Tales of the Batman: Steve Englehart

By Steve Englehart, Sal Amendola, Walt Simonson, Marshall Rogers, Irv Novick, Dusty Abell, Javier Pulido, Trevor Von Eeden & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-9554-7 (HB)

Steve Englehart was born on April 22, 1947 and, after studying psychology and earning a Batchelor of Arts from Wesleyan University in 1969, began a multi-pronged creative career incorporating novels, games and comics. He began as an art assistant to Neal Adams: one of the inking all-stars dubbed the “Crusty Bunkers” but the early 1970s, had switched to scripting. He was one of the most popular and innovative writers of superheroes in the field on titles such as Captain America, Hulk, Captain Marvel and others. In 1973 he and collaborator Jim Starlin brought martial arts to comics with Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu. In his near 50-year career he has created and scripted countless comics wonders, but will probably be best regarded foe his astounding efforts on Batman.

Although his contributions to the Dark Knight’s canon are relatively few, they are all of exceptional quality as proved by this commemorative hardback and digital tome, reprinting his stories from Batman #311, Batman: Dark Detective #1-6, Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #109-111, Detective Comics #439, 469-476, Legends of the DC Universe #26-27 and The Batman Chronicles #19, cumulatively spanning March 1974 to September 2005.

Kicking off the tense drama and flamboyant action is stand-alone saga ‘Night of the Stalker’ (from Detective #439, 1974), illustrated by Vin and Sal Amendola, with Dick Giordano inking one of most powerful intense and stories in the canon, hinting at the psychological traumas driving Batman, and a precursor of many future tales. Here, the Dark Knight is helpless to prevent another young boy from losing his parents to crime and becomes a remorseless, relentless avenger until justice is done…

In the mid-1970s Marvel were kicking the stuffings out of DC Comics in terms of sales if not quality product. The most sensible solution – as always – was poaching away top talent. That strategy had limited long-term success but one major defection was Englehart, who had recently scripted groundbreaking, award-winning work on The Avengers, Defenders and Dr. Strange titles.

He was given the Justice League of America for a year but also requested – and was given – the Batman slot in flagship title Detective Comics. Expected to be daring, innovative and forward looking, he instead chose to invoke a classic and long-departed style which became a new signature interpretation, and one credited with inspiring the 1989 movie mega-blockbuster. It also gibed perfectly with the notions of artistic partner Marshall Rogers and his inseparable inker Terry Austin. However, initially Englehart was paired with artists Walt Simonson & Al Milgrom for the series, who jointly introduced not only a skeletal, radioactive new villain but also Gotham’s corrupt City Council chief, Rupert “Boss” Thorne in epic opening gambit ‘…By Death’s Eerie Light!’ and supplementary opus of corruption ‘The Origin of Dr Phosphorus’

Here the Caped Crimebuster is first politically isolated and then outlawed in his own city. The art team also limned sequel ‘The Master Plan of Dr. Phosphorus!’, debuting another landmark character: captivating and competent Modern Woman Silver St. Cloud.

With issue #471 (August 1977) relative newcomers Rogers & Austin took over and true magic began to be made. As the scripts brought back revered golden-age A-list villains, the art recaptured and reinforced the power and moodiness of the strip’s formative years: all whilst adding to the unique and distinctive iconography of the Batman.

Last seen in Detective Comics #46 (1940), quintessential Mad Scientist Hugo Strange came closer than any other villain to destroying both Bruce Wayne and the Batman in ‘The Dead Yet Live’ and ‘I Am The Batman!’ (Detective #471 and #472 respectively), briefly stealing his identity and setting in motion a diabolical scheme that would run through the entire sequence…

Teen Wonder Robin returned in #473’s ‘The Malay Penguin!’ as nefarious Napoleon of Crime the Penguin challenges a temporarily reunited Dynamic Duo to an entrancing, intoxicating duel of wits, after which ‘The Deadshot Ricochet’updates an old loser for the second ever appearance of a murderous high society dilettante sniper (after an initial outing in Batman #59, 1950). The tale so reinvigorated the third-rate trick-shooter that he’s seldom been missing from the DC Universe since; starring in a number of series such as Suicide Squad and Secret Six: in a couple of eponymous miniseries and on both silver and small screens.

The best was saved for last, with all the sub-plots concerning Silver St. Cloud, Boss Thorne, Gotham City Council, and even a recurring ghost culminating in THE classic confrontation with The Joker.

