The Joker: A Celebration of 75 Years


By Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson and many & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-4759-1

When the very concept of high priced graphic novels was just being shelf-tested way back in in the late 1980s, DC Comics produced a line of glorious full-colour hardback compilations spotlighting star characters and celebrating standout stories decade by decade from the company’s illustrious and varied history.

They then branched out into themed collections which shaped the output of the industry to this day; such as a fabulous congregation of yarns which offer equal billing and star status to one of the most enduring arch-foes in fiction: The Maestro of Malignant Mirth known only as The Joker.

So much a mirror of and paralleling the evolution of the epochal Batman, the exploits of the Joker are preceded here by a brief critical analysis of the significant stages in the villain’s development, beginning with the years 1940-1942 and Part I: The Grim Jester.

After deconstruction comes sinister action as debut appearance ‘Batman Vs. The Joker’ (by Bill Finger & Bob Kane from Batman #1, Spring 1940) provides suspenseful entertainment whilst introducing the most diabolical member of the Dark Knight’s rogues’ gallery. A chilling moody tale of brazen extortion and wilful wanton murder begins when an eerie character publicly announces that he will kill certain business and civic figures at specific times…

An instant hit, the malignant murdering Joker kept coming back. ‘The Riddle of the Missing Card’ (Finger, Kane & Jerry Robinson, Batman #5 1941) once again saw the Crime Clown pursue loot and slaughter, but this time with a gang of card-themed crooks at his side. It did not end well for the whimsical butcher…

Fame secured, the Devil’s Jester quickly became an over-exposed victim of his own nefarious success. In story terms that meant seeking to “reform” and start over with a clean slate. Turning himself in, the maniac grasses on many criminal confederates but ‘The Joker Walks the Last Mile’ (Finger, Kane & Robinson, Detective Comics #64 June 1942) soon shows that tousled viridian head twisting inexorably back towards murderous larceny…

As years passed and tastes changed, the Laughing Killer mellowed into a bizarrely baroque bandit and Part II: The Clown Prince assesses that alteration, before providing fascinating examples beginning with ‘Knights of Knavery’ from Batman #25 (1944 by Don Cameron, Jack Burnley & Robinson).

Here he and arch-rival The Penguin fractiously join forces to steal the world’s biggest emerald and outwit all opposition, before falling foul of their own mistrust and arrogance once the Caped Crusaders put their own thinking caps on.

‘Rackety-Rax Racket’ Batman #32 (1945 by Cameron & Dick Sprang) is another malevolently marvellous exploit which sees the ideas-starved Prankster of Peril finding felonious inspiration in college-student hazing and initiation stunts, after which ‘The Man Behind the Red Hood’ (Detective Comics #168, February 1951) reveals a partial origin as part of a brilliantly engrossing mystery by Finger, Lew Sayre Schwartz & Win Mortimer, which all began when the Caped Crusader regales eager young criminology students with the story of “the one who got away”… just before the fiend suddenly came back…

In ‘The Joker’s Millions’ (Detective Comics #180, February1952) pulp sci fi writer David Vern Reed, Sprang & Charles Paris provide a gloriously engaging saga disclosing how the villain’s greatest crime rival took revenge from the grave by leaving the Harlequin of Hate too rich to commit capers.

It was all a vindictive double-barrelled scheme though, making the Joker a patsy and twice a fool as the Caped Crusaders eventually find to their great amusement…

Then from World’s Finest Comics #61 (November 1952) Reed, Kane, Schwartz & Paris perpetrate ‘The Crimes of Batman’ as Robin is taken hostage and the Gotham Gangbuster is compelled to commit a string of felonies to preserve the lad’s life. Or so the Joker vainly hopes…

‘Batman – Clown of Crime’ (Batman #85, August 1954 by Reed, Sheldon Moldoff & Paris) captures the dichotomy of reason versus chaos as the eternal arch enemies’ minds are swapped in a scientific accident. Soon a law-abiding Joker and baffled Robin are hunting down a madcap loon with the ultimate weapon at his disposal, the secret of the Gotham Guardian’s true identity

The Silver Age of comicbooks utterly revolutionised a flagging medium, bringing a modicum of sophistication to the returning sub-genre of masked mystery men. However, for quite some time the changes instigated by Julius Schwartz in Showcase #4 – which rippled out to affect all National/DC Comics’ superhero characters – generally passed Batman and Robin by.

Fans buying Batman, Detective Comics, World’s Finest Comics and even Justice League of America would read adventures that in look and tone were largely unchanged from the safely anodyne fantasies that had turned the grim Dark Knight into a mystery-solving, alien-fighting costumed Boy Scout as the 1940s turned into the1950s.

By the end of 1963, Schwartz – having either personally or by example revived and revitalised much of DC’s line and by extension the entire industry with his modernizations – was asked to work his magic with the creatively stalled and nigh-moribund Caped Crusaders just as they were being readied for mainstream global stardom.

‘The Joker’s Jury’ (Batman #163 May 1963) by Finger, Moldoff & Paris was the last sight of the Clown before his numerous appearances on the blockbuster Batman TV show warped the villain and left him unusable for years…

Here, however, Robin and his mentor are trapped in the criminal enclave of Jokerville, where every citizen is a fugitive bad-guy dressed up as the Clown Prince and where all lawmen are outlaws…

The story of the how the Joker was redeemed as a metaphor for terror and evil is covered in Part III: The Harlequin of Hate and thereafter confirmed by the single story which undid all that typecasting damage.

‘The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge’ (Batman #251 September 1973 by Dennis O’Neil & Neal Adams) reversed the zany, “camp” image by re-branding the characters and returning to the original 1930s concept of a grim and driven Dark Avenger chasing an insane avatar of pure evil.

Such a hero needs far deadlier villains and, by reinstating the psychotic, diabolically unpredictable Killer Clown who scared the short pants off the readers of the Golden Age, set the bar high. A true milestone that utterly redefined the Joker for the modern age: the frantic saga sees the Mirthful Maniac stalking his old gang, determined to eradicate them all with the hard-pressed Gotham Guardian desperately playing catch-up. As the crooks die in all manner of Byzantine and bizarre ways, Batman realises his arch-foe has gone irrevocably off the deep end.

Terrifying and beautiful, for many fans this is the definitive Batman/Joker story.

The main contender for that prize follows. ‘The Laughing Fish/The Sign of the Joker’ appeared in Detective Comics #475-476 (February and April 1978) concluding a breathtaking signature run of retro tales by Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers & Terry Austin

The absolute zenith in a short but stellar sequence resurrecting old foes naturally starred the Dark Knight’s nemesis at his most chaotic; beginning with ‘The Laughing Fish’ before culminating in ‘The Sign of the Joker!’, comprising one of the most reprinted Bat-tales ever concocted and even adapted as an episode of the award-winning Batman: The Animated Adventures TV show in the 1990s.

In fact, you’ve probably already read it. But if you haven’t… what a treat you have awaiting you!

As fish with the Joker’s horrific smile began turning up in sea-catches all over the Eastern Seaboard, the Clown Prince attempts to trademark them. When patent officials foolishly tell him it can’t be done, they start dying… publicly, impossibly and incredibly painfully…

The story then culminated in a spectacular apocalyptic clash which shaped, informed and redefined the Batman mythos for decades to come…

Although Crisis on Infinite Earths transformed the entire DC Universe it left the Joker largely unchanged, however it did narratively set the clock back far enough to present fresher versions of most characters.

‘To Laugh and Die in Metropolis’ comes from Superman volume 2 #9 (September1987) wherein John Byrne & Karl Kesel reveal how the Malicious Mountebank challenges the Man of Steel for the first time. The result is a captivating but bloody battle of wits, with the hero’s friends and acquaintances all in the killer clown’s crosshairs…

The next (frustratingly incomplete) snippet comes from one of the most effective publicity stunts in DC’s history.

Despite decades of wanting to be “taken seriously” by the wider world, every so often a comicbook event gets away from editors and publishers and takes on a life of its own. This usually does not end well for our beloved art form, as the way the greater world views the comics microcosm is seldom how we insiders and cognoscenti see it.

One of the most controversial sagas of the last century saw an intriguing marketing stunt go spectacularly off the rails – for all the wrong reasons – and become instantly notorious whilst sadly masking the real merits of the piece.

‘A Death in the Family’ Chapter Four originated in Batman #427 (December 1988), concocted by Jim Starlin, Jim Aparo & Mike DeCarlo and needs a bit more background than usual…

Robin, the Boy Wonder debuted in Detective Comics#38 (April 1940) created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger & Jerry Robinson. He was a juvenile circus acrobat whose parents were murdered by a mob boss. The story of how Batman took the orphaned Dick Grayson under his scalloped wing and trained him to fight crime has been told, retold and revised many times over the decades and still undergoes the odd tweaking to this day

The child Grayson fought beside Batman until 1970 when, as a sign of the turbulent times, he flew the nest, becoming a Teen Wonder and college student. His invention as a junior hero for younger readers to identify with had inspired an incomprehensible number of costumed sidekicks and kid crusaders, and Grayson continued in similar vein for the older, more worldly-wise readership of America’s increasingly rebellious youth culture.

During the 1980s the young hero led the New Teen Titans, re-established a turbulent working relationship with Batman and reinvented himself as Nightwing. This of course left the post of Robin open…

After Grayson’s departure Batman worked alone until he caught a streetwise young urchin trying to steal the Batmobile’s tires. Debuting in Batman#357 (March 1983) this lost boy was Jason Todd, and eventually the little thug became the second Boy Wonder (#368, February 1984), with a short but stellar career, marred by his impetuosity and tragic links to one of the Caped Crusader’s most unpredictable foes…

Todd had some serious emotional problems which became increasingly apparent in the issues leading up to ‘A Death in the Family’ story arc. As the street kid became more callous and brutal in response to the daily horrors he was exposed to he deliberately caused the death of a vicious drug-dealer with diplomatic immunity. Jason then began a guilty spiral culminating in the story-arc which comprised Batman#426-429.

Ever more violent and seemingly incapable of rudimentary caution, Jason is suspended by Batman. Meanwhile the Joker is returns, but rather than his usual killing frenzy, the Clown Prince is after mere cash, because the financial disaster of “Reaganomics” has depleted his coffers – meaning he can’t afford his outrageous murder gimmicks…

Without purpose, Jason has been wandering the streets where he grew up. Encountering a friend of his dead mother, he learns a shocking secret. The woman who raised him was not his birth-mother, and there exists a box of personal papers indicating three different women who might be his true mother.

Lost and emotionally volatile Jason sets out to track them down…

After monumental efforts, he locates Dr. Sheila Haywood working as a famine relief worker in Ethiopia. As Jason heads for the Middle East and a confrontation with destiny, he is unaware that Batman is also in that troubled region, hot on the Joker’s trail since the Maniac of Mirth is attempting to sell stolen nuclear weapons to any terrorist who can pay…

When Jason finds his mother, he has no idea that she has been blackmailed into a deadly scam involving stolen relief supplies by the Clown Prince of Crime…

I’m not going to bother with the details of the voting fiasco that plagues all references to this tale as it’s all copiously detailed elsewhere, but suffice to say that to test then-new marketing tools a 1-900 number was established and, thanks to an advanced press campaign, readers were offered the chance to vote on whether Robin would live or die in the story.

Against every editorial expectation vox populi voted thumbs down and Jason died in a most savage and uncompromising manner….

The kid had increasingly become a poor fit in the series and this storyline galvanised a new direction with a darker, more driven Batman, beginning almost immediately as the Joker, after killing Jason in a chilling and unforgettably violent manner, became UN ambassador for Iran (later revised as the fully fictional Qurac – just in case…) and at the request of the Ayatollah himself attempted to kill the entire UN General Assembly during his inaugural speech…

And here is the true injustice surrounding this tale: the death of Robin (who didn’t even stay dead) and the media uproar over the voting debacle took away from the real importance of this story – and perhaps deflected some real scrutiny and controversy. Starlin had crafted a clever and bold tale of real world politics and genuine issues which most readers didn’t even notice.

