Thursday, June 23, 2011

Western Weirdness:

 This sure has been a pretty hefty summer for comics-inspired and science fiction films, yet actual enthusiasm seems to be lacking for any of the films coming out (although I really, really hope Captain America turns out to be good, let alone does well at the box office), except for one; the unlikely Cowboys & Aliens.

 Now this could just be Harrison Ford's star power, but considering the big pile of snark bait the last Indiana Jones movie turned out to be, as well as the (rightly warranted) box-office failure of Wild, Wild West and Jonah Hex (I hesitate to fall back on the old "rape my childhood" metaphor, but Jonah Hex, well, that's a rant for another time. All I'm gonna say is that Hex is one of my favorite comics series of all time and the film left me fuming for weeks), it doesn't exactly seem like it would be an appealing concept to your average moviegoer, at least as I understand them. Nevertheless, all speculation I've seen regarding the film is positive.

 So I felt I may as well get into the mood a little while early, and post the covers of some of Marvel's old Western comics.  The "Weird Western" genre, credited to Robert E. Howard, has been an appealing, if little used motif ever since he published his short story "The Horror from the Mound". There's just something about seeing the land of six-guns and sagebrush being populated with denizens from the twilight zone that stirs the imagination.

 It's a motif that's been used in film,

 Why not comics? Yessir, aliens, ghosts, monsters and other creatures of the beyond have been a staple of western comics for years. So grab a hold of 'yer rotgut whiskey, start chewin' yer tobaccey n' invite 'yer kin over ter see some a' these comic book-y things that ain't comical. Enjoy!

 Also, I choose to go with Marvel covers rather than DC's because, face it, every DC comic during this era had some sort of outlandish sci-fi or supernatural crap occurring in it regardless of genre. I'd be here all day posting DC's "weird westerns" from this era. I have included one little non-Marvel surprise, however.
 I've always found Marvel's early covers during it's Atlas/Red Circle phase to be appealing with their vibrant colors compared to the more earthy, somber colors that characterized their later work. It really lent a contrast when used on their horror comics. Otherwise, this cover is pretty meh. Still, it's the earliest on this list, so it comes first, even though I'm not going in any particular order. Simple, but effective.
 Ooh, I like this one! Things are actually happening. Not much "horror" or weirdness, but hermits are a horror staple, be they mad slashers or kindly old blind violinists willing to educate a persecuted monster.
 Sweeney Todd, western-style. I can't tell if that's a brush inside that mug thing or a sawed off shotgun. And whose gun is it if that's what it is?
 Dr. Doom was in the old west? That's what it looks like, but apparently the story itself doesn't have any outlandish elements according to various websites. That said, don't be too disappointed about Kid Colt not encountering any armored adversaries in this issue, he more than made up for it later...

 Yes, Kid-Colt actually had a recurring nemesis who dressed like that. Obviously based on Ned Kelly, Iron Mask was really just a blacksmith with bulletproof armor, nothing too implausible by steampunk standards, but still, to a casual observer, you'd think he was a robot. Biggest irony of all is that Ned Kelly was later played by Heath Ledger, who also played some other super-villain you may have heard of, some clown guy. Note the gaps between appearences of this villain, Marvel was wise not to use him too much and kill the novelty. Then again, Kid-Colt had the most frequent encounters with such weirdies:
 As you can probably tell, most of these supernatural villains were just Scooby Doo-style hoaxes in the stories themselves, or mundane ones like indian cults who were made more elaborate on the covers.

 Not so with this guy:
 I'm not going to top that one.

 Or am I?

 I wonder if Stan Lee was a fan of Robert Bloch's story "The Totem Pole". Lee also did two stories featuring a monstrous, living totem in Strange Tales and created a Fantastic Four villain called Tomazooa the Living Totem. None of 'em compete with this bad boy.

 Believe it or not, those last two aren't the same character!

 Holy shit...

