Monday, October 14, 2013

BATMAN: Strange Apparitions

I was six years old on the rainy, rainy day I spent at my dad's office. We'd stopped in at the nearby 7-11 for coffee (for him), pastries, and comics to give me something to do while he worked. One of those comics was Detective Comics #475, "The Laughing Fish". Between the tight and offbeat story by Steve Englehart, the gorgeous, moody, and occasionally abstract art of Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin, and the weather that perfectly matched the story, I was dropkicked into a familiar but darker world of storytelling. I'd never be the same.

Strange Apparitions collects the complete six-issue run on 'Tec by Englehart, Rogers, & Austin (with a couple issues before & after to fill things out). I'm amused by the rather regular assertions that the run is the DEFINITIVE Batman - I certainly agree, but did legions of fans have the same life-defining experience with it that I did? Or was "The Laughing Fish" just coincidentally the exact book I needed at the exact time in my life to kick me down a path that continues to enlighten & define me?

(Sidebar: in 1988, some friends and I formed a performance art group called The Laughing Fish. About ten years later, two days before our final performance together in New York, the episode of Batman: The Animated Series based on it aired on the local WB affiliate. Finally, my own batshit idea to stage the comic as a modern Noh drama died about a third of the way into the scripting stage.)

But the six-issue run is stellar, solidifying a darker direction for the character begun previously (even the arch narration woven throughout, which evokes the voice of the narrator from the campy 60s TV show, adds a sinister dimension to the goings-on). A nice revamp of villains like Hugo Strange and Deadshot that would define those characters for decades to come, fine adventures featuring the Penguin and Robin (the latter clearly defined as no longer a sidekick, but now an adult peer of our hero). A definitive romantic interest in Silver St. Cloud, still for many the only woman in Batman's life. And, of course, a crucial two-part Joker story, craftily built to in the previous issues, and as three-dimensional and crucial a realization of the character as Moore and Bolland's THE KILLING JOKE in the following decade.

The edition is a fine collection, with a lengthy intro by Englehart outlining the run's history. He also calls attention to how the first two issues were written Marvel-style, allowing readers a side-by-side comparison between Marvel-style and full-script comic writing (and, to me, a defining and decisive argument in favor of the latter). I can't believe it's out of print, but that's just one of many, many dumb things happening at DC Comics presently.

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