Monday, February 29, 2016

The Dark Knight Returned; But Was He Batman? Part Three

Batman: The Dark Knight (May 1986)
"Hunt the Dark Knight"
Frank Miller-Miller/Klaus Janson

Doug: Everyone having fun? I am. While we haven't gone so far as to close read this graphic novel, I will say that going through it another couple of times as we frame these discussions has shed new light -- and revived some old lights -- on story elements, the art, the politics, and so on. I'm not sure now how many times I've read this story... could be around six or seven. And each time Frank Miller makes me consider things, whether or not I've paid them notice before. I think that's the staying power of this book. Comics fans often kick around the term "holds up". While certain aspects of the story are dated, I find that now-historical aspect part of the allure. Face it -- Frank Miller created this in 1985-86; how could it not be a product of his perception of his times? And this is a historical piece of literature. We've been talking about the difficulty in separating this as a comic book from this as a comic industry influence. But with the passage of time, now that's part of the story. And us chewing on it's merits as a standalone versus the suits and creators who smelled money like sharks smell blood and ran with it? I'm sure that's not what Miller set out to do. Has he himself milked the trend? You betcha. So this is complex, and I am enjoying going through it with you.

Doug: Karen remarked last week that what led the Batman to victory over the Mutants leader was not his ability to out-physical that monster, but to outsmart him. It's a great bridge to the second half of the book, where we'll find a Batman who is more Darknight Detective than Bat-hulk. And it starts right from the get-go, with Batman in disguise (a most ugly disguise... like someone threw hot oil on H.R. Pufnstuf's face). And what the heck did you make of the Nazi broad? And was she a she? Man, I could be scarred for life from that scene. I thought it was an interesting point that this little faction of former Mutants had not signed up with the Sons of the Batman. But splinter groups won't last long in the anarchic streets of Gotham City.

Karen: 'Bruno' was surely meant to be shocking in 1986 but now would probably elicit more protest as being insensitive than anything else. But I much prefer a Batman that tries to solve problems with his brain over one that pummels his way through everything. After defeating the Mutant Leader, and bringing a new Robin on-board, Batman has been reborn. He's firing on all cylinders again. 

Doug: I agree. And despite the level of violence that will get really ratcheted up as we move through this issue, there is a certain comfort zone in the first several pages of the tale.

Doug: Some of Miller's political commentary is quite troubling, but he does a brilliant job of using it to show just how far Gotham has fallen. The scene that's on my mind is when the advertising exec. pushes the disabled man onto the subway tracks. That scene is also our entry point for the arrival of Superman to the story, but it's really alarming nonetheless. But I will say that Miller's pessimism is perhaps not far off from our world of 2016, where mistrust, racial profiling, and a code of "no snitching" seems to rule the nightly news stories. And so what of Superman? I really liked the way he was introduced. It may seem corny to some, but I was digging the whole "faster than a speeding bullet" litany of his powers. Very dramatic.

Karen: I was wondering if the advertising exec -'Byron Brassballs' -- I mean really -- was supposed to look like Bernhard Goetz, the infamous Subway Vigilante? He looks a bit like him to me, anyway. Although given Miller's apparent worldview, I would think he would be a Goetz supporter. Superman's introduction gives him a properly mythic, larger than life feel. All the better for when he is eventually torn down?

Doug: I did an image search for Bernie Goetz upon your suggestion, and I'd say ol' Byron is definitely a stand-in for 1984's subway shooting vigilante. Weird, huh? I thought Miller used this character to stand out to the reader as just preposterous. But really, I think he's being used to parallel what some in the media and in politics were saying about the Batman. In answer to the issue you just raised, I guess I don't know where Miller stood.

Doug: Jim Gordon's exit from the book was perfect -- crusty and honest, as you'd expect him to be. The scene at his banquet was nicely juxtaposed with the discovery of the little robots (er, little CREEPY robots). A trend running through the early part of this volume is the growing relationship, training if you will, between the Batman and our new Robin. I have always loved the repeated, "If you do X, you're fired." Cracks me up every time. So the stake-out at Abner's apartment is our springboard into The Dark Knight #3's special guest-villain, the Joker. I got a chill over the three panels where he thinks to himself, "Just can't sleep. Should sleep. Should be fresh tomorrow. Tomorrow I go free."

Karen: As much as the concept of Robin should make absolutely no sense, I like Batman being balanced by Robin. Besides the "you're fired" dialog, I also liked how as he's chastising Robin while they are jumping and running across the rooftops, he throws in a fatherly "careful" here and there. This relationship is good for him. Having someone to care for provides some healing for this still-traumatized man.

Doug: Carrie Kelly is a great bridge between generations. Batman marvels at what she knows about the technology he's employed in various scenes. An "immigrant user" himself, Carrie takes to certain gadgets and mechanical workings as we now see today's youngsters -- quickly and without hesitation.


Karen: As for the Joker, I think in our off-line discussion I had mentioned how I did not care for his depiction in this. You're right, he's creepy, but I've never cared for that sort of romantic-obsessive angle, which I think Miller originated and others picked up on later. It just seems too easy. The Joker always looked a little feminine, and I suppose it's one way to go, but it doesn't ring true to me. I always thought Joker's challenge with Batman was more a contest of wills.

Doug: I didn't mind the caricature of Ronald Reagan. While of course not entirely accurate, it was not all that different from how he was being portrayed at the time in various media. At times I got the same vibe that I did when watching the Genesis video "Land of Confusion". I also think that Superman has been vilified since this story, the so-called Big Blue Boy Scout. But what's wrong with that? Superman himself relates how, after the trouble that forced the heroes underground (how many times has some sort of registration act been written into a comic story?) he was able to cut a deal that allowed him to operate in secret. And as the sworn protector of his adopted planet, what's wrong with that? I think Miller chose to go anti-establishment and so made Superman his whipping boy.

