Or – “That Is One HUGE Skull…  It’s Practically A FIVE-Head!”

As we move towards the close of my official Major Spoilers Anniversary week, I remember some famous firsts in my personal comic-reading history.  The first comic I remember buying was Shogun Warriors #1, and the first one that I sought out intentionally was G.I. Joe #1, and the first book I ever really remember looking at was the Legion of Super-Heroes tabloid featuring the marriage of Saturn Girl and Lightning Lad…   I remember my first Spider-Man (Amazing #224), my first Iron Man (Iron Man #169), and my first Captain America (Cap #280).  But one famous first that sticks in my mind for the right reasons is the first Batman story I ever read.  Not just memorable for me, it’s widely considered one of the classics of 70’s Batman, and features the debut of a couple of major characters whose impact is still being felt across the DC Universe and even the movie adaptations of the Batman today.

Batman #232
Script: Denny O’Neil
Pencils: Neal Adams
Inks: Dick Giordano
Letters: John Costanza
Publisher: DC Comics

Previously, on Batman:  After a petty criminal killed his parents, young Bruce Wayne dedicated himself to eradicating crime in all its forms.  Honing his mind, his body and his spirit into a merciless machine, only slowing down to be human thanks to a young orphan whose tragedy mirrors his own.  Armed with unlimited resources, The Batman has made more than a few enemies in his time, including the chemically altered wackjob called The Joker, the obsessive-compulsive Riddler, the rotund rapier-nosed Penguin, the misunderstood dominatrix called Catwoman and more.

As the day-to-day operations of his charitable Wayne Foundation have increasingly drawn on his time, The Batman has abandoned Stately Wayne Manor for a penthouse in Gotham City, while his ward moved on to college.  The strangest chapter of the Batman’s life is about to begin, thanks to a mysterious package that brings with it a chilling realization: His identity has been COMPROMISED.

Batman doesn’t bother to panic, though, racing into the night and heading back to his original Batcave to run a full battery of tests in the hope of finding the people who have taken Robin.  Denny O’Neil is one of my favorite writers of all time, as Bruce Wayne is clearly troubled, worried both about his “son” and his lost secret identity, but rather than angst about it, he throws himself fully into his work.  Upon entering the cave, though, he is met with a booming voice that blows his ID for the second time in an evening.  Again, though, the Batman doesn’t waver in his intensity.  “I’m surprised someone didn’t think of it years ago,” he sneers, demanding the intruder identify himself.  “I am presently known as Ra’s Al Ghul,” comes the reply, and he doesn’t look a thing like Qui-Gon Jinn.  Al Ghul reveals that his daughter Talia has also been taken, and the two men agree to pool their resources and find their wayward children…

The Detective and the mysterious Ra’s board his waiting plane, allowing Bats to revisit his origins by woolgathering on the long trip, a nice way to hide the exposition by O’Neil.  Neal Adams does amazing work with the art here, and Dick Giordano’s inking compliments Adams like few others can, creating a synthesis that ends up being more than the sum of its’ parts.  Arriving in Calcutta, Batman uses his fearsome disguise to shake information out of the locals, leading to a particular section of the city called “The Alley of Widows.”  It’s aptly named, as Batman quickly finds out…

This entire sequence is wonderful, taking place in mere seconds, but showing that Batman really IS prepared for nearly anything, even showing regret that he is forced to kill the leopard to save his own (and Ra’s and bodyguard Ubu’s) life.  Interesting side note:  If you ever see an Alex Ross drawing of Batman without his costume on, you can clearly see the scars from the leopard bite on the inside of the Dark Knight’s elbow, a wonderful tribute to this issue (albeit a concept borrowed from an Alan Brennert story a couple of years after this one.)  The trail of the kidnappers leads from the streets of India to the Himalayas, and Batman shows off his mountain-climbing skills as well.  O’Neil’s Batman is, for me at least, Batman done right, never boastful of his skills, never angsting, just using his incredible focus, stamina and years of training to overcome any obstacle set before him.  Batman takes out a sniper, losing his traveling companions in the process, and makes his way confidently to the villains’ lair.  His thoughts make it clear that he has this caper cracked, and he bulls right past the guards to find Robin, the boy hostage.

The banter between the “old chums” is clearly some sort of code, and Batman slips his partner the means of escape, but then trusts that Robin has the wherewithal to handle himself from there on.  The respect between the two caped crusaders is something that I miss in recent years of Batman comics, as lesser hands try to play up a rivalry between the two men.  It’s kind of ironic that this is Batman at his most human, yet still pretty high on the “Bat-Dickness” scale.  To cover for his partner, Batman suddenly makes a grandstand play, accosting the guards in the hopes of drawing out their boss…

…that boss being Ra’s Al Ghul himself!  Sick and tired of being played for the fool, Batman (and Robin) leaps into action, taking down all the goons in short order, and then confronting “The Dark Lord” who claims to lead them.  He is quickly unmasked as the massive Ubu, who promises to dance on Batman’s corpse after beating him down.  His assurances prove to be short-lived…

