Comics scribe and historian FRED VAN LENTE pays birthday homage…
It’s not often that I ask others to write about Batman except maybe during theme weeks. It’s my Batjam, y’know?
But comics writer and historian Fred Van Lente — who has been doing a kickass job here at 13th Dimension lately with his guest columns saluting various writers — was game to look at Mike W. Barr’s body of Batwork.
Barr — born May 30, 1952 — is turning 68. The longtime DC stalwart’s Batman concepts often went off the beaten path, so here’s Fred with THE TOP 13 MIKE W. BARR BATMAN STORIES — RANKED.
Oh and — SPOILER ALERT — there’s a great twist at the end…
By FRED VAN LENTE
Happy Birthday to Mike W. Barr, one of the best writers at DC during this late period of pre-Watchmen superhero comics.
I first got exposed to his work as a kid in the pages of The Brave and the Bold. I really preferred team-up books, especially Marvel Team-Up, and so read a lot of B&B. I think I just enjoyed getting introduced to a different new hero I had never heard of before. I also loved jumping on new series from the get-go — #1s were a lot rarer in my day — and I was fascinated when Dan pointed out to me recently that Batman and the Outsiders and Alpha Flight, two of my childhood faves, premiered in the same week in 1983.
AF I didn’t get off the spinner rack until the Puck issue, but I was in on BatO from the jump, probably because I recognized the art of Brave and the Bold standby, and, in my humble opinion, the greatest Batman artist of all time, Jim Aparo.
Many have pointed out that BatO was probably conceived of in an attempt to ape the success of the Wolfman/Perez juggernaut The New Teen Titans, with a mixture of DC stalwarts and new heroes. Batman wants the Justice League to help him go rescue Wayne Enterprises bigwig Lucius Fox from Markovia, a small European monarchy that superhero universes always seem to have in surplus. The JLA gives Batman a lot of guff about red tape like national sovereignty and international law but the Batman doesn’t play by your rules, man, and goes to Markovia anyway, where he stumbles across a bunch of misfits he brings back to Gotham as a League of His Own.
It was fun to go back and look at this series and I was inspired to expand my birthday list of favorites to all of Barr’s Bat-related work:
13. Brave and the Bold #195: Night of Blood! I will admit to knowing next to nothing about the I, Vampire strip, created by one of my all-time faves and one of the nicest guys in comics, J.M. DeMatteis, but when you ask me, “Would you like to see Jim Aparo draw Batman punching Draculas in the face?” my answer will always be “Stick it in my veins, now.”
12. Batman: Son of the Demon. In this graphic novel beautifully illustrated by Jerry Bingham, Batman agrees to formally become the heir of Ra’s al-Ghul — the titular son — to help stop a renegade member of the League of the Assassins who killed Ra’s’ wife and the mother of his daughter, Talia. She and Bats get married then make sexy times, but Batman comes to realize that being an expectant father screws up all his superhero instincts. So after the bad guys are defeated Talia tells him she miscarried (she lied) so he goes back to Wayne Manor, the child forgotten by all but Grant Morrison.
11. Detective Comics #574: My Beginning… and Probable End! Can I just say how sick I am of Batman’s origin story? (And everyone’s origin story, for that matter?) And poor Jason Todd: Talk about being born to die. At death’s door after being shot by the Mad Hatter the previous issue, Robin gets brought to Dr. Leslie Tompkins’ free clinic in Crime Alley which is, of course, an excuse to relive That Fateful Night. This is basically a set-up for Batman: Year Two, which begins the following issue, but the interplay between Bats and Leslie is great, and there are wonderful wordless passages by the incomparable Alan Davis, who does not get his due as one of the all-time great Batman artists.
