Batman: The Man Who Laughs


By Ed Brubaker, Doug Mahnke, Patrick Zircher & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1622-1 (HB) 978-1-4012-1626-9 (TMB)

This March saw the 80th anniversary of the Bat-Man’s debut in Detective Comics #27. About one year later his inescapable primal nemesis debuted in Batman #1 (cover-dated “Spring” and released on April 25th, 1940. Thus, I’m selfishly pleasing myself and getting my patronising geek on by indulging in a few fond looks back and sharing some books you might like to try for yourselves. Here’s one featuring a superb brace of creative collaborations revelling in the sheer power the Dark Knight has exerted over the decades, and one that’s happily now available in digital formats as well as in a good old-fashioned Hardcover and Trade Paperback tomes…

Grittily devious writer Ed Brubaker teamed with artist Doug Mahnke, colourist David Baron and letterer Rob Leigh treated us to a rather gripping treatment based on the original 1940s debut tales (with a tip of the hat to the Steve Englehart/Marshall Rogers tales of the early seventies), in the form of an impressive prestige one-shot released in February 2005.

The title – and apparently the original inspiration for the Clown Prince of Crime himself – comes from Paul Leni’s seminal 1928 film classic starring Conrad Veidt in the title role. The plot concerns the actions of innocent Gwynplaine who had a permanent smile carved into his face by the King as a punishment for his father’s crimes…

Set not long after the events of Batman: Year One, The Man Who Laughs sees Police Captain Jim Gordon recognise that Gotham City has been changed forever when an outlandish and macabre serial killer goes on a very public, attention-seeking murder spree. Even his secret ally and vigilante outlaw The Batman is daunted by the sheer scale and audacity of the chalk-faced lunatic who seems utterly unstoppable and capable of anything…

The initial ghastly, gore-drenched clash of wills is a trip into hell for all concerned, but even with the Joker behind bars, the prognosis for the future seems grim beyond all reckoning…

The remainder of this book collects a 3-part adventure from Detective Comics #784-786 (September-November 2003). Here Brubaker scripts a generational serial-killer mystery steeped in the continuity of DC’s Golden Age guest-starring the original Green Lantern. Radio tycoon Alan Scott was Gotham City’s superhero-in-residence in the 1940s and early 1950s before mysteriously dropping out of sight as the “Red-baiting”, “Commie-hunting” decade unfolded…

Illustrated by Patrick Zircher, Aaron Sowd & Steve Bird, with hues by Jason Wright & letters by Todd Klein, ‘Made of Wood’ skips to contemporary times as Batman hunts a prolific serial killer who originally terrorised the populace in 1948. This maniac left a nasty signature message carved into his victims way back when and even assassinated the then-Mayor before simply disappearing. Now he’s apparently back to add to his tally

Matters are further complicated when a guilt-plagued and exceedingly short-tempered Green Lantern returns to action, determined to finally close the case he fumbled nearly 50 years previously…

Brubaker is an excellent writer at the peak of his abilities here providing tension and catharsis in equal measure and the art on both stories is effective and compelling. This is one of the better collections in the canon of the Dark Knight and a great treat for any fan or casual browser.
© 2003, 2005, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Legends of the Dark Knight: Jim Aparo volume 2


By Jim Aparo with Bob Haney, Cary Burkett, Archie Goodwin & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-4296-1 (HB)

After periods as a historical adventure and try-out vehicle, The Brave and the Bold won critical as well as commercial acclaim through old-fashioned team-ups. Pairing regular writer Bob Haney with the best artists available, a succession of DC stars joined forces before the comicbook hit its winning formula.

The said format – featuring media superstar Batman with other rotating, luminaries of the DC universe in complete stand-alone stories – paid big dividends, especially after the feature finally found a permanent artist to follow a variety of illustrators including Ramona Fradon, Neal Adams, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito, Irv Novick, Nick Cardy, Bob Brown and others…

At that time editors favoured regular – if not permanent – creative teams, feeling that a sense of visual and even narrative continuity circumvented confusion amongst younger readers. The slickly versatile Jim Aparo was a perfect match for a drawing brief that encompassed DC’s entire DC pantheon and all of time, space and relative dimensions in any single season…

James N. Aparo (August 24, 1932 – July 19, 2005) was a true quiet giant of comicbooks. Self-taught, he grew up in New Britain, Connecticut, and after failing to join EC Comics whilst in his 20s, slipped easily into advertising, newspaper and fashion illustration. Even after finally becoming a comics artist he assiduously maintained his links with his first career.

