by The Masked Bookwyrm

Batman - Q - S

Batman: Reign of Terror
is reviewed here

Batman: Scottish Connection - cover by Frank QuitelyBatman: Scottish Connection 1998 (SC GN) 64 pgs.

Written by Alan Grant. Illustrated by Frank Quitely.
Colours: Matt Hollingsworth, Brad Matthew. Letters: Bill Oakley. Editor: Denny O'Neil.

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 3

Firstly, I admit the two stars is harsh. Probably way, way too harsh. I had such mixed feelings about this that I read it twice before putting up my review...and I'm still ambivalent! There's some pleasant stuff in this graphic novel. I'm just not sure, in good conscience, that I can give it three stars.

The story has Bruce (Batman) Wayne visiting Scotland and investigating a would-be killer fired by a two hundred year old clan feud.

The emphasis on Bruce Wayne is interesting, with his only becoming Batman for the action scenes. And this is a more relaxed, easy going Bats than is often portrayed these days. A not unwelcome hearkening back to a less grim version of the character.

What's bizarre about this story is that it must have gotten the editorial go ahead based solely on the novelty of the Scottish setting, there's really nothing else of significance here. It's entirely plot-driven, but the plot, though technically bewildering in spots, is simplistic and downright silly at times. You can guess most of the story long before Alan Grant presumably wants you to (a climactic "revelation" is no revelation at all). The whole way Batman becomes embroiled in the case (via desecrated tombs leading to a lost Knights Templar recipe for creating super-assassins) is actually pointless...the bad guys are no more formidable after becoming "super-assassins" than they were before! And it's not really relevant to the revenge scheme anyway. Even after a second reading there seem to be incoherent leaps of logic.

A loose plot can (sometimes) be excused if it serves as the backbone for the human drama...but there's no such human factor to speak of (despite the potential, including an ending that could have been poignant if Grant had bothered to develop characters and relationships).

The art by Frank Quitely reminds me of European comic artists. It's very detailed and elegant, beautiful to look at (and evocative of Scotland, not that I've ever been there) -- the opening few pages are particularly effective -- but it's all a little...dispassionate. The characters lack any real emotion and the fight scenes lack kineticism. But that former complaint is more a result of the story. Quitely can't necessarily be expected to invest the characters with passion if it's not in the script.

Alan Grant and Frank Quitely are Scottish and work in some Scottish lore, including real-life Rossyln Chapel, but the story seems no more authentically Scottish than could be done by an American (it even reminded me a bit of an old McMillan and Wife episode, thanks in part to Quitely's Max Fleischer-esque Bruce Wayne evoking Rock Hudson). Alfred at one point gives Bruce a rundown on the local dialect...but wouldn't it have been cleverer to have worked that into the story itself?

On the plus side, the art is striking, and I didn't dislike Batman: Scottish Connection...condensed into a regular, single issue comic, it would've been fine. Maybe even as a two-parter it'd be O.K., if unexceptional. But the fact that this was stretched out to 64 pages and released as a prestige "graphic novel" is, frankly, ridiculous. I've criticized GN like Spider-Man: Fear Itself for being reasonably engrossing, but hardly "special", so how then do I rate a GN that, though not by any means terrible, is neither engrossing, nor special...nor even well thought out?

A final thought: though I initially regretted laying out the money for such a thin read, I don't actually regret having Scottish Connection on my shelf. There are some books that I kind of grumble about, but this isn't one. So, my final assessment is that, though my collection would be no poorer for having missed it, I don't begrudge it now that I have it. How's that for a wishy-washy review?

Cover price: $8.50 CDN./$5.95 USA.

Batman: Shaman  1993 (SC TPB) 136 pages

Written by Denny O'Neil. Pencils by Ed Hannigan. Inks by John Beatty.

Reprinting: Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #1-5 (1989)

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

This collects the inaugural storyline from Legends of the Dark Knight -- a story which spans the first two years of Batman's career, involving a macabre Carribean drug cult springing up in Gotham that's somehow mixed up with Alaskan Indian shamanism that once saved Batman's life. Because of the time frame, this would've been impossible to have been told in any other Batman comic -- it would completely throw off the regular comics' continuity. But overall it was a bland choice with which to begin the new Batman comic, Legends of the Dark Knight, a title intended to tell ambitious, stand alone Bat-sagas.

