BEST BETS: "Jessica Jones," "Big Trouble/Escape from New York" & More October 2016 Highlights
Batman is celebrating his 75th birthday this year, which may come as a surprise. I mean, look at that smooth, handsome face, or what little of it is visible beneath his cowl. Look at those ripped muscles, or the way he runs across rooftops and beats up criminals — why, Batman doesn’t look a day over 35!
Now just as it did recently for Superman, DC Comics is releasing a pair of hefty, 400-page hardcover collections that serve as a sort of survey for how the character has been portrayed and functioned in the publisher’s comics line during since his first appearance. Batman: A Celebration of 75 Years and The Joker: A Celebration of 75 Years aren’t exactly the comics equivalents of greatest-hits albums, but they are nice starting points for newcomers and/or casual fans, offering quick, compelling overviews of the title characters through the decades.
The Batman volume, featuring Jim Lee’s rendition of the character from the 2003 storyline “Hush” on the dust jacket, must have been particularly challenging to assemble, given the thousands and thousands of pages of Batman comics, featuring dozens of different takes by scores of creators.
Perhaps in part to make the job less daunting, the editors seem to have stuck to a pretty rigid criteria of only pulling stories from the regular, in-continuity Batman books, with nothing from the usually creatively fruitful but continuity-light comics based on cartoons (or television or movies), or any Elseworlds or “Imaginary Stories,” or any creator-focused miniseries (nothing from Batman: Black and White or Solo, for example). And, obviously, due to space concerns, there’s nothing in here longer than a standard comics issues, so for Batman: Year One or The Long Halloween or The Dark Knight Returns, readers will have to search out those collections.
So what is in here?
Well, the Bill Finger/Bob Kane stories “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” (Batman’s first appearance), as well as their short origin story “The Legend of the Batman — Who He Is and How He Came to Be.” There’s a World’s Finest Comics story telling “The Origin of the Superman-Batman Team,” and the first appearances of Vicki Vale, Batgirl Barbara Gordon and Poison Ivy. There’s Mike Barr, Michael Golden and Mike DeCarlo’s 1984 Batman Special #1, which John Layman and Jason Fabok struggled to offer a rebooted retelling of recently during their Detective Comics run, featuring The Wrath.
There’s the penultimate issue of the “Knightfall” storyline by Dough Moench, Jim Aparo and Dick Giordano, in which Bane breaks Batman’s back (an odd choice for Aparo’s only contributions, given that he is, for many, the definitive Batman artist, but the many flashbacks in that particular issue do give him an opportunity to draw much of Batman’s rogues gallery and supporting cast).
And, from the last 20 years, there’s a 1997 Chuck Dixon/Graham Nolan story, a Greg Rucka/Rick Burchett story, a Paul Dini/J.H. Williams story and the second issue of the rebooted, New 52 Batman, by Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo and Jonathan Glapion.
Most of the most influential Batman writers and artists are present in here somewhere — Finger, Kane, Aparo, Dixon, Barr, Giordano, Moench, Rucka, Neal Adams, John Broome, Jack Burnley, Alan Davis, Steve Englehart, Gardner Fox, Edmond Hamilton, Carmine Infantino, Bob Kanigher, Frank Miller, Sheldon Moldoff, Denny O’Neil, Marshall Rogers, Dick Sprang — even if they show up in unusual arrangements. Like the aforementioned Aparo story, or Miller’s contribution as penciler for the 1980 story “Wanted: Santa Claus — Dead or Alive.”
Part of the fun of such collections comes not merely from reading them, but from scrutinizing and second-guessing them, armchair editing, if you will.
The most striking omission I noticed was that of anything from the Alan Grant/Norm Breyfogle team, or anything from either individual creator. Grant wrote Batman comics, including healthy runs on ‘TEC, Batman, his own Shadow of the Bat and elsewhere, from 1988 to at least 2000, while Breyfogle drew the character, most often from Grant’s scripts, from ’88 to 1993 or so. Instead of a Grant/Breyfogle piece, there’s a 1991 offering from writer Peter Milligan’s very strange, very short run on ‘TEC (he only scripted the title, for a variety of artists, for about 18 issues, coming between much longer runs by Grant and then Dixon).
Also surprisingly absent is Grant Morrison, who put in about seven consecutive years of scripting Batman monthlies (not to mention his Arkham Asylum, “Gothic” arc of Legends of the Dark Knight and years of writing the character in JLA) and reinvigorated the line with a new Robin and the rejuvenation of some of the strangest concepts of Batman’s Silver Age. Missing too is anything by the massively influential Jeph Loeb/Tim Sale team, working together or separately (their Long Halloween and Dark Victory collections are among the books recommended in the collection’s text pieces, however), and anything by writer Bob Haney.
