Batman Strange Apparitions is a book that I know very little about. Or at least that’s what I thought.
After flicking through the pages I am instantly struck by the laughing fish panel, Clayface’s introduction and of course Hugo Strange.
The art from the book has been burned into my brain over the years from google and batman fan accounts on Instagram and I feel a familiarity with the work, even if I know nothing about the story.
Strange Apparitions was very difficult to get hold of and I have sought after it for the best part of the last ten years. It appeared on IGN’s top 25 graphic novels list at the beginning of the decade and that fact that it has been almost unattainable has added to it’s mystique.
I’m very curious to see what the story holds, Strange has had a brilliant run thus far in the canon read through and every story that he has appeared in has ranked quite highly for me.
So, will this one deliver on the hype…or would it have been best left as something I, and you, should never pick up? Let’s find out!
The copy I got opened with an issue about Batman taking down the calculator. He’s not a giant maths tool that kids take to exams, he’s the world’s greatest super villain…apparently.
Anyway, if you get the same copy as me DO NOT read this issue. It’s a huge waste of time that almost made me put this book down.
SO…sorry for wasting your time but I thought I’d make you feel the pain I endured reading something pointless…
(Again sorry for not editing this entire section out of the review, which I could have easily done. I wouldn’t blame you for closing this review now…BUT DON’T! Know I live with the pain that perhaps one day I will be The World’s Greatest Supervillain). Let’s actually find out!
Rupert Thorne in Batman’s side
The book opens in what could be a scene responsible for the mob meeting in The Dark Knight. Mobsters huddled around a table, exclaiming that the Batman must go.
If you’re a fan of the 1990’s animated series then you will recognise Rupert Thorne straight away. He was one of the standout villains from the original show and it’s a joy to see him make an appearance here.
The entire scene is dark, gritty and moody and it lets you know from the off that this is going to be a tale set in the underworld of the Gotham pantheon. The perfect place to be in the pages of a Batman comic.
Bruce decides that he needs time to recover from his latest battles (especially that one with the Calculator) and decides to check into Greystone Hospital. This hospital soon reveals it’s sinister side when Bruce is locked in a cell, escaping to discover that Hugo Strange is behind it all.
He’s once again cheated death and decided to exact revenge on Gotham. The action and dialogue feels slightly dated but there is a real weight added to the story upon Strange beating Batman and discovering his true identity.
Hugo Strange knowing that Bruce Wayne is Batman has almost became a motif of stories starring the villain. So it’s nice to view how the revelation initially happened.
We truly get the feeling that Strange is a wicked psychopath that was dangerous enough without knowing the dark knight’s identity. The stakes have been raised and as a reader looking onward you know that the drama really couldn’t be higher.
Bruce is acting Strange
Unfortunately the ensuing chapter fails to deliver on this promise. Strange, wearing a Bruce Wayne mask (no idea how it fits over his beard), slowly begins to ruin the playboys life. This all climaxes when Strange holds an auction to reveal the caped crusaders true identity. During the proceedings Thorne returns and kills the psychiatrist before he is ever able to reveal the Dark Knight’s name.
It feels slightly anti climactic and I think the animated series handled this plot better. In that the auction still happened, however Bruce was able to use his cunning to deceive the bidders and convince them that they had been sold a lie.
At this point I felt let down by the book. It had the potential to really shake up Gotham but as with most ‘villain knows the secret identity’ plots, upon gaining the knowledge they die soon after.
Don’t p-p-p-pick up the Penguin
What follows is a really lacklustre Penguin centric issue that doesn’t date the comic too well. I know it was created in 1977 and is a sign of it’s time. However, the constant notes by the editor on every page and little things like geese flying in the shape of the Penguin are really distracting.
They truly take away from the atmospheric, dark mood that the prior two issues had established.
This section really marred the book for me. The detective work done reeks of the 1966 show and whilst they were played for laughs this book has no comedic intention behind it. Tracking down someone because they said puns is not something that I (and I’m guessing a lot of modern audiences want to see) and I challenge anyone to read this chapter without it grating on them.
Luckily what follows gets the book back on track. For a while.
We slowly start to see Rupert Thorne being driven mad by the spectre of Hugo Strange. Some would say it’s a STRANGE APPARITION (yesss I got the title in). Whilst it could be mysterious and terrifying it feels rather goofy. Out of place in what has till this point been relatively grounded. The aesthetic shift is slightly jarring, especially for someone like myself who is very skeptical when it comes to the paranormal.
Crazy In Love
Set in the background is Bruce’s relationship with Silver St. Cloud.
I always find it fascinating whenever Bruce gets a new love interest in the comics as each writer has their own way of dealing with his dual identity. It almost creates a complex love triangle that normally ends in a break up.
Deep down we know that Bruce HAS to be Batman. He even remarks at one point that Bruce has become the mask and Batman is the true face. It’s a dichotomy that is rarely seen within comics and hints at multiple personality disorder.
Rarely are true identities shown as the mask and you really get the feeling that Bruce may, on some levels be insane. He is on a mission of self sabotage, an obsessive vigilante with a god complex and we love him for it.
However, there are some ups and downs in the book due to this love plot. Mainly when Batman visits Silver and they refuse to admit to one another that they know the secret. It’s a slightly awkward elephant in the room that I wish had’ve been acknowledged as it makes the plot slightly goofy. Imagine the scene in Batman Forever where Batman confronts Nicole Kidman….times ten on the cringe scale.
