BACK ISSUE TO THE FUTURE: Batman #312, “A Caper a Day Keeps the Batman at Bay”

Commentary by Dan W.

When did The Joker become a ruthless, humorless psychopath? Not to say he wasn’t always a murderous clown, but rather that there may have been some winking charm in past eras of giant typewriters and poison fish. Was it The Killing Joke, is this another sad legacy to pin on Alan Moore?  Could it be Joker’s Last Laugh, the deliberate early aughts attempt at stripping Joker down to pure violence? Hush? The New 52? Maybe The Dark Knight’s motion picture anarchist bleeding into our cherished printed panels? There is no definitive answer, just a lament for the fun, zany stories relegated to memory in favor of more gruesome, fare, with more faces being sliced off than I care to read about (one is too many).

And what about fellow homicidal Batman rogue Calendar Man? You may have recently seen him as a date-obsessed serial killer in the Harley Quinn animated series, or the Arkham video game series. But he wasn’t always a monster. Dear reader, I can tell you exactly when he went awry and who to blame. Let’s start at the beginning.

First appearing as the villain of the month in Detective Comics #259, Calendar Man challenges Batman to catch him as he commits crimes based around the four seasons, wearing themed ensembles as he does so, until Batman, as he is wont to do, catches up in this disposable, era-appropriate caper.

Calendar Man, somehow, did not immediately catch fire with the readers of the late ‘50s and would not appear again until Batman #312, nearly twenty years later in 1978, by none other than comic book legends Len Wein (on writing duties), and artists Walt Simonson (pencils) and Dick Giordano (inks). Once again donning an array of colorful costumes, this time based on the days of the week, CM manages to outsmart The Dark Knight for 15 pages before being apprehended. But what costumes!

ODIN!

THE MOON!

SATURN!
THOR!
Comic book gold! The absurdity of it entertains! Not self-aggrandizing political and social commentary, not an art school hack’s half-baked try at a modern Ulysses, but an escape! You grind out another day of suffering at the office, just so you can earn enough to eat a cold tuna fish sandwich for dinner before crashing, only to have to wake up to suffer another day. You don’t want to read about some green haired Ted Bundy on your down time, you want Calendar Man! With popping colors and snappy puns, the comic book industry’s bread-and-butter for years during the Code era. You need Batman pulling a deliberate miss and saving the day. Because the world has enough misery; let literature or music (and old Star Trek episodes) carry the burden of illuminating the human condition.

So when did we lose loony toon stamp thief Calendar Man and find Hannibal Lecter Calendar Man? Why it happens in none other than long-time Batman best-seller The Long Halloween!  I’ve always maintained that the best story Jeph Loeb ever wrote was the movie Commando, the mid-’80s Schwarzenegger vehicle where he mows down countless terrorists in an orgy of explosions, gunfire, and pithy remarks (“I have to remind you, Sully! This is my weak arm!” *pats 22” bicep*). It shows Loeb has the chops to turn out a pulpy, one-and-done adventure, just like Batman #312. But Mr. Loeb also wrote 1997’s The Long Halloween, and in it, he turns Calendar Man from a, frankly, ridiculous Silver Age throwaway into a serial killer, providing ‘sage’ advice to Year One’s inexperienced Batman, who is flailing trying to solve the Holiday murder mystery that is the crux of the story. Calendar Man is locked away, and, upset that someone else has stolen his gimmick of date-based crimes, assists Batman out of spite.

I suppose it was an attempt to refresh the character, similar to the (completely redefining) update Mr. Freeze saw in the Batman: The Animated Series a few years prior, but it doesn’t work. The device is clearly lifted from Silence of the Lambs, and it ruins Calendar Man. The only reason to use Calendar Man is for the antics. Turning him into Joker II steals the essence of the character; he isn’t supposed to be serious, I mean, look at this guy:

But it stuck. To my eternal chagrin it stuck. And every Calendar Man appearance since than has been this dope, with his moronic head tattoos and lip-licking whispers.

It just isn’t what I’m looking for from a superhero comic. The comic book industry has evolved considerably since 1978, mostly for the better, and there are more genres and choices than ever being published. Whatever flavor you are looking for, you can likely find. And lest you deem me the ‘old man’, bound to the sun-soaked and carefree days of yesteryear (and they were, kids), I’m loving Nice House on the Lake right now, and Brubaker & Phillips various crime series, and X-Men is the best it’s been in forever, but I can’t abide a sadistic Calendar Man, and a I still have a soft spot for the Bronze Age of Batman #312.

Is this issue a masterpiece? My internal dialogue says yes, but in truth no, despite the talent behind it, and that talent is considerable, it is merely one of the ‘Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told.’ I’m not old enough to have bought this off the stands, but it was reprinted along with other classic tales in an early trade paperback from DC, long before any comic publisher realized what a gold mine it could be to keep desirable stories in print. So in 1989, I was gifted a copy of The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told featuring “A Caper a Day…” among others, which still might be the best way to read it as I can’t find that it has been reprinted elsewhere, but actual copies of the issue aren’t terribly expensive to track down either; maybe $10 or $15 and you can add this gem to your collection. Make sure to place it prominently with your Long Halloweens and your Hushs as a reminder of the glorious four-color heyday of comic books.

 

 

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