10. Batman and the Outsiders #15: Going for the Gold! Barr loved embroiling the Outsiders in various headline-grabbing events of the Reagan era — the re-lighting of the Statue of Liberty and so on — and here C-list Batman villain Maxie Zeus somehow finds the money to hire a bunch of Greek mythology-themed bad guys to hold the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles hostage to get one of the athletes fall in love with him. This insane plan inspires a spectacularly weird fight in which Batman and Zeus’ “teams” pair off in various “events.” Trevor von Eden, one of Barr’s greatest collaborators (as you’ll see later) executes these mini-battles in wonderfully loose, sketchy fashion. Also, Maxie Zeus’ plan… works? — with an unintentionally (I assume?) unsettling Stockholm Syndrome ending.
9. The Outsiders #21: Strike Force Kobra. Whole gender-studies theses could be written — and for all I know, have been — about Barr’s work. Two of his creations revolve around men transposed into women’s bodies, and when he had to add a new member of the Outsiders to replace Batman, he and Aparo came up with Looker, a spinster-y bank clerk whose superpower is to make people think she’s really hot. Even as a kid who didn’t know what the phrase “male gaze” meant I thought that was icky and I dropped Outsiders not long after her introduction. (The Black Lightning TV show probably has the right idea turning her into a villain.) That said, fast forward a few years, the Outsiders have a direct market-only title, Batman is back, and when Clayface IV (remember her?) infiltrates the team’s LA headquarters posing as Looker it’s super fun. Also, Jim Aparo, among his many other talents, was an amazing cover artist. I mean look at that thing.
8. Batman and the Outsiders #8: The Hand That Rocks the Cradle… The Outsiders fight evil babies. I mean, seriously, that’s all you need to know. It’s amazing. It’s a plot by an old enemy of The Phantom Stranger, who, like fellow horror-hosts Madame Xanadu and Cain and Abel, got lonely in their respective pocket universes and wandered into the main DCU to get all up in the superheroes’ business. (Can we get a crossover with Svenghoolie or Joe Bob Briggs?) But really, the Outsiders fight babies: That’s the selling point here.
7. Batman and the Outsiders #20: The Truth About Halo, Part 2: Death and Remembrance! The origin of Halo is for people who find the Vision’s origin too straightforward. She’s just your standard amnesiac juvenile delinquent possessed by a cosmic angel. The idea that the sweet ingenue Halo was, essentially, Tuesday Weld in Pretty Poison when she had her memories is pretty awesome, but Barr had to go put an extra layer of insanity on it by having her possessed by a glowing ball of light that is literally a fugitive from the Big Bang.
But this is before that, after Batman has Darknight Detectived out Halo’s real identity and she’s relocated to Everytown, USA, much to the ongoing grief of her unofficial Tiger Mom, Katana. Unfortunately, when Halo was a gum-smacking juvie she stole the formula for a new kind of synthetic heroin (no doubt 10 times more addictive than marijuana) from Black Lightning’s archenemy Tobias Whale, world’s greatest Kingpin ripoff, who shows up to hold her sweet, clueless biological parents hostage in order to collect. Great superhero soap opera.
6. Batman and the Outsiders #27: War Stars! Kobra, a lisping cult leader that Jack Kirby appears to have dashed off during a Kamandi lunch break, is the only reoccurring Outsiders villain that Barr didn’t come up with himself. Here, in another #topical Outsiders adventure, Kobra hijacks Ronald Reagan’s Space Defense Initiative and uses it to hold the world hostage: Your tax dollars at work. This issue made the list thanks to a spectacular Kobra/Batman throwdown by Alan Davis.
Fun fact: In the 1990s I worked for the guy who created the official Reagan administration video of how SDI (aka “Star Wars”) was supposed to work while he was still at Boeing. He said that when he went to the White House he very quickly discovered that no one there had any clue how it was supposed to work either, it was just something the Gipper had pulled out of his butt one day. Kobra got way more out of SDI than anyone else did, is what I’m saying.
5. The Brave and the Bold #200: Smell of Brimstone, Stench of Death! I’m going to pay Mike W. Barr the best compliment I can think of for a comics writer: He knows when to get the hell out of the way and let his artist shine. Dave Gibbons does an incredible Dick Sprang impersonation in the first part of this tale, in which Golden Age (“Earth-Two”) Batman defeats the titular Brimstone, who’s so embittered he actually manages to influence his non-villainous Modern Age (“Earth-One”) counterpart toward evil.
