To celebrate the release of The Dark Knight Rises, July is “Batman month” here at the m0vie blog. Check back daily for comics, movies and television reviews and discussion of the Caped Crusader.
It’s really quite difficult to overstate just how influential the team of Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams were in redefining Batman during the seventies. Editor Julius Schwartz had made some steps in the right direction with his “new look” relaunch in the sixties, but his attempt to revitalise Batman wouldn’t truly bear fruit until the seventies. While the other definitive Batman partnership of the decade – Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers – had a clear run of issues with an over-arching story, O’Neil and Adams worked together on a number of issues scattered across a period of time when the entire Batman line was showing signs of improvement. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that we wouldn’t have Batman today without O’Neil and Adams, but I would argue that he would look pretty different.
Of course, O’Neil and Adams never really had a “run” per se. They were very lucky if they managed two consecutive issues of the same book. And, of course, both creators were working on Batman separately. Denny O’Neil was among the most prolific Batman writers of the seventies (and beyond), while there’s a whole series of stories here featuring Neal Adams working with Frank Robbins on various “Man-Bat” related adventures or a couple with Len Wein. However, I think it’s fair to say that O’Neil and Adams really brought out the best in one another when it came to working on Batman.
Frank Miller earned a lot of credit for redefining the Dark Knight, with the one-two punch of The Dark Knight Returns and Year One in the eighties. However, there was a quieter revolution taking place earlier, during the Bronze Age. Looking to cast off the weight of the sixties television show that had turned Batman into a camp icon, creators consciously attempted to return some of the darkness and mystique to Batman, restoring him as a creature of the night.
In fact, Adams himself has stated that he was more definitely influenced by the earlier Batman stories than by any of the “new look” artists on the character in the sixties:
It was the early—I guess late ’40s, early ’50s, where Dick Sprang and all those guys, Jerry Robinson, were doing Batman. Later on, when the imitat—or Bob Kane “ghosts” and Carmine [Infantino] did it, I really didn’t feel that that was Batman, but that was the campy time, when they were doing the TV show. That really wasn’t anything that intrigued me. It seemed, in fact, anti-Batman.
Still, despite that, I think there’s a clear evolution at play. While O’Neil and Adams were consciously pulling the Caped Crusader back to his roots, that wouldn’t have been possible without the “new look” Batman as a transitional phase. While Engelhart and Rogers brought a new level of psychological complexity to the character during their Strange Apparitions arc, O’Neil and Adams really defined the modern Batman story, in terms of look-and-feel.
That’s not to suggest that the pair were entirely free of some of the sillier trappings of earlier adventures. Ghost of the Killer Skies features Batman engaged in an air-to-air dogfight in an antique fighter plane as an affectionate homage to the war comics of Joe Kubert and Robert Kanigher. Their Brave and the Bold fill-in issue not only features a crossover with the supernatural series “House of Mystery”, but also features Jim Gordon giving Batman a ticket to a cruise. “You need a vacation… badly!” Gordon advises the Caped Crusader. “I have a steamship ticket to Ireland! The leaves at noon tomorrow… with you aboard!”
Never mind the fact that it raises all sorts of questions about how Gordon can afford to just give cruise tickets away, surely that kinda undermines Batman’s secret identity? (Plus, I kinda love the idea that Gordon thinks he can strong-arm Bruce into taking a vacation.) Of course, it’s probably a tribute to Bob Haney’s delightfully insane plotting on the title, but it still feels a little forced and contrived, especially when measured against the rest of the run.
However, the pair did do quite a lot right, and quite a lot consistently right. Although they made all sorts of additions and clarifications to the Batman mythos that have grounded decades of stories, perhaps the greatest single thing that O’Neil and Adams brought to their Batman tales was a rich and heavy atmosphere. Consider this introduction to A Vow from the Grave:
Hear the wind screeching through the canyons… feel the sting of chill rain and sniff the sulfurous odor rising from the foul earth… see the twists of pale lightening split the sky…
This is a place abandoned by anything that is holy… This is a place for dark deeds!
His name is Kano Wiggins… a murderer newly escaped from the Death Row of a large Eastern prison…. and his pursuer is the dread Batman –!
