Monday, July 9, 2012

Batman in the 1970s Part 26: August, September and October 1973

by Peter Enfantino &
Jack Seabrook

Batman 251 (September 1973)

“The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge!”
Story by Denny O’Neil
Art by Neal Adams

The Joker has escaped from the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane and is killing off his former gang members one by one. Batman tries but fails to protect gang member number two, who laughs himself to death. The Joker kills number three with an exploding cigar. Batman tries to help number four but the punk resists and is killed by the Joker. The Joker ambushes Batman but spares his life. Batman tracks the last former gang member to a closed aquarium at a beach that has been contaminated by an oil spill. The Joker sends the man into a shark tank, where Batman fights to save him. The story ends as Batman confronts The Joker on the beach, finally besting his old foe and dragging him back to the asylum.

PE: Simply, the greatest Batman comic story ever written. I won't hear arguments on this one. I've read that Frank Miller's Batman: Year One and Alan Moore's The Killing Joke were the two most influential sources for Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan when it came time to design their Batman films (we all know what was on Schumacher's mind) but if it wasn't for this story, there wouldn't be Batman: Year One or The Killing Joke or the Loeb/Sale The Long Halloween or Miller's The Dark Knight Returns or anything else edgy and Batman post-1973. I can imagine a world of graphic novels written by the clones of Frank Robbins about plots to steal the keys to the Batmobile or The Return of Aunt Harriet. <shiver> There are so many iconic visuals in this one that I wish we could run the entire story here but it's been reprinted several times and should be easy to track down. #1 shiver-inducing moment, if I had The Crown Prince of Crime's gun to my head and had to choose, would be the ghoulish laughter ringing out as The Joker dumps Bing Hooley and his wheelchair in a shark tank. Let's see Cesar Romero get away with this one!

Jack: It doesn’t get better than this. While O’Neil and Adams revived Two-Face back in Batman 234, this is the first appearance of The Joker since the “new look” Batman began at the dawn of the 70s. Adams sets the tone for what would follow in the following decades, as The Joker would cement his position as Batman’s number-one foe.

PE: To illustrate the power of this story, I have to tell a short story of my own. Back in 1973, I was a maniacal Marvel consumer. I bought all of Marvel's titles, comics and magazines, didn't matter which. I was enthralled by that little logo in the top left corner. For some reason, I picked up Batman #251, itself a milestone considering how much of a Bat-fan I became later on. I had never before bought a DC hero comic. I'd seen them, as a couple friends at school were big JLA and Superman fans. No thanks, thought I. I had also, of course, spent some of my formative toddler years watching William Dozier's Batman TV show. By the time I was 11 years old, which I was when #251 hit the stands, if you admitted on the playground that you still had a fondness for Adam and Burt, you were pretty much on your own for the rest of recess, if not the rest of your life. So, with the campy Bats still in my head, I avoided DC like the plague, but I did pick this one up. It may have been the wild Neal Adams cover or I may have thrown it onto my pile at 7-11 by mistake. For whatever reason, I bought it and read it and re-read it several times over the course of a weekend. I'd never read anything like it before. This Joker kills people! Looking back on it now, it was kismet that I picked up this one and not one of the issues leading up to it. Had I read one of those equally campy Frank Robbins stories, my Bat-fever would have never ignited.

Jack: After months and months of Bob Brown, Frank Robbins, and Irv Novick stories, I felt like I’d been crawling through the desert and finally found water when I read this issue! I wonder if Adams had a hand in the writing as well, since O’Neil’s stories did not often rise to this level.

PE: Actually, according to an interview with Adams in Michael Eury's indispensable The Batcave Companion (Twomorrows Publishing, 2009), Adams was very much put off by the homicidal nature of The Joker and had to be talked into the assignment by Denny. Though I can't comment on the general reaction to the story, I can peek at the letters page of Batman #254 and let you know that readers were almost unanimous in their praise for "5 Way Revenge." The lone holdout does not, however, earn a sneer from me as Michael Sloan presents an intelligent argument for the other side. Sloan offers that O'Neil's Joker is too insane and not in keeping with the classic version. Goodbye to "the classic version" and good riddance, I says. The popularity of the story no doubt convinced Schwartz that Bat-fans were hungry for the rogues' gallery and tired of mob bosses and jaywalkers. In the next ten issues we'll see the return of Cat-Woman, The Penguin, The Scarecrow, and Two-Face. This should be interesting!

