Monday, September 3, 2012

Batman in the 1970s Part 34: January, February, and March 1975

by Peter Enfantino
& Jack Seabrook

Detective 444 (January 1975)

Story by Len Wein
Art by Jim Aparo

Scrags Donovan has come to Gotham and Commissioner Gordon is itching to find out why. His solution: put The Batman onto the trail of the "big-time muscle goon from Detroit." The trail leads to a small shack in the harbor where Batman witnesses the planning of a heist at the opening of a new Gotham theater. The victims: Gotham's elite. During the robbery, Batman discovers that one of the masked crooks is none other than his great love, Talia al Ghul! As Talia attempts to escape, The Caped Crusader is forced to shoot her in the back in full view of the patrons. Bereaved though he is, The Batman refuses to be taken into custody by Gordon and becomes a stalked fugitive.

PE: The first chapter in an epic five-issue arc. Epic in that, previously, a two-issue story would be almost unheard of. It's an uneven but enjoyable opening blast that will see the return of Talia's famous pop fairly soon and the obvious "real story" behind her "murder" (do I really have to throw out a SPOILER ALERT before supposing that Talia isn't actually finis?). Roger Barton and Elizabeth Baylor? Sounds like one of those really bad CRACKED parodies. Jim Aparo's art is fan-frickin'-tastic and I wish that I had discovered his work years ago. Like some aspects of O'Neil/Adams, I see lots of points of inspiration here for Christopher Nolan.

Jack: Aparo's art on this story is great, and I love the promise of a new multi-issue arc with Talia and (hopefully) her father. There is one three-panel shot that really looks like something out of a Neal Adams story. It gets a little bit frustrating that Commissioner Gordon is so quick to distrust Batman, but I'm along for the ride.

"The Magical Mystery Mirror"
Story by Mike Barr
Art by Ernie Chan

A glimpse of a strange woman in a mirror leads The Elongated Man into a locked-room mystery.

PE: I'm not a fan of this new Elongated Man series and this installment does nothing to change my view. Its frenetic pace, endless coincidences, and stick figure characters allow no time to tell a story. It does give us a glimpse at the work of Ernie Chan, who will begin a lengthy run as artist of both Batman strips later this year.

Jack: I enjoyed it, especially some of the crazy stretches Elongated Man did! It's light, humorous fun and Chan's art is pretty slick.

Every boy's fantasy?
Every man's fantasy?
PE: In 2079, cash-strapped private eye Star Hawkins is hired to find the missing martian Qar-Miq on the planet Vesta. Find him he does but not without a few problems. "The Case of the Martian Witness" has the typical trappings of comic book sci-fi (a cup of coffee becomes a mug of Koma) but elevates itself from the dreary futuristic fantasy fare that DC was pumping out at the time with writer John Broome's wink at the reader. "Yeah, this space travel stuff is a load of malarkey but it's fun, eh kids?" Hawkins wants only to earn enough money to buy back his robot handmaid, Ilda, from the local pawnshop. I'm sure screwed-up psychologists in the early 60s would have found something sinister in a handsome man with a fondness for a metal woman but I find it a hell of a lot of fun. This was my first encounter with Star Hawkins and, as with The Newsboy Legion, I'm actively seeking out more. A little research tells me that this was the debut story (appearing in Strange Adventures #114, March 1960) and Hawkins would appear in 20 more adventures but has yet to be awarded his own reprint volume. The other standout here is Alex Toth's good girl art for the Sierra Smith reprint, "The Case of the Haunted Horse!" which must have kept more than one pre-teen awake late into the night with a flashlight.

Jack: As soon as I started reading the Star Hawkins story, I recognized Mike Sekowsky's art, which always takes me right back to the Justice League of America. Sekowsky drew the adventures of the JLA from 1960 to 1968. The reprint of "Dick Grayson, Detective!" from 1950 comes with an editor's note telling us that Robin will appear solo in every issue of Detective from now on; I'm not sure if this is a promise or a threat. My favorite reprint, of course, is Kid Eternity, which is one of the goofier Golden Age series. Reading this issue of Detective and knowing that it's the first one where Julius Schwartz took over again as editor after Archie Goodwin left, it feels like we've jumped back a year. The reprints aren't as good as they were in 1974 and the editor's notes almost seem a little snippy, as if Schwartz was telling his readers that Detective was now going to get back on track after a year in the wilderness.

Batman 260 (February 1975)
"This One'll Kill You, Batman!"
Story by Denny O'Neil
Art by Irv Novick & Dick Giordano

The Joker breaks out of Arkham Asylum and drugs Batman with a concoction that will cause him to laugh himself to death in three days. Can the Caped Crusader find the antidote before the Joker kills the last scientist who is able to prepare it?

