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Mike W. Barr and Alan Davis’ Run on Detective Comics (Review/Retrospective)

23rd July is Batman Day, celebrating the character’s 75th anniversary. To celebrate, this July we’re taking a look at some new and classic Batman (and Batman related) stories. Check back daily for the latest review.

When DC comics published Crisis on Infinite Earths, it was a brave new world. Everything was new again. Nothing could be taken for granted. The company had the opportunity to start again with its characters and properties, offering a new beginning to iconic heroes that would hopefully welcome new readers while learning from prior successes and past failures. It was an exciting time in the industry, one bristling with potential.

In many respects, the defining Batman story in the immediate aftermath of Crisis on Infinite Earths was Batman: Year One. Even today, Year One remains a foundational text for Batman, one of the best (and most influential) stories ever told using the character. It defined Batman for the eighties and nineties, and beyond. Frank Miller offered readers a new and updated origin for the Caped Crusader that teased a new way of looking at Gotham City and its inhabitants.

"It's a trap!"

“It’s a trap!”

Meanwhile, a more quiet revolution was in progress over on Detective Comics. Writer Mike W. Barr and Alan Davis began their run on Detective Comics in the immediate aftermath of the now-all-but-forgotten Legends crossover. Although the duo were lucky enough to work on the book over the fiftieth anniversary of Detective Comics, their work was somewhat overshadowed by the publication of Year One in their sister publication – to the point that their run culminates in Year Two, a sequel to Year One.

Still, while it never got the attention that it deserved, Barr and Davis did a lot to offer an alternative to Miller’s gritty and grounded reimagining. Featuring death traps and puns and brainwashing and dodgy jokes, Barr and Davis seem almost subversive. It is as if the duo are working hard to import all the stuff that might otherwise be washed away by Crisis on Infinite Earths, reminding readers that with world of Batman has always been absurd, and that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Talk about making an entrance...

Talk about making an entrance…

It is very easy to take a comic book about a man dressed as a giant bat too seriously. It is very easy to get caught up in issues like psychological realism and verisimilitude and contemporary concerns. It is nice, once in a while, to remind readers that the world of Batman must – by its nature – be absurd. That doesn’t diminish Batman in any way, nor does it dismiss the idea that there can be good grounded Batman stories. It just suggests that one type of Batman story should not be considered objectively superior.

It is great to have a version of Batman that speaks to contemporary American anxieties and who exists in an urban environment that many readers might recognise. Frank Miller was very effective at constructing a version of Batman who had been re-engineered for the late eighties. It was an approach that was novel and exciting in the eighties, and which has produced no shortage of exciting or comparative narratives since.

A funny guy...

A funny guy…

However, one of the key strengths of Batman is the fact that the character is so versatile. There is no one true Batman. Sure, the cape and the cowl are pretty essential, but Batman can exist on a wide spectrum. He can be Adam West and Michael Keaton and Christian Bale, each holding a perfectly valid claim to the title. The best part of Barr and Davis’ Detective Comics is that it feels like a conscious effort to assert this idea, to introduce a version of Batman existing in contrast to the gritty urban vigilante of Year One.

For example, much of Barr and Davis’ Detective Comics trades off the iconography of the Silver Age – in particular, they seem to evoke the classic Batman! television show. Batman’s first words of the run beg to be read in an Adam Wst voice, as he advises Robin, “Actions speak louder than words, chum!” At the start of the second issue, Batman even visits a stereotypical rough bar that seems designed to recall the one from the 1966 movie.

Nothing to fear...

Nothing to fear…

The introductory text to Fear for Sale sounds like it might have been written for William Dozier. “He’s back! The Pharaoh of Phobias, the Duke of Dread, the Scarecrow is back to strike terror into the hearts of Gotham City, this time by offering… Fear for $ale!” All that’s missing is a rhetorical question pondering whether the dynamic duo will put on a bold brave fearless face or tremble in tumultuous terror.

That said, Barr has a bit of fun with the obvious point of comparison. On discovering the Joker’s evil plan to steal “Joe Miller’s Joke Book” by solving a riddle, Robin declares in true Burt Ward fashion, “Holy Guttenberg! Let’s go!” Batman is not quite as enthusiastic. “Not so fast, Robin,” he remarks, stopping his young sidekick. Grabbing Jason by the shoulders, he stern warns his charge, “Never do that again!”

Going out with a bang...

Going out with a bang…

While Adam West’s Batman! may seem an influence, it is perhaps more accurate to suggest that Barr and Davis are influenced by the comics that inspired the classic television show. It is too much to describe it as “Silver Age nostalgia”, but there is definitely a strong sense of nostalgia here. After all, Barr and Davis revive long-forgotten characters like Doctor Moon or Leslie Thompkins, characters more associated with the Bronze Age than the Silver Age.

There’s a wonderful sense of fun to all this. The Joker tucks himself away in a giant novelty toy collection, so Batman and Robin get a big set-piece involving giant pool balls and dice. The Joker has a “Joker-mobile.” Batman lures the Mad Hatter out of hiding through the clever use of puns – “throwing his hat into the ring” of Gotham’s politics simply to catch the arch-criminal. Batman faces down opponents on a giant pool table, while the Scarecrow constructs an elaborate death trap.

