Monday, October 7, 2019

DETECTIVE COMICS #489, #490, & #491

Writer: Denny O'Neil | Artists: Don Newton & Dan Adkins
Letterer: Ben Oda | Colorist: Adrienne Roy | Editor: Paul Levitz

Denny O'Neil brings his 1979-80 League of Assassins saga to its conclusion in these two issues. Interestingly, it seems DETECTIVE #489 must have devoted most of its space to other features, because "When Strike the Assassins" runs a mere ten pages in length... and I have to say, the story is better for it! Something about this length works for O'Neil here; he cuts the fat and gets right to the point: Batman learns a geologist is in danger, goes out, and rescues him. That's it. It's short and sweet, but it feels more like an early seventies Batman outing from O'Neil (something he might've produced with Irv Novick, for example) than the stuff we've been seeing lately.

The next issue, however, features a full-length twenty-two page story to wrap things up -- and maybe it's because he's finally bringing an end to this League of Assassins epic that began several months back, but for whatever reason, O'Neil is again firing on (nearly) all cylinders here. The geology connection, combined with one or two other clues, leads Batman to realize that the League plans to create an earthquake which will destroy Gotham City's Matthews Estate, where several of the world's top religious leaders have gathered for a conference. Batman leaps into action and defeats the League and its master, the Sensei, saving most of the leaders. Ra's al Ghul then arrives to take the Sensei into custody, but when Batman refuses to give him up, Talia tranquilizes her love and drags him away, allowing al Ghul and Sensei alike to be consumed by the destruction of the (now evacuated) estate.

The story ends with Batman recuperating under Talia's care in a cabin somewhere, as she convinces him to set aside his mission for one day and relax. In his afterword to BATMAN: TALES OF THE DEMON, O'Neil notes that this coda almost reads as if he'd planned it from the start, with al Ghul seemingly dead and Batman and Talia together at last. And this may well be what O'Neil intended as his final word on Ra's al Ghul; he would not write the character again for a number of years. But, as we'll soon see, other writers would keep the character in circulation, as they did in the mid-seventies, while O'Neil stepped away.

I do have a couple more stray observations about these issues: one, this period in Batman's career was apparently the "era of the Whirly-Bat", as between O'Neil's DETECTIVE and Len Wein's BATMAN, the Caped Crusader is frequently seen flying around Gotham in the little chopper. I'm pretty sure he's used it more than the Batmobile in recent months.

And two, there's a bit in issue 490 that rubs me the wrong way -- after his dramatic appearance at the Matthews Estate to save the religious leaders, Batman is stunned when an archbishop refuses to evacuate. This leads to the following moment:

It's a nice speech, but it just doesn't feel like Batman to me. Far be it for me to challenge Denny O'Neil on the Darknight Detective's characterization, but this really does seem like writing a bit to fit into a character's mouth, rather than writing that character as established. Batman knows for a fact that the estate will be destroyed and all inside will likely perish. The Batman I know would not allow the victim of a would-be assassination attempt to decide he's going to take his chances and probably die. Batman, who preserves all life whenever possible, absolutely would grab the archbishop and carry him outside!

Anyway -- now we move along to O'Neil's final issue of DETECTIVE COMICS, which sees the surely much-demanded return of Maxie Zeus...

Writer: Denny O'Neil | Artists: Don Newton & Dan Adkins
Letterer: Milton Snappin | Colorist: Adrienne Roy | Editor: Paul Levitz

...and it's actually quite good! I dunno what happened here, but after a few months of phoning it in, O'Neil ends his time on DETECTIVE COMICS (and, indeed, pretty much his time with Batman and his time at DC; more on that below) on a high note. In this story, Maxie is still incarcerated at Arkham, but his mob continues its activities, robbing the Wayne Foundation in the opening pages. Batman does some investigating, Maxie escapes but is recaptured, and the Caped Crusader gives a doll to a little girl to provide a happy ending. There's even a great moment where Batman wonders aloud whether Maxie is actually insane, or if he just plays at it, and Maxie will neither confirm nor deny the idea.

This is an intriguing idea, and something I wish O'Neil had suggested sooner. It might have made the previous Maxie Zeus outings more palatable. We know that the majority of Batman's villains are clinically insane, but what if one of them only pretends to be? But all previous stories played completely straight with Maxie's belief that he's the reincarnation of Zeus, so this is our first inkling of the idea, just as O'Neil departs the series.

And lets take a quick moment to acknowledge that. Eight months ago, we looked at "The Secret of the Waiting Graves" in DETECTIVE COMICS #395, which, while not O'Neil's first work on Batman, was his first team-up with Neal Adams and was one of the stories that helped to define the tone and mood of the best of the seventies iteration of Batman. The issue was cover-dated January of 1970. Now, here we are with the June of 1980 issue, and O'Neil has said what he may have believed at the time to be his final word on Batman.

He didn't write the character for the entire decade; he took time off here and there, and especially during the early Julie Schwartz period, he frequently tag-teamed the character with other writers. But he was certainly one of the most prolific Bat-Writers of the decade (if not the most prolific). We looked at several O'Neil stories over these past several months, but for the most part they were only his collaborations with Neal Adams and, more recently, Don Newton (with a few others thrown in here and there). But that barely scratches the surface of O'Neil's Bat-output in the seventies. With Bob Brown, Irv Novick, and others, he created many more stories that we never saw (mainly because DC has never collected them). And while sometimes his work felt, as noted above, "phoned in", other times it was skillfully plotted. And even when his stories weren't the greatest, O'Neil's scripting was almost always top-notch.

But now we bid farewell to one of Batman's defining voices, as in 1980, O'Neil jumped ship and went to Marvel, where he would spend about six years as an editor (of titles like MOON KNIGHT and POWER MAN AND IRON FIST) and a writer (AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, IRON MAN). Eventually he would return to DC, this time primarily in the capacity of an editor, and reunited with the Batman as the post-CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS editor of all the Bat-titles, where he would oversee such milestones as BATMAN: YEAR ONE, the death of Robin, "Knightfall", and all the other various crossovers of the nineties.

Again, though, that's all in the future (and likely will never be something we look at here, as post-CRISIS Batman doesn't really interest me all that much). For now, it's hail and farewell to Batman's seventies mainstay, Denny O'Neil, as next week we will return to Len Wein's run on BATMAN for the return of the Catwoman!

Yes, I omitted the cover to issue 489 above. It showcases the Robin/Batgirl story from that issue and has nothing to do with the Batman story we covered in this post.

1 comment:

  1. Very well done here. I loved reading this review on issues 489 and 491 of "Detective Comics."