link

GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Batman - I -

Batman in the Eighties 2004 (SC TPB) 192 pages

cover by Jim AparoWritten and illustrated by various.
Colours/letters: various

Reprints:

Rating: N/R

Number of readings: various

I haven't read the full book, hence why I haven't given it an official rating

DC Comics periodically releases TPB collections spotlighting a decade in the lives of either of its two chief properties, Superman and Batman (such as Superman in the Seventies. The latest is Batman in the Eighties featuring a variety of tales culled from the 1980s. Essentially, these are "Best of..." collections and, often, the results can be a bit mixed (everyone will have a favourite story that they felt should've been included). But Batman in the Eighties is a surprisingly strong effort, and a nicely diverse one (in contrast, Batman in the Seventies -- reviewed below -- consisted mainly of stories written only by one author, Denny O'Neil).

I don't have the book, nor have I read all the stories collected in it. However, I do have a number of the original stories in my collection and, based on them, I can say this is a good book. Even if the remaining, unread, stories are utter dreck, it shouldn't detract from the quality of the better efforts.

"To Kill a Legend", originally published as the lead feature in the 500th anniversary issue of Detective Comics, has already been collected more than once over the years (including in The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told). Admittedly, I have qualms about that: TPB collections are sufficiently expensive, and seem to be propogating exponentially, that companies should try to avoid repetition if possible. With that being said, it's an emotionally rich tale as Batman is given the opportunity to avert his parents' murder on a parallel world -- but Robin worries that to do so will mean that parallel world's Bruce Wayne will never grow up to be Batman. And which is the greater crime? Intelligently told by writer Alan Brennert, with strong dialogue, and illustrated competently by Dick Giordano, it's definitely a memorable one, drawing upon the then-mythos relating to who and why Batman's parents were initially killed (stuff no longer considered canonical).

The double sized "The Player on the Other Side" (Batman Special #1) may well be one of prolific comics writer Mike W. Barr's finest achievements. I'm generally ambivalent about Barr, a writer who often tried for ambitious themes, but usually with mixed results. But this works exceptionally well. Batman meets his doppleganger in the Wrath, an assassin whose parents were killed by a cop the same night Batman's were murdered by a crook, and who grew up to wage war on all law enforcement. His current target is Commissioner Gordon -- the one-time beat cop who killed his parents. In addition to the clever themes of dual destiny, and some memorably written exchanges, it's just a well crafted thriller, with some nice, edge-of-the-seat suspense scenes (Batman frantically calling home after realizing the Wrath knows his identity and that Alfred is in danger). It's drawn by the too rarely seen Michael Golden, with the only flaw that Golden could only ink of few of his own pages, leaving the rest to Mike DeCarlo, an inker with a rigid, hard-line style not wholly suited to Golden's soft, organic pencils. Also the colours in the climax don't exactly evoke the night time setting. But those are minor quibbles.

I was surprised by the inclusion of "Shadow Play" (Batman #348) partly because I initially assumed it was the story from one issue before (which also had "shadow" in the title) which was more clearly aiming to be a profound semi-classic. But re-reading "Shadow Play" again, I'm glad they went with it. Firstly, it's written by Gerry Conway, a comics writer who wrote for just about every title at one time or another in the 1970s and 1980s (as did most writers of his generation). Conway had his creative ups and downs, but I don't think he's ever quite received his due from fandom. And his tenure on Batman, including an epic masterpiece of Byzantine sub-plots, is one of my favourite creative periods of any title in any era (as I detail here). But "Shadow Play" is also just a well told tale, and one that showcases an unusual aspect of Batman -- his compassion -- as he journeys into the dark catacombs of the Batcave, risking life and limb, seeking the mad Man-Bat in an effort to cure him. It's well paced, with Conway's nice ear for easy, humanizing dialogue between the characters making you believe in them and their relationships, and it's effectively illustrated by the unusual combo of Gene Colan and Klaus Janson.

What you notice about all three of these stories -- culled from what's known as pre-Crisis continuity -- is that it's a rather different Batman than is often depicted today. He's a more human, well rounded Batman -- one capable of compassion, and of fear, of self-doubt and guilt, and of demonstrating easy comaraderie with Robin...all while still being driven and brooding.

Gosh -- I miss him.

"Dreadful Birthday, Dear Joker...!" (Batman #321) is a more problematic choice. It too has been collected more than once before (including in The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told). And I just don't see what the fuss is about. It's a perfectly O.K. romp, but a tad generic -- there's nothing that sticks out about it. Though, in this context, that might be its appeal -- its lack of pretension. It's drawn by Walt Simonson and scripter Len Wein is one of my favourite writers from the Bronze Age. And it's the dialogue that I appreciate most here. Sometimes with just a line or two, Wein could convey whole layers of character interaction (such as a brief, understated exchange between Batman and Selina Kyle, then reformed and dating Bruce Wayne).

