Monday, April 16, 2012

Batman in the 1970s Part 14: November and December 1971

by Jack Seabrook 
& Peter Enfantino

Batman 236 (November 1971)

"Wail of the Ghost-Bride!"
Story by Frank Robbins
Art by Irv Novick & Dick Giordano

After reading about the 1930 death of Gotham heiress Corrine Hellbane, who was said to have fallen off of an ocean liner on her honeymoon, Bruce Wayne thinks he sees her ghost--first, outside the window of the airplane on which he is flying, and later, reflected in a store window while he patrols Gotham City as Batman. Coincidentally, Hellbane Manor is about to be razed, and Bruce is invited to a charity event where contributors can wield sledgehammers to get the job started. During the event, Bruce is knocked out and Batman must investigate. He discovers that the widower of Corrine Hellbane is determined to prevent the discovery of his late wife's skeleton, which he had walled up in the house. The story of her death at sea had been a ruse that he had cooked up with his girlfriend, who happens to have set up the charity event.

Jack: Another in a string of Batman stories that may have supernatural elements, or they may not. The Novick/Giordano art is serviceable and the story is above-average for a Frank Robbins effort. It relies a little bit too heavily on coincidences, but overall I found it enjoyable.

PE: There's no logical solution in sight for the ghostly haunts and yet, despite his run-ins with the supernatural in the past, Bats looks under rugs, in dusty corners, and above musty cabinets for a rational explanation. It's not a bad story but it's a little too similar to those other "could it be a ghost?" stories.

"Rain Fire"
Story by Mike Friedrich
Art by Irv Novick & Dick Giordano

Identified as the one who shot the cop, Pat Whalon sets a brush fire in the commune and escapes. Robin rounds up community members to fight the blaze and then catches Whalon.

Jack: The tale of the hippie commune finally comes to an end after three issues. There is nothing particularly notable about these stories, except that Robin seems to suspect burgeoning college girlfriend Terri of having some sort of powers that remind him of a fellow member of the Teen Titans.

PE: It's nice to know that, even in 1971, all it took was a big brush fire to bring peace between long-haired hippies and the old fogies who hated them so much. Inspirational. Alas, this yawn-inducing solo arc breaks no new ground a la O'Neil's Green Arrow/Green Lantern stories (which it obviously attempts to mime).

"While the City Sleeps" (from Batman 30, August-September 1945)
Story by Bill Finger
Art by Dick Sprang & Charles Paris

Jack: Batman takes Robin out to see what goes on in Gotham at night--kind of a Dark Knight version of Wait Till the Moon is Full.

PE: Boy, these 1940s stories were corny. Batman takes Robin around to all the all-night joints and the Boy Wonder is astonished to find out that hospitals have to stay open all night. Kid needs to get out now and then. Our villain, Hush-Hush Bodin, proves Marvel wasn't the first comics company to name a bad guy after his dopey gimmick (Hush-Hush never likes to hear others talk loud).

Detective 417 (November 1971)

"Batman for a Night"
Story by Frank Robbins
Art by Bob Brown & Dick Giordano

Thrill-seeking journalist Jan Paxton, a chameleon who reshapes himself for each assignment, wants to be Batman for a night. After a quick workout, The Caped Crusader agrees and loans Paxton a suit and the Batmobile for a night on the town. Paxton realizes quickly just how hard a job crime-fighting can be and he's thankful he's packed a heater when he runs up against a gang of truck hijackers. Enraged, the real Batman (who's been overseeing his protege in the shadows) swings in to wrap up the crew and deliver a speech on morals and handguns to a cowering Paxton. The next day, Paxton's sister, Trina, is murdered in a bank robbery and Paxton swears vengeance on the men who killed her.

After a bit of detective work, the boys dress up as Batmen and nab the gunman at his favorite hangout, the bowling alley. Jan Paxton can now bury his sister with pride.

