Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Christmas With The Caped Crusader: Epilogue

Before we move on, I want to address a couple of the comments on my "Christmas With The Caped Crusader" series.  The first is on my piece about Batman and the Outsiders #19:
...I'm a little surprised you went with this one as part of your "Christmas with the Caped Crusader" series, since the story is primarily about Geo-Force. It does, however, reinforce the fact that Mike Barr does indeed love Christmas stories.
First off, I really like Batman's role in this story, even though it is rather small, at least in terms of on-panel time.  He goes off and does what he does best, gathering evidence against Raeburn, while Superman does what he does best, charge in throwing punches without thinking.  I especially liked his admonition to Geo-Force, "When the system works, use it, Geo-Force!  When it doesn't--or it can't--that's what we're for!"  That little bit of dialogue nicely sums up the Batman's philosophy, and I like the way this issue emphasizes his roles as detective and mentor to the Outsiders.
As for this being more Geo-Force's story than Batman's, I will remind you that I also included in the series "The Man Who Murdered Santa Claus" from Justice League of America #110, which focuses mainly on John Stewart and Red Tornado.  Furthermore, it can be argued that the real star of "Wanted: Santa Claus--Dead or Alive!" is Boomer Katz, and that Batman #309's "Have Yourself a Deadly Little Christmas" is actually Kathy Crawford's story.  And BATO #31 is all about Looker, which is just the way she likes it.
Then there's this observation tacked on to the item about BATO #8:
I've always seen BATO as a natural progression from The Brave and the Bold. Both featured Batman in a team-up situation and both featured the artwork of Jim Aparo.
A good point, and made even stronger when you consider that BATO writer Mike W. Barr wrote more issues of The Brave and the Bold than anybody other than Bob Haney.  BATO also maintained a link with B&B by including Metamorpho, one of Batman's most frequent B&B co-stars, on the team. That's another reason I've always thought Green Arrow should have been an Outsider.  The Emerald Archer appeared in B&B, with or without Batman, more than any hero other than the Caped Crusader himself.  The real reason I think GA should have been in BATO is that  he was the one who was always carping about how the JLA was getting too focused on the cosmic stuff and forgetting about ordinary people.  So, when Batman quit the League after they refused to get involved in the war in Markovia, Ollie really should have stood up and followed Bats into the teleporter. 
This aspect of Ollie's character was nicely captured in the first episode of Cartoon Network's Justice League Unlimited series.  In fact, that series as a whole perfectly captured Green Arrow's character in every episode he appeared in.
Finally, I got a comment in person from Jonathon Riddle, who was disappointed that in my post on "Silent Night of the Batman" I failed to include any images of the Batman actually singing Christmas carols. Well, I'm going to rectify that error now:
Nice of them to include the words so that the readers can sing along with Batman.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas With The Caped Crusader: ...And the Rest

