Issues 583-594; 596-597; 601-603
By Alan Grant & John Wagner and Norm Breyfogle
1988 was a strange year for Batman.
The franchise-reinvigorating Frank Miller Dark Knight series, which made Batman much more no-nonsense and grim was two years old (summer of 1986).
The grand commercial explosion of the Michael Keaton Batman movie wouldn’t arrive for another year.
By late 1986, everyone’s perception of Batman (or at least, the perception of the editors and most of the people that were reading new comics) was that he had taken a dramatic step back into the shadows from his slightly more cheery mid-1980s incarnation. Julie Schwartz, Batman’s editor since the mid-’60s, had just stepped down and was replaced by Denny O’Neil, the writer often credited as giving Batman his shadowy mystique back in the late 1960s.
The wide holes left by DC’s Crisis series (also 1986) allowed O’Neil a great deal of editorial freedom: his first act as editor of the Batman titles was to allow Miller to write Batman: Year One (serialized in O’Neil’s first four issues as editor) which canonized Miller’s darker vision of Batman. Perhaps as a way of offsetting this, the companion Batman title Detective Comics approached the affair from a lighter and more classic angle, written by Mike Barr.* History has shown which has won out: Year One was collected into a single book almost twenty years ago, and has stayed in print since. There has been no collection of the fun-loving Barr Batman strip.
*The subject of a future column.
Barr’s successors on Detective were British writers Alan Grant and John Wagner, longtime writers of the “Judge Dredd” strip in the English comic 2000 AD. In an interview with the 2000 AD Review website, Alan Grant explained how they got the job: “John and I were working on Dredd one day when the phone went. It was Denny O’Neil to say that sales of their flagship title were the lowest ever, they were thinking of closing down ‘Detective Comics‘, but he’d been reading Dredd and wondered if we could impart any of that weirdness to Batman. We said yes, of course. He gave us a 2-issue contract, extended to a year after he read the [first] story.” The artist assigned to work with them (and who, in truth, had drawn some of the last few Barr issues as well) was a relative newcomer, an American named Norm Breyfogle.
Their work on Batman, though well-praised in its moment, has since fallen off the radar – undeservedly, since it remains some of the finest Batman material published to date. Nearly twenty years later, and with the appearance of a new Batman movie, their work on the character deserves a second look.
While I hope to discuss in depth the whole of the Grant/Breyfogle tenure on the character over time (Wagner leaves the strip relatively early on), here I’ll only be discussing the first 17 issues (the 75-cent cover-priced issues), to whet your appetite for more.
Fever: The Ventriloquist
In Grant and Wagner’s first issue of Detective, they achieve what few other Batman writers can claim: right out of the gate, they created a memorable and lasting Batman villain, The Ventriloquist. The Ventriloquist is a mild-mannered looking fellow who is in the thrall of his sinister ventriloquist’s dummy, Scarface, who can’t pronounce his ‘b’s correctly. Many of you know the gimmick: the Ventriloquist has become a regular on the Batman cartoon, and has appeared all over the place with Batman over the past 17 years or so. In this two-part story, Batman becomes aware of a dangerous new street drug, ‘fever,’ and tries to bring about the fall of the Ventriloquist, its distributor. Batman is horrified that the new drug is causing extraordinarily violent behavior in its users – the initial group he runs into kill an elderly security guard by setting him on fire – and moreso that its users are all around 12 years old. He busts a ‘drug fortress’ where fever is distributed and intimidates a dealer into revealing the Ventriloquist as the mastermind of the operation. Batman catches Ventriloquist in the act, and all is put right in the end. The story ends with Scarface tormenting the Ventriloquist in jail for turning state’s witness.
