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The Light That You Shine Can Be Seen – Part 2

Previously: The Light That You Shine Can Be Seen

IV

Anyway. You know this stuff. I’m just listing stuff. It all goes back to that picture, that Aparo splash page. I’ve been going through a laundry list of almost thirty year old comics trivia in hopes of providing some kind of context for this image. Why did this particular image stick so doggedly in my minds’ eye? Perhaps it is simply the fact that I do feel for the guy, in that moment. It’s a human feeling, that weariness, fathoms beyond measure hanging like a yoke across your shoulders. It seems a Spider-Man thing, that ability to push past palpable weariness to find the win. Very contemporary. Not often a Batman emotion. Batman doesn’t have many emotions, which is generally considered a problem by reputable psychiatric professionals. Not that Gotham has many of those.

The most effective protection in this instance is not tactical gear but plot armor. Batman is Batman because he’s ostensibly human but admits little in the way of human weakness. The conceit is that a man can burn the candle at both ends indefinitely into middle age without suffering the consequences. Future stories can, and usually do, show us Bruce as a broken old man. But in the here and now he can only show as much vulnerability as is necessary for the plot. Both The Death of Superman and Knightfall were stories predicated on the necessity of breaching the two strongest plot armors in the business. Superman’s death was unconvincing to many at the time, I recall, given it being essentially a random slugfest with a jobber created just for the purpose. The meat of the story was still to come, however, so it’s less important in hindsight.

Knightfall was a different matter. The best part of the story is by far the first part. Once the spectacle of the Passion of the Bat has concluded with the hero in ruin, there’s nothing in the subsequent story anywhere near as compelling. Jean-Paul Valley’s substitute Batman is a straw man for a very old argument, one the story was ostensibly, explicitly designed to rebut. It’s the same argument we still have today, more or less - just how hard should heroes go? Is it OK to kill? Under what circumstances? Why doesn’t Batman kill the Joker? You’ve heard them all before. The problem is that the character designed to be the supposed “Hardcore Batman” was a guy who had been victim to decades of abuse at the hands of a religious order and consequently had a great deal of trouble telling fact from hallucination. It’s not hard to make the argument that Coke Classic was always better when New Coke was clearly a ringer built to go bad. In the hindsight of almost thirty years it's hard not to see the creators wanted it both ways.

They knew they’d been lapped by adaptations: the Batman published in the main line as the 90s dawned was still essentially the same Caped Crusader who had come out the late 60s with a New Look, not the guy on movie screens or the Prestige Format books. And as much as I love Aparo’s Batman, I know it was out of step with the times. There’s a reason why he gets to draw Batman getting his back broke, after all. The beat hits so hard precisely because Batman is 100% on-model, straight off the Underoos, practically stodgy for its day. It was important that it look right because this wasn’t an Elseworlds or an imaginary story. This was the guy. The one who was on the Super Friends and everything. They took him apart like a cheap watch.

Knightfall is a great story precisely because it’s about weakness and vulnerability in a character who almost never shows these things. Most superhero stories are designed such that you’re not supposed to ask why they don’t just call all their super friends to solve their respective super problems. Generally a mood-killer. (In reality you can probably think of any number of circumstances where you also should have called for help but didn’t because you were too embarrassed to admit Killer Moth caught you with your pants down.) Knightfall is different, however, because it doesn’t just acknowledge the question but depends on the reader asking it. The characters even ask it - why doesn’t Bruce call for help? Dick is absent for almost the entirety of the story, and Bruce doesn’t call for help even though he knows his adopted son would be there yesterday. Even amidst whatever family drama might currently be obscuring the relationship. He knows Superman would go to the ends of the Earth on his word - or whoever was playing Superman that week. Veritable mobs of superheroes stand ready at any moment to lend a hand. But he doesn’t call. He never calls. That is his kryptonite. Bane builds the perfect trap and the hero stumbles right in.