Karen: Yes, nothing novel about Reagan being portrayed as something of a nitwit, or senile. Things like that had been going on even when he was running for Governor of California. Superman does wind up as the patsy according to Miller. It's been a long time since I read this, and I haven't re-read issue #4 yet, so I don't recall if we ever get all the details on why the heroes were driven underground. Superman makes allusions to it. But it  does sound like Superman decided to play by the rules, to accept everyone being forced off the field, if he could still play, and that does seem pretty wimpy. He's Superman, for God's sake, isn't he supposed to stand up for truth, justice, and the American Way? The way Miller depicts it, he's an errand boy for the government. That's bothersome. Hey -doesn't this sound a bit like what we may see in the Civil War movie in a few months?

Doug: Yes it does, and that bothers me. I didn't read much of Civil War when it came out -- really the first scene where Nuklo goes off and Bill Foster is vaporized set a tone for me that I didn't want to partake in further. Interesting there, though, and here as well, that the guy who stands up for the ideals of freedom is to be portrayed as the bad guy. Iron Man's, and Batman's here, brand of fascism is "heroized". Maybe I'm missing something all the way through threads like this, and the Mutant Registration Act, etc. as well. 

Karen: Don't get me started on Civil War. [Umm... you brought it up ;) ] Thankfully that's pretty far out of our Bronze Age zone. I think the film will be sufficiently different from the comic that I'll be able to enjoy it (I hope). But here, with Superman, Miller's presentation is just so one-sided -when he has him thinking things like "I gave them my obedience and my invisibility. They gave me a license and let us live," it's hard to look on him as heroic. Yes, he's doing it so he can save people, but again, it's at the pleasure of the US government, which we've been shown is corrupt, and I guess I'm just a child of the 70s, that irks me. 

Doug: I think with Superman we have to determine what is the greater good. Certainly in this post-9/11 world in which we dwell these issues of "greater good" have been raised often with the Patriot Act and various similar ideas, such as body scans from the TSA. Every opportunity benefit has opportunity costs, right? But Miller is wearing his opinions on his sleeve in TDKR.

Doug: So Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent go horseback riding. Maybe that's an odd scene, but I liked it. Miller manipulates us by playing Clark as very imperialistic -- regal. And Bruce just smirks at him. I loved how, in the middle of the conversation, Clark picked up on the news bulletin about the escalations in the Soviet activity on the fictional island of Corto Maltese and flew off to deal with it. Bruce, already set in his ways and confidant in his abilities and plans, says there's no hurry when Clark promises to resume their conversation. Bruce really wants no part of Clark's desire to talk him off his recent activities, and certainly doesn't want any part of being a "company man" like Superman has become.

Karen: Because I was never a regular DC reader, I don't know if this is/was always the case, but certainly part of Batman's appeal today is his ability to stand with 'gods' like Superman and Wonder Woman as an equal. I mean, he has no powers -at all -but by sheer force of his personality and his mental abilities, primarily, he has put himself in their ranks. In TDKR, he not only stands shoulder to shoulder with the god, he overcomes him, beats him. I think he was always highly regarded before but I think it was here that the ridiculous belief that Batman could overcome any foe began. Nowadays you can hear discussions in comic shops or see them on message boards about Batman vs. any character you want to name, and fans will come up with reasons Batman could beat that character "if he has time to plan". He has been deified, put in the pantheon even though in reality, he could never compete with these super-powered foes. Batman shouldn't really exist in the same universe as Superman, or Green Lantern. But he does, so we make the best of it. It's fun. But it stretches credulity to think this normal guy could survive a fight with any of these super-beings. But then, that's the ultimate wish fulfillment, isn't it?

Doug: And of course DC has gone so far in the past 15 years or so to refer to their Big Three as the "Trinity". Now if that doesn't have godly overtones...

Doug: The escalation of Cold War events is really just an appetizer to the meal that will be served in TDKR #4. The climax of this issue is the showdown with the Joker, which ties directly into the Clown Prince of Crime's coming out on the David Letterman Show. Oh wait -- the David Endochrine Show. So what was Miller saying there? The endocrine system produces hormones that regulate, among other things, reproduction and sexual urges. So is that why Dr. Ruth Westheimer was a guest on the show the same night as the Joker? Does this affirm your posit above that Miller was playing the Joker as this romantic-obsessive counterpart to the Batman's repressed urges?

Karen: You got me on the Endochrine thing. I just thought that was the strangest name to come up with. I'm not sure what Miller was trying to say there. And Dr. Ruth! I had forgotten about her, but she was everywhere back then. Yeah, the whole sexual repression thing, the lipstick, the scene down in the tunnel, it just seems too obvious to me. But I'm rarely happy with the way The Joker is portrayed. I can't stand The Killing Joke -not just The Joker, but the whole thing. So what do I know...

Doug: But before the Batman/Joker fireworks begin, there are others to deal with -- literally. In a scene foreshadowing what Miller would write about a year hence (in "Batman: Year One", Batman #404, February 1987), Batman thinks, "Fighting cops. It's been awhile..." Commissioner Yindel has ordered her police to surround the Late Night studios, as she is positive the Joker will make a play. She's also pretty daggone sure the Batman will show up. Right on both counts, Commissioner. I really liked the scene in the air and on the rooftops -- sure, Batman's outside the law, and one could argue that it's what allows the Joker to pull off his plan. But it's an exciting scene that speaks to Batman's skill, strength, and determination.

Karen: Yes, and so are the following scenes, with the congressman and Selina Kyle. After Batman and Robin escape, crashing through the window, Batman radios Yindel to go save the Governor. It made me think about how this relationship is starting, and where it could be in five years. Would Yindel still be chasing down Batman, or at some point, would she grudgingly form an alliance?