The Ventriloquist seems to have been a classic case of the right thing at the right time. In the 2000 AD Review interview, Grant treats his creation rather nonchalantly: “Both John and I love ventriloquist acts, and always wanted to see a bad dummy. We created one for use in a 2000 AD story we were writing.” When the pair were offered to write
Batman, they used the character in the Detective script instead. When I spoke to Norm Breyfogle recently, he seemed still impressed by the character: “When I saw [the Ventriloquist] story, it was like ‘Wow! No wonder Alan [and John are] writing Batman. Nobody else should be.’ Because nobody else had ever put those two obvious icons together. The
idea had been around decades before Alan [and John] took on Batman; the ventriloquist as a scary icon. There were Twilight Zone episodes, and [movies], [but] nobody had done it for Batman before.”
There are a couple of things that these stories do differently than the Batman stories around them which are very easy to take for granted. Many of these elements recur throughout Grant’s time on the character. First is the relatively grim violence. During Julie Schwartz’s time on the book, while there were killings, they didn’t revel in their own bloodshed. The villains were often unafraid to kill, and sometimes even killed with glee, but compared to the troubling violence of the villains in Grant and Wagner’s Batman, these villains are strictly bush league. Consider the Ventriloquist. The way that the Ventriloquist ultimately transports the drug up from its Mexican manufacturing plant is in the corpse of an associate that failed him. This isn’t a new device – the same smuggle-inside-a-corpse scheme was used in the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever, among other places – but Scarface’s lack of concern for the victim and the relish with which he encourages his henchman to cut open the corpse to find the goods inside is chilling.
Breyfogle seems to relish the violence in his art. Panels that show violence in Breyfogle are often shaped as splashes of blood. Not too much is shown – these are Code-approved books – but that often this makes the violence of these issues of Detective more disturbing than, say, McFarlane’s Spawn of a few years later, which seems to exclusively have ‘grisly killer of the week’ villains. The difference that makes a difference is that Spawn revels in the gratuity of the violence, these Detective issues revel in the twisted psychology of the villains.
The other element that stands out is that the Gotham City that Grant and Wagner imagine Batman inhabiting is almost impossibly crime filled, perhaps even more so than Miller’s. In the exposition of “Fever,” the narration – first person, like Dark Knight – explains: “Chances are, if [Batman] reached down there and plucked any one of them off of those streets he’d find a criminal. But then you could say that about half the city. Any one of them had something to hide.” In Year One, all the police (save Gordon) are on the take, and organized crime controls the city. In the Grant/Wagner version, there is little in the way of an organization to the crime that has infused Gotham – everyone is a thug in it for himself – but the police are dedicated to their jobs, from Commissioner Gordon on down. This makes Batman’s job easier: he uses the police for leads and tips, and radios in when he captures criminals.
The next two-part story in Detective introduces another new villain, The Ratcatcher. The Ratcatcher is sort of an updated pied piper with a sinister twist. He’s kidnapped those who sent him to jail and has jailed them for five years in the sewer he calls home. He has an army of vicious rats at his command. He’s perhaps not the most compelling of the villains that were created in this run, but he is one of the most visually striking. It also is worth mentioning that even in the weaker issues of the Grant/Wagner/Breyfogle Batman, the whole thing flows so seamlessly and is so much fun to read that even the lesser issues of the run will leave the reader wanting more. I’ve seen it happen.
One of the things that’s satisfying about the books is that they feel right for Batman, in the same way that the animated series a few years later did. Batman is obsessed, but not cartoonishly so. There’s a crime problem, but there’re a lot more street criminals than there are villains in costume. The whole thing clicks. You won’t find epics here, but you will find great one and two part “workaday” stories with a beginning, middle and end.
In the Grant/Wagner Batman, Batman is constantly breaking up some criminal activity or another. He’s constantly on watch. The setup to many of the stories, in fact, seems to be that Batman finds out about the greater, more horrific goings-on of Gotham’s master criminals accidentally in the course of his more mundane crimebusting. In this story, he’s breaking up an illegal arms deal. The deal gone-wrong ends with a man
devoured by rats before Batman’s eyes. This man hadn’t been there from the beginning, but is quite dead before Batman can adequately act. This dead man is Judge Wyatt Hogan, who had been trying to escape from the Ratcatcher’s clutches in vain. It’s a rather bizarre setup.