For most of his career Aparo was a triple-threat, pencilling, inking and lettering his pages. In 1963 he began drawing Ralph Kanna’s newspaper strip Stern Wheeler, and three years added a wide range of features for go-getting visionary editor Dick Giordano at Charlton Comics. Aparo especially shone on the minor company’s licensed big gun The Phantom

When Giordano was lured away to National/DC in 1968 he brought his top stars (primarily Steve Ditko, Steve Skeates and Aparo) with him. Aparo began his lengthy, life-long association with DC, illustrating and reinvigorating moribund title Aquaman – although he continued with The Phantom until his duties increased by way of numerous short stories for the monolith’s burgeoning horror anthologies and revived 1950s supernatural hero The Phantom Stranger

Aparo went on to be an award-winning mainstay of DC’s artistic arsenal, with stellar runs on The Spectre, The Outsiders and Green Arrow, but his star was always inescapably linked to Batman’s…

Aparo and scripter Bob Haney continue their run of enticing all-action epics in this second sturdy hardback and/or eBook compilation, gathering B&B #123-136, 138-145, and 147-151 plus the lead stories from Detective Comics #437 & 438 (cumulatively spanning December 1975 through June 1979) in a fabulous celebration that opens sans preamble.

With this collection of Batman’s pairings with other luminaries of the DC universe we find a creative team that had gelled into a perfect machine producing top-notch yarns aimed at the general readership – which would often annoy and appal the dedicated fans and continuity-obsessed reader.

B&B #123 brought back and united Plastic Man and Metamorpho with the Darknight Detective in ‘How to Make a Super-Hero’ as well as featuring a rare incidence of a returning villain: ruthless tycoon Ruby Ryder, once again playing her seductive mind-games with the pliable, gullible Elastic Ace.

Always looking for a solid narrative hook, Haney spectacularly broke the fourth wall in ‘Small War of the Super Rifles’ when Batman and Sgt. Rock needed the assistance of artist Aparo and editor Murray Boltinoff to stop a gang of ruthless terrorists. This is another one that drove many fans batty…

‘Streets of Poison’ in #125 is a solid drug-smuggler yarn with exotic locales and a lovely hostage for Batman and the Flash to deal with, after which John Calnan stepped in to ink #126’s Aquaman team-up, solving the sinister mystery of ‘What Lurks Below Buoy 13?’

It was back to basics next when Wildcat returns to help quash a people-smuggling racket in the ‘Dead Man’s Quadrangle’ whilst #128’s ‘Death by the Ounce’ finds the Caped Crusader recruiting Mister Miracle and Big Barda to help him rescue a kidnapped Shah and save a global peace treaty.

Ever keen to push the envelope, the next yarn is actually a jam-packed 2-parter with #129’s ‘Claws of the Emperor Eagle’ pitting Batman, Green Arrow and the Atom against the Joker, Two-Face and a host of bandits in a manic race to possess a statue that had doomed every great conqueror in history. The epic, globe-trotting saga concluded with an ironic bang in ‘Death at Rainbow’s End’.

The last time Wonder Woman appeared (B&B #105) she was a merely mortal martial artist but in Brave and the Bold #131 she exults in all her super-powered glory to help Batman fight Catwoman and ‘Take 7 Steps to… Wipe-Out!’

When DC cautiously dipped its editorial toe in 1970s Martial Arts craze #132 found Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter joining ‘Batman… Dragon Slayer??’, as Denny O’Neil succeeded editor Boltinoff, resulting in a rather forced and silly tale of duelling fight stylists and purloined historical treasures.

Normal service resumes and Deadman steps in to deliver ‘Another Kind of Justice!’ to rum-runner Turk Bannion as his heir and murderer turns to a more modern form of smuggling before ‘Demolishment!’ (#134) sees Green Lantern defect to the soviets, a la The Manchurian Candidate with Batman’s hasty rescue attempt going badly awry…

In #135 the robotic Metal Men re-emerge to solve the mystery of a 19th century artificial intelligence in ‘More Than Human!’, but when Ruby Ryder is unmasked as behind the plot, it costs Bruce Wayne everything he owns and only the timely assistance of Green Arrow in concluding chapter ‘Legacy of the Doomed!’ is able to restore the status quo.

Mister Miracle is back in #138, tackling a ‘Mile High Tombstone!’ with Batman to save a missing geologist and thwart deranged escapologist Cosimo (and a killer computer), after which ‘Requiem for a Top Cop!’ sees Commissioner Jim Gordon targeted by alien bounty hunter Vorgan, forcing the Gotham Gangbuster to call in alien cop Hawkman

‘Dastardly Events Aboard the Hellship!’ in B&B #140 pits Wonder Woman and Batman against circus-obsessed billionaire super-spy Dimitrios, whilst Black Canary pops in to help quash the Joker’s byzantine extortion scheme in ‘Pay – Or Die!’

In #142, ‘Enigma of the Death-Ship!’ sees Aquaman and his wife Mera battle the Dark Knight to suppress a ghastly family secret, before the sordid trail leads to the most respected man in America and a confrontation with the Creeper in ‘Cast the First Stone’ (as Cary Burkett teams with Haney on script).

