Monday, April 2, 2012

Batman in the 1970s Part 12: July and August 1971

by Jack Seabrook
& Peter Enfantino

Detective 413 (July 1971)

"Freak-Out at Phantom Hollow!"

Story by Frank Robbins
Art by Bob Brown and Dick Giordano

On his way back to the Batcave after a hard day of crime-fighting, Batman is hailed by an old friend, ex-Gotham cop Bill Wilcox, now constable of the small town of Phantom Hollow. His town is in the grip of hysteria over some strange incidents conjuring up the name of a long-dead woman, Ol' Nell, hanged as a witch 300 years prior. Chief among the startling events is the ringing of a bell long silenced, local folk reckon, because of the curse placed on the town by the witch. Batman soon discovers that there are very human forces at work in Phantom Hollow.

PE: Where the hell is the scarecrow? That cover promises so much eeriness that never gets delivered. At least give us a ghost then, Frank Robbins! Aside from a splash page of ol' Nell, nothing but lip service. A double cheat this issue. Not even one of those cliched, "well, it might have been supernatural after all, kiddies" final panels. And, for gosh sakes, just how big can a human being be in the DC Universe? Doing a quick scale check, based on the panels below and the supposition that Batman is at least six feet tall (although that would make Shecky and Jamie about four feet tall each), I'd say Slow Lannie (who really ain't that slow) is a good twenty feet tall. So let's get this straight: Slow Lannie acts like the country idiot all his life so that he can surprise the town folk some day by blowing them all up. That's quite a well thought-out plan. Why bother playing dumb?

Jack: Unfortunately, that great Adams cover has nothing to do with the weak story inside, courtesy of our favorite writer, Frank Robbins! It's always a bad sign when words like "freak-out" start getting thrown around early in a Batman tale, and this one is no exception. Even the bad guy, Big Lanny, lives in a "cave pad." And there's no scarecrow anywhere in sight.

Some schoolmarm!


Story by Frank Robbins
Art by Don Heck

More crazy anatomy!
Batgirl is at the mercy of the "diabolical head-splitters," two evil wig-makers who use their talent to force rich women to hand over their valuables or face a splitting headache. Though she gets the upper hand on Vazly, the male of the team, his wife Wanda gets away and attempts one more blackmail.

PE: Oh my goodness, this is dreadful stuff. Not much to say except that Jack and I take our job seriously and you readers owe us one if we've scooted you away from this swill. Hard to imagine Julius Schwartz thought this was publishable material.

Jack: More sub-par art by Don Heck and an uninteresting story doom the conclusion of this Batgirl two-parter. It's really a shame that such a great cover had to wrap around such a bad issue of Detective.

PE: Heck almost looks like he's trying to imitate Gene Colan in this strip. I especially liked the panel of Batgirl fighting off the killer wig while her legs and torso move in different directions. No mere mortal could attempt this.

Bruce Wayne, you silver-tongued devil!

Whoops! Forgot the chest emblem!
PE: But at least he remembered the chest! My definition of GGA.

Batman #233 (Giant Batman G-85) (July-August 1971)                                                     

"The Death Cheaters of Gotham City!" (Batman 72, Aug.-Sept. 1952)

Story by David V. Reed
Art by Jim Mooney

Jack: "The Death-Cheaters of Gotham City" features a plot point that is far-fetched even for Batman, when Bruce Wayne poisons himself and is declared legally dead before reviving. This is the only way he can join the death-cheaters club and find out who is killing off its members. Jim Mooney did the art for this entry; I only knew him from his work on 1970s Marvel comics like Omega the Unknown, but he actually started in comics in 1940!

PE: I've been enjoying Mooney's work in the pre-Torch Strange Tales. In fact, I picked one of his art jobs, "The Monster's Son," as one of the best of the first ten issues. I like the battle of underworld goons atop a billboard advertising beer. One thug rides the bottle like a rocket. That would be Joey the Rod. I'm not a big fan of these Batman stories from the 1950s but this one's enjoyable enough. I do wonder if I'm the only one that noticed that Robin looks like he's seven years old in several of the panels. What would his age have been around this time? Nice gimmick having the final four panels, revealing the killer's identity, upside down.

"The Other Bruce Wayne" (Batman 111, Oct. 1957)

Story by Bill Finger
Art by Sheldon Moldoff and Charles Paris

Jack: Our hero meets his cousin, Bruce N. Wayne, a renowned private detective who is determined to make a man out of the millionaire playboy.