The Batman goes to investigate, and finds himself unable to successfully deal with the Gotham sewer system, which is the intimately-known domain of the Ratcatcher. It’s strange to see Batman outclassed by a decidedly second-tier villain, but as it happens here, it makes a certain sense. Batman doesn’t look the
worse for it, and his plight seems genuine rather than the sort of manageable escapes that Batman traditionally pulls off otherwise.
I realize that I haven’t talked enough at this point about Norm Breyfogle, the artist of these books. Quite simply, I believe he’s one of the best artists to handle Batman. His strong sense of storytelling and compelling character designs really help to make these issues the delight that they are. When I was a child and first read these comics, it was the recognition of his unique art style that helped me distinguish the Batman books I enjoyed — the Grant and Breyfogle ones — from the ones I enjoyed less. That isn’t to diminish Grant’s writing, which was just as much a factor that made me enjoy the title, but is
to say that I connected with Breyfogle’s art near immediately. I spoke to him not long ago, and I’ve reprinted that interview elsewhere rather than in the context of this column because I wanted to give him more than just pull-quotes. It was a great conversation.One of the things that came up was Breyfogle’s dissatisfaction with not being allowed to ink his own pencils. Detective #586, the second part of the Ratcatcher story, is the first of the Grant/Wagner issues where he’s allowed to do that (and his first cover in this run). As a point of comparison and as an educational tool for those who don’t realize the difference inkers make, I’ve shown to the right a Ratcatcher head inked by Ricardo Villagran from Breyfogle’s pencils in # 585 (not Steve Mitchell, as the cover erroneously claims), the first part of the story, alongside Breyfogle’s own inks on his pencils on a similar head from #586.
I prefer Breyfogle’s own inks better of the two — there’s a greater subtlety of line. The mouthpiece has more shape in Breyfogle’s version, for instance, and the hair isn’t quite so limp. Take a look, and see how the different aspects are handled. I’m not suggesting there’s a “right way” to look at this, nor am I dismissing Villagran. To me it makes sense that Breyfogle’s linework should be stronger, since he drew it initially and knew where he wanted to place the shadows and so forth. Breyfogle said, “Most any artist who can ink their own work prefers to ink their own work.” Certainly, Breyfogle seems to relish the opportunity to maintain control of his art, and does so on Detective for several issues, through 593.
The Night People: The Corrosive Man and Kadaver
The next arc, “Night People,” runs three issues and introduces two new villains. One thing that really grabs me about “Night People” is its sense of pacing, and how many narrative plates it keeps spinning. As each element is introduced and followed, the pieces fit together so well that the reader forgets just how many dangling plot threads are left until
the end. Much of the story is narrated (for lack of a better term) by DJ Dark, a late night Gotham disc jockey. His interventions both keep the story going and add some color. The first issue even provides its own musical soundtrack. This gives the whole thing a much greater sense of immediacy and cohesion.
Alan Grant tells me that the the credits from here on out are somewhat wrong. For instance, John Wagner was on vacation for issue 587 (the first part of “Night People”), but is still credited as a writer.
The story begins with a prison break by Derek “Deke” Mitchel, a relatively small-time criminal who wants to get revenge on a fellow named Kadaver. At the same time, someone is brutally killing Gotham’s homeless. In the midst of this, Batman is doing his usual clean up: stopping muggings, busting cocaine shipments, etc. In many respects, the first issue feels very “a day in the life.” There’s a whole lot of atmosphere, and the pieces for the next two issues are set up slowly rather than used all at once. At the end of the first issue, Mitchel is caught in an explosion near some hazardous waste while hiding from the police, coincidentally very nearby where Batman has been stopping the aforementioned cocaine shipment. On the last page, we find that Mitchel is not dead (as the police assume), but rather has been changed into something horrible by the waste. That “something” is The Corrosive Man, one of the finest one-off villains ever to tangle with Batman.
