Monday, January 30, 2012

Batman in the 1970s Part 3: March and April 1970





by Peter Enfantino
& Jack Seabrook




Detective Comics #397 (March 1970)

"Paint a Picture of Peril"
written by Dennis O'Neil
art by Neal Adams & Dick Giordano

Four scuba gear-clad men break into the Gotham Marine Festival Art Exhibit to steal the least valuable painting on display, "Startled Mermaid," by Van Der Smuts. Their robbery is momentarily broken up by the Batman, but the Caped Crusader is harpooned and must allow the robbers to escape. Our hero notices a strange glow to the algae in the water and deduces that only a submarine with "low-yield nuclear engines" could leave a glow like that. With the help of his undersea sled, Batman is able to track the sub to the estate of recluse millionaire Orson Payne, whose obsession with the past leads him to steal works of art.

Jack: Another dynamite Adams cover, though once again it doesn't really show what happens in the story.

PE: I guess Marvel wasn't the only comics company that built most of their stories around coincidences.   When Bruce Wayne enters his study, the television is on and airing a documentary on Orson Payne (is that name an homage to Orson Welles and Citizen Kane by writer O'Neil?). The trail of the sub leads right to the mansion of Payne himself. How does a private citizen, even a multi-millionaire, go about acquiring a nuclear sub?

Jack: I'm not wild about this story. It seems pretty run of the mill for an O'Neil/Adams piece, and some of the art is pretty weak for Adams--especially the page where Bruce Wayne fixes his own wound.

PE: I agree, Jack. I get no sense of continuity from either title as of yet. These stories feel more like the type that would run in an anthology title like House of Mystery (there's a hint of the supernatural here and a huge dose of it in Detective #395's "The Secret of the Waiting Graves"). Nothing seems to carry over. The Batman shows up to a mystery, does a little detective work, and wraps it up in 14 pages. Maybe the abbreviated page count has a lot to do with this or maybe it's just the way things were always done at DC. With Marvel University, we're able to begin at square one and watch how the "Marvel Method" develops. Here, we've jumped into the middle of a 70-year history. I'm not sure I'd be able to read the 30 years' worth of material that came prior to 1970 if the stories are like these. Thank goodness we're getting a heaping helping of great art from all parties involved. Speaking of the House of Mystery, you can almost imagine Batman (in that panel to the left above) as a gargoyle perched upon the sill of two cowering little boys. Adams's art is nightmarish no matter the circumstances.

Jack: Neal Adams really can draw a cape!

PE: On the letters page, there's correspondence from future novelist and television writer Alan Brennert (L.A. Law, The Twilight Zone, China Beach).


"The Hollow Man"
written by Frank Robbins
art by Gil Kane & Murphy Anderson

In a story continuing from last issue, Batgirl is hunting the deadly Orchid-Killer, a man who dates and murders redheads. A succession of really bad dates doesn't deter her in the slightest. She finally manages to score a meet with the real deal only to have the trap fouled by Jason Baird, who's been following Barbara on her dates. Eventually, a little detective work leads Batgirl right to the killer who, it turns out, has been under her nose all the time.

PE: Barbara Gordon needs to find a better dating service. They keep sending her guys uglier than the one before. Maybe all the bachelors in Gotham are either goons or alter egos. She almost seems charmed that Jason has turned into a stalker, following her around on her dates. This was the early 1970s, before that kind of behavior was frowned upon, I suppose. By 1970, it was probably bad form to call a character lame as Stan Lee did throughout the 1960s with Doctor Don Blake aka The Mighty Thor.

Jack: Can I rave a little bit about the art by Kane and Anderson? It's page after page of dynamic layouts and creative angles, with superb draftsmanship. Even if this issue didn't feature Adams's best work, the combination of Adams and Kane makes this a real visual treat.

PE: Oh yeah, as with the opener, the art is fabulous and makes up for a weak story filled with dopey turns. Do you think every  computer dater-turned murderer leaves his actual street address with the company? Wouldn't a master detective like Batgirl be able to tell if someone is wearing a mask, especially if that someone gets real close to her? Hopefully, we won't get too many final-panel expositories, like we got here, in the future.





Batman #220 (March 1970)

"This Murder Has Been Pre-Recorded"
written by Frank Robbins
art by Irv Novick & Dick Giordano

Batman races to a midnight rendezvous at a telephone booth. A taped message contains a killer's confession, and the booth explodes! Batman narrates the events leading up to the blast. The day before, Bruce Wayne had received a visit from feature reporter Marla Manning, who reported on the murder of Tom Sloane. He had been blown up after turning the ignition key in his car. Marla investigated the Nova Demolition Co. and began receiving threats to "lay off--or else!"

Bruce decides that this is a job for Batman, who pays a visit to Sloane's widow, finding her being menaced by a gunman. Batman fights the gunman but is unable to prevent his escape. Mrs. Sloane refuses to identify the criminal.

Investigating further, Batman learns that Zachary Nova, president of the demolition company, was discharged from service in Vietnam. Nova catches Batman snooping and they fight, but Batman leaves after Nova threatens to blow them both up.

Batman then talks Marla into planting a story that will smoke Nova out. The trick works, and Nova calls to set up a meeting, where he will supply Marla with proof of Sloane's killer.

That night, Marla goes to the meeting spot and Batman appears, taking her place for the rendezvous. The confession is played, the phone booth explodes, and Nova appears, holding Marla at gunpoint. Batman takes him by surprise and knocks him out. Batman reveals that he had placed a dummy in the phone booth.

Sloane's widow later admits that Nova had saved her husband's life in Vietnam and then blackmailed him when they both came home. When Sloane rebelled, Nova killed him.

PE: "This Murder has been Pre-Recorded" contains another of those cheat splash pages that has become legendary for the Batman comics. Obviously, Batman can't be dead since he's one of two tentpoles that kept DC afloat, but couldn't Robbins have provided a bit of mystery to the proceedings? How can Batman be dead after the events of the splash page when, on page 2, he's narrating the story of what led to his appearance at the phone booth. Storytelling 101. Then, when we get to the obligatory closing explanatory, we're asked to swallow a whole load of bunk smelling like 1930's shudder pulps. It's the same sort of "re-written and re-drawn perspective" we got with the great airplane adventure in Detective #395.