 I could go on, and there's an entire sub-category of western heroes who may as well have been superheroes with their outlandish outfits, rogues galleries and derring-do. Some of them even had supernatural elements, like The Ghost Rider/Phantom Rider, a nearly identitcal hero owned both by M.F. Enterprises and then Marvel. Still, when all these spookies were appearing in Marvel's various "kid" titles, featuring (supposedly) more realistic stories, they really packed a punch!

 Now here's what I consider to be the greatest Western/Horror comic cover of all time!
 Holy shit!!!! I have a huge collection of horror comics from various publishers, and have read the gruesomest offerings from EC and even Eerie publications, and yet, few covers get to me like this one does. Is it the juxtaposition of the cartoony art-style? Is it the fact that this series appears to otherwise be aimed at little kids? Like I said, holy shit. I also included it because Ghost Rider/Phantom Rider is on the cover too, in the sidebar, in case you wondered what he looked like. Now here's a treat: Read it here!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Flash Chronicles Vol 1

 Sorry for the long wait. In my last post I adressed the question of whether or not Captain Marvel was the definitive old school superhero comic, and I gave a quite resounding “No”. So what series did I choose, as well as lend to my friend? Rather ironically, another superhero dressed in red and yellow with a lightning bolt across his chest who gains his powers from being struck by lightning. Yup, I chose the Silver Age Flash. And…why not?  I’d say the Flash meets the criteria perfectly for being the definitive old-school superhero comic. Remember, my friend didn’t want crap (pick any second-tier DC series), but he also didn’t want material that was exceptionally brilliant and groundbreaking (Eisner, Cole, early 60's Marvel stuff), because either way, neither types of series would create a good feel for the era. He wanted comics that you could just pick up and enjoy as pure escapist entertainment from the past, warts and all, and I’d say the Flash delivers that indeed.
First, a little history. The Silver Age Flash’s position in the history of comics is the subject of much debate. Most DC fans credit the character with revitalizing the ailing post-code comic book industry when he debuted in 1956, as well as ushering in the Silver Age of comics. While I’m no Wertham/code apologist, one year doesn’t seem like that long a wait for an industry to be revitalized (the code was introduced in 1955), no matter how poor sales were. Also, there’s much debate over what ushered in the Silver Age, some place it as early as the 1952-4, and some place it as late as 1961 with the dawn of Marvel. And as far as revitalizing superhero comics, well, Flash might have re-popularized superhero comics, but they weren’t exactly in short supply. Superman was still doing well due to the George Reeves TV show, and while they didn’t last too long, Atlas/Timely/Marvel had a revival of their big three heroes in 1953 that lasted well into 1955, and with comics often being shipped ahead of the schedule by many months, as well as staying on the racks for long times, it wouldn’t be inconceivable for The Flash’s debut in Showcase #4 to have been sharing newsstand-space with Captain America and Sub-Mariner. Heck, it hadn’t even been more than five years since the 1940’s Flash, Jay Garrick, had been seen. Surely, someone must have remembered the character. Also, the Flash’s appearances would be sporadic until he got his own series again in 1959. Even then, you can’t say that the character was selling too well or that he had revitalized DC, since in a few years even they would credit Marvel for saving the industry.
 So why was the Flash so remembered? Simple, these stories are a blend of the best of Golden Age storytelling with the more streamlined storytelling of the 1950s. Carmine Infantino, who drew most of Flash’s Silver Age stories, and all of the ones in this volume, also did many of the best remembered stories featuring the character in the late 1940s. The best remembered stories from the original 40’s Flash tended to be the ones featuring super-villains like The Fiddler, Star Sapphire and The Thorn. Sadly, these best-remembered elements came fairly late in the series’ run to save it.
This new series took everything good about the old one, and distilled it. Now with the old series’ best features (Infantino art and super-villains) there from the beginning; the potential of the Flash concept had finally been fully tapped. It’s like these were the stories that DC and Infantino had wanted to do all along with the original series, started doing, but then were forced to stop when sales got bad. All that built-up energy bursts out here, and thus, the new Flash series was charged with exuberance, like it was a longtime dream that had come true.
Maybe it’s the romantic in me, but that’s ironically the theme of the first story! Showcase #4’s Mystery of the Human Thunderbolt (which memorably begins in media res with scientists at a radar center detecting something faster than anything on earth and being perplexed), introduces us to Barry Allen, a police scientist who spends his spare time reading old copies of Flash Comics (this was before DC was a shared universe, and well as before the whole Earth 2 debacle). After getting struck by lightning which spills chemicals on him, Barry soon finds he can run just like his comic book hero, and soon crafts himself a costume and fights a criminal mastermind named the Turtle, who, ironically, shares a name with an actual Golden Age Flash villain. The story ends with Barry saying nonchalantly “sometimes dreams come true”.
And it’s that attitude which makes this story hold up. It’s easy to laugh at how Barry just gets up and walks away without seeking medical attention after being struck by lightning, or how The Turtle seems to have conveniently set traps just for the purpose of outwitting the Flash even though no one has seen Barry Allen in action at that point, but the innocence of this story makes it all palatable. It might have been better if we got to see how much Barry Allen actually idolized the Flash, when he just seems a casual reader of the comic, thus his little “dreams come true” line would have more emotional impact, but it works. Modern comics would probably set Barry up as really pathetic and at a low point so that his gaining of powers would seem like a triumph, but there’s none of that here. Modern comics would also probably play for comedy the idea of Barry Allen imitating and trying to live up to a fictional character in the real world, sort of like Walter Mitty but with power to back it up. Nevertheless, it’s fun to have an angst-free hero.

