Monday, January 30, 2012

Batman in the 1970s Part 3: March and April 1970

by Peter Enfantino
& Jack Seabrook

Detective Comics #397 (March 1970)

"Paint a Picture of Peril"
written by Dennis O'Neil
art by Neal Adams & Dick Giordano

Four scuba gear-clad men break into the Gotham Marine Festival Art Exhibit to steal the least valuable painting on display, "Startled Mermaid," by Van Der Smuts. Their robbery is momentarily broken up by the Batman, but the Caped Crusader is harpooned and must allow the robbers to escape. Our hero notices a strange glow to the algae in the water and deduces that only a submarine with "low-yield nuclear engines" could leave a glow like that. With the help of his undersea sled, Batman is able to track the sub to the estate of recluse millionaire Orson Payne, whose obsession with the past leads him to steal works of art.

Jack: Another dynamite Adams cover, though once again it doesn't really show what happens in the story.

PE: I guess Marvel wasn't the only comics company that built most of their stories around coincidences.   When Bruce Wayne enters his study, the television is on and airing a documentary on Orson Payne (is that name an homage to Orson Welles and Citizen Kane by writer O'Neil?). The trail of the sub leads right to the mansion of Payne himself. How does a private citizen, even a multi-millionaire, go about acquiring a nuclear sub?

Jack: I'm not wild about this story. It seems pretty run of the mill for an O'Neil/Adams piece, and some of the art is pretty weak for Adams--especially the page where Bruce Wayne fixes his own wound.

PE: I agree, Jack. I get no sense of continuity from either title as of yet. These stories feel more like the type that would run in an anthology title like House of Mystery (there's a hint of the supernatural here and a huge dose of it in Detective #395's "The Secret of the Waiting Graves"). Nothing seems to carry over. The Batman shows up to a mystery, does a little detective work, and wraps it up in 14 pages. Maybe the abbreviated page count has a lot to do with this or maybe it's just the way things were always done at DC. With Marvel University, we're able to begin at square one and watch how the "Marvel Method" develops. Here, we've jumped into the middle of a 70-year history. I'm not sure I'd be able to read the 30 years' worth of material that came prior to 1970 if the stories are like these. Thank goodness we're getting a heaping helping of great art from all parties involved. Speaking of the House of Mystery, you can almost imagine Batman (in that panel to the left above) as a gargoyle perched upon the sill of two cowering little boys. Adams's art is nightmarish no matter the circumstances.

Jack: Neal Adams really can draw a cape!

PE: On the letters page, there's correspondence from future novelist and television writer Alan Brennert (L.A. Law, The Twilight Zone, China Beach).

"The Hollow Man"
written by Frank Robbins
art by Gil Kane & Murphy Anderson

In a story continuing from last issue, Batgirl is hunting the deadly Orchid-Killer, a man who dates and murders redheads. A succession of really bad dates doesn't deter her in the slightest. She finally manages to score a meet with the real deal only to have the trap fouled by Jason Baird, who's been following Barbara on her dates. Eventually, a little detective work leads Batgirl right to the killer who, it turns out, has been under her nose all the time.

PE: Barbara Gordon needs to find a better dating service. They keep sending her guys uglier than the one before. Maybe all the bachelors in Gotham are either goons or alter egos. She almost seems charmed that Jason has turned into a stalker, following her around on her dates. This was the early 1970s, before that kind of behavior was frowned upon, I suppose. By 1970, it was probably bad form to call a character lame as Stan Lee did throughout the 1960s with Doctor Don Blake aka The Mighty Thor.

Jack: Can I rave a little bit about the art by Kane and Anderson? It's page after page of dynamic layouts and creative angles, with superb draftsmanship. Even if this issue didn't feature Adams's best work, the combination of Adams and Kane makes this a real visual treat.

PE: Oh yeah, as with the opener, the art is fabulous and makes up for a weak story filled with dopey turns. Do you think every  computer dater-turned murderer leaves his actual street address with the company? Wouldn't a master detective like Batgirl be able to tell if someone is wearing a mask, especially if that someone gets real close to her? Hopefully, we won't get too many final-panel expositories, like we got here, in the future.

