The Wagner-Grant-Breyfogle Batman

Re-presenting another classic column of mine from the Pronto days, this one is about some great Batman stories from the very late 80s. Let’s call it the Wagner-Grant-Breyfogle Batman, as these stories come from writers John Wagner and Alan Grant, and artist Norm Breyfogle. Now when I first wrote this in 2013, these stories were hidden gems, not getting a whole lot of attention from comic fans at the time, but I don’t think they’re as “hidden” nowadays as they were ten years ago.

This should function as a strong companion piece to my Batman in the 80s post, as this post kinda picks up chronologically where that one ended. As it was last time, I’m adding a few tweaks and edits to go along with some additional images, subheads, and fresh links, as well as some perspective from ten years later at the end. Alrighty, so let’s step into the Way-Back Machine to 2013. . . .

Batman in the Late 80s (and into the 90s)

Circa late 2011, around the time the Arkham City video game was released, a gamer friend of mine asked me to recommend some Batman comics, as the game had stirred a bit of a thirst for classic Batman in him. My first thought was (obviously) the Frank Miller stuff; then (naturally) the work of Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams; and (of course) the Steve Englehart-Marshall Rogers run. Then I added a more personal recommendation, one that I’m not sure many are aware of: The John Wagner-Alan Grant-Norm Breyfogle run that got its start in Detective Comics in 1988.

Cover of Detective Comics #587 (Jun. 1988), by Wagner, Grant, and Breyfogle.

This was a very interesting time for Batman. Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns was released in the first half of 1986, causing millions of fans to pledge their undying loyalty to Batman above all other superheroes. Miller followed up a year later (this time with David Mazzucchelli doing the illustrating) with Batman: Year One, which only served to make the fans’ devotion even more rabid. Two years after that, Tim Burton’s Batman movie was released, starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson. By this point, many fans lost their minds completely. Young men were literally shaving the bat-symbol into their hair.

Naturally, DC Comics tried to capitalize on all this with a number of Batman promotions, specials, and miniseries. Frank Miller cast such a shadow over the character that one such miniseries, The Cult, found its genesis in a throwaway line from Miller’s Dark Knight (Batman’s description of the radical redesign of his Batmobile as being the result of “nasty riots fifteen years ago”). The most infamous promotion, of course, was the fan call-in vote to decide whether the Jason Todd version of Robin would live or die.

In such an atmosphere, it may be hard to believe that anything associated with the Batman character could fly under the radar, but such was the case with the year-long run of the Wagner-Grant-Breyfogle team. Despite the fact that Detective Comics gave DC its name, the comic itself was always something of a second-fiddle to the flagship Batman title. All of the big commercial and/or continuity arcs seemed to take place in Batman. I think this circumstance actually worked in Detective’s favor when it came to Wagner, Grant, and Breyfogle, though.

While Batman was running its many sales stunts, crossovers, etc., the guys working on Detective were basically left alone to do their own thing, with near-complete creative freedom. I should also add that at this time we were still on the cusp of the trade paperback era—that is to say, comic books were still being created for sale as comic books, not as previews for the inevitable trade collection. So there was no incentive for creators to artificially stretch out a storyline to six issues just to make TPB length. Consequently, the story arcs here were generally just two or three issues long; several, in fact, were just good old-fashioned one-offs.

During this one-year run of Detective, none of the Robin drama taking place in Batman ever spilled over. In fact, the Boy Wonder is never even mentioned once. There’s just Batman, battling crime as the lone creature of the night he was originally conceived to be. And only one issue ever paid service to a larger DC Universe event (that would be #595, a one-issue “Invasion” crossover).

As part of the 80s wave of British writers who went to work for DC, Wagner and Grant also brought a different sensibility to American comics, generally, and to Batman, specifically. Their scripts possessed a willful lack of sentimentality, coupled with a bleak atmosphere and occasional black humor. Anyone familiar with the pair’s previous work on 2000 AD can see that same style here in Detective. Personally, I always felt the fictional drug “fever,” from their first storyline together, feels like it might very well have been originally conceived for use in a Judge Dredd story. (Fun fact: Wagner is the writer responsible for creating the Dredd character.)