Doug: If that is a veiled request to get my opinion on or even participate in a review of TDKR2, you are barking up the wrong tree. Man, was that ill-advised and flat-out bad!

Doug: I found the scenes with Selina Kyle troubling. I did not care for the angle Miller took with Selina in "Batman: Year One", the seeds of which seem to have begun here (although much later in her life, obviously). Why go that route? I don't know that various creators through the years have always treated the Bob Kane/Bill Finger characterizations as gospel, but this seems such a departure from how Catwoman has ever been depicted. Miller seems to resolve the sexual tension between the Batman and Catwoman that was always there, from the funnybooks to the 1966 film and television series. But that Selina is a madam, and of course in that "Year One" story a prostitute herself is way off for me.

Doug: I'll add that had that initial scene (see below, at left) been stretched out, it would have given the same tense, uncomfortable vibe as the scene in The Dark Knight where the Joker confronts Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal). At this point the Joker (and the Batman) seemed to be at a point of no return. So the tension created when the Joker approached Selina Kyle really had me on pins and needles. And then to see the way it played out a short while later. It's tough to know just what is implied, but I think some very vile actions took place. And Robin's reaction says it all. What that girl went through at the end of this story, no child her age should even have to think about. It really puts into perspective what the life of Dick Grayson must have been like had comic books been written with a R rating as this one was. I suppose the danger faced by Jason Todd during "A Death in the Family" would have been oft-happening circumstances.


Karen: Batman winds up with Joker in the Tunnel of Love. See? I'm not projecting anything! Batman is shot, stabbed, and yet he still is able to think about how a "gun is a coward's weapon." So he uses his hands on Joker. But despite all his guilt over Joker's murders, he doesn't kill him. I wish people would remember this rather than the fight with Superman! I thought that this was the Batman I knew - regardless of everything, when it comes down to it, he chooses not to kill Joker. OK, he does break his neck to paralyze him, but all things considered, I think Joker was getting off easy.

Doug: What seems a focal point to me, though, is that more than once Batman thinks to himself something along the lines of "this ends tonight". One way or another, one or both of them will end up dead when this has all played out. And, given that Batman had mused to himself on multiple occasions about a "good death" or "not a good death", it seems to me that any death at the hands or machinations of his mortal enemy would qualify as a "bad death". Batman had to know this would end in the Joker's death -- how, who can say? The unpredictability of the Clown Prince certainly held off any chance at anticipation. I agree with you that the Batman stopped short of killing the Joker, but are his actions any less shocking than what we saw from Superman at the end of Man of Steel? By the time he kills himself (and I wouldn't have the slightest idea how the physiology of breaking one's own neck, already with a broken neck would work), the Joker had taken a bat-star (that's what I'm going to call it -- the batarang would be larger) to the eye and would have taken a fair amount of physical abuse. And the pressure on the Joker's face when Batman grabs hold would not have in any way been pleasant. I agree with you that the Joker deserved what he got - a court of law would have sentenced him to die, no doubt. But he's in the Batman's court now. And isn't that Miller's point to this story, after all?

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Who's the Worst... Annoying Character?

Doug: The name of Snapper Carr was uttered in the hallowed halls of the BAB most recently. Is he the most annoying character in all of comicdom?

Friday, February 26, 2016

"With the right mindset, it's a lot of fun."

Doug: Are there comics that you have to get "psyched up" to read? You know -- stuff you feel like you should read but often have a tough time pulling the book off the shelf? I've remarked several times, although not recently, that most of Marvel's Silver Age titles should just be left laying if you're talking about the first 12-15 issues. Of course there are some exceptions -- Amazing Spider-Man was a hit right from the start, and I can generally make it through the first many issues of the Fantastic Four without much trouble. But you can have most of the early runs of Incredible Hulk and the Ant-Man/Giant-Man beginnings from Tales to Astonish; ditto the Human Torch feature in Strange Tales. But once most Silver Age Marvel comic books hit the middle teens or around issue #20, they all seemed to find their way and take off (at least in my opinion). Avengers definitely falls into the latter parameters. There were some hits in the first year, but I really start to pay attention once the Kooky Quartet arrives.

Doug: Our Super Blog Team-Up colleague Paul from Longbox Graveyard was alerting the world last weekend that he was reading the new four-color trade from DC, The Justice League of America: The Silver Age, Volume 1. He made the folllowing tweet, and I engaged him. Funny exchange:

Doug: What are your "brain-melting" comics reading experiences? We had a wonderful conversation last weekend about all kinds of comics. Maybe the comics that you have a hard time opening aren't even from the Silver or even Golden Ages... maybe they're from our very own Bronze Age or even beyond? And don't think you have to go all the way to brain-melting. "Slightly unpleasant" will suffice if that's all you got!

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Guests Review - Batman vs. the Incredible Hulk

This is the 600th Review to Appear on the Bronze Age Babies

 Doug: Now here's a first on the BAB, and after 6 1/2 years one shouldn't take a statement like that lightly! Today we feature not just your ordinary, run-of-the-mill partner review. Oh, no. Today, it's a Three-for-all! That's right -- several weeks ago the merits of the Batman vs. the Incredible Hulk treasury edition were being sung from the highest peaks when three of our stalwart commenters rose to the occasion and said "We'll review it!" You go right ahead boys. And you know what? They did! Enjoy this water cooler conversation between Edo Bosnar, Humanbelly, and Mike Loughlin -- we think it'll be a fun ride.

