O Say Can You See: The Greatest Patriotic Super Heroes of All-Time
Oh, the all-too-brief run of Peter Milligan on Detective Comics. Let’s check it out, shall we?
Detective Comics by Peter Milligan (writer), Jim Aparo (penciller, issues #629-632, 638, 643; inker and letterer, issue #643), Tom Mandrake (artist, issue #633), Steve Leialoha (inker, issue #629), Mike DeCarlo (inker, issues #630-632, 638), Adrienne Roy (colorist), and John Costanza (letterer, issues #629-633, 638).
DC, 7 issues (#629-633, 638, 643), cover dated May 1991 – August 1991, November 1991, April 1992.
SPOILERS below. Sorry!
Peter Milligan has a split personality when it comes to writing comics. On the one hand, there is the “bad” Milligan, who writes stuff like Elektra back in the late 1990s or the current X-Men (which isn’t awful, just not that good) [Edit: there I go, dating my posts again]. Why “bad” Milligan shows up on mainstream Marvel titles is something that psychologists must study for years. On the other hand, there’s the “good” Milligan, which is almost anything else he works on, but the most prominent examples are Shade, The Changing Man, Enigma, Human Target, and X-Force/X-Statix. Luckily for Batman fans, when he worked on that character, he was the “good” Milligan. He wrote the three-part “Dark Knight, Dark City” story in Batman in 1990 (the subject of a previous column) and then, over the course of a year, he wrote a group of issues on Detective (two of which don’t make the cut, for reasons I’ll discuss briefly). He felt he was overwhelmed with work, and considering he was in the middle of working on Shade at the same time, and Shade was his baby, he decided to quit Detective. His brief time on the title remains on of the more interesting “what-might-have-beens” in comics history.
We know we’re getting something different with our favorite Caped Crusader on the first few pages of his first issue. It begins with a scene from 1847 in Ireland, and a woman in a lonely field. The narration reads: “In the fields the potatoes are dark and rotten as corpses. And she had buried too many. Seen too many lowered into senseless ditches. She had always imagined herself dying gently in bed with her loved ones around her. But now alone she sinks to her knees in the hungry grass.” The woman staggers over three panels and finally looks right at the reader, pain etched across her face. We don’t know what the heck is going on, but we know that this is unlike almost anything we’ve ever seen in a Batman comic. On the next page, in the present, we learn that a terrorist called “Hungry” is demanding that the citizens of Gotham City do outrageous things like wear red hats and blue mascara and say “Frank Sinatra sucks” every ten minutes. If these demands are not met, people will die in random fashion. We see a police man killed by an axe-wielding maniac, even though witnesses say he just collapsed, dead. A car smashes into another and the driver goes through the windshield, but those who saw it say the car crashed into nothing – “a head-on collision with a bad dream,” as Milligan puts it. We are completely off-balance. This is a Batman comic?
Well, of course it is, and Aparo’s art actually works well with Milligan’s wild stories, because his predictable drawings and lantern-jawed Batman helps ground these scripts and make it even more horrifying. Batman is racing against the clock in this story, trying to figure out what’s going on while people mysteriously die around town. He discovers that “Hungry” is scattering grass around Gotham where horrific crimes occurred, and that grass is causing anyone who steps on it to experience the crime again – sometimes to deadly effect. The old woman at the beginning on the issue cursed the grass, and “Hungry” heard the story and dug up the spot where she died. “Hungry” is an ex-con named Dean Fahy, who was imprisoned for murder but claimed he was innocent, and now he’s getting revenge on Gotham. Batman tracks him down, and there’s a nice surprise ending – not a happy one, because it’s Milligan and it’s Batman, but still a surprise. It’s a one-and-done story, and leaves us astonished at Milligan’s imagination. By 1991, it had been far too long since Batman had delved into the supernatural, a place where one would think he would be at home. During Milligan’s all-too-brief run, we get it in spades (and, to be fair, Milligan’s “Dark Knight, Dark City” arc a year earlier had been supernaturally influenced, too).