Well, Christmas is almost behind us for another year. Beginning tomorrow, the stores will start putting out the Valentine's Day candy, or maybe even the Easter merch.  Before we move on to the next over hyped holiday, however, there are a few Batman Christmas tales in my stack of old comics that I haven't had a chance to get to yet.
Even though the words "Merry Christmas" appear on the cover, and the holiday gets a brief nod in the last few pages, Batman and the Outsiders #31 isn't much of a Christmas story, being mostly taken up with the final chapter of the four part "The Truth About Looker" storyline. This story introduces a new member to the team and paves the way for the departure of Batman in the following issue, after which the series' name would change to Adventures of the Outsiders.  The book, along with the direct market only Outsiders, became the third title in DC's so-called "hardcover/softcover" experiment, along with the Teen Titans and Legion of Super-Heroes titles, in which the contents of the direct market edition  were eventually reprinted in the newsstand title. 
"Favorite Things" in Legends of the Dark Knight #79 starts with Wayne Manor being robbed during a Christmas party. Among the items stolen are a beloved childhood toy of Bruce Wayne's, the last Christmas present his parents gave him before their murders, and Batman moves Heaven and Earth to recover it.  Invoking the memory of Bruce's parents is usually good for some easy sentiment, but Mark Millar's script fails to tug at the heart strings in the way he must have hoped it would.  The art, by Steve Yeowell with inks by Dick Giordano, is the main reason to give this story a look.  It's amazing, actually, how well their styles mesh.  
Speaking of sentiment, the only sentiment I expected from a story by Ed Brubaker was despair.  Have you read his Daredevil run?  If you thought Bendis' stories were too bleak, then skip Brubaker.  
He just continues to heap the troubles on poor Matt Murdock issue after issue, with no light or hope apparently on the horizon. It's enough to make you want to slit your freaking wrists after awhile.  That's why I was so surprised that I actually enjoyed the issues from 2001 collected recently as DC Comics Presents Batman #3.  Among them is Batman #598, "Santa Klaus Is Coming To Town," in which a  mind reading serial killer with a German accent dressed in a Santa suit passes out explosive presents to those who find themselves on his "naughty" list.  Brubaker has created a villain worthy of a semi-regular spot on the roster of Batman's Rogue's Gallery, and I hope he eventually returns. 
Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne's girlfriend refuses to let him ruin her holiday season and puts up a tree in Wayne Manor over his objections.   She eventually succeeds in getting him to lighten up for a little bit and celebrate with her. 
Finally, we have "Silent Knight," the lead story from last year's DC Universe Holiday Special '09.  In this wordless story by writer Jay Faerber and artist Peter Nguyen, the Batman pursues a gun-toting thief dressed as Santa to a warehouse where he discovers a whole gang of Santas. After he defeats their leader, the other Santas, rather than continue to fight, invite the Dark Knight to join them for some Christmas cookies and a cup of hot cocoa.  Had they been coerced into joining up with the lead Santa and were thanking Batman for rescuing them, or did they just realize the futility of putting up any more of a fight against the Caped Crusader?  Due to the lack of dialogue, this isn't really clear to me.
That's it for this year's Christmas celebration here at Gutter Talk.  Hope you had a wonderful holiday season. 

Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas With The Caped Crusader: Batman and the Outsiders #19

Behind this wonderful Jim Aparo cover, one of the best in the entire run of Batman and the Outsiders, lies that series' second annual Christmas tale, "Who's Afraid of the Big Red 'S'?", guest-starring, as if it weren't obvious, Superman. 

As I've read through my collection of Batman holiday stories, I'm struck by how many of them involve attempted suicide, from "Silent Night of the Batman" to "Have Yourself a Deadly Little Christmas" in Batman  #309 to the tale under consideration on this Christmas Eve. I suppose it's because its an easy way to deliver a life affirming message for the holiday season by having the suicidal person discover a new reason to go on living.
In BATO #19, it is Denise Howard, a friend of Brion Markov, a.k.a. the Outsider Geo-Force, who decides to end her life after one of her professors denies her a scholarship because she declined his sexual advances.  After taking the pills, she calls Brion, who, as Geo-Force, gets her to a hospital then goes to get vengeance on Dean Raeburn, the professor who caused her despair. 
Another one of the Outsiders, Halo, was with him during the rescue, and after he flies off to find Raeburn, she flies to get help from the Batman. Batman, realizing that none of the Outsiders are strong enough to stop their most powerful member, calls in Superman.  This was before John Byrne's revamp of Superman in The Man of Steel when he and Batman were still friends.  I'm glad that over the years since their friendship has re-emerged and they even once again share a monthly title.
Supes catches up with Brion just as he's about to crush Raeburn's head and the two fight. This isn't as lopsided a match as you might think. Geo-Force uses his power to increase gravity to make the gravity around Superman equal to that of Krypton, thus taking away most of his super-strength.  Still, despite Geo-Force getting a few good licks in, Superman eventually prevails.
Then Batman shows up. While Superman and Geo-Force went at it, he'd been gathering affidavits from other women Raeburn had harrassed to use as evidence against him.  He might, after all, be able to dismiss one such claim as just Denise's word against his, but not a whole folder full.
The story ends on Christmas morning, with Brion at Denise's bedside in the hospital as she decides to give the whole living thing another shot.
This story, by the way, is a favorite of my sister Ann. Seems she doesn't really like Superman, and enjoyed seeing Geo-Force kick him around for a couple of panels.

