Wolfman, Novick and McLaughlin’s The Lazarus Affair is an underappreciated gem.
UPDATED 5/13/17: Marv Wolfman turns 71 today. Let’s revisit one of us underappreciated gems!
It aggravates me to no end that two of the most important Batman stories ever are no longer in print: Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers late ’70s run in Detective Comics (with assists from Terry Austin, Walt Simonson and Len Wein); and Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’ first Ra’s al Ghul saga, with contributions from Dick Giordano, Irv Novick and others.
You can get pieces here and there in various collected editions and you can always track down the back issues — budget permitting — but these are two stories that should be available in comics shops at all times, books you should be able to readily give to a friend or, better yet, a kid. They are two of the cornerstones of modern Batman mythology — and by extension DC lore. So much of what you’ve seen on the big and small screens over the last 10-12 years comes from these stories.
Then again, there are stories that have never been collected and one of them — Marv Wolfman, Irv Novick and Frank McLaughlin’s The Lazarus Affair from Batman #332-335 (cover-dated 2/81 to 5/81) — tops the list in Gotham.
Actually, not much of The Lazarus Affair, which features covers by Jim Aparo, actually takes place in Gotham. It begins in Batman’s hometown with rival financier Gregorian Falstaff, who’d been introduced in the title about a year and a half before, ruining Bruce Wayne’s financial empire.
But — SPOILER ALERT — Falstaff was just a tool of Ra’s al Ghul, who was attacking Batman through his civilian identity. Talia shows up in Gotham, there are Hugo Strange-esque monster men, Robin and Catwoman team up, underused superspy King Faraday enters the picture, nobody trusts each other, everyone bickers and they all go intercontinental, eventually ending up on Infinity Island — Ra’s al Ghul’s evil lair in the Indian Ocean.
(Infinity Island recently returned in DC’s new Teen Titans series, by the way.)
Everything culminates in an exciting battle between Batman and Ra’s — naturally — and things get blown up real good.
It’s great — and a worthy sequel to O’Neil and Adams’ original story. If you’ve never read it, you should.
Part of what made the story so good is it felt special. Back then, Ra’s al Ghul didn’t show up as often as he does now. And that makes sense. A villain like that should be mysterious and distant and above the daily fray. He should be saved for the big story — and The Lazarus Affair was a big story.
It was also notable for featuring Catwoman’s first-ever solo story, a back-up tie-in illustrated by Don Newton and Steve Mitchell.
This period of Batman is rich in fine storytelling and DC knows it. For example, they’ve collected the work of Len Wein, who preceded Wolfman on the flagship title. Next up? Gerry Conway, who followed Wolfman as regular writer. But they’ve not been collecting whole, multipart stories. If they at least collected Wolfman’s work — his early ’80s run was brief but he’s written Batman at other times — The Lazarus Affair would be in print. But it doesn’t seem like it’ll happen any time soon.
I did get to discuss Batman briefly with Wolfman:
Dan Greenfield: How did you get onto the title to begin with?
Marv Wolfman: I was called by Paul Levitz, the editor, and asked if I’d like to write it. I thought it would be fun but in all honesty I didn’t think I had the right handle for it as I did with Superman. I never thought my Batmans were as good as I wanted them to be.
Dan: My favorite story from that period was “The Lazarus Affair,” a four-issue arc, which was pretty uncommon at the time on Batman. Are there any stories you did that stand out to you?
Marv: Thanks. I think Paul probably asked for a larger continued story, and I was happy about that. Too often Batman stories were in and out, fast with little development. Paul was an excellent editor and kept challenging me. He was the kind of editor a writer likes to work with; leads and encourages you but doesn’t think of you as his typist. Paul let me be me.
Dan: Were you a big Batman fan as a kid? Did getting on the title have any special meaning for you?
Marv: I enjoyed Batman growing up but wasn’t as big a fan as I was on Superman. You have to remember I grew up in the era of Zebra Batman, the multi-colored costumes and lots of aliens. Every so often they’d do a Batman story I liked but most of them were silly. I got to be a Batman fan later on when I actually had the chance to see what he used to be like. That was the Batman I liked.
Dan: What are the chances of a Tales of the Batman: Marv Wolfman hardcover, like DC has done with other writers and artists?
Marv: Only DC knows. It would be nice but I tend to doubt they’d want to do it.
At least I can tell you that The Lazarus Affair is easily available in back issues for decent prices. They’ll put you back about $10 a pop or so on eBay but you can find them for less if you go to a comics show.
Until DC does the right thing, that’ll have to do.
To read a series of interviews with Len Wein, Wolfman’s predecessor on Batman, click here.
To read a series of interviews with Paul Levitz, the Batman editor during this period, click here.
Cover images from the underrated Grand Comics Database.