Happy Batman Day and Caturday!

Today is Batman Day, celebrating all things relating to the Dark Knight of Gotham City, one of DC Comics’ most iconic comic book characters.  Today is also Saturday, or rather Caturday, the weekly celebration of all things cat-related.

Batman, aka Bruce Wayne, first appeared in Detective Comics #27, published in 1939.  Catwoman, real name Selina Kyle, made her debut just a year later in the pages of Batman #1.  Both characters were created by writer Bill Finger and artist Bob Kane.

For nearly eight decades the grim vigilante Batman and the sexy thief Catwoman have had an adversarial relationship with heavy romantic undertones.  There was a mutual attraction from the start, one often undermined by the fact that Bruce and Selina have typically been on opposite side of the law.

Since this year Batman Day falls on Caturday, I am taking a quick look at the history between Batman and his longtime frenemy Catwoman.

Batman 65 cover

Creator credits in the Golden Age of comic books were unfortunately often sparse, but the GCD credits the cover artwork to Batman #65 (June-July 1951) to Win Mortimer, Lew Sayre Schwartz & Charles Paris.  Whoever drew it, it’s a nice cover.  Both it, and the story inside by Finger, Kane, Schwartz & Paris, demonstrate that right from the start Batman never knew if each time he met Catwoman she would turn out to be an enemy, an ally, or something in-between.

Detective Comics 211 pg 1

“The Jungle Cat-Queen!” is an exciting tale written by Edmund Hamilton and drawn by Dick Sprang & Charles Paris, and appeared in Detective Comics #211 (Sept 1954).  Catwoman plays a variation of “The Most Dangerous Game” with Batman and Robin on a jungle island.  Sprang is considered the quintessential Batman artist of the 1950s.  I first read this one in the excellent collection The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told.

(Pay no attention to the contratually obligated Bob Kane byline.  Kane had nothing to do with this comic, or any other Batman story published after the early 1950s.  Unfortunately he loved to take credit for other people’s work.  At least nowadays we have a much better idea of who did what.)

Batman 197 pg 18

Batman #197 (Dec 1967) written by Gardner Fox and drawn by Frank Springer & Sid Greene sees Catwoman determined to marry Batman… whether he wants to or not!  Yeah, this one certainly won’t win any awards for progressive depictions of woman!  This was pretty typical of DC’s Silver Age superhero comics, the target audience for which was pre-teen boys. Oh, well… nice artwork by the underrated Springer & Greene, at least.

For an entertaining, in-depth look at Batman #197 by someone who read it when it first came out I highly recommend heading over to Alan Stewart’s excellent Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books.

Batman 256 pg 14

Okay, this is certainly better!  Batman #256 (May-June 1974) by writer Denny O’Neil & artists Irv Novick & Dick Giordano, has Batman and Robin investigating whether or  not Catwoman has committed a murder at the circus.  Selina is innocent, of course, since she’s no killer, but she is planning to “liberate” the tigers from the circus, so she can return the large cats to the natrual world.  While Batman disapproves of Catwoman’s larcenous activities, he nevertheless admires her strong love for animals.

DC Super Stars 17 pg 30

DC Super Stars #17 (Nov-Dec 1977) featured the origin of the Huntress, heroine of Earth 2 and the daughter of the Golden Age Batman and Catwoman.  This story, written by Paul Levitz and drawn by Joe Staton & Bob Layton, opens with the wedding of Bruce & Selina, who at least in this dimension found love & happiness together for two decades, until tragedy eventually struck.  It’s a great story, so go find a copy and read it!

Detective Comics 569 pg 6

Meanwhile, back on Earth 1, Batman and Catwoman were still doing their will-they-or-won’t-they dance.   Mike W. Barr was one of the writers to delve into their rocky relationship, as witnessed in this scene from Detective Comics #569 (Dec 1986) expertly illustrated by Alan Davis & Paul Neary.

Batman 611 pg 21

In the post-Crisis, post-Zero Hour, post-whatever other reality-altering mega crossovers DC has thrown our way in the past 30 years, Batman and Catwoman still had that mutual attraction going.  After numerous encounters that saw them working in various permutations of friends and foes, they finally officially became a couple in Batman #611 (Feb 2003) written by Jeph Loeb, with art by Jim Lee & Scott Williams.

