Monday, May 18, 2015

Guest Reviews - Mike W. Barr's Batman Annuals




Doug: As summer approaches, what better format of comic books to discuss than Annuals! Edo Bosnar is here today with his thoughts on a few of his favorite books from those warm days of our youths -- two Batman Annuals and a Batman Special written by a personal favorite, Mike W. Barr.



Edo Bosnar: When I was a youngster back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Mike Barr was just one of many comics writers with whose name I was familiar, but who never had that same status in my mind as say, Chris Claremont or Roy Thomas, to say nothing of the then increasingly popular writer-artists like Frank Miller, John Byrne or Walt Simonson. But when I got back into comics sometime in the first decade of this new century and started thinking about all of the comics I liked (and slowly began to re-acquire some of the stuff that I had in my original long-lost comics collection), I realized that many of the Batman stories I recalled quite fondly were in fact written by Mr. Barr. Specifically, three ‘big’ issues immediately came to mind, Batman Annual #8 and the 1984 Batman Special in particular, but also Batman Annual #9.



Batman Annual #8 (1982)
“The Messiah of the Crimson Sun”
Mike W. Barr-Trevor von Eeden

Initially my favorite of these was Batman Annual #8. This is definitely one of those “the cover made me buy it” books. DC annuals were pretty uncommon at the time anyway, so that intrigued me right away, while the absolutely gorgeous art by Trevor von Eeden really sealed the deal for the young me.

The story begins with the horrible deaths of pretty much everyone in a small farming community north of Gotham City – they all have the flesh fried from their bones at the crack of dawn by some oddly reddish sunlight. Not long afterward, television transmissions in Gotham are interrupted by an announcement from a mysterious cowled figure and calling himself the Messiah of the Crimson Sun, who apparently runs some kind of cult that has a big church in the city. He tells the Gotham’s residents that they’re next. This prompts Batman to go to the farming community, which has been cordoned off by the military – not an obstacle for him, obviously.

There, he finds out that two people did survive the massacre by dawn’s early light: a kidney patient at the local hospital, who is hooked up to a dialysis machine, and some flaky guy in a white robe called Seth, who keeps telling everyone to have faith in the Crimson Sun. The latter is also very thirsty and keeps asking for water. The army physician can’t figure out why everyone was killed, and why these two survived. So there’s all the ingredients to a great Batman story: a mystery, a threat to Gotham, and a megalomaniacal villain.
Batman sends Robin (who happens to be in town), disguised as Seth, to infiltrate the Crimson Sun’s organization, and then there’s a shocking reveal - since this came out over 30 years ago, I don’t think I’ll spoil this too much by noting that the Crimson Sun is actually Ra’s al-Ghul.

It’s all another one of his schemes to wipe out most of the planet’s human population – this time by using a gigantic orbiting lens that focuses the sun’s rays (and gives them that crimson hue) on a specific point on the planet. The people get fried because he adds a chemical to the water supply in advance which reacts quite unpleasantly in the human body when hit by direct sunlight.
Batman, meanwhile, figures much of this out himself, and also where the goons sent by Ra’s/Crimson Sun will attempt to contaminate Gotham’s water supply. However, before takes them all out, one of them manages to flip the valve to release the chemical into Gotham’s main water plant.

Eventually, Batman confronts R’as in his orbiting space station – he gets there by borrowing a space shuttle from NASA, with Robin and Talia (always conveniently there when Ra’s shows up) in tow. When I recently re-read this to prepare for this review, I found that this last part of the story didn’t hold up for me: it just seemed to take the otherwise generous leeway I give to superhero stories a little too far. I think it would have worked better if the action had been a little more, well, grounded. That’s why I said above that it used to be my favorite – now it’s slipped a bit in my estimation, even though I still think it’s well worth reading. And this is because of my favorite aspects of the story: the really nice build-up, the somewhat shocking reveal of the villain, and the little character moments, mainly Batman’s interactions with Robin and Alfred in particular. These are in fact Barr’s strong suits.