Terrorism Training Camps, Rogue States, African famines, black marketeering, Relief fraud, Economic, Race and Class warfare, Diplomatic skullduggery and nuclear smuggling all featured heavily, as did such notable hot-button topics as Ayatollah Khomeini, Reagan’s Cruise Missile program, the Iran-Contra and Arms for Hostages scandals and the horrors of Ethiopian refugee camps. Most importantly it signaled a new and fearfully casual approach to violence and death in comics-books.

The story selected to represent the lad here is a poor choice, however. This is not to say that ‘A Death in the Family’ is a lesser tale: far from it, and Starlin, Aparo & DeCarlo’s landmark, controversial story of the murder of brash, bright Jason Todd by the Joker shook the industry and still stands the test of time.

However, all that’s included here is the final chapter, and even I, having read it many times, was bewildered as to what was going on.

If you want to see the entire saga – and trust me, you do – seek out a copy of the complete A Death in the Family

In 1989 Batman broke box office records in the first of a series of big budget action movies. The Joker was the villain du jour and stole the show. That increased public awareness again influenced the comics and is covered in Part IV: Archnemesis before ‘Going Sane’ Part Two ‘Swimming Lessons’ provides a fresh look at the motivations behind the maniacal madness.

The story comes from Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #66 (December 1994) LoDK began in the frenzied atmosphere following the movie. With planet Earth completely Bat-crazy for the second time in 25 years, DC wisely supplemented the Gotham Guardian’s regular stable of titles with a new one specifically designed to focus on and redefine his early days and cases through succession of retuned, retold classic stories.

Three years earlier the publisher had boldly begun retconning their entire ponderous continuity via the landmark maxi-series Crisis on Infinite Earths; rejecting the concept of a vast multiverse and re-knitting time so that there had only ever been one Earth.

For new readers, this solitary DC world provided a perfect place to jump on at a notional starting point: a planet literally festooned with iconic heroes and villains draped in a clear and cogent backstory that was now fresh and newly unfolding.

Many of their greatest properties were graced with a reboot, all enjoying the tacit conceit that the characters had been around for years and the readership were simply tuning in on just another working day.

Batman’s popularity was at an intoxicating peak and, as DC was still in the throes of re-jigging narrative continuity, his latest title presented multi-part epics reconfiguring established villains and classic stories: infilling the new history of the re-imagined, post-Crisis hero and his entourage.

An old adage says that you can judge a person by the calibre of their enemies, and that’s never been more ably demonstrated than in the case of Batman and The Joker. The epic battles between these so similar yet utterly antithetical icons have filled many pages and always will…

With that in mind, 4-part psychological study ‘Going Sane’ by J.M. DeMatteis, Joe Staton & Steve Mitchell takes us back to a time when Batman was still learning his job and had only crossed swords with the Clown Prince of Crime twice before…

After a murderously macabre circus-themed killing-spree in the idyllic neighbourhood of Park Ridge and abduction of crusading Gotham Councilwoman Elizabeth Kenner, a far-too-emotionally invested Batman furiously plays catch-up. This leads to a disastrous one-sided battle in front of GCPD’s Bat signal and a frantic pursuit into the dark woods beyond the city.

Driven to a pinnacle of outrage, the neophyte manhunter falls into the Joker’s devilishly prepared trap and is caught in an horrific explosion. His shattered body is then dumped in the by an incredulous, unbelieving killer clown reeling in shock at his utterly unexpected ultimate triumph…

Stand-alone extract ‘Swimming Lessons’ opens here with Batman missing and Police Captain James Gordon taking flak from all sides for not finding the Predatory Punchinello or the savage mystery assailant who recently murdered an infamous underworld plastic surgeon…

Under Wayne Manor faithful manservant Alfred fears the very worst whilst in a cheap part of town thoroughly decent nonentity Joseph Kerr suffers terrifying nightmares of murder and madness.

His solitary days end when he bumps into mousy spinster Rebecca Brown. Days pass and the two lonely outcasts find love in their mutual isolation and a shared affection for classic slapstick comedy. The only shadows blighting this unlikely romance are poor Joe’s continual nightmares and occasional outbursts of barely suppressed rage…

As days turn to weeks and then months, Alfred sorrowfully accepts the situation and prepares to close the Batcave forever. As he descends, however, he is astounded to see the Dark Knight has returned…

The story of Joe Kerr – fictive product of a deranged mind which simply couldn’t face life without Batman – is another yarn readers will want to experience in full, but that too will only happen in a different collection…

The World’s Greatest Detective continues to relentlessly battle the Clown Prince in ‘Fool’s Errand’ (Detective Comics #726, October 1998) as Chuck Dixon & Brian Stelfreeze depict a vicious mind-game conducted by the Hateful Harlequin from his cell, using a little girl as bait and an army of criminals as his weapon against the Dark Knight after which ‘Endgame’ Part Three ‘…Sleep in Heavenly Peace’ (Detective Comics #741 February 2000 by Greg Rucka, Devin Grayson, Damian Scott, Dale Eaglesham, Sean Parsons, Sal Buscema & Rob Hunter) sees the Joker plaguing a Gotham City struggling to recover from a cataclysmic earthquake.

It’s Christmas but the stubborn survivors are so stretched striving to stop The Joker’s plan to butcher all the babies left in town they are unable to notice that his real scheme will gouge a far more personal wound in their hearts…

‘Slayride’ by Paul Dini, Don Kramer & Wayne Faucher (Detective Comics #826 February 2007 and another Seasonal special) is one of the best Joker – and definitely the best Robin – stories in decades. This Christmas horror story sees our Crazed Clown trap third Boy Wonder Tim Drake in a stolen car, making him an unwilling participant in a spree of vehicular homicides amongst the last-minute shoppers.

If there is ever a Greatest Batman Christmas Stories Ever Told collection (and if there’s anybody out there with the power to make it so, get weaving please!), this just has to be the closing chapter….

Brining us up to date Part V: Rebirth focuses on the 2011 New 52 continuity-wide reboot and an even grimmer, Darker Knight who debuted in Detective Comics volume 2 #1 with what might be assumed to be the last Joker story. As crafted by Tony Daniel & Ryan Winn, ‘Faces of Death’ follows the mass-murdering malcontent on another pointless murder spree which culminates in his apparent death, leaving behind only his freshly skinned-off face nailed bloodily to an asylum wall…

A year later the Joker explosively returned, mercilessly targeting all of Batman’s allies in a company-wide crossover event dubbed Death of the Family. The crippling mind-games and brutal assaults culminated in ‘But Here’s the Kicker’ (Batman #15, February 2013 by Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo & Jonathan Glapion) and purportedly the final battle between Bat and Clown: but we’ve all heard that before, haven’t we…?

The Joker has the rare distinction of being arguably the most iconic villain in comics and can claim that title in whatever era you choose to concentrate on; Noir-esque Golden Age, sanitised Silver Age or malignant modern and Post-Modern milieus. This book captures just a fraction of all those superb stories…

Including pertinent covers by Sayre Swartz & Roussos, Mortimer, Moldoff, Adams, Rogers & Austin, Byrne, Mike Mignola, Staton & Mitchell, Stelfreeze, Alex Maleev & Bill Sienkiewicz, Simone Bianchi, Daniel & Winn and Capullo, this monolithic testament to the inestimable value of a good bad-guy is a true delight for fans of all ages and vintage.
© 1940, 1941, 1942, 1944, 1945, 1951, 1952, 1954, 1964, 1973, 1978, 1987, 1988, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2007, 2011, 2012, 2014 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Illustrated by Neal Adams volume 1


By Neal Adams with Bob Haney, Leo Dorfman, Cary Bates & various (DDC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0041-1 (HC):                   978-1-4012-3537-6 (PB)

As the 1960s began Neal Adams was a young illustrator who had worked in advertising and ghosted some newspaper strips whilst trying to break into comics. Whilst pursuing a career in advertising and “real art” he did a few comics pages for Archie Comics and subsequently became one of the youngest artists to co-create and illustrate a major licensed newspaper strip – Ben Casey (based on a popular TV medical drama series).

That comics fascination never faded however, and Adams drifted back to National/DC doing a few covers as inker of penciller and eventually found himself at the vanguard of a revolution in pictorial storytelling…

He made such a mark that DC chose to reprint every piece of work Adams ever did for them into a series of commemorative collections. Batman: Illustrated by Neal Adams is the first of three superb tomes (available in  variety of formats) featuring the “Darknight Detective” – as he was dubbed back then – and featuring every cover, story and issue in original publication order.

‘From Me to You: An Introduction’ gives you the history of his early achievements in his own words, after which the covers of Detective Comics #370 (December 1967, inking Carmine Infantino) and the all-Adams Brave and the Bold #75 (January 1968), Detective #372 (February), B&B #76 (February/March), Batman #200 and World’s Finest Comics #174 (both March) all serve as a timely taster for the artist’s first full-length narrative…

The iconoclastic penciller first started truly turning heads and making waves with a couple of enthralling Cape & Cowl capers beginning with World’s Finest Comics #175 (April 1968) and ‘The Superman-Batman Revenge Squads!’

Scripted by Leo Dorfman and inked by Dick Giordano, the story detailed how an annual – and friendly – battle of wits between the crime-busters is infiltrated by alien and Earthly criminal groups intent on killing their foes whilst they are off-guard…

WFC #176 (June) then featured a beguiling enigma in ‘The Superman-Batman Split!’ – written by fellow newcomer Cary Bates. Ostensibly just another alien mystery yarn, this twisty little gem has a surprise ending for all and guest stars Robin, Jimmy Olsen, Supergirl and Batgirl, with Adams’ hyper-dynamic realism lending an aura of solid credibility to even the most fanciful situations.

It also ushered in an era of gritty veracity to replace previously anodyne and frequently frivolous Costumed Dramas…

More Dynamite Covers follow: Batman #203 (July/August) leads to Brave & Bold #79 (August/September) and heralded Adams’ assumption of the interior art chores for a groundbreaking run that rewrote the rulebook for strip illustration…

‘The Track of the Hook’ – written by Bob Haney and inked Giordano – paired the Gotham Guardian with justice-obsessed ghost Deadman: formerly trapeze artist Boston Brand who was hunting his own killer, and whose earthy, human tragedy elevated the series’ costume theatrics into deeper, more mature realms of drama and action.

The stories aged ten years overnight and instantly became every discerning fan’s favourite read.

Covers for World’s Finest Comics #178-180 (spanning September through November) segue sweetly into Brave and the Bold #80 (October/November 1968) with ‘And Hellgrammite is his Name’ finding Batman and the Creeper clashing with an infallible, insect-themed super-hitman again courtesy of Haney, Adams & Giordano.

B&B #81 saw the Flash aid the Caped Crusader against an unbeatable thug in ‘But Bork Can Hurt You!’ (inked by Giordano & Vince Colletta) after which Aquaman became ‘The Sleepwalker from the Sea’ in an eerie tale of mind-control and sibling rivalry.

Interwoven through those thrillers are the covers for World’s Finest #182 (February 1969, inking Curt Swan’s pencils), #183 (March, inking over Infantino), Batman #210 and Detective #385 (both March and all Adams).

B&B # 83 took a radical turn (and is the only story herein without a cover since that one was limned by Irv Novick) as the Teen Titans try to save Bruce Wayne’s latest foster-son from his own inner demons in ‘Punish Not my Evil Son!’ (Haney & Giordano as ever on board) but the next team-up was one that got many fans in a real tizzy in 1969.

Before that though you can enjoy the fabulous frontage for World’s Finest #185 (June 1969) after which ‘The Angel, the Rock and the Cowl’ recounts a World War II exploit where Batman and Sgt. Rock of Easy Company hunt Nazi gold together, only closing the case 25 years later.

Try to ignore the kvetching about relative ages and which Earth we’re on: you should really focus on the fact that this is a startlingly gripping tale of great intensity, beautifully realised, and one which has been criminally discounted for decades as “non-canonical”.

