Batman and the Mark of the Vampire

(PART ONE)

BATMAN #349 (JULY 1982)
SYNOPSIS & ANALYSIS

 
 

In 1981, industry legend Gene Colan - following in the footsteps of many of his former colleagues - left his longtime employer Marvel Comics to work for DC. His dense and atmospheric style which, characterized by a cinematographic quality in his use of fluid figure drawing and the use of shadows, was particularly well suited for the Darknight Detective. After his first ever Batman work appeared in Batman #340 (October 1981) he became one of the regular Batman artists both in his namesake title and Detective Comics.

Starting with Batman #349 (cover date July 1982), writer Gerry Conway had Gene Colan draw once again what had become a cornerstone of his success and fame from back in the days when he was pencilling Marvel's Tomb of Dracula: vampires. In a multi-part story which crossed over between the two Batman titles, Conway and Colan created a surreal and supernatural fantasy which saw both Batman and Robin touched by the mark of the vampire...

 
 

BATMAN #349

July 1982

"Blood Sport"
(18 pages)

 

Story - Gerry Conway
Art - Gene Colan
Inks - Alfred Alcala
Colours - Adrienne [sic]
Lettering - J. Chiang
Editor - Dick Giordano
Cover - Ross Andru & Dick Giordano

 

 
 

* * * * *

"A FISH OUT OF WATER IS, PERHAPS, NO MORE OUT OF PLACE
THAN THE BATMAN OUT OF GOTHAM CITY.
YET, DID ANYONE EVER ASK THE FISH WHY IT WAS SO FAR FROM HOME?
PERHAPS, ITS REASONS WERE AS COMPELLING AS THE MOTIVES WHICH HAVE BROUGHT THE DARK DETECTIVE HERE TO THE LAND OF DREAMS.
OR PERHAPS THEY BOTH SIMPLY WERE SUCKERED BY THE RIGHT BAIT.
"

* * * * *

Following a couple of issues of Detective Comics and Batman which carried over subplots from one title to the other and featured a growing number of editorial cross-references, DC turned Detective Comics and Batman into virtually one comic book by running storylines across both titles, starting with Batman #345 (March 1982).

 
This modus operandi effectively created a fortnightly Batman book, with Batman on sale on the second Wednesday of a month and Detective Comics on the fourth. Whilst this running in parallel did not ultimately require readers to buy both books (there would usually be a brief recap of the events which took place in the preceding issue of the other title), reading only one of the two titles naturally made the storyline feel slightly "jumpy" at times.
 
Although the multi-issue storyline of Batman fighting what ultimately turns out to be vampires really starts out in Batman #349, there is almost like a prelude, building up throughout Detective Comics #515 (June 1982). Most importantly, Bruce Wayne has been lured off to the West Coast, and at Gotham University, Dick Grayson is increasingly confused and worried by the behaviour of Dala, who after initially seemingly open to friendship or even romance has now apparently chosen to completely ignore him. Feeling that something might be amiss, Dick decides to follow her home after class as Robin. After a longish drive out into the countryside, Dala finally pulls up in front of a lonely Victorian mansion. Robin has a good look around the outside of the slightly creepy building and then decides to continue his search inside - even if he has no idea at all what he is actually looking for. Once inside, however, Robin does not get very far as he is soon struck down by a cloaked figure from behind...  
 

PLOT SUMMARY

Tied into these previous events from Detective Comics #515, the story starts out with Bruce Wayne (using his false identity of "Matches" Malone) still being out on the West Coast to take out the "Academy of Crime" as Batman after a series of crimes in Gotham had pointed him to the City of Angels.

Back at his hotel he tries to call home but, to his surprise and bewilderment, finds neither Alfred nor Dick answering the phone...

