Axel-In-Charge: Extending "Secret Wars," Excitement for a "Totally Awesome Hulk"
Are these really as good as their reputation? Read on to find out!
Detective Comics by Steve Englehart (writer), Marshall Rogers (penciller), Terry Austin (inker), Jerry Serpe (colorist, issues #471-75), Glynis Wein (colorist, issue #476), John Workman (letterer, issues #471-72), Milton Snapinn (letterer, issues #473, 476), and Ben Oda (letterer, issues #474-75).
DC, 6 issues (#471-476), cover dated August 1977 – April 1978.
Last year, when Batman: Dark Detective was announced [Edit: Obviously, this is a bit old], some younger comics fans without a true grasp of history (those whippersnappers!) may have shrugged and asked “What’s the big deal?” Then, when the resulting mini-series was only decent and in some places bizarrely disappointing (a Two-Face clone????), those same fans may have become even more indifferent. To those people, and to anyone who decries the “darkening” of the Dark Knight that we have seen in the two decades since Frank Miller wrote his little book, I give you these six issues, which might be as close to a perfect rendition of Batman as we’re ever going to see.
The Englehart/Rogers/Austin run on Detective has been dissected before and probably will be again, but I hope to add something new to the conversation and convince those who are still holding out that these are indeed Comics You Should Own. The most fascinating thing about these issues is how steeped in nostalgia they are and how, thirty years on, we’re still steeped in that same nostalgia. These issues show the glories and the dangers of working with characters whose history stretches back almost 70 years and yet is constricted by a certain time frame – namely, that Batman is perpetually in his late 20s/early 30s. I want to examine these comics through that nostalgic lens and determine why they are still relevant and modern. And, of course, I want to check out the best woman Batman ever dated!
Nostalgia in comics is occasionally an overwhelming, driving force, and it can frustrate both long-time comics readers and people trying to break into the cloistered world we readers have set up. Whenever a new comic book movie comes out, especially those with long-running characters, the industry bends itself into knots trying to figure out how to translate ticket sales into comic purchases. I, for one, think this is a fool’s errand, but one thing that always daunts new readers is the continuity of comics. You simply can’t pick up an issue with Spider-Man or Batman in it without some idea of the backstory. This ultimately makes the reading, once you are immersed in it, somewhat richer, and of course gives people lots of topics to blather on about on the Internet, but it’s tough to break the seal. Comics cost, after all, a significant amount of money these days and too often people don’t want to invest a small fortune in finding out exactly what the heck is going on with, say, Hal Jordan. This continuity conundrum often takes the form of nostalgia, as readers want a character to remain static, usually the way he or she was when they were children, because everything was better then (that’s why Pong is the greatest video game EVER!). Therefore we get groups devoted to bringing Hal Jordan, to return to the above example, back from the dead, even though he’s a fictional character. This isn’t new – Conan Doyle could never escape Holmes and therefore was almost forced to bring him back – but it is pervasive in mainstream comic books. Which is why reading these six issues is such a pleasant and enlightening experience. Englehart created four stories that tapped into Batman’s past perfectly while keeping him contemporary, and even making the stories live past the 1970s. They could have easily become dated, but they are not. They have transcended their time frame and become timeless, and that is why they are Comics You Should Own.
Look at what Englehart, ably abetted by Rogers’ and Austin’s striking art, does with our hero. He gives us a one-issue Penguin story and a two-issue Joker story. This doesn’t sound too remarkable, given that anyone who has ever written Batman for any significant amount of time does a Penguin and a Joker story. I’ll get back to those issues, however. He also gives us a Doctor Hugo Strange story and a Deadshot story. You might say “So what?”, but remember – this was before the age of the Internet and specialty comic shops, and Strange and Deadshot hadn’t been seen since the 1940s, so bringing them back was a bold move and a pretty impressive one, when you consider that people weren’t as obsessive about obscure comic book characters as they are today. Rogers gave Floyd Lawton a new costume, too, one that has managed to survive despite its rather garish design. So Englehart is tying Batman to his roots while still giving us excellent stories and moving the character forward, which isn’t as easy as it sounds or as Englehart makes it look.
