Batman #401 (1986)
Batman #401 (November, 1986)
“A Bird in the Hand…”
Writer – Barbara J. Randall
Artist – Trevor Von Eeden
Letterer – John Costanza
Colorist – Adrienne Roy
Editor – Denny O’Neil
Cover Price: $0.75
Wouldja look at that? It’s Magpie! In my mind, perhaps the quintessential 1980’s DC Comics villain. She doesn’t get all that much play, but she always pops into my head when I think of this era. Hell, she even made an appearance in Man of Steel… not the movie, folks… well, maybe she did, I never saw it. I’m talkin’ the 1986 John Byrne miniseries here, which was a pretty big deal.
We open as a well-to-do couple gets ready to attend a hoi-poloi event. The woman latches her wildly opulent necklace around her neck. Unfortunately for her, a miniature Wolverine appears to be inside it. With a SNIK(t)!, a(n adamantium?) blade cuts into her throat… and she bleeds out while her husband talks to himself about how much he hates these kind of affairs.
We shift scenes to the Gotham City Police Department… more specifically, outside the window of Commissioner James Gordon’s office. The Batman is listening in to a conversation between Gordon and Detective (?) David Estevez. We learn that they know Magpie to be responsible for the recent jewelry-related crimes because… get this, she left a note. Despite letters from Batman, Superman, the behavioral health and law enforcement world… Magpie is out on bail. By this point, she is already responsible for the deaths of (at least) ten people. As Estevez leaves, Gordon waves Batman in. The bat has deduced that Magpie is going after pendants named after birds… the Eagle’s Heart, the Robin’s Egg, and Stanley’s Turtledove being the last three. He decides that the best course of action might be setting a trap… using the Wayne Collection of precious stones (he claims that Bruce Wayne “owes him one”)!
We advance to the event itself. Bruce is acting all “brucey” and aloof. He is introduced to the undercover officer who will be posing as his date for the afternoon, the potentially-not-long-for-this-world Detective Roberta Valle. She is set to wear the Falcon’s Eye around her neck.
As more VIPs and socialites shuffle in, we see that among the guest list is G. Gordon Godfrey, the evangelical fellow who is on an anti-superhero crusade. He has a contentious exchange with Ms. Valle which results in his wildly flailing his arms and knocking a waiter (who is carrying a tray of drinks, natch) into her… spilling the delightful green beverage all over her dress.
Bruce waves over a waitress to escort Valle to the washroom to get cleaned up. You’ll never guess who the waitress is… c’mon try and guess… okay, times up… it’s Magpie in a blonde wig!
She swipes the Falcon’s Eye and replaces it with a copy… that spews poisonous gas! So, Valle does what one would do when equipped with a death-maker… she runs through a crowded room to “share the wealth”. Gordon gets on evac-duty with the quickness, and Bruce loosens his stylish white bow-tie.
Moments later, the Batman swoops in. Like, literally… he swings in on a line. What that line is connected to, I haven’t the foggiest. In the mad rush, a rich-folk riot has broken out. Batman does what he can to keep the peace, and removes the faux-Falcon’s Eye from Ms. Valle. She expresses regret for jeopardizing the lives of those around her by… ya know, almost poisoning them.
After the dust settles, and the rich folks and police alike catch their breath… G. Gordon Godfrey decides to, get this… climb up on a table to continue his pontificating. He tries to spin Batman’s sudden appearance as an attack rather than anything heroic. C’mon dude… chill out a bit, we’ve lumbering into cartoon villainy here.
Speaking of cartoon villainy… we got some more of that on the way! But first, we have Robin… who must have just been hanging out in the Batcave waiting for the party to end. He and Batman hop into a decidedly old-school looking Batmobile, dual bubble-windshields and all… and go on the hunt. It doesn’t take them long to find their destination… the warehouse of the party-caterer.
Inside we’ve got Magpie acting all goofy. She’s standing among her collection of “pretty birdies” and singing.
Batman and Robin enter by… ya know, walking through the door. Magpie’s henchmen hop-to and start blasting away. Luckily, they’re all a pretty bad shot. In one of my favorite panels in a long while, one catches a batarang in the face… and just states “Uhhf, that hurt!” Gotta love it!