This is one of those stories, common to comics, where there's little human drama...just about everyone who has so much as a line is there to serve a function (the one curious exception being a priest in one scene). You can figure out who the villain will turn out to be simply because he opened his mouth! Even Batman is at arms lengths in a lot of scenes, the reader not always allowed inside his head.

The plotting is weak, with some clues that are so obvious you can't believe Batman didn't pick up on them, and other "clues" that the reader didn't even have access to. And the story doesn't always make sense -- really! There are plausibility problems overall. Including with characterization. Batman seems to feel such contempt for Indian beliefs that he relates a tribal legend that was told to him in confidence (an act that seems wildly inappropriate) then, later, seems to accept the mystical aspects unequivocably. Stranger still, Batman spends the whole story insisting there must be a connection between some Alaskan Indians and a drug cult -- but by the end, the connection is tenuoous.

For a saga about cults and mysticism, instead of being brooding and eerie, it's kind of matter-of-fact with unimaginative action scenes of Batman tackling street hoodlums (the cultists only appear in the second and fifth chapters!). There are few memorable scenes or lines in Shaman -- ironically, one exception is just a quirky scene involving a couple of hard-of-hearing security guards. The dialogue, overall, is workmanlike at best. There's also uncomfortable racial stuff. O'Neil's portrayal of the Native Indian characters is meant to be respectful, but he seems to have trouble seeing them as people first, Indians second. And when the archaic phrase "renegade Indian" is used...well, you feel just a little queasy. And the story hinges on the cult being populated by superstitious, drug smuggling illegal immigrants.

The opening sequence in Alaska is well written by O'Neil and well drawn by Hannigan (evoking Neal Admas). But Hannigan's later work is sketchy and rough with only workmanlike composition. There's clarity to the scenes, but no real fire, no imagination. Though Hannigan's Batman (particularly his cape) was rendered with surprising effectiveness in some scenes.

This is interwoven with scenes from Batman: Year One, but like a lot of post-Year One writers, O'Neil ignores the police corruption of that classic tale, portraying the police as the unimpeachable "thin blue line" while James Gordon contemptuously refers to "human flotsam" (now there's a healthy attitude for a guy carrying a gun to take).

At times O'Neil's Batman is disturbing, threatening to cripple people, or declaring the streets belong to him (surely the streets belong to the people and he is their protector?) yet he is compassionate in the end when dealing with a character who O'Neil hadn't portrayed as anything more than a homicidal lunatic. Never do you get a sense of why Bruce Wayne became the Batman, despite that being a major subtext to this story. Sure, he became Batman because his parents were murdered, but that doesn't answer the question. This Batman seems less outraged by crime than he is just curious.

Ultimately this is a minor story lacking depth and, sometimes, even logic.

This is a review of the story as it was originally serialized in Batman comics

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $12.95 USA.

Batman '66, vol. 1  2014 (SC TPB) 188 pages

Written by Jeff Parker. Illustrated by various.
Colours: various. Letters: Wes Abbott.

Reprinting: Batman '66 #1-6 (2014)

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: July 2015

Nostalgia is a curious thing.

Back in the 1960s the live-action Batman TV series (starring Adam West and Burt Ward) became a massive phenomenon. Although its peak was fleeting (I believe it only lasted three seasons) it helped put comic book heroes back into the mainstream of pop culture (after a fashion), largely created the concept of deliberate "camp" and continued to influence the shape and style of super hero adaptations in movies and TV for decades (yes, even the Tim Burton Batman movies for all their added darkness and violence) and how people perceived the genre. How many old newspaper stories about comics began "Bam!" "Biff!" "Pow!"?

Yet comics fans regarded it with some cynicism, precisely because it was spoofing comic book themes. Indeed, the Batman comics spent years (starting in the late 1960s) deliberately trying to break away from the shadow of the 1960s TV series.