Detective Comics #389 (July), World’s Finest #186 (August and pencilled by Infantino) precede Brave and the Bold #85. Behind a stunning cover is arguably the best of an incredible run of action adventures…

‘The Senator’s Been Shot!’ reunites Batman and Green Arrow in a superb multi-layered thriller of politics, corruption and cast-iron integrity, with Bruce Wayne being appointed as a stand-in for a law-maker whilst the Emerald Archer receives a radical make-over that turned him into the fiery liberal gadfly champion of the relevancy generation and still informs his character today, both in funnybooks and on TV screens…

Wrapping up this initial artistic extravaganza are the covers for Detective Comics #391 and 392, (September and October 1969) completing a delirious run of comics masterpieces no ardent art lover or fanatical Fights ‘n’ Tights aficionado can do without.
© 1967, 1968, 1969, 2003 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Knightfall


By Doug Moench, Chuck Dixon, Alan Grant, Jim Aparo, Norm Breyfogle, Graham Nolan, Jim Balent, Bret Blevins, Klaus Janson, Mike Manley & various (DC Comics) ISBN: 978-1-4012-3379-2

The early 1990s were troubled times for the American comicbook industry, with speculative collectors rather than fans driving the business. Many new companies had established themselves using attention-catching gimmicks augmented by cutting-edge print technology and shameless pandering to simplistic sex and violence and the tactics had worked, sparking a glossy, four-colour Gold-Rush amongst fans and, more importantly, previously disinterested outsiders.

With vapid ploys and fleeting trends fuelling frantic mass-multiple purchases by buyers who were too scared to even open up the hundreds of polybagged, technologically-enhanced variant-covered issues they intended to pay for college and a condo with, the major publishers were driven to design boldly bonkers stunts just to keep the attention of their once-devoted readership. At least here, however, story-content still held some worth and value…

In 1992 DC began their epic Death of Superman story-arc and apparently immediately afterward began preparing a similar tradition-shaking, continuity-shattering epic for their other iconic household-name property. Groundwork had already been laid with the introduction of Jean-Paul Valley, a mild-mannered student utterly unaware that he had been programmed since birth by his father and an ancient warrior-cult to become an hereditary instrument of assassination (see Batman: Sword of Azrael) so all that was needed was to sort creative personnel and decide just how best to shake up the life of the Gotham Guardian…

KnightFall, and the subsequent KnightQuest and KnightsEnd, follow the brutal fall, replacement and inevitable return of Bruce Wayne as the indomitable, infallible Batman and was another spectacular success from the old guard which showed all the comicbook upstarts and Young Turks the true value of proper storytelling. It also proved the unshakable power of established characters, as the world was gripped by the Dark Knight’s horrific defeat at the hands of a blatantly superior nemesis.

The crossover publishing event impacted many comics outside the usual Batbook suspects, spawned a bunch of toys, three novelisations, many (necessarily incomplete) trade paperback collections and even jumped the pond to Britain’s staid BBC who turned it into a serialised audio-play on Radio One…

In 2012 DC finally began collecting the entire saga into three huge chronological compilations which, whilst still not truly complete, render the tale a far smoother and more readable experience for older fans and curious newcomers…

Batman: KnightFall volume 1, which could be best codified as and divided into ‘The Breaking of the Bat’ and ‘Who Rules the Night’, gathers the pertinent contents of Batman: Vengeance of Bane Special #1, Batman #491-500, Detective Comics #659-666, Showcase ’93 #7-8 and Batman: Shadow Of The Bat #16-18 – spanning January to October 1993 – and scrupulously covers the most traumatic six months of Bruce Wayne’s adult life in instalments of a shared and progressing narrative alternating between Bat-titles and discrete creative teams.

What you won’t find out here: in the months preceding the start of KnightFall (roughly correlating to Batman issues #484-489 and Detective #654-658), a mysterious new criminal had entered Gotham, covertly observing the Caped Crimebuster at work as the hard-pressed hero tackled sinister crime-lord Black Mask, psycho-killer Metalhead and juvenile military genius The General, all whilst foiling an assassination plot against Police Commissioner Jim Gordon.

On the edge of exhaustion, Wayne began seeing doctor and holistic therapist Shondra Kinsolving, whilst assigning Tim Drake – the third Robin – to training and monitoring Jean-Paul Valley, with the intention of turning the former Azrael’s dark gifts to a beneficial purpose.

Kinsolving was also treating Drake’s father, crippled after an attack by another of the City’s endless stream of criminal lunatics…

Coldly clinical observer Bane revealed himself and designed further tests for the depleted Dark Knight, challenging Batman for the right to rule Gotham, by manufacturing confrontations with Killer Croc and The Riddler; the latter augmented and driven crazy by a dose of deadly super-steroid Venom

Thus, the action begins here with the origin of the calamitous challenger in ‘Vengeance of Bane’ by Chuck Dixon, Graham Nolan & Eduardo Barretto, wherein the hulking brute is fully revealed and exposed.

Years ago, on the Caribbean island of Santa Prisca, the ruling junta imprisoned the pregnant wife of a freedom fighter. When the baby was born, he was sentenced in his father’s stead to life on the hellish prison rock of Pena Duro where he somehow thrived, touched by the horror and madness to inexorably become a terrifying, brilliant master of men.

Not merely surviving but educating himself and ultimately thriving on the hard medicine of life, the boy knew he had a destiny beyond those walls. Eventually he named himself Bane.

His only non-hostile contacts became his faithful lieutenants, Trogg, Zombie and the Americano Bird, whose tales of the Bat in Gotham City fired the eternal prisoner’s jealousy and imagination…

Santa Prisca’s entire economy is based on drug smuggling and Bane’s moment came when one of his periodic rages crippled thirty inmates. After finally being subdued by an army of guards he was turned over to scientists testing a new iteration of the muscle and aggression-enhancing formulation Venom. The effects of the steroid had caused the death of all previous candidates, but Bane survived and the delighted technologists devised biological implants that would deliver doses of the drug directly into his brain, enabling him to swiftly multiply his strength and speed at the press of a button…

A plan formed and the patient faked his own death. Disposed of as trash, he returned, seizing the Venom supply, rescuing his comrades and indulging in a fearsome vengeance-talking against his oppressors. Then he turned greedy eyes towards Gotham and the only rival he could imagine…

KnightFall proper begins after Bane’s challenge to the already on-the-ropes Gotham Gangbuster with Batman #491 as ‘The Freedom of Madness’ (Doug Moench & Jim Aparo) sees the ambitious strategist steal National Guard armaments and use them to free every insane super-criminal locked away in Arkham Asylum.

Pushed almost beyond rationality, Batman orders Robin to stick with his mission to train and de-program Jean-Paul and sets out to recapture all his most dangerous enemies, whilst Bane sits back, watching and waiting…

Issue #492 sees the round-up start with the Mad Hatter in ‘Crossed Eyes and Dotty Teas’ (Moench & Norm Breyfogle) proving that even Bane can make mistakes, for whilst Batman acts according to plan and scotches the Hatter’s main party, the Mad Cap Maniac has already despatched a mind-controlled Film Freak to track down their mysterious liberator…

Detective Comics #659 opens with Hellenic god-obsessed Maxie Zeus, innocuous Arnold Wesker and hyperthyroid brute Amygdala fleeing shattered Arkham in ‘Puppets’ (Dixon & Breyfogle) as Batman is called to the alley where the broken, lifeless body of Film Freak is found.

As The Ventriloquist, Wesker used the gangster doll Scarface to express his murderous schemes and – with Amygdala now in tow – has begun a lethal search to get back his old boss. The Dark Knight is obsessively locked on recapturing all his old enemies and ignores Robin’s pleas for rest and reason before tackling the hulking brute, but the confrontation does allow the cool-headed Boy Wonder to turn the tables on Bird, secretly following the Dynamic Duo for Bane.

However, the Pena Duro inmate is too much for the apprentice adventurer and only Bane’s order stops Bird from killing the boy too soon. The chaos is building in Gotham and the master planner wants nothing to spoil his intricate schemes…

Moench & Breyfogle then contribute ‘Redslash’ (Batman #493) as knife-wielding nut-job Victor Zsasz invades a girl’s school. The blood-soaked psycho marks each kill with a new scar on his own body and it’s been too long since his last…

By-the-book cop Lieutenant Stan Kitch’s wait-and-see policy only results in two more deaths that Batman cannot scrub from his own over-worked conscience. In the final confrontation patrolwoman Rene Montoya needs all her determination and utmost efforts to prevent the Dark Knight from beating Zsasz to death…

The chaos grows…

When they last met, Bane nearly crippled Killer Croc and the diseased carnival freak goes looking for payback in Detective #660, but his ‘Crocodile Tears’ (Dixon, Jim Balent & Scott Hanna) lead Robin – still craftily tracking Bird and Bane – into a deadly trap in the City’s sewers before Batman#494’s ‘Night Terrors’ (Moench, Aparo & Tom Mandrake) finally sees the re-emergence of the Joker, having fun his own way whilst looking for a partner to play with.

A collapsed tunnel saves Robin, but Bruce Wayne seems hell-bent on self-destruction; unable to relax until the maniacs are back behind padded bars. Ignoring all pleas from Alfred and Tim, he heads out into the night and narrowly prevents Jim Gordon’s murder at the hands of illusion-casting cannibal Cornelius Stirk, but is woefully unaware that the Clown Prince has allied with the Scarecrow and kidnapped Gotham Mayor Armand Krol

In Detective #661 the Arkham Alumni terrorise Krol, forcing him to further sabotage the benighted metropolis through emergency edicts even as pyromaniac Garfield Lynns sets the ‘City on Fire’ (Dixon, Nolan & Hanna). Having allowed Robin to tag along, Batman permits the Boy Wonder to tackle Firefly whilst the exhausted manhunter searches for less predictable prey. Meanwhile, Wesker is closing in on his Scarface and a recently de-toxified Riddler can’t pull off a robbery because there’s nobody around to answer his obsessively-constructed crime conundrums…

Barely breaking stride to take out the Cavalier, the Caped Crusader stumbles across the Firefly and almost dies at the hands of the relative lightweight in ‘Strange Bedfellows’ (Batman #495, Moench, Aparo & Bob Wiacek) as, impatient to help, Jean-Paul takes to the streets on his own, eager to contribute in his makeshift masked identity…

Finally convinced to take a night off, Bruce attends a civic gala and is recognised by Bane just as Poison Ivy turns up to kidnap all of Gotham’s glitterati. As Batman fights floral-based zombies, Gordon and his top aide Harvey Bullock lead the GCPD into a perfect ambush set by Scarecrow and the Joker…

Detective #662 sees Robin spectacularly if injudiciously tackle Riddler’s ‘Burning Questions’ (Dixon, Nolan & Hanna) just as Batman finally writes finis to Firefly’s horrific depredations, and unsanctioned vigilante Huntress secretly joins the battle to stem the rising tide of chaos, after which Batman #496 commences the climactic clash between the completely exhausted Masked Manhunter and his maddest monsters in ‘Die Laughing’ (Moench, Aparo & Josef Rubinstein), with Scarecrow and Joker explosively sealing off the Gotham River Tunnel… with the broken Mayor at the bottom of it.

Only the detonation of the tunnel roof and a million gallons of ingressing river prevent Batman from beating the Harlequin of Hate to death, but Detective #663 proves there’s ‘No Rest for the Wicked’ (Dixon, Nolan & Hanna) as our hero frantically hauls Krol to safety, merely to fall victim to a concerted assault by Bane’s hit squad.

Narrowly escaping, the harried hero heads home only to find Alfred unconscious and his home invaded by the orchestrator of all his woes…

Batman #497 presents the end of the road in ‘Broken Bat’ – by Moench, Aparo & Dick Giordano – as Bane finally attacks in person, mercilessly beating the exhausted but valiantly battling hero, ultimately breaking Batman’s spine in a savage demonstration of his physical and mental superiority.

Detective #664 sees the beginning of Bane’s Reign in ‘Who Rules the Night’ (Dixon, Nolan & Hanna) as the Scourge of Pena Duro drops the broken Batman’s body in the middle of Gotham; publicly declaring himself the new boss.

