Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Showcase Presents Batman Vol. 5: A Life-changing Tome

DC has recently released the fifth volume of their Showcase Presents Batman series, reprinting the entire run of Batman stories from the debut of the "New Look" in 1964 to the present in inexpensive phonebook-sized editions in black-and-white, and this is the collection containing stories that, for me, not only launched my seriously taking up comic collecting but also defined my love for the character and appreciation of the art of comics. My passion for creating my own comics was directly inspired by these tales, now conveniently stored in this single volume.

As a young teenager in 1970, I'd been separated from comics for about three years, having been moved from my beloved downtown apartment in Columbus, Indiana to a house in the township of Newburn about twenty miles away... far away from the wonderful stores I regularly bought my comics from during the super-hero fad of the mid-sixties. Things were not good between my Mom and my stepdad, as he had become very abusive toward all of us and her in particular. And I was facing a lot of problems at school with bullying, which at one point forced me to forego taking the regular school bus back to Newburn and walking the three-mile distance from the north side of town to the downtown area and my grandparents' house on 2nd Str.

Between the two were the recently rebuilt Cleo Rogers Library, where I could pick up any number of great books, and my three favorite places to buy comics... Nagel's Bookstore (if you couldn't find it at Nagel's, it hadn't been published), Murphy's 5-and-10, and Cummins' Bookstore, all within a half-block radius of one another. Mom was initially alarmed by my walking so great a distance by myself, but Grandma and Grandpa’s house was on the way home from her workplace, and I promised not to do it except on the days new comics came out (which actually back then was every Tuesday and Thursday) and I went directly from there to the Grands.

Well, came the day I walked into Murphy’s and saw the comic that would change my life forever… Batman #222, with the eerie Neal Adams cover of Batman and Robin huddled in the shadows of a graveyard and observing what appeared to be the Beatles walking away in single file from a freshly-covered grave in a bizarre tribute to the Abbey Road and Sgt. Pepper album covers.

Having been a late-blooming Beatles fan for the last couple of years and curious to see how things had been going for the Dynamic Duo since the Batman fad faded in 1968, I picked up the issue (even though I found that comics were now at the unheard-of price of fifteen cents! Highway robbery!).

What I found in those pages was an excellent mystery rendered by writer Frank Robbins, “Dead… Till Proven Alive!”, a send-up to the “Paul is Dead” era of the Beatles’ careers, excellently rendered by artists Irv Novick and Dick Giordano. Besides the nifty story, I was gobsmacked by the facts that Dick Grayson was no longer living at Wayne Manor, and was now a full-fledged college student only occasionally teaming with Batman when he was on leave, and that Wayne Manor and the Batcave had been closed down for some time, as Bruce was now living at the main Wayne Enterprises building and operating a new Batcave below it.

But what really changed everything for me, changed everything I knew about Batman, was the back-up story, also superbly illustrated by Irv and Dick, and written by Mike Friedrich, “Case of No Consequence”.

It was unlike any Batman story I’d ever read. No Robin, no arch-villains, no Batmobile, no gadgets… just a weary man in a costume, beaten and broken by his brutal vocation, trying to make his way back home in the wee hours of the morning, and suddenly having to come to the aid of a mugging victim, a deaf photographer whose thin wallet and means of support, his camera, were stolen by a cheap petty crook. Despite the temptation to walk away and turn the case over to the local cops, Batman spends his dwindling energy to pursue the punk and render justice.

To say the least, I was absolutely absorbed by everything… the grittiness of the writing, the fact that the bat costume was no longer just another super-hero costume but like a living creature itself, the deftly rendered nourish artwork, and that the true meaning of the Batman concept had finally been restored after years of being buried by the camp era.

It was the equivalent of that fateful bat flying into Bruce Wayne’s foyer, bringing him the icon he was searching for to launch his crimefighting career. I wanted to become a writer and artist of comic books... and the best way to do that was to study.

My comic buying, particularly with any new Batman comics, would pick up steam over the next few months. Batman #224, “Carnival of the Cursed”, took Batman out of Gotham and into the heart of New Orleans, courtesy of writer Denny O’Neil and artists Irv and Dick, searching for the murderer of a famed jazz musician. Again, none of the usual trappings of a gimmick-filled Batman story of the 1960’s… just one determined man using his mind and body to hunt down a bizarre killer in the perfect setting of Mardi Gras.

And that pretty much sealed the deal.

I picked up practically every Batman book I could get my hands on. I made some pretty nice deals with a comic-collecting friend of mine to swap some old books for much of his Batman collection, which got me up to speed on everything that was going on with the Caped Crusader.

The next book I picked up off the newsstand was Detective Comics #402, “Man or Bat?”, the second appearance of Prof. Kirk Langstrom, the Man-Bat, written by Robbins and illustrated by Dick Giordano and a man who would become one of my idols, Neal Adams. Langstrom’s final metamorph, the sprouting of giant wings, gave me nightmares for weeks.

One of the eeriest stories that have made it to this volume is “The Demon of Gothos Manor” from Batman #227, marking the second appearance of Alfred’s niece Daphne, whose kidnapping by a demon-worshipping cult draws the Batman into a gothic tale of the supernatural. Recommendation: this story is at its best when you play “Green-Eyed Lady” by Sugarloaf in the background.

Also, the League of Assassins made its first appearance in Detective Comics #405, “The First of the Assassins”, a meeting that would eventually lead to Batman’s confrontation with Ra`s Al Ghul and his daughter Talia… moments that will undoubtedly be found in the next volume.

And these are just a few of the classic stories to be found in this book.

There are not enough stars on the grid to recommend this great volume. Coupled with the fact that I lost many of these to the flood of 2009, this book is more than a treasure. It’s the seed of my years as a true fan of comics.

By the way, if there are some of you who reject stark black-and-white reprints in favor of color (no matter that these are invaluable as a study of inking styles uncluttered by the generally poor color press process of the time), well, that's why God made Crayons.