Monday, January 7, 2013

Batman in the 1970s Part 52: November and December 1977

by Peter Enfantino
& Jack Seabrook

Detective Comics 473 (November 1977)

"The Malay Penguin!"
Story by Steve Englehart
Art by Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin

The Penguin is back in town and Batman is sure the feathered fiend's next target is the rare Malay Penguin, a piece of art on exhibit at the Reed Galleries in Gotham. But the bird is a slippery one and what may seem to be evident isn't always. Luckily for Gotham art lovers, The Batman is always one step ahead of his arch-enemies and deduces that The Penguin is actually planning a different heist: the hijacking of a jet carrying some very important businessmen. The Dark Knight and Robin intercede before the dirty bird can carry out his nefarious plan. Ironically, after he's been nabbed by the Dynamic Duo, The Penguin reveals to Robin that he had actually stolen The Malay Penguin weeks before and the statue in the gallery is a fake! Meanwhile, across town, Mob boss Rupert Thorne is seeing ghosts!

If you gotta have a Penguin, this is the way to present him.
PE: This one's a mixed bag for me but, in the end, it's enjoyable enough. I think The Penguin almost demands lightweight material and that's what we get here. When did Pengy start leaving clues for Bats (a la The Joker and The Riddler) and isn't that modus pretty much drying up? Having said that, the story advances at a pleasing, if somewhat confusing, pace and I like the Dark Knight vibe Englehart is trying to get this title back to after years of meandering. Here we get the first mention that Gotham's Finest is run by the mob (Commissioner Gordon being the only holdout, of course), a scenario that will be continually explored throughout the coming decades and used to good effect by Frank Miller, Tim Burton, and Christopher Nolan. And what's up with the ghost of Hugo Strange haunting Boss Thorne? Marshall Rogers's depiction of The Penguin would have to become the definitive version up to this point. Rogers definitely seems to be going for the 1930s look of The Batman, menacing and grim. Even the lettering cries out retro. Marshall doesn't fare as well with his civilian characters, however, with Bruce and Dick, especially, looking like doodles whipped up in 7th Grade art class.  Minor quibbles though when compared to the tripe discussed in the Batman title the same month.
Look out, Neal Adams, you may have competition!

Jack: I agree with you up to a point. The opening pages, with Batman and Robin fighting hoods on a foggy pier, definitely has an early Bob Kane feel to it, and Rogers does much better with people in costume than with people out of them. His depiction of a shirtless Robin is laughable, yet for every man he draws only adequately, there is a woman (Silver St. Cloud) whom he draws beautifully. I thought it was funny that the owner of the museum where the Malay Penguin is being exhibited spared almost no expense on security precautions but drew the line at security cameras because they were too expensive--and this was only 35 years ago! Austin has the same problem that many other Bat artists we've seen in this decade have with overdoing the Batcape for effect, and I will stick with Neal Adams as the best Bat artist, but this story is the third issue in a row of Detective to rate four stars out of a possible four in my book.

Batman 293 (November 1977)

"Where Were You on the Night Batman was Killed? The Testimony of Lex Luthor!"
Story by David V. Reed
Art by John Calnan and Tex Blaisdell

Lex Luthor is the third arch criminal to testify in support of his claim to have killed Batman. He staged a robbery at the Gotham Museum of Art to draw Batman's attention so that he could shoot a Maser beam from a satellite orbiting the planet. The beam erased Batman's consciousness and replaced it with that of Superman. Luthor then beat Batman to death, thus eliminating Superman, whose body was indestructible. Unfortunately for Luthor, Superman testifies next and explains that he and Batman were wise to the plan all along and that it failed miserably.

PE: If David V. Reed didn't write so doggone seriously, I'd think this whole arc was a joke. Well, it is a joke actually, just not of the funny variety. What possible motive could Superman have for flying to this mock trial and testifying to the "innocence" of Lex Luthor? Even if Supes wasn't the most boring hero in comics, would he stand by while the arch-enemies of his best buddy gathered and celebrated his "demise?" And what comic reader in 1977 could read this badly constructed, horribly written, and amateurishly illustrated nonsense and want to tune in to the concluding chapter? Calnan and Blaisdell's Man of Steel looks like a different character in every panel he's in.

