Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
You know, maybe it’s some kind of comics-related Seasonal Affective Disorder or something.
Because the same week that my colleagues Mr. Burgas and Mr. Nevett have owned up to feeling a bit burned out on the modern Marvel and DC, I find myself almost completely abandoning both of those publishers as well, as far as new comics are concerned.
In fact, I finally did something I’d been thinking about doing for a while; I canceled the last Bat book from my pull list. I just can’t justify keeping any of them on it any longer; I’m not enjoying them, they cost too damn much, and if for some reason I change my mind, the idea that they won’t eventually be available as discounted trade paperbacks is laughable.
But it felt… weird.
See, I’ve been buying some kind of Batman-related book once a month for– well, decades. It’s embarrassing to admit, but it was like ending a relationship or something. Somewhere in the back of my head I can hear myself saying, Dude, it’s not you, it’s me. I just can’t hang out any more. Good luck with that whole fighting crime thing.
I’m turning fifty-one in a few days, which means that I’ve been somehow embroiled with comics and superheroes one way or another for forty-five years. More than a hobby, less than an obsession…. somewhere in that middle ground where it’s a big part of my life without quite veering over into Compulsive Crazytown.
And for almost all of those years, Batman comics have been front and center.
As I’ve said more than once, it started with Adam West; this was back when a big TV hit could actually boost sales of a comic book. Certainly without the TV show I probably never would have found Batman comics, at least not when I did.
Anyway, thinking about that, it occurred to me that it might be fun to look back at those four-and-a-half decades of Batman comics, at five-year intervals, and see what was going on in Gotham City back then.
The first actual Batman comic book I ever bought was this one, Batman #207. Forty-five years ago almost to the day.
At the time, I wasn’t much impressed. The story was “The Doomsday Ball!” by Frank Robbins, with art from Irv Novick and Joe Giella. A “super-miniaturized” hydrogen bomb has fallen into the hands of a criminal who is using it to extort ten million dollars from the city. The U.S. military asks Commissioner Gordon to call in Batman and Robin to find it before the deadline.
Batman and Robin enlist the aid of the local mob to try to ID the extortionist from the tape of the phone call to Gordon’s office. (The ‘death trap’ on the cover is just the Dynamic Duo fighting their way in to see the mob kingpin in his office.)
It’s the usual tightly-plotted story (with the usual vaguely implausible gimmick) you would get from Frank Robbins back then. I like it better today than I did when I was six, but back in 1968, it just didn’t do much for me. There weren’t any ‘name’ Batman villains in it, and the action was largely confined to breaking into the mob’s office building to enlist their help. (I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, but what I wanted was more dynamism in the art, a little Marvel-style bombast.)
Nevertheless, I kept buying Batman comics, usually when there was a Giant issue. But it wouldn’t develop into a monthly thing until…
…Five years later. Batman had gotten his makeover into THE Batman, and I was well and truly hooked. In November of 1973 we had these two classics–
Detective #439, one of my favorite single issues of all time from my favorite run of Batman. The lead story was “Night of the Stalker,” one of the best single-issue Bat stories ever.
There was no actual issue of Batman that month, it was alternating bi-monthly with Detective. But we did get this– Brave and the Bold #111, with the classic “Death Has The Last Laugh!” from Haney and Aparo.
Many people have written about how great these were, including me more than once, so I’ll just sigh a little and move on.
Five years later, in 1978? Not legendary greatness like we were were getting in 1973, but not BAD.
Batman #308. A solid if unremarkable Mr. Freeze story from Len Wein. Chiefly of interest because this is the run where Wein was introducing the character of Lucius Fox and bringing Selina Kyle into the book as Bruce’s love interest.
Brave and the Bold #147 was another solid-if-uninspiring tale. Batman and Supergirl in “Death-Scream From the Sky!” I still dug what Haney and Aparo were doing and I did buy this one, but it’s not up there with the classics.
No, that month the book I enjoyed the most was far and away Detective #482, which had merged with Batman Family.
I had mixed feelings about the Dollar Comics experiment– I think I’d have preferred a couple of reprints rather than the second-rate backup features we were getting– but the lead stories were always good and sometimes there’d be a pleasant surprise in the back. In the case of Detective, though, I loved that they’d managed to rescue the Batman Family title by folding it into the book, and the stories were definitely on a roll, especially with the artists.
Fast-forwarding again, to November of 1983…
I don’t know what it is about November. I didn’t actually look these up before deciding to write this retrospective, but somehow the November releases keep hitting issues of Batman and Detective that are on my personal greatest-hits list.
Case in point: this great little two-parter from Doug Moench, Don Newton, and Gene Colan– the (first) debut of Jason Todd as Robin. Batman #368 and Detective #535.
This was when Batman and Detective were tied together, so you essentially were getting a serialized Batman narrative with a new installment every other week. I loved it. Especially with Don Newton on Batman…
…and Gene Colan on Detective.
And Doug Moench writing both. It was great stuff. Amazingly, it’s never been reprinted, as far as I know. There are the two hardcover collections featuring Don Newton and Gene Colan Batman stories, but only the Colan got as far as the Moench era… and since the books are meant to feature the artists, the stories that are reprinted feel a bit disjointed.
That particular run of stories leading up to Batman #400, when Len Wein relinquished his editorial duties to Denny O’Neil, is what I think of as the last hurrah of “my” Batman. The guy that showed up in “Secret of the Waiting Graves” back in 1969, peaked with Englehart and Rogers in 1977, and pretty much left with Len Wein in 1986.