Jack: The return of the Rogues' Gallery continues, and this is the strongest of the stories so far. Novick and Giordano are at their best and O'Neil's writing seems to be elevated by the high quality of the villain. There is a cameo by Two-Face, who saves Batman's life during the jailbreak, and The Joker's actions seem perfectly in character.

PE: I'm not sure which emotion I'm feeling strongest: disappointment that this Joker story comes nowhere near the heights of "Five-Way Revenge" or relief that it isn't the flaming disaster like any one of the previous Rogues stories by O'Neil. There's really nothing much to the tale, though Two-Face's cameo is a nice surprise as is the elevation of Arkham to more than just a mention. I will say, though, that if I have to wade through mediocrity, let it feature the  Rogues rather than mob bosses and truck hijackers. It could be argued that half this script was written by Henny Youngman. Take this story... please.

Jack: This issue's reprints include "The Grade A Crimes!" from 1943, in which Batman and Robin figure out that crooks are posing as milkmen to rob jewels in the early morning hours. "The Perfect Crime--Slightly Imperfect!" is a snoozer from 1966 with some nicely drawn women by Sheldon Moldoff and Sid Greene. "The Case Without a Crime!" is a Golden Age tale from 1946 that features no villain but a pleasant foursome trying to figure out where $99 went from their jewelry store's receipts. "The Riddler's Prison-Puzzle Problem!" is a weak story from 1968 that at least has the Riddler, who is usually entertaining.

PE: My favorite reprint this issue is the delightfully goofy "The Grade A Crimes!" complete with hard-partying milk magnates and milking machines that conceal rare "jools." I was completely surprised when Batman identified the chief crook as dairy billionaire Winthrop despite his elaborate, Robin-influenced disguise. Never mind the shock of white hair and the fact that he's wearing the same blue suit he was wearing at the party earlier!! Throw in an art job by Dick Sprang and this story is the definition of 1940s Batman.

Winthrop, Milk Magnate...

...but not a very bright criminal.

Jack: The story I'd like to highlight is "The Pearl of Peril," a four-page Alfred adventure from 1945. It follows the usual Alfred solo story pattern of Alfred bumbling into the middle of a crime and solving it despite himself, but the art is by Jerry Robinson. Robinson was one of the great Batman artists, living from 1922-2011 and either creating or co-creating key characters such as Robin and the Joker. I can usually identify a Robinson story by the splash page, especially when one of the characters is ridiculously larger than life and towering over another, as in the panel below.

PE: And here's an appropriate time to point readers in the direction of an excellent Robinson bio I stumbled on this week in a remainder bookshop, Jerry Robinson, Ambassador of Comics (Abrams, 2010). It's a fascinating history of The Joker's creator and a look behind the scenes of the comics industry by one of its relatively unsung heroes.

Detective 445 (March 1975)

"Break-In at the Big House"
Story by Len Wein
Art by Jim Aparo

Wanted by police for the murder of Talia Al Ghul, Batman must keep a low profile but still seek out pieces to the puzzle. He knows he didn't pull the trigger (despite holding the weapon) so he heads for the only man who can provide some answers: Talia's father Ra's, currently being held in Gotham Prison. Breaking in to the yard is no problem for the man who helped devise the security and soon he's facing Ra's himself. If The Dark Knight hoped for help from one of his most dangerous foes, he was kidding himself. Ra's reveals that he was responsible for his own daughter's death then commits suicide. Batman must escape down one of The Spook's abandoned tunnels to avoid capture by the guards.

PE: Len Wein's multi-part Bat-Murderer storyline is running circles around the flotsam found over in Batman. Sure, there are plot holes galore here (Have they done that autopsy on Talia yet? Would Batman really leave The Spook's tunnels open under Gotham Prison?) but the story is intriguing and it's helped enormously by Jim Aparo's exciting art.

Jack: This is promising to be an entertaining story arc! I was a little bit surprised to see Ra's Al Ghul in a cell in a Gotham City prison, but I have a feeling there's more going on than meets the eye. The twelve pages of this story flew by and Jim Aparo's outstanding artwork was a big factor. I liked that Batman escaped from the prison guards by using one of the Spook's secret exits. Len Wein is doing a nice job of tying together characters and events in the Bat-universe.

PE: You bring up a good point about Ra's and his current mailing address, Jack, as the last we saw of him he was dying on a mountain in Switzerland (Batman #244, September 1972) so the what the heck's he doin' in a prison in Gotham City looking like his old self? I suspect (read that as hope) Wein has a good explanation for this and the obvious faux-murder of Talia when the writer winds up the saga in a few issues.

