Monday, February 6, 2012

Batman in the 1970s Part 4: May and June 1970

by Jack Seabrook
& Peter Enfantino

                                                       Detective Comics #399 (May 1970)
"Death Comes to a Small, Locked Room"
written by Denny O'Neil
art by Bob Brown & Joe Giella

"Panic by Moonglow"
written by Frank Robbins
art by Gil Kane & Vince Colletta

At a police academy demonstration, Batman is sparring with a karate expert named Khan when the "master" feels the Caped Crusader has embarrassed him and turns the spar into an all-out fight. Batman, of course, lays the man out in a matter of minutes and the matter is forgotten.

Or so he thinks, as exactly one month later, Batman answers a call from Commissioner Gordon to meet him at Khan's karate studio. There, our hero finds what is left of the studio (and, ostensibly, Khan) after a furnace explosion. He and Gordon are called away for a seance, at which the men have been promised answers to a murder. At the seance, the "spirit" of Khan tells Batman that, since the Caped Crusader humiliated him in life, the dead karate master will humiliate the Batman by killing Commissioner Gordon at the stroke of twelve the next night. To protect him, Gordon is to be put in a locked vault just before midnight. However, when it comes time for Batman to help the Commissioner into the vault, he discovers that the man is not the commish at all, but The Great Dilbert in disguise. The swami dies immediately after doffing his Gordon mask (it was laced with a very toxic skin poison) but manages to gasp out a clue that enables the Batman to find and rescue Gordon, being held by Khan in a cellar below his burned-out dojo.

"Panic in Moonglow" continues the Robin adventure from Detective #398. The Boy Wonder discovers that (COMMIE ALERT) the communists are behind Dick Grayson's fellow alum turning green. The Russians have used a special soap that turns skin green in order to smear NASA's space campaign.

PE: Comic characters with "accents" have always been a distraction for me, especially those with really badly written accents (the Germans in Sgt. Fury come to mind immediately), so it's a tough go with not only the broken Irish (at least I think it's Irish) of our token "bad guy who shows up in the middle of the action and may or may not be involved," "Big Dough" Joe Brunner, but also The Great Dilbert, the medium of foreign substance.
Gil Kane!

Jack: I had this one figured out before Batman. When the dying crook mutters "Do...Jo" and Batman had fought earlier in the story with a karate master, I was right there with putting "Do" and "Jo" together to get "Dojo." Credit all those hours in seedy movie houses in downtown Newark, NJ, in the early 70s with my dad and little sister, but I did not for a minute think he meant "Big Dough" Joe.

Batman thinks very hard!

PE: Batman claims The Great Dilbert dies because he touches his Gordon mask but it's actually Batman who unmasks him. In fact, Dilbert never touches the disguise. Were we supposed to read between the panels?

Jack: That was confusing. I went back and read it again and it still makes no sense. He was wearing the mask over his face. If the poison acts instantly on contact with skin, what about the skin on his face?

PE: There's a big minus and a big plus this issue which averages this issue out to a C+. The drawback, as usual, is the story, which seems to meander and go nowhere before puttering out in a nonsensical expository. Denny O'Neil obviously hasn't gotten to the issues he made his name on. I can be patient but I still wonder at the dopeyness of the plots. Would this karate nobody really build a fire-proof cellar, burn his studio down, fake his own death, hire an actor, and commit murder just to get revenge for being humiliated? Clearly, there are nuts out there in this world who would. I'd be just as astonished by a real-life Khan as I was uninterested in this one.

...bought a new car, capped my teeth, wrote an autobiography...

Jack: Just close your eyes and think Shatner---"KHAN!!!"

PE: Anyone can see who the would-be assassin is half way through the story. There's no great mystery and yet it's treated that way right up to the "Scooby Doo" climax. This is the fifth month of 1970 we've covered and, without exception, the killers have been "the every man" (well, okay, the Muertos were a little bit supernatural, I'll give you that). Quite a few times it's been the wealthy. I wonder if editor Julius Schwartz had it in mind in the early 1970s that the rich were the "bad guys" in the eyes and minds of John Q. Public. That particular slant worked well on TV's Columbo, where the murderers were usually well-off financially, if not filthy rich. There seems to be a moratorium on super-villains for the time being. No Joker, Riddler, Penguin, or Catwoman every three months. That's about to change.

