Thursday, May 31, 2012

Robert Bloch on TV Part Sixteen-The Alfred Hitchcock Hour: The Second Wife

by Jack Seabrook

“The Second Wife,” for which Robert Bloch wrote the teleplay from a short story called “The Lonely Heart” by Richard Deming, is only tangentially a tale of terror. The story is essentially one that tells of a tragic failure of communication between a husband and wife in a marriage, a failure that ends with a shocking and wholly unnecessary murder.

The show opens with a lyrical musical theme characterized by a series of descending notes on a piano accompanied by ominous woodwinds. A bus arrives in a dreary town square, the pavement wet with recent rain. A woman, no longer young, disembarks, watched by two men, one of whom helps unload a heavy trunk from the bus’s storage compartment. The woman is Martha Peters, and her eyes shine with anticipation as she meets Luke Hunter for the first time. He is matter of fact, unsmiling and brusque as he tells Sam Ogle, the man waiting with him, that Martha is “not a friend—we’re getting married tonight.”

Martha’s disappointments begin early, right after she meets Luke. He drives off with her in his pickup truck and their awkward attempts at conversation include his questioning her about her savings account; he even checks her bankbook as he drives. The two met through a correspondence club, two lonely people looking for companionship. Luke drives straight to a minister’s house from the bus station, much to Martha’s surprise, where they are married in the minster’s living room. She is so anxious for everything to work out that she goes along with his suggestions. Martha was born in Michigan, in a cold, northern climate, but she has spent the past twelve years in St. Petersburg working as a librarian, a classic spinster occupation. Martha has sought warmth, first by moving south and now by agreeing to marry a man she has never met.

Luke, on the other hand, is taciturn and connected with coldness and death. He has been hired by the county to build coffins for the funerals of paupers, and his bachelor’s home is sparsely furnished, with little natural light and fireplaces in each room. Martha is again surprised to learn that the house does not have a furnace; her prayers for warmth and love have been answered with cold rooms and emotional distance. The musical score that supports this episode is at turns lyrical and ominous; it is this ominous music, along with the increasingly nourish lighting that causes the Hunter home to be filled with shadows, that leads the viewer to expect the worst from Luke. When he shows Martha the basement, she remarks that it is already cold in the autumn, and he cautions her that it will get even colder when winter comes. John Anderson’s performance as Luke is brilliant; he never does or says anything particularly angry or threatening, yet his emotionally reserved personality allows Martha to develop a sense of doubt that will eventually prove fatal.

John Anderson as Luke

Poor communication, disappointment, and misunderstanding between husband and wife mount as Martha goes to church and becomes involved with the ladies of the church quilting bee. Luke buys a new carving knife as a surprise; the kindness of the gift is undercut by the  foreshadowing of the knife as potential weapon. At a quilting bee at the same house where the marriage took place Martha learns that she is not Luke’s first wife. He had been married to a woman named Virginia, another mail-order bride to whom he was married a mere six months before she died of food poisoning on a trip to Luke’s hometown of Small Boot, Texas.

Bloch may be playing a subtle game with names here—Small Boot recalls Little Soldier's Boot, the English translation of the name of the notorious Roman emperor Caligula, whose violent reign included many murders. Martha returns home to a dark house after earning the disturbing news about Luke’s first wife; doubt begins to creep into her mind and she is surprised—this time in a frightening way—when Luke suddenly emerges from the basement. She confronts him about his first wife and he tries to be tender but remains reserved and distant. Echoes of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca can be felt as the second wife—this time, Martha—develops a fear based on rumors and pieces of information she learns about her husband’s first wife.

Martha’s fear grows when Luke suggests a trip over the Christmas holidays to his hometown in Texas; Martha knows that this is where Virginia died, and she dreads the thought that the same fate might befall her. She is in the cold basement hanging laundry when she sees Luke’s pickup truck pull into the garage with a large wooden box in the back. We (and she) remember that he makes coffins for a living, and Martha’s imagination continues to get the best of her. The situation worsens when he denies that there was a box in the truck and she investigates, confirming that what she saw was real. The clever musical score features pizzicato violin at this point, reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Psycho and its jarring use of strings.

Following another meeting with the church ladies, Martha goes home to find Luke asleep; dirt in the sink suggests that he has been hard at work in the basement, but the door is now locked. Suspense builds in a long, dialogue-free sequence as Martha takes the key from Luke’s coat pocket as he sleeps. The ever-present fires in the home’s fireplaces cast flickering shadows on the walls and the music helps create great tension and suspense as Martha ventures into the basement and sees a shovel and a newly dug hole the size of a grave.

June Lockhart as Martha

With the benefit of hindsight, having seen the entire episode and its surprise ending, this sequence can be appreciated for the outstanding work by director Joseph M. Newman, who melds light, shadows, music, and the performance of June Lockhart to turn a husband’s kind surprise into a symphony of terror. The great irony of “The Second Wife” is that Luke turns out to be nothing more than a quiet, shy man trying to provide for his new wife, yet the story is presented in such a way that the viewer completely understands the fear and doubt that begin to consume Martha’s thoughts. Her descent into the basement again evokes Psycho and the similar descent by Vera Miles into the basement of the Bates house at that film’s conclusion.

After discovering what she must think is her freshly dug grave, we next see Martha in the light of day, yet she sits at the kitchen table, hunched over, wrapped in her overcoat to fight the cold that comes not only from the poorly heated home but also from her seemingly loveless marriage. Luke comes home early to get ready for the trip that she thinks will end in her death. She decides to go to town; he suggests that she do some Christmas shopping, but she has other ideas.

Martha goes to a pawn shop and buys a revolver, then returns home after dark. She sees dirt in the sink again, a sure sign  in her mind that Luke has been preparing her basement grave. He insists that they leave for their trip right away, instead of the next day. Director Newman once again excels here, with nourish lighting and ominous music, the fireplace flames casting undulating shadows on the walls.

Luke stops Martha as she heads outside to put her bag in the truck, saying he wants to show her something in the basement. He opens the door that leads downstairs and his wife, certain that she is about to be killed, shoots him with the gun she had bought earlier that day. He tumbles down the stairs and lies dead at their base. She slowly follows him down and finds—in a heartbreakingly tragic conclusion—that the surprise is a new furnace that he has installed, with an oil tank filling the no longer menacing hole in the floor. A card on the furnace reads, “Merry Christmas to my dear wife,” and the screen fades to black as she hears Luke’s voice in her head repeating the kind sentiment.


Robert Bloch’s teleplay for “The Second Wife” serves as the basis for a brilliant and tragic hour of television, where the director turns a marital misunderstanding into a harrowing tale of suspense by combining all of the elements at his command. The story on which it was based, “The Lonely Heart” by Richard Deming, was first published in the December 1964 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

The story is not as emotionally wrenching as the TV show, in part because Deming's style is so matter of fact. Bloch made some significant changes when he adapted it; perhaps the biggest was that, in the story, Martha knew before she married Luke (Rufus, in the story) that he had been married before. Her worry comes from the revelation that his first wife had also been a lonely hearts bride, and she fears he may be a lonely hearts killer. In the story, Luke/Rufus is 55 and Martha is 50. John Anderson, who played Luke, was only 42 years old, and June Lockhart was 39, and much prettier than the story's “angular, horse faced spinster.”

