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.


The ensuing story reads sort of like a Silver Age throwback, but not in the dated way that Denny O'Neil's often do. As I've noted before, when O'Neil does a Silver Age type of story, he goes all in and his efforts usually feel incongruous with the look and tone of Bronze Age Batman. But when Englehart does it here, even as we see Penguin plotting to steal an antique artifact, and even as we see him taunt Batman and Robin with riddles about his impending crime, none of it feels out of place in the "Darknight Detective" era. I think part of that is due to the sub-plots. While all that other stuff is happening in the foreground, we also have that noir-ish Rupert Thorne/city council stuff going on as a backdrop to the action, plus we see Bruce check in with Silver St. Cloud at the hospital, where she's recovering from the Strange ordeal.


Englehart's mystery is engaging as well -- Penguin beguiles Batman with clues as noted above, though in the end it turns out his quest for the Malay Penguin statue is merely a red herring, and that he has another goal in mind -- a goal which Englehart seeds into the story early on, but which seems so innocuous that the reader is genuinely surprised when it's revealed on the final page! (This reader was, anyway -- I hadn't read this issue in so long that I forgot the ending, and when I got there I found myself marveling at how well Englehart played his mystery.)

All that said, I do find the idea of Penguin baiting Batman with riddles and clues to be a little off. I admit I haven't read a ton of actual DC comics, but in most adaptations of Batman's mythos, this is not something Penguin does. It's more in line (obviously) with the Riddler, or occasionally the Joker. But perhaps Englehart is doing a callback to some earlier iteration of the Penguin that I don't know about.

The next story, "The Deadshot Ricochet", picks up shortly after "The Malay Penguin!"s conclusion -- and it opens with one of my all-time favorite Batman scenes. But before I get there, let me note that John Byrne has a favorite page, which he trots out often to show people his ideal version of Batman. It's from a story we looked at a few months ago, as a matter of fact: "Half An Evil", the O'Neil/Adams reintroduction of Two-Face. I didn't mention it there because I planned to bring it up here. The page features Batman dropping in on Commissioner Gordon and city councilman Arthur Reeves, where he sneaks up upon and spooks the posturing Reeves with a playful "Boo!" that sends the councilman running, sends Gordon into a giggle-fit, and brings a broad grin to Batman's face.

Byrne uses the page to illustrate that "his" Batman is a normal guy. He's grim and serious when fighting crime of course, but he's also capable of levity. I agree with that assessment totally. But my definitive "humanizing" Batman sequence comes from the first three pages of "The Deadshot Ricochet", reproduced in their entirety here:

Batman and Robin, home from their latest adventure, joking and palling around; chatting about their love lives, and generally behaving like a pair of well-adjusted human beings. Like a pair of best friends -- or, dare I say, adult brothers -- a maturation of their originally intended big brother/little brother dynamic. This is Batman as I like him -- or perhaps I should say this is Batman and Robin as I like them! Batman as an adult (obviously); Robin as a college age adult and Teen Titan. No strained relationship, resentment, or enmity between them. They're just two normal guys, with a healthy friendship between them, who happen to be super heroes. I don't think I've ever seen anybody capture this side of them as perfectly as Englehart does here.

(Side note: I actually did show this sequence to an acquaintance once some years back when he was talking about how awesome it is that Batman is this brooding loner who alienates everyone around him. To his credit, my friend read the pages. He thought they were ridiculously out of character for Batman -- which is to say, the Batman the world knows today. But at least I tried!)

From here, the story follows a villain named Deadshot, previously a one-and-done antagonist from BATMAN #59, published seventeen years earlier, as he busts out of prison, reinvents himself with a dynamic new costume, and goes out for revenge on Batman. The Caped Crusader defeats Deadshot atop a giant typewriter (obviously an homage to the Dick Sprang-illustrated Batman comics of the fifties) and sends him off to jail.


But the real fun of this issue comes in the sub-plots. This is easily the most "Marvelized" Batman comic we've looked at, and I love it. In the span of the issue, besides the heartwarming camaraderie between Batman and Robin in the opening pages, we see Batman pay a visit to intimidate Rupert Thorne, we see Thorne haunted by the ghost of Hugo Strange (a development which actually began last issue), we see Bruce Wayne and Silver out on a date during which Silver probes our hero about his relationship to Batman, we get a hint that the Joker will appear next issue, and on the story's final page, when Batman and Silver cross paths, we see Silver realize that the Masked Manhunter and her lover are one and the same.


This is the stuff that kept readers coming back to Marvel in droves over the years, and here we have DC finally trying their hand at the same formula. And, thanks to Steve Englehart's deft plotting and the beautiful artwork of Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin, that "Marvel style" fits Batman to a tee. I will always love the done-in-one stories from O'Neil and Adams and all the rest, but in general I tend to prefer my comics serialized, with lots of juicy sub-plots. And if, like me, that's what you're looking for, you'll find it done to perfection in these two issues.

I should note, by the way, that DC (actually Warner Books) published three GREATEST STORIES EVER TOLD books in the late eighties/early nineties: THE GREATEST BATMAN, THE GREATEST JOKER, and THE GREATEST BATMAN vol. 2. I've noted before that a number of O'Neil/Adams stories found their ways into those books. So did a couple of Archie Goodwin's stories. But Englehart/Rogers is the only "run" (a term used loosley since O'Neil and Adams didn't have a defined sequential run in the traditional sense) to pop up in all three books: "The Malay Penguin!" is in GREATEST BATMAN vol. 2, "The Deadshot Ricochet" is in vol. 1, and the Joker two-parter, "The Laughing Fish"/"Sign of the Joker" is in GREATEST JOKER. That's half the Englehart run which was deemed to be among the "greatest". Not bad!

2 comments:

  1. The aforementioned TEEN TITANS#53 was the final issue of that phase. The meeting happens off-panel, as Mal and Bumblebee read a casebook on how the Titans got together. When they finished, Robin, Wonder Girl, Kid Flash, and Speedy arrive to announce that the Titans shall be disbanded so they can go solo on their individual careers. The team will not be reformed until the 1980 Wolfman/Perez relaunch.
    The Harlequin was said to be either the Joker's Daughter or Two-Face's daughter (as one TT cover portrayed). This turned out to be a falsehood, as Dick reasoned when they met each other at Donna's wedding in TALES OF TEEN TITANS#50.

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  2. This is a review that amazed the heck outta me. ^_^

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