25 September 2012

"Batman: Shadow of the Bat" #1-0 & Annual #1

Batman: Shadow of the Bat #1-0, Annual #1
June 1992 - October 1994

Alan Grant - Writer (all issues)
various artists; see index at bottom
Adrienne Roy - Colorist (all issues)
Todd Klein -Letterer (all issues)
                       - with Bill Oakley (#9) & Tim Harkins (Annual #1)
Brian Stelfreeze - Cover Paintings
Stelfreeze after Hannigan - Cover Artist (Annual #1)
Joe Public created by Alan Grant & Norm Breyfogle
Batman created by Bob Kane
Original Cover Prices: #1-7 $1.50 | #8-28 $1.75 | #29 $2.95 | #30-0 $1.95 | Annual #1 $3.50

Though my favorite Batman comic series ever was (and is) Legends of the Dark Knight, I've always had a soft spot for Shadow of the Bat. I didn't come to LOTDK as a reader until its 24th issue, but I was there from the very beginning of SOTB. It was kind of personal, in a way, being a reader from the first issue. Plus, the first Batman comic book I ever bought was Detective Comics #603, written by Alan Grant and illustrated by Norm Breyfogle - the same creative team that worked on "The Last Arkham," Shadow of the Bat's opening four-part story. Breyfogle would only illustrate a few Shadow issues after that opening arc, but Grant would write nearly every issue of the book - including all 33 that I bought and read.

One of the most obvious features of this book has to be Brian Stelfreeze's painted covers, a hallmark of the series. I had seen a few piece of his work from time to time before Shadow of the Bat, though rarely anything that I personally wound up buying. I have a Star Wars Galaxy trading card featuring his work, but not much else. Those covers, along with Adrienne Roy's unique color palate, helped to really create the visual aesthetic of Shadow of the Bat. Stelfreeze's covers were invariably my favorite covers out of all the comics I read in a given month, equaled only by Dave Dorman's painted covers for Dark Horse Comics's various Star Wars mini-series.

I was in my early adolescence when this book launched. I was observant, but not yet astute. Whereas Legends of the Dark Knight was obviously a more mature, sophisticated book, Shadow of the Bat was something else. It could never have been a "dark" book regardless of what Grant may have written, by virtue of Roy's aforementioned bright coloring. There was a lot more action in this book than in LOTDK, and it was clearly a companion piece to the concurrently published Batman and Detective Comics series. It was, however, something else all its own.

At the time, I saw it as "the socially conscious Batman comic." Themes explored included treatment of the mentally ill, hyper-patriotism, drug addiction, immigrants (both legal and undocumented), social misfits and the sanctity of life - even of a criminal. Re-reading the comic in the last several days, however, I see that it wasn't merely socially conscious. Grant's liberal politics are scarcely subtle. As an adolescent, of course, I merely took it to be a reflection of proper values. Of course we should be mindful of the ways that the downtrodden become frustrated with life and fall for the temptations of crime and drugs. Of course we shouldn't grab pitchforks and torches just because someone was born with some major birth defects. Of course our criminals should be brought to justice and not summarily punished by self-appointed judges. Batman's values reflected my own. In many ways, they were simplistic; but only inasmuch as trying to see the other person's side of things is a simplistic value to have - but often very murky to actually apply to life.

There is no greater microcosm of Grant's storytelling than issue #13, which presents one of my personal all-time favorite Batman stories from any medium: "The Nobody." A homeless guy, bleeding and crazed, barges into Wayne Tower demanding to see Bruce Wayne. It happened that he had born witness the night before as Batman tangled with some thugs. During the altercation, Batman was unmasked. He escaped without being seen by his attacker, but not the watchful eye of the homeless man, who decided to cash in on the secret by trying to sell it. His would-be buyer took the information, had him shot and left for dead. To make amends, he tells Bruce what he did so that he can do something about his secret being auctioned off, but he wants to know: Why does Bruce Wayne, billionaire, put his life on the line nightly on behalf of others he never knew?

Grant's storytelling is often melodramatic and "The Nobody" is no exception, and cynics may even deride it as schmaltz. I won't bother countering such a dismissive view. I can only say that it was an instant favorite of mine, and re-reading it a few days ago I found it held up for me quite well. I see now just why I've always identified Batman as a liberal ideal and figure, though I'm sure there are plenty of fans out there who can point to stories told by other writers and artists that reinforce their view of the Caped Crusader as a conservative icon.

