Howdy Gents and Gals of the Comic Book World! Andy Larson, the host with the most of GotS, back again for another weekly installment of “I need to read comic books and talk about them to keep the lights on in this place!”.
In any case, last month at 3 Rives ComiCon, I had an opportunity to hang out with comic book artist, Russ Braun. You may know him from his work on Animal Man, Swamp Thing, and frequent collaborations with writer Garth Ennis, including his work on The Boys. What you might not know is he’s an absolutely wonderful human being and a real class act!
Some of the conversations I had with him over the course of the convention were some of my favorite memories of that event, and I can’t say enough nice things about the fella!
With that in mind, I wanted to do a read pile this week showcasing some of Russ’s most early work at DC with the fantastic story that I hold in very high regard.
So without further ado, here comes a review of the Legends of the Dark Knight issues #16-20 better know as the gripping tale of the time the Dark Knight was addicted to drugs “Batman: Venom“.
After Batman fails to rescue a drowning little girl due to the fact that he can’t lift a 600 lb boulder, the Dark Knight is visibly shaken to his core and begins to doubt whether he’s strong enough to continue to get better as the elite crime fighter he feels the world demands. Upon breaking the news to the little girl’s father, a shady unscrupulous scientist named, Dr. Randolph Porter, Batman pledges to bring those responsible to justice whatever the cost.
In response to that, Porter offers Batman some experimental drugs which he claims will enhance Batman’s already incredible physique even further. Although Bats originally refuses to take the pills, after losing in a fist fight due to previous injuries, he decides to take them and immediately becomes stronger than he ever was before. He easily defeats the same thugs that beat him up previously and wages a more violent physical war on the underworld the likes of which had not been seen.
However, the drugs are having terrible side effects on Batman as well including manic mood swings, unhealthy aggression, and severely dulled perception and self control. Not only that but he has become physically addicted to the drugs, visiting Dr. Porter for his “fix” more and more often. It’s during one of these visits, he’s introduced to a former General Slaycroft who wants to use Batman for more experiments with the drug with the intent of creating the perfect solider. However, first Batman will have to kill Commissioner Gordon, who might come poking around their operations.
Of course, this is the turning point for Batman who in that moment realizes how far off course he’s gotten. He attacks the pair and almost succeeds in bringing them to the authorities when at the last minute he’s distracted by the sight of the drugs. In letting the bad guys get away in order to feed his addiction, Batman has hit rock bottom and decides to lock himself in the Batcave for a month in order to go cold turkey. Although the withdrawal saps most of his massive strength, Bats emerges from the Cave a month later, a somewhat frail, disheveled, bearded yet triumphant survivor, ready to rededicate himself to finding Dr. Porter and putting an end to his experiments.
Speaking of those experiments, while Batman convalesced, they continued in earnest down on the little Caribbean island of Santa Prisca. However, this time the guinea pig was the General’s own son, who is transformed from a quiet sensitive young man into an ultra violent murdering muscle bound monster, incapable of feeling pain of any kind. They do this again with a couple more young men until they have a small squadron of mind controlled super soldiers.
But as you might guess, the one thing you can’t escape is the wrath of Batman’s justice, and soon the Dark Knight comes to Santa Prisca to stop their schemes once and for all. However, in order to do so, Batman will have to prove that he’s overcome the hold that the drugs had on him, and that the Caped Crusader’s true strength lies not in his muscular physique but in the depth of his character and unrelenting determination.
Things I Liked:
Is there really anyone that can write Batman as well as Denny O’ Neil?!? Seriously, every time I pick up a Batman book written by some other author and I think:
“Oh wow! This is great Batman!”
All I have to do is then pick up some Denny O’ Neil Batman, and I’m immediately reminded of what “great” Batman is. I’m not sure about what it exactly is, but I really feel there is no better author when it comes to presenting Batman as a real human being than Denny O’ Neil. And whether that’s my personal preference or what, but deep within my very bones I believe that the more Batman is presented as a real human with both strengths and flaws, high moments and low moments, with success and failure, and most of all with a degree fallibility, then and only then do we have a Batman that is a true hero and one we can all root for.
I mean I know it’s become very fashionable in the past 20 years+ following Knightfall to portray Batman as the ultimate ubermensch, a “super human” with peak excellence at everything whether it’s detective skills, tactician skills, ninja skills, sword fighting skills, acrobatic skills, cooking skills, weaving skills, scaling the Catskills skills, Killin’ a 40 oz skills etc.
But I’ll be very honest that it was at that point, that Batman started to go wrong from my perspective. It’s the point where he became “The God Damn Batman” and started to inspire so much confidence in readers that he became very boring to read. No threat couldn’t be overcome, no villain too powerful, no reason for Batman to ever lose his cool or be something other than the best at everything. He’s Batman, worship him as your Dark Knight God!
Yeah, that’s not for me, thanks.
I like my Batman as we see here in this story as a man driven to be the best, but having to work through and with his own innate inadequacies and human flaws. In this story, Batman’s issues don’t start because he wasn’t strong enough to save a little girl, but because he allowed that tragedy to shape his actions. It’s a complete human thing to do as we are often at the mercy of our own worst emotions and impulses in the face of trauma. And like others in that situation, Batman turned to substances to dull the pain of that trauma instead of dealing with it. Sure, you can say “that’s not a Batman thing to do” or “he should have been better than that”, but to say that robs the character of Batman from real growth by allowing him to experience failure and poor choices.
And the fact that he has the strength of character to see what those choices have wrought and ask for help from Alfred in kicking the habit is heroism in its purest form. And later when Dr. Porter captures Batman in a trap on Santa Prisca that will force him to take the drugs again, and he turns away from it, again it’s character growth and lessons learned, something we often don’t get from a character who is written to already be the expert on everything.