Yet now, decades later, and with the increasing prevalence of media tie-in comics that are both commercial and critical successes (when in the past TV tie-in comics were often poorly received) DC has decided to re-embrace its prodigal son with Batman '66 -- an out-of-continuity Batman comic that is meant to evoke the 1960s TV series. The other impetus, presumably, was the way DC and Marvel both have occasionally experimented with All-Ages versions of their main properties -- what with a feeling that a lot of comics can get a bit too dark and gritty (particularly Batman comics with their endless parade of demented psychos and serial killers) and so discourage younger readers that are necessary to the long term health of the industry.

So this TPB collects the first six issues of the on-going Batman '66 comic which is basically a tie-in to a TV series which was an adaptation of a comic book character. The stories are deliberately light-hearted and light-weight, clipping along briskly, with tongue firmly in cheek. Batman and Robin are drawn to evoke actors West and Ward and their rogues gallery is likewise fashioned after their TV incarnations -- including some foes that only ever appeared on the TV. Over these six issues they encounter everyone from the Riddler to The Penguin to Egghead and The Sandman (a TV villain unconnected to any comic book character of that name) and with Catwoman drawn to look both like Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt in separate adventures.

All issues are written by Jeff Parker who, in a way, has been this route before. At least in that he was responsible for Marvel's X-Men: First Class which told light-hearted retro tales of the original X-Men.

But though Batman '66 is hard to dislike -- equally it's hard to get too excited about, at least once the initial novelty has worn off. Part of that lies with the source material itself. Don't get me wrong: I watched the Batman TV show voraciously as a kid. But as I got older, I was aware there is a limitation to the whole "camp" style. It means the plots and the characterization aren't really meant to be that interesting on their own -- yet it's not really that funny either, as the humour is supposed to stem from the ambience rather than actual wit.

So the problem here is the stories aren't especially clever or twisty, following pretty simple paths to pretty simple resolutions. Yet Parker isn't trying to be obviously comedic either (unlike his X-Men stories which had actual funny quips). Each issue is generally comprised of a 20 page lead story, and a ten page short tale. But neither are that complex. At least the TV series -- I seem to recall -- could boast some twists and turns to the plots.

One way the comics do try to break away from the TV series is by exploiting the "bigger budget" of comics by featuring stunts and scenes (including aerial dog fights!) the TV series couldn't have mounted.

The art is part of the camp/light-hearted feel, with all artists engaging in cartoony, bright, open art. The point is to evoke the feel of the 1960s series, so the characters (to varying degrees) evoke the actors, and the sets and environments are colourful and cheery. Yet I would argue the art can lose some of the point of the comic -- which is to make you feel like you're coming upon some lost episodes of the TV show. Ty Templeton draws one story and his work strikes me as among the best precisely because he goes for straight forward realism -- it really does look like scenes from the series with West and Young et al running about. But a lot of the other artists are more cartoony. Some quite a bit, in a way that might turn off younger readers (who, after all, I suspect like clean, easy to follow panels). In the opening story by Jonathan Case, at times he just kind of flings his characters across the page in a way that confuses perspective and lacks grounding. In one scene, recreating the series' signature scenes of the heroes rappelling up a wall, their feet don't really seem to be touching anything.

Often I suspect the very act of trying to win over new, younger readers means "All-Ages" comics offer little with which to woo existing, older readers. Batman '66 may avoid that problem because DC has latched onto the perfect cross-generational formula. Bright visuals, simple stories, and a lack of too much overt nastiness to appeal to young kids while, simultaneously, appealing to older readers who will enjoy it for its nostalgic rush. Indeed, I wouldn't be surprised if the main audience are aging baby boomers.

But though I don't for a minute dislike these issues, neither is it fully griping. It's not funny enough to be a comedic romp, yet without enough in the story/plot department to simply make the issues engrossing page turners. Kind of the problem with camp.

Batman: Son of the DemonBatman: Son of the Demon 1987 (HC & SC GN) 80 pages

Written by Mike W. Barr. Illustrated and coloured by Jerry Bingham.
Letters: John Costanzo. Editor: Dick Giordano.

