Friday, February 22, 2013

Let's go back to about 1974. My maternal grandparents lived in Watford City, North Dakota. School let out the first week of June, and two weeks later my family would travel from Great Falls, Montana, to Watford. We'd spend a month there, living with my grandparents. Nearly all of my mom and dad's family lived there (or in nearby Arnegard), so we'd spend many days seeing my aunts and uncles, great-aunts and great-uncles, and family friends. My parents married late in life, so I and my two younger brothers were a decade or more younger than all my cousins. Most of them had moved away from Watford City (population, on a good day, about 1,500) anyway, so we kids had little to do.

My grandparents lived in a two-bedroom house my grandfather had constructed in the 1940s. At once time it had a second floor with bedrooms, but my grandfather removed that after his children grew up and moved away. Watford was your typical sleepy western North Dakota town at that time. It had a Main Street (literally) on which the grocery store, drug store, dress shop, automotive store, and other major retailers were located. The drug store also contained the post office (in the back corner). It had your traditional long glass counter which offered seemingly hundreds of different glass jars full of penny candy.

And, near the front door, there was a comic book rack. About five feet tall. Circular, rotating, maybe 20 or 25 different comics loaded into its white wire racks.

I had no idea what comic books were. My parents were so unwilling to allow us kids to be part of pop culture that we watched little television, had no access to radio or records, and never went to movies. Comic books were something completely alien to me.

Not to my grandfather.

Every day afternoon at about 3 P.M., my grandfather would walk from his home at 4th and Park Streets and go to the drug store to pick up his mail. It was eight blocks. But since Watford is such a small town, it was really only about a third of a mile. Trees densely lined every street, so all but the last two blocks were cool and green.

This particular day was probably only the third or fourth day we'd been in Watford. It can be horribly hot in North Dakota in the summer, but it was only in the mid 70s and pleasant on this day. My grandfather asked me and my brother if we wanted to go with him to the drug store, and of course we said yes. Anything to get out of the house. Anything to have an adventure and not be bored to death. We were behaving very well, and my grandfather bought us the piece of candy we wanted (as he always did).

As we walked out the door, my grandfather asked us if we wanted any comic books.

I turned, and there was the comic book rack. Full of color, full of heroes, full of villains, full of stories.

We each got three comic books.

From then on, I was hooked. I loved Justice League, Legion of Super-Heroes, Superman, Godzilla, Firestorm, Flash, Kamandi, Detective Comics, Aquaman, Hawkman, Doom Patrol, Superboy, Supergirl, and Weird War Tales. I never really liked the Marvel heroes, because they seemed too fucked up, too human. They weren't heroic enough. They had these ultra-complex back stories which a little kid of nine could just not get into.

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Oddly, I was not much of a Batman fan. I would occasionally buy Batman or Detective Comics if they had a good story or villain, but I didn't religiously buy them the way I did Justice League or Legion of Super-Heroes. I loved Scarecrow, and thought The Penguin had a lot going for him if the writers would only use him right. I was reading Batman when Ra's al Ghul and Dr. Phosphorus were created, and when they introduced -- and then killed off -- Batwoman. Over on Batman itself, Dennis O'Neil was writing much darker stories and artist Neal Adams was adding depth-of-field, angularity, and more dynamic body language to the title. During the 1970s, the Joker -- who had become a goofy clown who stole jewels -- was brought back to his roots as a psychotic homicidal maniac. Many people point to Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight" as the watershed moment for Batman. But, in fact, Miller's conception can be traced directly back to O'Neil's interpretation of Batman as a revenge-obsessed, tormented human being.