 It's also funny considering the mind-screw that inevitably occurs when you consider that Barry Allen is a fictional character in our world but a real one in his who gains the powers of a fictional character who is a real fictional character in our world. No wonder it was in the Flash series that the mind-screwing Earth 2 concept debuted!
So, analysis aside, these comics really are just fun. They aren’t thought provoking masterpieces, just breezy light-reads, occasionally clever (the Giants of the Time-World story from Showcase #14 is actually brilliantly plotted and surreal in a Lewis Carroll meets Harlan Ellison way), occasionally lyrical (Around the World in 80 Minutes, where Flash tries to save people across the world over the course of a day, all of them coincidentally being beautiful women, is reminiscent of Will Eisner and Jack Cole at their finest), but with no goals loftier than to entertain you. That’s really all you can ask for sometimes, and that’s why I consider these comics to be definitive of the genre, they came out right between the medium’s innocence and its subsequent growing up in the 1960s, and project just the right amount of idealism with a sense of wonder.
Other thoughts:
-I really like how Infantino and Kanigher seem to be trying to make the stories’ pacing match the character. Panels are often horizontal and spread across the page, giving things a streamlined look. The cynic in me wants to chalk this up to Infantino saving time by making a lot of the figures small, but it occurs too much during scenes where Flash is showing off his powers to just be a shortcut. Also, the stories read fast, man. Eisner-fast. What’s amazing is that this also doesn’t seem to be a shortcut, since the stories are all a reasonably lengthy 12 pages. Oh, and they also have time for big splash pages that depict scenes from the story. Damn. Modern writers could learn to pace stories from this.
-While the stories aren’t exactly immune from silliness, indeed, there’s a great deal, the stories try and ground themselves in their own logic. Barry learns to use his powers quickly, as early as the second story he’s running so fast he can break the time barrier, before long he’s walking through walls. On one hand, this can be read as “new powers as the plot demands”, but since he’s a scientist, it’s expected that he’d know what to do with his powers. This seems to be writer John Broome’s way of avoiding fan letters where people ask “why couldn’t _use his powers to_”. Barry may seem like a boring invincible hero at times, but at least his powers are built up to, explored and re-used so that nothing seems pulled out of nowhere or used only once (remember when Superman could shape-shift?). This makes Barry’s powers actually seem impressive rather than just a case of “eh, it’s a comic book, he can do whatever the plot demands”. There’s a great scene in the origin story where Barry realizes his powers by seeing falling food in slow motion, it’s a nifty sequence, and logically, that’s how he would see things, even if it begs the question of why he doesn’t see things like that all the time.