I also have to laud the art in this one. Von Eeden was really on fire here, and every panel and every page look spectacular. The colorist, Lynn Varley, also deserves special praise, because the color palette is so perfectly suited to the story: it consists mainly of darks like various shades of black, gray and blue, and then tones of red, orange, magenta, scarlet, and yellow.


Batman Special (1984)
"...the Player On the Other Side"
Mike W. Barr-Michael Golden/Mike DeCarlo  

Sandwiched between these two annuals is the Batman Special from 1984, again with lovely art, this time by two more Mikes: Michael Golden and Mike DeCarlo. The story, called “…The Player on the Other Side” contains something of a retcon (long before that term became part of the everyday vocabulary of superhero comics at the big two) of Batman’s origin and Commissioner Gordon’s past. It really doesn’t impact Batman’s origin as such, but it tells the story of another killing on that same night, in a different part of Gotham City, in which a man and woman, with their young son in tow, are caught sneaking out of a ground floor window – apparently after breaking and entering – by a beat cop. The hot-headed dad takes a shot at the police officer, wounding him, but the officer gets off a few shots that take down both of the apparent burglars. The boy witnesses all of this and it shapes his future, just as Bruce Wayne was shaped by seeing the slaying of his parents. However, this little boy, understandably I suppose, swears revenge against the cop who killed his parents, and develops an abiding hatred for law enforcement and all of its representatives. That young beat cop, by the way, was James Gordon.

Although he spends the rest of his troubled childhood in foster care and juvenile detention, the boy (we never learn his name), much like Wayne, is consumed with his purpose, and hones and his body and mind to what will become his life’s mission of retaliation. He grows to manhood, spending time in and out of foster care and juvenile detention, and eventually becomes a secretive, world-class professional hitman called the Wrath, who dons a costume quite similar to Batman’s and basically wages a crusade against the law that is the opposite of Batman’s crusade for justice.


The Wrath is already in Gotham to finally exact his revenge on Gordon, and has made several attempts on his life (Batman was usually there to save him). Frustrated by Batman’s interference, the Wrath goes about finding out anything he can about him by threatening some of his known underworld informants, and he learns from one of them that Batman comes to that same spot in “Crime Alley” on the same date every year. It’s a date that obviously has meaning for the Wrath as well, and he breaks into the public library and checks on newspaper reports for any other significant events there on that date, and puts 2 and 2 together when he sees the report about the killing of Martha and Thomas Wayne. Makes a lot of sense, actually: any number of criminals with their ear to the ground should have been able to figure out the same thing.

So while Gordon is in hiding, the Wrath uses his new-found knowledge to hit Batman where it hurts, first by vandalizing the tombstone of his parents, and then by brutally assaulting Alfred. He makes it clear to Batman that he wants the Commissioner.


But Batman also gets busy, and eventually learns that the Wrath has his own weak spot: his lover, who is the daughter of some local crime boss and who just wants to get away from it all. Batman tracks her down and confronts her.


And this is where another character is re-introduced: Leslie Thompkins, who was first seen in another retcon of Batman’s origin, “There is No Hope in Crime Alley” (by Denny O’Neill and Dick Giordano, first published in Detective Comics #457 in 1976). In that story, she extends some solace to the young Bruce Wayne just after his parents are killed. Here, she is taken hostage by the Wrath, and this leads to a stand-off, as he bargains with her life for the Commissioner’s.


How it plays out is largely predictable, but that’s really not important. What I liked about this story is the whole idea of Batman having a counterpart whose life was scarred and then dictated by a similar event, but who went in another direction. Additionally, I like how this one focuses on Batman’s friendship with Gordon, his deep affection for Alfred, and his relationship with Leslie Thompkins, who, by consoling the young Bruce Wayne and showing him some humanity immediately after the death of his parents perhaps made her own little contribution to keeping him grounded, so that he even though his personal tragedy indelibly marked him, it didn’t turn him into a stone-cold vengeful killer like the Wrath.