But like I say, they have it both ways. They get to do a massive years’-long epic about Batman as a physical human with foibles who learns to take better care of himself and ask for help, and then when its over they get to remake the guy without those vulnerabilities. Because when he came back he was armored, and the attitude never softened even as he also ostensibly found more room in his life for the people in his life. So when I say “having it both ways,” perhaps it might be better to say they figured out how to reconcile the fact that fans appeared to want both the hard-bitten loner and the center axle of a sprawling family. Instead of attempting to resolve the dichotomy Knightfall acknowledges this irreconcilable contradiction as the modern character’s central dynamic.  

In our reality what happened is that there was a big push in the late 80s to bring Batman “back to basics.” Fueled by the Burton movie, the push saw Batman increasingly isolated from his traditional “family” of characters. This arc led initially to 1988’s A Death in the Family and its direct sequel 1990’s A Lonely Place of Dying, stories that respectively killed the second Robin and introduced the third. The point was made that Batman on his own is dangerously self-destructive - a point that apparently had to be made, because a vocal number of fans thought Robin was silly and appreciated Burton’s mooting of the character. 

There’s another factor here that isn’t often mentioned, but which on consideration I think is vital to all iterations of Batman - the question of character. Does that sound like a weird thing to say in 2021? I think the question is unavoidable with superheroes, especially the masked ones. Batman can’t ask anyone to trust him based on his word when he hides his face. Most of America’s history with masked vigilantes is not positive. People don’t naturally assume a wellspring of altruism. He knows that masked men can only be judged by their actions and teaches his ward accordingly, and that to live outside the law one must be honest. Bad means undercut good ends.

Compliance to the adjuration“this is the weapon of the enemy, we do not need it, we will not use it” appears native to almost all Batmen. Half of what he does is seemingly done with the intention of modeling good behavior to his assistants. On his own Batman loses sight of that fact, falls prey to his worse instincts, becomes brutal and crosses lines. He keeps a kid in bright colors around to light the way. (We must set aside the fact that taking a child to a gunfight would generally be considered poor parenting.)

The takeaway from the Knightfall cycle was that the character accepted he was at the head of a sprawling family, returning in many ways to the status quo prior to Crisis. No matter how much some people hate Robin, Batman needs the leavening. He wasn’t much more emotionally available and his paranoia towards other super heroes only increased, but he never quite pushed the people in his life away again. It did not hurt that Catwoman and Robin sold well, and the characters have held their own solo books ever since. Nightwing received his first solo book a little later as well, and that sold with similar consistency. A social Batman just plain sells more comics. Every established franchise experienced serious bloat during the bull 90s, and many characters were hurt by premature expansion. Batman sailed right through. Who would have thought there was ever an underserved market for Batman spinoffs? Well, there was. It’s right there in the fossil record.

Catwoman has been a successful headliner for almost thirty years now - or should I say, thirty years meow? No, I should not. We could probably discuss how Catwoman’s very successful 90s look was the company’s most high profile and enduring contribution to the mid-90s “Bad Girl” trend. Didn’t hurt sales at the time, certainly. Still, given her consistent performance for the last three decades - even after dropping a cup size or three around the turn of the millennium - it’s hard not to conclude the company was leaving money on the table for a long time prior to 1993. (Sure, she was banned by the Comics Code from 1954 to 1966, but that’s all of twelve years out of fifty.)

V

During a period known for high creative turnover across the mainstream the Batman and Superman titles of the 1990s maintained an almost preternatural stability. Amazing how that stands out. Now, if you know this story at all, you’re probably screaming at me about something I haven’t mentioned. Because there are other important names on these comics besides just the creators themselves - like that of Denny O’Neil.

O’Neil died last year - last year this week as of this writing. Although he’s also responsible for a truly impressive list of accomplishments at Marvel - he made Rhodey Iron Man and named Optimus Prime, to name just two - that list is eclipsed by the accounting of what he did at DC. The Hard Traveling Heroes were his, along with Neal Adams, and they created R’as al Ghul together as well (the latter with a prompt from Julie Schwartz). Revamped the Question post-Crisis with Denys Cowan (an identity later assumed by the aforementioned Renee Montoya). He wrote Armageddon: 2001. It don’t get bigger than that.