 The stories also try to be educational, and you know what? They aren’t too bad in that regard, facts like the height of the Eiffel tower, or what velocity is, pop up and never once bog the story down, instead they enhance the stories’ entertainment value; for example, the villain Mr. Element’s henchmen are named after the periodic elements (Argon, Krypton).
-Iris West, Barry’s love interest, comes off as incredibly unlikeable. I’d have thanked Professor Zoom for offing her, but at least she is shown to be fairly smart and independent in her own way, even if she doesn't consider forensic investigation to be a “real job”. Too bad shows like CSI would take a few decades to come en vogue. From the very first story, it’s apparent her function will be to complain about how slow Barry is and how she wishes he was more like the Flash, with  Barry then winking at the reader. While this is the formula sometimes, it’s played with consistently enough that it doesn’t reach “Lois thinks Superman is Clark then decides he isn’t” levels of monotony.
-The villains are awesomely inventive and well-used, although Infantino tends to re-use similar costume motifs. Captain Cold is shown to have traces of the sense of honor that would later be made into his defining trait, as he refuses to shoot a guard and tries to avoid harming civilians. Mr. Element/Dr. Alchemy is the closest thing Flash has to an archenemy in this volume, being the only recurring villain and actually being called “archenemy” twice. For someone so inconsistent he’d change his costume and name after just one appearance, he’s a surprisingly formidable adversary and actually does his best to make sure his traps are escape-proof. If you forgive the sheer brazen silliness of his second appearance (he conveniently has a cellmate who has the philosopher’s stone hidden in his apartment drawer), he shows enough promise that it’s a shame he wasn’t built up after this. Instead he just sinks into the background, like the Ultra-Humanite, Hugo Strange, the Vulture, the Owl and other potential/early archenemies who were squandered by dumb writers. Poor guy doesn’t even have a Wikipedia article! Barry Allen’s original arch foe deserves better. With the DC reboot coming up, maybe he’ll have a chance.
- Gorilla Grodd is a non-entity. Up until Professor Zoom claimed the title of Barry’s arch-foe by killing Iris, the sporadically appearing evil gorilla Grodd was generally considered the main villain of the series along with Mirror Master. In his debut, he’s a total non-entity; with most of the story being a convoluted mystery over whether or not an actor who plays gorillas is having blackouts where he commits crimes, as well as a subplot about a super-fast car. Surprisingly enough, the Pied Piper, who debuts in the same issue and was for years considered a joke of a villain before reforming and coming out (he was easily the best written gay character in comics for years), is a delightfully wicked nemesis, and comes closest of all villains next to Dr. Alchemy in this volume to killing our hero. You’d think that DC, who loved slapping gorillas onto covers in those days, would have given the Grodd story cover-focus, as it’s longer, but Piper wins the cover. He deserves to, his story has a great eerie opening with criminals abandoning their crimes halfway through to answer the Piper’s call, and an awesome scene where he summons a tidal wave from a park pond. Too bad this story is much too short.
-The stories come to fall into two categories eventually; Flash fights a menace from beyond, like from outer space, the past, the future or a hidden city. Or he fights an ordinary crook who gains superpowers somehow. Thankfully, each story is handled uniquely, all of them are worth a read, and while only a handful struck me as excellent, only the debuts of Mirror-Master & Grodd struck me as actually bad.
So all in all, these comics are as good as you can get (without getting too good) when it comes to superhero comics from a simpler time. I recommend this tiny Chronicles edition because it’s a great sampler; you can decide for yourself about the quality of these stories and if you want more, rather than getting the huge Showcase edition and being swamped with tons of stories you may hate. The charm of these stories is most apparent in small doses. Also, if you’re adverse to the Silver Age but want to read these stories, I’d recommend not trying to read this whole thing in one sitting like a modern graphic novel.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Captain Marvel: The Best Superhero Comic of it's Time? An Essay