The battle rages on. Batman starts tossing fools into Magpie’s glass-cases of pretty-shiny-things, which vexes her. She attempts to flee, and so Robin does a flippy-do snapmare type move on her… however, rather than grabbing her body… he manages to pull down her top, exposing her Magpie-Mammaries… whoops. As Robin shields his eyes from the birdie-boobies, Magpie gets away. Smooth, Jason… real smooth.
Magpie exits the room, and closes a panel of glass behind her. She then triggers a pretty cartoony death trap, which is set to kill not only our heroes, but her henchfolk as well. Nozzles appear from atop the room… and from them, lasers shoot out. The nozzles begin to lower, promising to slice the room’s inhabitants as though they were cheese.
Thinking on his feet, Batman pulls a mirror out of Magpie’s display set up to use as a shield. He then nabs a super-multi faceted gemstone to use as a prism of sorts. We follow Magpie as she runs up a flight of stairs… when she reaches the top, she trips and drops her newly-stolen necklace. Whoops.
Back inside the deathtrap, the lasers continue to descend. Batman and Robin hide behind the mirror… neglecting to protect the henchmen, because… ehh, why bother. As the lasers get low enough, Batman holds up the gemstone. This catches one of the beams and redirects it into the glass door… weakening it enough so that Robin can shatter it with a well-placed kick.
While this is going down, Magpie is still laying on the ground after tripping. Okay. She crawls over, ever so slowly, to the Falcon’s Eye… and as soon as she grabs it, she finds herself sitting at the foot of the Batman!
She pulls out, not just a gun… but an explosive dart gun… and aims it at the man. Bad move, bird-girl… Batman lifts the window blinds and holds that same super-faceted gemstone into the light. The resulting explosion of shininess dazzles poor Magpie.
Rather than fight on, she proceeds to throw a temper-tantrum about wanting all the pretty things. From here she’s easy pickin’s, and Batman escorts her out.
Well… wow. This was kind of a dud. Definitely not the best outing for the Randall (later-Kesel) and Von Eeden here. I’ve seen this book cited around the internet as being the first “official” post-Crisis issue of Batman, and if that is true… we’re kinda stumbling out of the gate here. Oh Magpie, I had such high hopes for you!
The writing went from feeling natural to being stilted almost from panel to panel, and the art… this is definitely not Von Eeden at his Thriller best. That’s not really fair… there are some really impressive pages here… it’s just not terribly consistent. We get some incredible panels… and one’s that kind of feel unnatural, and static. Definitely still love Trevor’s work though.
The whole thing kind of feels like a rush-job filler. Both writer and artist here are not the regular creators on this title… and as far as I can tell, this is their only issue together. Max Allan Collins would take over from here… minus a certain Year One tale a few months down the line. Maybe they just didn’t know exactly what to do with the character at this point… or were just killing time before Frank Miller righted the ship. Either way… this just didn’t do it for me.
This issue is an official tie-in to the Legends crossover (which puts it squarely post-Crisis), and features an appearance from G. Gordon (Glorious) Godfrey as he rather theatrically spreads and foments his anti-superhero propaganda. I mean, the fool was pontificating while standing atop an opulently set table here, for cripes’ sake!
I’m guessing the Robin who somehow materializes during this issue is Jason Todd… though in his decidedly pre-Crisis friendly incarnation. Dick was already Nightwing at this point, and had been for a good couple years. I always get a kick out of seeing the non-jerk-ass Jason… just so weird for DC to put Dick Grayson in the ditto-machine and just run with the character that popped out the other end.
This issue also features what may be young Jason’s first eyeful of boobies. Truly a coming of age for the nouveau-Robin… Magpie will always have a special place in his heart… as she does mine.
The bit where our dynamic duo had to escape the deathtrap felt like something out of the 1966 TV show… which, is a good thing. This issue does exercise Batman’s physicality, detective skills and intellect… I’ll definitely give it that. That brought my opinion of the overall package up a few ticks right there.
