It was a dark and stormy night. (or should that be Knight?) "It's Joker weather," says Commissioner Gordon. "True Commissioner," says Chief O'Hara, "But it's also tailor made for him!" The Batman is a character who needs lots of atmosphere. Darkness, rain, lightning, tall dark buildings, smoking gangsters, skinny trees bereft of leaves, all this and more fill the very affordable paperback collection of some of the best Batman stories ever produced. BATMAN: STRANGE APPARITIONS collects the beautifully drawn and superbly written DETECTIVE COMICS 469-476 and 478, 479 from 1977-1978. Some have called these issues "the definitive Batman." It was these stories that got the ball rolling on making a big budget and serious Batman movie and you can definitely see that many of the ideas from that movie came from these stories.
These pages are alive with atmosphere! Artist Marshall Rogers' panels literally drip down the page and capes slither behind the storyboards. Rogers sometimes lets the design of his panels tell the story as much as the art within them. When characters talk on the phone the panel's edges are drawn like phone cords. Sometimes panels rest on top of full-page illustrations that most artists would weep before covering up. Rogers is teamed for the most part with the incredibly talented inker Terry Austin. Together they provide pictures that are at once moody and sharp and exquisitely defined. When Batman menaces a thug you believe it. When Bruce Wayne has a nightmare you feel it. This artwork is a joy to look at and if the story were rotten it would still be worth buying this collection just to see the Batman look like the Batman should!
As the tale begins, Bruce Wayne has given up living at Wayne manor and he and his loyal butler, Alfred, have moved to a luxurious penthouse in the heart of Gotham. This makes it easier for the Batman to prowl the night. The first two issues, drawn by Walt Simonson (later of THOR fame) before Rogers came on board, sets the stage for what is to come. Bruce Wayne meets the beautiful and intriguing Silver St. Cloud and falls head over heels for her. But their romance is interrupted when a scheming white collar criminal, who has been turned to phosphorus (which burns on contact with air he loves to scream), decides to take revenge on the city that he believes is responsible for his fate. Dr Phosphorus contacts the corrupt city official "Boss" Rupert Thorne and agrees to spare his life if he will get the Batman off his back. Though Batman defeats Phos (of course) Boss Thorne continues to use his political power to undermine the Batman through the rest of the novel.
Hugo Strange, a great character who appeared long ago in BATMAN #1, is brought back from the 1940's. Strange has a hospital for the rich needing privacy that is actually a place where he drugs and mutates and blackmails them into doing his bidding. It isn't long before he captures millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne and (gasp!) learns that he is really Batman. Hugo Strange is an interesting character who seems to admire the Batman as his only equal. "Truly a life of genius is a lonely one," he says. Strange is killed by Boss Thorne, but don't count him out! He is the "strange apparition" the book is named after. He haunts Boss Thorne all through the book and even helps the Batman out a time or two.
Next, the Batman faces off against the Penguin and another character from the golden age of comics, albeit retooled for the 70's Deadshot. All the while he dodges the machinations of Boss Thorne and as Bruce Wayne falls deeper and deeper in love with Silver St. Cloud, who by this time has discovered that he is Batman. After all, she "has spent many nights studying his chin." The bittersweet romance between St. Cloud and Wayne is so thick you can taste it, and for the reader extremely satisfying. It is rare to see the Batman obsessing over a woman as he flits through the darkened Gotham streets, but that is what he does. But he has little time for mooning because his next opponent is the maniacal Joker.
"My world goes CRAZY sometimes," thinks Batman as he considers all the things that are piling up on top of him at the beginning of "The Laughing Fish." The Joker has another insane plan and is on a killing spree. There are some beautiful scenes between the two archenemies and the Joker is portrayed as delightfully chilling and insane. His laugh is described as "raining down like ice cubes." The two Joker issues are my personal favorite Joker stories. He is deadly, evil, menacing and doggonnit FUNNY! The Joker never takes himself too seriously - except when he does. And if you don't know which way he is taking himself at the moment - he'll kill you. You gotta love a guy like that (from a DISTANCE!)
The plot lines of Silver St Cloud, Boss Thorne, Hugo Strange and The Joker all come to conclusions, but I won't spoil them for you.
The paperback ends with a pair of stories featuring a new Clayface, written by Len Wein and continuing with the beautiful art of Marshall Rogers. Clayface is a somewhat tragic figure who is in love with a wax dummy. Wein does a good job conveying this and keeping it sad rather than comic.
STRANGE APPARITIONS features an all-new cover illustration by Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin and a foreword by Steve Englehart? It is attractive and easy to read without cracking the spine. It gives you 10 classic comics for thirteen bucks - such a deal! And Like any good compilation, this one ends too soon and leaves you begging for more. Unfortunately that more will have to come from back issue bins - at least until someone decides to collect Englehart's Justice League America!
Highest Possible Recommendation!