Monday, March 19, 2012

Batman in the 1970s Part 10: March and April 1971

by Jack Seabrook
& Peter Enfantino

Batman #230 (March 1971)                                                      

"Take-Over of Paradise!"

Story by Frank Robbins
Art by Irv Novick and Dick Giordano

Batman breaks up a fight in the slums among juvenile delinquents and talks them into forming the Brave Barons, a gang dedicated to positive change. Soon after, the Barons occupy a new high-rise and threaten to blow it up if the city doesn't provide low-cost housing. There is a standoff with the fuzz until the Barons announce that they will only speak to Batman. Two of the Barons, Rap and Shades, get into a fight, leaving Rap dead. Shades tells the rest of the gang to evacuate the building before he blows it up. Batman finds Shades and saves the day, revealing that the real killer of Rap was Kitten, a female gang member who wanted to be the new leader.

Jack: What a strange time 1971 was! At eight, I was too young to grasp what was going on. It must have been difficult for comic book creators to try to keep up. Witness this mess of a story about the Brave Barons, with members named Rap, Shades, Mouse and Kitten. The slang flies freely and even Batman gets into the act, wondering why his "awesome rep" did not intimidate gang members.

PE: Ye-ah, Jack! I'm looking at my notes right now and the word MESS is underlined and in caps! I've never seen so much seesawing between good and bad in characters. Why would Batman work with such losers in the first place? Worse, The Caped Crusader is hit with a case of "whiney baby" and has to have Alfred snap him out of it. The climax and unmasking of the real killer is confused and a cheat. I certainly hope Robbins's writing gets better as we're stuck with him into 1974. We all know what an awful artist he was and we're going to get a heaping helping of that later this year. "Take-Over of Paradise" is bottom of the barrel schlock.

Jack: I remember many (if not most) of the covers of these comics, but I don't recall this one. What a striking cover by Neal Adams, with the giant Batman figure towering over the motorcycle gang of black militants. It's too bad the story did not have anything to do with the cover. The Brave Barons are all white, with the possible exception of Rap, who looks like a white character that someone colored a strange, bronze hue.

"Danger Comes A-Looking!"

Story by Mike Friedrich
Art by Irv Novick and Dick Giordano

After Robin is ambushed and beaten by campus jocks, he works to track down the identity of a campus bomber. He breaks up a fight between jocks and militants but is unable to prevent Hank Osher, one of the radicals, from being blown to bits in his VW bug. 

Jack: This story follows one in World's Finest #200, where Robin teamed up with Superman. Having not read that story, I have to pick it up in the middle. As in this issue's lead feature, there is a lot of tension in the air and a lot of slang being tossed around. This is another Robin story that is too short to be effective, and the Novick art looks rushed.

PE: Does every Robin solo story begin with the Boy Wonder being beaten up or am I just imagining it? As I've noted so many times before in other strips, the supporting characters must be the stupidest people on earth. Robin gets ambushed. Next day, Dick Grayson shows up to class with a face like a road map. And then there are those two panels where Dick resembles an anorexic playboy with purple scarf (does he want to be Bruce by day a la Robin's hero worship of Batman by night?). I read both stories this issue while flying over the Atlantic. I'm not sure if it was the bad food or the two rotten comic stories I read that made me ill. Who can I sue?

Detective #409 (March 1971)

"Man in the Eternal Mask!"

Story by Frank Robbins

Art by Bob Brown and Frank Giacoia

Someone is knifing the paintings of the great Rene le Clerq. When the latest casualty is the portrait le Clerq has painted of Batman, the Caped Crusader takes time out from real crime fighting to track down a portrait killer. In the end, it's a crazed football player, Tracy Calhoun, who's responsible for the thumbs-down critical commentary. Disfigured in a car accident after leaving a sitting for the painter, Calhoun is supposedly saved and given plastic surgery to restore his shattered face. For some reason, his facial surgery doesn't take and he's forced to wear a very lifelike mask for the rest of his days. Calhoun tricks le Clerq into visting the athlete at his estate and is about to slash the artist when Batman arrives in time to save le Clerq's life and lower the boom (actually Tracy's portrait) on the madman.

PE: How does The Dark Knight make his cape stand on end while he poses for painter Le Clerq? Great trick! And does Batman call on the painter in between crime fighting? Where would he find the time to sit for an elaborate painting? Another disaster from panel one. Bad art. We're back to interchangeable Bob Brown supporting characters. Everyone looks alike save a blonde wig or black mustache. Dreadful dialogue. Le Clerq's wife tells Batman that her husband ran off in the night when he heard "his client's bombshell announcement that another of Rene's portraits was vandalized tonight..." Does anyone really use the phrase "bombshell announcement," let alone an old woman in curlers? Mothball plotline. It's the football player in the study with an icepick. This is the kind of 1970s story that 1960s Batman fans would bring up in a debate of merits.

Jack: Gotham City has a Hall of Fame where portraits of past and present celebrities are displayed? Weird! This is a dopey revenge story with mediocre art. Of course, the big reveal of the bad guy looks pathetic next to the Adams cover scene. Note that in early 1971 it was not a good idea to stand anywhere near a portrait in a heavy frame hanging on a wall--the bad guy is done in by one here, just as another bad guy was done in in The Brave and the Bold 93 (January 1971). There, it was supernatural; here, it's because the baddie mistakenly slashed the rope holding up the portrait.

