The next title on “the shelf” features a collection of Batman stories, all originally published in Detective Comics. According to the introduction, the book features a set of stories all containing a ghost or ghost-like figure.
This introduction made me a bit wary. I had recently read other similar collections, uniting essentially unrelated stories with a similar theme or concept. While I really like the Batman comics, I worried that this would be another collection that didn’t tie together very well.
As usual, Batman pleasantly surprised me. The stories here do all focus on a ghostly figure, but each story connects to the next, so that the collection is actually one cohesive storyline.
This trade features a handful of popular Batman villains, including Penguin, Joker, Clayface, and even Dr. Phosphorus:
When I turned the page and saw this drawing, I was struck by how intense it was. I knew from that point that this collection was going to feature strong illustrations, and likely strong characters all around.
What enticed me most about this collection was the fact that so many Golden Age villains made reappearances here. Dr. Phosphorus was the first such villain, and he appears off and on throughout the entire trade. In a later issue, I was happy to see Clayface make a reappearance as well, looking gruesome and terrifying.
With Clayface I began to see the emergence of character re-introductions. The Clayface shown above is not the same Clayface from the Golden Age comics. This is a man with an entirely separate backstory, although the original Clayface is mentioned, and plays a pretty vital role in the story. Instead of carrying over the exact same character from decades previous, the writers chose to completely re-imagine the character, changing his characteristics, name, backstory, everything. I thought this was a very intriguing way for a writer to bring back a long-forgotten character and make it his own. I’m very curious to see how often such characters are re-imagined, and which, if any, incarnation becomes the standard to draw from.
Unlike Clayface’s story, there are also characters introduced in this comic that have remained virtually unchanged since their initial appearances. The one who stands out moreso than any other is The Joker.
The Joker has changed very little since his first appearance in Batman #1. His character has been sharpened a little bit, his appearance has been refined, but all of the basic tropes are still there. His maniacal behavior and killer jokes permeate every comic he appears in, making his character perhaps one of the most recognizable in comics. I would guess that even at the time of initial publication, the writers and artists knew how popular he was. Just look at the picture above. The artist’s rendering of Joker is more detailed than just about every other panel in the collection. The acute detail given to his character, in both physical appearance and characterization, proves how integral this character is to Batman’s storyline. Joker even goes so far as to comment on this directly:
He proclaims in the above panel, “The Joker must have The Batman!” And indeed, I believe Batman must have The Joker. The Joker has already been well-established as Batman’s arch-nemesis, and The Joker needs an astute crime-fighter to foil his plans. Without the other, each would seem incomplete. The continuity in characterization over the course of decades has clearly cemented each character’s personality, and locked the two in a continuous battle.
I was also happy to see that storylines were being continued from issue to issue, and that this collection made numerous references back to prior comics.
Not only do these comics reference back to prior Detective Comics issues, they also reference Batman, and even The Justice League of America and Teen Titans. I was happy to see that I actually knew just about all of the references made, and was familiar with the prior storylines they alluded to (kudos to Mistah J and his extensive comic collection, for including all the key plot points). Had I simply picked up this trade randomly, I may have been confused, but here was the first time that I truly felt the significance of reading these comics in order. I was familiar with all of the characters’ backstories and entered these comics with a firm understanding of what was going on. I can only imagine that this will happen more and more as I continue along “the shelf”, making me that much happier to be forming this foundation for stories to come.
Another key aspect of this collection I found intriguing was the introduction of a new Batman love-interest, in the form of Silver St. Cloud. After meeting Bruce Wayne on his yacht, she makes numerous appearances in the comics, and clearly begins a romantic relationship with him.
There were a handful of sexual references such in this trade that I found a bit surprising, but I suppose they were veiled enough that kids wouldn’t recognize them. It was intriguing to see the struggle between Bruce Wayne/Batman trying to balance crime-fighting with love. Silver figures out Bruce’s secret identity, but ultimately the threat his double life poses to his safety gets to her and she breaks off the relationship. As a result, Batman is thrown into a sense of despair and longing, and takes his anger and frustration out on any bad guy in the vicinity.
Based on that description, it would almost seem that Batman had turned into a sappy romantic story, filled with love-torn angst. Surprisingly, this is not the case. These comics managed to instill a sense of love and longing in the stories without detracting from the action. Indeed, the romance actually improves the storyline and adds to the overall tone. I was suitably impressed that Batman could have such a strong romantic subplot without losing its primary focus. I never felt that the Silver story detracted from Batman’s quest for justice. If anything, it simply made me vested in another aspect of Batman’s life. No longer was he simply the cowled crime-fighter of Gotham; he was also a man, capable of experiencing love and pain, and all that that entails. This enhanced his image a great degree, and made me want to continue reading about the duality of the character.
I was quite sad when I reached the end of the trade. I was reading the stories with such voracity that I didn’t want them to be over. The reappearance of such classic villains, the romance, the intrigue, it all drew me in and left me wanting more. The next few trades on “the shelf” veer away from Batman and focus on other heroes, but I hope once I reach another Batman collection, the stories continue in this similar vein. If they do, I have a feeling I’ll be dying to read more.