PE: Someone explain to me the scene where Bruce Wayne is called to the phone by Commissioner Gordon and it's automatically assumed that the only reason he's calling is because the Commish has finally taken those advanced mathematics classes, added 2 plus 2 and come up Batman? And then, to add to the laughter, Batman feels the need to change back into his Bruce Wayne uniform just to answer the phone! Later, Bruce switches to Batman and vice versa as many times as Mrs. Doubtfire to make sure his cousin doesn't catch on. But Bill Finger saves the best for last. Bruce (the cousin) is already enrolled in that math class and quickly deduces his millionaire slob cousin is actually Batman. To throw him off the track, Bats catches the bad guy that his cousin has been tracking, makes him up to look like his secret identity and convinces Bruce N. Wayne that he was wrong! I guess the inflatable Bruce doll wasn't packed in the Bat-trunk that week.

"The Murder of Bruce Wayne!" (World's Finest 58, May-June 1952)

Story by David V. Reed
Art by Bob Kane, Lew Sayre Schwartz and Charles Paris

Jack: Commissioner Gordon fires Batman and Robin, showing the same poor judgment he would continue to demonstrate into the 1970s.

PE: Here's a rarity: an art job signed by Bob Kane that, reportedly, he actually had a hand in aside from cashing a check! My disdain for Kane might color my feelings about this reprint but I found it to be nothing special.

"Bruce Wayne's Aunt Agatha!" (Batman 89, Feb. 1955)

Story by Bill Finger
Art by Sheldon Moldoff and Stan Kaye

Jack: Coming to the rescue of her nephew and his ward, she wears a Joker costume!

PE: A good example of why I don't like the 1950s Batman.

"The Crime of Bruce Wayne" (Detective 249, Nov. 1957)

Story by Bill Finger
Art by Sheldon Moldoff and Charles Paris

Jack: When Bruce Wayne ends up on Death Row, Robin must enlist the aid of Batwoman to save his guardian. Batwoman? Where did she come from? Well, according to Wikipedia, she was introduced in 1956 to counter charges by Dr. Wertham that Batman and Robin were gay. If I ever knew this, I must have erased it from my memory!

PE: Notably absent from any of these stories--but in keeping with Schwartz's policy of "no classic Bat-Villains"--are solid bad guys. These are all interchangeable sketches.

Detective 414 (August 1971)

"Legend of the Key Hook Lighthouse!"

Story by Denny O'Neil
Art by Irv Novick and Dick Giordano

Batman has been staking out a gang of gun-runners who intend on making a big sale to a South American general hoping to shoot his way into owning his country sometime soon. The Dark Knight busts up the gang but one of them, a former club singer named Loosy (yep, Loosy), looks to cut a bargain for herself and her partner, Artie, by giving Batman her boss. The Caped Crusader agrees and he and Loosy hop aboard a boat and head for the spot the deal was to go down at: a deserted lighthouse with a ghostly legend attached.

PE: Another of those nicely done "Batman in The House of Mystery" type stories that almost feel like an "Elsewheres" story where anything can and will happen. I still find it detrimental to this series that there are no subplots nor continuity. I'm 99% sure that was by design. Editor Julius Schwartz obviously thought he'd garner more sales if a casual reader picked up the latest Batman or Detective and was able to jump right in without the feeling of entering the room while the movie was in progress. I used to hear complaints from comic fans in the 1970s that Marvel's history was so dense, so complicated, and so daunting that fewer new fans were jumping on the wagon. With these Batman stories, that fan could jump in at any time and not miss a thing. Chances are Bruce Wayne will never mention Key Hook or Phantom Hollow ever again. I'm not sure if the absence of subplots (and, lately, a supporting cast) is a bad thing based on some of the abysmal characterizations and story lines we're reading over at Marvel University.

Jack: I thought the first page was evocative and almost like a different style of art than the rest of the story. I liked this story quite a bit, and I think it demonstrates how much better a writer Denny O'Neil was than was Frank Robbins. The characters have depth and shadings that take them beyond cliches. Take Loosy, for example. Her love for Arnie and her confession to Batman about her past mistakes make her act of nobility believable. Irv Novick's art is solid and Dick Giordano's inks are so good that there are panels where the images approach Neal Adams-like quality. The art team does a good job of rendering Loosy so that one can see that she was once a beautiful woman but that the ravages of time and her lifestyle have tarnished her appearance. This story also continues the trend of unexplained, supernatural forces that we have seen in the early 70s Batman tales. Nicely done all around.

Looking ahead, in the letters column of Detective 418, Denny O'Neil writes that he spent extra time on the character of Loosy, "as an experiment in the kind of characterization not usually found in our medium."

"Invitation to Murder"

Story by Frank Robbins
Art by Don Heck

Don Heck + Batgirl = zzzzz
Barbara Gordon and her beau, Jason take in a play, only to find that, aside from one other couple and the actors on stage, they're the only ones in the auditorium. When the curtain goes up, someone appears behind Jason with a rifle. Attempting to subdue the gunman (and make some points with his date), Jason is struck unconscious and Barbara must change into Batgirl.  A shot rings out and the sniper gets away. When the lights come up, it's discovered that the other attendees are Hollywood's latest "it" couple, Tiz and Robbie Marlow, the latter of whom was the recipient of the lone bullet. Babs has a hunch as to what's up but we'll have to wait until next week to find out what that hunch may be.

