DC Comics' "Rebirth" Character Designs for Batman, Wonder Woman and More
Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Marshall Rogers, and the issue is Detective Comics #475, which was published by DC and is cover dated February 1978. This scan is from The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told, my beat-up edition of which came out in 1988. Enjoy!
I decided to feature Marshall Rogers because he’s one of these artists whose style changed over the years, and not necessarily for the better. His later work isn’t terrible by any means, but it’s different enough from his early work that it’s curious why it changed, and I honestly don’t have an answer about it. Rogers can’t answer, as he’s no longer with us, but I can show you what I mean over the next few days. First, though, we’ll start with his work on Detective, which came remarkably early in his career. He really hadn’t done too much before getting the gig on ‘Tec, yet he and inker Terry Austin knocked it out of the park. You all should have already seen this artwork, but let’s check it out anyway!
Rogers gives us a tremendous splash page to start the issue off. The narrative boxes lead us down the page, but so does Rogers, as he places lightning in the sky that leads us from box to box. The buildings form a natural canyon/funnel, leading us down the page nicely. Our eyes go from the Gotham City pennant to the American flag to the box that reads “And the Batman prowls …” which is where Rogers stops us dead with the shadow and leads us back upward to where Batman crouches. It’s a nice, circular kind of motion, getting us into the story before introducing the hero. The building on which Batman stands helps form a triangle with Bats, his shadow, and the title credits at the bottom, so that we’re also directed along those lines to see who wrote the issue and the famous title, “The Laughing Fish.” It’s a very nicely designed page.
I wanted to show these two pages because they’re really a fantastic example of telling a story through pictures. Steve Englehart is writing this issue somewhat “Marvel-style,” in that subplots carry over from issue to issue, which wasn’t usually the case with DC comics at this time. So Batman is talking to his lover, Silver St. Cloud, who has figured out that he’s Bruce Wayne (really, it’s ridiculous that no one had already!). Batman knows she knows, and he’s trying to figure out how to talk to her about it. Nothing goes right, of course, and eventually Silver leaves the city (and then just as quickly comes back only to leave again, but that’s what love does to you, man!). But look at the way Rogers draws this page. In Panel 1, Silver turns away because she’s afraid to face Batman and say something crazy. Her hands shakes in Panel 3, but by Panel 5, she’s recovered enough to blithely push her hair behind her ear and get a bit snippy with Bats. When Batman leaves, Silver collapses on the floor – we don’t even see her face, but Rogers shows nicely how nervous she was about Batman being in the room. He shows her agony in Panel 1 of the second page, but even then, she’s still pulling herself together in Panel 2 when she starts thinking about Bruce and his secret identity. Rogers also does a nice job with Batman on these pages. In Panel 4 of the first page, he folds his arms and stand, statuesque, as he realizes the folly of what he’s about to do. Rogers keeps him formal and stiff even as he gallantly says good-bye to Silver, which is a nice touch. I love Panel 5 on the second page – Rogers backs away from Batman as he calls Silver, so that he becomes a small, isolated figure just as he’s distancing himself from his lover. Silver is in close-up when she receives the phone call, but in Panel 6, Rogers pulls away from her just a bit to show that they are falling away from each other. It’s a really well done way to show what Englehart is writing. Englehart does a lot to create tension and then sadness in the scene, but Rogers certainly does his part, too.
This is the first time we see the Joker in this story, and Rogers nails it. The Joker is stylish, but he still looks silly because of the color choices. Unlike a lot of Joker appearances where he’s wearing more of a “costume,” he’s just wearing normal clothes that still fit in with his name and lifestyle. One thing that’s great about the Englehart/Rogers/Austin run (that is also true about other comics, to be fair) is that it’s both timeless and dated. Something is dated poorly when the characters make too many references to current events or pop culture that is no longer relevant. Englehart doesn’t do that, which makes this somewhat timeless. Rogers, on the other hand, dates this, but because it’s dated in an interesting way, it becomes more of a fascinating cultural touchstone than a painfully embarrassing reminder of the way life used to be. What do I mean? Fashion, of course! Rogers puts the Joker in striped quasi-bell bottoms and boots, so that he looks like someone from the late 1970s. But he doesn’t scream 1970s, and it’s the same way with everyone else in the book. They dress appropriately for the time period (one bad guy in this scene is wearing a cable knit sweater, which to me seems so very Seventies), which inadvertently dates them, but because it’s subtle, it becomes more of a nifty time capsule. Meanwhile, Rogers gives us a Joker who is always smiling, but the rictus looks more natural than some artists, so it just seems like he’s jolly rather than psychotic. It’s weird looking at some of the 1950s and 1960s Joker stories, because the grin looks much more artificial and makes the Joker more terrifying even though he’s committing oddball crimes and not actually killing anyone. Rogers gives him a more charming mien, which makes his casual homicides more disturbing. The sound effect swirling around him in this panel is pretty cool, too.