Even after Alfred and Robin intercept the ambulance carrying their shattered friend and mentor, saving his life proves a touch-and-go proposition, and in the interval Joker and Scarecrow come to a parting of the ways whilst the Ventriloquist is reunited with his malevolent master Scarface.

Gotham is a city at war and soon Boy Wonder and ex-Azrael are prowling the rooftops trying to stem the tide…

The tale diverges here to reveal the contents of Showcase ’93 #7 and 8, wherein Alfred, Robin and Jean-Paul restlessly wait by the comatose Wayne’s bedside, and traumatised Tim Drake recalls how mere days previously they thwarted the latest murder-spree of erstwhile Gotham DA Harvey Dent.

‘2-Face: Double Cross’ and the concluding ‘2-Face: Bad Judgment’ (Moench & Klaus Janson) depict the Double Desperado again challenging his one-time ally by setting up a hangman’s court in a confused and tragic attempt to convict Batman of causing all the former prosecutor’s problems…

Batman #498’s ‘Knights in Darkness’ (Moench, Aparo & Rick Burchett) see the brutalised Wayne regain consciousness as a paralysed, paraplegic wreck, only to reveal an even greater loss: his fighting spirit. Faking a road crash to explain his massive injuries, Tim and Alfred consult blithely oblivious Dr. Kinsolving in an attempt to restore the billionaire’s shattered spirit and broken body, whilst Bane goes wild in the city, mercilessly consolidating his hold on the various gangs and rackets.

To further his schemes and swiftly counter any stubborn opposition, the King of Gotham recruits Catwoman as his personal thief and retrieval service…

And in Wayne Mansion, as Shondra begins her course of therapy – now knowing full well her patient’s injuries were not caused by pranging a Porsche – Tim Drake carries out Bruce’s wishes and offers Jean-Paul the role and Mantle of Batman…

Gotham City is a criminal’s paradise with thugs big and small running riot now that the Dark Knight has been so publicly destroyed, but Detective #665 reveals ‘Lightning Changes’ (Dixon, Nolan & Giordano) as the new but inexperienced Batman and Robin team start wiping up the street scum and making them fear the night again, under strict instructions from Wayne to avoid major threats until they’re ready.

Valley, however, seems to be slowly coming unglued, happily using excessive force and chafing to test himself against Bane.

Meanwhile, demoralised, wheelchair-bound Bruce is becoming increasing dependent on Shondra. When he can’t find her, he wheels himself through the gardens to the adjoining house of Tim’s father Jack Drake in time to interrupt an abduction by masked gunmen. Despite his best efforts, Wayne is unable to stop them taking Shondra and the elder Drake, whilst in Gotham the new Bat has overstepped his orders and determined to go after Bane – even if it means allying with gangsters and risking the lives of innocent children…

One final diversion comes next in a sidebar tale from Shadow of the Bat#16-18 wherein Alan Grant, Bret Blevins, Mike Manley & Steve George describe how the sinister Scarecrow returns to his old college life long enough to turn innocent students into his phobic slaves as part of a grandiose and clearly crazy plan to turn himself into ‘The God of Fear’

Juvenile ideologue and criminal genius Anarky escapes prison just in time to see “Batman” facing off against his first fully deranged super-villain and realises that the Dark Knight is as much a threat to the people as the Tatterdemalion of Terror. The young rebel decides that for the good of the common man he should take them both out…

It doesn’t quite work out that way, but after Scarecrow exposes Batman to his fear gas and it doesn’t work, they combine to vanquish the failed deity. Valley, in an increasingly rare moment of rationality, lets Anarky off with a pretty scary warning. The former Azrael muses on how his programming had made him immune to the fear chemicals, but he couldn’t be more wrong…

The Beginning of the End starts in Batman #499 with ‘The Venom Connection’ (Moench, Aparo & Hanna), as Jean-Paul’s ruthless savagery and burgeoning paranoia drives a wedge between him and Robin, whilst oblivious to it all, the rededicated and driven Bruce Wayne uses the sleuthing skills of a lifetime to trace the kidnappers to Santa Prisca…

In the Batcave, Jean-Paul realises he is still subject to the deep programming that created Azrael when he falls into a trance and awakens to find he has designed deadly new high-tech gauntlets to augment his war on crime. Bane, meanwhile, ignores all entreaties to act, refusing to bother with a mere impostor.

In a blockbusting raid, Batman and Robin capture Bane’s lieutenants, although the Darker Knight coldly risks children’s lives to achieve victory. Alienated and deeply troubled, Tim resolves to tell Bruce but finds the Mansion deserted. Bruce and Alfred have left for the Caribbean, unaware that they have a svelte stowaway in the form of Selina Kyle

Detective #666 pushes things to fever-pitch with ‘The Devil You Know’ (Dixon, Nolan & Hanna) as the augmented, ever-angry and clearly losing it Batman breaks Trogg, Bird and Zombie out of jail and follows them back to Bane, only to fall before the sheer power and ferocity of the Venom-addicted living juggernaut…

Batman #500 is divided into a landmark two-part conclusion. ‘Dark Angel 1: the Fall’, by Moench, Aparo & Terry Austin, sees Batman frantically escape certain death at Bane’s hands and retreat to the Batcave where Azrael’s submerged programming – dubbed “the System” – takes temporary control: devising a perfectly-honed technological armoured suit that turns Batman into a human war-machine. Far more worrying is the rift that drives Robin, Nightwing and every other possible ally away as Valley prepares for his final confrontation with Bane…

The infuriated King of the City wants it too: challenging the impostor to a highly public duel in the centre of Gotham. ‘Dark Angel 2: the Descent’ (art by Mike Manley) sees a catastrophic clash which comprehensively crushes Bane and publicly proclaims the return of a new, darker Champion of the Night. As Batman narrowly chooses to leave Bane a crushed and humiliated living trophy rather than dead example, Robin – who had to save a train full of innocent bystanders from becoming collateral casualties of Batman – realises something very bad has come to Gotham…

To Be Continued…

There’s something particularly enticing about these colossal mega-compilations (available in both printed and digital editions) that utterly delights the 10-year-old in me: proven, familiar favourite stories in a huge, wrist-numbing package offering a vast hit of full-colour funnybook action, suspense and solid entertainment. And there’s even better to come…
© 1993, 2012 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: The Golden Age volume 2


By Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson, George Roussos & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-6808-4

Batman: The Golden Age volume is another paperback-format feast (there’s also a weightier, pricier but more capacious hardback Omnibus available) re-presenting the Dark Knight’s earliest exploits.

Set out in original publishing release order, it forgoes glossy, high-definition paper and reproduction techniques in favour of a newsprint-adjacent feel and the same flat, bright-yet-muted colour palette which graced the originals. Those necessary details dealt with, what you really need to know is that this is a collection of Batman tales that see the character grow into the major player who would inspire so many and develop the resilience to survive the stifling cultural vicissitudes the coming decades would inflict upon him and his partner, Robin.

With the majority of material crafted by Bill Finger and illustrated by Bob Kane, there’s no fuss, fiddle or Foreword, and the book steams straight into the meat of the matter, representing the astounding cape-&-cowl classics and iconic covers from Detective Comics #46-56, Batman#4-7 and the Dynamic Duo’s stories from World’s Best Comics #1 and World’s Finest Comics #2-3; cumulatively covering all the groundbreaking escapades from December 1940 to November 1941

Plunging right in to the perilous procedures, Detective Comics #46 (inked by Kane and regular embellishers Jerry Robinson & George Roussos) features the return of Batman’s most formidable scientific adversary as the heroes must counteract the awesome effects of ‘Professor Strange’s Fear Dust’ after which issue #47 delivers drama on a more human scale in ‘Money Can’t Buy Happiness’.

This action-packed homily of parental expectation and the folly of greed leads into Batman #4 (Winter 1941) which features ‘The Joker’s Crime Circus’ and the piratical plunderings of ‘Blackbeard’s Crew and the Yacht Society’. Then ‘Public Enemy No.1’ tells a gangster fable in the manner of Jimmy Cagney’s movie Angels With Dirty Faces, and ‘Victory For the Dynamic Duo’ involves the pair in the treacherous world of sports gambling.

Detective Comics #48 finds them defending America’s bullion reserves in ‘The Secret Cavern’, and they face an old foe when ‘Clayface Walks Again’ (Detective Comics #49, March 1941), as the deranged horror actor resumes his passion for murder and re-attempts to kill Bruce Wayne’s old girlfriend Julie.

Detective Comics #50 pits Batman and Robin against acrobatic burglars in ‘The Case of the Three Devils’, leading neatly into Batman #5 (Spring 1941). Once again, the Joker plays lead villain in ‘The Riddle of the Missing Card’ before the heroes prove their versatility by solving a quixotic crime in Fairy Land via ‘The Book of Enchantment’.

‘The Case of the Honest Crook’ follows: one of the key stories of Batman’s early canon. When a mugger steals only $6 from a victim, leaving much more behind, his trail leads to a vicious gang who almost beat Robin to death. The vengeance-crazed Dark Knight goes on a rampage of terrible violence that still resonates in the character to this day.

The last story from Batman #5 ‘Crime does Not Pay’ once again deals with kids going bad and the potential for redemption, after which World’s Best Comics#1 (Spring 1941 – destined to become World’s Finest Comics with its second issue) offers an eerie murder mystery concerning ‘The Witch and the Manuscript of Doom’

With most stories still coming from unsung genius Finger and the art chores shared out between Kane, Robinson & Roussos, the team got a new top contributor as Fred Ray signed on to produce the fantastic World’s Finest covers.

‘The Case of the Mystery Carnival’, ‘The Secret of the Jade Box’ and ‘Viola Vane’ (Detective#51, 52 and 53 respectively) are mood-soaked crimebusting set-pieces featuring fairly run-of-the mill thugs, which serve as perfect palate-cleansers for ‘The Man Who Couldn’t Remember!’ from WF#2: a powerful character play and a baffling mystery that still packs a punch today.

‘Hook Morgan and his Harbor Pirates’ finds the Dynamic Duo cleaning up the docks whilst the four tales from Batman #6 (‘Murder on Parole’, ‘The Clock Maker’, ‘The Secret of the Iron Jungle’ and ‘Suicide Beat’) offer a broad range of yarns encompassing a prison-set human interest fables to the hunt for a crazed maniac to racket busting and back to the human side of being a cop.

Detective #54 went back to basics with spectacular mad scientist thriller ‘The Brain Burglar’ after which a visit to a ghost town results in an eerie romp ‘The Stone Idol’ (Detective#55) before World’s Finest#3 launches a classic villain with the first appearance of one of Batman’s greatest foes in ‘The Riddle of the Human Scarecrow’.

The volume ends with four grand tales from Batman#7. ‘Wanted: Practical Jokers’ again stars the psychotic Clown Prince of Crime, whilst ‘The Trouble Trap’ finds our heroes crushing a Spiritualist racket before heading for Lumberjack country to clear up ‘The North Woods Mystery’.

The last story is something of a landmark case, as well as being a powerful and emotional melodrama. ‘The People Vs. The Batman’ finds Bruce Wayne framed for murder and the Dynamic Duo finally sworn in as official police operatives. They would not be vigilantes again until the grim and gritty 1980’s…

Kane, Robinson and their compatriots created an iconography which carried the Batman feature well beyond its allotted life-span until later creators could re-invigorate it. They added a new dimension to children’s reading… and their work is still captivatingly accessible.

Moreover, these early stories set the standard for comic superheroes. Whatever you like now, you owe it to these stories. Superman gave us the idea, but inspired and inspirational writers like Bill Finger refined and defined the meta-structure of the costumed crime-fighter.