Follow them into a destiny of terror… tragedy… and…
A VOW FROM THE GRAVE!
The prose is more than a little bit purple, but that’s where Adams comes in. O’Neil could certainly craft a great tale, but Adams could kick that already fascinating and compelling story up several notches.
That opening splash page is absolutely compelling. Lightening flashes in the background, as Batman chases an escaped convict across a rickety old wooden foot bridge. It’s like a scene from a classic monster movie, as a character is chased by an unstoppable force of nature. Under O’Neil and Adams, that’s exactly what Batman is. He’s a night terror, a monster, a creature of darkness. Towards the climax of this same tale, the strong man Goliath demands of Batman, “I heard lots about you! Some say you’re a crook, like that guy you chased… Others hold that you’re practically a saint! Which is it?” O’Neil and Adams Batman refuses to be bound by those two extremes, answering, “Neither!”
Adams’ Batman has a wonderful sort of athleticism about him. There’s a sense, when you look at the physicality of Adams’ Batman, that the character has actually spent his life honing his body to something like a deadly, pointed weapon. The artist’s Batman looks like he’s spring loaded. Even when he’s standing around, generating that rich and gothic atmosphere as Batman seems obligated to do, there’s a sense that he’s still tensed and poised to act. Robin might have left to go to college, but Adams’ Batman remains dynamic all by himself.
I honestly don’t think that anybody draws Batman in combat quite as stylishly as Adams. Sure, Aparo allowed the character to punch his enemies so hard that they would occasionally explode, but Adams has a wonderful knack for Batman’s choreography. It’s hard to imagine anybody in that outfit moving especially gracefully in anything resembling real life, but Adams has a wonderful sense of pacing and timing during these issues. It’s almost routine to see his Batman knocking seven kinds of stuffing out of people (and, on one occasion, a big cat), but each panel looks absolutely beautiful, flowing elegantly.
Adams generated a fair amount of controversy by recolouring his artwork for these collections. I understand that a lot of fans were disappointed and heartbroken by the decision, feeling that the comics should have been presented as they were published all those years ago. Being honest, I don’t mind. I can see the appeal of both approaches, and I don’t think the new colouring drastically improves the artwork, but do think it adds a vitality and shading that was absent. I am just glad that Adams still cares that much about his artwork to go back and to make all this effort.
From the very first collaborations between the pair, it’s obvious that they have a very clear and shared vision of where they want to take Batman. Julius Schwartz’s “new look” Batman of the sixties got a lot of things right in where it took the character, but it also made some very fundamental mistakes. The most obvious one was that it was simply too light. In those sixties stories, Batman and Robin were running around Gotham in broad daylight. Here, Batman is very much a creature of the night – when he does appear in sunlight (as in Ghost of the Killer Skies), it’s only briefly and in the most desperate of circumstances. This version of the character seems to shirk from even the twilight.
While O’Neil and Adams did seem to take an issue or two to get into their groove, it’s remarkable how quickly they grasped the essence of a good Batman story. Even if the plot points of The Secret of the Waiting Gravesseem a little disjointed and out of Batman’s wheelhouse (with immortal villains, and the looming threat of a global terrorist attack), the atmosphere is right. There’s something almost ethereal or gothic about the story’s design, as Batman operates in the dark of night, prowling around shadowy locales and fighting off spectres brought on by hallucinogenic flowers.
(Curiously, there’s a bit of a Hispanic theme running through these early stories. O’Neil and Adams would turn Batman into something of an international jet-setter, much like Bob Haney and Jim Aparo on The Brave and the Bold, but those early issues are very focused on Spanish language, customs and culture. In The Secret of the Waiting Graves, there’s an obviously Mexican theme to festivities, but the villains seem to recall myths the Spanish Conquistadors told about the mythical “fountain of youth.”
In Paint a Picture of Peril, we’re told that the subject of Batman’s investigation lives in a castle “removed from Spain.” In Ghost of the Killer Skies, Bruce is hanging around on the set of a movie filming in Spain. I just find it interesting that Bob Haney had a similar fixation on Hispanic culture during his own The Brave and the Bold run. Although O’Neil’s “el Hombre Murcielago!” does sound slightly more convincing than Haney’s “Bat-hombre!” Sorry, that was a strange tangent, even by my standards.)
