Crowd Pleaser

That might be a slaphappy description of comic artist Alan Davis, one of my all-time favorites, but sometimes it fits. Sometimes, when he himself isn’t scripting, snarky elements pockmark his spritely, winsome storytelling. That isn’t to say DC’s new hardcover volume of his Detective Comics run isn’t great. But his work on Captain Britain and Excalibur reveal a wunderkind imagination. Here, in the grimy Gotham of 1986, we get the draft-horse.

Glowingly reprinted, these issues feature writing by Mike W. Barr, who often throws a schizophrenic light on the Caped Crusader. We see wacky uncle Batman from the 1950s, consistently calling Robin “chum” (because nobody wants to say “Boy Decoy” out loud) and fighting for his life on a giant pool table. We see the brutally sadistic Batman, known contemporaneously in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. We also see the teacher-detective, who actively quizzes and castigates Robin to sharpen both his ward (Jason Todd, during this era) and himself.

This last isn’t always done perfectly. In a vague exchange that can be read as adult, for giving the audience just enough, or sloppy, for needing a bit more context, Batman, Catwoman and Commissioner Gordon puzzle out a clue from the Joker. When Robin massages his fist with glee and says, “Let’s go,” Batman grabs his shoulder, wags a finger, and says, “Never do that again.” A question mark pops from the twelve-year-old’s head, and readers unfamiliar with this run must assume Jason hasn’t yet encountered the grinning madman.

Unfortunately, pandering to Miller’s audience is done almost too perfectly. During one scene, Batman asks an information broker named Profile about the Joker’s whereabouts. The man’s haircut and nail varnish tell us he’s gay. When he puts down a narrow, empty wine glass, Batman picks it up. He asks Profile whether or not he’s been to prison… while cramming his fingers into the glass. “You’d be real popular up there,” he says, “if you catch my drift.” The threat works, and Profile reveals a location. One panel later, Batman pops the slim glass with his fingers, grinning maliciously.

Back then, before superheroes in Hollywood catered to families, this kind of thing surely had the maladjusted set rolling in their parents’ dens. As an adult reader (who’s seen almost everything) seeing it for the first time, I’m scandalized enough to give it two paragraphs. No Batman comic could show such a thing today.

Well, onward and upward. But not by much, yet. Another infamous moment is more of a commentary on the Batman and Robin thought to exist, back in the 40s. After the war, when over-educated adults had nothing better to do than read their own idiocy into children’s entertainment, a man named Fred Wertham claimed the Dynamic Duo were lovers. Here, Barr and Davis offer a scene with Robin using a fire-hose on Batman before he enters a blazing car wreck. “Good boy!” says Batman. “Hose me down now! That’s it, good and wet…”

I doubt this is innocent. The previous example of tastelessness, coupled with the fact that this editorial team later let readers vote via 800 number whether or not kill Robin, makes it hard to believe the slightest perversion wasn’t premeditated (readers did want him dead, by the way, so the Joker beat him to red, green and yellow paste).

My final complaint regards Davis drawing Batman at all. Why use poppy seeds when you need gunpowder? Gotham is too dark a place for Davis’ ethereal women, pixie-ish sidekicks and lithesome, David Bowie-style heroes. He also draws aliens and weirdos so well you’d think he shared a room with them (an Excalibur post before the year’s over, I promise).

That said, near the end of this volume we get another reprint of the Batman: Year Two storyline, featuring a murderous vigilante called the Reaper. The tale’s second half, Full Circle, boasts the subtle, highly-rendered coloring of Tom Ziuko. Davis’ longtime inker Mark Farmer chimes in here as well, adding to the cinematic tension that streams from the artist’s every panel. It’s Davis at his best, so far as Batman goes.

Which makes for some layered reading. Taken as a snapshot of his transition to the gloomy Dark Knight of the 1990s, these issues allow our hero to wonder, “…if [Bruce Wayne] even exists anymore, or if he’s anything but another disguise[?]” This question is answered best by other writers, in larger stories. Here, though, you’ll see Batman smirking like there’s no tomorrow.

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