Monday, August 19, 2019

BATMAN #309 & #310

"HAVE YOURSELF A DEADLY LITTLE CHRISTMAS!"
"THE GHOST WHO HAUNTED BATMAN"
Writer: Len Wein
Artists (issue 309): John Calnan & Frank McLaughlin
Artists (issue 310): Irv Novick & Dick Giordano
Colorist: Glynis Wein | Letterer: Ben Oda | Editor: Julius Schwartz

Picking up from the final scene of the prior issue, BATMAN #311 opens with the Blockbuster, Batman's Hulk-like villain, beating up some purse snatchers and then departing to return the purse to its owner. Meanwhile, Batman and Commissioner Gordon exchange Christmas gifts. But when they find that a desk sergeant is on the phone with a girl attempting suicide-by-sleeping pills, Batman departs in a hurry to find her. It turns out she's the victim of the purse-snatch, and Blockbuster finds her before Batman. The girl faints from the bottle of pills, Blockbuster takes her away to find help.

Naturally, this leads to Batman and Blockbuster crossing paths a few times, and while Blockbuster wants to help the girl, he refuses to let Batman take her to a hospital, since -- following his "death" at STAR Labs last issue -- he believes hospitals hurt people. Nonetheless, when their chase takes them out onto a frozen lake that cracks apart, Blockbuster throws the girl into Batman's arms as he sinks into the water of Gotham Bay. Batman gets the girl to an ambulance and her life is saved.

This is the kind of story where you honestly don't know which way it will go. We're so deep into the Bronze Age at this point, that there's just as good a chance the girl could die as there is that Batman could save her -- which gives the story an air of suspense that might otherwise have been missing were it published a few years earlier. There are no sub-plots in this one, either -- it's wall-to-wall Batman vs. Blockbuster action, which is always a nice change of pace in any sub-plot heavy series. Though I sometimes complain that such issues are "filler" without any sub-plots, in this case, for whatever reason, it doesn't feel that way.

Friday, August 16, 2019

SIX YEARS

And here we are again... six years ago today, I published my very first post here, and a lot has changed since then! Got married, moved, had a baby. I'm still not bored of blogging -- I have the desire to do it -- but as is evident in recent months, I really don't have much time for it. Back in April, I said I was going to take a "Spring Break" to get ready for whatever this year's "Summer of..." project would be. But, as you may have noticed, there have been no Friday posts yet this summer. I'd love to say that's because I'm prepping something big for the fall, but it's not. I have nothing in the queue for Fridays in the foreseeable future, and I'm barely a month ahead of schedule on the Monday Batman posts.

But still, I persevere! I have no intention of shutting the blog down, but for the foreseeable future, I'm sticking to one post a week, on Mondays. Sure, there'll occasionally be something else during the week -- most likely an Unboxing on Friday -- but that's about it. Batman will carry us through the remainder of the year, and at that point I will make a determination as to whether the blog undergoes some sort of format change to make it easier on me. What that change will be, I can't yet say (because I don't know). But I intend to keep plugging along for as long as I can, even if I'm running at diminished capacity!

By the way, what exactly is keeping me from maintaining a schedule like I used to? I usually like to stay transparent about it, so here we go: besides having a three year-old son who takes up a great deal of my time (which is something I wouldn't change for the world), I'm also a lot busier at work than ever before, and both those things together result in a perpetual state of exhaustion at home. I get back from work, make dinner, play with the little tyke for a bit before putting him to bed, and after all that, the last thing I want to engage in is any amount of critical thinking! So I turn off the brain and hang out with my wife while watching TV or drawing (which I'm doing a ton of lately thanks to an app called Procreate -- it's the best drawing experience I've ever had in my life). Which means my only time for reading and writing posts is my lunch break at work, and that means I only manage to write about two full posts a week! (For comparison's sake, in past years I often produced four or more posts per week.)

So yeah -- any failure to meet deadlines for this hobby (which is all it is for me -- I love it, but it doesn't pay any bills) is all on me, but what're you gonna do?

And now, the annual stat check-in: The top three most visited pages on the site haven't changed since last year (and, it seems, likely never will change): X-Men Collected Editions Chart still has the most hits on this site by at least a country mile. It's followed by the index to my Roger Stern Spider-Man reviews, and then by my review of the INFINITY GAUNTLET OMNIBUS. Searches for the blog's name account for most incoming traffic via Google, followed by searches for the New Teen Titans and the INFINITY GAUNTLET OMNIBUS.

And that's it. We'll check in again around New Year's!

Monday, August 12, 2019

BATMAN #307 & #308

"DARK MESSENGER OF MERCY!"
"THERE'LL BE A COLD TIME IN THE OLD TOWN TONIGHT!"
Writer: Len Wein | Artists: John Calnan & Dick Giordano
Colorist: Glynis Wein | Letterer: Ben Oda | Editor: Julius Schwartz

As mentioned a couple weeks back, from this point forward, we'll be seeing a lot of Len Wein. He wrote BATMAN for nearly two years, covering issues 307 through 327. His run begins inauspiciously, though, with "Dark Messenger of Mercy". It seems (as glimpsed briefly in Wein's framing sequence to DETECTIVE COMICS #477), someone is wandering around, murdering Gotham City's vagrants and leaving gold coins to cover their closed eyes. Batman of course gets involved, visits Commissioner Gordon, meets a homeless community living beneath Gotham, and ultimately brings the killer to justice.

Wein throws in a twist and has Batman use some legitimate detective work to solve the case, so those are a couple of pluses in this tale's favor -- but overall, it's just kind of boring. It feels like a sub-par done-in-one from the early part of the seventies; something Denny O'Neil or Frank Robbins would've produced with the help of Bob Brown or Irv Novick. In fact, the only thing that helps this issue to not feel like such a one-off is Wein's introduction of a sub-plot. Specifically, Bruce Wayne learns in the story's opening pages that reclusive billionaire Gregorian Falstaff has bought Gotham's Ambassador Hotel and moved himself into the upper floors. The Falstaff plot will sporadically carry on (and on, and on) for the entirety of Wein's run, and not even be resolved until his successor, Marv Wolfman, takes over writing chores on BATMAN!

Bruce learns about Falstaff from his newly introduced right-hand man, a Wayne Foundation executive named Lucius Fox. Fox, here in his very first appearance, will prove to be Wein's most enduring contribution to Batman's mythos, appearing in several movie and TV spinoffs beginning somewhere around the early nineties with BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES. He was, of course, famously portrayed by Morgan Freeman in Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy in the mid-00s.

Monday, August 5, 2019

DC SPECIAL SERIES #15 & DETECTIVE COMICS #481

As noted last time, we'll spend much of the next few months with Len Wein on BATMAN, but we will also look in once in a while at DETECTIVE COMICS, written (mostly) by Denny O'Neil. But first, we have an issue of DC SPECIAL SERIES which was cover dated for the same month as the second part of Wein's Clayface III story that we examined last week. Then, further down the page, we'll check out DETECTIVE COMICS #481 -- cover dated the same month as Wein's first issue of BATMAN, which we'll examine next week.

"I NOW PRONOUNCE YOU BATMAN AND WIFE!"
Writer: Denny O'Neil | Penciler: Michael Golden | Inker: Dick Giordano
Letterer: Milt Snappin | Colorist: Cory Adams | Editor: Julius Schwartz

FYI, this cover has nothing to do with the story we're about to discuss. DC SPECIAL SERIES was evidently an anthology of some sort, and the cover refers to a different tale within the issue.

Nearly seven years after he last wrote Ra's al Ghul, and with other writers -- such as Len Wein and Archie Goodwin -- having built on the al Ghul saga in the meantime, Denny O'Neil returns to his signature Batman villain. There's no Neal Adams this time, though the consolation prize isn't bad, as the great Michael Golden provides pencils.

O'Neil jumps straight into the action here, as Batman has a brief encounter with a petty hood on Gotham's streets, then returns to the Batcave, where his is immediately drugged and kidnapped by Talia and League of Assassins. The Caped Crusader awakens sometime later on Ra's al Ghul's yacht, just as the Demon's Head completes a wedding ceremony marrying Batman and Talia. Al Ghul leave the pair to consummate their union, but Batman knocks Talia out (by punching her in the face!) and then escapes the yacht via helicopter.

Monday, July 29, 2019

DETECTIVE COMICS #478 & #479

Hey, everybody -- remember Len Wein? He co-wrote "The House That Haunted Batman" in 1971's DETECTIVE COMICS #408, then returned a few years later for 1975's "Bat-Murderer" storyline in DETECTIVE COMICS 444 - 448. You may also recall that he provided a coda to Steve Englehart's DETECTIVE run in issue 477, which I mentioned last week.

