The Crusty Curmudgeon’s Comic Classics ~ When Batman Met Captain Beefheart

© 2013 Paradox Productions LLC

Detective587-00 About a year and a half ago, around the time the Arkham City video game was released, a gamer friend asked me to recommend some Batman comics, as the game had stirred a bit of a thirst 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.

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 generally brought a different sensibility to American comics—and to Batman specifically. Their scripts possessed a willful lack of sentimementality, coupled with a bleak atmosphere and ocassional black humor. Anyone familiar with the pair’s previous work on 2000 AD can see that same style present 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 (cover dated February 1988). They started off with a bang, introducing the Ventriloquist and Scarface—two characters (well, one character really, 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” (Detective #590) 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.

Running from Detective #587–589, 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 cultclassic film The Warriors. Part One (#587) ends with the dramatically illustrated introduction of the Corrosive Man against a backdrop of lightning and rain while DJ Dark plays “Electricity” by Captain Beefheart: “Thunderbolts caught easily… shout the truth peacefully… EEEE-LECTRICITY! ELECTRICITY!”

Detective587-23This 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 as Ditko’s style. One thing at which he excels is creative and dramatic camera angles. (Breyfogle 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.

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 and no Amazon.com, 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). He 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.

…By the way, for anyone out there who wants to sample Beefheart’s “Electricity” for your own ears, here you go:

 

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 (June 1992). Breyfogle worked on just the first five issues of this series, but Grant continued to write 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 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.

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!

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