When I first wrote this, I questioned whether this featured the best Batman artist ever. Boy howdy, that was a fun thing to bring up! So I present the evidence!
Detective Comics by Alan Grant (writer), John Wagner (writer, issues #583-594)*, Norm Breyfogle (penciller; inker, issues #586-592, 594), Kim DeMulder (inker, issue #583), Steve Mitchell (inker, issues #584, 593, 601-614 ), Ricardo Villagran (inker, issue #585), Adrienne Roy (colorist, issues #583-587, 589-594, 601-614), Anthony Tollin (colorist, issue #588), Todd Klein (letterer, issues #584-594, 601-609, 611-614), and Albert de Guzman (letterer, issue #610) (no letterer is credited for issue #583).
* Our Dread Lord and Master, in his incessant quest to educate us all about all things comics, points out that Wagner co-wrote only the first five issues (#583-587). He signed a contract for a year, however, so Grant kept his name on the credits. Just go read the link!
DC, 26 issues (#583-594; 601-614), cover dated February 1988 - January 1989; June 1989 - May 1990).
Very minor SPOILERS: It's Batman. He wins. Get used to it.
Batman is almost unique among major superheroes in mainstream comic books for at least one reason: he doesn't need a supporting cast. The big guns in the DC and Marvel worlds not only need their supporting casts, some are practically defined by them. Superman wouldn't be Superman without Lois Lane, Jimmy Olson, Perry White, the Kents, and (possibly) Lana Lang. Spider-Man would be far less interesting sans Mary Jane and Aunt May.
With the possible exception of the Punisher, whose stature is far less than the others and who's a Batman knock-off anyway, Batman stands alone as a hero who is not defined or limited by a supporting cast. He doesn't need Alfred Pennyworth or Robin or Commissioner Gordon, the three mainstays throughout his long career. Batman is rare in that he is defined largely by his villains - he has the most memorable rogues' gallery in comic book history, and honestly, no one comes close (okay, maybe Flash) - by his detective skills, and by the death of his parents, who comprise the only indispensible part of his supporting cast, and they're dead. That's not to say that Batman can't have a rich and varied group of people around him. Several writers have built up his supporting cast and made him interact far more with them than others. However, a writer can certainly write excellent Batman stories with hardly any interaction with those around him, something that cannot be said for many other superheroes.
Case in point: Alan Grant and John Wagner. These gentlemen came onto Detective Comics after a bit of turmoil on the title. Mike W. Barr and Alan Davis were the creative team until #575, then Todd McFarlane did some issues (the last three chapters of "Year Two"), then Jim Baikie drew a Two-Face story, and then we had the awful Millennium tie-in (Norm Breyfogle's first issue).
With issue #583, however, we got Grant and Wagner teamed with Breyfogle, and for the next few years, Detective was a no-holds-barred, roller-coaster-ride of comic book goodness, with Batman doing what he does best: Solving crimes and beating up bad guys. Robin? Bah! Tim Drake shows up at the very end of the run, but even before the fans killed off Jason Todd, he was nowhere to be found in these pages. Alfred? He's here for a few panels every so often, but usually it was just to answer the phone and look something up on the computer before Batman was off again to kick some butt. Gordon? Also present, but basically as a Greek chorus to explain the crime to Batman before fading back into the shadows. Even Bruce Wayne is hardly present - he does play a key role in a few of the stories, but as an assistant in Batman's crime-solving passion and not on his own. Only in the final few issues does Bruce Wayne do anything not connected to Batman - he has a lunch date with Vicki Vale and he sponsors a class of underprivileged kids (which is still related to his nocturnal activities, but it doesn't go toward solving a crime). For these 26 issues, Batman takes center stage. He fights villains, he experiences horror, he solves crimes. So why are these issues so special?
Grant and Wagner, quite simply, told great short stories. Grant and Wagner wrote a three issue story (#587-589) and Grant wrote a three-issue and a four-issue story (#601-603 and #604-607), but the rest are either two issues long or one issue. They waste no space whatsoever with these stories - they are stripped to the bone, and there's nothing wrong with that. It's almost impossible to believe in these built-for-the-trade days that a writer could consistently put out 22- or 44-page stories with such excellence.