The ball is in their court...

The ball is in their court…

Write Mike W. Barr simply sees this as part of the rich tradition of Batman, dating back to the character’s earliest appearances:

As to the deathtraps, those, I think, are a vital part of Batman’s history. Batman’s fourth or fifth story in Detective Comics, written by Gardner Fox, was a deathtrap. Those go way back to Batman, and they’re a vital part of the character. If you don’t have a deathtrap every now and then, you’re not using all that can be had from Batman.

In some ways, coming so hot on the heels of Crisis on Infinite Earths, Barr and Davis seem to be consciously trying to carry this stuff over.

Service with a smile...

Service with a smile…

While Barr doesn’t mention Crisis on Infinite Earths when discussing his run on the book, he does concede that he was trying to bring back a type of Batman story that had maybe fallen out of fashion:

I just felt like this was the right time to bring back that kind of Batman story, and Denny O’Neil agreed. I sat down and talked to Denny before I began writing the book and said “this is the kind of story I want to do, how do you feel about it?” Since no one had done what you might call the “classic” Batman and Robin stories for a long time, Denny thought it was a good idea to get back to that tradition.

Given the trends in late eighties Batman comics, Barr and Davis represent an endearing change of pace. It is a run that serves to remind people of what Batman comics were, rather than getting caught up in contemporary trends.

Got milk?

Got milk?

There is a very clear sense that Barr and Davis are remaining true to the spirit of Bob Haney and Jim Aparo’s wonderful The Brave and the Bold stories, even if they never go quite as far as Haney would on occasion. This is a Batman who is familiar terms with certain people in Gotham. “Hello, Rhonda,” he greets a lady at a dive bar. “Staying out of trouble?” A later conversation with Robin suggests that Rhonda is a prostitute, although Batman is too much of a gentleman to say it. “She’s a lady, chum.”

There is something quite endearing about the relationship between Bruce and Jason here. As the duo work through the problems presented by Gotham’s unique brand of criminals, Bruce never loses sight of the fact that he is dealing with a kid. On discovering Jason has been taking newspaper clippings to assist in the pursuit of the Mad Hatter, Bruce responds, “Why don’t we talk about it over a piece of Alfred’s chocolate cake?”

This kitten's got claws...

This kitten’s got claws…

Indeed, Barr’s work with Jason Todd is quite intriguing. Todd was not readily accepted by a lot of Batman fandom, leading to the decision to hold a phone poll to decide whether the second Robin would survive the climax of A Death in the Family. However, Barr and Davis use the character quite well. A large part of that is down to treating him as a young and inexperienced Robin, and allowing Batman to be a father figure, but there is also some nice character work here.

In “… My Beginning… And My Probable End”, Jason is wounded during a confrontation with the Mad Hatter. Bruce takes him to Leslie Thompkins, hoping that she might be able to help. Struggling to stabilise the boy and to bring him back to the land of the living, Thompkins reflects, “You know, he reminds me of you…” Perhaps this could be seen to foreshadow the later character development of Jason Todd – suggesting that Todd did not work well as Robin because he was too much like Bruce.

All on his Todd...

All on his Todd…

That said, Barr and Davis balance tone surprisingly well. While their run on Detective Comics is a celebration of classic Batman tropes and conventions, they never let themselves get too caught up in the goofy thrill of it all. Just because there are giant death traps and set-pieces and brainwashing and remote-control hats doesn’t mean that the run is shallow or simplistic. One of the more interesting aspects of this Detective Comics run is the way that it balances the light with the dark.

The death of Jason Todd haunts Barr and Davis’ Detective Comics, a year before the company would publish A Death in the Family. Barr and Davis make it clear that – despite Todd’s chipper attitude – dressing a kid up in bright colours to fight crime is a risky decision. At the climax of Fear for Sale, Batman conjures up “the most terrible fear [he] could conceive”, which is the death of Jason Todd. It practically seems like foreshadowing, not just of A Death in the Family, but of what immediately follows.

Dead reckoning...

Dead reckoning…

At the end of The Mad Hatter Flips His Lids, Batman defeats the Mad Hatter by hotwiring his flying hat, knocking a gun out of his hand, only to discover that a stray bullet has hit Jason Todd. It’s a wonderfully shocking panel juxtaposition. Holding the Mad Hatter, Batman remarks, “Well… I guess we can go home now, chum…” When no response is forthcoming, Batman turns around to discover Todd lying on the rain-soaked roof with a bullet wound.

When Batman takes Jason to Leslie Todd in “… My Beginning… And My Probable End”, the doctor chews out him out for his recklessness. Batman insists, “He’s strong… he’s a fighter.” Thompkins is having none of it, “Stop that! You make what you do sound noble… heroic…” While Bruce gets to make some arguments in his own defence, “… My Beginning… And My Probable End” is a surprisingly critical little story – particularly given what eventually happens to Jason Todd.

