Happy 80th birthday Batman: How I became a fan of the Dark Knight

This week DC Comics is celebrating the 80th Anniversary of the debut of one of the most iconic comic book characters, Batman, the Dark Knight vigilante of Gotham City.

Detective Comics 27 cover smallBatman’s first appearance was in Detective Comics #27, in the story “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” written by Bill Finger and drawn by Bob Kane.  Detective Comics #27 first went on sale 80 years ago this week.  As Bleeding Cool observed, distribution throughout the United States in 1939 varied dramatically from one region to another, and in certain areas it would have hit the newsstands a week or two later than others.  Nevertheless, it is generally believed that March 30th was very likely the earliest date Detective Comics #27 was available anywhere.

I was born in 1976, so quite obviously I was not around to see the first appearance of Batman.  Like many future comic book fans of the post-Boomer generation, my first exposure to Batman, Robin and their colorfully demented rogues gallery was via the Super Friends cartoon series and reruns of the Batman television series starring Adam West and Burt Ward.Batman and Robin tv show

I began occasionally reading comic books in the early 1980s, around the age of seven.  My choices were almost always limited to whatever random issues my parents would consent to get for me, or that I would spot on a rare trip to the nearby Big Top Stationary in Scarsdale NY.  For whatever reason, practically all of these were Marvel Comics releases such as Captain America and Incredible Hulk.

Going by my hazy childhood memories, I don’t think I ever saw an actual comic book published by DC until around 1986, and most of those belonged to other kids at school who would let me read them during lunch.  Even when I did finally begin picking up DC books myself, it would be a Superman here or there, and even a couple of Hawkman issues.

I did not read my first Batman comic book until 30 years ago, in 1989.  That was the year the Tim Burton movie starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson hit the theaters, and a tide of Batmania to rival the mid-1960s craze swept over the country.  Batman was everywhere… t-shirts, posters, action figures, and (of course) comic books.  Somebody at DC must have realized the movie was going to be a hit, because suddenly there was a seeming deluge of specials and miniseries and high-profile story arcs and trade paperbacks for sale at the comic book stores. Batman assistant editor Dan Raspler even referred to it as “the Year of the Batman.”

In the midst of this massive hype, I remember one Saturday in May at the Dragon’s Den comic book store in Yonkers thinking to myself “Maybe I should check out an issue of Batman, see what all this fuss is about.”  I think at that time the current issue was the second or third chapter of the story “The Many Deaths of Batman” and I found the idea of trying to figure out what was going on a bit intimidating.  So instead I took a browse through the back issue bins.

Batman 431 cover signed

Amidst a longbox of mid to late 1980s Batman issues, one cover leaped out at me: a moody image of Batman hanging upside down from the branch of a tree, the night sky around him filled with bats, the moon glowing behind him.  It quickly joined my pile of purchases for that week.

This issue was Batman #431, which had come out only a few months earlier.  ‘The Wall” was written by James Owsley (later to be known as Christopher Priest), drawn by Jim Aparo & Mike DeCarlo, lettered by John Costanza, colored by Adrienne Roy, and edited by Dan Raspler & Denny O’Neil.  That striking cover artwork was courtesy of George Pratt.

At home, reading Batman #431, I was completely enthralled. Owsley wrote Batman as a driven, imposing, brooding figure (at the time I was already aware that Jason Todd, the second Robin, had died just a short time before, which explained the Dark Knight’s especially grim demeanor).  In this one story Batman was shown to be a brilliant detective, a master of disguise, a figure of stealthy infiltration, and an expert at martial arts.  Through both Owsley’s story and Aparo & DeCarlo’s art, Batman was a figure who was powerful & terrifying, yet also all too human.

Batman 431 pg 7

The issue was capped off by a stunning eight page sequence, mostly dialogue-free, that saw Batman fighting against a quartet of ninjas belonging to the League of Assassins.  It was an expert demonstration of clear, dynamic storytelling by Aparo. (The entire eight page sequence can be viewed in the DC Database entry on Batman #431. Definitely check it out.)

