So is this what nostalgia feels like?: Re-reading my favorite Batman creative team via DC's <i>Retroactive</i> project

Scottish writer Alan Grant and American artist Norm Breyfogle started working on DC’s Batman comics during what must have been a particularly fertile and exciting time to do so—1988, the just after Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns helped redefine the possibilities of comics for a new generation (as well as redefining the Batman character and milieu), and the year before the Tim Burton-directed Batman feature film would replace the 1960s TV Batman as pop culture’s default view of the character.

The pair would work with other collaborators over the next decade or so, but had a long and fruitful run as a team, starting with a three-year run on Detective Comics (at first with John Wagner as co-writer), followed by two years on Batman, the launch of their own Batman title in 1992, Shadow of the Bat (which, after Breyfogle left, became Grant’s showcase title, pairing him with different artists for different arcs). They also produced a few original graphic novels (or “prestige format” comics as they were then called) like 2000’s Batman: Dreamland, and first a miniseries than a short-lived monthly starring one of their signature creations, Batman villain Anarky.

Grant continued writing for the Bat-books into the new decade, up until around the time of one of the cross-book crossover events, “Cataclysm,” which lead into “No Man’s Land” and then a relaunch of the line.

Breyfogle’s byline popped up here and there in unexpected places, but he hasn’t drawn Batman in a while.

I think about them both a lot.

A large part of the reason was that their Batman comics were among one of my own personal “gateway” comics, and provided my entry into the DC Comics Universe and superhero comics in general.

I started reading comics with DC and TSR’s Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and a big, fat phonebook-sized trade of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s first dozen or so issues of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Then I tried out Neil Gaiman and company’s Sandman and, a few years after rewatching the Batman movie on cassette tape, I saw a Breyfogle cover in the comic shop, flipped through the issue it was on, and, before long, was reading the team’s new comics as they came out, and reading their runs backwards through the back-issue bins.

Breyfogle’s Batman was and remains my ideal depiction of the character. What originally drew me to his art was the big, open expressions on his Batman and other characters (not only did they act, they often over-acted in a way that could be melodramatic, but never went quite so far as to be operatic, the way Kelley Jones’ characters usually did, or inappropriately dramatic, as the way Greg Land’s characters so often do).

Breyfogle also used a lot of sharp, harsh, thick lines, particularly in action scenes, and his Batman in motion was always rushing or flying in powerful, direct angles.

His action was extremely easy to follow, and almost every book would contain an action scene, with a beginning, middle and end.

And I liked his Gotham which, in addition to the regular old buildings and crazy gargoyles that began populating the fictional city around that time, was full of trash and litter blowing in the wind, bats that looked as big and flat as kites and graffiti everywhere.

But back to his Batman—Breyfogle drew the character so that his cape, cowl, white triangle eyes and often gritted teeth looked like highly-abstracted, expressionistic elements that belonged to one character, but his Batman had a tall, thin, highly-muscled athletic body that seemed t0 belong to another character. His Batman seemed to be both the mythological, urban legend come to life character and a real flesh and blood person at the same time.

For what the post-DKR Batman was supposed to be, a guy who dressed like a bat-monster in order to terrify criminals and thus make it a little easier to beat the living hell out of them, Breyfogle’s version worked, and it worked better than just about anyone else's.

If Breyfogle’s art excited the teenage Caleb, a Caleb with next to no pre-conceived notions about comics art, I realize, and sold me on the idea of a Batman, Grant’s scripting was easy to read and inviting—lots of done-in-ones or short stories (which I guess was probably the default for turn-of-that-decade DC comics, huh?) and lots and lots and lots of new characters.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but rereading bits of their runs together now, I see a lot of Will Eisner and a lot of Denny O’Neil in Grant’s Batman. There was often an artificiality, a visible structure to the stories, an obvious but not too preachy point to be made, and an interest in, almost fascination with big city life and the characters that lived it.

Like I said, I think about Grant and Breyfogle a lot, generally as a standard by which I judge disappointing Batman comic (of which there’s no shortage...how could there not be, given how many DC publishes every week now?).

Whenever I read a particularly, shockingly badly drawn Batman comic book—like Tony Daniel, and David Finch’s collaborations with Grant Morrison a few years back, for example, or some of Walt Flanagan’s work on the Kevin Smith miniseries, for another example—the kinds where one needs to reread certain sequence two or three times to figure out what’s going on, or if a particular character is supposed to be Bruce Wayne or Tim Drake, I’d wonder where Breyfogle is at and what he’s drawing, if he’s not drawing scenes of ninja assassins fighting Batman or someone throwing The Penguin out of a window. These are the sorts of things that shouldn’t be all that hard for a superhero artist to draw legibly, but, well, the industry has changed quite a bit in the since 1992, and standards are very, very different.

I don’t usually miss Grant’s work as much as I miss Breyfogle’s work, because even the worst-written comics are still always legible (English being easier to read than comics art, once you’ve learned to speak them both), but I do think of him every time I read a writer pitting Batman against The Scarecrow or Two-Face or Killer Croc for what must be the three-hundredth time.