We get a bad guy doing bad things, and Batman stops him. The stories are completely pulpy and noir-ish, which is what Batman ought to be. Breyfogle's magnificent art only makes the stories fly along even more quickly - the fluidity of his drawings almost make Batman look like he's moving through the book. It's one of the most impressive examples of taking a static medium and seemingly making it flow.
The writers also did something extremely interesting - they resisted the urge to populate their books with the standard Bat-villains. As I mentioned, Batman has wonderful villains, but they have also been around for decades, and many writers seem unwilling or incapable of coming up with new villains to join the rogues' gallery and fall back on the Joker, Penguin, Two-Face, et al. Grant eventually succumbed, bringing us a two-part Penguin story in issues #610-611 (which, it should be noted, also stars a few of the villains he created earlier in the run) and a Catman and Catwoman story in #612 (Selina's appearance is really an extended cameo). (He also wrote the second part of a Penguin crossover and a Joker story, but those are not Comics You Should Own, for reasons I'll discuss). But other than that, the only villain Grant used that he did not create was the Clayfaces, and he even took that story (issues #604-607) to create a new version of Clayface. By ignoring the classic rogues' gallery, Grant and Wagner (and then Grant by himself) were able to bring us some villains that were every bit as strange and classic as the Bat-villains of the past: Right out of the gate we get the Ventriloquist and Scarface, and down the line we get the Ratcatcher, the Corrosive Man and Kadaver, Umbaluru the aborigine (who's not really a villain, but he fights Batman), Cornelius Stirk, Wyatt Tenzin and his tulpa, Clayface V (yes, the fifth one!), and Anarky.
Many of these villains have shown up again, but they have never really risen too far in the hierarchy. This is both a good thing and a bad thing - it's bad because these villains are as weird and twisted as anyone else in Batman's rogues' gallery, but it's good because these villains mostly are very specific to the stories in which they appear, and using them over and over would cheapen them. It has happened with some of them - Stirk was a brilliant killer in his first appearance, but his subsequent appearances have not been as memorable. The same thing has happened with Anarky and the Ventriloquist (although Anarky is no longer the first one now, I guess, and the Ventriloquist is dead). But for these stories, the villains are excellent and show the two main themes of these issues of Detective: Drugs and moral ambiguity.
Grant and Wagner's stories are saturated with drug use. The first story (issues #583-584) introduces the Ventriloquist and his dummy, Scarface, who are purveyors of a new drug, Fever. Batman comes across some users, who become psychotic and aggressive when they take the drug. When Batman confronts the Ventriloquist, he gets a dose of the drug and almost beats the crime boss to death, but he is able to regain control of himself just in time. This begins a series of stories in which Batman must confront drug use and its myriad consequences - all of them bad, of course. These issues came out in the late 1980s, when the War on Drugs was just heating up, and Grant and Wagner do their part. I'm not suggesting that they're just writing propaganda - it's more subtle than that, and the users aren't necessarily evil, even though the pushers are. In issue #589, Grant and Wagner conclude a three-part story with an ironic twist - a cocaine dealer who fell into Gotham harbor two issues earlier is run over by a local DJ, who was high on his product, thereby bringing the problem of drugs full circle.
Drug use comes up again in the Cornelius Stirk story (issues #592-593), in an interesting way. Stirk possesses a hypothalamic disorder that has given him a psi-power - he can appear to people as anyone (and he shows up as Jesus, Abraham Lincoln, and a woman), and he uses this to lure his victims to their deaths. He butchers his victims after terrorizing them and eats their organs, believing this helps keep him sane. He believes, because he was released from the hospital and declared "sane," that he has no need of his prescribed medication - sane men, he tells us, have no need for it! This is an interesting comment on what makes us sane and keeps us there - in Stirk's case, drugs. This is an instance of a user going cold turkey with bad consequences, rather than the other way around. In issue #594, Grant and Wagner give us another drug story, a creepy tale of a man who becomes a paranoid psychotic when he takes Ecstasy. Grant's final story in this group of comics, issue #614, is another drug story, one in which Bruce Wayne is confronted with a problem the Batman simply can't punch - how do we keep kids from trying drugs in the first place?
