08 June 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Gotham, Part XXV: Batman: Strange Apparitions

Quick note: read my review of Doctor Who: You Are the Doctor and other stories at Unreality SF. Today!

Comic trade paperback, 175 pages
Published 1999 (contents: 1977-78)

Borrowed from the library
Read November 2015
Batman: Strange Apparitions

Writers: Steve Englehart, Len Wein
Pencillers: Marshall Rogers, Walt Simonson
Inkers: Terry Austin, Al Milgrom, Dick Giordano
Original Colorists: Marshall Rogers, Jerry Serpe
Letterers: Ben Oda, Milton Snapinn, John Workman

Year Eight, November
All of the Batman stories I've read so far (in this project) have been "flashback" tales: they haven't been set in what was the current continuity at their time of publication, but rather have been set in some earlier period. Strange Apparitions marks a first for me, then, in that this is the first Batman story I've read that took place in the "present" when it was published. This is no flashback to the early days of Batman, but simply the next adventure of Batman.

Much has changed of late. The Caped Crusader is fundamentally solo again, as Dick Grayson is off attending Hudson University. He's grown up so fast! In addition, Bruce Wayne has moved from Stately Wayne Manor to the actual city of Gotham; he now resides in a penthouse on the top floor of the new Wayne Foundation tower, beneath which there is, of course, a cave, where he's relocated all his stuff. An secret elevator directly connects his penthouse to the cave. I like this change: if you imagine Gotham as a New York, it strains credulity to anyone who's ever driven anywhere near New York that Batman could effectively police the city from the location where his manor ought to be. I was surprised, though, to learn that the Wayne Foundation was not in the heart of the city, but rather past "the impressive rows of ancient brownstones" in "Gotham's humbler districts, where the Wayne Foundation towers above the lower, leaner skyline."

Strange Apparitions collects the full run of the creative team of Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers, and Terry Austin on Detective Comics, which despite its significance, was a mere six issues long. It also collects, however, two issues Steve Englehart wrote but someone else drew, and two issues that Marshall Rogers drew, but someone else wrote. I was surprised to read in Englehart's introduction to the collection that while he and Walt Simonson worked from the "Marvel style" (the writer plots, then the artists draw, then the writer does dialogue) and he and Marshall Rogers worked "DC style" (the writer does a full script, the artists draw), and that Englehart actually wrote all six issues without even knowing who would draw them, because Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers mesh perfectly. Englehart's writing and Rogers's illustrations support each other perfectly to create a moody, atmospheric, but ultimately fun story, whereas the first two issues drawn by the great Walt Simonson are just kinda there (though necessary for Englehart's eight-issue plot).

Strange Apparitions begins with a so-so story about a new Batman villain, one Doctor Phosphorous, a medical doctor who invests his money in a nuclear plant where disaster strikes: "Five million slivers of red-hot sand were driven through my body! But not--hee hee-- ordinary sand! No! Radioactive sand--blasted upward one level on the chemical scale!" I'm sure this is all very scientific. Doctor Phosphorous doesn't appear again, but the two issues do introduce a couple of important characters: Rupert Thorne, chairman of the City Council, and Silver St. Cloud, a socialite with whom Bruce Wayne quickly becomes sexually involved.

Scott McCloud would be proud of this use of the gutter.
Also, get your mind out of it.
from Detective Comics vol. 1 #472 (script by Steve Englehart, art by Marshall Rogers & Terry Austin)

Englehart's story is a tour through a sequence of Batman rogues in a way that I really enjoyed, bringing in one for an issue or two at a time, and then moving on to another one, without feeling contrived or pandering. With the wounds he sustained at the hand of Phosphorous not healing, Bruce Wayne checks himself into a clinic for Gotham elites renowned for its discretion-- only to discover that the clinic manager is actually Hugo Strange in disguise: Batman's very first supervillain opponent, from Batman and the Monster Men. Batman shouts, "Professor Hugo Strange! I thought you were dead!" and indeed, when we last saw Strange in Batman: Prey, he was quite clearly dead, his body having been impaled on a metal pole for several days before it was found. But Strange apparently wasn't really dead, just in Europe. Even though The Monster Men and Prey were written much later, these stories are all of a piece, Strange's obsession with Batman here leading him to actually take over Bruce Wayne's life. (Amazingly, at one point he wears a Batman mask over a Bruce Wayne mask.) The work of Englehart and Rogers is perfectly simpatico here: it's a moody, splashy, nightmarish tale with some great twists and turns. Dick Grayson guest stars to help Bruce reclaim his life, but then leaves for an issue of Teen Titans when Wonder Girl calls.

Everything continues from there. Having deduced Batman's identity, Strange wants to sell it to the highest bidder, but he decides Boss Thorne isn't worthy of it, prompting Thorne to have him killed. (No doubt he'll get better again.) While Strange's ghost heckles Thorne, the Penguin (having lost his bid) decides to carry out a scheme anyway. Batman puts him in jail, where his escape gadget is stolen by Deadshot, who escapes himself to get revenge on Batman for putting him away. Meanwhile, Bruce's romance with Silver has been turning into one of real emotion, and Silver works out that Bruce is Batman-- and when his fight with Deadshot ends up in her place of work (Silver runs a convention center), Batman realizes she knows! Then the Joker turns up with a wacky but deadly plan, and so on. Meanwhile meanwhile, Boss Thorne is trying to eliminate the Batman while being haunted.
Sound effects never looked so good.
from Detective Comics vol. 1 #473 (script by Steve Englehart, art by Marshall Rogers & Terry Austin)

Englehart and Rogers have a handle on each and every one of these villains, not to mention Batman himself, who is clearly a man as much as he is an unstoppable force of the night. The story is moody without being grim in a way that hits the exact tone I want out of a Batman tale: darkly fun.

The book wraps up with a two-issue Clayface story written by Len Wein (in a surprising display of fan pedantry, it is actually titled "The Coming of... Clayface III!", making a fan's numerical bookkeeping part of the actual narrative), that follows on from the events of Englehart's run. I've read and liked other stuff by Wein, but it pales in comparisons to Englehart's work; suddenly Batman is melodramatically shouting his feelings at everyone: "Blast it--it's all going sour!! [...] Alfred, things couldn't be more wrong! I let two punks I tangled with tonight get to me--and that's a luxury I cannot afford!" Still, it comes to a suitably tragic conclusion, and I also noted that the trick Prey pulled with Strange's manikin lover was actually first used here with Clayface III.

On the whole, this is one of the best stories I've read so far on this project, and probably one of the best Batman books I've read full stop. Englehart and Rogers perfectly balance ongoing plots with standalone stories, and character insight with fun adventures in darkness.

Next Week: Out with the old Robin, in with the new Robin, in Second Chances!

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