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Retro Review Focus Doctor Death: Batman #345 and Detective Comics #512

Batman #345 (March, 1982) "Calling Doctor Death"  written by Gerry Conway, art by Gene Colon and Klaus Janson


Synopsis:  A wheelchaired Doctor Death exposes a would-be snitch named Keswick to a dust that turns out to be fatal.  His body is identified at the waterfront docks by Commisioner Gordon who brings Batman up to speed when he arrives.  Batman notices skin discoloration and boils on his body.  Later, while dressing for a party, Bruce noticed that Gordon seemed distracted, presumably due to Hamilton Hill recently winning the mayoral election and his promise to demand Gordon's resgination due to his age.  At the party, Bruce runs into Vicki Vale, and they meet Dick Grayson and his date, fellow university student, Dala (an older, attractive and mysterious woman – whose motives would be revealed a few issues later, and how!).  Vicki comments about Dala's age and points out guest Dr. Karl Hellfern, "a high-priced Dr. Feelgood."  Bruce and Hellfern exchange glances and Bruce senses something sinister.  Dala and Dick go out on the terrace and Dick is exposed to an airborne dust that is thick in the night sky.  Later in the Batcave, Batman and Robin analyze the dust Dick was exposed to and find out it's a deadly super-allergen.   After roughing up a snitch and learning where Keswick's killer is located, Batman and Robin head to Relief Island across the bay.   Once there, Robin is exhibiting symptoms of the sickness.  Then, they are suddenly blinded by actinic light and quickly overpowered and beaten unconscious.  Batman awakens to find  one of his wrists handcuffed with its chain looped over a narrow metal bar and attached on the other end to a still unconscious Robin; with both of them suspended beneath Gotham River Bridge.  Below, Dr. Hellfern calls up to Batman asking him how he can free himself without letting his partner fall to his doom, and calling himself by his other name – Doctor Death!   To be continued in …


Detective Comics #512 (March, 1982) "The Fatal Prescription of Doctor Death!" written by Gerry Conway, art by Gene Colon and Klaus Janson


Synopsis:  Before departing, Doctor Death tells Batman that he had his dust spread via helicopter the previous night which will kill all exposed to it after 48 hours unless he's paid one billion dollars for the antidote.  Meanwhile, Vicki Vale compares photos of Batman and Bruce Wayne's chins and concludes they must be the same person.   She also notices in the picture of Dala and Dick that Dick's face came out clear, but Dala's face came out suspiciously blurred (a nice foreshadowing hint for a forthcoming story).  Three hours later, with dawn approaching, Batman manages to position himself to reach his utility belt and pick his lock.  He grabs the loose Robin and drops him to the river and immediately dives after him, securing him and swimming to shore.  Meanwhile, Gotham's hospitals are being overwhelmed with victims to the dust with more than two million people being exposed.  After dropping off Robin at a hospital, Batman goes to Hellfern's mansion.   Doctor Death tries to expose Batman to his dust and escape by his powered wheelchair to his helictoper.  A well tossed batarang somehow takes down Doctor Death's helicopter and in the ensuing crash, Doctor Death is exposed to his own dust.  Batman punches out Doctor Death and obtains the antidote.  Later at Gotham General, Batman tells a recuperating Robin that the moaning he hears across the hall is from Doctor Death in his sickbed; the reaction to the antidote has given him hives.


Thoughts/Opinion:  I chose this story for a few reasons;  the new 52 version of Dr. Death is in the current issues of Batman, I don't think these stories have ever been reprinted, and the inclusion of Dick Grayson/Robin.  In the Golden Age and in new 52, Batman takes on Doctor Death solo.


The local fan reaction I was exposed to at the time was pretty excited to have Gene Colon doing artwork on Batman.  I had known of Colon from his very unique and atmouspheric work prior on Marvel's Tomb of Dracula title and before that, on Daredevil.  (He also did some work on romance titles as well.)   The artwork is great; but I always wondered what it would've looked like if he was inked by say, Tom Palmer (who had inked Colon on Tomb of Dracula) instead of Klaus Janson here.  You can see both Colon and Janson respective styles brought toghether.  Doctor Death/Hellfern is pretty much depicted as he looked in the Golden Age – aside from wheelchair bound, a monocle over the the left eye and the Van Dyke facial hair which looked an archetype villain.


The story had some head-scratching moments:  Robin learning he has a fatal illness, and visibly weakened, still goes with Batman to find Keswick's killer (and Batman allowing it).   Two million people going to Gotham City's hospitals?  I know Gotham City probably has lots of hospitals, but TWO MILLION PEOPLE?  Robin, in costume, being treated at Gotham General Hospital instead of the cave.  Yes, the hospital likely has the city's finest doctors, perhaps even had a GCPD guard to make sure he remained masked while he slept, but is Robin covered his own health care plan or Batman's?   Where does the hospital send the bill and to who?   Just how were Batman and Robin carried, lowered and placed under the Gotham River Bridge? 


I confess I did like the cliffhanger though.  At this point in time, the stories in the Batman title (leaving with a cliffhanger) would continue in Detective (as opposed to the next issue of Batman) forcing you to buy both monthly titles and DC figuring if you liked and bought Batman, you'd be getting Detective Comics anyway.   It should be noted that both issues had backup features as well (Catwoman in Batman, and Batgirl in Detective Comics).  I don't know if writer Conway had to tweak his scripting page count as he didn't have the full comic book in each issue to work with.  Add in the subplots (Dala, Commissioner Gordon, Vicki Vale), and there is a lot going on.  Doctor Death/Hellfern comes off pretty two-dimensional; we don't know how he came upon developing his "death dust" and his motive is simply blackmail.  His looks were not updated and I while I appreciated and respected that, he didn't come off as looking as menacing as the current incarnation and comes off a bit dated.   At least when Hugo Strange was brought back years earliler, I got an evil imposing vibe from him.   I think Conway did his best to fit everything he could in a story of this scope in a mere two issues (and not having the whole issues to work with either, mind you) and Colon's art was a treat.


Batman #345 & Detective Comics #512:


3.5 out of 5 Batarangs


Reviewed by Chris Karnes

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