Batman vs. The Incredible Hulk (DC Special Series, Vol. 5, No. 27, Fall 1981)
"The Monster and the Madman!" 
Len Wein-Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez/Dick Giordano


In the middle of a hot and humid summer in Gotham City, people’s dreams and nightmares are becoming real, even when they’re not sleeping. In a waterfront warehouse, the Joker and his goons are preparing for a heist. The Joker is talking to someone off panel who is in great pain and really needs whatever Joker and the gang are going to steal. As they depart, the Joker kills one of his henchmen for suggesting that he might be afraid of that mysterious someone in the warehouse…

Humanbelly: Ha! That "hot & humid" summer that Len so aptly describes? This is a big ol' nit-pick, yes, but the poor suffering sleeper is drawn slumbering in the heat under a sheet AND blanket-! The words are good, the pictures are more than good-- but the editing is asleep at the switch. It's a small but obvious incongruity that pulls a reader a little bit out of the story right at the outset, and could easily have been caught.

Mike Loughlin: I never caught that! I was about to No-prize it away by saying the a.c. was on and too high, but let me quote panel 2: “for months now [he] has been talking about buying an air-conditioner – and is now paying the price of his procrastination.” D’oh!

Edo Bosnar: Yeah, I know all too well what hot & humid nights are like – there’s no way I’d be snuggled up in bed like that guy

HB: One of the huge drawbacks of Marvel Zuvembihood was having no clue who Jose Luis Garcia Lopez was. While there are some quibbles with the art in this book later on, NONE of them have to do with this man's ability as an artist and visual storyteller! His work here often comes across as the genetically-blessed artistic love-child of Neal Adams and Gene Colan. . . along with a helpful Steve Ditko and Ross Andru lurking in the family tree. The splash page and prologue set the visual tone wonderfully-- but my favorite panel here is the nightmare-ized movie theater on page three: an artist simply surrendering to the fun of what he's drawing. I might submit, though, that most horrifying element in that image is the inexplicable, eye-clenching outfit that the young lady is wearing. . . unless. . . that, too, is part of the nightmare-??

ML: Yikes! Maybe it from the movie and she’s cos-playing? “It Came from 1981!” “Dawn of the Fashion-Disaster Decade!” “Clash of the Clothing!”

EB: Heh, speaking of ‘80s fashions, outside of those silly boots, her outfit actually compares favorably to some of the stuff I recall in my H.S. and early college years, like parachute pants, the upturned collars and the copiously gelled (my lord, the gel!) and elaborately coiffed hair. Anyway, my favorite part of that image? The ape-like ghoul munching on their popcorn.

ML: Anyway, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez is one of the best artists to grace the medium. It’s a shame he didn’t do more work for Marvel or an independent publisher, but to me his art *is* DC. I grew up in the ‘80s, a time when most of DC’s licensed product art was done by Garcia-Lopez and his artistic partner on Batman vs. Hulk, Dick Giordano. T-shirts, action figure box art, lunch boxes, underoos – before I was an avid comic book reader, I came to these characters through those aforementioned avenues. Garcia-Lopez’s style is remarkably clean, slick, and aesthetically pleasing. It’s a shame he didn’t have a long run on a popular series (why oh why was he not on Superman after Curt Swan left? Or John Byrne?). He has action chops to spare, as we’ll see in the next chapter.

Chapter 1: “When Wakes the Behemoth…!”

The story opens in a large busy lab in the Gotham City branch of Wayne Research. Bruce Banner, under a fake name, has been working there as a sort of orderly, doing odd jobs so he can get a closer look at something called a gamma-gun, which he believes can cure him of being the Hulk. Suddenly, he notices that everyone in the lab, himself included, is beginning to laugh uncontrollably, so thinking fast, he puts on a radiation suit that has its own air supply. Right then, the Joker and his thugs bust into the lab and go after the gamma-gun. Banner runs to hit the alarm, but the Joker’s men knock him down. The effect is predictable for long-time comics readers, as they now have to deal with a very irate Hulk. He begins trashing the lab, and while the Joker’s men try to sneak out with the gamma-gun, they’re stopped by none other than the Batman! After the ensuing melee, in which Batman takes out the thugs, the gamma-gun ends up in the Hulk’s hands. Before Batman can do or say anything, the Joker sweet-talks him into giving him the gun and attacking Batman. The confrontation has a rather unbelievable outcome, i.e., Batman takes out the Hulk with a combination of gas pellets and well-placed kick to the gut. The Joker and his men abscond with the gamma-gun in the meantime, but Batman loses them in pursuit, as the layout of the streets and alleys around the building has somehow been changed into a maze. He returns to the lab as Bruce Wayne, where the groggy Hulk changes back to Banner. Instead of sending him packing, Wayne offers him a job to make a replacement gamma-gun.


ML: Holy ‘70s tv! Bruce working an odd job in a research facility, using a “David B____” alias? Calling Hulk “…the raging beast that dwells within?” That tickles this reader’s nostalgia bone something fierce, but this comic came out in 1981. These little nods were contemporary. It’s too bad we don’t have Batman calling anyone “old chum” or an appearance by King Tut.

HB: I wonder if the Joker is one of those characters who "write themselves"? It seems like Len Wein channels him from the get-go, and is clearly the character he enjoys the most throughout. This is a little bit unfortunate since, of course, Banner & Hulk ARE Len's characters. Hulk seems on-point, for the most part, but Banner tends to sound rather flat throughout the book-- and even decidedly out of character at points. And despite how brilliant his work is, Lopez also doesn't seem to capture Bruce's look, somehow. So. . . I never quite believe it's Bruce, really, y'know? But ohhhhh boy, does he draw a good Hulk! Page 9 is just about poster-worthy.

ML: All due respect to Herb Trimpe and Sal Buscema, the JL G-L Hulk is my favorite Bronze Age Hulk. He draws the Green Goliath as a massive troglodyte who’s always angry. The body language is also excellent; Hulk is a lumbering brute always charging, punching, and swinging his arms around. Batman vs. Hulk is an absurd match-up, and JL G-L sells it by contrasting the Hulk’s actions with Batman’s leaping, avoiding, and getting hits in when he can. Well, he sells it until – that scene.

