Batman in the 80s

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Don’t ask me how I got started on this, but at some point last year I felt compelled to go back and catch up on some of my old Batman comics—comics from a specific decade.

Not-So-Fun Fact: We are now just as many decades removed from the 1980s as the 80s were from the 1940s. That is just obscene.

Anyway, after catching up on some of these stories, I figured a post on the state of Batman during this time—pre-Frank Miller, pre-Tim Burton—could be interesting.

So back in 1981 (forty friggin’ years ago, may God have mercy on my aged soul), DC embarked on a bit of an experiment with its Batman books. In an effort to boost sales, they began to have the plots of Batman and Detective Comics lead directly into one another, creating a narrative that would effectively be published twice a month. Readers who wanted to properly keep up with the Caped Crusader’s adventures would have to buy both books.

The experiment got its proper start with Batman #342 (Dec. 1981), which teased the upcoming issue of Detective Comics—#509 (Dec. 1981)—as being “next.” The narrative would bounce back and forth (but would not always be directly continuous, exactly) between the two titles for a while, back to Batman #343, then Detective #510, Batman #344, Detective #511, Batman #345…

But wait. I’m getting ahead of myself.

During the stretch we’re about to begin, there will be a few plotlines that go back to before the experiment really began in earnest. One plot involved the Gotham City mayoral race, which first comes up in Detective Comics #503 (June 1981), while another that involved Poison Ivy’s scheme to take over the Wayne Foundation got its start in Batman #339 (Sept. 1981). For the sake of completeness, I’d like to squeeze these issues in, if at all possible.

We could start with the aforementioned Detective #503, but the Batman book that pub month, #336 (June 1981), features a gorgeous art job by José Luis García-López, as does the issue that follows, #337 (Jul. 1981). So let’s start with #336 and begin alternating from there.

Batman #336 (June 1981)
Detective #503 (June 1981)—mayoral race plot begins, featuring the Scarecrow
Batman #337 (Jul. 1981)
Detective #504 (Jul. 1981)—featuring the Joker
Batman #338 (Aug. 1981)
Detective #505 (Aug. 1981)
Batman #339 (Sept. 1981)—Poison Ivy plot begins

…Now some of you may be asking yourselves, “if he’s going back to Detective #503, why not start with issue #500, just for the sake of being tidy and neat?” I considered this, but issues #501 & #502 feature a now-anachronistic storyline that portrayed Alfred Pennyworth and Lucius Fox as veterans of World War II. Even in 1981, this would have meant both characters were pushing sixty, which felt like a stretch—today they’d be over a hundred! Because of this, I decided to ignore this storyline and begin with Batman #336/Detective #503.

So after Batman #339 comes Detective #506 (Sept. 1981), which is the first of a continuous two-parter, so #507 has to come immediately after. (This story featured a female villain called “the Manikin” in a storyline I recall fondly; I don’t think the character ever appeared again.) We’ll begin alternating again from there.

Detective #506-507 (Sept.-Oct. 1981)—Manikin storyline.
Batman #340 (Oct. 1981)
Detective #508 (Nov. 1981)

Then the next two issues of Batman are another two-parter (featuring the Man-Bat) leading directly into each other, and thus have to be kept together. After this, the stretch of alternating issues gets rolling, as mentioned at the beginning.

Batman #341-342 (Nov.-Dec. 1981)—featuring Man-Bat
Detective #509 (Dec. 1981)
Batman #343 (Jan. 1982)
Detective #510 (Jan. 1982)
Batman #344 (Feb. 1982)—Vicki Vale returns
Detective #511 (Feb. 1982)
Batman #345 (Mar. 1982)
Detective #512 (Mar. 1982)
Batman #346 (Apr. 1982)
Detective #513 (Apr. 1982)
Batman #347 (May 1982)
Detective #514 (May 1981)
Batman #348 (Jun. 1982)

Allow me to take a moment to note that Gerry Conway wrote basically all of these issues (with just a couple of exceptions) and Don Newton handled the art on nearly all of them, at least early on. Eventually Gene Colan would come aboard as artist on Detective while Newton continued on Batman, thus splitting the penciling workload 50/50.

Now Batman #348 was a standalone issue featuring the Man-Bat (again). After this is when the continuity really starts to tighten up, with issues of Batman and Detective leading directly into and out of one another, starting with:

Detective #515 (Jun. 1982)
Batman #349 (Jul. 1982)
Detective #516 (Jul. 1982)
Batman #350 (Aug. 1982)
Detective #517 (Aug. 1982)
Batman #351 (Sept. 1982)

The preceding six issues/three-plus months of stories involved the “Academy of Crime” and a vampire storyline. From this point the tight continuity would continue for several more YEARS. The Batman title would come out first in a given pub month, followed by Detective.

