Monday, October 15, 2012

Batman in the 1970s Part 40: January and February 1976

by Peter Enfantino
& Jack Seabrook

Batman 271 (January 1976)

"The Corpse Came C.O.D.!"
Story by David V. Reed
Art by Irv Novick and Frank McLaughlin

Alfred the Butler ordered an antique rug to surprise Bruce Wayne for his birthday, but when the rug arrives and he unrolls it he finds a corpse inside! Roving reporter Carol Ames follows Batman around as he investigates the crime and discovers that the rug was stolen from the secret temple of a cult in Gotham City. Cult members killed the thief for defiling their temple, and now Batman must locate the temple and catch the crooks. At the temple, Batman, Carol Ames, and a second thief are menaced by the dance of death, where dancing girls whirl and wear gold discs that vibrate at deadly frequencies. Batman saves the day with a defensive amulet and ends up destroying the temple.

...and starring Don Knotts as Bruce Wayne.
Jack: This was a tough story to summarize. I read it twice and still couldn't really figure out what was going on. Carol Ames is one of those annoying, modern female characters that popped up every so often in Batman. She adds nothing to the story and gets in Batman's way, making it harder for him to save the day. I still don't understand the temple, the cult, or why the rugs disintegrated, not to mention why the vans driven by the thieves and Batman fell apart. The whole thing is a bit of a mess.

PE: A bit of a mess?! Since Robin's not around, I assume Bats feels he needs a partner. How else to explain The Dark Knight allowing ace photographer (with instant photos!) to be a part of his investigation? Unfortunately, it seems that this partner is just as useless as the last one. The art is dreadful and the story is lazy. Not a good start for 1976. And how about those chicken legs on billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne? Nothing says "well exercised and ripped" more than a couple of meatless drumsticks like these.

Detective Comics 455 (January 1976)

"Heart of a Vampire"

Story by Elliott S. Maggin
Art by Mike Grell

When their car breaks down, Bruce Wayne and Alfred are forced to break into a seemingly-deserted old dark house. Inside they find some odd furniture, including a casket with a sun lamp directed at it. When Bruce accidentally breaks the lamp, he sends Alfred to the car for a flashlight and goes off to look for water. He is surprised by the resident of the house...Gustav DeCobra, a vampire! Quickly changing into his night wear, Bruce attempts to catch the monster off guard with a quick lunge but to no avail. The vampire easily lifts The Dark Knight and sends him sailing. Alfred chooses that moment to enter the house and Batman knows he has to get the two of them to a secure spot in the house. While there, Bats remembers where he'd heard the creature's name. In the 19th Century, Gustav DeCobra had been a brilliant scientist who was attempting to transplant hearts from one body to another. To achieve that end, he became a grave robber and opened one casket too many, accidentally disturbing a slumbering vampire. Realizing DeCobra is a legitimate creature of the night, Batman attempts to drive a stake through his heart, only to find out that DeCobra has transplanted his own heart elsewhere to keep him safe from vampire hunters. Ingenious detective work and a handy bow and arrow allow the Batman to gain the upper hand and send DeCobra back to the grave.

PE: Slightly atmospheric, incredibly dumb, and nicely illustrated (for the most part). I thought for sure when we got to the climax, we were going to find out that Bruce had been conked on the head by a falling timber as the pair were breaking down the door to the old dark house and he was dreaming this whole thing up. Alas, that was not meant to be. I love a good supernatural Batman story but this ain't it. Elliott Maggin must have thought crossing Frankenstein with Dracula would provide double the thrills but all it provided here was head-scratching (how would you transplant a human heart into a grandfather clock anyway?) nonsense. For his first Batman story, Mike Grell turns in a fine piece of work when he's focusing on The Dark Knight himself but DeCobra is made up of swipes from stills of Christopher Lee in Horror of Dracula. Couldn't Grell have come up with something a little more imaginative? The same month saw the debut of DC's The Warlord, Grell's homage to Edgar Rice Burroughs. Perhaps even more popular was Jon Sable, Freelance, a long-running comic about a mercenary created for First Comics in 1983.