He was editor for the Batman titles from 1986 to 2000. A huge span. From Reagan almost to George W. He oversaw the creation of literal thousands of comics over the course of those fourteen years. Even wrote a few of them. Batman’s no small enterprise. Even minor changes to the character are made at a level well above that of mere creators, and usually even beyond the purview of any single editor. Events in Batman impact books in which Batman never even appears, and can effect licensing and adaptations that reach every square inch of the globe. But with that said, O’Neil was at the tip of the spear for all that time. DC sold a lot of Batman in those years, and were obviously very happy with Denny O’Neil’s vision of the character. He retired refulgent, a significant feat for any editor.

How do you even appreciate something like that - the achievement of editing a decade and a half of comic books? To begin with, people don’t really understand what editors do, and the production of comic books especially can be a bewildering process for even experienced readers to parse. It’s hard to praise an editor for anything specific, because they don’t do anything you will ever see. Aside from the occasional footnote, letters page, or Bullpen caricature, they’re mostly invisible. But the comic wouldn’t exist without them. All those many dozens of moving parts have to be corralled and assembled and corrected and approved and printed, and the editor is the person in charge of shepherding that process. 

Both the Batman and Superman lines experienced significant renaissance periods beginning roughly after Crisis on Infinite Earths and through to the late 90s, by which time incessant recourse to crossovers had dimmed the era’s early blush. The cause was a simultaneous change in editorships: O’Neil and Mike Carlin jumped ship from Marvel in 1986, O’Neil to the Bat-office and Carlin to the Superman books, with the explicit mandate of updating the characters to fit the times. Both were writers and editors under Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter, but left during Shooter’s last year. Look at the names of your favorite DC books from the late 80s and 90s and there’s a good chance that someone in the creator’s box or the editorial chair - possibly both - were Marvel veterans. O’Neil and Carlin knew how to make consistently readable, often good comics during a period where such things were notoriously thin on the ground. Some of them hold up rather well, considering.

Compare this to Marvel during the same period. That the company produced so relatively little of merit during the 1990s was a direct consequence of the gradual winnowing of editorial talent that occurred at the company across the decade. People with deep Rolodexes full of talented veteran creators, people with an eye for talent and the patience to develop lasting professional relationships, with an understanding of the institutional responsibilities of publishing for a broad and diverse audience that was, yes, partly composed of children - well, those people by and large didn’t want to work with or for Bob Harras. Perhaps just a coincidence that so many people stayed away from the company during that period. Or that for the better part of a decade DC practically had their run of the most talented creators in the industry, because nobody but nobody wanted to go anywhere near the tire fire on the other side of town.

That’s a big reason Marvel sucked for most of the decade: people just plain liked working with Denny and Mike better (and Archie Goodwin, and Karen Berger too, but those are other stories on parallel tracks). I wish it were more complicated than that. Marvel spent much of the 90s destroying itself, a process which included unwise acquisitions, hostile takeovers, bankruptcy court, and asset fire sales. There were mass layoffs in 1995. When the dust cleared Bob Harras was in charge, and he made of Marvel a very dark place that was not welcoming to experienced creators. DC - and specifically in this instance Denny O’Neil, Mike Carlin, and Archie Goodwin, with their decades of contacts - profited thereby. (Goodwin lingered at Marvel past Shooter’s departure but followed at the beginning of the 90s.) 

Not that things were perfect. “Better than 90s Marvel” is a low bar for any Human Resources department. After a valedictory run on Green Arrow following up his Batman, Jim Aparo was more or less shown the door and invited back only for special projects. (It’s a good run, at least art-wise, if you can deal with Dixon.) In another, better industry someone at Marvel would have seen that embarrassing situation and invited him over to do a few memorable years on the Punisher or a Spider-Man spinoff. Wouldn’t that have been rad? But alas. All their editors were too busy trying not to get fired.

And that leads us back again to the object of our discourse, Batman #496 and the Knightfall crossover of which it is a part. If you want to understand what an editor does, I’d say the answer is one and the same as the answer to the question of why I’d recommend Knightfall: this is a well curated collection of Batman stories that somehow manages to maintain a unified narrative voice despite being the product of many hands. The large part is drawn by Jim Aparo and the story serves as his swan song on the character. The rest of it is drawn by Graham Nolan, Norm Breyfogle, Bret Blevins, Klaus Janson, Jim Balent, and Mike Manley, with covers for the run by Kelley Jones and Sam Keith. Not a joker in the bunch, so to speak. Some of the best Batman artists of all time flanked by interesting outliers.