Batman #220 (March 1970)

"This Murder Has Been Pre-Recorded"
written by Frank Robbins
art by Irv Novick & Dick Giordano

Batman races to a midnight rendezvous at a telephone booth. A taped message contains a killer's confession, and the booth explodes! Batman narrates the events leading up to the blast. The day before, Bruce Wayne had received a visit from feature reporter Marla Manning, who reported on the murder of Tom Sloane. He had been blown up after turning the ignition key in his car. Marla investigated the Nova Demolition Co. and began receiving threats to "lay off--or else!"

Bruce decides that this is a job for Batman, who pays a visit to Sloane's widow, finding her being menaced by a gunman. Batman fights the gunman but is unable to prevent his escape. Mrs. Sloane refuses to identify the criminal.

Investigating further, Batman learns that Zachary Nova, president of the demolition company, was discharged from service in Vietnam. Nova catches Batman snooping and they fight, but Batman leaves after Nova threatens to blow them both up.

Batman then talks Marla into planting a story that will smoke Nova out. The trick works, and Nova calls to set up a meeting, where he will supply Marla with proof of Sloane's killer.

That night, Marla goes to the meeting spot and Batman appears, taking her place for the rendezvous. The confession is played, the phone booth explodes, and Nova appears, holding Marla at gunpoint. Batman takes him by surprise and knocks him out. Batman reveals that he had placed a dummy in the phone booth.

Sloane's widow later admits that Nova had saved her husband's life in Vietnam and then blackmailed him when they both came home. When Sloane rebelled, Nova killed him.

PE: "This Murder has been Pre-Recorded" contains another of those cheat splash pages that has become legendary for the Batman comics. Obviously, Batman can't be dead since he's one of two tentpoles that kept DC afloat, but couldn't Robbins have provided a bit of mystery to the proceedings? How can Batman be dead after the events of the splash page when, on page 2, he's narrating the story of what led to his appearance at the phone booth. Storytelling 101. Then, when we get to the obligatory closing explanatory, we're asked to swallow a whole load of bunk smelling like 1930's shudder pulps. It's the same sort of "re-written and re-drawn perspective" we got with the great airplane adventure in Detective #395.

Jack: This one didn't bother me much. It was clear that Batman did not die in the explosion because he was narrating the story. So the mystery was one of what really happened at that phone booth?

PE: I really like the art from Novick and Giordano here. It's exciting and the characters each have a distinct look that doesn't change from panel to panel like some of the Dick Ayers art I've been seeing way too much of over at Marvel University. Frank Robbins's storytelling could use a few new wrinkles. I don't feel I've read anything startlingly original but it's competent and gets the job done. Just don't expect Frank Miller or Denny O'Neil's Batman here. A big plus is the paucity of dialogue balloons and narrative. Most of the story is told through the visuals. It's not that I want to fly through the issue as fast as possible but if the story's weak, shore it up elsewhere. I can't say I'm fond of this make of Batmobile. It doesn't have the sleek look of Batmobiles past and future. It resembles a regular sports car with a few Bat-like modifications. A vehicle like this wouldn't generate much fear in an adversary.

Jack: Re-reading these old Batman stories gives me a new appreciation for Frank Robbins. I did not realize he was a decent writer, since his art in later Marvels was so bad.

PE: Demo-expert Nova gets into a tussle with Batman, gets thrown across a room, has his head slammed into a desk, but still manages to keep his lit cigar in his mouth. The Nova angle, by the way, is a stroke of semi-genius. Make us believe the killer is Nova, then convince us it can't be, and then reveal at the climax that the killer is... Nova. Never would have guessed.

Jack: It did seem pretty obvious that Nova was the killer all along. I was more interested in how Batman got out of that doggoned phone booth without getting blown up!

PE: This issue contains the Postal Mailing statement publishers had to make public in their magazines in order to garner second class mailing privileges from the US Post Office. There's a letter here from Martin (Marty) Pasko, who would become a DC writer three years later. Pasko enjoyed stints on The Saga of Swamp Thing, Wonder Woman, and Superman, as well as scripting Batman in JLA from 1975-77.  Pasko here contributes a long appreciation for the new look of Batman.

