By Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers, Terry Austin & various (DC Comics/Titan Books)
In the mid 1970s Marvel Comics were kicking the stuffing out of DC Comics in terms of sales if not quality comic book product. The most sensible solution seemed to be to poach the top talent. That strategy had limited success but one major defection was Steve Englehart, who had scripted groundbreaking work on the Avengers 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 the flagship DC title Detective Comics. Expected to be daring and innovative, 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.
Initially Englehart was paired up with artists Walt Simonson and Al Milgrom for the series. ‘…By Death’s Eerie Light!’ and ‘The Origin of Dr Phosphorus’ from Detective #469, May 1977, introduced not only a skeletal, radioactive villain but also the corrupt city council of Rupert “Boss” Thorne, and had the Caped Crusader outlawed in his own city. The team also provided the sequel ‘The Master Plan of Dr. Phosphorus!’ which introduced another landmark character, the captivating ‘Modern Woman’, Silver St. Cloud.
With issue #471 (August 1977) relative newcomers Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin took over the art chores and the magic truly began. As the scripts brought back golden-age and ‘A-list’ villains the art captured the power and moodiness of the strip’s formative years whilst adding to the unique and distinctive iconography of the Batman. Last seen in Detective Comics #46 (1940 and reprinted most recently in Batman Chronicles volume 3, ISBN 1-84576-431-5), 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).
Robin returned to the strip in #473’s ‘The Malay Penguin!’ as the wily Napoleon of Crime challenges the Dynamic Duo to an entrancing duel of wits, and the next issue featured the second ever appearance of Deadshot (after an initial outing in Batman #59, 1950). So reinvigorated was this third rate foe by his treatment in ‘The Deadshot Ricochet’ that he’s seldom been missing from the DC Universe since, starring in a number of series such as Suicide Squad and Secret Six, and even in a couple of eponymous miniseries.
Englehart saved the best 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. Detective #475 and #476, ‘The Laughing Fish!’ and ‘The Sign of the Joker!’, comprise one of the most reprinted Bat-tales ever concocted, and was even adapted as an episode of the award winning TV show Batman: The Animated Adventures in the 1990s. In fact you’ve probably already read it. But if you haven’t… what a treat you have awaiting you!
Having said all he wanted to say, Steve Englehart left Batman and quit comics for a good few years. After a reprinted story in #477, Marshall Rogers drew one last adventure (in issues #478 and #479). Len Wein scripted ‘The Coming of… Clayface III’ and ‘If a Man be Made of Clay…’ whilst Dick Giordano replaced Terry Austin as inker on a tale of obsession and tragedy as another Golden-Age villain got a contemporary make-over. Sadly it just wasn’t the same. The magic moment was over, leaving us all wanting more. And surely that’s how it should be.
© 1977, 1978, 1999 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.