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Suggested for mature readers

In a story that initially was meant to be viewed as semi-apocryphal, Batman and his arch foe, Ra's Al Ghul, ally themselves against a mutual enemy, a terrorist and one-time Ra's protégé named Qayin -- going so far as Batman essentially joining Ra's organization (Ra's' long cherished dream) and marrying Talia, Ra's daughter -- and even impregnating her! (Years later, the story was largely removed from the "apocryphal" category, and accepted as canon, even being reprinted in a staple spined comic book edition).

Son of the Demon is one of those stories which, frankly, just doesn't fully click with me. First off, to be up front, I'm not a big Mike Barr fan as a rule -- though I've liked some of his stuff, certainly. And the story's one of those problematic things in comics where part of my ambivalence is how familiar it all seems -- I mean Ra's (and Talia), though initially kind of cool and urbane the first time you encounter them, get real old, real fast and aren't exactly the most complex characters in Batman lore, or given to surprise nuances, and Batman has allied himself with Ra's against a mutual threat before. Still, maybe that's unfair, as plenty of readers will have read fewer past stories than I (though, conversely, the story kind of assumes the reader has a familiarity with the characters' history). I've never been sold on the Bats-Talia romance, so to have a story where Bats just blithely decides to marry her and have a family...just rang false.

Significantly, the scenes focusing on Qayin were somewhat more interesting -- not because Qayin was a particularly complex or well-rounded figure, but simply because he's a new foe, as opposed to the overused Ra's.

At its heart, Son of the Demon kind of wants to be a character-based story, as Bats allies himself with Ra's, marries Talia, and where themes of family and childhood traumas abound. In a couple of scenes Batman's objectivity is threatened by memories of his own orphaned childhood, and even the title takes on multiple meanings as Batman essentially becomes Ra's son, but Qayin was also a surrogate son. Yup, it's all very character-based...yet it rarely succeeds as a character-driven story. Barr is too busy writing an action-adventure romp to slow down and make the human emotion work. The story kind of runs into a lot of scenes where a character does something...but you aren't convinced he would.

I mean, Batman hadn't even heard of Qayin a day or two previous...yet then decides Qayin's such a serious threat he joins ups with arch-villain Ra's? And then he hops into bed with Talia, without even blinking an eye? Then he and Ra's spend a lot of time saying how much they hope their alliance will last when, um, it's pretty obvious that, once Qayin is defeated, their agendas have nothing in common. Later, Batman considers shirking his crime fighting forever now that he's a family man... It's an intriguing idea, one that completely turns the character on his head (after all, crime fighting is his life) while not being completely illogical (after all, it was being bereft of a family that drove him to become Batman) -- but it really needed a lot more delving into and exploring of Batman's emotions and thinking.

For that matter, though Qayin is, like Batman, also a figure emotionally scarred by having been orphaned, Barr doesn't really expect us to have any empathy for him, robbing the story of any extra subtlety.

So, for my money, though it had some interesting potential in the character department, a lot of it was either unconvincing, or undeveloped. In a sense there's a feeling the characters are being pushed around by the needs of the story, the themes, or the "deep" ideas...rather than by their personalities. Part of that is just the story telling: Qayin never becomes more than a bargain basement James Bond foe, and certainly when Batman first becomes aware of him he hardly seems anything more than a villain-of-the-month. Barr needed to better convince us he was some all pervasive force of world shaping villainy in order to better convince us Bats would side with Ra's. And, as I say, the stuff with Bats in general is not unjustified...if it were better developed and explored, either with thought balloons giving us insight into his internal emotions, or with scenes that better portrayed his character growths. As it is, Batman is too much of the BAT-Man, a grim, fairly opaque personality. Maybe some visual choices would've been in order -- he spends most of the story in costume. But particularly during the brief period where he considers quitting for the sake of family, he should drop the costume, better demonstrating the man vs. super hero conflict (and then re-dons the costume for the climax). I dunno. Just a thought.

Admittedly, I reiterate -- I've just never been convinced by the Bat-Talia romance (Talia having all the personality of a curvaceous brick). Which meant the story maybe had to work harder to convice me.