I was hooked.

The next week I was back at Dragon’s Den, and I bought Batman #432.  “Dead Letter Office” was by the same creative team as the previous issue.  It wasn’t quite as enthralling as the issue that preceded it, but I still enjoyed it.  I was especially struck by the powerful artwork of Aparo & DeCarlo.  They really made those two issues stand out in my mind, and all these years later I am still in awe at their work on those stories.

Batman 431 pg 13

By my next visit to Dragon’s Den the latest issue of Batman, the first part of the “Year Three” story arc, was on sale.  Marv Wolfman, Pat Broderick & John Beatty explored the continuing effects of the second Robin’s death on Batman, while also providing the post-Crisis origin for Dick Grayson, the original Robin, now known as Nightwing.  George Perez provided the covers for Batman #436 to 439, and that might have been my first exposure to his beautifully detailed work.

Batman 436 cover smallAfter that I was a regular reader.  I was thrilled that, beginning with #440, Wolfman was teamed up with the returning Aparo & DeCarlo.  They made a great creative team, and told some incredible stories.  Tim Drake, soon to be the new Robin, was introduced, and fought Two-Face.  Batman encountered the NKVDemon, a disciple of his old foe the KGBeast. The Joker resurfaced for the first time since Jason Todd’s death.

During this time I also began reading Detective Comics, starting with issue #608.  The creative team was writer Alan Grant, penciler Norm Breyfogle, and inker Steve Mitchell.  Breyfogle was a very different penciler from Aparo, to be sure, but his work was absolutely stunning.  I enjoyed the stories Grant, Breyfogle & Mitchell were telling in Detective Comics as much as I did the ones by Wolfman, Aparo & DeCarlo in Batman. The team in ‘Tec introduced the anti-hero Anarky and pitted Batman against the Penguin, Catman, and a variety of menacing, macabre foes.Detective Comics 608 cover small

As I’ve said before, a person’s favorite Batman artist is often very much dependent upon when they first began reading comic books.  That is definitely the case with me.  In my mind, Jim Aparo and Norm Breyfogle will always be two of the quintessential Batman artists.  I realize this is an extremely subjective determination on my part, but that’s how it is.  Viewing their depictions of the Dark Knight will always give me that little extra thrill, that emotional charge, that comes from having read stories drawn by them when I was in my early teens.

Regrettably I never had the opportunity to meet Norm Breyfogle before he passed away unexpectedly last year at the much too young age of 58.  Jim Aparo is also no longer with us, having died in 2005 at the age of 72.  Fortunately I did get to meet Aparo once in the early 2000s.  He autographed a couple of the stories he had penciled, including my copy of Detective Comics #627.

Detective Comics 627 cover smallReleased in early 1991, the issue had both creative teams telling their own updated versions of the original Batman story “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate.”  It also reprinted the original story from 1939, as well as the 1969 retelling by Mike Friedrich, Bob Brown & Joe Giella.

As an aside, Detective Comics #627 may have also been the first time I began to be made aware that writer Bill Finger was the (then uncredited) co-creator of Batman.  As I have mentioned before, I am glad that Finger is now publicly recognized for his vital contributions to the Bat-mythos.

I have also met Mike DeCarlo on a couple of occasions.  A talented artist in his own right, DeCarlo was probably the best inker of Aparo’s pencils other than Aparo himself.  I know some others disagree with that assessment, but by my estimation the two of them made a very effective art team.  It was definitely a thrill to get Batman #431 and #432, those first two issues I bought back in 1989, signed by DeCarlo last year.

Detective Comics 627 pg 24 signed

By the late 1990s I stopped following the various series featuring Batman.  Part of that was due to their being too many crossovers.  Another part was that too many creators wrote Batman as an obsessive, anti-social control freak.  I also was getting older, and had begun gradually losing interest in superheroes.  Finally, I just got sick of the Joker showing up all the damn time.

From time to time I will occasionally pick up a comic featuring Batman, but that’s almost entirely dependent on who is writing or drawing it.  I’ve come to the point where I follow creators, not characters.

