Monday, August 13, 2012

Batman in the 1970s Part 31: July, August and September 1974

by Jack Seabrook
& Peter Enfantino

Detective 441 (July 1974)

"Judgment Day"

Story by Archie Goodwin
Art by Howard Chaykin

On a lonely country road, Robin is ambushed and taken captive by a mysterious robed figure. Before too long, Batman is delivered an ultimatum: meet "the Judge" at an isolated and abandoned hotel or Robin dies! Once there, Batman quickly discovers "The Judge" is the father of Melissa, an innocent bystander caught in the crossfire of Batman and a heroin dealer named Snow. Melissa is blinded and her father wants his revenge.

PE: A story that has a few too many plot holes, way too much exposition in its climax, and a few too many roads that wind up at dead ends. The Judge rigs the hotel with "hundreds of booby traps" and then brings his blind daughter along for the ride? I normally love Howard Chaykin's art (some of my Chaykin favorites, in no order, are Black Kiss, The Shadow, and American Flagg!) but here it's just too sketchy and indistinct. I can't figure out from that penultimate panel if Melissa accidentally detonates an explosive or if she drowns (I'm assuming the former) as the squiggly lines could be water or smoke. "The Judge" complains that Bats is a vigilante and should not have taken on Snow (a heroin dealer named Snow!) but rather waited for the police and yet it's "The Judge" himself who is responsible for the shot that blinds Melissa. None of this makes sense. And is "The Judge" blindfolded symbolically or has he blinded himself as well? How the heck can he maneuver through the "hundreds of booby traps" when he's got that silly scarf over his eyes?

Jack: I had a completely opposite reaction to this story. I thought story and art were both outstanding! This is the first (and possibly only) Batman story drawn by Chaykin, and I love his noirish approach. It's too bad his style, so well suited to early graphic novels, did not get used more on Batman. Goodwin's theme of Batman as vigilante would only continue to resonate in the years and decades that followed. The Judge's anger does have a basis in fact, since Batman's actions did indirectly lead to Melissa's blindness.

"Manhunter Chapter 5: Cathedral Perilous"

Story by Archie Goodwin
Art by Walt Simonson

The Manhunter and Christine St. Clair descend on The Romulus Cathedral in Istanbul where a meeting of the mysterious Council is taking place. St. Clair is able to tape record their leader, Dr. Mykros, addressing his followers and hopes to get the tape back to Interpol in order to prove that she and Manhunter are innocent.

PE: The framing of the story, a family visiting the Cathedral at the same time the secret meeting is being held, offers us something we haven't seen in this series as of yet: humor. The thread is that a little boy, with a toy gun, is trying to convince his mom and dad that something strange is going on but the parents will have none of it. In the end, the boy saves Manhunter's life by dropping his toy pistol on the head of one of the clones, enabling MH to escape. I thought the final twist, that one of the "monks" is actually Christine's father, was a bit much but maybe Archie has another ace up his sleeve.

Jack: Excellent work by Goodwin and Simonson. Almost 40 years later, some of the panels in the strip came right back to me. I found the framing device with the tourist family to be kind of Eisneresque, which is always a good thing in my book.

PE: In the reprint department we're treated to the usual highs and lows. I don't even have to consult the Grand Comic Book Database to tell me that Bob Kane was responsible for the chicken scratch disguised as penciling that inhabits "The Case of the Prophetic Pictures" from 1940. All of Kane's characters look alike, the only discerning feature being girth in some cases. It's no wonder he had to find other artists to ghost for him. Fairly soon, even the ten year olds would have complained about the lack of depth, backgrounds, facial features, etc. The story's not much either but it does contain a couple of noteworthy scenes, chief among them the climax, where Batman and Robin watch the killer commit suicide and then muse that it's "much better this way!" Definitely, a different era for The Batman. If this had been reprinted a couple years before, under Julius Schwartz's regime, I assume that comment would have been censored as not being "very Batman-like." There's also a wacky and enjoyable Plastic Man story by Jack Cole (but then aren't all of Jack Cole's contributions to comics enjoyable and wacky?) and a just plain wacky Ibis The Invincible installment with Ibis fighting a three-headed giant (one of the heads is a skull!).

Perhaps the most bizarre reprinting this issue is of "The Spider," a yellow and blue clad hero whose specialty is the bow and arrow. Originally published by Crack Comics (a very appropriate title, you'll agree, if you've read the story), the series featured playboy millionaire Tom Hallaway who moonlights as The Spider, an archer who uses a special arrow called "The Spider's Seal." Anyone with rudimentary knowledge of the pulps knows there was a very similar character with the same moniker in the 1930s-1940s and this strip may have been a way of cashing in on the popularity of that magazine. "The Spider" was another of the Quality characters that were acquired by DC when that company went under after the big Comics Code implosion. This story deals with Mouse Malone, a card shark who's taken for a ride one night by the henchmen of an angry mobster. When the two goons turn up dead, necks broken, The Spider investigates. Malone is naturally ruled out as he's a 98-pound pipsqueak and couldn't do the amount of damage done to the burly gunmen. But not is all it seems as The Spider reveals that Mouse actually has one arm three times the size of his other, rippling with muscle, and therefore had the strength to strangle his captors!

