Monday, November 23, 2015

War Games and Redemption - Detective Comics 492

Detective Comics #492 (July 1980)(Cover by Jim Aparo)
"Vengeance Trail" and "Chapter Two: At War With General Scarr"
Cary Burkett-Don Newton/Dan Adkins

Doug: Our pal Edo Bosnar, he of the frequent comment and occasional guest post, has long advocated the artistic talents of Don Newton. Upon his repeated recommendations I purchased (via eBay - sweet deal on a new but shelf-worn copy) the Tales of the Batman: Don Newton hardcover. I'll be scanning from that source today. The book contains 22 long and short Batman stories, and I have to declare that I really like what I've seen so far from Newton. The artist unfortunately met an early demise, passing away in 1984 at the age of 49; his comics career had lasted only a decade, and we're worse off for it. For those of you who are fans of Michael Golden, I think you'll see a little Golden in the scans I'll present today; I sometimes get an Alan Davis vibe as well. I chose this particular issue because of the presence of Batgirl. I know many readers eschew the derivative characters and/or sidekicks, but I've always been a sucker for the likes of Supergirl, Batgirl, and Kid Flash. So bear with me -- just sit back and enjoy the pretty pictures.

Doug: There are certain characters of a Spartan demeanor -- can't break 'em. Alfred Pennyworth would fall into that category. But it's a tearful Alfred who awakens Bruce Wayne on a sunny morning. Alfred weeps over a copy of one of the Gotham dailies and tells his employer to look at the headline. "Batgirl Slain by Assassain" is splashed across the top, with a photo of the heroine lying face down on the sidewalk. Bruce grabs his Batman costume and heads for the cave; Alfred just holds his head in his hands. Once down below, Batman phones Commissioner Jim Gordon to offer his condolences over the loss of his daughter and to get intelligence on the investigation. Gordon ask him to come to the house -- there's something he should know. But a few moments hence, Batman enters to find that Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) is very much alive!

Doug: Batman knew it all along, as Gordon's voice betrayed the truth. Batgirl relates her story of coming into contact with an assassin who was gunning for her. The newspaper had detailed that Batgirl had been blasted by automatic gunfire and had fallen 18 stories to her death. The reality was that there was a Batgirl dummy hanged from a flagpole that hung out from the building. Batgirl had taken fire and had been knocked over the precipice, but despite her wounds she'd managed to catch the flagpole. Pulling a knife from her utility belt, she cut the dummy loose and it fell the remaining 15 stories to the pavement. She crouched in the shadows as the gunman peered over the rooftop, assured that his work was done. Cary Burkett wrote this story, and I have no record with his work. But it seems silly that, since the gunman had hung the mannequin to lure Batgirl into the open, he'd perhaps have assumed that maybe it wasn't the real Batgirl laying in a pile beneath him? By the way, we'll learn in chapter two of this story that the gunman had actually taken a little girl hostage, and that's what had initially interested Batgirl. It's an important detail that would have worked much better here at the beginning of the story. I had hoped to not have to go to my "Oh, but this is a Bronze Age DC" place. I'm going to try hard to stay out of it.

Doug: The real shocker comes at the conclusion of Batgirl's story when she tells the Dark Knight that she's through -- that she could have died has proven to her that crimefighting as she's been doing may not be for her. Batman is bewildered by her stance, and Batgirl storms out at the pressure she feels she's getting from both Batman and her father. The two men are left alone, and I must say I was surprised at Gordon's take: he tells his old friend that he supports his daughter. After all, he never would have chosen this life for her. We then scene shift to downtown Gotham, where a General Scarr is holding court with a bunch of nasties. Although we've not heard of him prior, Scarr is apparently a bigtime crime boss in Gotham City. His Agent Cormorant is receiving a medal for killing Batgirl; some of the assembled toughs think it's silly to go on like this, but they seem to tolerate Scarr's eccentricities. The group moves to the planning room, where they plot against the revenge mission they know the Batman will soon undertake. There's a trap laid, and they can't wait.