As Norm Breyfogle points out, “The Corrosive Man…was a lot like Dr. Phosphorus. I always thought it would be neat to
have them meet. I don’t think it’s ever happened. They’re very similar.” And it’s true: both villains have burning touches and radically altered physical appearances after exposure to dangerous chemicals. Dr. Phosphorus is a villain from Steve Englehart’s time on Batman (also in Detective), a corrupt businessman who is caught in a nuclear explosion and whose body is transmuted into living phosphorus. One major thing that separates the two villains is their motives. Phosphorus was interested in destroying all of Gotham in retribution for his transformation; Mitchel’s anger is much more personal and his relationship to his newfound abilities is much more frustrated. Maybe this also has something to do with their class: Phosphorus was a white collar criminal with the corrupt city council on his side, Mitchel is much more working-class, is an escaped felon and was set up for his crime.I believe that of the two, the Corrosive Man is the more visually compelling. Breyfogle explains, “I didn’t draw him like Dr. Phosphorus, although that first jumped to mind, you know, a skeleton. Instead, I had him like he was melting, like The Incredible Melting Man, that terrible sci-fi movie from the ’70s. It’s like his eyes are melting, but they’re glowing at the same time.” You can see him in the group villains shot at the top of the page, he’s the one closest in the foreground.
It seems most of the reason that The Corrosive Man hasn’t had a more successful career in Batman’s Rogues Gallery is for the very reason that he’s compelling in these issues: he’s motivated almost solely by revenge towards Kadaver, and unlike Phosphorus, has seemingly little desire for greater criminal ambition (despite his apparent death at the end of the story, the Corrosive Man also appeared in a Grant-penned issue of Shadow of the Bat).
Both Phosphorus and Corrosive Man seem to have been combined in the Batman Beyond character Blight, a glowing green skeletal-looking figure whose power is to burn things with his touch. But, you know, from the future.
The other villain of the piece is Kadaver, a con artist and extortionist obsessed (almost absurdly so) with death. Kadaver is one of the most self-consciously theatrical of the Batman villains: we first see him emerge from a coffin in the center of a mocked-up
dungeon wearing make-up that makes him appear half-rotted.
Kadaver, although we only see him briefly relative to the rest of the story, is a wonderfully hate-able villain. His domination of his assistant Webley — Kadaver has convinced Webley to do the brutal slaying I mentioned earlier — is both funny and troubling. A later scene, in which he extorts money by threatening his victim over a pit of quicklime, is also full of a mustache-twirling villainy that doesn’t show up often
enough in the “grim and realistic” post Miller Batman world.
Here’s the possible downside of this particular set of issues: no classic costumed Batman villains appear. That’s not true of the whole time these gentlemen are on the title: the very next issue after the last one I discuss here stars three different Clayfaces, and the number of classic villains balloons after that. But those are issues for another time, and the fact remains that for more than a year, the Grant/Wagner/Breyfogle team deal exclusively in new villains when there are villains at all.
Batman Goes Global
In fact, the next issue, “An American Batman in London” might be said to be without a “villain” at all. The menace is of a much more abstract nature. OK, sure: There is a bad guy; he’s named Abu Hassan, a diplomat of the fictitious (but transparently named) country of Syraq. He’s a jihadi, and he’s a figure that thus falls somewhere beneath Osama Bin Laden in ambition, but of a same purpose. The main difference is that he’s protected by diplomatic immunity.The story is the first “done in one” issue I’ve reviewed so far,
which is surprising for the amount of content involved. Alan Grant told me that this story began life quite differently: “[It] was an adaptation of a Vigilante story we’d written, but the comic was closed before it appeared so we turned Vig into Batman. That was the last issue John worked on.” In the 2000 AD Review interview, Grant explains why: “After 5 issues, we got our first royalty statement: sales were 75,000, five thou below breakeven, so there were no royalties. Wagner more or less immediately said “I’m offski”. I decided to stay; about a year later the release of Tim Burton’s movie and attendant hyperbole sent sales soaring to 650,000 where they stayed for several years.”