Haney solos on the magical mystery tale of ‘The Arrow of Eternity’ as Caped Crusader and Emerald Archer head back in time to Agincourt to foil a wicked plot by time-tamperer the Gargoyle after which the Phantom Stranger and Batman face ‘A Choice of Dooms!’ pursuing voodoo crimelord Kaluu

Supergirl enjoyed her first ever B&B Bat team-up (she had paired with Wonder Woman in #63, co-starring in the ferociously-dated and indefensible ‘Revolt of the Super-Chicks!’) in issue #147 where Burkett and Aparo’s ‘Death-Scream from the Sky!’ sees her and Batman save the world from extermination by satellite and a surprise super villain…

‘The Night the Mob Stole X-Mas!’ is a piece of seasonal fluff scripted by Haney and pencilled by Joe Staton with Aparo applying his overwhelming inks to a tale of cigarette smugglers and aging mafioso with the still-itinerant Plastic Man helping the provide a Christmas miracle.

The disbanded Teen Titans briefly reform in #149 for Haney’s ‘Look Homeward, Runaway!’, hunting a kid gang moving from petty crime to the big leagues after which ‘Today Gotham… Tomorrow the World!’ celebrates a landmark anniversary with an extended tale of Bruce Wayne’s abduction by terrorists and the undercover superhero who secretly shadows him. No hints here from me…

The brave, bold portion of our entertainment comes to a close with a rather era-specific yarn co-starring the Flash as #151 features a predatory haunt feeding off patrons at the ‘Disco of Death’.

This stunning compilation concludes with a brace of gripping thrillers from Archie Goodwin, after he took over the editor’s desk from Julie Schwartz in Detective Comics #437 (November 1973). He also wrote a stunning run of experimental yarns, beginning with ‘Deathmask’: a brilliant supernatural murder-mystery featuring an Aztec curse and seemingly unstoppable killer; all magnificently depicted by Jim Aparo. Following that, Detective #438 brought forth ‘A Monster Walk Wayne Manor’ wherein the abandoned stately pile (Batman having relocated to a bunker under the Wayne Foundation building) became home to a warped and dangerous old enemy…

By taking his cues from news headlines, popular films and proven genre-sources Bob Haney continually produced gripping adventures that thrilled and enticed with no need for more than a cursory nod to an ever-more-onerous continuity. Anybody could pick up an issue and be sucked into a world of wonder. Consequently, these tales are just as fresh and welcoming today, their themes and premises are just as immediate now as then and Jim Aparo’s magnificent art is still as compelling and engrossing as it always was. This is a Bat-book literally everybody can enjoy.

These are some of the best and most entertainingly varied yarns from a period of magnificent creativity in the American comics industry. Aimed at a general readership, gloriously free of heavy, cloying continuity baggage and brought to stirring, action-packed life by one of the greatest artists of the art form, this is a Batman for all seasons and reasons with the added bonus of some of the most fabulous and engaging co-stars a fan could imagine. How could anybody resist? Seriously: in this anniversary year, how can you…?
© 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 2013, 2017 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman, Batman vs. The Penguin, Batman vs. The Joker


By Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Gardner Fox, Alvin Schwartz, Edmond Hamilton, David Vern Reed, Bill Woolfolk, Dick Sprang, Sheldon Moldoff, Lew Sayre Schwartz & various (Four Square/New English Library)
ISBNs: 1688, 1692 and 1694

The Silver Age of comicbooks utterly revolutionised the medium, bringing a modicum of sophistication to the returning genre of masked mystery men. However, for quite some time the changes instigated by Julius Schwartz in Showcase #4 (October 1956) which rippled out in the last three years of the decade to affect all of National/DC Comics’ superhero characters generally passed by Batman and Robin.

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 Dark Knight into a mystery-solving, alien-fighting costumed Boy Scout just 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 the entire industry with his modernization of the Superhero, was asked to work his magic with the creatively stalled and nigh-moribund Caped Crusaders.

Bringing his usual team of top-notch creators with him, the Editor stripped down the core-concept, downplaying all the ETs, outlandish villains and daft transformation tales, bringing a cool modern take to the capture of criminals whilst overseeing a streamlining rationalisation of the art style itself. The most apparent change to us kids was a yellow circle around the Bat-symbol but, far more importantly, the stories also changed. A subtle aura of genuine menace had crept back in.

At the same time, Hollywood was preparing to produce a television series based on Batman and, through the sheer karmic insanity that permeates the universe, the producers were basing their interpretation upon the addictively daft material that the publishers were turning their Editorial backs on and not the “New Look Batman” that was enthralling the readers.

The TV show premiered on January 12th 1966 and ran for 3 seasons (120 episodes in total), airing twice weekly for its first two seasons. It was a monumental, world-wide hit and sparked a wave of trendy imitation. The resulting media hysteria and fan frenzy generated an insane amount of Bat-awareness, no end of spin-offs and merchandise – including a movie – and introduced us all to the phenomenon of overkill.