There’s a lot of gothic surroundings to be found here – mansions, castles and countryside that reminds the reader of New England. In Half an Evil, Batman prowls the marshes looking for Two-Face. In The Secret of the Waiting Graves, the detective finds two open graves, complete with tombstones. Paint a Picture of Peril sees Batman visit a mansion owned by a “poor, tortured soul” who has been driven mad by the loss of his beloved. (He drove her away by being too possessive.)
There’s an element of horror about most of these stories, as if they could have been lifted from an Edgar Allen Poe story. As Batman observes the owner of the house ranting and raving to a room full of sculptures, paintings and busts, he observes that the man has been driven insane by his loss. “He’s talking to an empty room?!” Batman thinks. “No… not to the room — to the paintings and statues!” In Red Water, Crimson Death, Batman investigates a seemingly haunted keep. In Ghost of the Killer Skies, there’s apparently a murderous ghost on the prowl. A Vow from the Graveeven features the Caped Crusader visiting a refuge for the deformed members of a travelling troupe.
Of course, O’Neil and Adams know better than to wallow entirely in the realm of the supernatural. O’Neil grasps that the character is inherently rational, and so very few of the tales prove to have any true supernatural occurence. (Although Red Water, Crimson Death has quite a few convenient twists and unexplained incidences.) That ghost is just a holographic projection. The killer ghost is really a flesh-and-blood killer.
There’s an emphasis here on Batman as a detective, another aspect that O’Neil and Adams brought back to the fore. I know that Schwartz’s “new look”had made a conscious attempt to integrate that part of the character, but those mysteries often relied on some handy bit of pseudo-science to tidy everything up, like an after-school special. Here, O’Neil and Adams are continually and consciously goading the reader to figure out the mystery before Batman does, with captions occasionally hinting that the vital clue was masked within the last few pages.
O’Neil really knew a great Batman hook, with the central mystery often articulated in a rather intriguing sort of way. “The pilot’s been… strangled!” Batman observes, investigating the site of a plane crash. “He must have been dead before the crash… strangled in mid-air… in a single-seater plane…” To be fair, it’s very difficult to do a ‘real’ mystery within a Batman plot, but O’Neil and Adams frame these wonderfully pulpy set-ups quite well.
And, to be entirely honest, the pair occasionally play fair. Sometimes the mystery hinges on a rather convenient piece of Silver Age technology that only Batman has the skill to identify – like a handwriting-duplicating machine that handily helps him resolve the “murder” of Bruce Wayne. However, there are mysteries the reader can legitimately solve ahead of time, as Batman explains he reached his inevitably correct conclusion. At one point, he even uses a very Holmesian approach to eliminate a number of innocents from his pool of suspects. He explains who couldn’t have done it, leaving only the person who did. He tells one innocent, “Neither Flippy, you, nor Wiggins could have reached high enough to cut the rope used in the hanging!”
There is, of course, more to Batman than solving mysteries, and O’Neil gives the character a sense of complexity that has really endured through to the present day. Most of that comes from consciously toning down the character, in sharp contrast to some of his more flamboyant appearances. In the opening to Paint a Picture of Peril, Batman confronts a bunch of would-be thieves. However, there’s no glib one-liners, no threats, no brute force. He just stands there and stares them down, completely stoic. “It gives me the creeps, the Batman just standin’ there,” one of the goons comments.
There’s a sense that Batman is a genuinely unnerving presence, something that got lost somewhere during the fifties and sixties – that’s he’s not quite as firmly a part of the establishment as many writers wanted him to be. The “new look” Batman and Detective Comics featured a version of the character who hung around with mystery clubs and who gave graduation speeches and held charity auctions. Bob Haney’s The Brave and the Boldtreated Batman as a cop in a strange uniform. O’Neil and Adams consciously move away from it a bit – embracing the earliest Bill Finger stories where Batman wasn’t necessarily a public enemy, but who operated somewhat at odds with the Gotham City Police Department.
