Monday, February 13, 2012

Batman in the 1970s Part 5: July and August 1970

by Peter Enfantino

& Jack Seabrook

Detective #401 (July 1970)

"Target for Tonight"
story by Frank Robbins
art by Bob Brown & Joe Giella

"Midnight is the Dying Hour!"
story by Denny O'Neil
art by Gil Kane & Vince Colletta

A fiend calling himself The Stalker has discovered Batman's secret identity and placed The Caped Crusader on his hit list. The Stalker's real identity is big game hunter Carleton Yager and his wall has an empty plaque with Batman's name on it. Lured to a deserted island by Yager, Batman must tiptoe through endless traps and devices until he meets up with Yager, face to face. In a freak accident, the hunter is killed and Batman's secret identity is safe once again.

In our back-up feature, Batgirl is being walled up by a nutty actor convinced he's Edgar Allan Poe. Robin rescues her just in time and clamps the cuffs on the Faux Poe.

PE: "Target for Tonight" starts out as a whodunit. Who is The Stalker and why does he want Batman's head on a plaque? More importantly, how does he know The Dark Knight moonlights as a millionaire playboy? Well, the suspense lasts at least one page before we're served up a suspect: Carleton Yager, whose constant companion, a hunting falcon, just happens to be the messenger of one of the threats delivered to Batman. When our hero visits the man's "safari club" (think wine club for guys who like to put water buffalo noggins on the wall), he's nearly taken out with a crossbow. A tape machine relays a message from Yager that he's waiting for Batman on a nearby island. Is the hunter being set up? Seems as though, for a whodunit, we're being given a red herring. Can't be Yager, right? Wrong. It's Yager. Here's what's wrong with this awful mess: why give the guy the moniker of "The Stalker" when one page later you're referring to him as Carleton Yager? How did Yager find out that Wayne and Bats are one and the same guy? Once the villain takes a tumble into a pit of sharp objects (at least I think that's what happened since it's drawn and written so clumsily), Batman sighs and tells Alfred "He's taken my secret identity to the grave." That's it? Not even a "Hmmm, how did he figure it out? I must be slipping somehow." If we gave letter grades to these stories, this one would merit an F.

Why does Batman kick
 the tape recorder? And how
 does he lift his leg so high?

Jack: I never knew that the water buffalo is the “most dangerous” of beasts! I guess I liked this story better than you did. Batman defeats a fitting adversary with his wits. Once again, the villain dies a violent death. And once again, the slick Neal Adams cover takes a scene from the story and changes it to make it more exciting. Letter writers this month include Martin Pasko, who is starting to become a regular, and Douglas Moench, later a Marvel scribe and eventually the writer of Batman and Detective comics! 

Is this move possible?
PE: "Midnight is the Dying Hour" is a so-so wrap-up to the strong first chapter we saw last issue. It's wrapped up a bit too quickly and neatly for my tastes. The bit of detection on Robin's part to discover the identity of the killer is a hoot: he notices that the dead man's fingers are pointing to the "POE" section of a Book of Poetry-- ergo the killer must be the guy portraying Edgar Allan Poe in the school play. Huhwhat? That's a bit of  a stretch, no? And as the guy's dying, did he look around for the proper book to point to? Cripes, what if the school play had been Animal Farm?

Jack: Did I mention that Kane & Colletta draw one smoking hot Batgirl? Item: Does Robin often talk to himself in itemized lists? Is Batgirl flirting with Robin at the end of the story?

PE: It's not a bad installment of Batgirl and Robin, it's just not as strong as the first chapter. It's certainly classic literature compared to "Target for Tonight." And I like the sassy Batgirl's final line to Robin, promising some risque action in their future? The TV Batgirl certainly wouldn't be able to get away with a tease like that. Unlike so many back-up features, this is a strip I look forward to reading.

Batman #223 (July/August 1970)

"City Without Guns!" from Detective 196 (June 1953)
"Batman of the Mounties!" from Batman 78 (Aug. Sept. 1953)
"The Mardi Gras Mystery" syndicated newspaper strip that ran from 8/6/44-9/17/44
"Journey to the Top of the World!" from Batman 93 (Aug. 1955)
"Around the World in 8 Days" from Detective 248 (Oct. 1957)

PE: Of the five classics assembled here, my favorite would have to be "Journey to the Top of the World," credited to Bob Kane but, according to the indispensable Grand Comics Database it's actually drawn by Dick Sprang.