Once more, Batman is taking down some criminals when the real action happens. A pair of Arab men enter a Vietnam veterans center, and mow everyone down with machine guns before they kill themselves. Batman arrives on the scene too late, and is noticeably disturbed by the carnage. The FBI explains to Batman that they know who’s behind the massacre, but that their hands are tied. Writing that here, I just realized that I make it sound as though Batman is asked to intercede by the government, but that isn’t really the way it actually reads. The case seems to be more that Batman is troubled to the point of extreme action — he always gets his man, and now he can’t. But even this is a simplification. A lot is conveyed by the subtlety of Breyfogle’s facial expressions and Grant and Wagner’s words that you’ll just have to read the book to see.
When Batman gets to London, he dispatches the guards at the embassy and moves right on to stopping Hassan. It happens to be Guy Fawkes Day, the English holiday like the 4th of July that celebrates Guy Fawkes’s unsuccessful attempt to blow up Parliament (you remember — like in V for Vendetta). In perhaps the silliest twist in what otherwise is a rather grim story, the terrorist cell is going to try and succeed where Fawkes failed.
When Batman confronts Hassan, Hassan responds with a speech that seems to spin the story 180 degrees. I’ve reprinted the page (and a few of the panels that follow) to the right so you don’t have to take my word for it. Hassan still is evil, and still plunges to his grisly death at the end, and Batman foils the plot to blow up Parliament, but the story ends with a very introspective and melancholy Batman. He’s clearly torn between the seeming truth of Hassan’s damning testimony about the American government, but is nonetheless righteous in the face of Hassan’s clear evil intent. I feel like the final panel of this story (not of page to the left, but of the story) pretty clearly encapsulates what a lot of people are feeling now, over fifteen years later, about real life rather than comic book drama.
This story led one reader to write in to the letter column about this issue that “there are only two types of villains in the eighties: terrorists and drug dealers.” This wasn’t said as fact, but as a disparagement of the lack of costumed villains I mentioned earlier. And in the world of The Grant/Wagner Batman (and the later solo Grant Batman as well) this is very much the case. In these stories, involvement with drugs is just about as bad as any other crime that can be committed in Gotham. Never before in Batman was there such stridency about the evils of drugs — not just falling from Batman’s mouth, but in the consequences of the actions of those that use drugs. While this didn’t strike me as strange the first time I read these stories several years ago, the repetition of that theme seems somewhat curious now.
The story that follows “American Batman” is set back in Gotham, but concerns an Aboriginal warrior from Australia who has come to Gotham
to take back a relic that was unethically taken by force from his people’s sacred place of worship. The draw of the piece is that it is the oldest known manmade object, which is why wealthy art collector Kerry Rollo felt it necessary to obtain for himself. Once more, Batman agrees with the sentiment of the Aboriginal “villain” — agrees much more and for much more morally certain reasons — but his ethics prevent him from intentionally allowing him to go free because he has killed to take his revenge. In some ways, this story plays out like a pale imitation of the previous one, but it also has more action and less overt politics.
The Fear: Cornelius Stirk
The next two-part story is called “The Fear” and introduces Cornelius Stirk, a serial killer who believes himself totally sane, and even normal. Except that he eats human hearts and has psychic powers that allow people to see him as he wants to be seen (that’s why Abe Lincoln is on the cover of 592, though
that scene doesn’t appear anywhere in either issue). Stirk gets his kicks from norepinephrine, the substance that the body produces in the blood when it is most terrified. Batman is (of course) taking care of other business one winter night when a body devoid of its heart is discovered in an open taxi trunk that was empty mere moments before. The only witness is a small child, who swears that it was Jesus who put the body there. Batman ties to track down the killer, and in the process is trapped, and seems likely to be Stirk’s next victim, and Stirk goes into Batman’s mind to draw out his deepest fear. We all know that he gets out of it; the fun is in how it happens.