Batman Annual #9 (1985)
"The Four Faces of Batman"
Mike W. Barr-Jerry Ordway/Alex Nino/Dan Jurgens/Paul Smith

Batman Annual #9 has always been my least favorite of these, but I thought it completed the little trifecta of “big books” I have going here. The story, called “The Four Faces of Batman,” actually consists of four short pieces, each one almost kind of a vignette, that is supposed to explore different aspects of Batman’s persona. To wit: the child, the avenger, the detective and the man. However, I never got the impression any time I read this that a clear delineation is made between these various “faces” of Batman. As with the previous two books, Barr is served by some outstanding artists, in this case Jerry Ordway, Alex Nino, Dan Jurgens (inked by Dick Giordano) and Paul Smith.

I think the first and fourth “faces” (i.e., ‘The Child’ and ‘The Man’) work the best. The first involves Batman rushing to track down some armed robbers who inadvertently run down and kill the parents of a young boy right in front of him. Bruce Wayne knows the family and happened to be at the scene when the tragedy occurs, and he sees the boy swear revenge. Obviously, he sees the similarity with his own situation, but Barr puts in another aspect – he flashes back to Bruce’s childhood, and we learn that before his parents were killed, he was a budding artist – a sculptor to be specific.

 After his parents died, however, he ignored his artistic talent as he became driven to fight injustice and crime. In the present, he fears that the young boy, who is a prodigy with the violin, will go down a similar path.  I really liked how Barr added in this harmless little retcon to Batman’s origin which adds another intriguing facet to the character.

The second face, ‘The Avenger,’ was my least favorite, not just the story but also the art by Alex Nino. I’m normally a huge fan of Nino’s work, but his style was really ill-suited to this story and it’s simply unattractive. The story is also rather bleak. It starts with a bank heist apparently perpetrated by a terrorist group that has already robbed a few banks before. However, this one ends with a fatality (not a trademark of the aforementioned terrorist group), as one of the tellers dies of a heart attack. It turns out that the robbers just pretended to be the terrorist group, and said terrorists then go after them for besmirching their reputation. Batman also goes after them, but instead of stopping them, he basically incites an armed confrontation between the two groups – and then just sits it out and lets them kill each other. It’s really pretty cynical and kind of out of character for both Batman and Barr.

The third face, ‘The Detective,’ is not as bad, but also not really notable in any way. It’s just a whodunit, meant to highlight Batman’s sleuthing capabilities (although these were better demonstrated in the first story). It seems more like one of those largely forgettable back-up stories you’d find in an issue of Batman Family or Detective Comics.

The last ‘face’, as I said above, is pretty good and it’s very nicely drawn by Paul Smith. Batman rescues a bunch of children from a fire in a hospital, and the event is shown from the standpoints of various witnesses to the event, and concluding with Batman’s own recounting of the night’s incident to Alfred. This one is really nice, and it has a lot of those great character moments that Barr does so well, especially the final brief scene that highlights Alfred’s role as something of a surrogate parent to Batman.

All three of these books that highlight why Mike Barr is one of my favorite Bat scribes: he tells engaging, well-paced stories first and foremost, interspersed with these wonderfully done interactions between Batman and the various members of his supporting cast.
Barr did quite a bit of work with the character throughout the 1980s and 1990s, which included ushering in and writing Batman and the Outsiders, and a rather well-regarded run in Detective Comics, initially teamed up with artist fan-favorite Alan Davis. Unfortunately, Frank Miller’s take on Batman at almost the same time got – and still gets – much more attention from comic fans, while Barr’s work is generally (and unfairly I think) overlooked. I definitely think that, like Archie Goodwin and Len Wein, Barr deserves his own “Tales of the Batman” volume. Not that I’d be likely to afford such a book should DC decide to publish it… :-(

17 comments:

Martinex1 said...

