by Casey Burchby
INTRO: With so many fine reprints being issued from all corners of the industry, this column dedicates itself to highlighting the preservation of comics in new, definitive, archival editions. We will review books that take advantage of the best in design and printing technology to present the best-looking and most complete versions of culturally and historically significant work in comics.*
Last summer, DC inaugurated a series of artist-centric hardcover Batman collections with Tales of the Batman: Gene Colan, Volume 1, which highlighted the moody work Colan contributed to Batman and Detective Comics in the early 1980s. Since then, DC has also released similar volumes featuring stories drawn by Don Newton and Marshall Rogers.
I should point out the major caveat of these volumes upfront: they do not include issues by other artists, even when doing so leaves a hole in an ongoing storyline. This can make for frustrating reading, but such is the small price paid for these otherwise excellent tributes to these key artists. The books are designed simply and elegantly, and are printed on heavy glossy stock. The hardcovers are jacketed, which, when it comes to comics collections, offends me like a hair in soup. If you like, sure: chalk that up to a personal issue.
The Colan volume is notable for its Gothic shadows and dynamic action staging. Colan excelled at atmospherics, and these stories, in what we can anticipate is the first volume of at least two (he worked on Batman stories through 1986), helped set the tone for the later Batman films.
One interesting aspect of these three volumes, all of which contain stories from the late ‘70s and early ’80s, is the extent to which the different characterizations of Batman contained herein depend upon the writer(s) handling the script. The primary writer in the Colan volume is Gerry Conway, whose evocative language goes hand in hand with Colan’s art, often focusing on the tortured duality of the Dark Knight. On the other hand, many of Newton’s stories were scripted by Denny O’Neil, in whose hands Batman is a far more vengeful crime fighter. At one point in the story “The Curse of Crime Alley” (Detective Comics #483), Batman is scolded by Leslie Thompkins as he beats a thief.
“Beating him will do no good!” she says.
Batman growls back, “It’ll make me feel better!”
It’s Batman at his Dirty Harry-est, which is less of a surprise when you consider the story’s setting (the site of Martha and Thomas Wayne’s murders) and the fact that this was the late ‘70s, the heyday of both Eastwood’s antihero and the post-hippie “War on Crime” backlash that helped usher in the Reagan era. Far from being concerned with taking a side in any debate over Batman’s “true” nature, the contrast itself is what I find interesting. After all, the richness of the character and his endurance as an icon is largely due to the varied interpretations of writers, artists, and filmmakers through the decades.
The Marshall Rogers volume contains most of the issues previously included in the Strange Apparitions collection, which on their own comprise one of the best late ‘70s Batman runs. The book also includes the two terrific (and much later) limited series Siege (Legends of the Dark Knight #132-136) and Batman: Dark Detective. Rogers’ art on both has the added benefit of detailed ink work by Bob Wiacek and Terry Austin, respectively, as well as more subtle coloring afforded by advances in printing technology made in the 1990s.
As a group, these volumes are a robust and well-produced (if, by design, incomplete) record of the very fine Batman work done in the often-maligned 1970s and early ‘80s. At least two more artists are currently scheduled for similar treatment: Jim Aparo this summer, and Alan Davis in the fall.
*I promise the column won’t always be as solemn as this introduction.