Where the Man of Steel was as much Social Force and juvenile wish-fulfilment as hero, Batman and Robin did what we ordinary mortals wanted to do most: teach bad people the lessons they richly deserved…

These are tales of elemental power and joyful exuberance, brimming with deep mood and addictive action. Comicbook heroics simply don’t come any better.
© 1940, 1941, 2017 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman & Superman in World’s Finest Comics: The Silver Age volume 1


By Edmond Hamilton, Bill Finger, Alvin Schwartz, Curt Swan, Dick Sprang, Stan Kaye, John Fischetti, Charles Paris, Ray Burnley & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-6833-6   Some things were just meant to be: Bacon & Eggs, Rhubarb & Custard, Chalk & Cheese…

For many years Superman and Batman worked together as the “World’s Finest” team. They were friends as well as colleagues and the pairing made sound financial sense since DC’s top heroes (in effect the company’s only costumed stars) could cross-pollinate and, more importantly, cross-sell their combined readerships.

This most inevitable of Paladin Pairings first occurred on the Superman radio show in the early 1940s, whereas in comics the pair had only briefly met whilst on a Justice Society of America adventure in All-Star Comics #36 (August-September 1947) – and perhaps even there they missed each other in the gaudy hubbub…

Of course, they had shared the covers of World’s Finest Comics from the outset, but never crossed paths inside; sticking firmly to their specified solo adventures within. For us pictorial continuity buffs, the climactic real first time was in the pages of Superman’s own bi-monthly comic (issue #76, May/June 1952).

That yarn kicks off this stunning paperback compendium of Silver Age solid gold, accompanied here by the leads story from World’s Finest Comics #71-94, spanning July/August 1954 to May/June 1958.

Science fiction author Edmond Hamilton was tasked with revealing how Man of Steel and Caped Crusader first met – and accidentally uncovered each other’s identities – whilst sharing a cabin on an over-booked cruise liner. Although an average crime-stopper yarn, it was the start of a phenomenon. The art for ‘The Mightiest Team in the World’ was by the superb Curt Swan and inkers John Fischetti & Stan Kaye.

With dwindling page counts, rising costs but a proven readership and years of co-starring but never mingling, World’s Finest Comics #71 presented the Man of Tomorrow and the Gotham Gangbuster in the first of their official shared cases as the Caped Crusader became ‘Batman – Double for Superman!’ (by Alvin Schwartz with Swan & Kaye providing the pictures) as the merely mortal hero traded identities to preserve his comrade’s alter ego and latterly his life…

‘Fort Crime!’ (Schwartz, Swan & Kaye) saw them unite to crush a highly-organised mob with a seemingly impregnable hideout, after which Hamilton returned for ‘Superman and Batman, Swamis Inc’, a clever sting-operation that almost went tragically awry. Next, an alien invader prompted an insane rivalry which resulted in ‘The Contest of Heroes’ (Bill Finger, Swan & Kaye, from WFC #74.

The same creative team produced ‘Superman and Robin!’ wherein a disabled Batman could only fret and fume as his erstwhile assistant seemingly dumped him for a better man, whilst ‘When Gotham City Challenged Metropolis’ (Hamilton, Swan & Charles Paris) saw the champions at odds as their hometowns over-aggressively vied for a multi-million dollar electronics convention.

A landmark tale by Hamilton, Swan & Kaye invented a new sub-genre when a mad scientist’s accident temporarily removed the Caped Kryptonian’s powers and created ‘The Super Bat-Man!’ in #77. The theme would be revisited for decades to come…

Arguably Batman’s greatest artist joined the creative crew ‘When Superman’s Identity is Exposed!’ (Hamilton, Dick Sprang & Kaye) as a mysterious source kept revealing the Man of Steel’s greatest secret, only to be revealed as a well-intentioned disinformation stunt, before the accent switched to high adventure when the trio became ‘The Three Musicians of Bagdad’ – a stunning time-travel romp from Hamilton, Sprang & Kaye.

When the Gotham Gazette faced closure days before a spectacular crime-expose, Clark Kent and Lois Lane joined dilettante Bruce Wayne as pinch-hitting reporters on ‘The Super-Newspaper of Gotham City’ (Hamilton, Sprang & Charles Paris) after which ‘The True History of Superman and Batman’ (Hamilton, Sprang & Kaye, #81) saw a future historian blackmail the heroes into restaging their greatest exploits so his erroneous treatise on them would be accurate…

Hamilton also produced a magnificent and classy costumed drama when ‘The Three Super-Musketeers!’ visited 17th century France to solve the mystery of the Man in the Iron Mask whilst Bill Finger wrote a brilliant and delightful caper-without-a-crime in ‘The Case of the Mother Goose Mystery!’ after which Hamilton provided insight on a much earlier meeting of the World’s Finest Team with ‘The Super-Mystery of Metropolis!’ in #84, all for Sprang & Kaye to enticingly illustrate.

Hamilton, Swan, Sprang & Kaye demonstrated how a comely Ruritanian Princess inadvertently turned the level-headed heroes into ‘The Super-Rivals’ (or did she?), before monolithic charity-event ‘The Super-Show of Gotham City’ (Hamilton, Sprang & Kaye) was almost turned into a mammoth pay-day for unscrupulous con-men.

‘The Reversed Heroes’(Finger, Sprang & Ray Burnley) once again saw the costumed champions swap roles when Batman and Robin gained powers thanks to Kryptonian pep-pills found by criminal Elton Craig, just as Superman’s powers faded…

World’s Finest #87 presented ‘Superman and Batman’s Greatest Foes!’ (Hamilton, Sprang, Kaye) which found “reformed” villains Lex Luthor and the Joker ostensibly setting up in the commercial robot business – which nobody really believed – after which seminal sequel ‘The Club of Heroes’ (Hamilton, Sprang & Kaye) reprised a meeting of Batmen from many nations (as debuted in Detective Comics #215, January 1955 and a key plank of Grant Morrison’s epic Batman: the Black Glove serial) but added the intriguing sub-plot of an amnesiac Superman and a brand-new costumed champion…

That evergreen power-swap plot was revived in #90’s ‘The Super-Batwoman’ (Hamilton, Sprang & Kaye) when the headstrong heroine defied Batman by restarting her costumed career and was quickly compelled to swallow Elton Craig’s last Krypton pill to prevent criminals getting it…

A stirring time-busting saga of ‘The Three Super-Sleepers’ (Hamilton, Sprang & Kaye) saw our heroes fall into a trap which caused them to slumber for 1000 years and awaken in a fantastic world they could never escape, but of course they could and, once back where they belonged, ‘The Boy from Outer Space!’ (Hamilton, Sprang & Kaye) detailed how a super-powered amnesiac lad crashed to Earth and briefly became Superman’s junior partner Skyboy, whilst ‘The Boss of Superman and Batman’(author unknown, but impeccably illustrated as always by Sprang & Kaye) revealed how a brain-amplifying machine turned Robin into a super-genius more than qualified to lead the trio in their battle against insidious rogue scientist Victor Danning

Wrapping up this initial compendium with comfortable circularity, the Man of Tomorrow replaced the Caped Crusader with a new partner and provoked a review of ‘The Origin of the Superman-Batman Team’ by Hamilton, Sprang & Kaye, ending these supremely enticing Fights ‘n’ Tights on an epic high.

These are gloriously clever yet uncomplicated tales whose dazzling style has returned to inform if not dictate the form for much of DC’s modern television animation – especially the fabulous Batman: The Brave and the Bold series – and the contents of this titanic tome are a veritable feast of witty, charming thrillers packing as much punch and wonder now as they always have.
© 1952, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 2017 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

JLA Deluxe volume 4


By Grant Morrison, Mark Waid, Devin Grayson, J.M. DeMatteis, Howard Porter, Mark Pajarillo, Steve Scott & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1401229092 (HC)            :978-1401243852(PB)

When the Justice League of America – driving force and cornerstone of the Silver Age of Comics – was re-imagined and relaunched in 1997, the sheer bravura quality of the stories propelled the series back to the forefront of industry attention, making as many new fans as it recaptured old ones. The stories were smart, fast-paced, compelling, challengingly large-scale and drawn with effervescent vitality.

With JLA you could see on every page all the work undertaken to make it the best it could be. Moreover, their example – at least initially – was mirrored by all other creators brought in to craft the hero-team’s later adventures…

This fourth Deluxe Edition (available in hardback, paperback and eBook formats) gathers issues #32-46 of the resurgent series, spanning August 1999 to October 2000: re-presenting astounding epics of cosmic wonder and universal upheaval which still pack a punch nearly two decades later…

The action opens with ‘Inside Job’ (Waid and Devin Grayson script with art by Mark Pajarillo & Walden Wong): a tale deeply embedded in company continuity and set during the spectacular and prophetic Batman: No Man’s Land publishing event. The gripping tale of mutation, bio-warfare and government indifference references one of the League’s first cases (for which see JLA: Year One) as outlaw genetic supremacists Locus return to make quake-devastated Gotham City their private Petri-dish.

After releasing a mutagenic terror-virus that not even the JLA can combat, the genome-maniacs’ opportunistic attempts at conquest result in devastation and despair until the heroes formulate a new and evolving strategy…

Waid, Pajarillo & Wong’s then examine ‘Altered Egos’ as Batman leads a plainclothes mission to discover who – or what – is masquerading as Bruce Wayne: an unexpectedly violent mission which sees the return of the team’s most dangerous modern opponents…

As envisaged by re-originators Grant Morrison & Howard Porter, the World’s Greatest Superheroes had always been meant to tackle a progression of gargantuan epics and mind-boggling conceptual endeavours. This long-awaited cosmic spectacle had been patiently unfolding for years and culminated in a “Big Finish” saga that proved well worth the wait.

Beginning with the thematic prelude ‘The Ant and the Avalanche’ (Morrison, Porter & John Dell), the JLA faces increased super-villain violence, natural disasters and general global madness after New God Orion determines that a threat from the time of the Primal Gods is closing in on Earth. With the entire planet in bellicose turmoil, Lex Luthor and his malevolent allies – Queen Bee, Prometheus and defrocked General Wade Eiling inside the gigantic, indestructible body of the erstwhile Shaggy Man – prepare to destroy all Earth’s heroes once and for all…

‘The Guilty’ by J.M. DeMatteis, Pajarillo & Wong takes a timely sidestep to focus on debased angel Zauriel and the Hal Jordan-bonded Spectre who invades the heroes’ home to judge the past sins of the assembled Leaguers…

Cleansed and refreshed the team then embark on the six-part epic ‘World War Three’ (Morrison, Porter and Dell), starting by learning the origins of Mageddon, a semi-sentient doomsday weapon which creates hatred and violence in all living things. Now it is nearing Earth…

Responding to its presence, former Leaguer Aztek (see JLA Presents Aztek, the Ultimate Man) comes out of retirement as Luthor’s team ambushes the team in their lunar citadel with devastating success…

Meanwhile on Earth, the inexorably approaching God-Weapon is driving the populace – human and not – into manic blood-frenzy whilst the hard-pressed superhero community finds that even they are not immune to Mageddon’s malign influence…

When even Heaven refuses to act in Earth’s defence, all hope seems lost until the long-missing Flash returns with crucial assistance from the end of time and space and Zauriel recruits aid from a most unexpected source, but even this is not enough until one hero makes the ultimate sacrifice…

Given a fighting chance, humanity takes its fate into its own disparate and temporarily super-powered hands for a spectacular and cathartic cosmic climax to delight fans of every persuasion and preference.

After battling every combination of ancient, contemporary and futuristic foes, the World’s Greatest Superheroes next found themselves pitted against a miniscule and most poignant threat in ‘Half a Mind to Save a World’, an intriguing take on Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage from Dan Curtis Johnson, Pajarillo & Wong, wherein The Atom leads a JLA team on a mission to forcibly evacuate an advanced civilisation of bacteria that have taken up residence in a small boy’s brain and begun strip-mining his dendrites. Of course, the bacteria aren’t that keen on moving…

Often cited as one of the best Batman stories ever created, multi-part paean to paranoia Tower of Babel concludes this collection. The saga begins with immortal eco-terrorist Ra’s Al Ghul’s latest plan to winnow Earth’s human population to manageable levels well underway…

In ‘Survival of the Fittest’ (Waid, Porter & Drew Geraci), a series of perfectly planned pre-emptive strikes cripple Martian Manhunter, Flash, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Plastic Man and Green Lantern whilst Batman is taken out of the game by the simple expedient of stealing his parents’ remains from their graves.