PE: Forget the "Attack of the Purple Zebra-Men" or "The Joker's Spaceship"-type nonsense stories that DC threw at us in the Forgettable 50s and Silly 60s. That was a different time. The 1970s, according to Julius Schwartz's "new look," were supposed to represent a more serious, realistic Batman Universe. This story throws all logic in the trash. Paxton asks Commissioner Gordon to set up a meeting with Batman so's he can moonlight as The Dark Knight. Gordon says, "Hey, no problem. I can set that up. Come on over to my place tomorrow night!" Not for one second does Gordon think his buddy Bats will foreclose on the Bat-signal for such an intolerable insult. And, evidently, Gordon is right! So Batman would let Jan Paxton dress like The Dark Knight, drive the Batmobile, and risk his life for kicks? Nope, not the Bats I know. "Batman for a Night" is for those readers who have a high tolerance for "Yeah, right" moments. The "real" Batman would dissuade Paxton from risking his life and, failing, tell him he'd have to do it sans Bat-suit. A variation of this theme was seen (and handled correctly) in The Dark Knight. And since when does Batman address himself in the third person?

Jack: I did not dislike this story as much as you did! Sure, it's far-fetched, but the art is solid and the pace is quick. The only thing I did not get was how the bad guy can be shooting at Batman in the bowling alley but not hitting him. I was expecting some sort of bulletproof Bat-vest to be revealed.

PE: It's amusing then that, after giving Paxton carte blanche with his identity, suit and Batmobile, the real Batman would be outraged that the phony would use a gun and "smear Batman's good name." It does provide the only standout panel in the entire story (reprinted below). Paxton, incidentally, is an obvious "homage" to real-life thrill-seeker George Plimpton (1927-2003).

Jack: I agree with you about George Plimpton but I'm not sure I'd call him a thrill-seeker--more an investigative journalist, kind of like a forerunner of the reporters embedded with the troops overseas.

PE: Paxton and Batman have only one clue to go on to find Trina's killer: a college ring. The boys scour the police files (which, evidently, used to be open to anyone who wanted a look) and, because they're looking for a college grad, they hit upon a bank heister with the nicknames "Brains" and "The Professor." They somehow know they've just found their man. This is Detective Comics after all. The real howler comes when the Dynamic Dunderheads stake out their man at his bowling alley from behind the pins! Batman doesn't recognize "The Professor" from his mug shots so he immediately deduces that the man has had plastic surgery! But, as Bats notes, "one thing he can't hide! A Phi Beta Kappa ring!" I'm still trying to figure out how Paxton evades those bullets at point blank range (after successfully dodging a thrown bowling ball). Though this was never more than a dopey story to begin with, at this point it became a "howler." Easily the stupidest Batman story we've endured during our two-year stretch so far. Ulp! There was that Ed Wood-ian fiasco about the guy who could see with his fingers. Okay, "Batman for a Day" takes the Silver Medal.

Jack: I guess you're not counting some of the Batgirl or Robin classics when you rate the worst! Remember the midi-maxi-mini mystery? How about Batman going up against the revolutionaries holed up in the building?

"A Bullet for Gordon"
Story by Frank Robbins
Art by Don Heck

Batgirl and Commissioner Gordon team up to catch a gang of cop killers.

Sure looks like a Frank Robbins' Batgirl to us!
PE: I wouldn't be surprised to find out that Frank Robbins had a hand in the art as well. The story's a serviceable time-waster on its way to the shocking climax (for me, at least), where Gordon reveals to the reader that he knows his daughter's got a night job. I'm not familiar with the Batgirl "mythos," having never read any of the stories growing up, but if this angle plays out (rather than being wiped out with the "amnesia" angle) the series could at least be a bit interesting in the future. My fingers are crossed.

Jack: I thought this was an above-average Batgirl story. The interplay between BG and Commissioner Gordon is interesting, and I wondered how he could be so blind as to not realize Batgirl was his daughter. For once, this series has promise!

Alfred's first solo. Batman #22.
"Alfred, Armchair Detective!"
(from Batman 31, October-November 1945)
Story by ?
Art by Jerry Robinson

PE: Alfred figures he can catch a gang of thieves faster than the cops. The comic book equivalent of Murder, She Wrote, Alfred Pennyworth's solo career lasted a grand thirteen episodes (from Batman #22-36, missing only #35; covering the period from  April 1944 to September 1946).

Jack: Alfred goes undercover as Benny Da Mope in this cute 4-pager.

"The Mystery That Edgar Allan Poe Solved"
(from Gang Busters 49, December 1955-January 1956)
Story by ?
Art by John Prentice

PE: Sgt. Frank Speares, voracious mystery reader, tries to crack the case of the looted tenth floor office. How could a gang break into a heavily guarded office building and make off with $50,000? With a blimp, of course! Overlong and preposterous.

