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Batman: Strange Apparitions

Posted: Wednesday, June 15, 2005
By: Shawn Hill



Writers: Len Wein, Steve Englehart
Artists: Walt Simonson, Marshall Rogers (p), Terry Austin, Al
Milgrom, Dick Giordano (i)

Publisher: DC Comics

Collects stories from Detective Comics #469-476, 478,
479


These stories comprise a fondly remembered (if brief) series of Batman stories that ran in Detective Comics from May of 1977 to October of 1978. The villains are Dr. Phosphorous, the Penguin, Deadshot, the Joker and Clayface. The lackeys include Boss Rupert Thorne and spooky scientist Hugo Strange. The heroine is Silver St. Cloud, a striking and smart woman with a mind of her own. And the hero, of course, is the Batman. Not the darkly glowering, possibly psychotic and demonic urban legend, but rather the dashing playboy who, due to personal tragedy, has dedicated his considerable resources (not to mention his natural intelligence and physical gifts) to ridding his city of crime by night.

Principal writer Englehart claims, in the engaging introduction, to have used these stories years later as the basis for what was to become the first Batman film, and there’s certainly something to that argument. The first film was entertaining, with a memorably mad Joker, an intense hero, and a beautiful (if somewhat spark-free) love interest. What the two versions of Batman share most in common, however, is the idea of Batman as fighting a just fight, and Bruce living a sane version of the life he needs to lead to achieve his goals.

Certainly the relationship with Silver (named Vicki in the movie) is the model for all of Bruce’s female flirtations save Catwoman; and this publication (from 1999) is newly relevant in light of the current Batman: Dark Detective mini-series. Featuring the same creative team, the new story revives their definitive take on the Batman/Joker relationship and brings Silver back with new reflections and insights. I came across one issue of this series as a child (the story featuring Deadshot) and was struck then by the clear precision of the art, so unusual in the midst of other 70s comics. Austin’s inking made something pleasantly modern and slick of Rogers’ organic and believable action sequences. Austin would soon head over to Marvel to do definitive work with John Byrne on the Uncanny X-Men’s still best era.

Rogers’ art mixed the comic with the naturalistic, with events seeming to unfold across the page in their own rhythm; splash pages ended up where they might make a dramatic impact, a special beat in an ongoing story. Just look at the sequence of cuts as Silver watches Batman fight for his life against the almost equally skilled Deadshot, and pinpoint the moment she realizes the connection between the man she loves and the hero she respects. I realize I’m giving short shrift to the stories in this consideration, but I honestly enjoy them in pieces more than as a whole. Boss Thorne is the usual heavy that menaces Batman in Gotham, though scientist Hugo Strange does add an eerie supernatural element to the story. The Englehart/Rogers/Austin Joker is very much the entertaining maniac Jack Nicholson portrayed so well on film, making jokes that amuse even as they terrify, turning up kettles of fish with crazy clown smiles, offering crack’d soliloquies and battling to the death on precarious steel girders.

The first two stories feature art by Simonson, which look like rush jobs even as they deliver all the major players for the following year. The final Clayface story by Wein goes for melodrama and an over-angsty Batman even as it reels from the events of the previous year. But overall this remains a compelling and important take on the Batman legend, one that is more relevant now than ever as we prepare for the back to basics approach of the new film.



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