Part One: TFO on Brave & The Bold #88-90
Part Two: The Hooded Utilitarian on #91-93
Caught up? Damn straight.
"I don't know whether these young people in the business today appreciate how lucky they are to be able to write anything they want."
There's a ton of great shit like that in the two part interview that The Comics Journal published in 2006. More to come, although it may or may not have any connection to the issues in question.
Okay, now if there's a cover that will need...okay, yeah. I'm not really sure how you defend or explain this one, or even if you have to. It's great to look at, it's kind of insane, probably offensive to some, and yeah, it really says: "Concentration Camp For Adults Only." At least the Teen Titans let Commissioner Gordon have his pipe. Gold fillings too, that would've been--okay. Let's just move on.
Oh, since it made Noah happy to point out the Rocky IV connection for the first issue, I'll just go ahead now and say that yes, this issue is what happens when you take the 80's movie The Manhattan Project and dress everybody up like The Warriors. Once again, Bob Haney = futurist. Haney acknowledges this himself--in his Journal interview, he briefly talks about watching The Terminator and telling people that they'd basically done that same story "about 37 times before, in comics." This story--a standard "youth in revolt" tale about a ragtag group of terrorists who hold Gotham City at ransom with a homemade atomic bomb--isn't one that has the same ambitions, little of it goes beyond street level dealings, there's a tiny bit of fighting, and it deals most of its drama out in short segments of Wire-style backroom deals. Imagine, if you will, Batman, Commissioner Gordon, and the Gotham City Council sitting around in a breakroom debating on whether or not they should arrest a bunch of slum lords and clear the ghetto of trash and a rat infestation. That's pretty much it--what makes it a comic book, and a somewhat okay one, is that they're having these negotiations under the threat of a citywide armageddon. It's never made completely clear whether or not the residents of Gotham are aware that there's an atomic bomb somewhere in their vicinity--a smart move on Haney's part, since the result of that would've been making Nick Cardy draw a bunch of pages of everybody trying to escape their doom. It's doubtful Gotham's citizenry would have stuck around to find out whether or not their mayor was willing to hire an exterminator while under the threat of atomic annihilation.
In hopes of gaining the trust of the youth gang--a multicultural group made up of a black guy with an afro, hippy girls, some weird amalgamations of punk rock and the Fonz and a bunch of Hispanic muscle that look like Native American Navy Seals--Batman enlists the Teen Titans. In a moment clearly designed to fit into the remainder of the plot, Dick Grayson makes sure to specifically ask Batman if he needs the Titans to wear their costumes or not. (Which sort of begs the question--why not just bring the costume anyway? Does your method of transport only allow one outfit?) After their arrival, the Titans immediately narc out, hook up with the gang and work the street angle while Batman attempts to get the city officials to accede to the gangs demands. (It's irritating how Haney immediately takes the idea of an activist youth organization and makes no mention whatsoever of the Vietnam War, civil rights, or birth control--these kids are just a well-organized militia devoted to local city related issues. Whether they have an interest in global--hell, even national affairs--their agenda with the use of the atomic bomb is simply to clean up their living space and gain a fair educational playing field. Other than that, they seem to want nothing at all. I'll get into this more later in #96, but for now it's best to just think of the these guys as a particularly virulent strain of a co-op board.)
Unsurprisingly, the issue plays out pretty much as expected--the Teen Titans are found out but are able to talk their way out of subterfuge by pointing out that Batman convinced the city to meet all their demands, a final monkeywrench is thrown in simply so it can be met and the fear of the bomb can last to the final page, and the entire thing ends with Batman and Gordon realizing they should always make sure to pay attention to what happens to those who live on the bottom end of the scale.
If for nothing else, the issue is actually more disappointing the more you get to know Haney's past--unlike, Bob Kane for example, Haney actually lived in a Hooverville during the Great Depression, he was an active participant in 1960's anti-war protests, defined himself as "an old socialist"--basically, he did all of the things these kids did, except he did them in real fucking life, for real fucking stakes. (Except for the atomic bomb thing.) At the same time, he's trying to tell a story here, he was operating under a still enforced Comics Code, and he did the best he could. It doesn't change the simple fact that this one just ain't that fun, and--except for the raw emotion of that cover that tells Batman "Every grown-up will suffer [in a concentration camp] because you lied to us!"--it's just too damn safe.
"Listen, in those days, I had girls--I had five girls at a time. Jesus. I was cutting a swath through New York. It was a great time for that."
