So what if it's the plot of Rocky IV, right down to a touchy Russian who calls foul on every minor quibble while behaving as unsportsmanlike as a doped up horse in a dog race? This was 1970, and Haney had it first. (Well, that's probably unlikely. A nice rich guy bringing an old warhorse out of retirement, the only stumbling block in his way being the warhorse's belief that his best days are behind him--hell, that's sort of Biblical. Old, at least.) But it's America vs. Russia, it's boxing--fuck it, it's Rocky IV. Bruce Wayne rightly keeps up with the times, and Eddie Campbell wouldn't have much to complain about here: these are men, they wear clothes, the clothes are not tight bodysuits. Fabric, hanging to the ankles--how many pockets on your sportcoat, Ted Grant? Four? Is that a--Bruce Wayne, what is that tied around your neck? Is that a...goddamn, man. That's a silk kerchief!
After the requisite plot-setting--Bruce needs a coach for the American youth boxing squad, the kids are going to Vienna, but it's all a bit of slight and underhand. No, here's what's really going down: Batman has a date with the Evil Empire--this being back in the day when Bats would get called in for that sort of wetwork, you understand--and soon enough, it's off to the races, classic Haney style. "Blast! Can't track him in this crazy place! Which way? Which way--?" (It's a sewer. Follow the water that's disturbed. Come on, physics. You know this shit Bruce. Get it together.)
This being a standard Bob Haney "give 'em two, keep 'em moving" tale, the B plot of catching a spy takes the backseat when it's time for Batman to do some muscular therapy with Teddie "Wildcat" Grant, who's still wishing and washing his way through a real funk, terrified that he'll be unable to take down the young Russian who has his goat, will soon be eating his goat, probably on a ke-bab. It's therapy time, 1970's Batman style, which takes the form of a suckerpunch to Ted's face--fighting ensues, in the Vienna Wonderwheel. (That's where Ted goes, when he's "feeling low.") It works, and although Ted immediately starts dropping a Bapeta-Bapeta-Bap on the old speed bag, Batman goes ahead and sets up some all-the-lights-go-out-at-seven "insurance," just in case he's wrong and Teddie can't take out a steroid-driven crewcut-having Commie Russkie in the ring. (Not much faith in your fellow man there, Bats.) For the sake of the plot, Batman doesn't end up making it to the boxing bout, as he's captured by a wily sweetbread vendor (cart and all!), and Ted uses Bat's seventh road blackout opportunity--in the middle of a fight he may just be on his way to winning on his own--to tear ass through the streets of Vienna, saving Batman just in time for everything to be wrapped up in a neat bow. The Russians fail to steal some plans and "blackmail the world," Batman pleases his imperialist masters, and Ted Grant gets a comeback win in the ring. (And all Batman has to do is call him a "has-been" to get the blood pumping.) Good times? Good times.
There's a lot here that ends up working pretty damn well--the art choices for Bruce are a bit odd at times, giving him an appearance that doesn't match up with what he looks like in the Bat-suit, but it's pretty clear that's done to give him a look that more easily distinguishes him from Ted Grant, who, for all his dimestore On The Waterfront fashion sense, looks exactly like a Jim Aparo Bruce Wayne with streaks in his hair. But it's a full comic, one that would probably be a bit too high-tempo for an animated program, and the dated 70's slang gives it even more charm. Two points on the high and mighty scale. Your pants? Remove them now.
"Out of the twilight smog and into the quickening bustle of the great city they come--fierce-eyed, but with faces like masks--as the creaking of wooden wheels seems to spin a thenody that Gotham's strangest has struck! Too late, sergeant! The wheel turns...the moving finger writes...what is will be...what was is NOW!"
You read that, and you say: shit. Zombies? I'm tired of zombie comics.
Get over yourself, you judgmental twat.
These are MORMON zombies.
Well, not really. They're a religious sect, nobody likes them, they were slaughtered back in the ye olden days of Gotham (cue a picture of wigs and beauty marks) and now their descendants are back to claim reparations. They're white, so they aren't Native Americans. Call them Mormons. (Or Hellerites, after their founder, who wrote a book called Catch-22. Wait, Josiah Heller? Brother. Got to be his brother.) They aren't zombies either, because they've actually been living out in the desert. One of them is dead though, and that's enough. Batman versus Mormon Zombies!
The team-up here is with the Phantom Stranger, although Dr. Thirteen makes an appearance, as well as his business card, which says "Dr. Terence Thirteen The Ghost Breaker Hoaxes Exposed," in all caps and apparently hand-made, since Ross Andru didn't use a ruler to make sure the words on the card stayed on the same line. Unfortunately, Terry 13 is there to expose the Phantom Stranger as the "charlatan" he is, Batman agrees, mostly because in his confusion he decides to use the logic of "a bad thing happened and you were nearby" to determine who he's going to put under "Bat-Arrest." (Actual words!) The fight that ensues ends quickly, through no help of Bats--he tries a smoke canister, but according to Phanty, "smoke is one of his allies." Dr. 13 takes care of the magic knock out business: Karate Chop! Down goes the DC's most unloved magical entity, as long as you're ignoring those weird female characters they make up whenever somebody tries to write a Dr. Fate ongoing.
