled and THAT is what’s forcing him?

    He’s isolated even though he’s affluent. Because he is affluent? The $$$ doesn’t really buy him what he wants, needs, though? You can’t buy ❤. It only ever ‘happens’. His genuine ❤ interests DO happen but are always conflicted and fleeting. Although, they ARE there. He ❤ed them all, I believe. The cash is only really good for financing Batman, this lifestyle…

    Definitely a lonely guy. No family outside Alfred and Robin.

    Does the alter ego beget the isolation? The isolation the alter ego? Hmmmmm? Might a bit of both? 

    Yeah, he’s at once an exceedingly melancholy, tragic, sympathetic, complex, compelling character with — like you said — THE best Rogues Gallery anyway, anyhow, anywhere!

    As you know, P, I AM a bit partial to West. He was my first Batman. It was on television all the time. It was on the air when I was born. Then, reruns. He was melancholy, too, in a whimsical 60’s kinda way, hey? The series had a REALLY big influence on me? I think the show might be the reason I end all my sentences with question marks?¿ 😉 lol

    Holy bat guano, Batman, could it be be true?!? THWAP!¿! 😜 lol

    I dunno?

    Groovy-good blog. ❤ ya!

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    • I took my family to the Dark Knight Marathon — all the Nolan Batman films, including Dark Knight Rises at midnight. I don’t recommend midnight showings for anything except the atmosphere, the films always come off second-best. I rated the picture a C-plus even before I came home and read the terrible news out of Colorado, and now my feelings are all jumbled up. Went into a depressive tailspin for a day or two, really wanted to go into a hole and close it up after me.

      Then today while packing for vacation I saw there was a new digital edition of Legends of the Dark Knight available on my iPad, and was filled with the greatest joy. So … I know that I am still tight with Batman, however much reality might imitate grim art. I have resolved to follow my happiness and not think too hard about this thing, to not let this monster take away my joy in the caped crusader, and the simple bliss of going to a superhero movie at midnight.

      Peace.

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  3. Another great write-up. Actually, this looks like a really good run to me. I’m not a huge Gene Colan fa, though.

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    • I love Gene Colan, which influences my affection for this series, even though this isn’t Gene at his best. I value Colan for the motion and emotion of his pencils but I don’t think his inkers do him any favors in this run. In truth, the only inker for Colan was Tom Palmer, and I don’t know as he ever did any work for DC.

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      • I most fondly remember Tom Palmer from his run on the Avengers.

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        • That was over John Buscema pencils, yes? Palmer made everything better but he had a special chemistry with Gene Colan. Their run together on Tomb of Dracula is among the all-time greats.

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          • You’ve got it, Paul. Big John was the penciller. Very good art. Tomb of Dracula is, along with Master of Kung Fu, one of those quintessentialy Bronze Age titles that I never collected (and really wish I had now) because I was only into superhero titles at the time. It especially hurts for Master of Kung Fu, since it’s not available in reprints.

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            • You’d have a hard time knowing it from the content of this blog, but Tomb of Dracula and Master of Kung Fu are two of my all-time favorite series. I have a complete run of the Doug Moench era of MoKF and I’m closing in on the last few issues I need for Tomb. Both series are tentatively scheduled for review here at Longbox Graveyard in October.

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              • I’m looking forward to those.

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                • So am I! I’m working through a stack of Marvel Two-In-One that I need to finish before I can start those series and it seems to be getting bigger the deeper I get into it … Two-In-One is not a great series. Urgh, not at all.

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                  • I liked Marvel Two-in-One. The Project Pegasus stuff is classic, and the Serpernt Crown stories were excellent. #50 and #100, where he meets the Thing from the past were very good. And the Annual where he fights the Champion was really good. Still, there were some stinkers in there. MTIO seemed to be a place where they decided to wrap up cancelled titles, such as the awful Skull the Slayer. Not having a regular creative team for long probably didn’t help either.

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                    • That’s pretty much my review right there, Dave! I’ll add that the early Steve Gerber issues are bizarre and entertaining but there are some long, dire stretches of murderous mediocrity in this book.

                      I excluded the Annuals from my survey, otherwise Annual #2 (where Jim Starlin wraps up his first Warlock/Thanos story) would rank right at the top.