Jack: This one didn't bother me much. It was clear that Batman did not die in the explosion because he was narrating the story. So the mystery was one of what really happened at that phone booth?

PE: I really like the art from Novick and Giordano here. It's exciting and the characters each have a distinct look that doesn't change from panel to panel like some of the Dick Ayers art I've been seeing way too much of over at Marvel University. Frank Robbins's storytelling could use a few new wrinkles. I don't feel I've read anything startlingly original but it's competent and gets the job done. Just don't expect Frank Miller or Denny O'Neil's Batman here. A big plus is the paucity of dialogue balloons and narrative. Most of the story is told through the visuals. It's not that I want to fly through the issue as fast as possible but if the story's weak, shore it up elsewhere. I can't say I'm fond of this make of Batmobile. It doesn't have the sleek look of Batmobiles past and future. It resembles a regular sports car with a few Bat-like modifications. A vehicle like this wouldn't generate much fear in an adversary.

Jack: Re-reading these old Batman stories gives me a new appreciation for Frank Robbins. I did not realize he was a decent writer, since his art in later Marvels was so bad.

PE: Demo-expert Nova gets into a tussle with Batman, gets thrown across a room, has his head slammed into a desk, but still manages to keep his lit cigar in his mouth. The Nova angle, by the way, is a stroke of semi-genius. Make us believe the killer is Nova, then convince us it can't be, and then reveal at the climax that the killer is... Nova. Never would have guessed.

Jack: It did seem pretty obvious that Nova was the killer all along. I was more interested in how Batman got out of that doggoned phone booth without getting blown up!

PE: This issue contains the Postal Mailing statement publishers had to make public in their magazines in order to garner second class mailing privileges from the US Post Office. There's a letter here from Martin (Marty) Pasko, who would become a DC writer three years later. Pasko enjoyed stints on The Saga of Swamp Thing, Wonder Woman, and Superman, as well as scripting Batman in JLA from 1975-77.  Pasko here contributes a long appreciation for the new look of Batman.

Jack: Pasko was also responsible in the 1980s for the atrocious reboot of E-Man. He was eventually taken off of that series.


Detective Comics #398 (April 1970)


"The Poison Pen Puzzle"
written by Frank Robbins
art by Bob Brown & Joe Giella

Bruce Wayne is traveling incognito aboard a plane when the stewardesses start chirping about autographs. The millionaire playboy sighs and thinks something about sunglasses and disguises before discovering these girls don't want any part of him. Bruce happens to be sitting next to best-selling writer Maxine Melanie, author of the hippest tome in the world, The In People of Out City, a thinly disguised expose of Hollywood movie stars that's created quite the buzz. Wayne is not impressed and dutifully tells Melanie that if he has anything to do with it (and he does, since the studio that bought the rights is in bed with Wayne Enterprises), a film will never be made of her book with his money. When he confronts Seven Star Pictures board members, they call him a hypocrite since he's complaining loudly about a book he's never read. Conceding that point, Wayne goes off to the book store to get a copy, happening upon Maxine Melanie signing copies. The millionaire happens to be in the right place at the right time as the author is poisoned by an old woman who's not really an old woman.

Very shortly after, Loren Melburn ("Grand old dame of Seven Star Pics") and her husband, Dorian, confess to the murder. Batman's not buying that the elderly Mrs. Melburn has the muscle to put him on his back. In the end, it's yet another of Seven Star Pics' old legends of the screen that turns out to be the culprit.

PE: Things are slow around the DC story offices in early 1970. Only explanation I can see for getting Batman involved in a mystery involving a thinly veiled Jacqueline Susann. The fire usually reserved for child molesters and drug runners is laughably here on display when Bruce Wayne becomes irate over his corporation's dealings with a film studio about to greenlight a movie based on the shocking  expose. The sequence where he bursts into his board meeting to preach to his underlings the horrors of a book he's never read is pure camp. It's also a subtle stab at censors, but isn't Batman supposed to be on the side of right? Could the Caped Crusader have taken a bite of hypocrisy and found it tastes bitter? Hmmm... there may be more here than meets the eye in this story after all. Umm, no. That's about all the brain food you'll find here as the story quickly descends into bottom-of-the-barrel drivel.

Jack: Bad story, bad art. Not worth reading! My favorite page is the one where the old film stars' butler shows up--colored yellow, no less (but he is Oriental, Jack!!-PE).

PE: Jack, you're being too kind with the word "bad." This is awful art, generic and devoid of any life or character, the kind you'd find in advertisements or on cereal boxes. I will say I was taken by the panel (reprinted below) showing a nonplussed Bruce Wayne trying to figure out his passenger in the seat next to him. For one panel, there's a spark of life. Ironically, it's a scene lacking any action. Immediately thereafter, Wayne goes back to looking like a multitude of actors himself, chiefly Hal Holbrook. Imagine a playboy millionaire who looks like an aging character actor. The story is almost Ed Wood-ian in its stupidity. Halfway through the story, Dorian Melburn flips Batman over his shoulder and remarks that its the second time today he's done it. This despite the fact that Bruce Wayne and not Batman was in the store for the first flip. This would mean Melburn knows that Wayne and the Caped Crusader are one and the same. Though Batman brings the odd statement up, the matter is dismissed. By the end of the story, I defy any reader to make heads or tails of this story. Suddenly, "Return of the Bat-Mite" isn't so awful anymore.


Jack: Bat-Mite? I kind of liked him! I would like to see Neal Adams draw Bat-Mite.