Doug: Batman found a tag in the Batgirl costume worn by the dummy, and follows it to the shop from which it was sold. As usual, he's operating under cover of the night, and uses no light as he enters the shop. Moving silently through the store, he doesn't see Scarr's men hiding. Back at the Gordon household, Barbara is in her father's study holding some of the memorabilia from his police career. Gordon enters and they have a conversation about his career. In the exchange, Gordon says, when asked about the constant danger, "Frankly, there were times when I felt I couldn't take the chance any longer! I guess I thought about what would happen if everyone gave up -- if nobody was willing to take the risks to fight crime! Somehow I felt that if I didn't do my part to help people, then I couldn't expect anyone else to!" You see right where this is heading, right?

Doug: The Gordons' conversation continues as we're taken back to the costume store. Gordon's narration of his admiration for the Batman, his training, his perseverance, is side-by-side with the attack by Scarr's goons. They open fire with machine guns, and the Batman barely avoids the first bullets. But as Gordon says, he's no normal man and takes the battle right at his assailants. Newton's choreography in this scene is fantastic, with a great blend of emotional close-ups and drawn back action panels. The colorist (Adrienne Roy) also does a great job in this sequence. Of course the Batman beats the odds, and his victory comes as Gordon tells Barbara that Batman defines what a hero is and does. Batman grabs one of the bad guys, the only one who is still conscious, and gets information from him that Scarr is behind things. Batman calls Gordon to inform him, and Gordon leaves the house. Barbara stands at the window, lamenting that she cannot now even fight her own battles.

Doug: We cut then back to Scarr's headquarters, where his men from the costume shop are back on their feet and reporting that they'd let the Batman get away. Scarr's hearing none of it, though, and has Cormorant put a gun to the head of one of the men, dressed in a knight's suit of armor. Scarr orders the man to remove the helmet, and it's revealed that the Batman had actually gotten into a costume (as many of the men had done for the initial ambush at the costume store) and had left the shop with Scarr's own men! Scarr asks him if he doesn't think that this "Trojan Horse" ploy isn't a bit old? Scarr goes on a rant about how smart he is -- Batman counters with the truth: Scarr never made it past private! Scarr tells the tale his way, narrating a blah blah blah of how his superiors never respected his talents, etc. In his mind, the army even tried to kill him in a combat drill -- the source of his facial scar. So he deserted, and swore he'd build up his own army. This is apparently how he came to be a crime lord in Gotham City, although again -- even the Batman had only heard mention (he says) of this guy before this issue. Part One of the story ends with Batman's hands chained above his head, his feet dangling inches from the floor. And oh yeah -- there's a firing squad awaiting Scarr's orders!

Doug: Part Two commences with Batgirl on the rooftops, her arm still in a sling. She tries to swing between rooftops, but has no balance with only one useful arm. So she does what only Spider-Man would do -- she hits the pavement and hops into an idling cab. She asks the driver to take her to the Krak de Chevaliers building. When she's been working the case earlier, she'd noticed a security passcard in the shirt pocket of Cormorant. It's really the only clue she has to go on, and hopes it pays off. Arriving at her destination, she's met by a security guard, but a right uppercut takes care of his diversion. Grabbing an elevator, Batgirl begins to ascend toward the floors where she'd heard a ruckus. Upstairs... ruckus indeed! The Batman is doing his best to swing away from the gunfire that's meant to kill him. He manages to use his legs to grab Scarr, who had ventured too close (idiot). As the two men swing about, we learn that the Batman had palmed a lock pick as the men were binding his hands. He drops Scarr at the moment his hands come free, so you know it's game on. You'd think these thugs would know.