“The Batman doesn’t SCARE!”  That, my friends is a stand up and cheer moment, even for someone like myself who gets a bit tired of the unstoppable Frank Miller love-letters that often pass for Bat-comics since ’88 or so.  Batman punches Ubu through a screen, revealing a waiting Ra’s and daughter Talia, who have been surveying the scene with interest.  A furious Batman tells The Demon’s Head that he has figured out the whole plan, with one small exception:  The reason for all the deception.  After all, there doesn’t seem to be any gain for the villain of the piece…

The hero, triumphant, is topped and left speechless by an unbelievable reveal.  That’s what really sells the issue for me.  Good Batman stories have never been about overcoming the odds or outsmarting the bad guys, but about meaningful (not necessarily realistic, mind you, because Batman is NOT about realism, no matter what you might have heard) stories and consequences.  The combination of writer and artists here is dead-solid perfect, a first-rate team telling a first-rate story, with the only downside being that I seem to recall that the next issue doesn’t actually continue this story directly.  As my introduction to Batman, it probably created some of my later problems with the character, as it proved a pretty tough act to follow.  Any way you slice it, though, this is classic comics, classic Batman, and just damn great storytelling, and Batman #232 earns the full-bore 5 out of 5 stars overall.  If ‘awesome’ had its own title, it would look just like this…

Rating: ★★★★★

Faithful Spoilerite Question Of The Day:  Does my theory (having this great story as my first Batman tale might have ruined lesser Bat-tales for me) hold any water for you?

The Author

Matthew Peterson

Matthew Peterson

Once upon a time, there was a young nerd from the Midwest, who loved Matter-Eater Lad and the McKenzie Brothers... If pop culture were a maze, Matthew would be the Minotaur at its center. Were it a mall, he'd be the Food Court. Were it a parking lot, he’d be the distant Cart Corral where the weird kids gather to smoke, but that’s not important right now... Matthew enjoys body surfing (so long as the bodies are fresh), writing in the third person, and dark-eyed women. Amongst his weaponry are such diverse elements as: Fear! Surprise! Ruthless efficiency! An almost fanatical devotion to pop culture!

And a nice red uniform.

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16 Comments

  1. Navarre
    October 15, 2010 at 9:04 pm — Reply

    In regards to your Spoilerite question: You might be right.

    This was the first Batman story I had read as well. Yet I had some sort of compiled story that lead through the whole arc, concluding with the fight in the desert between Batman and Ra’s. There’s a possibility it might have been in with some other stories, like some story featuring Kobra. Do you have any idea as to the book of which I am referring?

    In any event, after reading this entire arc, I never found most other Batman stories held up to it. It gave me the necessary respect for Batman the character but not the interest in his series.

  2. October 15, 2010 at 9:07 pm — Reply

    Yet I had some sort of compiled story that lead through the whole arc, concluding with the fight in the desert between Batman and Ra’s. There’s a possibility it might have been in with some other stories, like some story featuring Kobra. Do you have any idea as to the book of which I am referring?

    Not exactly… There was a Baxter format series in 80-something called ‘The Saga of Ra’s Al Ghul’ that was probably the thing you’re referring to, but I never actually read it m’self. I’ve run into issues of it, and it’s similar to the ‘Deadman’ reprints from the same year…

  3. TVsBryanD
    October 15, 2010 at 10:53 pm — Reply

    Faithful Spoilerite Question Of The Day: Does my theory (having this great story as my first Batman tale might have ruined lesser Bat-tales for me) hold any water for you?

    Yes. My introduction to Daredevil was the original Frank Miller run. Years later, I picked up the series again. It just wasn’t as special.

  4. SnowWolfNW
    October 16, 2010 at 1:31 am — Reply

    Regarding the Spoilerite Question Of The Day: Yes, it does “hold water” with me. This is one of the very first Batman comics I ever read (Fresh of the Rack), and I STILL think of this iteration of Batman whenever I picture the character in my head.

  5. Martin
    October 16, 2010 at 2:34 am — Reply

    @Navarre — you’re probably thinking of the collected “Tales of the Demon” which has a nice text piece by O’Neil about how the Ra’s al Ghul stories came about.

    http://www.amazon.com/Batman-Tales-Demon-Dennis-ONeil/dp/0930289943

  6. Doctor Sleepless
    October 16, 2010 at 9:50 am — Reply

    Oh yes I remember “experiencing” this story but not reading it. Being a child of the 90s I was first introduced to Ra’s, Talia and Ubu by the phenomenal BTAS. I remember even being quite proud of myself for figuring out Ra’s was behind it all the same way as Bats did (Ubu and his traditions).

    And to answer your question..yes It might very well be that.

    • Doctor Sleepless
      October 16, 2010 at 9:57 am — Reply

      (Side-note: In reality Ra’s would prefer entering a room as the last man, if he adheres to middle-eastern traditions. But for the sake of the story this works better)

  7. arcee
    October 16, 2010 at 10:22 am — Reply

    “’The Batman doesn’t SCARE!’ That, my friends is a stand up and cheer moment, even for someone like myself who gets a bit tired of the unstoppable Frank Miller love-letters that often pass for Bat-comics since ’88 or so.”

    Amen.

