Delenda Est Carthago

Why not delve into a twisted mind? Thoughts on the world, history, politics, entertainment, comics, and why all shall call me master!

Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

I plan on being the supreme dictator of the country, if not the world. Therefore, you might want to stay on my good side. Just a hint: ABBA rules!


Comics you should own: Defenders

The Defenders by Roger Slifer (writer, issue #46; plot, issue #47), David Kraft (writer, issue #46, 48-50; plot, issue #47), David Warner (script, issue #47), Keith Giffen (penciller, issue #46-50, inker, issue #50), Klaus Janson (inker, issue #46-47), Dan Green (inker, issue #48), Mike Royer (inker, issue #49)
Marvel, 5 issues (#46-50), cover dated April-August 1977

Comics fans today often talk of "big, dumb superhero comics." They may use this phrase as a compliment or pejoratively, depending on their mood. Even if they are using it as a compliment, it comes off as faintly condescending, as if there is something wrong with the book, even though they like it. As if they're enjoying it in an ironic way, the way some people might take in an Ed Wood film festival.

I've used the phrase before, so I know that of which I speak. I try not to use it, though, because there is absolutely nothing "dumb" about good escapist art - and superheroes can be a lot of things to a lot of people, but first and foremost, they are escapist fantasies, and we shouldn't belittle them. Especially when they are done well, which is a lot harder than it looks. Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to the first volume of Marvel's The Defenders, and a little tale called "Who Remembers Scorpio?"

I have to thank Wizard for turning me onto these five issues, ironically enough. A few years ago they ran an article about comics worth reading, and this forgotten gem was on the list. I figured the issues would be cheap (I was right), so I went out and got them. Surprisingly, Wizard was right - these are good comics. From beginning (well, page 11 of issue #46, when the action starts, as the first ten pages are the Defenders having an argument over who's leaving and who's staying on the team) to the end, we stop very few times to catch our breath. The various writers, aided by Giffen before his art got really weird (and, admittedly, much better, although it's perfectly fine here), run the Defenders through their action-filled paces, and it's fun to go along for the ride. However, we get very little character development of our heroes - Marvel trusts us to know who these people are, and how they interact with each other, and we're just going to have to deal with that. We do get some nice moments between Valkyrie and Hellcat, and the Hulk ruminates on the (non-)team and how he just wants fried chicken, and Kyle Richmond is suitably tortured after he becomes the group's leader by default when Dr. Strange quits in the first issue of this story, but it's largely surface stuff. Slifer, Kraft, and Warner don't really care about delving into the hearts and minds of our heroes (joined in this story by Moon Knight). They care about the Hulk smashing things and the rest of the heroes generally wreaking havoc, because they have a threat to deal with. And isn't that what heroes do - wreak havoc while dealing with threats?

Ah, but what a threat. In their choice of villain, Slifer and Kraft struck gold, and the presence of Scorpio in this story is what elevates it from a decent-but-forgettable slugfest into a Comic You Should Own. Scorpio is the perfect postmodern, late 1970s-era villain: chock full of angst, always ready to drink a beer, clever and resilient, scheming in a vague, comic-book-villain kind of way (we're never exactly sure what he plans to do with the new Zodiac, although wreaking of havoc and robbing of banks is probably part of it), and not really a bad guy once you get past the murderous tendencies he has. He adds such a strange spark to this story that he completely takes it over and makes it his own. We know and learn very little about the Defenders in this story, but we do learn quite a bit about Scorpio.

The story begins in issue #46 on page 11, as Jack Norriss is tracked and blasted (in a non-lethal way) by Nick Fury and a couple of SHIELD agents. At about the same time, the Defenders head to Kyle Richmond's ranch, where they find Scorpio, who fights them pretty much to a standstill (even the Hulk, which stretches credulity just a tad). Then he teleports away, vowing to return (just like a good villain). This, however, is just a prelude. Issue #47 is kind of an interlude, as Scorpio is absent throughout, and the Defenders fight Wonder Man at Avengers Mansion (don't ask). The Norriss plot, which does eventually intersect with Scorpio's, is picked up on, though, as Moon Knight stumbles onto Fury and his agents carting Norriss away. This is one of MK's early appearances, but even I, who love the character, have trouble believing that Hackensack, New Jersey is "his territory," or that he would simply throw himself into combat against SHIELD - I suppose his explanation that SHIELD treated Norriss badly is okay, but for all he knows, Norriss could be a violent terrorist and Fury was just taking precautions. It's best not to think about it too much. Moon Knight kicks ass and rescues Norriss, who tells him, "I'm innocent" (of what, he's not sure). Moon Knight, in full, wonderfully cheery 1970s-mode, says, "For now, that'll be good enough." Excellent.

I don't mean to belittle the plot, because it is escapist literature, after all, and heroes know best, so I'll ease back. Moon Knight takes Norriss to Doctor Strange's place, where Valkyrie is hanging out, and they head over to Avengers Mansion to get Hellcat, who been fighting Wonder Man (I told you not to ask). When they see that Hellcat has been in a brouhaha, they rush in, with Norriss the voice of reason: "I realize my opinion doesn't count for much lately ... but aren't we sorta rushing into this?" After some fisticuffs, all is resolved, but then Fury gets on the line telling the Avengers that if they find Norriss, they need to turn him over to SHIELD at once!

This is where the story really gets interesting, as Scorpio returns in issue #48. On the splash page, Scorpio sits in semi-darkness, brooding like Odin in an art style that can only be called Kirby-esque (it's amazing how influential he is - Giffen's art in this issue looks a lot like Tom Scioli's in the current series Godland, and they're both copping from Kirby). In this issue we begin to delve into Scorpio's twisted and rather pathetic psyche. Fury is with him, and we learn that the two men are brothers. In trying to capture Norriss, Fury is not working for SHIELD - he's working for Scorpio. In the opening dialogue, Scorpio tells us that he's 52 years old and that he has always been an outcast from society. He launches into a rant about how society tells people what to do and how if you raise your head up and speak your mind, you get smacked down. It's a fascinating pseudo-monologue (Fury gets a few words in) for several reasons. First, Scorpio's age. The issue of age is rarely raised in comics - everyone is perpetually in their late 20s/early 30s and in peak physical shape. Scorpio doesn't really look 52, but the point that Kraft is trying to make is that here is someone who has grown older and not participated in the sorts of things that make a life worthwhile. He can rant against society all he wants - he didn't do anything that "society" says makes you "happy," but he also didn't try to do any of the things to change that society. His life has been a waste, it's mostly his fault, and suddenly he realizes he's running out of time. The rant reaches a triumphantly wacky climax, as on page 3, our villain shouts: "Thus, in order to survive, I have become my own creation - an image, an ideal! I have become Scorpio - and I shall succeed!" He then instantly calms down and says to Fury: "Now, it is time for you to collect Jack Norriss from those unwitting fools! Pick up some beer on the way over, too - I don't want our hostage going thirsty!" I can't make this stuff up - it's pure villain-esque gold!

The Defenders turn Norriss over to Fury without blinking, but they soon learn that Scorpio has kidnapped him and demanded a ransom from Kyle Richmond. In another excellent line, Kyle gets the call from Scorpio just as he "was splashing [himself] with Windjammer cologne." Scorpio wants $500,000, and Kyle convinced him to allow Nighthawk to deliver the money. Because he's crafty like that. Over in New Jersey, where Scorpio has his secret lair (I'd say something about the Garden State being the home of a crazed villain, but I'm above that), he and Norriss get acquainted over cans of Schlitz (Norriss gets the cold one, because Scorpio is a swell guy). Norriss actually sounds like Scorpio in the exchange - he talks of people in positions of power simply using others, and Scorpio sympathizes. He then shows Norriss his grand design - the Zodiac Chamber, which he claims is "the salvation of the world," which makes him "a savior." In the chamber he is creating life, one for each month of the year. What his plans for these life forms is not yet revealed (nor is it ever), but throughout this whole exchange, we get more nice glimpses into Scorpio's mind. When Moon Knight shows up to save Norriss, he traps the hero in a standard death trap, but before sealing him in, he gives MK a beer, because that's the kind of guy he is. Moon Knight escapes, of course, and the cool thing about it is that we never find out how. He just escapes, and the next time we see him (at the beginning of issue #49) he's on his way to warn the Defenders. We're just supposed to know how he got out. Scorpio goes to get the ransom money, and it turns out he knows that Nighthawk is really Kyle Richmond, and it was a trap to capture the hero. Nighthawk is just another part of Scorpio's mysterious plan.

Moon Knight rushes off to get the Defenders, and Scorpio tells Norriss his "origin" story, which is brief and typically bizarre. The sibling rivalry with Fury is brought up, but Kraft leaves it to us to read into it what we want. Later Scorpio tells Norriss that he tried to emulate Fury, but that quickly turned to hatred. Again, Scorpio's character development is prominent in this story, and we are realizing how twisted he is - Norriss accuses him of creating the Zodiac just to have friends, and he agrees. Alienation has been a motive in stories before this, but what's interesting about Scorpio is how self-aware he is and how single-minded he is just to have friends. He activates the Zodiac Chamber prematurely, because he fears that the Defenders will arrive soon. Kraft then drops another bombshell - it's not really Fury! it's actually a life model decoy made to look like Fury, and Scorpio, interestingly enough, has the same love/hate relationship with the LMD that he does with his brother. He can't see past the fact that the LMD is just reacting to him, and his envy of his brother drives Scorpio to abuse the LMD, who is, by design, devoted to him. It's an interesting twist on the idea of split personalities - Scorpio could be talking to himself the whole time, and for all intents and purposes, he is. The pop psychological aspect of this story is what makes it fascinating - Scorpio is unhinged, true, but he wants to make himself and the world better, in whatever twisted way he can, but he's so inept he can't even defeat a simulacrum of his brother.

