I’ve mentioned this comic in the past. I even did a mini-review thanks to the reprint as part of DC Retroactive. However, I feel the need to give it a proper full review just as I did the other comic I reviewed from the three-pack of comics that were my first comics. At some point I should also do the issue of Peter Parker: The Amazing Spider-Man for the sake of completeness, but I didn’t know what was going on back then, thus it didn’t serve as the doorway that the two DC comics (further aided by all the DC live-action shows and cartoons airing around that time) did. At least Justice League Of America explained the Shark’s origins. Peter Parker went on and on about Gwen Stacy and Professor Miles Warren and back then I had zero idea who they were, or the villain Carrion (granted neither did Spidey) or White Tiger and Darter, so I was too confused to get into it. Maybe reading the previous issue or issues of the arc would have helped but I don’t know. Today I know enough that I’ll never know for sure.
I keep hearing that Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns is the story that brought Batman out of the Adam West/Burt Ward series and into darker stories. This is incorrect. What it did is join Watchmen in the darkening of comics in general and DC specifically. Batman moving away from the West/Ward show (which mirrored the Silver Age comics of the time) happened during the Bronze Age of comics, which is where I first got into comics. The Bronze Age of comics (as opposed to the Bronze Age of history) had a good balance of darker and lighter tales, and this is when Batman became more serious, without getting into things like Professor Pyg turning kids into dolls or the Joker wearing his own face as a mask. (Seriously, what the hell, guys? Tell me Rebirth is undoing that bit of nightmare stupidity!)
In the story we’re looking at today, Batman moved out of the Batcave to get closer to Gotham after Dick left for college. He operates out of a penthouse apartment in his building at this point, with loyal Alfred still at his side. I’m not sure how this helped exactly but I need more issues from the period. It’s around this Age that the theme of Batman dealing with mentally unhinged criminals begins, although there are none of his regular rogues gallery in this issue. Mr. Freeze is teased for next issue but there’s no sign of anyone you expect here. These were days when Batman didn’t just battle supervillains but in this issue solved a serial killing of Gotham City’s homeless. I wish there were more Batman stories like this. Now it seems to be a huge war that sets Gotham ablaze, as if the Bat-Writers wants to ensure we don’t want to live in Gotham while in stories of this time crime was no worse than New York City, the biggest inspiration for Gotham City. It’s just sometimes the crooks wear costumes, life-saving suits, or acid-bleached skin with green hair.
DC Comics (January, 1979)
For the record, my copy was put out by Whitman. THE JLA comic I mentioned also has the Whitman logo in place of the DC logo. I don’t know the history.WRITER: Len Wein ARTISTS: John Calnan & Dick Giordano COLORST: Glynis Wein (Len’s wife at the time) LETTERER: Ben Oda EDITOR: Julius Schwartz
For this review I’m using that reprint from DC Retroactive: Batman – The 70s I mentioned earlier because as the caption says the comic I own is heavily read and a bit damaged for it.
I don’t know why she was called the Ballerina. We’re not even told her real name, only that she has begged on this corner “as long as anyone can remember”, just hoping to someday reclaim her lost dream. Then a man in a green trench coat gives her two gold coins…and she almost immediately drops dead! The mystery man leaves the coins in her eyes, content that her suffering is now over and she can just sleep. It’s a great scene. Wein not only does a great job using the narration to set the mood. (The art of narration not done by some character talking to nobody after the events seems to have fallen out of favor–the last time I saw it in a recent comic was Captain Yuletide, and I wrote that. I wish my narration was half as good as these two pages.) Despite knowing nothing of the Ballerina besides her lost dreams and living on the streets you still feel a little something when she dies because the narrator makes it sound tragic. It also notes the killer’s limp, which will be important later.
Then again, he does lay it on a bit thick in the next scene, at Wayne Enterprises sometime later. “Here…the fortunes of others are made and ruined, the economies of nations are transformed…”.Wayne Enterprises has hands in many things but I don’t think they necessarily affect economies of other nations, at least not any more than any other major corporation. Bruce and Lucius Fox are discussing important events that may affect WE in the future. One of those is interesting to note, the arrival of recluse billionaire Gregorian Falstaff. This isn’t because Falstaff matters in a future story but that he doesn’t, and from what I hear this was surprising to fans because of how much importance Lucius puts on it until Bruce has to run off to attend to “other things”. In the original story for Retroactive: Batman Wein even referenced Falstaff and his moving into Gotham as a potential threat to Bruce’s company, which was never the intention. This was just shop talk.