“Come on, Batman!” Gordon offers at one point, “I’ll drive you…” An earlier version would have accepted the invitation so they might talk, or used it as an opportunity to show off some fancy Bat-gadget. While Batman’s response isn’t rude by any stretch, it does confirm that he operates outside the system. “You have your transportation… and I have mine!” Rather than announcing his present and acting almost like a deputised law man, O’Neil and Adams have their Batman skulking silently around the crime scene, with even Gordon unaware. At the start of The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge, Gordon wonders why Batman hasn’t arrived yet. The response is swift. “I’m here, Commissioner! Been here for ten minutes!”
It’s not that O’Neil and Adams portrayed Batman as an entirely grim avenger of the night. In Half an Evil, Batman proves to have quite the dark sense of humour – grinning at a chuckling Gordon after he freaks out the pesky Arthur Reeves. However, O’Neil’s Batman is more consciously guarded. Like Engelhart’s Bruce Wayne, O’Neil’s Batman is firmly introverted, capable of concealing his emotions perfectly. “Have you no feelings?” Ra’s demands after Bruce refuses to breakdown following Robin’s kidnapping. Bruce responds, “Plenty of them! It won’t do any good for me to allow my emotions to gain control… not while there’s a job ahead! For years, I’ve trained myself to concentrate on the thing at hand!”
Interestingly, Ra’s al Ghul is designed to mirror that facet of Batman, in a way that immediately allows the character to click. So many of Batman’s villains are flamboyantly insane and extroverted. While Ra’s undoubtedly has a theatricality about him, much as Bruce does, he’s generally a far more calculating and guarded. His fit of insanity after his bath in the Lazarus Pit is contrasted with his generally quite dignified conduct. “I am cursed with a love of emptiness,” he confesses, “desolation!”
Ra’s Al Ghul is arguably the last truly great addition to Batman’s iconic rogues gallery. There have been quite a few interesting additions since then (Bane, Zsasz and even Hush), but Ra’s is really the last truly massive and iconic character to find himself aligned opposite the Caped Crusader. You could make a legitimate argument that the guy is Batman’s actual arch-nemesis, and Christopher Nolan even chose the character to appear as the featured villain in Batman Begins. (And his legacy plays a role in The Dark Knight Rises.)
He’s a fascinating creation here, even though a lot of the finer details have yet to be solidified. He’s a character who is capable of amicably getting along with Batman, one who knows that Batman is Bruce and thus is able to challenge both sides of the character. He also fills a very particular niche that not too many Batman villains really can – Ra’s Al Ghul is a threat to more than just Gotham, and his adventures typically take Batman literally out of his comfort zone. I think a lot of Ra’s appeal to the writers who use him and his family well comes from that archetype – Christopher Nolan and Grant Morrison both have affection for the notion of Batman as a “James Bond” figure, and Ra’s is really the perfect James Bond villain among the Bat’s foes.
More than that, though, he manages to challenge Batman in grander terms as well. Ra’s is a much more mystical villain than Bruce typically faces, although he is still firmly grounded. He can be killed – he just gets resurrected afterwards. Bruce is “just a man”, but Ra’s is a man who has transcended mortality – much like Batman does as a symbol. The difference is that Ra’s openly embraces that sense of magic and mysticism in a way Bruce can’t. Even his name - “the Demon’s Head”evokes a world beyond the rational that makes Bruce uncomfortable.
Ra’s believes in some grander spiritual system that Bruce would never consider. “The desert is the shaper of my destiny,” he assures Batman after a fateful scorpion sting, “and it has decreed me victor!” Bruce could not see that scorpion sting as anything more than blind luck or an unaccounted variable. To Ra’s Al Ghul, it is something far more meaningful – it is the hand of fate itself. It’s very tough for a character to challenge Bruce on those terms without upsetting the delicate balance of a Batman story arc, and O’Neil does it effortlessly with Ra’s.
The other big challenge that Ra’s poses to Bruce is one that I don’t really see talked about too much. Basically, Ra’s is the exception to Batman’s relatively iron-clad “one rule.” Bruce has pulled himself from the edge with the Joker multiple times, but Ra’s seems to be the one character who gets an unspoken exemption. It’s present in lots of iterations. Bruce allows Ra’s to die at the climax of Batman Begins. Mike W. Barr allowed Bruce to kill Ra’s Al Ghul pretty thoroughly. Even Paul Dini has Batman come pretty close to murdering Ra’s during his great Detective Comics run- although Bruce stops short, while acknowledging the Ra’s holds a special place that means Bruce will go that extra mile to put him down.
