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The ’90s Revisited – Detective Comics Annual #5

90s_revisited

detectivecomics_annual005Acts of Madness!

Writers: Alan Grant & John Wagner
Penciller: Tom Mandrake
Inkers: Tom Mandrake, Jan Duursema, Rick Magyar
Colorist: Adrienne Roy
Letterer: Bill Oakley
Asst. Ed.: Scott Peterson
Editor: Dennis O’Neil
Cover: Sam Keith
Cover Date: 1992
Cover Price: $2.50
Published by: DC Comics

The issue opens on The Ventriloquist’s Club and some sorta Scarface invitation-only event. We see various invitees of the Gotham Underworld milling about and mixing; and Scarface announces that he’s going straight, and insults some folks in the crowd. Meanwhile, Batman’s out ‘n about as usual for an evening, and ponders the event…that he obviously was NOT invited to. There’s a brief scene between Jim Gordon talking to his daughter on the phone, as we see that things are still raw–especially for him–regarding what the Joker did to Barbara. Back where Batman’s captured the thieves, he finds a black diamond and slips it into his utility belt to examine later before handing over. At the Ventriloquist’s club, we see that part of the event was to get all sorts of criminals in one place and listen in on "bugged" tables to find a heist to hijack. They decide on one involving some cash The Joker should be able to point ’em toward. In the Batcave, Batman examines the diamond, while Jim Gordon continues to struggle with his hate for the Joker. Ventriloquist/Scarface and goons break Joker out of Arkham; while Batman finds there’s something evil in the diamond; but is alerted to the Bat-Signal, where once with Gordon he learns that 1. The Joker’s out again and 2. meets another Gordon–Bruce Gordon…who fills Batman in on the black diamonds and Eclipso.

Elsewhere, Joker’s led Ventriloquist & Co. to one of his old HQs where he shows off HIS "wonderful toys." Back at the police station, Jim’s checked for more black diamonds, but after learning that Joker’s location has been discovered, insists on leading…but instead accidentally unleashes "an Eclipso," a manifestation that is fueled by Jim’s dark thoughts and feelings and makes its way to try to kill the Joker. Batman trails the creature and eventually engages it in battle; showing that he prefers no hand whatsoever in anyone’s death…even The Joker’s. (Jim) Gordon is horrified when he comes to and realizes what he’s unleashed and that it’s led to police injuries. He races to the scene, where Batman’s fight continues and smashes his car into the creature, allowing Batman the coup de grace. Though it looks like the Joker’s about to be back in custody, he uses some chemicals to create a smoke cloud and gets away. We close the issue with a note that this is "to be continued" in Robin Annual #1…but that "next week" Eclipso: The Darkness Within continues in Superman Annual #4.

I’m not a fan of Scarface/The Ventriloquist. Easily one of my least-favorite Gat-villains. Er…BAT…villains. That said, it’s been ages since reading a story with ’em, so there’s that going for it; and as an extended-length story without being stuck in a mini-series or such. I think I’m also put off by the cover having nothing about ’em and just featuring Eclipso and Joker, and yet, this is definitely much more a SF/V story than Joker story (he just happens to BE there). But that’s probably part of the selling factor…Joker sells (sold?) while SF/V doesn’t (didn’t?).

Though the issue kinda dragged on…at the same time, it seemed to FIT as a Batman story. It wasn’t some drawn-out 6-issue decompressed thing or mini-series…but it lasted much longer than "just" a typical "single issue" would have. It gave us a chance to see the parts moving around the board so to speak; spend time with multiple parties, and all that. To my 2022 eyes, it felt like the Babs/Jim Gordon stuff was “shoehorned in” arbitrarily…but it was still SOMEWHAT “fresh” at the time.

I don’t remember exactly what year it was that Killing Joke came out–I’m thinking ’88?–so this is a mere 4 years removed from that…still a pretty fresh story at the time. (Compared to my reading THIS 30 years after publication with Killing Joke now 34 years removed…and it’s been almost 11 that Babs has been back up and about with New 52-to-present). So in 1992, maybe written earlier than published, it makes sense that it’d be a topic still mine-able for the characters.