Well, he's back -- and we're going to see a lot more of him for the rest of this retrospective. Up until this point, my focus was on the "greatest hits" of the 1970s Batman -- the evergreen stuff that's been reprinted in various formats over the years by DC. But now we're segueing into a proper "run" on the character by a single writer. See, a few years back, DC released TALES OF THE BATMAN: LEN WEIN, a book collecting all of Wein's work on the Caped Crusader -- and that includes his term as the regular, ongoing writer of BATMAN in the late seventies. It seems that, following the success of Englehart's "Marvelized" DETECTIVE COMICS, DC must have decided to keep the approach going -- and Wein, fresh off a stint writing AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, among other titles, at Marvel, was tapped for the job.

So Wein comes aboard DETECTIVE immediately after Englehart's run for a three-issue stint in mid-1978 (one of which is a mere framing sequence as mentioned last week), then he will take of the reins of BATMAN for a full two years beginning with the January 1979 installment, which we'll get to in a couple weeks. And while Wein was the writer of BATMAN an a Marvel-ish fashion, stalwart Denny O'Neil (for the most part) continued a more traditional "business as usual" approach on DETECTIVE during the same span. So as we read Wein's run over the next few months, we'll also check in periodically with O'Neil as well.

Friday, July 26, 2019

THE UNBOXING - JULY 2019

If you're reading this post, you've somehow traveled back in time. I was insanely busy in July and missed doing the month's Unboxing, so, even though today is actually August 5th, I'm backdating this baby to the final Friday in July.

Two books this month, one from Marvel and one from IDW -- though both star Marvel characters. First, from the House of Ideas proper, we have X-MEN: EVE OF DESTRUCTION, a hardcover collecting the very end of nineties X-Men. And yes, these issues were published in 2001, but to me, they mark the end of the era that started with X-MEN #1 in 1991, as this was the point just before Grant Morrison's run on X-MEN.


I actually don't have the greatest memories of these issues... Chris Claremont's abysmal "Revolution" run on X-MEN and UNCANNY X-MEN had sort of dampened my enthusiasm for the mutant titles, and even though Scott Lobdell returned here to put a bow on the nineties, it just didn't feel the same. So, while -- as I said above -- I consider this the official "end" of that era in X-Men comics, it's not necessarily an end I love. I wanted this book for completist reasons, but I actually prefer "The Twelve" as sort of a real conclusion to the X-Men of the nineties (even if that means the nineties X-Men ended with my favorite mutant, Cyclops, merged with Apocalypse).

And then we have SPIDER-MAN: THE ULTIMATE NEWSPAPER COMICS COLLECTION vol. 5, from IDW's Library of American Comics imprint. I think I read someplace that these books haven't been selling as well since the first two volumes (which were drawn by John Romita), but I'm still on board for picking them up, at least to the point where Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson get married -- which I believe should be in volume 6 or 7, if the series makes it that long.

That's it for July, and right now I don't know that I'm expecting anything in August, so we may not meet for another Unboxing until the fall.

Monday, July 22, 2019

DETECTIVE COMICS #475 & #476

"THE LAUGHING FISH!" | "SIGN OF THE JOKER!"
Writer: Steve Englehart | Penciller: Marshall Rogers | Inker: Terry Austin
Letterer: Ben Oda & Milt Snappin | Colorist: Marshall Rogers | Editor: Julius Schwartz

The Steve Englehart/Marshall Rogers run on DETECTIVE COMICS comes to its conclusion with a two-part classic pitting Batman against the Joker. This time, the Clown Prince of Crime has infected the world's fish with a variation on his Joker venom, giving every fish a hideous grin. Joker's plan is to copyright the "laughing fish" and rake in the bucks every time somebody buys one.

It's an utterly nonsensical plan -- something the narration calls out a couple times -- but that's the point. The Joker is, at this point in continuity, one hundred percent insane. I'm not sure when it was decided that the character was clinically insane... I know he wasn't in his earliest appearances, since at one point Bob Kane and Bill Finger sent him to the electric chair (and if a criminal is certified insane, they can't receive the death penalty), but by the seventies, he's absolutely there. It was Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams who had the character escape from an upstate asylum in "The Joke's Five-Way Revenge", but I just don't know if it was ever previously stated that he was crazy.

But in any case, "The Laughing Fish/Sign of the Joker" is absolutely the craziest we've seen him in our jaunt through the seventies -- and while I do like the idea that he would come up with a scheme that makes not an ounce of sense to any normal-thinking human, I can't say that I wholeheartedly approve of Englehart's version of an insane Joker. I'd go so far as to say that, more than "Joker's Five-Way Revenge", this is where the modern-day Joker, a character who makes me extremely uncomfortable, was born. In fact, I can pretty much pinpoint the exact panel when it happens:

Monday, July 15, 2019

DETECTIVE COMICS #473 & #474

"THE MALAY PENGUIN!" | "THE DEADSHOT RICOCHET"
Story: Steve Englehart | Art: Marshall Rogers | Embellisher: Terry Austin
Letterers: Milt Snappin & Ben Oda | Editor: Julius Schwartz

One of the things I like about Steve Englehart's eight-issue DETECTIVE COMICS run is the way he divvies up his enemies for Batman into a few categories. There are new/original villains: Doctor Phosphorous and Rupert Thorne. There are obscure villains: Hugo Strange, who at the time hadn't been seen in over thirty-five years, and Deadshot, who we'll get to below. And then there are the classics: Joker, who we will look at next week, and Penguin, who pops up in the first of this week's installments. If you're gonna do a short run on a superhero, that's nearly the perfect way to handle it (the only thing I might change from this formula would be to use at least one villain from another hero's rogues' gallery to mix it up a tiny bit more).

Englehart also finds time for one good old-fashioned Batman and Robin team-up during his brief time on the title, which is much appreciated. Robin factored into last week's Hugo Strange two-parter, but he was flying solo there, rescuing Batman from Strange's dungeon. Here, he's still in town following that adventure, assisting his partner with the loose end of tracking Strange down. "The Malay Penguin!" opens with two of Rupert Thorne's men disposing of Strange's body in the Gotham River. The hoods are accosted by the Dynamic Duo (after dumping the corpse, so Batman doesn't yet realize Strange is dead), but Batman and Robin are forced to depart when the police arrive. It seems Rupert Thorne has revoked their status as duly deputized agents of the law, and despite Commissioner Gordon's friendly presence at the top of the Gotham P.D., the heroes are now considered vigilantes.

Monday, July 8, 2019

DETECTIVE COMICS #471 & #472

"THE DEAD YET LIVE" | "I AM THE BATMAN!"
Author: Steve Englehart | Artists: Marshall Rogers & Terry Austin
Letterer: John Workman | Colorist: Marshall Rogers | Editor: Julie Schwartz

As we saw last time, most of the pieces were placed for the famous Steve Englehart run on DETECTIVE COMICS with issues 469 and 470. However, the run is actually usually referred to as the Steve Englehart/Marshall Rogers run, and there was still one fairly big piece missing as of last week. You can't have an Englehart/Rogers run without Rogers, after all!

But that problem is remedied immediately from the first atmosphere-oozing page of DETECTIVE 471, and suddenly Englehart's story snaps into focus. Doctor Phosphorous was a misfire, perhaps, even though it laid some important seeds for what was to follow. But now those seeds have sprouted, and thanks to Rogers and inker Terry Austin, they're beautiful to behold!

And now the story: it begins with Rupert Thorne declaring war on Batman. As mentioned last time, the corrupt city council boss had previously left the Caped Crusader alone, but following Doctor Phosphorous's attempt to turn the council against Batman, coupled with recent financial troubles making the city harder to control, Thorne has decided that Gotham's hero is too much of a loose cannon and must be eliminated.

Monday, July 1, 2019

DETECTIVE COMICS #469 & #470

"...BY DEATH'S EERIE LIGHT!" | "THE MASTER PLAN OF DOCTOR PHOSPHOROUS!"
Presenting: The Batman you've been waiting for by:
Author: Steve Englehart | Artist: Walt Simonson | Inker: Al Milgrom
Colorist Marshall Rogers & Jerry Serpe | Editor: Julius Schwartz

We spoke a few weeks ago about Len Wein's brief attempt to "Marvelize" Batman in his "Bat-Murderer" story arc. But, as I noted at that time, Wein's instilling of Marvel-style plotting into the Caped Crusader's world felt unofficial, like it was his idea and not a mandate from editorial.