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                    • Good point Paul. Starlin + Warlock + Thanos = Bronze Age Goodness!

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  4. Do you guys know EVERYTHING?
    I ❤ this blog! ❤ it!
    Thanks a bunch for making it. You’re all just great! Really. 💋

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  5. Yep. Gotta ❤ the Bronze Age!

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  6. LBG,

    Nocturna was heading for a pretty cool update under Bruce Timm and Paul Dini:

    Nocturna was scheduled to appear in an episode of Batman: The Animated Series as a vampire, but the episode was canceled after Fox censors objected to the storyline, which would have involved Batman being turned into a vampire and craving human blood. Producer Alan Burnett later recounted the events by saying “We also wanted to do a Nocturna story – Bruce had drawn a hot model of her – but she’s a vampire, which would’ve involved bloodletting, which was a huge no-no for kids TV.”

    About this summer’s movies, here is some real math: Avengers > Rises

    As you point out, “Nolan’s series has gone on to become a thing of its own, thanks to its not-a-superhero-but-really-a-crime-picture story beats.” I have yet to wrap my head around the arse raping that he gave Bats in ‘Rises’, making him a quitter after 2 years of active service, and retiring him to the south of Europe after limping around the mansion for seven years without putting on the cowl, and people compare it to Returns. Earth-31 Batman wears a mask called Bruce Wayne (not the other way around).

    “And I swear by the spirit of my parents to avenge their deaths by spending the rest of my life warring on all criminals.”
    -Bruce Wayne [Detective Comics #27]

    Anyhow, I can go on forever. Cool read.

    What do you think of this for a Batman Reboot?
    http://www.comicbookfilm.com/batman-reboot.html

    Like

    • Hail Mighty Geeklord! (And thanks for reading and commenting).

      It’s a shame that Nocturna didn’t get a second act under Timm and Dini, if only because those two make everything better (and Timm draws hot women). Interesting to note that a few years later there would be a Batman: Brave & The Bold episode where exactly what they describe happens — Batman becomes a vampire, leaps around the JLA satellite and attacks other heroes, etc. … it is played for laughs (and might have been a dream, can’t remember) but in the show itself it has that gonzo, I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening vibe that marked the best episodes of that series, and must have been at least as objectionable as what Fox feared for BTAS.

      My own feelings about Dark Knight Rises are complicated and I’ve only come to terms with them after re-watching the film on Blu-Ray this past weekend. I’d go into it here but it’s also the subject for my January Longbox Graveyard Podcast, so I will reserve comment for that other venue.

      Checked your link and I dunno how I feel about John Hamm as either Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent. He is a versatile actor but I guess he has typecast himself as Don Draper to me; there’s also the issue that even though he is a couple years my junior he seems like my dad. I could see him as one of those mature, disapproving Alex Ross Justice Leaguers but overall I think he lacks the snap for a superhero role. Plus don’t forget the studio already has the very serviceable Joseph Gordon-Levitt lined up to don the cowl (and I thought he was very good in an otherwise-mediocre Dark Knight Rises).

      I also think it is way (WAY) too soon for any actor to take on the Joker in a live-action capacity. Heath Ledger’s performance was transcendent … and also made the role radioactive for at least a generation. It would be like someone other than Brando playing Vito Corleone in 1976.

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  7. I agree with you about Doug Moench…I like everything I’ve read by him: Batman, Master of Kung Fu, Moon Knight, Six from Sirius. I haven’t read his Werewolf by Night stuff, so i can’t really comment on that, but in general he’s one of my favourites.

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    • I love Moench’s Master of Kung Fu, one of my Top 5 books of all time. I need to get back to it. This Batman run was lesser work from both Moench and Colan, but those guys were so good that their lesser work exceeds many creators on their best day.

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  8. in these 80 years of Batman we can see how rich is their mythology, because even if there are stories that do not know. There is no denying that are fascinating to show how Bruce Wayne’s mind works.

    Instead of displaying it always like that man tireless search of his estrena personal vendetta.

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    • I agree — it is the man under the cowl that makes Batman who he is. The best Bat-tales strike a balance between these two sides of our Dark Knight (though it seems the pendulum has swung way over toward the obsessive, vengeance-driving Batman since Frank Miller showed everyone how it was done).

      Liked by 1 person

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