BATMAN: STRANGE APPARITIONS
DC Comics 2006
The late essay writer Hugh Kenner said that the general public prefers pictures to words, and vulgar words to subtle. I can't think of better medium of expression which can contain all of those elements, and more, than the comic book. Long on action and typically short on thought, comic book stories are often straight lines between sequences featuring battle and sequences setting up battles. It's all present in this latest repackaging of the Englehart and Marshall Rogers Batman stories from the 1970s. However, I think there is more to this which explains why Detective Comics #469-476 (1977 - 1978) has become a cottage industry for DC Comics.
The series is primarily about the love affair between Bruce Wayne/Batman and Silver St. Cloud. STRANGE APPARITIONS collects all of the issues by Englehart, plus two tales written by Len Wein which tidy-up a few small plot points left over from Englehart's run. Interspersed in this multi-part romantic story are episodes of superhero combat with the usual cast of villains; Joker, Penguin, Dr. Phosphorus, Deadshot and others, and in particular Clayface who is the bridge out from the Englehart stories into the two by Len Wein. Englehart's "master plot" is that Batman/Bruce Wayne cannot resolve the conflict between his twin identities, and when forced to consider the implications, any sane romantic interest is going to have to make tough choices. It is the emotional life of a superhero that makes these tales noteworthy, although part of the equation has to be the relatively sophisticated artwork of Marshall Rogers.
The series starts off simplistically with a story about Dr. Phosphorus, victim of a bizarre radiation accident that left him with a "body of living phosphorus!" (page 8.) Sworn to destroy Gotham City, Dr. Phosphorus soaks himself in the city water supply, poisoning it and sending "The World's Greatest Detective" on a step-by-step deductive process to figure it out and stop the scheme. If there is subtlety in the story, it is buried under Walt Simonson's big-brush proto-Kirby artwork, where almost every movement is a cathartic explosion. The ultimate effect (for me) is a story with a childlike series of violent scenes that beg to not be taken too seriously. It seems miles removed from the carefully constructed pages Simonson drew for the earlier Manhunter series that ran in Detective Comics under Archie Goodwin's writing and editing.
The second story from STRANGE APPARITIONS is an abrupt departure from the style of the Dr. Phosphorus tale because of the change in who is handling the art chores. "The Dead Yet Live" is Englehart's story but with Marshall Roger's artwork the difference is considerable. Rogers specializes in creating believable backgrounds and contributes a measured pacing that benefits in creating a sense of an actual story unfolding versus actions scenes that follow one upon another like dominos falling. Rogers' artwork seems like a perfect match for Englehart's saga of love gained and lost. However, it's not all architecture and shadows, though, there are bombastic moments (for example the collage on page 8) but for the most part the heroics are handled well and designed in such a way that the pages are fun to look at and advance the story coherently.
It is with the third tale, featuring long-time Batman villain Dr. Hugo Strange where Englehart and Rogers gel. "I am the Batman!" is the title, and it means more than the identity trickery of the splash page where Rogers draws a multiple unmasking. The Bruce Wayne/Batman infatuation with Silver St. Cloud is now carrying the central story, and the action and detective work has been moved to the side, in fact Bruce Wayne spends most of this story unconscious. There are still general action confrontations between Robin and monsters, but Englehart injects the story with actual ironies that beg investigation, as when Hugo Strange remains silent under torture from Rupert Thorne, arch-corrupt official of Gotham who is seeking the secret of Batman's true identity. In the end an imprisoned Batman is freed, as he always is, but it is the lingering questions about Silver St. Cloud and Hugo Strange that is connecting the series together now, not a villain or a Gotham City crisis.
The remaining four Englehart stories feature Batman dealing with the usual criminal mayhem of Penguin, Joker and Clayface; however, these seem almost perfunctory (particularly the Penguin episode) compared to the melodrama of Hugo Strange's ghost haunting Rupert Thorne, and the ongoing Silver St. Cloud/Bruce Wayne love affair. It is the Joker section which forces a clarification of the issues between the lovers, and Englehart's Joker - psychotic with a twist of Marx Bros. humor, creates the situation that states the obvious in no uncertain terms. With parallels to the cliché cop story in which a police officer's spouse is terrorized into divorce because she/he doesn't know when "the phone call" will come announcing the police officers demise, Silver St. Cloud watches as Batman battles Joker above the Gotham City waterfront.
The last two of this collection of eleven stories are written by Len Wein, and as I mentioned there are loose threads concerning Clayface and Rupert Thorne to be tied up, but they really are not necessary. Englehart ended his nine part "epic romance" in such a succinct fashion, it seems almost a shame to add Wein's denouement. This is not to knock Wein's writing: he picks up where Englehart left off and carries the ball forward intelligently, and I have no argument against his depiction of Clayface, Cloud or Rupert Thorne. But Wein's Batman is a different creature, and powered by a kind of outsized rage that is quite at odds with Englehart's.
Marshall Rogers' artwork is detailed and thought out in such a way that Gotham City has a life of it's own that it does not when drawn by other artists. Rogers' notes architecture as a thing in and of itself. The geography of the city has a number of in-jokes - - for example "Finger Alley," a clear reference (I assume) to formative Batman writer Bill Finger. Rogers' Batman has the prototypical cape, it gets bigger and smaller as if reflecting the moods and needs of it's wearer. Besides being an effective design element, Rogers' uses it to block in panels, split action, and it wraps itself around light poles and touches objects as if it were an actual living appendage to Batman.
The influence of these stories and the many ways the series has been reprinted is listed on writer Steve Englehart's web site (http://www.steveenglehart.com) and it's quite a long list, with tentacles reaching beyond the comics into Batman films.
Original page October 2006 | Updated April 2012