Steve Englehart's Batman run, on the other hand, was, as I understand it, a deliberate attempt by DC to "Marvelize" their comics -- however they didn't hire Enghlehart to do it to Batman! From what I've read, DC wanted Englehart to bring his experience and sensibilities from writing AVENGERS to JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA. Englehart agreed on the condition that he be allowed to write Batman as well. Thus, in addition to tackling JLA for a year, Englehart was also given eight issue of DETECTIVE COMICS on which to ply his trade.

(And it's neither here nor there, but Englehart had decided around the same time to retire from comics, so he wrote all his DETECTIVE issues in full script format and turned them in advance, then moved out of the country before they were even drawn!)

Look, I've gone on record here as not being much of a fan of Steve Englehart. I spoke to that point when I looked at Marvel's "Evolutionary War" annuals a few years back. But, for the most part, I actually really love his DETECTIVE COMICS run. That said, the run begins inauspiciously, with a pretty unremarkable two-part adventure, notable only for setting up sub-plot points which play heavily into the remainder of the run.

Friday, June 28, 2019

THE UNBOXING - JUNE 2019

Squeaking in just under the wire, and thanks primarily to a Comixology Spider-Man sale coupled with a Comixology BOGO ("Buy One, Get One") coupon code, we have The Unboxing for June -- an all-digital, all-Spidey affair.

I took advantage of the afore-mentioned sale and coupon to fill in some holes in my digital Spider-Man library. Some of these I own already, but I'm always up for getting digital "backup copies" of books I own when they can be had dirt cheap -- plus, if we're honest, I do more of my comic reading on my iPad anyway these days. It's more like the physical copies are the backups at this point.

Anyway, to start, I grabbed some late eighties/early nineties Epic Collections, which I love since they're collecting the long David Michelinie run that I grew up on in elementary and middle school: KRAVEN'S LAST HUNT, VENOM, COSMIC ADVENTURES, RETURN OF THE SINISTER SIX, and ROUND ROBIN.

Then, from my beloved post-Clone Saga era, I grabbed SPIDER-MAN BY TODD DEZAGO & MIKE WIERINGO vol. 1, SPIDER-HUNT, and IDENTITY CRISIS. Marvel has been spotty in collecting this Spider-Man era, which is kind of frustrating. They did the entire Clone Saga in a proper reading order, and they've done the John Byrne/Howard Mackie relaunch from 1999 more or less in its entirety. But the two years in between have received only the above collections, plus a HOBGOBLIN LIVES collection that included a few issues of SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN from the era as well. To my recollection, that's about it, but I hold out hope that someday, the entire post-Clone Saga/pre-Byrne period will make it into reprints (i.e., all four core books, plus SPIDER-MAN UNLIMITED, annuals, one-shots, mini-series, and so forth in a proper reading order).

Speaking of John Byrne, the final bunch of items from this month's digital Unboxing is a little grab bag, including Byrne's oft-maligned SPIDER-MAN: CHAPTER ONE. I actually recall enjoying certain aspects of this when I read it way back in college. Mainly I appreciated Byrne running through the first year's worth of Spider-Man stories as if they had all been planned out in advance. That said, there were some questionable decisions in the book as well, and I was annoyed that Marvel briefly had it overwrite Spider-Man's original continuity. Nonetheless, it is something I want to revisit someday, and it's perfect as a "digital only" purchase, since I have no real desire to own a physical copy.

Closing things out are the other random bits: AMAZING SPIDER-MAN MASTERWORKS vol. 20, and SPIDER-MAN: THE NEWSPAPER STRIPS vol. 1 and vol. 2. You'll recall how much I loved the Stan Lee/John Romita run on the Spidey strips when I read them here a couple years back. Those editions were published by IDW's Library of American Comics imprint, but have never been released digitally. However, these editions, which were released by Marvel a few years prior to IDW's release, are just fine with me for digital purposes.

FYI, the BOGO coupon has expired, but the Spider-Man sale runs into mid-July, so all the books mentioned above should still be available at a discount for a couple more weeks, for those who are interested!

Monday, June 24, 2019

BATMAN #260 & DETECTIVE COMICS #457

"THIS ONE'LL KILL YOU, BATMAN!"
Story: Denny O'Neil | Art: Irv Novick & Dick Giordano | Editing: Julius Schwartz

I don't know if it was an official mandate or an unspoken rule, but for whatever reason, it seems as if Denny O'Neil was the only Bat-writer allowed to use the classic rogues' gallery for a few years in the seventies (or perhaps he was, for reasons unknown, the only writer interested in them). Following the status quo reset in 1969's "One Bullet Too Many", Frank Robbins never touched any of those villains. Nor did Archie Goodwin in his year as editor and writer of DETECTIVE COMICS. But, with Neal Adams, O'Neil reintroduced Two-Face and the Joker to Batman's world, and with Irv Novick, he brought back Catwoman and Penguin.

Mind you, I can only speak to goings-on in the core Bat-titles, BATMAN and DETECTIVE COMICS, from this period. If the classic adversaries popped up in THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD or anyplace else, I wouldn't know about it. But even when the Joker gets his very own ongoing series in mid-1975 -- first issue cover dated three months after this one -- it is O'Neil who handles writing chores initially before handing the series off to others.

Yes, I did just say this issue was published in early '75. We're jumping back a ways to look at a story published during the "Bat Murderer" storyline we looked at last week, and then below we will skip ahead a full year to an issue published nine months after "Bat-Murderer" ended. Got it?

Monday, June 17, 2019

DETECTIVE COMICS #444 - 448

"BAT-MURDERER" | "BREAK-IN AT THE BIG HOUSE" | "SLAUGHTER IN SILVER"
"ENTER: THE CREEPER" | "BEDLAM BENEATH THE BIG TOP!"
Writer: Len Wein
Art: Jim Aparo (Chapters 1 - 3); Ernie Chua & Dick Giordano (Chapters 4 & 5)
Editor: Julius Schwartz

I believe DC's first intentional attempt to "Marvelize" their line came in 1977, when Steve Englehart was hired to bring his AVENGERS-honed sensibilities to the pages of JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA (and as part of that deal, he also scripted several issues of DETECTIVE COMICS, which we'll begin to examine here in just a couple weeks). But in 1975, an earlier, "under the radar" Marvelization occurred. It only lasted a few months, but it's clear that DETECTIVE COMICS' new writer, Len Wein, was intent on bringing some of that Marvel flavor to DC's Caped Crusader.

The opening chapter of this five-part serial sees Batman working to thwart a crime ring whose leader turns out to be Talia. Batman, who happens to be holding a gun he lifted from the Daughter of the Demon, shoots her dead. The police attempt to arrest him, but the Masked Manhunter flees to clear his name. Chapter two finds our hero breaking into Gotham's new state-of-the-art prison to question an incarcerated Ra's al Ghul about the incident. But after al Ghul boasts that he did indeed engineer Tali'a death and Batman's frame-up, the Demon's Head kills himself, framing Batman for a second murder and sending the Caped Crusader on the lam once more.

Aside from the fact that it seems incredibly odd that an international terrorist like Ra's al Ghul is being held in jail in Gotham City of all places, these opening chapters are pretty good. Commissioner Gordon goes a bit overboard in accusing Batman of murder and not even considering, even after all their years of working together, than he could be innocent -- and Batman flies off the handle in the same scene, grabbing Gordon's lapels like a madman and raving about his innocence.

Monday, June 10, 2019

DETECTIVE COMICS #443 & THE MANHUNTER SERIAL

"THE HIMALAYAN INCIDENT" | "THE MANHUNTER FILE"
"THE RESURRECTION OF PAUL KIRK" | "REBELLION!" | "CATHEDRAL PERILOUS"
"TO DUEL THE MASTER" | "GOTTERDAMMERUNG"
Writer: Archie Goodwin | Artist: Walter Simonson

When Archie Goodwin took over DETECTIVE COMICS as its editor and appointed himself writer of the monthly lead feature starring Batman, he also took to populating the series with various backups, including "Manhunter", another serial which he also wrote. In collaboration with Walter Simonson on art, Goodwin scripted six monthly "Manhunter" chapters before concluding the serial in a full-length lead story teaming the character with Batman.

Manhunter's saga begins in DETECTIVE #427 (making it a backup to "Deathmask", which we looked at a few weeks back). Over the course of these six installments, we follow Christine St. Clair, an Interpol agent on the trail of Paul Kirk -- a big game hunter who was reported killed decades earlier. We soon learn that Kirk was a hero named Manhunter in the 1940s, and that he worked for a mysterious Council which put him into suspended animation after World War II.