The absolute zenith in this too-short, stellar sequence resurrecting old foes could only star the Dark Knight’s nemesis at his most chaotic. Cover-dated February and April 1978, Detective #475-476 introduces ‘The Laughing Fish’ before culminating in ‘The Sign of the Joker!’ One of the most reprinted Bat-tales ever concocted, it was adapted as an episode of 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! Manic and murderous, the Harlequin of Hate goes on a murder spree after mutating fish. As seafood with the Joker’s horrific smile turn up in 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 culminates in a spectacularly apocalyptic clash among the city’s rooftops which shaped and informed the Batman mythos for decades after…

Having said all he wanted to say, Englehart left Batman and soon after quit comics for a few years.

He was enticed back for Batman #311 (May 1979, rendered by Irv Novick & Frank McLaughlin) as Batgirl joins the embattled hero to spoil a mad vengeance plot in Doctor Phosphorus is Back!’

Post-Crisis on Infinite Earths – which wiped multiple universes in exchange for a new unified, rationalised DCU – Legends of the Dark Knight was a Batman title employing star guest creators to reimagine the hero’s history and past cases for modern audiences. Englehart and illustrators Dusty Abell & Drew Graci contributed a sharp brain-twisting turn in issues #109-111 (August-October 2000) as ‘Primal Riddle’ – broken down into ‘Nasty, Brutish and Short!’, ‘Perhaps the Only Riddle That We Shrink From Giving Up!’ and ‘A Dumpster of Chèrées’, traces Batman’s recovery from a life-altering injury even as the manic Prince of Puzzlers offers his greatest and weirdest challenge yet…

For The Batman Chronicles #19 (Winter 2000) the writer skipped back to the earliest moments of Batman’s career, with artist Javier Pulido as ‘Got a Date with an Angel’ sees the neophyte avenger forced to choose between love and duty for the first time…

Legends of the DC Universe was an attempt by the publishers to bring updated classic stories to a fresh-eyed reading public. With #26-27 (March & April 2000), Englehart, Trevor Von Eeden & Joe Rubenstein present the flip side to the Joker-Fish sage as ‘The Fishy Laugh’ finds the Harlequin of Hate in Atlantis vying with Aquaman to be king of fish. The cod crisis only escalates until Batman finally swims in to end the ‘Reign of the Joker!’

Under Englehart, Rogers & Austin, Detective Comics had managed to be nostalgically avant-garde and iconoclastically traditional at the same time, setting both the tone and the character structure of Batman for generations. That made thoughts of a reunion run both constant and inevitable – like a school reunion where you forget yourself for a moment, then catch yourself pogoing to “God Save the Queen” in the bar mirror. Of course, the truth is you can’t ever go back and you just look like an idiot doing it now.

Although not quite as bad as that, miniseries Batman: Dark Detective #1-6 (running from July to September 2005) suffers from an excess of trying too hard as the titanic trio reunited to recount what happened after the major players reassembled on ‘Some Enchanted Evening’.

It begins as Silver St. Cloud returns to Gotham to help her new fiancé Senator Evan Gregory secure nomination as a Gubernatorial candidate. That means looking for donations from her old lover Bruce Wayne, and events are further complicated when the Joker announces his own run for the role. His tactics can be best described by his own slogan “Vote for Me …Or I’ll Kill You”. I think I’m seeing another parallel to modern real-world politics here…

The plot thickens in ‘You May See a Stranger’ when – amidst a growing body count – other lethal loons make their own sinister sorties. Now, as well as The Joker’s terrifyingly unconventional political tactics, Batman also has to deal with The Scarecrow’s unwitting release of Wayne’s repressed memories of a murder attempt upon himself the night after his parents were killed, and a frankly ludicrous clone-plot as Two Face tries to fix himself through Mad Science.

Before long, the shamefully inescapable occurs and Bruce and Silver succumb to unresolved passions in ‘Two Faces Have I’

Plagued by guilt – both long entrenched and of more recent vintage – the Dark Knight writhes in manufactured nightmares even as fresh horrors are actually happening in grim reality. ‘Thriller’ sees the Maniac of Mirth abduct Silver, and her recently un-engaged would-be Governor joins Batman in a rescue bid for ‘Everybody Dance Now’ that leads only to tragedy and doom in catastrophic concluding chapter ‘House’

These tales are just as fresh and welcoming today, their themes and scenes just as compelling now as then and this vision of Batman remains a unique and iconic one. This is a Bat-book everybody can enjoy: a lavish treat any Batfan or comics aficionado will always treasure.
© 1974, 1977-1979, 1998, 2000, 2005, 2020 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.