Jack: Picking up a thread from the letters column in the last Giant Batman, regular contributor Steve Beery asks what Batman and Robin did in the early days that would be contrary to their code. The editor replies that Batman carried a gun and sometimes he and Robin actually killed! They later adopted an anti-gun, anti-killing code, says he. Steve Beery grew up to be Harvey Milk’s lover, of all things, and later died of AIDS. The things you learn from Google! Reading these reprints, it seems to me that the Batman story and art style did not change much from the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s. Though the stories are not memorable, I love the Curt Swan cover, which I do remember from 40+ years ago.

PE: I really dug these all-reprint issues when I was a kid. I couldn't grasp that this hero had been around for 30+ years, so I never knew until years later that these stories had appeared decades before. I would assume these were, in essence, "vacation books" for Frank Robbins, Mike Friedrich, Neal Adams, Denny O'Neil and anyone else associated with the creation of Batman comic books each month. The naivete of the reprints can be startling, though, when compared with the then-current style of dark and grim. These reprint volumes would continue every fifth issue through #233, when DC would raise the price of Batman temporarily from fifteen cents to twenty-five cents and run one reprint per issue. As I recall, this raised quite a fuss in fandom. Of course, the real fun began in February 1974 when DC bulked up several of its flagship titles to 100 pages and raised the cover price to a then-whopping fifty cents. Most of us saw these Giants as a bargain. I'm getting ahead of myself, though. We'll have plenty of time to wax poetic over One Hundred Page Spectaculars in a few months' time.

Of course! How simple!

Detective #402 (August 1970)

"Man or Bat?"
story by Frank Robbins
art by Neal Adams & Dick Giordano

"My Place in the Sun"
story by Mike Friedrich
art by Gil Kane & Vince Colletta

It seems like a simple safe-cracking robbery, but if the criminals looked up in the rafters they'd have an ominous sight: The Man-Bat, waiting patiently for the safe to be opened. Inside is a much-needed potion that Man-Bat, aka Dr. Kirk Langstrom, hopes will reverse the effects of his initial bat serum. Unfortunately for Langstrom, the robbery is broken up by The Batman before he can find his salvation. Before long, the transformation to bat is reaching its zenith: Langstrom seems to be losing touch with his human side and his arms sprout wings capable of flight. Looking for a place to hide, Man-Bat inadvertently discovers the Batcave just as Batman is heading in. The two tussle and Man-Bat is mortally wounded. The Caped Crusader faces a moral dilemma: give the creature the serum to change him back and risk death or wait it out. To be continued!

In the Robin back-up, The Boy Wonder is joined by Speedy, Green Arrow's teen sidekick, for lunch at Hudson University. There, a food fight breaks out and Robin makes an appearance, jumping to conclusions and hammering the wrong party. The Boy Wonder must hang his head in humiliation and soak up the bad vibes on campus.

PE: If 1970 is, as most comic historians assert, the beginning of The Bronze Age, then Man-Bat is certainly Batman's first classic villain. He may be, in fact, the best Bat bad guy of the entire Bronze Age (we'll find out together). What astounded me was that this story was not written by Denny O'Neil but rather the roller-coaster writer known as Frank Robbins. I may just chart a graph of Mr. Robbins's highs and lows on Batman and Detective.

Jack: This is the best Batman story I’ve read so far! The development of the Man Bat character is fascinating. He reminds me a bit of The Lizard, Spider-Man’s foe, yet Langstrom is an honorable character who gradually loses his humanity without ever becoming evil—just more like an animal. The Adams/Giordano art is top-notch!

PE: You've read my notes, Jack. I couldn't be more in agreement with you. The story is fabulous and I can't wait to read #403. That's a feeling this old fan-boy doesn't get much anymore. Man-Bat is a lot like Marvel's The Lizard (and Gerry Conway would mine that vein again in the 1980s with an even more transparent rip-off, Killer Croc), down to the question of whether he's losing that part of his humanity that recognizes Batman as friend rather than foe. Their first names are even similar (The Lizard was aka Curt Connors). Adams just adds more proof for the argument that he's the greatest artist ever to touch Batman.