“Batmania” exploded across the world and then, as almost as quickly, became toxic and vanished.

To this day, no matter how much we might squeal and foam about it, or what has occurred since in terms of comics, games or movies, to a huge portion of this planet’s population Batman is always going to be that “Zap! Biff! Pow!” costumed buffoon…

To tap into the frenzy, American book publisher Signet/New American Library – a company well-used to producing media tie-in titles such as Girl from U.N.C.L.E. or novelisations like Breakfast at Tiffany’s – released 5 paperbacks starring Batman and Robin, beginning in March 1966.

Technically, it was 4 plus a prose adaptation of the movie that was released later in the year (and the second was in fact an all-new prose novel by Winston Lyon – AKA William Woolfolk – which I’ll be covering in a later review), so in the proper fashion of the times, British counterparts quickly followed.

This terrific little trio of monochrome paperback pocket books – spearhead of National Periodical Publications’ on-going efforts to reach wider reading audiences – were published in 1966 to accompany the launch of the Batman TV show, and fully fuelled the “Camp” superhero craze which saw Masked Manhunters and costumed crazies sneak into every aspect of popular entertainment.

Each breathtaking tome contains 5 reformatted stories of the Dynamic Duo, culled from the archives and crafted by some of the greatest scripters and illustrators the industry has ever seen. Collected here in incontrovertible black-&-white are the tales from this trio of cartoon books which blew my unformed little mind in that most auspicious year for fun and fantasy escapism…

The first UK release was Batman which featured primarily crime stories rather than the baroque super-villain fare that informed and monopolised the television iteration. In the aforementioned mid-1950s, fancy-dress felons had all but vanished from view, and the new Schwartz Batman also eschewed costumed crazies … at least until the TV show made them stars in their own right.

The reformatted mini-masterpieces start with the positively eerie 1940 origin tale ‘The Legend of the Batman – Who He Is and How He Came to Be!’ by Gardner Fox, Bob Kane & Sheldon Moldoff from Batman #1 (Spring 1940). This piece was actually recycled from portions of Detective Comics #33 and 34 (1939) but still offers in 13 perfect panels what is effectively the best ever origin of the character.

The drama continued with ‘The Web of Doom’ (from Batman #90, March 1955, by Bill Finger, Moldoff & Charles Paris), in which a biologist loses a package of deadly germ phials somewhere in Gotham City. Batman and Robin have only days to track down 3 criminals who hold the key to restoring the savant’s shattered memories and retrieving the deadly parcel…

Batman #92, from June 1955, provided ‘Fan-Mail of Danger!’ (Finger, Moldoff & Paris) as letters to the gracious heroes pile up and the lads hired a secretary to handle the load. Sadly, Susie Smith’s over-eager diligence almost exposes Batman’s secret identity to a cunning counterfeiter…

There was one exception in this collection to the “no loons” rule. The Joker tale ‘The Crazy Crime Clown!’ is something extra-special from Batman #74 (December 1952/January 1953, by Alvin Schwartz, Dick Sprang & Charles Paris) and sees the exotic but strictly larcenous Harlequin of Hate apparently go bonkers.

He is committed to the Gotham Institute for the Insane but, naturally, there’s method in the seeming madness which Batman only discovers after he too infiltrates the worthy asylum in disguise…

Cunning criminal mastermind Mr. Blank almost takes over the underworld by destroying a new super-computer in ‘The Crime Predictor!’ (Batman #77, June/July 1953, courtesy of Edmond Hamilton, Bob, Lew Sayre Schwartz & Paris), and it took all of the ingenuity of the World’s Greatest Detective to unravel the deadly mire of duplicity and prevent his own infallibly predicted demise…

‘The Man Who Could Change Fingerprints!’ (Batman #82, March 1954 by David Vern Reed, Sprang & Paris) is another clever scheme by brilliant killers who think to outwit the Caped Crusaders, before this initial volume closes with a thrilling suspense shocker in ‘The Testing of Batman!’ (Batman #83, April 1954) by Hamilton, Sprang & Paris.

Here a scientist’s exercise research is usurped by thugs who wanted to have fun killing the enemies of crime. At least that’s what they told the captive Gotham Gangbusters…

 

Six months later a second volume was released.

