Are you ready for the tenth part of the “Knighfall” collection? If so, I regret to inform you that there were only nine parts and we have to move on. Luckily, we’ve got a new release to talk about, celebrating Batman’s 80th birthday. It’s Detective Comics: 80 Years of Batman!
80 Years of Batman is a hefty book, a 400+ page hardcover and the bulk of it is reprints. There are a handful of text pieces but they’re no more than a couple of pages each. And this is very explicitly a celebration of Detective Comics, even though it’s the 80th anniversary of Batman as a character. My guess is that next year we’re going to get a similar hardcover based on Batman which will only reprint issues of his titular series and thus they get two years of 80th anniversary.
So let’s break this monster down, story by story. I’m not going to bother discussing the text pieces (with one exception) because that would be silly. Some of them are quite good and there are a couple of surprising contributors. (Glen David Gold! Senator Patrick Leahy!) There are some non-Batman stories in here, perhaps to reflect Detective‘s original status as an anthology title, but the title is, after all, 80 Years of Batman. I’ll blow past those, unless they’re interesting.
In fact, we open with a Crimson Avenger story from Detective 20, seven issues before Batman debuted. The Avenger is a clear Shadow knockoff, and at one point in DC continuity, he was treated as the first costumed hero so I have a little bit of fondness for him, but Golden Age comics can be a tough read to begin with and there’s very little interest here.
“The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” from Detective 27 is Batman’s first appearance. It’s been reprinted a million times but I think this is the first time DC has credited Bill Finger as the writer. (This is a long story, but Bob Kane had sole credit for decades and almost everything that makes Batman special actually came from Bill Finger.) I wish this had been a better story, but Batman’s first appearance is kind of a snooze. Other than a primitive costume, and the names “Bruce Wayne” and “Commissioner Gordon”, there’s very little Batman stuff. Batman breaks a glass cage with a wrench and straight up kills a guy by dropping him in acid. I know this is a whole thing because Zack Snyder is on his “Superheroes kill all the time” tour, but they phased out the “Batman kills people” before the first year was over. Those early issues are really just illustrated pulps. Anyway, the one neat thing is that the whole thing is presented as Gordon telling his friend Bruce about a case and then the surprise at the end is that Bruce Wayne is Batman. I feel like that’s the moment that guaranteed Batman a second appearance. Oh, also he’s “Bat-Man” in this first appearance. That weirds me out.
This is followed by a Slam Bradley story from Superman’s creators, but it’s nothing to write home about. Then we get to issue 38 “Robin, the Boy Wonder” by Finger and Kane (but really Jerry Robinson). Basically, first appearances of all the major characters who debuted in Detective are here, but things like the first telling of Batman’s origin and the debut of Joker, Penguin, and Catwoman were in Batman. And I assume those will be reprinted next year. This is still pretty rough stuff, but now there’s so much more personality than you see in the non-Batman Golden Age stuff. Robin’s first appearance is all about catching Boss Zucco, the crime boss who killed his parents, and there are some fun construction site antics. Like I said, not a fan of Golden Age material as such, but you can see immediately that this Robin idea clicked.
Back to the non-Batman well, there are Air Wave and Boy Commandos stories, but then we get to #73 and “The Crimes of Two-Face”. And you know what? This is surprisingly good. There’s some janky storytelling, to be sure. When Harvey Kent (yes, he was retconned to Harvey Dent in a subsequent appearance) is splashed with acid, he’s in recovery for months and his fiancee knows nothing about it until he goes to see her. Way to keep her in the loop. And his suit is split down the middle the moment he takes the bandages off. Beyond that, his origin and the importance of the coin are explained pretty well. The themed crimes are well-done and the bit where he and Batman are fighting in a movie theater while a film of Two-Face instructing the patrons to surrender their valuables is actually cool. I liked this one!
We jump to 140 and another big villain, “The Riddler!” by Finger and Dick Sprang. Riddler is another villain who’s kind of fully formed from the beginning. His origin begins with him as a schoolboy and his face is drawn exactly the way the Riddler’s adult face looks, widow’s peak and all. It’s very funny. There are plenty of giant props and just like his first appearance on Batman ’66, it ends with Riddler’s apparent death. Clearly that didn’t take.
After that, it’s the first appearance of, um, “Pow Wow Smith, Indian Lawman”. And then there’s “The Land of Lost Years”, which are just hunks of nothing, frankly. Then there’s a weird text piece and feature – there’s a piece on artist Lew Sayre Schwartz and it prints his sketchbook for Detective 200. It is a very loose sketchbook – we’re talking stick figures. Fine. It’s a sketchbook. But the actual story is not reprinted so there’s no context to these sketch pages. I’m fairly certain that issue hasn’t been reprinted elsewhere so it’s not readily accessible. I don’t know what to make of this.