PE: Everyone's talking about this sizzling best-seller (in fact, the stewardesses have copies) and yet later we find out that it's just been released that day! My goodness, there seems to be a leak at the publisher. Maybe Batman should be investigating the black book market in Gotham. But then is Batman/Bruce Wayne such a great detective after all? Just after the author is poisoned with a pen, Wayne tries to help an old woman who's dropped her book. The woman flips the playboy over his shoulder and his reaction is basically "Huh, I don't think that was an old woman!" But the best is saved for shortly after when Wayne finds out Melanie is dead and asks people in the crowd if they have any idea who did it. Surely not the muscleman disguised as a granny? And hold on to your hat for this coincidence. The killer had the "advance reading copy" of the book stolen from Seven Star Pictures!

"Moon-Struck"
written by Frank Robbins
art by Gil Kane & Vince Colletta

Has one of Dick Grayson's fellow students been exposed to a big dose of radiation thanks to a moon rock? It's up to Robin to find out.

Jack: Sure, the story is dopey, but those Kane layouts! I don't think Colletta's inks are quite as luxurious as Murphy Anderson's were last issue.

PE: I'll agree the art is Kane-tastic but wouldn't it be great if it had something readable accompanying it? I'm taking away from these Batgirl and Robin solo stories that these sidekicks are useless without the big guy. They're constantly being stomped into the ground. From the climax of this story (to be continued next issue) I've a feeling we're gonna be exposed to more of that hip-talkin' Dick and the student body clashing with "the man." Makes you wish for the good old days of the 60s when it was the commies that held such disdain with comic book writers.



Jack: You are so square! Dick was in touch with the kids who were now and happening (I'm square? All I have to say is "Yo!"-PE)!

PE: On the letters page are contributions from future DC writer Mike Barr, who chronicled Batman's adventures in Brave and the Bold for several years, and Howard Leroy Davis, who wrote several critical pieces on comic series for a wonderful fanzine called Comic Effect.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Batman in the 1970s Part 2: January and February 1970





by Jack Seabrook and
Peter Enfantino


January and February 1970

Detective Comics #395 (January 1970)
"The Secret of the Waiting Graves"
written by Denny O'Neil
art by Neal Adams and Dick Giordano

"Drop Out... Or Drop Dead"
written by Frank Robbins
art by Gil Kane and Murphy Anderson

"A bleak hillside in central Mexico ... a pair of open graves ... and the shadow of the dread BATMAN"

So begins our first look at The Dark Knight of the 70s, 31 years after he was created for Detective Comics #27. A well-to-do couple, The Muertos, are hosting a balloon race at a huge shindig in a novel setting: a graveyard. One of the participants, Pedro Valdes, is attacked by trained falcons high above the ground. Only the athletic skills of the Batman can save Valdes from a nasty death on the rocks below. Batman is only present because Bruce Wayne is one of  Juan Muerto's honored guests. As he does his millionaire playboy routine, dancing with Muerto's wife, Dolores, Bruce thinks to himself how beautiful the senorita is, but that there's "a strange feeling of mustiness about her." Just then, another attack on Pedro Valdes by riflemen on a nearby hill convinces The Dark Knight that Muerto is behind the assassination attempts. But why? Turns out that Valdes is actually a government agent sent to spy on the Muertos, who have been cultivating the dangerous (and apparently illegal) Sybil flower. Legend has it that the flower can grant immortality but at the cost of the user's sanity. Juan and Dolores take Valdes prisoner and, when Batman comes to the rescue, he discovers just how dangerous the Sybil can be. He is overwhelmed by the fumes of the flower and hallucinates, becoming an easy target for the shackles of Juan Muerto. But, as we've come to learn, nothing can restrain the Batman and, once loose, he burns the Muertos' stash of Sybil flowers. The destruction of the drug spells death for the couple, who age in a matter of moments, falling conveniently into their respective open graves.

The back-up is a solo Robin story, detailing the Boy Wonder's squelching of a communist-backed campus uprising.


PE: When I think of the 70s Batman, I tend to look at him with rose-colored glasses. The '70s was my peak comic book reading time. Just about anything I picked up was worth reading. Or so it seemed. I've always remembered the era of Neal Adams' Batman as being very realistic. That is, the adventures of Batman didn't rely on misguided aliens, talking apes, or Bat-shark repellent. Judging by the nicely choreographed but wholly fantastical river rescue that opens Detective Comics #395, my memories may be challenged very quickly. Not a criticism, merely an observation. What would a comic book be without a helping of the fantastic? Speaking of fantastic, let me just say those magical two words once again: Neal Adams!

Jack: Just seeing the cover of this issue brought a flood of memories. This is about as good as Batman gets. I got this in my stocking for Christmas 1969, when I was 6 years old, and this is really when I started getting excited about comics.

PE: An atmospheric tale is ruined by a convoluted expository but we're never told why the government agent is there to arrest the Muertos. We know it's for growing the Sybil but not whether it's illegal in Mexico or how the flower is administered to attain the immortality. I assume the Sybil is a stand-in for the poppy since the Comics Code forbade drug use in a kiddies' four-color. Writer Denny O'Neil simply substituted the fictional Sybil for the all-too-real poppy.  We are told (by Dolores) that G-men in Mexico aren't all that bright since the undercover agent accidentally shows off his badge in front of his targets!

Jack: Did you notice how outrageously long Batman's cape is when Adams draws it? It looks cool but he'd trip as soon as he took a step!



PE: A dash of the fantastic certainly works in O'Neil's favor in our climax, an ending suitable for a visit to the House of Mystery, with the appropriately christened Muertos disintegrating into dust following the burning of the Sybil. The two shamble their way to their open graves like the rotting corpses who returned to exact "poetic justice" in Tales from the Crypt or Vault of Horror, two titles that were obviously an inspiration in the opening of the new-look House of Mystery.

Jack: This ending is really creepy! I like how Batman fills in the missing death year on their tombstones with his gloved finger.

PE: If Batman is the epitome of cool, Robin is an icon of square. The back-up feature, written by Frank Robbins (who would ruin two of my favorite 1970s titles, The Invaders and Captain America and the Falcon, with his hideous artwork) with nice art by Gil Kane and Murphy Anderson, attempts to redefine the Boy Wonder as a hip, with-it cool cat on campus and fails miserably. "Robin solo is deadly dull rather than deadly" would be the message I glean from this back-up. Dated euphemisms such as "the fuzz" don't help either. I'm afraid we'll probably be subjected to quite a bit of the topical story lines in the early 1970s.

