Detective Comics #659: “Puppets,” Written by Chuck Dixon, Art by Norm Breyfogle, Colors by Adrienne Roy, Edited by Scott Peterson and Denny O’Neil
By John A. Butz
“No sign of entry wounds. No evidence that a weapon was used. It looks like every bone in his body is broken. As hard as it is to believe, Film Freak was beaten to death by someone using only their bare fists.”
We have momentum now. The big players have taken the field. The outline of the plot has begun to emerge, waiting only for events to shade it in, add depth and color and motion. We can see the end dimly, as if across a valley filled with mist, but we aren’t sure we actually want to see how things end. We wait for the next issue, poised on the edge of our seats, needing to know what is going to happen.
It is exciting to watch an author get their legs under them and really start running with a story. As a fan of Stephen King, it is a phenomenon I am familiar with. It sometimes takes him a long time to get started, but once he does, watch out ‘cause he is going to be red hot (except when he’s not. But that is a topic for an entirely different series of reviews). But comics are a group effort, not the work of a single mind. And, as we can see, in three issues we have been through two authors and two artists.
So how do they do it, I wonder? My theory is that they build on each other. I imagine back-room meetings, conversations around the water cooler, chats over a beer after hours. “Wouldn’t it be cool to do this?” “Can you draw Batman this way?” “How can we use this villain, or maybe this one?” I dunno. I figure these guys love the characters and the stories as much as the people who read them. I have read many comics that are true works of love, things of beauty that can bring you to tears (Kingdom Come springs to mind). Regardless of how the guys at DC did it, it is obvious as we read the next couple issues of KnightFall that they are absolutely hitting their stride.
Puppets brings a few new faces into the mix, both in the story and outside of it.
Chuck Dixon steps in to the writer’s position. A writer for Marvel from 1985 till he left them to join the Distinguished Competition in 1990-91, he was hired by Denny O’Neil after the success of Dixon’s Punisher story Kingdom Gone and his subsequent run on Punisher: War Journal. He began writing Bat-family titles immediately, starting with a Robin story, and moving on from there into other titles in the Batman line, as well as his work on KnightFall. Dixon would be one of the most prolific writers of Batman comics DC had seen, and definitely the most prolific of the ‘90’s. Only two men had written more Batman stories than Dixon at that point in time – Bill Finger, and Denny O’Neil himself.
Scott Peterson came to DC in 1991, and edited Batman titles for the next seven years. He was Denny O’Neils assistant, and he would take what he learned from working with the old man and apply it to a career that includes 42 issues of Batman: Gotham Adventures (A title from the 90’s aimed at young readers), co-writing the first ongoing Batgirl series in 2000, and editing the Eisner award winning Paul Dini/Bruce Timm one-shot Mad Love.
It is interesting to me that the new additions both came to KnightFall with a fairly minimal amount of experience working on Batman titles. I think that Dixon injected a tremendous amount of energy into the series. His stories are, for the most part, some of my favorites in KnightFall. It is harder to quantify Peterson’s influence, as he was behind the editing desk alongside O’Neil, but I am sure he brought fresh ideas to the table that joined the synthesis that would lead to Puppets.
It is pretty much impossible for me to be objective about Puppets. I think it is an incredible story, with a lot of clever subtext, great characterization, good twists, and a wonderful opening and closing. Though I will be getting more critical as we move deeper into KnightFall, at this point I am giddy as a school girl, in full-on comic nerd mode, eagerly devouring pages with a smile on my face.
Let’s start with the title. This is a story about puppets – it is ostentatiously a Ventriloquist story, with the action being driven by Arnold Wesker’s search for his dummy, Scarface. On another level it is a story about how Wesker controls the brutal but simple-minded Amygdala, using the bruiser as muscle, with little regard for the other man’s safety. On still another level, it is a story about how Batman is dancing on puppet strings being manipulated by the master criminal and brutal killer who wants the Dark Knight dead at his feet –Bane.
On still another level, the title is about the bait and switch. The first panels lead the reader into believing that we are about to get a Maxie Zeus story, as the man who would be a god runs cackling from the stone-walls of Arkham – only to crash headlong into a tree and knock himself out as we watch the Ventriloquist remove a sock, and put it on his hand – a temporary companion until Scarface can be found.
Next, I am actually going to touch on something that probably never gets mentioned in comic book reviews. I love Adrienne Roy’s work on this book. The shading is great, the shadows are wonderful. But most impressive and perfect is her work on panels illuminated by the harsh, flashing light of police cars and ambulances. Bright jarring color fades into washed out red in the next panel. It really gives you the impression of the lights whirling away atop the emergency response vehicles, indifferent to the nature of events around them. The scene just leaps of the page for me. Roy doesn’t always impress, as we will see in future episodes, but she is at the top of her game in Puppets.
The story is wonderful, and is exactly what you would expect from a writer with Dixon’s experience. Unlike Moench, who can’t seem to get his mind around how to write a madman, Dixon has it nailed. The Ventriloquist is equal parts sad and pathetic, and wickedly clever. Watching him communicate with the world via his puppets, and see that he is incapable of realizing that he is really the one making the plans and getting things done is more than a little freaky. His single-minded search for Scarface marks him as absolutely insane, even if the whole “thinks that his puppet is a criminal genius” thing didn’t get the message across.
Dixon and Breyfogle cut back and forth between the police, the media, the villains and Batman, just as in previous works. A lot happens in the twenty-two short pages of this comic book. It is really hard to summarize. The Ventriloquist and Amygdala wreck havoc on the criminal element as they look for Scarface. Batman and Robin track them by police radio and a little luck. Robin catches sight of Bird, and heads off to engage him in some fisticuffs (and gets roundly beaten). Batman triumphs over Amygdala by pure luck. The Ventriloquist gets away. It is an issue jam-packed with great stuff, very exciting to read and very well put together.
And the art! Wow! What can I say – Breyfogle’s flowing capes, weak-chinned Arnold Wesker, fluid fight scenes, the whole lot is just wonderful. There are things in this book that I can’t help but think would influence both future artists like Tim Sale, as well as the folks who were working on the animated series at the time.
Read it for yourself if you can. This is a superlative Batman story, one that is very hard for me to get nitpicky about. There are a few small art flubs, and a scene where Robin actually looks a lot scarier than I think he should, but those are small drops in a very large pool.
As the episode draws to a close, Batman is hurting and alone, as Robin has headed off to follow Bird. Only luck allowed the Caped Crusader to overcome the muscle-bound Amygdala. Arnold Wesker is still free to seek out his companion Scarface. Batman is still jumping at shadows, with no plan and no idea who exactly Bane is and what he is doing. And as the Batman returns to the Batmobile, hoping perhaps to end the night and finally get some rest back at Wayne Manor, the radio begins to crackle. The Dark Knight is needed again – but does he have the strength to carry on?
“All units – Bates School for Girls – ten thirty in progress – suspect is calling himself Zsasz – he has hostages—requesting tactical units…”
There are nine and sixty ways of constructing a Batman story, and every single one of them is right.
Next time – Serial Killers, dark reflections of the Dark Knight, brave cops and a Batman on the verge of a breakdown.