Christmas With The Caped Crusader: Batman and the Outsiders #8

As I said in my last post, writer Mike W. Barr loves himself a good Batman Christmas story.  When he finally got his crack at being the regular writer on a Batman comic, Batman and the Outsiders, he quickly made the Christmas tale an annual tradition.  
The first BATO holiday story appeared in the eighth issue and guest starred the Phantom Stranger.  Batman is investigating the connection between the kidnapping of an infant and an old man found in a catatonic state whose fingerprints were at the crime scene.  The Dark Knight has a thought, but is about to dismiss it as being too far out when the Stranger appears out of nowhere and tells Batman to follow his instincts.  Doing so, Batman checks the missing kids fingerprints and discovers that the old man and the child are one and the same.  Next, the same mysterious sudden aging affects an entire nursery school class.  Batman deduces that the phenomenon will strike next at Gotham Childrens' Hospital and has the Outsiders there on Christmas morning, ready for when trouble strikes. 
And strike it does, as a newborn baby suddenly starts threatening the doctor who delivers him, then transforms into the Phantom Stranger's old enemy Tannarak.  The Stranger, of course, appears to battle him, as do Batman and the Outsiders.
Ok, so what was going on was that body had been destroyed in his last fight with the Stranger, and Tannarak had been stealing life energy from children, causing the sudden aging, until he had enough to allow him to possess and transform a newborn baby.
Anyway, to keep the Outsiders busy while he and the Stranger fight, Tannarak makes all the babies in the maternity ward attack the heroes.  For a Christmas story, and, for that matter, for Batman and the Outsiders, this is a really bizarre story, filled with odd and disturbing imagery such as the floating baby with glowing red eyes who turns into Tannarak, and the Outsiders being attacked by a horde of killer babies.
Holidays are a time of reunions and this issue represents a reunion of both writer Barr and artist Jim Aparo with the Phantom Stranger.  The Stranger's own book had been one of Aparo's first assignments at DC Comics, and when the Stranger guest starred in The Brave and the Bold #98, editor Murray Boltinoff asked Aparo to draw that issue. Not long after that, Aparo became the regular artist on B&B, a job he held until the book's cancellation.  That led to his becoming co-creator and artist on BATO, and going on to be thought of as one of the premier all-time Batman artists.
Barr had written the Stranger's most recent solo series, which appeared in the back of Saga of the Swamp Thing. In fact, the previous battle between the Stranger and Tannarak that I referenced earlier occurred in Swamp Thing #5.
This is one of those "Christmas" stories that really has little to do with the holiday other than the time it takes places. In fact,  given the  supernatural nature of the guest star and the bizarre imagery I noted earlier,  this might really have been more suitable for a Halloween issue.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Christmas With The Caped Crusader: The Brave and the Bold #184

