Monday, December 24, 2012

Batman in the 1970s Jumbo-Sized 50th Anniversary Issue!: July and August 1977

by Peter Enfantino
& Jack Seabrook

Batman 289 (July 1977)

"Sign of the Skull"
Story by David V. Reed
Art by Mike Grell and Vince Colletta

Cosmo "Skull" Dugger suffers from a condition that prevents him from experiencing joy. He has created a machine to steal joy from other people and uses it on a baseball player, an award-winning actor, and a lottery winner; unfortunately, an unexpected side effect is that they all fall down dead the moment the gizmo's beam hits them. Dr. Faye Somers calls Batman to look at the latest victim's forehead--it has a small skull imprinted on it. Moments later, Batman stops some crooks from stealing the body of a man undergoing surgery. Batman finds Dugger's lair and hooks himself up to the machine that puts the joy back into his brain; however, he hooks the wires up backwards and discovers that every twinge of joy he feels is replaced by one of pain. Dugger kills another man to experiment on his body to try to figure out why his victims are dying. Batman slowly falls into a catatonic state, unable to move or speak without pain.

PE: A really silly story, even when you compare it to the other really silly stories we've had to endure with this title. A madman who steals joy via a Cerebro-type gizmo? Three men, all in good shape, drop dead of a heart attack, all three mysteriously have a skull emblem on their foreheads, and doctors and police see nothing strange about the pattern? Admittedly one of the world's great detectives, but are you going to tell me that me that he could pull Dugger's image out of a crowd of thousands at a baseball game? Why does the appropriately nicknamed Skull Dugger (you see, his last name is Dugger and the kids used to make fun of how smart he was and there's the whole skull on the foreheads thing...) feel the need to dress like Adam Strange?  Dugger's origin is told in such a way that I thought for sure he was a villain in another DC title previously but, mercifully, this two-parter was his only appearance. Great cover though.

Jack: I enjoyed this story, mainly because of Mike Grell's art. I did not think that the authorities were ignoring the skulls on the foreheads--it seemed more like a cover-up by the medical examiner to me, something I hope we'll learn about next issue. Once again, with DC Comics of this era, the house ads and text items by Jenette Kahn and company are nearly as interesting (you might say more interesting) than the story. Kahn writes a column in January 1977 about how she knows a price hike is coming because of increased printing fees, but she admits that she doesn't know what the price will be on the comic we're reading. This sort of honesty is still very refreshing. There is also another profile of a DC Comics creator--this issue it's Bob Haney, who wrote tons of comics over his long career. These half-page profiles were very unusual at the time, in the days before the internet gave us instant access to everyone's biography.

Detective Comics 471 (August 1977)

"The Dead Yet Live"
Story by Steve Englehart
Art by Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin

Boss Thorne decides that Batman is a liability to his operations and must be dealt with. He gives orders to his men to take down The Dark Knight. Meanwhile, still reeling from the radioactive burns received from his tussle with Dr. Phosphorus (in #469 and #470), Bruce decides he needs to seek medical help or it will only get worse. He checks himself into the Graytowers Clinic and is immediately made to feel welcome. He's locked into his room, goes into a deep slumber and when he awakes he's told he's not in a clinic but, rather, an asylum. Turns out the joint is run by one of Batman's oldest arch-enemies, Professor Hugo Strange who, with the aid of a deadly Green Mamba, gets the jump on Batman. Not wanting The Dark Knight to go out without a protracted battle, Strange injects anti-venom into our hero and out go the lights. When he awakens, Batman is mortified to find out that Strange has unmasked him!

PE: Absolutely first class in story and art. Engaging and suspenseful with a kicker of a finale, this story would have elevated the art of Frank Robbins (okay, I'm exaggerating) but, luckily, it's graced with the wonderful art of Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin. There's a short interview with Terry Austin about the difficulties of working with Marshall Rogers (and editor Julius Schwartz) in Michael Eury's The Batcave Companion (TwoMorrows, 2009), an indispensable guide to the Batman eras of the 1960s and 1970s. Anyone obsessed with The Dark Knight (as I am) probably already owns this volume but, if not, you owe it to yourself to pick it up.

Jack: This is definitely a thrilling issue! The art is top drawer and the story matches it. I was a little surprised to see one of the guys at Boss Thorne's meeting compare Gotham favorably to New York City. For some reason, I always thought they were one and the same!

PE: Love the decidedly non-CC approved pillow talk between the very sexy Silver St. Cloud (Marshall Rogers was the 1970s master of GGA, methinks) and Bruce:

Bruce (on the phone): Silver? Hi, this is Bruce! Listen, I have to cancel out on tonight! I'm going into Graytowers--ah, you've heard of it? No, nothing major! Just some tests!

Silver (in a very revealing negligee): Well, after the other night, darling, I'd hoped you'd at least be suffering exhaustion! I know I am!

Jack: What about Magda, the nurse at Graytowers? Hotcha!