EB: I share your admiration for the nonpareil craftsmanship of Garcia-Lopez, but he still doesn’t topple Sal as my favorite Hulk artist…

HB: Yes, I agree completely about Bats' swift kick to the Hulk's breadbasket. Unexpected or not, that "Hhuuunff!!" is just never gonna happen according to this character's established history (Although, again, it's drawn great--!).

ML: Here it is, the scene that threatens to break the entire comic. I’m a Hulk fan, first and foremost, so I don’t like seeing my favorite character go down in a fight. Especially to a ‘puny human!’ I could accept it, however, if not for the fact that Batman bests him physically. Batman has gadgets, scientific know-how, fighting prowess, detecting skills, and more money than the entire Fortune 500. On the other hand, the Hulk is a creature of pure brute strength. That’s all he’s got. The people who made this comic could have had Batman force the Hulk to take a breath in a number of other ways: throw a flash grenade at him to startle him with the light, use sneezing powder, say ‘Hulk- knock, knock’ knowing he can’t resist replying ‘who there?’ Anything that doesn’t tear the Hulk down so badly. If not for the fact that there were so many gorgeous Garcia-Lopez/Giordano pages left to drool over, I would have closed the comic right here.

HB: And my primary art quibble is on display in this first chapter. Pages 13-15 in particular--- almost no backgrounds whatsoever! Fantastic action w/ the figures. . . but it's all taking place in a particularly chroma-challenged limbo! White backgrounds, yellow backgrounds? Tangerine backgrounds?? PINK backgrounds??? This strikes me as a "book's gotta get done fast" problem, as opposed to a Garcia-Lopez problem. But it has the effect of generally leaving many scenes feeling ungrounded or visually unfinished.

ML: Indeed. The fight choreography and facial expressions work beautifully – check out the Joker’s evil glee on page 16!- but the reader loses a sense of place during the fight.

ML: I find it highly unlikely that security would let Bruce Wayne just stroll in and get close to the Hulk, or let him talk to Banner, or let him offer the half-naked scientist a job! This scene strikes me as one that could feature post-Crisis Lex Luthor in Bruce Wayne’s place. Does Wayne bribe the cops to let him do whatever he wants at a crime scene, or take suspects home with him?

Chapter 2: “When Dreams Won’t Come!”

Back at their hideout, Joker and his men set up the gamma-gun and fire it at their ‘client,’ who ends up being none other than the Shaper of Worlds. As he absorbs the gun’s energy, he goes into some lengthy exposition, recounting that during his travels through the universe the radiation from a nova he passed robbed him of his ability to absorb dreams – so he made his way to Earth, created a warehouse to disguise his spacecraft and started looking for a mind to help him restore his powers, and in the process he found that the Joker’s mind was unique in the universe (!). They struck a bargain: the Joker helps him, and he gives the Joker pretty much whatever he wants. However, it turns out that the T-gun is useless, and the Shaper exclaims that he may lose his mind. The Joker is now in a bit of a quandary as to what his next move should be.

HB: Well-- the plot is dumb. I mean, there's just no way around that-- but I suppose that's sort of a given with Special Events like this. We spend 20 pages in a dire search and struggle over the Gamma-Gun (Really? Gamma-Gun?? Because we don't already have a lifetime supply of those littering the landscape in Greenskin's own book??), and then-- whoopsi-foozle-- the darned thing didn't work after all! It's a classic Hitchcock Maguffin-- the thing that no one cares about that's necessary to get the story a-movin'. It's just used rather artlessly in this case.

ML: Zzzzzzz… wha-? Oh, sorry, the Shaper of Worlds was talking. Why did Wein go with the uninspired baddie? The Hulk’s rogue gallery might not stack up against Batman’s, but they could have done so much better.

HB: Ha-- and the panel on page 25, w/ the Joker biting his lip? Oh, that would be a MUST for any Joker image montage or collage! That Joker--- what a criminal mastermind-- why, he's stealing this very book right out from under Hulk & Bats! 

ML: The Joker biting his lip is one of my favorite panels of all time. It’s one of the few times the reader gets a feeling that the Joker is not in control of the situation. In fact, that seems to be a hallmark of the modern Joker, being two steps ahead of everyone until Batman thwarts his schemes.

ML: I think the Joker is every writer’s favorite villain. He’s a lot of fun, gets the best lines, and his schemes aren’t as hard to set up as the Riddler’s.

EB: While I agree that the Leader probably should have been the go-to Hulk villain for this one, I don’t think the Shaper was necessarily a bad choice. I think it made it easier for Wein to find a way to make the unlikely Batman/Hulk team-up occur. However, as noted in the summary, the exposition here is really drawn out. So yeah, Joker pretty much steals the show here.

Chapter 3: “When the Sea Churns Green…!”

We see a tanker belonging to Wayne Enterprises is anchored just beyond the 3-mile mark. The interior has been refitted into a giant, super-sophisticated lab in which Banner has been tirelessly leading the research. The ever-trusty Alfred is on hand to keep an eye on him and makes sure he’s calm and comfortable. The scene then switches to Batman visiting a number of underworld haunts to find any information on where the Joker might be hiding out, and finally comes up with a solid lead. Back on the tanker, several helicopters land, and a man identifying himself as a USAF colonel says the government wants them to apprehend Banner. Alfred protests, and the soldiers rough him up a bit, which leads the “colonel” to blurt out that they were supposed to make this look like a proper military operation. Banner, overhearing, gets enraged with – again – predictable results. The fake troops try to stop him, which includes using an industrial-strength taser, but to no avail. The “colonel” thinks they need some kind of bigger monster to take him out, and all of a sudden this huge pasty creature appears. It seems impervious to Hulk’s punches, and eventually just absorbs him into its belly, which then turns into an elastic cage that he can’t break out of. The “troops” take the blob monster with the captive Hulk away on their ‘copter, after which Commissioner Gordon shows up, as does Batman. A call to General Ross confirms that this was indeed not a USAF operation. But Batman says he knows who was behind it all.