As an action saga -- there's a lot of shoot outs, and only a vaguest logic holding the sequences together. Even then, it's not comprised of a complex, Byzantine plot, but a fairly straightforward one, designed to support basically four key action scenes. Bats-Ra's stories often tend to resemble James Bond movies more than traditional, Gothic Batman tales, with lots of scenes of armies of agents rappelling down cliffs and getting into big shoot outs. Barr, never one who seemed that sincere about the super hero's "thou shalt not kill" edicts, has Batman make a few token comments about not killing...but he spends most of the time with his allies gunning down the opposition, and where Batman himself is happy to indirectly cause deaths, or make snide comments when a foe dies. In fact, Barr's Batman is a rather unlikeable, cold hearted guy...which, admittedly, makes him in keeping with the character as he's often portrayed these days, but not someone you exactly find yourself rooting for.

As used to be the case with some graphic novels, there's a certain "mature readers" flavour, usually involving grittiness and violence. Qayin kills a couple of people in grisly ways, but not in a way that seems anything more than gratuitous, while at the beginning Barr throws in a psycho who threatens to rape a pregnant woman!!! Sure, Bats and Talia tumble into bed together, which at the time might've been seen as a bit risque, but it's not graphic, and it's more the violence that seems excessive. Which has always struck me as a curious comment on comics: that in a story like this they up the grit, the violence, the seediness...but balk at, say, showing Talia in the altogether as if somehow that would've been offensive, but violence is okay!

Jerry Bingham's art is pretty good -- I liked his work when I first saw it years before on a Black Panther story-arc in Marvel Premiere. And here, his eye for detailed and evocative backgrounds is particularly striking. And there's even a slight Neal Adams flavour, appropriate for a Bat-Ra's story. But his eye for composition isn't great which, combined with Barr's script, kind of mutes the human/emotion factor. The story is too brightly lit for a Batman story, lacking mood (as mentioned, James Bond is more an inspiration here than anything). Still, it's nice work.

When I first posted my review, I mentioned that a second reading might mute my criticisms. And, in a way, it did. With lowered expectations, I breezed through it easily enough, it clipping along at a decent pace. But ultimately, that's simply because I read it as nothing more than a mindless page turner, with all my initial criticisms about motivation and characterization and story remaining pretty much intact. So, give the Devil his improved with a second reading. But I can't say whether I liked it more...or simply dissliked it less. But, ultimately, as a 78 page epic, printed at tabloid size, Son of the Demon seems pretty run-of-the-mill, with an action plot that, beyond the initial concepts and themes (which could be intriguing) feels kind of thrown together and undeveloped.

Original soft cover price: $13.95 CDN./ $9.95 USA.

Batman: Strange Apparitions 1999 (SC TPB) 176 pgs.

Batman: Strange Apparitions - cover by Rogers/AustinWritten by Steve Englehart (and Len Wein). Illustrated by Marshall Rogers (and Walter Simonson). Inks Terry Austin, Dick Giordano, Al Milgrom.
Colours/letters: various. Editor: Julius Schwartz.

Reprinting: Detective Comics #469-479 (1977)

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 3

Everyone tells you comics have gotten better, become smarter, more sophisticated -- which is true. But what they don't tell you is, they've also become a lot dumber, a lot simpler, a lot more geared toward mindless action. Sometimes the same comic can be smarter and stupider all at once. I say this as a preamble to this review. Because, y'know, I'd long been ambivalent about this run of stories...but, re-reading some of it recently, and contrasting it to some modern comics I've read...well, man, it starts to read a lot better. At least there are plots, and sub-plots, and character bits, and the fight scenes are often used more sparringly. It's still not a "great" saga but, well, it's better than a lot of what's published today. And, in that vein, I really recommend Englehart and Rogers recent, decades later sequel, Batman: The Dark Detective, which marries some of the best of the old and new approaches to comics. End of preamble.

If you read Batman comics in the late '70s and early '80s, you'd have been aware of frequent fan letters hearkening back to Steve Englehart's run on Detective Comics, chronicling Batman's struggles with a corrupt city government headed by "Boss" Rupert Thorne, and the twist of villain Hugo Strange crossing swords with Thorne, being murdered, but returning as a ghost for revenge. Englehart's version of Batman stuck in a lot of people's minds; Silver St. Cloud, the love interest introduced here, was seen by many fans as the woman for Bruce Wayne, etc. DC Comics which, it seems, has an almost pathological aversion to reprinting material from the '70s, has obviously made an exception in this case.