Jack: That was what struck me from the first page--how awful Calnan and Blaisdell's Superman looks! I'm surprised that DC allowed this to get published, since I recall reading that they used to have Curt Swan re-draw Superman's face on the work of other artists to ensure a consistent look. On a more interesting note, the letters column changes its name to "Bat Signals" with this issue, after having been "Batman's Hotline" since at least January 1970, when we started this project. Also, a note on the "publishorial" page reports that the DC Direct Currents Hotline had been too successful and had to be shut down. If one can believe what is written here, kids across America were racing home from school every day to call the hotline for the latest DC news and the phone company was so flooded with calls that it asked DC to shut down the service. Part of me wants to believe that this is true, while the other part thinks it may just be hype.

Detective Comics 474 (December 1977)

"The Deadshot Ricochet"
Story by Steve Englehart
Art by Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin

Tossed in the pokey after his run-in with The Batman and Robin (last issue), The Penguin is boasting to con Floyd Lawton that he's not long for the prison. When asked what he's talking about, the bird offers up a trick monocle that produces a ray beam that can cut through walls. Lawton snatches the eyeglass and makes his getaway. Not just another hood, Lawton is, in fact, one of The Batman's first nemeses, the assassin Deadshot! Picking up some new spandex for the 1970s, Deadshot begins what he hadn't finished years ago: taking The Batman's head for his trophy cabinet. Though he's trained for years in prison, it takes much more than that to conquer The Dark Knight and Deadshot finds himself off to prison a short time after he's broken out. Meanwhile, other cans of worms have opened: Boss Thorne has a second encounter with the "ghost" of Hugo Strange; The Batman's deadliest foe is back; and Silver St. Cloud, Bruce Wayne's beau of the month, has discovered how her boyfriend stays so fit and trim.

PE: Sly Steve Englehart echoes my feelings when he writes "We won't be seeing The Penguin again for a while--and it's probably just as well!" Amen! The Batman's confrontation with Boss Thorne is why Steve Englehart is the best Batman writer so far this decade. Englehart gets the Dark Knight vibe, almost as though he'd been boning up on early 1940s 'tecs whereas other writers have had no clue, seemingly watching reruns of that TV show instead. This is a dangerous city where bad things can happen to good people.

There's also a bit of foundation laid for Silver's eventual discovery of Bruce's hobby with a nice bit of foreplay between the two lovers in a restaurant (and that haunting final "It was Bruce" after The Batman's battle with Deadshot). Silver's obviously suspicious of Bruce's involvement with The Dark Knight but perhaps doesn't want to appear foolish by coming out and asking her beau. Englehart continues to mine the pages of those old comics as evidenced by a reference to one of Bruce's old loves, Julie Madison (from Detective Comics #31!) and, of course, the return of Deadshot, a bad guy not seen since Batman #59 (July 1950). (According to Englehart in an interview that appeared in The Batcave Companion [TwoMorrows, 2009], it was Julius Schwartz's suggestion to reboot the long-forgotten criminal).

Throw in more ghostly apparitions and the cameo of a certain clown prince of crime and you've got yet another prize package fit for enjoying thirty-five years on. Deadshot's original costume, a tux and top hat, might have been a bit silly for a villain (not to mention a bit cumbersome when he has to turn tail and run for it) so an upgrade was obviously necessary. Unfortunately, though the get-up is very fetching, it's a tad too close to the design for Marvel's Deathlok, the Demolisher, to warrant any claims of originality.

Jack: For once, I was sorry to see Robin go, now that Englehart/Rogers/Austin have once again made him an interesting character. I do understand why he left, since I too would respond immediately to a summons from Wonder Girl. I agree that it's neat to see characters from Batman's distant past being worked back into the mythology; the lack of continuity had been one of our complaints a few years ago. I like the Silver St. Cloud character but I had to look twice when she referred to the "freakin' authorities"--that doesn't sound like the way she would speak. So far, the Englehart run of Detective is terrific--let's hope it lasts longer than the Goodwin run!