The Defenders, meanwhile, are trying to get the Hulk to help them rescue Nighthawk. Hulk is just hanging out in Central Park stealing picnic food, and - say it with me - wants to be left alone. Hellcat, Valkyrie, and Moon Knight goad him into following them across the river, causing major property damage along the way (Damage Control is such a good idea for a series - Marvel should revive it!). They lead him right to Scorpio's lair, and as issue #50 begins, the Defenders face off against the newly-created Zodiac! In the Mighty Marvel Manner, this is a huge fight issue, but once again, Kraft subverts our expectations. Scorpio really care about only one member of the Zodiac - Virgo, whom he created specifically to be Eve to his Adam. Aquarius and Libra debate morality during the fight, while Aquarius has a beer. Scorpio reaches the Zodiac Chamber to find that Pisces, Capricorn, and yes, Virgo, did not survive the awakening process. Pisces gets a nice death scene - he asks Scorpio, "What happened? You have the answers ... We all know you have the answers ... But this pain ... It was not ... part of our programming." Scorpio yells at him as he dies, "I care about you ... and everytime I care, I get hurt." Finally, he finds Virgo's body, and that drives him over the edge. He no longer cares about the rest of the Zodiac, because he'll never feel Virgo's caress or embrace. The Defenders are busy fighting the rest of the bad guys, but they get unexpected help from Gemini, who switches sides in the middle of the battle. The rest are easily beaten, but Norriss and Moon Knight realize that Scorpio and the Fury LMD are still on the loose. So they head off to find them.

On the last two pages, Scorpio's saga comes to a depressing end. He gets one last rant, and he uses it to tell Fury that life is unfair. Yes, we all know that, but it's interesting because Scorpio just gives up, unlike most comic-book villains. He says "Every time I've ever believed in anything, or had faith that the future would get better for me, I've had that false hope knocked out of me ..." Scorpio's despair is palpable, and it becomes even more ironic when the Fury LMD tells him how much he's always respected him. Scorpio has been so desperate for a friend that he never realized he already had one. It's too late, though, and he asks Fury for his gun and shoots himself. Norriss and Moon Knight find him too late. Before he kills himself, Scorpio says, "A man must meet his own final defeat with class, with panache. Haven't I always said that?" Throughout the story, Scorpio has been concerned with style, with doing things with class. He is an anachronism in this world, and unlike Kraven's rather showy suicide, we understand this one better because we have seen how ineffectual Scorpio is and also how out of touch he is with the world and even those close to him. This suicide is more real than Kraven's, because we have come to know Scorpio much better than we know Kraven. This is not showboating on Scorpio's part. Norriss and Moon Knight don't understand this - they think the Fury LMD killed him, and Moon Knight says, "Who'll miss a maniac like Scorpio, anyway?" The Fury LMD gets the last words of the issue: "I will." It's a downer, sure, but it makes us realize that even crazed villains like Scorpio have a soul and have people who are going to miss them. It's also interesting that the Defenders are nowhere to be found. They are incidental to this story - it's about Scorpio and how he has failed to deal with his life, and we're unconcerned with anything except examining this man's spiral into suicide.

For all its goofiness, these five issues offer us something more than a superhero slugfest. Why is Scorpio a villain? Does he really have nothing to offer the world? He is obviously a brilliant scientist - he creates life, after all, which in the Marvel Universe might not be as amazing as in ours, but it's still pretty impressive. He craves human companionship, doesn't necessarily want to fight the Defenders or take over the world (it's worth mentioning again that he never reveals his plans to anyone, so we can only speculate what he was going to do with the Zodiac), and he is in good shape. His self-esteem issues are what drives him, and it's quite the dichotomy that he achieves so much while driven by an inferior complex. We don't know Fury's role in all of this, either. Is Scorpio just crazy and Fury never did anything to cause these feelings? Or was Fury not the best brother and tormented Scorpio to the point where he was consumed by his rage? Knowing Fury, it was probably a bit of both. In the end, despite his accomplishments, Scorpio cannot overcome his feelings and, instead of teleporting away, which he mentions that he could do, he commits suicide. In much the same way that Kevin Smith attempted to make Mysterio a sympathetic character before killing himself (and failed), the creators of this story actually succeed in making Scorpio sympathetic. We can't condone much that he does, but he do understand it.

If you question whether these issues are collected in a trade paperback, my answer would be: "Are you kidding?" I can't find any evidence that they are, but they're ridiculously common and cheap - I think I bought all five for five bucks. They are very neat issues from a time when comics were less concerned with grittiness but still weren't afraid to confront some tough issues. They certainly aren't "dumb" superhero comics - they are simply superhero comics done excellently. Who remembers Scorpio? We do. He's too tragic to forget.

Comics you should own: Detective 1

Detective Comics by Steve Englehart (writer), Marshall Rogers (penciller), and Terry Austin (inker)
DC, 6 issues (#471-476), cover dated August 1977-April 1978

Last year, when Batman: Dark Detective was announced, some younger comics fans without a true grasp of history (those whippersnappers!) may have shrugged and asked "What's the big deal?" Then, when the resulting mini-series was only decent and in some places bizarrely disappointing (a Two-Face clone????), those same fans may have become even more indifferent. To those people, and to anyone who decries the "darkening" of the Dark Knight that we have seen in the two decades since Frank Miller wrote his little book, I give you these six issues, which might be as close to a perfect rendition of Batman as we're ever going to see.

The Englehart/Rogers/Austin run on Detective has been dissected before and probably will be again, but I hope to add something new to the conversation and convince those who are still holding out that these are indeed Comics You Should Own. The most fascinating thing about these issues is how steeped in nostalgia they are and how, thirty years on, we're still steeped in that same nostalgia. These issues show the glories and the dangers of working with characters whose history stretches back almost 70 years and yet is constricted by a certain time frame - namely, that Batman is perpetually in his early 30s. I want to examine these comics through that nostalgic lens and determine why they are still relevant and modern. And, of course, I want to check out the best woman Batman ever dated!

Nostalgia in comics is occasionally an overwhelming, driving force, and it can frustrate both long-time comics readers and people trying to break into the cloistered world we readers have set up. Whenever a new comic book movie comes out, especially those with long-running characters, the industry bends itself into knots trying to figure out how to translate ticket sales into comic purchases. I, for one, think this is a fool's errand, but one thing that always daunts new readers is the continuity of comics. You simply can't pick up an issue with Spider-Man or Batman in it without some idea of the backstory. This ultimately makes the reading, once you are immersed in it, somewhat richer, and of course gives people lots of topics to blather on about on the Internet, but it's tough to break the seal. Comics cost, after all, a significant amount of money these days (not the individual issues, but the monthly grind or even the trade paperback grind) and too often people don't want to invest a small fortune in finding out exactly what the heck is going on with, say, Hal Jordan. This continuity conundrum often takes the form of nostalgia, as readers want a character to remain static, usually the way he or she was when they were children, because everything was better then (even Pong was better than Halo - admit it!). Therefore we get groups devoted to bringing Hal Jordan, to return to the above example, back from the dead, even though he's a fictional character. This isn't new - Conan Doyle could never escape Holmes and therefore was almost forced to bring him back - but it is pervasive in mainstream comic books. Which is why reading these six issues is such a pleasant and enlightening experience. Englehart created four stories that tapped into Batman's past perfectly while keeping him contemporary, and even making the stories live past the 1970s. They could have easily become dated, but they are not. They have transcended their time frame and become timeless, and that is why they are Comics You Should Own.

Look at what Englehart, ably abetted by Rogers and Austin's striking art, does with our hero. He gives us a one-issue Penguin story and a two-issue Joker story. This doesn't sound too remarkable, given that anyone who has ever written Batman for any significant amount of time does a Penguin and a Joker story. I'll get back to those issues, however. He also gives us a Doctor Hugo Strange story and a Deadshot story. You might say "So what?" but remember - this was before the age of the Internet and specialty comic shops, and Strange and Deadshot hadn't been seen since the 1940s, so bringing them back was a bold move and a pretty impressive one, when you consider that people weren't as obsessive about obscure comic book characters as they are today. Rogers gave Floyd Lawton a new costume, too, one that has managed to survive despite its rather garish design. So Englehart is tying Batman to his roots while still giving us excellent stories and moving the character forward, which isn't as easy as it sounds or as Englehart makes it look.

