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For decades, there were two primary Batman titles: Detective Comics and Batman.  Sure, Bats and his extended family would show up in a variety of titles, such as World’s Finest, Justice League of America, and the like, and there were even Batman-branded titles like Batman and the Outsiders, Batman Family, and The Brave and the Bold. Really, though, there were only two pure Batman solo titles until the late Eighties, when DC Comics began publishing Legends of the Dark Knight.  Focusing on the Dark Knight’s early days, the appropriately titled Legends featured talent the likes of Denny O’Neil, Grant Morrison, Gil Kane, and Klaus Janson.  It was a different Batman title for a different age.

A few years later saw the debut of yet another new Batman series: Shadow of the Bat.  Spearheaded by writer Alan Grant, the series was a more grounded look at Batman and his rogues gallery.  Grant, along with a truly impressive stable of artists featuring the likes of Norm Breyfogle, Dan Jurgens, and Tim Sale, looked more toward the psychological aspects of Batman.  It was a series that managed to be grounded without being grim, and thankfully DC have taken to collecting the landmark title.

The first volume, which was released in 2016, collects Batman: Shadow of the Bat issues 1-12.

The Last Arkham (Issues 1-4)

Shadow of the Bat opens with a great slow-burn of a mystery, finding Batman himself as an inmate within its walls.  It’s a pretty simple idea, and one that Alan Grant uses incredibly well: it seems there’s a “copycat killer” loose in Gotham, so Batman hatches a plan to infiltrate the newly renovated Arkham Asylum to see what he can uncover.

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This arc is notable as the debut for a few modern mainstays in Batman comics: Jeremiah Arkham, who inherits the Asylum from his uncle Amadeus and sets about making it a terrifying institute focused less on reform than it is on torment; the Asylum itself as a labyrinthine, sterile maze that is laid out like Dante’s Seven Circles of Hell rather than a typical mental institute; and Victor Zsasz,  one of several “grounded” villains that Grant was tasked with creating.

It’s nice seeing Batman think his way out of his situation, and Grant imbues the story with a wry humor that keeps everything from feeling too overbearing.  I particularly love the running gag of Batman getting sent back to his cell, each time with more and more restraints.

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The main draw for me is artist Norm Breyfogle, who (almost) perfectly captures the visual tone that Grant’s writing warrants.  The two are a fantastic team, and Breyfogle’s slightly exaggerated style is a phenomenal counterpoint to the more grounded, street level threats that Grant writes.

I say “almost” because there’s one panel that is just shockingly off-model:

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Presented without comment.

By and large, though, Breyfogle turns in great work.  It’s haunting without being oppressive, stylized without being too cartoony.  It’s small wonder then that Grant and Breyfogle are one of the great Batman creative teams, and an underrated one at that.

“The Last Arkham” is an engrossing mystery with some interesting twists, and certainly a great start to this collection.

The Black Spider (Issue 5)

Remember in the early Nineties how pretty much everything found a way to incorporate an anti-drug message?  If you used to frequent arcades then surely you remember the oddly comforting sight of the “Winners Don’t Use Drugs” slogan, and even our favorite cartoons got in on the action.  It seems that even the superteam of Grant and Breyfogle couldn’t resist (or were editorially mandated) and bring their own take on the War on Drugs.  “The Black Spider,” which features the return of the titular villain, is… a mixed result.

On the one hand, it’s incredibly tragic.  Black Spider, alias Eric Needham, is a former junkie who waged a war on drugs and pushers after he killed his own father.  Told mostly in flashback with narration from a letter Needham left for Batman, it reveals the events leading up to the tragic deaths of Needham’s ex and their son.  I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t genuinely moving at times, and Needham is one of those villains that may have a point in his own twisted way.

On the other hand, some of the dialogue is really preachy.  Like, really preachy.  It’s not the least bit subtle and incredibly heavy-handed.  I won’t argue that drugs are bad and that there are countless similar stories that we don’t hear about, but it could have used a little more finesse.

That Breyfogle, though.  Man does that dude have style.