This tradition stems back to O’Neil himself, who repeatedly implies – even if he never explicitly states – that Batman is willing to put Ra’s down in order to stop him. “Though I’ve never intentionally killed,” Bruce declares, issuing a challenge, “I swear you will not leave here alive unless you surrender!” Given Ra’s is unlikely to surrender, it’s a pretty bold statement. (Similarly, Bruce thinks something quite similar during the climactic battle in O’Neil’s Birth of the Demon, his Ra’s Al Ghul origin story.)
I’ve found this part of their dynamic fascinating. You could very easily argue, as Dini does, that the scale of the threat which Ra’s represents justifies a willingness to kill him on Bruce’s part. Batman outright states in these issues that Ra’s is “the most dangerous criminal genius [he has] ever met.” You could also argue, since Bruce knows of the Lazarus Pits, his attempts to kill Ra’s are equivalent to throwing the Joker in Arkham. (I’m not convinced of that. Bruce has been shown to try to shut the pits down – an act Ra’s considers tantamount to murder, even if it’s not really. Coupled with a willingness to stop Ra’s heart, though, I think it’s clear Bruce will go to almost any length to stop the villain.)
Still, despite all that, I think there’s something more at the root of Batman’s special type of anger towards Ra’s, and his willingness to consider options he would otherwise dismiss. There’s something quite strange about the dynamic between Bruce and Ra’s Al Ghul. While they do form effective foils for one another, Ra’s is one of very few father figures for Bruce. Given how young he was when his father died, any father figure is of interest. Alfred is the most obvious example, but Ra’s also fits the mold.
He wants Batman to accept the role of his heir, to effectively be the son that he never had. In Birth of the Demon, Denny O’Neil gives Ra’s an origin as a surgeon, similar to the late Thomas Wayne. In Batman Begins, Ra’s not only teaches Batman how to fight, but how to channel his guilt into anger and a “will to act.” Grant Morrison’s Batman Incorporated makes it even more explicit. Using Ra’s as a counterpart to Thomas Wayne, Morrison positions Talia as a foil for Bruce – Ra’s has been mostly absent from Morrison’s run, but his influence is felt. There’s also the fact that he is an older man who can never die, while Bruce’s father died before the Caped Crusader really had a sense of him.
There are all manner of modern Batman villains modelled around Bruce’s father, to the point where his father has arguably eclipsed his mother as the focal point of Bruce’s loss. Thomas Elliot, aka Hush, is the most obvious example. His first name is Thomas and he’s a very capable surgeon. He even mocks Bruce through nursery rhyme, while Bruce observes that his own father believed Bruce shouldn’t entertain such fancy. There’s also Doctor Hurt, who pretends to be Thomas Wayne (and is a Thomas Wayne), right down to wearing the first Batman costume.
Even overlooking that, a lot of recent Batman mythology focuses on the idea that Thomas might have fathered other children – that some part of Bruce’s father might exist elsewhere. For a while, for example, it was speculated that Bane could have been the bastard son of Dr. Thomas Wayne. Even Scott Snyder’s recent run on Batman run reintroduced Thomas Wayne Jnr., an existing character – but one played consciously as Bruce’s brother (with his father’s name).
However, Ra’s embodies all of this quite thoroughly and quite effectively. I think that relatively unique aspect of Ra’s – the notion that he’s trying to be a paternal figure to Bruce, and that he fits the archetype – is at least part of the reason that Batman tends to let himself go a little bit further with Ra’s than he would with other villains. He represents a dark counterpart to Bruce’s dead father, and I think at least some part of that, even subconsciously, gets Bruce’s blood boiling just a bit. If you want to delve into the murky world of pop psychology, there’s something distinctly Oedipal about the dynamic between Ra’s and Bruce. Despite the scale of the danger Ra’s represents, it’s immediately more personal whenever he is involved.