Edo, those are great reviews. I knew Barr from his work on Maze Agency, which definitely highlighted his ability to develop interesting relationships and mysteries.

Did the Wrath ever make another appearance? He seems like an interesting counterpoint to Batman. The Golden art of course looks great to me, as he is one of my favorites, but I was unaware of this Special.

You have to love Robin's rubber mask in the first one!

Redartz said...

Fine job on these three reviews, Edo! I recall seeing those issues, the cover to Annual 8 particularly holds to memory. Never actually read them, however. Interesting that all three of these issues were stand-alone stories. By that time most of Marvel's Annuals were multi-part crossovers (generally a big turn-off for this reader). Did DC generally keep it's specials as one parters?

Anonymous said...

I read that Special, Edo, and I have to say its Golden who made it memorable. Don't know the two annuals, but I think Barr wrote some issues of Batman and the Outsiders and that Batman Year 2 nonsense, didn't he? Maybe his work suffered in comparison to other stuff coming out at the time - Miller was a hard act to follow back then - but it didn't do much for me.
The biggest disappointment of that period was surely Camelot 3000, and I don't think that was down to Brian Bolland.

Mind you, I'll have to check out that second annual - just to see if artwork by the mighty Alex Nino could be disappointing. Hard to believe, but theres a first time for everything I guess.
And it looks like it might have a cover by John Totleben.

-sean

Anonymous said...

Doh!- You did actually mention Barr wrote Batman and the Outsiders, Edo.
honestly, I was paying attention - I put it down to not being able to read the text while commenting.
And while I'm at it, that picture captcha is starting to get really annoying.

-sean

Edo Bosnar said...

Martinex, this Wrath never reappeared, but I think a new Wrath was created later.
And yes, aren't those rubber masks in comics, and some spy movies, amazing? I still remember this episode of Mythbusters that explored just how well that trick would work in real life...

Redartz, all three of these are fro the early '80s; at the time, I think Marvel's annual still mainly contained standalone stories as well - I don't think the big crossover events started until the later '80s.

Sean, I have to agree with you about Camelot 3000: I really liked the idea, but the story was ultimately disappointing.
As to Batman Annual #9, the cover was indeed painted by Totleben, although according to the GCD, the layout was done by Ed Hannigan. And yes, the art in that section by Nino was truly and utterly disappointing. If his name didn't appear in the credits, I would have hardly recognized it - and I'm saying this as a huge fan of Nino. I absolutely love his lush, ornate and detailed style. Unfortunately none of that can be seen in this instance.

By the way, I really have to commend Doug (at least I think it was Doug) for the way he put together this piece. Once I saw it posted, I realized how image-heavy it is, and you really laid it out wonderfully. Also, thanks in general for all the work you put into making these guest reviews look good.

Doug said...

Thanks, Edo! I don't know if I got the right text-image flow that I'd hoped to achieve. Hopefully the lay-out isn't distracting for anyone.

Doug

Mike said...

Good stuff Edo! I remember reading Ann. 8 and the Special, but I draw a blank on #9 - guess it didn't impress me much either. My fav of this grouping is the Special. I remember thinking that story was pretty good.

One thing, love the shout out to Lynn Varley on the colors for Ann. #8! She's one of the few colorist that stand out to me when I see her work -- kinda like how I can usually spot Klaus Janson's inking style no matter who the penciller is. That's something that is very rare for a colorist.

Speaking of Frank Miller connections, great point at the end about Miller overshadowing other creators. What drives me crazy is when uninformed people say Batman was silly like the '66-'68 tv show until FM wrote him and that is simply ignorant. From Denny O'neil right up to what you reviewed is probably my #1 favorite Batman area. I love FM's DD stuff and his Batman: Year One, but everything in the years since makes me think FM may have done more damage to the industry, and especially Batman, than good.