These drug stories show people who are caught up in circumstances they cannot control, but they're not necessarily at fault. Yes, Batman hates drugs, and he does all he can to stop their use. But these stories, as well as the rest of the run, are characterized by a certain moral ambiguity. This has recently become a bit more of a catchphrase than it was fifteen years ago [Edit: Or, now, twenty years ago] because of all the heroes of both major comic book companies wondering whether it's okay to beat up a bad guy. It's been a feature in comics for a long time, and Grant and Wagner use it nicely, even though Batman still beats people up. Drug users are the easiest way to look at this - we can blame them for taking drugs, but do they need our help or our scorn? Batman has to stop them when they commit crimes, but shouldn't he use what power he has to stop the pushers and keep the users off drugs in the first place?
This question is raised in a couple of different stories, which I've already mentioned. In issue #594, Ed Hallen, a player in the high stakes world of foreign exchange dealing, gets a taste of Ecstasy from his co-workers. This causes his personality to rupture into a "good" side and a "bad" side, with the bad side egging him on to kill junkies, destroy the Ventriloquist's boarded-up club, and finally attempt to blow up his place of business. Ed is a villain and a killer, but Batman's anger is saved for his co-workers, who gave him the drug in the first place. In issue #614, he tracks some junior high school kids who are stealing satellite dishes to try to impress a local street gang. The gang members tempt them to sell drugs instead, and Batman threatens them at the school yard. This is where the story takes an interesting turn - Batman speaks to the principal, who tells him how horrible their lives are and that joining a gang is the only way out that they see. Bruce Wayne steps in and decides to sponsor the class, paying for their college education if they graduate high school. It's a novel solution in a Batman comic, and even though we have never heard of it again, it's the kind of thing more writers should do - how much good does Bruce Wayne do in the community as well as Batman? Batman can beat people up, but Wayne can do other things, and this story shows us that Batman and Bruce Wayne could easily do the same work in different ways, if writers would only see that.
The moral ambiguity extends beyond the drug parables, as well, and in different ways. The Ratcatcher story, in issues #585-586, seems simple enough - bad guy controls rats and uses them to exact revenge on society - in this case, the group of people who put him in jail years before. Flannegan, the Ratcatcher, is a villain, but in his twisted mind, he's just trying to settle the scales, because he feels he was unjustly imprisoned. This bad guy isn't out for riches, he's out for his own kind of justice, and although we certainly don't excuse him, we realize that he's not just a bad guy - he's a bad guy who believes he's doing what's right, which is always more interesting.
The "Night People" story (issues #587-589) contains several interlocking storylines, but the main one is that of an escaped convict, Deke Mitchel, who wants revenge on his former employer, Mr. Kadaver, for tipping off the police about a crime he had committed. Again, it's not that we feel badly for Mitchel - he is a criminal, after all - but we understand that his sense of "honor among thieves" has been violated. When he is caught in an explosion and bathed in toxic chemicals, he doesn't die (this isn't the real world, after all), he become a "Corrosive Man" (it's comic books!), able to burn through anything because his entire body has become toxic. This turns him from a convict who wants revenge into a strangely pathetic creature - we still don't agree with his methods, but we feel bad because he is no longer a man and only wants one thing before he dies - revenge. He gets it, in a sense, and dies. These stories featured villains, yes, but they were villains we could see as human beings, because they weren't bad guys just to make themselves rich or even just to kill random people. They wanted to kill people, but they had very good reasons for doing so.
Grant and Wagner weren't satisfied with simply writing about bad guys with an axe to grind, however. In issue #590, they begin to flex their creative muscles a bit more and paint Batman's world in even more shades of gray, even though they misfire the first time out. The issue deals with a Muslim terrorist named Abu Hassan who is also a "fully credited Syraqui diplomat," according to the FBI agent Batman meets after Hassan's group kills a bunch of veterans in Gotham. Batman heads to London to get Hassan and finds out he's planning to blow up the houses of Parliament on Guy Fawkes' Night, because no one would take a threat to the government seriously on that night. Batman stops the terrorists, of course, but before he does, he confronts Hassan at the embassy. Hassan gives him the standard speech about fighting the imperialism of the West, and Batman hesitates long enough for a flunky to surprise him. When Batman fights back, Hassan falls out the window and is killed on the barbed wire on the embassy wall.