It has been argued that Bruce is trapped in an Oedipal nightmare. If Ra’s is a stand-in for Bruce’s father, Batman’s willingness to kill the villain could be seen as an attempt to move through the first stage of the Oedipus complex – “love of the mother, hatred of the father.” It’s telling that we only started to get stories focusing on Martha, such as Streets of Gotham and Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?, long after the introduction of Ra’s. Indeed, it’s been suggested that Ra’s works so well as a Batman foe precisely because he triggers that sort of conflict in Bruce, and arguably makes him a more complex psychological character. Sorry, that was a bit of a tangent, but Ra’s is an absolutely fascinating concept, and O’Neil and Adams do an exceptional job crafting the foe.
And, despite his exception for Ra’s Al Ghul, O’Neil and Adams are sure to keep Batman on the right side of his “no kills” policy. Their Batman is, of course, a bit of a hardass (at one point he declares, “And unless brutes like him pay for their crimes, the thing we call civilisation is a farce!”), but he’s not a person who will abide death. Forced to choose between tending to an injured victim or pursuing a criminal, there’s no choice for this version of Batman. He even seems to mourn a brutal criminal who tried to kill him not two moments ago. “A bad way to go,” he admits, “even for a murderer!” It’s a sharp contrast from the earliest iteration of the character, who remarked of a similar situation, “A fitting end for one of his kind.”
In the powerful Night of the Reaper, O’Neil and Adams explore the idea of justified murder in the service of an ideal. The eponymous murderer is the survivor of a Concentration Camp, who killed some Nazis hiding in plain sight. However, his violence did not end there. Perhaps reflecting Batman’s concerns about the use of murder, it was a slippery slope – the anti-villain murdered several innocent party-goers dressed as Batman and Robin, and almost murdered another college student. It’s been argued that Batman faces a similar dilemma – if he ever compromised his “no kill” rule, he’d find himself on a path to a very dark place.
Of course Batman can empathise with the killer, who claims to be justified in his actions. His primary goal, after all, is to kill Nazis who escaped prosecution. “True,” Batman concedes, “I have no right to judge! Neither have you! There’s not enough water in that stream to wash the guilt from anyone who presumes to take the life of another–!” For Batman, taking a life is an absolute line he will not cross. (Except maybe with Ra’s.) “Bah!” the Reaper responds. “This is nonsense! For twenty-five years, I have borne the burden of my sorrow–!”The temptation must be just as strong for Batman, after all this time.
While the psychology of O’Neil and Adams’ Batman might not be quite as deep and tragic as that presented by Steve Engelhart, the pair do develop several quirks that would become essential to Batman’s character. For example, during Red Water, Crimson Death, Bruce tries to get away from Batman, but finds himself unable to stop thinking and over-analysing things. Trying to take a holiday in Ireland, the Caped Crusader part of his brain is still working away, his apophenia kicking into overdrive. “Red water… could be caused by dinoflagellate poisoning,” he rationalises, while he is physically incapable of escaping his Batman outfit. (Even after throwing it over board.)
O’Neil and Adams point to children as something of a sore spot for Bruce. At any point during the run, threatening a child is liable to provoke a brutal beatdown from the Bat, with a stern tone and the threat of even more violence. “Where’s the youngster…?” he demands while trying to find a missing kid. “Answer… or you’ll regret the day you were born!” According to Bruce, “Anyone who would victimise a kid… is worse than contemptible!”It’s a natural and logical character beat, and one that makes a lot of sense given the character’s origin.
It’s interesting that, despite the run’s status as one of the truly definitive Batman runs, Adams actually only illustrates two of the classic Batman villains. O’Neil, of course, over his extended work on the character, wrote pretty much all of them at one time or another, but there’s only really two classic foes here. The Joker, of course, gets a bit of a rehabilitation in The Joker’s Five Way Revenge, which immediately helped rehabilitate the character after decades as a relatively harmless prankster. Suddenly he was a threat again.
It’s interesting how O’Neil and Adams combine the Golden Age and the Silver Age approaches to the character. The appearance owes quite a bit to Batman #1, the Joker’s first appearance. The Joker is killing people, leaving them disfigured. Batman knows in advance who the Joker is going to kill, but proves fairly ineffective at stopping the prankster. However, the issue also features one of the all-time great Batman moments, as the Joker inevitably puts Batman in an elaborate deathtrap. It might be a bit more practical than the Joker’s Silver Age madness, but it’s still a deathtrap. Of course, this one features Batman wrestling and defeating a shark. And, with Neal Adams drawing, it is awesome.