Nevertheless, I do still have a fondness for those Batman stories from the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Yeah, a significant part of that is due to nostalgia.  But, even allowing for the questionable tastes of a teenage boy, re-reading those stories as a 42 year old, most of them are still pretty darn good.

Detective Comics 1000 cover small

I did end up buying a copy of the giant-sized Detective Comics #1000 anniversary issue that came out this week.  Yes, DC somehow managed to arrange things so that issue #1000 came out the week of Batman’s 80th anniversary.

Of course DC just had to release it with numerous variant covers, including a bunch of “store exclusive” ones, and all that.  Someone on Facebook commented, only half-jokingly, that Detective Comics #1000 had 1000 variant covers.  It’s not quite that many, but it is a lot.

The one that I did end up getting was the Bruce Timm one featuring Batman, Robin and the Joker that pays homage to Golden Age Batman artist Jerry Robinson.  It is a great cover, and it reminds me of Batman: The Animated Series, which Timm was intimately involved with.  The animated series was another huge part of my teenage years, and I watched it every day after I got home from high school.  Just like Aparo and Breyfogle, seeing a Batman by Timm brings a smile to my face.

One last note: Amongst the stories in Detective Comics #1000 is one written by Christopher Priest, aka the former James Owsley.  Priest is paired with legendary artist Neal Adams, who drew many of the classic Batman stories in the 1970s.  They are joined by letterer Willie Schubert and colorist Dave Stewart.  The story features an encounter between the Dark Knight and his implacable adversary Ra’s al Ghul, who Adams created with Denny O’Neil back in 1971.

Detective Comics 1000 pg 47

All these years later, it’s definitely nice to see Priest, the writer who helped get me hooked on Batman in the first place, back on the character.  And I was genuinely surprised to discover his story had a callback to Batman #431, the very issue that personally got me started on this journey three decades ago.

Happy birthday, Batman.  Here’s to the next 80 years, and beyond.  Our paths may not cross too often nowadays, and I really think you need to lighten up a bit, but I will always enjoy those stories from my teenage years.

Santa Gone Bad: Saint Nick the supervillain

Having written a serious political piece just last week, I am now veering 180 degrees in the opposite direction, and barreling straight into the ridiculous. Nothing like a complete lack of consistency to really confuse anyone following this blog!

Today is Christmas Eve.  Perhaps it’s because I’m Jewish, but I find aspects of the Christmas holiday to be baffling.  It is intended to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, who preached the virtues of humility, kindness, and a humble existence.  Somehow two thousand years later this is commemorated by, um, a fat guy in a red suit giving expensive gifts to all the good children of the world.  Wait, I thought good works were their own reward?  And didn’t Jesus warn about the dangers of wealth & materialism?  Hmmph, no wonder I am so skeptical of organized religions!

Obviously I am not the only one to find Santa Claus a ridiculous figure, since there are innumerable examples of people parodying Old Saint Nick.  One especially prevalent trend is to have Santa as the bad guy, the jolly old fellow turned villainous.  That’s especially the case in comic books.  The image of Santa as a supervillain, or at least as a violent anti-hero, seems irresistible to comic book creators.

Here are ten comic book covers featuring Santa Claus gone bad.  Forget jingle bells… this is more like hell’s bells.

Iron Man 254 cover

Iron Man #254 (March 1990) from Marvel Comics features Shellhead under attack from a pistol-packing Santa, courtesy of one of the Armored Avenger’s all time greatest artists, the legendary Bob Layton.  Of course, considering all of the naughty behavior that Tony Stark has gotten up to over the years, it’s quite possible that Kris Kringle actually has very good reason to be gunning for him.

Creepy 68 cover

As oversized black & white magazines, the horror comic books of Warren Publishing were free from the stifling standards of the Comics Code Authority, which frequently meant that they piled on the blood & guts with enthusiastic gusto.  Witness this cover to Creepy #68 (Jan 1975), featuring early work from now-renowned fantasy artist Ken Kelly.  Obviously this is one of those occasions when Saint Nick felt that a simple lump of coal wasn’t nearly punishment enough.

