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DC Comics Reading Recommendations

Batman vs Biplane: Death Flies The Haunted Sky

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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.

Batman stories come in a variety of lengths. Some of them are sprawling epics covering more than a dozen issues. Others are more humble in their scope, spanning an issue or two. However, as Archie Goodwin and the legendary Alex Toth proved, sometimes, you only need eleven pages to tell a classic. That’s what they did in 1974 with Death Flies The Haunted Sky in Detective Comics #442.

Around the time of publication, Detective Comics was a one-hundred-page anthology. It served as a place to publish Batman stories and several other characters. Most of these guests couldn’t sustain their own titles, so having their stories in a title anchored by Batman made a lot of sense. But sharing the comic meant that the stories had to be shorter.

Detective Comics #442 cover by Jim Aparo and Tatjana Wood.
Detective Comics #442 cover by Jim Aparo and Tatjana Wood.

In Death Flies The Haunted Sky, having fewer pages is noticeable but not detrimental. It’s a no-nonsense story that moves at a steady clip and doesn’t linger on any moment for too long. It opens with a one-page prologue. This is where readers are introduced to a ghostly white World War 1 era biplane that shoots up an apartment building. It’s all you need to know who the bad guy is, even if the pilot’s identity is posed as a mystery.

For the next page, we’ve jumped ahead to see Batman on the scene and attempting to stop the biplane. Jumping directly into the action might be jarring for some readers. However, it’s the right decision considering the reduced page count. It’s not really important how Batman was aware of the drama unfolding or how he got there. (This is where the reader’s head cannon can fill in the blanks.) What’s most important is that Batman is there and on the case.

As an aside, I should discuss Alex Toth. He was a comic book legend with a strong sense of storytelling and composition. While he might not have done many sustained runs on famous titles, he’s best known for his Zorro comics and his own creation Bravo for Adventure. Toth worked at Hanna-Barbera for much of the 1960s and 1970s, where he was a storyboard artist and character designer, with Space Ghost one of many notable creations he had a hand in.

Detective Comics #443 page by Alex Toth.
Detective Comics #443 page by Alex Toth.

Going back to the page, it’s pretty spectacular. Starting from the top, we have the story’s title. The lettering has a ghostly stroke, with a skull inserted into the letter “A” to make it more spooky. This helps set the tone for the villain, who has a ghostly appearance. From there, the word “Batman” has been worked into his cape in a Will Eisner-like fashion. It mimics the cape’s shape, flowing like fabric and matching the scene’s energy.

Further down is the central image, with Batman, with his back to the reader, facing off against the unearthly biplane. This image has a lot of depth. The background contains the city, made up of layered buildings that show off the size of Gotham. There’s also a nice touch of Batman’s rope that spirals towards the reader, overlapping with the credits in the process. Due to the angle of this composition, the two foes look incredibly close. They’re both heading right at each other. Will they collide? Or will one of them get out of the way? By this stage, the excitement levels are through the roof. You’ll want to turn the page to see what happens next.

Without going into too much detail, as I’ll end up describing every page at this rate, the following page sees Toth crafts a dynamic layout for the high-flying action. The first panel slices down the whole page, with the righthand of it coming in on an angle. The narrowness of the bottom illustrates how high Batman and the biplane are. This is accentuated by the fact that both only occupy the top third of the tall panel. It’s a clever way to ramp up the action and raise the stakes.

Detective Comics #443 panel by Alex Toth.
Detective Comics #443 panel by Alex Toth.

From here on out, we get traditional page layouts, adhering to a grid-like manner. The story tones down the action a bit so it can get into the mystery. Who is the pilot? It’s a great mystery, with Archie Goodwin offering up an obvious culprit before a final twist reveals the true pilot.

However, I do have one gripe. This isn’t to do with the story or art but with how the edition I read (from Batman: A Celebration of 75 Years) has been recoloured. The modern version’s colours are less impressive than the original, with fewer colours used and the addition of unnecessary gradients. An example of this is the bookshelf on the first page. In the original version, these were different colours. With the new colouring, these have been flattened to a bland grey. These changes take the life out of a quality comic and give it a hint of blandness.

Detective Comics #443 panel by Alex Toth.
Detective Comics #443 panel by Alex Toth.

This appears to be exacerbated in the print edition, giving off an early digital colouring muddiness via the printing process. That said, I checked the digital edition and discovered these choices translate better to a screen. They don’t appear as dull, perhaps benefitting from a backlit screen. It would’ve been nice to have a more faithful recreation, though – it’s certainly achievable.

Look no further than Death Flies The Haunted Sky if you want a short and exciting Batman tale. It has action, mystery, and more packed into eleven pages. It’s also a fantastic introduction to Alex Toth, showing off what the legendary artist can do. Hopefully, it will whet your appetite for more.

Death Flies The Haunted Sky has been collected a few times, most notably in Tales of the Batman: Archie Goodwin and Batman: A Celebration of 75 Years. It can be found in good comic book shops, online retailers, eBay, and Amazon/Kindle.

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