Hassan is Grant and Wagner's attempt to show both sides of the West/East divide, but because it's a one-issue story, it's difficult for them to give him much depth, and it comes off as somewhat ham-fisted. The art carries the story, but it's still a valiant attempt to show that the world Batman lives in does not always make sense. In the next issue, the writers got it right. Umbaluru is an aborigine who has come to Gotham on a mission. Kerry Rollo, an artifact collector, has a power bone from a tribe near Ayer's Rock (or Uluru, as we should call it these days instead of its white imperialist name) and he's showing it off. Unfortunately for him, his men stole it when the aborigines wouldn't sell it, and Umbaluru is going to get it back. Batman interrupts Umbaluru and Rollo, and once Umbaluru explains it to him, he tells him that Rollo will stand trial. Umbaluru rejects his white man's justice and dives with Rollo out of the window. Rollo falls to his death, but Umbaluru escapes. This is a very nice short story that explores the same theme as the previous one, but it does it much more nicely than the story about Hassan. Umbaluru is not a pure villain like Hassan is, and although he kills people, we understand why he is doing it. Batman does too, but he still must try to stop the crime and bring the criminal in. Added to this is a rare Bruce Wayne appearance at Rollo's gallery early in the story, where he accepts money from Rollo to help the city's poor. Rollo is also not a completely bad guy - what he did was wrong, obviously, but he doesn't understand that other cultures reject him and his culture. It's an interesting story.
Following a six-issue hiatus (which includes the three-part 50th anniversay story in issues #598-600), Grant (without Wagner) returns with more somewhat ambiguous storytelling. It's interesting to read these stories, as Batman becomes much of a mediator between two sides, one of which is usually "right" although it might be illegal, and often Batman isn't sure how to handle this. Issues #601-603, "Tulpa," are a perfect example of this. We have your obvious bad guy - Rafe Kellogg and his two heavies, Cecil and Lumps, who are extorting money from Wyatt Tenzin for a loan his father took from them. All well and good. To get the money, however, Tenzin is creating doppelgangers of himself - tulpas - and sending them out to steal. Batman encounters one of them on the street (it disintegrates) and Alfred is beaten up by one when it tries to rob Wayne Manor. So Batman is after the tulpas and, by extension, Tenzin. But Tenzin is telling his tulpas to take only the amount he needs and abstain from all violence, and he's doing this for his own protection.
When he realizes he'll need something else to get Kellogg off his back, he calls up a six-armed demon to kill them. This changes the dynamic of the story - Tenzin is still the victim, but Kellogg and his thugs also become the prey, as the demon is relentless in his pursuit of them. Batman tries to enlist the aid of Jason Blood, and eventually Blood calls up Etrigan, which adds another level of ambiguity. Etrigan kills the demon, but isn't he really worse than the demon in the first place? Etrigan, naturally, tries to kill Kellogg, but Batman is forced to come between the two, even though Kellogg probably deserves it. Batman, of course, can't hope to defeat the Demon, but Etrigan relents because he likes Batman's style and says he recognizes a kindred spirit in Batman. For a three-part story about a small-time thug leaning on a poor shopkeeper which leads to a battle between demons from hell, this tale says a great deal about what Grant wants us to consider while we read: Batman is ultimately powerless against the evil of the first demon and Etrigan, but he never stops fighting, even to defend "bad" people. Wyatt Tenzin is a good man, but he is willing to unleash a killing machine on the world. Etrigan is always nasty, but he has a twisted sense of honor that allows him to spare Batman's life - probably because he realizes that Batman has fashioned his own kind of moral hell, and why take him away from that? It's an interesting story on several levels, not unlike most of the run.
Grant continued this idea of ambiguity in the next story, "The Mud Pack" in issues #604-607. Ostensibly, this story is about Basil Karlo, the first Clayface, who simply wore a weird mask.
Matt Hagen is there in spirit, but still dead. Karlo enlists the aid of the fourth Clayface, a woman made clay by Kobra (which helps explain the excellent co-star in the book, Looker), to break Preston Payne, the third Clayface, out of prison. He betrays the two and steals their blood, injecting himself with a mixture of it and becoming the Ultimate Clayface, but what's interesting about the story is that Clayface IV and Preston Payne find love together because they realize they have both been used by men of power and they're tired of it. Villains are always more interesting when they are human, and these two people are villains not because they want to take over the world, but because they have powers that people fear (especially in the case of Payne) and are excluded from society. Batman and Looker don't even find them, and they get to have a happy ending.