It shouldn't go unmentioned that choice dialog swipers could go into overload with this particular issue--whether you're just looking for that moment where Batman screams like a 50's housewife who saw a mouse, a slice of the cake that is "those cobblestones...have become...CLOBBERSTONES!", this issue is a piping hot bucket of "wow, Haney really goes for it, doesn't he?" Now, that stuff on its own--yes, it's kind of silly. It's even sort of...well, dumb. But it works, and I'd gather that it works because the story moves quickly, and there's zero pretension to it. Even when Batman--or Commissioner Gordon, or the wow-this-guy-is-an-asshole Dr. 13--have to fill their mouths with so much hyperbole that their jaws distend in the expulsion, there's no sense whatsoever that it's trying to be "thematic" or "metaphorical" or "speak to a universal truth" or any of those other nattering reasons a certain group of people take when they want to "defend" super-hero comics. (From whom are you defending them? Is there some argument, some path to take in a dialog that will somehow convince others that they are wrong, and what they Do Not Like they Actually Like?) No. Bullshite, it is said. Sure, there's some Brave & Bold stories out there about "the magic of teamwork" or "two heads are better then one," but seriously, seriously, let's all be seriously serious: morals are for Aesop, Batman slapping the Phantom Stranger to wake him up and saying shit like "CLOBBERSTONES." That's for the awesome, that's for the "Ripper mate, good on you." That's for the JOY, that's not for the dramaturgy.
Look, you either ride this bull because you fucking like this bull or you don't. It's a metaphor! It's an allegory! It's all rife with the meaning of the Heroic Saga, as written by Joseph Campbell "The Dumbest Literary Philosopher In The Bargain Bin Of Literary Philosophy" and popularized by George Lucas, the patron saint of "If something has a double meaning, it's clearly, oh so clearly, better then Tolstoy." No. Don't get your pretension in here. Take it and shove it up your ass, and take Mallard Fillmore with you: those are your comics. Not for us, for us, it's Bob Fucking Haney, and Haney understands you, 1970. Haney is going to teach you that when it wears spandex, and when it punches shit, that it is to scream like a housewife, worry about Dick Grayson, and entertain. This is entertainment, it's pure. If Stan Lee knew that a bunch of people with way more time on their hands then they had sense were going to write terrible books about how Spider-man defined a culture, he would've jumped out a window and shot up the floors he passed on the way down. And we would be a better race of knuckle-draggers for it.
In other words, this is good stuff if you're down for it. It's great stuff, if you're down for it. It's uncut Bolivian Batman hash.
Wow, off topic! Let's get on topic. It doesn't take too many pages of issue 90 before you look at that Jim Aparo cover of the Showcase Presents A Title That's Too Long Volume 2 and say to yourself, "man, when is Batman going to start looking like that?" Ross is tolerable, he's got some distinctive stuff going on with Adam Strange, and his art never stops the story in it's tracks--but goddamn, Batman sure looks like...egh. Doughy. There's no dimensionality to his chest, it's all just lines on a cardboard torso, and considering that there's some clever angles being chosen--a corkscrew spin out and around Batman's attempts to catch a sniper--it hurts to see good design cluttered with a character that's so achingly standard and generic. There's nothing "bat" about this Batman, he's just any spandex clad character. If you were going to make a movie reference, you'd skip past Nolan, Burton & Shumacher and embrace Billy Zane in The Phantom. Nobody wants that to happen, except Billy Fucking Zane.
Bob Haney spends a good portion of this issue--an issue that by the end, features a Batman who goes from looking barrel chested to actually looking like he is wearing a barrel with a bat symbol on it--pushing the suspension card as far as is imaginable. After the issues somewhat theatrical opening--clinical death followed by Adam Strange's delivery of what may be Batman's obituary from the future--the story spirals downwards. Batman cuts a terrible deal allowing a mobster a weeks free reign of crime, he's caught on tape and destroys both his and Commissioner Gordon's reputation in the process (Gordie heads home to spend his final years "tending geraniums"), and then, for the final nail, Bruce heads home himself to go into a full Howard Hughes solipsism, even going so far as to fire Alfred. (Alfred, in a prize moment, refuses a parting salary.) That's a lot to take in. Besides the stupid arrogance of his behavior, Batman's sole motivation is his desperation to escape the futuristic obituary, which has, of course, foretold exactly what's happening: Batman's career ending in shame and disgrace, Bruce Wayne's life petering out in a solitary confinement as an eccentric shut-in at the manor. Meanwhile, the reader sits though reading all of this saying "Well, obviously none of this is accurate."
But it is. Batman ends up saving the day, through the help of Adam Strange and the horrible financial choices made by Alfred Pennyworth, but none of what had occured in the previous pages is denied its reality. In this comic, this story, Batman did give a mobster a week off from Bat-justice, he did explode emotionally on all of his closest friends and fire Alfred, he did wallow in a self-pitying morass of depression alone in the mansion with armed guards preventing bothersome busybodies from intruding on his poetry-reading time. It's all true, and it's all there, and it's all--and this is the part that makes it great, and makes you really wish that Jim Aparo was handling the action sequences--it's all believable. It's not realistic, hell no, realism is for fucking date rapists. It's crazy Batman shit, and it's easy to buy into. It's the sort of thing that doesn't worry that it's going to "break" Batman, because it can't, and it won't. It's pretty magical, in a way, to read something like this. It would be heavy, indefensible praise to call it "great." It's got a lot of problems, not the least of which is a dependence on a main character that Andru never pulls off (in this particular issue, as it wasn't this ugly in the other one he drew), and it's probably a little more emotion-heavy then it needs to be to get it's plot points met. Still, it's a great way to put some scars on the chassis, just to prove that the threat of death isn't the only trick available when it's time to amp up the tension.
-Tucker Stone, 2008
Tune in now to see what Noah has to say about the next three issues, and on Thursday, it'll be time to deal with a story called "The Striped-Pants War" which, I pray, is far better then the title sounds. And also not about Striped Pants.