[In lieu of the post I was going to write, I'm going to take a moment to acknowledge the passing of a comic book legend. Dennis O'Neil is easily one of the people you'd put on the Mt. Rushmore of Batman creators. I mean, he and Neal Adams are instant members of the Batman Hall of Fame. As good as the artwork of Adams was, the words of O'Neil gave the character depth and humanity. He did the same for Green Lantern and Green Arrow fifty years ago at the dawn of the Bronze Age of Comics. Then, in the 1980s, as the editor of the Batman titles, he steered the transition into our Modern Age, as comics 'grew up' and took on more mature topics.
In interviews, O'Neil often discussed his own personal demons and how he overcame them and his love of pulp fiction (especially The Shadow). But I really appreciated his workmanlike take on the job of writing. Yes, he can often spin words brilliantly, but he always showed up, rolled up his sleeves, and did the work.
I had already pulled my trade paperback of the famous Hard Travelin' Heroes storyline from Green Lantern (on its fiftieth anniversary), but yesterday, I pulled out my heretofore unread copy of The Question. I've always heard great things. Time to read up.
The following was published in 2018 and you'll easily see why I'm posting it. Rest in peace, Mr. O'Neil. Your stories are timeless.]
To commemorate the end of summer 2018, let’s take a trip back forty years.
The summer of 1978 was smack dab in the middle of one of my favorite pockets of my life. You see, Star Wars had debuted the year before and it consume much of my imagination. It had awakened in me a love for all things science fiction and I sought out as much as I could, eventually discovering Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A PRINCESS OF MARS. I had discovered the rock and roll superheroes known as KISS through their albums, comics, and trading cards. And every issue of Circus or Hit Parader magazine I could find.
And, of course, there was the constant: comic books. I have memories of certain issues—where I bought them; what kind of day it was—but not all. Interestingly, as summer 2018 wound down, I was drawn to a forty-year-old comic of which I have no memory buying at the time. But I also have no memory of buying it in the years since, so it’s a logical conclusion that my ten-year-old self forked over a dollar bill for this unique issue.
Officially issue fifteen of the DC SPECIAL SERIES, the 1978 Batman Spectacular boasted of 68 pages of content and no ads. In reality, you get to 68 pages by using both interior covers. This issue is a true gem of my favorite era of Batman’s history: the Bronze Age. More or less, the Bronze Age of comics ran from 1970 to 1985. For Batman, the Bronze Age started with the pairing of writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams in the early 70s to the publication of Frank Miller’s seminal THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. In the 1970s, Bruce Wayne moved out of Wayne Manor and the Batcave and took up residence in the Wayne Foundation building. He was a detective, a creature of the night, and, most importantly, still a man. He could be hurt, both emotionally and physically, and he was, including this book.
The Batman Spectacular features three tales. The first, “Hang the Batman,” was written by David V. Reed and pencilled by Mike Nasser. The story centers on the death, by suicide, of a famous author, Archer Beaumont. But Beaumont believed it was possible to communicate from beyond the grave, a belief given new relevance when various signs start popping up around Gotham City. A cryptic note admonishes the Dark Knight Detective to solve Beaumont’s murder or Batman himself will meet death. He investigates, gets into fisticuffs, and, no spoiler here, solves the case.
Reed’s writing is crisp, fast-paced, and typical of the type of story from the 1970s. He provides all the clues the reader needs to solve the crime along with Batman. But it is the visual way Nasser (now Netzer) drew the panels that really set this story apart. His Batman is lithe yet muscular. He rarely treats a single page with traditional panels and borders. He visualizes the entire page as a canvas, seeking out new ways to tell the story. And he gives you interesting angles. I read this tale twice in a row I was so enthralled by his art.
The second story is by Dennis O’Neil and drawn by Michael Golden. It features Batman’s (likely) best nemesis, Ra’s Al Ghul, and Batman’s unwitting and unwanted marriage to Talia, Ra’s’s daughter. O’Neil co-created Ra’s with Neal Adams and this is a perfectly serviceable story, but it seems rather small. Ra’s is best when he’s trying to take over the world or do something for which he sees as right. Here, he’s just trying to steal some diamonds—in a manner fitting a James Bond villain. Golden’s art is as realistic as you could get from art in the 1970s, and helps elevate this story.
O’Neil redeemed himself with the third tale of this issue. Advertised as “Something New..Something Bold!”, “Death Strikes at Midnight and Three” is a Batman story told in prose by O’Neil and illustrated by the great Marshall Rogers. All three artists are fantastic at creating interesting visual storytelling. Rogers drew a series with writer Steve Engelhart many consider to be among the best Batman stories every told. The scenes he draws for O’Neil’s story are, like Nasser’s very visually interesting and almost minimal despite the exquisite detail.
But that’s okay, because the real stars here are O’Neil’s words. Free from a traditional comic book story, O’Neil’s prose is lavish in detail and is spun like a magician. And the details provided give a glimpse of a Batman rarely seen on comic pages. In one scene, Batman confronts a brute who thinks he can best the Caped Crusader. “The Batman shrugged. ‘Take your best shot.’” I loved the noncommittal nature of Batman here, the hero who knows he’ll win, the hero who has confronted countless thugs who think they’ll be the one to take down Batman.
As a writer, I especially appreciated how O’Neil didn’t always conform to proper grammar to paint his pictures with words. “The footfalls stopped. Snick of lighter. Odor of tobacco.” That’s it. Sure, you could write a paragraph, but why when a short few words will do the trick. The way he describes Gotham City is also splendid.
It is a monster sprawled along 25 miles of eastern seaboard, stirring and seething and ever-restless. Eight million human beings live on streets that, if laid end-to-end, would stretch all the way to Tokyo, crammed into thousands of neighborhood from the fire-gutted tenements of Chancreville, where rats nestle in babies’ bedclothes and grandmothers forage in garbage cans,to the penthouses of Manor row, where the cost of a single meal served by liveried servants would support an immigrant family for a year. It is countless chambers and crannies and corners in bars, boats, houses, hotels, elevators, offices, theaters, shacks, tunnels, depots, junkyards, cemeteries, buses, cars, trains, terms, bridges, docks, sewers, parks, jails, mortuaries—the shelters of living and dead, millionaires and bums, fiends and saints.
Napoleon’s armies could search for a lifetime and leave places unseen.
An exceptionally energetic investigator could visit the likely ones in a month.
The Batman had less than sixty minutes.
Come on! You can see that as clear as any artist. O’Neil’s love of old pulp fiction, especially The Shadow, bleeds off the page. And how’s this description of Batman emerging to take on a couple of crooks in front of a movie screen: “The Batman, stark and implacable against the expanse of white, a grim figure congealing from the shadows.” So, so good.
I highly encourage you to seek out this issue. The entire thing has not been republished elsewhere. The Ra’s tale you can find in Tales of the Demon. The prose story is reprinted in The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told, Legends of the Dark Knight: Marshall Rogers and in Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told.