Jack: Pretty pedantic stuff. These non-Batman-related stories in Detective are not very interesting to read.

Batman 237 (December 1971)

"Night of the Reaper!"
Story by Denny O'Neil
Art by Neal Adams & Dick Giordano

Dick Grayson and some college friends have gone up to Rutland, Vermont, for the weekend to enjoy the annual Halloween parade. After the group encounters some muggers, Robin sets out to investigate. He finds a Grim Reaper wielding a scythe; after a tussle, Robin falls down a rocky incline into a stream. Batman finds him there and takes him to a mansion where he is seen by Dr. Gruener, who has brought Batman to the remote location to capture Nazi butcher Colonel Kurt Schloss, who Gruener saw while shopping for a costume for his daughter.

After discovering a second victim of the Reaper, Batman finds that more Nazis are hunting Schloss, who they blame for squandering Nazi treasures. Batman deduces that the Reaper is really Dr. Gruener, who is seeking revenge for the atrocities of the Nazi death camps. Just as Gruener is about to kill one of Dick Grayson's friends, he is stunned to see a Jewish star. Horrified at what he has become, he slips and falls to his death.

Jack: I hate to be the one to criticize an O'Neil/Adams/Giordano story, especially one that runs a full 25 pages, but this story is a mess! Starting with the credits, which tell us that the story comes from an idea by Berni Wrightson with an assist by Harlan Ellison, it all seems like an in-joke that is completely obscure to me 40 years after the fact.

PE: This one meanders all over the place, Jack. It had me scratching my head and wondering if I'd nodded off at some point. Batman shows up in the midst of Robin's troubles when he swears he's heard a noise. He hadn't been introduced in the story yet so we have no idea where the heck he was when he heard the noise. When Schloss's car blows up, Batman turns around to find Robin, who he'd left recuperating in bed. Why would Schloss, who's trying to keep a low profile, go to all the trouble of murdering Batman and Robin? That would certainly turn attention in his general direction. It makes no sense whatsoever. The final reveal of the Reaper's true identity is another head-shaker. Why go to all the trouble of dressing up as The Grim Reaper (including painted limbs)? And the idiotic Alan character ("Weren't those floats so cool, dudes?") who wanders from one murder to the next? Why would a murderer leave this guy as a witness? The entire structure of the story, which begins as a Robin solo story, briefly becomes a team-up, and eventually winds up a Batman story, is extremely wonky.

Jack: Who are all these people? DC artists, writers, friends? Harlan Ellison? Who knows? The mystery of the Nazis and the Jewish doctor doesn't make a lot of sense. Thank goodness for the usual beautiful Adams art, but it's wasted on this story.

PE: We are totally in sync on this one, Jack. I'm fairly sure the guy who resembles Cain the Caretaker of The House of Mystery in the bottom right of the party photo is supposed to be Ellison and I'm just guessing that the pretentious-looking chap is O'Neil but, forty years on, who knows? And would a 1971 Batman reader even know who Ellison was or what O'Neil looked like?

Jack: I did get a kick out of the party goers dressed as superheroes, especially Havok passed out on a couch.

PE: I loved the fact that Spider-Man and Captain America are present on the float and at the party (as well as the aforementioned Havok). I wonder how that was worked out, seeing that the two companies were generally at each other's throats at the time. Did DC have to send over a "You can lampoon us anytime you want for a total of two panels" card to Marvel for the rights clearance? I had a chuckle that the fat guy was in a Batman suit rather than in one of the Marvel costumes. You'd think if they're going to show an out of shape hero, it'd be one of the competitor's. Thor's headpiece has seen better days, of course.

"The Screaming House" (from Detective Comics 37, March 1940)
Story by Bill Finger
Art by Bob Kane & Jerry Robinson

Lost on a backwoods road, Batman stops at a lonely old house to ask for directions. As he's exiting his car, he hears screaming coming from the house. Investigating, he finds a trio of thugs torturing a man with a hot poker. He makes quick work of the thugs and loosens the captive's bindings but, when he turns his back, The Batman is knocked cold by the man. When The Dark Knight comes to, he discovers that the tortured man has murdered his tormentors and fled. Batman is obviously perplexed by this turn of events.

