Bat-Classics is a regular column in which How To Love Comics recommends Batman stories from yesteryear. You can find all the reading recommendations here.
Written by Doug Moench. Penciled by Paul Gulacy. Inked by Terry Austin. Lettered by John Costanza. Coloured by Steve Oliff.
Batman’s mission against the crime of Gotham is an obsession. If you’ve read enough Batman comics or recently saw The Batman, you’ll know it has consumed every aspect of his life. One story that demonstrates this clearly is Prey, which ran in Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #11-15 in 1990-1991.
Readers are taken back to Batman’s early days of fighting crime, sometime in his second year of operation. He doesn’t have the trust of the Gotham City Police Department yet, being seen more as a hindrance than a help. This bubbles over into the introduction of a task force, headed up by a reluctant Captain Gordon and aided by Hugo Strange, to take the vigilante off the streets. With the police breathing down his neck and Strange trying to discover his identity, Batman has his work cut out for him.
While he may not have the same recognition as other villains, Hugo Strange is one of Batman’s oldest foes. Appearing in 1940, he was initially conceived as a mad scientist that aligned with the pulp sensibilities of the time. Prey recontextualizes Strange in the Post-Crisis era as a psychiatrist who uses psychological warfare and intellect to take on Batman.
By having a psychiatrist as the central villain, Prey delves into what makes characters tick. In this instance, Moench focuses on obsession through the lens of Batman, Hugo Strange, and Sergeant Cort. Each has some form of obsessive behaviour, but the root cause and how it manifests are different.
As I mentioned in the opening, Batman’s obsession is his mission to rid Gotham of crime. In Prey, we see a Batman who’s consumed by his mission. It doesn’t matter if he’s injured, sleep-deprived, or wanted by the police, he keeps on going – much to the concern of Alfred, who tries to convince him to slow down. Prey differs from other Batman stories in how these obsessions are profiled to the public through Hugo Strange. While he doesn’t get everything right, there’s enough truth for it to get under our hero’s skin.
Hugo Strange’s obsessions are not clear at first glance. When introduced to readers, he appears to be simply a television psychiatrist motivated by self-interest. However, as the story progresses, his need to know eats away at him, and the façade of sanity disappears. What’s left is a madman whose approach to discovering Batman’s secret gets more desperate with every attempt. His body language plays a role in showing his state of mind in these moments. Gulacy depicts Strange with a wide smile of gritted teeth, hunched over, and a scrunched forehead that stands out thanks to Terry Austin’s spot blacks. It contrasts a cool, calm, and collected Batman, who’s depicted with a stone-faced expression and upright posture.
Finally, there’s Maxwell Cort, a GCPD sergeant who’s part of the task force. His obsession is fuelled by hate for Batman and derives from an earlier interaction that hurt his pride. He wants to take Batman down, no matter how it’s done, which results in some very desperate and hypocritical methods. It also allows him to be easily manipulated, first by Gordon but in more extreme ways by Hugo Strange. By the end, Gulacy depicts Cort with bulging eyes and sweat beading down his face. He has lost all control of his actions and has gotten to a point where failure is no longer an option.
Along with exploring the theme of obsession, Prey also gives more insight into Batman’s early days of crimefighting. He’s not as experienced and is still figuring things out. For instance, he trials a hang-glider that’s abandoned after one flight. On the other side, readers see how staples of the Batman mythos, such as the Batsignal and Batmobile, came to be. While these appear on first appear as easter eggs, they play a role in the larger narrative. The best example of this is the Batsignal’s usage to reflect Gordon’s trust in Batman.
As Batman doesn’t have all the equipment that helps him fight crime just yet, he is relying on existing skills and training. As a result, the action in Prey is martial arts inspired, with Batman delivering a series of calculated kicks, punches, chops, and knee strikes. (This would be familiar territory for Gulacy, who drew many issues of Master of Kung-Fu for Marvel in the 70s.) The artist makes these blows impactful by framing them in tight panels. This allows it to be the sole focus of action and is strung together with other similar panels to make the brawl feel heavy-hitting without the page economy suffering.
If I had any criticism, it would be how women are depicted. Beyond Catwoman – who is portrayed as sexy but is independent in her own way – every other woman is a kidnap victim or a criminal’s girlfriend. What makes it even worse is that they tend to be in their underwear or naked in the spa. As a story published in 1990-1991, much of this is a misguided attempt at being grim and gritty. Although, it feels unnecessary through a 2022 lens.
Beyond that, Prey comes highly recommended. While many stories have psychoanalysed Batman, it goes further by dedicating just as much time to it for the villains, making them more engaging for readers. It’s also a fascinating look at Batman’s early days that offers tidbits for readers beyond the surface level easter eggs.