With the Dark Knight distracted and his fellow superheroes utterly disabled, the full scheme begins as humanity suddenly loses the ability to read. Books, newspapers, complicated machinery instructions, labels on medicine bottles – all are now gibberish. The death toll starts to mount…

In ‘Seven Little Indians’ as the League attempt to regroup and fight back, Batman realises that the tactics and tools used to take out his allies – now including Superman – were his own secret contingency measures, designed in case he ever had to fight his super-powered best friends…

In ‘Protected by the Cold’ Batman leads a counter-attack despite the shock and fury of his betrayed comrades, and as the final phase kicks in with humans losing the power of speech too, the disunited team mounts a last-ditch assault on Al Ghul in ‘Harsh Words’ (illustrated by Steve Scott & Mark Propst). The same team handled the epilogue where the recovered heroes angrily seek to understand how their trusted friend could have countenanced such treachery…

Compelling, challenging and genuinely uplifting, this tale is a high-mark in modern superhero comics and one no fan can afford to miss. Morrison & Porter’s JLA was never afraid of looking back fondly or laughing at itself: an all-out effort to be Thrilling, Smart and Fun.

This is the kind of joyous fare nobody should ever outgrow and these are stories to be read and re-read forever…
© 1999, 2000, 2010 DC Comics.  All Rights Reserved.

Batman: The Golden Age volume 1


By Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Gardner Fox, Whitney Ellsworth, Sheldon Moldoff, Jerry Robinson, George Roussos & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-6333-1

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Vintage Comicbook Perfection… 10/10

For anyone who’s read more than a few of these posts, my tastes should be fairly apparent, but in case you’re in any doubt, here’s a flat-out confession: I’m that shabby, possibly crazy old geezer muttering at the checkout about how things were better before, and all new things are crap and not the same and…

You get the picture. Now, ignore all that. It’s true but it’s not relevant here.

Batman: The Golden Age is the latest paperback-format (there’s also a weightier, pricier but more capacious hardback Omnibus available) re-presentation of the Dark Knight’s earliest exploits.

Set in original chronological order, it forgoes glossy, high-definition paper and reproduction techniques in favour of a newsprint-adjacent feel and the same flat, bright-yet-muted colour palette which graced the originals.

There’s no fuss, fiddle or Foreword, and the book steams straight into the meat of the matter with the accumulated first year and a half of material masked mystery-man plus all those stunning covers spanning Detective Comics #27-45; Batman #1-3 and the Dynamic Duo’s story from New York World’s Fair Comics 1940; cumulatively covering all the groundbreaking escapades from May 1939-November 1940.

As Eny Fule Kno, Detective #27 spotlighted the Gotham Guardian’s debut in the ‘Case of the Chemical Syndicate!’ by Bob Kane and close collaborator/co-originator Bill Finger.

This spartan, understated yarn introduced dilettante playboy criminologist Bruce Wayne, drawn into a straightforward crime-caper wherein a cabal of industrialists were successively murdered. The killings stopped when an eerie figure dubbed “The Bat-Man” intruded on Police Commissioner Gordon’s stalled investigation and ruthlessly exposed and dealt with the hidden killer.

The next issue saw the fugitive vigilante return to crush ‘Frenchy Blake’s Jewel Gang’ before encountering his very first psychopathic killer and returning villain in Detective #29. Gardner Fox scripted the next few adventures beginning with ‘The Batman Meets Doctor Death’, featuring a deadly duel of wits with deranged, greedy general practitioner Karl Hellfern and his assorted instruments of murder: the most destructive and diabolical of which was sinister Asiatic manservant Jabah

Confident of their new villain’s potential, Kane, Fox and inker Sheldon Mayer encored the mad medic for the next instalment in ‘The Return of Doctor Death’, before Fox and Finger co-scripted a 2-part shocker which introduced the first bat-plane, Bruce’s girlfriend Julie Madison and undead horror The Monk in an expansive, globe-girdling spooky saga. ‘Batman Versus the Vampire’ concluded in an epic chase across Eastern Europe and a spectacular climax in a monster-filled castle in issue #32.

Detective Comics #33 featured Fox & Kane’s ‘The Batman Wars Against the Dirigible of Doom’: a blockbusting disaster thriller which just casually slipped in the secret origin of the Gotham Guardian, as mere prelude to intoxicating air-pirate action, after which Euro-trash dastard Duc D’Orterre found his uncanny science and unsavoury appetites no match for the mighty Batman in ‘Peril in Paris’.

Bill Finger returned as lead scripter in issue #35, pitting the Cowled Crusader against crazed cultists murdering everyone who had seen their sacred jewel in ‘The Case of the Ruby Idol’ – although the many deaths were actually caused by a far more prosaic villain, after which grotesque criminal genius ‘Professor Hugo Strange’ (inked by new kid Jerry Robinson) debuted with his murderous man-made fog and lightning machine in #36, and all-pervasive enemy agents ‘The Spies’ ultimately proved no match for the vengeful masked Manhunter in #37.

Detective Comics #38 (April 1940) changed the landscape of comicbooks forever with the introduction of ‘Robin, The Boy Wonder’: child trapeze artist Dick Grayson whose parents were murdered before his eyes and who thereafter joined Batman in a lifelong quest for justice, by bringing to justice mobster mad dog Boss Zucco

After the Flying Grayson’s killers were captured, Batman #1 (Spring 1940) opened proceedings with a recycled origin culled from portions of Detective Comics #33 and 34. ‘The Legend of the Batman – Who He Is and How He Came to Be!’ by Fox, Kane & Moldoff offered in two perfect pages what is still the best ever origin of the character, after which ‘The Joker’ (Finger, Kane & Robinson – who produced all the remaining tales in this astonishing premiere issue) introduced the greatest villain in DC’s criminal pantheon via a stunning tale of extortion and wilful wanton murder.

‘Professor Hugo Strange and the Monsters’ follows as the old adversary returns with laboratory-grown hyperthyroid horrors to rampage through the terrified city and ‘The Cat’ – who later added the suffix ‘Woman’ to her name to avoid any possible doubt or confusion – plied her felonious trade of jewel theft aboard the wrong cruise-liner and fell foul for the first time of the dashing Dynamic Duo.

The initial issue ends with the ‘The Joker Returns’ as the sinister clown breaks jail to resume his terrifying campaign of murder for fun and profit before “dying” in mortal combat with the Gotham Guardian.

Following a superb pin-up (originally the back cover of the premier issue) of the Dynamic Duo by Kane, the tense suspense and all-out action continues with Detective #39 and ‘The Horde of the Green Dragon’ – oriental Tong killers in Chinatown – by Finger, Kane & Robinson, after which ‘Beware of Clayface!’ finds the Dynamic Duo solving a string of murders on a film set which almost sees Julie Madison the latest victim of a monstrous movie maniac…

Batman and Robin solved the baffling mystery of a kidnapped boy in Detective #41’s ‘A Master Murderer’ before enjoying their second solo outing in four comics classics from Batman #2 (Summer 1940).

It begins with ‘Joker Meets Cat-Woman’ (Finger, Kane, Robinson & new find George Roussos) wherein svelte thief, homicidal jester and a crime syndicate all tussle for the same treasure with the Caped Crusaders caught in the middle.

‘Wolf, the Crime Master’ offers a fascinating take on the classic Jekyll & Hyde tragedy after which an insidious and ingenious murder-mystery ensues in ‘The Case of the Clubfoot Murderers’ before Batman and Robin confront uncanny savages and ruthless showbiz promoters in poignant monster story ‘The Case of the Missing Link’.

‘Batman and Robin Visit the New York World’s Fair’ comes from the second New York World’s Fair Comics. Finger, Kane & Roussos followed the vacationing Dynamic Duo as they track down a maniac mastermind with a metal-dissolving ray, after which Detective Comics #42 again finds our heroes ending another murder maniac’s rampage in ‘The Case of the Prophetic Pictures!’ before clashing with a corrupt mayor in #43’s ‘The Case of the City of Terror!’

An unparallelled hit, Batman stories never rested on their laurels. The creators always sought to expand their parameters as with Detective #44 and a nightmarish fantasy of giants and goblins in ‘The Land Behind the Light!’, after which Batman #3 (Fall 1940) has Finger, Kane, Robinson & Roussos rise to even greater heights, beginning with ‘The Strange Case of the Diabolical Puppet Master’: an eerie episode of uncanny mesmerism and infamous espionage…

Then a grisly scheme ensues as innocent citizens are mysteriously transformed into specimens of horror and artworks destroyed by the spiteful commands of ‘The Ugliest Man in the World’ before ‘The Crime School for Boys!!’ sees Robin infiltrate a gang who have a cruel and cunning recruitment plan for dead-end kids…

‘The Batman vs. the Cat-Woman’ then reveals the larcenous lady in well over her head when she steals for – and from – the wrong people…

The issue also offered a worthy Special Feature as ‘The Batman Says’ presented an illustrated prose Law & Order pep-talk crafted by Whitney Ellsworth and illustrated by Robinson…

The all-out action concludes here with a magnificent and horrific Joker jape from Detective Comics #45 as ‘The Case of the Laughing Death’ displays the Harlequin of Hate undertaking a campaign of macabre murder against everyone who has ever defied or offended him…

Including full Creator biographies and with Batman covers by Kane, Robinson & Roussos and all the other general action ones by Fred Guardineer & Creig Flessel, this is a stunning monument to exuberance and raw talent. Kane, Robinson and their compatriots created an iconography which carried the Batman feature well beyond its allotted life-span until later creators could re-invigorate it. They added a new dimension to children’s reading… and their work is still captivatingly accessible.

Moreover, these early stories set the standard for comic superheroes. Whatever you like now, you owe it to these stories. Superman gave us the idea, but writers like Finger and Fox refined and defined the meta-structure of the costumed crime-fighter.

Where the Man of Steel was as much Social Force and wish fulfilment as hero, Batman and Robin did what we ordinary mortals wanted to do. They taught bad people the lessons they deserved…

These are tales of elemental power and joyful exuberance, brimming with deep mood and addictive action. Comicbook heroics simply don’t come any better.

One final thing: I’m still that guy in paragraph one, right? I’ve read these stories many, many times, in every format imaginable, and I’d like to thank whoever decided that they should also be available in as close a facsimile to the originals as we can get these days.

More than anything else, this serves to perfectly recapture the mood and impact of that revolutionary masked avenger and, of course, delights my heavily concealed inner child no end.
© 1939, 1940, 2016 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Birth of the Demon


By Dennis O’Neil, Norm Breyfogle & Tom various (DC Comics)
ISBNs: 1-56389-080-1 (original hardcover);                         1-56389-081-X (trade paperback)

Debuting twelve months after Superman, in May 1939 “The Bat-Man” (joined within a year by Robin, the Boy Wonder) cemented DC/National Comics as the market and conceptual leader of the burgeoning comicbook industry.

Having established the scope and parameters of the metahuman with their Man of Tomorrow, the magnificently mortal physical perfection and dashing derring-do of the human-scaled adventures starring the Dynamic Duo rapidly became the swashbuckling benchmark by which all four-colour crimebusters were judged.

Batman is in many ways the ideal superhero: uniquely adaptable and able to work in any type or genre of story, as is clearly evident from the dazzling plethora of vintage tales collected in so many captivating volumes over the years, vying equally with the most immediate and recent tales collected into albums scant moment after they go off-sale as comicbooks….

One the most impressive and well-mined periods is the moody 1970-1980s when the Caped Crusader evolved into a driven but still coldly rational Manhunter, rather than the dark, out-of-control paranoid of later days or the costumed boy-scout of the “Camp”-crazed Sixties.

There had been many “Most Important Batman” stories over the decades since his debut in 1939 but very few had the resounding impact of pioneering 1987 experiment Batman: Son of the Demon which capped a period when DC were creatively on fire and could do no wrong commercially.