Grant's study of moral ambiguity reached its apogee, really, with the next story, the two-part "Anarky in Gotham City" in issues #608-609. Anarky is one of the more interesting characters of the past fifteen or twenty years, not only because he's a teenager (which is a wonderful revelation in #609) but because of what he wants to accomplish - anarchy as a concept is often dismissed, but it's worth looking at simply because it is so radical and untenable yet noble. Anarky is a direct contrast to Batman - he is an active agent of change while Batman is simply a reactive agent, reinforcing the status quo (as all corporate superheroes do) and positioning himself as the opposition to Anarky even though Lonnie is trying to make the world better instead of stopping at beating up the obvious criminals. Anarky might go too far - he is planning on stopping Johnny Vomit from singing too loud - which is a bit extreme - before he discovers the rock star is dealing drugs, but the fact is, he is looking out for the good of the people as a whole rather than targeting people who are committing more ostentatious crimes.
Lonnie is a fascinating character in that he has a sense of humor (as evidenced by the A-symbol he spraypaints on Batman's cape after the Dark Knight has captured him) and he's very smart. He is able to show how ineffective Batman is against the real problems of society, and although Batman stops his spree, we find ourselves sympathizing much more with Anarky than with the representative of the status quo. A few issues after these, Lonnie shows up again, causing havoc from his juvenile detention center. Grant obviously liked the character, and he is one of those creations that you wish was used better in the DC Universe [Edit: Again, he's no longer Anarky, so I guess that's not going to happen].
Despite the excellent writing throughout this run, these issues are a wonderful example of how writing and art complement each other, as Breyfogle helps elevate these morality tales into truly great comics. Breyfogle was the second Bat-artist I was introduced to (Aparo was the first), and his stuff here blew me away and continues to shine even after twenty years. He is one of the quintessential Batman artists. His Batman is dynamic, powerful, yet human - in this run, Batman might have more facial expressions than he ever had before or since. Breyfogle's layouts allow us to follow the action smoothly, and his fight scenes are beautifully rendered and show better than almost anyone how Batman is able to defeat more than one person attacking him at a time. An example of this is in issue #613, a tragic tale about trashing the planet and a boy's desire to help - a plan that goes horribly wrong. On one page, two men attack Batman in a junkyard. In seven thin panels, Breyfogle shows how Batman avoids the gunshot of one thug, disarms him, and manages to kick him away into another thug who is trying to get a bead on him with his own gun.
It's a simple device, and Breyfogle repeats it throughout the run - flattening his panels to fit more onto a page and breaking down a fight so that we see exactly how Batman is able to do all the wonderful things he does. Despite the fact that Batman dominates this run and not Bruce Wayne, Breyfogle gives him more humanity and more emotions than most artists. There is a great debate in comics over which person is wearing the mask - Batman or Bruce Wayne - and usually artists make Batman the emotionless one, even though he is the character who (naturally) dominates the book. Breyfogle decides instead to make Batman a fully realized human being, despite the mask. Therefore we get various emotions that we see occasionally in Batman comics, but not as often as we do in this run: Rage (issue #584, page 20, #586, page 18; #590, page 15; #594, page 21; #611, page 16); terror (#585, page 21; #605, page 22; #606, page 22); nausea (#586, page 6 - when was the last time we saw Batman vomit?); wry humor (#586, page 21); grim satisfaction (#589, page 22); horror (#590, page 3); shock (#590, page 4; #594, page 4; #601, page 6; #609, page 16); sadness (#590, page 22; #603, page 22; #606, page 3); confusion (#592, page 6; #601, page 6; #603, page 21); boredom (#609, page 10); frustration (#609, page 17); satisfaction (#613, page 15); even happiness (#614, page 22). We usually see an angry Batman or even a grimly determined Batman, but Breyfogle fits his style to Grant and Wagner's writing so that we experience the emotions Batman feels as he goes through these bizarre stories. This is a Batman concerned more with the effects of the crimes committed in his city rather than simply stopping the criminals. He wants to catch the bad guys, of course, but he is a man who cares deeply about what these criminals do to his city, and Breyfogle's magnificent art allows us to see that more than just being a grim avenger of crime, Batman is a man who wants to punish crime but also wants to work hard to make the city better. Batman feels all the damage done in his city, and with Breyfogle, we get a much more human Batman. Of course, he gives life to the weird criminals that Grant and Wagner invent.