Predictably the relationship is broken off, with Silver stating that she couldn’t bare her soul to a man who has the potential to not come home one night. Whilst it is by the numbers I cannot judge it too harshly as the characters are very well crafted and the book was created before this became a cliche.
The reintroduction of Deadshot is a stellar moment and even though we see him and Batman fight on a giant typewriter, I’m not kidding, it still adds tension to the book.
Whilst a majority of the book feels dated, this duel feels like a really modern telling. Deadshot’s costume has been changed from a western gun slinger to the more modern one we know today. It really shows just how forward thinking the artists were to see that this outfit still looks great 40 years on. It’s a definite highlight of the book that also slowly begins to introduce The Joker.
What I love about these older stories is how they set up, whilst tying into, other stories. Sure the editor notes within the panels are a bit ham fisted but they subtly speak to a larger universe. One in which Batman has been tried and tested so his crime fighting abilities and detective skills seem more genuine.
The Laughing Fish
The Laughing Fish is a slightly tongue and cheek look at the relationship between Batman and The Joker. Joker has poisoned fish along the Eastern seaboard so that they resemble him. He now wants to earn money from a fish distributor as they share his likeness.
It’s a bit hard to really feel like this is a great story, even if it certainly has it’s infamy. It was of course homaged and adapted in Batman: The Animated Series, and whilst it’s interesting to see that amazing episodes roots, the source material is slightly dated.
Over the years I’ve seen Batman have his back broken, stop nuclear weapons, save Gotham from groups nestled in its underbelly, beat Superman etc etc. So a plot in which The Joker makes fish smile is hard to really get to engrossed in.
That’s not to say it’s bad, there are certainly humerus and fascinating moments but overall it feels slightly twee.
One thing to take from this issue is that The Joker does not want Batman’s identity revealed as it would take away all the ‘fun.’ It’s depth doesn’t go unnoticed and stronger writers have certainly played upon the fact that without The Dark Knight there is no clown prince. It’s an enjoyable nod that doesn’t quite save the arc.
The Jokes On Us
One of the huge plot points in the book is the classic ‘Joker comes on TV, says someone will die and kills them even though they are guarded’ motif. Unfortunately for the graphic novel we have seen it done better, several times, in stories such as The Man Who Laughs, Death In The Family and Batman #1.
It’s harder to appreciate it’s appearance here due to this and unfortunately it swayed me against the plot at this point.
That sort of sums up my experience with Strange Apparitions. Every time I wanted to really enjoy it, something came out of nowhere and cemented my dislike.
Whilst this chapter wraps up stronger it still wasn’t shaping up very greatly in my mind. It hit me at this moment that Strange Apparitions might be a bygone book. Great in it’s time but we have had so many brilliant Batman stories since 1977 (some would argue that the character has only gotten better since) and this doesn’t stand up to them at this point.
The Coming Of Clayface
The Coming Of Clayface in my opinion is the strongest section of the book. Whilst it isn’t centred around Matt Hagan (there is a new Clayface with slightly different powers named Preston Payne) the tale is still dark, moody and everything you expect from the best Batman stories.
Upon hearing Clayface 2’s origin you truly feel sorrow for the character. He’s had few glimpses of happiness throughout his life and it’s totally understandable why the character is so twisted.
We also are introduced to a more brutal Batman. After losing Silver St. Cloud the Dark Knight decides to take it out on the scum of Gotham. There are still some ‘moody teenager’ moments but we get a great insight into the fact that Bruce, no matter what, will never stop being Batman.
If you’ve read the canon run so far then you know I love this psychological look at the character and even the brief second thought to a normal life that is given here still supplies a volume of Bruce’s ID to sink our teeth into.
The climax to the arc is inconsistent and wraps up much how you’d expect. Batman whines throughout that he has lost Silver, she’s not dead, they just broke up. And Clayface apparently dies in a fire but of course no trace of him is found.
I really wish that the writer had’ve created a new villain instead of just copying the Clayface character that we already have. Matt Hagan could’ve easily been used for this arc but was omitted for reasons unknown to me. That being said this was still a fun section in what had been a disappointing book.
Ticket to tragedy
For the final chapter Batman travels to London. The climax of the story is laden with terrible English dialogue. Being a British man it always annoys me when English characters are written to say ‘cor blimey’ and there is an instance of this on every page.
The plot revolves around Batman bringing a killer to justice for Alfred’s cousin, the aptly named Sir Basil Smythe. This issue feels like filler and you could end the story at the Clayface issue without having to slog through this in order to complete the book.
Batman Strange Apparitions is a very mixed bag. I normally hate that term but it feels appropriate here. There are threads of an over arc that intertwine with singular issues but from the off it feels disjointed and unclear. The review has been very difficult to write as there has been so many different plots it’s hard to write an analysis in one cohesive text.
Throughout the book have brilliant highlights like The Laughing Fish and The Coming Of Clayface but then extremely low lows like Ticket To Tragedy.
There is no real finesse to the story and it’s a shame that the writer couldn’t balance the over arcing plot with the introduction of other villains in the way that Jeph Loeb or Grant Morrisson could.
The book is very dated and often felt like a chore to get through. Many of it’s elements have been replicated with more modern takes and done better by different authors so I suggest picking them up over this.
Especially due to it’s high price point.
That’s why Strange Apparitions gets a….
Leave a comment whether you agree with my ranking or not.