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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!

Escape From The Longbox Shortbox

Longbox Graveyard #51

A trilogy of titanic mini-reviews in this week’s Longbox Shortbox!

Detective

#469-479, May 1977-October 1978

Batman is one of the most malleable characters in comics. The Christopher Nolan interpretation dominates the contemporary imagination, but Batman began as a grim, murderous pulp character, and served time as a whacky Silver Age science hero and as a sometimes cartoonish gothic screen vigilante before morphing into the current Dark Knight that audiences know and love.

While the flashpoint for Batman’s current incarnation was clearly Frank Miller’s seminal 1986 series Batman: The Dark Knight, the transformation from “Batman” to “The Batman” arguably started a decade earlier in this late-1970s run in Batman’s companion comic, Detective. This is a stylish series of Bat tales from several creators, including Len Wein and Walter Simonson, but the most lasting impression was formed by the team of Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers, knocking over the first domino leading to the Batman of today.

Like many successful writers, Steve Englehart doesn’t shy away from claiming credit where it is due. Over on Englehart’s page you can read about how he feels this series reinvented Batman for modern audiences, shedding the image of the Biff-Bam Adam West/TV era and leading the charater into the Dark Knight era, later popularized by Tim Burton’s Batman (which Englehart notes is based on his run). I’m not enough of a Batman scholar to verify these claims, but reading these books in the late 1970s, they felt like a breath of fresh, gritty Gotham air.

Marshall Rogers’ pencils are thin, tight, and detailed, with a solid sense of draftsmanship that made the cars and buildings of Gotham City seem real. In an era where Marvel and DC really cranked them out, the work of detail-oriented artists like Rogers and George Perez popped off the page.

The look of the series is more modern than Englehart’s scripting, which on review seem more rooted in tradition than that author would allow. His Penguin story, in particular — with it’s museum exhibit robbery and wordplay clues left by the villain — feels very much a Silver Age story. But there are also emerging elements of the a more grim and gritty Batman, who runs afoul of Professor Hugo Strange, sending Batman on a bad trip and compromising his identity as Bruce Wayne.

The series is also notable for Bruce’s adult relationship with Silver St. Cloud, who intelligently recognizes Bruce beneath Batman’s cowl the first time she sees Batman in the wild.

It is the Joker story that is best remembered from this run — and the imagery is vibrant, with Joker-faced fishes showing up as the herald of the Joker’s crazy plan, and the Joker himself deftly cast as a deranged, murderous lunatic obsessed with his impossible, insane crusade to secure royalties on every fish in the sea (!).

But despite Englehart’s superior work, it was the two-part Clayface story by Len Wein and Marshall Rogers that most stuck with me when re-reading this series, with Clayface cast as a victim more than a villain, hiding like the Phantom of the Opera in an abandoned wax museum, and confessing his longing to a wax dummy. The fire at the end of the tale was an inevitable cliche, but it was a tragic turn and I still felt for poor Clayface.

This run of Detective presents stories that are solid and worth experiencing in their own right, whatever you may think of Englehart’s claims to framing the modern milieu of Batman. Rogers’ pencils are still a delight and the Joker story ranks among the best in breed.

LBG Letter Grade For This Run: B

Read The Reprints: Shadow of the Batman.

Black Panther

#1-15, January 1977-November 1978

Jack Kirby originally brought us the Black Panther in issue #52 of Fantastic Four, and this was one of the characters where he was handed the keys upon his return to Marvel in 1976. If you’re looking for the wordy and introspective Black Panther of Don McGregor’s Jungle Action, or the noble and intriguing supporting character from the Roy Thomas’ Avengers run, then look elsewhere. Kirby’s Black Panther is a costumed adventurer caught up in cosmic happenings from page one of this short-lived series, as wonderfully out-of-step with the rest of Marvel’s line as was Kirby’s equivalently bizarre Bicentennial run on Captain America.

Kirby’s later work is an acquired taste — and it is a taste that took me decades to acquire. Reading his books in the 1970s, I was attracted to the energy, and the action, and the familiar heroes, but put off by stories that didn’t follow the usual rules and certainly didn’t seem to reside in the same Marvel Universe as the other books of the time. This Black Panther run is no different — from the first page, we are through the looking glass, as the Panther and the comical “Mr. Little” encounter a victim of “The Brass Frog,” a time-travel device much esteemed by a mysterious society of collectors with which the Panther has somehow come to be involved.

