Mysteries, madmen, and Manhunters: reviewing "Detective Comics: 80 Years of Batman"
One thousand issues of Detective Comics.
Eighty years of Batman.
That is insane.
Much like they did last year with the thousandth issue of Action Comics, DC Comics are pulling out all the stops to celebrate the 80th anniversary of perhaps their most popular character: Batman. Truly, 2019 will be the Year of the Bat, with tons of events, celebrations, and great comics to commemorate eight decades of Batman.
And what is a celebration of a comic character without a commemorative graphic novel collection? Enter: Detective Comics: 80 Years of Batman - Deluxe Edition, a collection of stories and essays to honor 80 years of the Dark Knight and 82 years of the company’s namesake title. With Detective Comics #1000 just weeks away, this is a pretty good collection to whet your appetite for all things ‘Tec. There’s plenty of Batman here, along with a healthy assortment of fan-favorites and welcome surprises.
This is foremost a celebration of Batman, as the trade’s title would suggest, and several of the stories collected are of the “usual suspects” variety: his first appearance in issue 27, Robin’s debut in issue 38, and the introductions of Two-Face and the Riddler are givens for the early years.
Reflecting history, the latter half of the collection consists almost solely of Batman stories, as Detective Comics well and truly became a Batman book and has stayed that way for decades. Even still, there are some interesting choices made in what was included, and most of them work to the book’s benefit. Clayface II, Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl, and Man-Bat are showcased in their premieres, Kathy Kane’s Batwoman makes an appearance in a rather… unfortunate adventure, and there’s a cracking team-up with Manhunter that will satisfy any fan of political thrillers.
"Strange Apparitions”-- the brilliant and amazing Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers arc-- gets due representation with “The Deadshot Ricochet” from ‘Tec 474. It’s noteworthy as the introduction of Deadshot into modern comic storytelling, along with being a pretty solid story to boot. Oddly, Bat-Mite makes another appearance in the short “Bat-Mite’s New York Adventure!”, a silly piece of meta storytelling with some brilliant Michael Golden artwork. It’s lightweight and charming, a perfect example of “not making comics the way they used to.”
Two stories almost make the price of admission worth it by themselves: “There is No Hope in Crime Alley” from Detective #457, and “To Kill a Legend” from issue 500. The former is a must read for any Batman fan, as the Dark Knight trawls Park Row and metes out justice to anyone who even so much as looks suspicious. While the subject of his parent’s murder has been retold many times at this point, “There is No Hope…” shows the positive effect Batman has had on the city: he doesn’t just wreck dudes for the sake of wrecking dudes, but actively tries to improve the livelihood of the poor and destitute. There’s a particularly nice scene with Leslie Thompkins, where Batman commends her for being the true hope for change in Crime Alley.
And, yeah, he also has a righteous backhand. Sometimes you can have your cake and eat it too.
Allan Brennert and Dick Giordano’s “To Kill a Legend,” on the other hand, is one of those great one-and-done stories that will stick with you forever. Batman and Robin are spirited away by the Phantom Stranger and given the opportunity to prevent the murder of the Waynes. It’s an interesting ethical dilemma: could Bruce Wayne change history, if given the chance? The story goes in a few unexpected directions, and is well worth discovering for yourself. It’s one of those stories that will occasionally be referenced when discussions of the best Batman stories come up, but not nearly considering the strength of the storytelling. And man, that Dick Giordano knew how to draw Batman.
The final stretch of stories is perhaps the most uneven, with the quality ranging from strange to genius. By far the weirdest story is one from Harlan Ellison, which was likely included because it was… written by Harlan Ellison. It’s actually kind of funny, because Batman goes all night without stopping any crimes because there aren’t any crimes being committed and he is so annoyed. The premise is silly and enjoyable, but Batman’s voice is just completely wrong and not fitting with the character. I mean, I’m all for a Bruce Wayne who isn’t constantly brooding and being a jerk and is even good for a quip or two, but having him think “rassafrassin’ peckalomer” when he’s frustrated is… it’s a bit much.
Things turn around with Detective Comics #742, which kicks off Greg Rucka and Shawn Martinbrough’s excellent run on the title. If you haven’t read any of their stuff, it’s been collected recently in the Batman: New Gotham trades, which I highly recommend.
