I’ve been reading a lot of comics for a long time now and I’ve reviewed my fair share on this blog and on other spaces and places around these inter-webs.
In all this time as a comic reader and fan, one of my favourite characters consistently (and I’m sure for many of you too), has been Batman. The one and only Dark Knight, Gothams favourite son, the Caped Crusader, Batsy, The World’s Greatest Detective… and so on and so forth…
This book I’m reviewing is one I very lovingly keep in my collection to this day and it’s called “The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told“. It comes with this wonderful cover by the inimitable Walter Simonson – who of course is best known for his legendary run on Marvel’s Thor and is a really friendly and fun person to meet, definitely one of my comic-creating heroes.
Now my understanding is that this was meant to be a series of “Greatest Stories…” collections but I’ve ever come across one of the others – Wonder Woman – and though this one has “Volume 1” on it, I’ve not been able to get my hands on the other volumes. I suspect it had a limited print run and has not been reprinted. BUT YOU SHOULD DC!
It’s worth it.
I was very fortunate the day I received this, just a little tyke back then running around in my mini-Bat-suit complete with pants designed to look like I was wearing undie’s on the outside and a big black cape. Of course I never had the mask since it was meant to be a kid’s night-suit but I think at that point I couldn’t have cared less. The thing is, growing up in the 80’s and early 90’s in India we didn’t exactly have access to a lot of comics and less so to anything current. The end result was that we devoured and enjoyed what bits and pieces and mix of one-offs and random chapters from story arcs we ever got. For me one of the first Trade Paperbacks I was lucky enough to get (Thanks Dad!) was a collected edition of Batman stories from the earliest days to the most recent.
I was blown away. It was unlike anything I’d known. It was like being thrown in a way, off the deep end into a pool I had only ever been able to see a little ways into – it had a fun Batman, a brooding Batman, a clever Batman, a violent Batman, an old Batman and even an alternate reality/future Batman of sorts. And the artwork. While it may not seem like much to people who don’t give these things much thought, but it gave me such a wide and wonderful scope of styles and colours and variations of Batman that it left an indelible impression on my younger mind.
But on with the review!
I thought about trying to review this book and all it’s stories but there are a great many of them (as you will see shortly) and I refuse to create a post so monstrous that even I wouldn’t read the whole thing.
With this in mind I’m going to simplify – first a brief about the book and why I selected this and then a listing of what the book contains and quicky reviews of the lot side by side!
As to the choice of book and reasoning behind it, well there were many I went over but the truth of it is that I wanted to review this because of what it represents and what it brings to the table as a compendium of story-telling!
It is in short an amazing collection of several stories spanning the first 50 years of stories about The Batman. I use that name simply because it applies. Today we have Batman, the fearless defender of Gotham who with enough prep time and because of his amazing skills can overcome any and all obstacles. This is a modern hero who has evolved into this mythical form. But there was a time back in his early day’s where he was not quite so larger-then-life and yet at the same time was – he was the thing to be feared, the hero, the man becoming the hero we all know so well today. Back then he was known by his first moniker, the one that struck fear into the hearts of the cowardly and superstitious criminals, he was simply “The Batman”.
Now of course the only one that uses that title is faithful Alfred. Great guy, no hero should be without one!
But this was simply it – here in these stories as you will see you get a length and breadth of all that the Caped Crusader evolved through: campy stories, dark tales, possible futures, gritty noir-ish tales, simple clever tales, human aspects and deeper ones. We get to see even how the look and feel of the hero changed and moved with time – the cape, the cowl, the logo, the car and all things Bat, and of course his ever in-flux romantic life and it’s impact on him. Except of course for the giant bloody coin, he seems to retain that pretty much across the board!
But more then anything else I think what I love about these stories is the way the creators could tell such great tales in a single issue. Today everything is multi-issue arc’s and events and cross-overs with a stand-alone story being a rarity in most comics, especially DC and Marvel’s comics. This book hearkens back to a kind of madcap creativity that we need to find again, one not strapped-down and held hostage by continuity and back-story! FREEDOM!!!
Anyhow, now on to the comics themselves:
Introduction by Dick Giordano
Foreword by Mike Gold
Both of these are well written and give a nice beginning and warm-up as you settle into the world of the Dark Knight Detective.
1. “Batman versus the Vampire” (from Detective Comics #31-32)
One of (if not the) the earliest supernatural Batman adventures, this see’s our hero face off against the team of Dala and the mysterious Monk! Racing against time to save his fiancee Julie Madison (haven’t heard that name in a while have you? If at all?) from a fate worse then death. We meet a younger and in some ways darker Batman, one unafraid to use a gun if need arises! Also, this tale shows the birth of the Batarang and Bat-plane – a two-parter that’s a great read!
2. “Dr. Hugo Strange and the Mutant Monsters” (from Batman #1)
Arguably one of my favourites in this book for a few reasons, chief among them being Dr. Hugo Strange who I always felt was a most darkly compelling villain – the true mad scientist while being such was still a cool villain-ish qualification.