Doug: Scarr makes tracks, fast, to a control room where he seals himself. Before Batman can get out of the "execution room" the doors all slam shut. Soon sliding panels open to reveal miniature tanks, firing real shells! Moments later, fighter planes enter the mix and Batman is ducking and dodging for his very life. In a separate viewing room Cormorant is watching the festivities. We see Batgirl enter the room through a door left ajar. But she's filled with self-doubt and wonders to herself if she'll be able to attack the man who thought he'd killed her. And that ends up being her ace -- Cormorant turns to meet her and he's so freaked out that she's alive that he falls to his knees, begging for mercy. Batgirl uses her good hand to smash Cormorant's face against a wall. Minutes later she uses an acid vial in her belt to burn through the lock on the door behind which Scarr is gleefully watching the mechanical attacks on Batman. Batgirl also dispenses a little manual justice to Scarr, and it's mission over. Batman is freed from his "danger room" and Commissioner Gordon and his men arrive to clean up the mess. Scarr tosses an insult Batgirl's way as he's hauled away, but Batman turns it into a compliment, helping to restore Barbara's confidence.

Doug: While this wasn't a horrible Batman story, it wasn't the greatest. The art definitely carried the day. I did enjoy the inclusion of Batgirl, although when I sat down to read it she was not treated as I'd thought she would be. The character was, however, redeemed at the end of the tale, and it was refreshing to see someone other than Batman save the day (although he certainly did his share of extraordinary things). I think the other thing worth mentioning is the length of the story. At 25 pages, it's indicative of the value the reader received when purchasing a Dollar Comic. The original material ran five pages longer than a typical story, and there were three more yarns included (also all new, to the best of my knowledge) -- a "tales of Gotham" story and adventures featuring Man-Bat and Robin. Talk about 60 minutes of pure joy!


ColinBray said...

Lovely art indeed, Doug (and Edo)

I'm picking up some Dave Gibbons there also.

What especially stands out are the characters (especially bat-characters) drawn in sharp relief against pastel-shade backgrounds.

It really showcases the action and reminds me of classic cartoons with their total focus on the foreground story.

William said...

I have that Don Newton book as well. I hadn't even heard of Don Newton myself until I saw the hardcover on Amazon and decided to give it a go. I've read the first few stories, and I like what I've seen so far. I plan finish the whole book soon, but I haven't gotten up this story yet. As a result, I skipped most of the review to avoid spoilers. However, I did read the first and last paragraphs and I perused the beautiful artwork. Which definitely has an Alan Davis vibe to it. I also pick up hints of Neal Adams in Newton's work as well. (I guess I see the Golden in there too at certain times).

I'd definitely recommend these collected works to any Batman fan, or anyone who appreciates very good, classic comic-book art.

Edo Bosnar said...

Oh, man, what a weighty responsibility: causing Doug to spend money on a book. What if he ultimately doesn't like it? Will I be ostracized from the BAB community? I may lose sleep over this... :o

Seriously, though, I wish I could snag a deal on this book, one in which the postage wouldn't break my bank. Although I never had this particular issue, I did have a number of these issues of Detective that featured Newton's art (and yes, the dollar comics were a great deal back then). His work indeed elevated the stories, and it's why Newton is in my top 5 favorite Batman artists (right up there with Adams and Rogers, just after Aparo). Interesting that you mention certain similarities with other artists; I'd always thought of him in a class by himself, but I suppose at places there is a slight similarity to Davis - very possible that Newton influenced the latter.

I had heard of General Scarr before, by the way - I read a story with him as the villain in a story in World's Finest. He was leading a gang of criminals who all had military ranks in their names, although the only one of them that I recall is Major Disaster.

Martinex1 said...

Thanks Doug (and Edo) for the suggestion of looking at Newton's art. I see some Golden like qualities in the very first splash in the wiry Alfred figure. There are certain elements I really like, like the simple Batgirl hand on the doorknob in the foreground of one frame. And Batman himself looks great. I think his work benefits from the clear coloring and printing here; in newsprint the finer lines and details get lost.

Newton only did a couple pieces of work for Marvel, including Avengers Annual 9 and I always really liked a couple panels of art from that issue and he handled the action well. Unfortunately I think it was hindered by the muddy printing and coloring.

