Even a Batman-focused feature has to acknowledge that Avengers: Endgame is the biggest superhero news right now. And so, we’re going to pay proper tribute to that blockbuster. This week, we’re starting a series looking at the Batman work of Jim Starlin, the man who created Thanos. (Plus Gamora and Drax!) He had a short stint as a Batman writer during which he created the KGBeast and, well, killed Robin.
Starlin is both a writer and an artist, but he didn’t do any Batman art. Prior to this run, his main contribution at DC was co-creating Mongul. You know the Black Mercy storyline that basically every DC show does at some point? Mongul was the guy who originally did that. Strangely, at Marvel, Jim Starlin was the cosmic guy. Like I said, Thanos. And in fact, he wrote the Infinity Gauntlet comic that inspired the movies. And he killed Captain Marvel, but not the one you’re thinking of. And probably not the other one you’re thinking of. The one who was Annette Bening in the movie, but also sort of Jude Law. And he worked on the cosmic side over at DC – his most famous work for the publisher is actually called Cosmic Odyssey. But his Batman run, well, aside from the KGBeast and the Joker, you wouldn’t think Starlin knew that supervillains existed. This is almost entirely street level Batman. There’s not a reference to an established villain to be found.
Batman: The Caped Crusader Volume 1 collects most of Starlin’s run. He did a couple of issues that were reprinted at the tale end of a different collection, and there’s a block of issues this collection just skips over. Plus, there’s some non-Starlin work here, too. This collects Batman 417-425, 430-431 and Batman Annual 12. And here’s where this collection is a little confusing. It skips 426-429, which make up an arc called “A Death in the Family”, in which the second Robin dies. That’s collected separately so I understand skipping it, but there’s also nothing in the book that tells you what happened. The post-death issues don’t directly address what happened – there’s a moment where Gordon asks where Robin is, but if you’re just reading this book without having done outside research (and that’s how most people are going to read it), it doesn’t necessarily mean anything.
Don’t worry – we’ll cover “A Death in the Family” next week and then Starlin’s Batman: The Cult miniseries. The point is, this volume should have addressed that Robin died in the middle of it. But now you have this knowledge and we can move on to the freaking KGBeast. Actually, before I get to it, I just want to note that most of these comics were published between 1988 and 1989. In those days, trade paperback collections were kind of a big deal. These days, DC and Marvel collect almost anything, but back then, they were few and far between. In a fairly brief tenure, there were three collections of Starlin’s Batman work. “Ten Nights of the Beast”, “A Death in the Family”, and Batman: The Cult were all collected fairly soon after release. That’s a wild hit rate and it’s weird that his run was so brief. Historically, it looks like he returned to Marvel shortly after leaving the Batbooks, but I wonder what the scuttlebutt was at the time. Starlin knocked out three hits in a little over a year and it’s hard to imagine DC didn’t try to keep him. Of course, when he returned to Marvel he did Infinity Gauntlet and that obviously worked out pretty well for him.
OK, the book kicks off with “Ten Nights of the Beast” (with art by the great Jim Aparo), a Batman take on political thrillers. There are things about this four-issue arc that are awesome and there are things that did not age well. In those days, there was a push to remind you who the characters were in every issue because there probably wasn’t going to be a book collection. And in general, that’s a good goal. But this arc has a huge number of supporting characters, most of whom don’t mean anything (there are way more named FBI agents than the story requires), and that’s a brutal amount of exposition.
As for the story, a Soviet assassin known as “The Beast” or “The KGBeast” is in Gotham with a list of ten people to kill. They try to be cagey about who the tenth name on the list is, to the extent that it’s an issue-ending revelation, but it couldn’t be more obvious that it’s Ronald Reagan. Characters talk about “the tenth name” in a fairly clunky way, that I don’t think fooled me on my initial reading when I was young and fresh-faced. But quibbles aside, the story is really fun. The KGBeast is a surprisingly vivid threat, and it’s good to see that, in his first appearance, he wasn’t written with the weird all gerunds dialogue we saw in “Troika”. It seems actually plausible that Batman might not win this one. It’s a great read once you get past the dated references and a layer of cheese.
Now, the thing you can’t ignore about the KGBeast is that, at one point, his arm is tangled in a rope that prevents him from escaping. So with his free arm, he takes an axe and chops off his hand. He does not cut the rope, which would be easier and would not maim him. He just had to cut like four inches to the left and he’s fine. But then he gets a gun that is also a knife to replace his hand, and that’s definitely an upgrade.
Other than what I’ve mentioned, there are some weird things I want to note. Robin is in this story, but is barely a factor. He doesn’t affect the story at all and has almost no dialogue. I get the feeling Starlin didn’t care about Jason Todd, because he’s almost entirely absent and you’d think they’d build him up prior to the storyline before he dies. But the thing is, Jason got a reboot after Crisis on Infinite Earths and in the new continuity, he was a punk who met Batman when he tried to steal the hubcaps off the Batmobile. He was a likeable character and then they tried to give him an edge and everybody hated him. More on that next week, though.