HB: Len Wein seriously drops the ball with Banner in the first scene of this chapter, which I had a hard time getting past. A scientist accidentally drops a small piece of equipment, and Bruce launches into a full Super-Villain outburst ("You clumsy oaf!", etc, etc). It's ugly, it's forced, and it's wildly out of character for the Bruce Banner that Len himself had written for several years. Banner immediately becomes an unsympathetic pill--- not what you want for the book's co-star.

ML: Out-of-character he may be, but the changes in Banner’s body language and the green tint to his skin when he gets mad are highly effective indicators of the stress he’s under.

EB: Yeah, I didn’t find the Banner outburst here off-putting. The panels explain that he’d been working non-stop for a few days, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch to see him snap. That said, I totally agree with HB about his super-villainesque insults (if the lab-guy was younger, we could have even been treated to an “incompetent whelp!” or something like that). A simple “Hey! Be careful with that!” would have sufficed.

ML: It’s nice to get a pure Batman sequence. Once again, JL G-L keeps the action moving until he has to pause. Batman standing over the unconscious thugs while stroking his chin looks great, but the matchbook clue is just lazy. How many times has this scene been repeated in comics or movies? Does no one use a lighter?

HB: Rubber Mask Over Cowl #1-- the bum in the bar. Do you suppose artists had to avert their gaze in embarrassment every time they drew this?

ML: My no-prize explanation is Reed Richards licensed unstable molecules to Acme Rubber Mask Co. Now that Beast goes around blue and furry all the time, Batman’s their best customer.

HB: In several instances, I'm struck by the wonderful faces that Jose' creates for the Hulk. They're some of the most truly life-like & expressive I've ever seen. Page 35, top right panel-- that's a believable person, y'know?

HB: And I'm gonna say that I do love the doughy cage-android for a couple of reasons. #1, it looks like Steve Ditko sneaked into the studio sometime after midnight and drew him into all of the scenes, then ran away laughing madly. #2, the android is a strong, strong reminder of Incredible Hulk #'s 115-117, where the Leader used both an unbreakable, doughy cage AND unbreakable android to perpetually subdue ol' Greenskin. Hmmm-- now, why wasn't the Leader used in this story in the first place. . . ? His impatient snottiness combined with the Joker's incessant pestering-- oh, that would have been SO much better-!

HB: And finally-- ONE PANEL for Thunderbolt Ross AND Doc Samson?? So-- really, this is just a Batman story with the Hulk as a guest-star, isn't it? Daggone it---

ML: The Ditko comparison is spot-on. In Tales to Astonish #63, the Hulk battled the Leader’s sponge-rubber creation, the Humanoid. I also wish Wein had gone with the Leader. At least there would be a personal connection between both heroes and villains. The gamma gun could have been used to fuel his latest device, which unintentionally gives the Joker reality-warping power or something. As we’ve seen, the plot mechanics are secondary to the set pieces in this comic.

EB: I love that blob-monster, but I have to say that it’s part of the plot-hole/storytelling in this book that bothers me the most; obviously, it’s another case (like that street-maze that confounded Batman in the first chapter) of the Shaper helping the Joker and his men out, using his reality-warping and wish-fulfilling powers. However, in his exposition, the Shaper tells us his powers are blinking out and he’s actually in pain, etc., etc., yet he’s still able to apparently (telepathically, cosmically?) monitor the activities of his hirelings and toss them a little deus ex machina when things get thick.

ML: The call to Ross and Samson is so perfunctory. If you think the Hulk is only a guest-star now, just wait until the climax!

Chapter 4: “When the Shaper Commands…!”

At their hideout again, the Joker and his men present the Hulk to the Shaper, who at first doesn’t understand why they brought him. Joker explains that his alter-ego Banner can perhaps adjust the gamma-gun. However, the imprisoned Hulk completely flips out and manages to tear the blob monster apart and heads for the Shaper, just as the latter claims that madness is overcoming him. A bunch of nightmarish manifestations appear to confront the Hulk, which he smashes, but then something odd happens, as both of them grow calm. The Shaper realizes that the Hulk’s unique gamma radiation somehow helps him. The Hulk, meanwhile, says he feels tired and then bursts out of the warehouse. Shaper tells the Joker he has to find Hulk and bring him back. This leads the Joker to commandeer the Bat-signal to summon his arch-nemesis. He convinces Batman that they should conclude a temporary truce and work together to find the Hulk, so they indeed begin looking for him throughout Gotham. They do eventually find him, and when the Hulk leaps into the air to escape them, Batman fastens a line around the Hulk’s ankle and lets himself get propelled along with the jolly green giant. They land in a parking garage, and this leads to another confrontation that again stretches the otherwise indulgent suspension of disbelief most comic book fans have (like Batman avoiding being crushed by a car hurled at him by jumping and breaking through both side-door windows). Batman throws a smoke-bomb to keep the Hulk from finding him, and the Hulk, in a rage, ends up demolishing the parking garage. The Joker then shows up, and is unsurprised when Batman emerges from it largely unscathed (he dove under some cross-beams that sheltered him from the rubble). The Hulk, meanwhile, is walking through an alley, and stumbles upon a blind man who asks him if he needs a friend. He calms the Hulk a bit in their ensuing conversation, and then the Joker suddenly shows up and tells the Hulk he should come with him. The Hulk balks initially, but the blind man tells him he needs to trust the Joker, as it may change his life. The two walk off together, and we learn that the blind man is actually a cleverly-disguised Batman (wearing one of those amazing rubber masks).