Jack: I didn't mind it so much, mainly because of the dynamic art by Kane and Anderson. I think Robbins was a better writer than artist.




Batman #218 (January-February 1970)
"Batman and Robin's Greatest Mystery"
(reprinted from Detective Comics #234, August 1956)
"The Hand from Nowhere"
(reprinted from Batman #130, March 1960)
"The Man who Couldn't be Tried Twice"
(reprinted from Batman #118, September 1958)
"The Body in the Batcave"
(reprinted from Batman #121, February 1959)
"Four Hours to Live"
(aka "Death Row's Innocent Resident")
(reprinted from the Sunday Syndicated Batman, June 11-July 30, 1944)
"The League Against Batman"
(reprinted from Detective Comics #197, July 1953)

PE: I suspect that the reason reprints were being stuffed into "Giant Batman"s was because they were cheap and easy. Nothing more than a quick mock-up cover was needed to slap together a batch of old stories. In the letters page of Batman #218, we learn that some of the stories reprinted from the very early days of Batman are being censored because "in the original version, the Dynamic Duo occasionally acted in a way contrary to their code." Editor Julius Schwartz "made a few minor changes and put in some new details" to make the old classics more palatable for eight year-olds in 1970. The fact that there are two issues cover-dated February 1970 must have played havoc with collectors at one time.

For some reason, this big,
green, disembodied hand
always stuck with me!

Jack: This issue also blew my mind, because I remember it so fondly. Back in the early 70s, reprint comics were about the only way to get to read the old stories. Sure, they can be silly, but it was exciting to see this stuff. Another interesting tidbit from the letters column: they lost the original art from the 1940s and only had negatives from the early 50s, so they were limited in what they could reprint and still make it look good. This same problem cropped up later with The Spirit reprints, but the plethora of high quality Golden Age reprints in the last 10-15 years makes me think they figured out a solution—probably a digital one!


Batman #219 (February 1970)
"Death Casts the Deciding Vote"
written by Frank Robbins
art by Irv Novick & Dick Giordano

"The Silent Night of the Batman"
written by Mike Friedrich
art by Neal Adams & Dick Giordano


In "Death Casts the Deciding Vote," Bruce Wayne is invited to visit Washington by a maverick senator who's hoping to get a tough anti-crime bill passed. It'll be a close vote (ostensibly, because there are a lot of crooks in Washington), so if the senator misses the meeting, his bill will go down. A masked underworld boss has decided that the senator should be elsewhere when the voting begins and hijacks his plane. Trouble is, Bruce Wayne is on board with the senator and anywhere Wayne goes, Batman can't be far behind. The Caped Crusader  puts the kibosh on the boss's scheme and gets Senator "Silver Mane" to his destination in time.

In the back-up feature, Batman is convinced by Commissioner Gordon that Christmas Eve will be crime-free and that he should let his cowl down a little and come caroling with the cops. Batman smiles and imagines that Gordon's a little off his rocker but accompanies him anyway. Unknown to the pair, there actually is crime and misery in Gotham but it's all headed off at the pass in various ways and the city rings with the sound of singing voices.

You be the judge.
Cheat?
PE: A by-the-numbers job with unimaginative story and passable art. You really have to wonder (as we did while watching the Batman TV series) how stupid can the public really be? Bruce Wayne is on the plane and taken hostage. He's put in the hold by himself and five minutes later out pops Batman. No one, in particular this brainy senator, thinks to themselves, "Hold on a minute! Where the hell did he come from? Why would he be on this plane and hidden?" I'd ask. The climax, where we see a deflated Batman suit exiting the high-flying plane, is a cheat of the highest order. At the beginning of the story, we're shown essentially the same panel, drawn to clearly show Batman falling from the plane.

Jack: I can live with the splash page cheat because it's from behind and kind of looks like a costume stuffed with inflatable pillows if you squint. What is really a cheat is the cover! That scene is totally misleading, though any art by Adams is welcome.

PE: Irv Novick (1911-2004) grew to prominence in the DC ranks with his art on Our Army at War. He would do tons of jobs on Batman and Detective Comics throughout the 1970s.

Jack: I like his art here more than Bob Brown's in the Feb. 1970 Detective. Maybe it's the inks by Dick Giordano.

PE: "The Silent Night of Batman" is a nice series of vignettes portraying a carol-singing Batman taking the night off during a Christmas Eve blissfully free of incidents. Other than the opening (where the usually stiff Gordon convinces the equally stiff Dark Knight to blow off a little steam with him) and the finale (Batman meets the Christmas spirit), this strip is blissfully free of dialogue and captions, letting Neal Adams do what he does best. Guy's got real broad shoulders. If anybody can pull off something that could easily be cornball and maudlin (where's the crippled kid who's begging on the street?), it's Adams. How was this not the lead feature this issue rather than the unimaginative and clumsy "Deciding Vote"?

Jack: This really is a beautiful piece, one that reminded me of the Green Lantern work.

PE: On the letters page, a 17 year-old Klaus Janson writes in with praise for Joe Giella's penciling. A decade and a half later, Janson would ink the most influential Batman story of the 1980s, The Dark Knight Returns.

Jack: Heck, he was inking Marvel comics within 4 years of this letter! I knew I should have written more letters . . .





Detective Comics #396 (February 1970)
"The Brain Pickers"
written by Frank Robbins
art by Bob Brown & Joe Giella

"The Orchid Crusher"
written by Frank Robbins
art by Gil Kane & Murphy Anderson

Wall Street whiz kid Rory Bell becomes the target of underworld bosses wanting to pick his brain to get a jump on the next big investment. But Rory's even smarter than his business knowledge lets on. He leads the bad guys on a wild goose chase while phoning in clues to his assistant. Coincidentally, one of Rory's best clients is Bruce Wayne and when the millionaire playboy gets wind of some of the clues Rory's dropping, he gets into his long underwear and investigates.