Breyfogle did the pencils for Detective 579 and 582; then the full team got together with issue #583 (Feb. 1988). They started off with a bang, introducing the Ventriloquist and Scarface—two characters (well, technically one character, but let’s not split hairs) with real staying power. They’ve returned several times in the comics in addition to making appearances in Batman’s various animated series. Over the next twelve months, the Wagner-Grant-Breyfogle team would also give us the Rat Catcher, Mortimer Kadaver, the Corrosive Man, and Cornelius Stirk in some very strong, multi-part stories. And as previously noted, there were also some very good one-offs, including one rather prescient story titled “An American Batman in London” from Detective #590 (Sept. 1988) that addressed some of the thornier political aspects of terrorism thirteen years before 9/11.

Every issue of this run featured Batman interacting with an all-new character or group of characters fresh from the creative laboratory of Wagner, Grant, and Breyfogle. This helped make every tale feel refreshingly novel. My personal favorite, however, would have to be the three-parter that introduced the Corrosive Man and Mortimer Kadaver.

When Batman Met Captain Beefheart

Running from Detective #587–589 (Jun.-Aug. 1988), Wagner and Grant expertly wove together several plot threads—from Batman breaking up a drug shipment, to a seeming serial killer who targets the homeless, to an escaped convict hellbent on a mysterious mission of revenge—and tied them all together seamlessly by the end. The action takes place over the course of one night in Gotham, with a radio DJ named “DJ Dark” serving as semi-narrator, somewhat reminiscent of the cult-classic film The Warriors. Detective #587 (Jun. 1988) ends with the dramatically-illustrated introduction of the Corrosive Man against the backdrop of lightning and rain while DJ Dark plays “Electricity” by Captain Beefheart: “Thunderbolts caught easily . . . shout the truth peacefully . . . EEEE-LECTRICITY! ELECTRICITY!”

This would seem an appropriate moment to go into more specific detail about Norm Breyfogle: His style is unique. It’s not realistic; nor is it overly cartoony. I wouldn’t say it’s like Steve Ditko, exactly, but it’s idiosyncratic in the same way Ditko’s style is (if that makes any sense). One thing Breyfogle uniquely excels at is creative and dramatic camera angles. (He would continue to experiment with such effects more boldly as time went on. A two-page spread of panels, all at a near-45-degree slant, from Shadow of the Bat #4, leaps to mind—I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.) And action! When he’s got Batman throwing kicks and punches, the force is such that it seems like his limbs are fighting to free themselves from his torso. As I said, Breyfogle’s got a unique style, so your mileage may vary, but personally, I love every glorious panel.

Two-page action spread from Batman: Shadow of the Bat #4 (Sept. 1992).

Back to the music: Breyfogle’s last page of Part One was so striking that I drove myself crazy trying to find a CD of that Captain Beefheart song, just so I could play it while reading the page again to feel its effect. (Remember, this was 1988 and there were no mp3’s, no Spotify, and no, so this required legwork—but it was worth it, as I’ve been a Beefheart fan ever since.) If you happen to be an alt/indie music lover like me, you will greatly appreciate DJ Dark’s eclectic playlist. (And, also like me, lament that such diverse radio programming does not exist in the real world—except maybe at WFMU, which I get on terrestrial radio here in North Jersey at 91.1 FM. For those outside the NY-NJ Metro area broadcast range, you can pick up a stream over the web here.). Dark plays everything from the Rolling Stones to the New York Dolls to Meatloaf to the Flamin’ Groovies. And naturally, whatever song he played always served as a dramatic complement to the scene it accompanied.