Who replaced him? Grim-n-gritty, post-Frank Miller Batman, as we can see when we jump forward to November 1988.
On the monthly books, things were not going well.
Batman #429 was the last chapter of “Death in The Family.” This was when Jim Starlin was on the book and he seemed determined to bring us everything bad about post-Watchmen ‘dark’ superheroes, culminating with this story built around the 1-800-KILL-ROBIN stunt. That remains, to my mind, one of the lowest points in the history of the title. And Detective #595 was a lame tie-in to Invasion! — Alan Grant and John Wagner were still new on the book, Norm Breyfogle had taken the month off, and this tie-in to a not-very-good crossover was not their finest hour.
The November streak wasn’t over, because that month we also got these! Best of the Brave and the Bold #6, and The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told. Both awesome, and they really took the edge off the sad state of the current books.
Although the B&B reprint book did remind me again how annoyed I was that the title had been canceled in favor of saddling Batman with a second-rate version of the Titans. (I did eventually come around on Batman and the Outsiders, but it took YEARS.)
How about 1993? If anything could kill the November lucky streak, it would have to be the early nineties. Let’s see.
Well, the regular books — Batman #503, Detective #670, and Shadow of the Bat #23– were all in the middle of “Knightquest.” The saggy second act of the Knightfall Saga.
I didn’t care for these stories at all. In fact, I didn’t much care for Knightfall as a whole until I read Denny O’Neil’s prose novel, at which point I came around on it.
However, there was still good Batman around, because the early nineties also were the heyday of Batman: The Animated Series. Which meant we got The Batman Adventures every month.
That November gave us not only #15 of the regular monthly but also a trade collection of the first six issues, just in time for Christmas. Several youngsters of my acquaintance got that book from Santa that year.
And by then we also had Legends of the Dark Knight, which usually could be depended on to have the real Batman in it and not this Azrael guy. #56 was part two of “Watchtower,” an odd three-parter from Chuck Dixon and Mike McMahon. Much better was the second part of Two-Face Strikes Twice!, a terrific little two-part prestige miniseries from Mike Barr, Joe Staton, and Daerick Gross.
So even in the middle of the Azrael business, there were still good Batman books to be had.
And five years after that? November of 1998 brought us…
…well, a whole pantload of Bat books.
That’s not even counting the ancillary titles starring Robin, Nightwing, Catwoman, and Azrael… and that November was the month that the Birds of Prey debuted in their regular monthly, too. I think I’m not going to try and do individual reviews from this point on.
And I was buying all of them– my pull list order was simply, “All Batman,” so by God they gave me all the Batman. I suspect around this period was probably when I looked at my Batman-related pull list and said to myself, “Self, this is getting ridiculous. We don’t need EVERY SINGLE BATMAN BOOK THERE IS.”
(Although that November did bring some good books. Batman/Hellboy/Starman #1, the hardcover of Crimson Mist, Die Laughing with Batman and Judge Dredd… if it wasn’t a high point, well, there was still a good haul of Bat stuff to be had that month.)
So I began to thin the herd. By 2003 I was down to the core titles…
And I was digging Death and the Maidens, from Greg Rucka and Klaus Janson, and also the two trade paperbacks Child of Dreams and Batgirl: Year One.
And I was still in with the secondary books — Robin, Nightwing, Birds of Prey, and Batgirl (the Cassandra Cain one.) Still a lot, but it felt more manageable. It was also finally beginning to dawn on me that book collections were vastly preferable to the monthly booklet-style comics.
Five years later, in 2008… well, I was doing this weekly gig here by then, I think, so I can just go look it up. I’d seriously resolved to cut the monthly pull and I was doing reasonably well everywhere else… but damn, it was hard to quit the Batman stuff, even though it was getting regularly collected in book form by then. I was buying Batman, Detective, Nightwing, and Birds of Prey, and it was right in the middle of the whole “Last Rites” – “Batman R.I.P.” thing.
I wrote about it then, I’m not going to go back over it now. Suffice it to say that I mostly liked the core story, hated the tie-ins, and thought DC massively mishandled the way the trade collections were put together.
And the next leap after that takes us to today. And… well, here I am, not buying Batman comics. The Court of Owls crossover pretty much chased me off the Batman titles, and Nightwing… I just was not digging it.
I know Batman Inc. is back, but I find I don’t miss it. (Honestly, I much preferred the Morrison version of Batman and Robin starring Dick and Damian, I was not ready to say goodbye to that one.) And though I hear good things about this Joker arc Snyder has lined up, I just can’t get excited about another Joker story, particularly with the new ‘dark’ version that DC is touting.
The last Batman book I bought was the Dark Knight collection, Knight Terrors. Because it was on sale and I thought I’d give it a shot, despite not really loving the steroid-abuse look of the Batman on the cover.
And…. well, I’m glad I didn’t pay full price for it. Further deponent sayeth not.
At any rate, I’m forced to conclude that this New 52 Batman is just not for me. I’ve hung in there for almost a half-century, and there have been some pretty crappy Batman comics here and there, but mostly I enjoyed them. But the new stuff… I dunno. I was on board for most of the Morrison ride, but I’m just not as in love with that Batman as my colleagues here.
I’m pretty sure that has more to do with my tastes than with the merits of the work itself. You know, “It’s not you, it’s me.” Maybe it’s just time for a change. Or maybe it’s winter blahs.
Anyway, it’s not as though I don’t have Batman comics to enjoy. The nice thing about doing a retrospective like this is that it reminds me how many cool comics I already have here. Sometimes it’s nice to take a break from building the library and just enjoy it.
See you next week.
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