Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The great stories stick with you

The great stories stick with you.

They're also the ones that immediately after you read them you think, "That's a damn fine story." (Personally, it's not unlike finishing watching a movie and wanting to see it again. Immediately.)

The great stories don't just stand the test of time; they age well. They also hold up to second or more readings – no matter how long it has been since the last time you read it. When you go back to a great story, it seems just as well written, exciting, mysterious, engaging, humorous, etc. as when you first read it.
Artist Mike Zeck's iconic covers for "Ten Nights of the Beast."

KGBeast by Jim Aparo
"Ten Nights of the Beast" from BATMAN (Vol. 1) Nos. 417-420 is one of those great stories.

Granted, it has time-specific references to the "Star Wars" satellite defense program and then President Ronald Reagan. This puts "Ten Nights" squarely in the 1980s, but otherwise it's a timeless Batman tale. I just finished re-reading the four-part story published in 1988. And damn, not to be too redundant, but when I was finished, I once again thought, "That's one fine story."

Even better, the whole set was a steal when I stumbled across all four issues in at least very-good condition at this year's Motor City Comic Con.

Just how determined is the KGBeast?
How about chopping off his left hand to  avoid
being caught by Batman?
Here's a short recap: Batman, the FBI, CIA and Gotham City Police Department are tracking down the dangerous assassin the KGBeast, who has a list of 10 people he's been hired to assassinate. Doing so would cripple the "Star Wars" program. At the top of the list is Reagan, so the stakes are high for authorities to find the Beast before he kills all 10 of his intended victims.

Gotham has never seen such a determined, much less ruthless assassin. An already tense situation becomes even more complicated by the fact that the federal authorities don't trust Batman — and certainly his involvement — and the Darknight Detective is certain one of the FBI or CIA agents is a spy for the KGBeast.

With everyone at each other's throats, it's boiler-pot atmosphere. Writer Jim Starlin deftly captures this drama and creates mounting tension from the beginning by providing the day and time. This puts Batman and the authorities on the clock for Batman and the authorities to stop the KGBeast. This seems like a nearly impossible task since the assassin has whittled down his list of victims in a very short period of time and continually escapes. At one point, the KGBeast poisoned and killed a banquet room full of people just to assassinate one victim.

Upping the ante is that Starlin has created a villain who is Batman's physical equal and in hand-to-hand combat — something the Caped Crusader quickly realizes after their first encounter. This makes Batman question himself and honestly, has readers wondering if he hasn't met his match.

This unusual bit of self-doubt comes through Batman's thought captions — a relatively new storytelling technique as of 1988. Writer-artist Frank Miller used it so expertly for different characters, with Lynn Varley giving each one his or own colored captions, about two years earlier in the four-issue limited series/graphic novel BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. By the 2000s or so, that had become the norm for sharing characters' thoughts and thought balloons had become a thing of the past. …

The last page of BATMAN (Vol. 1) No. 420
— art by Jim Aparo
Artist Jim Aparo makes the "Ten Nights" story sing. One creator complements the other. Starlin doesn't overwhelm each panel with thought captions and sometimes for an entire page, lets Aparo tells his story through his dynamic art and his uncanny ability to give characters a variety of facial expressions. All this adds to the drama while Starlin's pacing ratchets up the tension.

Throughout "Ten Nights," Starlin attempts to avoid mentioning Re
agan by name (aside from one read-it-and-you-might-miss-it in one of the last pages of the first issue). And by the time the then-President makes his appearance, Aparo nails Reagan — without ever drawing him satirically. Batman has a brilliant plan to keep Reagan safe and in doing so, finally shows that the KGBeast can be outsmarted.

Artist Mike Zeck, one of my favorites, handles the cover art that is simple yet direct. Each scene is emotional and nicely captures what happens in the respective issue. The only missteps — and they are minimal — in the entire storyline are Zeck puts the KGBeast's new weaponized appendage on the incorrect arm on the cover of No. 420 and aside from Robin II (Jason Todd) taking down the Beast's partner in the final issue, the Teen Wonder's inclusion isn't necessary. Grade: A 

If you haven't read "Ten Nights of the Beast" in a long time — or never read it, this lifelong Batman fan recommends it. You'll be glad you did.

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