You know who loves Christmas even more than the Batman?
Mike W. Barr.
I'll bet he's got the biggest, most obnoxious outdoor light display in his neighborhood.  He certainly loves a good Batman Christmas story, and has written quite a few himself over the years.  Among the earliest of these is "The Batman's Last Christmas" in The Brave and the Bold #184, guest starring the Huntress and drawn by veteran B&B illustrator Jim Aparo.
This being the post-Haney B&B, the fact that Huntress lived on a different Earth from the Batman is actually accounted for.  Of course, given the nature of the pre-Crisis On Infinite Earths Huntress as the daughter of Earth-2's Batman, even Haney couldn't have just had her drop by without accounting for the dimensional difference.
With her parents, the Earth-2 Batman and Catwoman, gone, Helena Wayne, the Huntress, beams over to Earth-1 to spend the holidays with the only real family she has, her father's Earth-1 counterpart, whom she refers to affectionately as "Uncle Bruce."  She catches up with Batman just as he stumbles upon evidence that seems to suggest that his father, Dr. Thomas Wayne, had made payments to mobster "Spurs" Saunders to help Saunders establish his criminal empire.  Further investigation serves only to further incriminate Dr. Wayne, leading Batman to decide that his whole career as Batman has been a sham, since the parents whose deaths he's been avenging were seemingly just as bad as the criminals he fights. Thus, Bruce vows that "...It's time for the Batman to die!"
He tries to become the playboy he's always pretended to be, but his heart just isn't in it. Then he witnesses the Huntress save the life of a member of Saunders' mob who'd double crossed him.  The man had been Christmas shopping with his son, and Batman realizes that even though the guy was a crook, his son would have been traumatized by his murder. This leads him to further realize that his career as Batman has always been about more than just avenging his parents deaths. "...He (the Batman) exists to spare others the loss I felt when my parents died--a loss I felt even though they were also criminals." 
Newly re-inspired, Batman decides to discover the real truth about his parents.  Back at Wayne Manor a memory of his last Christmas with his parents causes him to remember a tell tale clue which leads him to the realization that it was actually his parents' accountant, Amos Randolph, pretending to be Dr. Wayne and embezzling his money, who had financed Saunders. Batman confronts the aging and bedridden accountant while Huntress tells Saunders that she knows the truth about his connection with Wayne and has turned the incriminating records over  to Commissioner Gordon.
Usually in Batman's Christmas stories, the Caped Crusader is simply a player in someone else's story; the instrument through which they learn a yuletide lesson.  In "The Batman's Last Christmas", however, its the Batman himself who learns a valuable lesson.  He tells Helena that she "helped give me back my faith and my cause. I couldn't ask for a better gift!"  Then, at his parents' graves, he rededicates himself to his war on crime.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Christmas With The Caped Crusader: "Wanted: Santa Claus--Dead or Alive!"

"Wanted: Santa Claus--Dead or Alive!", originally presented in 1979's Super-Star Holiday Special (DC Special Series #21), and subsequently reprinted many times, is, I believe (and please feel free to correct me if I am mistaken), the only collaboration between two of the men most responsible for shaping the character of the Batman as we understand him today, Dennis O'Neil and Frank Miller.  O'Neil, working primarily with artist Neal Adams in the early 1970's, helped to bring Batman back to his early 40's roots as a grim nocturnal vigilante in a rejection of the camp era of the 1960's epitomized by the Adam West TV show.  Miller refined that characterization during the 80's in story such as "Batman: Year One" and The Dark Knight Returns,  making the Dark Knight even darker and setting him on the road to becoming the obsessive near psychotic he has often been portrayed as in the last two decades
The story begins, as all good Batman Christmas stories do, on Christmas Eve as Batman notices that the Christmas star in a nativity display has been stolen, a detail that will, of course, become important later on.

However, Batman's got bigger fish to fry at the moment, like busting up an underworld holiday party to learn why mobster Matty Lasko has arranged for a boat to be waiting in Gotham Harbor that evening.  Lasko reveals that he did it as a favor for his former cell mate Boomer Katz.  Batman learns that Katz has taken a job as a department store Santa and disappointedly deduces that the supposedly rehabilitated ex-con plans to rob the establishment.
It turns out that Boomer is a reluctant participant in the robbery scheme, and turns on the gang of robbers just before Batman arrives. Batman rounds up most of the robbers, but one escapes, taking Boomer as a hostage. The light of a star shining through the hole in the aforementioned nativity display where its Christmas star had been, leads Batman to the hood and his prisoner. Its a Christmas miracle that gives Boomer Katz another chance to straighten his life out.
"Wanted: Santa Claus--Dead or Alive!" is actually pretty typical of Batman Christmas stories of the period and O'Neil's work with the character in general.  Its true significance lies in the fact that it was drawn by Frank Miller, in what was, in fact, his very first work on the Batman.  Miller's Batman stories range from the sublime ("Batman: Year One", The Dark Knight Returns) to the silly (Spawn/Batman, All-Star Batman and Robin) and it all started here.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Christmas With The Caped Crusader: The Brave and the Bold #148