A while back, a friend of mine who is a big comics enthusiast, but not necessarily of superheroes (apart from some old favorites) asked me what I would consider the “definitive” super hero comics from the Golden and Silver Ages. He didn’t want something groundbreaking that changed the entire industry, but he didn’t want to wade through garbage either. He wanted something somewhere in-between that could still be called definitive.
 My friend knew I had a big collection of archives and even a few original 40’s comics featuring the Golden Age Captain Marvel, and he had heard good things about the series from nostalgia books on comics like All in Color for A Dime and Captain Marvel co-creator C.C Beck’s own legendary rants. Even today, many call the series “the superhero concept in it’s purest form”. Another friend also chimed in and re-assured him that yes, as far as retro super heroes go, Captain Marvel is the one to read. I was a little conflicted about giving him those archives though, because on one hand I thought my friend would be surprised to get such a huge gift, cause I have a shitload of those comics. On the other, I wanted to get rid of those archives for a good reason! You see, I really don’t care for Captain Marvel.
 I know, I know it’s a series usually held up as the pinnacle of Golden Age superhero comics and the epitome of superheroes as whimsical, innocent escapist figures for children. It’s a series praised across the board for engaging in gentle, thought-provoking fantasy instead of the fisticuffs and repetitive plots featuring Nazis, gangsters, and recurring super villains that dominated other comics of the era. It also didn’t take itself seriously, as if a humorous attitude in of itself makes something an instant classic.
Want the truth? Except for a handful of stories near the very end of the strip’s run, the series was dominated by…. Fisticuffs, repetitive plots featuring Nazis, gangsters and recurring super villains, and it was all played fairly seriously. Captain Marvel racked up a body count in some stories that would put the early Batman to shame, and horror elements dominated the book, violence was often bloody. Was there whimsy in the stories? Well, yes, but pretty much only in two respects. One was the basic concept of just having to say a magic word to become a superhero, which is definitely more appealing to your average kid than being an alien or using a vast fortune to train for years after seeing your parents murdered before your eyes. But apart from that, most of the whimsy came from one other aspect of the series: comedy sidekicks like Steamboat, Tawky Tawny, Uncle Dudley, Freckles, etc. Not to say those characters weren’t charming and funny (sometimes), but they were hardly unique in a genre that had characters like Doiby Dickles (who had a magic anthropomorphic cab named Gertrude), Chop-Chop, Winky, Blinky and Noddy, Etta Candy, Mr. Mxyzptlk (who was more of a friendly nuisance than an actual villain back then) Woozy Winks, and yes, Batman's butler Alfred in the early years before he was presented as a father figure.
 So really, the Marvel stories were hardly more humorous and whimsical than anything else of the time. It’s kinda expected that comedy relief characters provide, well, comedy. That in itself does not a whimsical series make. I mean, is a talking tiger any more or less "whimsical" than a talking cab? “But the art was cartoony!” the fans shout. True, but that apparently had more to do with Beck’s belief in minimalism than anything else.
 Oh, and just to be a dick, pretty much all of the artwork back then was similarly cartoony or simplistic.