What saves Stirk from being a more sociopathic Scarecrow is how normal his abnormal psychology is. Stirk believes himself normal in a way that the traditional Batman villains don’t This makes Stirk’s pleasure from inflicting harm all the more troubling. It’s an awful lot like what the journalist Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil” after observing the war crimes trial of high-ranking Nazi Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann said that he had no personal issue with Jews, but that participation in the
Holocaust just seemed like the right thing to do at the time. Arendt’s reporting of this led to a new sort of explanation for evil, that Stirk seems to demonstrate in spades. Anyone can be evil, and sometimes it’s much easier to be evil without realizing it than it is to be consciously or malevolently so. Breyfogle realizes this too: “[Stirk is an] ultra-modern, ultra-violent psychopath. I think the Joker would just be a joke to [him]. He cooked and
ate human hearts. A decade or two earlier that might have been a no-no to put in a Batman comic. It loosened up enough so that Alan could get away with that.” The true physical appearance of Stirk is likewise a reflection of his inner evil, and in the context of the comic, seems necessary given how much Stirk repeats how shocked he is that people find his actions so shocking. “[Alan] describe[d] Cornelius pretty much as I drew him,” Breyfogle explained to me, “although I gave him my own look and everything. I made his eyes a lot larger, and his teeth a lot more scraggly than [the script] necessarily called for.” His appearance makes him all the more frightening, but conceptually alone, I believe, Stirk might be the most psychologically horrifying villain in the whole of Grant’s tenure on Detective. Only next issue’s villain might hope to compete. But more on that in a moment.
One of the best-played moments in the story, wholly separate from how creepy Stirk is, is Batman’s interaction with the small child who first sees Stirk. The transformation in the art from menacing crimebuster (just two pages prior, Batman is in full swing beating up crooks) into gentle protector of the innocent. Breyfogle’s art reflects this well.
One of the quirks of Breyfogle’s art that becomes noticeable over the course of these issues is the number of Batmobiles Batman shows up driving (that is, when he’s not swinging around. Batman in these stories is almost always swinging somewhere on his rope). In an interview with Dave Derrigo (from Amazing Heroes #174) conducted in 1989, Breyfogle discussed his motives for so many different designs for the Batmobile: “I’d like to keep designing a new Batmobile every issue. But [editor] Denny [O’Neil] told me…that I’ve got to settle on one design. They didn’t want so many designs running around. [M]y reasoning on having so many…was that Batman, being a rough and tumble type of guy, would trash a lot of his cars. And he’s a rich man so he can replace them. He’d probably have different cars for different occasions.”
Here, for your enjoyment, are some of them.
The next issue, a one-part story called “Ecstasy,” is a special one to me. It’s a well done story, and the villain of the piece, Ed Hallen, is one of the most psychologically troubling foes that Batman encounters in these pages. But to me the issue is special because it was my first Batman comic book, given to me as a Christmas gift from my younger sister when I was six (this dates me, I know).
With this one comic, I almost can’t separate the story itself from my own associations with it, so keep that in mind. I’m told from others who I trust that have read it that it stands up well, and is indeed one of the more memorable stories that come from this run of comics. Ed Hallen has a drug problem, and it’s brought out a nasty sort of drug-induced schizophrenia. He suddenly hears voices in his head that tell him to do terrible things. These voices are given physical presence in the strip by two red-rimmed eyes that constantly overshadow Hallen, both showing his madness and watching him all of the time. Breyfogle is the one responsible for the addition of the menacing eyes, a detail that seems so essential to the story that it’s nearly impossible to imagine without. “I lifted that [device] from Bill Sienkiewicz. From [Daredevil: Love and War]. There was a character that was a real psycho, and he didn’t just have eyes over his head, he had eyes all over the place when he went really nutso. It was still my decision though, Alan didn’t ask for them.”