Jack: Unlike today, when the rich are the good guys---oh, wait...

PE: The Robin back-up is... a back-up. Nice Gil Kane art that illustrates another ho-hum plot laced with  communist scares (who'd have thunk we'd still be raising the COMMIE ALERT all these years later?), red herrings, and close calls for The Boy Wonder. If nothing else, these adventures, like the Batgirl solo stories, just point out all the more that Batman doesn't need sidekicks.

Jack: If it weren't for the great Kane art, these backup stories would be completely disposable.

Batman #221 (May 1970)

"A Bat-Death for Batman"
Story by Frank Robbins
Art by Irv Novick & Dick Giordano

"Hot Time in Gotham Town Tonight!"
written by Mike Friedrich
art by Irv Novick & Dick Giordano

Piranhas in the Rhine! Killer bulls! Yes, Bruce Wayne is visiting Germany and something batty is going on! At Fledermaus Castle (shaped like the Bat Signal), Bruce meets Baron Willi Von Ritter, who seems to long for the good old days of the Third Reich. Under cover of night, Batman investigates the castle and stumbles on a cruel battle between a vicious lamb and a cowardly lion. The Baron's biochemist, Otto Kramm, has developed a serum that makes animals killers, and some accidentally got released into the river. Batman must fend off a swarm (flock?) of angry, killer bats, while the Baron's hot, young wife, Ilga, prepares the Baron's elderly valet to be the first human to try the serum. Batman survives the attack of the bats, but Ilga injects Otto, who grows bigger, stronger, and less inhibited. He is no match for Batman, though, and gets thrown to the angry lamb! Batman explains to the dying Ilga how he used bits of aluminum foil to distract the bats.

In the second story, the Gotham City Fire Department is dealing with a mid-summer heat wave and a lot of false alarms. A call comes in from the home corner of one of the firemen, and they race to the scene, only to see Batman rescue a boy from the blaze. The fire seems to have started when the fireman's brother rubbed an idol he brought back from Vietnam! Batman grabs the glowing idol and throws it out the window. When it crashes to the ground and shatters, and all is well again.

PE: After 373 appearances in Detective Comics and 221 in his eponymous title (not to mention Brave and the Bold, World's Finest, blahblahblah), it still strikes me odd that no one puts two and two together and comes out with Bruce Wayne = Batman. Has Wayne ever taken a one-man trip to the moon and then had to don his Bat-gear? Is that what it would take for someone to figure it out?

Jack: I like how Otto Kramm, the big German baddie, calls Batman Der Fledermensch. My rudimentary German tells me that's "Batman."

PE: Bruce Wayne mentions that it's ironic that Fledermaus is German for bat and Baron Willi Von Ritter's castle is shaped like a bat. You call it irony and I call it COINCIDENCE. I'm ignorant to der vays uff der Germans (as Stan Lee may have scripted it). Do I pronounce the Baron's first name "Willie?" An odd name for a powerful person, no? Still, it's a departure from the usual Commie threat. I think Nazis were just becoming "popular" again in the early 70s (probably thanks to then-recent documentaries like Hogan's Heroes that showed us that the guys in the Wehrmacht were just a bunch of happy-go-lucky oafs).

Jack: The first story is pretty good, if kind of disgusting. The angry lamb attacking (and killing) the sweet-looking lion is a little yucky, if you ask me.

PE: One thing you can say about DC that's not apparent through 1965 of Marvel's line: they don't shy away from death. There's a high mortality rate in these strips and a lot of violence. Oh, I'm not fooled one bit that there might be a chance that Bats, Robin, Gordon, or any of the major players will buy the farm (well, I am reading these 41 years after the fact but ignore that for the moment) but, if you're a minor character, have fun while you can as you may not see the last panel. The fate of Otto (ostensibly eaten by the lamb with a lion's heart) reminds me of some of the work Michael Fleischer did in "The Spectre" strip in the mid-70s.