What the fudge???
"The Touchdown Trap"
Story by Bob Rozakis
Art by Mike Grell

The Fiftieth-Anniversary replaying of the famous Hudson University Beavers game that put the school on the map promises to be explosive...literally! Only Robin, The Teen Wonder can save the day and the team.

Jack: This is the first story credit for prolific letter writer Bob Rozakis, who has been seen previously in some of these comics contributing filler pages. It's also the first time we've seen Mike Grell's art, though he started working for DC in 1974 on some other books.

PE: I've become convinced that Frank Miller couldn't deliver this strip from the town of Mediocrity.

Jack: The reprints are a disappointing bunch, highlighted by another Star Hawkins adventure and a short Dr. Mid-Nite story from the Golden Age. For some reason, E. Nelson Bridwell must have felt compelled to reprint stories with run of the mill detectives rather than costumed heroes, and I find them pretty dull for the most part. The best news this issue is the announcement that Detective is returning to monthly status with the next issue!

PE: Now who's the Bat-Moaner, Jack? I liked the second Star Hawkins story for the same reasons I liked the first. It's a goofy, light sf yarn and its star, Hawkins, pretty much takes a back seat to his robotic secretary, Ilda. Usually, I'll admit, I don't like this sort of thing but this strip tickles my funny bone and manages to reach down deep and contact the twelve-year old in me. I also really dug the dynamic Dan Barry art on the Marty Moran story ("The Human Bomb!" from Big Town #2, February 1951), despite my fuzziness on exactly who Marty Moran is. Was he a newspaper man or a cop? He seems to have the run of the town and police force at his beck and call. Barry's style reminds me a lot of Alex Raymond's, which is appropriate since Barry worked on the Flash Gordon newspaper strip, created by Raymond, in the early 1950s. According to the GCD, the Marty Moran feature began life in Big Town as a "Steve Wilson" strip but was retitled "Marty Moran, Headline Hunter" for the reprint here. Why this was done is a guess on my part but, since Big Town was based on a radio program (and later a series of films), rights to the characters' names might have needed reacquiring and that spells $$.

The Human Bomb was an early version of today's
suicide bomber who used the suit to commit crimes.
From Bob Brown's Dr. Mid-Nite story (1948)

More dynamic Dan Barry art!

Batman 261 (March 1975)

"The Mystery That Never Was!"

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

Bruce Wayne pays a visit to Hal Hemingway, an old friend and ex cop now working as a security guard at an industrial plant. Crooks show up and rob the plans for a new Fasion Reactor, despite Batman's best efforts. Hemingway disappears and Batman goes undercover to join the crooks and find him. The gang is onto the Caped Crusader, and Hemingway dies protecting Batman from a hail of machine gun bullets. Batman unmasks the real culprit: the plant manager.

Jack: In a short break from the return of the Rogues' Gallery, we're back to run of the mill crime stories. This one never gets going and the death of poor Mr. Hemingway is meant to be tragic but just seems to have been done before. Fasion Reactor? Were they worried that the makers of the non-existent Fusion Reactor would sue?

PE: Ah Jack, you are so naive. Even comic books have typos now and then. It's a fashion reactor, which is why it's dangerous whenever the gizmo is activated near one of these nattily dressed characters. Boring story. Gawdawful dialogue. Cliched reveal (O'Neil had a habit of introducing only one support character that could actually be the villain). Come back, Catwoman and Penguin, all is forgiven.

Jack: Five Batman and Robin reprints round out this issue, the last of the 100-Page Super-Spectaculars in the 15-month run where Batman and Detective Comics went to 100 pages per issue. My favorite reprint is "A Christmas Peril!" from 1945, illustrated by Jerry Robinson, in which Batman and Robin teach a rich young man named Scrooge the true meaning of Christmas. It gets me every time!

PE: A fabulous story that, Jack, although it's a stretch to call the spirit of Christmas one of Batman's weapons (which was the "theme" of this issue's reprints). In "Crime's Man-Hunt" (from Detective #92, October 1944), Batman foils a jewelry heist and hauls the three bad guys off to jail. One year later (remember, that Gotham has a very lenient judicial system), the trio are paroled and stumble on a completely legit way of rolling in the dough: nabbing wanted felons and collecting the reward. Well, Gotham has only so many crooks on the lam and they soon dry up their well. No problem. The three stooges begin springing cons and then hunting them down for the booty! Another Dick Sprang winner, written by Joseph Greene, creator of Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. For those interested, the other reprints are "The 1,001 Inventions of Batman!" (Edmond Hamilton/Sprang/Charles Paris from Batman #109, August 1957), "The Great Batman Contest" (Finger/Moldoff/Paris from Batman #100, June 1956), and "The Blockbuster Invasion of Gotham City!" (Fox/Infantino/Giella from Detective #345, November 1965).

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