 I guess it all depends how well the humor is executed, of course. For example, compare Jack Cole's brilliant and still hilarious to this day Plastic Man stories to the lackluster revivals of the character, or the unreadable Elongated Man backups in Detective Comics. But in all honesty, I haven't seen anything in any of the Captain Marvel stories I've read that's any more sophisticted than the "comedy relief" bits of other superhero comics of the time.
 As for holding up better in the race relations department, well, the depiction of comedy relief character Steamboat; a black chauffeur, puts Ebony White from The Spirit and Chop-Chop from Blackhawk to shame in terms of tastelessness, and supposedly led to real life protest (though this may be another of C.C. Beck’s tall tales). One Captain Marvel story was so infamous for it’s racism it was recounted by no less than American ambassador Chester Bowles in his book Ambassador’s Report after it horrified a young foreign friend’s son, and the 1950's anti-comics witch-hunts got a lot of mileage out of it. It remains infamous to this day. Me, personally, I’m not bothered by things like that (one of my favorite writers is H.P. Lovecraft). I judge old school racial insensitivity as being a product of it's time, and I know for certain there was worse stuff out there, but still, when one story becomes a legend for it's racial insensitivity, it hardly reflects well on a series praised for being better than anything else of its era, including depictions of minorities. In fact, for all of his cringe-worthy dialogue, I've always been proud of Will Eisner's portrayal of Ebony. He was depicted as having his own supporting cast and being a fairly competent (if often goofy) crime fighter in his own right.
 And as far as featuring a better variety of stories and not cramming them with repetitive recurring villains (something which really pisses some people off) ? Well, I have no idea what Captain Marvel fans are talking about when they make that claim, especially when they attack other comics of the time. Dr. Sivana, Captain Marvel’s archenemy, appeared, almost consecutively, in well over 90% (no shit! ) of the original stories and often made cameos in others. Those that didn’t feature him generally featured his family, or other arch villains like Mr. Mind or Kull. Even Wikipedia mentions his overexposure. In comparison, The Flash’s arch foes, the Thinker & the Fiddler, each rated less than 10 appearances during the same era. Dr. Fate’s foe Wotan, dredged up for every Dr. Fate flashback or cameo in a cartoon despite being reformed for years, only appeared in three of the original stories, one of which was a two-parter. This blog’s own mascot, the legendary Solomon Grundy (who before being reintroduced to comics in 1965, was already a legend among comics fans) only rated four appearances during the Golden Age. Even the Joker (47 stories) and Luthor (22 stories) themselves were sparsely used in comparison, though to be fair, they did appear in a shit-load of consecutive issues.
 Not that this was bad, per se, but to say that the Captain Marvel stories didn’t re-use villains monotonously while other series did is a grand case of the pot calling the kettle black. Hell, recurring villains were actually quite a rarity during the 40s. It’s possible to mention a whole roster of superheroes, many of them surprisingly prominent, who never acquired an archenemy, or even encountered a non-mundane foe. I think the only villains who actually appeared more than Sivana during the 40's (and this is counting all companies) were the Claw and Frankenstein's Monster, who had their own series. Hitler appeared a lot too, through various companies books.
 So basically, the Captain Marvel stories share all the same flaws other series of the time did, some in fact are even worse. And really, I don't see much that elevates it besides some nice art and an instantly appealing origin story.
 I guess that part of my dislike for the character is just that years of hype and overzealous fans led to my inevitable disappointment. I mean, it’s not like I expected these stories to hold up 100%, and again, I couldn’t care less about dated elements like racial stereotyping. I’d understand if Captain Marvel was one of those series which didn't really become good until fairly recently, but most fans still agree that the best Captain Marvel is the original. If it was just treated as what it is, an okay series with a cute concept and better-than-average art that’s a product of it's time and no more, and not proclaimed as the be-all-and-end-all of Golden Age superhero comics (in some peoples opinions, of superhero comics period) then I would probably enjoy it more. I’m honestly more satisfied when I read some Timely Human Torch story where he melts nazi’s jaws off than by any Captain Marvel stories I’ve encountered from this “classic” period. 
  So you’re probably thinking, "if you don't like Captain Marvel, what did you recommend to your friend?" Tune in next time.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told

 Hello, and welcome to Out of the Quicksand. Tonight I'll be reviewing 2005's Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told. Published by DC to cash in on Batman Begins, this volume isn't to be confused with the similarly named (and much thicker) 1989 volume The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told.

 Both editions also have a volume 2. The '89 volume, naturally, includes much older material and thus has a greater overview of Batman throughout different eras. The bulk of the 2005 edition is composed of more recent material and doesn't really spotlight anything in particular.

 Still what matters is whether the stories are worthy of their inclusion. Are they? Let's see.

 The Case of the Honest Crook (from Batman #5): Batman apprehends a petty thief but is moved by the crook's motivations; turns out the man was framed by some mobsters and can't get a job to support his ailing wife. Batman then sets out to catch the men responsible. This story sticks out for it's sympathetic portrayal of the titular crook, as well as Batman's murderous rage towards the end when he confronts some mobsters who have shot Robin. Already at this early point in the series, Batman's days of killing criminals was being treated as a thing of the past, so it must have come as a shock to see him go berserk. Sadly, the story itself really isn't that good. Robin doesn't even appear much before the shooting, so we don't really get to feel Batman's rage. It just comes out of nowhere and feels forced into the story. I also really hate the lettering from this era of Batman comics, it's a real strain to read, and this is a text-heavy story. 2.2/5.