After last issues "wow, are you guys serious" cover, it's back to your standard Batman responds-with-shock-to-off-camera-surprise cover. Starting up the issue, it's time for one of the best throwaway sequences yet, when Batman stops by to meet some rich lady and she has him sprayed with her favorite cologne, as she apparently does to all men who come to see her. (She's got a thing set up inside the ceiling of the elevator that sprays the cologne, which is called "Tiger Lover.") Noah seems concerned that some people might get the impression that I think this kind of stuff--jokey, random silliness--is stupid or somehow off-putting. If anybody does think that, let me be clear: that isn't the case at all--if anything, I think it's a testament to Haney's exceptional talent that he's able to add these random diversions into silliness merely for atmosphere (and yes, that's pretty much what I think most of them are for) while at the same time achieving his primary goal of making up an exciting story that fills the issue out. That being said, this issue is one that doesn't really work, and while the jokes are funny and make sense, there's a few portions that need more fleshing out. (Particularly during the panels where Batman's as-of-yet unrevealed partner shoves him out of the way of an assassin's bullet. The sequence eventually becomes comprehensible but not upon a first read--is Batman reacting to the bullet? Doesn't it seem like he doesn't acknowledge the shove for a long time? On top of that, where, exactly, is he when all of that occurs?) Cardy's work, as has been better explained by Noah, is top-notch noir--but there's a point brought up by Matthew Brady that helps it appear so, which is that these Showcase reprints are black and white. I have my doubts that what Cardy is doing--and doing extremely well--would be this intense in color. The black and white, all the shadows and gloom, lend the appearance that everything is taking place at night, whereas the narrative makes it clear that a good half of the comic itself is occurring in broad daylight. Either way, this ball is rolling and neither Noah or I are going to go longbox diving under the hateful eyes of all the comic retailers we've both alienated to find out. I'd promise a future update, but I'm sure that I'll get distracted by Nana and getting over the cancellation of Blue Beetle.
Now, this story is weirder then most, as the team-up isn't revealed until the final pages of the issue, and when it is revealed, it's done so in one of the most over-used scenes in all of fiction, that being the "good guy reveals the truth of situation and in such a way that you realize it was impossible to have figured it out on your own." In other words, this ain't one of those times where the most well-read comic fan is going to be able to truthfully say "I figured out that the guy that lady shot was Plastic Man way before the end." In fact, the only reason you know that it's Plastic Man that lady shot, if you haven't read the issue, is because I just told you it was Plastic Man without saying "spoiler" first. Now, before you get upset, let's be clear about two things: 1) You really shouldn't be reading this if you're going to get upset, in fact, if you get upset about things strangers write in blogs, you really shouldn't be doing a lot of things, like breathing or writing poetry. 2) You've had 38 years to read Brave & The Bold # 95 and be surprised by this issue, and you didn't, so you don't get to have the right to be surprised anymore. By the way, Nina is a traitor and Jack kills her in season four. Wait, three? Can't remember, but he shoots her a bunch of times in the face.
Oh, did I mention that the sequence where Batman tells you the entire secret of the story is also during the second-most over-used sequence in fiction, that being the "stop the execution" moment that always seems to occur seconds before death delivers an icy fingerbang? Because I meant to mention that.
Honestly, there isn't a whole lot to say about this issue. There's a great page during the part of the story where Batman is framed for murder when he shows up at the murder victims funeral concealing his costume under what looks like Dick Tracy's hat and trenchcoat. That's pretty fantastic. Things aren't as good on the art end of things--Cardy may have just had too much work on his plate, because while everything is still structured very nicely, quite a few of the panels look unfinished. Most of all, the problem I had with this one is just that it's one of those stories that depends on a last-minute reveal, and I think last-minute reveals are kind of lazy. When the build up has been strong and exciting on its own, there's nothing wrong with flipping the tables and delivering a shock. But when an entire story spends all it's time waiting for somebody to stand up and say "But what you didn't see..."
Well, that's just not that fun.
"We built tankers down in the lower Delaware. It had a higher rate of casualties than the service did....well, they were running the equipment three shifts a day. Continually. Building ships is dangerous, anyway. I almost was killed twice. One time, one of them was deliberate, some black guy was out to get me. We had a fight and an argument. Blah, blah, blah. Anyway, it was very dangerous. I saw guys killed with my own eyes."
And here we are, with Sgt. Rock, Batman, and a story that could only be called "The Striped Pants War!" (Emphasis? All Haney's.) Cardy's opener wouldn't look out of place in Greg Rucka's spy thriller Queen & Country, and it's an effective piece of work--a van slams into a car in a "quiet South American city", the van doors spring open, automatic weapons fire, and a man is taken from the car. Another, as of yet unseen, lays on the ground. Simple, brutal stuff. Nice work, and it's even more disconcerting that no one--not the abductee, his would-be protector or any of the assailants--is more than a shadowy figure. While the question of "does this work better because it's black and white" can't be answered without something to compare it against for other issues, this segment rests on its own. Color wouldn't bring anything to the table. Any of the problems with the previous issue are completely absent--Cardy's work is excellent throughout this entire issue, and considering the script he's dealing with, his ability to raise the game on the art front to meet that script on its level is striking, gorgeous, and worthy of about fifteen more words of praise.