Batman vs. The Penguin followed the same beguiling format but, with flamboyant arch-foes predominating on the silver screen, the emphasis had shifted. As the title clearly shows, this compilation concentrated on cases featuring the Felonious Fowl and Bird of Ill Omen, but it also harboured a secret surprise…

The all-ages action and excitement kicked off with ‘The Parasols of Plunder’ (Batman #70 April/May 1952 by Bill Woolfolk, Kane, Sayre Schwartz & Paris) and details how, after being released from prison, The Penguin gives up his obsession with birds and starts selling umbrellas. But, oh… what deadly umbrellas…

He returned to ornithology for ‘The Golden Eggs!’ in Batman #99 (April 1956, Finger, Moldoff & Paris), as whilst on the run his hobby inspired a deadly retaliatory crime wave before Batman scrambled all his plans, whilst in ‘The Penguin’s Fabulous Fowls’ the Umbrella King turns crypto-biologist, capturing mythical avian monsters and turning them loose to devastate Gotham in a sharp suspense shocker from Batman #76 (April/May 1953 by Hamilton, Kane, Sayre Schwartz & Paris)…

His last appearance was in ‘The Return of the Penguin’ (Finger, Moldoff & Paris from Batman #155 May 1963) which sees the Bird Bandit coming out of retirement to match wits with Batman again. If only the Pompous Peacock had ignored the teasing of the other crooks when they called him a “has-been”…

This tome wraps up with a classic Catwoman yarn, as the Feline Temptress puts all the contestants of Gotham City’s “Queen for a Day” gala into catatonic trances. Moreover, suspiciously still-awake competitor Selina Kyle claims complete innocence and insists some other Catwoman was responsible for creating the ‘The Sleeping Beauties of Gotham City!’ in a taut mystery by Reed, Moldoff & Stan Kaye from Batman #84 (June 1954)…

 

Batman vs. The Joker followed a month later with a full quintet of comicbook curios starring Batman’s ultimate nemesis. The madcap mayhem began with ‘The Challenge of The Joker’ (Batman #136, December 1960 by Finger, Moldoff & Paris) in which the Clown Prince of Crime determines to prove to the world that modern police science is no match for cunning and the 4 ancient elements…

Then ‘The Joker’s Winning Team!’ (Batman #86, September 1954 Woolfolk, Moldoff & Kaye) reveals how the baseball-inspired brigand assembles a squad of crime specialist pinch-hitters to ensure he never loses a match against the Gotham Gangbuster, after which the gloriously engaging saga of ‘The Joker’s Millions!’ (Detective Comics #180, February, 1952 by Reed, Sprang & Paris) discloses how the villain’s crime rival takes deathbed revenge by leaving the Harlequin of Hate too rich to commit capers.

It is a double-barrelled scheme though and makes the Joker twice a fool, as the Caped Crusaders find to their great amusement…

‘The Joker’s Journal’ (Detective #193, March 1953 from Reed, Kane, Sayre Schwartz & Paris) follows the theme after the penniless Punchinello leaves prison and starts a newspaper. Everyone in Gotham knows it was only a matter of time until the Mountebank of Mirth returns to his old tricks, and this final volume concludes in the only way possible as the eternal archenemies’ minds are swapped in a scientific accident. Soon a law-abiding Joker and baffled Robin have to hunt down ‘Batman – Clown of Crime!’: a rousing romp by Reed, Moldoff & Paris from Batman #85, August 1954.

As I’ve constantly averred, the comics tales themselves are always special but somehow when they appeared in proper books it always made those fantastic adventure dreams a little more substantial; and perhaps even real…

Batman has proven to be all things to all fans over his decades of existence and, with the character undergoing almost perpetual overhaul these days, the peerless parables of wit and bravery encapsulated here are more welcome than ever: not just as memorial to what has been but also as a reminder that once upon a time everybody could read the fabulous Tales of Gotham City…

These books are probably impossible to find today – even though entirely worth the effort – but completists can achieve miracles if they put their minds to it and frankly, whatever format or collection you happen upon, in this anniversary year, such forgotten stories of the immortal Dark(ish) Knight are part of our cultural comics heritage and must always be treasured.
© 1940, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1963, 1966 National Periodical Publications. All rights reserved.

Batman: The Last Angel


By Eric Lustbader, Lee Moder, Scott Hanna & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-156-4

I generally plug things I like, or think have some genuine and measurable element of (graphic narrative) quality to them. Sometimes I’m unsure of the result but the tale is notable enough to deserve a mention. Occasionally I just think people might be interested in seeing something a wee bit different…

In this Batman anniversary year, this intriguing experiment certainly ticks those boxes.

Happy hunting, Batfans…

Great looking art from Lee Moder, but a rather disappointing tale from the acclaimed novelist. A Batman who’s much more welcome to the Gotham authorities hunts a killer, while crash victim Selina Kyle has bloody nightmares about being hunted by a jaguar…

As Catwoman she is obsessed and bored in equal measure, but with Gotham’s gangs seemingly at each other’s throats, a Mayan exhibition of the Bat God Balam is focusing everyone’s attention from where it needs to be.

…And her planned heist is just a catalyst for a repeat of the events that destroyed the Mayan Empire!