In our celebration of Batman Christmas tales, we're still stuck in 1978 for the moment.  That's okay with me. 1979 was one of the worst years of my life, but that's not a tale for this blog. 
Today we're going to examine The Brave and the Bold #148, starring Batman and Plastic Man in "The Night the Mob Stole Xmas!" (I know there's usually a dash in there between the "X" and the "mas", but that's the way it was punctuated in the book, so that's the way I'm doing it here.)  Like all the the majority of issues of B&B, this one was written by Bob Haney, but the art chores are handled a little differently this time out.  Regular B&B artist Jim Aparo was usually a one man band, penciling, inking and even lettering the entire story every issue.  In #148, however, he inks over the pencils of Joe Staton.  I assume he did the letters as well, as they look the same as they do in every other issue. 
This unusual distribution of duties allowed Aparo time to adjust to the book's new publishing schedule.  In 1978, after thirty-three years, B&B finally became a monthly comic. The choice of Joe Staton to help out with this issue was probably because, if I'm remembering right, he was drawing a Plastic Man feature in Adventure Comics at the time.
But the Plastic Man who appears in this story is the Plas of Bob Haney's B&B, and is quite a different character than the one Joe was drawing over in Adventure.  Many characters tended to act a little differently when they entered Haney's corner of the DC Universe than they did anywhere else, but Plastic Man was the most extreme example.  Rather than the light hearted, happy-go-lucky adventurer he was in his solo stories, in B&B, Plas was, to be honest, a bit of a whiner, given to bemoaning his status as a "freak."  Thus, when Batman encounters Plas, reduced to working as a street corner Santa, Plastic Man tells the Caped Crusader how things have gone downhill since they last met in B&B #123.  "...Cheap carnivals I quit because I hated being a freak," he moans, "But I guess I'm doomed to play only phony this!" (Wait, is Plas saying Santa isn't real?)  Batman stammers out a few reassuring words, tosses a coin in Plas' pot, tells him to try to have a Merry Christmas, then goes off to continue pursuing the cigarette smugglers, or "buttleggers", that he's been on the trail of .
The next morning, Batman drives by "Lacey's" department store to discover that their world famous Christmas display has been stolen.  Not only that, but the thieves also also kidnapped Plastic Man. Fortunately, Plas was able to leave a clue for Batman, and the Dark Knight soon finds himself on the trail of a convoy of semis headed for Florida.
Its soon revealed that the Lacey's display was stolen to serve as decorations at a Christmas party thrown by supposedly dieing mob boss Big Jake Doyle , coincidentally, the head of the "buttlegging" ring, ostensibly to make peace with his rivals before he passes on.  Of course, Doyle isn't dieing after all and the party was just a ruse to get all his competitors in one place so he can rub them out.  Fortunately, Bats and Plas are on hand to prevent the carnage, arrest Doyle, and get the Lacey's display back to Gotham in time for Christmas Eve.
While many of the Batman Christmas stories I've read feature some sort of life affirming message about the meaning of the season, Bob Haney wasn't really much of a sentimentalist. This is pretty much a typical Haney B&B story featuring Batman and his co-star du jour taking on a group of fairly generic mobsters.
Fortunately, Plastic Man's moaning is kept to a minimum, and there are some pretty clever uses of his powers, making this my favorite of Haney's B&B stories with the character.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Once and Future Atom

So, I was just over at the DC Comics web-site checking out their previews of the books coming out this week.  The hype for Titans #30 promises that "...Ray Palmer guest-stars as he continues his investigation into Ryan Choi's murder." Ryan Choi, you may remember, became "The All-New Atom" after Ray Palmer , the Silver Age bearer of that name, disappeared at the end of Identity Crisis.
A while ago, I came across an interesting post by Chris Sims in which he notes that what he calls "regressive storytelling", that is the practice at DC of abandoning newer versions of characters such as Firestorm and the Atom in favor of the "classic", mostly Silver Age, version, has made the DC Universe less racially diverse. After all, most Silver Age heroes were white men.
Now, in the case of the Atom, not only has DC brought back the white guy, but then they go and kill off the new kid to boot?  
Racial issues aside, there are about a dozen Flashes (an exaggeration), over seven thousand Green Lanterns (not an exaggeration), and two Batmans (or is it Batmen?), so why does there have to be only one Atom?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Christmas With The Caped Crusader: Batman #309