I mention all this so you can you can put in context the fact that I wasn't a big fan of Englehart's "Boss" Thorne Saga.

Firstly, I came to the saga wrong way around, having read Gerry Conway's early '80s sequel published in dozens of Batman and Detective comics. Conway's sprawling epic sticks in my mind as one of the greats (and is reviewed on my They Ain't Trade Paperbacks section). When I finally read Englehart's original (re-published in a deluxe 1985 mini-series) it paled.

Some of the weaknesses are unavoidable, like the fact that it's only 8 issues, hardly allowing room for the twists and turns Conway's sequel could indulge in.

There are some strong bits -- particularly a one issue tussle with the Penguin. It's a frivolous adventure, but it's fun on that level, and boasts some striking visuals: a fog-draped opening; a scene of the Penguin in a deserted theatre, etc. The two-part Hugo Strange story has its moments, as does a two-part battle with the Joker. But everything is rather superficial and slight. Still, Batman: Strange Apparitions does what I wish more TPBs would do. Instead of collecting a multi-issue story, it collects a series of stories woven together by sub-plots. Many comics are often more interesting for their on-going sub-plots than the villain-of-the-month adventure, but it's precisely those sub-plots that are hard to follow to their conclusion, since it's difficult to know when they begin and end. A TPB like this makes it all very convenient.

I've liked Englehart's work in other titles, but I was less impressed here. The plotting is too abrupt and wishy-washy. "Boss" Thorne plots to run Batman out of town by having the city council declare him unwanted, but his plan never extends beyond that -- in fact, there's a scene where Thorne's cronies argue why such a plan is a bad idea, and Thorne simply pounds his fist and says they're doing it if even Englehart was at a loss to justify the character's actions. And the conclusion is unsatisfying. In fact, Batman and Thorne almost exist in separate stories, neither really impacting on each other. Thorne's vendetta against Batman has little effect (as the characters note) and Thorne is defeated by things that Batman has no part in. Indeed, the story arc ends not answering what surely is the big the ghost real or not? (Conway's later epic did offer an answer).

If Englehart had wanted to explore the idea of real life political corruption invading the hero vs. super-villain simplicity of Batman's world, he never really delivers. Batman, the champion of justice, seems to have known about Thorne's corruption for years...without ever having tried to stop it. Doesn't that make Batman, at least indirectly, culpable for Thorne's villainy? A few years before, Englehart had written a Captain America storyline wherein Cap uncovers political corruption and, shaken by the revelation, questions whether he can still be a symbol for a system he's lost faith in. Englehart's Batman series seemed like an attempt to revisit that idea...but without any of the passion or conviction of his original.

The romance with Silver St. Cloud is also unconvincing. Now, admittedly, a 17 page comic published bi-monthly can be excused for being a bit rushed in its storytelling, but Bruce barely exchanges two sentences with Silver in one issue, before Alfred is musing in the next issue that Silver might be "the one" for Bruce. Later, in the saga's most crucial plot development, Silver suspects Bruce's secret identity -- with little logical justification! She hadn't seen Batman at that point, Bruce hadn't ducked out in a moment of crisis only to have Batman appear moments later, or anything. Granted, I suppose, she does discover odd things about Bruce: his hair is wet in one scene when it should be dry (as Batman he'd been swimming) and later is told he checked into a clinic for radiation poisoning -- all suspicious, I grant you, but still not enough to immediately conclude he's Batman (not in a city of 8 million people), particularly when Silver doesn't even speculate about it.

The cynic in me wonders: did fans identify Silver as "the one" because Englehart showed a mature, developing relationship, or was it simply because Englehart brow-beat the reader by telling them it was a great relationship? Likewise, the credits -- at least as presented in the 1985 reprint series -- contain lines like "A Bat-tale like none before" and "the Batman you've been waiting for". Tongue-in-cheek hyperbole has been a part of comics since the Marvel Age, but it does smack a little of the editor telling the reader it's a classic, rather than letting the reader decide.