Batman's introduction on the scene comes next, with Bruce Wayne responding to a call to travel to Washington DC for a surprise meeting with the President--which one, we never see--as well as Batman, who attends as well, thanks to Alfred and a padded suit. If the dialog here is meant to be trusted, it's not the first time Alfred has shucked off his butler responsibilities to wear the tights, on top of that, he even refers to the suit as "his." (I don't know why, but I kind of hope that Alfred requested that suit on his own volition, because the prospect of Bruce Wayne sidling up to Alfred in the Manor and saying, shyly, "Look what I made for you" is rather skeevy.) The introductions continue--unlike the previous issue, there's no "guess who he's teaming up with" here, it's Sgt. Rock, he's also the man who failed to protect the abduction depicted on the first page; that abduction is also revealed to be the ambassador to....well, it's a random South American country, considering the year it was published, it could be pretty much any South American country, the US was still actively treating the region like a Risk game. Bruce Wayne and Rock's relationship is revealed to be a--heh--extensive one, introduced and explained in a sequence where Rock begins tearing off his clothes in anger to remind Bruce of all the battle scars he received over the course of his 30 odd years of service. Thankfully, Cardy relies on a simple ass shoot, pants on, when it comes time for Rock to talk about his "legs full of goodies from a gook grenade in Korea."
As the evening rolls around, conversational catch-up gives way to Batman's exploration of the city, which leads to this delightful back and forth with a young boy, practicing to become a matador late at night.
"Bathombre! Madre Mia!"
"Buenas noches! Perhaps you can help me! How are you called, Amigo?"
That isn't the last time somebody refers to Batman as Bathombre, and no, it never loses it's delicious flavor.
All the fun gives way though, as it's now time for one of those sequences that, if this comic were to be published today, might just well get itself about 963 comments on CBR calling for the writer to be fired, or Dan Didio to be fired, or a live monkey to be eaten by Ed Brubaker on a webcam video shot inside Jimmy Palmiotti's bedsit. The sequence? Oh, it's just a tasty slice of some muthafucking manslaughter. Not "debatable" manslaughter, but just good old fashioned in-self-defense manslaughter. Guy charges Batman, Batman does a sort of frog jump onto the guys back, which sends him careening through a poorly boarded window, boom, guy falls to his death. No question, no problem, just murder, and Batman's first regret is that, in the process of slaughtering a man, he also broke his new amigo's toro rig. The kid doesn't seem bothered by the death of a man, brought about at the hands of a spandex clad American he just met in the middle of night, and if he's not, then hey: I'm not either. Kill away, Brucie-kins.
When the morning rolls by, Bruce Wayne (who, by the way, rocks the most amazing side burns in this issue, think twice the size of Luke "Dylan" Perry on that old 90210 show and you're probably still not bushy enough) does about five-minutes of detective work and decides that Sgt. Rock is in cahoots with the local terrorist gang, tries pulling rank on him, and the next thing you know, Rock is punching out local army boys and disappearing off embassy grounds. His behavior, which any good Rock fan knows, is clearly for the best, but Batman isn't much of a reader. Instead, Bruce continues his search--and in what happens to be more then just a mildly clever twist but an outright shocking one, it turns out that the terrorists have been keeping the kidnapped ambassador in a hidden torture chamber in the basement of the American embassy. "The calls are coming from inside the house," that whole thing. Genius maneuver, and I for one, never saw it coming. The fight that ensues is a pretty standard one for a Batman/Sgt. Rock team-up, meaning Batman sticks to punching the guys until Rock shows up and starts pumping bullets into anything that speaks Spanish, is warm, and moves. When escape is finally made, this little piece of blood theater hits it's audacious climax--the surprise is not that the traitor behind all this nastiness was the minor character from early in the issue who talked shit about Sgt. Rock, that's completely predictable--no, the surprise is a lot more basic then that.
It's that the traitor is shot dead by Alfred Pennyworth, who apparently packs a fucking sidearm along with his padded Bat-suit.
It's interesting to look back now, and even more so to read what Haney has to say about working in this time period, and then compare what's actually on the printed page to what continually raises the ire of a segment of today's fans. Just like in film, sex, uncomfortable politics and religion are the off-limits "adult" topics, whereas violence--good old fashioned, blood on the floor, shot in the back, impaled on fences violence--didn't come across as problematic for DC, or the Comics Code, at the time. Haney makes it pretty clear that the Code was a meager thing, used mostly as a silent battleaxe to force the writers to censor themselves before they even went to an editor--it wasn't that somebody stopped him and made him change stuff, but that he never brought anything that would need to be changed to the table. As is clear here--and, by comparison, the earlier issue regarding youthful protesters who have little to no connection to any of the major issues that youthful people (and Haney) were actually protesting at the time--Haney knew exactly what he could get away with, and what he couldn't. He could use the word "gook" in a Batman comic, he could have Alfred Pennyworth shoot a man in the back, but he couldn't depict the denizens of Gotham's ghetto as Black Panthers or free-loving hippies. If nothing else, that self-censorship, and the culture of impotence that created it, is shown here to have accomplished one simple thing: it made what could've been a good, vibrant story into one that's only tolerable in issue 94. That culture's same disinterest in policing the violence in its book then turned around, two issues later, and helped create a stark, nasty story that, by its very simple, liberal use of blood happens to be one of the more remarkable ones I've read yet. Not all Batman comics could, or should, work like this. But this one does, and it's all the better for it.
-Tucker Stone, 2008
Check out Noah's place tomorrow for part four.