Friday, April 8, 2016

Guest Review: "Bang! You're Dead!" - Batman 321

Doug: Welcome to a second review submitted by Thomas F. You'll recall Thomas's maiden voyage with his thoughts on Spectacular Spider-Man (1976) #1. We're excited to post this today, as it will serve as a sort of bookend to next Monday's review, where I'll take you back to the Silver Age for a Batgirl story from Detective Comics. Onward!



Batman #321 (March 1980)(cover by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez)
“Dreadful Birthday, Dear Joker…!”
Len Wein-Walt Simonson/Dick Giordano/Julianna Ferriter

Thomas F.: Here we have the first Joker story in the pages of Batman for the 1980s. This story is scripted by Len Wein, an underrated writer who happens to be the co-creator of Marvel’s Wolverine and DC’s the Swamp Thing. This is a classic Joker tale, and Len Wein writes a perfect homicidal, sociopathic Joker with a morbid sense of humor (the twisted humor and depraved deeds tend to be at the expense of the Joker’s victims or even Batman himself).

The art duties were handled by Walt Simonson, a distinctive and popular artist initially known for his acclaimed work on Detective Comics (specifically, the eight-page Manhunter backup stories, beginning in November 1973, which gained him industry-wide recognition), Marvel’s Star Wars, and especially The Mighty Thor in the late 1970s/early 1980s. (Simonson is also well-known for creating the Beta Ray Bill character who first appeared in The Mighty Thor #337, a key Bronze Age issue).
 

Although it’s unrelated to the review of Batman #321, I just wanted to mention that the very first piece of artwork by Walt Simonson that I’d ever seen was back in 1989 when I was in elementary school. It was a few months after the release of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie starring Michael Keaton, and Batmania was in the air, especially amongst youngsters. The artwork was a full page pinup of Batman that Simonson had contributed in the pages of Detective Comics #600. (As I recall, a classmate had the issue and was showing it around). It’s a powerful shot of a dark, moody Batman standing in readiness atop a gargoyle.


By the way, the entertaining story in Batman #321 is deservedly reprinted in the trade paperback “Batman in the Eighties” and “The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told,” so it’s easily accessible (NOTE: It's also been recently reprinted in 2014's Tales of the Batman: Len Wein. -Doug). Of course, all Joker appearances in Silver and Bronze age Batman comics are highly-sought after by comic book collectors, but fans should be able to obtain an original copy of this great book at a relatively low price if they wish to do so.

The story opens at Gotham Police Headquarters on Gotham City’s lower east side. Commissioner James Gordon enters through the front doors out of the pouring rain, where the sergeant manning the front desk informs him that there’s an envelope bearing no return address waiting for him. Tearing it open, Commissioner Gordon is appalled to find that the contents include an invitation from the Joker to attend his birthday party the next evening. The invitation reads: “Dear Gordie, you are cordially commanded to be present at the JOKER’S BIRTHDAY PARTY tomorrow evening at 9:00 PM! Black tie optional, funny hats mandatory. R.S.V.P.  B.Y.O.B.” Gordon tosses the invitation aside, scoffing at the Joker’s presumptuousness.


Suddenly, the two policemen at Gordon’s side are overcome with an attack of mirth. But as the Joker himself strides through the door, clad in his trademark purple overcoat, it’s clear that the laughter is unnatural and is caused by the Joker’s lethal laughing gas!

Outside, having been summoned earlier via the Bat-Signal, the Batman swings down on a rope towards Gotham Police Headquarters, where two things immediately alert him that the present situation is out of control: one, the Jokermobile parked directly in front of the building, and two, the loud hysterical laughter audible even from outdoors. The Batman correctly surmises that laughing gas is involved here and accordingly puts on a miniature gas filter. Crashing down through a high window, the Dark Knight lands amidst the Joker’s armed henchmen. He wades into them like a tornado, making short work of them.

The Caped Crusader then rushes outside just in time to see the Joker make his getaway. In the Jokermobile’s passenger seat lies Commissioner Gordon, unconscious, while the Joker speeds away from Gotham Police Headquarters.
That Jokermobile looks hilariously over-the-top!


Almost incidentally, Batman learns from a policeman that in addition to Commissioner Gordon, his sidekick Robin was also abducted by the Joker earlier that day. Disguised as a woman and pretending to have a flat tire, the Joker waves Robin down and tricks the Teen Wonder into helping change a flat tire. The tire, however, turns out to be covered with an adhesive substance that Robin can’t free his hands from. We then see the “woman” pull off her mask, revealing herself to be the Joker.