Santa Claws 1 cover

Speaking of early work, the very first job future superstar artist Mike Deodato Jr. had in American comic books was the one-shot Santa Claws published by Malibu / Eternity in December 1991. Well, everyone has to start somewhere!  Only three years later Deodato was red-hot, in demand across the entire industry, so it’s not surprising that this debut effort eventually got the reprint treatment, seeing a re-release in 1998.

The Last Christmas 2 cover

I tell you, nobody is safe from those seemingly-ubiquitous zombie apocalypses, not even Santa Claus!  The five issue miniseries The Last Christmas, published by Image Comics in 2006, sees the once-jolly one pitted against an army of the undead amidst the ruins of civilization.  It was written by Gerry Duggan & Brian Posehn, penciled by Rick Remender, and inked by Hilary Barta.  The cover to issue #2, penciled by Remender’s good pal Kieron Dwyer and inked by Barta, features zombie fighting, drunk driving Santa.

Witching Hour 28 cover

The Bronze Age horror anthologies published by DC Comics often featured incredibly striking, macabre covers.  One of the most prolific artists to contribute to those titles was the late, great Nick Cardy.  Here’s his ho-ho-horrifying cover to The Witching Hour #28 (February 1973).  I think the main reason why Santa is in such a bad mood here is because even as a skeleton he’s still fat!

Heavy Metal Dec 1977 cover

The December 1977 edition of sci-fi comic book anthology Heavy Metal must be one of the very few in the magazine’s entire history not to feature a sexy half-naked babe on the cover. But, um, I’ll give them a pass on this one.  It’s probably safer to do that than to argue with the very angry Santa Claus who’s glaring right at me.  French artist Jean Solé is the one who has brought us this heavily-armed Pere Noel.

Daredevil 229 cover

Has Daredevil ever had a Christmas that didn’t suck?  It seems like every time December 25th approaches Matt Murdock’s life goes right into the crapper.  That was never more the case than in the now-classic “Born Again” storyline by Frank Miller & David Mazzucchelli.  His life destroyed by the ruthless Kingpin, the disgraced and destitute Matt finds himself wandering the streets of Manhattan.  To add insult to industry, Matt is mugged by Hell’s Kitchen lowlife thug Turk in a Santa Claus suit.  Mazzucchelli’s vivid cover for Daredevil #229 (April 1986) is just one of the many iconic images he crafted for the “Born Again” arc.

Sleigher 1 cover

Action Lab Entertainment has published some really fun comic books, as well as some really weird ones.  I will let you make up your own minds which category Sleigher: The Heavy Metal Santa Claus falls under.  The cover to issue #1 (July 2016) is credited to artist Axur Eneas, who has also contributed to Action Lab’s The Adventures of Aero-Girl.

Flash 87 cover

Can even the Fastest Man Alive defeat Evil Santa times three?  That’s the question you’ll be asking yourself when you see the cover to Flash #87 (Feb 1994) by the team of Alan Davis & Mark Farmer.  Well, either that, or you’ll be wondering why exactly this trio of Kris Kringles are clan in tee-shirts, shorts, and sneakers.  Hmmmm… maybe they’re from Australia?  After all, Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere takes place at the beginning of Summer.  I’m sure even Santa wants to dress appropriately for warm weather.

Incredible Hulk 378 cover

Peter David’s lengthy run on Incredible Hulk was characterized by equal parts heartbreaking drama and irreverent humor.  That was certainly the case with issue #378 (Feb 1991) which sees the Grey Hulk, aka Joe Fixit, slugging it out with none other than Father Christmas… okay, 28 year old spoilers, that’s actually the Rhino in the Santa outfit.  This cover is penciled by Bill Jaaska, a talented artist who passed away at the much too young age of 48 in 2009.  Inks are courtesy of Bob McLeod, one of the best embellishers in the biz.

