Monday, November 19, 2012

Batman in the 1970s Part 45: November and December 1976

by Jack Seabrook
& Peter Enfantino

Batman 281 (November 1976)

"Murder Comes in Black Boxes!"
Story by David V. Reed
Art by Ernie Chua and Tex Blaisdell

When foreign intelligence agents from three countries are killed in a seemingly random car accident, Batman is called in to investigate. He discovers that each of the men tried to send him a coded message right before they died. Batman saves Pamela Drew, fiancĂ©e of Aldo Fondi, one of the dead men, from becoming the next corpse. The Caped Crusader tracks the dead man’s movements to Budapest, where he meets a group of freedom fighters and learns that Fondi had been working to help noted Hungarian nuclear physicist Lucas Nagy to defect to the West. The story ends with Batman trapped by the Hungarian secret police.

PE: The dialogue is as awful as usual (Bad guy: "The Batman!?" Batman: "Now you found out!"), as if the characters are reading badly-written cue cards off-panel rather than talking like real people. Having said that, I appreciate David V. Reed for trying something a little different this time out: taking Batman out of the streets of Gotham (and his achingly dull fight against mobsters, horse thieves, and fiends who prune their neighbor's rose bushes without permission) and making him a globe-hopping espionage seeker. I'm not sure, in the long run, this adventure will be any more entertaining than the recent fare but, hey, it's different. I'll take that for now.

Jack: In a story with mediocre art and exchanges such as “But it’s cold!” “So is death!,” it’s hard to believe that anything interesting happens, but I agree that it’s a refreshing change of pace to see Batman head to Eastern Europe. 

Detective Comics 465 (November 1976)

"The Best-Kept Secret in Gotham City!"
Story by David V. Reed
Art by Ernie Chua and Frank Giacoia

In a flashback to years before, we find out that The Batman, worried that Commissioner Gordon could be in danger from the mob just for knowing The Dark Knight, set up a plan for the inevitable. If Gordon should be pressed by super-villains or the mob, he is tell them that Batman's real identity is real estate agency owner Neil Merrick and that's all he knows. In the present day, a shady character enters Merrick's faux-business office looking for the man. A secretary presses a button and Bruce Wayne is watching hidden camera footage of the interested gentleman. Wayne knows that this can only mean one thing: the mob has Gordon. Using his undercover sources and a little detective work, Batman discovers that gangster Little Dutch is behind the commissioner's abduction. The Caped Crusader makes quick work of Dutch and his goons and saves Gordon's hide yet again. As Batman swings away into the night, Gordon ponders what his old friend would think about his own guesswork as to the real identity of the hero.

PE: Once again, it seems we're deep into another one of Julius Schwartz's "crime bosses, crime bosses, and more crime bosses" demand to his writers. Nary a costumed villain in sight until this title gets a radical revamping at the hands of Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers in 1977. (What about next issue?--Jack) To be fair, this isn't a horrible story, just an unremarkable one. As with many of these shortened Batman stories in Detective, there simply aren't enough pages to get a proper plot working. It's a set-up, a battle, and a quick resolution with no consequences shown in the next installment. Silly details like the faux office for "Mr. Merrick" don't help either as your mind strays from what little story is presented to questions like "So who is the secretary, does she have a real job, and how do you explain to the woman that she's there only to push a button if someone should ask for Merrick by name?"

Jack: While the plot of this story is nothing special—Commissioner Gordon is kidnapped and Batman tracks him down and rescues him—there are some interesting things going on. First of all, the flashback to when Gordon had darker hair suggests a closer and more believable relationship between him and the Caped Crusader than what we often see when Gordon is quick to believe that Batman is a killer or responsible for whatever bad thing has just happened. Second, Batman’s use of “the Boards” is neat—he puts up coded messages on bulletin boards around town to gather information from informers. Finally, Gordon thinks he may know Batman’s secret identity but does not discuss it with the Dark Knight. Too bad these interesting sidelines are plunked in the midst of a routine story (and completely forgotten in the next-PE).

"The Elongated Plague!"
Story by Bob Rozakis
Art by Ernie Chua & Terrry Austin

On his way to a comic convention where he's the guest of honor, Ralph Dibny, The Elongated Man, runs into The Calculator, who zaps him with a ray that makes Elongo's stretchability contagious. Once Ralph arrives at the Con, many of his fans begin to feel very elastic. Ralph learns the secret of The Calculator's ray and is able to force the mad genius into putting all the stretched-out kids back to their normal overweight selves.

PE: At the risk of beating a dead horse, this story has the same structure as the last two stories featuring The Calculator and there are a few more to come. The crazy bad guy (an obvious "homage" by Rozakis to the old Fantastic Four villain, The Mad Thinker) breaks out of his imprisonment more times than Harry Houdini. You'd think they might keep an eye on the guy. The convention stuff is pretty funny and, if I'm not mistaken, the paunchy old guy in the Superman outfit is supposed to be editor Julius Schwartz. The only stretch to the credibility might be the comparative trim and leanness of some of those con attendees. Folks, I've been to a lot of cons and...

Jack: The most interesting thing about this installment of the Calculator story arc is the comics convention that the Dibnys attend; it seems to be populated by DC Comics VIPs. I think the guy in the Superman costume may be Julie Schwartz, and the official at the end looks like Dick Giordano.