Maybe Kane should have name-tagged all his characters?

Jack: I never forgot that story and have often wondered where I read it. Now I know. That reveal at the end of the one muscular arm always stayed with me, for some reason. I am certain I read somewhere years later that it was an in-joke and that the arm got so built up by--how shall I put this--extensive use involving auto-eroticism. I thoroughly enjoyed the reprints this issue, even the Batman ones. The early Batman stories (the Kane one is from 1940) were so dark and violent that they really seem to show a direct line from the 1930s pulps. I found it interesting that, in the story that was a sequel to "The Case of the Prophetic Pictures," Batman remarks that the earlier story was "our first really big case." The Ibis story features art by Kurt Schaffenberger, who would draw tons of strips for DC in the 1970s, especially Superman and Shazam! The three-headed monster is the type of thing we would see decades later, though his art got much more cartoony, in my opinion. I even liked the Eclipso story--I had not thought of Eclipso in many years, though the art by Alex Toth (I sound like a broken record) is, as always, enjoyable.

Batman 257 (August 1974)

"Hail Emperor Penguin!"

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

The Penguin is back! He kidnaps King Peeble IV as the 12-year-old monarch tours Hudson University with Dick Grayson. Batman and Robin track the Penguin to his mountain lair, where they rescue the king with a little help from Talia, who was there to learn more about the king so she could rob his treasury and free her father from prison.

Jack: The Penguin never seems very dangerous in this story and his constant "Auuk" expletives are tiresome, as is his elevated vocabulary. I was relieved to see Talia, who looks as lovely as ever, because she made the story more interesting. The twelve-year-old king from the Middle East is too corny for words.

PE: As with last month's Catwoman caper, this return trip to the Rogues' well isn't what I'd hoped for. To be fair, it's a child's medium and perhaps that's what Julius Schwartz ordered up but I certainly wish that Archie Goodwin had gotten a stab at the classic villains in his short run over at 'Tec. This Penguin, a buffoon rather than a serious threat, owes much to the Adam West TV show. I've still got hope, dwindling though it may be, that Denny O'Neil will do the right thing three issues from now and present us with the crazed madman he so brilliantly re-introduced in #251. Talia's presence seems completely random and thrown in simply for a romantic angle or maybe to remind us she's still out there. It certainly wasn't for advancement of the story as she's barely visible, giving a far-fetched reason for being there in the first place. If I was Batman, I'd have been a bit more suspicious. The boy king immediately reminded me of a similar story on, I believe, Columbo in the early 1970s. I'm too lazy right now to look it up so you'll just have to take my word for it.

Jack: The reprints in this issue are terrible! I want my 60 cents back! I know we're only up to August, but this gets my vote for worst issue of 1974. "Hunt for a Robin-Killer!" is from 1968 and features some nice layouts and panels by Gil Kane, but "Ally Babble and the Fourteen Peeves!" may well be the stupidest Batman story I've ever read. "Conversational Clue!" is another weak Alfred solo adventure from 1944, and "Die Small--Die Big!" is a Bob Brown mess from 1969--what was the point of reprinting stories that were only five years old? Finally, the Joker makes an appearance in "Rackety-Rax Racket!," which just proves that not all Joker stories were worth remembering.

PE: I never expect much from the Batman reprints so when something actually catches my eye it's perceived as a bonus. I really liked Gil Kane's pencils on "Hunt for a Robin Killer." It's the classic Kane that we saw on display over at Marvel in the early 1970s. The story, in which Robin gets beat up again and Batman jumps to the wild conclusion--for about three seconds--that he'll have to shop for another partner, is about as dull and cornball as any of the 1960s Batman stories written by Gardner Fox. I can forgive a lot of lapses in logic in these stories (ten-story leaps into car seats, etc.) but, funnily enough, what always stops me in mid-read are the silly things like Batman's etched mask eyebrows expressing sorrow.

Jack: Prolific letter hack Guy H. Lillian III takes over the job of editing the letters column as Marty Pasko has gone back to college! 

Detective Comics 442 (September 1974)

"Death Flies the Haunted Sky"

Story by Archie Goodwin
Art by Alex Toth

A group of three aerial daredevils are being threatened by a mysterious pilot in an old World War I airplane. Turns out the three pilots had threatened to elbow out their fourth partner, the designer of their prop plane and, in despair, the man committed suicide. Now, the man's daughter seeks Batman's help as she's convinced her brother is flying the skies with vengeance in his heart.

PE: As has been the custom lately, there's no scene inside like that on the cover. The ghostly plane on the Jim Aparo cover would have been a welcome addition to this warmed-over whodunit. I was hoping this might have been a return visit from The Enemy Ace (from way back in Tec #404) but it's just another disgruntled and greedy business partner. I've always enjoyed Alex Toth's visuals and he doesn't disappoint here. I can see, however, why he has his detractors. Some of his characters don't seem to have facial features outside of a couple of straight lines. He does have that Golden Age-ish style, though, and it's perfect for a Bat-strip as well as for all the Warren comics he put in time on as well. One little trivial factoid I didn't know was that Toth designed the cartoon character Space Ghost! Nice nod to Hitchcock's North by Northwest, by the way.