And this isn’t the first time Denny O’ Neil has done this with the character so its not as if this is a one time thing. This is just one story in a long history of the great defining moments that have come from this comic masters hand, whether it’s the Leslie Tompkins stuff, the Ra’s al Ghul stuff, or what he’d eventually do in the spiritual sequel to this story, the aforementioned incredible 90s epic, Knightfall, Mr. O’Neil writes Batman like nobody else. He makes us care about the Caped Crusader by daring to show us that he’s vulnerable. That can’t be underestimated in true heroes.
Oh and as I mentioned in my opening, Venom has some fantastic artwork from Russ Braun, carrying on a traditional long rooted in the 70s stylings of Neil Adams and Jim Aparo but with his own individual grittiness that would be a hallmark of later Batman designs. Really a unique mix of different eras that you can’t find anywhere else.
Things I Didn’t Like:
Now I know what some people are going to say as a critique of this book. They are going to say its dated. It’s simple. It’s not gritty enough nor exposes the drug problem in its harsh reality. They are also going to say that the scene of Batman locking himself in the Batcave and through sheer will, kicking the habit, cold, through his sheer superhuman will power.
And with that last comment, I can see some truth to that. I’m sure that paints a over-simplistic idealized picture of how an addict through the strength of their own determination can overcome their issues, and for some that live with or have lived with the daily struggle, it can be somewhat insulting.
If it was really as easy as Batman makes it out to be, then there wouldn’t be a need for all the support groups, counselors, community of medical providers, and the army of family members and friends just to get some people through the day that live with a substance abuse issue.
However, this is Batman. He is a superhero. And we only have 5 issues to tell this story. So although I’m putting this in the section I didn’t like, I’m only doing it because I really didn’t have much else to put here. I genuinely loved this book, so I’m willing to give this story a pass with its somewhat hokey over dramatic way in which Batman gets clean.
Of course, this isn’t the first book put out by DC that directly addressed the drug problem in America. Nor is it the first penned by Denny O’ Neil. One only has to look at the classic two parter presented in Green Lantern/Green Arrow #85 & 86 in which Green Arrow’s long time sidekick and partner, Speedy aka Arsenal aka Roy Harper, is revealed to be a heroine addict.
Sure, this story wasn’t as ground breaking as the Harry Osborne drug addiction story that was presented in Amazing Spider-man just a couple years previously, but for a comic company that was primarily viewed as aiming towards kids vs. Marvel’s more teenage approach, this book was a big step in the right direction for DC in tackling important issues.
However, I’d be lying if I didn’t think that the more spiritual predecessor to Batman: Venom would be the Golden Age DC character, Hour Man. Scientist Rex Tyler developed the “miraculous vitamin” Miraclo which gave him superhuman strength and speed for the hour that the vitamin’s effects lasted, before returning to normal human levels.
Of course, being it was the 1940s, the devastating personal effects of drugs like steroids and amphetamines weren’t fully known to society, but it’s easy to see how parallels could be drawn between Miraclo and these real life dangers. Thus later in the character’s history, future writers would reclassify Miraclo from a vitamin to a drug, and Hourman into somewhat of a superhero junkie, addicted to both the Miraclo but also the rush that crime fighting gave him while under it’s influence.
In fact, if you were to tell me that the Venom drug that’s the focal point of this story was some sort of derivative of Miraclo, I’d believe it. The similarities are striking.
I can remember the first time I read this book back when I was like 10 or 11. My cousin, JA, had a copy and I can remember two things vividly as I read it. First was that one comic cover of Batman laughing like a maniac, almost Joker like in reckless abandon and insanity. It still gives me chills.
But second and most importantly, how it reinforced how terrified I was of drugs at the time. This book succeeded with me at least of showing how even the ever heroic Batman could be corrupted by drug abuse transforming from this noble champion of young children into a savage stark raving monster. And it was sobering. It gave me chills in a totally different way.
Whether you want to say it scared me straight or whatever, but it was another roadpost on the highway which lead to my decisions to have nothing to do with drugs. And as I’ve seen others in my life whose lives were destroyed by drugs and the poor decisions made under them, I can say publicly that I’ve very grateful that Mr. O’Neil wrote this book as it did have a profound effect on me.
And from that perspective, I feel that this book is even more relevant now than it ever was with the Opioid crisis happening in America now. Not only can it play the role of an exciting, captivating yet cautionary tale for young teens about the dangers of drug addiction, but more importantly, it emphasizes that this can happen to ANYONE!
This is Batman. He’s as noble and heroic as anyone we can think of. A true champion of justice and right. He is in someways the antithesis of what most people think of when they think of a drug addict. And yet even he falls prey to the allure of during a difficult time in his life and has to live with the consequences.
It helps in some ways break the stigma that a lot of people that struggle with drug addiction have today which is the fact that they don’t consider themselves to be “bad” people. They are tired of people thinking of them as something less than worthy or morally corrupt because they might have made some poor choices at one point. It doesn’t define them or their inherent self worth.
And so to see someone like Batman, who is supposed to be a paragon of virtue, struggle with the same issues, I feel like it should be a source of inspiration to those living with addiction in that they are not alone, that this issue affects people from all walks of life, and that its not the addiction that defines a person, but how they choose to deal with the addiction instead.
Therefore I urge you all to read this book, especially if you are or know somewhat that’s struggling with drug addiction. Unlike some comics dealing with the issue substance abuse from the past that haven’t exactly aged well, I feel this story is still delivers a powerful, important message which is more relevant today than it was ever was.
Andy’s Read Pile Grade: A