Review by Ian Keogh
Len Wein’s first Batman story was with Marv Wolfman in 1971, the relative newcomers fortunate it was illustrated by the hottest artist around, Neal Adams, but the majority of this collection, the thickest in the series to date at 640 pages, originated between 1978 and 1980. That’s when Wein helmed Batman’s title.
The earliest stories aren’t impressive, dependent on illusion and magic, with the second person narrative on that début grating, but by 1974 Wein had added mood to his repertoire, and again teamed with Adams. ‘Moon of the Wolf’ (sample art left) concerns a reluctant werewolf and retains some power. The following five chapter story in which Batman is accused of murder has some improbable moments and one hell of a lot of dialogue, but works overall. However, the exotic design work of Marshall Rogers makes the Clayface story afterward look more stylish.
When writing Batman regularly, Wein introduced Marvel’s method of superhero comics, foreshadowing future events, adding subplots, and enlarging the supporting cast. He also attempts to broaden the listing of foes, with his creation Firebug recurring over the years, but they’re not memorable villains. The same applies to the plots. 1979 was an era when writers justified their payment by plastering the panels with unrequired copy, and the sheer pointless verbiage makes much of this work unsophisticated now. Wein’s Batman explains himself to criminals, so by extension to readers, many of his stories still rely on gimmicks, and he revives real loser villains, never reinvigorating the likes of Calendar Man, Crazy Quilt, Kite Man and Signalman. One is used for a good surprise, but once that’s played out they’re equally insipid. Wein’s far better with subplots that can still drag a reader from story to story wanting to discover if Catwoman really has reformed, and the few pages per story involving Bruce Wayne’s business manager Lucius Fox are effective. A sentimental Christmas story has its moments, and there’s a good plot about Arkham Asylum, but the best of this period is the Joker celebrating his birthday in a typically perverse way. It’s still gimmick led, but that works better with the Joker, and is helped by nice art from Walt Simonson.
Irv Novick (sample art right) draws most of the late 1970s content, very efficiently without ever sparkling, yet more imaginatively than his predecessor John Calnan. John Byrne begins as the penciller responsible for ‘The Untold Legend of Batman’, but is so swamped by Jim Aparo’s inking it’s only fitting Aparo draws the remainder in his compact manner. It’s a decent run through of Batman, Robin, Alfred and Commissioner Gordon’s history as it was in 1980, but the framing plot has little to recommend it. The Don Newton drawn ‘Haven’ takes Batman out of his comfort zone and still reads well in places, and that concludes Wein’s longest stint on Batman.
Over the years there are few notable Batman villains that Wein didn’t write at least once (he avoids Poison Ivy, Ra’s Al Ghul and Killer Croc), but his work doesn’t transcend its era, and is now cemented by it. That Wein could adapt is apparent from the closing stories dating from 2011 and 2015, where the dialogue is pared down considerably, allowing the art tell more of the story, the first of them tying up a subplot he obviously had in mind in 1980. The remainder may bring a nostalgic glow to those who read it at the time, but no new reader will be captivated.