Batman: The Caped Crusader Volume 1 (2018)
Reprints Batman #417-425, 430-431, Annual #12
Written by Jim Starlin, Mike Baron, Robert Greenberger, and Christopher Priest (as James Owsley)
Art by Jim Aparo, Ross Andru, Norm Breyfogle, Mark Bright, Dave Cockrum, Dick Giordano, and Pablo Marcos
Jim Starlin had established himself as the new main writer for the Batman title by this point following a spotty run by Max Allan Collins. While Collins chose to play loose with the timeline, setting some stories earlier and others closer to present day, Starlin shrugs all that off and firmly plants his feet in the present. Robin (Jason Todd) is about 15/16 and Batman has an established lengthy history. If you compare this to John Byrne’s work on Superman that series feels like it is starting fresh with the hero, reintroducing his villains. Starlin came from a place that all of Batman’s rogues’ gallery is well-known already. That didn’t mean he was just going to play with the toys he was given and this collection begins with the introduction of a villain who is still around today.
KGBeast was an offshoot of the tail-end of the Cold War, a super-assassin cybernetically enhanced and trained to become a match to someone like Batman. The masked killer comes to America’s shores with the goal of killing officials connected to American strategic defense programs. For some reason, many of these people live in Gotham City and so Jim Gordon is briefed by the feds on the threat. Batman finds out about the threat and becomes involved in taking out the killer. It’s an okay story, having just come off of Ostrander’s Suicide Squad I think it handled geopolitics a smidge better. By the end of the four parter, Batman has become quite disillusioned from dealing with the federal agents and the ways they complicated his mission, even with a very slight critique of Reagan.
Starlin returns to his Dumpster Killer storyline in the following two issues providing closure to the arc. I don’t think it’s quite as satisfying as the set-up was and the reveal of the killer is very much a case of introducing a character just to be the serial killer. The most interesting part of this storyline is Batman’s psychology. He’s not facing a gimmicky supervillain and trying to operate within the realm of the law. Starlin doesn’t explore these ideas deeply enough for me and I think this was a great opportunity to have Batman crossing lines which would cause his relationship with the Gotham PD to dramatically shift. That’s been a piece of the post-Crisis Batman mythos that just doesn’t work for me, how the book is desperate to incorporate grittier, more realistic elements but never makes Batman’s freedom to operate as a vigilante make sense.
There’s an extremely silly annual story about a murder mystery party that turns into a quasi Frankenstein story. After that it’s back to the main title, for a pretty good one-off story. Three cops meet at a diner in the early morning at the end of their shift. They all had encounters with Batman that night and share their stories. This appears to be a clear reference to a classic Bronze Age Batman story (reprinted in The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told). Here each cop saw a different angle of Batman and the final story points to a softer figure than they might have originally imagined. The part of the story I couldn’t get past though was its myopic reactionary view on drug addiction. Batman berates a suicidal man who uses drugs dropping phrases like “quit looking for excuses” and making it all an individual choice. I mean, look at Gotham, Bruce! It’s kind of an environment that breeds trauma which often leads to drug abuse. This is typical American thinking though, hyperindividualism over collective responsibility.
Batman #424 and 425 which present a very dark turn for the Batman title and Jason Todd specifically. Jason becomes aware of a South American diplomat’s son using his immunity status to rape & abuse women. Jason wants to do something drastic but Batman holds him back. Eventually, Jason kills the young man but in a manner that makes it ambiguous. The next issue has the man’s father kidnap Jim Gordon and use him as bait to lure Batman. On the surface these are pretty interesting stories that delivered a greater level of real world violence. However, Starlin has a strange habit of framing non-American people as constant threats. Even Americans of Color are often marginalized. Now, Starlin is not as much of a blind rage reactionary as Frank Miller and I attribute most of this to laziness somewhat. Not included in this collection is A Death in the Family which has Starlin sending The Joker to Iran to team-up with the Ayatollah. It’s really insane when you step back and look at the jingoism at work. The final two issues here are fine but end the collection on a sort of fizzle. A much more interesting perspective on American-Soviet relations was happening at the same time in books like Green Lantern (written by Steve Englehart) and Justice League (written by Keith Giffen & J.M. DeMatteis) where Soviet characters are actually allowed to be human beings, not savage murderers.