about_faces (about_faces) wrote,

Review: We saw the return. Now let's see the revenge in "Down to the Bone."

If I said, "Name a comic released in 1986 where a superhero loses his job, reputation, home, friends, and family due to the machinations of his brilliant, scheming arch-enemy, who knows the hero's secret identity," you'd probably say Daredevil: Born Again.

But a mere one month before the first issue of DD:BA was released, DC published Batman Annual #10, featuring a story which completely matches the description above. Because they were published so close together, I can only assume this was a coincidence. Both stories reflect something dark in the mid-80's atmosphere that could cause Frank Miller and Doug Moench to write two different stories with very similar themes.

While DD:BA is one of my all-time favorite comics, Moench's is starting to work its way up my list of favorite Batman tales. There are a couple notable differences between the two. One is that Bruce doesn't get driven to a mental breakdown, although Hugo certainly got close in his previous attempt, published three years earlier.

In that respect, this also feels like a story that Grant Morrison had in mind when he created Dr. Hurt and wrote Batman: R.I.P., comparisons to which become even more explicit in the story itself...

The story begins with three businessmen, each of whom are terrorized, intimidated, and threatened (in one case, at the command of a terrifying "ghost") to sell their very valuable shares in Wayne Industries stock. This action has dire consequences for Bruce, and everyone close to him:

Bruce does his best to assure Lucius that the latter's not to blame, but everyone's showing signs of stress... even the unflappable Mr. Pennyworth:

Honestly, if it didn't violate page limitations, I could do an entire post of Hugo abusing Alfred in some way. There have been at least four instances I can recall off-hand, three of which were written by Moench.

While Bruce and Jason rush Alfred off to the hospital, the city faces a rash of thefts and wanton destruction perpetrated by what seems to be... the Batmobile? But our heroes won't learn of that for awhile yet. They have too much on their minds as it is.

Next thing Bruce knows, Lucius Fox has been fired, and he's been given one last order by the mysterious new investors before he leaves:

God, what makes this plan so brutally effective if that the "investors" pulling the strings are also exploiting the grudges from Lucius' own enemies. The best evil plans are the ones where you don't have to do everything yourself. All you have to do is move things into place for others to shoot them down.

The ringing, by the way, is a phone call from a child welfare officer at Jason's school:

I love these pages so much. I kinda regret not using the image of "Hobo Batman" as the teaser to this post.

But while it may be "for the weak," context reveals this to be a startling, surprising, yet entirely logical scene of Batman stripped away of all his gadgets, all his wealth, and every friend in the world. Even his very reputation as Batman is in jeopardy with the news of "Batmobile" crimes around the city.

So what is the World's Greatest Detective to do? Start asking questions, naturally. Batman meets with the old investors while Lucius investigates the mysterious new investors, and--cutting to the chase--Bruce realizes that Hugo Strange must be behind the whole thing. Sure, Strange is dead, but that's never stopped him before.

Batman helps Jason escape from the state-run home, and the two head to the Batcave, where they battle not one but two Hugo Strange robots, just like the Dick and Alfred robots from the previous story.

Oh Jason, you little thug in booty shorts, you.

For those of you who read the grand finale of Grant Morrison's Batman and Robin arc with Dr. Hurt in the Batcave, you'll note that he pretty much cribbed Hugo's style here, right down to the line "Now get out of my home! You're trespassing!" Once more, I wish I could go back in time, find Grant Morrison as he's plotting out Batman R.I.P., and tell him to use Hugo instead.

Hell, know what I just realized? In Batman: R.I.P., Batman claws out of his own grave. In Kraven's Last Hunt (which was originally meant to be a Batman/Hugo story), Spider-Man did the same. A coincidence, I'm sure, but I feel like that must speak to some fundamental similarity between Hugo, Hurt, and Kraven, and how they related to their enemies.

But I have to ask, what exactly is Hugo's motivation here? He asks, "Can you think of better vengeance?" But revenge for what? For foiling his plans to usurp Batman's mantle? That seems like it'd be secondary to his main intent, which would be to ultimately take Batman's place, but that motivation doesn't seem to be on Hugo's agenda. There's just sheer, total destruction, and in that respect, he's about to achieve it more quickly and thoroughly than any other villain had managed.

These various takes on Hugo's motivations don't necessarily contradict each other, as even in Strange Apparitions, he was shown having subconscious respect and admiration for Batman, saving Bruce's life even as he auctioned off his identity to other villains. Even in that Earth-Two story, he was in denial of his true motivation: not to destroy Gotham as he said, but merely to force the heroes to end his own wretched life.

Is Hugo Strange so unhinged that he's unaware of his own true motivations, hidden within his subconscious? Are they what are ultimately his undoing? I'm genuinely wondering, as I have no answers.

After a thrilling and climactic car chase, Batman gets Hugo to crash the Batmobile. Hugo is out cold, but they're not out of the woods just yet. As Commissioner Gordon drives up, Batman tells Robin to just follow his lead:

Those blood tests reveal that he is indeed the real, human, genuine Hugo Strange, and according to Gordon, "he should be waking up any time now..."

While Bullock taunts Hugo over the theft, extortion, assault, fraud, bribery, and other charges he'll be facing, the Professor of Crime is lost in his own mind, unsure if this is all part of a larger game or if he's actually going mad.

Really, that's the best way to defeat a chessmaster villain: cast their own reason into doubt and keep them second-guessing in a loop. Not sure how effective this plan could be in the long term against Hugo, but it's certainly effective for the present, and far more creative and satisfying that him dying or something. Besides, we all know that method never takes.

So instead, we should savor this victory for the time being, especially with the good news delivered by Kurt Vonnegut Commissioner Gordon (and really, that "if you should happen to run into a mutual acquaintance of ours" like is virtual proof that Jim knows, which makes his booking of Hugo all the more poetic), that Alfred has made a full recovery and is ready to come home.

Or at least, whatever's left of home, after the explosive battle with Hugo.

For my money, that's a pitch-perfect ending to this story: a graceful way to express the well-worn trope of the best things in life are neither material nor monetary.

It's something that could easily have been trite, but I think Moench pulled it off. And I say this as someone who is not generally a fan of Moench's Batman, with a few notable exceptions. One such exception is will be the focus of the next post, where Moench takes his version of Hugo and ushers him into the rebooted continuity after Crisis and Frank Miller's Batman: Year One.

Coming up next: Batman: Prey.
Tags: doug moench, hugo strange, jim gordon, non-two-face-related-ness, reading list: the complete hugo strange, robin(s)

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