When Words Collide: Before They Were Famous: "Batman" #403

Mon, August 6th, 2012 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

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Not the focus of this week

Perhaps because of his longevity, perhaps because of the breadth of his media incarnations, perhaps because he is so immediately recognized as a cultural icon first and a comic book character second, it's difficult to pinpoint a single Batman run as the definitive version of the character.

Your favorite Batman run -- whether it was in "Batman" or "Detective Comics" or any number of spin-offs -- likely depends on when you started reading comics. Perhaps you're an old-time Denny O'Neil/Neal Adams fan, or someone who hit comics just as Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers were taking Gotham City for a spin. Maybe you're a Doug Moench kind of person, or the Alan Grant years were the best for you, or you really like what Greg Rucka did with the supporting characters. Maybe it was of more recent vintage and the Grant Morrison or Scott Snyder versions of the character are what you consider the ultimate interpretations.

I could have chosen the issues immediately before any of those notable runs for this month's "Before They Were Famous" installment. And maybe someday, I'll do Two Months of Batman and take a look at all those comics (but I doubt it). But this month's selection is a more obvious choice, and it may not be the comic that precedes the definitive "Batman" run, but it's the one I would consider closest to that status.

I'm talking about Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's "Batman: Year One" which was originally a four-issue run in the "Batman" ongoing, from issues #404-407. That's classic stuff. And the issue before that? "Batman" #403 by Max Allan Collins and Denys Cowan. A "Before They Were Famous" masterpiece!

Well, in comparison to the other "Before They Were Famous" selections anyway.

If you recall, in previous "Before They Were Famous" columns, I took a look at the Pasko "Swamp Thing" (pretty terrible), a Thomas "X-Men" issue (yeesh), a Kirkman "Captain America" (goofy fun) and a Valentino/Bierbaum "Supreme" tale (double yeesh).

This Collins/Cowan "Batman" issue actually verges on "good comics" territory. It wins the Before They Were Famous Bronze Medal of Excellence. Because not only is it an engaging, well-told comic that says something about the character, but it also feels like a comic created by a couple of guys who wanted to take their shot at something important -- not knowing if they'd ever get another shot again.

In 1986, Max Allan Collins was the writer of the "Dick Tracy" newspaper strip, and if he was known to comic book fans it was likely for his "Ms. Tree" comics with artist Terry Beatty, a detective series which bounced around from publisher to publisher before and extended run at Renegade Press.

Collins, according to Denny O'Neil's editorial in "Batman" #403, was brought in to fill the gap before Frank Miller came in with his redefining of Batman's origin in the then-upcoming "Year One" arc. It turns out that Collins wrote a few more of the post-Miller issues as well, along with some later work on the character over the decades since, but "Batman" #403, and the Collins-written issue that preceded it, feels like an attempt to really tackle Batman, as a character and as a concept, as if it was the only shot Collins would ever get. Unlike his later "Batman" comics, this story seems like his word on who the character is.

Denys Cowan was just about to join "Batman" editor Denny O'Neil on the hard-edged "Question" revamp. Cowan's one-issue stint on "Batman," along with a Hugo Strange-centric annual he did that same year, is a rare center-stage performance for the artist since coming over to DC from Marvel (where he worked with Denny O'Neil when O'Neil was editor of "Power Man and Iron Fist"). Most of Cowan's other DC work had been television spin-off projects like "V" or a series of covers for third-tier titles like "Vigilante," "Hex," and "Firestorm" (note: third-tier, but I love ‘em all!).

All of that adds up to "Batman" #403 being not a tying-up-loose-ends issue, or a thrown-together-inventory story, or a phoning-it-in-before-the-big-shot-comes-in comic. Instead, it's a comic about Batman -- what it means to be a Batman and what kind of identity issues such a character would have. It's a comic with a couple of completely off-key moments, but it's a comic that tries. And it's an issue that succeeds more often than it fails.

"Batman" #403, right before the famous Miller and Mazzucchelli four-parter

First of all, you should know that the story in issue #403 is a direct sequel to Max Allan Collins's own "Batman" #402. That one was drawn by Jim Starlin and tells about a crazed Gotham cop who thinks he's Batman. It's the kind of thing that Grant Morrison would resurrect in the first year of his "Batman" run -- the violent cop play-acting as a deranged Batman -- but Morrison didn't allude directly to this story. His Bat-cop isn't Collins's Tommy Carma, though he easily could have been.

So Carma gets captured and institutionalized in "Batman" #402, and though issue #403 is a sequel to that, it isn't really a two-part story. It doesn't take place immediately after the first. They are two stand-alone issues that add up to the ballad of Tommy Carma.

When "Batman" #403 begins, Batman seems to be doing what we've always wanted him to do -- or at least, what every "realistic"-minded adult would have him do -- snapping the Joker's neck. Ending the Clown Prince of Crime's reign of madness once and for all. Then Batman flips Two-Face on the ground and nails him with a zinger before smashing his face into the wall and killing him too.

Even if we hadn't read the previous issue -- and there's nothing in this one to say it's part 2 of 2, because it really isn't -- we'd still know that this was some funhouse version of Batman and not the real deal. The background is all red and black geometric patterns, shifting behind the characters in a maddening spiral. And, of course, Batman doesn't kill.

It turns out to be Tommy Carma, escaping from Arkham Asylum and imagining himself to be Batman killing the villains (actually, the guards) on the way out. It's notable that for the first half of the issue, he doesn't actually dress like Batman, he just hallucinates himself into that form. Batman, for Carma -- and maybe for Bruce Wayne too -- is a state of mind.