In case you didn’t know, “The Laughing Fish” is a bit of a throwback to the first Joker story, in which he announces on the radio that he’ll kill certain people at a certain time, and even the presence of the police can’t stop him. Englehart updates that a bit with the television routine, as well as giving the Joker a more absurd scheme than simple robbery – he wants to copyright the Joker-fish that he’s been creating (they have smiles on their faces thanks to the Joker dumping a chemical into the ocean), but the bureaucrat he approaches – G. Carl Francis – can’t do it because you can’t copyright fish faces. It’s a ridiculous scheme, but it’s still a fine Joker scheme, and he only kills sparingly to achieve his goals. (One of the reasons I don’t like the Joker anymore is because he kills everyone just for the fun of it, and it seems like all of his schemes revolve around defeating Batman somehow. This Joker wants to get rich, without involving Batman, and he doesn’t kill too many people in this story. I miss this Joker.)
Rogers again draws a character with 1970s fashion, as Gordon looks very stylish but still dated. It doesn’t interfere with the storytelling, though – it’s just a nod to the fact that people wear regular clothes occasionally. What I really like about the scene is the final sequence, where Rogers shows Batman and the cops trying to “death-proof” the room. He just shows people doing their jobs, and while Englehart lets us know that the police accept Batman “as one of them,” Rogers shows it nicely, as Batman isn’t doing anything terribly spectacular, just checking the clock. This section of the page (there’s one more panel below it) also shows the way artists used space in comics back then. Rogers leads us from Panel 1 to Panel 2, where Gordon’s hand frames Francis and the television, which then dominates Panel 3. The bottom row is small, but Rogers packs a lot of information into it, as he manages to show the police and Batman doing a lot of small things to protect Francis. Yes, I know it’s a cliché to rant about how much more information a comic from the 1970s contained as opposed to one from today (whether it’s better or not is a personal opinion), but when you do see how well Rogers gets across a lot of visual information and Ben Oda fits Englehart’s words onto the page, it’s really interesting.
Poor G. Carl Francis, getting on the wrong side of the Joker like that. Rogers does a really nice job showing how he dies – in the first row he comes from the left and the background and slowly staggers across the panels, moving to the right and emerging from the smoke as he falls toward the reader. I don’t know what the original comic looked like, so I don’t know how Petra Scotese originally colored this, but it’s interesting that Francis’s blue suit has become purple in this sequence, which is of course reminiscent of the Joker himself. Francis falls to the ground and we get the famous middle row, as his “facial muscles pull the dead man’s mouth into a repellent, ghastly grin.” Rogers keeps Francis upside-down in the row, which makes the movement of his mouth even more disturbing. It’s a really nice choice. The final panel on the page is well done, too – Batman is off to the side, marginalized by the Joker’s victory, while the Joker on television hovers over his victim, who lies in the foreground, the deathly smile dominating the panel. Again, we see how nicely Rogers lays out the page and how much visual information he gets onto the page. Austin does his part, too, especially in the middle row, as he adds hatching to Francis’s lips over the course of the sequence, making it creepier and creepier as the grin widens. He adds more spot blacks to Francis’s face, as it appears he actually turns evil in death. Austin does a good job with the heavy shading in Panel 11, as the smoke seems dirtier thanks to his efforts, and the hatching on Batman’s face in Panel 12 shows a man who has been defeated by his arch-enemy and isn’t happy about it. Austin’s inks are very good throughout this run, and this is one page where it’s more obvious than some others.
Rogers moved on after a few more issues of Detective, working with Englehart on some projects, one of which we’ll check out in a day or two (I’m not sure yet). First, though, we’ll check out another comic featuring a detective. It ain’t Batman, though! And if you’re interested, be sure to peruse the archives!
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