"Night of the Reaper!"
Denny O'Neil-Neal Adams/Dick Giordano
Doug: Welcome back to our third annual trip to those Halloween days of yore, as celebrated in Rutland, Vermont. The early 1970's were filled with stories about the legendary Halloween parties and parades hosted by Tom Fagan. So far we've visited this town with the Defenders, and twice with the Avengers. Today we drop in on the Dark Knight Detective and his young ward, Robin. As you see from the creator credits, this was produced by the Hall of Fame crew that revitalized the Batman in the post-TV show days. A note to our readers -- while at one time I had this book, I'll be reading and scanning from Batman Illustrated by Neal Adams, volume 3. You'll notice that the images have been recolored, an act that Adams insisted on when these hardcovers were pitched to him.
Doug: We open with a quite-ominous splash page -- the Batman, staked through the heart to a tree! In the background, a darkened manse on a hill, and a sense of a windy chill in the air. Cue the next page, and elsewhere on this night the Halloween parade through Rutland, Vermont is taking place, and Dick Grayson and some college friends are there to see it. One of the fellows seems to be tripping on the lights and sounds. As the boys make their way along, eventually deciding to head to a party, they come upon a mugging in progress. As they approach, they see a group of thugs beating a youth in a Robin costume. Dick takes over, but the trippin' fool stumbles into him, leaving him wide open for a blow from a blackjack. The thugs run off as the boys lick their wounds.
Doug: Robin loses the guys, and we next see him in his fighting togs. Looking for clues as to why a professional hit squad would be working a small town like Rutland, Robin begins to explore the surroundings. He sees a familiar figure in the distance leaning next to a tree; upon moving closer, he sees the same Batman we'd seen on the title page -- a man in costume with a stake through his heart! As Robin squats to inspect for footprints, a shadow sweeps over him and a grim reaper appears, scythe swinging! Robin ducks, but rising to maneuver out of the way, he loses his balance and plunges over a cliff. He lands face down on the rocky shore of a brook. Suddenly the Batman swoops down from a nearby tree, turning the youth over to free his lungs from the rippling water. Scooping up his young ward, the Dark Knight carries him to the home of Tom Fagan, where a doctor friend is staying.
Doug: Batman's friend is a Doctor Gruener, who is a Nazi concentration camp survivor. Batman explains that he has come to Rutland not by chance, but to assist the doctor in finding and bringing to justice Colonel Kurt Schloss, known during the War as the Butcher! Schloss was accused of atrocities in the camps, notably the deaths of Dr. Gruener's family. The Colonel has allegedy been sighted in the Rutland area -- he has a fetish for masquerade parties and was known to have purchased a pirate costume. Batman and the doctor tell Robin that the goons the boys had tangled with might be the former henchmen of Schloss -- tracking him for his stolen Nazi gold. Batman decides to move among Fagan's party-goers (the shot of a Thor with a colander for a helmet is priceless), to see if he can pick up any clues.
Doug: We cut to the outside where Dick's "stoned" friend continues to stumble about. He comes across a dead body while being drawn toward a large house with a red beacon. The reaper appears again and our guy runs off. He's quickly intercepted by the Batman, who decides to head toward the light -- having eyeballed it for a few seconds, he ascertained that the beacon was sending Morse code! Arriving, Batman takes out one hood and then moves to the belltower. But unseen, Col. Schloss (replete with pirate doo-rag) sneaks out. In the tower, Batman accosts the light operator, tossing him onto the roof. Grabbing him and doing his best Michael Keaton impression, Batman gets some information -- the goons are indeed after Schloss, but not as allies. They feel that he's held out on them with the stolen gold, and want their cut. As a means of revenge, a car bomb has been set; and it's at that point that Batman hears an auto start and shift into gear.
Doug: After the explosion, Batman is despondent over the loss of life -- and of legal justice. Robin attempts to encourage his mentor, but Batman brushes him off. He chastises Robin not seeing the bigger picture -- why would the Nazis off the man dressed as Batman, and rough up the kid dressed as Robin, if they were looking for Schloss? Batman is convinced that the reaper is still at large and sets off to find him. It doesn't take long, and Batman confronts the man in the flowing purple robes -- a man he knows as Dr. Gruener! Batman tells him that he deduced that the thugs had no way of knowing that Batman or Robin would be in the area unless they'd been tipped -- which Gruener arranged. Gruener then admitted that he had done that, because he'd decided that his revenge would be personal, and not through the Batman or through the courts. The reaper would make Schloss pay for the loss of Gruener's family. Batman begins to close on Gruener, they scuffle, and Gruener is able to get away. We see Dick's wayward friend one more time, talking with other kids on top of the local dam, and as fate would have it he is directly in the path of the fleeing reaper. There is contact, and as the youth falls his necklace becomes wrapped around the reaper's scythe. Dangling before his eyes is a Star of David, and Gruener questions what he has become. Next we see him fall/leap from the dam, apparently landing on his own weapon.
Doug: This was a well-done done-in-one. Denny O'Neil's words are straightforward and solid -- the mystery is good, and not obvious. Of course Neal Adams is incredible, and moody. Recently some of our commenters have questioned whether Adams was good on heroes like Thor, or the FF; I could enter that argument, but for the sake of staying on topic here, I'll offer that he is perhaps the best Batman artist -- ever. His long, lithe figurework perfectly suits the Dark Knight, and his Joker several stories later in "The Joker's Five-Way Revenge!" is a classic. Toss in the fact that Adams had his finger on the pulse of fashion during the times he was at his peak, and you really have a complete artist. The recoloring is nice, and adds to the feel of the story. Adams is of course a perfectionist and I see care in his move to recoloring; others have likened it to interference, akin to George Lucas' meddling with the Star Wars films. Overall, a great example of the O'Neil/Adams/Giordano collaboration that is truly one of the highlights of the early '70's.
Doug: Incidentally, this isn't Neal Adams' only foray into material dealing with the Holocaust. Adams, along with Joe Kubert and hundreds of other comic book/strip artists, went to the defense of Dina Babbitt against the museum at Auschwitz. Babbitt, while a prisoner, was commissioned by Dr. Joseph Mengele (the "Angel of Death") to paint portraits of Sinti and Roma (Gypsy) prisoners. She did, and it saved her life as well as the life of her mother. In her later years, Babbitt worked tirelessly to get the artwork returned to her; the museum has steadfastly refused. Adams and others, attempting to drum up support, created a graphic novel telling of Babbitt's plight. You can see one version of it below: