Monday, February 27, 2012

Batman in the 1970s Part 7: November and December 1970







by Peter Enfantino
& Jack Seabrook

Detective Comics #405 (November 1970)

“The First of the Assassins!”

story by Denny O’Neil
art by Bob Brown & Frank Giacoia

Commissioner Gordon has been notified by Interpol that 15 of Europe's leading shipping magnates have been murdered and their choice for #16 happens to have his yacht parked in Gotham Harbor. But K.C. Agonistes refuses police protection, assuring Gordon his security force is prepared for anything. The Commish asks a favor of Batman and our hero is only too happy to try on this vaunted security. Once on board, Agonistes takes a shine to Batman and invites him to sail with him and his crew to Nova Scotia. Thanks to a school of trained, explosive-laden dolphins, the ship is destroyed and the four survivors (Agonistes, his fiance, the first mate and Batman) find themselves shipwrecked on an anything but deserted island. Tejja, a member of The League of Assassins, waits in hiding for The Dark Knight and the trio he's committed to protect.

Jack: One would think that Commissioner Gordon would not need Interpol to tell him that 15 of Europe’s leading shipping magnates had been murdered recently. That should make the news, even in an eventful year like 1970!


PE: Our cover promises lots and lots of deadly Silek assassins but possibly the budget wasn't there this month as we get one lukewarm would-be killer, dispatched with the oldest trick in the assassin-defense handbook: flares in the cape, concealed just for the right moment (when you're getting your ass kicked badly).

Jack: The League of Assassins is an intriguing idea that transcends this rather tepid tale.

PE: Here I thought Batman a Master of Detectives and yet he falls for the oldest trick in the book: a straw dummy sitting in front of a campfire. Did he really think a master assassin would be warming himself on the other side of the island in front of a blazing fire? He can tell a dolphin is trained to carry explosives from a half mile off but he steps right into a snare and ends up helpless, hanging from a tree! My confidence in this superhero is shaken, I must say. But then, the Silek assassin does what all the TV villains always did to Adam West and Burt Ward: he's got The Caped Crusader ready for the throat-slitting and, instead, excuses himself with a "I'm gonna take care of the others, then come back for you!" How long would it take to take care of your most dangerous adversary on the island?

Now we know what Bob Brown could draw really well!
Jack: I had never heard of Silek before, but the web tells me that it is, in fact, a branch of the martial arts!

PE: I had never known Batman carried flares in his cape! Was it just a lucky morning or are they always there? We never find out a thing about the nefarious League of Assassins or why they want to put down 16 shipping bigwigs. Was it a badly shipped crate of shurikens? Nothing else to do? It's sloppily told story with the only plus being the promise that we'd see more of the League (weird that Denny would tip his hand so much as to tell us the name of the leader) in the upcoming issues of Detective.


“The Living Statue!”

story by Frank Robbins
art by Gil Kane & Frank Giacoia

Batgirl is a prisoner of a madwoman who has murdered the avant-garde director Billy Warlock and framed Barbara Gordon/Batgirl's beau, Jason Bard. Lucky for Batgirl, Warlock's girlfriend is hanging around his studio as Batgirl watches her captor engulf the studio around them in flames. Batgirl delivers evidence to the police to prove Jason's innocence and the hippy with a cane goes free.

PE: Other than the Gil Kane art, this is a bad installment of Batgirl. It seems that this series seems to run alternately hot and cold, with the opening chapter a right corker and the conclusion a stunning failure.

Jack: This is reminiscent of the conclusion of Inglourious Basterds, as Batgirl must save Infra-Red while a film studio burns around them.

PE: Bizarrely, as a second back-up, we get "The Sleuth in the Iron Mask" from Gang-Busters #62 (Feb-March 1958). What made editor Schwartz opt to reprint a 6-page non-Batman story when he had thirty-plus years of The Caped Crusader adventures to choose from? Perhaps the Bob Brown art?


 




Batman #226 (November 1970)

“The Man With Ten Eyes”

story by Frank Robbins
art by Irv Novick & Dick Giordano

A robbery is nearly thwarted by a night watchman, who was trained in combat while in Vietnam and earned the nickname “Three-Eye” Reardon due to a shrapnel scar on his forehead. He is knocked unconscious by a brick thrown by the gang’s leader. Staggering to his feet, he encounters Batman inside the building, where a bomb is set to blow open a vault. Reardon does not realize that his opponent is the Caped Crusader and fights him, even though he is temporarily blinded. The bomb goes off, blinding Reardon for good and giving Batman blurry vision.

The robbers and Batman end up at the same eye doctor. He gives Batman black contact lenses to rest his eyes, but he operates on Reardon, connecting his optic nerves to the sensory cells in his finger tips so that he can see through his ten fingers.

Reardon believes that Batman is to blame for his blindness and knocks him out in the clinic’s hallway. He puts Batman on the operating table and nearly destroys his eyes with a laser. Batman escapes and the nearly blind Dark Knight battles the man with ten eyes. Batman wins the fight but his opponent escapes.

Jack: What a long, strange trip this story is! We have a Vietnam vet who is too honest to join a gang. Yet when he fights Batman unknowingly and a blast destroys his vision, he immediately hates Batman and wants revenge. And what is a flopover on a TV screen? I can guess, thinking back to the old days when TV pictures would roll, but I’ve never heard it described as a flopover. The neuro-ophthalmologist examines Batman’s eyes with his mask on! And then he hooks up the watchman’s optic nerves to his fingertips! The watchman, who started out as an honest man, tries to burn Batman’s eyes out with a laser. This story is just too much to be believed. I think Frank Robbins may have been experimenting with some magic mushrooms when he penned it.

PE: Preposterous! I'm wearing out the word inane when describing some of Frank Robbins's Batman stories, but sometimes there's no other word left to describe a mess like this. Can someone tell me why this mob boss would bother spending time on some sap who was, by his braggadocio only, unkillable in Nam but is now for all intents and purposes blind? In real life, they'd kill this guy to avoid witnesses, not take him home and hope he becomes Daredevil. Speaking of Marvel, there are a lot of those scenes here that I call "The Rhett and Scarlett Factor." Bear with me, this will only take a moment and you'll think, "Hey, he's right!" Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara were the masters of mistiming. Rhett would tell Scarlett how beautiful she was and how he couldn't live without her while she was in one of those moods and, conversely, Scarlett would dote on Rhett as big and strong and her Captain Butlah while the big dope was still moping over the mistreatment his wife has heaped on him. Constantly, ships passing in the night. That's the same vibe I get from a lot of the 1960s Marvel Comics stories that have, say, Spider-Man fighting The Torch. If the heroes only stopped their fighting for a moment and talked, they'd realize there's nothing to fight about. Then there would be no comic story. Never mind.

Jack: So I take it you did not like this story?

We really can't add a funny caption to this one.

PE: Laughably, Batman makes a big deal out of not wanting anyone in Gotham to know he's got trouble seeing, so he goes to Dr. Engstrom (evidently the only eye doctor in Gotham) and then Alfred takes his boss through the lobby on the way out! But wait, it gets better! The doctor calls out across the lobby: "I want you back in a week for a re-check, Batman!" No wait, this is even better! Our hero decides he can't take a breather from crime-fighting, so he spends "day after day" of research and intense computerizing (all the while, blind as a... bat) and crafts mini-cameras  in his contact lenses that shoot images back to Alfred in the Bat-cave, who then radios what's going on to Batman through a micro-receiver in Batman's earphones so that he can, ostensibly, deliver that blow to the bad guy's chin! Batman's so excited about this new technology he can't help but tell his ornithoclogocologist about it right in front of Ten Eyes! I desperately wanted to see graphic panels of Dr. Engstrom stretching Reardon's optic nerves to his finger tips. As noted before, I'm no scientist but I still have to wonder how you can see through the skin in your fingertips. So many collections have cobbled together the best Batman stories but I'd like to see a volume of "Batman's Stupidest Adventures." Who wouldn't pay for that? "The Man with Ten Eyes" is a shoe-in.

Jack: I actually had this procedure done, but I had a problem in winter when I wore gloves, so they reversed it (that can't be a pretty picture, Jack!-PE).

PE: We get "Kirby is Coming" banners this issue. Thank the comic Gods he didn't attempt Batman. The back-up feature this issue does not feature Robin. It's a reprint of "The Case of the Gigantic Gamble," which first appeared in Gang-Busters #37 (December 1953-January 1954) and was drawn by Bill Ely. The reason for the absence of a Boy Wonder solo story is not given but I'd venture a guess that the amount of time and energy spent on the lead story precluded a back-up.



Detective Comics #406 (December 1970)

“Your Servant of Death, Dr. Darrk!”

story by Denny O’Neill
art by Bob Brown & Frank Giacoia

Carrying over the story line from last issue, a seventeenth shipping magnate, Count Orsoni, is attacked and severely wounded. His friend, Bruce Wayne, goes to his castle to visit and takes along his alter ego, the Batman. While there, Wayne is introduced to Dr. Ebenezer Darrk, supposedly another friend of Orsoni's there to offer support, and Orsoni's cousin, Mara Thursday. While patrolling the Count's castle at night, Batman is attacked by another envoy of The League of Assassins and is helpless as Orsoni is kidnapped. Tracking him down, Batman is captured by the president of The League of Assassins, revealed to be Dr. Darrk. Escaping death by hatchet with the mysterious aid of Count Orsoni (who has been paralyzed and yet walks), Batman swears to bring down The League and Dr. Darrk if it's the last thing he does.

PE: Denny O'Neil must have been chowing down on a steady diet of the West/Ward Batman show during 1970 as we're subjected to yet another criminal who traps Batman in an elaborate death-device and then leaves before the job is done. We still have no idea why The League of Assassins is wasting their time killing off shipping magnates. Why not fry bigger fish? Presidents? Ambassadors? Gas company CEOs? Since it's the 70s, I gotta believe it has something to do with the environment and, since I'm a professional, I won't peek ahead and come back here and act like I'm a know-it-all. But I am. O'Neil's 1970s output is fondly remembered as that of a writer at the top of his game, but he had his off days just like everyone else.

Jack: Another shipping magnate! How many are there? While The League of Assassins sounds like a good idea, the two assassins we’ve seen so far don’t seem very memorable, and the League president is a bore. Once again, a great Neal Adams cover features a scene that does not occur in the story!

PE: Shouldn't this have been titled "The Second of the Assassins"?


“The Explosive Circle!”

story by Frank Robbins
art by Gil Kane & Vince Colletta

An apartment explosion leaves only one clue: a library book called "It's Your City - Take It," a typical early-70s revolutionary tome carried around by hippies who use just as much violence as the "pigs" they protest. Being a moonlighting librarian, Barbara Gordon knows exactly who checked that volume out and goes to see Shelley Simms, only to be rebuffed by the girl as a "fuzz-fink." Following Shelley to an off-Broadway playhouse, Batgirl discovers that the ringleader of the revs, Mal, is behind the bombing and has another planned for that evening. Unfortunately for Batgirl, Mal traps her in a circle in the Playhouse basement. If our hero steps out of the circle, she'll explode.


PE: What exactly is going on in that panel on Page 3? It looks like Batgirl is giving Shelley Simms a left uppercut. So, Mal, the hippie, blows up the apartment building and leaves behind a book he's had Simms check out of the library for him. Was he trying to set the girl up or is it just lazy plotting?



Jack: Shelley goes to see a show called “Up Against the Wall, Baby.” She doesn’t need Batgirl’s fuzz-fink help, knowing that Batgirl is an extra-legal chick. The 1970-era slang is laid on pretty thick in this story, and Colletta’s inks don’t do Kane’s pencils any favors.



Batman #227 (December 1970) 

“The Demon of Gothos Mansion!”

story by Denny O’Neil
art by Irv Novick & Dick Giordano

Alfred receives a note from his niece Daphne, who has taken a job tutoring children. Alfred is worried by the letter’s tone and Master Wayne agrees to investigate as Batman. Traveling to the remote Gothos Mansion where Daphne now lives, Batman is attacked by two men with an axe and a scythe. After dispatching the attackers, Batman witnesses a procession, whose leader says that he will raise the spirit of demon Ballk. Unfortunately, the leader of the coven is Daphne’s employer, Elder Heathrow.

Batman finds Daphne held captive in a tower but falls into a trap while helping her to escape. Batman barely avoids hanging and is led to a chapel by a mysterious girl who resembles Daphne. He breaks up the coven just as they are about to sacrifice the girl and raise the demon. He chases her mysterious lookalike into the forest but she fades away, having been freed with the coven’s defeat.

A nice page by Novick & Giordano.

Batman is really missing Robin, who is away at college.
Jack: This is a very spooky and strangely effective O’Neill/Novick/Giordano story. It seems like O’Neil’s script makes the artists try harder, since the art this issue is much better than it was last issue. I would love to see what Neal Adams would have done with this story—some panels even look like the work of Adams.

PE: It's probably one of the iconic Neal Adams Batman covers but it looks a bit photoshopped up close.  As if he had three or four paintings and taped them onto each other. Of course, it's based on the famous September 1939 cover painting by Bob Kane (only the fifth Batman appearance) for Detective Comics #31. I'd never read this story before but always assumed it was gifted with Adams art on the interior as well. As you note, Jack, it sure looks like Neal Adams's work but I assume if it had been, DC would have trumpeted the fact to the masses, seeing as how Adams had risen to be their most popular artist.

Hard to believe this not is the work of Neal Adams.
Jack: I’m a little concerned about how quickly and hard Batman falls for the ghostly maiden. Does the fact that she is a dead ringer for Alfred’s niece worry anyone else? When the phantom fades out, won’t Batman get the hots for young Daphne the first time he sees her? Won’t that be awkward for Alfred?

PE: Exactly what I thought. Why is he crying over dead maidens when he's got her twin an arm's length away? It's a decent story (albeit one cribbed from Lovecraft), but I'd never hold it up as an example of one of the finest Batman stories ever. I do appreciate tales like this (and several other gothic- and horror-tinged Batmans coming in the future) that get us away from third-tier thugs who can see with their fingers and nutty big-game hunters and take us into that skewed Batman universe that can house both The Joker and werewolves.


I would watch out if I were Daphne.

“Help Me—I Think I’m Dead!”

story by Mike Friedrich
art by Irv Novick & Dick Giordano

Volunteering at the college’s emergency phone help service, Dick Grayson receives a call that makes him spring into action as Robin, the Boy Wonder. He arrives at the base of a cliff just in time to help Phil Real, who fell into the water below. Real explains that he became confused after some film developing chemicals got into his bloodstream through a small cut. Real had been investigating water pollution as publicity photographer for Professor Stuart’s congressional campaign. A fire breaks out at campaign headquarters, destroying all of Stuart’s campaign literature and photos. Will Professor Stuart win the election with the help of his students? Not if a smear campaign by his opponent succeeds!

Jack: Without Gil Kane’s art, these Robin backup stories are hard to take. This one is very confusing and jumps all over the place. The student activist subplot really dates it and I find it hard to care about Professor Stuart and his campaign.



PE: Batman has a great sports car and Robin rides a moped? I'm assuming Dick Grayson doesn't ride that same scooter--where does he hide it in the city for easy access? or does Dick have rolling license plates on the bike as well? That van's a hoot by the way, with its R-1 plates but no other noticeable difference when it becomes the Robinmobile. And our "public service message" at the climax to remind us that 1970 is "The Year of The Involved College Student" is too much bilge to swallow. "Help Me - I Think I May Be Ill!"

Jack: An interesting sidelight in this issue pops up in Direct Currents, the editorial page. It seems that the January 1971 issue of The Brave and the Bold (#93) will feature a story by Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams in which Batman visits the House of Mystery! Peter, is that issue framed on your living room wall?

PE: It is indeed, Jack! Isn't it sad that we find a blurb more interesting to discuss than the back-up feature? But what's more intriguing and perplexing is the 1 page "comedic" strip running immediately following that Direct Currents, "Casey the Cop." I've mentioned above the strange reprinting of Gang-Busters material but this one makes me scratch my head. According to its Wikipedia page, "Casey" was created by Murray Boltinoff and ran off and on in Action Comics, Detective, and Batman from 1947 through 1964. After reading the seven pages that pass as a Robin story, I say bring on more reprints instead. "Help Me - I Think I May Have Fallen Asleep!"






Monday, February 20, 2012

Batman in the 1970s Part 6: September and October 1970


by Jack Seabrook
& Peter Enfantino

Batman #225 (September 1970)

"Wanted for Murder One, The Batman"
story by Denny O'Neil
art by Irv Novick & Dick Giordano

"Shutdown on York Street!"
story by Mike Friedrich
art by Irv Novick & Mike Esposito

In the first story, TV talk-show host Jonah Jory hates Batman and verbally attacks him while Commissioner Gordon is a guest on his show. Later that night, Jory is shot to death at the Gotham Athletic Club. A witness sees Batman outside the window and the hero is charged with murder one. Batman goes undercover to find the real killer and deduces that Jory arranged his own death and had Batman blamed.

In the second story, a drag race ends in tragedy when one of the racers is killed by another, whose brakes fail as he tries to scare his opponent. Batman investigates and determines that a jealous young man was the culprit.

Jack: O’Neil uses the Ellery Queen challenge to the reader on the bottom of page 11, telling us we have all the clues we need to solve the mystery.

PE: I'm not sure Ellery Queen would run a mystery so far-fetched in its denouement. But then again...

Jack: Anti-establishment themes run through O’Neil’s work at this stage; here, a TV host hates a hero for no clear reason and is shown to be a fake—false teeth, toupee, and shoulder pads in his sport jacket.

PE: What function does Gotham's Public Works Department serve? Why am I thinking Public Works would be water, electricity, cable TV, etc.? Why does Reeves show up at crime scenes? To make sure the utilities are working, if I follow my own lack of reasoning. This is not the first time Reeves has cast aspersions on The Dark Knight and it won't be the last. Gordon continues to act like a chump when guilt is thrown Batman's way. "Well, he's pulled our fat out of the fire countless times but I have no choice, arrest Batman and, if he puts up a fight, shoot to kill!"

Jack: Batman is a detective, not a super-hero. These stories are gritty and realistic.

PE: I'll agree with you on the gritty point, Jack, but not on the realism. At least not on "Wanted for Murder..." That slingshotted gun through the gym window was a bit of a stretch (if you'll pardon the pun).  Nice art, though. I must be a master detective just like Batman, since I figured out who the killer was as well. And the motive.

Jack: Although the backup story runs nine pages, not much seems to happen. Once again, Batman is involved with regular people, not super-villains.

PE: When Alex ran Vic over and totaled his car, I thought for a moment that Vic must have had super powers to destroy Alex's car. It looked like an accordion! There's a lot of hazy action here. Why is Batman so convinced the kid is innocent? Alex ran Vic down. He told witnesses. Case closed. Jack's right on the money, as usual, about the "regular people" aspect of these stories. Outside of Man-Bat, we've yet to hit any super-villains in 1970 and, peeking ahead, we won't see any member of Batman's gallery of rogues until mid-1971. These villains are lawyers, entertainers, politicians, people with money. You could consider Batman the Columbo of comics.



Detective # 403 (September 1970)

"You Die By Mourning!"
story by Frank Robbins
art by Bob Brown & Frank Giacoia

"Break-Out!"
story  by Mike Friedrich
art by Gil Kane & Vince Colletta

A Mrs. Randall comes to see Bruce Wayne at his VIP (Victims, Inc. Program) office and informs Wayne that she'll become a widow very soon, since her husband will be killed. As Bruce rises to question the woman, she runs off, exposing a gun in her purse. As Batman, Wayne decides it's best to investigate this strange woman. He tracks her to her mansion and catches her and her husband readying themselves to attend a strange Haunted House party. Following them to the "haunted house," Batman witnesses an attempt on the lives of the couple. Now convinced that Mrs. Randall isn't actually in on the plan to kill her husband, Batman attempts to get to the bottom of the identity of the would-be assassin.

In our back-up story, Dick Grayson is heading to the youth detention center where he volunteers when there's a breakout by the same two youths he had put away at Hudson U. last issue. As Robin, he helps the police by tracking the two youths to a nearby barn.

Jack: This story has a nice Dracula vibe with the couple traveling to the haunted-house monster party in a horse-drawn carriage. I like this story overall.

PE: The reveal of the bad guy is a cheat. He's a character we haven't been introduced to. The fact that his wife is Randall's twin sister and he doesn't even know it is ludicrous. Did he have his eyes closed or something? Did the twin not mention it? The art shows a split personality again--anything with a costumed character in it is eerie and perfectly suited for a story about a "haunted house" but when it comes to the rest of the cast (including Batman's alter ego), it's all second-rate. One face blends in with another. Don't even start me on the Batman two-page finale expository. God, I hate those.

Jack: Batman shows off his Detective skills once again—I did not notice the different beauty marks on the twin sisters!

PE: That's why he's a Dark Knight Detective and we read comic books, Jack.



Jack: It’s interesting to watch Robin try to establish himself as a solo crime-fighter. He doesn’t always make the right decisions and is all the more human for his mistakes. This story is unusual for a Detective backup in that it is self-contained. Robin also gets off the college campus for a change.



Detective #404 (October 1970)

"Ghost of the Killer Skies!"
story by Denny O'Neil
art by Neal Adams & Dick Giordano

"Midnight Doom-Boy"
story by Frank Robbins
art by Gil Kane and Frank Giacoia

In Spain to oversee the filming of "The Hammer of Hell," a bio-pic about the famous war pilot Baron Hans Von Hammer, Bruce Wayne and his film crew are plagued by on-set incidents, the latest of which is the death of a stunt pilot who is strangled while flying in a one-seat World War I reproduction. Who's trying to sabotage the blockbuster? Evidently it's Hammer uber-fan Heinrich Franz, trying to put the kibosh on what he sees as an insult to the legacy of The Baron. The Dark Knight must use his limited flying skills in a showdown in the sky with the madman who calls himself the Ghost of Von Hammer. Batman may have an Ace up his sleeve.

In our back-up story, Barbara Gordon's search for lost beau Jason Bard comes to a surprising conclusion when she turns on the news and sees him arrested for the murder of "underground cinema" director Billy Warlock.

PE: Bruce Wayne and the crew of the movie being made seem to  treat the strangulation of the dead pilot as an annoyance. "Perhaps we should have a meeting" about all the incidents marring the filming is Wayne's suggestion, while the guy lies amidst the smoldering wreckage! At this point in the series (after 30+ years), Bruce Wayne should appoint Batman his bodyguard a la Iron Man and Tony Stark. This would make the explanation of why no one questions the fact that, no matter where Wayne goes, the Batman follows so much easier to swallow. At one point in the story, Batman climbs into a vintage plane and remarks that, years before, an old stunt pilot had taught him how to fly one of these old "crates." This guy has had one heck of a life. Where has he had time to train at everything known to man? How old is Bruce Wayne?

Jack: Bruce Wayne is in Spain this month, bankrolling a movie about a WWI flying ace to show the “nature—and folly—of war.” Batman is aided by the ghost of another famous flyer in this tribute to Joe Kubert and Robert Kanigher. They created the character of Hans von Hammer, the Enemy Ace, in 1965, and he has appeared on and off in comics ever since.

PE: Don't even get me started on DC war comics, Jack. If I had a few more hours in the day, we'd be looking at that genre as well on this blog (maybe someday!). Needless to say, the pairing of Batman and Enemy Ace (as brief as it is) is a match made in Enfantino comic book heaven. Speaking of DC war characters, The Caped Crusader would team up with Easy Company's leader, Sgt. Rock, in several issues of Brave and the Bold as well. Neal Adams is the perfect artist to evoke Joe Kubert (who was still doing his thing at a high level in the various DC war titles), as you can see in the panel below.

A very Kubert-esque image!


Jack: Barbara Gordon refers to Jason Bard as her suitor. That doesn’t faze her dad, who once again jumps to the conclusion that a good guy is a killer, based on some pretty flimsy evidence.

PE: I'd put the guy in jail too if he was trying to get my daughter in the sack. Besides, Bard talks like a meathead. Reading this "hip jive talk" is like trying to watch an All-Irish cast movie without the subtitles. Very annoying. Nice cliffhanger ending almost looks like an ad for the latest issue of The Witching Hour. I like this series so much more than Robin.

Jack: Billy Warlock is obviously a play on Andy Warhol, whose cinema verite film style was the inspiration for the 24 hour film that Gordon used to blame Bard.


PE: I got that part but what threw me was the X-Epic talk. I thought at first this guy was making porn but a 1970 comic book wasn't allowed to acknowledge that there were such things. I'm so glad we live in a world that has moved past silly things like Andy Warhol's "epics" and into legitimate epics like The Transformers trilogy. Now that's fine art.

Jack: Perhaps Michael Bay is the reincarnation of Andy Warhol?

PE: An all-star letter column this issue features Mike Barr, Alan Brennert, and Marty Pasko. But the best letter printed this month is by Steve Beery, who writes that: "Due, no doubt, to the success of such mags as House of Mystery, a kind of semi-horror angle is being tried out on Batman." Steve goes on to worry that this new supernatural slant skews the previously realistic world of The Batman. Good point, but I applaud the invasion of the creepy, of course. As we see with this issue and future Batmans, the otherworldly belongs in the same universe as The Caped Crusader.

Somebody fire up the time machine!



Hey, kids! Let's rap!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Robert Bloch on TV Part Nine-Alfred Hitchcock Presents: "Bad Actor"

by Jack Seabrook

“Bad Actor,” which was adapted by Robert Bloch from a story called “The Geniuses” by Max Franklin, has been the subject of some misinformation both in print and on the internet. It is not based on a story called “Acting Job” by Richard Deming, as reported in The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion, although Richard Deming and Max Franklin were one and the same person. It is not about an actor who exchanges his prop gun for a real one during casting sessions for a play, as is claimed on TV.com and other web sources.

Instead, “Bad Actor” tells the story of Bart Collins, a young method actor with beatnik tendencies who has “bombed out” of TV, “goofed” in the movies, and “fouled up” on stage. He has a drinking problem and difficulty controlling his anger. When he flies back from Hollywood to New York to audition for the lead in a new play, he is frustrated by competition from squeaky-clean Jerry Lane, who seems destined to get the part. At Bart’s apartment, the drunken actor decides to show Lane how good he is by acting out a murder scene from the play, only to take things a bit too far and strangle Jerry for real.

Bart then attempts to cover up his crime, buying bottles of acid and meat butchering tools in order to cut up Jerry’s body, dissolve it, and wash it down the bathtub drain. Before he can finish the job, however, he is interrupted by a visit from his fiancĂ©, Marge Rogers, and his agent, Ed Bolling. Bart stashes Jerry’s head in an ice bucket, and the rest of the episode is a suspenseful game as Bart’s guests—eventually including a police lieutenant—unsuspectingly come ever closer to opening the ice bucket and exposing its gruesome secret.

The story on which the show is based, “The Geniuses,” was published in the June 1957 issue of the mystery digest Manhunt, which also included “The Amateur” by Richard Deming. The presence of a second story by the same author in the same issue is surely the reason that “The Geniuses” was published under a pseudonym.

When Bloch took the story and adapted it for television, he made significant changes. In print, the tale is told by Ed Bolling, an 18 year old college student who helps his friend Bart Conway plan and execute the murder of fellow student Herman Groper in order to prove Bart’s theory that their high intelligence will allow them to succeed in committing the perfect murder. They dispose of the body by butchering it and then incinerating it in a science lab furnace; before they can dispose of the head, the police come to call and the geniuses stash the remaining portion of poor Mr. Groper in a hatbox. Bart’s hubris is displayed when he brings out the hatbox in front of everyone and wraps it up as a Christmas present for Ed’s girlfriend, Marge. Suspense builds until the police lieutenant insists that she open the box.

One reason that Bloch made such major changes to “The Geniuses” may be due to the story’s similarity to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope, a failure when it was released. Rope was withdrawn from circulation for decades, but perhaps Bloch thought that the conceit of two highly intelligent young men carrying out a “psychotic thrill kill” and then hiding the evidence in their apartment was too close to the plot of the film.
Bloch discarded the first section of the story and replaced it with his own invention of a failing young actor who murders a rival in a fit of passion. Bart even goes so far as to highlight his own lack of erudition (in contrast to the geniuses of Franklin’s story) by pointing out to Jerry Lane that he has never even opened a set of encyclopedias that Marge had given him. Once the murder is committed, the teleplay follows the story more closely, though the disposal of the body is done entirely in Bart’s bathtub, eliminating the need to take it out piece by piece to another location for removal, as in the story. The hatbox of the tale becomes the ice bucket of the teleplay, and it is here that Bloch’s skill in plotting really shines. Taking Chekhov’s famous adage about the gun several steps further (if you show a gun in the first act, it had better go off in the third), Bloch has the ice bucket pop up throughout the episode.

In the first scene, Bart’s agent has to rouse him from a sleepy hangover and pours cold water over his head from the ice bucket, foreshadowing the manner in which that same bucket will cause a shock in his life later on. After a scene in a cafĂ© where Bart dances to the music of bongo drums, he and Jerry go back to his apartment, where Bart plays his own bongo music on the upside down ice bucket. He tells Jerry that Marge gave him “the best ice bucket in the world,” and he holds it up as if it were Yorick’s skull when he begins to quote Hamlet’s speech.  The bucket goes from being a substitute prop for a skull to holding a real one when Bart has to find a quick hiding place for Jerry’s pate.

Marge comes into the apartment and heads for the bathroom, where Bart has just finished washing away the body. He tries to prevent her from going in and she, feigning jealousy, asks: “have you got somebody hidden?” Once police Lieutenant Gunderson arrives, the ice bucket becomes even more central to the action, as first Marge and then Ed come perilously close to opening it to get ice to make drinks. Finally, the lieutenant opens it, sees the horror inside, and asks Bart a question that was never asked in the story: “How did you dispose of the rest of the body?”

Another aspect of “Bad Actor” that is pure Bloch is the milieu of the actor and the world of the beatnik. In numerous stories in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Bloch explored these two worlds and their intersections, often showing their denizens as lacking a moral compass. Bart Collins has this same failing—he is a drunk, a murderer, a liar, and a bad actor in three ways: his acting is poor in his chosen profession, he does a horrible deed (truly a “bad actor”), and his efforts to cover up what he has done are rather pathetic.

“Bad Actor” is interesting to study both as a step in the development of Bloch’s skill as a writer of teleplays and as an example of his ability to adapt the work of other writers. It shows that he was comfortable taking only the aspects of his source material that interested him and working them into a plot of his own devising, focusing on character types and situations about which he enjoyed writing.

The program was directed by John Newland (1917-2000), who began his career as an actor, mostly on TV, but later gained fame as a TV director and as the host of the series, One Step Beyond. He directed four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and four of Thriller; while some of his work on Thriller is very atmospheric, his direction on “Bad Actor” is not overly distinctive; an unusual camera angle is utilized in the scene where Bart buys the butchering tools and Newland does a good job of building suspense.

Carole Eastman
Starring as Bart Collins is Robert Duvall, born in 1931. This was one of Duvall’s earliest roles on television, coming the same year as his breakout role in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). Duvall would of course go on to a long career on TV and in film and become one of the most famous film actors of recent decades. The rest of the cast included Carole Eastman (1934-2004) as Marge; she gave up acting several years after this and became a writer, authoring the screenplay for Five Easy Pieces under the pseudonym of Adrian Joyce.



William Schallert
David Lewis (1916-2000) played Bart's agent Ed Bolling; among his later roles was a recurring one as Warden Crichton on Batman. Best of all was William Schallert, born in 1922 and still acting today, who played Lt. Gunderson. Schallert is an instantly recognizable actor: he was a regular on at least six TV series, he was president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1979-1981, and he played Patty Duke’s father on The Patty Duke Show.

Richard Deming, who wrote “The Geniuses” as Max Franklin, was a prolific author. Mostly Murders lists over 100 short stories under his name, and he is said to have written over 70 novels beginning in the 1940s. Among his many books were numerous TV series tie-ins, such as novels based on Dragnet, The Mod Squad, Charlie’s Angels and Starsky and Hutch. An interesting article on Deming may be read here.

Robert Duvall and David Lewis
“Bad Actor” was first broadcast on NBC on January 9 1962, at 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday night on NBC. Thriller, which had followed Alfred Hitchcock Presents on NBC the season before, had now been moved to Monday nights. The episode was remade as part of the revival of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in the 1980s. Retitled “Method Actor” and starring Martin Sheen in the Duvall role, it was directed by Burt Reynolds and broadcast on Sunday, November 10, 1985, at 8:30 p.m. on NBC.



The original episode may be viewed here. The remake may be viewed here.

Sources:

"Bad Actor." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. NBC. 9 Jan. 1962. Television.
Cook, Michael L. Monthly Murders: A Checklist and Chronological Listing of Fiction in the Digest-size Mystery Magazines in the United States and England. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1982. Print.
Deming, Richard. "Acting Job." 1961. 100 Malicious Little Mysteries. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1992. 76-82. Print.
Fantastic Fiction. Web. 13 Feb. 2012. <http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/>.
Franklin, Max. "The Geniuses." 1957. Best Detective Stories of the Year: (13th Annual Collection). New York: E.P. Dutton, 1958. 128-50. Print.
Galactic Central. Web. 15 Feb. 2012. <http://philsp.com/>. 
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Web. 13 Feb. 2012. <http://www.imdb.com/>.
Wikipedia. Web. 13 Feb. 2012. <http://www.wikipedia.org/>.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Batman in the 1970s Part 5: July and August 1970




by Peter Enfantino

& Jack Seabrook


Detective #401 (July 1970)

"Target for Tonight"
story by Frank Robbins
art by Bob Brown & Joe Giella

"Midnight is the Dying Hour!"
story by Denny O'Neil
art by Gil Kane & Vince Colletta

A fiend calling himself The Stalker has discovered Batman's secret identity and placed The Caped Crusader on his hit list. The Stalker's real identity is big game hunter Carleton Yager and his wall has an empty plaque with Batman's name on it. Lured to a deserted island by Yager, Batman must tiptoe through endless traps and devices until he meets up with Yager, face to face. In a freak accident, the hunter is killed and Batman's secret identity is safe once again.

In our back-up feature, Batgirl is being walled up by a nutty actor convinced he's Edgar Allan Poe. Robin rescues her just in time and clamps the cuffs on the Faux Poe.


PE: "Target for Tonight" starts out as a whodunit. Who is The Stalker and why does he want Batman's head on a plaque? More importantly, how does he know The Dark Knight moonlights as a millionaire playboy? Well, the suspense lasts at least one page before we're served up a suspect: Carleton Yager, whose constant companion, a hunting falcon, just happens to be the messenger of one of the threats delivered to Batman. When our hero visits the man's "safari club" (think wine club for guys who like to put water buffalo noggins on the wall), he's nearly taken out with a crossbow. A tape machine relays a message from Yager that he's waiting for Batman on a nearby island. Is the hunter being set up? Seems as though, for a whodunit, we're being given a red herring. Can't be Yager, right? Wrong. It's Yager. Here's what's wrong with this awful mess: why give the guy the moniker of "The Stalker" when one page later you're referring to him as Carleton Yager? How did Yager find out that Wayne and Bats are one and the same guy? Once the villain takes a tumble into a pit of sharp objects (at least I think that's what happened since it's drawn and written so clumsily), Batman sighs and tells Alfred "He's taken my secret identity to the grave." That's it? Not even a "Hmmm, how did he figure it out? I must be slipping somehow." If we gave letter grades to these stories, this one would merit an F.

Why does Batman kick
 the tape recorder? And how
 does he lift his leg so high?

Jack: I never knew that the water buffalo is the “most dangerous” of beasts! I guess I liked this story better than you did. Batman defeats a fitting adversary with his wits. Once again, the villain dies a violent death. And once again, the slick Neal Adams cover takes a scene from the story and changes it to make it more exciting. Letter writers this month include Martin Pasko, who is starting to become a regular, and Douglas Moench, later a Marvel scribe and eventually the writer of Batman and Detective comics! 

Is this move possible?
PE: "Midnight is the Dying Hour" is a so-so wrap-up to the strong first chapter we saw last issue. It's wrapped up a bit too quickly and neatly for my tastes. The bit of detection on Robin's part to discover the identity of the killer is a hoot: he notices that the dead man's fingers are pointing to the "POE" section of a Book of Poetry-- ergo the killer must be the guy portraying Edgar Allan Poe in the school play. Huhwhat? That's a bit of  a stretch, no? And as the guy's dying, did he look around for the proper book to point to? Cripes, what if the school play had been Animal Farm?



Jack: Did I mention that Kane & Colletta draw one smoking hot Batgirl? Item: Does Robin often talk to himself in itemized lists? Is Batgirl flirting with Robin at the end of the story?

PE: It's not a bad installment of Batgirl and Robin, it's just not as strong as the first chapter. It's certainly classic literature compared to "Target for Tonight." And I like the sassy Batgirl's final line to Robin, promising some risque action in their future? The TV Batgirl certainly wouldn't be able to get away with a tease like that. Unlike so many back-up features, this is a strip I look forward to reading.


Batman #223 (July/August 1970)

"City Without Guns!" from Detective 196 (June 1953)
"Batman of the Mounties!" from Batman 78 (Aug. Sept. 1953)
"The Mardi Gras Mystery" syndicated newspaper strip that ran from 8/6/44-9/17/44
"Journey to the Top of the World!" from Batman 93 (Aug. 1955)
"Around the World in 8 Days" from Detective 248 (Oct. 1957)

PE: Of the five classics assembled here, my favorite would have to be "Journey to the Top of the World," credited to Bob Kane but, according to the indispensable Grand Comics Database it's actually drawn by Dick Sprang.


Jack: Picking up a thread from the letters column in the last Giant Batman, regular contributor Steve Beery asks what Batman and Robin did in the early days that would be contrary to their code. The editor replies that Batman carried a gun and sometimes he and Robin actually killed! They later adopted an anti-gun, anti-killing code, says he. Steve Beery grew up to be Harvey Milk’s lover, of all things, and later died of AIDS. The things you learn from Google! Reading these reprints, it seems to me that the Batman story and art style did not change much from the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s. Though the stories are not memorable, I love the Curt Swan cover, which I do remember from 40+ years ago.

PE: I really dug these all-reprint issues when I was a kid. I couldn't grasp that this hero had been around for 30+ years, so I never knew until years later that these stories had appeared decades before. I would assume these were, in essence, "vacation books" for Frank Robbins, Mike Friedrich, Neal Adams, Denny O'Neil and anyone else associated with the creation of Batman comic books each month. The naivete of the reprints can be startling, though, when compared with the then-current style of dark and grim. These reprint volumes would continue every fifth issue through #233, when DC would raise the price of Batman temporarily from fifteen cents to twenty-five cents and run one reprint per issue. As I recall, this raised quite a fuss in fandom. Of course, the real fun began in February 1974 when DC bulked up several of its flagship titles to 100 pages and raised the cover price to a then-whopping fifty cents. Most of us saw these Giants as a bargain. I'm getting ahead of myself, though. We'll have plenty of time to wax poetic over One Hundred Page Spectaculars in a few months' time.

Of course! How simple!


Detective #402 (August 1970)

"Man or Bat?"
story by Frank Robbins
art by Neal Adams & Dick Giordano

"My Place in the Sun"
story by Mike Friedrich
art by Gil Kane & Vince Colletta

It seems like a simple safe-cracking robbery, but if the criminals looked up in the rafters they'd have an ominous sight: The Man-Bat, waiting patiently for the safe to be opened. Inside is a much-needed potion that Man-Bat, aka Dr. Kirk Langstrom, hopes will reverse the effects of his initial bat serum. Unfortunately for Langstrom, the robbery is broken up by The Batman before he can find his salvation. Before long, the transformation to bat is reaching its zenith: Langstrom seems to be losing touch with his human side and his arms sprout wings capable of flight. Looking for a place to hide, Man-Bat inadvertently discovers the Batcave just as Batman is heading in. The two tussle and Man-Bat is mortally wounded. The Caped Crusader faces a moral dilemma: give the creature the serum to change him back and risk death or wait it out. To be continued!

