"[Englehart's runs on Captain America and Detective Comics] are both entertaining superhero storylines, but they're not transcendent or noteworthy in any way to me except being better than most of what was out there."
Which is fair enough. But the list did get me thinking about those Englehart/Rogers comics, and the Denny O'Neil/Neal Adams issues of Batman, which both encapsulate '70s superhero comics for me. To a certain extent, that's because they were the first comics from that era that I read -- yes, almost all of my early comics experiences were through Batman. But I loved those comics for more than their mysteries and adventures. They were expressions of a romantic idea of Gotham City (i.e., New York) as a metropolis deeply scarred by crime and poverty, but still impossibly exciting and dynamic. It comes across in O'Neil and Englehart's pulpy words, and also in Rogers' drawings of Batman and his enemies swooping between the city's skyscrapers. To me, this approach feels '70s now because it was more urban, with a stronger sense of place, than earlier Batman comics, and it would be superseded in the '80s by Frank Miller's conception of Gotham as Hell on Earth.
(Grant Morrison says he tried to convey this earlier sense of the city in his just-ending stint on Batman and Robin: "Gotham needs as many faces as Batman -- it should be the loudest, sexiest, jazziest city on Earth.")
The mood I'm talking about may have been best captured in "Death Strikes at Midnight and Three," a prose story written by O'Neil and illustrated by Rogers. The main plot is a routine mystery, but it gives O'Neil and Rogers a chance to cut loose in their depiction of Gotham. Here's a sample of the prose:
"It's a monster sprawled along 25 miles of eastern seaboard, stirring and seething and ever-restless. Eight million human beings live on streets that, if laid end-to-end, would stretch all the way to Tokyo, crammed into thousands of neighborhoods from the fire-gutted tenements of Chancreville, where rats nestle in babies' bedclothes and grandmothers forage in garbage cans, to the penthouses of Manor Row, where the cost of a single meal would support an immigrant family for a year. It is countless chambers and crannies and corners in bars, boats, houses, hotels, elevators, offices, theaters, shacks, tunnels, depots, shops, factories, restaurants, newsstands, hospitals, junkyards, cemeteries, buses, cars, trains, trams, bridges, docks, sewers, parks, jails, mortuaries -- the shelters of living and dead, millionaires and bums, fiends and saints."
I suspect my ongoing fascination with cities begins with 8- or 9-year-old me, sitting in my suburban backyard, reading that paragraph.