Anonymous said...

I read "Player on the Other Side" in a Blue Ribbon special (reprinting the best Batman stories of 1984); it was cool to see Batman's "opposite number", but I'm not sure if it stayed in continuity or not.

I always thought Mike W. Barr was a good writer; people seem to hate Outsiders for some reason, but I thought it was pretty good, and Barr did some good Batman stories (on the regular title and Brave & the Bold). I haven't read Camelot 3000 yet, but I understand some of the final issues were quite late...maybe that's why the story doesn't quite hang together.

Mike Wilson

Garett said...

Nice reviews Edo! I read the second book with Golden art when it came out, and just picked it up again recently. I think I read the Von Eeden book when it came out, but either way I'll be on the lookout for it. I'd also like to check out Barr's Green Arrow again.

Edo Bosnar said...

Garett, yeah, Barr's Green Arrow mini (with art again by von Eeden) is one I always regretted missing.

Ozone said...

Excellent work, Edo and Doug, thank you both. I'm keen on picking up the Trevor Von Eeden book. He was a singular talent back in those days. I really admired his style. I wonder what became of him.

I was excited to see you review the Special. I bought this book right off the stands - still have it - and it remains one of my favorite Batman comics to this day. Primarily it's due to the phenomenal Golden art of course, but also because Barr made such a strong effort toward crafting a meaningful, emotional Batman adventure. I just haven't seen this particular Batman book mentioned mentioned much over the years. Pity, that. At times it's felt like I was the only Batman fan who ever loved it. Silly, I know.

One aspect I really liked about the Wrath was that he used a gun. What a simple, effective way to illustrate that he's Batman's opposite number. Yet, he's given a costume, cape and cowl. That way he's not just another hit man. A sharp villain, the Wrath. I found him memorable.

Please do more guest reviews Edo. You've got a knack for it. -JJ

Garett said...

Hey Ozone, I just looked up Trevor Von Eeden, and it turns out he produced a graphic novel called The Original Johnson, a biography of boxer Jack Johnson. It came out in 2010/11 and Von Eeden won an Inkpot Award in 2012.

I like hearing that Bronze Age creators are still doing well. Joe Staton won a Harvey Award in 2013 for his art on the Dick Tracy comic strip.

Edo Bosnar said...

JJ/Ozone, thanks for the comment. Garett beat me to it, but yes, von Eeden has been keeping busy. The Original Johnson that Garett mentioned was originally published online, and then IDW publiished the print version in two volumes (second one is pretty hard to find, at least inexpensively).

Ozone said...

Garett, Edo - thanks, I hadn't looked up Trevor von Eeden prior to my comment, and I'm glad I didn't. I'd rather get the low down from my fellow Bronze Age Babies than Google.

So good to see such a talent thriving to this day. Isn't IDW an excellent publisher? If only I had the budget to keep up with their titles. And Joe Staton is kicking ass too? Fantastic. I first fell in love with his art on flea market copies of E-Man and then current issues of Green Lantern. Current meaning, of course, the early 80s, the twilight of the Bronze Age. A fine artist in my view.

Excuse the Ozone thing, folks. Blogger says I signed up under that name in 2008 although I have no memory of it! Damn beer. No, it's JJ; that's my real name. I read BAB every day religiously and really love it. -JJ

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Kevin Parker said...

@ Mike: yes, Lynn Varley is that distinct as a colorist and I too am glad to see her work getting some recognition here. Tom Palmer, Tatjana Wood and Petra Goldberg (and frequently Glynis Wein) are the only other colorists whose work I recognize at a glance.

Kevin Parker said...

@ Mike: yes, Lynn Varley is that distinct as a colorist and I too am glad to see her work getting some recognition here. Tom Palmer, Tatjana Wood and Petra Goldberg (and frequently Glynis Wein) are the only other colorists whose work I recognize at a glance.

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