Englehart began his run on Detective with issues #469-470, a two-part story in which he created Dr. Phosphorus, another villain who has lasted. I don't include these as Comics You Should Own because, quite simply, they're not that good. Despite Englehart's writing and art by Walt Simonson, the two issues just don't pop off the page and thrill you like the later issues, although they're important for a few things: the presence of Rupert Thorne, the Boss of Gotham City, and the first appearance of Silver St. Cloud. Thorne begins his campaign against the Batman in these issues, a campaign that continues in the Englehart/Rogers comics. Silver, meanwhile, despite burdened with a ridiculous name (only in comics can people be named after their distinguishing characteristic, in this case her white hair), is the quintessential Batman girlfriend. Simply put, no one comes close to Silver in the Bruce Wayne paramour department - not even Selina Kyle. She meets Bruce Wayne on his yacht and after he goes off and fights Dr. Phosphorus, she notices that his hair is wet. This is the first step along her very quick journey to figuring out his superhero identity, which usually means the death or some other horrible fate for the woman. Englehart doesn't allow that to happen, however - Silver makes her own choices about their relationship, and that means, ultimately, giving Bruce up. Silver's development over these six-plus issues is wonderful to read, not only because she is a match for both Bruce and Batman, but because she is a fully developed female character without superpowers, which is something we see woefully little of in mainstream superhero comics. Silver is a regular woman - she is a sexual being in some respects, she doesn't take crap from anyone, she has a real job, not a "comic book one" - meaning she doesn't work at S.T.A.R. labs or is some kind of psychic. She organizes conventions, a perfectly normal occupation. Silver and Bruce's relationship is a mature one, too - another nice touch. These aren't teenybopper kids fooling around - we get the sense that Bruce and Silver are carrying on an affair in which the stakes are higher, not because of who Bruce really is, but because these people, as Englehart writes them, have been damaged by love before and want to be careful, even though they are swept away by passion. It's nice that Englehart acknowledges sex, too - another rare thing in a mainstream comic book. After the two meet in issue #470, the next time we see Silver (in issue #471), she tells Bruce, "After the other night, darling, I'd hoped you'd at least be suffering exhaustion! I know I am!" Such sexual frankness is a breath of fresh air in the usually constricted atmosphere of DC and Marvel comics, especially in the 1970s. When Bruce ends up at Hugo Strange's exclusive clinic to recover from wounds he received at the hands of Dr. Phosphorus, she doesn't sit around but visits the clinic, where she is given the brush-off. When Strange "replaces" Bruce after discovering his secret, she takes no crap from him when he tells her it's over. She slaps him, but at the same time realizes something is wrong, so she quite literally saves Bruce's life by calling in Dick Grayson. Without Robin's help, Strange's scheme probably would have worked. In issue #474, the turning point in their relationship, both she and Bruce get a lot more character development than writers usually give them. Bruce meets Silver for lunch, and Silver makes a joke at his expense. In one panel, we get a sense of how serious Bruce is about the Wayne Foundation. He says so, but Rogers shows his conviction more than Englehart could write it, as well as Silver's chagrin at making the joke in the first place. It's a wonderful small moment that speaks volumes about the blossoming relationship. Inside the convention center, the couple runs into Jim Gordon, who lets them know that Deadshot has escaped. Silver takes the opportunity to quiz Bruce on why he doesn't help the police as much as he used to. This another nod to the past without wallowing in it - Englehart has a sense of the history of the character, but he gives a very good explanation why Bruce isn't interested in crime anymore - he's older and more involved with the Foundation. In just a few pages, Englehart shows us that Silver is a successful businesswoman, a concerned lover, and a very sharp lady. When Batman battles Deadshot and the fight spills over into the convention center, Silver realizes that Batman and Bruce are the same. Instead of sticking by him and (probably) getting killed, she realizes that she needs to leave. Again, this is something a real person would do, no matter if we, the readers, support the decision or not. She needs time to think, and she recognizes that if she's around Bruce, with whom she is in love, her mind won't be clear. So she skips town, only to break down and bum a ride from ... Rupert Thorne, who is also fleeing Gotham City (for his own reasons, which we'll get to). Issue #476, as well as being the culmination of Batman's battle of wits with the Joker, is also the resolution of Silver's feelings about Bruce. While driving with Thorne, she gets into an argument with him about Batman's place in the city. Again, Englehart gives us a nuanced portrait of a real woman, one who was frightened of her feelings and what it would mean to take up with Batman, but one who, when pushed, pushes back and stands up for what is right and wrong. Thorne kicks her out of the car because she dares to defend Batman, and she realizes that she has to go back and confront Bruce and hash out her feelings. The climax of the issue is not Batman's fight with the Joker, interestingly enough, but his final conversation with Silver. The Joker, after all, is just another threat to be beaten up. Silver is the perfect woman for Bruce, and it's fascinating to read and look at their breakup. Batman doesn't get to say anything - all he gets out is her name before she lowers the boom. However, Englehart and especially Rogers, showing the Batman pleadingly put his hand on her shoulder, let us know that he is perfectly willing to try to make a life with her, even to the point of giving up his nocturnal activities. I might be reading too much into this, and of course DC wouldn't allow that, but it seems clear that Englehart was writing a Batman who would quit to be with Silver, but she never gave him the chance. At the beginning of issue #475, he confront Silver in her apartment - he seeks her out because she called his name at the end of issue #474. He is torn between revealing himself and allowing her to tell him what she knows, and again, we see his indecision and also his desire to take off his mask and end the charade once and for all. Even when she dumps him, she never calls him Bruce - subtly telling him that his secret is safe with her. She is the one who ends it, and she is the one who is able to go on to a full life. Batman, the classic dumpee, doesn't get a word in, and is left standing in the rain while Gordon, showing up just after Silver has gone, talks about Thorne's arrest. Batman, who throughout Englehart's run has been portrayed less mysteriously than he usually is, takes this opportunity to disappear without even speaking to Gordon.

The romantic arc of the Englehart issues is fascinating to track, because, as I mentioned, both Silver and Bruce are portrayed as adults with full lives who are swept away by emotion and aren't sure what to do about it. It's a wonderful romance, and a huge part of the reason why comics fans still talk about these issues and why they bought Dark Detective, which brought Silver back and again let her go. It's a shame that DC cannot allow Bruce to find romance except on Earth-2 or wherever the hell he married Selina Kyle, because it would be interesting to read. Other writers have tried to introduce romance into Bruce's life - with Selina, with Alfred's daughter, with Vesper Fairchild, with Sasha Bordeaux - but it never works like it did with Silver (although I did like Vesper, at least when Moench was writing her). It's also interesting that no one has ever brought her back except the original creator - I assume she's owned by DC, so anyone writing a Batman comic could use her, if they wanted to. I hope it's because of respect for what Englehart did that no one does use her.

To return to the theme of nostalgia, let's examine the villains of these issues. Hugo Strange had vanished early on in Batman's career, and Floyd Lawton had been thrown in prison. The nice thing about reading issue #471 is that we're not entirely sure who the villain is. Yes, the cover gives it away (stupid cover!), but, as I mentioned above, this was before the Internet and the obsessive comic-reading public, so DC figured that even with the cover, most of their readers wouldn't know who it was. Englehart takes Strange and gives him a modern twist while retaining the "mad scientist" feel that Strange had back in the day. He is still turning people into monsters, and it's still as goofy as it was in the 1940s, but Englehart makes it work. He also adds the newer scheme of Strange's - bilking rich clients out of their money after they come to his clinic for his "cures." Batman is saved from Strange by the return of Dick Grayson, who has been off at college. Robin coming back adds an extra layer of nostalgia to the run, and Englehart uses him well. He helps Batman defeat Strange and then becomes Batman's foil for the Penguin story in issue #473. The Penguin story is decent enough, even though Cobblepot would have gotten away with his scheme if he hadn't given Batman clues. The clues, however, again point to a nostalgic age of Batman, even though the crime - hijacking a plane full of economic experts - is thoroughly modern. Robin thinks he has figured the Penguin's whole scheme out, but Batman proves once again that he's the master. It's a simple story, but it again shows that Englehart is steeped in Batman history but concerned with updating the traditional Batman tropes for a modern audience. When Deadshot shows up, the nostalgia gets even thicker, as he and Batman crash into Silver's convention, where they fight on a giant typewriter. It's a wonderful fight, despite its brevity. The prop evokes the 1950s-era Batman, but it fits into a more modern style, and it works perfectly.

Englehart's final story is the two-part Joker tale about the laughing fish. It is a story steeped in the past, but, like the other stories of the run, modern and forward-looking. The Joker is portrayed here far better than he usually is - most of us, I would guess, are tired of the Joker as completely insane mass murderer. In these stories he kills people, naturally, but he has a "purpose," as twisted as it might be. The Joker's insanity is always more interesting when it has a clarity that he thinks of as sane, and his scheme here - to poison fish so that they have a "Joker grin" on them, and then trademark the fish and make a fortune - is gleefully twisted and magnificently insane. In the two issues, he "only" kills three people, so it's not like it's totally indiscriminate. What bothers us about the Joker these days is the randomness of it all, and that also lessens his impact. Here, he has a purpose, and it's a bit more chilling, because he's portrayed as a criminal mastermind who kills to get what he wants. The argument could be made that the out-of-control Joker who kills masses of people is more scary because you never know who he's going to kill, but that Joker, Miller's and Moore's Joker from the mid-1980s until today, has become so far removed from reality that he's not terribly interesting anymore, and therefore far less frightening. Englehart's Joker is creepy specifically because he has a plan. This Joker is much like the original Joker, who stole jewels and killed the owners for the sport of it. Englehart hearkens back to that first Joker story (from Batman #1) with the famous challenge on the radio to the police, which, in 1977, now becomes a televised challenge. He kills his two victims ingeniously, and outwits Batman until our hero gets help from an unexpected source - the ghost of Hugo Strange. The third victim of the Joker in the story is one of his own henchmen, whom he pushes in front of a truck when the thug questions the plan. It's this Joker, the one seemingly in control of his mind but likely to suddenly snap, is what makes him scary - not the Frank Miller version who casually slaughters an entire studio audience, or the Moore version who shoots Barbara Gordon for the sheer hell of it. In a final nod to the past, Englehart has the Joker mysteriously disappear, seemingly dead - but of course, they never find his body. There's always a problem of what to do with the Joker - does Batman capture him, which will inevitably lead to his escape from the woefully guarded Arkham Asylum, or does he disappear, thought dead, which means Batman failed? Englehart chooses the latter, perhaps because of the link to some of the great Joker stories of the past, but more likely because either path is a dead end.

Englehart's brief run is not all about nostalgia, of course. As I mentioned, he continually updates the comic so that even though it acknowledges the past, he is pushing Batman forward. Bruce's romance with Silver is just one manifestation of this. The other is the presence of Rupert Thorne, who ties the six issues together. It is Thorne who rules the City Council and is trying to turn Batman into a criminal. Of course, this is again a nod to the past, when Batman was hunted by the cops, and although writers have worked with this idea since, Englehart puts a nice twist on it because Gordon and his police refuse to cooperate with Batman. It's always interesting when the cops do turn against Batman, because it feels forced - he's worked with them so often and they've trusted him so much - so Englehart doesn't pretend that they would turn against him simply because Thorne orders it. The feeling of menace and threat is still there, but when Batman helps the police, they don't arrest him, like they should. Thorne, meanwhile, continues his campaign against Batman. When Hugo Strange offers to auction off Batman's identity in issue #472, he faces three men whom he cannot see. They are Thorne, the Penguin, and the Joker. Thorne refuses to wait for the auction and kidnaps Strange. He orders Strange beaten to give up the name, but Hugo dies before he breaks. Thorne remarks on how odd it is that Strange would rather die than betray Batman, but we know it's because of the weird relationship Batman has with all his villains, most notably shown by the Riddler but in this arc by both Strange, the Penguin, and even the Joker. They are locked in this game with Batman, and although the Penguin could easily commit his crime and get away with it, he leaves clues for Batman that ends up foiling him. Strange is the same way - he discovered Batman's identity through his own means, and he realizes (too late) that the name of Bruce Wayne was not his to sell - it's dishonorable to treat his foe this way. Thorne is a dishonorable man, and cannot understand this. The problem with Batman villains has always been this weird self-defeating mania they have, and Englehart doesn't shy away from that, he simply shows us a foe who does not feel this way and contrasts it to the foes who do. In issue #475, the Joker confronts Thorne and tells him the same thing Strange did - that Thorne is unworthy of knowing who Batman is, and that only the greatest criminal mastermind in the world - namely, the Joker - should discover Batman's secret. By this time, Thorne has been haunted by the ghost of Hugo Strange more than once, and this meeting with the Joker drives him over the edge. He flees Gotham and eventually picks up Silver St. Cloud, fleeing the city for her own reasons. After he kicks her out of the car, he is attacked by Strange's ghost one final time, and finally snaps, confessing all to the police. The implication, interestingly enough, is that despite their insanity, Batman's foes are somehow honorable and worthy of him, while a criminal of a more common stripe - Thorne is really just a "respectable" gangster - must pay for his crimes not only in a court of law but with his sanity. What this dichotomy between Batman's villains - the "sane" Thorne and the "insane" Joker - says about how we must view Batman is something that psychologists can argue about.