 The Secret Life of the Catwoman (from Batman #62): Catwoman joins forces with a masked criminal named Mr. X, with both intending to betray the other, but during a fight with Batman she regains memories of her life before she became a criminal, and then assists Batman and the FBI in exchange for a pardon. This story is notable for introducing Catwoman's real name and origin; here she's depicted as an airline stewardess who got amnesia after surviving a crash. It's a fairly entertaining little yarn, with some great art by Bob Kane Lew Sayre Schwartz and Dick Sprang, but it's nothing special. Truth be told, it doesn't really stick out much from other Catwoman stories of the era, where the formula was always that Catwoman would be double-crossed by her own gang and then turn to Batman for help, only to double cross Batman and then be arrested, promising she would reform someday. This story differs only in that Catwoman genuinely seems to reform at the end, but since it didn't stick (and not in that it was undone many years later, like with Two-Face's reformation, Catwoman's reformation here didn't even last into her next appearence) it pretty much amounts to nothing. Still, you gotta wonder if the depiction of Catwoman as a split personality inspired Tim Burton's Batman Returns, and if the masked Mr. X was an influence for the similar-looking 80's villain Black Mask. 2.5/5.

Robin Dies At Dawn (from Batman #156): Batman has a bizarre dream where Robin is killed by an animated statue on an alien world, but is it a dream? Most of Batman's 50s and 60s stories featuring aliens were goofy affairs, this one is famous for being pretty much the only story of its era to be played for serious drama. I'm sure the image of a dead Robin on the cover traumatized a great deal of kids. That aside, this story is only good during it's eerie prologue, as well as a surprisingly clever bit of symbolism when Batman realizes he's been dreaming. Otherwise it's pretty meh. 3/5.

The Batman Nobody Knows (from Batman #250): Bruce Wayne takes a bunch of kids camping, and they discuss what they imagine Batman to be like, and each version differs. This is a cute, lightweight story even the most jaded comics fan wouldn't bring themselves to hate. It was memorably adapted as an episode of the 90's animated series and sorta retold in Legends of the Dark Knight #94. It's worth noting that the black kid's vision of Batman in this story bears a striking resemblance to the recent Batwing character in Batman Inc. Proof comics can be fun and not intelligence-insulting. 3.5/5.

The Joker's Five-Way Revenge (from Batman #251): The Joker hunts down the men who betrayed him and kills them one by one. Notable as the story which returned Joker to his roots as a homicidal maniac. On the surface, this story is literally a generic Batman VS Joker story: Joker kills people, Batman pursues him, escapes death traps, and then they fight. What makes this work is Denny O' Neil's mood-setting captions and Neal Adam's brooding artwork, which plays with lighting and incorporates photography. It's just beautiful to look at. The images of Batman and the Joker from this story, particularly the opening splash page of the Joker laughing maniacally while driving during a storm, and the later panel of Batman galivanting across a beach as the sun rises, are for many people THE iconic images of the characters. Does this story measure up to The Killing Joke, Going Sane or The Laughing Fish? Does it even measure up to the first two Joker appearences in the 40s (of which much of this story and Fish are heavily derived from)? No, but dammit, this story still remains a damn impressive read even today. It just hits the spot, nothing more, nothing less. My only beef? Neal Adams went and pulled a George Lucas with the coloring for this edition, several moodily effective monchrome panels are given normal coloring here, and attempts to make things like running water look more realistic just look wrong, for example, the rain hitting the windshield in the splash page looks like bird shit (or worse...). Still, 5/5.

 Night of the Stalker (from Detective Comics #439): Batman sees echoes of himself during an otherwise routine robbery, both in the victims and...well, that would be telling. When it comes to Batman, most people tend to remember Steve Englehart for his "Strange Apparitions" run on Detective Comics with Marshall Rogers, but for me this story is his masterpiece, and along with Year One and Blades, my personal favorite Batman story. Rich in symbolism and mood, this story aims to capture every aspect of the character, and hits dead on with each one. What makes this miraculous is that Batman doesn't say a damn thing throughout any of this but his characterization shines through. Art and captions tell the story here. Should be held high as a supreme example of what the medium is capable of. If you only read one story from this book, make it this one. A masterpiece. 5/5.