The second part of this three-part story, Detective #588 (Jul. 1988), sees the Corrosive Man trying to figure out what’s happened to him as everyone and everything that comes into contact with him tends to dissolve. When Batman arrives, he wisely turns a fire hose on him. This is temporarily effective, but ultimately can’t stop him—and he’s definitely got plans for where he’s going. We are then introduced to Mortimer Kadaver, a villain with some disturbingly morbid fetishes. What Mortimer doesn’t know is that this new monster in town, the Corrosive Man, has a score to settle with him. And it appears that not even Batman can stop him.

By the time we get to Detective #589 (Aug. 1988), it’s time for the final showdown, which results in Kadaver’s face being scarred by the Corrosive Man’s burning touch.

Followed by CM himself being neutralized by a vat of quicklime.


John Wagner left the series right around the time of the 600th issue. Grant and Breyfogle, however, stayed together on Detective through #621 (Sept. 1990). Their collaboration would continue as the team slid right over to the Batman title the following month with issue #455 (Oct. 1990) through #480 (Aug. 1992). The duo then moved on to the new Shadow of the Bat title with its premiere issue (Jun. 1992). Breyfogle worked on just the first five issues of this series, but Grant continued to write it through issue #82, cover dated February 1999. (The Shadow series only lasted for another year after Grant left, ending with issue #94.)

That’s a hell of a run for Grant (and a hell of a lot of Batman stories). And that’s not even including the annuals, specials (like the Judge Dredd-Batman crossovers), limited series, etc., that he worked on during this same time. Altogether it’s about 150 issues over the course of eleven years, with Breyfogle the penciler for nearly half that output.

As time went on, more and more of the larger corporate direction of Batman started driving these stories, but there’s still a lot of good, original stuff by Grant and Breyfogle here. There’s a great three-parter with the Demon (a character Grant would later direct in his own series); a four-parter featuring all of the then-extant Clayfaces; the introduction of Anarky; a terrific four-parter with Batman in Arkham Asylum that kicks off the Shadow of the Bat series; plus some great stuff with classic villains like Catwoman, the Penguin, and one Joker story that’s a personal fave of mine from Detective #617 (Jul. 1990).

After doing some fishing online, I came across a rumor that all of the Wagner-Grant-Breyfogle material had been reprinted in hardcover . . . in Spanish. Somewhere. But as far as I know, it’s never been collected in English anywhere. In a way this gladdens me, because the only way to enjoy this work is the way it was always meant to be enjoyed: as comic books. Anyone interested in catching up with this work will have to hit the back-issue bins, either locally or online. Happy hunting!

Originally published on April 22, 2013

Ten Years On

Well, the hunting is a lot easier in 2023 than it was in 2013. There are at least two Norm Breyfogle editions of Legends of the Dark Knight TPBs that have been published in the last eight years or so, with possibly more to come. So at some point, larger fandom caught on to these wonderful comics, and while I’m not egotistical enough to think my itty-bitty post from 2013 had anything to do with this, it is a happy coincidence that certainly pleases me nonetheless.

That’s the good news. The bad news (actually the worst news) is that we lost Norm Breyfogle in September of 2018 at just fifty-eight years old. He is sorely missed.

DJ Dark’s Playlist

Because I love music like I love my comic books, I thought it would be fun to serve up the playlist for Detective Comics 597-589 (Jun.-Aug. 1988), as spun by WGCR’s midnight-to-six man, DJ Dark.

I’m guessing the GCR stands for “Gotham City Radio.” First up is “Street Fighting Man” by the Rolling Stones:

Then “Self Control” by Laura Branigan:

“Trash” by the New York Dolls:

Next would be “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” by Elevator Death Skull—except this isn’t a real band. So I’m substituting an alternate cover of this classic Bob Dylan tune, one with a sound that would seem to fit DJ Dark’s style. (Since he plays another Arthur Brown song later on, I feel like this is a safe bet):

Next, we get “My Way” by Sid Vicious, “scratch-style courtesy of the Rappin’ Nerds,” but once again, the Rappin’ Nerds aren’t a real group. I tried to find another group that may have sampled Vicious or otherwise made use of this particular song, but came up empty, so I’m just going to offer up Vicious’s Sinatra cover as originally released:

Then “Big Trouble” by David Johansen:

. . . and “Crazy Crazy Nights” by Kiss:

Next is supposed to be “Is There Life on Subways?” by the Missing Linx—but here, not only is there no such band, but there’s no such song either.  So I’m offering a couple songs as a replacement. First, “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight” by The Jam:

And “Skinhead on the MBTA” by the Dropkick Murphys:

I would have loved to include Dion’s “Written on the Subway Wall/Little Star,” but that track is from the King of the New York Streets album, which was released in 1989, so DJ Dark could not have played it at the time these comics were published in 1988.

Closing out issue #587, as pointed out earlier, is the strange and amazing “Electricity” by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band. Now this performance may not be for everyone, but it is certainly different and very . . . propulsive.

Kicking off on the second page Detective #588 is “Fire” by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown:

Then Dark plays a track that he refers to as “Doo-Woppin’ there with the Boston Crabs.” In this case, I think this was meant to be another fictional band, but it turns out there is a band called the Boston Crabs that released a handful of singles in the 60s. One of their earliest was “Down in Mexico,” a cover of the Coasters, a 50s group connected to Doo-Wop, so I figured what the heck, let’s go with that:

Then the last song from Detective #588 is Meatloaf’s “Bat Out of Hell”:

Though we don’t get any lyrics reprinted, the first song referenced by Dark in Detective #589 is Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run”:

The next and last song of the issue (and last song of this storyline) is “Teenage Head” by the Flamin’ Groovies:

Anyone who’d prefer a Spotify list, I got you covered here—the only issue is that Spotify didn’t have Johansen’s “Big Trouble.” They had most of Johansen’s other albums but not 1984’s Sweet Revenge for whatever reason.

Thanks for indulging the frustrated disc jockey in me, everybody. I’ll continue redoing these old posts in the months to come, along with plenty of new stuff. Hope everyone is enjoying their summer.

7 thoughts on “The Wagner-Grant-Breyfogle Batman”

  1. Alas, I missed that run, Crusty, but looks very intriguing. And I loved the old-style radio stations that played a very eclectic mix of music, including deep tracks of well-known artists and great tracks by artists who never got near the mainstream.

  2. I do have some of the Detective issues & Norm Breyfogle should easily be one of the top five Batman artists ever — not to mention the writing being exceptional by Grant & Wagner…I’d always be curious if Alan Moore had followed up with his own take on The Dark Knight!

  3. I remember being more impressed by the art than the writing in these books back in the day — Breyfogle was indeed tremendous — but it’s literally been decades since I read them. I should probably give ’em another look.

  4. First of all, thank you for revising and reposting this fantastic guide to Wagner-Grant-Breyfogle Batman. I hadn’t yet discovered your blog ten years ago, so this was a real treat to find today! Second, and speaking of treats, what a wonderful treat to find someone else was as crazy about this run as I was! Like you, I was equally obsessed with the DJ Dark playlist, marveled at Breyfogle’s dynamic, propulsive art, and thought this entire run was nothing short of spectacular. So nice to see it celebrated here! Can’t wait to see what other old posts you resurrect; I love to do that with my site as well. It’s fun to take a look back at something I wrote ages ago, tinker with it a bit, then repost. It’s a bit like being in conversation with one’s self!

      1. Unfortunately no, but the New York Dolls intrigued me, so it led me down a path of becoming a big fan of theirs!

        1. I was already familiar with Beefheart, having read about him in one of Rolling Stone magazine’s best-album lists, but I didn’t own any of his albums and, moreover, never heard his music. The lyrics to “Electricity” against the backdrop of Breyfogle’s art so intrigued me that I tracked down a Beefheart compilation CD with that song on it. I can even remember the mall where I found it.

          I love when comics and music intersect. I even added the category “Comics and Music” so readers can find similar posts, in case they’re interested. (It’s right above the title of the post; anyone who’s curious can just click on it.)

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