I just love this guy’s work.  It’s exaggerated just enough to be unique without going into macabre Kelley Jones territory.  His layouts are genius, and details like the big silhouette of Batman’s face composing the background in the above image is just brilliant.

This issue is also remarkably, kind of shockingly violent too.

“The Black Spider” looks good and has good intentions, but the dialogue and execution are pretty dated.  It’s not terrible, but it will probably rank among the least of the issues collected here.

The Ugly American (Issue 6)

Oh hey, Dan Jurgens.  You can draw really well too, can’t you?

Yes.  Yes he can.

Like “The Black Spider,” “The Ugly American” is a one-and-done topical tale.  Instead of drugs, it touches on racism, and while it’s just as blunt as the previous story, I think it works a little better.  I think, anyway.

The “Ugly American” of the title is one Jon Payne, a shockingly racist man who became part of a super-soldier experiment gone wrong.  His behavior is… I won’t say hilariously over-the-top, because that behavior isn’t funny, but it’s so exaggerated: he forces a car off a bridge because it isn’t American-made, and he kills a dog because it’s a “foreign animal.”  Not funny, but so one-note as to border on cartoony and almost farcical.  The thing that grounds it, though, is that there are people who are genuinely like that, people who dismiss and outright hate others simply because they’re different.

There is an attempt at understanding, if not exactly empathy: Payne had lost his father in the Korean War, so seeing protestors in Vietnam made him understabdably angry.  It’s the way he channeled his anger and, even more, who he targeted his rage toward that negates any understanding or empathy, though: losing a loved one does not justify hating anybody different than you.  Unfortunately, that’s just what Payne did, and his actions landed him in jail.  There, he was chosen as the test subject for some experiments, the effects of which made him go completely insane.  Thought to have been killed in a fire and having escaped from prison, Payne is in search of his now adult daughter.

Who is married to an Asian man.

Like the previous story, there are some genuinely touching moments that rise above the occasionally clumsy storytelling.  Payne’s daughter rises above her roots to be a welcoming, loving woman who doesn’t share her father’s prejudices at all.  Batman is almost a secondary player here, with the story focusing on the Paynes, though he gets to do a bit of detective work and be an ambassador of goodwill in the end.

Not the best, not the worst, it’s still a nice personal story that breaks from the over abundance of Huge Events.

The Misfits (Issues 7-9)

And now we come to the best story in the entire collection, full-stop.

“The Misfits” follows a group of Z-list Batman villains as they orchestrate a huge kidnapping.  Their targets: Commissioner Gordon, Mayor Krol… and Bruce Wayne.  It’s a slow burn of a story, but once it gets going it’s remarkably engrossing.

I love that Grant chose to use villains like Calendar Man and Killer Moth in this story.  Seeing how the lesser criminals band together and still manage mischief is always fun, and gives some lame ducks a chance to shine.  I mean, I love the Joker and Two-Face as much as the next guy, but seeing less-respected characters get the spotlight makes Gotham feel that much bigger.

It’s funny, too, because the three initial misfits have since gone on to bigger things: Catman was completely reimagined in Gail Simone’s excellent Secret Six run; Calendar Man found new life after The Long Halloween and featured prominently in the Arkham games; and Killer Moth… turned into a weird bug thing.  They can’t all be winners, I guess.

Two new characters are introduced as well: the villainous Chancer, and Nimrod, a falsely-accused prison escapee with a stolen camouflage suit.  Nimrod has tracked Chancer from Texas to Gotham in hopes of clearing his own name, but the villain’s superhuman luck keeps him one step ahead of the law.  The true nature of their story is rather affecting and heartbreaking, and it causes Batman to take pause and consider what is truly right.

Batman himself almost takes a backseat to the action, given that he’s kidnapped and sidelined for a good portion of the story, but it’s still a gripping entertainment either way.  The writing is snappy and solid, Tim Sale’s art is great and not nearly as stylized as it would later become, and there’s some real emotional weight to the events.

Plus we get to see Sale’s take on Tim Drake.

Get a haircut, hippie.

The Thane of Gotham (Issue 10)

Before diving into the finer parts of this story, I just want to take a moment to appreciate how great of a Batman Mike Collins draws.