In the nice surprise category, there’s an Archie Goodwin-written, Alex Toth-drawn story from 1974 (“Death Flies the Haunted Sky.”) And then there’s an appealingly weird final story in the book, in which Brad Meltzer’s script for his retelling of “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” from this year’s Detective Comics #27 is taken by designer Chip Kidd and inserted into dialogue bubbles in blown-up and rearranged art by Kane & Co. from the original ‘TEC #27. It makes for a neat little bonus, even if seeing Meltzer in a book like this instead of Haney, Morrison or Grant is strange enough to border on blasphemous.
The task of filling up 400 pages must have been much easier when it came to picking stories for companion book The Joker: A Celebration of 75 Years, which features a Brian Bolland image of The Joker and one of his fish on the dust jacket, as there are so many fewer Joker stories than Batman tales.
In fact, the biggest and most interesting decision might have been that to focus on The Joker, who is actually turning 74 this year, at all. The Superman book of the same format was paired with a Lois Lane volume, a love-interest/foil character that Batman has no perfect equivalent to. Catwoman probably comes closest, but instead of choosing to feature her or Commissioner Gordon or Robin, the latter of whom is probably the most natural choice, considering he was there from (almost) the very beginning, and his interpretations mirrored those of Batman’s, DC opted to focus on the Dark Knight’s archenemy.
The same criteria was seemingly used, as the stories chosen come solely from regular, in-continuity Batman books (the only exception being a single, 1987 Batman-less story from John Byrne’s Superman run), and those included seem to to have been selected because they offer as wide and complete a representation of the character in DC’s main line over the decades rather than other considerations, up to and including quality.
The text pieces and suggested reading lists cover all of the classic and/or most influential Joker stories, those that are too long to fit in this book and/or have merited their own dedicated collections: The Killing Joke, Death of the Family, Death in the Family, The Man Who Laughs, Arkham Asylum, Mad Love and Other Stories and Gotham Central Book Two: Jokers and Madmen. The collection of The Joker’s own short-lived solo series, the standalone Brian Azzarello/Lee Bermejo Joker original graphic novel and the Joker vs. the DCU storylines Emperor Joker and The Joker’s Last Laugh are all referenced there as suggested further reading.
As for the stories in the book, all-time classics like The Joker’s first appearance, the Steve Englehart/Marshall Rogers “Laughing Fish” storyline and the Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge” all make the cut. Single chapters from the Jim Starlin/Jim Aparo Death in the Family and Snyder/Capullo Death of the Family are included, as is, rather surprisingly, a single chapter of the J.M. DeMatteis/Joe Staton Legends of the Dark Knight arc, “Going Sane.” The final chapter of the year-long “No Man’s Land” mega-storyline, in which The Joker kills Commissioner Gordon’s wife, is also in here.
Among the more modern stories are single-issue done-in-ones by Chuck Dixon and Brian Stelfreeze from 1998 and a 2007 Joker vs. Robin story by Paul Dini and Don Kramer, both from Detective Comics.
Once a reader accepts the criteria, I think it’s easy enough to mount or accept cases made for any or all of the inclusions, even if some of the major creative teams or voices are absent or mentioned in passing rather than represented, and alternate stories could be nominated (O’Neil and artist Bret Blevins’ Legends of the Dark Knight #50 instead of “Going Sane” Part 2, for example). The sole exception is 2011’s Detective Comics #1 by writer/penciler Tony S. Daniel, a story I don’t recall anyone really liking, which gives the book two issues’ worth of New 52-era Joker, and which really only serves as a prelude to “Death of the Family,” a chapter of which, remember, is also in here.
The most noticeably absent creator is Morrison, several of whose stories are referenced in the text pieces, but whose comics synthesized all of The Jokers depicted here into a single character, and whose conception of The Joker as someone who reinvents himself on a regular basis is referenced visually in Daniel’s story (as Daniel illustrated some of the many Joker appearances during Morrison’s run on the Batman and related books) and justifies Snyder and Capullo’s take.
Still, given the size and scope of the available bodies of comics to pull stories from — there are probably about 400 pages’ worth of stories about any Bat villain, or even the Tyrannosaur statue or giant penny in the Bat-cave — it’s hard to do more than question and quibble with the context. There are an infinite number of different combinations an editor can take to come up with 400 pages worth of Batman comics published since 1939’s ‘TEC #27.