Both the Thorne plot and the Silver St. Cloud plot seem too much like Englehart knew what he wanted to do...but couldn't figure out how.

I just didn't take to Englehart's Batman. Likewise, Silver just never got under my skin the way a love interest should. In fact, Bruce and Silver seemed too much like those trendy "hip" characters that populated a lot of '70s movies and were really annoying. You kind of expect them to be smoking marijuana and attending wife-swapping parties (actually, there's an awful lot of tobacco smoking going on, for that matter). And, just to put my political biases up front, Englehart's Batman seemed just a little too elitest, a little too neo-conservative for my tastes.

The first story is drawn by Walter Simonson and inked by Al Milgrom and it looks like they spent maybe half a day cranking out each issue. Both men have been better. A lot better. Then the Marshall Rogers/Terry Austin team takes over and the art improves dramatically...but I still have mixed emotions. The exquisitely rendered backgrounds, the striking way Batman's cape flares out, the edgy panel composition are all great, but there's a flatness to the figures sometimes, a coldness, and a stiffness and a cartooniness that isn't always as effective.

And then we get to the final two-part tale, written by Len Wein, and with Dick Giordano inking Rogers' pencils. Dark, moody, and melancholy, this story introduces the tragic villain Clayface III. Wein is one of my all-time favourite Bat-scribes, and he delivers a more sombre Batman than Englehart, at the same time presenting a more emotionally complex tale -- Clayface is a murderous villain, but painfully sympathetic, evoking a genuine ambivalence in the reader. Giordano's inks soften Rogers' lines, making everything moodier and more organic. This is probably worth the purchase of this TPB just for itself. There's an ideological twinge, though, when Wein has characters act as if Clayface's crimes are escalating when his murder victims go from being derelicts to a night watchman, as if somehow murder is worse depending on the economic standing of the victim.

Batman: Strange Apparitions isn't great. In fact, it's highly overrated. But it is interesting in spots, and given the way comics are re-packaged as "much requested" and "classics", often with little basis, I can at least attest that, my misgivings notwithstanding, this saga really was much talked about in the years immediately following its original publication. And, as my preamble notes: compared to a lot of modern's practically War and Peace. And this series was so fondly remembered, Englehart, Rogers and Austin re-teamed almost thirty years later for the mini-series Batman: The Dark Detective (collected in a TPB), continuing the relationship between Batman and Silver...and it was, in my opinion, one of the best mainstream comics of 2005...and I say that not even having been a huge fan of this original story arc.

This is a review of the issues published in Detective Comics and/or reprinted in the 1985 mini-series, Shadow of the Batman.

Cover price: $20.00 CDN./$12.95 USA.

Strange Deaths of the Batman 2009 (SC TPB) 200 pgs.

coverWriters/artists: various.

Reprinting: Detective Comics #347, World's Finest #184, 269, The Brave and the Bold #115, Batman #291-294, Batman Chronicles #8, Nightwing #52 (some of these comics featured more than one tale -- in those cases it's the lead story that has been reprinted) -- 1966 - 2001

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Nov. 2017

There can be different inspirations for TPB collections. And sometimes the most intriguing can be when disparate tales are collected around a theme. In this case: the death of the Batman.

Or at least: presumed and possible deaths. I think the collection was triggered by a then-occurring storyline in the Batman comics involving Bat's supposed death, encouraging this traipse down memory lane. (And not to be confused with the similarly-themed Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?)

There are a couple of 1960s tales, including "The Strange Death of Batman" (by the classic Silver Age combo of Gardner Fox and Carmine Infantino) in which a perfectly conventional Batman adventure takes a weird turn, breaking the fourth wall, as writer Fox (written into the story) then simply imagines an alternate resolution in which Batman is killed and how Robin alone gets the bad guy. Presumably DC was testing audience reaction to such "imaginary stories." This is then followed by a true "imaginary story" (no calling upon the author's avatar to justify it) -- "Robin's Revenge" (W'sF #184) by veteran Superman chroniclers, writer Cary Bates and art by the great Curt Swan. And I'll confess, I read it years ago as a kid and so my critical judgement may be suspect...but I think of it as a stand out tale, possibly even influencing later such stories. Batman is seeming killed by a villain, and then the story jumps ahead a few years to an Art Deco future as an adult Robin and a greying Superman pick up the trail of the man who killed Batman. As I say: it's just a memorable tale.

