Ask Chris #205: The Worst Story From The Best Writer
Q: Hey Chris, what’s the worst story from the best writer? — @starr226
A: I’ve gotten this question a few times over the past few weeks, and it’s one that’s really interesting to me for a few reasons, the most important of which being that nobody in the history of comics has a perfect record. Once you put out more than, say, four comics, everyone from Jack Kirby on down has stunk up the room at least once in their career, and it can be really fun looking at something to try to figure out exactly why something doesn’t work, when everything else from that particular creator works so well.
For me, though, as easy as it would be to hit a soft target like Alan Moore and Scott Clark’s Spawn/WildC.A.T.S: Devil Day, the biggest and most surprising drop will always be Larry Hama and Scott McDaniel’s surprisingly terrible run on Batman.
Let’s get this out of the way right up front: Larry Hama is a G.O.A.T. Hall of Fame creator if there ever was one. Even if you’re just looking at what he did as a writer, going beyond the influence he had as an editor and mentor at Marvel in the ’80s, even if you’re just focusing on the 153 issues of G.I. Joe that he wrote (the entire run except that one issue about Clutch by Steven Grant and the penultimate issue) that’s a track record that’s pretty bulletproof. There’s no reason at all for that book, which, if you want to put it in the most cynical possible terms, existed entirely to sell a toy line to impressionable youngsters and was supported by a half-hour cartoon that aired every weekday, to be that good, and yet, it is.
With Joe alone, Hama racked up a run that was over three times longer than what Walter Simonson did on Thor — pretty much my standard unit of measurement for long runs at Marvel in the ’80s — and while it may not have ever gotten to the heights of that run, it was in incredible cornerstone for the company, both in terms of sales and creativity. I’ve been re-reading it over the past few weeks, and even when Hama and artists like Rod Wigham and M.D. Bright were tasked with spending time in almost every issue during the book’s heyday introducing an ever-expanding roster of collectible figures and detailing the action features of V.A.M.P.s, F.A.N.G.s, C.L.A.W.s and A.W.E Strikers, he still manages to tell a compelling, character-driven adventure story that blends action and comedy and even a little bit of philosophy in a way that very few other creators can match. Even the constant updating of the cast to reflect the new line of toys was a positive thing, as it resulted in one of the most progressive and diverse casts in the history of mainstream comics, even if it suffered from the action movie tropes of its time.
And then, you know, there’s “Silent Interlude,” where he wrote and drew the layouts for one of the top three single-issue stories of all time.
Can’t really get around that one. And incidentally, if you haven’t read it lately, go back and take a good look at just how well-crafted it is, and how much information he’s able to get through that’s purely visual, and how influential that book has been, particularly on stuff like the also-amazing Sixth Gun #21, which was done in tribute to Hama’s original. Then think about how that issue was produced on a tighter schedule than normal because the book was over deadline.
What I’m getting at with all this is that just from that one book, you can see how much of an understanding Hama has of comics and how they work, and that’s not even factoring in his experience as an editor. There’s a craftsmanship there that’s impossible to deny and equally impossible not to respect. And yet, he managed to produce a strong contender for the worst Batman run of the 21st century so far.
What’s really weird about it is that when Hama arrives on Batman, fresh from a short stint on Wolverine that’s about as memorable as every other late ’90s run on Wolverine’s solo title, it’s in the middle of a creative renaissance for that entire corner of the DC Universe.
Since Knightfall, the Batman books had spent most of the ’90s bouncing around from one long, convoluted crossover to another, eventually dragging themselves through Contagion and Legacy, the stories whose primary purpose was to make readers question why literally anyone would set foot in Gotham City. The idea of linking the Bat-books together into one single meta-story had pretty much come to its logical end with No Man’s Land. NML, which was actualliy the start of bringing a lot of fresh talent into the Batman books and letting them play with the weird, fun, completely nonsensical idea of Postapocalyptic Batman, told a single story 52-part story that was out every single week for an entire year, plus a dozen additional tie-ins and specials. You really can’t get any bigger or more interconnected than a story that would occasionally include maps of Gotham City shaded to represent the different turf wars that were raging among Gotham’s gangs.