I am generally not a huge fan of Lee’s work.  I find his style too busy and hyper-detailed.  Having said that, this is a beautiful splash page which has become an iconic image.

Batman Catwoman Follow the Money pg 44

Of course, the course of true love never runs smooth, or words to that effect.  Batman and Catwoman’s ongoing relationship has hit quite a few speedbumps.  One of the reasons for this is that the two come from very different backgrounds: Bruce is a millionaire, and Selina grew up on the streets of Gotham City’s poorest neighborhoods.  As a result the two have often disagreed over matters of crime, punishment and justice.  This was expertly illustrated in Batman / Catwoman: Follow the Money (Jan 2011) written & illustrated by Howard Chaykin.  It’s an enjoyable story, and I recommend searching out a copy.

I know a lot of people were upset that Bruce & Selina did not actually tie the knot during writer Tom King’s current run on Batman.  But, honestly, as you can see from the above, they already bicker like an old married couple, so at this point it’s really just a formality!

Batman Gotham Adventues 50 cover

I am going to close out with the cover artwork for Batman: Gotham Adventures #50 (July 2002) which features the animated incarnations of Bruce & Selina.  Illustrated by the late, great, much-missed Darwyn Cooke, this image is a beautiful snapshot of the relationship between Batman and Catwoman.

Remembering Mark Gruenwald

Twenty years ago this week comic book writer & editor Mark Gruenwald passed away.  He was only 43 years old.

A longtime comic book reader, Gruenwald was active in fandom during his teenage years. In 1978 he was hired as an assistant editor at Marvel Comics, where he would remain for his entire career.  He was the editor on Avengers, Iron Man and Thor in the 1980s.

During his tenure at Marvel, Gruenwald worked on a number of projects. A master of comic book continuity, he conceived the encyclopedia-like Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, with extensive biographies & descriptions of powers for many of the company’s characters.  Gruenwald had decade-long run writing Captain America, which began with issue #307 (July 1985) and lasted until issue #443 (September 1995), missing only a single issue during that time.  He also had a five year stint on Quasar, and wrote the well-regarded Squadron Supreme miniseries.

Captain America 322 cover

Gruenwald also occasionally worked as an artist. In 1983 he both wrote and provided pencil breakdowns for a Hawkeye miniseries, with Brett Breeding & Danny Bulanadi doing inks / finishes.  It was in this story that Hawkeye first encountered the lovely ex-SHIELD agent Mockingbird, and the miniseries ended with them tying the knot.

Growing up, Gruenwald was one of the first comic book creators whose work I followed. In 1985 my father got me a subscription to Captain America.  That happened to dovetail with the start of Gruenwald’s stint on the book, working with penciler Paul Neary.  That year’s worth of comics that I received in the mail were read by me over and over again.  They definitely played a major role in my becoming a lifelong fan of the character.  Four years later, when I began going to the comic shop on a regular basis, Captain America was one of the first comic book series that I collected religiously.

There were some great storylines written by Gruenwald during his decade on Captain America. He penned a lengthy arc that lasted from #332 to #350.  Steve Rogers, rather than become an agent of the shadowy government entity known as the Commission of Super-Human Activities, resigned as Cap.  The Commission recruited the glory-seeking, egotistical John Walker, who was already operating under the guise of Super-Patriot, to become the new Captain America.  Now literally walking in Cap’s shoes, manipulated by the Commission, and facing numerous deadly foes, Walker came to realize just how difficult the role was.  Becoming mentally unstable after his parents were murdered, Walker finally decided he wasn’t cut out to be Cap.  He turned the costume back over to Rogers, having developed a grudging admiration for him.  Walker would soon after adopt a new identity, U.S. Agent.  Over the next several years he and Cap would continue to butt heads over tactics & ideology.

Captain America 350 pg 44

In 1989 Gruenwald penned the action-packed, globe-trotting storyline “The Bloodstone Hunt,” working with penciler & co-plotter Kieron Dwyer, who was just beginning his career in the biz.  A year later, now paired with penciler Ron Lim, Gruenwald wrote the seven issue “Streets of Poison,” which had Cap becoming embroiled in a drug war being fought between the Kingpin and the Red Skull.