But over on Detective Comics, it was an odd time to be Batman. The comic had a really terrific artist in Jim Aparo, who was drawing a lean, more realistic Batman. But there was no consistency to the book, because the writers switched in and out a lot. Dennis O'Neil was writing stories with a darker edge, like those he was writing in Batman. But Steve Englehart was writing more prose-based stories that were even darker, delving into the psychosis that drove most villains. (It was around this time that he penned the legendary "Laughing Fish" story.) Another writer, Len Wein, was less interested in darkness and more interested in vitality and realism. He dug deeply into Batman's past to resurrect villains from the early days -- most notably Clayface -- and revamped, updated, and infused new life into them by getting them away from their cartoonish roots and making them more believeable human beings. Psychotic, super-powered human beings, but human beings. (You'll later see this idea picked up extensively by writers for Batman: The Animated Series, who rehabilitated numerous cartoonish villains and made them into believable, high-powered, but tragic figures for that show.)

Detective Comics was bimonthly at the time. This supposedly meant that writers who were under pressure to do monthly story lines elsewhere could work on better stories at Detective. That wasn't true at all, I believe. Detective Comics was the cast-off, the has-been, the title where a writer had just 17 pages in a 25-page book to tell a nearly complete, self-contained story. Good luck with that.

We know Detective Comics was junk-comics land because DC Comics was about to cancel the title. Although DC had some really terrific titles at the time (Justice League of America was doing gangbusters and Legion of Super-Heroes was blowing people away), it had also kept a lot of failing titles around much too long. Furthermore, a whopping number of new heroes (remember "Shade, the Changing Man"?) without interesting powers or compelling backstories had gotten titles. The company had only introduced its first black superhero in 1977, and still had no black heroes in major "group" titles like Justice League of America, Legion of Super-Heroes, or Teen Titans. (When it did introduce such heroes, they were junky ones like disco-boy Tyroc in LSH and angel-horn sucking Hornblower in JLA. Eeesh.) In June 1978, DC Comics canceled almost half of all the titles they were producing, and cancelled five titles which had not yet been released (including one which would have introduced DC's first black superheroine). Only a massive in-house backlash kept the comic book which gave DC Comics its name from being ignominiously cancelled. (To save Detective Comics, the more-popular Batman Family was merged into it.)

It's just as Detective Comics is about to be cancelled that we get the "Grok" story.

Detective Comics #480 was supposed to be the title's final issue. It was released for December 1978. About six months previously, Batman had fought Dr. Phosphorous -- a scientist whose body was infused with radioactive phosphorous during a nuclear experiment. The X-rays his body emitted left people only seeing a glowing, fiery skeleton. Dr. Phosphorous was driven mad by the accident, and Batman's encounter with the villian left him seriously ill with radiation poisoning.

As Bruce Wayne, Batman sought treatment for the radiation sickness. He unfortunately sought it from Dr. Hugo Strange.

Hugo Strange was one of the earliest Batman villains. He'd first appeared in Detective Comics #36 (February 1940) as a criminal mastermind. Batman rather easily defeats him. He next shows up in the now-classic Batman #1 (Spring 1940). Typically, Strange has vowed vengeance on Batman for his earlier defeat. But, interestingly, Strange has invented a super-strength formula (wait for it!!!) that turns the average guy into a mega-super-strong mindless beast. Strange clads them in kevlar, and they wreak mayhem in Gotham while Strange and his more intelligent henchmen rob banks in the city to fund Strange's plan to wreak vengeance on Batman. Batman defeats the mega-men and Strange. Strange shows up again in Detective Comics #46 (December 1940), this time wielding a fear-creating dust. Strange intends to create national panic and become dictator of America, but Batman tosses him over a cliff. Note that this predates the appearance of The Scarecrow and his fear-gas by nine months. Jonathan Crane does not make his first appearance until World's Finest Comics #3 (Fall 1941). (A person might also point out that Hourman with his "Miraclo" serum also gives super-strength and super-speed. Hourman first made an appearance in Adventure Comics #48 [March 1940], written by Ken Fitch. This comes a month after Hugo Strange's first appearance. Given the close proximity in time in which the two serums appear, it seems coincidental rather than plagiarism.)

While Scarecrow made two apperances in the 1940s, he was dropped from the Batman mythos until legendary writer Gardner Fox made him reappear in Batman #189 (February 1967). He's made numerous appearances since then.