I can understand why an artist would want to fill a comic with the classic characters, because if you’re only going to get to draw Batman for a story or ten, you’ll want to draw all the great characters, and I can understand why some writers would save their own creations for something they might own or make more money off of instead of gifting them to DC, but one of the things I liked most about Grant’s time as a Batman writer is how many villains and characters he invented.

There were unusual Batman allies like a post-Crisis Ace The Bathound, the possibly insane-himself hardcore psychlogist Dr. Jeremiah Arkham and  a mute, hunchback mechanical genius named Harold. And there were a whole mess of villains, some of whom caught on (Scarface and The Ventriloquist, Mr. Zsasz, Anarky, Ratcatcher, all of whom were co-created with Breyfgole) and even more villains who didn’t (Cornelius Stirk, Pagan, The Tally Man, The Human Flea, Amygdala, Malochia, Narcosis, etc).

As the Batman’s world has gotten more bogged down and repetitive, with the same twelve villains seemingly repeating endlessly, and legacy versions of heroes and villains complicating things (Does anyone else think it’s strange that there was an Azrael II, three different ladies who could claim the mantle of Batgirl, five different people who could claim the mantle of Robin and a Black Mask II and Ventriloquist II?), its easy to miss a writer or creative team willing to gamble on villains of the month (I think one factor in the success of Morrison's run on the character has been the amount of new names and faces he's flooded the franchise with).

I’ve been very interested in DC’s Retroactive project so far, which I assume most of you are familiar with (If not, DC’s been publishing one-shots featuring a half-dozen of the most popular franchises in new stories set in during the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, with creative teams who either worked on the characters at that time, or do their best to ape the style of those decades; each also contains a reprint from the era, usually by at least one of the creators who worked on the front-of-the-book story).

So far that interest has been borne mostly of curiosity, along the lines of Huh, that’s odd that they have Tom Mandrake drawing ‘70s Batman and J. Bone drawing ‘70s Wonder Woman, I wonder how they will temper their styles to evoke that of period artists...?

DC Retroactive: Batman—The ‘90s #1 is the first of these that evoked out and out nostalgia in me, a feeling I’m not terribly familiar with when it comes to comics, although I understand it’s a very powerful factor in Big Two super-comic publishing. Part of the reason I’ve never encountered books in which my own personal nostalgia played a role before was because I didn’t start reading comics until the early nineties, and thus so much of what followed was new to me (In DC terms, hook-handed, bearded Aquaman was my Batman, Kyle Rayner and Wally West were my Green Lantern and Flash, etc.)

Of course, the early ‘90s is almost a generation ago now, a good 20 years anyway, and so I guess I just finally entered the age where nostalgia matters for me.

I was then naturally quite excited for this particular Retroactive one-shot, and it was the one I was most looking forward to (followed closely by the DC Retroactive: Justice League—The ‘90s by the Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire creative team, although that creative team has had projects at DC in fairly regular intervals since their run on the Justice League books ended, so their return doesn’t strike me as such a big deal; DC has also been reprinting their original collaborations, whereas almost none of the Grant/Breyfogle comics have been collected into trade).

I was happy to see that Grant and Breyfogle are still just as good at telling Batman stories now as they were in 1990, the year the reprint in this issue was first published. Most of the virtues mentioned are evidenced in their new story, “One Night in the Rest of My Life.”

In it, Scarface and the Ventriloquist are released from prison and lay a trap for Batman, which he triggers but survives. There are little nods to their run on the Bat-comics, big and small, but what I most enjoyed was seeing a crystal clear action sequence in a Batman comic after having suffered through too many poorly drawn ones during the last few years.

The book’s not perfect—the coloring seemed a bit too soft and luminescent, a poor fit for Breyfogle’s drawing-as-drawings style, a style that seems on the wane with the rise of computers and photos-of-celebrities modeling in comics. And the evoking-past-decades concept for the Retrospective project makes saying anything new with the comic all but impossible.

But it was nice to see something produced particularly to appeal to my nostalgia, instead of the nostalgia of readers a generation older than me. (If I have to get older, I guess having a major publisher catering to my nostalgia for the comics of my youth might be one nice side benefit). And I hope that this and the other Retroactive book serve to remind people—particularly comic book editors and those in the position to hire comics creators—that some of the great creators from 20, 30 and 40 years ago are still around and still capable of creating great work.

I’d love to see a Breyfogle, or Grant and Breyfogle, showcase comic book again, of the sort that DC has devoted to Finch in Batman: The Dark Knight, or to Doug Moench and Kelley Jones in Batman: Unseen or Neal Adams in Batman: The Odyssey.

Almost as much as I’d love to see Breyfogle and other Retroactive artists—Eduardo Barretto, Jon Bogdanove, Paris Cullins, Darryl Banks, Joe Staton, J. Bone—working on some of DC’s “New 52” comics instead of some of the newer, but not-very-good artists who have gotten some of those swell gigs.

Almost as much as I would have loved it if Breyfogle followed Andy Kubert on Batman during Morrison’s run instead of Daniel and some of the other not-quite-ready-for-Batman artists.

But then, maybe that's just my nostalgia talking.

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