A “lost story” sees the light of day with an outline and some pages from the announced but never published Batman: Mortality. With a script from long-time editor Paul Levitz and some stunning black and white pencils from Denys Cowan, this story sounds pretty promising. It’s a shame that nothing came of it, as Cowan’s art alone is absolutely gorgeous. Levitz hits on some interesting themes, too, with a young Bruce planting a tree with his father, and the sapling taking root and growing by the time his parents are buried in the grove.
The final two stories in the collection come from Detective Comics #27 from 2014. There’s Brad Meltzer and Bryan Hitch’s update of “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate,” and Scott Snyder and Sean Gordon Murphy’s “Twenty-Seven” to close everything out. For a celebration of Batman, it’s a nice bit of symmetry to start and end the Batman stories with an issue 27. Snyder’s high-concept science-fiction story is a strange tale to end on, though the closing caption of “Never the End” does cap things off nicely.
It’s not just about Batman, though, as tribute is paid to a wide variety of the unique characters who were feature players throughout the years. The collection doesn’t even open with a Batman story, either; that honor goes to the Crimson Avenger, whose pulpy, hard-boiled adventure from Detective #20 kicks off the celebration. It’s an enjoyable if predictable romp, but the Avengers’ driver Wing is an unfortunate example of blatant and egregious racial stereotyping. Even with an incredibly small role, it’s a bit of a blight on an otherwise entertaining story.
Batman’s first appearance is immediately followed by a Slam Bradley yarn, who was created by Superman masterminds Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and has the greatest name in comics.
I’m not kidding. Say it yourself: Slam. Bradley.
The debut of Martian Manhunter is featured, detailing his origins on Mars and his subsequent marooning on Earth. It’s interesting to read it alongside Steve Orlando’s current Martian Manhunter miniseries, and seeing just how much of his origin is intact all these years later.
The Paul Kirk Manhunter has a solo outing in addition to his crossover with Batman
Honestly, I think my favorite thing about this collection was reading stories featuring characters I wasn’t as familiar with, or in some cases hadn’t heard of at all. Believe it or not, one of the best stories in the collection is a tense wartime thriller featuring the Boy Commandos, which genuinely kept me on the edge of my seat the entire time. Plus, seeing work from Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in a DC collection is more than a welcome sight.
Another interesting gem featured Pow-Wow Smith, a character I had no familiarity with before reading his origin. He was created by Don Cameron and Carmine Infantino, so I’m kind of surprised a creation with that kind of pedigree had escaped me up to this point, and he’s a pretty interesting creation. While some aspects of his story haven’t aged remarkably well (the full name of the serial reads “Pow-Wow Smith, Indian Lawman,” just to give you an idea), the title character Ohiyesa is likable. It’s well and truly an origin story, speeding through his days as a youngster when he meets his best friend Jimmy, their time at college together, and ending with the duo becoming U.S. Marshals. It’s an example of the wildly popular Westerns of the Forites and Fifties, much like the following story-- “Impossible--But True!”-- represents tales of the fantastic found in the likes of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. They’re representative of the types of fiction that their audiences gravitated towards, and serve as interesting historical footnotes among the more popular masked crimefighters.
Then there are guys like Air Wave. I had never heard of Air Wave before, and frankly, I wish I had. He’s so goofy, utilizing radio waves to hone in on crime and skating on electrical wires using retractable wheels in his boots. If nothing else, I’m glad DC included Air Wave to show they aren’t afraid of the sillier parts of their heritage.
Without a doubt it’s the stories that are the main draw here, and with good reason. Pretty much everything in the collection is worth reading, even if just for its historical significance, but there are some really great extras included as well. There are a number of essays from such figures as Dan DiDio, Patrick Leahy (the senator who makes frequent cameos in Batman films), Paul Levitz, Glen David Gold, and Denny O’Neil, a touching bit of prose from Neil Gaiman, and a nifty timeline of notable covers. The collection closes with an extensive biography section, giving a nice rundown on the notable creators whose work is included in these pages.
Retailing at $29.99, you can buy the hardcover for as low as $19.99 on Amazon. For the amount of content you get, that’s not a bad deal at all, especially considering the historical significance of the stories at hand. Sure, there are other collections out there that are more narratively consistent, but as a crash course in the history of the Detective Comics title this gets the job done pretty well.