The following chapters reveal that the Council, which presented itself to Kirk as benevolent, actually has its sights set on ruling the world -- and that part of their scheme involves the creation of a highly-trained troupe of soldiers and assassins to be led by Kirk. Further, it turns out that all these warriors are clones of Kirk created by the Council's scientists. When Kirk realizes what his masters are up to, he deserts the Council and he and Christine find themselves on the run. The serial concludes with Kirk and Christine hooking up with the world's last master of ninjutsu, Asano Nitobe -- a former member of the Council who trained Kirk to fight.

Monday, June 3, 2019

BATMAN #256 & #257

"CATWOMAN'S CIRCUS CAPER!" | "HAIL EMPEROR PENGUIN!"
Story: Denny O'Neil | Art: Irv Novick & Dick Giordano | Edited by: Julius Schwartz

We interrupt our look at Archie Goodwin's year as writer/editor of DETECTIVE COMICS to check in with a couple issues of its sister title which were released during that same span (for the record, these two issues were published immediately after Neal Adams' final bat-story, "Moon of the Wolf", which we looked at a few weeks back). For the most part, BATMAN is written by Dennis O'Neil at this point, and features various appearances from the classic rogues' gallery -- including the first 1970s showings of Catwoman and Penguin in these two installments.

Occasionally, when reading a solo Denny O'Neil Batman outing (by which I mean "with any artist other than Neal Adams"), I feel like O'Neil regresses back to the Silver Age in some ways. Which isn't to say he didn't do that now and then with Adams -- see the BRAVE AND THE BOLD installment "Red Water, Crimson Death" from a while back -- but it's just way more apparent when Adams isn't there to help temper him. We've seen it in some of the early League of Assassins tales with Bob Brown, and now we see it here. "Catwoman's Circus Caper!" is the feline femme fatale's reintroduction to Batman's world after years of absence. But rather than getting something along the lines of the moody and atmospheric "Half an Evil" or the dark and chilling "Joker's Five-Way Revenge", which reintroduced Two-Face and the Joker respectively, Catwoman makes her grand reappearance in a story that would've been right at home during the Bat-mania of the sixties.

The story begins for no apparent reason in the Batcave, where Batman has returned after sometime abroad in pursuit of criminals. The only explanation given for the cave's use here is that Bruce has asked Alfred to open up Wayne Manor so he can spend some time recuperating there after this latest mission. But when the Caped Crusader reads a letter from Dick Grayson informing his mentor that he's run off to join the circus, Batman departs to check on his ward.

Monday, May 27, 2019

DETECTIVE COMICS #440, #441, & #442

"GHOST MOUNTAIN MIDNIGHT!"
Penciler: Sal Amendola | Inker: Dick Giordano | Writer/Editor: Archie Goodwin

They can't all be winners...

Archie Goodwin started his run on DETECTIVE COMICS with two mostly strong stories (aside from his characterization of Bruce Wayne, as discussed last week) -- and he immediately follows those up here with a pair of duds. And this is where, as I did years ago when reading NEW TEEN TITANS, I will note that allowing your writer to edit himself is not really a great idea! If Julie Schwartz had been editing Goodwin on DETECTIVE around this time, he might have helped to whip these tales into shape. But unfortunately, that wasn't the case.

"Ghost Mountain Midnight!" opens with a young lady named Sarah Beth kidnapped from a nightclub in Gotham where she works as a minimally-clad server. Batman does some investigative work and learns that Sarah Beth was taken by her own brothers to their home in the Appalachians. Batman tracks the group down and discovers that Sarah Beth is to be executed as a sacrifice to an Indian god, per the terms of a pact her family made with the Indians decades ago. The Caped Crusader saves the girl, kills a bloodthirsty bear (more of that Batman-on-animal violence we touched on a couple weeks back), and solves the mystery of a moonshine ring in the mountains. All in a day's work for our hero, and all extremely silly to boot.

The bizarre, out-of-place plot isn't helped by Goodwin's phonetic accents for the hillbilly characters; they're all running around saying "yew" instead of "you" and "hit" instead of "it". Sal Amendola's layouts aren't the greatest either, though Dick Giordano does what he can to turn them into something presentable.

Monday, May 20, 2019

DETECTIVE COMICS #437 & #438

"DEATHMASK!" | "A MONSTER WALKS WAYNE MANOR!"
Writer/Editor: Archie Goodwin | Art: Jim Aparo

And now begins the brief Archie Goodwin era on DETECTIVE COMICS. As I understand it, sales on the series had been flagging for some time, so DC decided to try and reinvigorate the title by yanking it from the editorial purview of Julius Schwartz and turning it over to Archie Goodwin (Schwartz would remain editor on BATMAN, however, and eventually retake DETECTIVE as well when the Goodwin experiment eventually reached its end). The result is a year's worth of bi-monthly issues featuring Goodwin as the writer/editor of the series, and a parade of talented artists to help him tell his stories. The first of these artists is one who many consider the definitive Batman storyteller, the great Jim Aparo.

In THE GREATEST BATMAN STORIES EVER TOLD, "Deathmask!" came immediately after "Ghost of the Killer Skies" -- as a result, child-me came to assume that Batman spent the entire decade of the seventies embroiled in solving moody murder mysteries. That's not the case by any means, but the fact remains -- this is a chilling and masterfully crafted mystery. Concerned with the opening of an exhibit at the Gotham Museum dedicated to a South American Indian tribe's god of death, it sees three men killed when the "god" seemingly comes alive and begins committing murders while wearing a ceremonial mask and robes.

Monday, May 13, 2019

BATMAN #251 & #255

"THE JOKER'S FIVE-WAY REVENGE!"
Story: Denny O'Neil | Art: Neal Adams | Editor: Julius Schwartz

Note: Screenshots below come from BATMAN ILLUSTRATED BY NEAL ADAMS VOLUME 2 and are not representative of these stories' original colors (the covers are presented as published, however).

Neal Adams' brief time with Batman comes to an end in these two tales, and the first teams him with his most frequent collaborator, Denny O'Neil, for the return of Batman's best-known villain. As discussed when we looked at "Half An Evil" a while back, my understanding that in the late sixties, after the Batman TV show ended and DC wanted to reestablish the character as something closer to his puply roots, there was a conscious decision made to retire the classic rogues gallery for a time, to allow the campy screen versions to fade from memory before reintroducing them. Now, I have no idea whether this is true, but in any case the Joker returns here four or so years after his last appearance.

I've said before that the Joker isn't my favorite Batman villain -- but, nonetheless, for my money "The Joker's Five-Way Revenge!" is pretty much the quintessential Batman story, and probably one of the few I might show somebody to introduce them to what exactly I believe Batman is all about. To wit: we have, as noted above, the best-known member of Batman's rogues gallery. We have Commissioner Gordon summoning Batman to the scene of a murder for investigative assistance. We have Batman setting out to track down the Joker, using his detective skills to do so. We have him demonstrating his "ultra-competence" as he easily catches up with a hoodlum who believes he's given Batman the slip. Yet we also have a fallible Batman, who's clubbed from behind by that same hood after turning his back on him. But most importantly, we have a Batman who refuses to give up; who, when thrown into a death trap by the Joker, uses his wits and athleticism to find a way out.

Monday, May 6, 2019

BATMAN #245 & DETECTIVE COMICS #429

"THE BRUCE WAYNE MURDER CASE!"
Story: Denny O'Neil | Art: Neal Adams & Dick Giordano | Editor: Julius Schwartz

Note: Screenshots below come from BATMAN ILLUSTRATED BY NEAL ADAMS VOLUME 2 and are not representative of these stories' original colors (the covers are presented as published, however).

The Ra's al Ghul saga is done, the villain has been brought to justice, but there's one loose end yet to tie up. Back when Batman started his crusade against the Demon in issue 242, he faked Bruce Wayne's death via a plane accident in South America. Now it's time to resurrect Wayne, but the deed is complicated when two rival political bosses get involved, one of them accusing the other of murdering Wayne. What ensues is a mystery Batman doesn't want to solve. He must, in order to bring Bruce Wayne back from the dead, but he knows that to do so will pave the way to get a dirty politician into office. However Batman does what he must, and by the story's final page, Gotham is as corrupt as ever and Bruce Wayne is alive again.