In December 1978, DC Comics was filled with the holiday spirit, despite having just canceled nearly half its line only a couple of months earlier in the infamous DC Implosion.  A house ad touted a quartet of holiday themed issues.  Among them were Green Lantern #113, Superman #333, and two Batman stories, The Brave and the Bold #148 and Batman #309.  I'll look at the B&B story next time, but right now let's examine "Have Yourself A Deadly Little Christmas" by Len Wein, John Calnan and Frank McLaughlin from Batman #309.
I mentioned in my piece on "The Silent Night of the Batman" how that story set the tone for many of the Batman Christmas tales that followed, and echoes of the earlier story can definitely be seen here.
Batman drops by police headquarters on Christmas Eve to exchange gifts with Commissioner Gordon, but there's no time to stand around and sing carols this night.  Batman soon finds himself on the phone talking to a young girl named Kathy Crawford who is attempting suicide. She's taken some sleeping pills and called the police just to have someone to talk to in her final moments.  She quickly hangs up on Batman, but fortunately she was on the line long enough for the call to be traced.  Batman rushes off to try to find her before its too late.
When he arrives at Kathy's apartment, Batman finds the door smashed in and the girl missing.  Earlier that evening, Batman's old foe the Blockbuster had witnessed Kathy's purse being stolen.  Confronting her assailants, Blockbuster recovered her purse and set out to return it to her.  Arriving at her apartment just as Kathy passes out, the brute carried her off to seek help. 
However, Blockbuster refuses to take Kathy to a hospital, as his muddled mind associates hospitals with S.T.A.R. Labs, where he was apparently subjected to painful experiments, presumably in a previous issue.  In fact, he becomes quite violent when anyone mentions the word "hospital."  This, of course, leads to a fight when the Batman finds him, which eventually spills onto the frozen Gotham River.  As the two fight, the ice cracks, endangering the already near death Kathy.  Blockbuster sacrifices himself to save the girl, disappearing, and presumably drowning, in the icy waters. Kathy is taken to  a hospital and, inspired by Blockbuster's sacrifice, decides to give life another chance.
This story is, unfortunately, marred by pretty poor art.  Calnan's figures are stiff and blocky, and his angles and perspective  seem a little skewed at times. I have, however, seen Calnan's art look worse in other Batman stories. I assume inker McLaughlin smoothed over some of the rougher edges.  The cover by Jim Aparo is not one of his better jobs.  It kind of looks a bit rushed, to be honest. 
Still, despite the complaints about the art, and  though its not as inspiring as it tries to be, "Have Yourself A Deadly Little Christmas" is, all in all, a pretty decent entry in the annals of Batman holiday tales.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

"Brenda Starr" Ends January 2

Yet another long running newspaper comic strip will be coming to an end soon. First it was Little Orphan Annie, closing her pupil-less eyes after 86 years (it first appeared in newspapers the same week my dad was born), then Cathy bit the dust in October.  Now, Brenda Starr, Reporter comes to the end of its seventy year run on Sunday, January 2.

The strip, begun in 1940 by Dale Messick, who changed her name from the more feminine sounding Dalia in order to get a foot in the door of the male dominated world of comic strips, has been written for the past several years by  Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Scmich and drawn by Power Pack co-creator June Brigman.  When these two announced their intention to leave the strip, the syndicate, Tribune Media Services, decided to discontinue it rather than replace them.
The strip was also drawn for many years by Metamorpho co-creator Ramona Fradon. Brenda Starr is the only comic strip that has been written and drawn for its entire run solely by female creators.

Amen, Brothah!

Just wanted to call your attention to the post "Mag Has A Mini-Rant" over at The Comic Treadmill.
If he hadn't said it, I would have.