The art is also pretty good…though this is definitely a case where I prefer the interior to the cover. Sam Keith’s style is very distinctive and recognizable (at least to me), but definitely a bit "weirder" than I usually picture it here, and though it has a moon ("eclipse") and the Joker. The interior art feels very "classic" to me for late-’80s/early-’90s stuff; there’s some distinctive style stuff that screams "’90s Batman!" to me. Mandrake’s art seems very fitting, and reminds me a bit of Norm Breyfogle’s work somehow.

All in all, this issue seems rather generic and forgettable as a Batman story. But it still feels like a Batman story, that happens to have some Eclipso elements to it that it wouldn’t have if not part of this event. It packs a lotta story between its covers, and feels far more "meaty" than modern Annuals; not to mention my ongoing enjoyment of the fact that this is part of a large event that did not eat up the main titles and yet was contained TO the titles by their annuals.

Taken alone, it’s a decent read as a one-off; there’s a bit to "know" about Eclipso, but the reader can pretty much figure stuff out from Bruce Gordon’s words; and though this "continues" into the Robin Annual, it’s like a lotta formulaic Bat-stuff; where the villain gets away and Batman’s gotta continue on.

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The ’80s Revisited: Detective Comics #604

80s_revisited

detective_comics_0604The Mud Pack Part One: Men of Clay

Writer: Alan Grant
Penciller: Norm Breyfogle
Inker: Steve Mitchell
Letterer: Todd Klein
Colorist: Adrienne Roy
Assoc. Editor: Dan Raspler
Editor: Denny O’Neil
Cover Price: $1.00
Published by: DC Comics

This cover is another iconic one for me at least…with a mud/clay version of Batman and someone holding a glinting knife over it. There’s no cover credit in the issue…because this almost certainly was when covers were done by the main artist of the issue. And they actually reflected something from the issue itself…either thematically or literally. In this case…literally.

The issue opens with someone holding a mud statue of Batman, and then we jump to a few pages of some clay guy (Preston Payne, Clayface III) in Arkham, talking to a mannequin he’d been in love with but had to tell he wanted to break up. When she didn’t answer, he smacked her and freaks out when her head flies off. He winds up breaking down his door and killing/maiming guards…escaping. Elsewhere, Batman takes down some generic criminals in an alley before responding to a call about the escape. Meanwhile, a cloaked figure stalks through the movie theater district reminiscing about old times and when films were good, talking to someone named Matthew. When he’s approached by some would-be muggers, they get more than they bargained for as he shows them true horror as a slasher, killing them. While Arkham guards hunt Payne, they meet up with a woman in a costume who has mind-powers; Payne had passed out from tranquillizer darts, and she makes the guards shoot each other before she leaves with Payne in tow. In an abandoned theater/now-HQ, the cloaked figure speaks to Matthew again and we learn that Matthew had been Clayface, perished during a crisis, and whoever this is is trying to bring him back. He fails. Batman confers with Commissioner Gordon and they realize Looker of the Outsiders is involved…or so they think. It turns out we have another Clay-person in this Sondra Fuller or "Lady Clayface" or "Clayface Four." She’s like Hagen apparently was–a shape shifter…but it seems she can actually mimic others’ powers! She’s working with the cloaked guy who turns out to be Basil Karlo, apparently the "original" Clayface. While Matthew’s nothing but slopped mud now, this unites the original Clayface with successors Clayface Three and Clayface Four…a unique group sure to now be able to as one, claim fame, fortune, power…and kill the Batman! (And for effect, he stabs the mud statue of Batman he had, fulfilling the cover’s image).