The original, dapper Deadshot from Batman #59
The new, "improved" Deadshot the Demolisher

Batman 294 (December 1977)

"Where Were You on the Night Batman was Killed? The Testimony of The Joker!"
Story by David V. Reed
Art by John Calnan and Tex Blaisdell

Batman's number one foe, the Joker, is the fourth criminal to testify that he killed Batman. While robbing a furrier one night he witnessed Batman defeat a petty thief. The next night, he went back to the furrier and faced off against Batman, killing him with an injection of laughing toxin and then wiping away his facial features with acid. After leaving the courtroom, Two-Face removes his disguise and is revealed to be Batman, who finds and captures the Joker. Batman explains to Commissioner Gordon that the trial was an elaborate ruse to figure out who had killed a harmless young man whose hobby was dressing up as Batman and acting out his escapades at the scenes of prior crimes.

PE: Rather than spend any more of your time telling you why this arc is insipid, juvenile, and a waste of paper, I'm inclined to put my tongue between my lips and describe it as thus:  <rude noise>, but I'll take the high road and avoid the childishness just this once. I wish I could ask the late Julius Schwartz why he thought stories like this, putting four super-villains on trial for the supposed murder of Batman, signaled the age of a new Batman (one that the readers had been clamoring for, evidently) as he exclaimed in an issue not too far in the past. As Roger Daltrey once said, "Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss." The inexplicable thing here is that, over at Detective, those changes are showing up in spades. Perhaps Julie simply wanted to keep his options open. I suspect we'll be seeing the version of The Joker I enjoy in February's 'tec. As for the startling revelation that Two-Face was actually The Batman all along: nah-nah-nah-nah-nah, told you so!

Jack: You are too hard on this arc! I enjoyed the last of the four stories and thought it was an interesting way to explain what was happening. I'll grant you that Calnan and Blaisdell's art is not memorable, and their Joker seems to be based on Irv Novick's Joker, which was never one of my favorite versions. However, it made sense that the Joker would accidentally kill Batman and then wipe out his features, and--in a sort of twisted, DC Comics way--the whole plan for the trial also made sense, as a way for Batman to flush out the young man's killer. I know, I know, he probably could have tracked him down by more traditional detective methods, but it was kind of fun to see all of those obscure Bat-villains, wasn't it?

PE: No.

Another Neal Adams illustration for the
Saturday morning cartoon lineup

Is it too late to write?


mikeandraph87 said...

I loved the chance to see the villains gather. Its not often some of the villians are used like Spook and Signal Man. The whole premise was strange but its a comic and in its unique way actually fit a serious Batman. Also,someone did kill Batman,Joker,just not The Batman. It was tounge and cheek yet clever at the same time.

I wonder if Julie Swxhartz had anything to do with dusting off the two appearance Scarecrow or Riddler back in 1965?

Enjoyed every issue you guys reviewed. I'm a sucker for villians and Robin. Its the classic and obscure character in Gotham that draw me to Batman and Detective Comics.

You both are reviewing Batman all the way through the 1970s.What kind of run on the two titles do you have?

AndyDecker said...

Loving this and Marvel University!

Englehardt/Rogers were so far ahead of most of the competition. Wonderful books.

Doing a character like Deadshot in an era where he could basically could only shoot blanks seems like a strange choice.

But reading your reviews I often think how odd that the Bat books either were great or terrible, not much middleground.

Peter Enfantino said...


It's funny you mention that as I was just thinking the same thing the other day. It may just come down to the fact that we're dealing in extremes in the Bat-writers, from lousy (Reed) to great (Englehart). But, hold on to your hat, there's some good Reed tales coming up in just a few weeks!

Greg M. said...

Another delightful column, guys!

Love those Detective Comics stories, and the Deadshot one is one of my favourites. It's incredible how the character is used once, then discarded for decades, brought back for an issue, and becomes a DC mainstay for decades.

Just goes to show that what doesn't work once, might work later.

Peace out, guys!

mikeandraph87 said...

Also,I wanted to add a couple of comments on the art. Superman looks like he is wearing a mask due to the black eyes and the pooply drawn features. Also, is it just me or the panel posted of The Joker look like Nicholason's Joker or is it just me?

SoleSurvivor said...

Could you post the letter pages of Detective Comics? It'd be really interesting.

Jack Seabrook said...

Did you have any particular letters columns in mind?