It was fall of 1988 and I was in basic training in the US Air Force. I was feeling sad and home sick. I was 18 years old and had never been away from home before. One of my fondest memories of that time was one day during mail call. My name was called and a big manila envelope was tossed at my head. It was from my best friend Jim from back home. Jim made sure I received a letter each and every week while I was in basic.
Later that day, during some well deserved personal time, I was able to open the envelope to see what was inside. There was no letter at all, just a single comic book. It was the recent issue of Detective Comics. Because I knew I would not be able to keep up with the titles I liked to read, I had told Jim before I left for basic that I was giving up on comic books. Part of it was because I thought I needed to grow up and be an adult. At the time, I didn’t think adults should read comic books.
I must have read that single comic dozens of times during my time there. It brought back memories of home and the days Jim and I sat and read comics together. Maybe it was the thoughts that surrounded the particular comic or maybe it was the story; but that became my favorite Batman story from that moment on. A few weeks later I was at the BX (Base Exchange) and was able to get the next issue and conclusion of the story.
They say a hero is defined by his enemies. Batman has some of the most colorful, memorable, and diabolical villains of any comic book hero. Some say that it is Batman himself that gives birth to the legions of criminals that he wages war against. Fear is a weapon that he relies on to give himself an edge over the petty thugs and street criminals. But what happens when an extremely disturbed man uses fear and a metahuman ability to assume the appearance of others as a weapon to kill?
Batman pursues a serial killer named Cornelius Stirk. Stirk has the ability to change his appearance to his victims. He appears as someone they would trust and once he lures to a sense of trust, he strikes. Taking them back to his apartment, he induces images of fear and terror in his subjects before he savagely kills them.
Unknown to Stirk, there is another master of fear trailing him; The Batman. After piecing together evidence of past victims, he finds Stirk’s apartment and waits for him to return. When Stirk returns with another victim, Batman confronts him to stop his reign of terror. But Stirk is more cunning than he anticipates and is able to trick and knock him unconscious. Now Stirk and his obsession with inducing fear match wits with Batman, a man who can control his fear. Can Batman resist Stirk’s persuasive powers?
The chess game begins as Batman regains consciousness. Stirk subjects him to various terrifying images which have no effect on him. He realizes that Batman will require more work than his usual victims and is delighted with the challenge. He threatens exposing his identity to the world and various other tactics, but Batman remains strong. It is then when Stirk touches the nerve in him that he’s been seeking. To watch an innocent die while he watches helplessly is the fear that Stirk was looking for within him.
Stirk turns his attention and his knife on the innocent security guard tied up on the other side of the room. He taunts Batman as his blade slowly slices into the man’s skin. But as with most of Batman’s enemies, Stirk underestimates his dedication to protecting the innocent. Dazed and wounded, Batman focuses his strength and will to break free of his bonds.
A bewildered and now frightened Stirk begs Batman for mercy. In typical fashion, Batman is short on words and long on action. With a single, powerful blow, he knocks the troubled Stirk unconscious. Being a hero doesn’t always mean you’re fearless. Being a hero means that you are able to overcome your fear. Stirk is safely locked away in Arkham Asylum and Batman continues his nightly crusade against crime.
This book introduced an interesting new villain who made a few more appearances in the pages of Batman and Detective Comics and has not been seen since No Man’s Land, but recently made a return to the DC Universe in Kevin Smith‘s Batman: The Widening Gyre. Cornelius Stirk was a kind of a Scarecrow knockoff; but I found him to be a little more diabolical and interesting. His methods and demeanor made him different than other villains and made him stand out as a true psychopath.
The writing by John Wagner and Alan Grant along with the amazing artwork by Norm Breyfogle was in my opinion some of the best of the time. It’s what made DC Comics what it is today and a great foundation to the industry as a whole. This was truly the hay day of comic books.
This was a great and memorable Batman story. The raw and basic evil brought out in Stirk along with the interaction between him and Batman is written beautifully. But it’s the feelings and memories behind this book that make it so important to me. While I was writing this, Jim happened to call me and we talked a while about it. It gave writing this article a little more meaning to me and I’m glad I was able to share it with you. These two issues of Detective Comics – The Fear Parts 1 & 2, will always hold a special place in my collection and my memory.