The far more affordable paperback version of “Batman Illustrated, Vol. 1” is finally here for all to enjoy. This book collects the first few years (December ’67 – October ’69) of Neal Adams’ Batman work in chronological order. It’s a book that’s been in print since 2003 and isn’t going away anytime soon because it’s something every Batman fan should take a gander at and now that it’s available in a cheaper paperback everyone absolutely can. Not only is it a great book for those who love the highly influential and heavy pencils of Neal Adams, but it’s a wonderful look at a simpler time in comics when Batman came out in the daylight and called his allies “chum”.
Neal Adam’s Batman work has been reconstructed by Continuity Associates Rob Ro & Alex Bleyaert which could be a good or bad thing depending on how you look at it. There’s plenty of reason to be angry that the art isn’t presented exactly how it was originally, but at the same time it is really interesting to see these 40+ year old comics pop the way they do here with modern coloring effects. I love collecting old comics whether I’m digging through boxes at flea markets or buying them off of eBay and I’m so used to the classics being faded and stained in appearance and chalky in texture that it was dazzling to see these panels looking vibrant on their smooth, glossy paper.
The Superman-Batman Revenge Squad
The story here actually starts off a lot like the recent New 52 “Batman & Robin” #10 where a group of buffoons injured by the Batman join forces to get revenge on the Dark Knight…but then a group of outer space criminals out for revenge on Superman teleport into their base and offer to team up as well. It’s time for the annual Battle of the Wits between Batman and Superman where they make wagers in an escalating series of challenges–one of which escalates extremely quickly when Batman actually make Superman detonate a nuclear warhead! Adams artwork here is far ahead of the writing by Leo Dorfman. The comic is still being written like disposable entertainment for children but Adams pencils are impressive and you get a glimpse at what’s to come in the future. The characters haven’t quite exploded from the panels yet but the jigsaw-like page layouts with their angular panels often associated with Adams unique look are already a part of his style.
The Suerman-Batman Split
The plot twists in this story by Cary Bates are absolutely insane. Again, the writing quality hasn’t caught up to Adams’ pencils but it’s corny storytelling is charming and often quite funny. These Silver Age comics really move along at break-neck speed and in each panel there’s almost always a thought bubble where the character is explaining what they are doing…but Adams pencils are good enough to render those bubbles unnecessary. The tale being told is about visiting aliens, each pitting Batman against Superman…but things are not all what they seem. My favorite part had to be when Superman needed to get in touch with Batgirl so he dressed up like a statue in Gotham park and terrorized citizens for a while. That got her attention.
The Track of the Hook
Bob Haney’s (who writes all the following stories) Deadman & Batman team-up is one of the best written and drawn stories here. Adams brings an incredible cinematic look to every panel here and blows the previous two comics completely out of the water. There are quite a few experimental panels with motion and psychedelic background effects when Deadman possesses someone. The story deals with Deadman out for revenge on the man who killed him, a man who may very well be Max Chill–Joe Chill’s brother. I had never heard of a Max Chill before so this caught me by surprise and it’s a nice piece of trivia for any comic book fan to know. This is a darker tale, a pretty good mystery for the most part, and I was captivated the whole way through not because of unintentionally funny or cheesy moments but because it was an impressive catalyst for great Batman detective stories to come.I will say that the modern coloring techniques were a bit overdone here and often distracted from the original artwork which is what the main draw of this book is meant to be. I didn’t need to see digitally enhanced coins that look totally lifelike and the glare coming off of flashlights and lampposts while quite fancy were a bit unnecessary here.
And Hellgrammite is His Name
I’m not a fan of The Creeper and as a result I was never that into the story here at all, but it definitely shows that as Adams’ career went on he started to take more and more changes. One page in particular has the panels laid out on bricks and in the middle, Batman’s fist explodes out of a panel where the Caped Crusader takes a swing at The Creeper. It’s beautiful work and totally different from most comics at the time. This is why guys like Adams and Kirby are still so renowned, they took chances. If the idea of Batman and Creeper fighting a giant human-grasshopper-monster sounds interesting to you then you’ll love this. If not, then you might just want to look at the pretty pictures.
But Bork Can Hurt You
Another Brave & the Bold team-up features The Flash and Batman facing off against a guy named Bork who seems to be totally invulnerable. It’s up to Flash to travel as quickly as possible to find the source of Bork’s power while Batman serves as a distraction. Page layout isn’t as daring as the last two issues in this collection but Adams’ pencils grow even more lifelike and expressive. It can get a bit annoying to read though since it’s one of those dumb, arrogant villains who refers to himself in the 3rd person all the time. You could make a drinking game out of how many times the word “Bork” is used. The action is quite stunning, though. I loved seeing the Flash speed across the world, through time, dimensions, and ultimately into the heart of the Sun.
The Sleepwalker from the Sea
It’s fascinating to see how much richer the prose are in this issue compared to previous issues. In fact, all the stories from here on out are almost over-written. It’s as if the ambition from Neal Adams art was infectious and so the writing had to catch up as well. The dialogue and prose all become much, much more detailed and every issue begins to feel very dense. That’s a good thing though because it’s more bang for your buck but at the same time the tone never quite feels right. From this issue on, all the stories in this collection enter an odd transition-period in comics when suddenly they stopped being as childish and cheesy and tried to become something more. Not all of these stories work but it’s amazing to see the evolution of quality happen as Batman teams up with Aquaman here, the Teen titans in Punish Not My Evil Son, Sgt. Rock in The Angel, The Rock, and the Cowl, and Green Arrow in The Senator’s Been Shot!
Besides the aforementioned stories, you’ll also get reprints of 18 covers from “World’s Finest”, “The Brave and The Bold”, “Batman”, and “Detective Comics”.
A wonderful introduction by Neal Adams himself (there’s an odd typo where “butt” is written instead of “but” and for a book that’s been in print since 2003, I’m pretty surprised that’s still in there) and a few early sketches. I wish there had been more examples of his pencils or that Adams had talked for even longer as it is great to hear him tell the story of how he got into comics in the first place, but I’m still pretty satisfied with what’s here.
$24.99 for 10 hard-to-find comics from the 1960s plus 18 pages of cover art. Sounds like a pretty good deal to me… maybe a flat $20 bucks would’ve been a more attractive price for something that won’t appeal to most modern Batman fans but a lot of these silver age comics collected here have ridiculous moments that are so laugh-out-loud funny that you’ll want to look them up again some day, show them off to friends, or leave the book on your coffee table so all your guests can flip through it, admire the art and talk about how much comics and these characters have changed. The book is loaded with examples of how the medium evolved as the 60s came to a close.
This was great fun. Obviously if you don’t care for Adams’ work then you won’t care about this or if you have no interest or nostalgia for the silver age of comics this isn’t something you’ll need to rush out and buy. But I love looking back at how the art and storytelling have changed throughout the decades, hearing tales of how the business used to be, and seeing how Batman was most widely accepted in another era. “Batman Illustrated, Vol. 1” may not feature the beloved stories from Adams days with Denny O’Neil (check out later volumes for those) but it is a great coffee table book and a lighthearted and entertaining read that I recommend.