While there’s the name Batman on the cover and he’s kinda in the background, the cover to Batman #439 is more Nightwing than Batman. Which makes this one all the more striking, being a large closeup of Batman, someone holding a knife…is it a statue? Is it Batman himself trapped in a covering of mud? It also feels like a fairly unique cover, all the more for the colors…so much muddy brown on a black background…it’s hardly a bright, cheery colorful thing to leap off and grab someone’s attention. For me, though, it was part of my first exposure to then-current Batman in 1989, and has remained a striking cover to me that always seems to grab my attention if I see it anywhere! And something like this story would be an excellent candidate for a Batman: Clayface or whatever those villain-spotlight TPBs are; or of a massive reprint issue for this arc, etc. Yet other than a Norm Breyfogle-specific collection, I don’t think this Mud Pack story has ever actually been collected as its own thing! Which is a darned shame, really.

41-year-old me in 2022 here thinks he knows that Clayface III (Preston Payne) is an Alan Moore character from an Annual. But this issue seems to give us what we need to know about him, what he is and does to appreciate the character. Same for Karlo…though we get less on Lady Clayface. We see her in action, but not much else. We also get the Hagen bits/references…bringing this group of villainous/antagonist characters together (for the first time?) as a unified threat, setting up whatever comes next. The issue is almost cinematic in some ways with an intro image, then prologue, introducing the characters and bringing them together, the Karlo "reveal" as the mastermind, and so on…leaving off on a (perhaps melo) dramatic cliffhanger/threat.

Visually, this has a definite difference from the Batman over in that title. Breyfogle‘s Batman is rather distinctive to me and rather prone to shadows and for lack of a better phrasing, a sort of "flow" with the action. I also really like his Bat-Signal…it’s recognizable, but its "wavy" effect seems much more authentic than a clean circle on clouds as it’s often depicted. As some of my earliest, regular Batman art, this set the standard for me, along with the likes of Byrne and Aparo as "my" Batman, and a style I very much enjoy.

There’s another thing to this issue that struck me as a kid: the cover proclaims "Free Full-Color Batman Mini-Poster Inside!" Bound into the center of this issue is an actual poster that can be removed (carefully)…a double-page sized image of Batman, and seems to be the same paper as a cover…something higher quality than the basic "newsprint" the bulk of the issue was printed on. This poster is single-sided; and does not even have ads or other promo stuff on its back; removing it in no way decreases (and actually, INcreases) the readability of the issue…no story/panels are lost, it’s truly an actual bonus for the issue! Some comics in the late-’80s/early-’90s would feature "pin-up pages" of art by creators either not as associated with a character or not holding the "main" art gig for the character/team; filler space, etc. This poster is its own thing, an original image not just lifted from a panel…and certainly "worthy" of a cover itself…but, no "variants" here!

I’ve snagged multiple copies of this issue over the years. My original in 1989; as well as copies from bargain bins; at least one copy was solely for that poster, which I have framed on a wall; and a copy I got to get signed by Breyfogle himself some years back when I was unable to locate my actual original copy in time; and now this copy I got for this reading project at present.

I’d definitely recommend this issue if only for the poster, should you happen across it in a bargain bin. The Mud Pack seems a totally forgotten, high-quality story (albeit perhaps from rose-colored glasses of nostalgia) that I’d definitely recommend getting if you’re able to get all 4 chapters; and ideally copies for less than whatever modern comics cost. To me, this is certainly a 25-cent book; but decently worthwhile going up to $3/$4 (maybe $16 at most for all 4 chapters) just because it’s such a quality Batman/Clayface(s) story and strikes me as having a lot more…SOMEthing…than modern $5 and $6 single-issues.

I did a bit of "internet research" because neither this issue nor Batman #439 had cover dates on them…but I know I had to have gotten them at the same time as Adventures of Superman #453 (April 1989) and Superman #31 (May 1989). Apparently somewhere in this timeframe DC and Marvel had some shenanigans on adjusting cover dates, and from what I can figure out, it seems likely that the correlation here–what put these 4 together for me–was that the Superman issues probably were "left over" and had not been pulled; while the Batman issues were very new. Or something to that effect.

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