More “shop talk” awaits Bruce when he goes to his secret headquarters. Alfred gives Bruce the nighttime crime report, ending with the Ballerina’s murder.
There are two things I like about this page. One is the Batman’s face hidden in shadow in that last panel, only the eyes being seen. I’m not sure how the (I’m assuming) moonlight hits that way but it’s a cool image. The other is the death of anyone, including someone the cops probably look at as not as important, matters to Bruce. Yeah, I made a joke about it in the caption above but that’s the caption. There are a lot of crime drama stories in which a homeless person or prostitute murder is treated as if they weren’t worth investigating. They weren’t criminals but they’re still treated like street trash. Okay, the prostitute’s technically a criminal but she wasn’t stealing from anybody or committing murder. She was just ruining some guy’s marriage and probably giving the local pimp and drug pusher (who may or may not be the same guy) another client. They’re still human, and in these stories there’s that one guy–sometimes a cop, sometimes not–who will treat finding their killer as important as the other victims they’ve worked to protect or avenge. Hurray for Batman!
We move to Commissioner Gordon’s office as one Quentin Conroy, who saw the coins on the dead woman in the evening paper (I’m not going to pretend none of you younger people don’t know what a newspaper is just because you all go digital, but you may not know that some papers used to have a morning and evening edition of their paper) and burst into Gordon’s office to complain. Batman, probably there to ask about the victim, interviews Quentin about the safe. It wasn’t forced open and the alarms weren’t disturbed. Somehow the thief managed to get into the safe undetected, and if Quentin hadn’t seen the photo of the Ballerina’s dead body with two of his coins in her eyes (nice, respectful image, Gotham Gazette) he wouldn’t have bothered looking for them. Is this the killer or did the thief fence the coins that somehow ended up in his hands?
One thing that struck me now that I’m really analyzing this comic is how Wein is putting these scenes together. Outside of one panel as Bruce ushers Lucius out of the office so he can sneak upstairs, thus far no scene has lasted more than two pages. Lein and the art team do a good job of setting things up quickly. The Ballerina asks for money, a man gives her two gold coins, she dies. Next scene: Bruce and Lucius are talking. Next scene: Bruce gets into costume while Alfred gives him the crime report. Next scene: Quentin bursts into Gordon’s office mad about the safe the police claimed was good but his safe was robbed and then Batman leaves. Next scene.
Compares to modern comics, where a scene drags out over multiple pages to pad out a comic for the trade. It takes twice as long for a modern comic to do the same thing that Wein is doing in this comic in just two pages. No wonder it takes less time to go through a modern comic than one of these older stories. It’s not the page count, it’s that more story happens in the older comics while the newer comics take more time to show less story. So anyway, this happens:
Long time BW readers have seen part of this scene before. I use it often to demonstrate the coolest cape in comics. Sorry, Brad Bird, but Batman’s cape is easily the counterargument to the “no capes” rule of The Incredibles. Now you get to see the full moment, my favorite scene from this issue. First is of course the cape panel. Batman stands large over the man, and it’s a great shot that I wish my limited art skills could emulate. You get a real sense of the power that Batman’s costume carries. The narration notes that some feel admiration, others hostility or fear. It’s my favorite panel of the book.
So what happens after that showing? The man goes right back to sleep like nothing was there. Yeah, it’s because he “ain’t home in the head” as Shamrock puts it, but it’s a humorous moment that doesn’t feel out of place. Life is like that sometimes, even in tragic moments like hunting a serial killer. The comic doesn’t take itself too seriously but knows when to be serious and when to have a fun moment.
Then we meet Shamrock and while I may be alone in this I want him and his friends back. I like the thought of Batman having his own version of Sherlock Homes’ Baker Street Irregulars, an ear to what’s going on in the underbelly of the city and can act as Batman’s eyes and ears on the streets. Somebody send Scott Snyder a copy of this comic! This is their first appearance.
Shamrock leads Batman into the underground of Gotham, hoping that one of the other homeless know something about the Ballerina’s death. Again, Wein’s narration adds to the atmosphere. Nowadays you’d have to see the rats look up (panel) get mad (panel), and run off (possibly for two panels). The narration keeps the pace, and you can picture in your head what you need to move on. The unnecessary parts are pushed away to speed things up, and with more pages than modern comics. Maybe it’s because I enjoy prose books as much as I do but I like how the narration is usually used in this comic.