Christmas With The Caped Crusader: Justice League of America #110

Okay, this really isn't a Batman story, but Batman is in it.  So, I figured, what the hell, why not through it in?  After all, its actually kind of hard to imagine the Justice League without Batman.  He's been in every incarnation of the League, even the ill fated Detroit League for a brief time toward the end.  This  Christmas story from 1973 features the classic Bronze Age JLA, with Superman, Batman and the rest of DC's top heroes looking down on us mere mortals from their orbiting satellite headquarters
However, the most notable character in this story is John Stewart.  This was only his second appearance, coming more than two years after his debut in Green Lantern #87.  Today, the character has become so central to the DC Universe and the Green Lantern mythos in particular that its difficult to remember that until the mid-1980's he was a bit player who'd go for years at a time without being seen.
"The Man Who Murdered Santa Claus," written by Len Wein and rendered by perennial JLA artist Dick Dillin with inks by Dick Giordano, begins with Batman and Superman about to attend a Christmas party for some orphans on Christmas Eve, when an explosion kills the man playing Santa.  In the murdered man's hand, the World's Finest heroes discover a key and a note written in rhyme proclaiming that unless they can find the lock that the key fits before midnight, a bomb will destroy an entire city block somewhere in America.

Naturally, Superman and Batman put out a call to the rest of the Justice League.  However, for various reasons, Aquaman, the Atom, the Elongated Man, and the Flash are unable to respond.  No reason is given for Hawkman's failure to heed the call, and I believe that this story takes place during Wonder Woman's de-powered phase during which she had left the JLA.  Thus, only Red Tornado, Green Arrow and Black Canary join Superman and Batman aboard the JLA satellite.  Shortly, however, John Stewart shows up, explaining that Hal Jordan had been in the shower when the emergency signal came and had slipped on a bar of soap, hitting his head and knocking himself out, as he went to answer it, so his ring, after ascertaining that Hal wasn't hurt too badly, sought out John.
When Ollie remarks that that's a "miserable way to spend Christmas Eve," the robotic Red Tornado asks what's so special about this particular night.  Though GA is unable to explain it adequately, you just know that before the night is done, the Tornado will learn the meaning of the season.
A reference to an "arch" in the note leads the team to St. Louis.  John uses his ring to make the key able to detect the lock it fits, and Red Tornado takes it and scours the city in search of that lock.  Eventually, he finds it in a rundown tenement in a slum. Upon entering, the League discovers that the entire building is an elaborate death trap built by their old enemy, the Key.  Having been released from prison early after discovering that he was dieing, the Key set out to take the JLA with him into oblivion.
One by one, the Leaguers are seemingly picked off by the Key's death traps until only John Stewart and Red Tornado remain.  Gloating over his victory, the Key suddenly finds himself surrounded by the entire Justice League. Then the Phantom Deus Ex, Phantom Stranger shows up out of nowhere to reveal that he had saved the Leaguers from the Key's traps.
Though they've captured the Key, the League are too late to stop the bomb from going off.  So, they evacuate the area, and as the slum is destroyed, John uses his ring to rebuild the buildings as good as new as a Christmas present to the block's impoverished residents.
Later, aboard the JLA satellite, the group gather to present Red Tornado with the gift of a new costume, and the robot finally begins to grasp the meaning of Christmas.
Meanwhile, John Stewart flies off back to limbo, not to be seen again for another three years. His next appearance would be his return to Green Lantern in #94 in 1977.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Christmas With The Caped Crusader: "Silent Night of the Batman"

For someone who's normally so grim and humorless, the Batman sure does love Christmas.  Over the years he has starred in many classic and, if we're being honest, not so classic Christmas tales.  In these stories he can be seen singing Christmas carols, exchanging gifts, and generally letting the "Dark Knight" persona slip for a little bit.
I've got a small pile of these stories, and I'll be reviewing them over the next few weeks as we count down to Christmas Day.
The first, and earliest, of these is "Silent Night of the Batman," an eight page back up story from 1970's Batman #219, written by Mike Friedrich and drawn by Neal Adams and Dick Giordano.  In many ways, "Silent Night of the Batman" set the tone for all of the seasonal tales of the Caped Crusader that followed.
The story begins with Batman swinging over crowds of last minute shoppers on Christmas Eve on his way to answer the summons of the Bat-Signal.  A caption tells the reader that "For two thousand years, mystics have experienced the many mysteries of Christmas.  Tonight there will be one more..."

