Monday, January 16, 2012

Batman in the 1970s Part 1: The Dark Knight Extinguished



by Peter Enfantino
and Jack Seabrook

Before Neal Adams helped bring The Dark Knight (after years of sugar-coated crap and alternate world madness) back to relevance, he stomped his foot all over DC horror, inventing the look of the "Mystery Line" (Tales of the Unexpected, House of Mystery, House of Secrets) after those comics had also fallen out of favor. Previously spotlighting science fiction tales (and not very good ones, at that) and the occasional series (Dial 'H' For Hero, Martian Manhunter, Mark Merlin, Eclipso, Ra-Man, etc.), the titles were near-unreadable and, we would assume, never far from the axe. Enter Neal Adams in 1968. His covers for House of Mystery #174 and #175 are arguably the most iconic in horror comics. At about this time, he and Denny O'Neil produced one of the most controversial strips in comics history, their run on Green Lantern/Green Arrow (#76, April 1970- #89, April 1972), a kind of roadshow of America's faults and shortcomings (faults which continue to this day, we should add). But this new column is actually about 1970s Batman and not a history of Neal Adams. There are several fine studies of Adams out there on the net and in print.

To understand the instant impact Neal Adams made on Batman, we need to go back a bit further to what he walked into. In 1964, Julius Schwartz revamped the Batman titles, creating the "new look," to help stall dwindling sales (we suspect the new Marvel titles were siphoning readers from the established DC titles at a very high clip).  Now, we've read the last batch of the "old look" and the first dozen of the "new look" and honestly can't find a difference. Batman #163 (March 1964), written by Bill Finger and drawn by Sheldon Moldoff, features "The Joker Jury," in which the Clown Prince of Crime uses a giant vacuum cleaner to suck up priceless gems (and Robin) at the International Fair. The story, dialogue, and props all predict the upcoming TV show. We can imagine this issue in the stack of comics that inspired William Dozier to launch the project. While #163 is the last of the "old look," #164 (published the following month) purports to be the premiere of the "new look." "The Two-Way Gem Caper," written by France Herron and drawn again by Moldoff, introduces the new, sportier Batmobile, the yellow circled Bat on the Caped Crusader's chest, the elevators to the Batcave (previously the Duo had to walk down a flight of stairs), and the exit from the Batcave (made famous later on the TV series). Other than these new angles, it seems to be just the "old Batman" as far as the story goes. This one concerns a villain named Mr. Dabblo, who's attempting to steal "The Pearl of the Orient" from the Gotham Museum, and Dick Grayson's obsession with hootenanny music. Sales took a slight bump up but nothing earth-shattering. The real bump would come thanks to ABC-TV two years later.

The sales of Batman in the late 1960s mirrored the success (and quick downfall) of the campy ABC-TV series starring Adam West and Burt Ward as The Dynamic Duo. Made by men with an obvious disregard for the source material (and its fans), the show magnified the ludicrous aspects of the 1960s Batman titles (Batman and Detective Comics) and eliminated any of the mystery and peril that rose to the top of the swill now and then. In 1965, the year before the show went on the air, Batman was selling an average of 454,000 copies a month (good for #9 in the Top Ten of the Year). The following year, riding the coattails of Batmania, the title skyrocketed to become the best-selling comic book in America (an average of 898,000 copies a month!). Contrast that with today's sales, of course, and it was still a huge hit. Recently, DC relaunched its entire line and the biggest-selling single title of the year became Batman #1, with sales of 188,000! Until this reboot, the title had been selling south of 52,000 copies.


Two years later, the show was dead and sales began to slide until, by 1970, Batman was selling under 300,000 a month. In today's numbers that would be a blockbuster but in the 1960s, it could spell cancellation. Many feel a title that's been going for 30+ years would surely be kept around as a badge but let's not forget that DC had no problem axing Adventure Comics after 45 years and 504 issues.

Typical of the comics published while the show was on the air is "Mystery of the Missing Manhunters" (Batman #184, September 1966). Missing for 13 days and suffering a form of amnesia, Robin must hypnotize Batman to find out where they've been and what they've been up to. Seems they've been babysitting a thug named "Slippery" Sam Lorenzo, until recently "the brain behind Robbery Incorporated," a syndicate terrorizing Gotham, but now persona non grata and tossed out a skyscraper window. Luckily, Batman happens by and, like a scene from the TV show, uses the "bat-spring ejector" in the Batmobile trunk to fly up and save the falling gangster. Time constraints here, as in the show, make no difference. It's all in the delivery. The amnesia comes after Lorenzo escapes by rigging an electric charge to the Batmobile, shocking the Duo and erasing their memory of the past two weeks. The art (credited to the notorious robber baron, Bob Kane, but actually penciled by Sheldon Moldoff and inked by Joe Giella) is typically generic, unspectacular mid-1960s DC and the story (by Gardner Fox) is lazy and predictable. Many cues seem to be right out of the television show, including a cameo by Aunt Harriet (who, to be fair, had been introduced in the comic two years before the show aired) and the enlarged sound effects (POW! THWAAPP!).

