Thursday, October 9, 2014

October is Spookey Month: Batman #319 (January 1980)

Batman #319 (January 1980) sees Batman and Gentleman Ghost battling once again.  This mean we get a Halloween treat in the form of a spectacular Joe Kubert cover with Batman in pulpy danger, suspended over a bubbling vat of wholesome Campbell's Tomato Soup with milk added.  Just like my dad loved to do!  Dick Giordano inks and the result is as rich and creamy as the soup Gentleman Ghost plans to dip Batman into.  Eerie underlighting and a line quality that's recognizably Kubert but somewhat cleaner and not as expressionistic.

The story starts in mid-action, just like the previous Gentleman Ghost appearance.  Batman once again interrupts the Ghost and his henchpeople in mid-heist and ends up hoisted by his own cape.  While starting stories like this instantly ups the energy level and leads us to expect something rapid-fire and thrilling, there's a danger of this approach devolving into formula.  But Batman's dilemma-- which writer Len Wein points out is self-inflicted due to Batman's cape being rip-resistant, a helpful quality in most situations but not when you need it to tear so you can free yourself from a dangling hook-- proves startling and original in its details.  Wein also uses it to show that Batman, while fallibly human, is also resourceful and dangerous even when apparently helpless.  Never count out the Caped Crusader, as Gentleman Ghost finds before cleverly making his own escape.

Script: Len Wein/Pencils: Irv Novick/Inks: Bob Smith

From there we find Batman setting a trap for the Ghost, with a Halloween-appropriate setting.  He plans a costume ball at Wayne Manor with jewels on display as bait.  Gentleman Ghost finds this irresistible, and once again Batman ends up dangling from a hook.  This time over boiling soup.  I mean acid.  It's not tomato soup.  It's a vat of acid, a wicked comic book convention.  This time Wein shows us the mechanics of a Batman escape.  The story has the feel of someone working through all those classic Batman tropes.  The death traps, the fist fights, goofy henchpeople (somehow the very British Gentleman Ghost has found a couple of very British oafs to help him, one named, fittingly enough, Alfie) and another ambiguous ending.

Script: Len Wein/Pencils: Irv Novick/Inks: Bob Smith

We still never learn if Gentleman Ghost is a real ghost or not.  His lackies disguise themselves as the Ghost as a distraction and Wein suggests the headless quality is mere fakery when one of them is revealed to be merely hunching down.  That doesn't explain the floating top hats or monacles.  Later there's a bit with a convenient hologram projector which also seems to tell us the Ghost is more technological trick than supernatural treat, but Wein leaves the truth of the matter hanging, kind of like his Batman this issue.  You can have it either way.  He's a clever illusionist with a creepy gimmick or he's a creepy ghost with a penchant for high-tech chicanery.

Script: Len Wein/Pencils: Irv Novick/Inks: Bob Smith

It's up to you!

Irv Novick once again pencils, but this time Bob Smith inks.  Smith's line is thinner, sharper, more angular than Giordano's.  Well-defined figures and clarity of action make this issue very appealing throughout.  Batman is almost always on the left side of the panels, inciting things in the proper reading order so you get this forward thrust and momentum that carries through all the way to the end.  With Novick and Smith the crowded costume party has focus and detail, with one wide panel that's a treat to linger on.  Batman comes as Henry VIII, Selina Kyle as Catherine of Aragon ("Please... call me Cat," she quips) and Lucius Fox is Abraham Lincoln.  You can make out a plethora of other historical personages surrounding them and even when the Gentleman Ghost and friends gate-crash, Novick and Smith maintain a clear sense of where everyone is relative to each other.  Even when Selina Kyle and Lucius Fox abruptly switch sides so Fox can occupy the foreground with his thoughtful countenance you're not likely to freak out with the change and fall out of the story.  Good, solid stuff.

Script: Len Wein/Pencils: Irv Novick/Inks: Bob Smith

The issues I've read of this Wein run are sleekly enjoyable reads.  He drops exposition into dialogue and gives us meaty narrative captions to chew on while we enjoy the visual banquet Novick and Smith provide.  Very tasty stuff, the kind that satisfies.

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