PE: Why would someone wanting to kill Tiz and Robbie go to the trouble of hiring out an entire theater complete with a stage full of witnesses? Wouldn't it be fairly easy for police to find the assailant (granted, it's the Gotham police department, but still...)?  I'm sure no one notices Barbara Gordon changing in to Batgirl in a near-deserted theater. Batgirl just happens to be there when the action occurs. If I was one of the three other people in the auditorium, I wouldn't question it. Nope. Don Heck's art seems to be getting proportionately as bad as Frank Robbins's writing.

Jack: The only good thing I can say about this effort by Robbins and Heck is that Batgirl did not have to choose a skirt style or don a tight wig. Heck's art is very sketchy here, which doesn't make the characters look good. I really miss Gil Kane's work on this series.

Jack: This was the first issue of Detective to cost 25 cents and feature a longer page count. Editor in chief Carmine Infantino inserts a half-page explanation and wants to rap with the readers about why they have to shell out more of their hard earned bread. He tries to say that the extra pages include more specially selected stories to make the increased cost worthwhile. And what stories do we get?

Does he remind anyone else of John Kerry?
"The Australian Code Mystery" from World's Finest #66 (Sept.-Oct. 1953), a ten-page long wartime code-breaking story with some decent art by Alex Toth (above), and "Private Eye of Venus" from Strange Adventures #83 (Aug. 1957), a six-page science fiction detective story with art by none other than Carmine Infantino (left). If they had to pad the page count with reprints, why not use stories involving Batman?

PE: Good question, Jack. I can only assume that editor Schwartz simply wanted to reassert that these are Detective Comics and other detectives would find a home here as well. The practice will continue and expand in a few years to include such supporting acts as Jason Bard (Batgirl's beau in solo stories), Hawkman, Elongated Man, The Atom and, perhaps most famously, Walt Simonson's Manhunter. The larger quarter-dollar format would last eleven issues (roller coastering from 52 pages to 48 and back again) and then return to 32 pages (at a twenty-cent price tag).

Batman #234 (August 1971)                                                    

"Half an Evil"

Story by Denny O'Neil
Art by Neal Adams and Dick Giordano

Commissioner Gordon asks Batman to investigate an unusual occurrence--a giant hot dog balloon is stolen from the annual Gotham City Merchants' parade by means of a helicopter. The Caped Crusader breaks up a robbery at the Nautical Museum and discovers that Two-Face is behind it. Batman tracks the crooks to a marina, where he witnesses the sinking of an old schooner. The next morning, Two-Face uses the stolen balloon to raise the ship near a convenient pier. He brains Batman and ties him up before uncovering a fortune in gold that had been hidden aboard the ship. Batman plays on Two-Face's decent side to convince him to rescue a derelict from the ship, which is sinking a second time. Batman knocks out Two-Face and takes him and the bum to safety.

Jack: I had a hard time figuring out the end of this story, but it looks like Batman punches Two-Face and carries him off over his shoulder. It was a strange way to end things, as if they ran out of space and had to wrap it up too quickly.

PE: Great art as usual (do I sound like a broken record?), but here's a story that has an unusual problem: no finish. It literally ends amidst some action. Who's the hobo on the mast? I assumed we were going to get some "House of Mystery"  cross-over again and this would be the ghost of some salty sea pirate, but no, we never find out who he is. He's just a convenient plot device. In fact, as far as we know, Batman has left him atop the mast and headed off with Two-Face, over his shoulder, for another adventure. And, though I like the concept and character of Two-Face, in the end he doesn't exactly measure up to the other members of Batman's rogue gallery.

Jack: If you look very close, I think the hobo is slung over Batman's shoulder as he walks off in the last panel.

PE: When I rediscovered Batman several years ago (after reading the "No-Man's Land" epic, I was flabbergasted that Batman's gallery of fiends would pop up right and left. Penguin would literally show up every eighth or ninth issue. Ditto Joker, Mad Hatter, Scarecrow, etc. I began to wonder if the Batman writers had run out of creative juice and couldn't create new bad guys. Since we took up this project, I've been missing those old arch-enemies. Only goes to show that you can never satisfy an old comic reader! Now bring on The Joker!

Jack: This marks the first appearance of an old-time Batman super-villain since we started reading these comics with the January 1970 issue. As in a prior issue, where Adams took the opportunity to retell the origin of Batman, he takes about a page and a half here to retell the story of Two-Face. The art is terrific, as usual, but the story doesn't hold together for me.

"Vengeance for a Cop!"

