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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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Superhero Music Top 10

Longbox Graveyard #44

Visual sound effects notwithstanding, comic books are a silent affair. Were you to witness my reading some random book from The Accumulation you would be hard-pressed to hear anything beyond pages being turned, and maybe soft weeping. Matt Murdock-level listeners might detect the near-silent death agonies of expiring brain cells.

But when superheros vault to the small and large screens, they bring music with them, and that’s what this week’s Longbox Graveyard is all about! It’s been awhile since I did one of my idiosyncratic top ten lists, so here we go with my Superhero Music Top Ten. These are the tunes that I (sometimes) put on in the background while reading funny books, or (more frequently) welcome with relish as they get stuck in my head and shout down the many voices whispering at me to do unspeakable things. As with my other lists, these songs aren’t necessarily the best, but they are my favorites, and I hope you will agree (or better, disagree) in the comments section below!

10) Batman Brave And The Bold

Coming in at number ten is the brassy and wild opening titles for my favorite superhero cartoon, Batman: The Brave And The Bold! The show, sadly, has recently gone out of production, but you can track it down on DVD and I expect it can still be found on Cartoon Network (although I haven’t seen even a re-run pop up on my DVR for several weeks now). The show is broad, tongue-in-cheek superhero fun, and the tone is set right from the start, as wailing horns and jungle drums conduct Batman through the streets of a Gotham City overshadowed by the many friends and foes the Dark Knight encounters in this freewheeling animated series.

The show scores bonus points for a playful sense of musicality throughout the series, with unexpected musical numbers breaking out in the strangest places (usually when Aquaman is around), and going completely over-the-top with Neil Patrick Harris leading the vocals in the Broadway-quality original score for the musical episode, Mayhem of the Music Meister!

9) Kick Ass

Kick Ass is notable for several things, such as it’s relentlessly bleak and violent outlook on youth culture, a star-making turn by Chloë Grace Moretz as Hit Girl, and one of the few watchable performances by Nick Cage since he collected his Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas. But the movie also scores points for its opening theme — “Stand Up,” by The Prodigy. To be fair, I don’t believe this song was created specifically for this movie, but still makes my list because it so nicely sets the scene and sums up the energy and off-center viewpoint of the picture.

8) X-Men First Class

A more conventional film score rings in at number eight. I could have selected the main titles from the original three X-Men pictures, but I think I slightly prefer the lesser-known theme from last summer’s X-Men First Class, maybe because I find it more heroic and optimistic.

It is unfortunately almost entirely absent the groovy 1960s vibe of the picture itself, aside from those French horns banging in at the end, which conjure impressions of a John Barry 007 track.

7) Iron Man

Energetic and up-tempo, Ramin Djawadi‘s theme sets the tone for what is still the best of Marvel’s superhero movies, with building strings beneath rock guitars giving a big-shouldered, machine-like beat to what might otherwise be another disposable summertime popcorn movie anthem. It gets your motor running and is the perfect warm-up for the fast-paced, industrial superhero story that follows.

6) Batman (Tim Burton version)

Batman claims another slot on my list (and it will shortly become evident why this list could as easily have been the Batman Music Top Ten). I was never wild about Tim Burton’s Batman but it was one of the biggest films of all time, and Danny Elfman’s film score has achieved iconic status. In 1989, Elfman was still in the early stages of his film score career, and hadn’t yet begun to relentlessly recycle the “dark carnival” sound that characterizes his later work. Elfman’s Batman score is by turns shrill and moody, with a cheeky, big-film self consciousness that is unafraid to slap you in the face and say, well, you knew you were lining up for a big-budget Batman picture, so let’s get this show on the road!

5) Batman Begins

Better for me than Elfman’s Batman is the film score for Batman Begins. The four-color heritage of Elfman’s Batman has been entirely flushed from the system in this more serious, urgent, and threatening theme, which I could see Bruce Wayne popping in his CD player when he needs to get across town in his Lamborghini Murcielago LP640. That co-composer Hans Zimmer so thoroughly cannibalized this score for his later collaboration with Christopher Nolan in Inception shouldn’t be held against what is a powerful piece of music that works as well for the opening titles as it does for the action sequences of the film.

4) Wonder Woman

Finishing just short of the podium and owing it’s placement more to nostalgia than quality, the first season mix of Wonder Woman’s theme song sports an extra-funky mix of this theme’s catchy beat. Maybe it gets points for being ahead of its time, because I could have sworn this was a 1980s song, but the series dates to 1975!

I will admit that this is the worst song on my list … but it fits comfortably into the so-bad-it’s-good category. Hear it once and the song burrows into your brain like an earwig.

Plus — Lynda Carter, in her satin tights, fightin’ for her rights!

3) Superman Theme

In any sane world, John Williams’ theme from Superman would rate the top of the list — it is the first music that leaps to mind when most people think of superhero themes, instantly-recognizable and sending chills down the spine. But this isn’t a sane world … this is Longbox Graveyard!

An indispensable component of what is still the only Superman movie to get it (sort of) right, this score comfortably resides among the greatest in film history, alongside Williams’ classic music for pictures like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. The most unabashedly heroic music on this list (of the “serious” pieces at least), the score is old fashioned and schmaltzy in places … but then again, so is Superman, and rather than aging poorly, I prefer to think that Williams’ Superman score understands the heart of this iconic hero, and refuses to bend to the temporary tone of the day.

2) Spider-Man

This list begins and ends with TV themes, and only one superhero TV theme is more iconic than the opening credits of the 1960s Spider-Man cartoon show.

This song hails from the great era of expository television theme songs, where the song was anthem and series summary all in one. There’s no way even the most sugared-up Saturday morning cartoon viewer could fail to understand what Spider-Man is all about after absorbing this tight, psychedelic, sixty-second aural bludgeoning that leaves nothing to chance. Hear this song once and you’ll know every one of Spidey’s most important powers, and you’ll be revved up and ready to go for a show that never quite delivered the goods as well as its sensational opening. But sheesh, kid, what do you want? It’s 1967, and no one in their right mind is going to spend a nickle on a superhero show. Now shut up, eat your Frosted Flakes, and pay attention to the commercials!

1) Batman

You should have seen this coming when I put Wonder Woman at #4. Obviously Longbox Graveyard is not afraid of cheese, which means I’m not afraid to name the cheesiest superhero theme of all time as king of the hill.

The Batman theme shoots the moon on the “expository theme song” style, performing a reductio ad absurdum to arrive at an anthem that uses only one word — Batman! Batman! Batman! Batman! Batman, Batman, Batman!

It’s the perfect, spy movie/surf guitar 1960s theme for what would become Batmania. The series also features good incidental music, though lightning would NOT strike twice when they rolled out the Batgirl theme:

And there you have it! Ten titanic tunes for your superheroing pleasure. Where did I get it right? What is my most egregious oversight? Sing out in the comments, below!

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #45 Panel Gallery: Avengers Assemble!

LONGBOX GRAVEYARD TOP TEN LISTS

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