Friday, May 13, 2016

Guest Review - "We Wouldn't Want You to Miss Your Own Execution" - Batman 353

Doug: After a week off due to Civil War festivities, Thomas F. is back with another review. Today he has a treat planned for us: a late Bronze Age Batman book featuring the Joker with art by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez. And who can get enough Garcia-Lopez? Not us!

Batman #353 (November 1982)
“Last Laugh”
Gerry Conway-José Luis Garcia-López/Dan Adkins
Colorist: Adrienne Roy


Thomas F.: This is a slightly shorter tale than usual—only sixteen pages as opposed to the conventional twenty or twenty-two (in fact, just as many pages’ worth of space are allocated to the promotional Masters of the Universe insert—which looks pretty good by the way, with art by Curt Swan and a Superman appearance in Eternia!). As a result, writer Gerry Conway must perforce concentrate more on the plot than on characterization, because he has to wrap up this “done-in-one” story fairly quickly. On Bat-tales that spread out over several issues, Conway is better able to flesh out his characters, making them more complex and defined. Not so this time around, regrettably, with the exception of the secondary characters, who are token henchmen in any case and don’t warrant any depth.

José Luis Garcia-López filled in as guest-penciler for this issue, and the result is superb. Dan Adkins inked the interior story, but JLGL inked his own cover. Adkins did a decent job; his strong inks complement and vividly enhance JLGL pencils. Incidentally, JLGL was the primary promotional illustrator for DC—it was his version of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, etc. that was featured on popular merchandise, from t-shirts to lunch boxes to bed sheets, etc. JLGL also created DC’s 1982 Style Guide, a thick handbook containing a plethora of character summaries and stock artwork of superheroes in archetypal poses. In the Eighties, other illustrators on the DC payroll—especially newbies—invariably referred to the Style Guide as if it were a religious tract.

JLGL’s Batman looks bright, athletic, and energetic. The only downside to JLGL is that his Batman doesn’t appear as dark and grim as he should be. I find that other Bat-artists render a darker, more menacing version of the Caped Crusader. JLGL’s Batman just doesn’t look like a night-time stalker of evildoers; he’s a bit too squeaky-clean.

As a side note for interested Bat-fans, this late Bronze Age Joker story was reprinted in Batman: King Tut’s Tomb, a trade paperback volume released in February 2010. It collected “A New Dawn,” the multi-part tale from Batman Confidential #26 to #28. More importantly, two other early Eighties Bat-tales illustrated by José Luis Garcia-López were also added—specifically, “A Cannon for Batman” from The Brave and the Bold #171, and “The Mystery of the Mobile Museum!” from The Brave and the Bold #164. JLGL fans might want to get their hands on it for these three reprints themselves.

The story opens with the Joker engaging in target practice with a crossbow, using life-sized posters of Batman as his target. Once the Joker feels he has sufficiently honed his skills, he exits the room to confer with his hoodlum associates. 
The Joker’s current hideout is the historic Tatch Hotel, now out of service and a condemned building. In an irreverent tone, the Joker announces to his henchmen that he has returned and claps his gloved purple hands for attention, but one them, a gambler named “Craps” who is enjoying a lucky streak with his dice, openly ignores him and continues playing.

The Joker jovially chides him for his momentary lapse of respect, squirting Craps with water from the toy flower pinned to his suit. Craps recoils, thinking that the liquid is deadly, but then realizes the liquid is harmless and calms down. The Crown Prince of Crime lulls Craps into a false sense of security by saying: “Thought I was going to use the poison flower-squirter, eh Craps? Silly man. That would have been boorish … I try never to use the same joke twice.
Then the Joker, feigning forgiveness, shakes Crap’s hand, and a live snake uncoils itself from around Joker’s arm and sinks its fangs deep into Crap’s wrist.

Craps has just enough time to shriek out in horror before the snake’s rapid-acting venom takes effect, killing him. Somehow, the snake’s venom contained some of the Joker’s brand of lethal poison, because as Craps is lying on the ground, his lips can be seen twisted into a ghastly Jokeresque rictus grin.