This just in: Chris Lee's lawyer 
was on vacation that week
Jack: I love this story! This marks the only time Mike Grell would draw a Batman story for Detective, and it’s great! There is no explanation or excuse for the vampire that Batman faces; it’s purely supernatural and follows the usual vampire rules. I like the added twist of his having been a doctor who figured out a way to remove his heart and put it in a grandfather clock. Best of all, for me, were the various photo swipes Grell used from mostly Christopher Lee as Dracula classic scenes to illustrate key moments in the story. One panel even looks like Frank Langella as Drac, though that movie wouldn’t come out till 1979.

PE: Mister contrary!

"Battle of the Backfiring Weapons"
Story by E. Nelson Bridwell
Art by Jose Luis Garcia Lopez

Hawkman and Hawkgirl try to put a stop to Chuck McCann's robbery binge, but how do you stop a super villain who doesn't even know he's a super villain?

PE: I thought the idea that Chester McCann, the crook with super powers, has no idea why he can suddenly do these magical things was a novel concept. What was equally startling is that, despite his newfound stamina, the guy dresses like a dandy. A nice twist at the climax, too, as we find out that McCann's mind is actually being "possessed" by Professor M'Kan, his descendant from the 47th Century, a scientist who has perfected mind control through time. In the final panel, we find out from M'Kan's lovely assistant that after Chester was released from prison he became a brilliant lab technician and his brains got passed on from generation to generation. I love this strip! Bring on more Hawkman!

Jack: My worst fears have been realized—the good first part of this story was followed by a weak second part. I learned recently, from reading The Comic Book History of Comics (highly recommended!), that DC editors in the 1950s decided that they could revive interest in their superheroes by jumping on the bandwagon of the science fiction craze. That explains why so much DC from the mid-50s on had a science fiction flavor. This Hawkman story is definitely in that category, though it suffers from the usual inability of the creators to develop much of a story in six pages.

Batman 272 (February 1976)

"The Underworld Olympics '76!"
Story by David V. Reed
Art by J.L. Garcia Lopez and Ernie Chua

The First International Crime Olympics are in session! Top criminals from four continents have gathered in Gotham City to compete for the title of Underworld Olympic Champions for 1976! The South American team draws first and carries out its three-part assignment: to kill J.P. Vandermeer, steal his body, and bury it in the base of Cleopatra's Needle. Batman intervenes and prevents the final phase from succeeding, resulting in the team's being awarded just 20 points. Batman wonders at the motivation for these crimes as the underworld plans to meet again the next day.

Jack: This is a strange idea for a multi-issue arc, but I like it! For those of us of a certain age, the 1976 Olympics were a big deal. The Winter games began on February 4, 1976, in Innsbruck, Austria, and made a star out of figure skater Dorothy Hamill. This issue of Batman came out in mid-November 1975 and had a cover date of February 1976, making it eligible to be on the stands when the Olympics began. This is a straightforward, effective story that is just goofy enough to work.

PE: The Bat-Curmudgeon has returned, I guess. Stories like these usually appeared in titles like Superman and His Amazing Super-Friends or Spidey Super Stories, something aimed a bit lower than the usual Bat-reader. The Underworld Olympics Committee handed out four envelopes, all including difficult and dangerous assignments. I think I got the unmentioned fifth envelope. Mine read "Watch the steady, eminent decline of your favorite comic book character continue." We still get those glorious graphics from Garcia-Lopez so it's not all bad, but the story has a 1960s TV show vibe to me. That's all bad.