However, the reappearance of Harvey Dent is fascinating, if only because the character had been lying fallow for quite some time before the pair decided to revive him from limbo. In fact, Harvey had even been cured for a long time before this, with several forgettable imposter Two-Face characters appearing. (Although he was scarred once again – in a convenient explosion, like in a certain other Two-Face story – in his last prior appearance, over a decade-and-a-half before this story.) It’s hard to imagine that Two-Face, one of Batman’s most iconic villains, could have been left alone for so long, but I imagine that Half an Evil played a pretty significant part in reestablishing Two-Face as a crucial Bat-villain.
We’re told by Batman that Two-Face is an important adversary. “One of the most tragic,” Batman observes, “and one of the deadliest!” Of course in stories like Year One and The Long Halloween, that story would get a lot more tragic. However, O’Neil and Adams actually do a fantastic job establishing a definitive and affecting pathology for the villain. The character pretty much always flipped a coin to make decisions, but O’Neil pushes that facet of the character to its logical conclusion. If Two-Face needs the coin to make a decision, logically he can’t make a decision without it.
Suddenly the gimmick becomes a compulsion, and the character gains a whole new dimension, as he becomes a character with no real control over his own life. It isn’t that he abdicates responsibility for his actions, something that would make him a villain. It’s that he can’t make decisions without it, which makes him a lot more tragic. Batman smartly plays this against him at the climax of the story, as Two-Face attempts to contol his need to flip the coin. “Two-Face tries to ignore it…. but can’t!” It’s a fairly logical way of looking at the character, but O’Neil does that wonderful thing where he finds something that in hindsight really should be obvious and blends it seamlessly to the character.
It is funny to think, though, that the Joker is really the only “a-list” established villain to appear in these pages. I think it illustrates that Batman himself and the world around him were really the focus of the duo. (Although Ra’s does appear in three separate stories – the fact that it doesn’t feel like overkill is a testament to how compelling he is crafted as a character.) There are hints of O’Neil’s social consciousness in the writing – although nowhere near as strong as during his Green Lantern/Green Arrow run or even his Justice League.
Instead, he deals with the idea of civil corruption, which feels like a theme that works quite well with Batman, as the hero’s meddling in a mayoral election manages to stop only the greater crook from winning office. The system is so corrupt that there’s no real chance of an honest man taking the mayor’s position. “You, me… Gotham City!” Bruce exclaims at one point, in a burst of social conscience. “To the Bilkers of the world, we’re tools… the instruments of his greed!” (That said, Red Water, Crimson Death does revolve around fishing in the West of Ireland.)
O’Neil and Adams didn’t add the international element to Batman. That was an aspect Schwartz had played up during the “new look”, and quite smartly. After all, Batman fits the James Bond archetype quite well, after all. In fact, his trip to Switzerland to take on Ra’s Al Ghul evokes On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and The Spy Who Loved Me among other adventures. (There’s even a ski chase.) Still, I don’t think that anybody made it look quite as good as Adams. The artist took Batman out of Gotham to countries like Spain, Ireland and India. All illustrated wonderfully.
These are crucial issues in the evolution of the character, even if they don’t exactly form a clear and structured run with an overarching plot. Instead, there are themes and ideas that are visited time and time again, ones that really refined and defined the Caped Crusader for a new generation. I think that they’re pretty important and essential to the character’s direction, but they also hold up remarkably well. It’s no wonder that Denny O’Neil would be made the editor for the Batman titles. I think a lot of the character’s success from the eighties and onwards is grounded in this run of issues. If O’Neil is arguably one of the definitive Batman writers, Adams is easily one of the most influential and definitive artists ever to work on the character. More than just Batman, without his work the entire medium would look remarkably different.
Now if only we could get some more of this Bronze Age Batman collected.
Filed under: Comics Tagged: | Adam, Arthur Reeves, batman, Batman: Vow from the Grave, Bob Haney, dark knight returns, Dennis O'Neil, Frank Robbins, gordon, gotham city, Grave, Julius Schwartz, Marshall Rogers, Neal Adams, O'Neil