It occurs to me that the Joker’s homicidal tendency to murder his own goons should make them reluctant—if not outright unwilling—to work for him. After all, no doubt word has spread throughout the underworld that working for the psychopathic Joker is likely to have lethal consequences. The Joker often haphazardly discards his subordinates as casually as one would toss away a chewing gum wrapper. In fact, the Joker is just as likely to kill one—or all—of his own cohorts as one of his enemies. And yet, the Joker apparently has no trouble recruiting hoodlums.
Perhaps the prestige of working for Batman’s archfoe and Gotham City’s public enemy number one, plus access to the Joker’s limitless funds, are enough to tempt Gotham’s hoods into taking a chance, however hazardous it may be.

Next, the Joker orders another thug named Leo to “clean up.” The compliant hood takes careful aim with a shotgun and swiftly dispatches the venomous snake. Now properly humbled, the Joker’s assembled gangsters pay close attention as he begins to unveil the details of his latest plan. The Harlequin of Hate shows his cronies the front page of a newspaper, “The Gotham Post.” (Or is it “Press?” It’s not possible to tell, because the Joker’s fingers are partially obscuring the title). On the cover there is a photograph of Gotham City’s General Station, and the caption above the image informs us that the landmark subway terminal is scheduled for demolition. 
At this point, the focus switches to a subplot that has no bearing on the main story being recounted here, although it is intriguing. It involves a former Gotham City councilman, Arthur Reeves.
The terrified ex-politician is briefly pursued on foot by Batman, who uses a batarang with a cord attached to trip him up. Once in Batman’s clutches, the Caped Crusader compels Reeves to admit that top crime boss Rupert Thorne was the one who supplied him with doctored photographs that “revealed” Batman was actually a leading Gotham gangster. After confessing, nearby lights blaze on, and we see that Reeves’ admission has been overheard by Robin and the recently fired Commissioner Gordon. (Gordon had been dismissed from his position by corrupt Mayor Hamilton Hill, one of Thorne’s conniving stooges). Robin takes Reeves away, and Batman and Gordon discuss the underhanded political schemes afoot at city hall.

The following day, live at the historic Gotham Central Station, television newscaster Olivia Ortega explains in front of rolling cameras that the historic landmark is to be “torn down in the name of progress.”

On site, we see Bruce Wayne musing to himself about how photographer Vicki Vale asked him to meet her there, where she will be snapping shots of the event for her employer, Picture News Magazine. Bruce ponders to himself about how Vicki seems moody and withdrawn, and he wonders what is nagging at her.

Again, unrelated to the present story, we learn that Vicki—in flashback form—is brooding about how she witnessed a clash between crime boss Rupert Thorne and her publisher, Morton Monroe, and how the upshot of the unpleasant dispute resulted in Monroe putting a bullet through his own head.

Back to the present: a technician sporting a hardhat explains to newscaster Olivia Ortega how it is the city’s intention to preserve the façade that adorns Gotham Central Station. Explosives affixed to the façade will be set off in sequence in a controlled demolition by a special “computer-controlled fuse.” The technician further explains that the detonation will “pop” the façade off its perch onto “waiting air mattresses” so as not to damage it. To demonstrate, he moves to the control panel and presses a large red button. To his bewilderment, nothing happens. Examining his equipment, the technician discovers the main computer is missing, but on a monitor can be seen the image of a clown. Standing nearby, Bruce Wayne instantly recognizes it as “the sign of the Joker.”

This segment of the story brings to mind the early Eighties fascination with the personal computers that were then all the rage in America and widely available to the average citizen—the Apple, Atari, and Commodore, et al. And of those who were keen on electronics, who can forget the IBM PC, which had just recently exploded onto the market in August 1981. So absorbed with the novelty of personal computers were the masses that the major villain of the 1983 movie Superman III was a supercomputer gone rogue.

Fifty minutes later, the scene cuts to Wayne Manor, where Alfred Pennyworth is wondering why Batman wasn’t informed that the Joker had escaped from Arkham Asylum, which is standard police procedure. Bruce Wayne clarifies that with Gordon no longer Commissioner, Batman has been kept out of the loop by the new corrupt city officials.

It seems that the Joker is always escaping from Arkham—what agency is responsible for the subpar security measures in effect there? Granted, the Joker is an evil genius and fiendishly cunning, but it occurs to me that whatever agency is in charge needs to drastically overhaul their equipment and personnel.