Issue 225’s “The Strange Experiment of Dr. Erdel” is another non-Batman story. It’s notable for being the first appearance of the Martian Manhunter, and since I like the Martian Manhunter, I’m OK with its inclusion.
1956’s #233 introduces “The Bat-Woman”. There’s a lot of continuity weirdness with this version of Bat-Woman, but for now, it’s a fairly fun story of Kathy Kane, a socialite in Bruce Wayne’s circle, taking up crimefighting. Which, it turns out, is “no place for a girl”. Cool. In #267, “Batman Meets Bat-Mite”, a magical imp who plays pranks on Batman and hung around for a surprisingly long time. He was a regular on the Batman cartoon that aired when I was a kid, so he looms large in my memory. The DC Universe acknowledges the existence of Bat-Mite, but Batman comics mostly don’t and haven’t for, oh, 45 years.
We enter the Sixties with #298’s “The Challenge of Clay-Face”. This is actually the second Clayface (they lost the hyphen pretty quickly), but the first appeared in Batman and didn’t have powers. This is Matt Hagen, who has the shapeshifting powers that you associate with the character. (The Animated Series used Hagen and then the comics used the animated version of Clayface but made it the original Basil Karlo, updated with Hagen’s powers. It’s weird.) It’s always fun to see Batman and Robin fight somebody with actual super powers in those early days, but this story certainly doesn’t seem like it’s kicking off a Clayface concept that’s going to last for another sixty years.
“Mystery of the Menacing Mask” from #327 comes from the Flash team of John Broome and Carmine Infantino. This is a forgettable story that’s only here because it’s the debut of the yellow oval around the emblem on Batman’s costume. The bat itself doesn’t look like the iconic version you see on t-shirts yet, and I’d be interested to see when that first congealed.
Issue 359 brings us “The Million-Dollar Debut of Batgirl”, the first appearance of you-know-who. It’s actually pretty solid. I know there’s some story about how she was created for the comics so that they could add her to the TV show, but nobody seems to agree on what happened. But this sets up the TV version where Batgirl and Batman don’t know one another’s identities and Barbara Gordon is a librarian with a secret. Batgirl helps take down Killer Moth (before he was a joke villain), and there’s a nice mix of Batman and Robin helping Batgirl and her helping them. The sexism is much less pronounced here. I mean, it’s still the Sixties. But Bat-Woman walked so Batgirl could run.
Issue 400 gets us to 1970 and “Challenge of the Man-Bat”, written by Frank Robbins with art by the legendary Neal Adams. You’ll notice right away that the coloring doesn’t look like anything else in the book – that’s because Neal Adams’ work has been reprinted enough that they’ve cleaned up the coloring to give it a more modern look. Here’s a thing I didn’t know – in Man-Bat’s first appearance, he’s an ally of Batman and hadn’t gone fully feral. Kirk Langstrom has a mostly bat body but he retains his mind. It’s a strange appearance given where the character went, but it’s a good one.
“The Himalayan Incident” in 437 is the last non-Batman story, but it’s the most justifiable. It’s the first chapter of Archie Goodwin and Walter Simonson’s Manhunter backup feature that I would call “legendary” if I hadn’t used that word in the previous paragraph. There’s too much to say about this series, but it’s legitimately one of the high points in DC history. And the very next entry in this book is 443’s “Gotterdamerung”, which is the final chapter of the serial and it’s actually the lead story of that issue because Batman’s in it. It’s fantastic, and Batman fits nicely into the ongoing story. It’s so good.
457’s “There Is No Hope in Crime Alley” by Denny O’Neil and Dick Giordano is notable for introducing Leslie Thompkins, who is an elderly woman and not a sexy lady as on Gotham. It’s a great story about Thompkins’ role in Bruce Wayne’s life and his annual visit to the spot where his parents died. This is a genuine classic and I’m glad it appeared here.
And then in 474, it’s “The Deadshot Ricochet”. This is from the classic Steve Engelhart / Marshall Rogers run that many cite as the best of Detective. We’ll cover the whole run eventually when I get to the “Strange Apparitions” collection. But man, this is a great story. It reintroduces Deadshot, who had appeared once previously, twenty-seven years earlier. In that first appearance, he was a gentleman thief, and his reappearance here is the Deadshot that we all know and love. It’s an impressive relaunch of a forgotten character and an awesome comic book.
And after that high of Engelhart / Rogers, Detective was doing badly enough that it had to be merged with Batman Family to save the series. And to reflect this period, we get a story from 482, “Bat-Mite’s New York Adventure”, a meta story about Bat-Mite visiting the DC offices. It’s self-indulgent and the inclusion here is baffling. It breaks up a stretch of A+ material, but it’s also not a story you’ll find elsewhere.
