[I wrote this post originally for Blog@Newsarama, which is apparently no longer being updated. It was published on October 30, 2008.]
Welcome to the second in a periodic series of posts on my list of “canonical” superhero stories. (The original post, which includes a link to Tucker Stone’s call for such a canon, is here.) Last time I talked largely about “Beware My Power,” the introduction of Green Lantern John Stewart from writer Denny O’Neil and penciller Neal Adams. This week brings another O’Neil/Adams tale, “Night of the Reaper!” from December 1971′s Batman #237.
Now, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea — my standards certainly don’t begin and end with O’Neil and Adams. In fact, timing has placed “Reaper” at this particular point on the schedule. Not only does it take place at Halloween, but it strikes me as a fine way to remember the late Tom Fagan of Rutland, Vermont. As the man behind Rutland’s Halloween parade, Mr. Fagan helped inspire this story, as well as a few others.
“Night of the Reaper” uses Rutland’s Halloween festivities as its backdrop, and really, it’s all about the costumes. Just about everyone is in some kind of weird getup; and the reader is invited to imagine that all those strange adults in their bizarre outfits (we see no minors trick-or-treating) might just be the real thing, be they Batman, Robin, or Death itself. While the murders the story chronicles have some very down-to-earth motives, they too have been “dressed up” for Halloween. Thus, “Night of the Reaper” is an excellent superhero story because it melds the empowerment of a superhero costume with the unique atmosphere of Halloween, and draws on both for an eerie, fantastic mood.
As the story opens, Dick Grayson has dragged his college buddies up to Rutland — where, amidst all the holiday parties, they stop a “Robin” from being beaten to death by a band of goons. Later, as Dick/Robin investigates, he finds the unsettling spectacle of a lifeless “Batman” staked to a lonely tree. Narrowly escaping a scary-looking Grim Reaper, Robin tumbles down a hill and takes a header into a creek.
Fortunately, the real Batman happens along, taking the Teen Wonder to the home of one Doctor Gruener. Gruener, a concentration-camp survivor, had recently spotted Colonel Schloss, the Nazi officer who murdered his family, renting a pirate costume for Halloween. Schloss, who got out of Germany with a stash of Nazi gold, tends to favor masquerade parties. (I presume that the unusual combination was enough to involve Batman, who would blend in well in costume-happy Rutland.) Complicating matters even further, though, more Nazis — the ones who attacked “Robin” — are after Schloss’s ill-gotten gold. At this point Batman takes over, ordering his sidekick to rest up after that nasty fall.
Before too long the Reaper has struck again, scaring one of Dick’s wandering friends (Alan the stoner) along the way. Batman then figures out how the Nazis are signaling each other, and storms their ad hoc headquarters — but by then it’s too late. Schloss’s Volkswagen explodes, taking “the Butcher” with it. Batman, who had mused earlier that “unless brutes like him pay for their crimes, this thing we call civilization is a farce,” notes grimly that Schloss has “finally paid!”
Of course, that’s not the end of the story. Batman explains to Robin that Schloss had no motive to murder one of his own men, let alone the other Batman. “No, the Reaper has to be stopped,” he says, adding “I’ve never had a task I hated more.” As the dawn breaks, the Darknight Detective confronts the Reaper, now unmasked as Doctor Gruener. Batman has deduced that after Gruener called the authorities about Schloss, he decided instead on “personal vengeance.” Gruener — the only person in town who knew Batman was coming — told the Nazis that Batman would be looking for Schloss. (I suppose this would have had everyone but Gruener chasing each other, leaving Schloss for Gruener alone.) Thus, the Nazis killed one “Batman” and would have gotten “Robin” as well.
Gruener doesn’t give up quietly, though, especially now that his nemesis Schloss is dead. In the chase which follows, Gruener once again runs into Alan the stoner, and this time the Reaper is filled with a murderous rage. Knocking Alan to the ground, Gruener raises his scythe high for the killing blow — but his Star of David pendant dangles from the implement’s handle, shocking the doctor back to reality. “What have I become?” he asks in a daze, just before losing his balance and impaling himself on his scythe. The story ends on Gruener’s face, peaceful at last, with his religious symbol draped nearby.