Not only did the story add new depth to the character, but the package itself – oversized (294 x 226 mm), on high-quality paper, available in both hardback and softcover editions – helped kickstart the fledgling graphic novel marketplace. In 1991 the tale spawned an equally impressive sequel – Batman: Bride of the Demon – and a year later Scripter Supreme Denny O’Neil joined with illustrator Norm Breyfogle who painted this staggering saga (lettered by Ken Bruzenak) to complete a trilogy of outstanding graphic landmarks by providing Batman’s quintessential antithesis with an origin…

In the 1970s immortal mastermind and militant eco-activist Ra’s Al Ghul was a contemporary – and presumably thus more acceptable – embodiment of the venerably inscrutable Foreign Devil designated in a less forgiving age as the “Yellow Peril” and most famously embodied in Dr. Fu Manchu.

This kind of alien archetype had permeated fiction since the beginning of the 20th century and is still an overwhelmingly potent villain symbol even today, although the character’s Arabic origins, neutral at that time, seem to painfully embody a different kind of ethnic bogeyman in today’s terrorist-obsessed world.

Possessed of immense resources, an army of zealots and every inch Batman’s physical and intellectual equal match, Al Ghul featured in many of most memorable stories of the 1970s and 1980s. He had easily deduced the Caped Crusader’s secret identity and wanted his masked adversary to become his ally…

Here the war between these astounding rivals has reached the end-stage. Al Ghul has extended his lifespan for centuries through arcane means, but as this saga begins the immortal warlord is dying; his network of life-restoring Lazarus Pits dismantled and destroyed by the implacable Batman. Moreover, every attempt to create a new version of the geographically-sensitive chemical bath is anticipated by the Dark Knight and foiled with brutal efficiency. With few options remaining the demon’s daughter Talia takes charge of the last possible potential pit but finds Batman – her one true beloved – waiting for her. She has no idea that he too is near his life’s end…

The lovers discuss how the Batman had anticipated all the possible moves of the Demon’s Head. He reveals how archaeologists had got a certain ancient manuscript to him at the cost of their lives, and how he had deduced its true meaning…

The scene then resets to 500 years previously in an Arabian kingdom. Here a good and brilliant doctor of peasant origins creates a unique immersion treatment to save the son of the ruling potentate from a mystery disease. The remedy came after a retreat to the desert where the doctor experienced visions and where he believes he battles a bat-demon…

However, when the prince emerges from the boiling chemical pit, he is an uncontrollable savage who assaults and kills the healer’s wife. Despite all he has done, the doctor is denied use of the Pit to revive her and soon learns first hand of the callous disregard rulers have for their subjects…

Subjected to unimaginable cruelty, the healer is left to die in the desert before being saved by a poor poet he has recently helped. Together they unite with a bandit chief to topple the wicked sultan and carve out a bloody empire. Using the Pit, they also extend their lives and plan to reconstruct the world into a fairer place.

Sadly, somewhere along the way the allies fall out as their organisation grows in strength and as centuries pass one of the triumvirate leaves a document that might spell the Demon’s undoing…

Returning to modern times the tale ends in a climactic duel between the dying giants on the lip of the last Lazarus Pit…

Epic, revelatory and powerfully mythic, Birth of the Demon is an emotionally evocative fable crammed with action, spectacle and suspense: one of the most moving mature-reader tales in Batman’s canon and one to delight fans and casual readers alike.

If you’re new to these older tales, or just want the entire saga in one (slightly smaller) package, all three Al Ghul stories are available in one collected volume – Batman: Birth of the Demon (Collected) first released in 2012.

© 1990 DC Comics, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Time Masters: Vanishing Point


By Dan Jurgens, Norm Rapmund, Rodney Ramos & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3047-0

After the cosmos-crunching Crisis on Infinite Earths re-sculpted the DC Universe in 1986, a host of characters got floor-up rebuilds for the tougher, no-nonsense, straight-shooting New American readership of the Reagan era. The decluttering exercise also made room for a few superheroes of types previously unknown at the company “Where Legends Live”.

Disgraced sports star Michael Carter came back from the 25th century to our era, tooled up with stolen technology, determined to recreate himself as a superhero. As Booster Gold he made a name for himself as a mid-level hero and supreme self-promoter and corporate shill.

Created, written and drawn by Dan Jurgens, the saga featured a brash, cockily mysterious apparently metahuman golden-boy jock setting up his stall as a superhero in Metropolis. Here he actively sought corporate sponsorships, sold endorsements and hired a management team to maximise the profit potential of his crusading celebrity.

He was accompanied everywhere by sentient, flying, football-shaped robot Skeets.

Their time came and went and Booster’s title folded, but he lived on as part of Justice League International where he became roughly half of comics’ funniest double-act, riffing with the equally light-hearted lightweight Blue Beetle.

Booster and Ted Kord (technically the second Blue Beetle) were the class clowns of billionaire Maxwell Lord’s League: a couple of obnoxiously charming frat-boys who could save the day but never get the girl or any respect.

When Lord murdered Beetle, precipitating an Infinite Crisis, Booster was shattered. Eventually, though, he recovered and redefined himself as a true hero through a succession of multiversal conflagrations. In landmark weekly maxi-series 52 and later Infinite Crisis, his intriguing take on Heroism diverged down strange avenues when Booster – traditionally only in it for fame and fortune – became a secret saviour, repairing the cracks in Reality caused by all the universe-warping shenanigans of myriad multiversal Crises and uncontrolled time-travel.

Working at the instruction of enigmatic and irascible mentor Rip Hunter: Time Master, Booster relinquished his dreams of glory to secretly save us all over and over and over again as the protector of the time-line, battling incredible odds to keep history on track and continuity in order.

This time-bending full-colour collection gathers 6-issue miniseries Time Masters: Vanishing Point (from September 2010-February 2011), detailing how Rip, Booster and Skeets steer a small posse of superheroes through the uncanny and lethally mutable corridors of time in search of a missing comrade vital to the existence of everything…

At the climax of a harrowing campaign of terror by The Black Hand and following Earth’s invasion by the New Gods of Apokolips, Batman was apparently killed at the conclusion of Infinite Crisis

The world at large was unaware of the loss, leaving the superhero community to mourn in secret whilst a dedicated army of assistants, protégés and allies – trained over years by the contingency-obsessed Dark Knight – formed the Network to police Gotham City in the days which followed: marking time until a successor could be found or the original restored…

Most of the Bat-schooled battalion refused to believe their inspirational mentor dead. On the understanding that he was merely lost, they eventually accepted Dick Grayson (the first Robin and latterly Nightwing) as a stand-in until Bruce Wayne could find his way back to them. The more cosmically endowed super-friends weren’t prepared to wait, however…

Batman, of course, is the most brilliant escape artist of all time and even whilst being struck down by the New God of Evil had devised an impossibly complex and grandly far-reaching scheme to beat the devil and save the world…

The chronally-fluctuating epic opens with elderly time guardian Booster sharing a few moments of educational bonding time with his son before Rip Hunter shakes off the happy memories and gets back to the immediate task at hand: reminding Superman, Green Lantern Hal Jordan and a blithely oblivious prime-of-life Booster of the dangers involved in interfering in historical events, no matter how tragic or cruel they might be…

Meanwhile, at the End of Time mystery hero Supernova is finding inviolate citadel Vanishing Point has been destroyed by incalculable forces and, after consulting with his unseen boss, grimly sets off in search of Rip…

The rescue mission for Bruce Wayne is Hunter’s idea. He tracked the hero to various time periods, where the Dark Knight briefly materialised before plunging back into the time stream again. Rip now hopes to extract him with the assistance of some of the Gotham Guardian’s oldest allies, before his random trajectory causes irreparable damage. He also fears enemy interference from enemies as yet unknown…

In Rip’s 21st century Arizona lab, Booster’s sister Michelle is confronted by two likely suspects as “Time Stealers” Per Degaton and Despero break in. The battle looks lost until Supernova arrives to turn the tables, but after driving off the villains the mystery man vanishes; still intent on finding the reason for Vanishing Point’s destruction and the time-stream’s increasing instability…

In the 15th century the rescue squad’s search ends in frustration, but as Rip prepares to bring them home a chronal disruption seizes them, propelling them all on an uncontrolled trip through time and also across dimensions…

On arrival Rip is confronted by a barbarian warrior with a demonic right hand (DC’s short-lived 1970s sword-&-sorcery star Claw the Unconquered), and Hunter’s thoughts go back to another salutary lesson delivered by his father on the crucial nature of his self-appointed mission. After a short battle he finally convinces the enraged swordsman that he is neither wizard nor foe.

As they join forces against a common threat, in another time and place Booster, Superman and Green Lantern have arrived in the middle of a war between humans and aliens. Unable to obey Hunter’s admonition not to get involved, the heroes engage the invading Mygorgs, unaware that in a distant time-pocket Degaton and Despero have met with their allies Ultra-Humanite and Black Beetle.

The consensus is that some outside force is destabilising time and it must be stopped if their own plans for domination are to succeed…

The superheroes’ resistance ends when Booster encounters a sword-wielding woman warrior named Starfire (another star of DC’s short 1970’s dalliance with sword-&-sorcery) and a tenuous alliance is formed just as a dragon-riding witch captures Superman and Green Lantern…

Although separated by dimensional walls, both Rip and Claw and Booster’s team are facing similar perils: held by unearthly wizard Serhattu and his accomplice sorceress Skyle whilst the mage attempts to control of time and escape his extra-dimensional realm using the out-worlders’ science…

And in the ruins of Vanishing Point, the Time Stealers find a cell and free Hunter’s greatest foes: former comrades and fellow Linear Men Matthew Rider and Liri Lee

As Serhattu and Skyle prepare their campaign of conquest and their captives struggle against mind-bending mystic shackles, at Vanishing Point Supernova attacks but is unable to stop the Linear Men and Time Stealers getting away.

In the other-dimensional realm, Hunter takes a huge chance and the heroes escape imprisonment but are sucked into a time vortex. The gamble succeeds and the liberated champions recover in time to chase Serhattu and Skyle to the site of the first Atomic Bomb test and stop their attempt to steal the awesome unknown power for themselves.

After returning Starfire, Claw and the mages to their rightful places, the heroes press on, unaware that the Black Beetle has betrayed the Time Stealers and Linear Men to steal the time-warping powers locked in remains of chronal-energy being Waverider

Hunter’s team are again diverted however by time-travelling psychopath Professor Zoom, the Reverse-Flash who wants the Omega energy causing Batman’s time-ricochets for his own…

As they battle the super-fast maniac, elsewhen Supernova attacks Black Beetle, and another player co-opts the Waverider power. With time in flux the battles bleed into one another and Hunter’s heroes meet the Time Stealers, Linear Man and Supernova for one final catastrophic clash…

Fast-paced, deviously compelling and extraordinarily convoluted, this is the kind of Fights ‘n’ Tights clash die-hard comic fans live for: a complex saga full of fights, inside jokes or references and impossible situations all surmounted by bold heroes in full saviour mode. It’s just a pure shame that such excellent work excludes so many readers who would certainly enjoy it if only they had the neceassry background history to hand.

Furious fun and thrills for those in the know, or anyone willing to trade comprehension for non-stop action…
© 2010, 2011 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Suicide Squad volume 2: The Nightshade Odyssey


By John Ostrander, Keith Giffen, J. M. DeMatteis, Paul Kupperberg, Robert Greenberger, Luke McDonnell, Erik Larsen, Rob Liefeld & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-5833-7

In 1986, mega-monster continuity reboot Crisis on Infinite Earths led to DC Comics overwriting fifty years of continuity and revamping their major properties. The massive spring-cleaning exercise led to a swarm of boldly innovative titles and a fresh look at how comicbooks could be done.

One of the most unconventional – despite crossing genres and having roots leading back to the very dawn of the Silver Age – was Suicide Squad by John Ostrander and artist Luke McDonnell.