Detective #518 (Sept. 1982)
Batman #352 (Oct. 1982)
Detective #519 (Oct. 1982)
Batman #353 (Nov. 1982)
Detective #520 (Nov. 1982)
Batman #354 (Dec. 1982)
Detective #521 (Dec. 1982)
Batman #355 (Jan. 1983)
Detective #522 (Jan. 1983)
Batman #356 (Feb. 1983)

These issues had some strong stories featuring such villains as the Joker, Catwoman, and Hugo Strange. In fact, the Hugo Strange storyline tied up a plot thread leftover from the classic Englehart run that had been dangling for about four years!

What’s coming up next though is what’s really historic—it’s the introduction of Jason Todd and the beginning of the new Robin.

Detective #523 (Feb. 1983)—Killer Croc cameo app.
Batman #357 (Mar. 1983)— first app. Jason Todd
Detective #524 (Mar. 1983)—first full app. Killer Croc
Batman #358 (Apr. 1983)
Detective #525 (Apr. 1983)
Batman #359 (May 1983)—Jason’s parents caught and killed by Croc
Detective #526 (May 1983)—500th anniversary issue for Batman

Conway’s Batman run ended with this anniversary issue of Detective. With his first crack at the character, Conway created the Black Spider (a childhood fave) in Detective #’s 463-464 (Sept.-Oct. 1976); then he wrote an issue of Batman a little more than a year later, #295 (Jan. 1978), followed by issues 305-306 (Nov.-Dec. 1978) nearly another year after that. He then picked up the full-time gig on Detective with issue #497 (Dec. 1980) and added Batman to his plate with issue #337 (Jul. 1981). His writing both titles likely led to the idea of tying the books together in the first place. The fact that he was able to maintain this pace for two years, all while writing Justice League (among other assignments) in addition, is rather remarkable.

Doug Moench then begins as writer with Batman #360 (Jun. 1983), and he would bring a number of fresh ideas with him. His first issue introduces the Savage Skull, and the following issue, #361, marks the first appearance of Harvey Bullock. Detective #529 (Aug. 1983) features the first appearance of the “Thief of Night,” and Nocturna makes her first full appearance immediately thereafter in Batman #363 (Sept. 1983). Moench also brought Alfred’s daughter, Julia Remarque/Pennyworth, back into the strip (after her brief introduction in Detective #’s 501-502) in Detective #532 (Nov. 1983), and would also preside over Jason Todd formally assuming the Robin mantle with Batman #368 (Feb. 1984).

Batman #360 (Jun. 1983)—first Savage Skull
Detective #527 (Jun. 1983)
Batman #361 (Jul. 1983)— first appearance of Harvey Bullock
Detective #528 (Jul. 1983)
Batman #362 (Aug. 1983)
Detective #529 (Aug. 1983)—first appearance of the Thief of Night
Batman #363 (Sept. 1983)—first appearance of Nocturna
Detective #530 (Sept. 1983)
Batman #364 (Oct. 1983)
Detective #531 (Oct. 1983)
Batman #365 (Nov. 1983)
Detective #532 (Nov. 1983)—Julia Remarque/Pennyworth returns
Batman #366 (Dec. 1983)
Detective #533 (Dec. 1983)
Batman #367 (Jan. 1984)
Detective #534 (Jan. 1984)
Batman #368 (Feb. 1984)—Jason Todd formally becomes new Robin
Detective #535 (Feb. 1984)
Batman #369 (Mar. 1984)
Detective #536 (Mar. 1984)
Batman #370 (Apr. 1984)
Detective #537 (Apr. 1984)
Batman #371 (May 1984)
Detective #538 (May 1984)
Batman #372 (Jun. 1984)
Detective #539 (Jun. 1984)
Batman #373 (Jul. 1984)
Detective #540 (Jul. 1984)

I should take a moment here to discuss what a different flavor of Batman we were getting here. As mentioned a few paragraphs back, Conway wrote issues #305-306 of Batman and then passed the baton to Len Wein, who wrote the book for about a year and a half before passing it along to Marv Wolfman, whose tenure lasted about seven months (and one great Ra’s al Ghul storyline) before giving the book back to Conway, who later ceded it to Doug Moench. These are all classic Marvel writers of the Bronze Age and they wrote Batman very much like a Marvel character.