Lobo Christmas Special pg 43

An honorable mention goes to the infamous Lobo Paramilitary Christmas Special released by DC Comics in late 1990.  Keith Giffen, Alan Grant, Simon Bisley, Lovern Kindzierski & Gaspar Saladino reveal what happens when the Easter Bunny hires the Main Man to kill Santa Claus.  The brutal mercenary succeeds in offing Saint Nick… don’t worry, he had it coming.  This exceedingly violent story  comes to a close when Lobo decides to use the late Kris Kringle’s flying reindeer & sleigh to nuke the hell out of the entire planet.

Credit where credit is due department: This was inspired by Steve Bunche, who shared a few of these on Facebook.  Steve has probably the most absolutely NSFW Facebook feed you could possible imagine, so if you want to say “hello” to him wait until you’re in the privacy of your own home.  You’ve been warned.

Happy holidays to one and all.  Remember to be good for goodness sake… because, as these covers demonstrate, you really do not want to piss off that Santa guy!

Norm Breyfogle: 1960 to 2018

It has been observed that someone’s favorite Batman artist is often determined by when they first began reading comic books.  That’s certainly the case for me.  There have been numerous talented artists who have rendered the Dark Knight’s adventures over the past eight decades, but two hold a special fondness for me: Jim Aparo and Norm Breyfogle.  When I began reading DC Comics regularly in 1989, Aparo was the penciler on Batman, and Breyfogle was the penciler on Detective Comics.

Jim Aparo, who had been working in the biz since the late 1960s, was what I refer to as a good, solid artist.  His penciling on Batman was of a more traditional bent, but his style perfectly suited the character.

And then there was Norm Breyfogle, the new kid on the block.  Breyfogle utilized a very dynamic approach to his storytelling.  His artwork in Detective Comics was filled with dramatic, innovative layouts that were possessed of both explosive energy and brooding atmosphere.

Batman 465 cover crop

Breyfogle had broken into the biz just five years earlier, in 1984, with a pair of contributions to DC’s New Talent Showcase.  Two years later, in 1986, Breyfogle penciled several issues of Steven Grant’s series Whisper for First Comics.  Following that, Breyfogle first entered the dark, moody world of Gotham City, becoming the regular penciler of Detective Comics with issue #582, cover-dated January 1988.

The following month, with issue #583, Breyfogle was joined on Detective Comics by the talented British writing team of Alan Grant & John Wagner.  Issue #584 saw the arrival of the last member of the now-regular creative team, inker Steve Mitchell.

Grant, Wagner & Breyfogle very quickly made their impart on the Bat-mythos, introducing new adversaries the Ratcatcher, the Corrosive Man, and the Ventriloquist & Scarface, the last of whom has become an iconic member of the Dark Knight’s rogues gallery.

Although Wagner soon departed, Grant remained on Detective Comics, penning a series of stories that were expertly illustrated by Breyfogle & Mitchell.  With issue #608, Grant & Breyfogle introduced yet another memorable denizen of Gotham City, the radical anti-hero Anarky.

Anarky profile pic

Breyfogle’s depiction of Batman was incredibly dramatic, and is now regarded as one of the iconic interpretations of the character.  His Dark Knight was muscular but also lithe, grim & imposing but also human & vulnerable.  Breyfogle’s fluid layouts depicted a dark yet dynamic Batman acrobatically swinging across the skyline of Gotham City, massive cape billowing about.  It was absolutely incredible.  Breyfogle’s depiction of Batman was *the* definitive one for me during my teenage years in the early 1990s.

The team of Grant, Breyfogle & Mitchell remained on Detective Comics until issue #621 (Sept 1990) and which point they were rotated over to the Batman series with issue #455.  Their first storyline, “Identity Crisis,” ended with the new Robin, Tim Drake, debuting his brand-new costume.  Breyfogle stayed on Batman until #476 (April 1992), at which point he switched over to yet another Bat-title, the new ongoing Batman: Shadow of the Bat.

