One and done
Comic books aren’t great with beginnings and endings, to be honest. As a serialized medium, very few stories have their complete start and finish in a single volume and often rely on a whole host of other stories to make complete sense. When I was a kid, though, nobody I knew really cared if it all made complete sense. The experience of reading a comic was immersive and fantastic and yes, made you want to get more of the same, but not necessarily because anything was missing in the book you just finished. No, I wanted more because every comic built another unique experience on top of what I had just gotten, sort of like a messy stack of bricks. Gaps existed, mortar would gush out around the edges, but I was building my sense of imagination, not some fortress of continuity. If it toppled, no one would get hurt. I could just reuse and rearrange the bricks in a new formation.
The single-issue story definitely helped this process along when I was growing up. There aren’t too many of those today, as readers have gotten older and simultaneously more demanding that every comic be a compelling starting point for new readers, but also continue to reflect everything that has come before it. The done-in-one story (or is it one-and-done? The debate rages.) is largely looked upon as filler, or an interlude, or at worst, a waste — easily skipped over as the main serial will pick-up its next six to eleven part story next month. I love a great serial, don’t get me wrong. The cliffhangers. The continuing subplots. The ability to look back from the end to see the clues laid months ago at the beginning. These are all awesome aspects of storytelling you can’t get in a single 20 pages — to the same degree anyway. But as a kid, nothing made me more happy than having a single book I could read again and again and again, and enjoy a little bit differently each time, without having to track down part 3 of 4, or worry about how Superman managed to be here AND in Justice League of America the same month. He just was.
See how easy that is?
I have a few of these books littered throughout my collection. They often are the single issues I see on a rack or in a drawer at a comic shop and just can’t help myself from buying again. Yes, I know I have two copies already — the ripped up original from when I was 9 and the one adult-me bought to replace it in my “formal collection” — but this one is near mint, people. And how often am I going to be able to relive that flicker of joy that I got from buying it the first time. If even an infinitesimal spark remains, it’s worth experiencing. I just can’t explain the compulsion any other way. So came across my path Detective Comics #526 the other day.
An extra-sized comic (cover-price $1.50!) from May 1983, this issue was billed largely on the cover as Batman’s 500th appearance in Detective Comics, as the Dark Knight made his intellectual debut in the title’s 27th issue way back in 1939. Not quite a round year anniversary, this story stood out at the time, however, due to its gold ink cover accent and square bound size, not to mention featuring the headshots of pretty much every major Batman villain to date swirling around Batman and his crime-fighting colleagues. Good enough for me. And the cover, pretty cleverly designed from my now-art director’s standpoint as well, lived up to its promise. Upon opening, the reader was treated immediately to a congregation of every major criminal the Bat-family had put away in these 500 issues, and a foreboding title, “All My Enemies Against Me!” Seeing these purveyors of purloinment lined up across a theatre stage was a young reader’s dream, as I could finally have one place to count off and name all the baddies that previously remained scattered throughout my memory and piles of books.
And immediately there was controversy! Talia al Ghul was in love with Batman and wouldn’t go along with the Joker’s plans, no matter how many times she’d tricked the Dark Knight in the past. And Catwoman too had recently moved over to the side of the angels, quickly scooting out on her invite to mistakenly fued with Talia later on. Two ladies vying for Batman’s affections! Even the young homosexual in me was a little bit impressed. Or maybe jealous. And frankly confused. If I were Batman, the choice would clearly be the one wearing the outfit and motif that most closely resembled my own. Catwoman was a no-brainer, Bruce. Let’s be honest.
Batgirl’s arrival on the scene to shake-up a constantly brooding Dick Grayson — we were long past the golly-gee portion of Robin’s adventures — was another high-point for me, as the dominoed daredoll was treated with some rare respect in the Batbooks here by prolific writer Gerry Conway. Previously written as having been easily thrown off the trail of the boys’ secret identities, Babs here all but rolled her eyes at Dick’s surprise. She is, after all, a detective. And as the two of them cycled off to track down the parents of young circus trapeze artist Jason Todd (there’s a plot clue in there for the savvy Bat-fan), you could feel that both Robin and Batgirl were not only equals to each other, but growing closer to living up to the example set forth by their mentor himself, the Batman. It was a unique time for all of these characters, long before the family expanded and sons and daughters took turns seeing who could frown the hardest. You feel as if they’re a true family, but one just about to go their separate ways, leaving a significant hole to fill in Batman’s home and methodology.
Enter young (red-haired) Jason Todd, who discovers the entrance to the Batcave, finds a spare costume in a dusty old trunk, and stows away inside the Batmobile as Batman, Talia and Catwoman speed away to track down Killer Croc. In the course of events, Jason hears Croc is responsible for the deaths of his parents earlier in the issue, and newly orphaned, flies into action alongside the original orphaned warrior himself. By the end of this issue (Phew! A lot happened here!), you can see Bruce and Jason walking the grounds of Wayne Manor, a new partner in the making just as his previous one is about ready to spread his wings and leave the nest.
Exactly thirty years later, I can recall every panel, every word of this comic like Watchtower bell-ringers know the Bible. I know this book to such a degree that it even begs the question why I needed to buy another (or any) copy. It’s all right up here in my head, and probably will be until the day I die. And it doesn’t much matter that it was Batman’s 500th appearance, or the first time we got to see Jason Todd in costume. It was so many things and none of them. Maybe it was just the time of my life I read it. Or maybe I was just more open to the experience it promised me than I would be today, amid a flush of other books and comics and papers begging for my attention. In any event, I feel blessed to have the memory of such a unique experience and that it remains today as an important one to me.
I have no doubt my time writing for The Idler will remain much like that as well. Before starting my column here, I was a frequent tweeter, sure, but hadn’t been offered the very generous opportunity to share my words with such a distinguished audience, alongside such a brilliant group of authors. It’s an experience that has opened my eyes to things I never thought about, forced me to be prolific, motivated me to expand my skills, and led me to meet and partner with some absolutely amazing people. So, thanks, everyone, for the memories, and may they live on here in perpetuity for us all to revisit and reclaim just a little bit of that spark every time we do.
And for those who want to read more from me, I will be easily found at Comicosity.com, taking with me the mantra I have since ingrained in my writing (and living) this past year and some months: refusing to apologize for the things we enjoy. May it always be so.
Matt Santori-Griffith owns one business suit, three pairs of shoes, and over 15,000 comic books. He is an art director for several non-profit organizations, senior editor for Comicosity.com, and still manages to find the time on dark nights and weekends to fight the good fight on Twitter.com in the guise of @FotoCub. He has not yet saved the world, but isn’t giving up quite yet.