Detective Comics 436 (September 1973)

“The Night Has a Thousand Fears!
Story by Frank Robbins
Art by Bob Brown & Frank Giacoia

In order to set up an alibi should he need one, Bruce Wayne begins spreading it around Gotham that he's afraid of the dark. That experiment backfires on him when he's exposed to a drug that causes him to have real night frights. That's not the only trouble Wayne gets into though as stern cop Shotgun Smith discovers several packets of narcotics in Bruce's luggage. As Shotgun heads for the courthouse for a warrant for Bruce Wayne's arrest, Batman investigates his pilot and stewardesses to find out who smuggled the dope into Gotham.

PE: This is the kind of crap that makes you wonder whether Julius Schwartz was serious about a "new look." Simply idiotic in every way. Why would Bruce Wayne spread it around town that he has a night phobia simply so he can change into Batman easier? Does he forget he's been changing into The Dark Knight for the better part of 20 years (in DC time) right under every Gotham-ite's nose without any problem at all?  Batman solves his fear of the dark with a pen-light! Wait, there's more! Batman's phobia must not include the dark night as he's swingin' around town and drivin' his fancy Batmobile without the shakes.

Jack: This is one of those “so bad it’s good” stories. First of all, what is going on with Bruce Wayne and the three stewardesses in the cockpit? Sandy, who turns out to be a dope smuggler, exclaims: “Waynesy can fly Sandy—Anytime—Anyplace!” Next we have the return of Shotgun Smith, last seen in Detective 428. It’s hard to believe that this character would next return—after a 20-year absence—in 1993, and become a recurring figure!

PE: My LOL-panel (I've tried to narrow it down despite the large number of choices) would have to be when Bats is spying on his private jet pilot, Rick, and he's hanging from a ceiling out of sight except for his long flowing cape hanging down!

Jack: Bob Brown’s art is running a close second to that of Frank Robbins for sheer awfulness. I’ve reproduced only a few choice panels here, but there are plenty more along these lines.

PE: You didn't really have to take a look at the credits to know who wrote this mind-numbing claptrap. The splash page has Frank Robbins' 1960s cliches all over it. The only thing missing is an equally frightened Boy Wonder.

Jack: This issue has a cover date of September but is listed in the indicia as August-September—the cover date presumably allowed dealers to leave it out for four months or so (since it appears to have gone on sale in late May).

“Sign of the Two Fingers!”
Story by Elliot Maggin
Art by Dick Giordano

A hardware magnate uses Sue Dibny and her new puppy to convince The Elongated Man to steal a new carbon thread from his competitor.

Jack: I love this series! Elongated Man stretches here, there and everywhere, usually for no good reason beyond the fact that it’s fun to draw and fun to look at.

PE: Yeah, it's goofy fun, certainly a lot more entertaining than the main event. Something I've always wondered about The Elongated Man and Mister Fantastic is whether we're supposed to accept that their heart and other vital organs stretch the same way as their bodies do. Okay, okay, it's a comic book. I'll just go back to "goofy fun!"

Batman 100 Page Super Spectacular (DC-20)
(September 1973)

Jack: This 100-page all-reprint issue included Golden Age Batman stories featuring Two-Face, along with other great reprints from the old days. Just seeing the cover of this comic brings it all back to me. This was the best bargain in town back in 1973--100 pages of wonderful old comics for fifty cents. Now where is that time machine again?

PE:  The best bargain ever in comics has to be the period in which DC loaded up several of its titles in a 100-page format. At the cost of a (then) whopping fifty cents (more than double the cost of a regular comic!), we got the 20 original pages of new story and art that would appear in the regular-sized titles plus 60 pages or so of  “super spectacular material… of yester-year" (according to Julius Schwartz). The 100-pagers were so cool (I mean, where else could a kid, in 1974 pre-Archive and Masterworks days, read stories that appeared ten, twenty, even thirty years before?), DC coaxed me into dumping change down for the likes of Justice League, Wonder Woman, Superman, and Brave and the Bold, titles I wouldn’t normally pick up if you paid me. I was a Marvel Zombie, bought all the titles including Night Nurse, but 100 pages for fifty cents was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

Batman 252 (October 1973)

"The Spook's Master Stroke!"
Story by Frank Robbins
Art by Irv Novick & Dick Giordano

Val Kaliban, alias The Spook, was put to death in the electric chair in 1963. Or was he? With a little help from Jason Bard, The Dark Knight tracks The Spook to his island hideaway and barely escapes being electrocuted himself before proving how the master of escape cheated death.

