Ten Nights of the Beast is a Batman graphic novel that’s slipped through the cracks, long out of print when so many inferior projects sustain a following. That wasn’t always the case. When originally published in the regular Batman title in 1988 DC considered this such a landmark that they broke with decades of tradition, redesigning the comic covers to incorporate a large title box for each of its four chapters. It may have some story elements firmly planting it in the late 1980s, but you’ve only got to look at prices commanded by used copies to see how highly some people value it.

The Beast of the title is the KGBeast, chemically treated to be as strong as any four other men and trained to become the Soviet Union’s top assassin. With the organisation he represented dismantled by government order, his loyalty is to his boss, not the state, and before committing suicide his boss set him loose in Gotham. The CIA have great concerns about this, but want no help from Batman.

Oddly, Jim Aparo has faded from memory as much as this story, people forgetting what an admirable economical style he applied to Batman, depicting an athlete in action and giving civilian sequences a graphic realism. His one major clunker, if down to him and not someone in the DC art department, is the KGBeast’s costume, something that would be more at home in a fetish club with its straps, teasing patches of bare skin and leather mask.

Jim Starlin’s story is embedded in the times, but still reads as a superior thriller, with a great balance of action and mystery. The KGBeast is attempting to kill all personnel critical to the then current American ‘Star Wars’ protective satellite initiative, and multiple collateral deaths don’t concern him. Batman’s detective skills are called into play identifying the civilians in critical danger, and simultaneously attempting to track down an assassin whose face remains unknown out of costume. A standby Batman sequence always good for filling a page is when he swoops in to save someone falling from on high, and Starlin and Aparo choreograph a version in the opening chapter. Their variation extends over several pages enumerating the difficulties and possible consequences, and despite having seen versions in numerous Batman (and Spider-Man) comics it’s utterly thrilling, and an example of how the creators reconfigure what repetition has rendered too familiar. The same applies to the Beast himself, in some ways a standard assassin, but one able to outwit Batman at every turn, and do so without it coming across as contrived. He’s the ultimate professional with excellent sources, and elusive and adaptable as well.

Total enjoyment requires some concessions to the era of publication, and a couple of points are too deliberately inflated, such as the presence of then President Reagan in the concluding chapter, but this remains a plot to keep everyone guessing all the way until the end, with Starlin concocting one great staged moment after another. Starlin and Aparo’s A Death in the Family is considered their prime collaboration, but it’s sensationalist and nowhere near as tightly plotted as this. Ten Nights of the Beast is long overdue a proper reissue.