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My Issues With Batman Day

by  in Comic News Comment
My Issues With Batman Day

Specifically, my issues with the issues chosen by DC Entertainment for their “Top Ten Batman Stories You’ve Never Read” list.

I could give you a whole rant, but I think the point is sufficiently made just by showing you their list.

10. The Laughing Fish
9. Venom
8. The Black Mirror
7. Trinity
6 The Cult
5. Gotham By Gaslight
4. Joker: Devil’s Advocate
3. Ego
2. Son of the Demon
1. No Man’s Land

I mean… seriously? Those are all good stories, sure– well, except for The Cult, but even that one had terrific art from Berni Wrightson– but, come on. “You’ve never read”? There’s not an obscure one on the list.

I think we can do a little better if the idea is to showcase Bat stories that are overlooked. Certainly more overlooked than, say, “The Laughing Fish,” which was adapted for animation as well as being available in at least FIVE different collections that I’m aware of, two of them current. (One of those, the 75 Years Joker collection, features that story on its cover.)

Or No Man’s Land, which got not only a trade paperback collection but TWO novelizations– an adult version from Greg Rucka and a juvenile edition from Alan Grant, and is now available in a full-cast audio adaptation as well.

So let’s revisit the list. “Never read” suggests to me that most fans don’t know it or have forgotten it, it’s out of print, it’s hard to get at. But still — to be in a top ten– it should be GOOD. Fair enough? With that in mind, here’s my idea of the best Bat stories you’ve never read. (Well, probably never read– after all, if you’re perusing this web page at CBR you probably are better read than Joe Average off the street, at least as far as Batman is concerned.)

I did try to find parallels to the official DC list wherever I could. For example, you’ll find stories by Denny O’Neil on this list, and stories by Mike Barr and Chuck Dixon– but I made it a point to try to find stories of theirs that I think have been unfairly forgotten, as well as likely being “never read” by a lot of you seeing this. And I threw in a couple of extras because I couldn’t settle on ten. They’re not numbered and in no particular order… I leave the rankings to you.

*

Two-Face Strikes Twice! written by Mike W. Barr with art by Joe Staton and Daerick Gross.

This is a story with a cool gimmick that also showcases what a great Batman scribe Mike W. Barr really is. It was a two-part Prestige Format mini-series that came out in the 1990s, the gimmick being that it was a flip-book– one half of it was a Batman and Robin story told in the ‘classic’ style with Joe Staton doing a remarkable Golden Age version of the Dynamic Duo…

…and then you flip it over and there’s a modern-era sequel with painted art from Daerick Gross.

I have no idea why it’s never been reprinted because it was just tremendous fun, and it showcased everything Mike Barr did well as a Batman writer– detective work, adventure, old-school deathtraps, and especially the way Batman and Robin play off each other. An added bonus was getting Dick Sprang himself to do the covers on the “Golden Age” side of the books. Well worth hunting up in the back-issue bins.

*

Batman Adventures: The Lost Years by Hilary Bader, Bo Hampton, and Terry Beatty.

Throughout the 1990s the comics based on the then-current animated Batman cartoons were routinely kicking the ass of the regular DC Batman books. The best and most famous of these is “Mad Love,” but Lost Years is a pretty close number two. This was a clever little five-issue miniseries that purported to fill the gaps between the finale of the animated Batman and Robin Adventures and its follow-up TV series Batman: Gotham Adventures— it told us how Dick Grayson gave up being Robin to become Nightwing, how Barbara Gordon was finally allowed to learn who Batman really was, how Tim Drake assumed the Robin identity, and so on. Some of these plot points were adapted straight across from actual episodes from the TV show, and some were original. But it works great as a single narrative.

It also has possibly the greatest Alfred line ever.

There was a paperback collection, but it’s long out of print. It certainly deserves reprinting as part of the current Batman Adventures re-issued trade collections and I hope the other books do well enough to justify it. If not, there’s always the back-issue boxes.

*

The Final Fate of Boss Thorne and the Return of Hugo Strange, by Gerry Conway, Don Newton, and Alfredo Alcala. This one’s kind of hard to nail down, because it started as a subplot that gradually moved forward to become the main plot over the course of a half-year or so’s worth of stories in Batman and Detective, from the fall of 1982 through the early part of 1983.