This is what people wanted Batman to look like in 1993. O’Neil had by then spent seven years supervising, and in that time the character had integrated some of Miller’s advances in tone and style while leaving aside some degree of Miller’s studied coarseness. O’Neil and Miller’s visions of the character weren’t that different, all told. The two men were friends who had worked together at both Marvel and at DC. In 1980, prior to leaving the company for his six-year tenure at Marvel, O’Neil even wrote Miller’s first Batman story, “Wanted: Santa Claus - Dead or Alive.”   

The challenge for the Batman books at the turn of the 90s was getting their guy to look and act more like the Batman people liked on the movie screen and in Miller’s books. (That they did this while also simultaneously managing to make a new Robin a fan favorite after a decade during which the mass of collected fandom rejected Jason Todd as definitively as a character can be rejected was a neat trick.) The stories began to feel more contemporary. In hindsight that also means we can see unintentional emphases. Police became more important in Batman stories because the police became more prominent in media in general. The election of a Democrat in 1992 did nothing to stem the inexorable hardening of American attitudes towards the criminal justice system.

It appeared inexorable at the time by virtue of the fact that one of Reagan’s greatest victories was in forcing the center-left opposition to accept conservative premises regarding law and order.  Democrats and Republicans alike signed mandatory minimum laws and warned about the dangers of looming “superpredators.” Superhero comics tend towards conservative attitudes in regards to the justice system. This goes double for Batman, despite the fact that Gotham remains in almost all contemporary portrayals a very corrupt city with a compromised justice system attached to a disintegrating social safety net. (Which as we know places the stories well within the realm of fantasy, har har.)

The contempt for mental health professionals that oozes out of these stories was endemic to the times, and ported over directly from Miller’s Dark Knight Returns in all its oleaginous glory. Even as a kid I knew the franchise was built on the simultaneous demonization of the mentally ill and degradation of psychiatry as a discipline, even if I didn’t quite get the historical subtext of this particular conservative slander. Mental illness runs in my family - I think it may have come up once or twice over the years? - and I know full well the value and importance of psychiatry as a discipline, as well as the real ways it is abused and misused in peoples’ lives. This list of real professional abuses visited by callous and unthinking psychiatrists upon their patients does not usually include “enabling atrocities due to gullible bleeding heart.” This particularly venomous brand of recurring professional libel for me sours the entire climax of Dark Knight Returns, and parts of this story as well. (I’ve always held my nose with popular media in that regard and expect that I shall do so many times again, c’est la vie.)

It’s not incidental. It’s all of a piece, good and bad. There’s a reason why I haven’t particularly singled out arch-conservative Chuck Dixon for disapprobation, which I’m certain you were expecting at some point. Sure, you can tell his chapters were written by a different person than the Moench parts, and certainly the Grant chapters. But for all that it’s still recognizably the same character in the same story. That the writers retain their individual voices despite singing more or less from the same hymnal is ultimately down to one man. All the players are on the same page, and the playbook is pushing the Dark Knight further in the direction O’Neil wants to go. The same direction he’d been pushing the character since his involvement began in the early 70s. Which also just happened to be a popular, relevant, and lucrative direction, if along with the rest of the country trending ever so slightly rightward when no one was paying attention.

Let’s be frank, this was the 90s. I bought more than a few Chuck Dixon comics, and if you were around there’s a good chance you did too. For a considerable period it seemed like he was writing half the Batman line, and a lot of Punisher, too. He knew the most important trick for any writer, which was getting people to buy the next issue. Dixon also had the benefit of working with good artists like Tom Grummet and Mike Wieringo on Robin. Did I buy everything either man drew? Most decidedly so. O’Neil and DC must have been very happy with the work Dixon did for them during the 1990s or he wouldn’t have done so much of it, and certainly wouldn’t have worked with some of the company’s best artists for years at a stretch. A large part of who the character is today was built in this period by Dixon, Moench, and Grant together with O’Neil, for better and for worse.