Issue 500 gives us “To Kill a Legend” by Alan Brennert and Dick Giordano. Brennert didn’t write many comics – for DC he wrote maybe six Batman stories and a couple of others – but every one of them is a stone classic. In this one, the Phantom Stranger gives Batman the chance to prevent the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne on a parallel world. This world, just to make things weird, doesn’t have a heroic legacy in literature. From Gilgamesh on, there’s no such thing as the hero’s quest. The implication, then, is that this Bruce Wayne won’t become Batman so it sidesteps the question of whether it’s better to let the Waynes die for all the good that Batman is going to do. And while Batman is ultimately able to stop the murder, there’s this epilogue about this other Bruce learning that there’s a way for a person to make the world better and inspired by seeing Batman, he begins to train. So even this happy Bruce “will make a decision, choose a direction for his life. And when he does, it will not be a decision born of grief, or guilt, or vengeance; but of awe, and mystery, and gratitude.” And then young Bruce casts Batman’s shadow and it’s so good! DC recently reprinted all of Brennert’s work so this was already fresh in my mind, but it belongs in this collection.
Let’s go to #567 where Harlan Ellison and Gene Colan bring us “The Night of Thanks, But No Thanks”, and it’s notable because Ellison was one of the top sci-fi writers of the century and I understand including it here. And man, that Gene Colan art is pretty. To the best of my knowledge it hasn’t been collected anywhere. All that said, it’s… OK at best. The idea is that there’s a night when nobody needs Batman’s help and every time he’s ready to stop a crime, the victim manages to turn things around or he misread the situation and there’s no crime at all. It’s a funny idea, but there’s no escalation, subversion, or payoff, so the premise is exactly as funny as the finished product. But with that said, it’s a nice curiosity to have at hand.
Now, here’s my main gripe with the collection. From here, they skip the Nineties entirely. And I know that there were a lot of crossovers and a random issue of, say, “No Man’s Land” wouldn’t be super satisfying. But also, for most of this time, Chuck Dixon and Graham Nolan were the Detective creative team. They were on the book for almost ten years, which is an eighth of the entire history of Detective. There really should be some representation of their work here.
But that means we skip to 2000 and 742’s “The Honored Dead”. I believe this is the first post-“No Man’s Land” issue, debuting the creative team of Greg Rucka (my favorite Batman writer) and Shawn Martinbrough. Now, issue 757 is maybe my favorite single issue of a Batman series, but that was included in the 75th anniversary collection, and this is a little more representative of the run. It’s also a Gordon-centric story, which is nice since the Commissioner is largely absent from this collection. It’s a great story about Gordon dealing with the death of his wife and taking a lot of stupid risks until Batman of all people talks him down. I love it.
And then there’s a jump of fourteen years, and I wish they could have trimmed some of the non-Batman material to get in something from, say, Paul Dini’s run, but nobody asked me. Instead, we jump past the 2011 reboot and go to the second Detective Comics #27 for two stories. Brad Meltzer and Bryan Hitch provide a modern update of “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate”, but since there’s so little meat on the original bones, it varies pretty significantly. They kept Batman knocking a guy into acid, but the final panel shows a hand emerging from the vat so as to have Batman not kill him, even though Batman definitely thought he was killing the dude. I don’t much like Meltzer’s comic work in general, and this didn’t turn me around.
And then we close things out with Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy and “Twenty-Seven”. It’s set in the far future where the twenty-seventh clone of Bruce Wayne comes online to be Batman. It doesn’t sound like a great premise, but the execution is excellent. It’s a nice place to wrap up a celebration of Detective Comics.
So I have a couple of quibbles with eras that I feel were under-represented and I’m not wild about some of the non-Batman material, but also, it’s the 1000th issue of Detective they’re celebrating alongside Batman’s 80th anniversary. It does provide a nice representation of what Detective used to be, I suppose. The historical stuff is well-chosen even if I’m not going to go back and re-read that Bat-Woman story anytime soon. I’m glad I got a chance to read it though. The material from the Seventies on is just about straight heat. There are so many all-time best of stories here. “No Hope in Crime Alley”, the Manhunter stuff, “To Kill a Legend”, the Deadshot story, “The Honored Dead” – some of this has been collected elsewhere but to get this many high points in one place is worth it. We’re talking absolute classics here. It’s a must-have. No collection meant to honor eighty years of a character can satisfy everybody, but I think DC did about as well as they possibly could. It’s a very good collection with material that ranges from historically interesting to Top Ten Best Batman Stories Ever.
Next week, we’re kicking off a tribute to Avengers: Endgame with a four-part series devoted to the Batman work of Thanos creator Jim Starlin. It’s going to be quite a ride. Do we get the KGBeast? Yes we do! Do we get the issue where America voted to kill Jason Todd. Yup! See you then!