It begins with the Ventriloquist and Scarface, but continues through the new gallery of rogues. Breyfogle's Corrosive Man is a tragic and bizarre figure, and the toxic waste dripping from his eyes looks like tears even before Deke Mitchel realizes how awful his life has become. Cornelius Stirk is a truly scary villain, far worse than the Scarecrow, on whom he was clearly modeled. Ed Hallen's alter ego, the "voice" that tells him to kill drug dealers, is a creepy pair of red eyes that only gets angrier and angrier as Hallen tries to resist. Breyfogle's Etrigan is insanely demonic, and the way Breyfogle shifts him quickly from rage to merriment is wonderfully done. Breyfogle's Batman, beside the facial expressions, is the triumph of the run. He has to be, because of Grant and Wagner's emphasis on the Dark Knight aspect of the book. Batman is larger than life, a true hero, and his humanity just makes him more so. When he overcomes the horror that the criminals throw at him, he seems to grow and dominate, because Breyfogle makes him even more epic. Breyfogle uses his cape well, as good artists can, and although it's still a bit ridiculous to think that Batman could have such a long and flowing cape, it's not as silly as a McFarlane cape, for instance. In Breyfogle's hands, Batman's cape helps make him even grander. His presence terrifies the bad guys who think they're so tough, such as Cornelius Stirk, who shrinks visibly when Batman overcomes the fear Stirk has instilled in him. This is a Batman who scares the bad guys but is human enough that innocent people remain encouraged. It's largely because of the way Breyfogle draws him.
The many moods and emotions of Batman!
Grant and Breyfogle continued on Detective after issue #614, but they don't belong in the same lofty category as these. It's not that they're bad comics - they are decent enough. However, Denny O'Neil decided there should be more continuity between the two Batman books, and the work suffered a little. Issue #615 is part of a Penguin crossover with Batman, and as Detective #610-611 is also a Penguin story, and a superior one at that, it becomes redundant. The team also wrote a four-part story with Tim Drake's parents in which his mother died and his father was crippled, and then Breyfogle moved over to Batman for a time. A bit of the magic had gone, though.
Grant and Breyfogle teamed up for a mini-series about Anarky [Edit: And an ongoing, but I never read it], which was interesting enough, and the two launched Shadow of the Bat with a story about Arkham Asylum, but then Breyfogle, at least, disappeared for a while, which is a shame because he never became the superstar he should have been.
These issues are still good reading today for many reasons. They tell short stories with a lot of punch, and although they give us weird criminals who commit somewhat awful crimes, these issues don't wallow in the nihilism that many comics writers mistake for realism. Batman has to deal with many horrible events, but he is always there to make things better, even when right and wrong are not so clear. Batman doesn't have all the answers in these issues - he is a flawed hero. But he is a hero because he fights to make life in Gotham City better, and more importantly, he tries to understand why things are not great. Part of the reason I don't include the latter issues of Grant and Breyfogle's run in these is because issue #614 is such a nice way to end it. As I've mentioned, Bruce Wayne takes center stage in this issue, sponsoring a school class in the hopes to keep them off drugs. Although Bruce Wayne is the catalyst for change in this issue, the final image of Batman standing on a rooftop in front of an American flag, smiling down on his city. His thoughts on the page are in caption form: "It won't be easy. Bruce Wayne has to get to know them like they were his own children. And of course, there's no guarantee an education will be incentive enough for any of them. But even if one pulls through, it'll have been worth it. Fairy godmother? Hah!"
Batman scoffs at this notion, but through their run Grant and Wagner and then Grant alone made it clear that Batman is somewhat of a fairy godmother, answering prayers of the Gothamites who are in need. It's a fine balance between the grim-'n'-gritty stories of Batman over the last twenty to thirty years and the image of Batman as a savior of the city. Alan Grant, John Wagner, and Norm Breyfogle do a wonderful job giving us action-filled stories with depth and emotion. This run deserves to be recognized as some of the best Batman stories, and maybe someday DC will see fit to reprint them in trade paperback format [Edit: I'm not holding my breath. Jesus, DC!]. Perhaps recognition will come as we get more perspective on them. If you can scour the back issue boxes, I recommend that you look for these.