Jack: It’s nice to see fellow Teen Titan Speedy in the second story! The 1970s college campus politics are dated, but the argument about Robin prefigures a similar theme that would be central to The Watchmen. The art has some nice spots but overall is not up to the usual Kane/Colletta standard.

PE: Speedy mocks Robin's "escape route" (a drainpipe outside his dorm window) as a "kindergarten branch of this costume-hero business." I liked this playful razzing (or is it playful?); Robin's probably humiliated as he's the sidekick to, arguably, the DC Universe's #1 hero and he can't be used to this kind of wisecrack. I never bought into the "Teen Titans" schtick: Sidekicks United. The rosters over the years only back up my mocking tone: Aqualad, Aquagirl, Wonder Girl, Kid Flash. I didn't even know these characters existed. It would take years before Marvel descended to these depths with a She-Hulk and Spider-Woman. Of course, those who oppose my argument might bring up Gnarrk, the Neanderthal who was a semi-member of The Titans. I didn't say my thesis was water-proof.

Jack: These backup stories seem too short to really go anywhere. Robin wants to grow up! By the way, who is the “bazooka-playing radio-star Bob Burns, whose name was . . . Robin”? Why, there he is on Wikipedia! And he coined the word “bazooka”!

PE: "My Place in the Sun" almost feels like one of those Denny O'Neil epic "searching the soul" stories that ran in Green Arrow/Green Lantern that same year, albeit at much shorter length. It doesn't soar to those heights but it gets off the ground, touching on some of the drawbacks to being a celebrity and a masked one to boot. Friedrich perfectly captures Dick Grayson's frustration with the highs and lows of that celebrity and also his place in the superhero world. The tale is hampered, as Jack says, by its length. There's no time to open up the story before the end credits roll. I am impressed, though, that this, like the continuing Batgirl back-up series, is not a throwaway like a lot of these fillers can be.

Batman #224 (August 1970)

"Carnival of the Cursed"
story by Denny O'Neil
art by Irv Novick & Dick Giordano

Blind Buddy Holden, an old jazzman, is beaten to death on a New Orleans sidewalk. Batman reads about it and shows up at the street funeral just in time to stop an attack. He fights Moloch, a large, deformed man who scampers off with an incredible leap.

Wheelchair-bound Rufus Macob tries to buy the dead man’s possessions from his friends, but they won’t sell. Batman sends Macob a message to try to scare him, but Macob’s gang kidnaps Max, another old bluesman, and lures Batman to a river boat, where he is knocked out and tied to the paddlewheel. Batman escapes and intercepts Macob and his gang as they dig up Buddy’s grave. It turns out that a map pinpointing the location of oil in the bayou was etched on the side of the dead man’s horn.

Macob reveals himself to be Moloch, born a freak. He nearly defeats Batman but flees when he hears sirens. Batman catches him and knocks him out, crumpling the horn in the fight and destroying the secret map forever.

Jack: This is one long story—24 pages! The Novick/Giordano art is evocative, especially the night scenes at Mardi Gras. Were it not for Adams, this art would be more highly regarded.

PE: Can't agree with you on the art, Jack. If I didn't know better, I'd think Frank Robbins was moonlighting. His Moloch has those same rubbery limbs so prevalent in Robbins' work. What's with Batman leaping twenty feet to an upper balcony? We're to swallow a lot, I suppose, what with his daring leaps across rooftops and death-defying dives from upper story windows, but a standing twenty-foot leap? Despite my problems with the art, I thought the story was enjoyable enough. It even serves up a cliffhanger that wouldn't have looked out of place on the Adam West show: Macob (subtle name, Denny!) ties Batman to the paddles of a moving steamboat and our hero escapes drowning only because of good dental work.

Jack: I don’t really get Moloch, and as usual the cover promises more than the story delivers, but I like the setting and tale overall.


DC ad: bad news for MU professors in 1970


Matthew Bradley said...

Nice work, as always, to which I'll add a correction and a comment, starting with the fact that it's Edgar AllAn, not AllEn, Poe. I became admittedly oversensitized to this woefully common error while documenting the career of Poe uber-adaptor Richard Matheson.

