A trilogy of titanic mini-reviews in this week’s Longbox Shortbox!
#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.
Read The Reprints: Shadow of the Batman.
#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
#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!