Although he only drew the first five issues of Shadow of the Bat, this certainly wasn’t the end of Breyfogle’s association with Batman.  He would return for the occasional fill-in issue here and there.  Breyfogle also worked on several Batman-related graphic novels.  Among these was the acclaimed Elseworlds special Batman: Holy Terror written by novelist Alan Brennert.

Detective Comics 616 pg 18

One of my personal favorite issues from the team of Grant, Breyfogle & Mitchell was “Stone Killer” in Detective Comics #616 (June 1990).  In this story Batman faces an eerie supernatural adversary.  Breyfogle’s style was perfectly suited for this eerie tale.

Also noteworthy was Detective Comics #627 (March 1991).  This was the 600th appearance of Batman in that series.  To celebrate, this issue reprinted the first Batman story, “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” by Bill Finger & Bob Kane, and a 1969 update of the story by Mike Friedrich, Bob Brown & Joe Giella.  Additionally, there were two new interpretations of the story by the then-current Batman creative teams, Marv Wolfman, Jim Aparo & Mike Decarlo, and Alan Grant, Norm Breyfogle & Steve Mitchell.  It was interesting to see the same basic plot executed in four very different ways.

Detective Comics #627 concluded with a stunning double-page spread drawn by Breyfogle & Mitchell featuring Batman, his supporting cast, and many members of his rogues gallery.

Detective Comics 627 double page splash

Beginning in 1993, Breyfogle began working on Prime, which was part of Malibu Comics’ Ultraverse imprint.  He drew the first twelve issues, as well as stories for a few of the other Ultraverse titles.  Regrettably I did not follow any of these series.  At the time the comic book market had a huge glut of product on the shelves, and the Ultraverse unfortunately got lost in the shuffle.

I did finally have an opportunity to see Breyfogle’s work on the character a few years later, when the Prime / Captain America special was published in early 1996.  It was an odd but fun story, with wacky artwork by Breyfogle.  He appeared to be working in a slightly more cartoony, comedic vein.  I definitely enjoyed seeing him draw Captain America, who at the time was my favorite character.

Prime Captain America pg 8

After a short stint on Bloodshot at Valiant, Breyfogle returned to DC.  He penciled an Anarky miniseries, reuniting him with the character’s co-creator Alan Grant.  In the early 2000s he penciled several issues of the Spectre revival written by J.M. DeMatteis, which featured the then-deceased Hal Jordan adopting the supernatural role of the Wrath of God.  For Marvel Comics, Breyfogle drew the 2000 annuals for both Thunderbolts and Avengers, which in turn led to a three issue Hellcat miniseries featuring his artwork.

For a few years after the Spectre ended, Breyfogle unfortunately had some difficulty finding regular assignments in comic books.  Fortunately in late 2009 he began receiving work from Archie Comics.  Breyfogle was one of the regular artists on the wonderful Life With Archie series written by Paul Kupperberg.  Here he was paired up with inker Josef Rubinstein.

Breyfogle’s work for Archie Comics really demonstrated his versatility as an artist.  As I previously observed, Breyfogle’s art on Life With Archie was a very nice, effective blending of the company’s house style and his own unique, signature look.  He certainly was adept at illustrating the melodramatic soap opera storylines in the “Archie Marries Veronica” segments.

Life With Archie 9 pg 3

In 2012 Breyfogle once again had an opportunity to return to the world of Batman, illustrating the “10,000 Clowns” story arc and several covers for Batman Beyond.  It was a wonderful homecoming for the artist, who seamlessly fit back into Bat-verse, this time giving us his depictions of the dystopian future Gotham City and its denizens introduced in the animated series.

Batman Beyond would unfortunately be Breyfogle’s last major work in comic books.  In December 2014 he suffered a stroke, after which he became partially paralyzed.  Tragically, as a result Breyfogle was no longer able to draw.  Nevertheless he remained connected to the comic book community, regularly communicating with fans via Facebook.

Norm Breyfogle passed away on September 24, 2018.  He was only 58 years old.  It was a tremendous shock, both to his colleagues, who always spoke very highly of him, and to the generation of fans such as myself who grew up on his amazing artwork.