Gruenwald revamped the Red Skull from a scheme-of-the-month Nazi war criminal. Taking on the trappings of a late 1980s uber-capitalist, operating out of Washington DC itself, the Skull sought to destroy America from within by financing numerous subversive and terrorist organizations.

While he was updating Cap’s arch nemesis, Gruenwald also set out to expand the Sentinel of Liberty’s rogues gallery. His most notable creations were super-villain trade union the Serpent Society, the anti-nationalist Flag-Smasher, the fanatical vigilante the Scourge of the Underworld, the reactionary militia group the Watchdogs, and the brutal mercenary Crossbones.

Gruenwald also introduced Diamondback. A member of the Serpent Society, Rachel Leighton was a magenta-haired bad girl from the wrong side of the tracks who found herself unexpectedly attracted to Cap.  At first merely hanging out with Cap in the hopes of convincing him to have a roll in the sack, Diamondback came to develop feelings for him and she began to ponder going straight.  Likewise Cap, who originally considered Diamondback to be a major nuisance, eventually came to appreciate & care for Rachel.  Gruenwald chronicled their extremely rocky relationship throughout his time on the series.  “Cap’s Night Out” in issue #371, with artwork by Lim & Bulanadi, which has Steve and Rachel going out on a date, is one of the best single issues of Gruenwald’s run.

Captain America 371 pg 1

In hindsight, there are aspects of Gruenwald’s work on Captain America that do not hold up too well. To a degree Gruenwald’s sensibilities were rooted in the early Silver Age, and his conception of Cap was of a “man in a white hat,” extremely ethical and scrupulously honest.  At times I feel Gruenwald overdid this, such as his insistence that, despite having served in the armed forces during World War II, Cap never ever killed a single person.  I realize that Gruenwald very much wanted to draw a line in the sand between Cap and such hyper-violent anti-heroes as Wolverine and the Punisher who were starting to become very popular, and I do appreciate his intentions.  I just feel that at times he wrote Cap as someone given to too much moralizing and hand-wringing.

The last few years Gruenwald was on Captain America were hit & miss. There was “The Superia Stratagem,” which saw the militant feminist Superia organize an army of female villains as well as attempt to transform Cap into a woman.  This was followed a year later by “Man and Wolf,” which saw Cap actually transformed into a werewolf.  Neither story was well-received by readers, although I do have a certain fondness for Capwolf.

Captain America 405 cover

Towards the end, it appears the changes taking place throughout the comic book industry were affecting Gruenwald’s outlook. The whole “grim & gritty” trend became prevalent throughout superhero books.  Hot young artists with flashy styles who were weak in storytelling & anatomy were now superstars.  Marvel itself was much more corporate, making a number of decisions to drive up short-term profits, something that would eventually lead to the company into bankruptcy.

All this seemed to be very much reflected in Gruenwald’s final year and a half on Captain America. Paired with penciler Dave Hoover, Gruenwald wrote “Fighting Chance,” which saw Cap succumbing to a complete physical breakdown as the Super Soldier Serum finally wore out.  As the dying Cap sought to take down his cutthroat adversaries, he found himself at odds with brutal vigilantes who mocked him as naïve and ineffectual.  In Gruenwald’s final issue, Cap lay on his deathbed, overcome with despair, believing that he had not fought hard enough to make the world a better place.

Captain America 443 pg 20

A year later, on August 12, 1996, Mark Gruenwald passed away. It was already a dark time for the comic book industry, and his death made it all the darker.  Yes, Gruenwald had made certain missteps, both as a writer and in his role as an editor.  But it was clear that on the whole he was very talented and intelligent.  Gruenwald possessed a genuine love of comic books, and he was committed to ensuring that the work he and his collaborators did was of a high quality.  His loss certainly left the industry much poorer.

Twenty years later, many of the characters & concepts introduced by Gruenwald are still in use in the Marvel universe.  More importantly, as the anniversary of his passing approached, it was readily apparent by the kind words of his friends & colleagues that he was still both highly regarded and much missed.

Magneto vs. the Red Skull round one

The current Marvel Comics crossover Avengers/X-Men: Axis sees the Fascist mastermind the Red Skull gaining the devastating powers of Onslaught, threatening the entire world. A key aspect of this storyline has been the conflict between the Skull and Magneto, the mutant Master of Magnetism.  But this is certainly not the first time those two have encountered one another.  For that we must look back to late 1989 and the “Acts of Vengeance” crossover.

