Ask Chris #277: Where Does ‘Strange Apparitions’ Sit In The Batman Canon?
Q: Why is “Strange Apparitions” the best Batman run? – @IanGonzales
A: See what I mean about these questions that include their own answers right there in the premise?
I have to say, though: You’re not wrong. Of all the great Batman runs that have helped to define the character, the six issues that Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers spent on Detective Comics back in 1978 stand out as one of the all-time greatest. It’s intricately crafted, beautifully drawn, and while Englehart’s claim that it more-or-less invented the Batman of the Modern Age might seem a little overblown at first glance, it’s hard to argue that it’s not at least a major part of the foundation of how the Caped Crusader would evolve over the following decade. As for just what makes it so great and why it stands the test of time, it all comes down to how they were able to build on the past while creating something that still feels modern almost 40 years later.
For starters, there’s the fact that it actually is a run, in a very modern sense. That’s something of a rarity for DC’s Bronze Age books. Even when a single creative team stayed on a book for months — even years, in the case of something like Bob Haney and Jim Aparo‘s tenure on The Brave and the Bold — the stories didn’t usually hang together as a single, cohesive unit. Those comics were extremely episodic, and up until the ’80s, they were built more around the single-issue format, as opposed to telling an interconnected, overarching story.
“Strange Apparitions,” though — the name given to the Englehart/Rogers run when it was collected in paperback — wasn’t like that. There’s a single narrative thread that runs through those issues that ties them all into a single whole.
It certainly wasn’t the first time that a DC book had done that — as you may have heard, Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams had famously done the same thing on that Green Lantern/Green Arrow a few years earlier — but it had rarely been done as successfully as it was here. Every piece of “Strange Apparitions” worked on multiple levels, as both an individual episode and a piece of the larger story, and the result was that they ended up with classic pieces like “The Deadshot Ricochet” and “The Laughing Fish” that make something even better when you read them all together.
There’s a weird bit of roughness to it, of course. Englehart’s first two issues were drawn by Walt Simonson (not exactly a slouch in the art department), and Rogers stuck around for a few issues after Englehart was gone. Since they’re always collected as a whole, the prime of the run where Englehart and Rogers are together is always bookended by those pieces that don’t quite fit with the rest. But those six issues where they’re together? They’re pretty close to perfect.
And what’s really amazing about that is that Englehart wrote the entire eight-issue run before the first page was ever drawn.
That was something that Englehart mentioned years ago, if memory serves, when he called into the Comic Book Club at the shop where I was working to discuss his work on Batman. At the time, Englehart was looking to get out of comics, having just left Marvel over difficulties working with Gerry Conway on Avengers, and agreed to come to DC for a year with the mission to, as he put it, “fix Justice League for you” before leaving the medium for the next five years. Because of that, he ended up knocking out his Detective Comics scripts well in advance, and looking back on those issues, that blows my mind.
Those comics are so visual, with a sense of design and layout that works so well with the script, that it’s hard to imagine it all coming together without Englehart and Rogers working in tandem every step of the way. That they didn’t, and that “Strange Apparitions” is as beautifully put together as it is, is a testament to just how well they worked together when they weren’t actually working “together” at all.
Part of that, of course, is just down to the fact that Rogers is one of the all-time great storytellers in comics. Over the course of “Strange Apparitions,” he handles ten- and eleven-panel pages in a way that seems effortless, and his Batman, with his cape draped over him like a cloak and set against a dark, moody Gotham City, is one of the all time best. And it’s worth noting that when the team reunited later in 2006 for a follow-up miniseries called Dark Detective — the second of a planned trilogy that was sadly cut short when Rogers died in 2007 — that same magic was there.
It’s that lightning-in-a-bottle creative spark between those two creators that really makes “Strange Apparitions” what it is, but there’s a little more to it than that, and it all comes down to how Englehart and Rogers approached Batman with the idea of going back to his roots.
That’s something that you hear a lot with regards to Batman, especially in the Bronze Age. As early as 1970, creators were pushing back against the sci-fi of the ’50s and the campiness of the ’60s in an effort to swing the pendulum from “Caped Crusader” back to “Dark Knight.” Stories like “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge” (1973) had moved in that direction, but “Strange Apparitions” made it a primary focus of the run, and it did it by drawing heavily on Batman’s actual roots and the most memorable stories of the Golden Age.
In a way, that makes “Strange Apparitions” one of comics’ most successful examples of looking backwards. With the exception of Dr. Phosphorus, the major villain who shows up over the course of the run — Hugo Strange, Deadshot, and the Joker — are all throwbacks to the Golden Age, and the most famous story in the run, “The Laughing Fish,” is an elaborate re-telling of the Joker’s first appearance back in 1940’s Batman #1.
The thing is, those stories never feel like throwbacks. They feel like updates.
Part of it is that there’s an acknowledgement of the history that’s in play. “The Deadshot Ricochet” might actually be the best example of how that all comes together, even more than “The Laughing Fish.” Deadshot doesn’t just return; there’s a big deal made of how much he hates Batman for putting him jail after their first encounter in 1950, and that desire for revenge — and the psychological toll of being outdone at every single turn by Batman — would become the driving forces behind his character even as he evolved over the next decade in Suicide Squad.
And on top of that, it’s full of striking visuals. The big fight on the giant typewriter at the Office Supplies Convention is the biggest possible homage to the weird set-piece battles from Golden Age artists like Dick Sprang, and that costume! All reds and yellows, shiny chrome and wrist-mounted magnums to make a better contrast to the guy in blue and grey who sticks to the shadows and never uses guns. It says a lot that 40 years later, that’s the look that sticks around.
And then, of course, there’s Silver St. Cloud.
The Romance between Bruce Wayne and Silver St. Cloud is, along with the fall of Rupert Thorne, the thread that ties the entire run together into a single whole, and it stands out as one of the better romances in Batman’s history. The way it plays out, with Silver slowly discovering that Bruce is Batman, and then deciding for herself that she has to leave him is well done, and it holds up as a pattern that other creators would attempt to duplicate, but that few would do that well.
Put all those elements together — and, y’know, the fact that they also do one of the single greatest Joker stories ever printed — and you have a run that doesn’t just hold up, but became a new foundation for other creators to build on afterwards. It’s a blueprint for how to use the past to move forward, how to add to the relationships that define the characters, and how to set the tone of an entire franchise.
Those comics deserve GOAT status solely on the basis of just how good Marshall Rogers was at weaving sound effects into his artwork. So good.
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