It took Hugo Strange longer to appear. And this is where I come in! YAY!

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In Detective Comics #471 (August 1977), writer Steve Englehart has Batman seek treatment for radiation sickness at a clinic secretly run by Dr. Hugo Strange. (Strange is again using his mega-monster serum -- this time to turn rich people into horrific brutes, having them steal stuff, filming their crimes, and then blackmailing them to keep the footage secret.) Strange knocks Batman unconscious, and then learns his true secret identity as Bruce Wayne! In the Englehart-penned Detective Comics #472 (September 1977), Strange masks himself and, mimicking Bruce Wayne's voice and mannerisms perfectly, begins taking over Wayne Enterprises and putting Wayne's money into his numbered Swiss bank account. He also decides to sell Batman's secret identity to the highest bidder. Three individuals (seen sitting in the dark) pony up the $10,000 needed to participate in the auction. (The reader can easily deduce that two of these are the Joker and the Penguin.) Strange announces that the auction will begin the next night. The third individual is not readily apparent until a page later, when it turns out to be Gotham crime boss Rupert Thorne. As Strange leaves the abandoned building where the antes were made, Thorne's henchmen tranquilize Strange's hulking bodyguards. Strange is taken off to be tortured into turning over Batman's secret identity. He's brutally beaten, and Thorne's henchmen accidentally kill him when Strange won't talk. They toss his body in a barrel, and dump it in the river.

Six months pass. The Penguin attacks (#473), Deadshot returns and Silver St. Cloud learns Batman's secret identity (#474), and the Joker creates "Laughing Fish" (#475) -- on which he wants a trademark, or he'll start killing every trademark examiner in the nation. In the Englehart-penned Detective Comics #476 (March-April 1978), the "Laughing Fish" story concludes as Joker kills off a second patent examiner. Batman and Joker have it out atop a construction site in a thunderstorm. Joker is apparently electrocuted when lightning strikes the steel tower, and he plunges into the river. Silver St. Cloud decides to leave Gotham City, telling Batman she could not live with the fear of him dying every night.

The side-story here is that, in issues #473, #474, and #475, Boss Thorne has been seeing apparitions of Hugo Strange's ghost. No one else is seeing them, however. So in issue #476, while Thorne is driving in that same thunderstorm that seemingly kills the Joker, the ghost of Hugo Strange appears on the highway, flies through the window of the car Thorne is driving, and strangles him. The GPD later pick Thorne up on the side of the road -- mentally unhinged and babbling about his crimes. He's locked away for good.

Issue #477 is a reprint of an older Batman story. (This is Detective Comics #408, "The House That Haunted Batman". It features a psychic attack on Batman by his old nemesis Dr. Tzin-Tzin. Bats quickly figures it out.) Issues #478 and #479 introduce a new Clayface -- Preston Payne, a man suffering from a disfiguring disease who shoots himself up with serum concocted from the blood of the second Clayface (actor Matt Hagen). Oops! The serum leaves the new Payne even worse off. Furthermore, whenever Clayface suffers from "clay fever" (which he does every 12 to 24 hours, it seems), whomever he touches can be turned into a puddle of mud. Batman manages to fend off the first attack by Clayface, who is slowly going insane. The local abandoned wax museum has a figure of Payne's dead actress girlfriend in it. Believing the figure is alive, Clayface hangs out there. When the fever hits him again, he hunts down Batman. After a fight on the Gotham Narrows Bridge, Clayface escapes and hightails it back to the wax museum. Batman finds him there, a fire breaks out (as it always does at a wax museum), and the building collapses. Clayface is presumed dead.

When you think about it, Detective Comics was really pushing the envelope here. Silver St. Cloud learned Batman's identity, they brought back Hugo Strange, they came up with the legendary "Laughing Fish" story, and they brought back Clayface. Pretty awesome!

This brings us to Detective Comics #480 (December 1978), with a Batman story titled "The Perfect Fighting Machine".