So when that all ended in the year 2000, the books went through a soft relaunch that divided them back up and allowed them to refocus. They were still pretty tightly interlinked, and it wasn’t long before they went back to the crossovers (“Officer Down” would hit about two years later, followed by Bruce Wayne: Murderer? and Fugitive), but right at the start of 2000, each one was devoted to a different aspect of Batman. Detective Comics, arguably the greatest success, brought in Greg Rucka and artists like Rick Burchett and Shawn Martinborough to focus on crime stories — well, crime stories in the sense that they were still Batman comics and the crimes were often committed by 500 year-old immortal superterrorists — Legends of the Dark Knight was reverted back to being a rotating creator showcase for stories set in the “Year One” era, and a new title called Gotham Knights was introduced to replace the canceled Shadow of the Bat, with newcomer Devin Grayson coming on as writer with a mandate to focus on Batman’s relationship with his extended family of fellow heroes and sidekicks.
Batman was, of course, meant to fill the role of its traditional contrast with Detective — if ‘Tec is about crime stories, then Batman is a full-on superhero adventure, and if that’s what you’re going for, Larry Hama makes perfect sense. If you want your book to have high-energy, compelling action that highlight’s Batman’s status as a badass adventure hero, then the dude who wrote the Snake-Eyes Trilogy should probably be the first guy you call, right?
And yet, what we actually got was a series of lackluster adventures that were most notable for introducing Orca the Whale-Woman, quite possibly the least of Batman’s lesser foes.
Actually, now that I’m looking back at these issues, Orca wasn’t the worst villain in that run. That honor goes to The Banner, an ultra-nationalist dude with no shirt wearing cargo pants and an American Flag as a cape. He only lasted one issue, though — Grace Balin, aka Orca, made it a full three.
To be fair to Hama, it’s not just him that’s making these issues so rough. Scott McDaniel did his fair share of terrible, terrible work in these comics too, as evidenced by this splash page of Batman doing Kegels down on the Gotham waterfront, looking like a sticker that someone slapped on the page without quite managing to make it look like he was standing on any part of the background:
But again, on paper, McDaniel seems like a perfectly logical choice. His run on Nightwing with Chuck Dixon was arguably the most consistently enjoyable Bat-title of the ’90s, with lots of dynamic action set against imaginative set pieces. It’s exactly the kind of thing that you’d want from an action-heavy Batman title, but whatever worked with Dick Grayson — most notably the lack of a cape and the idea of acrobatics at the core of Dick’s character that let McDaniel focus on the body and how it moved through the page — just completely failed to click with Batman. It’s worth noting that he did some pretty striking covers that still look great 14 years later, but the actual pages are full of muddled storytelling and figures that verge on the grotesque.
By the same token, it’s not all McDaniel’s fault either. Just take a look at this dialogue.
Hama’s run also drew the inevitable comparisons to G.I. Joe — which is to be expected, since Hama worked on that book for 12 years and in a lot of ways, it defined his career — but in the worst way possible. The Orca story in particular featured Batman sporting a new Underwater Action costume, and the whole thing honestly felt like product placement for a toy that didn’t exist.
It just didn’t work. The stakes don’t feel like they’re there, the characters feel flat, the action is boring and it all fails to come together at every turn, and there’s not even a single thing you can point to as for why. There’s just nothing good in it, and to make matters worse, it suffers by comparison not only to Hama’s other work, but to what else was going on around it. Rucka and Burchett’s Detective was a high point that launched one of my favorite writers, and while Hama’s run on Batman was mercifully short — he lasted seven issues — he was replaced by Ed Brubaker, whose run was fantastic, and who would go on to write the best Bat-Family title ever and team up with Rucka to create one of the best Batman comics of all time.
As a side note, Brubaker would later mention in an interview that while he was brought on to replace one of the worst-reviewed Batman writers of all time and was met with immediate praise from fans and critics, sales didn’t change at all.