Englehart began his run on Detective with issues #469-470, a two-part story in which he created Dr. Phosphorus, another villain who has lasted. I don’t include these as Comics You Should Own because, quite simply, they’re not that good. Despite Englehart’s writing and art by Walt Simonson, the two issues just don’t pop off the page and thrill you like the later issues, although they’re important for a few things: The presence of Rupert Thorne, the Boss of Gotham City, and the first appearance of Silver St. Cloud. Thorne begins his campaign against the Batman in these issues, a campaign that continues in the Englehart/Rogers comics. Silver, meanwhile, despite burdened with a ridiculous name (only in comics can people be named after their distinguishing characteristic, in this case her white hair), is the quintessential Batman girlfriend. Simply put, no one comes close to Silver in the Bruce Wayne paramour department – not even Selina Kyle. She meets Bruce Wayne on his yacht and after he goes off and fights Dr. Phosphorus, she notices that his hair is wet. This is the first step along her very quick journey to figuring out his superhero identity, which usually means the death or some other horrible fate for the woman. Englehart doesn’t allow that to happen, however – Silver makes her own choices about their relationship, and that means, ultimately, giving Bruce up. Silver’s development over these six-plus issues is wonderful to read, not only because she is a match for both Bruce and Batman, but because she is a fully developed female character without superpowers, which is something we see woefully little of in mainstream superhero comics. Silver is a regular woman – she is a sexual being (not just sexy for the sake of being sexy, mind you), she doesn’t take crap from anyone, she has a real job, not a “comic book one” – meaning she doesn’t work at S.T.A.R. labs or is some kind of psychic. She organizes conventions, a perfectly normal occupation. Silver and Bruce’s relationship is a mature one, too – another nice touch. These aren’t teenybopper kids fooling around – we get the sense that Bruce and Silver are carrying on an affair in which the stakes are higher, not because of who Bruce really is, but because these people, as Englehart writes them, have been damaged by love before and want to be careful, even though they are swept away by passion. It’s nice that Englehart acknowledges sex, too – another rare thing in a mainstream comic book. After the two meet in issue #470, the next time we see Silver (in issue #471), she tells Bruce, “After the other night, darling, I’d hoped you’d at least be suffering exhaustion! I know I am!” Such sexual frankness is a breath of fresh air in the usually constricted atmosphere of DC and Marvel comics. When Bruce ends up at Hugo Strange’s exclusive clinic to recover from wounds he received at the hands of Dr. Phosphorus, she doesn’t sit around but visits the clinic, where she is given the brush-off. When Strange “replaces” Bruce after discovering his secret, she takes no crap from him when he tells her it’s over. She slaps him, but at the same time realizes something is wrong, so she quite literally saves Bruce’s life by calling in Dick Grayson. Without Robin’s help, Strange’s scheme probably would have worked. In issue #474, the turning point in their relationship, both she and Bruce get a lot more character development than writers usually give them. Bruce meets Silver for lunch, and Silver makes a joke at his expense. In one panel, we get a sense of how serious Bruce is about the Wayne Foundation. He says so, but Rogers shows his conviction more than Englehart could write it, as well as Silver’s chagrin at making the joke in the first place. It’s a wonderful small moment that speaks volumes about the blossoming relationship. Inside the convention center, the couple runs into Jim Gordon, who lets them know that Deadshot has escaped. Silver takes the opportunity to quiz Bruce on why he doesn’t help the police as much as he used to. This another nod to the past without wallowing in it – Englehart has a sense of the history of the character, but he gives a very good explanation why Bruce isn’t interested in crime anymore – he’s older and more involved with the Foundation. In just a few pages, Englehart shows us that Silver is a successful businesswoman, a concerned lover, and a very sharp lady. When Batman battles Deadshot and the fight spills over into the convention center, Silver realizes that Batman and Bruce are the same. Instead of sticking by him and (probably) getting killed, she realizes that she needs to leave. Again, this is something a real person would do, no matter if we, the readers, support the decision or not. She needs time to think, and she recognizes that if she’s around Bruce, with whom she is in love, her mind won’t be clear. So she skips town, only to break down and bum a ride from … Rupert Thorne, who is also fleeing Gotham City (for his own reasons, which we’ll get to). Issue #476, as well as being the culmination of Batman’s battle of wits with the Joker, is also the resolution of Silver’s feelings about Bruce. While driving with Thorne, she gets into an argument with him about Batman’s place in the city. Again, Englehart gives us a nuanced portrait of a real woman, one who was frightened of her feelings and what it would mean to take up with Batman, but one who, when pushed, pushes back and stands up for what is right and wrong. Thorne kicks her out of the car because she dares to defend Batman, and she realizes that she has to go back and confront Bruce and hash out her feelings. The climax of the issue is not Batman’s fight with the Joker, interestingly enough, but his final conversation with Silver. The Joker, after all, is just another threat to be beaten up. Silver is the perfect woman for Bruce, and it’s fascinating to read and look at their breakup. Batman doesn’t get to say anything – all he gets out is her name before she lowers the boom. However, Englehart and especially Rogers, showing the Batman pleadingly put his hand on her shoulder, let us know that he is perfectly willing to try to make a life with her, even to the point of giving up his nocturnal activities. I might be reading too much into this, and of course DC wouldn’t allow that, but it seems clear that Englehart was writing a Batman who would quit to be with Silver, but she never gave him the chance. At the beginning of issue #475, he confronts Silver in her apartment – he seeks her out because she called his name at the end of issue #474. He is torn between revealing himself and allowing her to tell him what she knows, and again, we see his indecision and also his desire to take off his mask and end the charade once and for all. Even when she dumps him, she never calls him Bruce – subtly telling him that his secret is safe with her. She is the one who ends it, and she is the one who is able to go on to a full life. Batman, the classic dumpee, doesn’t get a word in, and is left standing in the rain while Gordon, showing up just after Silver has gone, talks about Thorne’s arrest. Batman, who throughout Englehart’s run has been portrayed less mysteriously than he usually is, takes this opportunity to disappear without even speaking to Gordon.