Ed, formerly a straightlaced yuppie currency dealer, has got three bombs that he’s decided to use to rid the city of corrupting influences. He first attracts Batman’s attention while trying to mow down some lowlife street kids with his Porsche. He gives it to them to show there’s no hard feelings… but the first bomb’s inside. In tracking Hallen down, Batman unwittingly gains the assistance of Joe Potato, a hard-worn, ugly private investigator who has been paid in advance to stop Hallen’s killing spree. There are a few twists along the way, but the thing that stays consistent (and creepy) is that much of the issue is spent inside Hallen’s head, and the reader gets an intimate portrait of his madness.
The thing that bothered me the most at the time I first got this issue was that there was no Robin (and indeed, there is no Robin throughout these early Grant/Wagner issues). I knew all too well why at the time. Not very long before, DC killed Robin. I didn’t know at the time, but this was Jason Todd, the second Robin (now the
Red Hood and alive and well, if I understand correctly) and not Dick Grayson, who dressed identically and who I knew intimately from television. Any Robin, to me, was Robin, and I was upset more than I can express as an adult when I saw the cover to the right reprinted in my parents’ Newsweek. Perhaps because Robin’s fate was already in the cards Grant chose not to use him earlier. In order to fit into continuity, the solo Batman adventures that appeared between Detective #591 and this issue were marked “Case Book”, which theoretically sets them as older stories from sometime in the not-so-distant past.
In order to show that Robin was still around somewhere, the six-or-seven year old me cut out a small picture of Robin and taped it to one of the final panels of the story, as though he stopped by just as the action was ending. Perhaps self-indulgently, I feel like that panel is just as important (at least to me) as what actually takes place in the issue.
There’s an issue missing here, but it’s deliberately gone. 594 is part of the company-wide “Invasion” crossover, best known because two of the three issues of the miniseries were drawn by Todd McFarlane before he left for Marvel. This issue is still written by Grant (and still contains a credit for Wagner), but it never has felt right to me. Partly, this is because of its science fictional nature. While I have a much easier time dealing with Batman outside of his city context than many — I’m a huge fan of Batman’s role in the Justice League or in the Outsiders, where he is confronted by stranger menaces than normal — this one tries to have its cake and eat it too, with Batman fighting winged Thanagarians (warriors from the same planet as Hawkman). The art is by classic Batman artist Irv Novick, whose appearance is pleasant but should have been on a better story. This issue is worth acknowledging, but not worth recommending.
The next two issues aren’t by Breyfogle either, but since they have covers by him (covers that even erroneously
claim he did the interior art) and generally have the same feel as the other issues up for discussion, I feel they fit the parameters I’ve set up.The two part story, “Video Nasties” and “Private Viewing,” addresses the issue of the commodification of violence in the sort of direct way that only superhero comics and television cop shows can. There’s a club of the select elite that meet to watch videos of real people caught unawares being beaten within inches of their lives. When a college student (who’s having a difficult time writing a term paper on violence in cartoons) is quite nearly killed, Batman takes a personal interest in the matter. The leader of the ring is a wealthy man named Milton Sladek, who is so out of touch that he sees the suffering of those in the video tapes as more or less unreal or theoretical. It’s a bit over the top, but it comes off well in the story. Batman eventually winds up on tape himself, and crashes the screening of his own beating to put Sladek’s wealthy patrons to shame.
Fill-in artist Eduardo Baretto’s art in these issues tells the story well, and keeps up good pacing. There’s little room for complaint. The Breyfogle fan in me still wishes, though, that we could have seen his take on the story. Breyfogle’s recognition for the visual flair that violence can present (there’s irony for you!) would have lent the story a different gravity.