The scene cuts to Bruce Wayne’s penthouse apartment, located above the Wayne Foundation Building. Selina Kyle is over, visiting, and we see Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne’s butler and confidant, recommending that Ms. Kyle visit a doctor in regard to her frequent headaches. The door opens, and Lucius Fox (CEO of Wayne Foundation) enters the room, a stack of files tucked under his arm. Lucius Fox has arrived to discuss corporate issues—arbitrage deals, to be precise—only to be informed by Selina Kyle that Bruce had been summoned away on an urgent business matter some time earlier.

Just then, Alfred hears the patter of footsteps on the roof above, and he assumes that Bruce Wayne is returning in his guise as Batman, and just as it occurs to him to distract Selina Kyle and Lucius Fox, a powerful explosion rocks the room. In the wall is a gaping aperture where now stand the Joker and two of his armed henchmen. The Joker instructs his hired help to pick up Alfred, who has been knocked unconscious by the heavy impact, and prepare to leave.


Suddenly Selina Kyle rises to her feet, and with her martial arts prowess makes short work of the Joker’s goons. The Joker charmingly apologizes to Selina for intruding, and offers her a bouquet of roses. Selina is suspicious—as well she should be—since a moment later a gloved fist is ejected from the flowers, like a jack-in-the box, with such force that it knocks Selina out.


Exactly why the Joker kidnaps Alfred isn’t clear—have they crossed paths before? Probably. I’m wondering if the Joker knows of any connection between Alfred and the Caped Crusader.
I’m also not sure why the Joker doesn’t kidnap Lucius Fox or Selina Kyle, for that matter, instead of leaving them unconscious in Bruce Wayne’s penthouse suite. Surely abducting them in addition to Robin, Gordon, and Alfred wouldn’t have been much trouble at all. And wouldn’t the Joker—not knowing Batman’s secret identity—seek to kidnap millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne himself, instead of Mr. Wayne’s elderly butler?

When Selina Kyle finally regains consciousness, she finds Batman perched in front of her, but she’s unable to give him much information. Nevertheless, by now Batman has a pretty good idea of what’s going on.

Meanwhile, in the Joker’s hideout, we see at least seven figures strapped to the Joker’s “Victim-Go-Round.”


The Joker explains his motive to Robin, which is, quite simply, vengeance. In the Joker’s own words: “Tomorrow is my birthday … and by way of celebration … I intend to eliminate all you who’ve crossed me … while all of Gotham City watches!”
Then Joker the quips: “It’s not exactly the catcher’s mitt I really wanted … but it’s a pretty fair second place!”

In the background, we see the Joker’s henchmen laugh at the Joker’s inane comedy, except for one, who rolls his eyes, thinking: “Sheesh.” The Joker is vexed that this henchman didn’t find his wit amusing, and in a typically Jokeresque manner, casually murders him using a handheld spear-gun from his deadly arsenal.


This scene is so memorable—“Bang You’re Dead!”—that I just had to include it here in its entirety.


The Joker reveals to Robin that he’s managed to entice Gotham City’s population to Gotham’s new Seaside Coliseum by using, as per his wont, a cunning trick and an understanding of elementary psychology. In other words, he offers the jaded, cynical population of Gotham City an invitation from the “Harlequin Baking Company” an opportunity to “sample its wares” the following evening at nine p.m.


A typical elderly Gothamite reading the newspaper advertisement says to his wife, “A free sample? Sounds tempting! Think we ought’a go?” To which his bored wife replies, “Why not? It’d beat sitting through another rerun of celebrity bowling!”
I found this dialogue quite funny; scripter Len Wein clearly has a good sense of humor.

Unfortunately for the Joker, Batman, who has also perused the advert, shrewdly discerns that the Joker has just slipped up—there is no existing company as the “Harlequin Baking Company.”
And the next night, the Joker’s scheme appears to work. The coliseum is jam-packed full of the curious and greedy who have come for the free refreshments. Promptly at nine, the steel doors swing closed, and within a few minutes, the impatient crowd is immobilized in their seats by a rapid-acting paralytic gas.

The lights dim, and then, in a spotlight, the Joker appears on stage. The Crown Prince of Crime disingenuously welcomes his audience and thanks them for coming. He then reveals his pièce de résistance: an immense cake, with his victims securely bound to explosive candles on top.



The Joker explains to his horrified captive audience that when he triggers his detonator, the candles, along with the victims tied to them, will sizzle. But as expected, Batman arrives, intent on putting an end to the macabre charade. The Joker, who momentarily has the upper hand, informs Batman that if he allows himself to be fastened to the remaining candle, he will release the others, sparing their lives.

Of course, the Joker has no intention of keeping his word. After Batman is roped to the largest candle and the Joker doublecrosses him, Batman presses a hidden button that somehow converts the candle into a makeshift rocket, launching him skyward and out of harm.
Apparently Batman had arrived early and rewired his candle’s incendiary jets, which is a rather weak explanation that I didn’t really buy into.