In the “Underworld” Batman meets Shamrock’s friends: an ex-baseball player named Slugger, a poet named Poet, and Good Queen Bess, who is just as British as Shamrock is Irish. They’re all stereotypes, but there’s a flavor to them thanks to each having their own accent. (Slugger sounds like a New Yorker.) It immediately gives you the important info you need without damaging the character, a good use of stereotypes to move the story, although it does mean that outside of their flavors there isn’t much to them since this story is so fast-paced. I hear they show up again in other stories and I hope they have time to flesh the Underworlders out a bit more.
Batman does learn a few things from them. The Ballerina wasn’t the first victim of our Shadow-cosplaying serial killer. And they took the coins off of one of the victims before the “bobbies” showed up (Bess has a cockney accent while Poet should be obvious). Batman examines the coins (quickly because again this story moves fast) and determines they are covered with a poison that kills on contact. The ones who took the coins got sick because air exposure ruined their potency while the dead person got the full dose the moment they took the coins. How does Batman figure it out so soon when the coins don’t look any different to us? Well, that is the problem of the pacing in this story. The mystery angle is hurt by it, which we’ll see further shown later.
Just then Eager Edith (I’m hoping it’s not what we’re all thinking) screams because the killer is now in the Underworld and trying to give out his death coins to her. (“Death coins.” Thank you for existing, comics.) Batman fights him but his shoulder is damaged trying to protect the others from an exploding steam pipe when the killer smashes it. A killer that the others recognize as one of them, a derelict called Limehouse Jack, because the Underworlders seem to have their own culture. His real name though, was John Francis Conroy! A quick visit to Quentin Conroy confirms the Batman’s suspicions that they’re related. John Conroy was Quentin’s father, taken to the streets when the pressures of world overwhelmed him. He left while Quentin was a child, the stolen coins the only thing the younger Conroy kept to remember his father. He’s still torn up by the memory, but claims Limehouse Jack died in a gutter before he found his peace. Or did he? The next night Limehouse Jack prowls the street in a fantastic image.
I’m sure Jerzy Drozd could analyze this better than I could (and if you read this Jerzy drop something in the comments) but even an amateur artist’s eye like mine sees how well this montage is done. Shots of Jack’s wandering centered with a picture of his face, and in each panel one of our Underworlders hiding in fear, but also following where he is, until finally somebody asks him for spare change…and the coins fall into the gloved hand of the Batman! I’ve used this in a Friday Night Fight, as the two battle while Batman suffers from an injured shoulder. (Yes, Batman actually gets more than exhausted and needing a shave in the Bronze Age; he get injured and yet fights on with his arm in a sling.) Batman fights on through the pain, working around his injured shoulder to stand up to Jack’s attack, with the Underworlders cheering the Dark Knight on, which is a surprise to Jack!
Or maybe the Black Hand resurrects them.
And who is Limehouse Jack really? SPOILER!: It’s Quentin. Whether it was love or hate for Jack that warped his mind and sent him out in a split personality to commit murder until forced to confront himself this story doesn’t have time to tell. As for how Batman first suspected him? The heel of Quentin’s shoe (he had his feet up when Batman visited him at home) was worn in the way a man with a limp, like Limehouse Jack, would be. To be honest this read-through is the first time I’ve noticed, no matter how many times I’ve read the original version of this comic. Maybe it’s because of how the shadows on both his shoes distracted me even after Batman gave the clue away.
Batman #307 is very fast paced for a mystery, and while that helps move things along the mystery does suffer a bit for it. As a plain old crime story however, it works fine. It’s not another large, Gotham burns tale but a simple murder investigation involving a mentally damaged man. This is the kind of story I miss in Batman stories since Batman: The Animated Series/Adventures Of Batman & Robin ended. The Kids WB version was more action-oriented, while later versions tried on occasion to show Batman’s detective side but still also more actiony. (In the case of The Batman there was also the emphasis on Batman’s gadgets to sell toys, at least in the early seasons.)
It’s one of my favorite Batman tales. What it lacks in mystery solving it makes up for in action. Batman CAN be hurt but WILL push through it for the greater good. Every Bat-Fan needs to give this a look. While it’s a bit faster than you might like it still has a more interesting Batman than the Godmode version we have nowadays, and yet no sign of the rest of the Bat-Family (just Robin on occasion as he was in college and Barbara had retired as Batgirl to become a senator) except for Alfred. Give it a read if you get a chance.