Arriving at police headquaters, Batman finds no crime wave or escaped lunatic to deal with. Instead, Commissioner Gordon, infused with the holiday spirit, has decided that "Christmas Eve is not a be out patrolling."  Despite protesting that crime doesn't take a holiday, Batman nonetheless accepts Gordon's invitation to croon some Christmas carols with the night watch until he's needed somewhere else.
Meanwhile, out on the streets of Gotham, it appears that crime has indeed taken the night off. While Batman sings, a series of short vignettes show crimes or other tragedies averted.  Two of these depict criminals who reconsider their planned misdeeds when they encounter images of the Batman, reminding them of the possible repercussions of their actions.  Lastly, a woman is stopped from committing suicide by the reappearance of her husband, a soldier who had been missing in Vietnam.
As the sun rises, Batman realizes that he's been caroling all night, and not one call reporting a crime has come in.  It is, he says, " the Spirit of Christmas took hold on everyone!"  Then Batman sees a ghostly image of Gordon which asks him, "But what is the Christmas spirit, Batman--Might it not or I?"  After the apparition fades, the real Gordon comments that it appears that the investment Batman has put into the city paid off for one night.  As the sun rises on Christmas morning, Batman swings home, cotemplating just what exactly happened that night. Did, perhaps, the "Spirit of Christmas" manifest itself as visions of the Batman in order to bring peace to Gotham for a night? As the caption, repeated in the final panel, says, its another of the mysteries of the season.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Winner Is....(Mike Grell Poll Results)

It's kind of weird.  On Tuesday here in Columbus, Ohio, it was 50 degrees and rainy.  Then, on Wednesday, it was as if someone decided that since it was December and Christmas was just around the corner that it should be snowing, so they flipped a switch and suddenly there was snow.   
Yes, ladies and germs, the yuletide season has descended upon our heads with a thud, and next week I'll begin my celebration of "Christmas With The Caped Crusader" wherein I'll be looking back at some of the many seasonal tales of the Batman published over the years.
Right now, I'd thought I'd say a few words about the results of my Mike Grell poll which came to a close along with the month of November on Tuesday. 
As you can see, The Warlord, with more than half the votes cast, was the clear winner.  I'm sure this probably says more about the readers of this blog, of course, than it does about the quality of Grell's work on the series.  What that is I can only speculate, though I suspect it simply means that the people who are reading Gutter Talk are people who are interested in the same things, at least as far as comic books, that I am and that I want to write about. This really comes as no surprise.
I'm a little surprised that weren't more votes for Green Arrow.  Likewise, I'm sure many of you, given my previously stated love for the character, may have been surprised that my vote went to Warlord.  It's true that Ollie Queen is my favorite super hero and I do feel that Grell's version is  one of the best, but I guess I just prefer his work on more fantasy oriented concepts.
Thus, I suppose I'd probably like Starslayer, the preference of at least one of the respondents who voted "Other."  I have read, and  liked, a few issues, but not any of the ones Grell himself did.  Of course, there aren't that many.  He left after the eighth issue, presumably to focus on Jon Sable, Freelance.  This, I suppose, accounts for the "unrealized potential" this person saw in this series.  The brevity of Grell's tenure on the book is somewhat surprising given his lengthy run on Sable, as well  as Warlord and Green Arrow.  Counting the regular series, various mini-series, and an issue of Secret Origins, Grell wrote 94 issues of the Emerald Archers adventures. 
Jonathon Riddle remarked to me once that Starslayer is more noteworthy for its back up features than for the lead story.  It is true that both Groo the Wanderer and Grimjack debuted in the title's back pages.  It was also the first regular series written by John Ostrander.  
By the way, did you know that Starslayer was almost published by DC?  It was one of a handful of not yet released titles, which also included The Vixen, scrapped by DC in 1978 as part of the mass cancellation of titles that has come to be known as "The DC Implosion."  
Given the importance of the book, as I noted above, for the talent and concepts that it helped to introduce, its interesting to speculate just how the history of comics, and independent comics particularly, might have been different had the "DC Implosion" not occurred.