Jack: I did not get what the heck Batman was saying about the bits of aluminum foil. That seemed tacked on. By that point, I had forgotten all about the Bats and didn't really care.

PE: Bats attacking Batman. That's ironic. I love how our unnamed masked villain (Germanman? Gogglesman? The Whip? The Enzyme Exchanger?) does what his predecessors on the Batman TV show always did: leave Bats while he's about to be dispatched because they've got "a more pressing appointment." Believe me, if I had The Dark Knight on the ropes, I'd savor it and make sure the job was done. I guess Germanman never read any of the newspaper reports of Der Fledermensch and his seemingly charmed life. The art on this story, by the way, is a tale of two extremes. Giordano and Novick seem to be dialed in on drawing a competent Batman but the non-masked characters are another story. The men all seem to look similar (Otto, on page 13, is the spittin' image of Bruce Wayne).

Jack: As for the second story, I am a sucker for these late 60s/early 70s stories where black people get helped by superheroes and we all get a lesson in something or other.

PE: Well, hopefully next issue, Batman will aid a Native American reservation. Four-alarm fire (and screaming children) happening just outside his door but kid brother Joey just goes right on polishing his idol. I buy that. What a dumb story. At least we're left with these parting words: "For the natural violence of life, there is always the fireman! For the supernatural violence of life, there is always... The Batman." Sheesh.

Jack: At least give DC points for trying!

PE: On the letters page, we get missives from Alan Brennert and Batmania (the first all-Batman fanzine) editor Bill J. ("Biljo") White

Detective Comics #400 (June 1970)

"Challenge of the Man-Bat"
written by Frank Robbins
art by Neal Adams & Dick Giordano

"A Burial for Batgirl"
written by Denny O'Neil
art by Gil Kane & Vince Colletta

Dr. Kirk Langstrom, employee of the Gotham Museum of Natural History and in charge of the new night creature habitat exhibit, has been doing a little moonlighting. In his off-hours, the doctor has been extracting enzymes from bats and injecting himself in order to sensitize his hearing and night vision. The serum works too well, however, and Langstrom is transformed into a full-size (Skreek!) bat. The only upside to this physical setback is that Langstrom gets to aid his hero, the Batman, in a fight against some thugs attempting to heist jewelry with the aid of night goggles.

In "A Burial for Batgirl," our heroine is accosted by a teenager escaping from the scene of a murder. When she rounds the kid up, she believes his story of innocence. Since the murder happened on Dick Grayson's campus, Robin is soon drawn into the investigation. While following a lead, Batgirl is walloped and walled up by a shadowy figure obviously influenced by Edgar Allan Poe.

PE: First appearance and origin of Man-Bat (aka Dr. Kirk Langstrom), sometime villain, sometime hero  awarded his own (short-lived) title in 1975. It's a silly origin (as are most origins) but Langstrom's much more of a sympathetic character than most of these comic book monsters are. He's working on this serum to magnify his hearing and night vision, but why? What possible reason could he have? You might list off a plethora of good reasons but writer Frank Robbins doesn't even try. All we know is that Langstrom idolizes Batman and wants to emulate his hero to the Nth degree. Why would these enzymes increase his senses (never mind turn him into a full-fledged bat)? It's nothing more than a variant of the Spider-Man origin (except Spidey didn't grow extra limbs... until issue #100, that is!). His moniker is a bit funky as well. If I was turning into a bat and looked into a mirror, I'd say I look like a Bat-Man rather than a Man-Bat, but since this is a comic book and we can't have two Bat-Mans running around, confusing things, he's a Man-Bat. I grimaced though when one of the henchmen says something along the lines of "Look out everybody, it's a Man-Bat!!"

Our first look at Man-Bat!