Jack: “Pfah!” This is what The Spook likes to start sentences with. What is “Pfah?” Is it a verbal tic? An expletive deleted? A throat-clearing noise? Does one pronounce the “P” or is it silent? And if it’s silent, why write it out?

PE: After the extreme high of Batman #251, we come back down to earth with this typically inane Frank Robbins mystery. Most everything that happens in the story really couldn't happen (how did Kaliban/The Spook get back into his own coffin when it's covered with eight feet of dirt? Does he have henchmen we're not privy to yet? A doorway into the coffin from one of those underground corridors? I can't tell you as it obviously wasn't important to Robbins to write a realistic story. Why does Jason Bard take a role in this story? Wouldn't he have to know that Alfred is butler to Wayne and therefore Bruce Wayne is... oh, never mind.

Jack: The essential Scooby-Doo-ishness of The Spook is hard to overcome, but the art is pretty slick. I just wish The Spook didn’t look like he was dancing a jig in so many panels.

"The King from Canarsie!"
Story by Elliot Maggin
Art by Dick Dillin & Dick Giordano

Danny Kaye? No, Davy King!
Not THAT Marvel
Family, Peter.
Beloved movie star and humanitarian Davy King is at Hudson U to get a college education after years in show business. Lucky for him, Robin is always nearby because someone is trying to kill him! It turns out it’s his agent, who is trying to scare him away from campus so he can get back to work.

Jack: The story is dedicated to Danny Kaye, which is helpful because he is so carefully disguised as Davy King that I never would have guessed who he was supposed to be. I have a real soft spot for Danny Kaye, especially in movies like The Court Jester and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but this story misses the mark.

PE: The awkward splash almost seems to depict Davy King with an erection after seeing Robin. Why would a comic book base one of its characters on Danny Kaye? Life imitates art, so they say, and I can see a league of eleven year-olds scratching their collective head and exclaiming "Who's Danny Kaye?" Aside from that, the story's just another rushed cliche. Most of the "accidents around campus" happen in one crammed panel, including a car going off a cliff which means that campus is awfully big, and the villain is the only other character we're introduced to. No mystery here.


Saw the announcement (above) for The Amazing World of Superman theme park, including admission fees, and wondered whatever happened to that. Turns out the city couldn't get a highway to run past the projected park site and everything went downhill from there. A pity since the proposal art (by none other than Neal Adams) made this look like a fun place to visit had it come to fruition. The way the economy's been in the last four decades though, chances are the place would have been built and then gone under fairly quickly. A fabulous website dedicated to the project (including those Adams drawings) can be found here.

Neal Adams' conceptual art for Supes' theme park


Greg M said...

Hey, guys. Great column this week. So glad you finally hit what is probably the Bat-issue of the 1970s. I wasn't collecting or reading comics when it first came out, but when I first read it in the first "Best Joker Stories Ever Told" volume, I knew I had to track down a copy of it. As you say, it's likely not rare, but is definitely an issue any comic fan should pick up. The writing and the art just came together beautifully. Joker's had some good stories after this one (most notably "The Laughing Fish" and "Sign of the Joker", which I think ranks as high as "Five-Way Revenge"), but this is the one that, as you say, laid the groundwork for the Joker's character for decades to come. Just sheer delight. And that cover. There's a reason DC made it a T-shirt. It's iconic. So brilliant.

And, as I've mentioned so many times before, the 100-pagers are my holy grail. Any time I can lay my hands on one, I light up. It doesn't matter which comic it is. Hell, I have a few Tarzan 100-pagers floating around. The only problem with those, though, is that they were story installments, so you're not getting individual stories in them. However, the Joe Kubert art more than makes up for it.

Great job, guys!

Peter Enfantino said...

Thanks for the kind words, Greg. Part of the joy of coming here on Monday afternoon is reading your comments. Imagine what those 100=pagers would cost in today's comic book world considering the average funny book will set you back $3.99 now. Never mind having to read the thing afterwards!

Greg M. said...

You're welcome, Peter. Always gotta love talking bout the Bat and the 100-pagers. Speaking of those things, I imagine that they'd run somewhere in the $8-12 region. DC reprinted a few of the old 100-pagers a few years back, and I think they were about that. Current comics, though, would definitely be higher up.