Friday, October 19, 2012

Recommended Reading for 10/19: The Barr & Davis Detective Comics

There are certain runs on Batman titles that are considered legendary: O'Neil/Adams, Englehart/Rogers, Miller/Mazzucchelli, Loeb/Sale. But there are some that slip through the cracks, no matter how good they are. A personal favorite of mine was the short, seven issue run on Detective Comics by Mike W. Barr and Alan Davis.I'll be focusing on the first six issues, since the final one was the first issue of a four part story that Davis did not complete (it was, in fact finished by a then new talent named Todd McFarlance). But trust me, there's enough material in those six issues.

These are some of the final pre-Crisis Batman stories, and although that doesn't hugely matter, it does mean they are some of the final stories not in the shadow of Frank Miller's legendary Batman: Year One. The Batman in these stories is a bit lighter, able to smile, and while still a dark knight, is not someone that the non-criminal element of Gotham would be terrified of. He is also a bit more of a father figure to Jason Todd than the more dire Batman of the post Year One era. More than that, this Jason Todd is still the sort of Dick Grayson redux he was before he was given his new origin and attitude. The stories aren't as hokey as some of the early Silver Age Batman stories, as a matter of fact they get very dark in places, but there's a sense of fun to them that has been lost in times since.

The first two issues of the run are a two part story that feels like house cleaning from the previous few years of Batman stories. Catwoman had pretty much reformed here, and had not only developed a serious on-again/off-again relationship with Batman, but knew his identity. In a move that hearkens to the current "Death of the Family," Joker decided Catwoman shouldn't be with Batman and is better as a villain, and hire mad scientist Doctor Moon, a character who hasn't appeared in some time but was an 80s and 90s mad science fixture in the Bat- and Super- titles, to use a CAT scan device to change her mind. By the end of the story, Catwoman is a villainess again and does not know Batman's identity. The Joker plays a dark game here, and he truly leaves a wounded Batman. Batman himself savagely beats the Joker, and comes close to taking the Clown Prince of Crime's life. Batman might smile at Robin and quip, but Barr's Batman is still a  force to be reckoned with.

The remaining four issues of the run are single issue stories, although the last two tie together. Issue 571 is probably my favorite Scarecrow story of all time, and arguably the best (it also allows me to stick to something a Halloween theme with this week's recommendation, since what villain is better for Halloween then Scarecrow?). In "Fear for Sale," the Scarecrow develops a drug that does the opposite of his usual fear toxin. Instead of making someone afraid, it strips away all their fear. When Batman is exposed, he begins to act reckless, and a nervous Jason attempts to stop him. The way Jason was written after his new origin, a reckless Batman would have been something he was all for, but here he does his best to stop Batman from rushing headlong into the Scarecrow's death trap. In the end, though, Batman has one fear that the Scarecrow's toxin isn't able to block, and it is using that fear that Batman overcomes to toxin and defeats Scarecrow. That fear? The death of Jason, something that plays more into the last couple issues of the run and is oddly prescient for Jason's well known fate. This story has also been adapted for the latter episodes of the classic animated Batman series under the title of, "Never Fear."

"The Doomsday Book," Detective Comics #572, was one of the first back issues I ever bought. That cover, with my two favorite detectives of literary history, was something that just grabbed me. And the story inside was something different from the comics I was used to reading. It was a double sized anniversary issue, and was a series of interconnected stories that all tied together in the end. It also featured two chapters featuring characters who were new to me, but had a history with the title; Slam Bradley, the PI who first appeared in Detective Comics #1, and the Elongated Man, who had a back up feature in the tile back in the 60s. The story features a "lost" Holmes story, the descendant of Professor Moriarty, and a last minute save by the great detective himself. Barr is a huge fan of mysteries, as evidenced by his Batman stories and his 80s play fair mystery series Maze Agency, whose issues I am still attempting to track down, and this issue is a love letter to many a great detective stories.

"The Mad Hatter Flips His Lid" is a strange little throwback to the classic Batman TV series of the 60s. The Hatter design here is that of the 60s and the TV show, the chubby, hat obsessed and gimmick using version, not the Lewis Carroll obsessed version who was first introduced and disappeared until the mid 80s. Here, after being released from Gotham State Prison, the not truly rehabilitated Hatter goes on a crime spree based on hats, and the issue contains some truly groan-worthy puns. When Bruce Wayne, "throws his hat into the ring," (I told you the puns were bad) for city council, Batman prepares his trap. But the Hatter has deadly razor brimmed hats that he unleashes by remote control, and while Batman is able to stop him, the Hatter shoots Robin. The boy falls, and Batman beats the Hatter senseless. This is the last appearance of this version of the Hatter, and Robin's shooting is a cliffhanger for the final issue of the run.

"My Beginning... and My Probable End," is probably the most significant issue of the Barr/Davis run from a historical point of view. It was released the same month as the final issue of Batman: Year One over in Batman, and tells the story of Bruce Wayne's childhood and youth. It doesn't contradict anything Miller writes. but serves as a compliment, giving details Miller doesn't focus on. What's more important is how these details are revealed. With Robin wounded, Batman rushes him to Leslie Thompkins clinic. Here, Bruce spends much of the issue talking to Leslie. While Leslie had been introduced as the kindly woman who was there for Bruce the night his parents were shot, this is, as far as I know and correct me if I'm wrong, the first appearance of Leslie as the tough doctor, the pacifist who serves as the voice of the opposition to Batman's more brutal methods. The issue has touching moments between Bruce and Leslie, and when Jason wakes up after his surgery, we see a Bruce who is caring in a way that he is not really allowed to be in issues after this.

As great as Barr's scripts are, a run is only elevated to legendary by the marriage of story and art. Alan Davis's art works beautifully with the stories. His touch is light, creating smooth looks to his characters and allowing for Batman to be menacing one page and smiling and joking with Robin the next. There's a reason Davis is considered a great, after all. His Scarecrow is excellent, all gangly limbs and contorting joints, and his Leslie is wiry and tough, but still maternal. The run also introduced Profile, an underworld information broker who hangs out at an underworld pup, Mcsurley's. Profile was never really used again, hut he had a great, unique look, a sort of modern fop look that stood out in the grimy bar, and I think Davis giving him that look is what has made him stick in my head all these years.

The final Barr/Davis issue was the beginning of Batman: Year Two, a strange story featuring Batman using the gun that killed his parents and teaming up with the mob and Joe Chill to stop the return of a Gotham vigilante called the Reaper, whose design is visually striking and about five years ahead of its time; he looks like something every Image creator wanted to draw, with a skull head, red body armor, and long scythes on both hands that ended in maces and had concealed guns built in. While the story was not as memorable as the previous six issues, I have to give Davis credit for his Reaper design.

This entire run has just been collected for the first time in a deluxe hardcover, Legends of the Dark Knight: Alan Davis. It contains all six of the issues discussed here, plus the first part of Batman: Year Two, the follow up Reaper story, "Full Circle," and a short Batman: Black and White tale, "Last Call at McSurley's." Unfortunately, the hardcover was misprinted and recalled. A new printing is due shortly, and I suggest you give it a try.

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