Monday, January 4, 2016

Retro-review of 'The Untold Legend of the Batman'

Four posts in four days — and three of them are retro-reviews! Who knew? 

The first of my 2016 retro-reviews (critical looks at comic books, trade paperbacks, live-action fanboy material or animated projects that came out years ago but I'm just now getting around to review) are: the must-read SPIDER-MAN: BLUE trade paperback and the "Marvel One Shot: Peggy Carter" from the "Iron Man 3" Blu-ray (which I got for Christmas, thanks to the generosity of one of my best buds, some-time CCC contributor David Hudson).

This brings me to the 1980 three-issue limited series, THE UNTOLD LEGEND OF THE BATMAN.

Anyone who has read any comics for any amount of time knows writers enjoy exploring, expanding upon or even re-imagining the origins of classic superheroes. The best of these are the stories in which the writers are inspired by the original material, yet take it in a new but organic direction that makes sense within the context of the character's history.

For my money and reading enjoyment, some of the best (in no certain order) are: writer-artist John Byrne's MAN OF STEEL, writer Roger McKenzie's expansion of Captain America's origin (featuring killer art by Byrne, whose run with McKenzie is one of the definitive interpretations of Cap) in the double-sized CAPTAIN AMERICA No. 255, writer Frank Miller's influential and moody BATMAN: YEAR ONE (which was made into a spot-on animated film — often panel-for-panel!) and most recently, writer Mark Waid's SUPERMAN: BIRTHRIGHT.

Before all those, there was THE UNTOLD LEGEND OF THE BATMAN.

Simply judging from the creative team, you can bet this is good stuff: Writer Len Wein, pencils and inks by Byrne and Jim Aparo (Aparo drew and inked each of the covers and all the interior art in issues 2 and 3) and two long-time Batman artists, colorist Glynis Wein and letterer John Costanza.

And boy, do they deliver!

UNTOLD LEGEND is told through a series of flashbacks. Each issue features short, flashback-origins and/or early appearances of important people in Batman's life: Dr. Thomas Wayne, Joe Chill, Dick Grayson, Alfred Pennyworth, The Joker, Harvey Dent (aka Two-Face), Commissioner Jim Gordon (did you know his middle initial is W?) and his daughter Barbara.

We even find out "master stuntman" Jack Edison, whom the Caped Crusader saved from a car crash, pays it back by building the latest Batmobiles.

(The late 1960s to mid-1980s Batmobile — which was inspired by the TV series and the comic-book variations by Gil Kane and Frank Springer from the late 1960s and early 1970s — always has been one of my favorites. That Batmobile basically was THE version in comics (with some variations of course!) until Norm Breyfogle came up with a daring redesign in 1988. 
1985 Batmobile courtesy of the History of the Batmobile website

Subsequently, every time an artist joins a Batman title, he's designed his own Batmobile. Ironically, they often are a variation of Aparo's or Breyfogle's and certainly the ones from the four Tim Burton-Joel Schumacher films. It's something like an artist's unwritten rite of passage. Aparo's Batmobile also is in the various incarnations of the "Super Friends" cartoon. For an exhaustive history of what I call the Greatest Set of Wheels on the Planet, go to the very informative History of the Batmobile website.) 

Interior art by John Byrne (pencils) and Jim Aparo (inks)
Batman first makes the devastating discovery someone has stolen his father's Batman-like Halloween costume from its display case in the Batcave and mailed the shredded remains to him. This sets off the Caped Crusader on an obsessive pursuit of finding out who did it.

By the end of issue 2, the culprit (whose identity and motive admittedly are a bit contrived) has booby-trapped the Batmobile to blow up — in the Batcave below Wayne Tower no less!

In a letter, the culprit promises to "one by one destroy the things that make you what you are — and then I will destroy you."

Without completely giving away the ending (a 36-year-old pseudo-spoiler alert!), Batman's journey takes him back to Wayne Manor, where he confronts the culprit who brazenly wears Dr. Wayne's costume. (Now somehow, it's in perfect condition. Weird!)

The iconic, final page of THE UNTOLD LEGEND OF THE
Yet the confrontation does exactly what the mastermind wanted — to get Batman to banish the demons that haunted him and "snap you back to your senses." The final splash page of issue 3 is Aparo at his best. And Batman at his most iconic.

With the Dark Knight (more on the history of that nickname in another post!) looking over the Gotham City skyline, Wein writes that "those who walk these mean streets" are protected "every night, without cease, without slumbering (by) the Batman (who) prowls the streets of the city he loves, the dark avenger, the eternal champion."

Is it just me or doesn't that sound a bit like actor Gary Oldman's Commissioner Jim Gordon describing Batman in the closing seconds of "The Dark Knight"? (That's when Gordon says "he's the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. …  Because he's not our hero. He's a silent guardian. A watchful protector. A Dark Knight.")

Grade: B+

Although this is the front cover of issue 2 of
iconic image by artist Jim Aparo was used for the front cover
of the psuedo-"novelization" when the story was reproduced
in black-and-white panels.

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