“Night of the Reaper” might not be the most finely-crafted mystery, but it deals skillfully in mood and melodrama. Although I didn’t talk much about the work of Neal Adams and Dick Giordano in connection with the Green Lantern story, here I’d be crazy not to. The art evokes perfectly the eternal twilight of any number of Halloweens, from desolate woods and countrysides to the time-is-suspended feel of late-night parties. Even the red, green, and yellow Robin costume fits the fall-color palette. Adams and Giordano especially nail the details of Tom Fagan’s party. On Thor’s head is a winged colander; and a few pages later, there’s Havok sacked out on a sofa while a guy in a cloak tries to score with the Invisible Girl. Meanwhile, Solomon Grundy and his date just look bored. The holiday does have a special energy (Alan wanders around in a daze, wanting to “rap about [parade] floats”), but after a certain point, not everyone loves Halloween.
Adams’ and Giordano’s hyper-realistic approach is also a good fit here, because it helps introduce the fantastic characters gradually. After that murdered “Batman” on the spooky first page, the artists spend the better part of three pages contrasting civilians (Dick, his friends, and the Nazi goons) with costumed partygoers. By the time Robin confronts the Reaper, we’re on familiar superhero ground; but in a different kind of heightened reality than the normal Batman tale. The “professional” Robin costume and the Reaper’s robes are drawn fairly realistically; which is to say that both characters’ outfits are believable without robbing either of his dignity.
Of course, into this mix of early ‘70s couture, homemade capes-and-tights, and “working” super-gear strides the Neal Adams Batman, fabulous as usual. Adams and Giordano take care to draw just about every other “Batman” with some fatal, illusion-destroying flaw: a chest symbol, utility belt, or physique that just doesn’t match up. (Appropriately, Tom Fagan’s is the only Batman costume which comes close.) Clearly it’s important that the reader believe in Batman — but it becomes even more important when Batman shares a story with assorted impersonators. Put another way, Robin can look like a guy in a costume because we must interpret “Robin” as Dick Grayson in a costume. His mentor, though, can’t be anything less than “The Batman.”
Many times, a Halloween-themed superhero story will include some supernatural element — monster, ghost, magic, etc. — but in “Night of the Reaper,” the most fantastic character turns out to be Batman himself. He links all the main players together, and they all play off him in one way or another. Moreover, if this were one of DC’s horror stories, Batman would be its “host.” (As it happens, Cain and Abel make cameos at Fagan’s party.) He provides a good deal of exposition, both setting up the story and breaking down whodunit. The story also contrasts Gruener’s personal tragedies with Batman’s, although it doesn’t really need to. Batman’s morality stands in for the reader’s, framing Gruener’s choices as more tragic than sympathetic.
I said earlier that “Night of the Reaper” is about the costumes, and I’ll take that a step further: it’s about the transformations the costumes symbolize. The partygoers dress up presumably to experience some such transformative thrill. Batman’s and Robin’s costumes are functional (well, you know what I mean). Gruener’s is symbolic, intended for Schloss’s benefit. However, of those three groups, only Gruener appears not to realize his costume’s power … until the end, when he finally asks “what have I become?” The partygoers know they’re just playing make-believe. Batman and Robin know the purposes their costumes serve. Gruener, though, gets lost for too long in his alter ego.
And again, “Night of the Reaper” excels at evoking this sort of bogeyman-is-real feeling. Thanks mostly to slasher movies, we are used to (if not sick of) killers who hide behind masks. However, because it is a superhero story, “Night of the Reaper” can invert this device. Ultimately, the Reaper is completely demystified; whereas Batman is larger-than-life and Dick uses his own disguise to fight back. If Halloween represents the time of year when the spirit world comes closest to touching the material plane, then “Night of the Reaper” makes the most of the holiday’s inherent wish-fulfillment.
I’ll admit that perhaps I have read too much of my own goodwill towards Halloween into this story. O’Neil and Adams do have their share of fun at the expense of a town full of people who (for the most part) shouldn’t come anywhere near skintight spandex. Regardless, “Night of the Reaper” succeeds because it blends the preposterous idea of caped crusaders with very real, and very different, elements of masquerade and revenge. It is a quintessential superhero story because without Batman and Robin, it is a simple (and effective) morality play. With them, however, it becomes a meditation on the ability of something so frivolous — a gaudy Halloween costume — to facilitate such a profound change.
“Night of the Reaper,” in Batman #237 (December 1971), was written by Denny O’Neil (from an idea by Berni Wrightson with an assist from Harlan Ellison), pencilled by Neal Adams, inked by Dick Giordano, lettered by John Costanza, colored by Jack Adler (?), and edited by Julius Schwartz.
[It is not to be confused with “Night of the Stalker,” another excellent Batman story from Detective Comics #439, written by Steve Englehart and pencilled by Sal Amendola.]
Scans were taken from the story as reprinted in Batman in the Seventies. The blogger Sea_of_Green has some scans from the retouched “special edition” which appeared in Batman Illustrated By Neal Adams Volume 3.