This is one of those stories that I feel should be included in any printing of TALES OF THE DEMON, but at the same time I understand why it isn't. Ra's al Ghul is never mentioned at any point; the entire saga is pretty much ignored. But it does show us how Batman brings Bruce Wayne back to life following his "death", tying up the one remaining plot thread from the O'Neil/Adams opus of preceding issues. But at the same time, TALES does not include issue 242 either, and that one is far more essential -- plus, without it, this story is even less important. If you're not gonna print the story that actually does further the main plot, why print a story that wraps up a sub-plot from it?

Otherwise, this is a decent story -- a nice palate cleanser after the globetrotting of the previous installments, it plants Batman firmly back in Gotham and sets him against that staple of his early seventies adventures: normal, everyday criminals in business suits.

Monday, April 29, 2019

BATMAN #243 & #244

"THE LAZARUS PIT!" | "THE DEMON LIVES AGAIN!"
Script: Denny O'Neil | Art: Neal Adams & Dick Giordano | Editor: Julius Schwartz

Note: Screenshots below come from BATMAN ILLUSTRATED BY NEAL ADAMS VOLUME 2 and are not representative of these stories' original colors (the covers are presented as published, however).

The Ra's al Ghul saga reaches its climax here, as Batman and his ragtag teams track the Demon to Switzerland. There, Lo Ling spies Talia and Ubu in a throng of people. The pair escapes, but Batman and friends, joined by championship skier Molly Post, pursue and enter al Ghul's stronghold -- only to find him dead. The groups departs with Talia, but al Ghul is secretly lowered by an automatic mechanism into a pool which restores his life. He emerges from his chalet and escapes with Talia.

Batman's teammmates are all injured or otherwise disabled, leaving the Darknight Detective alone as he tracks al Ghul and his daughter to the desert. There, al Ghul challenges Batman to a saber duel, but a scorpion's sting takes the Caped Crusader out of the fight. The Demon leaves Batman for dead, unaware that Talia has slipped her love an antidote. Batman appears in al Ghul's tent later, knocks him out, and hauls him away to justice.

I have to admit, I have mixed feelings regarding this story. Is it an epic? Yes, I'd say so. Globetrotting to exotic locales, a saber duel in the desert, a dramatic kiss to finish the story... it's all great stuff. But, much as I like it, I sometimes feel that it could've been so much more. I suspect that's due in large part to having seen the BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES adaptation, "The Demon's Quest", prior to reading these issues. Because of that, my opinion of the original story has long been colored by the immeasurable esteem in which I hold those episodes. (I generally consider them my favorites out of all the B:TAS installments.)

Friday, April 26, 2019

SPRING BREAK

I'm taking Fridays off for the month of May. Note that unlike last year, when I was forced to abort my look at the James Bond comic strip partway through its run due to not having time to finish reading, this break is pre-planned. That Bond fiasco last year taught me that I need to realize my limitations with regards to timing and deadlines. I'm never as far ahead as I'd like to be these days, and I don't want to have to cancel another project before it's finished. So to that end, I decided to take some time to let myself get far enough ahead for the next Friday series, which will begin in June.

Monday posts will continue as usual, of course -- there's plenty of Batman lined up, so no need to worry about anything going astray there. And I will, as I did last year when I cancelled Bond, post other stuff on Fridays in May as the opportunity arises, in the vein of the Unboxing you saw here a week ago.

Monday, April 22, 2019

BATMAN #240 & #242

"VENGEANCE FOR A DEAD MAN!" | "BRUCE WAYNE--REST IN PEACE!"
Story: Denny O'Neil | Art: Irv Novick & Dick Giordano | Editing: Julius Schwartz

Note: Screenshots below come from BATMAN ILLUSTRATED BY NEAL ADAMS VOLUME 2 and are not representative of these stories' original colors (the covers are presented as published, however).

The Ra's al Ghul saga ramps up considerably in these latest installments from Denny O'Neil and Irv Novick. In our first tale, Batman is called by Commissioner Gordon to investigate the grisly murder of a scientist named Mason Sterling, who was found with his brain removed. The Caped Crusder's investigation brings him into contact with Talia, working on behalf of her father -- but when Talia "accidentally" erases the memory of Batman's only informant, he follows her to Ra's al Ghul's yacht to find Sterling's brain kept alive on life support as al Ghul interrogates it. Al Ghul and Talia escape, and the disembodied brain tricks Batman into killing it with a push of a button since it can't bear to continue living as it is.

This story, which on its surface feels like another one-off Batman vs. Ra's adventure, turns out to have more going for it by the final couple pages. It's here that Batman first witnesses the depths of al Ghul's depravity and madness. Our next story, printed three months later, picks up on that thread and begins the final act of O'Neil's Ra's al Ghul saga.

For the timeline inclined out there, it's a little over a year now since O'Neil introduced the League of Assassins in DETECTIVE COMICS 405 and 406, the November and December issues from 1970. Six months later, O'Neil debuted the mysterious Talia in May 1971's DETECTIVE 411, and Ra's al Ghul himself appeared the month after that in BATMAN 232 from June of that same year. Batman and Talia teamed up in September's BATMAN 235. Then Ra's and his daughter took another six months off until March of 1972 and "Vengeance for a Dead Man!"

Friday, April 19, 2019

THE UNBOXING - APRIL 2019

What's this? The Unboxing on Friday?! It's true, and the reason why will be explained in this very space... next Friday! But for now, after skipping the past two months, The Unboxing returns at last with three offerings from Marvel, and I think the wait was worth it!

First we have two trade paperbacks, starting with CAPTAIN AMERICA EPIC COLLECTION: THE SUPERIA STRATAGEM. Over the past few years, Marvel has been steadily plugging away at completing Mark Gruenwald's ten-year run on CAPTAIN AMERICA in a number of trade paperbacks. Currently, thanks to this new volume and the previously released Epic Collections SOCIETY OF SERPENTS, JUSTICE IS SERVED, THE BLOODSTONE HUNT, and STREETS OF POISON, plus the out-of-print Epic-in-all-but-name THE CAPTAIN, we've got issues 307 - 397 collected. That's ninety-one issues plus associated annuals and such, covering nearly the first seven years of Gruenwald's run. Gruenwald's final CAP issue was 443, so we've still got quite a ways to go, but at the very least it's safe to say that the "prime" material is pretty much all available at this point. (Though I love all of it and will happily snap up the rest of the run as it's released!)


Next is X-MEN: ONSLAUGHT AFTERMATH, and I cannot overstate how absolutely thrilled I am to own this book. Those who follow my X-Men Collected Editions chart know that this was the final piece needed to close the X-Men's 1990s gap. As of now, thanks to ONSLAUGHT AFTERMATH, EVERY. SINGLE. ISSUE. of UNCANNY X-MEN and X-MEN from the full decade of the nineties has been collected. I seriously want to do a little jig over this. It's been my goal for about the past five years to have that entire run of issues on my bookshelf, and now I can finally say that the mission is accomplished.

(Of course this isn't to say I won't re-buy some of this material as it finds its way into better collections -- upgrading from paperbacks to hardcovers, for example -- but the point is that for now, the goal is complete.)

And speaking of rebuying, our last book is one that I couldn't resist even though I've purchased all of it in various formats over the years -- comics when I was a teen, trade paperbacks and hardcovers as an adult... but now we have it here, all collected in one comprehensive and definitive oversized hardcover, just in time for a certain major motion picture it inspired: the THANOS WARS: INFINITY ORIGIN OMNIBUS. The name is an inelegant mouthful, but the contents are what's important here. This book collects all of Jim Starlin's early Thanos material, from his first appearance in IRON MAN #55, through his war against Captain Mar-Vell and the Avengers, and up to his dealings with Adam Warlock -- plus everything in between, whether Thanos-related or not. I've probably mentioned it here before, but for the record, Starlin's cosmic stuff at 1970s Marvel is among my all-time favorite comic book runs, and it's wonderful to see it get the high-end treatment it deserves at long last.

Monday, April 15, 2019

BATMAN #237

"NIGHT OF THE REAPER!
Art by: Neal Adams & Dick Giordano | Story by: Denny O'Neil
(From an idea by Berni Wrightson with an assist from Harlan Ellison)
Edited by: Julie Schwartz

Note: Screenshots below come from BATMAN ILLUSTRATED BY NEAL ADAMS VOLUME 2 and are not representative of these stories' original colors (the covers are presented as published, however).

I always like when old comics tell you on the cover that you're about to read a "novel" or a "novel-length" adventure/thriller/etc. It really just means the story fills the entire issue (i.e. no backup stories, which were typically included in both BATMAN and DETECTIVE COMICS around this period). It's one of those sort of quaint cover blurbs which I find a little corny nowadays, but love anyway.