Jack: I always thought Man-Bat was pretty cool and I felt sorry for the guy. It reminds me of the Underdog episode when he battled a villain named OverCat. As a wee bairn, I had imagined that a cool adversary for Underdog would be named OverCat, and one day, there he was. Kind of like Batman meeting Man-Bat.

PE: You wouldn't get from this story that Langstrom is anything other than a dweeby Batman fan who has a scientific background and wants to emulate his hero. To a degree, that is what this story is about, but Langstrom's back story will be filled in come future installments. Art is by Neal Adams and Dick Giordano and usually that's a good thing. Here it looks rushed and most of the scenes are heavily shaded as most of the action takes place in the dark. There are too many panels of villains in goggles and not enough Batman. At least we get a new villain, as I was just bemoaning the fact that we've been subjected to forgettable menaces during the first part of 1970. Man-Bat is a legitimate contender and remains popular to this day, even co-starring in the major Green Lantern crossover storyline, "Blackest Night" last year.

Jack: I liked the Adams art this time. It seemed more steady than the last time. I really think he outdid himself with Man-Bat. I especially like the cover, with the oversize Batman and Man-Bat facing off above Gotham City.

PE: The back-up story is billed as the very first team-up for Batgirl and Robin. Hard to believe, but then the Barbara Gordon incarnation of Batgirl had only been introduced four years earlier (in Detective #359), so I guess not so crazy after all. The TV show, I'm sure, muddies the memory waters.

Jack: Some team-up! Dick Grayson appears briefly and we see Robin rounding a corner. Not that I wouldn't like more pages of Gil Kane drawing Batgirl, though!

PE: There's a well-written letter by young Alan Brennert, comparing Frank Robbins's writing to that found on the 1966 TV series: "Honestly, has Frank been taking lessons from Lorenzo Semple, Jr.?" He goes on to tick off a list of "Robbins-isms" that haunt the writer's work (including all the coincidences I cited in that issue) and make for tough reading.

Jack: Reading these Batmans is giving me a new appreciation for Frank Robbins. I'm sorry I said all those things back in the 70s when he drew The Invaders and Red Sonja. Obviously, he should have stuck with writing.

PE: There's not much to the back-up and the hyped team-up of sidekicks never actually happens, but since it's a multi-part story, I'm sure there will be oodles of exciting and dangerous happenings next issue. On the whole, not much of a celebration for a 400th issue. I believe only one comic had passed 400 issues by that time (Action Comics) so it truly was a milestone. Puzzling that this wasn't a double-sized giant spotlighting the best stories ever presented in Detective Comics.

Jack: I remember being very excited about Detective #400. It seemed like a big landmark at the time, and introducing a new character like Man-Bat made it even more special. 

Batman #222 (June 1970)

"Dead . . . Till Proven Alive!"

written by Frank Robbins
art by Irv Novick & Dick Giordano

"Case of No Consequence!"

written by Mike Friedrich
art by Irv Novick & Dick Giordano

Dick Grayson and his pals at Hudson U are intrigued by the rumors surrounding the supposed death of Saul Cartwright, one of the four members of the swingin' combo, the Oliver Twists. Bruce Wayne invites the group to stay at Wayne Manor while they're in town for a concert. Bruce and Dick try to solve the mystery of whether Saul is really dead or not, using voice recorders and various tricks. After a close call at a recording studio with some hired killers, Batman discovers that Saul is alive but the other three Beatles Twists are dead, having been killed in a plane crash. Saul hired three stand-ins and cooked up the rumors of his own death to cover for them. With Batman's urgings, Saul starts a new trio called Phoenix!

In the second story, Batman is exhausted from a long night of crime-fighting but still finds time to recover some cash and a camera that were stolen from a deaf-mute by a mugger.

Jack: Here we go again with the hip lingo, cheat cover, and dopey story. "Saul" is dead? His partner is named Glennan? This is not the new look Batman of the 70s that were had hoped for.