A dark tale which was one of the one’s that changed how the character of Batman was written in my view. We see him fighting monsters of evil-science and having to go to extreme lengths to save the day, lengths that Batman as a hero would never cross again! Read it if you dare!
3. “Knights of Knavery” (from Batman #25)
Lovely little tale written during the more friendly and humorous day’s of Bat-adventures, this at first glance seemingly simple tale see’s our hero (and his new-found partner Robin) chasing the newly created criminal partnership of The Joker and The Penguin – yeah, quite a killer combo they are, literally! But even here we see how different attitudes/perspectives then and now are, we have a moment where the Dynamic Duo are bound and at the villains mercy and we have debates over whether to shoot them outright or slowly torture them using methods like an infamous dripping water torture that as stated by the Joker, will drive them slowly more and more insane. Not something I wager one might find so easily in a kids comic anytime soon – at best a camp-ified version. Maybe. Which is a bit sad in some ways, but maybe that’s just me.
4. “1001 Umbrellas of the Penguin” (from the Syndicated comic strip)
A short and very amusing tale (another favourite) which see’s a team-up between Batman, Robin and … The Penguin? … as the Terrific Trio come together to take on Gotham’s criminal underworld! A short but fun-filled little saga.
5. “The Origin of Batman” (from Batman #47)
I don’t imagine I need to go into detail on this one do I?
6. “The Birth of Batplane II” (from Batman #61)
This was also another landmark in some ways – Batman has always been famous for his gadgetry and vehicles but it was not always so, as we see in the earlier tales. However here we see the birth of much as our heroes find their trusty Bat-plane hijacked by a bunch of crooks who hit a lucky jackpot and proceed to use the powerful plane to make a load o’ moolah!
Of course the Duo must now race against time to build a new plane that is superior to their old faithful and in the process we see all the little clever tricks and decoys and multi-mode stylings of Bat-vehicles being brought to life, I think for the first time ever. Give thanks Bat-fans!
7. “Operation: Escape” (from Star Spangled Comics #124)
A simple but effective tale showcasing the abilities for which the Boy Wonder was once famous (or infamous if you were of the criminal element), namely being a master escape artist a-la Harry Houdini. Honestly, Dick Grayson as an escape artist/specialist is something that til today feels like something that could be better used to make him more interesting but never seemed to get any focus in the last couple of decades – unlike this tale from back in the day.
8. “The Jungle Cat-Queen” (from Detective Comics #211)
An early example of a Bat and Cat story that will showcase much of what makes their dynamic feel familiar to fans and to part-time followers alike – although being an early tale like all the others so far, this one has the basis for so much we take as a norm now, but was not exactly the dynamic and characterisation always.
9. “The First Batman” (from Detective Comics #235)
A very moving and dark Batman story where Bruce Wayne (not his caped alter-ego) is on the trail of his parents’ killer using the Bat identity only as needed. Like several older Bat-stories this use of the Thomas Wayne bat-costume has today been touched-on and paid homage to in many forms in modern Bat-tales including the most excellent “Batman: The Brave and The Bold” (I highly recommend the series to all genuine and un-pretentious superheroic comic fans!). One of the more human and serious stories in Bat-mythos in many ways.
10. “The Origin of the Superman-Batman Team” (from Worlds Finest Comics #94)
Simple, entertaining and a perfect sampling of the basics that make up the Superman-Batman dynamic, this tale belongs here simply by that virtue alone.
11. “Robin Dies at Dawn” (from Batman #156)
For many fans, the still somewhat recent saga’s of Batman and his Bat-family during Grant Morissons already legendary run going from before the resurrection of Ra’s Al Ghul till Batman R.I.P and all the way till The Return – almost all of it can be traced back to this one story! Those who know what I’m talking about know about the Black Glove and Dr. Hurt, well this is the tale that gave birth to the idea in Grant’s head. An exceptional tale, really pushing the limit to story-telling in comics in some ways, it is an excellent story about how your own mind can be your worst enemy! I wish I could explain it without spoiling it but it’s a great little story.
12. The Blockbuster Invasion of Gotham City” (from Detective Comics #345)
One of the simpler tales in this collection, I will refrain from detail to prevent giving it away. Basically the first tale of this Hulk-like uber-powerful monster that even the Dynamic Duo can’t seem to stop and their efforts to do that. A tragic and heart-wrenching ending, a great example of how a simple and honest tale can strike a chord.
13. “Ghost of the Killer Skies” (from Detective Comics #404)
Another excellent adventure, this time far away from familiar ground as Bruce Wayne is on the set of a W.W.II movie he is financing in Europe and finds sabotage and danger which in turn brings the Batman out in the dark of night to investigate as rumours of ghostly vengeance from the movies long dead German war-ace abound!
Well written with excellent art and a brilliant ending, another great ‘serious’ Bat-adventure.
14. “Half an Evil” (from Batman #234)
Of course what set of Bat-stories would be complete without at least one appearance by Harvey Dent as villain. Our story follows The Batman as he discovers that Two-Face is behind the theft, sinking, and raising of an old ship belonging to one Captain Bye. Quite simply, he is after a cache of gold doubloons Bye had hidden somewhere within the vessel. Clever scheme and well written – this is not a complex story but a quintessential Two-Face story.