ML: I’m not too impressed with the story, but some of the little touches are solid. I especially like how the Hulk gets out of the blob monster cage: the Joker mentions Banner, and it’s his hatred of his alter ego that gets him furious enough to break free.

HB: Again, the dynamic art really is shouldering a lot of the entertainment burden, isn't it? We'll go through several pages of action and event, and the resolution is that the actual plot is only furthered the tiniest inch. All that effort and angst to get Banner/Hulk to the Shaper (for a reason that never sees fruition, really), and the result is that we discover the Hulk's presence does the same thing that the Gamma Gun would-- before the Hulk leaps away again. We're on page 42, and from a practical standpoint (and the Shaper's) we're exactly where we were at the end of page 26. This is serial writing in a non-serial format. Not givin' Len high marks here.

ML: Despite a wonky plot, I like seeing Batman forced to work with the Joker. Len Wein gets in more of his snappy Joker dialogue, easily the best part of the writing in this issue.

HB: In the neat little "calming down" sequence on page 41, the Hulk ends up bearing a strong resemblance to. . . John Travolta?? Man, that guy left his mark everywhere back then, didn't he?

ML: “Puny human! Up nose with rubber hose!”

HB: The plaus-o-bilitron, as you mentioned, is indeed off the charts on several scores in this chapter (the cool dive through the car windows, the second no-way rubber mask) but the one that I couldn't get past was Bats' being towed along Hulks' leap-path via a bat-line. There's nothing survivable in this scenario. There is nothing breaking his fall, he's not flying, he's not landing on anything other than concrete, he's not "rolling" with it-- and he's easily 120' up at the moment we see him (coming down from several hundred, very likely). He makes an inane comment about angling his descent like the Hulk's-- which actually calls attention to the absurdity rather than mitigate it. Gnrgh-- BATMAN IS NOT SUPER, fellas!

ML: Agreed, but Batman jumping through the car is so cool and Garcia-Lopez totally – GASP! Oh no… No! I just noticed a flaw in the art! When Batman dives through the car, his cape comes out billowed. If he just jumped through a small space, wouldn’t his cape have to be clinging to his body to get through? Say it ain’t so, Jose Luis! I… I need to sit down…

HB: My biggest problem of all, though, is that the Hulk expressly states twice in this chapter how he hates it when humans twist their words and lie to him. This is a fundamental aspect of the Hulk's character, because even he realizes how gullible he himself can be. So, what is the ultimate tactic Bats and Joker use to get the Hulk to work toward their ends? They deceive him, twist their words, and lie to him. And it's obviously seen as the right (or at least most prudent) solution. This reduces the Hulk's character even further into the realm of interesting plot device rather than actual person. I... hate that.

ML: I do like the device of having Batman disguise himself so as not to trigger Hulk’s rage. That Acme Mask Co. does quality work. I was surprised to see the Hulk tell an innocent (as far as he knows), “Now little man – you die!” I’m used to “Hulk smash,” not actual death threats to a person not actively threatening the Green Goliath. It actually fits with out-of-character Banner calling people names. The deceit is regrettable, though. It makes the Incredible Hulk, strongest creature on Earth and titular co-star of this oversized extravaganza, a world-class chump.

EB: No arguments from me as far as your criticisms go. The strongest part of this section was the Batman/Joker interaction (I got a chuckle out of that one scene in the montage of their search for the Hulk in which the Joker is checking to see if he’s hiding in a garbage can). But this is where I think the Hulk is really sidelined more than anywhere else in the book. He just becomes grist for the Bats/Joker interplay, and it’s a bit off-putting to see Bats help a villain engage in some subterfuge at the expense of a fellow good guy, unstable and flawed as he may be.

Chapter 5: “When Madness Reigns…!”

As the Joker and Hulk approach the warehouse, which has these odd energy bands emanating from it, Joker tells Hulk to go in alone, which shocks Batman, who was following them. He tells Joker off (and gives him a b****-slap for good measure) and then goes to join the Hulk, who seems generally unperturbed now given his previous hostility, just saying that he thought Batman was dead. Suddenly they are attacked by some of their main adversaries. However, these are just more of the manifestations generated by the Shaper, and they turn into butterflies or lizards when punched. When they reach the door to the warehouse, they can’t enter because there is some sort of force-field. This gets the Hulk really, really angry, and he charges it with all of his might – and gets through, as there is a blinding flash of light. Afterward, Banner’s unconscious form can be seen lying on the floor, and the Shaper is feeling fine. He apparently absorbed enough of Hulk’s gamma radiation to restore his health. Now the Joker shows up and demands that the Shaper live up to his end of the bargain. Batman tries to put a stop to this, but to no avail. The Shaper honors his deal, and gives the Joker god-like power. Joker wills himself to become king of the world. Banner wakes up in the meantime and pleads with the Shaper to put a stop to this, but the Shaper brushes him off. Banner becomes righteously enraged, and turns into the Hulk again, but when he charges, the Shaper makes him disappear. In Gotham, the Joker is have a field day, molding the world into his image (and turning Batman into a corpulent clown). The Hulk appears, and unsuccessfully tries to punch the Joker, and also gets turned into a clown for his effort. At this point, Batman begins to taunt the Joker, asking him if such petty changes are the best he can do. So over the next 3 pages the Joker begins altering reality in different ways but Batman keeps challenging him to do better, until the Joker finally has an apparent nervous breakdown and passes out. Everything goes back to normal, and the Shaper, saying the bargain has been fulfilled, departs from Earth. In the epilogue, Batman, Banner and Commissioner Gordon look on as the Joker, committed to a psychiatric ward, dreams a dream of ruling Earth. Banner slips away, and Batman tells the Commissioner to wait before putting an APB out on him, saying they owe him a chance to get away and try to “find whatever he’s looking for.”