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Now, Steve Englehart had penned all the stories since issue #471 except for Len Wein-written Clayface two-parter. (Wein had also penned the repeat story.)

Now, all of a sudden, we are getting a Denny O'Neil story. Huh... O'Neil hadn't penned a Detective Comics story since issue #461 -- and that was July 1976! The writers in the past two years had been primarily Steve Englehart and Bob Rozakis (ugh), with a few Gerry Conway and Elliot S! Maggin and Len Wein stories tossed in here and there. And #461 wasn't even really an O'Neil story: It was the second part of a Bob Rozakis (ugh) story involving a pirate named Captain Stingaree. (Yes, that's one for the vault. Price that today at $0.05.) True, O'Neil's effort prior to #461 had been #457 (March 1976) -- "There is No Hope in Crime Alley!", a longtime fan favorite that reimagined the death of Thomas and Helena Wayne.

So what do we get with #480, what should have been the penultimate Detective Comics story? What do we get with this first Denny O'Neil story in a long, long time?

Ivan Angst is the head of a never-seen-or-heard-from-again criminal organization known as Mercenaries, Inc. Batman's been on his tail for some weeks now (so we are told), and he wants the Dark Knight gotten rid of. So he seek out Dr. Moon -- DC Comics' resident mad scientist. O'Neil created Dr. Moon in Batman #240 (July 1972). As far as I can tell, this is only Dr. Moon's second outing in the DC Universe. (My reearch says Moon will next appear in a Joker story written by Mike Barr for Detective Comics #569 [December 1986] and #570 [January 1987]. He makes a number of appearances in the 1990s, and dies in Manhunter #18 [March 2006].)

Moon has apparently been working on a serum that will turn the average person into a mega-super-strong fighting machine. SOUND FAMILIAR, Hugo Strange fans? Angst has funded Moon's research, and hopes that if it is successful then he can create a whole army of super-powered, mindless mercenaries to do Mercenaries, Inc.'s dirty work. Angst recruits an obese college kid with poor vision (requiring those coke-bottle lens glasses) who is being ruthlessly bullied. He tells the kid that he can beat up those who have tortured him his entire life if he will just undergo a little surgery... So naturally poor slob agrees to let Moon operate. Moon implants plastic armor beneath the guy's skin, strengthens his arms and legs with metal plates, severs his nerve endings so he'll feel no pain, and dopes him up with the super-strength serum. (Sound familiar? Hugo Strange gave his hulks armor, too.) The serum makes the kid pretty mindless, so he obeys orders, too.

Moon calls the unnamed kid "Grok", which he claims is a medical term for a person in a vegetated state.

Out of the blue, Grok attacks Batman. Naturally, Batman almost breaks his hands punching Grok. Grok feels no pain, but soon Batman is terribly injured and almost incapacitated by his pain. Grok is also impossibly fast, and Batman can't understand what's providing such a huge, muscular guy with that speed and that power. (Of course, Batman is also not really up to par, as he's still recovering from his battle with Dr. Phosphorous.)

Naturally, Batman loses the battle.

But just as Grok is choking Batman to death, Grok stumbles backward. Grok starts gagging, shaking, and can't stand. Standing off to the side, watching the battle, Dr. Moon theorizes that Batman did much more damage to Grok than a human being could take. Internal organs are probably severely damaged. But since Grok could not feel the pain, he kept taking it. In other words, Batman's killed Grok. Furthermore, Moon thinks the serum is wearing off, and Grok is not only losing his super-strength but is likely dying from the withdrawal symptoms. Batman lies on the ground, barely able to move. Grok, seeing Angst standing next to Moon, staggers over to the only friend he's ever had. Angst shuns him as a horror. Grok realizes he's been betrayed. Using his last bit of strength, Grok chokes Angst to death. A bleeding, heavily injured Batman tries to pull Grok off Angst, but can't. Grok collapses, dead, onto Angst's cold body. Dr. Moon escapes, as Batman is too exhausted to pursue him.

And that's the last you hear of any of this..........................

OH WAIT!!!!!!!!!