As an added bonus, we get Barr and Aparo’s first-ever tale of Batman and the Outsiders here, the title that would take the place of B&B on DC’s roster.
4. Batman: The Animated Series: Paging the Crime Doctor. Barr is one of four credited writers on this episode, but I’ll declare him MVP because it features Dr. Leslie Tompkins, who featured so heavily in his Detective Comics run. Dr. Tompkins gets kidnapped when her old medical classmate Matthew Thorne needs help saving the life of his brother, mob boss Rupert Thorne. The episodes of BTAS where Batman fights regular gangsters are some of the most fun, and I just like that a 1993 kids’ cartoon featured two old men, the Thorne brothers, yelling at each other over their misspent lives like somebody animated an Arthur Miller play.
3. Batman and the Outsiders #7: Cold Hands, Cold Heart! The standout character from the Outsiders was always Tatsu Yamashiro, aka Katana, marking one of the few times Batman has had to share a book with someone crankier than he is. (See also: Damian Wayne.) At the end of last issue’s battle with the Cryonic Man, she was taken back to the villain’s creepy mansion where he’s going to cut her up to give replacement organs to his wife, whom he’s kept in suspended animation since the 1950s. Katana has to hold off this surprisingly sympathetic wacko and his Leave It to Beaver-era robots until the rest of the Outsiders show up to rescue her. Cryonic Man is a great bad guy and I wondered why no one used him again until I remembered that a more famous villain straight-up jacked his whole schtick.
2. Detective Comics #577: Batman: Year Two, Chapter Three: Deadly Allies. Batman: Year One is a tough act to follow, and to his credit, Barr doesn’t even try to copy Miller and Mazzucchelli. This is very much a Mike W. Barr comic, with the central fun being the mismatched team-up between a neophyte Batman and Joe Chill, the mugger who murdered his parents. In the intervening years Chill has leveled up into some kind of underworld fixer, even though he is a middle-aged man who dresses like Christian Bale in Newsies. Chill is using his knowledge of Gotham’s local scumbags to help track down the Reaper, a serial killer decapitating gangsters in stark contrast to Batman, who just beats the shit out of them. The one commonality with Frank Miller is that here we have Batman at his most dementedly fetishistic: We learn that he has kept the pistol that killed his parents in a safe in his house this whole time and spends the entire issue debating whether or not to use it on Chill. Year Two was used as the basis for what many people believe is the best Batman movie*, with the Chill role played by the Joker. The artwork by noted cape aficionado Todd McFarlane is terrific.
1. Green Arrow, Vol. 1 #2: A Slight Case of Vertigo…! I just want to go on record as saying that Green Arrow is the best Batman. As conceived in the 1940s he was a straight-up Batman ripoff, right down to his Arrowcar, Arrowcave, and inexplicably named sidekick. (Robin? Speedy? Way to confuse the brand.) Then, courtesy of Bob Haney and Neal Adams in The Brave in the Bold, he leapfrogged Batman in terms of awesomeness by losing all his money and gaining an obnoxious left-of-center political sensibility. I just know that if Oliver Queen wasn’t a superhero, he’d be on Twitter right now attacking anyone who criticizes Bernie Sanders.
This Barr-penned series is Green Arrow’s first solo title, believe it or not. The plot hinges on Ollie getting rich again by inheriting the fortune of an old friend whose murder he now has to solve. Barr really excelled at these kind of whodunits — as his creator-owned series The Maze Agency would later show — and here he’s paired with Trevor von Eden, whose spectacular layouts elevate Count Vertigo from Eurotrash punchline to legitimate threat. Both men do their best work on these four issues. Do yourself a favor and track them down.
Fred Van Lente is a comics writer, playwright and historian. He’s also really funny if you haven’t noticed. Go check out his site fredvanlente.com.
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