Batman 282 (December 1976)

"Four Doorways to Danger"
Story by David V. Reed
Art by Ernie Chua and Tex Blaisdell

After making short work of the secret police, Batman escapes disguised as one of them and heads off in his private plane to Burundi, where he tracks the movements of Nkuma Senghor, one of the three dead agents. Flying to a remote village, he barely escapes a stampede of Cape Buffalo before disguising himself as a friar and locating a church that serves as cover for an operation to make a nuclear bomb. Batman destroys the operation and flies off to Panama, the country where the third dead agent hailed from, suspecting that he is about to find the last piece of a puzzle in a plot to blow up the Panama Canal. The story ends as Batman is apparently shot to death and his plane plummets earthward.

PE: Wow! David V. Reed has me very intrigued to see where this three-part adventure is going. This middle part reveals that the men Batman is tracking are building or have built a bomb to destroy the Panama Canal, a plot device that brings The Caped Crusader effectively into the real world for a bit. Batman has faced forms of terrorism before in the two titles but not in such realistic terms (although Reed can't help throwing in silly comic book cliches like the signs on the four doors identifying the materials for the bomb). There are a lot of cliffhanger thrills packed into this installment as well. The buffalo stampede, in particular, is very well illustrated. I'm not sure what this all has to do with Gotham but I'll tune in next month for the conclusion. I'd sure like to see where Batman keeps all those disguises he dons. The cover's a cheat, by the way. No scene even close to this takes place in this issue.

Ernie Chua was getting very tired.
Jack: The creators of Batman around this time sure loved their stampedes! At least this time it’s not on the streets of Gotham City. Batman’s disguise as a friar might be more effective if he took off his domino mask. I suspect that Ernie Chua was having a hard time meeting the demands put on him by DC to crank out about a thousand pages per month, because his art is really shoddy in spots, and we can’t keep blaming the inkers!
Batman decided to borrow Robin's mask.

Detective Comics 466 (December 1976)

"Signalman Steals the Spotlight!"
Story by Len Wein
Art by Ernie Chua and Vince Colletta

A villain from the Golden Age of Batman, The Signalman hasn't been seen for fifteen years but he's now back to launch a new reign of crime. First, he causes a double train wreck in order to steal the priceless Heart of Allah ruby, then he attempts to steal the proceeds from the week's big football game. Batman is able to separate the man from his money but not before the villain causes a panic in the stadium. Restoring calm, The Dark Knight realizes The Signalman has escaped but knows it's only a matter of time before their paths cross again. Sure enough, the next night The Signalman steals the solid gold Citizens' Achievement Award from out of the hands of a young boy but runs right into Batman as he's exiting stage left. Once again, through trickery, The Signalman gets the upper hand on Batman and trusses him up inside the Bat-Signal, waiting for Commissioner Gordon's inevitable arrival. The Caped Crusader is too crafty, though, and escapes a fiery death. He catches up to his enemy on a windy mountain road just after the sixth-tier villain has committed his ultimate heist: the theft of a fortune in jewelry from a crypt in Gotham Cemetery. Eventually, The Signalman is killed when his speeding car plunges hundreds of feet off the dangerous road.

PE: Just when I complain that we're getting nothing but mobsters and jewel thieves, we get this oddball story written by future regular Batman scripter Len Wein. The Signalman's resurrection is the kind of stunt that Roy Thomas used to pull over at Marvel, taking a little known Golden Age villain (or hero) and rebooting him for the Silver Age. Alas, Roy would usually pick characters that had some kind of hook or uniqueness to them. If there was a lack of pizazz, Thomas could usually be depended upon to infuse some into the character. Wein takes a justifiably forgotten villain who appeared, if I've got my facts straight, only three times in the Golden Age Batman comic book and then disappeared. He'd disappear again after this one until a mention in DC's maxi-series, Identity Crisis, where's it's revealed that he apparently survived his mountain plunge. I can't figure out what the villain's M.O. is and not for lack of trying. At the beginning of the story, it seems that he's called The Signalman because he can mess with train signals but, later on, Batman says he's figured out the crook's pattern, as though he leaves clues a la The Joker and The Riddler. That particular aspect of the character isn't explained nor is where the guy's been all these years. Jail? I'd think Gordo would mention a jailbreak or parole. In any event, it's not a very good story and the art looks rushed and unfinished in spots.

Jack: Does Signalman count as a member of the Rogues’ Gallery? The internet tells me he appeared once before this under his own name and another time as the Blue Bowman. He has appeared here and there since being revived in 1976. I can’t really tell what his gimmick is, which is a problem. When he tied Batman to the Bat Signal, it seemed like a throwback to the TV show, and not in a good way. Len Wein did such a good job with the Talia 5-part series that I expected better of him when I saw his name in the credits this time around.

"Take Me Out of the Ballgame"
Story by Bob Rozakis
Art by Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin

The Calculator has escaped prison for the 40th time in ten days and this time he's heading for game seven of the World Series. Luckily, The Green Arrow and Elongated Man are there to break up Calc's nefarious scheme of stealing every ball that crosses home plate. By the end of the day, The Calculator is heading back to... you guessed it... prison.

Jack: This is the first appearance of artist Marshall Rogers in Detective, which is a milestone in itself. Pretty soon he’ll be part of the team making Batman stories exciting again. Sadly, the 1976 World Series was not hijacked by Signalman, nor did it go the full seven games: the Reds swept the Yankees in four straight.

PE: Enough of this silly nonsense already. Not even the excitement of seeing Marshall Rogers' debut in the title that would propel him to comic book fame can save this dismal waste of paper. Why would Rozakis map out a multi-issue, multi-hero arc that starts nowhere and stays right there? We'll see if any of this makes sense when it culminates in #468 but I'm not laying any money on it.

Jack: Raise your hand if you, like me, remember receiving DC comics in those half-size brown wrappers where they folded the comics lengthwise and creased the cover.

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