(Batman #339-356 Detective #506-522 - skipping Batman 347 & Detective #514 - 1981-1983)
Written by Gerry Conway. Pencils by Don Newton and Gene Colan (with Irv Novick and J.L. Gracia-Lopez pinch-hitting here and there). Inks: Klaus Janson, Frank Chiaramonte, Alfredo Alcala and others. Editors: Dick Giordano, Len Wein.
The first "Boss" Thorne saga ran in Detective #469-476 (and has been collected in the TPB Batman: Strange Apparitions). It was much ballyhooed at the time, but I was a little disappointed when I finally read it...maybe because I'd read this sprawling sequel first.
In this epic, "Boss" Thorne secretly returns to Gotham, manipulating things from behind the scenes while still being haunted by the ghost of the man he murdered -- Prof. Hugo Strange. He manipulates the mayoral race to get his man into power, then has Commissioner Gordon given the boot, placing his own man in the top cop's chair. Meanwhile, former flame Vicki Vale has returned to Bruce Wayne's life, but Bruce is unaware that Vicki's true agenda is to prove he's the Batman. Robin has a mysterious new girlfriend, Alfred employs Christopher (the Human Target) Chance, Gordon teams up with private eye Jason Bard...and, and...well, it's a sprawling, convoluted tale, intertwining with sub-plots of Vampires, Poison Ivy and just the usual issue-by-issue (or two) stories of Batman tackling his usual rogues gallery of Man-Bat, Two-Face, the Joker, and other costumed types given their one and only shot at infamy. All that, plus this was at a time when DC offered back-up features as well, so you get solo stories of Robin, Batgirl and Catwoman.
I don't know if this would be considered Conway's magnum opus, but based on this alone I place him as one of the true giants of the field. The Byzantine sub-plots of Thorne, Vampires, Vicki Vale, and more, twirling about each other, brushing, separating, then intertwining in the most unexpected ways, is delicious to watch unfold, and just a little amazing -- what start out seeming like separate plot lines become entangled. Conway chronicles a rich panorama of characters, returning Robin (Dick Grayson) to the fold, and expanding Commissioner Gordon's character wa-ay beyond just the guy who flashes the Bat-signal; Alfred, Barbara Gordon (out of Batgirl uniform) are employed nicely and he even adds private eyes Jason Bard, Christopher Chance and Dr. Thirteen to the mix.
Yet unlike some modern Bay-family sagas, this doesn't seem cluttered or top-heavy with "guest stars" because they're all worked in logically, organically...and most aren't super heroes, but normal people.
Admittedly, Conway borrows ideas shamelessly from Englehart's original, but Conway embellishes it, creating a richer, more plausible tale than Englehart could in his considerably fewer pages. Conway's characterization is subtle and mature, his dialogue crisp and a delight to the ear -- you can really believe in the interplay. And the gentle comaraderie between Batman and Robin is nicely effective. Significantly, one of the weakest spots in the series is a two-part tale where the scripting is handled by someone other than Conway -- a story hurt, also, by the wrong inker for Newton's pencils...
This introduced a then-unusual concept of treating the two Batman comics, Batman and Detective, as one -- a story to be continued in one, resolves in the other.
The art chores were gloriously handled by the one-two punch of Gene Colan (usually inked by Klaus Janson) and the late Don Newton. Both men are/were brilliant artists, both men ideally suited to Batman, yet with different styles. Which made it work all the better, never allowing the lengthy saga to get too monotonous, as it might've with only one art style. And the smart editorial decision had it be that if an artist started a two-part story, he finished it, instead of rigidly having Newton draw Detective and Colan Batman, which would've required switching artists in mid-story, to the detriment of mood. When I compliment Conway's writing, I can't quite separate it from the imagery: the heavy use of mood and shadow, the vividly realized, expressive faces. Both Newton and Colan could draw action, but what really makes a saga like this, so heavy on the "normal" supporting characters and sub-plots, is their ability to draw people just sitting around, talking -- even how a character sat in a chair could convey emotion. In fact, though I initially said they had different styles, I realize that they also had a lot of similarities, too. To this day, after having seen Batman drawn by Neal Adams, Brian Bolland, Kelly Jones, Norm Breyfogle, and many, many other talented folk, I can still find myself shaking my head, thinking: "They ain't no Newton or Colan."
Conway also wraps it up so that when you reach the end there are no glaring sub-plots still waving in the wind -- making it a true "graphic novel". There are flaws, of course. Some abruptness to the story, and character motivation that can seem more dictated by the story rather than vice versa. Ethical problems arise, too. Vicky, who wanted to reveal Batman's i.d. for a story, is forgiven, while another character, who genuinely believed Batman was bad and sought to expose his secret, is treated with scorn. And the epilogue, where Batman and Gordon let one of Thorne's cronies off supposedly for the sake of Gotham is unconscionable (but was done so the character could remain a thorn in our hero's side for many issues to come).
It was re-reading this storyline that got me reading comics regularly after almost a ten-year hiatus...letting me realize a grown up guy could still read comics and not feel stupid. Unfortunately, no one reading this review could probably collect it -- even if you could find complete runs of both series, the price tags (5 or 6 bucks a piece) would make the whole thing exorbitant.
If only DC would release it as a two or three volume graphic novel series (as they did with the Knightfall saga), or maybe release it as one of their new, Essential-style 500 page "Showcase Presents..." volumes (though it might lose something without Adrienne Roy's colours). Unfortunately, DC has shown a great reluctance to reprint older story arcs. There's nothing "epochal" here, per se, it's pre-Crisis (and so not in current continuity), and its depiction of a more human, vulnerable, and adult Bats clashes with the current editorial vision of Batman as a one-dimensional fascist...so I'm guessing DC would rather douse every existing copy with lighter fluid than re-release it for a new generation. Too bad.
Though since they did release the original "Boss" Thorne series, and other occasional TPBs of Bat-tales from the '70s and '80s, maybe there's a vague hope.
Click here for a page from Detective #512 - pencils (by Gene Colan) , inks (by Klauss Janson) and spartan colours (by Adrienne Roy) combine to create a gothic mood.
Additional notes: O.K., the thing is, I only actually have Batman #340-356 and Detective #510-521, so I'm guessing with those early issues. Thorne makes his first re-appearance (I believe) in Batman #341, but the Thorne story overlaps with a Poison Ivy story that began (I believe) in Batman #339 (and concluded in #344). And though the later issues crossover heavily between Batman and Detective, that may not have been as true in the early issues, so maybe you don't need to start as early as Detective #506 to get the complete epic. Sorry, I'm just not sure. As well, Batman #347 and Detective #514 were stand alone "filler" issues (the former written by Roger Slifer, the latter by Len Wein) so you don't need them...though, ironically, they're both exceptional stories in their own right.