And a novel-length tale this is. (Though technically it does not fill the issue's page count since this was a double-sized installment -- but it does run the length of a single full-issue story.) Set on Halloween in Vermont, it opens with Dick Grayson and some college friends on their way to a party. But when the boys stop a mugging, Dick changes to Robin to pursue the assailants. He finds the corpse of a man in a Batman costume, then is attacked by someone dressed as the Grim Reaper. The real Batman arrives to find his ward dazed, and brings him back to a nearby mansion where the party is in swing. Batman is in town to track some Nazi war criminals, and the manor's owner is a Holocaust survivor named Doctor Gruener, who recognized the villains in the first place.

From here, the story shifts to primarily solo Batman action, as the Caped Crusader goes about his business while Robin recovers. Eventually Batman finds the Nazis, who are after their former leader and his cache of gold, but the lead Nazi is killed. Batman realizes his underlings couldn't have committed the crime, and soon unmasks the true killer.

Friday, April 12, 2019

X-MEN: GRAND DESIGN VOLUME 2

Cartoonist: Ed Piskor | Editor: Chris Robinson
X-Men Group Editor: Jordan D. White | Editor-in-Chief: C.B. Cebulski
And a bunch of other stupid credits I don't want to type out, because Marvel likes to credit every executive who took so much as a single sideways glance at every comic they publish.

I had fairly high hopes for the first X-MEN: GRAND DESIGN volume, in spite of some reservations regarding Ed Piskor's artwork. And while I didn't love some of the liberties it took with the X-Men's established history, it wasn't an awful read and, and it left me interested, if nothing else, to see what Piskor would do in the subsequent book, which would cover my personal favorite X-Men era -- and my all-time favorite comic book run -- the Chris Claremont/Dave Cockrum/John Byrne/Paul Smith era on UNCANNY X-MEN.

Unfortunately, what goodwill Piskor had gained from his first installment is squandered by this one.

The two issues contained in this book cover the entire Claremont/Cockrum/Byrne/Smith run mentioned above, opening with the events of GIANT-SIZE X-MEN #1 and concluding shortly after the "From the Ashes" storyline. Issue 3 opens with the X-Mansion deserted. We're told it's been this way for months, and the implication is that the X-Men have been trapped on the sentient island of Krakoa for that entire time -- which seems a bit odd; the story in GIANT-SIZE X-MEN #1 has always read to me as a very compressed timeline, with the X-Men missing for a few days or a week, tops.

At any rate, Piskor uses this absence to allow the Hellfire Club to bug the mansion, erasing from his retelling the story in which the club sends their operative, Warhawk, to do the job in X-MEN #110. Again, as I mentioned once or twice last week, I like some aspects of Piskor's work in this series. Here, he sets up the Hellfire Club as the main antagonists of this entire era, presenting them early on as a shadowy cabal spying on the X-Men. This is the sort of thing I feel a retelling of this sort should do -- set up an overarching plot where originally none existed, or where one was later retroactively established, as would be the case with the Hellfire Club's involvement in both the Warhawk episode and the attack of the Sentinels in issue 98.

Monday, April 8, 2019

BATMAN #234 & #235

"HALF AN EVIL"
Story by: Denny O'Neil | Art by: Neal Adams & Dick Giordano | Edited by: Julie Schwartz

Note: Screenshots below come from BATMAN ILLUSTRATED BY NEAL ADAMS VOLUME 2 and are not representative of these stories' original colors (the covers are presented as published, however).

At some point in the late sixties, a decision was made to "retire" Batman's classic rogues' gallery for a time. This effort began prior to the first story we read, "One Bullet Too Many", and has been in place since then. In that time, both in the stories we've read and the issues we skipped, Batman has fought common criminals and new super-villains -- but there's been no sign of the classics such as Joker, Penguin, Catwoman, and so forth.

My understanding is that the villains were written out due to concerns of overexposure thanks to the Adam West TV series, plus the fact that the comics were going "back to basics" with more (relatively) grounded stories. But whatever the reason, the fact remains that until this issue, it had been some time since Batman had taken on any of his more recognizable enemies -- and even here, the first classic villain brought back is one who did not feature in the TV show.

But Two-Face is definitely a classic foe, having been created by Batman's co-creators themselves, Bob Kane and Bill Finger, in the forties. According to Wikipedia, he was mostly dropped following that decade, appearing only a small handful of times in the fifties and sixties -- I would assume due to his gruesome appearance conflicting with the values of the Comics Code Authority. But now, thanks to the creative duo of O'Neil and Adams, he's back.

Friday, April 5, 2019

X-MEN: GRAND DESIGN VOLUME 1

Cartoonist: Ed Piskor | Editor: Chris Robinson
X-Men Group Editor: Jordan D. White | Editor-in-Chief: C.B. Cebulski
And a bunch of other stupid credits I don't want to type out, because Marvel likes to credit every executive who took so much as a single sideways glance at every comic they publish.

I picked up X-MEN: GRAND DESIGN solely for its premise. It's been quite a while since I bought a comic with artwork that doesn't appeal to me solely for the story, but this series' conceit was too fascinating to pass up: a condensed retelling of the X-Men's long and convoluted history, written as if everything had been planned out in advance. So I bought the first two volumes in various Comixology sales last year.

Now, I wasn't expecting auteur Ed Piskor to truly cram every bit of X-lore into his retelling; to do so would be an undertaking of insane proportions. So I figured there would be some streamlining here and there. What I didn't expect, however, was for the story to be some sort of parallel universe X-history, explicitly removing and/or changing bits of backstory in the service of Piskor's narrative. But sadly, that's what we have here.

The first issue (comprising the first half of volume 1), covers Charles Xavier's childhood and early years, and follows him as he meets a number of mutants and recruits his original team of X-Men. We see Xavier's interactions with his stepbrother, Cain Marko, and Marko's presumed death in the temple of Cyttorak during the Korean War. We see Xavier's travels in Cairo, during which he comes across young Ororo Monroe, as well as his time in Isreal with Gabrielle Haller and a young man called Magnus (whose own history as Holocaust survivor is told alongside Xavier's).

Unfortunately, this is where Piskor's changes begin to pop up. We're told that Xavier lost the use of his legs when the Cyttorak temple collapsed, rather than in battle with the alien warlord, Lucifer. In theory, removing Lucifer from Professor X's backstory is fine; however the result finds Xavier in a wheelchair during his time in Isreal, which was not the case originally. It's a little thing, but little continuity glitches are often the most likely to irritate me because there's no real reason to get them wrong.

Monday, April 1, 2019

DETECTIVE COMICS #411 & BATMAN #232

"INTO THE DEN OF THE DEATH DEALERS!"
Story by: Denny O'Neil | Art by: Bob Brown & Dick Giordano

"DAUGHTER OF THE DEMON"
Story by: Denny O'Neil | Art by: Neal Adams & Dick Giordano | Edited by: Julius Schwartz

Note: Screenshots below come from BATMAN ILLUSTRATED BY NEAL ADAMS VOLUME 2 and are not representative of these stories' original colors (the covers are presented as published, however).

I know I had read the name "Ra's al Ghul" before my first exposure to him as a character -- because I wondered for a few years how his name was pronounced. Then, one fateful day in 1994, BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES introduced me to the criminal mastermind called The Demon's Head, and told me the correct pronunciation -- which is, of course "Raysh al Gool". I don't know what the BATMAN BEGINS people were thinking when they had everyone calling him "Roz".

Of course, I still don't know the honest-to-goodness right way to say it; maybe the ANIMATED SERIES folks were wrong and Christopher Nolan got it right. But to me, for the rest of my life, I'll keep on saying "Raysh".

Anyway. Thanks to his sparse appearances on THE ANIMATED SERIES, specifically his debut in "The Demon's Quest" and his cameo in "Off Balance", which preceded it, Ra's al Ghul quickly became one of my favorite Batman villains. It's no surprise; I've always loved "mastermind" types more than any other sort of villain (see my love of Mister Sinister and the original Hobgoblin over at Marvel) -- plus, racist though it is, I've long been interested in the "Yellow Peril" trope. And, while Arabic by birth, al Ghul essentially is exactly that sort of character

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before we meet the Demon's Head, we need an introduction to his beautiful daughter, Talia!

Friday, March 29, 2019

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE 1940S NEWSPAPER STRIP

(PLUS BONUS SPIDER-MAN!)