When the star attraction votive mask possesses Batman himself, Selina is forced into the uncharacteristic role of saviour…

With everybody playing a double game and such villains as Rupert Thorne and the Joker further muddying the waters – plus a frankly lame subplot about Selina’s lost father – this overly-convoluted tale tries just a little too hard to be all things to all people, but it does have great pace and, as I’ve already said, a superlative art job from the under-appreciated Lee Moder.

Silly, but fans will find a lot to enjoy here.
© 1994 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Hong Kong


By Doug Moench, & Tony Wong (DC Comics)
ISBN 978-1-4012-0057-2 (HB)                     978-1-4012-0101-2 (TPB)

This Batman outreach project is a surprisingly engaging piece of Hong Kong cinema in comic form by veteran scribe Doug Moench and the anonymous horde of illustrators used by Comics Supremo Tony Wong to churn out literally thousands of lavishly executed Kung Fu comics that have earned him the title “the Stan Lee of Hong Kong”.

The story itself is fairly unsurprising tosh. A serial killer who webcasts his murders as real-time snuff movies leads Batman to the former British colony and a civil war between a Triad leader and his brother: a cop determined to bring him to book.

Add to the mix a dashing young nephew who loves his family but thirsts for justice and you have all the elements for the next Johnny To, Kazuya Shiraishi or Park Hoon-jung blockbuster nerve-jangler.

Although a touch stiff in places and a little disorienting if you’re unused to the rapid art-style transitions of Hong Kong comics (artists and even forms of representation – paint, black line wash, crayon etc. can vary from panel to panel) this has a lot of pace and fairly rattles along. In this anniversary year, Batman: Hong Kong is still loads better and more accessible than many outings for the caped crusader of recent years and well worth the time and effort of any diehard Dark Knight aficionado in sech of a rarer flavour.
© 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Harvest Breed


By George Pratt & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-692-7 (HC)        978-1-84023-701-6 (Titan Books UK edition HC)

Sometimes even the best of intentions and greatest of artisans don’t quite produce the best result. Master illustrator George Pratt returned tangentially to the Vietnam War for the backstory of this memorable supernatural thriller starring the Dark Knight, but the overall results fall short of his superb par, as established with the landmark Enemy Ace: War Idyll. Even so…

Bruce Wayne is tortured by bloody nightmares of devils and sacrifices as a mysterious killer seeks to re-enact a murder-ritual based on the points of a cross.

Such ritual has been attempted many times throughout history, but on this particular occasion the stakes seem much higher – and far more personal.

Only a girl named Luci Boudreaux, escapee and survivor of the Hell on Earth that was Viet Nam seems to have any answers to the dilemma…

Although painted with astounding passion and skill, and frequently offering unforgettable imagery, the story seems to have been sadly neglected and is – quite frankly – a bit of a mess, with war veterans, voodoo priests, faith-healers, demons and an uncomfortable misunderstanding of the relationship between Batman and Police Commissioner Jim Gordon muddying a rather tired old plot.

Even so, there are plenty of movie blockbusters that have got away with far less to great acclaim and for richer rewards.

If you love bleak and moody style over content, or can always find room for the blackest crannies infested by the darkest of knights, you might want to hunt this down and give it a shot.

So, even if you’re not a Bat-completist, in this anniversary year, there’s still a reason to step out of the light into forgotten realms with the world’s most popular superhero.
© 2000 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman/Deadman: Death and Glory


By James Robinson & John Estes (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-84856-213-4 (HB)                    978-1-56389-228-8 (TPB)

Everybody thinks they know Batman but to only a select few are the secrets of assassinated trapeze artist Boston Brand also revealed. An ordinary man in a brutal, cynical world, Brand was a soul in balance until killed as part of a pointless initiation for a trainee assassin.

When the unlucky aerialist died, instead of going to whatever reward awaited him, Rama Kushna, spirit of the universe, offered him the chance to solve his own murder. That opportunity evolved into an unending mission to balance the scales between good and evil in the world. The ghost is intangible and invisible to all mortals, but has the ability to “walk into” living beings, possessing and controlling them.

Gotham City: Batman gradually regains consciousness, realising he is facing a squad of armed, trigger-happy police and holding a knife to the throat of a hostage. The scene is a nightclub-turned-charnel house and all evidence before the hero’s widened eyes indicates that he is the murderous culprit…

Suddenly clear-headed and rational, he drops his victim and escapes the SWAT teams, determined to find out what has happened since he lost consciousness. Stepping broadly out of character, Batman uses magical items taken from villainous sorcerer Felix Faust to perform an eldritch rite and snags his prime suspect, Boston Brand. Unfortunately, old comrade Deadman is not the guilty party, but does reveal that a rich man who has sold his soul to the devil is responsible for all the Dark Knight’s woes.