Captain America 367 cover

It is actually a bit surprising that it took Magneto and the Red Skull so long to meet. In certain respects they have much in common; in others they are complete opposites.

Magneto, the long-time ideological opponent of the X-Men and one of their greatest foes, spent his early years as a one-note mutant supremacist. He was almost a Hitler-like figure, a ranting, sadistic conqueror who wanted to crush humanity and rule the world in the name of mutant-kind, who he saw as their superiors.

Then throughout the 1980s, in the pages of Uncanny X-Men, writer Chris Claremont developed a back-story for Magneto. He was a Jew from Eastern Europe who had spent much of his childhood imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camps, who lost his entire family in the Holocaust.  At the end of World War II the barely alive Magneto fled to Russia with the gypsy Magda, who he married.

Eventually, as seen in Classic X-Men#12 by Claremont and artist John Bolton, when Magneto’s mutant powers began to manifest, a fearful mob attacked him, preventing him from rescuing his daughter Anya who was trapped in a burning house. Magneto lashed out in anger, slaying the mob.  Magda fled from him in fear, and he never saw her again.

The death of his daughter, the loss of his wife, and the actions of the mob brought him right back the horrors of the Holocaust. Magneto became convinced that it was inevitable that humanity would attempt to destroy mutants in a new genocide.  Between his overwhelming fear of a mutant Holocaust, and an unfortunate side effect of his powers creating severe emotional instability, Magneto became a violent revolutionary determined to protect mutant-kind by conquering humanity.  In effect, he became very much like the Nazis who he hated.

Classic X-Men 12 pg 10

The Red Skull’s real name is Johann Schmidt. In the back-story originally set down by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, and developed in detail years later by J.M. DeMatteis, Paul Neary & Roy Richardson in Captain America #298, we learn that Schmidt was born to an alcoholic father and his abused wife in a small German village.  When the mother died giving birth the drunk, angry father attempted to murder his newborn son.  He was prevented from doing so by the delivering physician.  The distraught father committed suicide soon after, leaving the infant Johann Schmidt an orphan.  Although only a newborn when all this occurred, the Red Skull claims to remember these events with crystal clarity.

Schmidt spent his childhood and teenage years as an outcast and a vagrant, ostracized by his peers. One time the daughter of a Jewish shopkeeper showed the coarse man kindness.  Schmidt responded by clumsily attempting to woo her, and when she spurned his violent advances, he responded by beating her to death, taking out on her all the rage he felt at humanity as a whole.  The experience filled him with “a dizzying joy such as I never suspected existed!”

Years past, and eventually Schmidt was working as a bellboy at a German hotel. One day Hitler and his advisors were staying there.  By chance, Schmidt was bringing refreshments into Hitler’s chambers right when the Fuhrer was berating the head of the Gestapo for letting a spy escape.  The fuming Hitler was despairing at ever having anyone competent enough to carry out his vision.  Motioning towards Schmidt, Hitler declared “I could teach that bellboy to do a better job than you!”  Glancing at the young man, Hitler was startled to see the look in Schmidt’s eyes.  Within them Hitler recognized a bottomless capacity for hatred and violence.  The Fuhrer realizes this was someone who he could transform into the ultimate Nazi, a being who would mercilessly advance the cause of the Third Reich.  Thus was born the Red Skull.

Captain America 298 pg 14

It is interesting that circumstances both led Magneto and the Red Skull onto a path of violence and conquest, each driven by the belief in their own superiority, by the desire to punish the world for the harms inflicted upon them. The difference, I think, is that if young Magneto had grown up in a different place & time, and never lived through the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust, he might very well have grown up to be a normal, happy, well-adjusted figure.  In contrast, one gets the feeling that Johann Schmidt, even if he had been raised by loving parents, was of possessed some form of anti-social personality disorder and would have inevitable become a cruel, unpleasant individual.  He simply might have become something slightly more socially acceptable, such as a corporate executive or a politician!