Denys Cowan -- inked by Greg Brooks, who perhaps softens Cowan's razor-sharp linework a bit too much -- looks to be in "Question" audition mode here. He makes some unorthodox panel choices -- giving us jarringly bisected close-ups, or Carma-as-Batman's face upside down in a panel, or some dynamic martial-arts poses that look more balletic than heroic -- and he's at his best when he can exaggerate the gestures of the insane Tommy Carma.

Collins's script isn't subtle, but it grapples with the questions around what kind of man makes a Batman, which is something, at least. No, it's more that something. It's the core of the character, and worthy of exploration. And that's what this issue is about, and it handles it not in an introspective and self-indulgent way, but with real conversations on the topic contrasted with the symbolic actions of a madman trying to fulfill the role of the real Batman.

As Tommy Carma flees Arkham and finds shelter in, appropriately, a cave, Bruce Wayne shares a nice meal with Vicki Vale, a woman who tells it like it is: "How can any rational person admire a man who takes the law into his own hands, while hiding behind a mask?"

Bruce Wayne avoids answering the question, in one of the stronger scenes in the issue.

In a stunning bit of comic book coincidence -- and an indictment of the Wayne Manor security system -- the cave Carma stumbled into goes deeper beneath the surface and actually leads down into a completely different kind of cave. The Batcave, where Carma spreads his arms out amidst the giant penny and the looming T-Rex statue and cries, "I'm home!"

Carma does what any deluded Batman-wannabe would do: he throws on a cape and cowl and steals the Batmobile to go out crimefightin'. "Now I'm me again," he says as he puts on the mask. "How I've missed you," he says as he greets the Batmobile.

"Ms. Tree" by Max Allan Collins and Terry Beatty

It's a nice way of showing Bruce Wayne/Batman's own struggle with identity without actually having the real Batman say what Carma says. But how could it not be almost the same? After all, he dodged Vicki Vale's question instead of answering. Because how could any rational person admire what he does? How could any rational person do what he does?

Carma's Batmobile thievery leaves Batman to head into Gotham on a motorcycle, except Cowan draws it not as a sleek Bat-cycle, but as a dorky blue motorcycle like your dad might ride around in the parade. A stock model, and Batman looks decidedly unheroic prowling the streets on that machine.

The rest of the issue is Carma's underworld rampage, dressed as Batman, intercut with Batman's investigation into the whereabouts of his doppelganger. One thing I neglected to mention, and it adds another layer to this story: Tommy Carma is basically the Punisher. He's a cop whose family was gunned down by mobsters. So one facet of this story is that it's a Punisher-in-the-DCU tale (which, by the way, is also the premise for Marv Wolfman's "Vigilante" series). And it shows that not everyone who has had a family tragedy automatically has what it takes to be Batman. But some people wish they could be.

Collins hammer the point that Batman isn't too far off from his crazy duplicate as the climax of the issue approaches, because when Batman finally catches up to Carma, and finds his Batmobile parked outside, he literally echoes Carma's words: "How I've missed you," says the caped crusader to his car.

A pretty weird moment, right?

It seems like the biggest stumble in the issue. It's too on-the-nose, and while it's easy to see how Collins was cleverly showing the parallels between the "sane" Batman and the "insane" Carma by giving them the same line of dialogue in two different scenes, it's also a dopey bit of dialogue to come out of Batman's mouth at that point in the story.

It's better than a whole lot of narration about how the two characters are like two sides to the same coin, or how they are mirror images of each other, etc.

But it's still Batman pausing, before grabbing a known murderer, to vocally state his affection for his own souped-up coupe.

Then again, that might be the truest moment in the whole issue. Batman really does love that car, doesn't he? He sure has spent thousands of man hours redesigning it for every season and taking it for drives around the city.

On the final page, Batman kicks and punches Tommy Carma to the ground, and the crazed pseudo-Batman is left whimpering, "N-nobody can defeat the Batman…"

"That's right, Tommy," says the darknight detective. "And you're not him."

Batman strides off into the distance pushing Tommy Carma toward "some help," but Max Allan Collins has the final words, via the captions, letting us all know what this story was really about, talking about the compassionate man and the avenger of the night: "Batman is indeed two men," says the narration, "…and both are Bruce Wayne."

That would make him one man, of course, but who's counting after a story like that?

It's tempting to say that "Batman" #403, in its completely entertaining way, acts as a marker between the Bronze Age and the Modern Age. The Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli issues that would immediately follow are blazingly, defiantly modern, with their redefinition of Bruce Wayne's younger days and his early struggles to become a superhero. While issue #403 is still grappling with the psychological and social realism that embodied many of the interesting comics of the preceding era. Max Allan Collins didn't yet know that comics had already changed forever, and he was still writing the story he would have written five or six years earlier.

Maybe that's true, but it's not as simple as that. There isn't a clear breaking point toward the Modern on "Batman." The old sentimental realism and the bleak nihilism would push against each other for years even after "Year One" was completed.

Instead, it's better just to say this: "Batman" #403 reads like the eager work of two youngish creators who have something to prove. And they're given the space to do it. That can make for good comics. And in this case, I'd say it almost does.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

TAGS:  when words collide, batman, before they were famous, max allan collins, denys cowan, frank miller, david mazzuchelli

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