In the back-up story, Barbara Gordon has a terrible dream involving the notorious Orchid Killer, a serial killer who specializes in redheads. Next day, coincidentally, as Barbara works her job at Gotham Library, she comes across a computer dating card belonging to the latest victim. Thinking she's on to something, Barbara joins the dating service to bait the killer. Will she find true love or a mad killer on the first blind date?



PE: More of that hellish hipster talk that mucked up all the comic books (and all the world actually) in the early 70s. Protesting the mobsters who want to drag him off to their hideout, Rory exclaims: "Uh-uh -- you don't dig my style! I can't make market decisions 'less I've got this throbbing heap under me ... and the wind blowing my mind -- so we play it my way -- or no play!" The wind blowing my mind? Well, that's an obvious nod to the fact that Rory is a smart cookie and wears a helmet but I've never heard of a Moped addressed as "a throbbing heap." And how long after 1970 did we have to put up with the whole "You dig" scene? This could get ugly.

Jack: Man, you are too square! Get with the scene!



PE: Holy stretch of the imagination, Batman. How the heck am I supposed to believe that, not only is Bruce Wayne a big-time client of Rory's and is in the right place at the right time to get the clues the motorcyclist is phoning in, but our hero then takes meaningless initials and stitches them into a quilted map leading them right to Rory? One of the dumbest Batman stories I've ever read and easily one of the worst artistic depictions of millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne. Millions or no, looking like this he doesn't land all the models he likes to gather on his arm. Klaus Janson may have found Giella's pencils to be outstanding, but this Bat-fan finds him sorely lacking.

Jack: Wasn't Bob Brown the penciller? Either way, the art is not great--except for the Adams cover, which depicts a scene completely opposite to what happens in the story!

The Lamborghini. Much less conspicuous.

PE: The Batgirl story is highlighted by the always reliable Gil Kane and it's capped by a genuinely puzzling cliffhanger that could go either way: humorously (Barbara flips her date over her shoulder when he leans in for a kiss) or violently (all the evidence points to this guy). We'll just have to find out in the next issue. As a trivial side note, it's interesting that, in the TV series, Barbara Gordon is actually a brunette and wears a red wig to disguise herself. In the comics, with that gorgeous flaming top, how could anyone not put two and two together when Barbara disappears and Batgirl comes into view?

Jack: Gil Kane sure draws one sexy Batgirl, and Barbara Gordon is no slouch either. This librarian is much hotter than the one on TV, courtesy of the long red hair. But is she wearing a wig as Batgirl? If not, does she include a stint with the curling iron as part of her quick change? Her hair goes from long and straight to shoulder-length and curly.

PE: I wasn't familiar with the Jason Bard character who was hitting on Barbara this issue. Turns out he'll remain a semi-regular in the Bat-titles throughout the 70s, usually when Batgirl is around.

Jack: If the librarian at my local library looked like Barbara Gordon, my card would get a workout!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Robert Bloch on TV Part Seven-Alfred Hitchcock Presents: "The Gloating Place"

Susan Harrison as Susan 
by Jack Seabrook

“The Gloating Place” marked the second time that Robert Bloch adapted one of his own stories for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The first had been “The Changing Heart.” The story is one of subtle horror, where Bloch uses slang and the perspective of a teenager’s mind to diffuse the terrible things that are happening. This has two effects—it makes the events more palatable while demonstrating the callous evil of the vapid teenage girl who is the story’s protagonist.

The masked killer approaches.
Susan Harper, a high school student, goes to her gloating place, “a small ravine at the far end of the park where she could sit without being noticed or disturbed.” Right away, we learn what kind of person she is: she wishes that her parents would die in a plane crash so that she could receive insurance money. “She was alone and nobody ever paid any attention to her,” so a week before she had claimed that a man had attacked her in a vacant lot. The result “had been a real gasser,” since she began to receive attention from classmates, her family and police. When she had to identify a suspect in a police lineup, it was “the dreamiest-creamiest of all.”

When a car accident results in “three cars wrecked and two people killed,” she is upset because it diverts attention from her. Bloch describes her: “the fat, foreshortened body, the plump, pimply face, the hair the color of the brown, muddy water.” She admits to herself that the biggest reason for her lie was “to get Tom Reynolds to notice her.” In order to regain the attention she craves, she hatches a plan and murders Marjorie, Tom’s girlfriend. Bloch does not describe the actual murder; what happened only becomes evident later, as the story is filtered through Susan’s shallow, teenage mind. 

Susan reaches out to grab Marjorie.
Once again the center of attention, Susan wants some time to herself, so she sneaks off to the gloating place, where she recalls carrying out Marjorie’s murder, strangling the girl until she was “just a big, boneless pig doll that was no good to Tom Reynolds or to anybody.” She gazes at her own reflection in the water, certain that she has not changed, now comforted by her familiarly ugly appearance. Just then, she sees the reflection of a man behind her, as his gloved hands “closed over her throat.”

Bloch's story is one of subtle but powerful horror, in which a killer gets her comeuppance in a twist ending. He had a difficult challenge in adapting the story for television, since the tale is told mostly through the thoughts of the main character. The script is passable, but there are some problems with the program that make it one of the less successful Bloch/Hitchcock efforts thus far. The first, and probably the biggest, problem is the casting of the lead. Susan is played by Susan Harrison, an actress probably best known for playing the ballerina on the Twilight Zone episode, "Five Characters in Search of an Exit." She was born in 1938, making her 22 or 23 years old when “The Gloating Place” was filmed in the spring of 1961. Harrison is too pretty to play the Susan of the story, and her acting abilities are not equal to the task of explaining why such an attractive young woman would be so psychologically damaged as to commit the crimes she does. In the story, Bloch describes her as ugly and unpopular, but in the show, she just seems odd. The rest of the cast is not much better. Worst of all is Erin O’Brien-Moore, as Susan’s mother, whose histrionics seem out of place with the rest of the low key acting on exhibit. 