For instance, when Batman is being beaten by Sladek’s oafish assistant, Baretto draws a dribble of blood from Batman’s nose as he’s staggering, clearly having taken a few too many blows. By contrast, Breyfogle’s cover that depicts the same beating shows blood gushing from Batman’s face. It’s much more painful to look at.
These two issues are also the last ones credited to John Wagner inside (though his name doesn’t appear on the cover of the second part), even though he hadn’t been involved with the book since issue 590.
The next three issues were double-sized to lead up to Batman’s fiftieth anniversary. They’re loaded with pin-ups and celebrity confessionals. The script is by Sam Hamm, and features a Bane-like villain a few years before he shows up. They aren’t bad, but they’re not great. They also are neither by Grant nor Breyfogle, and thus fall outside the scope of this article, though the pin-up that begins this post comes from 598, and serves as a nice visual summary of what had come in the rather short time this team was on the title thus far.
These next three issues, the final ones I’ll consider in this column, show a dynamic break from what had come before, and a hint of what would follow during the rest of the Grant/Breyfogle time with the character. The story, called Tulpa (after mythical Tibetan physical creatures created by the mind), involves the first real supernatural Batman adventure since Grant began on the title. Some penny-ante extortionists have bee harassing a second-generation Tibetan shop keeper, who’s inherited a failing business and an unpaid loan from his father. In order to make ends meet, he creates a series of tulpas to steal money — just enough to cover the debt — from the wealthy. One attracts Batman’s
attention at the beginning of the story as it challenges him to a drag race in a Ferrari, which ends in the the tulpa’s disintegration in the arms of a startled Batman. It seems with each one that is created, they gain slightly more mental independence and seem to have an increasingly greater desire to live. As a final measure to throw his debtors off track (after a break-in at Wayne Manor by a tulpa goes awry), the shopkeeper summons up a tulpa in the form of the Mahakala, a figure four-armed axe wielding monster from Tibetan myth. Unfortunately, the Mahakala won’t stop until it’s destroyed the offending extortionists, something Batman won’t allow to happen. Since a normal mortal isn’t enough to stop a
supernaturally powered menace of this sort, Batman has to enlist some extra help.
This help comes in the form of the Demon, the first DC character to show up in the strip (besides the aforementioned Thanagarians). Originally created in the early 1970s by Jack “king” Kirby, the Demon is in reality Jason Blood, a near immortal after having been bound to Etrigan, an honest-to-goodness demon. In his original incarnation, Blood was reluctant to loose Etrigan, but often did in the face of monster movie-style villains. When the character reappeared after a brief stint in limbo during Alan Moore’s famous time on Swamp Thing, the Demon was much more demonic, and thus much more sinister. He also spoke in rhyme. After he was separated for a period from Blood, the two were reunited by Darkseid shortly before this story takes place (in the fun Jim Starlin/Mike Mignola Cosmic Odyssey miniseries).
Blood is awfully bitter about the reunion, and is reluctant to release Etrigan, however noble the cause. Grant’s depiction of the Demon here led to a long tenure as writer of the 1990s Demon series, which spun directly off from this issue.
In an interview with Andy Diggle, Grant calls issue 603 one of his favorite Batman stories, and it’s easy to see why. The pacing in this final issue is fantastic, and the story is great fun: Batman gets to grapple with two monsters that are well out of his league, the Demon is shown to be more volatile than ever before, and the supernatural and street noir elements of the story mingle cleanly to the point where it seems only natural that the story should unfold as it does.
On this note, with Grant and Breyfogle halfway into their second year together, and with a slight change in the overall dynamic of the book, we’ll take our leave. After this issue, the book changes frequency to twice a month, and the cover price jumps up by twenty five cents. The Grant and Breyfogle team continued to produce Batman strips for the next several years, spanning three different titles. Those issues will almost certainly be the subject of some columns here in the near future; they’ll come sooner if this article gets good feedback.