Various fill-in artists worked on the book for an entire year after that first arc concluded. My favorite of the lot was (is) Tim Sale, who worked on "The Misfits" (#7-9). In that story, marginalized D-list villains Calendar Man, Catman and Killer Moth conspire to kidnap Gotham's Mayor Krol, Commissioner Gordon and Bruce Wayne, to be ransomed for $10 million. Grant didn't challenge Sale in quite the same way as did James Robinson ("Blades," LOTDK #32-34) or Jeph Loeb (LOTDK Halloween Specials, The Long Halloween, Dark Victory), but it's interesting to see the distinctive storytelling voices of Grant and Sale combine to tell the story.

"The Misfits," issues #7-9
The "Knight" Saga

Beginning in 1993 in the wake of the death of Superman, "Knightfall" was a 22-part story in which then-new villain Bane sprung all the villains from Arkham Asylum and sat back while they ran Bruce Wayne ragged. When Batman was at his weakest, Bane confronted him (having learned his true identity) and broke his back. Bruce handed over the Batman persona to also then-new character, Jean-Paul Valley. Paul had been programmed from birth by his father to become an assassin for the secretive Order of St. Dumas. Paul asserted himself over Bane in the finale of "Knightfall" and began his tenure as the Dark Knight throughout an even more massive crossover, "KnightQuest," in which he proved increasingly unstable. Paul's adventures were chronicled as "KnightQuest: The Crusade," while a shorter, parallel story following Bruce Wayne was branded "KnightQuest: The Search." Eventually, Bruce was restored to physical health and confronted Paul, reclaiming the Batman identity in a 12-part crossover event, "KnightsEnd."

This whole thing ran across numerous comic books and gave birth to two spin-off solo books, one for Catwoman and another for Robin. It even drew in Legends of the Dark Knight for five issues (three for "KnightQuest: The Search" and two parts of "KnightsEnd"). Shadow of the Bat began to tie into this storyline with "The God of Fear" (issues #16-18). Because of the print schedule, it was deemed too confusing to number the "The God of Fear" issues to be consistent with the other 19 issues of "Knightfall," but they're an official part of the story just the same.

Subsequent arcs "The Tally Man" (#19-20), "The Immigrant: Rosemary's Baby" (#24), "Joe Public: The Birth of a Hero" (#25), "Creatures of Clay" (#26-27) and "Commissioner Gordon" (#28) were all part of "KnightQuest: "The Crusade." Issues #21-23 of Shadow of the Bat comprised "Bruce Wayne," the middle portion of "KnightQuest: The Search."
"KnightQuest: The Search" remains, inexplicably, not collected.
Like the last several paragraphs, I imagine these comics are largely impenetrable for casual readers, who will want to know things like, "Who the hell is Jean-Paul Valley?" Grant gamely tries to account for Paul's back story (such as it was) in "Tally Man" (#19-20), and more is revealed in subsequent issues. For patient readers, I think it's manageable. Still, I have to say that standing back all these years later and looking at these stories out of context makes it clearer that DC's editorial direction made a mistake by favoring cross-overs and tie-ins to good old-fashioned storytelling.

Looking back, I see that more than 50% of the run that I bought and read consisted of "Knight" Saga tie-ins. I decided to read those issues on their own, as though I only had the Shadow of the Bat titles in my library. I wanted to see how they read outside the context of the overarching saga. The 2-parters ("The Tally Man," "Creatures of Clay") are structured to be read together, but other story content takes place in other comics between the Shadow arcs.

The most relevant of these subplots involves the fate of the murderous Abbatoir, who escapes at the end of "Creatures of Clay" (#27) and is explained to have been deliberately left to die by Jean-Paul Valley in an issue of Batman. Reading only the Shadow of the Bat issues, then, that major event takes place "off-screen" so to speak. The two "KnightsEnd" installments are almost impossible to enjoy as standalone comics and really need to be taken in context of that entire story. On the whole, I was able to enjoy them but I'm certain it's only because I read the entire thing during its original publication so I know what was happening and why.  I doubt casual or new readers would fare as well, and they might benefit from stopping at issue #15.

Zero Hour

By the time "KnightsEnd" concluded, the entire "Knight" Saga had run for nearly two entire years. Like many readers, I was drained. I had enjoyed the stories for the most part, but I just could not see myself continuing on with that kind of story structure. I didn't want to have to buy six comics a month for months on end just to follow a single story line.