The most interesting cast note is that Marjorie, the girl Susan kills, is played by a very young Marta Kristen. Born in 1945 and aged 15 or 16 when this was filmed, Kristen’s coltish beauty is perfectly suited to her role. She would later become famous as Judy Robinson on Lost in Space, and she still makes appearances and has her own website. One other interesting cast note is that one of the other high school girls is played by Monica Henreid, daughter of actor/director Paul Henreid, who directed "The Landlady," Bloch’s prior script for this series.


“The Gloating Place” was directed by Alan Crosland, Jr., who lived from 1918 to 2001 and directed scores of episodes of series television, including 20 for the Hitchcock series. The first time I watched the show, I was disappointed in how it had been adapted from the printed page, and I thought that the director might be to blame. However, on re-watching it, I noticed a number of interesting camera setups and lighting choices. The scenes at the gloating place are filmed by contrasting shots of Susan with shots of her reflection in a pool of water. When she first has the idea to fake having been attacked, the voices of her classmates echo around her as the camera cuts and pans from one eerie, leafless tree to the next. The effect shows just how alone Susan feels. 

Marta Kristen in "The Gloating Place"
Marta Kristen on Lost in Space
Susan reflected in the glass at the lineup.
Another nicely filmed sequence is the lineup in the police station. Susan and the policemen sit behind one way glass and the room is lit in a high contrast, noir style.

The last sequence is effectively planned, shot and edited to show a brutal attack on a young woman without really showing anything, and it is thus very effective and almost daring for a network television program in 1961. 

The final twist.
“The Gloating Place” was first published in the June 1959 issue of Rogue and it was reprinted in Blood Runs Cold (1961) and Bitter Ends (1990). The television adaptation was broadcast on NBC on Tuesday, May 16, 1961, at 8:30 on the East Coast. It was up against The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, another teen-oriented show, on CBS, and at 9 o’clock on NBC, the “Terror in Teakwood” episode of Thriller aired, directed by Paul Henreid, whose daughter had appeared in “The Gloating Place.”

The show was remade for the 1980s revival of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and broadcast on January 5, 1986; it can be viewed here. The original episode is not yet available on DVD but can be viewed here.

Sources: 


Bloch, Robert. "The Gloating Place." Bitter Ends: The Complete Stories of Robert Bloch, Volume Two. New York, NY: Citadel, 1990. 257-64. Print. 

Galactic Central. Web. 16 Jan. 2012. <http://philsp.com/>.  "The Gloating Place." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. NBC. 16 May 1961. Television.  Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print. The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Web. 16 Jan. 2012. <http://www.imdb.com/>. Marta Kristen - The Official Website. Web. 16 Jan. 2012. <http://martakristen.com>. Wikipedia. Web. 16 Jan. 2012. <http://www.wikipedia.org/>.


Monday, January 16, 2012

Batman in the 1970s Part 1: The Dark Knight Extinguished



by Peter Enfantino
and Jack Seabrook

Before Neal Adams helped bring The Dark Knight (after years of sugar-coated crap and alternate world madness) back to relevance, he stomped his foot all over DC horror, inventing the look of the "Mystery Line" (Tales of the Unexpected, House of Mystery, House of Secrets) after those comics had also fallen out of favor. Previously spotlighting science fiction tales (and not very good ones, at that) and the occasional series (Dial 'H' For Hero, Martian Manhunter, Mark Merlin, Eclipso, Ra-Man, etc.), the titles were near-unreadable and, we would assume, never far from the axe. Enter Neal Adams in 1968. His covers for House of Mystery #174 and #175 are arguably the most iconic in horror comics. At about this time, he and Denny O'Neil produced one of the most controversial strips in comics history, their run on Green Lantern/Green Arrow (#76, April 1970- #89, April 1972), a kind of roadshow of America's faults and shortcomings (faults which continue to this day, we should add). But this new column is actually about 1970s Batman and not a history of Neal Adams. There are several fine studies of Adams out there on the net and in print.

To understand the instant impact Neal Adams made on Batman, we need to go back a bit further to what he walked into. In 1964, Julius Schwartz revamped the Batman titles, creating the "new look," to help stall dwindling sales (we suspect the new Marvel titles were siphoning readers from the established DC titles at a very high clip).  Now, we've read the last batch of the "old look" and the first dozen of the "new look" and honestly can't find a difference. Batman #163 (March 1964), written by Bill Finger and drawn by Sheldon Moldoff, features "The Joker Jury," in which the Clown Prince of Crime uses a giant vacuum cleaner to suck up priceless gems (and Robin) at the International Fair. The story, dialogue, and props all predict the upcoming TV show. We can imagine this issue in the stack of comics that inspired William Dozier to launch the project. While #163 is the last of the "old look," #164 (published the following month) purports to be the premiere of the "new look." "The Two-Way Gem Caper," written by France Herron and drawn again by Moldoff, introduces the new, sportier Batmobile, the yellow circled Bat on the Caped Crusader's chest, the elevators to the Batcave (previously the Duo had to walk down a flight of stairs), and the exit from the Batcave (made famous later on the TV series). Other than these new angles, it seems to be just the "old Batman" as far as the story goes. This one concerns a villain named Mr. Dabblo, who's attempting to steal "The Pearl of the Orient" from the Gotham Museum, and Dick Grayson's obsession with hootenanny music. Sales took a slight bump up but nothing earth-shattering. The real bump would come thanks to ABC-TV two years later.

The sales of Batman in the late 1960s mirrored the success (and quick downfall) of the campy ABC-TV series starring Adam West and Burt Ward as The Dynamic Duo. Made by men with an obvious disregard for the source material (and its fans), the show magnified the ludicrous aspects of the 1960s Batman titles (Batman and Detective Comics) and eliminated any of the mystery and peril that rose to the top of the swill now and then. In 1965, the year before the show went on the air, Batman was selling an average of 454,000 copies a month (good for #9 in the Top Ten of the Year). The following year, riding the coattails of Batmania, the title skyrocketed to become the best-selling comic book in America (an average of 898,000 copies a month!). Contrast that with today's sales, of course, and it was still a huge hit. Recently, DC relaunched its entire line and the biggest-selling single title of the year became Batman #1, with sales of 188,000! Until this reboot, the title had been selling south of 52,000 copies.