In 1991, departing Detective Comics writer Peter Milligan pitched a two-part story involving a heavily injured Batman who is replaced by a substitute hero (who is not mentally ready for the role). Although Milligan's idea was not picked up, Dennis O'Neil -- hey, remember him???? -- asked the Batman creative teams to begin brainstorming ways to introduce a major shift in the Batman mythology. He'd been inspired by Tim Burton's 1989 Batman movie to come up with something really dark without replicating Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns (1986) mini-series or Miller's "Batman: Year One" (1987) story arc in Batman.

Here's the thing: O'Neil felt that his 1978 "Grok" story had gotten short shrift in those 17 pages of a dying Detective Comics. He wanted more pages, more issues, and more time to work out his ideas to make Angst, Moon, Mercenaries Inc., and Grok into some major villains. He felt the reader had never really gotten the tragic nature of Grok, never really got hooked by the story, and that Batman never had a chance to react to the tragedy -- not only the tragedy of Grok, but the tragedy of accidentally killing him.

O'Neil got the writers on the three Batman titles -- Chuck Dixon, Doug Moench, and Alan Grant -- together over a long weekend, and they hashed out the major plot points and story line. The Central American nation of Santa Prisca (home of the hellish Peña Dura prison) was first created by O'Neil in The Question #10 (November 1987), and the drug Venom (remember Hugo Strange's and Dr. Moon's version of this?) was created by O'Neil in Legends of the Dark Knight #16 (March 1991). Both of these O'Neil-created plot elements would be added to the "Grok" story. The new villain would be called Bane, and he would not be tragic but rather an arrogant super-soldier with a brutal addiction to both thrill-seeking (his initial motivation is to challenge the world's greatest unpowered fighter, Batman) and Venom. (Gotta make Grok have a weakness other than death, right?) The concept of having Batman lose to Bane was also lifted right out of the 1978 "Grok" story, but it was made much worse by allowing Bane to actually break Batman's back and sever his spinal cord. To carry out this plan, they agreed that they should the two Batman comics -- Batman and Detective Comics -- should integrate their story lines. (They normally were treated as part of the same continuity, but never integrated.) They also decided to incorporate the story into other DC Comics titles. Thus, the story played out as well in Showcase '93, Shadow of the Bat, Catwoman, Justice League Task Force, Legends of the Dark Knight, Robin, and Showcase '94.

The storyline actually saw print first in Batman: The Sword of Azrael mini-series, which ran from October 1992 to January 1993. This introduced Azrael, the character first pitched by Peter Milligan the year before. Bane is introduced in Batman: Vengeance of Bane (January 1993), a seeming one-off. The "Knightfall" story arc began with a sub-arc, "Broken Bat", in April 1993. This sub-arc has Bane pestering Batman almost to death, then breaking Bruce Wayne's back. It concluded in Batman #497 (July 1993). The second sub-arc, "Who Rules the Night", ran from July to October 1993. In this sub-arc, Azrael (Jean-Paul Valley) becomes Batman. The second story arc, "Knightquest", also had two sub-arcs. "The Crusade" and "The Search" ran concurrently from October 1993 to June 1994. The third story arc, "KnightsEnd" ran from July to August 1994, and the fourth, "Aftermath", ran from November 1994 to February 1995.

Now, when I left for college, I gave up buying comic books. I could not afford them. It was just that simple. I had a lot of subscriptions, and I let them lapse. Poverty sucks. The "Knightfall" story arc got a lot of press attention, coming as it did just after the "Death of Superman" story arc that rebooted a lot of the Man of Steel titles.

But imagine my surprise when I read newspaper articles about Bane and Batman's broken back. "Hey!" I said, "that sounds awfully familiar..." At that time, I told people that I'd already read this story back in a Batman comic book in the 1970s... But no one believed me.

It took me a long time, but I finally figured out which title this Grok story first appeared in (Detective Comics) and when it happened (December 1978) and the circumstances under which the story was created.

Moral of my story? There is nothing new under the sun.

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