PE: More comic book creator name-dropping. This issue we learn that there's a Finger Alley in Gotham and one of Wayne's friends is named Jerry Robinson. The idea that this group would shut Bruce Wayne into an asylum and leave him with his suitcase stretches the credibility factor a tad. The return of Hugo Strange brings up some interesting questions (similar to those raised out at the Marvel University blog now and then) about comic book timelines. The last appearance of Strange was way back in Detective Comics #46 (December 1940) so one wonders how long he's been gone in the DC Universe scheme of things. And why, getting back to the real world for a moment, would it take so long to resurrect one of Batman's original Rogue's Gallery members? Strange will go on to be a recurring guest villain from here on out. Was the good Professor the first super-villain to discover that Bruce Wayne and Batman shared the same undergarments?

Not your average four-color femme!

Jack: It seems like Batman gets unmasked every few issues, but the person doing the unmasking is blind, or it's dark, or Batman has an amazingly lifelike mask on under his mask, or it's one of the triplets, or . . .and as for the timeline, what about the comment at Thorne's meeting that Ra's al Ghul tried to frame Batman for murder last year? That story arc ended over two years ago.

PE: Then, following that timeframe, Hugo disappeared approximately 19 years before. Again, pushing Bruce Wayne into, at least, his forties.

Batman 290 (August 1977)

"Skull Dugger's Killjoy Capers!"
Story by David V. Reed
Art by Mike Grell and Vince Colletta

Skull Dugger claims another victim when a gambler wins big. Bruce Wayne finds himself unable to enjoy anything without feeling pain, a problem that also extends to his efforts at crime fighting as the Batman. Batman fails to stop Skull Dugger from killing a man who comes into a large inheritance. Finally, Batman puts on a disguise and visits Dr. Tzin-Tzin in prison, where he tricks the magician into giving him an hour without pain. Batman confronts Skull Dugger, whose attempt to restore Batman to normal and then kill him only half works. Dugger is killed when Batman throws him into his machine. Bruce Wayne is now free to enjoy Alfred's cooking.

PE: This joke of a story continues to escalate in its inanity. Bruce Wayne orders Alfred to make his food taste terrible as that's the only way to enjoy it. Alfred has Bruce come in from outside because "it's much too pleasant" outside. It's like some superhero version of The Addams Family, only not so funny:

Bruce: Dreadful Alfred--thank you! Everything I dislike--half-cooked and unseasoned--perfect!"

What's amazing is that Dugger doesn't even try to be subtle or fade into the shadows. He's right there with his zapper box when a victim drops dead and even wears a purple cape to the reading of a will (where he poses as a reporter!). By the time I got to the climactic battle I was too confused and disinterested to care how it would play out. Something about reverse-joy machines. Mike Grell's pencils seem to have gotten steadily worse as well. Sure, his Bats looks good enough but the rest of the characters are lifeless and bland. This is easily a front-runner for worst story of the year and, as God is my witness, I hope it wins. I couldn't take reading something worse.

Pay no attention to the bald skeleton-like guy
with the laser beam and the purple tux.
Jack: This is a pretty weak conclusion to the two-part story. Skull Dugger is so weird-looking that it strains credibility to suggest he could melt into any crowd, especially when he gets right up front and points his box at someone's forehead and a laser beam shoots out! And what about the return of Dr. Tzin-Tzin? This guy has super-duper magic powers! Finally, it should be noted that Batman kills Dugger at the end and has a big grin on his face. This is a far cry from the Batman of only a year or two ago who broke into a sweat when someone tried to put a gun in his hand.

There was also a one-shot published during the Summer of 1977 called 5-Star Super-Hero Spectacular that featured "all-new" stories starring various DC heroes. In this case, the tales featured The Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, The Atom and our favorite crime fighter. The 17-page Batman story ("The Dead on Arrival Conspiracy" written by Martin Pasko and illustrated by Mike Nasser was originally scheduled for the never-released 8th issue of Kobra (what would have been June 1977). 5-Star was conceived as an annual dollar comic featuring "the mightiest heroes of all time" but was quickly retitled DC Special Series and was actually published bi-weekly for a couple months before settling into a nine-times a year schedule. We'll tell you more about this series when we come to their 15th issue in the Summer of 1978.

Holy bargain, Batman!


Greg M. said...

A shame on myself for neglecting to wish you guys a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! Catching your column is always a highlight of my week. Keep up the great work!

BTW, I thought I'd let you know that Ottawa's second Comiccon is set for May 10-12, 2013. So far, the only announced guests I know of are Jewel Staite (Firefly), and X-Men artist Chris Claremont.

I'll pass on more info when I get it.

Have a great one!

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Greg, and a Happy Bat Year to you too!

mikeandraph87 said...

This is my all-timke favorite year of DC Comics! The unfortuantely too-short Englehart run,"Where Were You on The Night Batman Was Killed?",best character set DC ever had,JLA Satellite is in a great run.

On my dcuguide forum thread we were talking about our favorite overall year in comics or DC overall at the very least. Post your favotie year over there. I'd like to read even more of your wisdom! :)

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks mikeandralph87! I'll check out your thread. My favorite DC year is probably 1974, which I think was the year of the 100-page super-spectaculars. My favorite years overall were 1945-1952 or so, encompassing the post-war Spirit sections, great Duck tales by Carl Barks, and EC's New Direction.