"Night of the Sharp Horns"

Story by Frank Robbins
Art by Don Heck and Dick Giordano

Batgirl is still investigating the slaughter of one of the bulls especially picked by matador El Granados for his upcoming fight. 

Jack: Smooth art and a coherent story make this better than part one. Heck is no Gil Kane, but Giordano's inks make his Batgirl bearable, and certainly better than the Brown/Giacoia art in the Batman story this issue.

PE: Hard to believe this is the same Don Heck who was barely staying above the average mark on The Avengers and Iron Man (Tales of Suspense). It's got to be Giordano's influence that escalates Don here. This strip (as opposed to the dreadful Robin back-up in Batman) reaches the level it's supposed to achieve: a decent space-waster, no less and no more. But I don't buy that very little girl-ish "Eeeeek" that Batgirl squeaks when confronted by the mysterious matador and his big pet. And can we all agree that the nickname "Babs" should be relegated to the Comic Dustbin?

Detective #410 (April 1971)

"A Vow From the Grave"
Story by Denny O'Neil
Art by Neal Adams and Dick Giordano

While tracking Kano Wiggins, an escaped Death Row inmate, Batman must investigate a murder among a group of carnival "freaks." Was the murder committed by Wiggins or one of the freaks? Batman must put on his detective cap to find out.

Jack: I remember this cover and story very well, since the boy with the flippers was such a shock. On rereading it, I found this story to be very moving, and I think the "freak" aspect was handled with sensitivity. The art by Adams is very strong and, for once, the cover accurately portrays a scene from the story inside. For me, this is easily the best story of these two months.

PE: The panel of Batman looking up at the giant is priceless. Adams perfectly conveys the dwarfing of Batman with almost a subtle humor. Speaking of humor, how about the three panel siege on Wiggins's van? We've only got so much room for representative art on this blog and I could argue any panel in this issue warrants a look.  I've a feeling we're going to run out of adjectives for Neal Adams. But let's not forget the writer, Denny O'Neil, when we're handing out compliments. In an interview with the writer in the indispensable The Batcave Companion by Michael Eury and Michael Kronenberg (Twomorrows),  O'Neil offers this story up as a great example of how he and Neal Adams worked so well together. I think "A Vow From the Grave" influenced Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson when it came time to send Swamp Thing on a road tour through the back alleys and bayous of hell. Can't you see Swampy stumbling across Flippy and Goliath between hunchbacks and werewolves? A fabulous story!

"Battle of the Three M's"

Story by Frank Robbins
Art by Don Heck and Dick Giordano

When a fashion diva breaks her leg on the ski slopes, the accident puts into motion a domino effect in the dress industry. The underworld becomes involved in the big business of Maxi-, Mini-, and Midi-skirts. On a hunch based on checked-in library books, Batgirl discovers that one of the industry's top designers is in danger. While investigating, she's captured and sized up not for a suit but as a suit. To be continued.

Jack: Not being a dedicated follower of fashion, I really don't care about the mini/midi/maxi debate. However, the last panel did bring back fond memories of the Batman TV show!

PE: A fourth "M" would stand for "mediocrity." I would've loved to see what readers of 1971 thought of this dopey nonsense, but unfortunately the letters page (in #414) was filled with praise (and one nay vote) for the lead-in. I'm not sure what's more amazing: that writer Frank Robbins thought a mystery involving the mob's involvement in fashion would be just the ticket for comic fans or that the women of 1971 would stand in line at their local department store for a "Medieval Maxi-skirt." Well, hey, we got that incredible opening act. We couldn't exactly expect a dazzling double bill, could we?

A nice house ad by Sergio Aragones.

PE: On a personal note, that DC Special, "The Monsters are Coming Here" was the first DC "mystery" book I ever got. It was in a stack of comics (Marvel and DC) that a friend gave me when I was eleven years old. That DC Special ("64 pages of Creeping Creatures"), comprised of six House of Mystery reprints scared the crap out of me (in particular Bob Haney & Jack Sparling's "The House of Gargoyles"). It was one of DC's early experiments with a larger size. We'll see more experimenting with size very soon.


Greg M. said...


Batman #230 is presently sitting in my collection, and the chief reason I picked it up is, of course, that great cover. The story, as you both point out, isn't nearly so impressive. We've talked before about how the covers likely came first, followed by the stories. With this issue, I can't help but think that maybe they thought it would be a touch controversial to try and write for a black motorcycle gang, so opted to play it safer. Just a thought.

I've absolutely fallen in love with the DC horror line from the 70s and 80s. I can read House of Mystery, House of Secrets, Secrets of Sinister House, and Unexpected over and over (and often do). There is just some absolutely amazing stuff to find there.

Keep up the great work.

Peter Enfantino said...

The DC Mystery line is one that needs in-depth exploring along the lines of what we're doing with the Marvel line over at Marvel University.

Perhaps once we've gotten Batman out of our systems, Jack and I may tackle that project. Whattya think, Jack? I know, I know. "Enfantino, you're crazy!"

John Scoleri said...

We all know you're crazy, but if the weekly load is closer to Batman than MU, I think I might even be convinced to jump on board the DC Horror Train...

Peter Enfantino said...

You're such a tease!

Jack Seabrook said...

With Batman, Marvel, and Alfred Hitchcock, I can barely keep up as it is!