Welcome to What Are You Reading?, our weekly look at what the Smash Pages crew has been reading lately.
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This week I read two SPOOOOKY Batman stories, both written by Denny O’Neil early in his Bat-tenure. The first was an old favorite, “The Demon Of Gothos Mansion!” from December 1970’s Batman #227. I first encountered it as a black-and-white reprint in the Batman From The ’30s To The ’70s hardcover, so this was the first time I had seen it in color. Pencilled by Irv Novick and inked by Dick Giordano, it was the last entry in that book – which makes sense, as it would have come out in October 1970, only about a year before the collection did.
Anyway, “Gothos” is one of those Denny O’Neil Batman stories where our hero kind of wanders around a classic horror setup. Here, he’s responding to a plea from Alfred’s niece Daphne, who’s gotten a job as a governess for what is basically a demon-worshiping cult leader. That’s not a spoiler – it seems pretty clear from Page 2. Accordingly, Batman slinks into the mansion, terrorizes some thugs, and by Page 6 has gotten Daphne out of the tower (!) where her boss has imprisoned her. On their way out, Batman notices a painting in the hallway that looks just like Daphne, but before he has time to observe and deduce he’s falling down a trapdoor and caught in a net. He escapes the subsequent deathtrap (where the cult leader explains how Daphne must be sacrificed at midnight on October 31) and encounters a ghostly woman who appears to be the one from the painting.
In a twist worthy of Bob Haney, Batman finds himself falling instantly and deeply in love with her, but she urges him to stop the ceremony. This he does in classic Bat-fashion, by rising ominously through the mist and scaring the cult members who’d been expecting the demon. With Daphne safe and the cult leader dead of a broken heart (okay, a heart attack, but he’s pretty bummed about the wrecked ceremony), Batman tries to connect with his new love. However, she fades away herself, explaining that by disrupting the ceremony, Batman has freed the spectral woman from … wandering the Earth, I guess. The story ends with Batman distraught, next to the portrait from the hallway, now nailed to a tree trunk.
Clearly this is a goofy story, but it’s not unusual for this period of Bat-history. What really makes it work is Novick and Giordano’s art, which is somewhat sketch-y, stylized and angular. There are a couple of matter-of-fact fight scenes, and arch perspectives on Batman and the cult leader, that guide the reader from “just another day for Batman” to “okay, more serious than maybe we thought.” Again, the most jarring element is Batman’s sudden infatuation with Daphne’s ghostly double; but it all seems of a piece with the soft-focus spookiness O’Neil sought to evoke.
Much more grounded in reality is the better-known “Night of the Reaper!” from the next year’s Batman #237 (December 1971). This time Neal Adams pencils O’Neil’s script (with Harlan Ellison and Berni Wrightson also getting story credit), and Giordano is back on inks. Perhaps the most famous of the Rutland, Vermont Halloween stories, it opens with the arresting image of Batman staked to a skeletal dead tree, and cuts immediately to a two-page spread of the Rutland superhero-themed parade. Alert readers will spot several copyright-infringing Marvel cosplayers throughout the issue, starting with Havok and Captain America on the parade float. Among the attendees is Dick Grayson, who breaks up a fight between a gang of thugs and “Robin.”
This sparks Dick’s own investigation, which before long takes him to the Bat-corpse, where he too is attacked (in a great Adams splash page) by the titular Reaper. Left for dead, he’s found by the actual Batman, who’s been summoned to Rutland by the Jewish Dr. Gruener to track Schloss, a Nazi concentration-camp guard. Batman discovers the nest of Nazis but is too late to stop the car-bomb which kills the guard. Turns out that the Nazis themselves killed Schloss because he was “spending Nazi party treasures.” So who’s the Reaper, and why was he attacking “Batman and Robin?” SPOILER – it was Gruener, the only one who knew that the Dynamic Duo might be in Rutland on this case. Batman confronts the Reaper, telling him that regardless of the horrors he suffered, murder isn’t the answer; but the Reaper isn’t having it. Eluding Batman, he comes across a group of stoners and is ready to “reap” one of them before being distracted by the Star of David hanging from his scythe. In this moment of clarity, he loses his footing, falls off a bridge, and is impaled on his own weapon. The End.
Aside from the gut-punches this story delivers, O’Neil, Adams and Giordano simply excel at creating an eerie, twilight-time mood. The story takes place overnight, from evening until dawn, and the image of Batman wandering through way-too-late Halloween parties (and meeting the Bat-costumed host, Tom Fagan) is an excellent juxtaposition not just with the murder mystery, but with the very idea of dressing up as superheroes. Batman reminds Robin that a man was killed simply for wearing his costume, which gives the Halloween setting an extra layer of ominousness. “Reaper” is one of the great O’Neil/Adams Batman stories, and that’s saying something.
Let the games begin! The X of Swords spent the last month’s worth of X-titles (and that’s a lot) showing us how the X-Men claimed the various swords they’re going to need for the big battle against Saturnyne’s squad. In this issue, the halfway point, we get an introduction to the other side and the various blades they’ll be wielding against our heroes. But we also get more than that, as the tension continues to build for each member of the X-team, especially Apocalypse. This all reminds me of the first Hunger Games movie, in a really good way — the scene is set, the players are chosen, now all we need is for them to be dropped into a (Danger Room-esque) arena and start going at it. May the odds be ever in your favor, hope you survive the experience and all that.
While Marvel’s already finished off one event and is halfway done with a second, DC still moves forward with Dark Nights: Death Metal, which is only seven issues plus about twice that in tie-in one-shots? I haven’t done the math, but most of them are actually pretty critical to the story. This one is also a fun one for hardcore DC fans (the kind who have bound editions of the seminal History of the DC Universe), as a new cosmic player makes the rounds and visits some old favorites, like Psycho Pirate, Vril Dox and Metron. DC’s line-up of cosmic beings has never matched up to Marvel’s, what with their Galactuses, Living Tribunals, Watchers and the like, so it’s nice to see a new face here. There’s also a short but sweet back-up story featuring the Green Lanterns that gives John Stewart and his colleagues some nice character moments.