Two years later, the show was dead and sales began to slide until, by 1970, Batman was selling under 300,000 a month. In today's numbers that would be a blockbuster but in the 1960s, it could spell cancellation. Many feel a title that's been going for 30+ years would surely be kept around as a badge but let's not forget that DC had no problem axing Adventure Comics after 45 years and 504 issues.

Typical of the comics published while the show was on the air is "Mystery of the Missing Manhunters" (Batman #184, September 1966). Missing for 13 days and suffering a form of amnesia, Robin must hypnotize Batman to find out where they've been and what they've been up to. Seems they've been babysitting a thug named "Slippery" Sam Lorenzo, until recently "the brain behind Robbery Incorporated," a syndicate terrorizing Gotham, but now persona non grata and tossed out a skyscraper window. Luckily, Batman happens by and, like a scene from the TV show, uses the "bat-spring ejector" in the Batmobile trunk to fly up and save the falling gangster. Time constraints here, as in the show, make no difference. It's all in the delivery. The amnesia comes after Lorenzo escapes by rigging an electric charge to the Batmobile, shocking the Duo and erasing their memory of the past two weeks. The art (credited to the notorious robber baron, Bob Kane, but actually penciled by Sheldon Moldoff and inked by Joe Giella) is typically generic, unspectacular mid-1960s DC and the story (by Gardner Fox) is lazy and predictable. Many cues seem to be right out of the television show, including a cameo by Aunt Harriet (who, to be fair, had been introduced in the comic two years before the show aired) and the enlarged sound effects (POW! THWAAPP!).

Now, make no mistake, there were the occasional edgier stories peppered in with the pablum. "Death Knocks Three Times" (Batman #180, May 1966) is a nonsensical tale with a ghoulish twist. Batman must deal with a new menace, Death-Man, a skeletal wraith who has Batman questioning his own sanity. Each time the Caped Crusader manages to nab the spectre, Death-Man dies, only to rise again from his grave. Of course, there's a logical explanation for the resurrections: Death-Man has mastered the art of "yogi," which enables you to hold your breath and slow your pulse to simulate death.  Written by Robert Kanigher and penciled by Moldoff, the story elicits the kind of vibe created by the 1950s pre-code horror published by companies such as ACG.

Neal Adams's first Batman work was the cover of The Brave and The Bold #75 (January 1968), illustrating a team-up of The Dark Knight and The Spectre. His first interior art featuring Batman would be "The Secret of the Waiting Graves" (Detective Comics #395). Which brings us to this new feature of bare•bones: Batman of the 1970s. Each post will cover two months' output of Detective Comics and Batman, the two flagship Batman titles. We're avoiding the other Bat-titles (Batman Family, Brave and the Bold, and World's Finest) as well as umpteen other short-lived comic books. If anything, the month Neal Adams arrived to extend a hand to the sinking Caped Crusader should be designated "the new look." But what about the other artists and writers who were given the plum assignment of creating new adventures for The Dark Knight? We'll have a look at every artist/writer team to work on the titles. Was Neal Adams the cream of the crop or was he just the flashiest? Stay tuned!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Starting Monday

This is going to be fun!



Saturday, January 7, 2012

Robert Bloch on TV Part Six-Alfred Hitchcock Presents: "The Landlady"

by Jack Seabrook

Dean Stockwell, on his way to being stuffed.
For his third teleplay of the sixth season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Robert Bloch was assigned to adapt Roald Dahl's short story, "The Landlady," which had won the 1960 Edgar Award for best short story. Originally published in the November 28, 1959 issue of The New Yorker, the story follows 17 year old Billy Weaver as he arrives in Bath from London by train on a cold night, looking for a place to stay before taking his place in the business world. Young and naive, he imitates the brisk walk he has observed in successful businessmen.

He sees a sign advertising Bed and Breakfast in a cozy setting; through the window he sees a comfortable room. He starts toward a pub, the Bell and Dragon, for more congenial companionship, yet feels compelled to ring the bell at the house. A middle-aged woman welcomes him in as if she had been waiting for him and offers him a room at the "fantastically cheap" rates of five shillings and sixpence a night. "She looked exactly like the mother of one's best school-friend welcoming one into the house to stay for the Christmas holidays." There is no evidence of another lodger, as she guides Billy through her "little nest" and shows him his room.

After washing up, Billy goes down to the living room, thinking "this is a bit of all right." He signs the guest book and notices that the two entries before his were made by Christopher Mulholland and Gregory Temple. The names sound familiar but he can't recall why. The landlady fixes Billy tea and a biscuit as he tries to remember where he had heard those names before. Billy notices a faint odor emanating from the landlady, who admits that Mulholland and Temple are both still there, on the third floor. She adds that Temple was 28 years old and had not "a blemish on his body." Billy notices that the parrot in the room's birdcage is stuffed. The landlady takes credit, and points out that the dachshund on the floor is stuffed as well. "I stuff all my little pets myself when they pass away." Billy notices that his tea tastes of bitter almonds.

The story ends with the landlady telling Billy that there have been no other guests beside Mulholland and Temple in the last two or three years. The subtle message is that Billy is about to join them, as another of the pets she will kill and stuff for her collection.

Roald Dahl has been celebrated as a writer of wonderful stories for adults and children for decades. As Jeremy Treglown writes, in his introduction to the Everyman's Library collection of Dahl's stories, "his work is part of the mid twentieth century revival of gothic, particularly the vogue for 'sick humor.'" Dahl was born  in 1916 and lived till 1990.


It was fitting that Robert Bloch was assigned to adapt "The Landlady" for television, since he shared an affinity for the gothic style and sick humor. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents version aired on February 21, 1961, just a week after Bloch's last contribution to this series, "The Greatest Monster of Them All." Watching the show and comparing it to the story demonstrates Bloch's knack for making small changes to fit the material to the medium.