These two men finally come face-to-face during “Acts of Vengeance,” when the Norse god of evil Loki brought together several of Earth’s greatest villains and criminals to organize a series of attacks directed at destroying the Avengers. At first Magneto thinks that this is a different Red Skull, believing the original died some time before, not realizing the Skull’s consciousness was transferred into a new body cloned from none other than Captain America.  Nevertheless Magneto cannot put the matter out of his mind.  In Captain America #367 written by Mark Gruenwald, with excellent artwork Kieron Dwyer and Danny Bulanadi, Magneto breaks into the Skull’s office in Washington DC, demanding to know the truth.  The Skull admits he is the original.  He attempts to convince Magneto that the two of them are in fact very much alike, hoping to trick the Master of Magnetism into lowering his guard.  This fails, and the Skull is forced to flee.  (Click on the below image to enlarge it for the full details of their exchange.)

Captain America 367 pg 8 & 9

Despite the fact that the Skull now resides in a body that possesses the Super Soldier Serum, he has never bothered to undergo the extensive regular training that Captain America himself engages in which has made the Sentinel of Liberty one of the world’s greatest fighters. Instead the Skull still relies on lackeys such as Crossbones and Mother Night, and on the advanced technology & robots developed by the Machinesmith.  So rather than possibly having a chance of at least holding his own against Magneto, as Cap probably would, the Skull quickly finds himself outmatched.

Soon enough Magneto captures the Red Skull. He spirits him away to a subterranean bomb shelter, leaving him with nothing more than several containers of water.  Magneto tells the Skull “I want you to sit down here and think of the horrors you have perpetrated.  I want you to suffer as you’ve made others suffer.  I want you to wish I had killed you.”  With that Magneto leaves, entombing the Skull in darkness.  Dwyer & Bulanadi definitely draw the hell out of this page.  That look on the Skull’s face in the final panels, as he silently fumes in a mixture of defiance and horror, is genuinely unnerving.  And you are really not sure if justice has been served, or if you actually feel perhaps the slightest bit of pity for the Skull for not having been given a quick, clean death.

Captain America 367 pg 22

The Skull spends a lengthy period of time imprisoned in the bomb shelter. Eventually he begins to hallucinate.  In Captain America #369, in an eerie sequence written by Gruenwald and drawn by Mark Bagley & Don Hudson, the Skull sees his father, Hitler, and his daughter Sinthea berating and belittling him, urging him to commit suicide.  We see that beneath the Skull’s belief that he is better than everyone else is a horrible fear that he is an insignificant nothing, and that everyone is looking down at him.  The only way he can prove that wrong is to trample the whole of humanity beneath his heel, demonstrating his superiority.

Eventually of course the Skull is located by his underlings. Weakened and dying, his burning hatred of Captain America gives him the strength to keep living and recover.  Even when Cap attempts to offer him the slightest bit of concern and sympathy, all the Skull can react with is venomous contempt and malice.  As far as the Skull is concerned, kindness equals weakness, and only hatred will keep him strong.

Captain America 369 pg 29

Much time passes by. The Red Skull dies and is resurrected at least a couple of more times.  Presently he has been revived within a copy of his own original body in its prime.  As seen in the events of Uncanny Avengers and X-Men: Legacy, the Skull has stolen the body of the recently deceased Charles Xavier.  He has ghoulishly had Xavier’s brain grafted onto his own, gaining the immense telepathic powers of the X-Men’s founder.

In the aftermath of the “Avenge the Earth” storyline written by Rick Remender, Kang the Conqueror’s sprawling Xanatos Gambit to wipe out all future timelines save for the one where he rules and to seize the power of a Celestial, becoming a literal god, was thwarted by the narrowest of margins. It was also a most pyrrhic of victories: Havok was horribly scarred in his final battle with Kang, the young daughter who Havok and the Wasp had in a now-erased timeline is a prisoner of Kang’s in the distant future, Sunfire’s body was transformed into an energy form, Wonder Man’s consciousness is trapped in Rogue’s mind and, as usual, people still hate & fear mutant-kind.

Uncanny Avengers 23 pg 21

Uncanny Avengers #23 by Remender and artist Sanford Greene shows that the vengeful Kang, seeking to rub salt into these wounds, has dispatched Ahab, the cyborg slave-master from the “Days of Futures Past” reality, to assist the Red Skull in his plans for mutant genocide. Thus is set the stage for the Axis crossover, and for Magneto to once again confront the Red Skull.  I will be taking a look at that encounter in the near future.  Stay tuned.

Click here to proceed to round two in the war between Magneto and the Red Skull.