 
 
Meanwhile, somewhere in upstate New York, Robin finds himself bound and gagged in the presence of precisely the girl he was worried about: Dala. She makess a few mysterious remarks to her captive admirer and leaves him because, as she puts it, there are many preparations to be made and her brother will be getting impatient. Robin's thoughts are in a spin as he can't get anything he has witnessed during the past minutes to add up to much sense, and the fact that Dala is acting as though they were both part of an old Vincent Price is movie is none too comforting as Dick is beginning to get scared and realizes that Dala, obviously, never cared for him in any way...

At the same time, but two hundred odd miles away in Boston, Alfred - unbeknownst to anybody else - is seeking the services of Christopher Chance, a.k.a. The Human Target, who impersonates people who are in fear of their lives. Telling Chance that his employer Bruce Wayne is in peril because of business interests but must not know about all of this due to his heart condition, Alfred arouses the Human Target's interest - not the least because he is sure that he is far from being told the whole truth. Chance agrees to do the job, and Alfred leaves for Gotham feeling, feeling reassured that this setup will counteract any media coverage on Bruce Wayne being the Batman.

 
  Back in Gotham City, former Commissioner James Gordon receives a visit from his daughter and Jason Bard, whom Gordon knows as running a detective agency. Wanting to jump start her father out of his lethargy, Barbara Gordon tells him that Bard is looking for a partner, and also alerts her father to the fact that mayor Hamilton Hill and newly assigned polic commissioner Peter Pauling are about to implement a new policy for the Gotham Police Department which will make retirement mandatory after twenty years' of service. Gordon is outraged by this move to rob the force of its best and most experienced men and women - and it's all that's needed for Gordon to gladly take up Bard's offer of becoming a partner in the agency.
 
Meanwhile, Robin manages to free himself of the ropes which tie him to a chair, but in doing so knocks over a gas lamp which causes a fire to spread rapidly. Just about to seek a way out of the flames and the mansion, he is all of a sudden faced with Dala and an otherworldly figure clad in the crimson robe of a monk, and both appear to have just sprung out of hell itself with burning red eyes and vampire fangs...
 
Thanks to his agility, Robin manages to evade the attacks of both the Monk and Dala, but when he escapes to an adjacent room he comes face to face with two human bodies trussed like sheep in a slaughterhouse, with blood trickling from their throats... in spite of being attacked again by the Monk, Robin manages to jump out of a window.

Making a desperate run for it, the exasperated Robin reaches the nearby highway, where he is almost run over by a car - whose driver happens to be Father Green, one of the directors of nearby St Jude's Hospital.

Recognizing Robin's uniform, he lifts the unconscious body into his car... the Monk and Dala watch the scene from a window high up in their shadowy mansion, and the girl smiles as she licks her bloody lips - and soon therafter, arriving at the hospital, Father Green notices the mark of the vampiri on Robin's throat...

... to be continued

 
 

REVIEW & ANALYSIS

Aligning Detective Comics and Batman for the second round of story crossovers running into and out of both titles, writer Gerry Conway and editor Dick Giordano now expanded the formula. Not only would the various subplots - which were mostly tied to individual characters - continue over several issues of both titles, but the mainframe story itself would now carry on and not simply kick off in Batman and then conclude in that same month's Detective Comics. As for the first villain for this extended crossover scheme, Conway and Giordano visited the Batman's past.

Following up on Doctor Death, who was the Batman's first true villain back in 1939 and had been reintroduced to start the 1982 crossover cycle, the next in line was The Monk, who had first appeared in Detective Comics #31 and #32, the Darknight Detective's first multi-issue adventure. Portrayed by Gardner Fox in 1939 as a vampire from Hungary, he was also Batman's first supernatural villain, and whether by coincidence or not, this constellation was nothing short of perfect for DC at a time when they newly had horror's foremost artist on their payroll: Gene Colan.

Colan had been experiencing rough and increasingly hard working relations with Jim Shooter, who had become editor-in-chief at Marvel in 1978, and Colan finally went across the road to work at DC in 1981. His last published work for Marvel was Avengers #211 for September 1981, to which his first work for DC joined up neatly with Batman #340 for October 1981 - reuniting him with his former work colleagues at Marvel, Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway.