ML: Fun fact: in his long, storied career, the great Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez has drawn exactly 7 Marvel characters: the Hulk/ Bruce Banner, The Shaper of Worlds, Thunderbolt Ross, Doc Samson, The Leader, Rhino, and Abomination.

HB: While I appreciate the effort ('cause I do think it was there), this whole shifting dreamscape showdown falls terribly flat for me. Here's why:

  1. Most of the Joker's " unique mind in the universe" world-mods (see how I used a current video gamer reference there? Yeah?) are, frankly, darned cliché'. We see Wonderland, Salvadore Dali, MC Escher, Picasso (Abstract Expressionism, is it?), and Hieronymus Bosch as the influences that stretch the Joker's creative ingenuity to the breaking point. And I'm thinking--- "that's it--?" 'Cause those are generally the go-to visual elements when someone wants to depict a Weird, Crazy, Disturbingly Warped setting in a dream or vision or whatever. I mean-- they show up in old, OLD Warner Brothers cartoons, even. They're a common short-hand, really. Which once again tells me loudly that this book was done with a publisher standing nearby with a loud time-clock ticking away. (Probably a squishy, Dali-influenced one. . . )
  2. Lack of detailed backgrounds takes even further punch out of the desired alien/weird effect necessary to put this over. Again-- not enough time to put more thought or effort into the book.
  3. Uhm-- so to save the day, the Hulk's strength is useless; Batman's detective skills and physical prowess and tech are worthless. Ultimately, Batman uses transparent, rudimentary, soft-bullying psychology to cause the Joker to. . . have a fatal slip of the tongue-???? (Very nearly identical to the slip of the tongue that caused the villain's downfall in Hulk #155, mind you-- so it's not even clever or original.) To say this is unsatisfying is a wild understatement. For one final time it simply screams, "get the thing wrapped up somehow so we can get it to the printers-- I don't CARE who the book was supposed to be about!"

HB: And then we get the stock ending from the TV show—a la The Fugitive. Because. . . we should just abandon the promising scientific work that Bruce was onto right before he was kidnapped? NOTHING about that thread of this plot had changed at all-- it was simply interrupted by bad-guys machinations.

ML: Batman agrees that the Joker’s rewriting of reality isn’t all that original; he even calls him out on it in the comic! This reader knows better than to argue with the Dark Knight (not to mention the Human Belly!) but I’m glad we are treated to Garcia-Lopez’s homages. Even though he’s drawing super-heroes, JL G-L’s artwork keeps a foot in the plausible- his anatomy and composition create believable characters and environments. Seeing him break down reality, even if the breakdown contains derivative elements, is fun. I think the lack of background enhances the unreal nature of the proceedings. It’s like a Ditko Dr. Strange dimension. JL G-L takes it a step further by making the only ground the characters can stand on curvy and unstable. There all kinds of great touches, my favorite being the transitions on page 62. Standard comic book Joker to Picasso to ‘70s album cover- I can’t help but think JL G-L had a good time with this part of the book.

ML: Stray observations: I like how Bat-clown looks ridiculous, but somehow Batman retains his dignity. JL G-L goes Neal Adams for a panel on page 59, when he has the character look at the reader with a grumpy face and point. The Hulk’s confusion when his punch has no effect on the Joker is priceless.

EB: Oh, man, I love those panels where Garcia-Lopez just went crazy. The art homages are a visual treat, as are the clown-versions of Batman and Hulk.

ML: The comic’s biggest sin is how little Hulk does in the climax. Len Wein of 1981, I offer up a (slightly) better ending: Batman challenges Joker to create more original reality warps. While the Shaper feeds the Joker power, his concentration is on the Joker alone. Joker’s obsession with beating Batman takes over, causing him to half ignore the Hulk. Hulk can’t touch the Joker, but he slips out of the localized reality warp enough to smash the Shaper. The resulting psychic feedback kayos the Joker. His debt to the Joker fulfilled, the Shaper says “Nuts to this” and takes off. Cue semi-nonsensical ending.

HB: Wow-- what a strange place this re-examination has put me in! I love the art about 10 times more than I realized before--- whereas the writing/plot has exposed unexpected raw nerves. And overall effect is that it's all still a fairly enjoyable romp that becomes, sadly, pretty easily forgettable. I kinda like it-- but am not in love with it, y'know? 

ML: Ultimately, Batman vs. the Incredible Hulk functions best as a showcase for Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez’s artwork. It’s worth buying and leafing through just to see how smoothly and beautifully he illustrates the characters and set-pieces. There’s no getting around the fact that even a well-told Batman/ Hulk crossover is going to be a trifle, but I wish Len Wein had done a better job incorporating the Hulk into the story (especially given how many pages he had to work with!). How much the reader enjoys the comic depends on whether or not they need substance amidst some extremely impressive flash.

EB: I have to say in conclusion that I’m a little more charitably inclined toward this book than either of you. For all of its flaws/plot-holes, I have to say that even after the second reading I still rather enjoyed it overall. The fact is that all of these company cross-overs suffer from having to devise a way to bring the heroes together, and it usually seems at least a bit forced (much as I liked it, the Avengers/JLA crossover is really guilty of this). I think the only crossovers that had a really ‘natural’ feel to them are the excellent Batman & Captain America and possibly the X-men/New Teen Titans.

EB: Otherwise, I’ll readily agree that a big part of my enjoyment of this one is the stunningly beautiful art. Echoing Mike’s comments in the first section above, I think it’s truly a shame that Garcia-Lopez never had a run (10-12 issues at least) on a Marvel title, preferably something with lots of heroes in it, like Avengers or Defenders (i.e., more work with the Hulk, and seeing him do Dr. Strange, Val, Nighthawk, Hellcat and the rest would have been a real treat).

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