A parting shot?

A parting shot?

“… My Beginning… And My Probable End” is a particularly interesting story. The end of The Mad Hatter Flips His Lid teases “the new origin of Batman”, which seems particularly surreal when DC had very recently published Batman: Year One to massive critical and commercial success. Why would Barr and Davis revisit that origin only a year later, particularly to off a “new” version of it? It is a very strange decision.

In many ways, “… My Beginning… And My Probable End” typifies the surreal relationship that exists between Mike W. Barr’s work on Batman and the massive success of Batman: Year One. After all, Barr’s high-profile Batman: Year Two began as a completely different story idea that DC originally passed over and subsequently re-branded in order to cash in on the success of Batman: Year One. Barr ends up writing a sequel that feels absolutely nothing like the popular book upon which it is riffing.

He's in a glass case of emotion!

He’s in a glass case of emotion!

In many respects, Year Two is more of a sequel to the flashbacks in “… My Beginning… And My Probable End” than it is to anything in Year One. Offering a “new” origin for Batman, Barr and Davis use the flashback structure to do two things. Most obviously, they set up Bruce Wayne’s possession of Joe Chill’s gun – a necessary plot point for Year Two. However, they also add in some of the stuff that Miller explicitly stripped out of Batman’s origin in Year One – Bruce Wayne studying in Gotham.

Barr and Davis do a lot to balance the more gritty and grounded contemporary Batman while remaining true to his roots. They don’t meditate on the insanity of being Batman in the same way that Miller does, but there are repeated suggests that Bruce may be on the edge. After losing Selina Kyle to the Joker’s brainwashing, Batman proceeds to beat the Clown Prince of Crime to within an inch of his life. At another point, he threatens to frame a source and send him to prison to get the information that he needs.

"This is the weapon of the enemy..."

“This is the weapon of the enemy…”

And yet, despite this, Bruce is not a character driven solely by anger or revenge. Davis draws Batman smiling for a considerable portion of the run, which makes for a surreal sight. Far from an anonymous creature of the night, Batman seems to be a regular in certain segments of the underworld. More than that, Bruce seems to be motivated by hope – against all odds – that he can make the world a better place.

Defending his decision to recruit Jason Todd as a soldier in his war on crime, Bruce argues that he saved Todd from a life of crime, and that he is mindful of everything that Jason will miss out on. After delivering a personalised warning to the Mad Hatter to stay on the straight and narrow, Bruce reflects, “So many of my foes are either insane or irredeemably evil… I’d like to think it’s possible for some of them to reform… this side of the grave.”

Jump on in there...

Jump on in there…

Davis would depart the book only one chapter into Barr’s Year Two storyline, while Barr would remain on Detective Comics for two months after the end of Year Two. In true Mike W. Barr fashion, that two-part story – Double Image – saw the writer resurrecting another piece of classic comic book continuity that might otherwise have been lost in the shuffle of Crisis on Infinite Earths – Paul Sloane as Two-Face. However, Barr departed Detective Comics by the time the Millennium crossover hit.

It is reassuring to see that the influence of Barr and Davis’ short run on Detective Comics lives on. As with Peter Milligan’s short run on Detective Comics, it is good to know that these quirky interludes are appreciated and recognised. Year Two would go on to inspire Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, a theatrically-released film that ranks among the best Batman films ever produced. It is arguably even more remarkable for so effectively adapting a flawed and troubled plot.

On the cards...

On the cards…

Fear for Sale provided the basis for two separate episodes of Batman: The Animated Series. The plot line involving the Scarecrow meddling in local sports was used for the early episode Fear of Victory. The rather clever twist – the Scarecrow developing a drug that “removes the normal inhibitors — fears — from the mind, making men careless… overconfident!” – provided the basis of Never Fear, right down to the Scarecrow using the chemical against Batman.

Barr and Davis’ run on Detective Comics may have been short, but it was a genuine classic.

I just felt like this was the right time to bring back that kind of Batman story, and Denny O’Neil agreed. I sat down and talked to Denny before I began writing the book and said “this is the kind of story I want to do, how do you feel about it?” Since no one had done what you might call the “classic” Batman and Robin stories for a long time, Denny thought it was a good idea to get back to that tradition.Read More: Mike W. Barr On Batman: The ComicsAlliance Interview, Part One | http://comicsalliance.com/mike-w-barr-on-batman-the-comicsalliance-interview-part-one/?trackback=tsmclip
I just felt like this was the right time to bring back that kind of Batman story, and Denny O’Neil agreed. I sat down and talked to Denny before I began writing the book and said “this is the kind of story I want to do, how do you feel about it?” Since no one had done what you might call the “classic” Batman and Robin stories for a long time, Denny thought it was a good idea to get back to that tradition.Read More: Mike W. Barr On Batman: The ComicsAlliance Interview, Part One | http://comicsalliance.com/mike-w-barr-on-batman-the-comicsalliance-interview-part-one/?trackback=tsmclip
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