Perhaps the oddest story in this collection is Bob Haney's "The Corpse That Wouldn't Die" (from B&B #115) in which a brain dead Batman is reanimated thanks to The Atom literally jumping up and down on his brain stem, to try and solve Batman's final case, the kidnapping of an heiress. It's, y'know, pretty nuts -- but it's also quite entertaining, and moodily illustrated by veteran Bat-artist, Jim Aparo, during arguably his stylistic peak!

The centre-piece of this collection is the four issue epic "Where Were You the Night Batman Was Killed?" in which the Gotham underworld believes Batman to be dead and stage a series of mock trials (with Two-Face acting as attorney and Ra's al Ghul the judge) where different villains (namely Catwoman, Riddler, Joker, and Superman foe Lex Luthor) all relate different stories claiming credit. Written by frequent Bat-scribe David V. Reed and illustrated by John Calnan, it's goofy and corny but, y'know, it's also kind of fun in its old school unpretentiousness, the stories the villains tell unfolding in sufficiently intriguing ways. Calnan's art isn't as dynamic as Infantino's, Swan's or Aparo's, but it tells the tale.

After all those wild n' crazy stories, "Buried Alive!" (W'sF #269, by Gerry Conway and Rich Buckler) is almost mundane. Almost -- but not quite. In this case there's no "death" of the Batman exactly (to be honest, many of the stories don't involve Batman actually dying, so much as people thinking he'd dead, or having a near-death experience). Here Batman is kidnapped and buried alive, his kidnapper holding him for ransom -- and leaving it to Superman and Robin to try to save him. It's certainly an effective little page-turner, if a bit anti-climactic compared to the other tales.

I mean, that's kind of the fun in this collection: the sheer, mind-boggling imagination at play in tales of an adult Robin, the Atom "steering" a dead body, and super-villain trials. Are they at times silly and childish? Ab-so-tively! And as a teenager, I'm sure I'd have thought that. But as an adult I can appreciate the charm of them, the story-telling chutzpah, the sheer page-turning zeal. Heck, I even like the way many of these old stories draw upon little educational scientific factoids to jazz up scenes and plot twists.

And to be honest, "mind boggling imagination" isn't exactly a phrase one would apply to the more recent stories in this collection.

"Prisoner," a lead story from the anthology comic Batman Chronicles written by John Stanisci, is a brooding character piece told from the POV of Talia al Ghul who is assigned by her malevolent father, Ra's, to once and for all kill Batman -- the man she kind of loves. Drawn by Marvel Comics stalwart Sal Buscema, it's certainly an admirable character piece. But it's ultimately a fairly simple tale that, like a lot of such "serious" pieces, feels like it could been told as well in half the pages.

While the final story feels a bit like it was thrown in just because the editor was told he needed to include some more current tales. It's a Nightwing/Catwoman tale in which Batman's only involvement is in a brief dream sequence at the beginning. That's it as far as Bats, or the theme of this collection. Like the Talia story one can give it marks for a character thread (Catwoman is acting atypically flirtatious toward Nightwing -- though no mention is made of the fact that she's known him since he was a child!), but it's a kind of flimsy thread. While the main action-plot is just the two getting into a running battle with some hoods trying to rob a diamond. Written by Chuck Dixon and drawn by Greg Land it's a breezy romp but not one liable to settle in your memory.

It's sort of weird because I'm pretty sure there have been other stories that would better suit the collection's theme.

Of course there's something a little odd about a Batman collection where, by nature of the theme, Batman himself is often a secondary character -- as the stories either involve him being killed off, or are told from the perspective of other characters. But maybe Batman suits a collection like this better than most since often Batman tales play up the myth and the legend of the character. So a collection like this is as much about how other characters perceive him as it is about Batman himself.

Cover price: $__.

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