PE: At least Marvel had the cojones to use the real Beatles in the execrable Strange Tales story featuring The Thing and The Human Torch. If I was DC at the time, I probably would have been afraid The Fab Four would sue me as well--for popping them into this pap filled with nauseatingly cutesy-pie Beatles stand-ins (Eden Records for Apple, Pink Submarine).  Had anyone in the DC bullpen noticed that the Boys didn't wear their Sgt Pepper uniforms anymore? The only missed opportunity here was naming Ringo - Benji and George - Hal. Why not Gorge and Dingo? Bingo and Scorch? No imagination. I suspect if you look up the entry for "meaningless filler story" in The Dictionary of Comic Book Terms, this story is reprinted in full.

Jack: Except for some long sideburns, those kids at Hudson U could have walked straight out of the 50s, not 1970.

PE: I take back all the bad things I said about broken Irish and badly pronounced German "accents." What the hell does "Yay, Keeds--- This is Ho Ho Ho, your jolly green deejay at XJL--with the newest poop on ye great "Oliver Twists" mystery! Dig the Seventh Groove on our boys' "Summer Knights"! Spin at 78rpm instead of 33--and playback at 1-7/8 i.p.s.!" mean in 2011 language? Were University "keeds" ever this unhip? Really? If I was Batman and Robin asked me "How did you groove it was a trap?" I'd put him over my knee, Wertham be damned.

Jack; That DJ patter did seem hopelessly dated, even for 1970. It's as if the last time Frank Robbins turned on a radio, out came Alan Freed.

PE: The back-up isn't much of a story but I will say it's more readable than its opener. As I noted already, Julius Schwartz seems to have hit upon a bonanza of capable Bat-illustrators. They all know what to do to make the Caped Crusader suitably cool and imposing. Gone are the days of a beefy Batman.

Jack: Irv Novick never got much credit, but his work is solid. I think Dick Giordano's inks add a lot, too.

PE: On the letters page, comics historian Bill Schelly raves about issue 219's "Death Casts the Deciding Vote" and asks if The Joker is in Batman's future. "No plans for The Joker and/or his costumed cronies as yet," answers editor Schwartz, "but they're bound to rear their ugly heads,"

Yes, young Jack did clip these out.
It was a sad day in the early 70s
when Palisades was torn down to
make way for condos. Another sad
day occurred when the people who
bought these comics realized they
had some holes.


Matthew Bradley said...

Ooh, for once I actually have something useful to offer, in this case a Wikipedia excerpt that will shed some light on those bits of aluminum foil: "Chaff, originally called Window by the British, and Düppel by the Second World War era German Luftwaffe (from the Berlin suburb where it was first developed), is a radar countermeasure in which aircraft or other targets spread a cloud of small, thin pieces of aluminium, metallized glass fibre or plastic, which either appears as a cluster of secondary targets on radar screens or swamps the screen with multiple returns." Presumably, what works for mechanical radar would also disrupt the natural radar of bats...or at least DC apparently thought so.

Greg M. said...

I definitely have to agree that the interior stories really don't match up with the awesome covers Neal Adams was churning out. It makes me wonder which actually came first: the covers, or the stories? I do seem to recall hearing that Julie Schwartz was fond of giving writers a finished cover, and then telling them to write a story around it. The results? Decidedly mixed...

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Matthew, for the explanation! I will never again underestimate the many uses of aluminum foil.

Greg, what you say about the covers would explain a lot. It makes more sense that the cover would come first than that Adams would read the story and then change key plot points on the cover.

Matthew Bradley said...

Shades of American International Pictures' James H. Nicholson, who would create the poster and ad campaign for a movie, and then have the filmmaker create a picture to match (we hoped)!

Greg M. said...

I'm sure Julie had a stockpile of covers for the writers to work on. Add to that the fact that he essentially co-wrote the issues (thank you, Wikipedia!), and I think you have a decent explanation for the so-so stories. I don't think that two people back then, no matter how closely they worked, would ever agree 100% on story.

Just my two cents...