Monday, 25 July 2011

DC Retroactive 1970s Batman #1 review


The still of the Gotham night is broken by a new threat to the citizenry, the Terrible Trio, cheering a bored Batman up no end. The Fox, the Shark and the Vulture have stolen the MO of the Silver Age villains of the same name, and they manage to outwit Batman twice before the Gotham Guardian ends their mini-crime wave - with a little help from Lucius Fox and Alfred Pennyworth.

Along the way Bruce Wayne gives a few parties, Lucius worries about son Tim, Alfred frets about Bruce's ever-tearing cape ... it's a refreshing callback to a consistently entertaining period in the Batman book when Len Wein was writing, Irv Novick was pencilling and Paul Levitz was editing. Sadly, the stalwart Novick is no longer with us, but Wein is here for an encore and no one could accuse him of coasting on past glories.

For he fixes 'Terror Times Three' firmly in 1979's storylines, when corporate raider Gregorian Falstaff was becoming a business irritant to Bruce Wayne, and foreshadows a tale in which Talia al-Ghul turns up in Gotham. But you don't need to have been reading back then to get this comic as Wein, professional that he is, provides all the context the story needs. He also has a little fun with such comic book tropes as the quiet night that explodes with activity the moment that the peace is commented upon, and villains whose equipment costs more than the stuff they're stealing. This wasn't something writers were encouraged to do at the time, but today Wein' is perfectly at liberty to tickle the genre, and he's good enough to do it without throwing us out of the comic book. 

Wein's Batman is chattier than readers today are used to, but he's recognisably the same man, especially to fans of Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham's Batman Inc. His dealings with the (truly) Terrible Trio - hack villains who announce themselves at every opportunity - make for a lovely, light-hearted diversion (click to enlarge images).
Drawing the issue is Tom Mandrake, a terribly underrated artist who's been making great comics since the Eighties, with long runs on Firestorm and the Spectre. He's no stranger to Batman and here he perfectly captures the atmosphere of the late Seventies - I'd swear his Bruce is a nod to the late, great Don Newton, who was also drawing Batman around this time - while adding a few flourishes of his own. The action sequences are especially good, clear, dynamic and stylish, and his Talia is to die for.

Talia stars in the comic's closing image which, while vaguely cliffhangery, plays fair in that, as with the Falstaff subplot, it's dealt with in the Batman books of the time - unlike the ending-that's-not of this week's frankly appalling DC Retroactive 1970s Wonder Woman #1. Anyway, I said that the editors of that book should take some of the blame, so kudos now to this book's editors, Chynna Clugston Flores (also one of that book's) and Jim Chadwick. The entire creative team does a fine job, so let's also namecheck colourist Wes Hartman and letterer Dezi Sienty.

Wein and Mandrake are talents too good to be confined to nostalgia events such as this and DC Legacies (which was nicely written by Wein). Given free reign to play in the coming, new DC Universe, who knows what gems they might come up with.

This giant issue is rounded out by 'Dark Messenger of Mercy' from 1979's Batman #307, an entertaining mystery by Wein, John Calnan and Dick Giordano. It's plot heavy and talky, but given that comics of the time only had 17pp to play with, I appreciated the value. Wein is on form, with marks subtracted only for some appalling Cock-er-neys. Gregorian Falstaff also gets a mention, and Lucius Fox and Alfred are present and correct, one supporting Bruce Wayne, the other, Batman. Commissioner Gordon is likewise on hand and on form in both stories.
And while Calnan - unlike such Batman artists of the Seventies as Walt Simonson, Frank Robbins, and Jim Aparo - didn't have a strong artistic signature, I always enjoyed his clean, no-nonsense style. And Giordano, of course - another artistic angel - was the Seventies Batman inker par excellence due to his work with Neal Adams.

I can't imagine a better example of a DC Retroactive book than this. It gives us a new story that fits perfectly with the old, and an old story that entertains both as a nostalgia nugget and on its own terms. 

6 comments:

  1. Ooh, I'll need to pick up a opy of this for my wife, who was a big fan of Batman during this era.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I hope she enjoys it - I think she will.

    ReplyDelete
  3. This was a solid read, I'm glad I picked it up. I can't get enough of Tom Mandrake's Batman, and I love the Terrible Trio. (Although my fave take on them might be from Batman: Brave & the Bold!)

    ReplyDelete
  4. Is that the TV show version? I must seek it out.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Yeah, I loved seeing a new Trio (a martial arts-related one) in B&B too!

    This issue... Well, I normally like Mandrake's art a whole lot but found it murky here. Was he attempting to sublimate his style, reaching for a more classic 70s look? Or is it just the coloring? (By the way, this is my main disappointment with Retroactive: The colors and often the art are nothing like the era they're meant to represent, even though the writing is. Maybe I wanted more of a pastiche, and maybe that's not the right way to go either. Not sure.)

    Looking through the specials I have, the reprint stories look (or are) at least as good, if not better, than the new material.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I think you're right, Mandrake was trying to be a little more like the artists of the period. I liked it for this story, even though full-on Mandrake is fantastic.

    ReplyDelete