I think that by this time of his career, Kirby was bored with drawing the usual superhero fist operas, and he pretty much abandons the formula here — his Panther is more a witness to events, rather than a protagonist, and the world unravels around him in sort order. Before two issues are through we’ve seen a grim vision of man’s future and had a punch-out with a psychic slayer from the 66th century. It all barely makes sense but many pages swarm with Kirby dots and I personally find it irresistible.

Kirby’s run lasts twelve issues on the book (which would be cancelled after issue #15), and splits into two story arcs — the Panther and fortune-hunters seeking treasures of the past, and a Wakandan civil crisis brought about when T’Challa’s half-brother suffers a demonic transformation from Vibranium exposure. I found the treasure-hunting story more engaging, with an Indiana Jones-meets-Erich von Däniken vibe (about which more below). The civil war series has its moments, but spends too much time with the well-intentioned but embarrassing-in-retrospect “Black Musketeers” characters that Kirby created to flesh out the Wakandan royal family.

yes, this happened

This is not the Panther’s finest hour — mostly he reacts to events, rather than driving things forward, but he’s kept plenty busy smacking the robots, samurais, aliens, and tomb guardians let loose by his “Collector” companions, Mr. Little and Princess Zanda. As co-creator of the character, Kirby is due his idiosyncratic take on T’Challa, even if it conflicts with every impression of the character we formed before or since. There’s magic here if you don’t take things too seriously, and for all that the stories are bizarre, the King gives it his all.

LBG Letter Grade For This Run: C-Plus

Read The First Issue Online: Mars Will Send No More

Read The Reprints: Jack Kirby’s Black Panther

Eternals

#1-19, July 1976-January 1978

If Kirby’s Black Panther dabbled in the cosmic, Jack Kirby’s original 1970s Marvel series, The Eternals, dove right into a cosmic Bermuda Triangle, leveraging the mid-70s fascination with ancient astronauts to spin a tale of space gods, demi-gods, mutants, and humans thrown together in a crucible of prophecies and end times. Even more clearly influenced by von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods than was his contemporary work on Black Panther, Eternals is a masterclass in world building from an artist who had for decades made his bones by capturing the cosmic with pencil and paper.

Judging by the pace of the story, Kirby must have intended this tale to run a hundred issues or more. Unfortunately, the series was cancelled after a scant nineteen issues, leaving behind scattered artifacts and clues as inscrutable as Kirby’s space gods themselves. Mostly what we get is Kirby deploying his chess pieces — but what pieces they were! Kirby set out to tell a big story here, and even the generous full and double-page panels he uses in this series aren’t big enough to contain his vision.

The series revolves around the Celestials — ancient, gigantic space gods who mysteriously return to earth to judge the human race. It was the Celestials who were responsible for life on earth, mutating primitive life forms to give birth to earth’s three races — we humans, the now-revealed demi-god Eternals, and the demonic Deviants.

In many ways this series feels like an extension of Kirby’s work on DC’s New Gods. It is less overtly superheroic and gonzo than that earlier series (no escape artists or Jimmy Olsens here!), and is maybe a bit less fun, but the concepts are stronger for all that the series lacks memorable characters. Kirby contents himself with Eternals that are paradigms for mythic heroes like Mercury or Icarus, and for his bad guys co-opts ancient Lemuria. His human characters exist only as viewpoint characters for the cosmic goings on initiated by the return of the space gods to earth. None of the characters really resonate — it’s as if Kirby was too intrigued with his cosmic canvas to do more than rough in the characters on his stage — and the series suffers for it.

The book is at its best when he concentrates on the enigmatic Celestials, and the human reaction to the “Fourth Host” in their midst. For me the series high point is when the Soviets set out to nuke a space god, with predictable results.

We’ll never know where the series might have gone if Kirby had a full run of issues to explore his concepts. Later writers would bring the Eternals more firmly into the mainstream Marvel Universe, but for such a personal work as Eternals, those books are at best non-canonical, and at worst another example of the commercial exploitation of Jack Kirby’s world-building genius. I prefer to think that the world of the Eternals is still out there someplace, balanced on a knife-edge as Kirby was forced to leave it, with Arishem’s thumb hovering between earth’s salvation and condemnation.

Read The Reprints: The Eternals Omnibus

That brings us to the end of another Longbox Shortbox! Thanks for reading, and please give me your reactions in the comments section below. And for more Jack Kirby goodness, please check out my review of the first Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. story over in my Dollar Box column debuting today at StashMyComics.com!

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #52 Longbox Soapbox — Our One Year Anniversary!

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