 

  Gene Colan also got to meet Marv Wolfman again, who had made the switch to DC earlier on. This meant that both the writer and the artist who had made Marvel's Tomb of Dracula the most successful horror title of the 1970s were now at DC (who was only missing inker Tom Palmer in order to have a royal flash on their hands), and although Wolfman was by now running the highly popular and successful Teen Titans title, this clearly was too good a chance to miss.

And so, Gene Colan's horror style was given a huge push at DC in July 1982, which not only was the cover month for Batman #349 and the start of the multi-issue Batman vampire story, but also saw Wolfman and Colan reunited for Night Force - a new horror themed title to which the attention of readers of Batman #349 was drawn by way of a 2/3 page in-house advertisement.

 
DC was digging heavily into Gene Colan's reputation, and whilst the sudden surge in his output of shadowy gothic artwork could have been perceived as slightly forced, this was quintessentially something which Colan not only excelled at, but which he actually enjoyed.

"My first horror film (...) was Frankenstein (...) in 1931. From then on, I was intrigued with horror. I didn’t realize it in those years, but it kind of crept up on me. I sort of took what I loved from the screen and put it on paper." (Gene Colan in Dlugos, 2002)

"I just love the atmosphere - you know, old castles, cemeteries, fog - all that stuff. I've always been interested in that." (Gene Colan in Siuntres, 2005)

"Whatever scary movie was out, I'd see it (...) I always had an affinity for that stuff." (Gene Colan in Thomas, 2000)

As for Batman, writer Gerry Conway decided that if Batman was to have a supernatural adversary then he would go all the way - and have the supernatural inflict some real damage on the Dynamic Duo.

Due to the ingenious setup by Conway, the vampire story starts out in Batman #349 essentially as a tale involving Robin only. Whilst the previous story crossover between Batman and Detective Comics were sequential, i.e. part one followed by part two, the two titles were now written in parallel. As a result, Detective Comics was now focused on the West Coast (and therefore Batman on the trail of the Academy of Crime), whilst Batman was showing readers what was happening at the same time on the East Coast without the Batman being present.

Batman #349 also illustrates how Conway moved from overall plot to specific storyline; the firsts elements for the vampire saga which was now to unfold had been inserted back in Detective Comics #511 (February 1982) when Dick Grayson enrolled at Gotham University and first met Dala on campus - which, as readers now learn, was far from being a coincidence.

All of the aforementioned elements combine to make Batman #349 an extraordinary comic book. Gerry Conway is in full and easy command of plot and story, and Gene Colan's pencils add the perfect visual atmosphere. However, in appraising Batman #349, readers had to - and still need to do so today - find out whether or not they felt that the world of Batman and that of vampires were compatible. Whilst Batman had, of course, often moved outside of common reality during the course of his publication career (not the least, of course, when he met the Monk in 1939), it had been precisely this element which Dennis O'Neil and Neal Adams had worked out of the post-camp and post-sci/fi world of Batman, making the Darknight Detective more believable by asking readers to stretch their imagination, rather than needing to suspend their belief all too often.

 

 
But then Gerry Conway did not really digress from those defining lines established by O'Neil and Adams and firmly rooted the vampire theme in down to earth reality, and the overall reactions from readers acknowledged and appreciated this in 1982. Conway and Colan had succeeded in rolling out a stark and chilling tale by avoiding the pitfalls of sillyness.
 
 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

DLUGOS Jenn (2002) Gene Colan Interview, available on-line and accessed 9 June 2008 at www.classic-horror.com/newsreel/gene_colan_interview

SIUNTRES John (2005) "Gene Colan Interview", in Word Balloon: The Comic Creator's Interview Show, available online at wordballoon.libsyn.com

THOMAS Roy (2000) "So you want a Job eh? The Gene Colan Interview", Alter Ego 6 (vol. 3)

 

 

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Text is (c) 2014 A. T. Wymann

page first posted on the web 15 June 2014