For me Breyfogle will always remain one of the all-time greatest Batman artists.  He will definitely be missed.

Strange Comic Books: Batman Legends of the Dark Knight #38

Having sorted through many of the comic books I wanted to get rid of, and those I wanted to hold on to, I decided that Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #38 was definitely a keeper.  Legends of the Dark Knight was anthology series that DC Comics published from 1989 to 2007.  Numerous creative teams took turns crafting tales that were often only kind-of, sort-of in continuity, which led to all manner of interesting depictions of Batman’s early years as a crime fighter.   One of the most memorable of these was “Legend of the Dark Mite,” written by Alan Grant and illustrated by Kevin O’Neill.  It was undoubtedly a wonderfully weird and strange issue.

Batman LOTDK 38 cover

“Legend of the Dark Mite” sees the reintroduction of the oddball Bat-Mite to the post-Crisis DCU.  Bat-Mite was one of those offbeat characters who debuted during that odd period in the 1950s and early 60s when the Batman stories had drifted quite afar from their noir roots.  During this time, the Caped Crusader would end up fighting alien invaders and monsters, as well as getting transformed into “The Zebra Batman,” or wearing an assortment of unusual one-off costumes.  Bat-Mite was an Imp originating from the Fifth Dimension, much like pesky Superman foe Mister Mxyzptlk.  Bat-Mite considered himself Batman’s biggest fan and, dressed in a knock-off of the Dark Knight’s costume, attempted to assist his idol in fighting crime.  Unfortunately, Bat-Mite was a klutz who was unable to use his powers very effectively, and so he was usually much more of a nuisance than an ally to Batman.  He was definitely written for comedic effect, and so by the time Batman returned to his darker pulp roots in the 1970s Bat-Mite had pretty much faded from the picture.

Alan Grant and Kevin O’Neill decided to bring back Bat-Mite in 1992, albeit with the proviso of “maybe he’s real, and maybe he’s not.”  They deftly, and humorously, accomplish this by having the events of “Legend of the Dark Mite” told almost entirely from the point of view of Overdog, a petty criminal & drug addict who has more or less fried his brain through the abuse of controlled substances.

Batman LOTDK 38 pg 7

Overdog and a couple of his burn-out pals come up with the none-too-brilliant idea of robbing & killing one of Gotham’s big-time drug dealers.  After brutally slaying him and consuming vast quantities of pills, they are discovered by Batman.  While the Dark Knight is busy tangling with the other two addicts, Overdog flees.  Before he can make it very far, though, he comes across, in his words, “an elf dressed in a crazy-looking Batman costume.”  (I love that look on Batman’s face in the second panel on page seven!)

Bat-Mite insists that Overdog go back and surrender to Batman.  The addict doesn’t take kindly to this suggestion and empties his machine gun at the Imp point-blank.  This, of course, has absolutely no effect on Bat-Mite, who uses his powers to repeatedly bludgeon Overdog’s head with his own firearm.  And then some of Overdog’s associates arrive, looking for the money he owes them.  Spotting Bat-Mite, Johnny Caruso & his gang all open fire but, once again, they’re completely ineffectual.  All this serves to do is make Bat-Mite angry.  And you won’t like Bat-Mite when he’s angry.  Oh, wait, is that a different character?  Well, in any case, this happens:

Batman LOTDK 38 pg 10

Bat-Mite on steroids proceeds to violently demolish Caruso’s crew.  He then seizes Overdog and “pops” him back into his home dimension.  As Bat-Mite explains it, he and the rest of the magical inhabitants of his universe have been observing Earth through their “windows of the world.”  To entertain themselves, they dress up as their favorite heroes & villains and re-enact their adventures.