Writer & Artist: Karl Kesel
Colorist: Ben Dimagmaliw | Letters: Jared K. Fletcher
Assistant Editor: Rachel Pinnelas | Associate Editor: Lauren Sankovitch
Editor: Bill Rosemann | Executive Editor: Tom Brevoort
Digital Production Manager: Tom Smith 3 | Digital Coordinator: Harry Go

If there was ever a perfect way to do a webcomic for a superhero, this has to be it. Over the years, going all the way back to their earliest days on America Online, Marvel has engaged in periodic webcomics, but -- to the best of my recollection -- they have most all been done in a regular comic book format, or with silly animated effects. But, someplace in between all that, Karl Kesel found a formula that worked astoundingly well, to the point I don't know why all superhero webcomics aren't done this way! Somewhere around 2009/2010, Kesel wrote and drew a serialized comic strip starring Captain America, which was posted daily at Marvel.com -- and the results are stupendous.


It helps that Kesel has a love for the genre -- he says as much in his afterword to the collected strips, but he needn't have done so. His enthusiasm is fully evident in every daily installment. As readers of this blog know, I've developed quite an interest in newspaper adventure strips myself over the past few years, and for the most part Kesel produces a masterful pastiche of same.

The story, presented as an "arc" in a ongoing strip, sees Captain America and Bucky brought to a top-secret facility where the government is pursuing various means in search of a new type of super soldier. Cap is subjected to a battery of tests, but things go off-track when it appears the Red Skull has infiltrated the base. The FBI's Red Skull expert is called in to investigate, and Cap and Bucky find themselves joining in to get to the bottom of a series of disappearances and apparent acts of sabotage.

Monday, March 25, 2019

DETECTIVE COMICS #408 & #410

"THE HOUSE THAT HAUNTED BATMAN"
Story by: Len Wein & Marv Wolfman | Art by: Neal Adams & Dick Giordano

Note: Screenshots below come from BATMAN ILLUSTRATED BY NEAL ADAMS VOLUME 2 and are not representative of these stories' original colors (the covers are presented as published, however).

Len Wein was twenty years old in early 1971. Marv Wolfman was twenty-four. And somehow they were paired with one of the hottest artists in comics at the time, Neal Adams, to draw one of their very first published stories. (for comparison's sake, Denny O'Neil was thirty-one at this point and Frank Robbins was fifty-three -- while Adams was twenty-nine). But what, you ask, do anyone's ages have to do with the story? Nothing; I just thought it was interesting that these two young whippersnappers worked with Neal Adams just as they were starting their careers.

"The House That Haunted Batman" features our first guest appearance from Robin since he departed the series in the initial issue we examined, BATMAN 217's "One Bullet Too Many" -- which was published over a year prior to DETECTIVE 408. Of course, this isn't the first time the readers of the era had seen the Teen Wonder since then -- he was a regular feature in backup stories in BATMAN, and he had popped by to team up with his mentor in a few stories we didn't look at. But for us, here and now, we haven't seen Dick Grayson in several issues, and we haven't seen Robin at all.

Funnily, the setup for this story will be reused by Denny O'Neil in just a few more months for the start of his Ra's al Ghul saga. Specifically, both this tale and O'Neil's begin with Robin kidnapped from Hudson University and Batman searching for him. But the similarities end with that single sentence. "The House that Haunted Batman" picks up en media res, with Robin already missing and Batman having located the place where he's being held -- while the upcoming "Daughter of the Demon" will show both the kidnapping and Batman's search for his ward.

Friday, March 22, 2019

SPIDER-MAN: LIFELINE #1 - 3

"PIECES OF FATE" | "SNAKES IN THE GRASS" | "A TASTE OF INFINITY"
Writer/Storytellers/Penciler: "Fabulous" Fabian Nicieza & Steve "The Dude" Rude
Inker: Bob Wiacek | Letterer: John Costanza | Colorist: Greg Wright
Assistant Editor: Brian Smith | Editor: Ralph Macchio | Editor-in-Chief: Joe Quesada

The earliest days of Joe Quesada's reign at Marvel feature some curiosities -- stories which fly in the face of the philosophies he and his corporate overlord, Bill Jemas, forced onto creators and readers. SPIDER-MAN: LIFELINE is one of these. Though Quesada had been Marvel's editor-in-chief for over a year by the time this series was published, it seems pretty clear it was greenlit under the previous administration. Clue number one is that it's drawn by Steve Rude, a notoriously slow artist, so Marvel probably wanted to give him a lot of lead time to complete these three issues. But beyond that, LIFELINE is edited by Ralph Macchio, who had turned over the stewardship of the Spider-Man comics to Axel Alonso only a few months earlier. It's written with third-person narrative captions and thought balloons galore. It's heavy on continuity, being a direct sequel to, and featuring numerous reference to, a storyline in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN from more than thirty years earlier. All these things had been (or would soon be) outlawed by Quesada and Jemas in their attempts to make Marvel's comics as bland and awful as possible -- and as a result, when it was published, LIFELINE was breath of fresh air in what was fast becoming an unreadable and downright unenjoyable Marvel line.

But! I don't want to start this thing off on a negative note. I mean, I'll take every possible opportunity to talk about how utterly wretched the majority of Marvel's output was circa 2001 - 2005ish, and how, for the most part, the comics have never recovered from the harm Quesada and Jemas did when they took over -- which is why I had absolutely no choice whatsoever but to write the preceding paragraph -- but from here on out, we're going positive.

I've noted here more than once that I revere the Stan Lee/John Romita run on AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. Taking Steve Ditko's creation of the character, his cast, and his villains for granted, it is Romita's version of Spider-Man, in collaboration with Lee, that I consider definitive. And for my money, the apex of that duo's run on the character is the "stone tablet" saga. It ran for a whopping ten issues (if you include the two-part coda featuring the Lizard), which was pretty unusual at the time. It followed Spider-Man's travails as he struggled to keep an ancient tablet out of the hands of the underworld's top gangsters, including the Kingpin and Silvermane, the latter of whom believes the tablet holds a key to eternal youth. In the end, Silvermane drinks a formula derived from the tablet's inscription and dies when he de-ages to nothingness.

Monday, March 18, 2019

DETECTIVE COMICS #407 & THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD #93

"MARRIAGE: IMPOSSIBLE"
Story by: Frank Robbins | Art by: Neal Adams & Dick Giordano
Edited by: Julie Schwartz

Batman's third go-round with Man-Bat -- and the final collaboration between the character's creators, Neal Adams and Frank Robbins -- begins with an impressive demonstration of "Bat-dickery" on the part of our Caped Crusader. Batman reads in the newspaper that Kirk Langstrom is to be married to his fiancee, Francie Lee, and immediately jumps into the Batmobile, drives to the church, and dramatically yanks off Langstrom's false face to reveal the Man-Bat beneath. Doesn't bother to spare the couple any indignity or try to keep Langstrom's mutation a secret. Nope, right there in front of family and friends, he reveals Man-Bat to the world.

What follows is a flashback to the previous Man-Bat tale five issues earlier, revealing the heretofore unseen conclusion -- Batman attempted to cure Langstrom, but he wanted to remain a bat-creature. The Darknight Detective tried to get Francine to talk some reason into Langstrom, but the Man-Bat escaped. Later, Man-Bat found Francine and learned she still loved him. He prepared a duplicate of the formula that had changed him and she took it, transforming into a Woman-Bat.

Batman then battles both bat-monsters, eventually injecting them with an antidote he's been carrying around since sometime after issue 402. They revert to human, regretful over their desire to become monsters and thankful to Batman for saving them, as our hero departs.

Friday, March 15, 2019

THE ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN AMERICA: SENTINEL OF LIBERTY #1 - 4

"FIRST FLIGHT OF THE EAGLE" | "BETRAYED BY AGENT X"
"BATTLEGROUND: PARIS" | "ANGELS OF DEATH ANGELS OF HOPE"

Storytellers: Fabian Nicieza & Kevin Maguire | Pencilers (issue 4): Steve Carr & Kevin West
Inks: Joe Rubinstein (issue 1) & Terry Austin (issues 2 - 4) | Inking Assist: Tom Christopher
Letters: Richard Starkings | Color Art: Paul Mounts
Logo & Book Design: Joe Kaufman | Assistant Editor: Barry Dutter | Editor: Mike Rockwitz
Editor-in-Chief: Tom DeFalco
Special Thanks to: Mark Gruenwald, Gregory Wright & Suzanne Dell'orto

Return with me now, to the dark days of 1991. As Marvel descended into the abyss that would result in the likes of X-FORCE and Todd McFarlane's SPIDER-MAN, they also gave us... this. An uneven, but mostly very nice retelling of Captain America's origin by Fabian Nicieza, Kevin Maguire, Joe Rubinstein, and Terry Austin. This series was published in the "Prestige" format, running 64 ad-free pages per issue. It's something I had had on my "to read" radar for years, but only recently got around to it, and now I find myself wondering why I took so long!