What do I mean by this? Well, the Marvel superheroes all have civilian identities and a supporting cast that are generally written with care and are usually important to the story. Traditionally, the civilian lives of the DC superheroes barely matter—perhaps least of all with Batman. But these writers really tried to make Bruce Wayne a more complete character with issues of his own to worry about, apart from just being Batman. Len Wein got Bruce Wayne into a serious dating relationship with Selina (Catwoman) Kyle, for example. Gerry Conway then brought back Vicki Vale, creating something of a love triangle there. After Catwoman was (briefly) written out of the strip, Moench brought in Julia Pennyworth for a fresh triangle with Vale.

This never really caught fire though, and Moench seemed to recognize this. So after her initial appearance, where she was strictly a baddie, Moench brought back Nocturna as a legit romantic option for Batman, which became very interesting very quickly. At the same time as her return, Bruce Wayne ran into some trouble with the Child Welfare Bureau regarding his adoption of Jason Todd, which led to Natalia Knight (Nocturna) attempting to adopt Jason herself, at which point the soap opera quotient really skyrocketed.

Batman #374 (Aug. 1984)—Penguin appears, Bill Modell introduced
Detective #541 (Aug. 1984)
Batman #375 (Sept. 1984)
Detective #542 (Sept. 1984)—Jason removed from Wayne Manor
Batman #376 (Oct. 1984)
Detective #543 (Oct. 1984)—Nocturna concocts plan to adopt Jason
Batman #377 (Nov. 1984)—Thief of Night becomes Night Slayer, breaks with Nocturna
Detective #544 (Nov. 1984)
Batman #378 (Dec. 1984)—Mad Hatter appears, Nocturna wins custody of Jason
Detective #545 (Dec. 1984)
Batman #379 (Jan. 1985)—Nocturna helps capture Mad Hatter
Detective #546 (Jan. 1985)
Batman #380 (Feb. 1985)—Batman and Night Slayer swap identities
Detective #547 (Feb. 1985)
Batman #381 (Mar. 1985)—Batman exposes and thwarts Night Slayer; Bruce Wayne wins custody of Jason

…Yeesh, I almost forgot that Batman #374 introduced reporter Bill Modell to the series. Modell was hot for Vicki Vale, turning that love triangle into a love square. (Or rectangle—choose whichever two-dimensional, four-point shape you prefer.) Not that this would last long anyway, as Nocturna blew away all of her romantic rivals when she returned.

Nocturna

I should probably get into Nocturna more while we’re here. As you can see by the images I’ve shared, her pigmentation is absolute white. This is due to a scientific accident that took place at the observatory where she worked as an astronomer. This gives her an exotic, almost unearthly look, and this is obviously a big part of her appeal. But Moench gave her dialogue a poetic quality that was equally seductive.

At the end of this storyline, Nocturna is uncaptured and remains at large. We’ll be seeing her again before too long, as both Batman (romantically) and Robin (as a mother figure) have grown quite attached to her.

Real-life tragedy also struck during this period. Don Newton’s final issue as penciler on Batman was #379. He had left the book to take the assignment on Infinity Inc., but he worked on only three issues, #’s 11-13 (Feb.-Apr. 1985), before dying a couple months shy of fifty years old on August 19, 1984. Rick Hoberg would take over penciling Batman for the next six months or so before Tom Mandrake would come in to partner with Moench as artist on the title for the rest of Moench’s run.

Gene Colan would also take an eight-issue break from Detective around this same time, with Pat Broderick (issues 547-552) and Klaus Janson (553 & 554) filling in. This stretch would introduce another new character from Moench—the villainous Black Mask.

Detective #548 (Mar. 1985)
Batman #382 (Apr. 1985)
Detective #549 (Apr. 1985)
Batman #383 (May 1985)
Detective #550 (May 1985)
Batman #384 (Jun. 1985)
Detective #551 (Jun. 1985)
Batman #385 (Jul. 1985)
Detective #552 (Jul. 1985)
Batman #386 (Aug. 1985)—first appearances of Black Mask, Circe, and the False Face Society of Gotham
Detective #553 (Aug. 1985)
Batman #387 (Sept. 1985)
Detective #554 (Sept. 1985)
Batman #388 (Oct. 1985)—Mirror Master/Captain Boomerang two-parter begins
Detective #555 (Oct. 1985)

Black Mask

The three-parter that ran across Batman #386-Detective #553-Batman #387 is interesting to look back on now. It’s remarkable just how little space Batman takes up in the first installment, as Batman #386 is all about Roman Sionis (what a great name) and how he becomes the Black Mask. And his mask was carved from his father’s coffin lid—how hardcore is that? Of nearly equal interest is his False Face Society and his lover, Circe. And that cover to issue #386 had a great hype box: “Crazier than the Joker! Deadlier than Ra’s al Ghul! Introducing a villain for the ’80s! Black Mask!”