A land purchase search conducted on the terminal in the Batcave reveals that ten acres of land on the Palisades in New Jersey were bought by a Mr. Harlan Quinn, and only an obtuse reader would fail to realize the buyer’s true identity. Speeding out of the Batcave in the Batmobile, Batman reaches the Palisades an hour later, where he reasons to himself that since the Joker purloined a “demolition-computer from a construction site,” the Crown Prince of Crime intends to carry out his own personal demolition project.

After scouting around the Palisades, Batman finds sticks of dynamite planted in strategic positions along the cliff’s edge, connected to a remote-controlled fuse. Suddenly, Batman is started by a sound behind him, but as he whirls around, the Joker fires his crossbow, and before Batman can react, a drug-tipped arrow strikes him in the chest, rendering him unconscious.

Why the Joker chose to add a medieval weapon to his deadly arsenal is anyone’s guess. If the Joker were more practical he would have used a lethal arrow, and would thereby be rid of his archnemesis once and for all. Of course, such a death would not be as elaborate or grandiose as what the Joker has planned, but it would do. The Dark Knight awakens to the sound of the Joker’s mocking voice, only to find himself strapped down to the edge of a cliff.

While Batman is helpless, the Joker takes the opportunity to gloat about his megalomanical plan (something virtually all of comicdom’s insane villains tend to do when they perceive they have the upper hand). The Joker explains his intention: to use carefully-positioned explosives to carve out a gigantic Joker-head on the edge of the cliff, not unlike the sculpted heads of the four presidents on Mount Rushmore. This will create a larger-than-life monument of the Joker’s image for posterity. In his usual gleeful, maniacal way, the Joker informs Batman that he will become a permanent addition to the new structure, as he will be buried under tons of rocky debris once the charges detonate.

Elated, the Joker moves away with his henchmen to the computer screen, where he views a computer-simulated image of the detonation’s aftermath. “Lovely, just lovely!” the Crown Prince of Crime croons to himself. He muses about how Gotham’s citizens will react the following day when they rise to see an enormous Joker’s bust peering down at them.

Meanwhile, with his adversaries no longer paying attention to him, Batman tugs and strains at his bonds. He manages to fray the heavy rope against a rough section of the rock, and succeeds in freeing a hand. And with his free hand, he clicks a handheld signal jammer.
In front of his paid cronies, the Joker pushes down the red trigger button, but to his chagrin discovers that it doesn’t work. Suddenly Batman appears, free of his bonds. He reveals that he anticipated the Joker would put the stolen computer to fiendish use, and devised a special signal jammer that would effectively nullify the Joker’s computer signal.

Then a frustrated Joker utters some of his worst dialogue of the story: “Cleverness is a highly overrated virtue, Detective! Cleverness can make you dead!” The Joker’s thugs charge the Caped Crusader, who hurls one brute over his head, and knocks out the others with a flurry of haymakers and uppercuts. The Joker stands by, ready with his crossbow, but his men are directly in his line of fire. He shouts that he is out of drug-laced arrows and left with nothing but “stainless steel points.” He fires a lethal arrow at Batman and miraculously manages to hit Batman’s signal jammer, destroying it and triggering a reaction that sets off the explosives. (This is probably the least plausible scene in the story, since the signal jammer had been stored away on Batman’s utility belt for safekeeping—it looks like a one-in-a-thousand shot).

Everyone topples off the cliff into the river. In the water, Batman seizes the Joker to prevent him from drowning. (Yet again Batman bothers to save this homicidal murderer of hundreds). Suddenly Batman turns about, only to receive a nasty shock: the Joker’s monument is a success! Beside himself with joy, the Joker chortles that he won after all, but Batman tell him to take another look.

And to the Joker’s dismay, his glorious bust crumbles into thousands of pieces. Apparently, the destruction of Batman’s signal jammer caused the Joker’s explosives to explode out of sequence, upsetting the delicate procedure. In the background, a police boat arrives, carrying armed officers ready to haul the Joker away and pull out the other survivors. 
This was a fairly light Batman vs. Joker tale, typical of what I was accustomed to from DC as a child growing up, and full of the Joker’s malicious mirth. Still, it’s inexplicable how Batman can at times be “chummy” with him. The Joker’s scheme was an ambitious one, but pointless. Even if he had succeeded, the authorities would have unquestionably taken it upon themselves to destroy the Joker’s façade afterward anyways. I can’t help but find the Joker appealing, though—he has the horrifying charisma of a psychopathic cult leader, and one cannot help but be simultaneously repelled and attracted to his peculiar brand of chaos.