The mutual inspection of bankbooks had been agreed to in advance, and Martha is taken home so that she can clean up before the wedding ceremony, unlike in Bloch's teleplay, where Luke's brusque insistence on speed seems merely cold hearted. The wedding scene, so disappointing to Martha in the TV show, is absent from the story. Bloch also adds the comment about how Luke works building coffins; this foreshadows the pine box he later brings home in his truck. Finally, Martha not only buys a gun and ammunition, she stops off on her way home to practice shooting. When it's time to leave, there is no rush and no surprise early departure--as in the rest of the story, it is told very matter-of-factly, with less suspense and less emotion as a result.


Deming also wrote “The Geniuses,” which Bloch had adapted into the earlier Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, “Bad Actor.” Just as “The Geniuses” recalled elements of Hitchcock’s film Rope, “The Lonely Heart” recalls the Alfred Hitchcock Presents first season episode “Back for Christmas,” directed by Hitchcock and based on a John Collier short story. In it, a husband murders his wife and buries her body in the basement, only to learn after he has moved away that his wife had hired excavators to dig up the basement as a surprise Christmas present.

Starring in “The Second Wife” are John Anderson, as Luke, and June Lockhart, as Martha. Anderson (1922-1992) was featured in a huge number of television episodes in his long career, including an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, one of Thriller, one of The Outer Limits, and four of The Twilight Zone. He also played car salesman California Charlie in Psycho (1960). Anderson is perfect in “The Second Wife” as the husband who means well but is unable to communicate with his wife and pays the ultimate price.

Martha is played by June Lockhart (1925- ), who has been in movies and on TV since 1938. She starred in She-Wolf of London (1946) and was a regular on three consecutive TV series over a period of twelve years: Lassie (1958-1964), Lost in Space (1965-1968) and Petticoat Junction (1968-1970).Her performance in ”The Second Wife” is outstanding and carries the show—she goes from anticipatory excitement to disappointment to terror with complete credibility. Lockhart is still alive and maintains a small website.

Eve McVeagh
David Fresco
Supporting cast members include Eve McVeagh (1919-1997) who plays the church lady who befriends Martha; she also played a reporter in Bloch’s “The Gloating Place.” David Fresco (1909-1997) appears briefly as Sam Ogle, who is waiting with Luke when Martha’s bus arrives at the show’s beginning. He had appeared with Eve McVeagh in “The Gloating Place” as the photographer; he also appeared at the start of Bloch’s "Water’s Edge” as the newsstand dealer who sells John Cassavetes a copy of Romp magazine.

Joseph M. Newman (1922-1992), whose skillful direction guides “The Second Wife,” was in the movie business from 1938 and TV from 1960; he directed This Island Earth (1955), as well as four episodes of The Twilight Zone and ten episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. An interesting article on Newman may be read here. The director of photography on “The Second Wife,” responsible for the beautifully noirish lighting in the night scenes where the interior of the Hunters’ house is lit only by flickering firelight, was Ray Rennahan, who won Oscars for his photography on Gone With the Wind (1939) and Blood and Sand (1942)—both were shared with other cinematographers. Ironically, he was best known for his work with color photography; he was in movies from 1917 and TV from 1956, he worked on one episode of Thriller, but this was his only contribution to the Hitchcock series.

Finally, and most surprisingly, the music for “The Second Wife” was not written specifically for this episode; the only music credit goes to supervisor Stanley Wilson (1915-1970), but I would not be surprised to find that a comparison of the music used in this episode to the scores written by Bernard Herrmann for other episodes of this series revealed that Hermann’s music was the source for the themes in “The Second Wife.”

“The Second Wife” was first broadcast on NBC on April 26, 1965, and may be viewed online here; I hope that it is released on an official DVD someday so that we may appreciate fully the lighting and camerawork.

Sources:



Deming, Richard. "The Lonely Heart." Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine Dec. 1964: 64-82. Web.
"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. Web. 27 May 2012. <http://philsp.com/>.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. IMDb.com. Web. 27 May 2012. <http://www.imdb.com/>.
"The Second Wife." The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. NBC. 26 Apr. 1965. Television.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 27 May 2012. <http://www.wikipedia.org/>.


Monday, May 28, 2012

Batman in the 1970s Part 20: September and October 1972




by Peter Enfantino &
Jack Seabrook



Detective Comics #427 (September 1972)

"A Small Case of Murder!"
Story by Frank Robbins
Art by Irv Novick and Dick Giordano

Toy designer Randall Barnes is found shot through the heart and the culprit is a wooden doll. Luckily, Commissioner Gordon has help in the form of Batman to investigate. As usual, there's no shortage of suspects. Could it be Gaynor, Barnes's partner in the business? Not likely. Or what about Anton Gralnik, disgraced and sacked by Barnes only a few short weeks before? That theory goes right out the window as well when Bats finds Gralnik dead. Luckily, the killer has stuck around and it's only a matter of time before The Caped Crusader gets to the bottom of this long and tangled web. It turns out that the doll has been programmed by Adam Cornelius, an advocate for children's anti-violence toys. Ironically, in a freak accident, Cornelius is gunned down by his own Woody.

Jack: This story was right up my twisted little alley! I love the "Doom Doll" and I love the (admittedly heavy-handed) irony of having the head of the League to Outlaw Violence be behind the murders. This is another in a series of very violent Batman stories!

PE: I thought it was just another run-of-the-mill Frank Robbins story with nice art by Novick and Giordano. The scene to the left, of Batman in death throes after being shot by the killer doll, is a cheat of course. The cheat, though, is a riot. Anticipating the doll taking a shot at him, Batman manages to turn away for a split second and slip a metal "cupid" statue under his Bat emblem. When the shot comes, the doll has luckily aimed right at the yellow bat on The Dark Knight's chest, thus deflecting the bullet. If The Batman's so smart, why doesn't he just pick up the doll and disarm him before he fires. How much longer would that take than disrobing?! There's a typical "Is it or is it not a supernatural force" moment in the climax when the doll utters Cornelius's name just before ventilating him. It's as though Robbins (or Schwartz) graduated from the Inner Sanctum school of writing where everything has to be scientifically explained at the finale and yet he wants to have it both ways.

"I Wake Up Dying!"
Story by Frank Robbins
Art by Don Heck

Jason Bard awakens from a nightmare to find his bad dream has just begun. Someone has dumped him in the back of a semi and then driven the truck into a lake. Bard has only precious seconds to escape the fast-filling vehicle. Once freed, he begins to piece together the events of the previous days that led to his dunking.

Jack: Better than the first Jason Bard story, mainly due to the frame and the use of flashbacks as Bard tries to piece together what happened to him. The wife-as-killer angle is as old as the hills, though, and Heck's art is not getting any better.

PE: I'm not sure if I stayed awake through any of the previous Jason Bard adventures but bring me up to speed: did he usually talk like a beatnik dope? Lots of hippie lingo like "chick," and "bread." Half the time he sounds like he should have long hair and beads, the other half he's a member of Mickey Spillane's country club. It does have a bit of excitement, lacking in any of the other Bard appearances, with his escape from a semi sinking deep into a river. For the record, I was rooting for the river.

Batman #244 (September 1972)

"The Demon Lives Again!"
Story by Denny O'Neil
Art by Neal Adams and Dick Giordano

As Batman and his friends reach the cable car, they are joined by Ra's Al Ghul, reborn with the strength of ten and possessed by a fit of madness. He is too much for Batman; Talia and her father take off down the snowy mountain in a hovercraft. Molly and Batman follow on skis, but the father and daughter escape when Batman must tend to Molly's injury.

Batman tracks Ra's and Talia to a desert camp, where they engage in a sword fight that is cut short when a scorpion bites the Caped Crusader. Talia saves him with an antidote-laced kiss, allowing Batman to catch up with Ra's and take him to justice.

Jack: Art gets an A+; story gets a B minus. This is an example of Neal Adams just taking a story and turning out some beautiful pages, even though what's going on doesn't always make a lot of sense. Why does Batman remark that Matches Malone is dead? The whole Matches Malone disguise never made much sense. And, oddly enough, this is an example of a cover that shows a scene not in the story, even though Adams drew both!

PE: I completely agree with your assessment and ratings, Jack. This issue features some of the most iconic art Neal Adams ever drew yet the story meanders and never really tells us what we need to know. I'm still not sure what threat Ra's poses and I'm not entirely sure that's all my fault. The Ra's al Ghul character is held in high esteem by most Bat-fans all because of these six appearances in 1971 and '72 and I'm ready for them to tell me why.

Jack: One other thing--Talia suddenly looks very Asian in some panels. She did not look that way before, even when Adams drew her. The continuity in this tale is a little bit shaky.

PE: Ra's will return several times in the next forty years but probably not with as much fanfare as in Grant Morrison's "The Resurrection of Ra's al Ghul," a very popular mega-arc that began in Batman Annual #26 and ran through several of the various Batman titles in 2007. In the story we discover that Bruce Wayne and Talia have conceived a child, a really violent one, who is now in danger. Seems grandpa Ra's wants to use the kid as a vehicle for resurrection.




"Teen-Age Trap!"
Story by Elliot Maggin
Art by Irv Novick and Dick Giordano

Robin helps teenager Tommy Duffy after the young man robs a coffee house. It seems young Tommy reminds Robin of himself as a boy, and it's time to help someone less fortunate.

Jack: So much for Rich Buckler! This is the first Robin script by Elliot Maggin, and it has enough hokey jive to pass as a Frank Robbins effort. The art by Novick and Giordano is serviceable but a disappointment after Buckler.

PE: Are we sure that Maggin isn't actually Robbins? Do we have confirmation that someone actually saw them in the same room at the same time? This hokum reads like an eight-page advertisement for The Boys Club. Well, with hipster dialogue thrown in. How can we get Hawkman two times a month?


Detective Comics #428 (October 1972)

"The Toughest Cop in Gotham!"
Story by Frank Robbins
Art by Bob Brown and Dick Giordano

Steve "Shotgun" Smith has developed something of a reputation as Gotham's toughest cop, laying waste to felons at an alarming clip, but he's also respected for getting the job done. Commissioner Gordon, expecting the real bad guys are going to come gunning for Smith, enlists Batman to keep an eye on his top cop. While shadowing the big man, The Dark Knight begins to suspect that "Shotgun" may be skimming off the top.

PE: An amazingly violent little tale, capped off by a couple of shotgun killings witnessed with perfect calm by the Batman. The expository, as usual, is just way too much to swallow. All the "I knew you were doing this because . . ." twists and turns start piling up and tip over from the weight of their own dopiness. "Shotgun" seems to be an amalgam of Mike Hammer and Dirty Harry.

Jack: I thought that this was going to be a big cliche, but it turned out to be a solid crime story, featuring a Mike Hammer lookalike. The twists and turns are more subtle than usual for Frank Robbins fare. The Brown/Giordano art is nice and raw and it fits the violent theme. Nice work all around!



"The Invisible Thief of Bleakhill Manor!"
Story by E. Nelson Bridwell
Art by Dick Dillin and Joe Giella

Hawkman investigates the burgling of Bleakhill Manor. Someone is stealing artifacts that have to do with weapons. When Hawkman looks closer, though, he sees that the theft of otherwise worthless junk is only a diversion.

PE: Why would a master thief, who obviously has access to the collection in Bleakhill Manor, take the time and effort to clone the priceless artifacts he's about to rip off? He's got to cart these things in with him when he's breaking in! Otherwise, I found this Hawkman adventure boatloads more enjoyable than a Jason Bard, Batgirl, or Robin tale. That could have something to do with my enjoyment of the character as handled by Geoff Johns and James Robinson when they rebooted him after the Identity Crisis mini-series. Curiously, I find these 21st Century "re-imaginings" are better handled by DC than Marvel, a company that seems to want to destroy whatever fan base they've had over the years by alienation. Anime-style art, no story to speak of, and outlandish plot stunts designed to make longtime readers gasp and/or shriek (J. Michael Straczynski's debauchery "Sins Past" featuring the sons of Gwen Stacy comes immediately to mind) have whittled away at any credibility the current regime might have had. It's telling that when it comes time for their heroes to hit the big screen, it's the 1960s and 70s incarnations they turn to. End of speech.

Jack: "Aerial Ace?" "Sherlock of the Skies?" "Pinioned Policeman?" This first Hawkman tale in Detective Comics (at least in the '70s) is standard fare, with corny quips by E. Nelson Bridwell and uninspired art by Dillin and Giella. I had forgotten that Hawkman was from another planet and could talk to the animals (or at least the birds) like Dr. Doolittle. Dick Dillin drew the Justice League of America from 1968 to 1980, basically the entire time I was reading the favorite comic of my youth.

Batman #245 (October 1972)

"The Bruce Wayne Murder Case!"
Story by Denny O'Neil
Art by Neal Adams and Dick Giordano

Warring political bosses Bilker and Harvey argue over a newspaper headline that accuses Harvey of murdering Bruce Wayne. Batman visits Bilker, who shows him a handwritten letter from Wayne accusing Harvey of planning his murder. Batman goes to the home of Osgood Peabody, who designed a computer that can replicate anyone's handwriting. Peabody nearly electrocutes Batman and escapes; he goes to the docks for safe passage but is double-crossed by Harvey, only to be saved by Batman's timely intervention. As the story ends, another headline announces that Bruce Wayne has been found alive, having survived the plane crash in South America.

Jack: So ends this multi-issue arc that began with Batman faking Bruce Wayne's death in order to free himself to go after Ra's Al Ghul. O'Neil had good intentions, but this doesn't hold together as well as it should. Frankly, I had forgotten that Bruce Wayne was supposed to be dead.

PE: Another ho-hum tale of Gotham grift and corruption. Since this was about the time Watergate hit, we should settle in for quite a few stories along this line. As long as they're illustrated by Neal Adams, I think we'll be okay. I do think the long and drawn out "death of Bruce Wayne" was one of those stories that got out of control and O'Neil had written himself into a corner. He got out of it with one quick expository panel, the capper to this story.

Jack: I don't think his heart was in this one, but even an average Neal Adams effort is awfully good!

PE: Well, it's tough to follow up that incredible job last issue and Adams is back to drawing petty criminals rather than menaces to mankind. I'm still bewildered that, with a stellar rogue's gallery available, Schwartz kept the stop sign in cement. Nothing but all-too-mortal thieves and crooked cops. What are comic books for, anyway? I've a feeling that Roy Thomas was smart enough not to have the same kind of policy running over at Marvel. Probably one of the main reasons why the competition ate up more of the market as the 70s lingered on.




"Who Stole the Gift from Nowhere!"
Story by Elliot Maggin
Art by Irv Novick and Dick Giordano

An anonymous gift of fifty thousand dollars to the Hudson University library fund has been stolen, and student Luke Graham is wrongly accused! Robin finds the real thief and Graham confesses to having been the anonymous donor--he comes from a rich family but wanted to be accepted as one of the guys.

Jack: I liked this story, even with the occasional "dig" or pair of striped bell bottoms. Maggin is showing promise as a Robin writer, at least in comparison to some of the dreck we've seen in past issues.

PE: It's the same ol' Robin detritus to me. Saving grace is that it only clocks in at nine pages. Well, that and it's not drawn by Frank Robbins. I confess to docking these points based on the hip lingo. There's a definite Gil Kane vibe to this art and I may be wrong but Luke Graham kinda reminds me of Roy Thomas.


Monday, May 21, 2012

Batman in the 1970s Part 19: July and August 1972



by Peter Enfantino &
Jack Seabrook


Detective Comics #425 (July 1972)

"The Stage is Set . . . for Murder!"
Story by Denny O'Neil
Art by Irv Novick & Dick Giordano

Someone is making a statement about the acting of Barry Johnstone. The Shakespeare in the Park lead actor has a critic in his audience who wouldn't mind seeing Barry doing an imitation of Poor Yorick but The Batman is backstage to make sure that doesn't happen. A full roster of suspects confounds The Batman for a bit but thanks to a little "handiwork," The Dark Knight is able to deduce just exactly who the culprit is.

Jack: What a great Berni Wrightson cover! The inside art doesn’t hold a candle to it.

PE: Not even close. Novick and Giordano usually do a passable job on Batman's art but here it looks like they took the month off. Our lead character doesn't have the usual flair (his cape just dangles in most panels rather than the billow we've come to expect). The story's a dud as well. I've never been a fan of four-color whodunits. There's not enough time to establish the characters. O'Neil starts the story off with a list of the five "suspicious characters" but there was only one that seemed to be the likely varmint and I was dead on. The major thing that bugs me about this yarn is the introduction of the House of Mystery element. Why have the bad guy dress as a ghostly carriage driver? It lasts for one scene and plays no part in the drama. I suspect that Bernie Wrightson came up with a very cool cover and editor Schwartz ordered O'Neil to write a story around that illo.

Jack: This is an average story by Denny O’Neil. I wonder if he was cutting corners by using so much dialogue by “William Shakespeare, Esq.”

PE: In stark contrast to the Ra's al Ghul storyline running at the same time in the Batman title, here in Detective we get one-and-dones and the stories suffer for being so brief. As I noted above, if you want a successful whodunit, you gotta know the whos. We know nothing about the possible motives the other "suspects" may have for the simple reason that we aren't given any information to work with. Without that, the "whodunit" becomes a "Whocares."

Jack: Though Julius Schwartz writes (on the letters page) that reader reaction to Frank Robbins’s art has been 75% positive, he does publish a letter by Lori Mead of Phoenix, Arizona, who comments that Robbins not only didn’t go “to drawing school” but he “didn’t even graduate from finger-painting!” It appears that people in Arizona do not appreciate the Robbins touch.

PE: I suspect that it's not only Arizona that has high standards for adults who run around in tights. 



"Open-and-Shut Case!"
Story by Frank Robbins
Art by Don Heck

Jason Bard's old war buddy Matthew Clay has escaped from a "private sanitarium" and Jason wants to find Matt before he hurts someone or someone hurts Matt. Jason stumbles into the office of the psychiatrist that sent Clay to the nuthouse mere seconds after Matt has murdered the doctor. Or did he? Batgirl's favorite private dick aims to find his screwy buddy and ask him some pertinent questions. Good luck with that, Jason Bard!

Don Heck's idea of a crazed Vietnam vet.
PE: Why is it that DC has cut out the reprints but Jason Bard's first solo adventure feels just like one of those stuffy old 1954 stories starring Harry "Winkie" Winklebean, Private Sea Captain Detective? Bard has always come off to me as a rip-off of Matt Murdock (sans blindness and tights, plus gimpy leg and sexy superhero girlfriend) and failed to elicit one iota of excitement as a supporting character in the Batgirl back-ups. Why editor Schwartz thought readers would eat up tales that centered around him is beyond my powers of ESP. This story's yawn-inducing and not very well told. Matt Clay's psychiatrist, the doc who had him committed, just happens to have his office in the same building as Jason Bard's? Hmmm, that's quite a coincidence, wouldn't you say? The reason Robbins's story doesn't work is the same reason O'Neil's doesn't: brevity and a lack of good suspects. In this case, Robbins only introduces one other character in the entire story so if Clay's not the killer then it must be the other.

Jack: The crack team of Robbins and Heck makes us suffer through nine pages of Jason Bard, private eye. I am not looking forward to a long run for this series.

PE: Well, we did get that Wrightson cover so I guess we shouldn't complain too loudly.



Batman #243 (August 1972)

"The Lazarus Pit!"
Story by Denny O'Neil
Art by Neal Adams

Now that Batman has saved the life of Ra’s Al Ghul’s assassin Ling, Ling’s loyalties are divided and he and Batman must fight to the death. Batman uses his Judo skills to win the battle; sparing Ling’s life once again puts the man wholly in his debt. Ling, Dr. Blaine, and Batman—disguised as Matches Malone—fly by private jet to Switzerland, where they have a run in with Ubu and Talia at the airport. Batman meets international ski champion Molly Post, who bears a grudge against Ra’s Al Ghul, and the foursome travel by jet ski to Ra’s’s mountain chalet. After Dr. Blaine uses some scientific know-how and quick thinking to disarm a bunker filled with machine guns, they enter the chalet. Batman subdues Ubu and Talia greets him with a kiss. She shows him her father’s dead body and they prepare to leave, but after Batman is gone the body of Ra’s Al Ghul is revived by being dunked in a pit of bubbling liquid.

Jack: Boy, it seems like a long time since we’ve been treated to a full-length Batman story illustrated by Neal Adams! He does not disappoint, as this is an exciting and suspenseful tale that is a treat for the eyes.

Molly? Or Jill St. John?
PE: The mental and physical chess match between Batman and Ra's Al Ghul is finally drawing me in. Having not read this arc (or any other Ra's story) growing up, I have not one clue where it's leading me. The Lazarus Pit itself is a bizarre plot device (is the concept crossing over into that quasi-supernatural realm that Bats enters now and then or is there a perfectly rational explanation for raising the dead?) and I can't wait to see what O'Neil has up his sleeve. I do know that this particular set of stories is held up as a pinnacle of Batman in the 1970s. Michael Eury in The Batcave Companion (Twomorrows, 2009) calls Ra's "Batman's deadliest enemy."The change in format from 52 to 36 pages certainly helps the title in two ways: Jack and I no longer have to read those crappy reprints (at least for now) and the extended story page count from 13 to 20 pages certainly expands the canvass. Now we can have a little more back story for these nameless underworld thugs we're saddled with each month. If this issue is any indication, it's also opened the door for multi-issue arcs, something heretofore almost unheard of in the pages of Detective and Batman. So a major DC bungle (the 52-page experiment) may turn out for the best.

Welcome back, Mr. Adams!
Jack: With the new 20 cent cover price and page count reduced to 36 comes another change: Batman is now published eight times a year rather than the ten we’ve been used to since we started our reviews with the January 1970 issue. Peter, what do you think of Robin’s brief appearance and of the whole Matches Malone disguise? So far, I don’t see the point, but maybe something’s coming next issue.

PE: Matches Malone is an embarrassingly silly disguise and the quicker he bites the dust the better. Love that "gruff tough henchman" voice Bats adopts for the Matches role.










Detective Comics #426 (August 1972)

"Killer's Roulette!"
Story and Art by Frank Robbins

Three noted Gotham-ites have committed suicide in three successive nights. Batman finds a few oddities about the crime scenes that have him convinced the men didn't take their own lives. All three men had heavy gambling debts s to follow up leads, he turns to his good friend, Bruce Wayne, and the two investigate the floating casino known as "The Fortune Wheel." There Bruce runs into Conway Treach, a man with a strange addiction: he loves to bet on Russian Roulette. The Batman plays along.

PE: It's hard to take Batman using the slang "bread" for money or calling a gossip columnist "Gingie-baby."  Just doesn't jibe with The Dark Knight I know. That gun in the splash looks awfully big. Looks like Robbins may have had a few problems with perspective. Our hero, as noted in the past, also looks like he could use a few meals as well.



That's a mighty large heater you've got there, Caped Crusader!


Jack: Oh no, another Frank Robbins story! Try as I may to be even-handed, I just can’t stand his art. Note that Batman goes undercover as “John T. Hazard,” and Robbins drew the Johnny Hazard comic strip for decades. I cannot figure out how Batman slips into his costume from his civvies in the space of about three seconds while Treach’s back is turned.

PE:  I would expect a boat called "The Fortune Wheel" to have a wheel but, no, this is a nice big yacht instead. And the ending is way too abrupt. Having laid out all those negatives, perhaps it's surprising that I actually enjoyed this story. It's got a harder edge than any of the Batman stories we've read in a while. The art still sucks big time (Conway Treach looks like a fat rat but then that may be the idea) but I can ignore things like that if I'm given a decent enough yarn to lose myself in. This is the best Frank Robbins has been able to conjure up since we began our journey.

Jack: I do like the cover, though, along with the one from last issue. I am a sucker for these “frame” covers.

A decent Robbins panel--notice the lack of people.
PE: I'm really surprised that the Comics Code, which supposedly existed to police the harmful aspects of comic books, didn't shut this one down quickly. The last two pages depicting Batman and Treach with guns to their heads, even with Frank Robbins's rubbery ink spots, are very stark and adult. There's nothing remotely funny book about them. Of course, in the end we find out Batman had rigged the gun so that it would not fire but we don't know that during the action. How this passed the censors, I don't know. Ostensibly, the Code Guardians were too busy looking for clandestine breasts in Peter Parker's hair that month.


Gingie-Baby? B-M?


"Trail of the Fadeaway Footprints!"
Story by Len Wein
Art by Dick Giordano

Ralph Dibney, The Elongated Man, and his wife Sue run out of gas in the middle of the desert. While looking for shelter, they stumble across a dying scuba diver.

PE: I always thought it funny that the villains would cry out "Oh no, it's The Elongated Man!" Doesn't exactly roll off the tongue like Spider-Man or The Hulk. "By jove, Claude, we've been found out by The Elongated Man!" I'd think most bad guys would have trouble pronouncing that word and eventually, after several stuttering foes ("You won't take me to prison, Elonja . . . Elongo . . . Rubber Man!"), our hero would effect a change: "Look out boys, it's Ralph Dibney!" Not quite the ring, I guess.

Jack: I was so pleased to see Elongated Man rather than Jason Bard that I did not mind that the story was kind of corny. I think this is the second time Len Wein has popped up in one of our Batman/Detective comics, and can I just say that Dick Giordano may be the unsung hero of the Batman in the 1970s blog? He draws very well and he inks just about everything and everybody.

PE: I don't normally have a problem with Dick Giordano but this strip cries out "Gil Kane" in my opinion. Don't get me wrong, the art's good enough. That panel of Ralph's eyeballs stretching out of the water to get a look at the bad guys is a corker! It beats the hell out of Batgirl, Robin, and Jason Bard though. From here on out, the Detective back-up will rotate between Bard, Ralph and Sue, Hawkman, Robin, and The Atom. Of the four, I'm most looking forward to The Hawkman stories. At least until I read them, that is.









Thursday, May 17, 2012

Robert Bloch on TV Part Fifteen-The Alfred Hitchcock Hour: Final Performance


by Jack Seabrook
Rudolph the Great's final performance
Robert Bloch’s clever story “The Final Performance” was first published in the September 1960 issue of Shock. Told in first-person narration by Jim Chatham, an aspiring writer on his way to Hollywood, it begins ominously: “The neon intestines had been twisted to form the word Eat.” The restaurant Jim enters is about as appealing as the description of its sign; it is dirty, and two flies enter with him. One lands on the bald head of Rudolph, the proprietor, suggesting death and decay; the other heads for some food on the counter, implying it is in similar shape.
Jim’s car broke down near Bakersfield, California, and he needs a place to spend the night while his car is being repaired. He has been directed to Rudolph’s restaurant, behind which is an old motel that has gone out of business. Rudolph starts chatting with Jim and reveals that he used to be in vaudeville; he agrees to let Jim stay in one of the motel’s cabins. Jim meets Rosie, who lives with Rudolph and works for him in the restaurant. She is described as “a tall girl, blonde and amply proportioned.”
Jim follows Rosie to the cabin, where she makes up his bed and asks him to take her with him to Hollywood. She embraces him but must leave when she is summoned by Rudolph. Jim has dinner in the restaurant, and when the last customer beside him leaves, Rudolph announces, “This concludes the evening’s performance . . . Thanks for the use of the hall,” demonstrating his obsession with his vaudeville glory days. In Rudolph’s parlor off the side of the restaurant Jim sees photos of old vaudevillians lining the walls; Rudolph drinks and reminisces, passing out before he can show Jim his old press books.
Later, Rosie comes to Jim’s cabin and tells him that her parents were show people who abandoned her when she was ten years old. Rudolph raised her and even took her to Los Angeles to attempt a comeback. When that failed, he brought her back to the desert and began drinking, keeping her essentially a prisoner. Rosie and Jim hatch a plan to escape once Jim’s car is fixed, but Rosie warns Jim that Rudolph is “crazy jealous.” The next day, Jim walks to the garage and drives back to the restaurant, where Rudolph greets him. Flies buzz around once again, hinting at more death and decay.
Roger Perry as Cliff
Jim sees Rosie’s suitcase open on the floor and Rudolph sits, his arm around the girl in a seemingly protective and possessive manner. She tells Jim that she can’t go with him and that she belongs to Rudolph. She curses Jim and he leaves; he later recalls a big knife he saw on the floor and calls the police. Returning to the scene with the police, Jim finds Rudolph dead from a self-inflicted stab wound. They also find Rosie dead, having been strangled hours before. She has a huge gash in her back and Rudolph’s right hand is bloody; Jim examines the old man’s press books and figures out what happened.
As the story ends, he remarks that Rudolph the Great “was just one of the best damned ventriloquists in the business.” The unspoken conclusion is that Rudolph had murdered Rosie and then used her corpse as a dummy in an attempt to fool Jim and drive him away.
“The Final Performance” is classic Bloch—mixing elements of vaudeville, Hollywood, sex, death, decay, horror, gore, and a twist ending to concoct a delightfully gruesome vignette. Sadly, the adaptation for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour was not as successful as the source.
Retitled “Final Performance,” the program begins with a scene that finds the writer—renamed Cliff Allen—picking up Rosie on the highway and being pulled over by the sheriff in a classic tourist trap. His car is towed back to town and he is dropped off at Rudolph’s restaurant. The story then follows the general outline of the source, with several important changes. Notably, Rudolph is shown to have versatility, but he insists that his specialty act is what made him great. We first see him spinning a bowl on top of a long stick; later, he and Rosie perform a terribly corny comedy routine on a stage he has fashioned in his barn. The various acts and talents of Rudolph are meant to divert attention from his real skill, which will only become evident in the final scene.
Franchot Tone as Rudolph
The sex in the story is eliminated from the TV show, but the uneasy relationship between the aging Rudolph and the seventeen year old Rosie is very clear—in one scene, Rudolph helps zip up Rosie’s dress and then runs his hands over nearly every inch of it, ostensibly to check the fit but clearly veering dangerously close to inappropriate contact. The viewer is as disgusted as Rosie by Rudolph’s behavior, which is made even worse when he announces that he plans to marry Rosie when she turns eighteen the following week!
He makes Rosie wear his late wife’s wedding dress, which she continues to wear in the show’s final scenes. While much of the program suffers from unimaginative staging and long stretches of dialogue, the final scenes are outstanding and could induce nightmares. As Cliff gets ready to leave the motel, he happens upon Rosie, sitting nearly catatonic in his room. He approaches her and she comes to life, moving and speaking and making it clear that she is not dead. In the final scene, her pose is similar, and it is not until the end that we discover to our horror that she is in fact a corpse.
Director John Brahm really outdoes himself in the final scene, making up for some of the plodding pace of the show that precedes it. Cliff follows Rudolph into the barn, and a mix of close-ups, two-shots and long shots succeeds in presenting the conversation between Rudolph, Rosie and Cliff without ever letting us see her lips move. The scene (and the show) ends with Cliff leaving, convinced that Rosie is alive and that she has decided to stay with Rudolph. The camera travels behind Rudolph and Rosie, where the viewer sees Rudolph’s hand under her bridal veil, manipulating her neck. We see a knife sticking out of her back and the trunk on which they sit, which for the first time reveals Rudolph’s true specialty. There is a brief moment where we see Rudolph speaking in Rosie’s voice—just enough to make it clear that he was throwing his voice and manipulating her corpse. It’s not as gory as the story, where he cut a hole in her back and inserted his hand, but it is eerily effective just the same. The show compounds the suspense and horror by having it end this way, rather than with Rudolph being found dead and the police coming to the scene.
The teleplay is credited to Clyde Ware (1936-2010), whose credits were mostly in episodic television, but Lee Kalcheim, who has written plays, TV, films, and books, is credited in The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion with having written the original script; Kalcheim later complained that Ware’s contributions were minimal even though Ware received sole credit onscreen for the teleplay. This episode and one other of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour represented Kalcheim’s first TV work; his website may be seen here.
Sharon Farrell as Rosie
John Brahm (1893-1982) directed the show; his prior Bloch episode was “The Cuckoo Clock.” Hollywood veteran Franchot Tone (1905-1968) steals the show as Rudolph; he was a founding member of the Group Theatre in the early 1930s, a movie star beginning in that same decade who was married to Joan Crawford from 1935-1939, on TV starting in the ‘50s, on stage from the ‘20s to the ‘60s, and in the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Silence.” Tone looked older than he really was (he was not even 60 when “Final Performance” was filmed) but his health declined and he died only three years later.
Sharon Farrell, on the other hand, was several years older than her character, having been born in 1940 (she was 24 and Rosie only 17). She had a career in TV and movies from 1959 to 1999, appeared in two other half-hour episodes of the Hitchcock series, and has her own website.
Roger Perry (Cliff) was born in 1933 and appeared on TV beginning in 1958; he had a role in Count Yorga, Vampire (1970). Kelly Thordsen (1917-1978) played the sheriff and William Challee (1904-1989) played the mechanic; Challee’s many credits include playing the bartender on the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, “Human Interest Story.”
“The Final Performance” has been reprinted often, and was included in the Bloch collections Blood Runs Cold (1961), Such Stuff as Screams Are Made Of (1979), and The Complete Stories of Robert Bloch, Volume Three: Last Rites (1991). Author and Bloch expert David J. Schow adapted it for the stage; his dramatic version is collected in Crypt Orchids (2004).
The television version is currently unavailable on DVD other than on bootlegs and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour is no longer available for viewing online, though I hope this situation will not last long. I spoke to a representative at Hulu and was told that they hope to return the series to their list of available content. My copy of the show is of poor quality, which explains the washed out appearance of the screen grabs accompanying this article.
Sources:
Bloch, Robert. "The Final Performance." Such Stuff as Screams Are Made of. New York: Ballantine, 1979. 200-13. Print.
"Final Performance." The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. NBC, 18 Jan. 1965. Television.
"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. Web. 13 May 2012. <http://philsp.com/>.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. IMDb.com. Web. 14 May 2012. <http://www.imdb.com/>.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 14 May 2012. <http://www.wikipedia.org/>.











Monday, May 14, 2012

Batman in the 1970s Part 18: May and June 1972



by Jack Seabrook
& Peter Enfantino


Detective Comics 423 (May 1972)

"The Most Dangerous Twenty Miles in Gotham City!"
Story by Frank Robbins
Art by Bob Brown & Dick Giordano

The Pentagon turns to The Batman for aid when they need to smuggle Russian spy "Ivanescu" out of Gotham. He's to be traded to the Russians for a captured American agent and it's feared he'll be taken down by patriots on his way out of the city. Several plans are tested but all are thwarted by the genius of The Dark Knight. An actor is hired to play "Ivanescu" throughout all the scenarios and the thespian works into Batman's plan to successfully swap spies. In the end, the Russians get their man boarded onto their SST and we get our agent back safely.

PE: I wonder if the American government, like Commissioner Gordon, has something called "The Red Red-Alert." There's that annoying expression again. Someone tell me how you pronounce "Ye-ah." I almost laughed out loud when one of the schemes (which took me completely by surprise) goes awry after the "Faux-Ivanescu" stages a con escape but is unwigged by Batman because the dope was holding his cigarette Russian-style. Batman tells him that's why the plot won't work, because the real spy will hold his ciggy the same way. The entire scenario is scrapped because "Ivanescu" can't go without a smoke for a couple hours? It's a fairly entertaining read (rare for a Frank Robbins story) and it's got a nice twist at the tail end, including a rare Batman kill.

Jack: Other than the clich├ęd hippies who pop up briefly, this is an entertaining story. Batman comes up with a clever trick to solve the problem of how to get the Russian spy to the airport for a prisoner switch before the crazy patriots can kill him.



"A Shadow of a Doubt!"
Story by ?
Art by Irwin Hasen & Joe Giella
from Big Town #15, May-June 1952

Jack: Big Town comics ran for 50 issues from 1951 to 1958 and was based on a radio show/film series/tv show that I had never heard of until I Googled it.

PE: Well, I Wiki-ed the show and found out that it was the #1 "reporter-like" radio drama from 1937 through 1952 and starred Edward G. Robinson and also hit the big screen four times. I like how Johnny Law comes to the conclusion that the number one suspect is innocent because, when faced with all the proof against him, he refuses to confess. "Anyone confronted with such powerful evidence against him would confess!" Was that in the police manual back in the 1950s? I thought it was "when the suspect won't confess, beat it out of him!" But I guess Law is right since when he nabs the real killer and throws circumstantial evidence in his face, the dope fesses up!

"Candidate for Danger!"
Story by Frank Robbins
Art by Don Heck

Barbara Gordon's jump into the political waters hits a speed bump when her campaign headquarters is robbed and all her contribution money is stolen. Luckily, she's a very bright girl and has a very pretty suit and saves the day. Gotham's distorted politics can return to "normal."

Jack: Babs runs for office on a youth ticket with her go-go boots as her gimmick. This being a Frank Robbins-penned story, a seemingly friendly young dude turns out to be the bad guy. Kind of embarrassing!

PE: You can tell where Babs gets her hipness. When she tells The Commish of her decision to run, he exclaims "Kick off, baby!" The idea that the American public is so shallow it would vote for a pair of (admittedly stylish) boots instead of ideals and a platform is, well, it would never fly in a Stan Lee Universe, that's for sure. I can't wait to see what happens in a couple months when Watergate hits the fan. At least it might force the "with it" DC writers to come up with ideas that don't have to do with tie-dye and flowers. Stay tuned in about a year for the obligatory rant about endless plots involving crooked politicians.  On the letter's page, editor Julius Schwartz comments that several readers have asked if recent developments point towards the completion of the Batgirl series. Though Schwartz plays catty with an answer, it's a lot easier to know what was up his sleeve from a vantage point of forty years later. 


"The Big Heist"
Story by ?
Art by Ralph Mayo
from Gang Busters #26, February-March 1952

Jack: I have never heard of Ralph Mayo before, and there’s not much about him online, but I was impressed by his art on this neat little detective tale. I got sucked in to the policeman’s many-year quest to find the killers!


PE: Great art, great story. Multi-layered and full of crisp dialogue and some pretty grim stuff for a DC comic (including a body found in a lime-pit). You can really feel for Lt. Sylvester as the case dominates his life, on-duty and off, for twenty years. I love how the chief officially calls the case "The Big Heist." What will the chief call other heist cases now, especially since this one will remain open? "The Small Heist?" "The Even Bigger Heist?" "The Heist That's Big but Not as Big as the Big Heist We Haven't Cracked Yet?" Are you following me on this one?

PE: Do we have the first Mike Kaluta Batman cover here?

Jack: Looks that way! Followed by Batman 242 down below. I have been reading a fair amount of Golden Age comics lately, including the first volume of the All Star Comics Archives. It now makes sense that Detective Comics ran all of these non-Batman detective stories, while Batman ran mostly Batman stories. In the early 1940s, Flash Comics ran a Flash story as a lead, with other hero stories as backups. When they decided to give Flash his own comic, they had a contest to come up with a name and chose All-Flash Comics. See, All-Flash Comics only had Flash stories, while Flash Comics did not. It all made so much sense when I started writing this paragraph . . .

PE: That was Jack Seabrook, heading out his front door for a bit of sun.


Batman 241 (May 1972)
"At Dawn Dies Mary MacGuffin!"
Story by Denny O'Neil
Art by Irv Novick & Dick Giordano

Top secret government papers have been stolen. Batman quickly deduces that wealthy Howard MacGuffin is involved and races to his apartment. After dispatching two goons, Batman learns that MacGuffin’s wife is being held hostage by the insane Colonel Sulphur, who promises to kill her at dawn. Batman must find the girl and stop her murder before the sun rises.

Jack: A very serviceable little mystery/crime tale, with some nice interplay between Batman and officials who resent his unorthodox crime fighting methods. You’d think that after 30+ years, they’d have figured out that he’s one of the good guys!

PE: Well, it's not thirty years in DC's crazy, mixed-up timeline. It could be ten. Who knows? The story's not bad. This is the first appearance of Colonel Sulphur but there's not really a chance for him to shine or for the reader to get to know him. Batman makes reference to having heard of him but we get the sense they've never met up. I trust we'll eventually find out Sulphur's back story. We get a new cover logo too, by the way. Much more classy than the old one, if you ask me.

Jack: Since we can’t have Neal Adams very often, Irv Novick and Dick Giordano are the next best thing. They work together to create quality pages and draw Batman very well. The bit where the sunlight gleams on the killer’s blade and momentarily blinds him stretches credibility, though!


"Secret of the  Psychic Siren!"
Story by Mike Friedrich
Art by Rich Buckler

Terri Bergstrom tells Robin that she has psychic powers and that he is the mental link to her “relative.” She contacts the relative, who turns out to be Lilith, one of the Teen Titans. They meet in the woods, where the Cult of Cthulhu is having an evil rally. Robin and the gals break it up but Robin is in danger of becoming a human sacrifice to the cult’s leader!



Jack: At last! After slogging through numerous bad Robin stories, we’ve finally hit upon one that really works! I love the Buckler art, I love the girls, and I’ll leave the Lovecraft stuff to you, Peter!

PE: Why, thank you, Jack! I loved this story too, for the obvious reasons. I really dig Lovecraft pastiches and Friedrich is clearly in the same camp as he handles the material with a fondness rather than a sneer. In the story, Lovecraft is called a prophet and the name of his most lasting creation, Cthulhu, is invoked a couple times. I'd have liked to see Friedrich take it a little further, obviously, but this being a Robin story I'm sure Schwartz wants to keep it in "the real world." Rich Buckler's art continues to make me smile. At this stage of his career his art reminds me of the work of my favorite comic artist, Alfredo Alcala, albeit much less detailed and ominous. I'd love to see Buckler unleashed on the Batman feature. Our cover, by the way, has an interesting history. According to Julius Schwartz in the letter column for Batman #244, the cover was originally a "sketch Neal Adams was dashing off for a friend." When Schwartz saw it, he "commissioned Neal to blow it up as a cover." Pencils by Adams, inks by Bernie Wrightson (who will contribute a very sharp solo cover for an upcoming Detective).

"The Case of the Honest Crook"
Story by Bill Finger
Art by Bob Kane, Jerry Robinson & George Roussos
from Batman #5, Spring 1941


Jack: The primitive Bob Kane art and the raw story make this a real gem from the early days of comics. Batman threatens to kill a doctor and takes three bullets in his body because he is so angry about Robin’s having been hurt. This kind of stuff is the reason these comics sold by the zillions in 1941!

PE: I think I'd like them a lot better if we could get some of those vintage Joker or Catwoman stories that appeared in the first years of the title, but I'm guessing Schwartz had a "No-Rogue's-Gallery" rule in effect for the reprints as well as the originals. The 1940s Batman strips, with their threat of bloody violence just around each corner, were certainly better than those from the 1950s (and Ant-Man stories were better than Batman in the 1960s), but I can't believe that someone like Bob Kane ended up with the fattest slice of the pie in the end. His work is unremarkable in every way.

Jack: On the letters page we have a missive from David Michelinie, who would go on to write for DC only two years later.



Detective Comics 424 (June 1972)

"Double-Cross--Fire!"
Story by Frank Robbins
Art by Bob Brown & Dick Giordano

During a bank robbery, a stockbroker is accidentally killed in a cross-fire between the bank guard and the hoodlums. An open and shut case, or so believes Commissioner Gordon. The Batman isn't so sure about that so he stakes out the guard's house and finds out that, sure enough, the man was allied with the robbers. But the web of intrigue stretches even farther as we find out the stockbroker's wife was in on the plan to murder her husband as well for, you guessed it, the inheritance.

