Every Halloween (or Scare Season, if you will), I find myself taking on some kind of film-based project, but also trying to read through as many horror-themed books and comics as I can. Last year, I focused solely on Vertigo titles, but this year I’m mostly pulling books off my shelf or out of my To Read box. Of course, I’m always looking around to see if there are any books I just NEED to add to my library, though. While scoping out Amazon, I came across two volumes of Batman By Doug Moench and Kelley Jones. I was immediately interested and began comparing prices when I realized, “Hey, I have these issues in the garage!” As you can see from the above pic, that proved to be true and I saved myself some scratch and also had a far more immediate dive into some very important comics from my childhood!
I started reading comics because of all the news coverage that The Death Of Superman got. Once I was in, I noticed that they were going to (or possibly in the process of) doing something similar to Batman. So, I jumped on the KnightFall train (followed by KnightQuest and KnightsEnd). At the end of that tale, Bruce was back, but he briefly passed the mantle of the Bat to Dick Grayson for a story called Prodigal which ended in a quick crossover called Troika that got Wayne back in a new, all-black Batsuit. Writer Doug Moench was joined by artist Kelley Jones — who had been doing covers that whole time — on Batman #515 (part of Troika). I skipped that one and pulled #516-552, reading through #534 in this first go!
Right off the bat (heh), I realized how little I remembered about these comics, which came out in 1995-1996, when I was 12 to 13. And yet, while reading these books again for the first time since I put them in polybags way back then, I remembered the feel of these stories as well as the visuals, especially when it comes to the rogues and guest stars. Over the course of these 19 issues you get to see Moench and Jones put their stamp on Black Mask, Killer Croc, Swamp Thing, Scarecrow, Mr. Freeze, Two-Face and Deadman. This team deftly handles these characters, adding new wrinkles, giving them new status quos (see: Croc) and introducing young me to almost all of them without bogging the tales down with too much back story. And it’s all done in mostly two part arcs with a few three-parters thrown in.
Better yet, Moench and Jones perfectly get Batman and his world. This version of the Dark Knight still feels like he has a lot to make up for, not only because he couldn’t stop Bane right away, but also because he tapped Jean-Paul Valley to fill in for him. He’s pushing himself hard, all the while wondering which face of his is the actual mask: Batman’s or Bruce’s. As the run starts, he’s basically on his own because Alfred is helping Dick and Tim has his own solo book (which I also love). Eventually, he begins to realize that he can’t do all this alone and starts to let others in.
In addition to nailing Batman as a character, Moench is also a master of Alfred’s droll wit-mixed-with-paternal-concern and James Gordon! The former returns to act as Bruce’s conscience and support system, both of which he desperately needed. Gordon was going through tough times as he’s split from his wife, Sarah, and then gets demoted by the mayor and placed under her supervision as the new commissioner! This leads to one of my favorite moments from the series where Gordon goes into a bar, beats hell out of a man-mountain and drags him into Sarah’s office for booking! Oh, add Bullock and Bock to the list of characters Moench excels at too!
I was happy with how foundational these tales felt, but was absolutely delighted by Jones’ artwork. I can’t remember how I felt about his exaggerated…well…everything back then, but I can not get enough of it now. But Jones’ greatness doesn’t just come from his figure composition, which is like Jack Kirby and Richard Corben had a love child. He also does amazing things with his images across panels and pages that bring motion and weight to flat stills. On top of all that, he’s also taking influence from all sorts of great film techniques and utilizing them in this different format. And it’s not just horror. There are some great film noire-inspired scenes between Jim and Sarah Gordon. It all comes together to create this incredible, beautiful darkness that I want more of! I’ll get to the second half of the run, and probably a few more Jones comics, as I go.
It’s funny, while reading through these issues, I was reminded of something I hadn’t thought of since the mid 90s: a switch in paper stock that came with a rise in cost! For this book it changed with #519 which was a big surprise as I was reading. The issues before that were on newsprint stock, which was standard, but then #519 is super glossy and looks much better. However, the cover price jumped from $1.50 to $1.95. At the time I was getting about $5 a week for allowance and maybe earning money elsewhere, so this increase — the first I experienced as a kid — really hit me hard!
For what it’s worth, there are a few fill-ins in this batch, like Eduardo Barreto on #520 and J.H. Williams III on #526. Also, I just skimmed through the tie-ins to crossovers for Contagion (#529) and Legacy (#533-534), which I’ll read through altogether at a later point. As I mentioned at the top, this whole run is collected in trade format, you can find them on comiXology and the issues are all on the DC Universe app, so you can probably read them too if you want! To me, these are the bedrock scary comics that helped build my love of both that genre and Batman at the same time.