Meanwhile, Albert Yeats, terminally ill and imminently dying, is running for what’s left of his life, hunted by things he doesn’t know and can’t understand…

Determined to renege, Frederick Chaplin has offered another’s soul in exchange for his hellbound one, and the devil has accepted. Yeats had been chosen by the universe to reincarnate as the Messiah in his extremely imminent next life, but that can’t happen if he’s paying Chaplin’s tab in the Inferno.

Deadman has been watching over Yeats until he safely passes, but when Batman is first possessed and subsequently distracts the Ghostly Guardian with his spell, Yeats is left alone and unprotected…

Now the kid is in the wind and the heroes must find and shield him long enough to die safely: a task complicated by an entire city hunting what they still think is a murderous Bat-Maniac, whilst the real possession-killer – a phantom, satanic counterpart to Deadman called the Clown who has spread terror and death for 70 years – is loose to spread his own unholy kind of havoc…

Intriguing and pretty, but lacking much of the emotional punch of earlier Batman/Deadman pairings, Death and Glory looks great even if it feels rather dispirited and glib in its attempts to blend urban horror, all-out chase action, cod-religion and hidden histories with a millennial feel-good factor. The result is a top-rate outing for Boston Brand but a rather forced and unlikely performance from the Dark Knight.

Nevertheless, fans of both heroes will find lots to love here and Estes’ painted illustration will win the approval of most comic art lovers. This book is still available through physical and online outlets, in both paperback and hardcover editions but not yet as digital delight…
© 1996 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Detective #27


By Michael Uslan & Peter Snejbjerg with Lee Loughridge (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1401201852 (HB)                        978-1401201074 (TPB)

Oooh! Ooh! More Batman!! …Ish.

Not so long ago and for a brief while, DC’s experimental Elseworlds imprint, where familiar characters and continuity were radically or subtly re-imagined, was a regular hive of productivity and generated some wonderful – and quite a few ridiculous – stories.

Moreover, by using what the readers thought they knew as a springboard, the result, usually constricted into a disciplined single story, had a solid and resolute immediacy that was too often diluted in regular, periodical publications where the illusion of change always trumps actual innovation in long-running characters.

A fine example is this intriguing pulp mystery and generational drama blending the lineage of the Wayne family of Gotham City with covert societies and the secret history of the United States of America.

April 1865, Washington DC: President Lincoln overrides the objections of Allan Pinkerton (who had created the Secret Service to protect him) and goes to see Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre. His assassination prompts the infuriated security genius to create a dedicated clandestine force beyond the reach of everything but their mission and their own consciences…

April 1929, Gotham City: a doctor, his wife and their young son exit a movie theatre where they have thrilled to the exploits of Douglas Fairbanks as Zorro. Suddenly, sneak thieves confront them and in the struggle Thomas and Martha Wayne are gunned down, leaving a grieving boy kneeling over their bloody corpses. Family butler Alfred packs the coldly resolute boy off on a decade-long world tour to study with masters of criminology around the globe…

Lincoln’s murder was planned by a cabal of Confederate plotters named the Knights of the Golden Circle. Their leader, an early eugenics-inspired geneticist named Josiah Carr, outlines a Doomsday vengeance plot that will take decades to complete…

January 1st 1939: Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham ready to begin his life’s mission, but is diverted when crusading newspaperman Lee Travis reveals the existence of the Secret Society of Detectives and invites the young man to become their 27th operative since Pinkerton…

Charming and relentlessly compelling, this superbly pacy thriller follows two time-lines as the founding Detective hunts the Golden Circle through the years, enlisting the covert aid of many historical figures such as Kate Warne (America’s first female detective), journalist and President-to-be Teddy Roosevelt and biologist/monk Gregor Mendel whilst Wayne closes in on the climax of the Doomsday plot with the aid of Babe Ruth and Sigmund Freud. He even confronts customised versions of such classic Bat-foes as Catwoman, Scarecrow, Hugo Strange and the Joker.

Best of all there’s a deliciously wry cameo from the Golden Age Superman as well as a magnificent surprise ending to this two-fisted tribute to the “Thud-and-Blunder” era of the 1930s pulps…

This is a conspiracy thriller stuffed to overflowing with in-jokes, referential asides, pop culture clues and universal icons that make The Da Vinci Code and its legion of even more tedious knock-offs look like a bunch of dry words on dusty paper. The only flaw is that writer Uslan and artists Snejbjerg & Loughridge were never able to create a sequel…

And just in case you’re wondering…Detective Comics #27 (May 1939) featured the very first appearance of a certain Dark Knight…
© 2003 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Nine Lives


By Dean Motter, Michael Lark & Matt Hollingsworth (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-853-2 (HC)                    978-1-84023-358-2 (Titan Books HC edition)

This March sees the 80th anniversary of the Bat-Man’s debut and gosh-by-golly I’m getting pretty stoked with all the anticipation. I trust there to be some fuss about the event. I’m also getting my Nerd on by indulging myself in a few fond looks back. Here’s another taste of the amazing influence the Dark Knight has exerted over the decades, and one more tome just begging for a new edition and some digital exposure…

The depictions and narrative signatures of the post-war genre “Film Noir” are powerful and evocative, celebrating a certain weary worldliness as much as stark lighting and visual moodiness ever did. That said, this murky world seems a natural milieu for Batman tales, but there are precious few that make the effort, and so very few of those successfully carry it off.