Milligan’s interest in the supernatural led him to create a golem in issue #631-632, which is also an interesting story because of its connection to the Holocaust. An old Jewish man, Saul Zwemer, sees youngsters committing hate crimes against immigrants and Jews and fears that the Nazis are returning. The only thing he believes he can do is build a golem, a monster made from mud who is turned against the gang members. Batman, obviously, has to stop it, but he discovers that there is a lot more to Saul and his past than he thought. The human drama is the key to the story, obviously, but the golem is the engine, and it’s interesting to see that Milligan uses the supernatural to illuminate the mundane. This is something that Milligan is particularly good at – taking something outrageous and using it to write a story that is intensely personal. In issue #638, he gives us a tale of the Bomb, a person with the ability to create explosions and possibly explode with the power of multiple thermonuclear warheads. The Bomb has been held in army captivity for “its” whole life (the chief of security at the army base that is its home uses the impersonal pronoun) and now it has escaped with a former worker at the base. This man, Walker, is demanding a ransom from the city or he’ll detonate the Bomb, and the chief of security wants Batman to find the Bomb but not engage it. Batman is suspicious, but he tracks down the Bomb, only to find that it’s a teenaged girl who doesn’t know why she is able to blow things up but doesn’t want to go back to the base. From the very beginning of the book, we know that what the army is saying is probably a lie, and Batman figures it out pretty easily, but that doesn’t matter – it’s a story about a person who has destructive power but doesn’t want to use it and is at the mercy of men who do want to use it. “The Bomb” is a highlight of Milligan’s short run, and I’ll get back to it. The supernatural element in Milligan’s writing is present in issue #633, as well – a story called “Identity Crisis.” Bruce Wayne wakes up in the river and can’t remember how he got there. When he gets back to Wayne Manor, Alfred and Tim don’t know he’s Batman, and he can’t find the Batcave. Then he sees Batman on television about to deal with a hostage crisis, and he goes to find out what’s going on. The Batman he encounters is better and faster than he is, and he barely escapes. Back at the manor, he starts to experience a mental breakdown, as he thinks he sees Alfred as a tailor’s dummy and a small corner of the computer in the Batcave. Then Batman appears, and when he takes his cowl off, Bruce Wayne stares evilly out from under it. I won’t spoil the answer, but like many of the others in this run, it gets under your skin and makes you wonder what reality really is.
Milligan has always been interested in certain things, and on this brief run, he was very interested in identity. This is not surprising, given that this is a standard superhero title with a guy who has a secret identity. On his two most notable DC titles, Shade and Human Target, he deals with identity and what makes us who we are. In these issues, he’s very interested in playing with identity in different ways, and he’s always challenging us with his thoughts. “Identity” does not only mean who someone is, but also who the villain really is in these issues. In “The Hungry Grass,” the villain is wrongfully accused of murder and spends years in prison. He wants nothing more than revenge against Gotham City and its people. He has lost his identity, or more correctly, he has deliberately destroyed his identity for his quest. He no longer cares who he is or what he could accomplish, because his revenge has consumed him. Batman, as he always does, takes pity on him and offers to help him when he discovers that Dean Fahy is innocent, but Dean is too far gone to care. In issue #630, “And The Executioner Wore Stiletto Heels,” we meet some of the more bizarre characters to show up in a Batman comic. First is Two-Tone, a sociopathic conjoined twin hit man (who happens to be part black and part white), whose genetics we’ll leave in the world of comic books. Two-Tone is interesting, but the compelling villain of the issue is Saul Calvino, alias Stiletto. Calvino was once known as the nicest killer in town – he has a strange persuasive power, which makes him very difficult to contain. He escaped from prison in Florida and is back in Gotham, but the gangsters in town want to kill him because when he worked in Gotham, he only killed organized crime members. The crime families have sent Two-Tone after him, and the FBI wants Batman to find Calvino before the streets of Gotham become bloody. It’s never as simple as it seems, however, and it turns out the FBI is selling Calvino out to the mobs in some sort of backroom deal. Again, identity comes into play here, as Calvino is an obvious villain, but he is not the true villain of the issue, and Batman ends up saving his life before turning him back over to the Florida state police. Milligan leaves us wondering whether Batman did the right thing, because Calvino escapes again and disappears. Should he have been executed for killing only gangsters? Is he worse than the FBI (which is getting involved in the South American drug trade), no matter how noble their cause might be? As usual with the best writers, we don’t get easy answers from Milligan.
Identity is a theme in “The Golem of Gotham” story as well. The monster is the obvious focus of Batman’s efforts, but Saul Zwemer is the heart of the two issues, as he struggles with a secret from his past that has defined him for fifty years. Saul has never been able to move past Nazi Germany and Kristallnacht, and instead of coming to terms with the past, he plays the martyr and then builds a golem to defend the Jewish section of town. We discover that he lost his identity because of his actions in the past, and he believes that bringing the golem to life will help him regain his self-respect. Batman has to show him that he can’t reclaim the past – something our hero knows all too well – and that he has to forge a new identity for himself.
With “Identity Crisis,” we obviously get a story that deals with who we are and how it defines us. The villain of the issue makes an interesting statement at the end of the issue. He implies that Batman suffers from multiple personalities. This is often hinted at in superhero comics, but it’s not often explored too much. Milligan doesn’t make a big deal about the idea, but it’s fascinating to consider that he sees this one man as having a split personality. It’s not Bruce Wayne wearing a mask. It’s not even Batman taking a mask off and putting on the “Bruce Wayne” mask. These are two distinct personalities, and this is what keeps him sane. The possibilities of this small idea are endless, but neither Milligan nor anyone else has really done much with it. The closest, perhaps, is Doug Moench, when he wrote Batman in the mid-1990s, but Moench was more concerned with simply the wearing of masks to hide one’s identity, and not with the actual existence of a separate personality.