The romantic arc of the Englehart issues is fascinating to track, because, as I mentioned, both Silver and Bruce are portrayed as adults with full lives who are swept away by emotion and aren’t sure what to do about it. It’s a wonderful romance, and a huge part of the reason why comics fans still talk about these issues and why they bought Dark Detective, which brought Silver back and again let her go. It’s a shame that DC cannot allow Bruce to find romance except on Earth-2 or wherever the hell he married Selina Kyle, because it would be interesting to read. Other writers have tried to introduce romance into Bruce’s life – with Selina, with Alfred’s daughter, with Talia, with Vesper Fairchild, with Sasha Bordeaux – but it never works like it did with Silver (although I did like Vesper, at least when Moench was writing her). It’s also interesting that no one has ever brought her back except the original creator – I assume she’s owned by DC, so anyone writing a Batman comic could use her, if they wanted to. I hope it’s because of respect for what Englehart did that no one does use her.
To return to the theme of nostalgia, let’s examine the villains of these issues. Hugo Strange had vanished early on in Batman’s career, and Floyd Lawton had been thrown in prison. The nice thing about reading issue #471 is that we’re not entirely sure who the villain is. Yes, the cover gives it away (stupid cover!), but, as I mentioned above, this was before the Internet and the obsessive comic-reading public, so DC figured that even with the cover, most of their readers wouldn’t know who it was. Englehart takes Strange and gives him a modern twist while retaining the “mad scientist” feel that Strange had back in the day. He is still turning people into monsters, and it’s still as goofy as it was in the 1940s, but Englehart makes it work. He also adds the newer scheme of Strange’s – bilking rich clients out of their money after they come to his clinic for his “cures.” Batman is saved from Strange by the return of Dick Grayson, who has been off at college. Robin coming back adds an extra layer of nostalgia to the run, and Englehart uses him well. He helps Batman defeat Strange and then becomes Batman’s foil for the Penguin story in issue #473. The Penguin story is decent enough, even though Cobblepot would have gotten away with his scheme if he hadn’t given Batman clues. The clues, however, again point to a nostalgic age of Batman, even though the crime – hijacking a plane full of economic experts – is thoroughly modern. Robin thinks he has figured the Penguin’s whole scheme out, but Batman proves once again that he’s the master. It’s a simple story, but it again shows that Englehart is steeped in Batman history but concerned with updating the traditional Batman tropes for a modern audience. When Deadshot shows up, the nostalgia gets even thicker, as he and Batman crash into Silver’s convention, where they fight on a giant typewriter. It’s a wonderful fight, despite its brevity. The prop evokes the 1950s-era Batman, but it fits into a more modern style, and it works perfectly.
Englehart’s final story is the two-part Joker tale about the laughing fish. It is a story steeped in the past, but, like the other stories of the run, modern and forward-looking. The Joker is portrayed here far better than he usually is – I know I’m tired of the Joker as completely insane mass murderer. In these stories he kills people, naturally, but he has a “purpose,” as twisted as it might be. The Joker’s insanity is always more interesting when it has a clarity that he thinks of as sane, and his scheme here – to poison fish so that they have a “Joker grin” on them, and then trademark the fish and make a fortune – is gleefully twisted and magnificently insane. In the two issues, he “only” kills three people, so it’s not like it’s totally indiscriminate. What bothers us about the Joker these days is the randomness of it all, and that also lessens his impact. Here, he has a purpose, and it’s a bit more chilling, because he’s portrayed as a criminal mastermind who kills to get what he wants. The argument could be made that the out-of-control Joker who kills masses of people is more scary because you never know who he’s going to kill, but that Joker, Miller’s and Moore’s Joker from the mid-1980s until today, has become so far removed from reality that he’s not terribly interesting anymore, and therefore far less frightening. Englehart’s Joker is creepy specifically because he has a plan. This Joker is much like the original Joker, who stole jewels and killed the owners for the sport of it. Englehart hearkens back to that first Joker story (from Batman #1) with the famous challenge on the radio to the police, which, in 1977, becomes a televised challenge. He kills his two victims ingeniously, and outwits Batman until our hero gets help from an unexpected source – the ghost of Hugo Strange. The third victim of the Joker in the story is one of his own henchmen, whom he pushes in front of a truck when the thug questions the plan. It’s this Joker, the one seemingly in control of his mind but likely to suddenly snap, is what makes him scary – not the Frank Miller version who casually slaughters an entire studio audience, or the Moore version who shoots Barbara Gordon for the sheer hell of it. In a final nod to the past, Englehart has the Joker mysteriously disappear, seemingly dead – but of course, they never find his body. There’s always a problem of what to do with the Joker – does Batman capture him, which will inevitably lead to his escape from the woefully guarded Arkham Asylum, or does he disappear, thought dead, which means Batman failed? Englehart chooses the latter, perhaps because of the link to some of the great Joker stories of the past, but more likely because either path is a dead end.