Now, make no mistake, there were the occasional edgier stories peppered in with the pablum. "Death Knocks Three Times" (Batman #180, May 1966) is a nonsensical tale with a ghoulish twist. Batman must deal with a new menace, Death-Man, a skeletal wraith who has Batman questioning his own sanity. Each time the Caped Crusader manages to nab the spectre, Death-Man dies, only to rise again from his grave. Of course, there's a logical explanation for the resurrections: Death-Man has mastered the art of "yogi," which enables you to hold your breath and slow your pulse to simulate death.  Written by Robert Kanigher and penciled by Moldoff, the story elicits the kind of vibe created by the 1950s pre-code horror published by companies such as ACG.

Neal Adams's first Batman work was the cover of The Brave and The Bold #75 (January 1968), illustrating a team-up of The Dark Knight and The Spectre. His first interior art featuring Batman would be "The Secret of the Waiting Graves" (Detective Comics #395). Which brings us to this new feature of bare•bones: Batman of the 1970s. Each post will cover two months' output of Detective Comics and Batman, the two flagship Batman titles. We're avoiding the other Bat-titles (Batman Family, Brave and the Bold, and World's Finest) as well as umpteen other short-lived comic books. If anything, the month Neal Adams arrived to extend a hand to the sinking Caped Crusader should be designated "the new look." But what about the other artists and writers who were given the plum assignment of creating new adventures for The Dark Knight? We'll have a look at every artist/writer team to work on the titles. Was Neal Adams the cream of the crop or was he just the flashiest? Stay tuned!

12 comments:

Todd Mason said...

I certainly enjoyed BATMAN and DETECTIVE (and THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD) considerably as a kid ca. 1973...David V. Reed/Dave Verne, he of Ray Palmer's magazines in the '40s and early '50s, being a primary scripter then...and the Spectre about as much. Sorry I didn't get to see the '68 teamup (I was just starting to read DC sf comics in '68 or '69, purchased for me by my sf-loving father or my indulgent mother, no doubt, but I'm not sure which from those days of being 4yo).

Jack Seabrook said...

You and I are about the same age, Todd! I turned 5 in 1968. Glad you're joining us! I look forward to your comments.

Greg M said...

Just want to commend you folks on looking at one of my favourite eras of Batman. I have an extensive comic collection, and Batman is pretty much subject number 1 for me. I look forward to your comments. Now if only someone can put out a blog to explain the horrible, horrible mess that was Wonder Woman in the 60s...

Peter Enfantino said...

Greg-

Thanks for taking the time to post your thoughts. I hope you'll read along with us and give us your thoughts on each issue. As for DC in the 1960s, I'm definitely not the guy to talk to as I wa a Marvel zombie from the get-go and never appreciated any of the DC characters outside of The Dark Knight. Jack?

Jack Seabrook said...

I never read Wonder Woman in the 60s, or the 70s, for that matter. That was for girls! I did have a crush on Wonder Girl from the Teen Titans, however.

John Scoleri said...

I had a crush on Wonder Woman in the 70s, but then who didn't. Gotta love Lynda Carter.

What I want to know in re: Bats...

Was Adams the guy who single-handedly changed the look from cartoony to cool?

I don't think I'll keep up with reading every issue, so I'm counting on you guys to recommend those that are worth the time, but I think, just based on the little bit of peeking ahead that I've done, that I'm going to want to take a gander at any issue Neal Adams put pen to paper for.

Peter Enfantino said...

We could always do this on the phone but to pump up our numbers, I'll just say that Adams is chiefly responsible for the coolest Batman ever drawn. I firmly believe that there would have not been a Frank Miller Dark Knight had it not been for the first artist to ever do The Knight dark. All you have to do is sample some of the Batmans from a few years prior. Hell, just watch the show (actually you already did) and you'd get a taste of what it was like. Since you're the lazy and naive type, Jack and I will do our best to ejacate ya.

Greg M. said...

You bet I'll be reading this column. I have a number of the issues that you guys will be covering, so it'll be great to see your take on them.

And I also saw you guys will be looking at the war comics as well. I look forward to those discussions as well.

Move out, Easy!

Greg M. said...

BTW, just as a side note, I know the focus of your articles is going to be on the 1970s issues, but I think you should start with the December 1969 issues of Batman/Detective Comics. That's where the big change-up begins.

Just a thought.

ambignostic said...

I came in late, but I intend to read every entry in this series. I'm so excited by this! Born in 1970, I completely imprinted on the Dark Knight of this decade, so naturally it feels like a golden age of the character to me. Thanks for your entertaining writing!

Jack Seabrook said...

Welcome, ambig! We look forward to your comments as you read through the blog!

Zac said...

"death knocks three times" seems taken from the stuff Jiro Kuwata was doing in Japan at about the same time. Or maybe Kuwata took it from the artist and writer in the US because the plot and art for "Death Man" is very similar to the Japanese manga. See Bat-Manga from 2008 which details the history of Batman in Japan