 Death Strikes at Midnight and Three (from DC Special Series #15): A mystery story, laced with guilt and irony. An enjoyable read, mostly notable for being an entirely a typeset text story with no word balloons but intercut with illustrations. Marshall Roger's art is as good as it ever was, in fact, it surpasses his Apparitions work. Still, mostly notable just for being an experiment. A damn pretty one though. 4/5.

 Wanted: Santa Claus-Dead or Alive! (from DC Special Series #21): A crook in a Santa suit has a change of heart, but will that be enough to save him? A nice "awww" story. Oddly enough, this isn't the only Christmas story that got included in this volume, but you know what? It's a damn good read, even though Will Eisner did this same plot, and better, in The Spirit. Oddly enough (again), Frank Miller has the art chores on this story (that's why I suspect it was reprinted, this was his first work on Batman), but Denny 'O Neil wrote it. You'd have thought Eisner-fanboy Miller would have written it, but this was done long before Miller became a superstar. A lot better than it has any right to be. 4.5/5.

 My Beginning and My Probable End...(from Detective Comics #574): As Jason Todd lies at death's door, Bruce and Leslie Thompkins debate over just what Bruce's motivations are, and how they've affected those around him. I've never liked Robin, and yet, Jason Todd, the most reviled of the Robins, is my favorite. This could be because I consider the Mike Barr/Alan Davis run of the late 80's to be my favorite run, and Jason was prominent in it, but even so, considering how things would turn out for Jason, the ending inadvertantly turns this story, meant to be touching and character re-affirming, into one of the most chilling condemnations of Bruce Wayne ever written, when the entire point of the story is to shoot down those accusations. That just adds more to the ambiguity of the story though, and doesn't work against it. There have been a lot of stories where Batman has faced a crisis of conscience or ethics, but this is easily the best. Also, it features what is easily one of the best origin retellings. DC needs to collect this run. 5/5.

 Favorite Things (from Legends of the Dark Knight #79): Batman pursues hoods during Christmastime, and soon it turns personal, but why? Another great "awww" story, and one of the best stories to come out of the "Batman is a manchild" interpretation without seeming insulting or comedic, but actually heartwarming. And it was written by Mark Millar of all people. Millar? Heartwarming? This is a Christmas miracle. 4.5/5.

 24/7 (Gotham Knights #32): A day in the life of Bruce Wayne. Next to Stalker, this story is reason alone to get this book. From Bruce Wayne's business deals, charity work, love life, glimpses of the people he has saved, and proof that Batman still has a soft spot for Two-Face, this is as thorough an exploration of who Batman is as you can get. 5/5.

 So all in all, this volume has some great stuff in it. The bad news is that most of the stories are vignettes of who Batman is, so there's a certain sameness to all of them. The good news is that at least they picked some damn good ones. Honest Crook and the Catwoman story however, really bog the collection down. They aren't awful, but are far from great. Surely better Golden Age stories to spotlight would be The Batman plays a Lone Hand from Batman #13 if they'd wanted to spotlight Batman's friendship with Robin, if they'd instead wanted to feature Batman intervening in domestic drama, they could have used Money Can't Buy Happiness from Detective Comics #47. There are also tons of Catwoman stories they could have used as well, or if they'd wanted to showcase a villain from a Golden Age story where they're portrayed sympathetically, any of Two-Face's 3 appearences would have been better choices. Hell, for good Golden Age stories period, The Story of the Seventeen Stones, The Case of the Ruby Idol, The Harlequin's Hoax and the first appearence of The Riddler are all fine substitutes. I really hate when Golden Age comics come off as crappy because editors choose mediocre ones at random to throw into "greatest" collections.

 Flaws aside, I give this volume 4.5/5. Also, ignore the volume 2 edition from 2008, which reprints material that can already be found in the original Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told.