So, look -- right off the bat, I'll admit I haven't read many versions of Cap's origin. I've read variations on some of his earliest adventures, in various mini-series, flashback stories, and so forth. But the actual origin -- Dr. Erskine/Reinstein, the super-soldier serum, the Nazi saboteur -- I'm pretty sure I've only ever read that in the Roger Stern/John Byrne encapsulation from CAPTAIN AMERICA #255. So when it comes to the material presented here by Nicieza and Maguire, I honestly have no idea what they've kept from prior versions and what they've created anew.

But -- taking the above into account, after reading this series, I feel like the filmmakers behind CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER must have looked to this story for inspiration, at least with regards to the early parts of the movie. Heck, a near-direct line can be drawn from the first issue to the film's first act, taking into account the typical changes one generally sees in Hollywood adaptations.

Monday, March 11, 2019

DETECTIVE COMICS #405 & #406

"THE FIRST OF THE ASSASSINS!" | "YOUR SERVANT OF DEATH -- DR. DARRK!"
Story: Denny O'Neil | Art: Bob Brown & Frank Giacoia

DC has released a trade paperback collection titled BATMAN: TALES OF THE DEMON multiple times since the nineties, though the stories in that book were collected even earlier, via a Baxter Paper mini-series called THE SAGA OF RA'S AL GHUL. And in every one of these numerous releases, the powers-that-be, in their great wisdom, have opted to omit the stories from DETECTIVE COMICS #405 and 406.

Now, while not necessarily essential to the Ra's al Ghul storyline, their omission has long felt questionable to me. They introduce both the concept of the League of Assassins, which will play a role in the upcoming al Ghul saga, as well as Doctor Darrk, the League's leader who will feature in the first appearance of Ra's's daughter, Talia.

All of the above is my way of noting that, while nearly every one of the stories I'm covering for this cherry-picked look at Batman in the Seventies is reprinted in full color in some collection or another, for these two tales I have been forced to use the black-and-white "Essential"-style SHOWCASE PRESENTS BATMAN volume 5. Not that I object; a lot of this vintage Batman material looks nice in black-and-white. But I felt it was worth noting.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

CAPTAIN AMERICA, SPIDER-MAN, AND THE X-MEN

It's hard to believe, but I haven't written anything about a Marvel series here in nearly a year, when I looked at X-MEN '92 last March! My Mondays have been nonstop DC for fourteen months now, while my Fridays have been dedicated to other characters, universes, and publishers. So, if for no other reason than to justify all those little heads up top, I figured I should head back to the House of Ideas for a few weeks in an All-Digital Review Grab Bag!

We'll lead off this Friday with THE ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN AMERICA, a 1991 limited series by Fabian Nicieza and Kevin Maguire. Then, one week later, we'll stick with Nicieza and jump ahead a decade for 2001's SPIDER-MAN: LIFELINE, drawn by Steve Rude.

Then we'll look at a couple of odd projects that tickle my recent interest in newspaper adventure strips: CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE 1940S NEWSPAPER STRIP, a project written and drawn by Karl Kesel in 2010, meant to read as it it were a vintage strip from the Golden Age, and the SPIDEY SUNDAY SPECTACULAR, a 2011 collection of backup pages from a run of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN issues, written by Stan Lee and drawn by Marcos Martin in another comic strip-inspired pastiche.

And after those, we'll wrap up with Marvel's Merry Mutants in a two-week look at X-MEN: GRAND DESIGN, a still-ongoing series of one-shots by writer/artist Ed Piskor which retells the X-Men's story from the beginning using the conceit that every later development was planned in advance.

So... face front this Friday, frantic ones! Mighty Marvel's comin' atcha!

Friday, March 8, 2019

RAPTORS BOOK 4

Art by: Enrico Marini | Written by: Jean Dufaux

RAPTORS book four starts off with an odd vignette that initially feels like there's been a multi-year time jump. We see a family being stalked by vampires in an old factory, and dialogue informs us that these places exist around the world. Called "Hell's Kitchens", they are where vampires corner and stalk humans as prey. It feels like the proclamation passed in the prior book -- that humans will be rounded up and thrown into zoos for the vampires' amusement -- has come to pass. But then Aznar Akeba shows up and kills the vampires (though not before they brutally murder the family's parents), and we cut to the vampire council, shocked that Aznar has turned against them. So apparently these Hell's Kitchens exist in the present, but humanity isn't aware of them. It is, as noted, a confusing opening scene, but it's not the end of the world.

Moving along, we find our heroine, Lenore, has become the lover of Camilla since last we saw them. But Lenore leaves Camilla, choosing to walk her own path away from the vampiress. Then we catch up with Lenore's former partner, Spiaggi, who makes a deal with the vampire council: if they put him in charge of the police, he'll find Lenore and Aznar and turn Aznar in to them in exchange for their letting Lenore and him disappear.

Next, Lenore teams up with Aznar and Camilla's brother, Drago, to attack her family estate. She kills her brother while Drago murders her mother and father, and Aznar wipes out everyone else. The vampire trio destroys the house, then Lenore leaves with Aznar.

Monday, March 4, 2019

DETECTIVE COMICS #404

"GHOST OF THE KILLER SKIES!"
A tribute to the great Joe Kubert & Robert Kanigher
Script: Denny O'Neil | Art: Neal Adams & Dick Giordano | Editor: Julius Schwartz

Note: Screenshots below come from BATMAN ILLUSTRATED BY NEAL ADAMS VOLUME 2 and are not representative of these stories' original colors (the covers are presented as published, however).

It's 1988. You're nine years old. Tim Burton's BATMAN movie is due out next year. BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES is still four years away. You've "grown up" (insomuch as a child can be considered to have done so) with Batman, but never actually read a comic book featuring the character. Your only exposure to Batman has been via reruns of the Adam West TV show, the Filmation cartoon, and SUPER FRIENDS. But you've come to like the character quite a bit through those incarnations, and somehow you wind up with a copy of THE GREATEST BATMAN STORIES EVER TOLD, a trade paperback (published by Warner Books rather than DC Comics) collecting, ostensibly, some of the best bat-material of the past four decades.

So you start reading. You merely skim some of the early chapters because the artwork doesn't appeal to you. But soon you find yourself reading stories from the fifties and sixties. This is the Batman you recognize from TV. Colorful! Fun! Battling zany villains and accompanied at all times by Robin, the Boy Wonder!

Then you get to page 162, and suddenly things change. The artwork is more realistic. Batman looks different; longer ears, darker colors. The tone of the story is considerably moodier than what came before. Robin is nowhere to be seen. And, on the very first page -- murder! A mystery unfolds! You've seen Batman solve mysteries before, in the stories earlier in this book, but you've never seen him try to unravel a murder. Before the story is done, two more people have died. You wonder if you're supposed to be reading this stuff! Did they slip some kind of "grown-up" Batman story into this book by mistake? What would your parents say if they knew you were reading about people getting strangled to death?

Friday, March 1, 2019

RAPTORS BOOK 3

Art by: Enrico Marini | Written by: Jean Dufaux

The fourth installment of RAPTORS has way more action than either of the previous volumes. It begins with a police raid in which a gaggle of cops are killed by Camilla, while elsewhere, her brother Drago murders a senator who was depicted in the prior book as a key member of the vampire shadow council.

At the same time, a mysterious priest is, for unknown reasons, trying to track down our protagonist, Detective Lenore. Instead he finds a massive community of runaway children living beneath the city. The children reveal to the priest that they've fled their families for fear of being "turned" to vampires by their parents. Interestingly, in the prior book Lenore observed that there weren't as many children in the city as there used to be. If that many kids have run away that it's a noticeable epidemic, does that mean that the majority of the adults in the city are undead at this point?? The story doesn't get into this, but it seems likely.

However the Earth still has a decent-sized human population, as our next scene is a meeting of the vampire council in which it's decided that humanity will be rounded up and herded into zoos rather than continuing to enjoy freedom (and ignorance of the vampires' existence, apparently). It's at this point that we finally catch up with Lenore, living in solitary confinement since she was captured by the police at the second book's conclusion. She's stripped in her cell and nearly raped, but her partner, Spiaggi, comes to her rescue along with the priest.