Monday, August 22, 2016

Comin' In On a Wing and a Prayer: Batman & Captain America

Batman/Captain America (October 1996)
"Batman & Captain America"
John Byrne

Doug: It's hard to believe this, as well as many of the other latter-day wave of DC/Marvel crossovers, is 20 years old. Seems like only a few months ago I eagerly awaited this offering to reach my 30-year old paws. Even in the mid-90s, if John Byrne was involved, a project was still going to be big news. But... did this disappoint then, and what about now as seen through the eyes of a curmudgeonly middle-aged school teacher?

No, in answer to the first question, it did not disappoint then. John Byrne's one of those guys who "gets" comic book history. Well, for the most part (the Vision debacle, for which he shall never be forgiven on this space, aside). This book is one big homage, or love-in, or whatever else you want to call it with the Golden Age of these two lead characters. Right from the Batman's first appearance, we can see that Byrne is emulating the style of Dick Sprang, mostly fondly remembered for illustrating the adventures of the Dark Knight Detective in the 1950s. But here I go again, getting ahead of myself. Of course we first need to give you that nifty little plot summary called the 100-Word Review:

Toward the end of the War, Captain America and Bucky are ordered Stateside in order to investigate millionaire Bruce Wayne, believed to be secretly bankrolling sabotage of the Gotham Project (known to history as the Manhattan Project). Batman and Robin are tracking down the Joker, who has been stealing secrets of the Project. During Cap’s surveillance of Wayne, he and Batman learn one another's identities and collaborate to find the Joker. They find that the Joker and the Red Skull are themselves collaborating, but the unpredictable Joker soon turns on the Skull – and that means war of another kind!

If you've never laid eyes on this book, it's a 64-page prestige format graphic novel. And it looks great, which brings us to...

The Good: Yes, it does look great! The art is splendid throughout and the coloring (credited to Patricia Mulvihill) is phenomenal. I don't know that I'm qualified to discern or discuss coloring innovations of the 1990s, but it's fairly obvious that Mulvihill was able to employ then-modern computer coloring techniques without losing the four-color charm that many of us cling to. 

Byrne's pencils are magnificent. Some criticisms (maybe just of mine) of Byrne in this period are that his art had become flat, or scratchy, or that his figures' torsos were sometimes oddly elongated. None of that is here. In fact, if you ask me to compare eras of Byrne's career, I'd gladly put this alongside his work in the Claremont/Byrne/Austin heyday of the Uncanny X-Men or his collaboration with Dick Giordano in the Man of Steel limited series. It's that good. 

His writing is spot on as well. I mentioned at the top the homages to Dick Sprang's art. Byrne captures the spirit of the era in his writing as well. It's not over-the-top sappy or dated in any negative way. But you can just hear Cap or the Batman talking "that way" if you were watching this on film at a Sunday matinee. The inclusion of Sgt. Rock and Easy Company, when Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos would have been included, was a nice touch. Great job of further blending the universes.

There are a few twists in the story that caught me off guard when I read this the first time twenty years ago, and again a couple of weeks ago when I re-read it. That the Joker would double-cross the Red Skull because the Skull was a Nazi seemed strange -- was it the racism, the world conquest, or the supreme egomania that turned off the Clown Prince? It was never stated, but the Joker's seeming patriotism struck an odd note. I'm not saying it was bad... not at all. In fact, it was good because it was so unexpected.

In addition to the wonderful splash of the Batcave, late in the story there is (of course) a perilous trap, timed to kill Batman and Bucky (the crossover with the sidekicks was fun). It definitely hearkened to the days of the cliffhanger endings popular in the serials of the 1940s as well as to the 1966 Batman television series.

Byrne gives a "thanks" to Roger Stern for the epilogue of the story. It's a nifty "What If?", as 20 years after the War Batman and Robin are patrolling the ocean for any signs of the Joker... Junior. "Jr.", huh? Well, this ain't yer daddy's Batman and Robin. Nope -- this is Dick Grayson wearing the mantle of the Bat and Bruce Wayne, Jr. as Robin. And as they pilot the Bat-sub, what's in that ice floe they find up ahead? I think you know what (or who) it is...