15. “Man-Bat Over Vegas” (from Detective Comics #429)
One of the early tales of Batman and Kirk Langstrom’s long-standing problems with one another as Man-Bat takes to the skies over Vegas and a body-count starts to show – enough to attract the attention of the Gotham Knight himself. With a shocking twist ending it is a taut and enjoyable story and definitely one that always comes to mind when I think of Man-Bat as a Bat-villain.
16. “The Batman Nobody Knows” (from Batman #250)
Another short tale where Bruce Wayne is out leading a camping troop for lesser priviliged kids and as they all sit around the campfire, each child spins amazing yarns about what and who they think Batman is and we get to see a whole other aspect of the image that such a man carries to the mind of an innocent – plus how their views differ based on each childs background. A surprisingly well-crafter and enjoyable story little I must admit. (I also STILL want to actually see some of those alternate Batmen in comics someday!)
17. “Deathmask” (from Detective Comics #437)
Action packed murder mystery with a supernatural setup that see’s a deadly chase as an ancient entity seems to have awakened and is cutting a bloody swathe in Gotham as it seeks out the cursed few. As Batman races to stop this evil, we get to see a fine example of the kind of simple and elegant detective work that built the reputation of the Dark Detective.
18. “Death Haunts the Skies” (from Detective Comics #442)
A supernatural revenge tale with a deeply human soul somewhere in the narrative, this is another from the era of stories where one was hard pressed to decide whether the story is a supernatural one or a fraud a-la Scooby Doo, showing more of the fine talent that has worked on The Batman over the years to create such stories.
19. “No Hope in Crime Alley” (from Detective Comics #457)
Another short tale, this one touches on Crime Alley – the place where Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed – and shows Batmans relationship to that place and to the character we know today as Leslie Tompkins. She wasthe woman who saw a young Bruce amidst the chaos and tragedy after the murder and has been a source of strength and a friend in all his years as The Batman. A touching story and my first exposure to Leslie as a character.
20. “Death Strikes at Midnight and Three” (from DC Special Series #15)
A change of pace – a non-graphic Batman story, mainly prose with some accompanying artwork. As with many of his tales, this follows The Batman running to save lives and find evidence to bring the bad guys to justice. Gritty in its narrative and dark and full of a noir feel that I love, this story is one of the stand-outs in this collection and I LOVE the final lines, though I will refrain from spoiling it for you all!
21. “The Deadshot Ricochet” (from Detective Comics #474)
By itself this story is just a kind of middle-of-the-main-arc kind of story. But what makes it stand out is not the over-arching saga that we get inklings of here and there and at the sinister shadowy ending (something we’re all familiar with I presume) but we get caught up and drawn into this telling of the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Silver St. Cloud – one of the most unique female characters he has been involved with as many of the more knowledgeable fans will recall. She had a strong influence on him and here we see the early parts of their interaction and see how it grew as well as their personalities.
Plus as a bonus, we have action courtesy of Deadshot in his early days – his second outing ever in fact. We learn his origin story and in some respects see an alternate future for someone who shared a similar past ,i.e., Bruce Wayne (didn’t know that did you?) and he has been cooling his heels ever since. Now in a cell next to the Penguin, he manages to leave ol’Pengy behind and make his break – donning the now familiar body-suit and on to another confrontation with The Batman who took his life away!
22. “Bat-Mite’s New York Adventure” (from Detective Comics #482)
A short and amusing Bat-Mite tale – not much to tell, terror, magic, silliness. Enjoy.
23. “A Caper a Day Keeps the Batman at Bay” (from Batman #312)
One of the overall weaker selections in this book, but by virtue of its sheer fun-factor this tale earns its place here. It finds our hero on the trail of one of The Batmans more colourful but not-so-highly-regarded villains – Calender Man. This is worth reading just for the sheer fun and creativity of this story, a simple joy that I sometimes miss in my comics.
24. “To Kill a Legend” (from Detective Comics #500)
Arguably the most powerful and moving tale in this anthology, this is a story that follows Bruce and Dick as they are transported to another world or back in time (never clearly stated) where they have a chance to stop the Wayne’s from ever being killed. Touching on so many emotional chords through Batman and Robin and bringing questions of fate and destiny into the readers mind with a very nice finish to it all, this is a great Bat-story!
25. “The Autobiography of Bruce Wayne” (from The Brave and the Bold #197)
Set in an alternate reality, when Batman is older and the world is changed, we are being told this tale as an entry in the journal of this world’s Bruce Wayne, written presumably post retiring his cowl.
Emotional and charged, this is a lovely early version of stories like the DC Elseworld’s stories that became so common in later years. A very well put together rendering of a happily ever after for both The Batman and for Bruce Wayne, a must read for all open-minded Bat-fans. In fact, given the recent developments in Tom Kings ongoing Batman series and the positive reactions to it (which are deserved), this particular story is even more interesting to read in my view.