Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

11 May 2012

Showcase Presents Batman, v. 5

Collects: Detective Comics #391-407 and Batman #216-227 (1969-70)

Released: December 2011 (DC)

Format: 448 pages / black and white / $19.99 / ISBN: 9781401232368

What is this?: Batman starts swinging into the Bronze Age, packing his sidekick off to college and hitting the mean streets of downtown Gotham.

The culprits: Writers Frank Robbins, Denny O’Neil, and Mike Friedrich and artists Bob Brown, Neal Adams, and Irv Novick

I read Showcase Presents Batman v. 1 and v. 2, but I had to give up reading the series. Unlike some, I have little tolerance for Silver Age stories from the DC Universe; I don’t care that the original writers and artists knew they were creating comics for kids or that the stories were unapologetically goofy. The stories are still goofy, and that does not amuse or entertain me.

So I decided to hop back on bard the Showcase train only when it hit Denny O’Neil Station, which it did in Showcase Presents Batman, v. 5. Not all of these issues are written by O’Neil (his first is Detective Comics #395), and Frank Robbins wrote more, by a 2-to-1 margin. (Mike Friedrich contributed three back-ups.) O’Neil does pen the most lasting contribution to Bat-lore in this volume — the creation of the League of Assassins in Detective Comics #405 — but I was surprised to discover Robbins co-created the Man-Bat (in Detective #400).

Showcase Presents Batman, v. 5 coverO’Neil’s writing … it’s hard to call it “realistic,” but his stories are less prone to the Silver Age flourishes that characterize the previous volumes in the series. O’Neil’s writing will occasionally indulge in asides to the reader, asking if she has spotted the key clue to a mystery, but his stories feel more modern. On the other hand, Robbins opens the volume with “The Girl Most Likely to Be — Batman’s Widow” (Detective #391) and “I Died … a Thousand Deaths!” (Detective #392). Those titles would have fit right into Showcase Presents Batman, v. 1, although the stories aren’t as hokey as their titles (or their punctuation) would lead you to believe. By the end of the volume, O’Neil and Robbins aren’t aping each other’s style, but there isn’t a tonal clash between their stories either — Robbins drifts toward the science-fictional, O’Neil toward the supernatural, but they generally restrict themselves to one major speculative element per issue.

The stories in v. 5 are obviously Batman stories, but they disdain a lot of the Batman trappings. Readers will probably be surprised that none of Batman’s impressive rogue’s gallery makes an appearance in this book. There’s no Joker, no Two-Face, Catwoman, Riddler … Even Robin leaves for college in the fourth story (Detective #393) after seemingly aging three years between issues. Batman abandons Wayne Manor for a downtown penthouse, the flashy Batmobile for a less noticeable muscle car. Bruce Wayne gets involved in victim services, helping those affected by crime with philanthropy and Bat-punches. The only freaks he encounters are Man-Bat (the scientist who turns himself into a man / bat hybrid) and the Man with Ten Eyes (a veteran whose ocular nerves are re-routed through his fingers). Both are good men driven toward bad deeds by madness or false information — very much in the Marvel vein of this time. Batman’s opponents are generally grandiose tugs, blackmailers, kidnappers, and thieves graduating to murder or attempted murder. All these gangsters give the book slight blandness, which makes the occasional note of goofiness a welcome bit of flavor. Had this been another, less-popular hero’s adventures, I doubt the stories here would have saved him from cancellation, let alone have supported two titles.

Still, there are some points of interest, even beyond assassins and Man-Bat appearances. O’Neil uses the ghostly Enemy Ace in Detective #404, which must have thrilled literally tens of readers. The Muertos, an immortal husband-and-wife team of villains, clearly presage O’Neil’s later (and much more important) Ra's al Ghul. Robbins’s most interesting story comes from his twist (ha!) on the “Paul is dead” hoax in Batman #322, in which Batman and Robin try to discover whether Saul Cartwright, a member of the Beatles stand-ins Oliver Twists, is an imposter.

The art in this book is top-notch. Bob Brown provides the art for early issues, and those stories have a stagy, first-generation Silver-Age style to them. But when pencilers Neal Adams and Irv Novick join the art rotation, his style gradually becomes more like theirs. And theirs … there are many valid complaints you can make about the Bronze Age — quality control for story content being foremost — but the emergence of the first generation of artists who were inspired by Kirby and other Silver Age greats make up for all of them. Adams is foremost among this group, and his art is wonderful: shadowy, evocative, action packed, pretty to look at. He also draws the majority of the covers in this book, and it’s jarring to see Silver Age copy on Adams’s more modern, hipper art. I was surprised how good Novick’s work was; not as graceful as Adams’s, but it’s an excellent complement: realistic while still allowing for some stylistic embellishments. He’s not someone who’s going to get much attention — today everyone remembers Adams, but no one talks about Novick — but his work is always enjoyable.

I enjoyed this far more than v. 1 or v. 2. Are these stories great? No; as I said, there is an unavoidable feeling of blandness throughout. Even Man-Bat, who alleviates this feeling in his appearances, is a somewhat bland (and obvious) idea. But given the art, the changes in the status quo, and O’Neil’s assassin stories, I get the feeling this series is on the brink of something exciting.

Rating: Batman symbol Batman symbol Batman symbol (3 of 5)

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Blogger Marc said...

Very interesting review! I've read very little Bronze Age Batman, and so I've often wondered where to start. I recently got the Legends of the Dark Knight: Jim Aparo hardcover, which looks to be an enjoyable read, but I may investigate this trade as well. How well do these comics hold up without color?

1:36 PM  
Blogger Raoul said...

They hold up pretty well, as you might expect -- like the Essential Tomb of Draculas, color wasn't as big a deal for these stories as it was for, say, Green Lantern or even Killraven.

1:07 AM  

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