Sunday, April 01, 2012

Detective Comics 395

So far, the most interesting thing about reading the Bronze Age Batman comics chronologically is seeing things develop in context. For example, it's one thing to hear about how Detective Comics 395, "Night of the Waiting Graves," the first Batman story by Dennis O'Neil and Neal Adams marks a turning point for Batman as a comics series. It's another thing entirely to see how radically it transforms the series from the entertaining Frank Robbins-scripted whodunnits of the past couple of issues into something altogether different.

Considering that the O'Neil/Adams team is regarded as one of the definitive Batman creative teams, it's interesting that their first issue together feels very atypical. In a lot of ways, this story, with its overt supernatural elements, wouldn't feel too out of place in one of DC's horror books of the period. It's closer to a House of Mystery story than it is to the Batman stories that precede it. Batman is in an unfamiliar location (Mexico), taking on a mysterious, apparently immortal, couple who depend on a mystical flower for their immortality. However, the flower can also bring madness, and Batman is forced to battle the demons of his own psyche rather than a traditional villain like the Penguin or the Joker.

If I'm honest, I think the story succeeds more in terms of mood and tone than plot. The story rushes along, with very few explanations. The whole immortality-giving flower thing feels so isolated: it shows up in this story, and is gotten rid of by the end.

Neal Adams' art, on the other hand, is the real breakthrough. I had earlier proclaimed my enjoyment of Irv Novick's work on Batman, but Adams introduces a whole new energy in these pages. I don't have the art-school vocabulary to really explain what makes it work, and I don't want to fall back on the traditional phrases like "dynamic" or "realistic." (Although I think "realistic" really only applies when compared to the work of folks like Dick Sprang.) But compared to what came directly before, it does feel fresh, new and exciting.

The back of the book is taken up by the second half of the Robbins/Kane Robin solo story. I don't really have anything to add to what I said about the first part: it still has the feel of a writer struggling to appear contemporary and relevant without actually being part of the culture he's writing about. The story uses campus protests as the main part of the plot without appearing to understand the politics of those protests.

Robin story notwithstanding, this issue will always have its place in history as the first O'Neil/Adams Batman story. And while it may not represent the duo at the height of their powers, it's pretty good in its own right, regardless of its historical significance.

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