The genius of these six issues is the balance between nostalgia and freshness. Englehart understands the history of the character, but he also understands the need to provide new stories. Rogers creates a Gotham that is brooding and dark, but not one that is hopeless. The creators give us almost as perfect as a representation of Batman AND Bruce Wayne as we're likely to see. They give us old villains in a new light, and their interpretations of Strange and Deadshot have influenced creators ever since. These issues have been collected in several different forms, including a trade paperback, so they should be easy to find. If you're a Batman fan, you have probably already read them. If you're a young Batman fan and haven't read them yet, you owe it to yourself to do so. They give a complete portrait of this complex hero, and they are the kinds of stories all superhero tales should aspire to.

Comics you should own: Detective 2

Detective Comics by Mike W. Barr (writer), Alan Davis (penciller), and Paul Neary (inker), with Terry Beatty and Dick Giordano, Carmine Infantino and Al Vey, E.R. Cruz, Dick Sprang, and Mike Kaluta (guests artists, issue #572)
DC, 6 issues (#569-574), cover dated December 1986-May 1987

Look upon the first cover of the Barr/Davis/Neary Detective Comics. Batman is in the forefront, glaring back angrily at the Joker, who holds an unconscious Catwoman in his arms. Batman kneels over Robin, who is wrapped in something sticky and gazing wide-eyed at the reader, obviously in some distress. Robin and Batman crouch one playing card, while the Joker stands on another. Several Joker cards swirl around them. The sheer genius of this cover is breathtaking, and it signals the absolute thrilling issues that are to come, certainly some of the best Batman comics of the past 35 years.

My love for Alan Davis should be well-known by now, and I have written about a Mike W. Barr-penned book in this column as well. The fact that both of them (ably abetted by Neary's marvelous inks) were linked on Detective is a wonderful moment of comics synergy, and the fact that Davis left the book somewhat prematurely is a shame. They worked on only seven issues together, but they created comics that we can still read and love, for the sheer joy of the medium. (Issue #575 was their last collaboration, but as it was the first part of "Year Two" and that story is only somewhat decent, it doesn't get a mention here - although McFarlane's art on the final three is interesting to look at today.) Barr, like Englehart in my last column, understood that even though Batman's past can be goofy, there was no reason a smart writer couldn't incorporate it into a modern, more gritty tale of our favorite Dark Knight.

Barr throws Batman and Catwoman right into the wringer. These issues were coming on the heels of Moench's first run at Batman, one in which he wrote both titles for a few years and turned Batman into a long-running soap opera, with plenty of love interests (from Nocturna to Julia Pennyworth to Vicki Vale and finally Selina) and a lot of crossing over between the two books. Denny O'Neil must have had enough of this, because he brought on Barr and Davis to revamp Detective while allowing Frank Miller to tear down Batman and rebuild his origin in "Year One," which came out about the same time as this. "Year One" gets all the press, but what Barr and Davis did with Batman is much more entertaining. In issues #569-570, Barr takes Selina and turns her back into a villain. The Joker steals a catscan machine, and the evil Dr. Moon recalibrates it so that it, in his words, "enable[s] one to 'reprogram' a patient's mind, if you will, as though it were a computer." That dastardly Dr. Moon! No hero would ever do something like that!

The plan works, of course, and Selina goes back to being the villain we all know and love. I'm not terribly sure if the story was ordered by DC editorial mandate or if Barr himself was sick of Selina making goo-goo eyes with Bruce, but the story works well because the Joker is nicely maniacal and Selina is done well, both as a good girl and a bad one. Barr understands that even when she was good, there was still a lot about her that was evil (much like cats themselves, actually), and of course, Davis drawing her helps immensely. This is a nice use of the Joker, too, because he doesn't actually kill anyone, and he has an evil plan that doesn't involve slaughtering hundreds of people. He just wants Selina back to being evil, and he succeeds - even though he does get captured in the end after contributing to a happy ending.

With just two issues, Barr showed that he understood the characters he was writing and that he was easily able to make them in turns light-hearted and gritty. Batman isn't a lonely avenger of justice who is more than a little obsessed. Barr gives us one of the funniest Batman jokes ever: When the Dynamic Duo finds out that the Joker is planning on robbing the public library, Robin says "Holy Gutenberg! Let's go!" Batman stops him and, very sternly, says "Never do that again!" Robin is suitably perplexed, but the readers are laughing at the nod toward the old television show. Barr shows us that Batman cares very much about Selina and even more about Jason. When Jason is trapped in the Chinese finger torture goop that we see on the cover of issue #569, Batman must figure out how to get out of it while ignoring the pleas of Jason at his side. Later, when Jason is shot by the Mad Hatter, Batman is almost overcome with grief, and this leads to issue #574, which tweaks Batman's origin slightly but also shows us how much he cares for Jason. Barr does very well with Jason as well, giving us a young boy who doesn't quite know how to be Robin but throws himself into the action with abandon and enthusiasm. He's very naive, as twelve-year-olds are, but Batman guides him through the perils of Gotham City like a father. In a wonderful scene at the beginning of issue #570, Batman leaves Robin in the front of a bar while he speaks to someone in the back. Robin orders milk, and a hooker, Rhonda, backs him up by ordering one herself. Later, Robin asks Batman if Rhonda is a ... and before he can voice the word, Batman says, "She's a lady, chum." Yes, he calls Jason "chum." It's nice exchanges like this that show us the connection between Batman and Robin and why they can be a great team in the hands of a good writer.

This brief run is steeped in the Silver Age, but Barr, like Englehart before him, understood how to bring these concepts into the modern age without making them stupid and while still telling gripping stories with more weight than those of the 1950s. The Joker is gleefully insane, while his favorite henchman dresses like a clown in one scene and Rambo in another. Even though Straight Line (the henchman) is also nuts, he is as devilish as the Joker. Dr. Moon uses a classic Silver Age scheme to "change Selina's mind," but it's tinged with a modern creepiness and subtext - this is an almost sexual violation of Selina, and although Barr doesn't come out and call it rape, we can easily make the connection. The Scarecrow, who is wonderfully twisted in issue #571, comes up with a chemical that removes fear from the brain, and he uses it on Batman and sends him through an elaborate death trap, much like villains did in the 1950s. Finally, the Mad Hatter continues to use hat themes in his crimes, but in an inventive way, and we get a much weirder and deadlier Jervis Tetch than we've seen before. In issue #570, Batman punches out a bodyguard by telling him first that his shoelaces are untied, but when that doesn't work, he tells him his own shoelaces are untied. In the same issue, the Joker has set up shop in a novelties factory, which allows Robin to kick huge billiard balls around at the bad guys. All of these touches are distinctly Silver Age, but Barr has updated them wonderfully and inserts them easily into the story.

However, because it's the 1980s Batman, everything is not all cheery. Selina becomes a bad guy, Batman beats the Joker severely because of it, Jervis Tetch shoots Robin, and Leslie Tompkins berates Bruce while Jason is fighting for his life. The Scarecrow story is particularly interesting because Crane kidnaps Jason and makes Batman run through his death trap without any common sense. Batman, however, overcomes this by thinking of the worst fear he can conceive. He never tells Jason what it is, but as they walk away, we see a gravestone with Jason's name on it. This is all part of Barr making Batman more of a father figure, and it segues easily into issue #574, when Leslie and Bruce debate turning Jason into Robin and why Bruce became Batman in the first place. Barr's "new origin" doesn't change too much, except that Bruce kept the gun that killed his parents (which is simply there so it can be important during "Year Two") and that he could never allow Bruce Wayne to be too interested in knowledge, so he disguised himself in college. One thing it does, however, is let us know how lonely Bruce was during the years following his parents' death, even though he had Alfred and Leslie, and how he does not want anyone to go through that. This is something we've always suspected about Bruce, but it's rarely touched on. Why does he take in these kids and train them like he does? It's not so they can avenge their parents' deaths, it's so Bruce can give them a "family structure" (such as it is) that he lacked. It's a nice glimpse into Bruce's character that we don't often see. Usually it's the death of his parents and the weird avenger of the night, but not much else in terms of psychological insight. Barr deepens Batman's character with very little effort, and it adds a great deal to the story.

The homage to the Silver Age and even the Golden Age reaches its apex with issue #572, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of Detective Comics #1 from 1937. As Barr explains on the inside front cover, Batman is the most famous hero to appear in the comic, but he wasn't always the main star. Therefore, Barr reaches back to the past and brings us Slam Bradley, who has recently enjoyed a Renaissance in the pages of Catwoman but at this time was in the dustbin of comics. Ralph Dibny shows up, which is nice, and they all join up to solve a mystery that has its roots in Sherlock Holmes - 1987 being the 100th anniversary of the first Holmes story. Holmes himself appears at the end, and although the story is slight on its own, Barr again shows us how good he is at characterization - Jason tries to show Slam that he's worthy of Slam's respect, and Batman is humbled when he meets Holmes. Little touches like this help humanize Batman and make his relationship with Jason even more powerful.