If nothing else, this may be the best illustrated story in the book, and that’s no mean feat when it’s up against the likes of Breyfogle, Sale, and Jurgens.  I wasn’t familiar with Collins’ work before reading this volume, but I think it’s safe to say that I’ve quickly become a fan.

“The Thane of Gotham” is a strange story, and an entertaining one at that.  Batman infiltrates a strange castle on the outskirts of Gotham, belonging to a Lachlan MacAbre.  Amazing.

MacAbre, you see, lost his wife thirty years earlier during the birth of his son.  He has invited a lawyer, an anesthesiologist, and the doctor who delivered the child to dinner so they can “feel compassion.”  That doctor?  Thomas Wayne, long since deceased.

That invitation is what prompts Batman to investigate, however, as he finds it strange that someone would invite his father to a dinner without knowing his fate.  So Batman, attempting to go undetected, makes his way through a castle that is laid out “like something out of an Escher print,” with impossible staircases and doors that lead nowhere.  Besides drawing a great Batman, Collins illustrates some engaging architecture, as the castle is just as much a character in the story as the dinner guests.

It’s a strange story, but I enjoyed its twists and turns and surprising heart.  And, yes, Mike Collins draws a terrific Batman, which is always appreciated.

The Human Flea (Issues 11-12)

Real talk here: fleas are evil.  Those little monsters are impossible to get rid of and cause no end of torment.  They are terrible and I hate them.

Enter: the Human Flea, a criminal turned unlikely hero in one of the strangest stories in the collection.  And, like pretty much every other story here, it rises above that weirdness and is actually pretty good.

No, trust me.  It is.

The story is actually more about Mortimer Kadaver, a bottom of the barrel villain with a “death fetish” and his last attempt at going out in a blaze of glory.  To do so, he decides to steal a stash of fleas from a failing flea circus to aid in spreading pneumonic plague across Gotham.  The Human Flea is actually the grandson of the owner of the flea circus, turning to crime to help offset the failing business of his grandfather’s life’s work.  He becomes repentant of his ways, though, and assists Batman in taking down Kadaver, thus preventing a new Black Death in Gotham.

Amazingly enough, though the broad strokes would make this story sound pretty grim, it’s almost remarkably silly.  I mean, the idea of a character named “the Human Flea” should tell you that right there, plus the fact that he throws bags of fleas at pursuers so he can get away.  Truly a devious, evil mind.

But, yeah, there’s a certain tonal dissonance to the whole thing that feels a little uneven: the fate of Gotham and thousands of lives are at stake, sure, but they’re being threatened by a guy who has another villain’s handprint burned into his forehead.

Vince Giarrano’s art, which was mistakenly attributed to Tim Sale in the first issue of the two-parter, doesn’t quite mesh with the material either.  It’s a gothic, moody style that reminds me of a more refined Kelley Jones, and on its own it looks quite good.  When you have a tall, sinewy Batman with a scowl on his face cracking a joke with Commissioner Gordon, though, that’s where it doesn’t quite work.  Regardless, even with its flaws “The Human Flea” is a surprisingly entertaining and engaging story that, despite initial appearances, serves as a great closer to this great volume.

Bonus material: Nothing at all, though the great comics speak for themselves.

Value: Both digital and print are well under twenty bucks, and for some solid classic Batman stories that’s a steal.  There’s a lot of reading material here, and even if some of it is a bit dated, this is still a fantastic collection.  Grab it at full price.

Overall: There’s a reason that Grant and Breyfogle  are among the all-time great Batman creative teams, and reading Shadow of the Bat gives you a pretty good idea as to why.  The writing is rock-solid, with stories that flirt with the fantastical while still remaining fairly realistic as far as these things go.  Grant was fortunate to work with some of the best pencilers in the business, too, with the aforementioned Norm Breyfogle joined by Tim Sale, Dan Jurgens, and new favorite Mike Collins to give the book a great artistic pedigree.  I’m loath to say what “real fans” of Batman should or shouldn’t do, but I feel confident in saying that any fan of the Dark Knight should be as familiar with Shadow of the Bat as they are with the other flagship titles.

SCORE: 9/10