Monday, April 11, 2011

'Tec Support: The Seeds of "Knightfall"--Detective Comics #480

While notable for being one of the first two Batman stories drawn by the late Don Newton (Batman #305 hit the stands that same month), "The Perfect Fighting Machine" from Detective Comics #480 is, in truth, an entertaining but rather unremarkable tale.  According to writer Dennis  O'Neil, however, this obscure little story helped spawn one of the biggest event story lines of the 1990's.  Within the pages of 'Tec #480 lie the seeds of "Knightfall."
But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Let me tell you about the story first.
The tale begins in medias res, with Batman already locked in a life or death struggle with a silent, hulking brute who appears to be kicking the living crap out of him.  As he's getting tossed around, Bats thinks, "He's creaming me...and I don't even know his name!"  As the taciturn killer is strangling him, Batman decides it's a good time to try and make friends.  He chokes out the words, "Wh-Who are you?", cuing the inevitable flashback.
In the next panel, we are taken back in time six weeks to find a homely, fat schlub being harassed by a trio of young punks who break his calculator and make him drop his ice cream cone.  Slinking away in tears, he is befriended by a stranger identifying himself as Ivan Angst, who offers to buy the poor kid a new ice cream cone.  Angst is soon revealed to the reader as the leader of a terrorist organization known as Mercenaries, Incorporated, whom Batman has been after for several weeks.
While Batman is bedridden with a fever of 104 degrees, Angst, with all purpose mad scientist Dr. Moon, begins the process of transforming the poor nerd he befriended into a the "perfect fighting machine" of the story's title through a series of surgeries and hormone treatments which render him super strong, nearly invulnerable, and unable to feel pain.  Moon later refers to him as a "gork," which, the doctor explains, is "...medical slang for a living, breathing vegetable!" Angst has plans to create an army of such perfect soldiers. When the process is complete, he decides to test his prototype against the "perfect opponent," the Batman, and issues a challenge to the Caped Crusader via a classified ad in the Gotham newspaper.  Despite not being fully recovered from his illness, Batman accepts the challenge, and the story shifts back to the present where Batman is still struggling to survive the relentless onslaught of Angst's perfect soldier.
Just as he's about to deliver the killing blow, the would be assassin falters and collapses.  Moon declares, "As I feared! The strain was too great! His whole system is collapsing! Not being able to feel pain, he didn't realize anything was wrong--until it was too late!"  The dying giant turns to the one man he believed to be his friend, Ivan Angst.  But Angst, calling him "...an experiment--that failed!", refuses.  Enraged, the "gork" turns on Angst as the cowardly Dr. Moon flees.  Batman attempts to pull him off Angst, but he fails.  The "perfect fighting machine" kills Angst before dieing himself, with neither Batman nor the reader ever having learned his name.
Back in 1993, while the "Knightfall" story line was running in Batman and Detective Comics, Dennis O'Neil, then editor of the Batman titles, and Julius Schwartz, editor of 'Tec at the time #480 was published, were in Columbus as guests at the annual SF con Marcon.  They also did a signing at the now out of business local comics shop Central City Comics that Saturday.  I got my friend Dave Alkire to give me a ride out to the shop, and gave him my copy (I've long since aquired another) of 'Tec #480 so he'd have something for O'Neil and Schwartz to sign.  When Dave handed O'Neil the book, the writer told us a little story about it.
Denny hadn't felt that the seventeen pages allotted to him for this story had given him sufficient space to fully explore the premise.  Thus, he eventually returned to the idea, reworking it and expanding it.  This new story was called "Venom," which appeared as issues #16-20 of Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight in 1991.
"Venom," of course, introduced the titular strength enhancing drug, which was later used by the villain Bane, the prime mover behind the events of "Knightfall."  This story eventually gave us Jean-Paul Valley, a.k.a. Azrael, as the replacement Batman after Bane break's Bruce Wayne's back.
So, "The Perfect Fighting Machine," a little known seventeen page story from the late 70's, is indirectly responsible for giving us not only this:

...but this, as well:
Furthermore, the success of "Knightfall" may have had a hand in inspiring such later abominations as "Emerald Twilight," the story that introduced Kyle Rayner as the new Green Lantern even as it transformed Hal Jordan in a cosmic powered mass murderer. (The latter is  the abominable part.  I actually liked Kyle as GL.)
Despite all that, I still like "The Perfect Fighting Machine."  In fact, I like it even more knowing the unheralded role it played in comics history.  I say "unheralded" because, other than hearing it from Dennis O'Neil himself, I've never come across this info in any comics magazine or on the web.  For all I know, I may be first person, even after all this time, to write about this. 
That's kind of cool, actually, if it's true.

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