Redartz said...

Another nice review, Thomas! Sharp cover; although Adkins' inks are solid, I do prefer Garcia-Lopez inking himself. The cover shows why- tight, but detailed with fine linework.

Good comment regarding the Joker's henchmen. How he gets anyone's help I'll never know. Maybe it's his winning smile...

Garett said...

I don't mind Joker making a thousand-to-one shot-- it seems in character to have chance on his side. Great review, Thomas! I like your inclusion of the style guide. Batman looks more muscular here than the Neal Adams version, but not big and lumpy like the Miller version. Do villains still use the sticks of dynamite with the plunger? That was a staple of stories back then, not so much now.

Conway was actually an excellent writer for Batman. I read Tales of the Batman: Gene Colan recently (after the discussion here about best Batman artists), and it shot to near the top of my list of Batman artists and storytellers. Colan's time on Batman was right at the time of this Garcia Lopez comic. Conway weaves subplots in with the political stuff, Gordon getting fired, Vicki Vale, etc over many issues. Recommended!

Garcia Lopez always has excellent art, but yes I agree with you that his Batman could have more darkness. Still it's refreshing to see, after our current era with too much Bat-darkness. I enjoy your writing, Thomas, and nice choice of images. Looking forward to your next review!

Anonymous said...

Cool review, TF. I always liked Garcia-Lopez's stuff. I read this issue not too long ago, so it's fairly fresh in my mind.

My only problem with the Joker is that he was overused...and every writer seemed to have a different take on him. Compare this to Englehart's Joker from the Laughing Fish story, or to Moench's Joker not too long after this (in that three-parter where he tries to take over Honduras or wherever it was); and Batman treats Joker differently, depending on who's writing the story, sometimes to rather strange effect as you pointed out.

But overall, I liked Conway's run; his back-and-forth between Batman and Detective made for a tight storyline. A lot of it was political in nature, which can be boring, but can be really interesting if it's done right, and I'd say Conway got it right, for the most part.

Mike Wilson

Martinex1 said...

I like this Batman's color scheme and style. It's a nice change in a way (although it was the standard at the time).

The art is spectacular as everyone notes. I always get distracted by the Joker's chin, no matter who draws him. I suppose it is modeled after the playing card Joker, but sometimes it's drawn long enough to grab like a baseball bat handle.

J.A. Morris said...

Great review! I had no idea the The King Tut's Tomb tpb existed, I'm going to look into reading that in the near future.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, Redartz, I always kinda wondered myself how the Joker was able to recruit henchmen. He always kills at least one of them himself, just to get it out of his system. You'd think word would get around that he's a terrible boss, and you were either gonna get smile-gassed by that nut, or beaten up by the Batman.
I could see myself working for the Penguin or the Riddler, they have a more relaxed workplace atmosphere...or even better yet, Catwoman. But I would want to know what the benefits program looked like.
When ya hit your forties, ya gotta think about health insurance, particularly dental, if 'ol Bats shows up.
M.P. (I sent an application out to Mr. Freeze, and I'm waiting to hear back)

Unknown said...

Mike, I think that Joker story you mention by Doug Moench took place in Guatemala, not Honduras . . . close enough, though. It was in Batman #366, the issue with that iconic cover by Walt Simonson. As I recall, this was around the time they were introducing Robin II, Jason Todd.

Unknown said...

Anonymous, I sure wouldn't mind working for Catwoman now and then---I might even be inclined to volunteer for free!

Humanbelly said...

Here's why the cover is a testament to JLGL's artistic prowess:

That is a dumb cover-- what it's actually depicting is straight out of DC's early-Silver Age commitment to "catchy/gimmicky" moments on the cover to sucker kids in. Under other hands, this would have been a yawner, an eye-roller. Here, though, it comes across as a dynamic cross between Neal Adams and Joe Kubert, and the dumbness doesn't register to the casual (or even second) glance at all.


Unknown said...

Humanbelly, very true. And sometimes those Silver Age covers are flagrantly deceptive---they even depict a scene that is so grossly exaggerated that it doesn't actually occur in the story at all.

The cover to Batman #366 isn't deceptive in that sense, but it is just as HB says: a well-executed Silver Age cover.

Unknown said...

*Batman #353, not #366.

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