Batman
Batman: The Caped Crusader Volume 3: The Penguin Affair
Medium: comic
Year: 1990
Writer: Alan Grant, Andrew Helfer, Marv Wolfman, Peter Milligan
Penciller: Chris Sprouse, Jim Aparo, Kieron Dwyer, Mark Bright, Norm Breyfogle
Inker: Dennis Janke, Mike DeCarlo, Randy Emberlin, Steve Mitchell
Keywords: superhero
Format: Five stories, 326 pages
Series: << Batman >>
Website category: Comics
Review date: 13 September 2021
This is a 2019 graphic novel in a series that collects post-Crisis Batman stories. This bunch is from 1990 and I bought it for its Peter Milligan story, but quite enjoyed the whole collection.
1. WHEN THE EARTH DIES (Wolfman and Aparo, 66 pages, Batman 445-447)
It's not very good, but there's something reassuring about it. In my head, this is how Batman should be. You can get the wrong end of the stick if you only read the famous stories. This is the bread-and-butter of an ongoing monthly comic book, a bit old-fashioned but in a charming way.
Batman's chasing a murderous nutter and of course it'll take three episodes to stop him. The twist is that it's set in Moscow, so the NKVDemon is a hardline communist who thinks Gorbachev and glasnost are killing Russia. This makes the story a time capsule in itself, from an optimistic age when the Iron Curtain was coming down and we were full of hope about the future of the Soviet Union. (Today, of course, Putin would be full of praise for the NKVDemon, who in turn would be horrified by Putin.)
The art is full of Cyrillic script, while the portrayal of Russia is warm to a fault. "No, don't fire! Not until the Batman is clear." Hmmm.
Vicki Vale shows up to be clueless. Bruce Wayne pretends to be a layabout idiot playboy (remember that?) and is even witty. "They have an eight o'clock in the morning? What will they think of next?"
It's nothing special, but there's nothing wrong with it. It's a solid, unpretentious adventure that's stretching itself a little by going abroad.
2. THE PENGUIN AFFAIR (Wolfman, Grant, Aparo and Breyfogle, 66 pages, Batman 448-449 and Detective Comics 615)
I like the Penguin. He's got more layers than most Batman villains. He's a crook who falls in love. He admires beauty, but he's aware that he's a freak. He's Batman's intellectual equal and only keeps failing due to his ego and obsessions. Here, he's also a fan of a TV soap opera. Oh, and his latest scheme has been ripped off from Hitchcock's The Birds, with the help of a Quasimodo-a-like called Harold who in later years would actually join Batman and become part of the Bat-family.
Mind you, I don't know why the Penguin's shocked to be losing his online chess game against Batman. He's massively behind on material.
I enjoyed this story, mostly thanks to the Penguin, but I think it mishandles Harold. He doesn't get nearly enough story focus and the only explanation is that the writers are holding back material and scene ideas for his return appearances. (That's still an insufficient excuse.) Even his character design is half-hearted. The dialogue implies that he's the Elephant Man, but he's almost handsome apart from the hunchback.
Oh, and this Batman has people skills! That's something you don't see in all portrayals. Tim Drake's present, but he's not Robin yet and his appearances are almost homeopathic.
3. THE WILD CARD + JUDGEMENTS! (Wolfman and Aparo, 44 pages, Batman 450-451)
A Death in the Family and The Killing Joke both appeared in 1988, so here they're recent history. Understandably, both Jim Gordon and Batman are both aching to kill the Joker, while also knowing that they shouldn't... and here he is. What's more, he's pretty messed up. This is a post-Moore Joker.
It's nowhere near Moore's level, obviously, and it would be embarrassing to compare them. It is, though, ambitious in what it's trying to do with the character. It's got some cloth-eared mischaracterisation (deliberately) and some big surprises. I genuinely haven't read another Joker story like this one, although I'm sure that just reflects my insufficient knowledge of the character's thousands and thousands of appearances since 1940.
4. THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER (Helfer and Sprouse, 55 pages, Batman Annual 14)
Suddenly, we've left behind the pulp monthly adventures. It feels more literary, more narrated. It's another retelling of Two-Face's origin story. Jim Gordon's inner voice gave me Year One flashbacks, while Harvey Dent's journey can at times be uncomfortable to read.
I still think Two-Face is unique among Bat-foes, incidentally. Jim Gordon, Batman and him used to be friends and allies. They worked together and brought down criminals. Two-Face stories feel emotionally deeper, to me.
It's very good, I think. Mind you, Sprouse draws big chins that make everyone look like Rondo Hatton.
5. DARK KNIGHT, DARK CITY (Milligan and Dwyer, 66 pages, Batman 452-454)
Wow, Milligan's thought up some nasty ideas here. They involve an unusually vicious Riddler and four babies. Batman nearly runs one over in the Batmobile and has to give another a back-street tracheotomy. Personally. With a knife he'd picked up. Of the Milligan Batman stories I've read, this is definitely the most shocking and successful.
The story also hints at a mystical element in Batman's origin, with 18th century flashbacks and a demon (Barbatos) who'd get used again later by Morrison and Snyder.
OVERALL
It's an interesting collection. I enjoyed the straightforward fare that's very obviously from a monthly comic, but there are also more ambitious stories from Helfer and Milligan. It feels like a meeting of eras. I picked it up on the off-chance, but I enjoyed it.