Englehart’s brief run is not all about nostalgia, of course. As I mentioned, he continually updates the comic so that even though it acknowledges the past, he is pushing Batman forward. Bruce’s romance with Silver is just one manifestation of this. The other is the presence of Rupert Thorne, who ties the six issues together. It is Thorne who rules the City Council and is trying to turn Batman into a criminal. Of course, this is again a nod to the past, when Batman was hunted by the cops, and although writers have worked with this idea since, Englehart puts a nice twist on it because Gordon and his police refuse to cooperate with Thorne. It’s always troubling when the cops do turn against Batman, because it feels forced – he’s worked with them so often and they’ve trusted him so much – so Englehart doesn’t pretend that they would turn against him simply because Thorne orders it. The feeling of menace and threat is still there, but when Batman helps the police, they don’t arrest him, like they should. Thorne, meanwhile, continues his campaign against Batman. When Hugo Strange offers to auction off Batman’s identity in issue #472, he faces three men whom he cannot see. They are Thorne, the Penguin, and the Joker. Thorne refuses to wait for the auction and kidnaps Strange. He orders Strange beaten to give up the name, but Hugo dies before he breaks. Thorne remarks on how odd it is that Strange would rather die than betray Batman, but we know it’s because of the weird relationship Batman has with all his villains, most notably shown by the Riddler but in this arc by both Strange, the Penguin, and even the Joker. They are locked in this game with Batman, and although the Penguin could easily commit his crime and get away with it, he leaves clues for Batman that ends up foiling him. Strange is the same way – he discovered Batman’s identity through his own means, and he realizes (too late) that the name of Bruce Wayne was not his to sell – it’s dishonorable to treat his foe this way. Thorne is a dishonorable man, and cannot understand this. The problem with Batman villains has always been this weird self-defeating mania they have, and Englehart doesn’t shy away from that, he simply shows us a foe who does not feel this way and contrasts it to the foes who do. In issue #475, the Joker confronts Thorne and tells him the same thing Strange did – that Thorne is unworthy of knowing who Batman is, and that only the greatest criminal mastermind in the world – namely, the Joker – should discover Batman’s secret. By this time, Thorne has been haunted by the ghost of Hugo Strange more than once, and this meeting with the Joker drives him over the edge. He flees Gotham and eventually picks up Silver St. Cloud, fleeing the city for her own reasons. After he kicks her out of the car, he is attacked by Strange’s ghost one final time, and finally snaps, confessing all to the police. The implication, interestingly enough, is that despite their insanity, Batman’s foes are somehow honorable and worthy of him, while a criminal of a more common stripe – Thorne is really just a “respectable” gangster – must pay for his crimes not only in a court of law but with his sanity. What this dichotomy between Batman’s villains – the “sane” Thorne and the “insane” Joker – says about how we must view Batman is something that psychologists can argue about.
The genius of these six issues is the balance between nostalgia and freshness. Englehart understands the history of the character, but he also understands the need to provide new stories. Rogers creates a Gotham that is brooding and dark, but not one that is hopeless. The creators give us almost as perfect as a representation of Batman AND Bruce Wayne as we’re likely to see. They give us old villains in a new light, and their interpretations of Strange and Deadshot have influenced creators ever since. These issues have been collected in several different forms, including a trade paperback, so they should be easy to find. If you’re a Batman fan, you have probably already read them. If you’re a young Batman fan and haven’t read them yet, you owe it to yourself to do so. They give a complete portrait of this complex hero, and they are the kinds of stories all superhero tales should aspire to.
Hey! Look at all those archives, losing all those dead links. Fun stuff!
Comics Should Be Good accepts review copies. Anything sent to us will (for better or for worse) end up reviewed on the blog. See where to send the review copies.