Jack: The credits say that this story is done with due homage to Bob Kane, Jerry Robinson, George Roussos and Neal Adams--great Batman artists all. However, by this point in Alex Toth's career, it seems to me that his art had grown more "Super-Friends" in style and less like the great stuff we've been seeing in prior issues in reprints from the 40s and 50s. I have to wonder if his work on DC TV cartoons was influencing what he put on the page. Also, the story is oddly short at 11 pages and just seems rushed.

"Manhunter Chapter 6: To Duel the Master"

Story by Archie Goodwin
Art by Walt Simonson

Manhunter heads to Japan to try to convince his ex-trainer Asano Nitobe, a Ninjutsu master, that The Council has murdered Dr. Oka, his own master. Nitobe has been brainwashed though and believes none of what MH has to say. A fight to the death breaks out. Meanwhile, Christine St. Clair is on her way to the Interpol office with a tape recording of the Council's secret meeting at the Cathedral (last issue) when her father enters her compartment. Realizing her father has gone over to the dark side, she tells him that if he wants the tape he'll have to kill her. Some things even an evil villain cannot do and he exits the train, only to be gunned down by one of his fellow Council members. Christine then heads to Japan where she's able to convince Nitobe he's fighting on the wrong side. The warrior swears vengeance on those who killed his master and allies himself with St. Clair and Manhunter.

PE: A little bit too busy and confusing this time around but nonetheless enjoyable. The battle between Nitobe and MH is a good one but ends rather quickly. I knew that Christine's father wouldn't kill her (or rather that the attempt would fail) but I didn't see his murder coming. Archie Goodwin deftly mixes together several genres in this series and, despite this being one of the weaker entries, I love to see what he's going to throw into the blender each installment. I'm reminded of Steranko's Nick Fury strip we're currently examining at Marvel University. It too was a successful melding of Alfred Hitchcock and James Bond.

Jack: I thought this was a very strong entry, with highlights being the sequence on the train and, especially, the big battle between Manhunter and Nitobe. As a lover of Japanese film, this was right up my alley!

PE: The most interesting reprint of the bunch this issue is that of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon's The Guardian and The Newsboy Legion, a series I had never heard of before. First appearing in Star-Spangled Comics #7 (April 1942), The Newsboy Legion were a half-pint forerunner of The Bowery Boys and The Goonies, reformed juvenile delinquents who sold war bonds door to door and solved mysteries. The Guardian, an attempt by Kirby and Simon to cash in on their recent success with Captain America, was the alter ego of patrolman Jim Harper. The blue and yellow clad vigilante, with a solid gold salad bowl atop his head, carried a small bomb-shaped (or goldfish-shaped) shield that, at least in evidence presented in this story, was a bit too small to be of any help.

In "The House Where Time Stood Still," the boys are trying to get a 100% war bond sales rating in their neighborhood, Suicide Slums, but they can't get the Presby Brothers, two elderly recluses not seen by another soul in over 25 years, to answer their door. Taking a page from their juvie days, the boys decide to break in to the house to see what's what. They're confronted by two grey-bearded isolationists who tell the boys to scat or they'll feel the burn of buckshot. The boys can't help but blab the news around the neighborhood and soon a pair of Nazi spies (!) are calling on the Presbys to lighten their monetary load. Luckily, Jim Harper is on to the bad guys and he heads to Presby Manor as The Guardian to save the day. Well, that's the plan anyway. He's actually knocked on the head and spends most of the story unconscious while The Newsboys get the better of the two Germans through childish ingenuity and ankle biting. An absolute joy through its entire 12-page length, with snappy dialogue and gorgeous Golden Age Kirby/Simon doodlings, The Newsboy Legion won me over big time. I see that DC has released an Archive Edition collecting the series and it's heading for my Amazon cart as we speak!

Jack: At this point in 1974, Detective is much more enjoyable than Batman, both for the new stories and the reprints. Other reprints include a solid Hawkman story from 1965 with smooth mid-60s DC art by Murphy Anderson, Black Canary's first solo appearance (from 1948), and an Elongated Man story from 1964. One thing that gets a little bit annoying is the tendency of the writers to use alliterative nicknames for the heroes and heroines: Elongated Man is referred to as the Ductile Detective and Hawkgirl is called the Pinioned Princess. The last two reprints are a Batman and Robin tale from 1945 with great Jerry Robinson art and a lot of hoods spouting Brooklynese, and a Dr. Fate story from 1941 written by Gardner Fox, who had to be one of the longest-tenured and busiest of the DC stable of writers.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Howard Chaykin is one of my favourites too... Chaykin illustrated other Batman stories including the Elseworlds Batman: Dark Allegiances from 1996, which he also wrote...