Right after Bruce Wayne returned to the role of Batman, DC Comics pushed through their company-wide event, "Zero Hour," which was designed to reset the continuity of their comic books for plot points that had become convoluted and contradictory. They ran an issue in each DC comic before the event, showcasing stories that happened because time had become entirely screwed up. Then came the five-issue mini-series, Zero Hour, in which time was "corrected." After that, every DC title interrupted their standard numbering to run an issue #0 that served as a starting-on point for new readers by establishing the character post-Zero Hour, to showcase what the newly accepted standard would be.

I was fatigued by then as a reader, so after the #0 issues, I bailed on nearly every DC Comic I had been reading. Rereading these final two issues this time around, I confess that I found the Zero Hour tie-in, "The Battling Butler" (#31) both amusing and irksome in that it just assumes the reader knows what is going on and why. Batman makes an offhand comment to Robin and Alfred about there being something wrong with the timeline, but it's not very clear just what is actually happening. "The Beginning of Tomorrow" (#0), however, was a genuinely nice standalone Batman story and a perfect coda to nearly three years of Shadow of the Bat.

Perhaps what stands out most to me as I reflect on these first 33 issues is the way that the "Knight" Saga ran roughshod over Alan Grant's storytelling. His socially conscious themes run throughout all the stories, but those first fifteen issues (sixteen, if you count the annual) reflect a different era. The second half of the run, mostly concentrating on Jean-Paul Valley, is a character study of the identity crisis of the entire superhero industry of the early 1990s. Had readers really become so bloodthirsty that we demanded our heroes be willing to kill? In some ways, the "Knight" Saga reads as a slave to the fad; but in Grant's hands, it reads as a shrewd satire of sorts, slowly demonstrating point by point that whether we thought that's what we wanted, it really wasn't. There was still a place for heroes who drew lines they didn't cross, and that place was best filled by Bruce Wayne.
Notes

Very few issues of Shadow of the Bat have been reprinted in collected form. The opening arc, "The Last Arkham," was given a trade paperback edition and "Misfits" appears in Tim Sale: Tales of the Batman. Otherwise, the only issues to be collected are those that are part of the crossover stories - though, oddly enough, the 8-issue "KnightQuest: The Search" has never been collected. Ergo, if you want to read this Bat-book, you're gonna have to comb through the back-issue bins. The nice part is that these are comics often found in the quarter boxes.

Also, as near as I can ascertain, Batman: Shadow of the Bat Annual #1 was published the same month as issue #14. I recommend reading it between issues #13 and #14, rather than between #14 and #15. DC Comics began a thing with their annuals in the late 80s/early 90s where there was a through story that played out in each of those issues throughout the year, encompassing the entire DC Universe. In 1993, that story was Bloodlines, where some alien monster things preyed on random people and some of them gained super powers as a result of the contact. Shadow of the Bat Annual #1 introduced Joe Public, a teacher with a grudge against drug dealers. It's a rather ho-hum story, but Joe returned in a handful of various comics including issue #25 (and later #50) of SOTB.

ARTISTS

1-4 "The Last Arkham" - Norm Breyfogle
5 "The Black Spider" - Norm Breyfogle
6 "The Ugly American" - Dan Jurgens (Penciler) & Dick Giordano (Inker)
7-9 "The Misfits" - Tim Sale
10 "The Thane of Gotham" - Mike Collins (Penciler) & Steve Mitchell (Inker)
11-12 "The Human Flea" - Vince Giarrano
13 "The Nobody" - Norm Breyfogle
Annual 1 "Joe Public" - Trevor von Eeden (Penciler) & Dick Giordano (Inker)
14-15 "Gotham Freaks" - Joe Staton (Penciler) & Steve Mitchel (Inker)
16-18 "The God of Fear" - Bret Blevins (Penciler, Inker #17), Mike Manley (Inker, #16) & Steve George (Inker, #18)
19-20 "The Tally Man" - Vince Giarrano (#19), Bret Blevins (#20)
21-23 "Bruce Wayne" - Bret Blevins (Penciler, Inker #21) & Steve George (Inker, #22-23)
24 "The Immigrant: Rosemary's Baby" - Vince Giarrano
25 "Joe Public: The Birth of a Hero" - Bret Blevins (Penciler) & John Beatty (Inker)
26-27 "Creatures of Clay" - Bret Blevins (Penciler) & Bob Smith (Inker)
28 "Commissioner Gordon: The Long Dark Night" - Bret Blevins (Penciler) & Bob Smith (Inker)
29 "Manimal" - Bret Blevins (Penciler) & Bob Smith (Inker)
30 "Wild Knights, Wild City" - Bret Blevins
31 "The Battling Butler" - Bret Blevins
0 "The Beginning of Tomorrow" - Bret Blevins

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