This collection also includes a two-part Batgirl tale originally run as a back up feature. Batgirl had long lurked in the back pages of Detective Comics, often no more than competently written or illustrated. This story wasn't so much a breath of fresh air, as it was a tornado of oxygen -- particularly in the art department. Moodily illustrated by the dynamic, eclectic Trevor Von Eeden, and with Barbara Randall (later Barbara Kesel) writing an off beat tale involving sibling rivalry and corporate crime, it kicked the dust off the character. It was a Batgirl tale that suddenly made me look forward to Batgirl tales...so, naturally, it also turned out to be the last Batgirl tale, at least in that period, as DC dropped it. Why bring in a whole new creative team...and then pull the rug out from under the character after only two seven page instalments? Still, particularly visually, I tend to think of this as one of the Silver Age Batgirl's finest hours.

What's interesting and applaudable about this collection is a desire to reflect the whole of the Bat-mythos. In addition to the solo Batgirl story, there's also material dealing with the Outsiders (Batman's early 1980s team) and the Teen Titans (Robin's group). In fact, the motive behind including "Shadow Play" may well have simply been to present a Man-Bat appearance. Also collected here are stories from Batman #384 (so I saw listed, but I think that's wrong), Detective Comics #571, The New Titans #55, and DC Sampler #3.

As mentioned at the beginning of this piece, I haven't read all the stories here -- but most of those I have are worthy efforts. In fact, based on these stories, and assuming the same care and taste went into selecting the others, if my wallet was any heavier, I'd be sorely tempted to pick this up to see what I'm missing. As it is, I can say with reasonable confidence that Batman in the Eighties is well worth the trip through time.

Cover price: $__ CDN. $19.95 USA.


cover by Neal Adams

Batman in the Seventies 1988 (SC TPB), 192 pgs.

Written by Dennis O'Neil, and others. Art by Neal Adams, and other.
Colours/letters: various.

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Reprinting: stories from Batman #232, 237, 260, Detective Comics #407, 410, 442, 457, 481, Batman Family #1, DC Super-Stars #17,

Number of readings: various

Comics companies occasionally put out "best of" collections for signature characters, and DC has done that with Batman (various "Greatest Stories Ever Told" TPBs) but given the sheer longevity of the character, they've also put out collections focusing on individual decades (Superman, too, has received the decade-by-decade treatment). Which brings us to Batman in the Seventies which collects various classic, seminal, and otherwise noteworthy tales culled from the 1970s.

The problem with reprint collections, is it can reach a point where the same stories keep getting reprinted. Almost all of the stories collected here...have been previously reprinted! But, to be fair, some of those earlier reprints I'm thinking of...are themselves long out-of-print (such as old digests from the 1980s!)

Anyway, of the eight tales I've read, this certainly stands as an entertaining, better-than-decent collection.

A quibble I have is the sheer volume of Denny O'Neil scripted stories. O'Neil is certainly seen as a defining writer on the character but, in a collection like this, it can result in a certain sameness to the stories. Likewise, although there is more diversity of artists represented, the well regarded Neal Adams dominates, and there were other pencillers who warranted representation.

The collection's high point is an O'Neil/Adams collaboration -- "The Night of the Reaper" (from Batman #237) a dark, moody tale mixing pathos, whimsy, and gothic mood, yet atypically in the service of a story steeped in a real world political relevancy as Batman (and Robin) hunt a Nazi war criminal during a Halloween masquerade party, while a mysterious killer also stalks the night. It's an exceptional tale, on a variety of levels, and though it had been reprinted a few times...that was decades ago. The fact that this is the first time it has been included in any TPB collection is surprising. Though one suspects the story's concept of a Grim Reaper garbbed vigilante killer influenced Batman: Year Two and the animated movie, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.

Some of O'Neil's other stories more reflect my ambivalence toward his style. "This One'll Kill You, Batman!" (Batman #260) is drawn by Irv Novick, an artist I never quite warmed to as a kid, but kind of like more as an adult, with his realist faces and unsplashy style. The story pits Batman against The Joker and is a perfectly enjoyable little romp...but it's basically the sort of dubious comic book-y plot O'Neil (and others) relied on so often, where the plot is there to justify the scenes, and no more. So Batman is doused with the Joker's laughing toxin which, conveniently, only two men in the world can cure, and the Joker tries to kill them first. And though racing the clock...Batman nonetheless takes time out to attend a funeral of a man he barely knew! (Yet, the scene of Bruce Wayne at the funeral, trying to suppress giggles brought on by the laughing toxin, told largely without words by Novick, is nicely effective). Some of the visuals are curious, such as the funeral scene...where it looks as though Novick has drawn other JLAers, out of costume, in the crowd, with Clark Kent and Oliver Queen in attendance. Was that a carry over from an earlier draft of the script? or an "in joke"? or a coincidence?...or was Novick maybe cribbing poses from another drawing (towards the end there's a panel of the Batman hitting the Joker that looks awfully similar to a panel in the classic Neal Adams drawn "Joker's Five Way Revenge" -- not that it's a direct, line-by-line, rip-off or anything).