Bat-Mite returns Overdog to Earth, where the junkie has a sudden spiritual experience… or something.  Realizing he has wasted his life with drugs and violence, Overdog vows to go straight.  Of course, Batman understandably believes that Overdog is crazy, and hauls him off to Arkham Asylum, where he’s declared insane.  And, despite the fact that there are aspects to the case that Batman cannot explain, such as “a grand piano chasing two men uphill” and Overdog knowing about events that he shouldn’t have, Batman just cannot bring himself to believe in a magical elf wearing a Bat-suit.  The Dark Knight departs Arkham, leaving a straight-jacketed Overdog to shriek & scream to a Bat-Mite that only he can see “I’m not mad!”

Wow, that was absolutely crazy! “Legend of the Dark Mite” is really great, twisted stuff by Alan Grant & Kevin O’Neill.  I’m a big fan of both their works.

Grant has been a regular contributor to the weekly British sci-fi comic anthology 2000 AD for many years, scripting numerous installments of Judge Dredd and Anderson: Psi Division.  In the later, he did wonderful work developing the character of Cassandra Anderson, offering an alternate, more cerebral & spiritual perspective on the dystopian Mega City One to the stark, hard-boiled view often seen in the Dredd stories.  Here in the States, Grant wrote many issues of Batman and Detective Comics in the late 1980s and early 90s, often collaborating with the talented, underrated Norm Breyfogle.  Grant also penned Lobo for quite a number of years, using the series as an ultra-violent send-up of grim & gritty comics.

Oh, yes, Grant has also written The Terminator for comics several times, but if you ask him about it, he’s liable to mutter “Bloody Terminator” under his breath. (When tasked with writing Superman vs. The Terminator, he sardonically commented “What am I supposed to do, give them Kryptonite batteries?”)  I met him at a convention in Bristol, England back in 1999, and since my comic collection was back in the States, all I had for him to autograph were a couple of issues of The Terminator.  I made sure to apologize profusely!

Batman LOTDK 38 pg 17

As for O’Neill, he really has an absolutely unique, bizarre style.  He also started out working on 2000 AD, where he co-created the Nemesis the Warlock feature with Pat Mills.  O’Neill began working on American comics in the mid-1980s, and infamously ran afoul of the Comics Code Authority, which back then wielded much more influence.  As O’Neill himself explained in 2001 to the Barbelith Webzine, “I was working on an Alan Moore story. The CCA objected – not to the actual story but to the style that it was drawn in. I had aliens being crucified and stuff like that. My editor asked if we could run it with a code sticker if we toned down the crucifixion. They said there was NOTHING they could do to the artwork that would help. I loved that! I loved the idea that these old grannies were sitting in an office in New York poring over every comic page. It was 1950s.”

Nowadays O’Neill is well known for his collaborations with Alan Moore on the various League of Extraordinary Gentlemen miniseries and graphic novels.  O’Neill’s strange, hyper-detailed work is absolutely perfect for establishing the various pseudo-historical periods that series is set in, as well as fitting in all of Moore’s obscure literary & cultural references.

Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #38 was likely the first time I saw O’Neill’s work.  It totally blew my mind.  The scenes set in Bat-Mite’s home dimension, with his fellow Imps recreating the adventures of their costumed counterparts in the “regular” universe, were strange & hysterical.  A few years later, in 1999, when I was in Britain and had the opportunity to pick up quite a few of the 2000 AD back issues and trade paperbacks, I really became a fan of O’Neill’s style.  I was subsequently very happy that he really came into the spotlight here in the States via his work with Moore on League.

Letterer extraordinaire John Workman also did superbly on “Legend of the Dark Mite.”  His fonts & calligraphy were really great at helping to establish & drive home the ridiculous, insane, and humorously twisted material.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: lettering is such a key, overlooked aspect of the overall storytelling process in comic books.  Workman is among the best, and his lettering really complements O’Neill’s artwork.

Legends of the Dark Knight #38 is definitely worth tracking down.  You can find it on Ebay very easily (I just took a look, and found over a dozen people selling copies).  The issue was also collected in the Batman: Collected Legends of the Dark Knight trade paperback published in 1994.  That’s now out of print, but it is available at rather reasonable prices on Amazon.  And the rest of the material collected within it is also very good.