This is a direct sequel to the Steve Englehart/Marshall Rogers run on Detective that’s been reprinted so many times– Strange Apparitions, the Marshall Rogers Batman hardcover, and so on. Conway does pretty well here, setting up the corrupt Gotham political power players being in direct conflict with the Batman…

… eventually to reveal that the true power behind the Gotham political machine is a returned Rupert Thorne. And in a fun Easter Egg moment for longtime DC fans, Boss Thorne hires noted DC skeptic Dr. Terrence Thirteen to figure out what’s actually going on with this ghost that is plaguing him.

Gradually it is revealed that Hugo Strange is in fact still alive and scheming to destroy first Thorne and then Bruce Wayne in a complex revenge scheme for what was done to him in the original “Strange Apparitions” story. I’ve said before, and I’ll probably say again, that the Don Newton version of Batman is simply the best-quality art, overall, the book ever had. He wasn’t doing comics so much as he was doing classic illustration, though the storytelling is spot on and never calls attention to itself. Check out this page…

Though DC has put out a Don Newton Batman hardcover, it doesn’t include this story. Which deserves its own book anyhow. Get on that, would you, DC?

*

Gotham By Gaslight is certainly a terrific Batman story, but it’s gotten a fair amount of love over the years– including a recent paperback reprint volume pairing it with its equally terrific sequel, Master of the Future.

What is incomprehenisble to me is the LACK of attention paid to its follow-up, the first official Elseworlds– Holy Terror, by Alan Brennert and Norm Breyfogle.

Pretty much every other Batman story Alan Brennert ever did has been included in a “best of” collection of one kind or another, and DC just put out a wonderful hardcover celebrating Norm Breyfogle. Yet somehow this book was ignored.

It features Batman versus an evil theocracy long before Frank Miller ever dreamed of the idea… but it’s much smarter and makes use of a lot of cool DC lore. Even in this weird parallel universe, though, it’s still about Bruce Wayne trying to find the killer of his parents. Here’s Charles McNider trying to talk him out of it…

But young Bruce isn’t having any. When he suits up as Batman and starts investigating he finds out that it’s all part of a conspiracy by the evil Dr. Erdel to suppress any and all super-people… he rescues Barry Allen and together they confront Erdel.

It doesn’t go well for Barry, but the conflict does end with the good guys sort of pulling out the win, and Bruce Wayne resolves to continue his, uh… nocturnal ministry.

Like virtually every other story Alan Brennert wrote for DC Comics, this one is brilliant and deserves to be read, and Norm Breyfogle was never better. So treat yourself and see if you can find a copy.

*

I am a sucker for prose superhero novels and Batman has had more than his share of really good ones. There’s usually a couple that appear in the wake of the latest big-budget movie, whether it’s the Adam West version in 1966 or Christian Bale’s in 2005.

Here’s a couple that came out not too long after Michael Keaton’s first effort in 1989: To Stalk A Specter by Simon Hawke, and Captured By The Engines by Joe R. Lansdale.

To Stalk A Specter may be my favorite Batman prose novel anyone’s ever done. It’s just really good, and it embodies everything I always liked about the 1970s Bronze Age version. It’s the story of Batman trying to find a mysterious hitman named Specter before he takes out a federal witness. What I love about this book, though, isn’t the plot but all the asides– Hawke has the knack of giving you lots of extra stuff without actually breaking the toys or contradicting anything that’s been done before. The way he extrapolates how the Batman would actually work with Police Commissioner Jim Gordon is a showpiece of verisimilitude– it’s not “realistic,” but it feels plausible.

Captured By The Engines isn’t quite as good but I still really like it a lot. Lansdale already had done two terrific prose stories for the Bantam Further Adventures of Batman and Further Adventures of the Joker collections so I was amped for this book when it came out. It’s a cool twist on both the werewolf and “ancient Indian curse” legends, about a guy that turns into a supernatural hellcar that’s killing people, and it’s got a lot of the twisted humor that later would make Lansdale’s Bubba Ho-Tep so much fun. There’s just no one else that writes horror this way and it’s actually a surprisingly good fit with Batman.

Both novels are long out of print, of course, but a little digging around at online dealers should turn them up for you.

Go to the next page for the next five…

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