Incidentally, the reason there were so many ninjas during this period isn’t hard to figure. Dixon, Moench, and O’Neil are different creators with different temperaments in many respects, but the center of their Venn diagram is a solid commitment to ninjas and other assorted martial arts guys. To be fair I don’t have a lot of productive input here as my least favorite genre of DC story is and has always been “Who is the best martial arts guy?” I’ll let you get your fainting couch. 

 

 

VI

As mentioned, the first direction to which O’Neil trended was ostensibly “back to basics.” In reality that formulation was a bit of sleight of hand. The early period during which Batman was supposed to have been rooted in hard boiled solo detective stories is vanishingly small - essentially, 1939. From his creation to the introduction of Robin was barely a year. The Batman from that first Robin-less year doesn’t resemble the solo Batman I think people expect to see in hindsight. At least not as much as people want. The skeleton is present, so to speak. The vengeance-driven monomaniac with occasional self-destructive tendencies O’Neil shepherded through his editorial tenure took years to develop. The material is as much Saturday movie serial as hard boiled pulp. Batman didn’t even have an origin for, like, half a year.

The new canon of “basic” Batman for which this unspoken “back to” could yearn was an artificial construction, part the actual text of original stories, part projection, and part the flood of stories set in Batman’s early years that followed close on the heels of Year One. In 1989 DC launched its third ongoing Batman book - remember when there were three? Only three Batman books? Legends of the Dark Knight launched after the 89 movie, when they started to suspect there may be more demand for this Batman fellow. It was an anthology book dedicated to telling stories from Batman’s early years - up to the point where Robin arrives. Robin not being present was part of the hook. Burton’s movie had revealed a negative hunger for the character on the part of some fans. It still felt at the time a novelty to Batman so assiduously alone, to be sure. The book was designed to change creative teams after each arc, and because it took place in the character’s past it didn’t usually participate in the crossovers (except when it did, of course).

O’Neil himself wrote the first arc of Legends, “Shaman.” It looks good, thanks to Ed Hannigan and John Beatty, just as most of Legends was gorgeous. But I’ll be honest with you, I’ve never cared for O’Neil’s later writing. Given a blank canvas to chart a new course into a different kind of Batman story O’Neil delivers an overwrought and uneventful yarn about Batman’s connection to Native American myths, dating from his time in Alaska. Oh, well. O’Neil’s second arc “Venom” is even more beautiful, drawn by Trever Von Eeden , Russell Braun, and José Luis García-López. But it doesn’t work any better for me, story-wise. O’Neil’s solo Batman is an astringent character, shorn of most fantasy trappings, let loose in a world of stolid grays and browns. O’Neil’s plots seem more or less 80s grindhouse, cast with stock mystic Native Americans and Caribbean drug dealers with exotic island compounds, repertory material granted a patina of respectability by superior art.

Like other creators of his generation, O’Neil struggled in the 80s and 90s as the idioms of comics changed and storytelling conventions evolved. In his Legends stories he’s clearly trying to write something more in line with Miller and Moore than the company mainline. The results are neither fish nor foul, stylistically fusty and bereft of color while still expressing a genuine desire to break out of established formula. Contrast that with the second arc in Legends, “Gothic” by Grant Morrison and Klaus Janson. Couldn’t be more different, given that both stories share a mystical bent. Only Morrison’s second Batman story, its a rambling but compelling mystery centered around spooky grey old world castles and grim spirits, a paean to the use of Batman as a vehicle for mood. The third arc, “Prey,” was a reunion of the Master of Kung Fu team of Moench and Paul Gulacy. It’s by far the best story in the initial set, a tight psychological thriller with Hugo Strange as the heavy. There’s a swordfight. Catwoman shows up, too. It’s a little bit horny.