PE: An incredibly violent story. There are shootings, stabbings, and a knife through the back of the skull and the consequences, blood and all, are not shied away from. This was only the 11th appearance of Batman in Detective Comics and the strip was obviously still seeking its niche in the comic book world. The writing is atrocious (and that goes for the punctuation as well) and the art is rough (Kane--that is, if it was Kane--couldn't draw uncowled figures if his life depended on it) but exciting nonetheless. This character, skeletal as his back story may have been at the time, must have been like a double-shot of whiskey to the casual comics fans of 1939. Since I only have the original appearance and not the reprinting, I'm not sure if the gore and violence remained untouched in 1971. As a historical footnote, the next story in the chronology introduced Dick Grayson and Robin.

Detective Comics 418 (December 1971)

" . . . And Be a Villain!"
Story by Denny O'Neil
Art by Irv Novick & Dick Giordano

Batman is investigating the robbery of several pharmaceuticals when he is attacked by The Creeper, a strange cat who Bats had thought was an ally. The Creeper is stealing large doses of Monofragilic Acid in the hopes that Dr. Ishmael Yatz, the son of the man who had transformed him into the oddity he's become, can throw together a cure for him. Unbeknownst to The Creeper, Dr. Yatz intends to sell the formula to "a certain private espionage organization" as an ersatz Super-Soldier Serum. Batman comes to the rescue just as Yatz has poisoned his father's creation and, in the end, The Creeper is able to revert back to his human form.

Jack: I don't remember the details of The Creeper's origin and back story, but this tale--which might fit better in an issue of The Brave and the Bold--explains things well enough to get me caught up. It is "respectfully dedicated to Steve Ditko," who created The Creeper, though what I have read about Ditko makes me think he might not have appreciated it.

Novick went a little bit overboard
with the cape in this shot!
An attempt to draw
like Ditko?
PE: I have never read a Creeper story before and must say that this story doesn't light a fire under me to pursue further adventures. It's a hodge-podge of bad writing and weak characterization. Batman dresses as an old man to gain entry to Yatz's lab.  He drives up in an old car elaborately made up, gets out of the car and knocks the guard unconscious. He then drops the disguise and dons his Bat-garb. Why bother? And why do the henchmen of the "certain private espionage organization" call the doctor "the Yatz creature"? I was expecting them to drop their disguises and jump in their spaceships back to Venus.

Jack: As I read this story, I found myself wishing it had been drawn by Neal Adams. Novick and Giordano did a good job, but there are times when all of their faces tend to look the same.

PE: Yeah, I completely agree. Nice in-joke, the "Fantino Narrows Bridge." I blush with modesty.

Jack: Denny O'Neil takes a page from the Frank Robbins playbook here--The Creeper is stuck in his Creeper personality due to an injection of serum, something that reminded me of Man-Bat.

"The Kingpin is Dead!"
Story by Frank Robbins
Art by Don Heck

Attending the premiere of "The Stepfather," Hollywood's big-screen adaptation of the life of Gotham mafioso Floyd Marcus, Barbara Gordon witnesses the slaying of "The Stepfather" himself.

Jack: An entertaining little story! The Godfather becomes The Stepfather and the Mafia is replaced by the (presumably) Jewish mob, but the whole idea of a shooting at a movie premiere is fun. I like that Commissioner Gordon knows that Batgirl is his daughter--no between-issue amnesia here!

PE: Roving reporter Guy Townes remarks that Police Commissioner Gordon was a rookie cop during the "Roaring Twenties." Are we to believe that Gordo is pushing, if not already, seventy? Call me nuts, but I find Don Heck's artwork improving with each installment.

"The Case of the Careless Caretaker" (from Gang Busters 40 June-July 1954)
Story by ?
Art by George Papp

Jack: I figured this one out! I knew that sticking your arm in a tank of piranhas would not be a good idea. The art on this reprint is pretty good and had an EC flavor in a couple of panels.

PE: Well, I think you may have misread the moral of the story, Jack. If you're going to murder someone, don't use piranha as your alibi. Simple as that. Artist Papp co-created Green Arrow and, according to author Mike W. Barr (in Comic Book Artist #5, Summer 1992), was one of the artists fired by DC Comics in 1968 for asking for retirement benefits. These comic companies could sure be classy people.