Breaks my heart to say this, but… you don’t really need to seek this one out. If you’re in the mood for a (relatively) lighthearted romp… relatively because as you can see there are deaths… and a fair amount of bloodshed… I suppose this isn’t the worst thing you could pick up. The Legends bit is really just more of the same from Glorious Godfrey… if you’ve been following the event, you’ve surely seen his antics before… and this doesn’t deviate from the formula.
3 thoughts on “Batman #401 (1986)”
It was that Man of Steel appearance that I *always* think of, whenever I see anything with Magpie. And I "hear" that screeching, annoying voice from the audio edition of the issue.
That said…I don't remember actually reading this issue, despite the conscious knowledge that I had to have read it at some point, long before I started acquiring comics faster than I could read them all.
I remember this being in one of those department store 3-packs with the "backing board" you could cut up into 6 or 8 "trading cards".
I'd forgotten about this issue, and more recently been thinking of 408 as the first post-Crisis issue (not really counting Year One as that hadn't yet been so thoroughly canonized, in my memory at least).
"Frank Miller righted the ship"…ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!!!!!
Disagree. I was 14 or 15 when I got this in the mail, as part of my subscription. I stopped the mail subscription after 1 year b/c quality was inconsistent (after “Year One”) & the mail often bent or tore the edges. Anyway, this issue was a perfect encapsulation of Batman (& Robin) from their 1st pairing, up until that moment in time. And despite it being post-Crisis, b/c of how Trevor drew this iteration dynamic duo like they were based on the “Super Friends” model, I read it as Bruce & Dick Grayson. (Check out Robin’s sideburns. Jason wouldn’t get old enough as Robin to grow them.) It was an anachronism, sure, an “evergreen” tale in a time bubble, but that doesn’t mean it rang false from its source materials (including the 60’s live action TV show, & animated cartoons in the 60’s, 70’s & 80’s).
It was where Batman had been, more than where he’d go. And I was cool with that. The story was fine. It was an event tie in, but it told you who Batan was back then, & some of his relationships. I forget, did Alfred make an appearance? Relatively lighter in tome, but not grim & gritty. The art, though, had some grit, gave the tale some weight.
The “Super Friends” reference again, in the character design. Simple, basic models, with some kinetic edge, like Alex Toth but if inked by Klaus Janson. I’d 1st seen Trevor’s work in that Batman Annal # 8, but wouldn’t own until decades later. I was too young to have my own money then, & we were honestly too poor for it to be a purchase in the grocery store where I saw it. 3 or 4 years later I did have some meager cash, & I bought “BatO” # 16, I think. Trevor drawing the Outsiders vs. the New Olympians @ the ’84 LA. games. I was amazed. Trevor changed comics for me.
By then I knew of Bill Sienkewicz from his classic “Moon Knight” & then his bizarre “New Mutants”. I wasn’t mature enough to appreciate some of it. Trevor’s though, I got it. Maybe not the “it” that was intended, but the style clicked for me. All the fundamentals were there. Figure, perspective, proportion, expression. But also a kinetic impressionism my eyes returned to repeatedly. Batman was distilled down to essentials without losing any power or mystery. I think “BatO” # 16 might be stronger than “Batman” # 401, but it still had enough of those qualities to satisfy.
Robin, especially, as nonsensical as his costume is, has his movements drawn so well, it feels like action, like he’s moving. Batman looks cool. Again, simplified, but Trevor shows Batman is strong, sturdy, formidable. I don’t need meticulously detailed musculature. And the cowl is effective. I strongly dislike seeing Bruce’s eyes under Batman’s cowl. It breaks the spell. It’s why I don’t celebrate Alex Ross’s amazingly realistic rendition. Batman needs a degree of abstraction for me for it to work. Not look like some beefy athletic man dressed for a kiddie party.
Now it could be Trevor’s frenetic distillations were a result of tight deadlines. But it opened up new possibilities and expectations for comics. It built on the old, but pushed towards the new. Trevor’s one of a handful of artists who worked during the Bronze Age, that ultimately helped end it, by breaking with its conventions, and inspiring others after them to continue exploring or refining.