In the issue reviewed, that dummy falling from the building and being misinterpreted as Batgirl's tragic end is a type of story element that always took me out of enjoying the experience. Even if the criminal was confused, how were the newspaper reporters and photographers tricked? It is so weak, and just a little bit of tweaking may have made it more reasonable. Although I don't want extreme realism in comics, I want some reasonable explanations, and I don't like when creators use the medium itself to mask the truth in the story ( ie its a drawing so we can make it seem "real" in the context of the story). Although I must say I haven't read this issue and just the review so perhaps the conspiracy was explained.

William said...

I had Avengers Annual #9 when I was a kid. Didn't remember Newton had done the art on that until you mentioned it. So, I guess I had heard of Don Newton before, but I just did realize I had. lol

Edo Bosnar said...

Love Avengers Annual #9 - it's a good story, and Newton's art really fits well with its dark and somber mood.

david_b said...

Picking this up today, based on the excellent review, Doug. Love my Batgirl, Kid Flash sidekicks as well. Seriously, the art is incredible here, and always enjoy a good meaty Babs story.


Garett said...

I like Don Newton. Thanks for putting up this art. I've been considering getting that Newton Batman book. He also did nice work on Shazam and New Gods.

Anonymous said...

Newton has always been one of my favourite Batman artists (along with Adams, Aparo, and Novick); I wish Newton's tenure on Infinity Inc. had lasted longer, but he died after only 3 issues.

Mike Wilson

J.A. Morris said...

Thanks for sharing this. Being a Marvel Zombie with limited knowledge of DC artists, I never heard of Newton until a few years ago. I like what I've seen so far. I don't know if I'll buy this book (since I imagine it's not cheap) but I'll definitely seek it out via Interlibrary Loan (libraries are you friends).

I enjoyed the Avengers Annual Newton penciled back in '79.

WardHill Terry said...

This has always been one of my favorite stories! Its one of the few Batgirl stories that lets Babs have some depth. I prefer my heroes to have some self-doubt, but are able to rise to the challenge because it's the right thing to do. I don't know why DC editorial chose to cripple Babs. As this story shows, she's a hero and a worthy partner/equal of Batman's. Newton's art was amazing. The samples that Doug chose plainly show his skill at composition, body language, and facial expression. If you ever see any late 70's - early 80's Detective Comics in the dollar box, buy 'em. Ditto for larger than regular World's Finest with Don Newton drawing Captain Marvel. Oh, and for you nit-pickers, the Gotham Police wanted the news story to be that Batgirl had been killed. You can view it as collusion, conspiracy, or SOP in Gotham. It's not the first time that Gordon and/or Batman used the press to smoke out a villain!

Redartz said...

Some fine looking pages presented today. Don Newton's work on the anniversary issue Detective 526 also shows off his talents. I have to agree the printing on your scans, Doug, helps greatly. My old newsprint copies just don't have that crisp look.

Graham said...

I first saw Don Newton's work at the tail end of his run with The Phantom. I was pretty excited when he started to work for DC. He ranks pretty high on my list of Batman artists, and he also did great work with the Marvel Family and the Avengers. It was pretty cool in the early 80's when he and Gene Colan were alternating on Detective and Batman.

Doug said...

Thanks to all for the comments on today's post, and once again to Edo for the recommendation of some Don Newton Batman! And as William suggested, this Batman series of hardcovers is highly recommended -- what a breadth of Bronze Age tales the series encompasses. Search for them on Amazon's secondary market -- you may get lucky!


Edo Bosnar said...

Yeah, for all you residing in North America, I really second Doug's recommendation about searching for some of these "Tales of the Batman" or "Legends of the Dark Knight" HCs on secondary markets - not just the Amazon marketplace, but also eBay, Abebooks, Bookfinder, etc. You can often stumble onto really good deals (exorbitant postage to Europe usually kills any savings for me, though, and then some).

Anonymous said...

You can currently pick up a New copy of the Don Newton Batman book on Amazon for less than $16.00.


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