As for the DC ad proclaiming the approach of "the Great One" (clearly Marvel expatriate Jack "King" Kirby), it may be bad news for some MU professors, but not this one. While taking nothing away from Kirby's status as a brilliant artist and the co-creator of many of the building blocks that make up the Marvel Universe, I can also say without hesitation that my favorite Marvel period began during his defection to DC, and ended slightly after his disappointing return to Marvel.

Greg M. said...

In reference to issue 401, the thing that I find most odd about it (though Batman's complete lack of interest in exactly how his identity was discovered is odd), was, as the panel you enclosed shows, was his burst of anger. He didn't seem angry about his ID being discovered, but rather his being outsmarted (Holy petulance, Batman!) Highly unusual for the Dark Knight (and actually more akin to the Brave & Bold Batman).

As for the rest of the issues, I agree that Man-Bat was a great creation, and fit right in with the more Gothic (so to speak) Batman of the 70s. Having not had the opportunity to read these stories when they first came out, I enjoy them purely from a completist perspective. So while they were laughable, they're Batman. Nuff said. :-)

And I truly love the reprint issues, especially the 100-pagers. They take pride of place in my present collection, and I have approximately 50 of them. This particular reprint issue I don't have, but I would love to find a copy sometime.

Thanks again for your column. Can't wait until next week.

Jack Seabrook said...

Matthew, I took out my virtual allen wrench and fixed the name errors!

Greg, I am in full agreement with you on the giant reprint issues. They were a great way to read comics that were otherwise unavailable!

Peter Enfantino said...

That Allan/Allen stuff has plagued me for years. I've got a buddy named Wayne Allen Sallee. Or is it Wayne Allan Sallee?


I loved those 100-pagers so much, I'd buy Wonder Woman and JLA, two titles I wouldn't pick up if they were free. Something alluring about a big package :>

Greg M. said...


though I've trailed off with picking up the reprints (it's harder to find them now), I still get excited when I do come across one I don't already have.


the thing I loved most about the JLA issues back then was their "100 issues earlier" backup feature, where they recap (not full reprintings) of the earlier issues. The JLA hit a stride around the 130 issue mark, so seeing the recaps was fun. It showed just how far they came from the beginning...

Peter Enfantino said...

Was it the JLA 100-pagers that would run JSA reprints from the 1940s? I dug those a lot!

Greg M. said...

Yep, that was them. They would also run Seven Soldiers of Victory reprints as well.

Jack Seabrook said...

JLA was my favorite comic growing up and one of the maybe 3 comics I ever subscribed to. The 100-page issues were great, though in those days they came severely folded in half lengthwise in the mail!

Peter Enfantino said...

Ah, the days of subscription nightmares! I made the mistake of subscribing to Fantastic Four in the mid-70s for some reason. Weird that I did since I went down to the comic store every few days anyway. Musta been a special of some kind. Anyway, Marvel would ship their comics in a flimsy brown sleeve that wouldn't even cover the magazine. You'd just slip the comic out of its sheath. Three times during that year, I got nothing but a wrapper. Warren used to ship their Famous Monsters of Filmalnds in a nice sturdy manila envelope (I still have a few around here somewhere).

dolphintornsea said...

I can't really disagree with your assessments, because you guys know your stuff.

But still, I have to tell you that, with the rosy glow of hindsight, "Target for Tonight" is my all time favorite Batman story. And why? Simply because I remember it from over 40 years ago. I was disappointed with almost all my comics at that stage, and indeed stopped reading them about two years later.

But "Target for Tonight" seemed to me to be Batman as he was meant to be - sneaking around in the dark to solve a mystery, facing danger and booby-traps, with camp, silliness, and fantasy gothic elements temporarily forgotten.

I concede that I've never re-read it! But it's still in a box somewhere ...

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks for reading! It's funny how a particular comic or story can stick in your mind all these years later. For me, it's usually covers that hit me and bring me right back to a time long ago. We love hearing your thoughts and hope you'll provide more!

Anonymous said...

Seems to me that every super-heroine inked by Vinnie Colletta was "smokin' hot" regardless of whom the penciller was.