Additionally, this story comes from the stretch where they were really trying to find loopholes to Batman’s “no killing” rule. Here, Batman traps the KGBeast in a blind alley underground, seals the door, and leaves him to die. Sure, Batman didn’t kill him, but he set up a scenario where he would die. (The Beast survives to this day, no thanks to Batman.) Starlin and Mike W. Barr both did a lot of these scenarios where Batman doesn’t kill people, but they die because of things he does. It’s a weird phase.
Finally, the KGBeast has kind of a weird outfit that shows off a lot of man flesh. Later appearances covered the bare skin with red fabric, making it look better. But here it’s a weirdly revealing costume. That said, somehow cover artist Mike Zeck had a strange idea of what the costume looked like. There’s no good way to say it, but his covers show Batman fighting a gimp. Just look at that. It’s not even the same mask! The red patterns are gone and you can’t see it in the smaller reproduction, but he appears to have a zipper mouth. I have no idea how this got past the editor. Maybe they were afraid to tell Mike Zeck that he screwed up. Whatever happened, it is absolutely hilarious. Zeck drew a gimp instead of the KGBeast, and nobody in the entire chain of command had a problem with that. I want to commission Mike Zeck to re-create famous comic book covers with gimps replacing a central character. Somebody get me Zeck!
Next is a two-parter with art by Dick Giordano in part one and Doc Bright in part two. It’s kind of ahead of its time because Starlin seems to have anticipated Mens’ Rights Activists. It’s just these two MRA dudes killing women who made them feel bad and Batman knowing they did it but not being able to prove it. It’s a weird story that doesn’t actually require Batman. There’s a bit where Batman and Robin argue about how effective the legal system is, which I guess sets up Robin’s upcoming heel turn, but there’s not much to this story.
Then it’s Annual 12, which is written by Mike Baron with art by Ross Andru. Starlin’s not involved, but still no supervillains. It’s a fun story where Bruce Wayne attends a murder mystery getaway and then there’s an actual murder. There’s a ghost and some over the top supporting characters. It’s good enough, but it’s also a disappointing annual. Those used to be huge! I loved annuals when I was a kid because they were always so high concept and action-packed, and this is just a drawing room mystery. Also, I should note that there’s a woman in the story who is supposed to be unbelievably sexy, but Ross Andru (an early Amazing Spider-Man artist) does not draw sexy. Dude draws a lot of hatchet faces.
Back in the regular series, Starlin and Dave Cockrum’s “You Shoulda Seen Him” has a group of cops telling their stories of encounters with Batman. It’s the “everybody has a different Batman” story that comes up every few years, but this is one of the better variations with a great segment with Batman helping homeless kids. I hadn’t seen this one before, and I really enjoyed it.
Doc Bright returns on art for a loose two-parter. Part One has Batman and Robin against the son of a diplomat who’s abusing his girlfriend. It’s not much of a fight, but the guy not only gets released due to his family’s pull, but also uses his one phone call to talk his girlfriend into hanging herself. Robin tracks him down and Batman gets there just in time to see the guy fall to his death. Robin says he fell, but it’s clear that he was pushed.
In the second part, the guy’s father wants revenge and kidnaps Commissioner Gordon to lure Batman to a junkyard. This one is great, with Batman working his way through the place taking out gunmen. Granted, three of them die because of Batman’s actions, including two who shoot one another when Batman (who was between them), jumps. I don’t like it, but this was the age of loopholes. Given the popularity of the Marvel Murder characters at the time, we should be happy that all he did was not save somebody from a collapsing pile of cars, but it still feels weird.
The collection skips the next four issues where Robin dies. Then we hit the end of Starlin’s run, where a grieving Batman fights a sniper. There are references to what happened, but nothing that would make it clear to somebody reading this book on its own. There’s also a flashback of Bruce Wayne being a terrible kid and then he apologizes and his parents take him to a movie. I hate stories about Bruce being a miserable kid, especially when it places his parents in Crime Alley on that night. It’s an off-note to end his short run. Apparently he got tired of writing about Batman fighting guys in sweaters and decided to have Thanos kill half the universe.
There’s one more issue in the book written by Jim Owsley (aka Priest) with art by Jim Aparo, and those are two of my favorite creators. Batman fights ninjas trained by one of the men who trained him. It’s pretty slight, but I liked it a lot. It’s one of the better issues in the book, I think.
There’s a second volume of Caped Crusader, with a third on the way, and I’ll probably review them at some point, but they don’t have anything to do with Jim Starlin – they’re reprinting a period in time, not a specific creator’s work. I liked this collection, but it’s not going to be the first one I pull off the shelf for Batman action. Other than the KGBeast and the ninjas, it’s Batman having a surprisingly tough time with criminals in street clothes. There are moments I really like, but it’s such an atypical collection. By the end I’m just itching to see Scarecrow or Two-Face, you know? Still, “Ten Nights of the Beast”, “You Shoulda Seen Him”, the junkyard, and the Owsley/Aparo story make the whole thing a good buy.
Next week, we’re going to hit those missing issues and witness Robin’s fate with “A Death in the Family”.