In the Robin back-up, The Boy Wonder is joined by Speedy, Green Arrow's teen sidekick, for lunch at Hudson University. There, a food fight breaks out and Robin makes an appearance, jumping to conclusions and hammering the wrong party. The Boy Wonder must hang his head in humiliation and soak up the bad vibes on campus.

PE: If 1970 is, as most comic historians assert, the beginning of The Bronze Age, then Man-Bat is certainly Batman's first classic villain. He may be, in fact, the best Bat bad guy of the entire Bronze Age (we'll find out together). What astounded me was that this story was not written by Denny O'Neil but rather the roller-coaster writer known as Frank Robbins. I may just chart a graph of Mr. Robbins's highs and lows on Batman and Detective.

Jack: This is the best Batman story I’ve read so far! The development of the Man Bat character is fascinating. He reminds me a bit of The Lizard, Spider-Man’s foe, yet Langstrom is an honorable character who gradually loses his humanity without ever becoming evil—just more like an animal. The Adams/Giordano art is top-notch!

PE: You've read my notes, Jack. I couldn't be more in agreement with you. The story is fabulous and I can't wait to read #403. That's a feeling this old fan-boy doesn't get much anymore. Man-Bat is a lot like Marvel's The Lizard (and Gerry Conway would mine that vein again in the 1980s with an even more transparent rip-off, Killer Croc), down to the question of whether he's losing that part of his humanity that recognizes Batman as friend rather than foe. Their first names are even similar (The Lizard was aka Curt Connors). Adams just adds more proof for the argument that he's the greatest artist ever to touch Batman.

Jack: It’s nice to see fellow Teen Titan Speedy in the second story! The 1970s college campus politics are dated, but the argument about Robin prefigures a similar theme that would be central to The Watchmen. The art has some nice spots but overall is not up to the usual Kane/Colletta standard.

PE: Speedy mocks Robin's "escape route" (a drainpipe outside his dorm window) as a "kindergarten branch of this costume-hero business." I liked this playful razzing (or is it playful?); Robin's probably humiliated as he's the sidekick to, arguably, the DC Universe's #1 hero and he can't be used to this kind of wisecrack. I never bought into the "Teen Titans" schtick: Sidekicks United. The rosters over the years only back up my mocking tone: Aqualad, Aquagirl, Wonder Girl, Kid Flash. I didn't even know these characters existed. It would take years before Marvel descended to these depths with a She-Hulk and Spider-Woman. Of course, those who oppose my argument might bring up Gnarrk, the Neanderthal who was a semi-member of The Titans. I didn't say my thesis was water-proof.

Jack: These backup stories seem too short to really go anywhere. Robin wants to grow up! By the way, who is the “bazooka-playing radio-star Bob Burns, whose name was . . . Robin”? Why, there he is on Wikipedia! And he coined the word “bazooka”!

PE: "My Place in the Sun" almost feels like one of those Denny O'Neil epic "searching the soul" stories that ran in Green Arrow/Green Lantern that same year, albeit at much shorter length. It doesn't soar to those heights but it gets off the ground, touching on some of the drawbacks to being a celebrity and a masked one to boot. Friedrich perfectly captures Dick Grayson's frustration with the highs and lows of that celebrity and also his place in the superhero world. The tale is hampered, as Jack says, by its length. There's no time to open up the story before the end credits roll. I am impressed, though, that this, like the continuing Batgirl back-up series, is not a throwaway like a lot of these fillers can be.

Batman #224 (August 1970)

"Carnival of the Cursed"
story by Denny O'Neil
art by Irv Novick & Dick Giordano

Blind Buddy Holden, an old jazzman, is beaten to death on a New Orleans sidewalk. Batman reads about it and shows up at the street funeral just in time to stop an attack. He fights Moloch, a large, deformed man who scampers off with an incredible leap.

Wheelchair-bound Rufus Macob tries to buy the dead man’s possessions from his friends, but they won’t sell. Batman sends Macob a message to try to scare him, but Macob’s gang kidnaps Max, another old bluesman, and lures Batman to a river boat, where he is knocked out and tied to the paddlewheel. Batman escapes and intercepts Macob and his gang as they dig up Buddy’s grave. It turns out that a map pinpointing the location of oil in the bayou was etched on the side of the dead man’s horn.

Macob reveals himself to be Moloch, born a freak. He nearly defeats Batman but flees when he hears sirens. Batman catches him and knocks him out, crumpling the horn in the fight and destroying the secret map forever.

Jack: This is one long story—24 pages! The Novick/Giordano art is evocative, especially the night scenes at Mardi Gras. Were it not for Adams, this art would be more highly regarded.

PE: Can't agree with you on the art, Jack. If I didn't know better, I'd think Frank Robbins was moonlighting. His Moloch has those same rubbery limbs so prevalent in Robbins' work. What's with Batman leaping twenty feet to an upper balcony? We're to swallow a lot, I suppose, what with his daring leaps across rooftops and death-defying dives from upper story windows, but a standing twenty-foot leap? Despite my problems with the art, I thought the story was enjoyable enough. It even serves up a cliffhanger that wouldn't have looked out of place on the Adam West show: Macob (subtle name, Denny!) ties Batman to the paddles of a moving steamboat and our hero escapes drowning only because of good dental work.

Jack: I don’t really get Moloch, and as usual the cover promises more than the story delivers, but I like the setting and tale overall.





SOME ADVERTISING HIGHLIGHTS FROM 1970



DC ad: bad news for MU professors in 1970