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Thursday, January 28, 2016

Review of the Shadow of the Batman deluxe reprint series

Reprinting older material was nothing new for DC comics (see: DC Blue Ribbon Digests), but in the early 80s the new Baxter paper format was all the rage and several acclaimed comic runs were being selected to be reprinted with the new upgraded paper stock. You have to remember that this was before reprint TPBs became "a thing". I’m not 100% how they selected which comic runs to reprint - some are pretty obvious (I’m sure 1986’s Roots of the Swamp Thing was reprinted because Saga of the Swamp Thing was getting a lot of attention thanks to the Alan Moore treatment), but I’m going to guess that some were based on fan request (ex: Simonson and Goodwin’s Manhunter) since I don’t think they had the commercial appeal to launch an ongoing series. Whether that was the case or not, in 1985, Batman fans were lucky enough to receive a deluxe reprint of Steve Englehart’s Detective Comics run in their local comic book shops.

Shadow of the Batman reprints Detective Comics #469 - #479 (1977-1979), stories from House of Mystery issues #254 and #274 (1977 and 1979), a 2-part story from Weird War Tales issues #51 and #52 (1977) and a story from Mystery in Space #111 (1980). The common denominator in all of these stories is that Marshall Rogers had something to do with all of them (whether he was the colorist or illustrator), so this almost seems like a tribute to Marshall Rogers. It should also be noted that every wrap-around cover of this series was (beautifully) illustrated by Rogers.  

Englehart had been writing for Marvel Comics in some shape or form since the early 1970s. By 1976, due to disagreements with new Marvel editor-in-chief Gerry Conway, Englehart quit Marvel with the intention of moving to Europe. Jenette Kahn (who had just became the new DC comics publisher) managed to get a hold of Englehart before he left. Kahn was insistent that Englehart work for DC comics to help ‘fix’ Justice League of America since all of DC’s big-name talent had recently migrated to Marvel comics. Englehart reluctantly agreed, but on the condition that he only worked with DC comics for a year and then would resume his travels to Europe. Part of the deal also included Englehart being able to write Batman since it was one of his favorite characters. Englehart wrote the scripts for the issues he was assigned to and then took off for Europe, never knowing who would be illustrating them or if they’d ever see print - just hoping for the best. Englehart’s Detective Comics run was such a big hit with the DC editorial staff that he was asked to add an additional issue to the originally planned 7-issue run. 

I know from experience that proclaiming something to be “the DEFINITIVE Batman” is a hot-button issue among Batman fans, but we can’t deny the impact Englehart’s run has left on the Batman mythos:
  • the re-introduction of the newly-costumed Deadshot (last seen in 1950’s Batman #59). Deadshot would go on to play a major role in John Ostrander’s 1987 Suicide Squad series.
  • the first appearance of Dr. Phosphorus. Yes, Englehart created Dr. Phosphorus.
  • the re-introduction of Hugo Strange (last seen in 1940’s Detective Comics #46). You know that famous story where Hugo Strange discovers Batman’s secret identity? Yes, it’s in here - Englehart wrote it.
  • the first appearance of Rupert Thorne (created by Englehart and Walt Simonson). Rupert Thorne would be a major recurring character in 1992’s Batman: The Animated Series.
  • the Joker “Laughing Fish” story. An infamous Joker story that has been reprinted/re-adapted more times than I can list. It set the stage for the homicidal maniac Joker that we all know and love.
The problem here is that DC’s ad campaign didn’t do this reprint series any justice - this house ad only took up a third of a page and seemed like it was included as an afterthought. I guess readers were supposed to see Englehart’s name and recognize that it was good? The art in this ad doesn’t even begin to hint at the true artistic beauty of this series. It contained forty pages with no ads, featured higher quality paper stock/coloring, and was illustrated by Walt Simonson, Al Milgrom, Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin (not all at once). From the point of view of a Batman fan, this is a very entertaining reprint series: Bruce Wayne/Batman was now operating out of a swingin’ downtown penthouse in Gotham City (as opposed to Wayne Manor), Dick Grayson Robin makes a few appearances, Silver St Cloud (a fan-favorite love interest for Batman) is introduced, and a terrific assortment of Batman rogues are featured (ex: Joker, Deadshot, Hugo Strange, Dr Phosphorus, Penguin and Clayface III).

Englehart has stated in the past that his aforementioned work on Detective Comics (which he has nicknamed 'the Dark Detective’ run) was pivotal in the development of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film. Englehart has always remained officially uncredited for his contribution to the 1989 Batman film. Englehart’s run has also been collected in 1999’s Batman: Strange Apparitions TPB.

On an interesting side note, I wanted to comment on DC’s decision to reprint the two stories from Weird War Tales #51 - #52 in this series. Upon first inspection, the stories have much ado about nothing - it’s a story about animorphic dogs living in a post-apocalyptic London, England. Upon further research I discovered that they’re a part of a Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth prequel storyline called Tales of the Great Disaster. Kamandi was an ongoing series (created by Jack Kirby) that was published by DC comics from 1972 to 1978. Crisis On Infinite Earths pretty much retconned this storyline out of existence, and Kamandi would end up becoming Tommy Tomorrow. 

*Note: Detective Comics #478 - 479 were written by Len Wein.

It should also be noted that each issue in the 5-issue Baxter reprint series had an impresive wraparound cover by Marshall Rogers. That's "tape-inside-your-locker" poster-worthy right there!

This article first published in January 2014.

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