Although Barr's writing is superb, Davis' art elevate the stories to true greatness, because Davis is able to translate Barr's scripts into a beautiful reality filled with the details that Davis is famous for. It begins with the wonderful cover to #569, which shows everything that happens in the book with great clarity while still remaining a powerful image. Davis brings back splash pages at the beginning of the books that don't necessarily have anything to do with the story - in issue #571, he shows the Scarecrow in what appears to be an apothecary's shop mixing all sorts of potions while Batman and Robin swoop down on him, #572 shows Batman and Robin, the Elongated Man, and Slam Bradley crouching on an open copy of the Doomsday book while Sherlock Holmes, in profile, hovers behind them, and #573 has Jervis Tetch escaping from the Dynamic Duo while he brings down hundreds of hats on top of them. These pages add just that touch of Silver Age to the stories, and because Barr is so economical in telling the story, they don't feel like wasted pages. Davis also does wonders with the characters. These few issues have more panels of Batman smiling than probably any since O'Neil and Adams turned him back into a grim avenger. That's not to say they are all mirthful smiles - it's Batman, after all - but some of them are, and it's nice to see. He smiles when he has fooled the bad guys and is about to pounce. He smiles when he sees Rhonda - this Batman cares about even the prostitutes in his town. He smiles when he's threatening Profile, who is an "information broker" in Gotham's underworld. When Jonathan Crane doses him with the gas that takes away his common sense, he smiles as he runs through the Scarecrow's death traps, which is the most unnerving use of his smile, because he's not thinking clearly. Davis is brilliant at showing both the arrogance of a Batman who knows he's the best and the joy of a Batman who is teaching a young boy how to be a man. Davis draws Jason like a twelve-year-old, too, and his Batman is muscular but not bulky, while his Joker is creepy and angular - some letters complained about his ridiculously long legs, but Davis is showing him as a contrast to Batman and it's not meant to be too realistic. Selina, like all of Davis' women, is beautiful and sexy, and his Scarecrow is disjointed and jerky, like a puppet with its strings cut. This is Davis' book as much as it is Barr's and the two have a wonderful relationship that makes these comics both action-filled, tragic, yet gloriously hopeful as well, which we don't see too often anymore in Batman books. Even though Selina returns to the dark side, in the process a young girl in a catatonic stupor wakes up, and even though Jason gets shot by the Mad Hatter, he comes through stronger and more ready to beat up the bad guys.

This homage to the Silver Age couldn't last, of course, and Davis left the book (presumably to work on the X-Men and Excalibur, although my dates could be off) and Barr wrote "Year Two," which although okay and presumably set in the past, was a depressing piece of comic literature. Even though the Barr/Davis/Neary team didn't last long, they left an indelible impression on the character. And their departure allowed DC to assign a new team to the book, one that is the subject of my next column. So it all worked out for the best. I've been looking around, but it does not appear that these issues have been collected in a trade paperback, which is a shame. Dig through the long boxes next time you're wondering if there are any good Batman books out there that you might have missed!

Comics you should own: Detective 3

Detective Comics by Alan Grant (writer), John Wagner (writer, issues #583-594), Norm Breyfogle (penciller; inker, issue #583, 586-592), Steve Mitchell (inker, issues #584, 593-594, 601-614 ), Ricardo Villagran (inker, issue #585)
DC, 26 issues (#583-594; 601-614), cover dated February 1988-January 1989; June 1989-May 1990)

Batman is almost unique among major superheroes in mainstream comic books for at least one reason: he doesn't need a supporting cast. The big guns in the DC and Marvel worlds not only need their supporting casts, some are practically defined by them. Superman wouldn't be Superman without Lois Lane, Jimmy Olson, Perry White, the Kents, and Lana Lang. Spider-Man would be far less interesting with Mary Jane and Aunt May. With the possible exception of the Punisher, whose stature is far less than the others and who is a Batman knock-off anyway, Batman stands alone as a hero who is not defined or limited by a supporting cast. He doesn't need Alfred Pennyworth or Robin or Commissioner Gordon, the three mainstays throughout his long career. Batman is rare in that he is defined largely by his villains - he has the most memorable rogues' gallery in comic book history, and honestly, no one comes close - by his detective skills, and by the death of his parents, who comprise the only real indispensible part of his supporting cast, and they're dead. That's not to say that Batman can't have a rich and varied group of people around him. Several writers have built up his supporting cast and made him interact far more with them than others. However, a writer can certainly write excellent Batman stories with hardly any interaction with those around him, something that cannot be said for many other superheroes.

Case in point: Alan Grant and John Wagner. These gentlemen came onto Detective Comics after a bit of turmoil on the title. Mike W. Barr and Alan Davis were the creative team until #575, then Todd McFarlane did some issues (the last three chapters of "Year Two"), then Jim Baikie drew a Two-Face story, and then we had the awful Millennium tie-in (Norm Breyfogle's first issue). With issue #583, however, we got Grant and Wagner teamed with Breyfogle, and for the next few years, Detective was a no-holds-barred, roller-coaster-ride of comic book goodness, with Batman doing what he does best: solving crimes and beating up bad guys. Robin? Bah! Tim Drake shows up at the very end of the run, but even before the fans killed off Jason Todd, he was nowhere to be found in these pages. Alfred? He was there for a few panels every so often, but usually it was just to answer the phone and look something up on the computer before Batman was off again to kick some butt. Gordon? Also present, but basically as a Greek chorus to explain the crime to Batman before fading back into the shadows. Even Bruce Wayne is hardly present - he does play a key role in a few of the stories, but as an assistant in Batman's crime-solving passion and not on his own. Only in the final few issues does Bruce Wayne do anything not connected to Batman - he has a lunch date with Vicki Vale and he sponsors a class of underprivileged kids (which is still related to his nocturnal activities, but it doesn't go toward solving a crime). For these 26 issues, Batman takes center stage. He fights villains, he experiences horror, he solves crimes. So why are these issues so special?

Grant and Wagner, quite simply, told great short stories. Grant and Wagner wrote a three issue story (#587-589) and Grant wrote a three-issue and a four-issue story (#601-603 and #604-607), but the rest are either two issues long or one issue. They waste no space whatsoever with these stories - they are stripped to the bone, and there's nothing wrong with that. It's almost impossible to believe in these built-for-the-trade days that a writer could consistently put out 22- or 44-page stories with such excellence. We get a bad guy doing bad things, and Batman stops him. The stories are completely pulpy and noir-ish, which is what Batman ought to be. Breyfogle's magnificent art only makes the stories fly along even more quickly - the fluidity of his drawings almost make Batman look like he's moving through the book. It's one of the most impressive examples of taking a static medium and seemingly making it flow.

The writers also did something extremely interesting - they resisted the urge to populate their books with the standard Bat-villains. As I mentioned, Batman has wonderful villains, but they have also been around for decades, and many writers seem unwilling or incapable of coming up with new villains to join the rogues' gallery and fall back on the Joker, Penguin, Two-Face, et al. Grant eventually succumbed, bringing us a two-part Penguin story in issues #610-611 (which, it should be noted, also stars a few of the villains he created earlier in the run) and a Catman and Catwoman story in #612 (Selina's appearance is really an extended cameo). (He also wrote the second part of a Penguin crossover and a Joker story, but those are not Comics You Should Own, for reasons I'll discuss). But other than that, the only villain Grant used that he did not create was the Clayfaces, and he even took that story (issues #604-607) to create a new version of Clayface. By ignoring the classic rogues' gallery, Grant and Wagner (and then Grant by himself) were able to bring us some villains that were every bit as strange and classic as the Bat-villains of the past: right out of the gate we get the Ventriloquist and Scarface, and down the line we get the Ratcatcher, the Corrosive Man and Kadaver, Umbaluru the aborigine (who's not really a villain, but he fights Batman), Cornelius Stirk, Wyatt Tenzin and his tulpa, Clayface V (I guess he's technically the fifth one!), and Anarky. Many of these villains have shown up again (Robinson just killed the Ventriloquist in an issue of Detective), but they have never really risen too far in the hierarchy. This is both a good thing and a bad thing - it's bad because these villains are as weird and twisted as anyone else in Batman's rogues' gallery, but it's good because these villains mostly are very specific to the stories in which they appear, and using them over and over would cheapen them. It has happened with some of them - Stirk was a brilliant killer in his first appearance, but his subsequent appearances have not been as memorable. The same thing has happened with Anarky and the Ventriloquist. But for these stories, the villains are excellent and show the two main themes of these issues of Detective: drugs and moral ambiguity.

Grant and Wagner's stories are saturated with drug use. The first story (issues #583-584) introduces the Ventriloquist and his dummy, Scarface, who are purveyors of a new drug, Fever. Batman comes across some users, who become psychotic and aggressive when they take the drug. When Batman confronts the Ventriloquist, he gets a dose of the drug and almost beats the crime boss to death, but he is able to regain control of himself just in time. This begins a series of stories in which Batman must confront drug use and its myriad consequences - all of them bad, of course. These issues came out in the late 1980s, when the War on Drugs was just heating up, and Grant and Wagner do their part. I'm not suggesting that they're just writing propaganda - it's more subtle than that, and the users aren't necessarily evil, even though the pushers are. In issue #589, Grant and Wagner conclude a three-part story with an ironic twist - a cocaine dealer who fell into Gotham harbor two issues earlier is run over by a local DJ, who was high on his product, thereby bringing the problem of drugs full circle. Drug use comes up again in the Cornelius Stirk story (issues #592-593), in an interesting way. Stirk possesses a hypothalamic disorder that has given him a psi-power - he can to people as anyone (and he shows up as Jesus, Abraham Lincoln, and a woman), and he uses this to lure his victims to their death. He butchers his victims after almost scaring them to death and eats their organs, believing this helps keep him sane. He believes, because he was released from the hospital and declared "sane," that he has no need of his prescribed medication - sane men, he tells us, have no need for it! This is an interesting comment on what makes us sane and keeps us there - in Stirk's case, drugs. This is an instance of a user going cold turkey with bad consequences, rather than the other way around. In issue #594, Grant and Wagner give us another drug story, a creepy tale of a man who becomes a paranoid psychotic when he takes Ecstasy. Grant's final story in this group of comics, issue #614, is another drug story, one in which Bruce Wayne is confronted with a problem the Batman simply can't punch - how do we keep kids from trying drugs in the first place?