Story by Mike Friedrich
Art by Irv Novick and Dick Giordano

A policeman who has been shot on the outskirts of Hudson U. asks Robin to track down his daughter Nanci, who ran away to a commune upstate. As soon as Robin finds Nanci, he is joined by Terri Bergstrom, his friend from Hudson U., who gives him a message that the cop-shooter fled to the same commune where Nancy lives. Nancy and her boyfriend invite Robin and Terri to visit the Van Winkle commune, but first Robin must fight Jonathan, a strapping hippie who guards a bridge. The Boy Wonder loses the battle of staffs and falls into the water, but his humility is enough to allow him to continue. Robin announces that he has deduced the identity of the shooter, but the hippies tell him he can't take the criminal back to Hudson U.

Jack: This is one of the best of the Now Generation stories I've read so far, probably because of the strong art by Novick and Giordano. I will go out on a limb and guess that Nanci's boyfriend is the shooter. By the time Robin guesses his identity (which will be revealed in the next issue), he has only met Pat (the boyfriend) and Jonathan, and Jonathan tells Robin that he can't take "him" back, referring to someone else. So doesn't it have to be Pat?

PE: I'm sorry I don't share your enthusiasm, Jack. To me it's just another uninteresting and unimaginative back-up story. The sequence where Robin is effortlessly knocked off a log by a big hippie perfectly illustrates why this strip makes me yawn. The kid is nothing without the big black bat. I think the splash (of the cop complaining about his job and lack of respect) is the single best-written panel in all of the Robin solo adventures and I wish the entire story had taken off from that point and remained engaging. Just for a moment, there was a spark of something resembling an Ed McBain novel. The rest of the story, though, in Robin's words, "really bums me out!"

"Trail of the Talking Mask!" (Detective 335, Jan. 1965)

Story by Gardner Fox
Art by Carmine Infantino and Joe Giella

Jack: According to an editor's note, the "new look" Batman was introduced in 1964 and signified by an oval around the chest insignia. I am abashed to admit I did not notice this change from the reprints in the Giant Batman tales. This story seems pretty typical of what I recall of mid-60s Batman, and it shows the development of the character and the storytelling at a point midway between the kids' stuff of the 1940s and 1950s and the more adult fare of the 1970s. Whatever you think of Carmine Infantino's art, it is light years ahead of what we're seeing in the 1950s stories reprinted, for example, in the previous issue of Batman. The 15-page long story is kind of dull, though, and Infantino's excellent draftsmanship can't make up for a tedious parade of panels without much variety.

PE: Once again, we're on the same wavelength. Infantino's pencils are swell but the story is nothing but The Dynamic Duo running from one place to another for 15 looooong pages. I nodded off halfway through the first half. The story was originally run in Detective Comics #335 (January 1965). I dig that original cover much more than story itself. The back-up to the original appearance was Infantino's Elongated Man strip.


Kitty Genovese was murdered in 1964.
By 1971, the idea of New Yorkers'
ignoring crimes was a punchline for kids.

(Additional help with credits and cover for Batman 234 from the DC Comics Database.)


Greg M said...

At last, we've reached a column where I actually own the majority of the issues you're talking about!
It's the first three, in case you're interested. Batman #234 eludes me, sadly, but I have read it. While I agree that the hobo (Billy the Tramp) is a plot device to get Two-Face to flip his coin again, they do show what happens. Two-Face goes up, saves him, leaving Bats tied up. When Batman escapes, Two-Face drops Billy, attacks Bats, Bats punches him out, then carries Two-Face and Billy off the ship. A logical (if somewhat cheating) progression of story to wrap everything up.

Keep up the fine work!

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Greg!

Todd Mason said...

HOUSE OF FORBIDDEN LOVE...I think that was eventually released as FORBIDDEN TALES OF THE DARK MANSION, and never quite lived up to the premise of being a gothic-romance comic, so much as quickly just another weak-tea DC horror comic (soon just DARK MANSION, as I recall). I went to a summer day camp at this time, that gave out the Aurora torture-dungeon models as prizes (for a 7yo, I was pretty good at darts)...Aurora dropped this line of model kits pretty quickly in response to parental pressure, which wasn't nearly as acute in response to the monster kits or Pirates of the Caribbean, which last might or might not have been Aurora's (but they did have the cool rubber-band action arms and such).

Todd Mason said... was _The Dark Mansion Of Forbidden Love_ initially...

John Scoleri said...

MPC was responsible for those awesome 'moving' Pirates kits (as well as some Haunted Mansison kits that never looked anywhere near as cool).

I'm amazed that those have yet to be reissued. I'll buy them all in a hot minute!

Here's an article on them with some photos:

Greg M. said...

I must confess that I have never seen that movie "Zeppelin", though I do remember seeing that ad several times. I am actually curious about it now, though. Why anyone thought a movie about WWI needed advertising on the back of comic books. Curiously, it is a Warner movie, but I don't know if they were connected to DC at that point...