As Batman is launched upward, the Joker chortles that although Batman may have saved himself, his other friends will burn, and with glee he slams his palm down on the detonator. The candlewicks catch fire, and the flames slowly spread towards the Joker’s victims, when Batman frees himself from his candle and hurls batarangs that sever the candles’ fuses. A final batarang cuts Robin free, and he hurls himself into the fray with Batman against the Joker’s cronies.

The Joker takes to his heels and races on foot to the docks nearby, where he has a motorboat ready. He starts the engine and speeds away. His parting comment to Batman is typical of the Joker’s insolence, and his “look out for number one” attitude: “The Joker watches out for himself, fools! ‘Bye now!”


I really enjoyed some of the Joker’s mirth-filled lines in this issue. When he cackles, “He who fails and runs away, lives to win another day,” as he cravenly flees an enraged Batman, it’s priceless.


Snagging a loose line, Batman manages to pull himself up to the boat, where the two engage in combat. Using yet another of his trademark lethal gadgets, the Joker squirts acid from a flower that Batman barely manages to avoid, but the Joker does manage to stun Batman with a heel to the chin.


The two foes continue to grapple, when Batman notices that the boat is out of control and headed directly for a mound of rocks in the shallow water. Batman tries to warn Joker of the peril they are both in, and seizing the Joker’s hand, tries to pull himself and the Joker out into the water. Batman escapes with seconds to spare, but the Joker, who was using a fake hand that came loose as the Batman yanked him, remains in the boat. An instant later, the motorboat crashes and explodes, setting the night sky ablaze with a spectacular reddish glow.


On shore, Commissioner Gordon ponders whether they’ve seen the last of the Joker, but Batman is skeptical, and we, the readers, know perfectly well that it won’t be long before the Joker rears his ugly emerald head again.

This issue is just chock-full of the Joker’s outrageous devices, from laughing gas, the Jokermobile, a spear-gun, acid spray, phony hand … scripter Len Wein really went all-out here. Overall, a fantastic late Bronze Age story featuring Batman versus the Joker.



16 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wow. Having been even more of a comic-snob than Doug (I turned my nose up at anything other than Marvel) I have zero knowledge of the DC-verse, but this issue looks amazing, actually more for the artwork than the story.

Is it just me or does Simonson + Giordano = Kane? (only with a lot more detail on the big splash panels). My one big regret in avoiding DC is missing out on Dick Giordano. Thanks for the great review, Thomas, especially enlivened by judicious use of artwork.

Richard

Redartz said...

Nice review of a great-looking book, Thomas! Can't recall if I had this book originally, but it looks like a winner. Excellent creative team; and I'm a big Simonson fan anyway. By the way, your point questioning the Joker's kidnapping of Alfred is spot on. Why the butler, indeed...

Richard- there are some hints of Kane to the artwork. I also note some panels reminiscent of Marshall Rogers. Perhaps some of that is due to Giordano's inks.

Edo Bosnar said...

Thanks for the review, Thomas. Never had this issue, but wish I had, because the art is spectacular (like Redartz, I'm huge fan of Simonson). I also agree with you about Wein, he was a generally solid storyteller, and produced quite a bit of work for both DC and Marvel that I've enjoyed reading.

Richard, re: Simonson + Giordano = Kane. Hmm, not really seeing it myself, and even under Giordano's powerful inks, I can see Simonson's robust and distinct style bursting through.
As for Giordano, for a while in the mid-1970s he did a number of inking jobs scattered over a bunch of Marvel titles, most notably in the first few issues of the revived Dr. Strange series, which featured pencils by Frank Brunner. The art there is simply stunning. Also, he inked the first few appearances of Iron Fist in Marvel Premiere, including the first IF appearance drawn by none other than Gil Kane.

B McMolo said...

Great review and particularly well-chosen pics.

Picking up The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told (as well as The Greatest Batman Stories, which while not my first exposure to Simonson - speaking of Simonson, up there - his cover for that one was fantastic) really changed my Bat-trajectory. Growing up I only had eyes for Marvel, and it was stuff like Miller's Dark Knight And Death in the Family that got me reading Batman. I only liked that kind of stuff, and then I got those two volumes and this whole other pre-Dark-Knight Batverse opened up for me. Nowadays it's my preferred take on the character.

Doug said...

B McMolo --

You raise an interesting point that may be more appropriate for a DC discussion than a Marvel discussion: For a given DC character, when did your favorite "take" or era occur? Could be a future topic.

Doug

J.A. Morris said...

Great review Thomas! Coincidentally, I checked out checked out the 'Greatest Joker Stories' from the library last night. When I get home, I'm going straight to this story. When this issue came out, I was 8 years old and still playing with Mego superhero dolls. A friend of mine cited the ending of this issue and decided that "we can't use the Joker doll, because Joker's DEAD!" I protested a bit, saying there was no body, but I still used Mego Joker when that friend wasn't around.