Detective Comics 456 (February 1976)


Story by Elliott S. Maggin
Art by Ernie Chua (Chan)

While out on a date with the beautiful Angie Larner , Bruce Wayne is poisoned by the siren's deadly lipstick, treated with the poison known as Amory. Batman has sixty minutes to find the antidote before his career is over. But the question that looms over his head is: was it Bruce Wayne who was meant to be poisoned or The Batman? The answer comes when the Caped Crusader manages to track Angie down and the villainous vamp spills the beans. It was Wayne's financial rival, the rather dramatically-named Ulysses Vulcan, who hired the girl to buss Bruce to heaven

PE: While it's not as bad as the stories presented in the regular Batman title this month, "Death-Kiss" leaves a lot to desire. After bathing in Jose Luis Garcia Lopez's art in Batman 272, suddenly Ernie Chan's work looks a bit rushed and amateurish--almost as rushed as the slipshod script that sees Bruce Wayne get what he deserves if he doesn't even have the brains to check out these girls before he dates them. I assume that the story will be completed in a future issue since it's rather abruptly cut off at the climax. We do get to see what I believe is a new Batmobile (unless I haven't been paying attention lately), a bit sleeker than his last few modes of transportation. This installment also has one of the most embarrassing sequences for The Dark Knight I've ever had the misfortune of reading. While under the influence of the Amory drug, Batman hallucinates quite a bit, so naturally his dead parents appear before him: "Daddy!... Mommy!...but you were killed...when I was a kid!" he mewls before being slapped back into the real world by the mean-spirited doctor attending him: "Snap out of it, Batman! We're not your parents -- we're Dr. and Mrs. DeMaree... understand?" One can only hope that Dr. DeMaree isn't a pediatrician or proctologist.

Jack: When did the Batmobile get a big decal of the Bat-Signal on the hood? I don’t think I’ve seen that recently, if ever. I’m not sure I approve of Dr. Demaree’s bedside manner when he slaps Batman across the chops, though seeing the Dark Knight calling out to his “Daddy” and “Mommy” in his delirium was disturbing. If I had an hour to live, I don’t think I’d spend it making myself up and dressing like an underworld character in order to flush out information. It was interesting that the intended murder victim turned out to be Bruce Wayne rather than Batman, but this story seemed to end too quickly to get much interest going.

"The Un-Stretchable Sleuth"
Story by Bob Rozakis
Art by Kurt Schaffenberger

A particularly bad morning at the breakfast table with his wife (P.M.S.)ue, Ralph Dibny neglects to ingest his Gingold, the formula that allows him to stay Elastic. Not a problem until he decides to tackle three fur thieves and he becomes just a blonde in a nerdy outfit. He's captured by the trio and hauled away.

"Do you like movies about Vikings?"
PE: Why in the hell would a super hero like Elongated Man stay married to such a shrewish, self-centered, airy, vapid bitch as Sue? This woman has a man who can stretch his neck to get at any sort of odd angle and she's still not happy? Time to shop for an Elongated Woman. The story, such as it is, is on the level of one of those really dreadful Saturday morning cartoons that prevailed in the early 70s (and the art here, by Kurt Schaffenberger, matches that lofty goal). Everyone in the story has a sneer on their face and bug eyes. Please bring back Hawkman, Julie.

Jack: Kurt Schaffenberger’s art is so distinctive that, even though I hadn’t seen it in a long time, it came right back to me immediately. I was reminded of his work on Shazam! or Jimmy Olsen, though his characters also remind me of those in Archie comics. What is odd about this story is that Elongated Man seems to have to drink something called Gingold every so often or he will lose his stretching powers. I don’t remember hearing that in any of the previous Elongated Man stories we’ve read in Detective.

Man-Bat 1

Jack: January 1976 was also notable for the first issue of Man-Bat, featuring Kirk Langstrom and his wife, with an appearance by Batman. Pencils for the first issue were by Steve Ditko! Unfortunately, this series only lasted two issues before being canceled.


Matthew Bradley said...

Sorry, Paste-Pot, but I've got to agree with Jack on the Langella resemblance, at least in the panel reproduced here. (Since I haven't read the issue in question, the rest could be 100% Lee for all I know.) Since he wouldn't even begin playing the role on stage for another year, I guess we have to chalk it up to amazing prescience on Grell's part.

As for the heart/clock transplant, isn't this just the flip side of Robert Bloch's "The Changing Heart" on ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS?

John The Impaler said...

I think it was just a poor rendition of Lee that coincidentally looked like Langella. I'll bet if you research the casting director for the Dracula stage production, you'll find he was an avid Batman reader. Imagine his surprise when Langella walked into the addition, and he had a sense of deja vu.