Another O'Neil/Adams collaboration, "Daughter of the Demon" (from Batman #232) is one of the most oft reprinted Bat-tales ever, being the first appearance of villain Ra's Al Ghul. But as a story itself, it's nothing much to write home about. Sure, it's briskly paced, but again suffers from some ludicrous comic book plotting...a fact not quite mollified by the fact that Batman acknowledges how ludicrous it is. There's also a slightly racist aspect to its portrayal of Calcutta where we are told behind every door lies horror, and a knife behind every smile! I'm not sure the Indian tourism board would've approved (not that I'm trying to fault O'Neil too much...this was written almost 40 years ago, and he was trying to evoke an old pulp magazine flavour).

"A Vow from the Grave" (Detective Comics #410), yet another O'Neil/Adams effort (with the added distinction of having served as a source for an episode of the 1990s cartoon), starts out moody and atmospheric, as Batman encounters some canival misfits...but the basic plot/mystery/character development is minimal. While, "There is No Hope in Crime Alley!" (O'Neil teamed with artist Dick Giordano from Detective Comics #457) is fondly recalled by many. And it's certainly seminal, in that it fleshed out the mythos of the street where Batman's parents were murdered and introduced the character of Leslie Thompson into the Bat-legend. But again, as a story in-and-of-itself...it's pretty bland.

Another O'Neil story included in this TPB which I've yet to read was a collaboration with artist Marshall Rogers.

By and large, O'Neil just wasn't/isn't that subtle or deft a writer, nor was his Batman entirely that sympathetic or well rounded. Certainly scenes where Batman snaps at his closest friends like Alfred ("Just tend to your duties and stay out of my business!") and Robin ("Don't be stupid, kid!") smack of just clumsy writing, whatever the emotional provocation.

As a contrast, there's "Marriage: Impossible", written by Frank Robbins (equally well known as an artist) and drawn by Adams (again!) for Detective Comics #407. Featuring Robbins' Jekyll-and-Hyde like Man-Bat, there's a different tone than the O'Neil stories. Sure, it's a little more fantasy-flavoured, but I also mean in terms of pacing and themes and mood and the portrayal of Batman himself. I'm not saying it's inherently better, merely that in a collection such as this, a representation of different styles is appreciated. It's actually one of the best stories here, and presents a more compassionate Batman, seeking to help his tormented adversary. Granted, though telling enough of its tale to be read on its own, it is the third of three interconnected Man-Bat tales that probably read best together (they were collected in a 1984 Man-Bat one-shot special).

Another non-O'Neil entry is the Archie Goodwin-Alex Toth "Death Flies the Haunted Sky" (Detective #442) It's fast paced, but seems like any one of a zillion similar tales dating back to the 1940s as a mysterious killer (in a vintage bi-plane!) targets members of a business collective and Batman tries to play catch up, eventually revealing the killer. My suspicion is that it is remembered simply for the fact that it is one of the few Batman stories ever drawn by Alex Toth (well regarded within the biz).

There are other stories that could have been selected over some of the ones that were included -- stories that haven't been reprinted before. And worthy talents who deserved a tip of the hat...like artist Jim Aparo, and writers like David V. Reed, Len Wein, and most notably Bob Haney whose years writing Batman team ups in The Brave & the Bold produced many a decent page turner. Indeed, given The Brave & The Bold was one of the principal Bat-comics of the 1970s, material from it should've been included if only to represent the era (as might a Batman-Superman team up from World's Finest).

Rounding out this collection are a couple of Bat-Family tales -- stories not focusing on Batman himself. A feature length teaming of Robin and Batgirl (which I haven't read) and the origin of the original Huntress (by Levitz and Staton, subsequently included in a Huntress TPB collection) -- the latter, an interesting glimpse at the Earth 2 mythology, and a demonstration of how the Bat-theme was expanded upon...if not necessarily an especially memorable tale in and of itself.

I realize my comments may seem unduly negative. "Night of the Reaper" is a great story, period. And others, like "Marriage: Impossible" are highly entertaining. Even some of the lesser tales are certainly decent page turners, whatever their flaws. As I've noted before, sandwiched in a collection, you can sometimes forgive short comings that might be more glaring if a story was expected to justify the purchase all on its own. Well drawn throughout, Batman in the Seventies could've included more diverse creators, and stories less likely to have appeared in previous reprints, but as a grab bag collection...it's enjoyable enough.

Cover price: $__ CDN./$19.95 USA


Batman in the Sixties 1999 (SC TPB) 224 pgs.

Reviewed on next page


<Back    Next>

Complete Reviews List

Or back to: