Monday, May 30, 2016

A Month of... Batman's Got a Gun, Day 30: License to Chill

Don't fear the reaper. It's good advice, whether you're hearing it from Buck Dharma or from Batman! Because welcome the not-quite sequel to Frank Miller's "Batman: Year One," the obviously titled "Batman: Year Two." (Seriously, this is so not Batman: Year One, folks.) Hey, this looks familiar:

Cover of Detective Comics #575 (June 1987), pencils by Alan Davis, inks by Paul Neary, colors by Anthony Tollin

Come for the Batman, stay for the year! Or, as I saw it at the time, come for the gorgeous artwork by Alan Davis, stay for the...some guy who finished off the storyline with his pencils, which was a pretty egregious bait-and-switch to a no-name artist who probably wasn't going anywhere in this industry. Oh, and his name was Todd McFarlane. Whatever happened to that guy?

Covers of Detective Comics #576-578 (July-September 1987), pencils by Todd McFarlane, inks by Pablo Marcos, colors by Anthony Tollin

Check out those McFarlane covers! They're all orange and Batman has a gun on every single one of them! That's because Batman: Year Two is an analysis and origin of just why Batman doesn't carry a gun, in which he carries a gun in every one of the four books. Because after being beaten within an inch of his life by a new villain we've never seen before, the Reaper, Batman figures he'd better get some all-American Second-Amendment-slingin' protection! With, uh, the gun that killed his parents. Heavy irony there, huh?

Panels from Detective Comics #575 (June 1987), script by Mike W. Barr, pencils by Alan Davis, inks by Paul Neary, colors by Adrienne Roy, letters by Richard Starkings

Needless to say, Bruce is pretty good at using a gun. Why, he can even make the cool noises that comes with it: "B-DINNG!" "SPWEE!" "SPA-TINNG!" Either Mike Barr has a prepared list of these sound effects to use when needed, or Don Martin is hiding in the Batcave.

Panels from Detective Comics #576 (June 1987), script by Mike W. Barr, pencils by Todd McFarlane, inks by Alfredo Alcala, colors by Adrienne Roy, letters by Agustin Mas

In facing off against the brutality of the Reaper — who is, since I haven't mentioned it, the middle-aged father one of of Bruce Wayne's girlfriends — Batman shows that he can shoot-shoot-shooty with the best of 'em, knocking Commissioner Gordon's gun right out of his hand. Yes, he coulda done that with a Batarang. On the other hand, there would have been no cool "BA-TANNG!" sound effect.

And hey, I poke fun at Todd McFarlane, but this early work of his is abso. gorgeous. Check out this double-page spread which, stylistic cape aside, is on par with some of the great Batman artwork of Marshall Rogers. (I think it looks even better in the sharper digital pages I've used here rather than the muddied newsprint of the original comics.)
Double-page spread from Detective Comics #577 (August 1987); script by Mike W. Barr, pencils by Todd McFarlane, inks by Alfredo Alcala, colors by Adrienne Roy, letters by John Costanza
(Click picture to circus-tent-size)

Say, Batman is really good at using guns, isn't he? Even though this isn't exactly a NRA-recommended technique.

Yeah, Batman is pretty much sticking to just shooting stuff out of the hands of criminals, to which I say again: wouldn't a batarang work much better? Especially since he's shooting bats. "He hates those bats!" Say, pay attenetion to that guy in the third panel punching two other men so hard they explode. Who do you think would be an appropriate Brave and the Bold-style team-up for the Caped Crusader? that guy? What if I told you his name was...Joe Chill?!? (dramatic sting)

Award yourself a Pepperidge Farm cookie if you saw this twist coming in a storyline heavily influenced by the death of Bruce Wayne's parents — Batman and Joe Chill: gun buddies.

In the stark light of the crossword puzzle buildings, Bruce teams with Joe to track down the Reaper, making his own silent vow when his back is turned and everybody's face is in shadows. It's like the Question is starring as every character!

Yes, Batmen come runnin' for the great taste of gun-related revenge on the killer of their parents!

Panels from Detective Comics #578 (September 1987), script by Mike W. Barr, pencils and inks by Todd McFarlane, colors by Adrienne Roy, letters by Todd Klein

The last act's like a Grand Guignol opera: Batman reveals his identity as Bruce Wayne to Joe Chill and confronts him with the truth that Chill killed the Waynes; Reaper shoots Chill before Bruce gets a chance too, Reaper falls to his death. Well, that all worked out, didn't it?

Now, I can see what Mike W. Barr (one of my favorite Batman writes, usually) was going for: the theme of why Batman never (well, never again) carries a gun. A tale that relates how early in his career Batman considers and rejects using a gun is a solid background to his later non-armed adventures, but it never seems as if there's a lesson to be learned here. Probably Bruce could not have pulled the trigger, but the Reaper takes that decision out of his hand. And pulling Joe Chill into this tale invalidates one of my favorite parts of the Batman mythos, the original story of Joe Chill, way back in 1948. As in this one, Batman dramatically reveals his secret identity to an elderly Chill:

Panels from "The Origin of the Batman" in Batman (1940 series) #47 (June-July 1948), script by Bill Finger, pencils by Bob Kane, inks by Charles Paris, letters by Ira Schnapp

Panicking, Joe Chill runs to his gang of nattily uniformed crooks who have cracked the code of exactly where to get a green suit, and babbles that he created the Batman! Mistaking him for Bob Kane taking all the credit away from Bill Finger, they gun him down immediately. Justice is served.

I think this relatively simpler tale of how Joe Chill finally got his just deserts is miles more effective than Batman: Year Two, and has more iconic and dramatic moments in its short 13 pages than Year Two has through the span of four issues.

Here's another great version of that '48 tale from the pre-Crisis Batman definitive biography The Untold Legend of the Batman, now with extra John Byrne!

Panels from The Untold Legend of the Batman #1 (July 1980), script by Len Wein, pencils by John Byrne, inks by Jim Aparo, colors by Glynis Wein, letters by John Costanza

This Earth-2 and Earth-1 story of how Batman found Joe Chill lasts through 1994, when it's undone by Zero Hour: Crisis in Time. From that point onward, Batman never discovered the murderer of his parents. Some World's Greatest Detective he is! I have no idea what the status quo de Chill was in the New 52, but if Batman: Rebirth gives us back the Twilight Zone-esque Shakespearean tragedy of the death of Joe Chill ffrom Batman #48, I'll be happy as a little stuffed bull reading a good Batman comic with a plate of cookies at my side. Which is very, very happy indeed.

Want to read more about Batman: Year Two? Sure you do! (It's eminently preferable to actually reading Batman: Year Two.) That's why I'm sending you over to my pal, "Cuddly" Chris Sims, the World's Foremost Batmanologist, and his deconstruction of Year Two, and overall, of Mike W. Barr's bat-tales. Check it out!


Green Luthor said...

To be honest, I can't say I particularly like either version, really. The classic version all hinges on Batman getting exceptionally lucky; had Chill's cohorts not decided that Chill was responsible for them going to prison (or at least waited a few more seconds before shooting him)... well, that's pretty much it for Batman's secret identity. If Chill had said something different, like "Batman's after me and I just found out who he really is!", he doesn't get killed. That Batman "wins" through sheer dumb luck maybe isn't the best resolution. (Eh, but maybe it's just me.)

On the other hand, the Year Two version... Reaper decides that Batman is a worthy successor because he might have killed Chill, so he kills Chill himself instead? Huh? Seems like it might have made more (or any) sense to have let Batman kill (or not kill) Chill to make the determination if he would have done it. (Also, McFarlane's art there *really* bugs me. Batman and Chill are facing each other, but when Reaper shoots Chill, his back had to have been to Batman for him to fall that way. How did *that* happen? It's kind of aggravating to look at. C'mon, Todd, show us that have at least a basic understanding of sequential art...)

Unknown said...

Early McFarlane could draw sequential art about as well as Image-era McFarlane (that is to say: not at all), but with someone like Alfredo Alcala inking him he produced some beautiful splash pages. That cemetary one is pretty amazing, cape and all.

Blam said...

// or Don Martin is hiding in the Batcave //
Yeah, I was bugged by Year Two at the time and haven't read it in ages, but I will say that, as much as I love the 1948 Joe Chill bit (ditto the 1956 Lew Moxon bit in its kind-of thematic sequel "The First Batman!"), it's of its time. Post-Crisis Batman didn't need to be, shouldn't have been even, beholden to a rather Golden Age tale even if it was repeated in Earth-One continuity earlier in the same decade. Still, I wish Year Two had been a worthier sequel to Year One and a worthier capper to the Barr & Davis run of Detective (tricky as that might've been given how that run's mood was largely at odds with what it quickly became evident post-Crisis Batman was going to be).