This superb alternative adventure published under DC’s Elseworlds imprint (wherein the company’s key characters are translated out-of-continuity for adventures that don’t really count) is a magnificent exception, combining hard-boiled detective yarning with the icons of gangster movies.

1946: Selina Kyle was a woman everybody wanted, and who exploited that fact fully. When The Batman finds her ravaged corpse in the sewers, there’s no shortage of suspects. Was she murdered by a high-society big-shot like Oliver Queen, Harvey Dent or Bruce Wayne, desperate to keep her quiet, or was one of her more sinister consorts-du-crime to blame?

Gangsters like jilted embezzler Eddie Nigma, mob-boss ‘Clayface’ Hagen, The Poker Joker, The Penguin or even the stone-cold hit-man Mr Freeze might have snuffed her in an instant if expedient, and seedy gumshoe Dick Grayson knows that he’ll be just as expendable if he digs too deep into the private affairs of the Highest and Lowest denizens of Gotham. But somehow, he just can’t let go…

Reconfiguring key figures of the venerable mythos as such recognisable archetypes – although perhaps obvious – is still a wonderfully effective way to revitalize them. The plot is as engrossing as any movie masterpiece and the human analogues of the bizarre and baroque Bat-cast are just as menacing even without outlandish powers and costumes. And through it all lurks a bizarre vigilante dressed as a bat, once again a mad element of relentless chaos that he can no longer be in his regular mainstream comic outings…

Although a pastiche derived from many sources, Nine Lives is a brilliant and engrossing read, seamlessly and stylishly blending mystery, crime-caper and sophisticated suspense thriller with moody visuals and a cynical tone that will show any hold-out naysayer that comics have as much to offer as any other creative medium.

Hunt this down and make it yours or pray that it’s due for a fresh release ASAP.
© 2002 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman/Tarzan: Claws of the Catwoman


By Ron Marz, Igor Kordey & various (Dark Horse Books/DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-5697-1466-9 (US TPB)            978-1-84023-235-6 (Titan Books edition)

I’m never particularly comfortable with the passion for cross-pollination that seems to obsess comics publishers. I admit that occasionally something greater than the sum of the originals does result, but usually the only outcome of jamming two different concepts into the same package is an uncomfortable, ill-fitting mess. So this tale – originally a 4-issue inter-company miniseries from the turn of the century – is a welcome example of success, and I’ll even offer a possible explanation for why…

This March sees the 80th anniversary of the Bat-Man’s debut. I expect there to be some fuss about the event and maybe even the re-release of a few lost treasures from his vast canon. I hope this is one of them…

Although primarily a literary and filmic phenomenon, Tarzan of the Apes has certainly won his spurs in graphic narrative. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel was published in 1912, with movies cropping up from 1917 onwards. The first pictorial adventures came on January 7th 1929: a newspaper daily strip by Hal Foster augmented by a full-page Sunday serial by Rex Maxon from March 15th 1931. It’s still running. In 1947, Lord Greystoke conquered the comicbook arena, beginning in Dell’s Four Color Comics #134 and 161 before hurtling into his own long-lived title in January 1948.

So what’s on offer here?

When Great White Hunter Finnegan Dent returns to Gotham City with artefacts from a lost city he has discovered in Africa, his sponsor and backer is delighted. But Bruce Wayne has reason to change his mind when he meets John Clayton, a charismatic English Lord known alternatively as Greystoke or Tarzan of the Apes…

The two quickly discover they have a lots in common: both orphans due to crime, extraordinary men shaped by wealth, privilege and mutual interest in Justice, albeit in very different and particular jungles…

When the feline Princess Khefretari tries to steal back the looted treasures of her very-much-thriving civilisation, she catapults the heroes into a frantic chase and dire battle against a ruthless monomaniac.

This classical pulp-informed tale invokes all the basic drives of both characters without ever getting bogged down in continuity or trivia. It is first and foremost an action adventure, full of emotional punches delivered with relentless rapidity. There are good guys and bad guys, no extraneous fripperies and plenty of cliffhanger moments before virtue triumphs and evil is punished.

In Claws of the Catwoman you need only have the most meagre grounding in either character to enjoy this simple thriller – and you will, so let’s hope it’s on someone’s schedule for republishing…
Text and illustrations © 1999, 2000 Dark Horse Comics, Inc., DC Comics, Inc. & Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc. All Rights Reserved.