Jack: Pasko was also responsible in the 1980s for the atrocious reboot of E-Man. He was eventually taken off of that series.

Detective Comics #398 (April 1970)

"The Poison Pen Puzzle"
written by Frank Robbins
art by Bob Brown & Joe Giella

Bruce Wayne is traveling incognito aboard a plane when the stewardesses start chirping about autographs. The millionaire playboy sighs and thinks something about sunglasses and disguises before discovering these girls don't want any part of him. Bruce happens to be sitting next to best-selling writer Maxine Melanie, author of the hippest tome in the world, The In People of Out City, a thinly disguised expose of Hollywood movie stars that's created quite the buzz. Wayne is not impressed and dutifully tells Melanie that if he has anything to do with it (and he does, since the studio that bought the rights is in bed with Wayne Enterprises), a film will never be made of her book with his money. When he confronts Seven Star Pictures board members, they call him a hypocrite since he's complaining loudly about a book he's never read. Conceding that point, Wayne goes off to the book store to get a copy, happening upon Maxine Melanie signing copies. The millionaire happens to be in the right place at the right time as the author is poisoned by an old woman who's not really an old woman.

Very shortly after, Loren Melburn ("Grand old dame of Seven Star Pics") and her husband, Dorian, confess to the murder. Batman's not buying that the elderly Mrs. Melburn has the muscle to put him on his back. In the end, it's yet another of Seven Star Pics' old legends of the screen that turns out to be the culprit.

PE: Things are slow around the DC story offices in early 1970. Only explanation I can see for getting Batman involved in a mystery involving a thinly veiled Jacqueline Susann. The fire usually reserved for child molesters and drug runners is laughably here on display when Bruce Wayne becomes irate over his corporation's dealings with a film studio about to greenlight a movie based on the shocking  expose. The sequence where he bursts into his board meeting to preach to his underlings the horrors of a book he's never read is pure camp. It's also a subtle stab at censors, but isn't Batman supposed to be on the side of right? Could the Caped Crusader have taken a bite of hypocrisy and found it tastes bitter? Hmmm... there may be more here than meets the eye in this story after all. Umm, no. That's about all the brain food you'll find here as the story quickly descends into bottom-of-the-barrel drivel.

Jack: Bad story, bad art. Not worth reading! My favorite page is the one where the old film stars' butler shows up--colored yellow, no less (but he is Oriental, Jack!!-PE).

PE: Jack, you're being too kind with the word "bad." This is awful art, generic and devoid of any life or character, the kind you'd find in advertisements or on cereal boxes. I will say I was taken by the panel (reprinted below) showing a nonplussed Bruce Wayne trying to figure out his passenger in the seat next to him. For one panel, there's a spark of life. Ironically, it's a scene lacking any action. Immediately thereafter, Wayne goes back to looking like a multitude of actors himself, chiefly Hal Holbrook. Imagine a playboy millionaire who looks like an aging character actor. The story is almost Ed Wood-ian in its stupidity. Halfway through the story, Dorian Melburn flips Batman over his shoulder and remarks that its the second time today he's done it. This despite the fact that Bruce Wayne and not Batman was in the store for the first flip. This would mean Melburn knows that Wayne and the Caped Crusader are one and the same. Though Batman brings the odd statement up, the matter is dismissed. By the end of the story, I defy any reader to make heads or tails of this story. Suddenly, "Return of the Bat-Mite" isn't so awful anymore.

Jack: Bat-Mite? I kind of liked him! I would like to see Neal Adams draw Bat-Mite.