Previously during a psychological attack on the very concept of heroism (as seen in the miniseries Legends and its many tie-ins and crossovers) President Ronald Reagan outlawed costumed crimebusters and sanctioned an ultra-covert governmental black-bag operation to press super-powered criminals into (secret) service…

John Ostrander was new to DC; lured with Editor Mike Gold from Chicago’s First Comics where their work on Starslayer, Munden’s Bar and especially Grimjack had made those independent minnows some of the most popular series of the decade. Spinning out of Legends, Ostrander hit the ground running with a superbly compelling reinterpretation of the long-neglected Suicide Squad: a boldly controversial revaluation of meta-humanity and the role of government in a world far more dangerous than the placid public believed…

As originally conceived by Robert Kanigher, the Suicide Squad first saw action in The War that Time Forgot (Star Spangled War Stories #90, April-May 1960). Paratroops and tanks of “Question Mark Patrol” dropped onto Mystery Island from whence no American soldiers ever returned. The crack warriors discovered why when the operation was overrun by dinosaurs and worse…

Re-imagined for The Brave and the Bold #25 (September 1959) as a quartet of combat specialists, Colonel Rick Flag, medic Karin Grace plus boffins Hugh Evans and Jess Price were officially convened as Suicide Squad/Task Force X by the US government to investigate uncanny mysteries and tackle unnatural threats.

The gung ho gang (another Kanigher, Andru & Esposito invention) appeared in six issues but never really caught the public’s attention – perhaps because they weren’t costumed heroes – and quickly faded from memory.

Then, in April 1967 Our Fighting Forces #106 began the exploits of homicide detective Ben Hunter; recruited by the army during WWII to run roughshod over a penal battalion of prisoners who had grievously broken regulations.

Facing imprisonment or execution, the individually lethal military malcontents were given a chance to earn a pardon by undertaking missions deemed too tough or hopeless for proper soldiers. Hunter’s Hellcats – inarguably “inspired” by the movie The Dirty Dozen – ran until December 1969, in increasingly nasty and occasionally fatal sorties, before being replaced without fanfare or preamble by The Losers and similarly lost to posterity.

Ostrander tied together all these disparate strands and linked obscure comics events to provide a shocking secret history of America: a time when superheroes were forced into retirement after World War II with the military and Task Force X used to (unobtrusively) take out the monsters, spies, aliens and super-criminals who didn’t conveniently pack up with them.

Now substituting super-villains for simple criminals, history was made…

This second collection was designed to tie-in to both the TV and movie incarnations of the Suicide Squad. Reprinting Suicide Squad #9-16, plus a crossover from Justice League International #13, material from Secret Origins #28 and team-up one-shot Doom Patrol/Suicide Squad #1(spanning January-August 1988) – it resumes the story of strident political insider Amanda Waller who convinced President Reagan to sponsor her scheme to make bad guys do good deeds.

He agreed, but only as long as he had complete deniability…

Waller didn’t want society to depend on capricious super do-gooders and recruited Flag’s damaged, driven son to run a new penal battalion working “off the books”, using state-sanctioned metahuman force for the greater good. Knowing criminals can’t be trusted, her devious set-up involves not just bribery – reduced sentences, financial favours and pardons – but coercion.

Field missions are led by traumatised, obsessively patriotic Flag Jr., assisted by amnesiac martial artist Bronze Tiger who ensures everybody stays honest and on-mission. Convict-operatives are picked as necessity demands, but some operatives are in regular use, such as Deadshot, Captain Boomerang and schizophrenic sorceress Enchantress. They are, however, wired with remote-detonation explosive devices just in case…

Backed by a support team which includes Flag’s former lover Karin Grace and Briscoe, a bizarre mystery pilot who has a rather unusual relationship with his seemingly sentient helicopter gunship, the ever-fluctuating team seem ready for anything…

The stories here come from a period when publishers were first developing the marketing strategies of the “Braided Mega-Crossover Event.” This hard-on-the-pockets innovation dictated really big stories involving every publication in a company’s output, for a limited time period – so a compilation like this perforce includes adventures that seem confusing because they are essentially “middles” with no beginnings or endings.

In this instance the unfolding epic is Millennium which saw writer Steve Englehart expand on an iconic tale from Justice League of America #140-141 as well as his run on the Green Lantern Corps

Billions of years ago the robotic peacekeepers called Manhunters rebelled against their creators. The immortal Guardians of the Universe desired a rational, emotionless cosmos – a view challenged by their own women. The Zamarons eventually abandoned the Guardians at the inception of the grand scheme, but after eons apart the two factions finally reconciled and left our reality together.

Here and now they have returned with a plan to midwife a new race of immortals on Earth, but the mechanoid Manhunters – who had in the meantime infiltrated all aspects of every society throughout the cosmos – resolved to thwart the plan, whether by seduction, connivance or just plain brute force.

The heroes of Earth gathered to protect the project and confront the Manhunters in their own private lives… and their own comics…

Thus Suicide Squad #9 (by Ostrander, Luke McDonnell & Bob Lewis) sees a team assembled to destroy a Manhunter Temple deep in the Louisiana swamps surrounding the team’s secret Belle Reve base. However, as they battle their way in with a monolithic bomb – despite interference from Captain Atom, Firestorm and too-good-to-be-true reformed Manhunter Mark Shaw – Flag discovers the person he most trusted is a Manhunter mole…

An unlikely hero then pays ‘The Final Price’ to complete the mission before, unconventionally, the squad pick up a new recruit in the bellicose form of mystery warrior Duchess just as they flee the cataclysmic results of their latest covert triumph…

As counsellor/chaplain Reverend Cramer sets up shop in Belle Reve, a grievous security breach occupies Waller’s attention. Somehow Batman has penetrated the top-secret project and indignantly announces that he will expose the whole sordid show.

When neither Flag nor the squad are able to stop the Dark Knight, Amanda finds a unique way to make the intransigent hero back down in ‘Up Against the Wall’

More politically astute action unfolds in ‘Red Pawn’ (plotted by Ostrander, scripted by Paul Kupperberg with art by Erik Larsen & Lewis from Doom Patrol/Suicide Squad #1) as reactionary right-wing hero Hawk is captured whilst running guns to anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua.

His plight quickly becomes the focus of a humiliating media circus, and, still smarting from his last press roasting for such illicit activities, Reagan orders Waller to rescue or kill the wayward freedom fighter.

Typically, this move angers the NSA advisors of the Leader of the Free World, who take matters into their own hands to fatally embarrass “the Wall” by inveigling recent Soviet defector Valentina Vostok to deploy her comrades in the Doom Patrol to save the tragic, well-meaning patriotic Hawk from the evil Sandanistas…

Already shaping up as a SNAFU of biblical proportions, neither American faction is aware that rival cabals in reformist Russian Premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s vast espionage apparatus are also implementing their own undercutting agendas…

Soon the entire country is at war as the Squad battle the undercover Doom Patrol (Celsius, Robotman, Negative Woman and Tempest) until a brigade of armoured Rocket Reds invades the nation. With uncontrolled destruction at maximum, the pointless clash escalates even further as a fourth force comprising Soviet super-soldier Stalnoivolk and KGB master schemer Major Zastrow work their own malignant way towards an acceptable solution to restore the status quo …

Barely surviving the political fallout, Waller’s Wonders are next deployed to destroy a drug-cartel in Suicide Squad #11 as ex-Justice Leaguer Vixen seeks vengeance after her friends are gunned down during a smuggling operation. ‘Blood and Snow Part One’ sees her volunteer for the penal team which is starting to feel the pressure of its own success.

Flag is on the edge of a breakdown and nobody has noticed that incorrigible felon Boomerang is impersonating another super-villain to rob banks in his spare time…

With no time to assess and her best assets still in Nicaragua, Waller assembles a team heavy with government-affiliated heroes such as Black Orchid, Nightshade and Speedy to augment remaining regular players Captain Boomerang, Enchantress and Briscoe. With great misgivings she tasks them with infiltrating the inner circle of Medellin Cartel boss Xavier Cujo to destroy his jungle fortress and vast stores of cocaine.

None of them are particularly bothered by the fact that this is an official assassination mission…

Naturally, the plan is perfect up until the moment it begins and soon the undercover stalwarts are battling for their lives in the blistering conclusion ‘Blood and Snow Part Two’. In the ghastly aftermath, however, Vixen no longer counts herself as a hero of any description…

A crucial crossover began in Justice League International #13. ‘Collision Course’ (inked by Al Gordon, drawn by Keith Giffen and co-written with partner in comedic crime J. M. DeMatteis) revealed how US agent and Suicide Squad point-man Nemesis was being tortured in a Soviet jail: a fact proudly leaked by the State’s media…

He had languished there ever since Waller abandoned him at the end of a disastrous attempt to rescue Russian dissenter Zoya Trigorin, but when Batman learns his old ally is a political prisoner he determines to break him out with or without the help of his JLI associates…

At Belle Reve, Flag – unable to convince The Wall (who is being stonewalled by Reagan) that something must be done – has begun his own illegal attempt to free the American hostage. However, once again unseen Soviet machinations are in play and an ambitious plotter has gulled Russian hero Starfire to inject himself into the growing crisis to bait a devious trap…

Flag’s team then stumbles into and brutally clashes with Batman’s Leaguers who are eventually forced into the uncomfortable position of having to – at least ostensibly – fight to keep Nemesis in Russian custody as ‘Battle Lines’ (Suicide Squad #13 by Ostrander, McDonnell & Lewis) are drawn. With violence peaking everybody gets a grim lesson in superpower Realpolitik before a solution is found…

Dimension-hopping super-agent Nightshade has been working for the Suicide Squad in return for the promise of assistance in a personal task. Secret Origins #28 revealed her hidden history in ‘A Princess’ Story’ (Robert Greenberger, Rob Liefeld & Lewis), detailing how little Eve Eden escaped from her own arcane realm after it was conquered by a marauding mystic entity dubbed the Incubus, leaving her brother behind…

All her life she has trained; as a spy, a superhero and a warrior, readying herself for the moment when she would return to save her sibling and liberate her homeland…

These revelations lead into the eponymous story arc ‘Nightshade Odyssey’ which opens with the moment Waller always dreaded. A criminally corrupt senator has discovered the facts of the Suicide Squad and threatens to destroy Reagan’s legacy unless the team is used to end investigations into his malfeasance and get him re-elected.

A man of resolute convictions, the President immediately caves and orders Waller to get it done…

With The Wall seemingly broken and contemplating resignation, the beleaguered director tells Nightshade to complete her personal mission immediately. With barely a pause for thought Nightshade, Boomerang, Bronze Tiger, Deadshot, Duchess, Enchantress and Vixen are ‘Slipping into Darkness’ to materialise in a place of malign horror concealing a trap decades in the making…

From the mouth of her eternally corrupted brother, Eve learns the truth of the situation, the mystic history of the universes and the Incubus’ diabolical connection to the Succubus force which possesses Enchantress. Then she hears their repellent plans for her…

However the satanic corruptor has never met a fighter like the enigmatic Duchess, who provides a ferocious and world-shaking distraction, allowing Eve to free her comrades and effect an uncontrolled escape from the hellish dimension leaving the ‘Devil to Pay’

Sadly, the pell-mell exit dumps the fleeing fugitives into an otherworldly ‘Deathzone’ (Suicide Squad #13, inked by Malcolm Jones III) between universes where they are doomed to madness and worse, until rescued by a mysterious alien nomad calling himself Rac Shade.

Holding information of a long-extant alien incursion on Earth, “the Changing Man” makes the jump back to Belle Reve where Amanda Waller has come to a momentous decision…

To Be Continued

With covers by Jerry Bingham, Larsen & Lewis, Steve Leialoha & Gordon and Jim Valentino, Keith Wilson & William Messner-Loebs, this is a timeless collection of gritty gripping, hard-edged Fights ‘n’ Tights forays to delight action fans: a still magnificent mission statement for the DC Universe, offering witty cohesive and contemporary stories that appealed not just to superhero lovers but also devotees of spy and crime capers. As such they remain fine fodder for today’s so-sophisticated, informed and thrill-hungry readers.
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