    ‘Good Batman stories have never been about overcoming the odds or outsmarting the bad guys, but about meaningful (not necessarily realistic, mind you, because Batman is NOT about realism, no matter what you might have heard) stories and consequences.’

    I agree with the SPIRIT of what you wrote but disagree slightly because WHEN Batman is adapted to live action ‘realism’ becomes the 800 pound gorilla in the room that is hard to ignore. Which is why IMHO when a Batman movie is such a good hero/action adventure movie that the makes you almost entirely forget about the bat-trappings (which don’t make sense in the ‘real world’) – that’s a good Batman movie.

    To this day, again IMHO, the only good adaptation of Batman – aside from the comics – is animation. Where ‘realism’ is still under lock and key.

  8. October 16, 2010 at 11:02 am — Reply

    You mean reading something good and then having it change for what you consider sub-par? Yeah, I’ve had that feeling with certain hero books.

  9. Adam
    October 16, 2010 at 12:35 pm — Reply

    I agree that good stories early can spoil you. I had not been reading long when I branched out my DC titles by picking up the “ANNIVERSARY” issues they released around 1983: Detective Comics #526, Brave and the Bold #200, Action #544 and Legion #300. They were all very good and deep stories that just weren’t matched in the typical monthly books to follow.

    By the way, using Legion #300 as your introduction to the title is not something I would recommend to the faint of heart :)

  10. Marty
    October 16, 2010 at 2:43 pm — Reply

    Navvare, the Kobra tie-in was a wrap-up story in 5 Star Superhero Spectacular (Summer ’77 ?) after Kobra was cancelled. Kobra took over Ra’s Lazarus Pit in the Alps and Batman was called in to stop him, so it was somewhat a homage/inspiration to this Ra’s arc. First introduction of Kobra into the superhero community.

    • Navarre
      October 16, 2010 at 10:07 pm — Reply

      Ah, yes. The 5 Star Superhero Spectacular was the one with Kobra. Thanks, Marty.

      I guess that isn’t the book I am thinking of then (although I have it too). I seem to remember this Batman book being an over-sized comic.

  11. Grey Wolf
    October 17, 2010 at 9:20 pm — Reply

    Amazing timing, my brother just loaned me a copy of that very over-sized RAG compilation to read with this story in it (a book almost as old as I am, I might add). In addition, it had an advertisement in the back for Superman vs. Muhammad Ali (featured in last week’s podcast) in the back – spooky!

  12. J Michael T
    October 23, 2010 at 5:03 pm — Reply

    Neal Adams’ art is spectacular!

  13. October 29, 2010 at 11:06 am — Reply

    I would say if you went back to the prerobin detective comics, the chemical plant, the tongs, Dracula stealing Bruce’s girlfriend, it’s impossible not to think that those are the best batman stories.

    First of all, they’re damn good stories, gritty, pulpy, dangerous. Gotham is exciting and mysterious, with an ethnicity that was probably pretty subversive at the time.

    Batman is the coolest version of batman, dark and remorseless. He routinely kills people (he jumps out of a window to a rope that he had left there for his escape, and when the thug chasing him puts his head out the window, he loops around and drops his heel in his neck, snapping it).

    And then they were the first. There’s a scene where batman is trapped down a hole and he thinks, hmmm, if I tie my line to this batarang and throw it over that post, I can climb out of here. Stuff like that gives me goose bumps.

    So if you were a hundred years old and read those stories, you might use the same argument. If you had, you would have missed al Gul and the laughing fish, nightwing, joker as the Iranian ambassador to the un, killing joke, bane, the earthquake, the red hood, the black glove, batman inc…

    The franchise is going to have ups and downs, it’ll created new stories and break away from old conventions, it’ll manifest itself in media we haven’t even invented yet. Refusing to except that time passes and things change isn’t hurting anybody but yourself. Don’t you want to be around for the ride? I mean it’s Batman, for christ’s sake.

  14. Damascus
    November 17, 2010 at 11:27 pm — Reply

    I think I’d rather start out reading a comic on it’s high note, even if that means that very few things will ever live up to that original issue that the alternative of first being introduced to a character during it’s worst iteration. If they made a Watchmen II and it was this huge letdown, I’d be disappointed and would really wonder why they did it at all, but if the first time I read a character and it was a Liefeld book or something that really didn’t work for me, I think all later comics of the same character would also be tainted by that first experience. Badrock could be made into a cool character, probably won’t be, but it’s not out of the realm of possibilities, but because my first few experiences with the character had him yelling out 3 taglines in the same word bubbles (one of which was “Yabba Dabba Doom!) and just being exceptionally lame, I’m going to be really resistant toward ever thinking of him as a cool character even if the story is written really well. And I’ll probably not even give a new Badrock issue a chance, whereas like with you and Batman, yeah you might be disappointed if an issue or series doesn’t live up to it’s previous level of awesomeness but you’ll probably continue buying books and looking to see something as good as those early issues. Maybe, maybe not. I’m not so jaded as a reader yet that I get sick that my favorite characters aren’t like they used to be so I stop reading altogether, so maybe I’m too young to address that aspect of the issue. Darn you non-comic-reading college years!!

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