Back to the review:One thing that's interesting about artists that have long careers is that you can see their penciling style evolve. If you look at Simonson's early work, it's a lot different from his art on Thor. In this story, you can see that his art is somewhere in between his "conventional" comic book pencils and his more abstract (by standards of mainstream comics) pencils during his run on Thor.
Thomas wrote:
"in 1989 when I was in elementary school."

And I thought I was the youngest of the BAB "regulars!" 1989 was the year I graduated from high school. But it's good to know people younger than me have fond feelings towards the Bronze Age of comics.

Blaxkleric said...

Terrific review. Love this period of Batman and your writing (and piccies) have really helped rekindle that sense of fun I simply don't find with the current series. I'm also a big fan of this incarnation of the Clown prince of Crime. Great stuff :-)

Simon
http://thebrownbagaeccb.blogspot.co.uk

Anonymous said...

Cool review, Thomas. I've been reading some 70s/80s Batman stuff lately, so this story is fresh in my mind. Batman and Detective had a really strong run in the late 70s/early 80s, with Wein, then Conway (who wrote both books), then Doug Moench (who also wrote both); and great art from guys like Aparo, Novick, Newton, Colan, and of course, Simonson/Giordano here.

@J.A. I thought *I* was the youngest one here (I graduated in 1990), but you're right, it's definitely nice to see some younger people who are into the classics!

Mike Wilson

Martinex1 said...

I really like the shadowy Batman on the rooftop and I like how Joker puts his face on everything. Joker mobile, giant cake, etc. I love that about those comics. Does he still do that? If I'm baking a giant cake with a Joker face on it, how hard is it to track him? So much fun with that art.

pfgavigan said...

Hiya,

Well, this review and these images from the book got me to the local comic shop looking for the story. No luck so far but the clerk has promised to let me know if they find it.

Simonson was an inspired choice for Batman and I probably would have followed the book more if I had seen his name on the cover. Does anybody know if he had a run on any of the Bat titles besides the Manhunter stories?

My feelings towards Wein are a bit more mixed. A good character writer he could be a bit lazy on plots. Not bad, just sometimes with a certain feeling of been there done that.

Going back to the story on Sunday, wish me luck.

Seeya,

pfgavigan

Thomas F. said...

pfgavigan,

Best of luck locating a copy of the issue at your store. Batman fans tend to snatch it up as soon as it becomes available--there are several major comic stores in my city and not a single one carried a copy. I had to purchase it from Ebay, but it was a treat to finally get my hands on it. Shouldn't be too expensive, though, unless it's in very high grade--should be under $20.

Thomas F.

Thomas F. said...

pfgavigan,

To answer your question, Walt Simonson did pencil a few other issues of Batman & Detective Comics, other than the Manhunter tales.

Batman #300 (interior art), Batman #312 (cover and interior art), Detective Comics #450 (interior art), Detective Comics #469 & #470 (interior art on both), Detective Comics #500 (interior art for one story only, "Once Upon a Time").

Of course, Walt Simonson did the interior art on the Manhunter stories in Detective Comics #437-#443.

Thomas F. said...

Mike,

I agree with you, Batman and Detective did have a number of strong runs in the 1970s. No doubt everyone is are aware of the Denny O'Neil/Neal Adams partnership, but there were a number of others as well.

Another often overlooked Batman scribe was David V. Reed, who penned the clever four-part mystery tale, "Where Were You On the Night Batman Was Killed?" This was a late 1970s Batman classic that unfolded in the pages of Batman #291-#294. Has this four-part story been reprinted anywhere? Each of the four issues consist of a different villain--Catwoman, Riddler, Lex Luthor, and the Joker respectively--bragging about having been the one to finally kill Batman. It takes place in a courtroom setting, with Ra's Al Ghul presiding as judge and Two-Face acting as the prosecuting attorney who pokes holes in the testimony of the by presenting counter-evidence. It's not to be missed.

JJ said...

What a superb review. Solid writing, ample artwork to peruse. I'd never heard of this Batman-Joker clash. Simonson's art is spectacular, as per usual. Love Garcia-Lopez's cover as well. For my tastes, when DC is firing on all cylinders they're impossible to beat, superhero-wise.

Anonymous said...

@Thomas: I've read that 4-parter you're talking about...it had quite the ending! But in general, Reed's stuff always left me a bit...flat. It wasn't bad, it just didn't jump right out and grab me. Didn't Reed do the "Crime Olympics" multi-parter? I found that one kind of boring, for example. But the art was great in that era, so it's all readable at least :)

Mike Wilson

Thomas F. said...

Mike, yes, Reed did write that Underworld Olympics story . . . some felt it was boring, I know, but at least Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez's art is spectacular. In my view, I feel that that Reed was good at penning a mystery tale where Batman uses his detective skills to solve the issue at hand, whatever it may have been, instead of just his brawn.

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