The Bad: I guess if I have one complaint it's that Bucky got a little short-shrifted in this story. He has a moment here and there, but largely it's Robin who does the more-heroic stuff. Bucky sort of comes off as a whiner, which I felt was interesting given that I'd have assumed Bucky to be older at that time than Robin -- maybe a little more mature. Too, and if we are to believe the Winter Soldier retcon (which obviously wasn't a thing yet when Byrne penned this story), I'd have liked to have seen Bucky as a bit more take-charge. But then, and as I've said, whenever I was reading the Invaders I never thought of Bucky as carrying out any "collateral damage".

Oh, and another thing -- when the Joker stole the atomic bomb, Fat Boy, and it went off in the Atlantic after our heroes worked their (lucky) magic, what are we to assume? In our reality, the bombs dropped on Japan were nicknamed Fat Man and Little Boy. So in this story was there only one bomb, and if so, was the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki not to pass? This is in no way a situation that ruins this story for me. Far from it. But it just left me to wonder. Sooooo many universes! Someone should write a Crisis...

The Ugly: Nada.

Check this out if you're able. It's been reprinted in one of the Crossover Classics volumes, and can probably be found at your LCS or online for only a buck or two. It was a nice half hour diversion, and one I'm glad that after all these years I read again.


Edo Bosnar said...

For the longest time, if anyone asked me I would have said my very favorite Marvel/DC crossover was X-men & New Teen Titans - but then I got a hold of this one, and it became my hands-down all-time favorite crossover ever. Like you noted in your review, Doug, it's simply pitch perfect: Byrne gets all of the "voices" right, and his art is simply a gorgeous celebration of these two characters in their Golden Age settings.
And since you noted the homage to Sprang's art, I also liked the little hat-tips the original writes/artists that Byrne inserted into in the art: you can see the names Sprang, Moldoff, Robinson, Simon and Finger on storefront or factory signs throughout the book (oddly enough, Kirby was the only name I didn't notice anywhere - although that giant Nazi war-wheel is nothing if not an homage to Kirby's gigantic, over-the-top machinery and gadgets).

My only criticism would echo a point you made, about "Fat Boy." It didn't ruin the story for me, either, but it still bothered me, mostly because when the bomb was detonated as part of the story it almost seemed to make light of the atom bombs and their actual use at the end of WWII.

Anyway, Doug, thanks for the great review of a great book - and thanks also for giving me an excuse to pull out my copy and re-read it about a week ago. I've been swamped with work all summer, with hardly any time at all for leisurely reading, but I made the time one evening before going to bed - and it was like a soothing massage for my burned-out brain...

Doug said...

Edo --

Thank you. Your comments made my day, and it's only 7:30 am!

I can relate to the busy-ness. The speed of life does not relent, does it? And yes -- comics are a wonderful respite. I'm so glad we have these four-color gems to take us away at times.


Martinex1 said...

I'm a big John Byrne fan and particularly like his Captain America. I think he finds just the right notes with Cap... Steadfast, sacrificing, caring and strong willed. But I have to say I honestly did not know this existed. It fell in a gap of my collecting. I will have to look for it. The art looks fantastic.

Doug said...

Let it never be said that the BAB does not provide a public service to middle-aged comics fans everywhere!


William said...

I have this one, and now I think I'll dig it out and read it again.

I have a poster inspired by this book on the wall in my office. (I'm looking at it right now). It's by John Byrne (natch) and it features Batman and Cap front and center with a cityscape in the background and an atomic explosion going off with semi-transparent images of the Joker and Red Skull's heads floating ghost-like in the mushroom cloud fallout. It's a cool poster that looks a lot like the cover of the book.

Dr. Oyola said...

I never knew much about this, except that the Joker balking at the Red Skull's Nazism is a oft-shared panel/page on the internet. Now I am curious and may seek out a copy .. even though in recent years Byrne's comments and attitude on various comic book and social issues have soured my feelings towards him, he still has done a lot of my favorite comics work (including his run on FF).

Hey look I commented twice in two days! :)

Redartz said...

Thanks for highlighting this book for us today, Doug. Great review. I've never read it, nor any of the 90's crossovers. That tpb you mentioned is now at the top of my "must find" list.

pfgavigan said...


Have the book and find myself pretty much in agreement with the points you raised.

As for the Joker turning against the Red Skull, once he realized he was dealing with the real Red Skull, that was one of my favorite parts of the story. I had always seen it as the bad man reaching the line that he will not cross, this far and no farther. And at the story's climax it was due to the Joker's actions that the Skull was ultimately thwarted.

I liked that bit.

Thanks for reminding me.


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