PE: Another 14 pages of cliches and insubstantial characters. How many times have we seen the ol' "sobbing widow is behind the whole thing" chestnut? I'm not saying that any other writer filling these 14 pages would do a better job than Frank Robbins . . . well, yeah I guess I am saying that, based on the evidence. The story also reduces Gordon to a dimwit (also being accomplished with Robbins's Batgirl series).

A No-No Prize to the first reader who can tell us how this could physically be done.
Jack: I knew that clock was the clue! After reading all of these Detective Comics issues I will soon be qualified to solve actual crimes. I even beat Commissioner Gordon to the punch.


PE: I think you're giving yourself too much credit. This is Frank Robbins, after all. I'm sure you could whip up a more original story with both hands tied behind your back, Jack!

Jack: And here I was starting to feel good about my detecting skills.

"Batgirl's Last Case"
Story by Frank Robbins
Art by Don Heck

It's Election Day! Babs Gordon is understandably nervous about her chances of winning, but she's cautiously optimistic. That may be because she doesn't know that the underworld will do anything to keep the anti-gun, anti-crime Gordon from winning, including strong-arming every housewife in Gotham or doing naughty things to Babs's squeeze, Jason Bard. In the end, though, Babs is elected to Congress thanks to fast thinking by Jason. Our final shot is of her plane taking her to her new life in Washington.

PE: Batgirl gets an unceremonious kick out the Detective Comics porthole with a maniacally rushed finale and no real goodbye to the character. The bad guys are literally "rounded up" off-panel and we don't even get a "wave bye-bye from Babs" from her airplane window!


Jack: About all these stories involving the “Dominoed Daredoll” have going for them at this point is Don Heck’s ability to draw some pretty nice curves! It looks like this is the last Batgirl story for the time being--Jason Bard will get his own backup series next issue.

PE: What you're hearing is the sound of two sets of hands nervously clapping as we shut the lid (for now) on the career of Frank Robbins's Batgirl and trepidatiously "look forward" to the arrival of Jason Bard's regular series. 

"Case of the Teetering Tower"
Story by Joe Millard
Art by Alex Toth
from Dale Evans Comics #7, September-October 1949


Jack: Another Sierra Smith mystery, with solid art by Alex Toth.

PE: Extremely enjoyable story, fabulous art, genuinely funny climax. I could go for an entire book's worth of Sierra Smith stories if they're all this good.


"The Cop who 'Shot' 1000 Crooks"
Story by ?
Art by Howard Purcell & Ray Burnley
from Gang Busters #47, August-September 1955


PE: The forgettable exploits of Johnny Perry, police photographer, who aids the cops in the apprehension of notorious  thief Willie the Wisp. There's a letter from future Batman writer Steven Grant, who's probably best known for the character he created for Capital Comics in 1983, the ninja Whisper. In the letter, a veritable cry for help, Grant wishes that Detective was "all Robbins stories."




Batman 242 (June 1972)

"Bruce Wayne--Rest in Peace!"
Story by Denny O'Neil
Art by Irv Novick & Dick Giordano

Bruce Wayne has vanished and is believed to have died in a plane crash in the jungle. It’s all part of Batman’s plan to go after Ra’s Al Ghul and eliminate him as a threat once and for all. Batman tries to enlist the help of gangster Matches Malone, but Malone resists and is killed when his own bullet ricochets and strikes him. Batman then goes after a scientist while in a disguise as Malone; he has to battle one of Ra’s Al Ghul’s disciples, whose life he ends up saving. The story ends with Batman planning to meet his new recruits in a week to plan their next move against Ra’s.

Jack: This is a very cool introduction to what I think will become a classic story arc, as Batman and Ra’s Al Ghul eventually face off against each other. It’s a little odd that Novick and Giordano’s art seems less crisp than it did in the previous issue, but I like where this is going.


PE: Well, having not read any of the Ra's stories while growing up, I have no idea where this is going and, to me, he's just another foe, albeit one who wants not only world domination but to become Batman's father-in-law. That's unique, I'll grant you. Our splash page has a strange
announcement that this story arc takes place after the events in the other Batman titles. Puzzling that the editor should worry about continuity in a strip that has never shown the slightest bit of continuity. Events happen and are seemingly forgotten from month to month. The only mythology being built on and commented on here is Batman's origin. Batman doesn't seem to swing around Gotham wondering if Penguin, Catwoman, Mr. Freeze, and The Joker are all holed up in a warehouse somewhere planning their next attack on him. Are they all in Arkham right now? One thing I won't question, though, is the coming of a multi-issue arc. It's about time! Though Ra's doesn't figure in my comfort zone of classic villains, I'll take him in a heartbeat over the number of faceless henchmen and cliched underworld bosses we've been subjected to these last several months.

Jack: I am a little unclear as to why Batman tried to recruit Matches Malone and apparently intends to keep up the masquerade even though the crook is dead, but hopefully this will be cleared up in a future issue.




"Death-Point!"

Story by Mike Friedrich
Art by Rich Buckler & Dick Giordano

Robin escapes death but Terri becomes possessed by a demon—or so it seems. She tries to do away with Lilith and Robin until the Teen Wonder figures out that having Lilith near her makes Terri psychically unstable. Lilith must use her psychic powers to cure Terri but must leave due to her fear that her proximity to Terri creates problems.

Jack: What a letdown after last issue! Buckler must have run out of time, because Giordano inks his pencils and it doesn’t mesh well at all. The story is also a confusing mess. After all of the buildup, this is a real disappointment.

PE: Wow! We are in total agreement here, Jack. I'm not sure what happened in this story (or what happened to this story, as well). What started out promisingly last issue as a Lovecraft pastiche featuring acolytes of Cthulhu degenerates into a hodge podge of Teen Titans psychic mumbo jumbo and dopey dialogue. Friedrich fills his narration boxes with such pulpy outbursts as "Almost as if to fulfill Robin's portent of evil, a chilling shriek gushes from the font of a wounded soul--" Reads almost as if the author wanted to emulate Lovecraft himself. The whole supernatural aspect of the story is explained away in the best Scooby-Doo tradition. I didn't have a problem with the art, though. It's still preferable to all but Adams in my book.


"The People Vs. The Batman"
Story by Bill Finger
Art by Bob Kane, Jerry Robinson & George Roussos

from Batman #7, October-November 1941

Jack: A very average Batman story takes a sharp turn when we realize that this was the first time Batman was recognized as a force for justice rather than an outlaw. In other news, I have two observations from reading Golden Age comics. One: were the circular panels supposed to be like movie close-ups? And Two: when did superheroes stop spouting incredibly corny one-liners during fights?

PE: This features one of the most interminably long courtroom speeches (delivered by The Commish) this side of Sam Waterston. In other news, this will be the final 52 pages for two bits issue ever. The price would decrease to twenty cents and the page count to 36 beginning with the next issues. An explanation by the DC editors en masse is reprinted below. Cynics will see gunmen on the grassy knoll but we like to believe that DC's telling the truth when they say they did the whole 25 cent comic book experiment for their readers. Nothing to do with Marvel.




I will go out on a limb and say the 25 cent experiment was a failure.




$4.00 was a lot of money in 1972! But I think it was worth it.