Alas, Black Mask would not prove himself a “villain of the 80s,” as this story arc would be his sole appearance of the decade. (So much for the hype.) He popped back up a couple times in the 90s, but was eventually killed off, if memory serves. Which is a shame, because there was great stuff here and much territory left to be explored. Black Mask had a murderous style reminiscent of the Joker…

…And his loose connection to the Wayne family had dramatic potential. I had been buying the Batman books irregularly prior to this, but a write up on Black Mask I saw (in Amazing Heroes, I believe) led me to pick these issues up and I was so pleased I didn’t miss another issue of Moench’s tenure.

Red Skies at Night

With Batman #389, a six-part mini-epic kicks off. The Crisis on Infinite Earths is happening, turning the skies red, causing grave worry to the former astronomer, Nocturna. She sees it as a portent for the end of the world—and she’s basically right, as we all now know. It turns into a quite sprawling story, as former lovers the Night Slayer and Catwoman get involved, and Jason is seeing Nocturna as his mother now more than ever before.

Batman #389 (Nov. 1985)
Detective #556 (Nov. 1985)
Batman #390 (Dec. 1985)
Detective #557 (Dec. 1985)
Batman #391 (Jan. 1986)
Detective #558 (Jan. 1986)

This one might require a column of its own down the line, as there was a whole lot to digest here. But basically, all signs pointed to a Batman-Nocturna romantic pairing before Moench pulls the rug out and puts Batman and Catwoman back together, while Nocturna disappears and is presumed dead. It’s strange to think of Batman and Catwoman as a weak union, but it came out of left field and felt unnatural and forced here.

And in another sign of the Marvel approach to the supporting cast, Bullock was given a love interest at this same time. This didn’t work for me either.

Two standalone stories followed in the next Batman and Detective:

Batman #392 (Feb. 1986)
Detective #559 (Feb. 1986)

Then we got a two-parter running across the next two issues of Batman that saw Moench reunite with his old Master of Kung Fu partner, Paul Gulacy:

Batman #393 (Mar. 1986)
Batman #394 (Apr. 1986)

As Batman takes on a rogue Russian agent in this story, the international espionage makes it feel like this could have very well been recycled from an unused MOKF plot. If there’s an interview with Moench or Gulacy discussing this one, I haven’t seen it (or don’t remember it).

In any case, this meant two unconnected stories from Detective have to follow in the chronology…

Detective #560 (Mar. 1986)
Detective #561 (Apr. 1986)

…Before we get back to alternating as Moench’s run as writer concludes.

Batman #395 (May 1986)—“Film Freak” first appearance
Detective #562 (May 1986)
Batman #396 (Jun. 1986)
Detective #563 (Jun. 1986)
Batman #397 (Jul. 1986)—Two-Face storyline begins
Detective #564 (Jul. 1986)
Batman #398 (Aug. 1986)
Detective #565 (Aug. 1986)
Batman #399 (Sept. 1986)
Detective #566 (Sept. 1986)
Batman #400 (Oct. 1986)—Giant-sized anniversary issue

Like Conway, Moench’s run ended with an anniversary issue—Batman #400. Also like Conway, this anniversary issue pit Batman against nearly all of his foes at once. Unlike Conway’s story, this one has an all-star cast of artists divvying up sections of the story and features an introduction from Stephen King. It was 1986, Miller’s Dark Knight was all the rage, and Bat-madness had swept the world once again, so this Batman anniversary was a much bigger deal than the one from three years prior.

Post-Crisis

The Crisis on Infinite Earths had also come and gone, which meant continuity reshuffling. For a long time afterward, in fact, this whole Moench run was completely ignored—retconned into oblivion, basically. Some of Moench’s creations would return later in altered forms, but these original forms and their stories were no longer in continuity.

Before the Marvel guys started fleeing for DC en masse, Denny O’Neil was the definitive Batman writer, and his approach to the character of Bruce Wayne/Batman was to treat the Bruce Wayne identity as the mask, the false façade. Batman was who he truly was, and Batman didn’t have many human qualities—he was a superhuman force that existed solely to pursue justice. In his approach to the character, Frank Miller clearly followed Denny’s lead—if anything, his view of the division between Bruce Wayne and Batman was even more extreme. Naturally, in the wake of Miller’s success, everyone copied his take on the character.

And while’s it’s a take I enjoy, I don’t think a Marvel-type approach to Batman has to be a bad thing, necessarily. Another all-time classic Batman run was the one written by Steve Englehart in 1977, and his approach was very Marvel-like. Whichever flavor you prefer, even if you hate the Marvel approach, I think you’d still have to concede that a lot of good things for Batman came out of this era. If you want to go back and re-read them, just follow the order I provided here and enjoy!

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