These drug stories show people who are caught up in circumstances they cannot control, but they're not necessarily at fault. Yes, Batman hates drugs, and he does all he can to stop their use. But these stories, as well as the rest of the run, are characterized by a certain moral ambiguity. This has recently become a bit more of a catchphrase than it was fifteen years ago because of all the heroes of both major comic book companies wondering whether it's okay to beat up a bad guy. It's been a feature in comics for a long time, and Grant and Wagner use it nicely, even though Batman still beats people up. Drug users are the easiest way to look at this - we can blame them for taking drugs, but do they need our help or our scorn? Batman has to stop them when they commit crimes, but shouldn't he use what power he has to stop the pushers and keep the users off drugs in the first place? This question is raised in a couple of different stories, which I've already mentioned. In issue #594, Ed Hallen, a player in the high stakes world of foreign exchange dealing, gets a taste of Ecstasy from his co-workers. This causes his personality to rupture into a "good" side and a "bad" side, with the bad side egging him on to kill junkies, destroy the Ventriloquist's boarded-up club, and finally attempt to blow up his place of business. Ed is a villain and a killer, but Batman's anger is saved for his co-workers, who gave him the drug in the first place. In issue #614, he tracks some junior high school kids who are stealing satellite dishes to try to impress a local street gang. The gang members tempt them to sell drugs instead, and Batman threatens them at the school yard. This is where the story takes an interesting turn - Batman speaks to the principal, who tells him how horrible their lives are and that joining a gang is the only way out that they see. Bruce Wayne steps in and decides to sponsor the class, paying for their college education if they graduate high school. It's a novel solution in a Batman comic, and even though we have never heard of it again, it's the kind of thing more writers should do - how much good does Bruce Wayne do in the community as well as Batman? Batman can beat people up, but Wayne can do other things, and this story shows us that Batman and Bruce Wayne could easily do the same work in different ways, if writers would only see that.

The moral ambiguity extends beyond the drug parables, as well, and in different ways. The Ratcatcher story, in issues #585-586, seems simple enough - bad guy controls rats and uses them to exact revenge on society - in this case, the group of people who put him in jail years before. Flannegan, the Ratcatcher, is a villain, but in his twisted mind, he's just trying to settle the scales, because he feels he was unjustly imprisoned. This bad guy isn't out for riches, he's out for his own kind of justice, and although we certainly don't excuse him, we realize that he's not just a bad guy - he's a bad guy who believes he's doing what's right, which is always more interesting. The "Night People" story (issues #587-589) contains several interlocking storylines, but the main one is that of an escaped convict, Deke Mitchel, who wants revenge on his former employer, Mr. Kadaver, for tipping off the police about a crime he had committed. Again, it's not that we feel badly for Mitchel - he is a criminal, after all - but we understand that his sense of "honor among thieves" has been violated. When he is caught in an explosion and bathed in toxic chemicals, he doesn't die (this isn't the real world, after all), he become a "Corrosive Man" (it's comic books!), able to burn through anything because his entire body has become toxic. This turns him from a convict who wants revenge into a strangely pathetic creature - we still don't agree with his methods, but we feel bad because he is no longer a man and only wants one thing before he dies - revenge. He gets it, in a sense, and dies. These stories featured villains, yes, but they were villains we could see as human beings, because they weren't bad guys just to make themselves rich or even just to kill random people. They wanted to kill people, but they had very good reasons for doing so.

Grant and Wagner weren't satisfied with simply writing about bad guys with an axe to grind, however. In issue #590, they begin to flex their creative muscles a bit more and paint Batman's world in even more shades of gray, even though they misfire the first time out. The issue deals with a Muslim terrorist named Abu Hassan who is also a "fully credited Syraqui diplomat," according to the FBI agent Batman meets after Hassan's group kills a bunch of veterans in Gotham. Batman heads to London to get Hassan and finds out he's planning to blow up the houses of Parliament on Guy Fawkes' Night, because no one would take a threat to the government seriously on that night. Batman stops the terrorists, of course, but before he does, he confronts Hassan at the embassy. Hassan gives him the standard speech about fighting the imperialism of the West, and Batman hesitates long enough for a flunky to surprise him. When Batman fights back, Hassan falls out the window and is killed on the barbed wire on the embassy wall. Hassan is Grant and Wagner's attempt to show both sides of the West/East divide, but because it's a one-issue story, it's difficult for them to give him much depth, and it comes off as somewhat ham-fisted. The art carries the story, but it's still a valiant attempt to show that the world Batman lives in does not always make sense. In the next issue, the writers got it right. Umbaluru is an aborigine who has come to Gotham on a mission. Kerry Rollo, an artifact collector, has a power bone from a tribe near Ayer's Rock (or Uluru, as we should call it these days instead of its white imperialist name) and he's showing it off. Unfortunately for him, his men stole it when the aborigines wouldn't sell it, and Umbaluru is going to get it back. Batman interrupts Umbaluru and Rollo, and once Umbaluru explains it to him, he tells him that Rollo will stand trial. Umbaluru rejects his white man's justice and dives with Rollo out of the window. Rollo falls to his death, but Umbaluru escapes. This is a very nice short story that explores the same theme as the previous one, but it does it much more nicely than the story about Hassan. Umbaluru is not a pure villain like Hassan is, and although he kills people, we understand why he is doing it. Batman does too, but he still must try to stop the crime and bring the criminal in. Added to this is a rare Bruce Wayne appearance at Rollo's gallery early in the story, where he accepts money from Rollo to help the city's poor. Rollo is also not a completely bad guy - what he did was wrong, obviously, but he doesn't understand that other cultures reject him and his culture. It's an interesting story.

Following a six-issue hiatus (which includes the three-part 50th anniversay story in issues #598-600), Grant (without Wagner) returns with more somewhat ambiguous storytelling. It's interesting to read these stories, as Batman becomes much of a mediator between two sides, one of which is usually "right" although it might be illegal, and often Batman isn't sure how to handle this. Issues #601-603, "Tulpa," are a perfect example of this. We have your obvious bad guy - Rafe Kellogg and his two heavies, Cecil and Lumps, who are extorting money from Wyatt Tenzin for a loan his father took from them. All well and good. To get the money, however, Tenzin is creating doppelgangers of himself - tulpas - and sending them out to steal. Batman encounters one of them on the street (it disintegrates) and Alfred is beaten up by one when it tries to rob Wayne Manor. So Batman is after the tulpas and, by extension, Tenzin. But Tenzin is telling his tulpas to take only the amount he needs and abstain from all violence, and he's doing this for his own protection. When he realizes he'll need something else to get Kellogg off his back, he calls up a six-armed demon to kill them. This changes the dynamic of the story - Tenzin is still the victim, but Kellogg and his thugs also become the prey, as the demon is relentless in his pursuit of them. Batman tries to enlist the aid of Jason Blood, and eventually Blood calls up Etrigan, which adds another level of ambiguity. Etrigan kills the demon, but isn't he really worse than the demon in the first place? Etrigan, naturally, tries to kill Kellogg, but Batman is forced to come between the two, even though Kellogg probably deserves it. Batman, of course, can't hope to defeat the Demon, but Etrigan relents because he likes Batman's style and says he recognizes a kindred spirit in Batman. For a three-part story about a small-time thug leaning on a poor shopkeeper which leads to a battle between demons from hell, this tale says a great deal about what Grant wants us to consider while we read: Batman is ultimately powerless against the evil of the first demon and Etrigan, but he never stops fighting, even to defend "bad" people. Wyatt Tenzin is a good man, but he is willing to unleash a killing machine on the world. Etrigan is always nasty, but he has a twisted sense of honor that allows him to spare Batman's life - probably because he realizes that Batman has fashioned his own kind of moral hell, and why take him away from that? It's an interesting story on several levels, not unlike most of the run.

Grant continued this idea of ambiguity in the next story, "The Mud Pack" in issues #604-607. Ostensibly, this story is about Basil Karlo, the first Clayface, who simply wore a weird mask. Matt Hagen is there in spirit, but still dead. Karlo enlists the aid of the fourth Clayface, a woman made clay by Kobra (which helps explain the excellent co-star in the book, Looker), to break Preston Payne, the third Clayface, out of prison. He betrays the two and steals their blood, injecting himself with a mixture of it and becoming the Ultimate Clayface, but what's interesting about the story is that Clayface IV and Preston Payne find love together because they realize they have both been used by men of power and they're tired of it. Villains are always more interesting when they are human, and these two people are villains not because they want to take over the world, but because they have powers that people fear (especially in the case of Payne) and are excluded from society. Batman and Looker don't even find them, and they get to have a happy ending.

Grant's study of moral ambiguity reached its apogee, really, with the next story, the two-part "Anarky in Gotham City" in issues #608-609. Anarky is one of the more interesting characters of the past fifteen or twenty years, not only because he's a teenager (which is a wonderful revelation in #609) but because of what he wants to accomplish - anarchy as a concept is often dismissed, but it's worth looking at simply because it is so radical and untenable yet noble. Anarky is a direct contrast to Batman - he is an active agent of change while Batman is simply a reactive agent, reinforcing the status quo (as all corporate superheroes do) and positioning himself as the opposition to Anarky even though Lonnie is trying to make the world better instead of stopping at beating up the obvious criminals. Anarky might go too far - he is planning on stopping Johnny Vomit from singing too loud before he discovers the rock star is dealing drugs, which is a bit of an extreme position to take - but the fact is, he is looking out for the good of the people as a whole rather than targeting people who are committing more ostentatious crimes. Lonnie is a fascinating character in that he has a sense of humor (as evidenced by the A-symbol he spraypaints on Batman's cape after the Dark Knight has captured him) and he's very smart. He is able to show how ineffective Batman is against the real problems of society, and although Batman stops his spree, we find ourselves sympathizing much more with Anarky than with the representative of the status quo. A few issues after these, Lonnie shows up again, causing havoc from his juvenile detention center. Grant obviously liked the character, and he is one of those creations that you wish was used better in the DC Universe.