"The Case of the Terrified Tenderfoot!" (from Dale Evans Comics 1, September-October 1948)
Story by Joe Millard
Art by Alex Toth & Frank Giacoia

Jack: Bad writing ("Pull up your socks, buster!") but nice art by Toth.

PE: Dale Evans Comics?! This was Sierra Smith, Western Detective's first  of 23 adventures, all but one appearing in the no doubt super-exciting Dale Evans Comics! Sierra was assisted in his noirish quest to eliminate do-badders in the West by his beautiful blonde assistant Nan and their horse, Strawberry Muffin. Alright, so there wasn't a horse. If I'd have written it, there'd have been a horse.

Jack: Fred Hembeck, future cartoonist, has a letter in this month's letters column.

PE: As a follow-up to Hembeck's letter: Fred mentions the resemblance of the female character in "Legend of the Key Hook Lighthouse" to Claire Trevor in Key Largo. Julius Schwartz runs Denny O'Neil's original notes to the story and he indeed mentions that he's envisioning Trevor!

DC was trying to be creative to increase sales.

It's interesting that DC did so well!


Greg M said...

Enjoyable as always, fellows, though we'll have to agree to disagree on Batman 237. It's always been one of my favourite Batman stories of the 70s, and a pride of my collection.

I'm almost 100% positive that the whole Rutland, Vermont thing was something at least some of the DC writers did, because the JLA showed up there in one issue about the same time. It was a Halloween story (with the Phantom Stranger, naturally). I just uncovered this article on Wikipedia:

As for how all those Marvel characters show up at the party, I can only surmise that their appearance was Harlan Ellison's contribution to the story. It would be just like him to say "Fuck em! Use some Marvel characters!" :-)

See you next time, guys!

Jack Seabrook said...

I also read something online that said that a big-name fan lived up there and would host an annual party. For me, the story doesn't hold up, and not being one of the 1971 in-crowd makes it even more obscure. Thanks for reading!

Greg M said...

I believe his name was Tom Fagan, and from what I've read, this wasn't just a DC thing. The parade apparently shows up a couple of times in Marvel comics too.

This is starting to have all the earmarks of a cult... :-)

Matthew Bradley said...

Yes, the Rutland/Fagan thing was a Marvel staple around that time, too, and I remember being equally surprised at seeing the odd (or VERY odd) DC costume thrown into the mix there as well.

On his website, Steve Englehart had this to say about his Beast story in AMAZING ADVENTURES #16: "I was pals with Gerry Conway, who wrote THOR [#207], and Len Wein, who wrote JUSTICE LEAGUE [#103], and somehow we decided to plot a story that ran through all three books - even though JLA wasn't from Marvel, and even though their books were much bigger than mine. Gerry, Len, Len's then-wife Glynis, and I appear in all three plotlines, each of which stands on its own but also fits into one larger story. (They came out at the same time but Marvel's cover dates were a month ahead of DC's.)"

Matthew Bradley said...

Sorry, should've made it clearer that JLA #103 is the Halloween/Phantom Stranger story Greg mentioned. It should also be noted that future Defender the Valkyrie made her first appearance in an earlier Rutland outing in AVENGERS #83.

Jack Seabrook said...

I have not seen a Defenders comic in decades, but as I recall her, Valkyrie is welcome to march in my parade any time!

Marty McKee said...

Roy Thomas was a regular at Tom Fagan's Halloween parties, and I think he coordinated some of the Rutland stories while Marvel's EIC. BATMAN 237 is great. Wonderful images and, even at 25 pages, paced at bullet speed. I believe the Cain character is Mark Gruenwald. I like the unusual structure that seems to promise one thing (Robin solo!) and turns out to be something else. Didn't you guys like PSYCHO? :)

Dale Rawlings said...

The Alan in The Night of the Reaper is none other than Alan Weiss. Dick Grayson's other friends were Bernie Wrightson and Gerry Conway. Alan was so fixated on floats because he was peaking on LSD. They mention him staying awake for three days to cram for an art exam and Dick says, "Right! And gulping coffee and who knows what else to keep his eyes open."
The book Marvel Comics: the Untold Story go into it a little more regarding the Tom Fagan parties etc and Alan Weiss' love of LSD.

Ronconauta said...

@Matthew Bradley Here you can find the whole story about the "first" Marvel/Dc crossover courtesy of EngleHart/Conway/Wein