While I do find O’Neil’s later Batman writing quite dry, it’s worth pointing out that during the same period he had more success with the aforementioned relaunch of The Question. Now, the Question is an odd example in this context in that he was incontrovertibly designed to be a conservative superhero - albeit adhering to Ditko’s eccentric doctrine - but subsequent generations of creators have always begun new versions by stripping Ditko’s political intentions. I’m not conservative in the least but I am a Ditko fan and have for a long time wondered why a genre with so many other unabashedly conservative elements find’s Ditko’s brand of conservatism so unpalatable. No one has ever even tried to make the character work on his creators’ terms. (The closest they’ve come in recent years were his appearances in the Justice League cartoons back in the aughts, but it should come as no surprise the Dwayne McDuffie outfit got it right.) 

O’Neil takes him in a very different direction, introducing a more philosophical bent, with lots of the aforementioned martial arts and a fair amount of narcotics usage. There were suggestions for further reading in the letters page. The book sat as close on the shelf to Doom Patrol as Batman, even if still preoccupied with questions of justice and revenge. At least for my tastes The Question is a far more interesting, if still sporadically frustrating experiment than his Batman stories from this period. When I say he struggled to keep pace with changing conventions, I don’t mean to imply that he didn’t also sometimes succeed. 

My personal feeling is that he wrote Batman stories during the period fully conscious that he was partially engaging in a pedagogical exercise, setting down boundaries for the character’s new reality. The Legends material is stiff to me because it seems too conscious of itself. O’Neil has to work to make Batman move and think a little differently from his own past iterations, so he’s looking over his own shoulder. O’Neil wasn’t so stiff on The Question.

Moench on the other hand never struggled to remain current. Dude is a rock. After the conclusion of the Knightfall cycle Kelley Jones became the regular artist on Batman, where he and Moench continued for many years thereafter. The Moench / Jones Batman is still perhaps my personal favorite Batman run, for what its worth. Delightfully off-model, as different from Aparo as possible to conceive, yet very popular. Moench brings out the best in disparate collaborators - between Aparo, Gulacy, and Jones I can’t think of three more dissimilar artists. He knows how to feed artists precisely what they are good at drawing, which is most of the battle for comic book writers. 

So what else happens in Batman #496? A whole bunch. It feels overstuffed but it’s a regular sized comic. After Batman stumbles away from the burning zoo we check in the Scarecrow and the Joker, teamed up in the wake of the breakout at Arkham for the purpose of kidnapping the mayor, who they’ve been torturing with the Scarecrow’s fear gas. Joker isn’t usually good for team-ups, considering he usually murders his coworkers, but he’s got a good working relationship with Scarecrow. They share the same sense of humor. Mayor in tow they set off downtown in an ice cream van, at which point things start exploding. Batman chases the three into a traffic tunnel and gets a face full of fear gas from Scarecrow, which just makes him hallucinate Jason Todd’s death and go fucking berserker on the Joker - and, I mean, come on. I’m only human. It’s pretty tight.

The whole thing just goes - one action leads inevitably to the other, Joker gets his ass beat like a bald monkey, Scarecrow blows up the tunnel with a rocket launcher, dead ragged Batman has to outrace a wall of water from the city line, delirious mayor in his arms . . . events occur one on top of each other at a satisfactory clip. Moench knows how to throw all the balls in the air and keep them going, knows if he gives Aparo an action script without an inch of fat he’s going to make it read like a bullet. Josef Rubinstein knows how to get out of the way of Aparo’s pencils. I have found Rubinstein occasionally saps the energy from his artists, as with the second Cockrum run on Uncanny X-Men, but he finds a good match in Aparo. His inks communicate the starkness of Aparo’s lines without overwhelming with extraneous texture. Adrienne Roy’s colors only compliment the layouts, making frequent use of contrasting colors to supplement Aparo’s narrative by ensuring the reader’s eye goes in the direction it's supposed to. Not an inch of page real estate is wasted.

It’s a good comic book. I’m really not that big a Batman person - I know, it probably doesn’t seem like it by now. Way more of a Superman person. But if you must have Batman stories? Well, Doug Moench knew how to write them and Jim Aparo knew how to draw them, but it was Denny O’Neil who knew how to put them together.

Take a moment to appreciate a real one.

 

Next: My Power, My Pleasure, My Pain

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