Despite the excellent writing throughout this run, these issues are a wonderful example of how writing and art complement each other, as Breyfogle helps elevate these morality tales into truly great comics. Breyfogle was the second Bat-artist I was introduced to (Aparo was the first), and his stuff here blew me away and continues to shine even after fifteen years. Why Breyfogle is not mentioned among the great artists to draw Batman is beyond me. With the advent of the Internet and Breyfogle's return to comics (he's currently drawing Of Bitter Souls, a nice book delayed by the death of Speakeasy), Breyfogle might get the recognition he deserves. He is one of the quintessential Batman artists. His Batman is dynamic, powerful, yet human - in this run, Batman might have more facial expressions than he ever had before or since. Breyfogle's layouts allow us to follow the action smoothly, and his fight scenes are beautifully rendered and show better than almost anyone how Batman is able to defeat more than one person attacking him at a time. An example of this is in issue #613, a tragic tale about trashing the planet and a boy's desire to help - a plan that goes horribly wrong. On one page, two men attack Batman in a junkyard. In seven thin panels, Breyfogle shows how Batman avoids the gunshot of one thug, disarms him, and manages to kick him away into another thug who is trying to get a bead on him with his own gun. It's a simple device, and Breyfogle repeats it throughout the run - flattening his panels to fit more onto a page and breaking down a fight so that we see exactly how Batman is able to do all the wonderful things he does. Despite the fact that Batman dominates this run and not Bruce Wayne, Breyfogle gives him more humanity and more emotions than most artists. There is a great debate in comics over which person is wearing the mask - Batman or Bruce Wayne - and usually artists make Batman the emotionless one, even though he is the character who (naturally) dominates the book. Breyfogle decides instead to make Batman a fully realized human being, despite the mask. Therefore we get various emotions that we see occasionally in Batman comics, but not as often as we do in this run: rage (issue #584, page 20, #586, page 18; #590, page 15; #594, page 21; #611, page 16); terror (#585, page 21; #605, page 22; #606, page 22); nausea (#586, page 6 - when was the last time we saw Batman vomit?); wry humor (#586, page 21); grim satisfaction (#589, page 22); horror (#590, page 3); shock (#590, page 4; #594, page 4; #601, page 6; #609, page 16); sadness (#590, page 22; #603, page 22; #606, page 3); confusion (#592, page 6; #601, page 6; #603, page 21); boredom (#609, page 10); frustration (#609, page 17); satisfaction (#613, page 15); even happiness (#614, page 22). We usually see an angry Batman or even a grimly determined Batman, but Breyfogle fits his style to Grant and Wagner's writing so that we experience the emotions Batman feels as he goes through these bizarre stories. This is a Batman concerned more with the effects of the crimes committed in his city rather than simply stopping the criminals. He wants to catch the bad guys, of course, but he is a man who cares deeply about what these criminals do to his city, and Breyfogle's magnificent art allows us to see that more than just being a grim avenger of crime, Batman is a man who wants to punish crime but also wants to work hard to make the city better. Batman feels all the damage done in his city, and with Breyfogle, we get a much more human Batman. Of course, he gives life to the weird criminals that Grant and Wagner invent. It begins with the Ventriloquist and Scarface, but continues through the new gallery of rogues. Breyfogle's Corrosive Man is a tragic and bizarre figure, and the toxic waste dripping from his eyes looks like tears even before Deke Mitchel realizes how awful his life has become. Cornelius Stirk is a truly scary villain, far worse than the Scarecrow, on whom he was clearly modeled. Ed Hallen's alter ego, the "voice" that tells him to kill drug dealers, is a creepy pair of red eyes that only gets angrier and angrier as Hallen tries to resist. Breyfogle's Etrigan is insanely demonic, and the way Breyfogle shifts him quickly from rage to merriment is wonderfully done. Breyfogle's Batman, beside the facial expressions, is the triumph of the run. He has to be, because of Grant and Wagner's emphasis on the Dark Knight aspect of the book. Batman is larger than life, a true hero, and his humanity just makes him more so. When he overcomes the horror that the criminals throw at him, he seems to grow and dominate, because Breyfogle makes him even more epic. Breyfogle uses his cape well, as good artists can, and although it's still a bit ridiculous to think that Batman could have such a long and flowing cape, it's not as silly as a McFarlane cape, for instance. In Breyfogle's hands, Batman's cape helps make him even grander. His presence terrifies the bad guys who think they're so tough, such as Cornelius Stirk, who shrinks visibly when Batman overcomes the fear Stirk has instilled in him. This is a Batman who scares the bad guys but is human enough that innocent people remain encouraged. It's largely because of the way Breyfogle draws him.

Grant and Breyfogle continued on Detective after issue #614, but they don't belong in the same lofty category as these. It's not that they're bad comics - they are decent enough. However, Denny O'Neil decided there should be more continuity between the two Batman books, and the work suffered a little. Issue #615 is part of a Penguin crossover with Batman, and as Detective #610-611 is also a Penguin story, and a superior one at that, it becomes redundant. The team also wrote a four-part story with Tim Drake's parents in which his mother died and his father was crippled, and then Breyfogle moved over to Batman for a time. A bit of the magic had gone, though. Grant and Breyfogle teamed up for a mini-series about Anarky, which was interesting enough, and the two launched Shadow of the Bat with a story about Arkham Asylum, but then Breyfogle, at least, disappeared for a while, which is a shame because he never became the superstar he should have been.

These issues are still good reading today for many reasons. They tell short stories with a lot of punch, and although they give us weird criminals who commit somewhat awful crimes, these issues don't wallow in the nihilism that many comics writers mistake for realism. Batman has to deal with many horrible events, but he is always there to make things better, even when right and wrong are not so clear. Batman doesn't have all the answers in these issues - he is a flawed hero. But he is a hero because he fights to make life in Gotham City better, and more importantly, he tries to understand why things are not great. Part of the reason I don't include the latter issues of Grant and Breyfogle's run in these is because issue #614 is such a nice way to end it. As I've mentioned, Bruce Wayne takes center stage in this issue, sponsoring a school class in the hopes to keep them off drugs. Although Bruce Wayne is the catalyst for change in this issue, the final image of Batman standing on a rooftop in front of an American flag, smiling down on his city. His thoughts on the page are in caption form: "It won't be easy. Bruce Wayne has to get to know them like they were his own children. And of course, there's no guarantee an education will be incentive enough for any of them. But even if one pulls through, it'll have been worth it. Fairy godmother? Hah!" Batman scoffs at this notion, but through their run Grant and Wagner and then Grant alone made it clear that Batman is somewhat of a fairy godmother, answering prayers of the Gothamites who are in need. It's a fine balance between the grim-'n'-gritty stories of Batman over the last twenty to thirty years and the image of Batman as a savior of the city. Alan Grant, John Wagner, and Norm Breyfogle do a wonderful job giving us action-filled stories with depth and emotion. This run deserves to be recognized as some of the best Batman stories, and maybe someday DC will see fit to reprint them in trade paperback format. Perhaps recognition will come as we get more perspective on them. If you can scour the back issue boxes, I recommend that you look for these.

Comics you should own: Detective 6

Detective Comics by Peter Milligan (writer), Jim Aparo (penciller, issues #629-632, 638, 643; inker, issue #643), Tom Mandrake (art, issue #633), Steve Leialoha (inker, issue #629), and Mike DeCarlo (inker, issues #630-632, 638)
DC, 7 issues (#629-633, 638, 643), cover dated May 1991-August 1991, November 1991, April 1992

Peter Milligan has a split personality when it comes to writing comics. On the one hand, there is the "bad" Milligan, who writes stuff like Elektra back in the late 1990s or the current X-Men (which isn't awful, just not that good). Why "bad" Milligan shows up on mainstream Marvel titles is something that psychologists must study for years. On the other hand, there's the "good" Milligan, which is almost anything else he works on, but the most prominent examples are Shade, The Changing Man, Enigma, Human Target, and X-Force/X-Statix. Luckily for Batman fans, when he worked on that character, he was the "good" Milligan. He wrote the three-part "Dark Knight, Dark City" story in Batman in 1990 (the subject of a previous column) and then, over the course of a year, he wrote a group of issues on Detective (two of which don't make the cut, for reasons I'll discuss). He felt he was overwhelmed with work, and considering he was in the middle of working on Shade at the same time, and Shade was his baby, he decided to quit Detective. His brief time on the title remains on of the more interesting "what-might-have-beens" in comics history.

We know we're getting something different with our favorite Caped Crusader on the first few pages of his first issue. It begins with a scene from 1847 in Ireland, and a woman in a lonely field. The narration reads: "In the fields the potatoes are dark and rotten as corpses. And she had buried too many. Seen too many lowered into senseless ditches. She had always imagined herself dying gently in bed with her loved ones around her. But now alone she sinks to her knees in the hungry grass." The woman staggers over three panels and finally looks right at the reader, pain etched across her face. We don't know what the heck is going on, but we know that this is unlike almost anything we've ever seen in a Batman comic. On the next page, in the present, we learn that a terrorist called "Hungry" is demanding that the citizens of Gotham City do outrageous things like wear red hats and blue mascara and say "Frank Sinatra sucks" every ten minutes. If these demands are not met, people will die in random fashion. We see a police man killed by an axe-wielding maniac, even though witnesses say he just collapsed, dead. A car smashes into another and the driver goes through the windshield, but those who saw it say the car crashed into nothing - "a head-on collision with a bad dream," as Milligan puts it. We are completely off-balance. This is a Batman comic?

Well, of course it is, and Aparo's art (never my favorite, but perfectly serviceable) actually works well with Milligan's wild stories, because his predictable drawings and lantern-jawed Batman helps ground these scripts and make it even more horrifying. Batman is racing against the clock in this story, trying to figure out what's going on while people mysteriously die around town. He discovers that "Hungry" is scattering grass around Gotham where horrific crimes occurred, and that grass is causing anyone who steps on it to experience the crime again - sometimes to deadly effect. The old woman at the beginning on the issue cursed the grass, and "Hungry" heard the story and dug up the spot where she died. "Hungry" is an ex-con named Dean Fahy, who was imprisoned for murder but claimed he was innocent, and now he's getting revenge on Gotham. Batman tracks him down, and there's a nice surprise ending - not a happy one, because it's Milligan and it's Batman, but still a surprise. It's a one-and-done story, and leaves us astonished at Milligan's imagination. By 1991, it had been far too long since Batman had delved into the supernatural, a place where one would think he would be at home. During Milligan's all-too-brief run, we get it in spades (and, to be fair, Milligan's "Dark Knight, Dark City" arc a year earlier had been supernaturally influenced, too).