PE: Everyone's talking about this sizzling best-seller (in fact, the stewardesses have copies) and yet later we find out that it's just been released that day! My goodness, there seems to be a leak at the publisher. Maybe Batman should be investigating the black book market in Gotham. But then is Batman/Bruce Wayne such a great detective after all? Just after the author is poisoned with a pen, Wayne tries to help an old woman who's dropped her book. The woman flips the playboy over his shoulder and his reaction is basically "Huh, I don't think that was an old woman!" But the best is saved for shortly after when Wayne finds out Melanie is dead and asks people in the crowd if they have any idea who did it. Surely not the muscleman disguised as a granny? And hold on to your hat for this coincidence. The killer had the "advance reading copy" of the book stolen from Seven Star Pictures!

written by Frank Robbins
art by Gil Kane & Vince Colletta

Has one of Dick Grayson's fellow students been exposed to a big dose of radiation thanks to a moon rock? It's up to Robin to find out.

Jack: Sure, the story is dopey, but those Kane layouts! I don't think Colletta's inks are quite as luxurious as Murphy Anderson's were last issue.

PE: I'll agree the art is Kane-tastic but wouldn't it be great if it had something readable accompanying it? I'm taking away from these Batgirl and Robin solo stories that these sidekicks are useless without the big guy. They're constantly being stomped into the ground. From the climax of this story (to be continued next issue) I've a feeling we're gonna be exposed to more of that hip-talkin' Dick and the student body clashing with "the man." Makes you wish for the good old days of the 60s when it was the commies that held such disdain with comic book writers.

Jack: You are so square! Dick was in touch with the kids who were now and happening (I'm square? All I have to say is "Yo!"-PE)!

PE: On the letters page are contributions from future DC writer Mike Barr, who chronicled Batman's adventures in Brave and the Bold for several years, and Howard Leroy Davis, who wrote several critical pieces on comic series for a wonderful fanzine called Comic Effect.


Matthew Bradley said...

As a Marvel man, I'm completely unfamiliar with the comics, and thus will have nothing concrete to contribute (although I think it's hilarious that you always have time to slam Dick Ayers, even in a series devoted entirely to the Distinguished Competition). But I feel a moral obligation to let you guys know that I'm reading and enjoying these nonetheless, and more material on The GREAT Neal Adams is good by definition.

Peter Enfantino said...


Thank you for dropping in and making sure your brothers are showing up to class. It's too bad you can't join in the lectures as I'm sure I speak for Jack when I say we'd love to hand over the reins to the Robin back-ups to a man of your stature. Jack?

As to your outrageous claims in re: our treatment of Dick Ayers, I would say that I'm only sorry there are but 24 hours in a day in which to slam Dick Ayers' artwork.

Matthew Bradley said...

Um, you're welcome, I think. I somehow suspect your Robin comment is the most backhanded compliment ever; perhaps perceived revenge for my alleged "outrageous claims" re: Ayers. While not an Ayers defender by any means, I am a man who always tries to give the devil his due, and will just remind you that Dickie inked the S.H.I.E.L.D. debut over which we all went so gaga in STRANGE TALES #135.

Jack Seabrook said...

All I know is that I'm glad Frank Robbins is only writing these comics and not drawing them as well!

Peter Enfantino said...


As far as that SHIELD issue goes, remember the "Infinite Monkey Theorem."


You always swoop in to make me see that sometimes the glass is half full.

Matthew Bradley said...

P.S. Thanks to Mr. Seabrook's generosity, I will now be able to, uh, "savor" each and every Ayers-flavored Johnny Storm adventure from STRANGE TALES in ESSENTIAL HUMAN TORCH VOL. 1. That and my copy of ESSENTIAL ANT-MAN VOL. 1 should make a nice pair on my bookshelf.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Matthew Bradley said...

Funny, was gonna write something like "better him than Robbins" myself.

Sure glad I have nothing to say about these posts.

Greg M. said...

Nice work on this week's column. And I'm guessing the Lee's ad at the bottom was kind of a dig at the kinds of "mysteries" Batman had to work with this time round? :-)

Peter Enfantino said...

Thanks much, Greg!

The Lee's ad just struck my fancy. The ads back then were so naive. We'll be reproing quite a few in the next 59 or so weeks.

Greg M. said...

Yeah, they were. I hope you plan on reproducing the rest of this ad: I want to know who's been rustlin cattle from the Double X...