The setting of the tale is changed from Bath to "a provincial town in England," according to a superimposed title at the beginning of the show. This town is soon identified as Bramley by Wilkins, the bartender at a pub at which the first scene takes place. Bloch added this entire scene to help establish the English location and also to set up a red herring that will continue throughout the episode--the bartender and three patrons discuss a burglary in Bramley. Billy Weaver enters the pub, having just arrived by train, and soon uses a Swiss Army knife to open a jammed cash register. Billy, bespectacled and seemingly erudite despite his youth, stands out in the pub. The men in the pub exchange glances and the inference is that Billy's skill at opening locks could mean he is the burglar.


Burt Mustin, George Pelling, Barry Harvey, and Laurie Main
Billy then leaves the pub and walks around a foggy corner, immediately finding the landlady's home. There is no sign of the strange compulsion that draws Billy to ring the doorbell in the story; perhaps Bloch reasoned that it would be difficult to portray this internal motivation on film. Bloch then follows the story closely, even using lines of dialogue from Dahl's original, such as having the landlady refer to her "little nest." Billy mentions the rumor about a burglar that he had heard in the pub (keeping the red herring alive), but the landlady asks, "who'd want to harm an old lady like me?"

Alone in his room, Billy reads aloud a letter he has written to a friend, allowing Bloch to express directly some expository details that had been narrated in the story. He again mentions the burglary scare. Bloch cleverly added the idea of a burglar to the tale to divert attention from what is really going on. Unlike the story, which takes place in the course of an evening, the teleplay has Billy stay the night in his room and join the landlady downstairs the next morning for breakfast. It is raining and she advises against going outside.

In another change from the source, the landlady invites Billy to find out if the other two lodgers are still there. She shows him their coats and hats hanging in the hall and remarks, "you see, they did come back." In a lovely sequence, she tells Billy that they get together every Sunday afternoon and she plays the old hymns. Temple's favorite, she says, is "All Things Bright and Beautiful"--ironic, since the next line of this hymn is "All creatures great and small," creatures she kills and stuffs!

Patricia Collinge as the landlady
Billy notices that the overcoats are dry, even though it is raining outside. The landlady disappears upstairs and begins to play the organ; to the strains of the hymns, Billy ascends the stairs and investigates another lodger's room. This is filmed by alternating point of view shots with shots of Billy's reactions; the directorial trick is unusual for this series, which typically utilizes standard closeups and middle distance shots to tell ts stories. Billy finds a suitcase with some valuables inside, but otherwise the room is strangely empty.

The final scene takes place in the first floor parlor, as the landlady announces that she heard on the radio that the burglar has been caught. The burglar thread of the story thus is closed, and the viewer is slowly led to the horror of the tale's real denouement. Bloch's final addition is very subtle. The landlady asks Billy if  the silly register is in his way, referring to the guest register. Yet a careful viewer will realize that, in the opening pub scene, Billy was able to unlock the cash register, yet his subsequent inability to unlock the mystery of the landlady's guest register will prove fatal.


The end of the television adaptation is more demonstrative than the end of the story--the landlady tells Billy that "I stuff all my little pets when they pass away," and he seems to slip into paralysis. As he sits on the sofa, immobile, she announces: "Well, my pet, time to join the others!" as the camera cuts between her stuffed, dog, Basil, and Billy, who will soon be stuffed. While not as understated as the story, this is very subtle for a television program, and brilliantly done.


Jill Livesey as Rosie, in the pub
"The Landlady" was directed by Paul Henried (1908-1992), who was best known as an actor for playing Victor Laszlo, Humphrey Bogart's rival in Casablanca (1942), but who became a director, mostly of episodic TV, in 1952. He directed 28 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and one of the Alfred Hitchcock Hour. "The Landlady" stars Dean Stockwell (born 1936) as Billy and Patricia Collinge (1892-1974) as the landlady. Stockwell began his career as a child actor in Hollywood and played many memorable roles, but for me he will always be remembered for the TV series Quantum Leap (1989-1993). Collinge was on stage from 1904 and in movies from 1941; she appeared on the Hitchcock series six times and had a role in Hitchcock's film, Shadow of a Doubt (1943).

The other five cast members appear in the initial pub scene. Most memorable was Burt Mustin (1884-1977), who doesn't say a word but who plays an old man as he did in so many other TV shows from 1951 to 1976.

The Hitchcock episode of "The Landlady" is not yet available on DVD but can be viewed online here. The original short story has been reprinted often, most prominently in Dahl's 1960 collection Kiss Kiss, his 1979 collection, Tales of the Unexpected, and the posthumous 2006 Collected Stories.

"The Landlady" was adapted for TV a second time, as the April 21, 1979 episode of Tales of the Unexpected. Robert Bloch did not write the teleplay. The episode is available on DVD and can also be viewed online here.

Sources:

Dahl, Roald. "The Landlady." Roald Dahl Collected Stories. New York: Everyman's Library, 2006. 635-44. Print.

Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.

The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Web. 03 Jan. 2012. <http://www.imdb.com/>.

"The Landlady." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. NBC. 21 Feb. 1961. Television.

"The New Yorker" A Web Site for New Yorkers. Web. 03 Jan. 2012. <http://www.thenewyorker.com>.

Tales Of The Unexpected Episode Guide to Tv Series. Web. 04 Jan. 2012. <http://www.tales-of-the-unexpected-episodes.com>.

Treglown, Jeremy. "Appendix." Roald Dahl Collected Stories. New York: Everyman's Library, 2006. 849-50. Print.

Treglown, Jeremy. "Chronology." Roald Dahl Collected Stories. New York: Everyman's Library, 2006. Xxiv-xxvii. Print.

Treglown, Jeremy. "Introduction." Roald Dahl Collected Stories. New York: Everyman's Library, 2006. Ix-Xxi. Print.

Wikipedia. Web. 03 Jan. 2012. <http://www.wikipedia.org/>.