Milligan's interest in the supernatural led him to create a golem in issue #631-632, which is also an interesting story because of its connection to the Holocaust. An old Jewish man, Saul Zwemer, sees youngsters committing hate crimes against immigrants and Jews and fears that the Nazis are returning. The only thing he believes he can do is build a golem, a monster made from mud who is turned against the gang members. Batman, obviously, has to stop it, but he discovers that there is a lot more to Saul and his past than he thought. The human drama is the key to the story, obviously, but the golem is the engine, and it's interesting to see that Milligan uses the supernatural to illuminate the mundane. This is something that Milligan is particularly good at - taking something outrageous and using it to write a story that is intensely personal. In issue #638, he gives us a tale of the Bomb, a person with the ability to create explosions and possibly explode with the power of multiple thermonuclear warheads. The Bomb has been held in army captivity for "its" whole life (the chief of security at the army base that is its home uses the impersonal pronoun) and now it has escaped with a former worker at the base. This man, Walker, is demanding a ransom from the city or he'll detonate the Bomb, and the chief of security wants Batman to find the Bomb but not engage it. Batman is suspicious, but he tracks down the Bomb, only to find that it's a teenaged girl who doesn't know why she is able to blow things up but doesn't want to go back to the base. From the very beginning of the book, we know that what the army is saying is probably a lie, and Batman figures it out pretty easily, but that doesn't matter - it's a story about a person who has destructive power but doesn't want to use it and is at the mercy of men who do want to use it. "The Bomb" is a highlight of Milligan's short run, and I'll get back to it. The supernatural element in Milligan's writing is present in issue #633, as well - a story called "Identity Crisis." Bruce Wayne wakes up in the river and can't remember how he got there. When he gets back to Wayne Manor, Alfred and Tim don't know he's Batman, and he can't find the Batcave. Then he sees Batman on television about to deal with a hostage crisis, and he goes to find out what's going on. The Batman he encounters is better and faster than he is, and he barely escapes. Back at the manor, he starts to experience a mental breakdown, as he thinks he sees Alfred as a tailor's dummy and a small corner of the computer in the Batcave. Then Batman appears, and when he takes his cowl off, Bruce Wayne stares evilly out from under it. We find out that the entire world is a creation of someone called the Synaptic Kid, "mutant mind-reader extraordinaire!" He attempted to read Batman's mind to find out who he was, but Batman's mind was too strong, and the Kid passed out and woke up believing he was Bruce Wayne. He now believes he is being interviewed by reporters because of his fantastic story, but in reality, as we learn on the last page, he is comatose in an asylum, and the doctor doesn't believe he'll ever wake up. It's a story, like the others during this run, that gets under your skin and makes you wonder what reality really is.

Milligan has always been interested in certain things, and on this brief run, he was very interested in identity. This is not surprising, given that this is a standard superhero title with a guy who has a secret identity. On his two most notable title, Shade and Human Target, he deals with identity and what makes us who we are. In these issues, he's very interested in playing with identity in different ways, and he's always challenging us with his thoughts. "Identity" does not only mean who someone is, but also who is really the villain in these issues. In "The Hungry Grass," the villain is wrongfully accused of murder and spends years in prison. He wants nothing more than revenge against Gotham City and its people. He has lost his identity, or more correctly, he has deliberately destroyed his identity for his quest. He no longer cares who he is or what he could accomplish, because his revenge has consumed him. Batman, as he always does, takes pity on him and offers to help him when he discovers that Dean Fahy is innocent, but Dean is too far gone to care. In issue #630, "And The Executioner Wore Stiletto Heels," we meet some of the more bizarre characters to show up in a Batman comic. First is Two-Tone, a sociopathic conjoined twin hit man (who happens to be part black and part white), whose genetics we'll leave in the world of comic books. Two-Tone is interesting, but the compelling villain of the issue is Saul Calvino, alias Stiletto. Calvino was once known as the nicest killer in town - he has a strange persuasive power, which makes him very difficult to contain. He escaped from prison in Florida and is back in Gotham, but the gangsters in town want to kill him because when he worked in Gotham, he only killed organized crime members. The crime families have sent Two-Tone after him, and the FBI wants Batman to find Calvino before the streets of Gotham become bloody. It's never as simple as it seems, however, and it turns out the FBI is selling Calvino out to the mobs in some sort of backroom deal. Again, identity comes into play here, as Calvino is an obvious villain, but he is not the true villain of the issue, and Batman ends up saving his life before turning him back over to the Florida state police. Milligan leaves us wondering whether Batman did the right thing, because Calvino escapes again and disappears. Should he have been executed for killing only gangsters? Is he worse than the FBI, who is getting involved in the South American drug trade, no matter how noble their cause might be? As usual with the best writers, we don't get easy answers from Milligan.

Identity is a theme in "The Golem of Gotham" story as well. The monster is the obvious focus of Batman's efforts, but Saul Zwemer is the heart of the two issues, as he struggles with a secret from his past that has defined him for fifty years. Saul has never been able to move past Nazi Germany and Kristallnacht, and instead of coming to terms with the past, he plays the martyr and then builds a golem to defend the Jewish section of town. We learn that he betrayed his best friend to the Nazis to save himself, and that's why it pains him so much to destroy the golem when Batman forces him to. Saul has lost his identity because of his betrayal, and he believes that by bringing his friend back to life (the golem has his friend's face) he can regain some measure of self-respect. Batman has to show him that he can't reclaim the past - something our hero knows all too well - and that he has to forge a new identity for himself.

With "Identity Crisis," we obviously get a story that deals with who we are and how it defines us. The Synaptic Kid makes an interesting statement at the end of the issue. He says Batman "split his mind into the two person he was. Or is. Batman and Bruce Wayne ..." The idea of multiple identities is often hinted at in superhero comics, but only in one - Moench's Moon Knight - has any writer really run with it. Milligan throws away this line, but it's fascinating to consider that he sees this one man as having a split personality, and that is what helps him defeat the Synaptic Kid. It's not Bruce Wayne wearing a mask. It's not even Batman taking a mask off and putting on the "Bruce Wayne" mask. These are two distinct personalities, and this, implies the Kid, is what keeps him sane. The possibilities of this small idea are endless, but neither Milligan nor anyone else has really done much with it. The closest, perhaps, is Moench again, when he wrote Batman in the mid-1990s, but Moench was more concerned with simply the wearing of masks to hide one's identity, and not with the actual existence of a separate personality.

In Milligan's final issue, #643, "The Library of Souls," identity again rears its head, as the killer, Stanislaus Johns, a rogue librarian, tries to find his identity through murder. He devoted his life to his mother, and when she died, his orderly life fell apart. His identity was wrapped up in taking care of his mother, and once she was dead, he lost that portion of his personality. Keeping things in order was where he found sanity, and once his mother was gone, he needed to find something else to tidy, and he found it, first in rearranging dead bodies in order to conform to his version of the Dewey Decimal System, and then, once the police began watching the cemeteries, placing fresh corpses where he believed they belonged. Batman and a librarian at the public library (not Barbara Gordon, unfortunately), piece together the crimes, and Johns is brought to justice. It's a weird story, one that could only spring from the fertile mind of Peter Milligan, and it highlights the strangeness of his entire run as well as leading us back to considering what makes us who we are and where are limits are. Johns was a mild-mannered librarian who snapped. Milligan wants us to think about why he snapped, which is always the most interesting part of the criminal.

Milligan is always interested in monstrosity as well, both exterior and interior, and throughout these issues, we are forced to consider who the monsters are. It can be a simplistic answer, such as the existence of a golem. Even the golem, however, is fueled by a desire to set things right, and although it is a monster, we feel pity not only when Saul destroys it, but for Saul himself for feeling the need to create such a monster. Stanislaus Johns is a monster, as well, and a pretty straight forward one at that. However, we realize that something made him a monster - he didn't spring full-grown from the forehead of Zeus - and even though we condemn his actions and we don't pity him, we understand that he was created, much like the golem was created, and therefore complete culpability for his actions can't fall entirely on his head. The most interesting look at monsters in these issues is in "The Bomb." Rebecca, the Bomb's real name, started developing her powers when she was 11. The army saw her potential as a weapon and brought her in and cut her off from the outside world. At first, we think this is simply a left-wing anti-American tirade by the British Milligan, but it's more subtle than that. The army is obviously monstrous in this story rather than the Bomb. Rebecca doesn't know how to control her power, however, and as she even mentions, it's too dangerous for her to be on the outside. She also mentions that if people are too close to her for too long, they start to go crazy. She believes that is what happened to Walker, who was once her friend. It probably happened to Kelly, the chief of security, as well, as he blows up a bus station and pins it on Rebecca to convince Batman that she's dangerous. The army wants to figure out how to turn her into a weapon, but aren't they helping her as well? Aren't they saving lives by keeping her away from society? Would Kelly have done these things if he hadn't been in such close proximity to the Bomb? We learn at the very end that the containment suit and the drugs are keeping Rebecca alive, and without them, she'll die quickly. She knew it, and tricked Batman into letting her live her last hours in the open air. She doesn't want to live like a prisoner, and she dies peacefully by a lake in a forest. It's a beautiful story, but as usual, Milligan doesn't let us off the hook with easy answers. We're on Rebecca's side and against Kelly the whole time, but as we reflect on the issue, we wonder how it could have been any different. Certainly there were other options, but they probably all involved locking Rebecca away from the world or letting her die. Which is more humane?

The other two issues of Detective that Milligan wrote at this time are part of a four-part crossover with Batman called "The Idiot Root." It's certainly an interesting story, but not necessarily a Comic You Should Own. These seven issues are the high point of his work on the Caped Crusader. He gave us a Batman thrust into a vaguely unsettling world, one in which there were no recognizable bad guys, even though there is plenty of villainy. Batman gets his man, of course, but Milligan is less interested in bringing the bad guys to justice than in trying to figure out why evil exists and how do we combat it on an esoteric level. The bad guys in his stories are all compelling and may not even be bad guys - Dean Fahy is not a murderer until he seeks revenge on Gotham for falsely accusing him of it, Saul Calvino is a murderer, but he only killed gangsters, Saul Zwemer creates a monster, but does so to strike back at those who would kill him simply because of his race and religion, the Synaptic Kid doesn't actually commit any crime, the Bomb is not a monster, but neither, really, is Kelly or Walker, and Stanislaus Johns is a killer but he's obviously insane. Milligan wants us to peer into these people and discover what makes them tick, and what we find might not always be pleasant. He added a nice element of the supernatural to Gotham, something that it could use more of. It's a shame he felt he couldn't continue on Detective, but at least he gave us several brilliant stories. As far as I can discover, these issues have not been collected in a trade paperback, which isn't surprising, but they are probably readily accessible and not expensive. They are well worth the hunt.