In Milligan’s final issue, #643, “The Library of Souls,” identity again rears its head, as the killer, Stanislaus Johns, a rogue librarian, tries to find his identity through murder. He devoted his life to his mother, and when she died, his orderly life fell apart. His identity was wrapped up in taking care of his mother, and once she was dead, he lost that portion of his personality. Keeping things in order was where he found sanity, and once his mother was gone, he needed to find something else to tidy, and he found it, first in rearranging dead bodies in order to conform to his version of the Dewey Decimal System, and then, once the police began watching the cemeteries, placing fresh corpses where he believed they belonged. Batman and a librarian at the public library piece together the crimes, and Johns is brought to justice. It’s a weird story, one that could only spring from the fertile mind of Peter Milligan, and it highlights the strangeness of his entire run as well as leading us back to considering what makes us who we are and where are limits are. Johns was a mild-mannered librarian who snapped. Milligan wants us to think about why he snapped, which is always the most interesting part of the criminal.
Milligan is always interested in monstrosity as well, both exterior and interior, and throughout these issues, we are forced to consider who the monsters are. It can be a simplistic answer, such as the existence of a golem. Even the golem, however, is fueled by a desire to set things right, and although it is a monster, we feel pity not only when Saul destroys it, but for Saul himself for feeling the need to create such a monster. Stanislaus Johns is a monster, as well, and a pretty straight forward one at that. However, we realize that something made him a monster – he didn’t spring full-grown from the forehead of Zeus – and even though we condemn his actions and we don’t pity him, we understand that he was created, much like the golem was created, and therefore complete culpability for his actions can’t fall entirely on his head. The most interesting look at monsters in these issues is in “The Bomb.” Rebecca (as we ought to call the Bomb because that is her real name, after all), started developing her powers when she was 11 years old. The army saw her potential as a weapon and brought her in and cut her off from the outside world. At first, we think this is simply a left-wing anti-American tirade by the British Milligan, but it’s more subtle than that. The army, not the Bomb, is obviously monstrous in this story. Rebecca doesn’t know how to control her power, however, and as she even mentions, it’s too dangerous for her to be on the outside. She also mentions that if people are too close to her for too long, they start to go crazy. She believes that is what happened to Walker, who was once her friend. It probably happened to Kelly, the chief of security, as well, as he blows up a bus station and pins it on Rebecca to convince Batman that she’s dangerous. The army wants to figure out how to turn her into a weapon, but aren’t they helping her as well? Aren’t they saving lives by keeping her away from society? Would Kelly have done these things if he hadn’t been in such close proximity to the Bomb? We learn at the very end that the containment suit and the drugs are keeping Rebecca alive, and without them, she’ll die quickly. She knew it, and tricked Batman into letting her live her last hours in the open air. She doesn’t want to live like a prisoner, and she dies peacefully by a lake in a forest. It’s a beautiful story, but as usual, Milligan doesn’t let us off the hook with easy answers. We’re on Rebecca’s side and against Kelly the whole time, but as we reflect on the issue, we wonder how it could have been any different. Certainly there were other options, but they probably all involved locking Rebecca away from the world or letting her die. Which is more humane?
The other two issues of Detective that Milligan wrote at this time are part of a four-part crossover with Batman called “The Idiot Root.” It’s certainly an interesting story, but not necessarily a Comic You Should Own because it’s far more plot-driven and doesn’t reveal too much about Batman or the villains. These seven issues, however, are the high point of his work on the Caped Crusader. He gave us a Batman thrust into a vaguely unsettling world, one in which there were no recognizable bad guys, even though there is plenty of villainy. Batman gets his man, of course, but Milligan is less interested in bringing the bad guys to justice than in trying to figure out why evil exists and how do we combat it on an esoteric level. The bad guys in his stories are all compelling and may not even be bad guys – Dean Fahy is not a murderer until he seeks revenge on Gotham for falsely accusing him of it; Saul Calvino is a murderer, but he only killed gangsters; Saul Zwemer creates a monster, but does so to strike back at those who would kill him simply because of his race and religion; the villain in “Identity Crisis” doesn’t actually commit any crime; the Bomb is not a monster, but neither, really, is Kelly or Walker; and Stanislaus Johns is a killer but he’s obviously insane. Milligan wants us to peer into these people and discover what makes them tick, and what we find might not always be pleasant. He added a nice element of the supernatural to Gotham, something that it could use more of. It’s a shame he felt he couldn’t continue on Detective, but at least he gave us several brilliant stories. As far as I can discover, these issues have not been collected in a trade paperback, which isn’t surprising, but they are probably readily accessible and not expensive. They are well worth the hunt.
You may, if you choose, read the archives. They’re fun!
[Edit: As I often do with these older posts, I ignore Aparo’s art. I don’t mean “predictable” in a derogatory way; Aparo’s style rarely changed over the course of his career, and you could always count on him to do a solid job, which is what these stories need. I should also point out that Milligan has written a few more issues of Detective over the years, and a few years ago, issue #842, “The Suit of Sorrows,” would fit very nicely in with these stories. DC should throw that in with these and create a nice, 8-issue, 16-dollar trade. Make it so, DC!]
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