Monday, January 21, 2013

Batman in the 1970s Part 54: January and February 1978

by Peter Enfantino
& Jack Seabrook

Batman 295 (January 1978)

"The Adventure of the Houdini Whodunit!"
Story by Gerry Conway
Art by Michael Golden

Batman is called to a meeting of the Mystery Analysts of Gotham City. Armchair detective Martin Tellman tells of a dead woman found in his doorway whose body disappeared from a closed ambulance. Crime beat writer Art Saddows and mystery novelist Kaye Daye narrate similar occurrences. Batman follows the clues to discover that the dead woman was June Gold, assistant to magician David Hamton. The Caped Crusader is trapped in Houdini's water escape and, after managing to extricate himself, confronts Hamton's apprentice onstage during a magic show, proving that he is the killer.

Jack: Gerry Conway and Michael Golden pull off the amazing trick of turning Batman from a floundering title into a very good one. Conway's script manages to take some characters who had been weak in prior appearances (Kaye Daye, for instance) and using them to craft an exciting story. Michael Golden is an artist whom I had forgotten in the last few decades, but I was impressed by his art on this story. It is modern without being overly stylized, and his Batman, while not as groundbreaking as that of Marshall Rogers over in Detective, is the kind of Dark Knight that we love.

PE: While I'm not ready to declare this title saved, I will say this is the best story in Batman in quite some time. Always loved Gerry Conway's Marvel work (including his scripting on perhaps the most infamous and polarizing Marvel comics of all time, The Amazing Spider-Man #121 and #122), so it's no surprise I'd like his version of Batman. Conway's plot meshes perfectly with Michael Golden's Wrightson-esque pencils. Don't hold your breath for a revival, though, as David V. Reed returns next issue.

Detective Comics 475 (February 1978)

"The Laughing Fish!"
Story by Steve Englehart
Art by Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin

There's some question as to whether Bruce Wayne's newest girlfriend, Silver St. Cloud, knows the true identity of The Batman. The Dark Knight is pretty sure (and we, the readers, know for sure) the cat's out of the bag but any romantic troubles will have to be put on ice while he deals with the newest threat from his oldest and deadliest foe. The Joker has been dumping a compound into Gotham's waters, infecting the fish with a toxin that makes their faces mirror that of The Clown Prince of Crime. Now The Joker wants to copyright the new look on Gotham's seafood and he'll murder anyone who gets in his way.

PE: Compare this Joker to the one David Reed uses in his stories over in Batman. Can't be the same character, can it? Reed's version is content with placing whoopie cushions on his victim's seats while this incarnation pushes his henchmen in front of speeding cars. It's like comparing Cesar Romero to Heath Ledger, I guess. Some folks like the buffoon, others like the homicidal maniac. I'm firmly in the latter camp. To this point in time (1978), only Neal Adams has drawn a creepier Joker. I'd never read this particular story nor the follow-up but both are invariably listed by Bat-fans in their Top Ten Batman Stories of All Time list and I can see why. Rogers's art is reaching its peak (gone are the sketchy backgrounds and matchstick human characters) and Steve Englehart is . . . well, the best comic book writer of the 1970s, hands down. Steve nails The Joker's madness to the wall. The plot (copyrighting ghoulish fish) seems right out of one of those comical 1950s Bat-tales, missing only the campy humor and cartoonish antics of Batman and The Boy Wonder. As we saw with some of Neal Adams's iconic work back in the early 1970s, there's a lot of stuff here that ended up on the big screen in The Dark Knight (in particular, the spirit of that scene where The Joker warns Boss Thorne not to disclose the identity of The Batman "since it would take away the fun--the thrill of the joust with my perfect opponent!").

Jack: Englehart, Rogers and Austin make great use of the Joker here, but what I like best about this story is the way they interweave the threads of the Silver/Batman/Bruce subplot, the Boss Thorne subplot, and the Joker menace. The idea that the Joker would hesitate to kill Batman is carried over from the last great Batman story drawn by Neal Adams, "The Joker's Five-Way Revenge!" (Batman 251). This run by Englehart and Austin is unlike much else we've seen in Batman in the 1970s in the way it develops a story over multiple issues. One might even say it's more like the style of Marvel comics than that of DC. Whatever it is, it is very enjoyable.

PE: The encounter with Silver St. Cloud is well handled as well. She and Batman seem to have a bit of a Mexican standoff going when they confront each other in her bedroom. He thinks she knows. She thinks he knows she knows. How to proceed? A nice awkward moment when Bruce calls a couple minutes after leaving to postpone their date that night. The only misfire here is the climax when we're asked to believe Silver is hitchhiking three hundred miles outside of Gotham and gets picked up by (Mighty Marvel-esque Coincidence!) the fleeing Rupert Thorne!

Jack: I had no problem with the climax and actually was surprised. I could not tell if Thorne had gone off the deep end earlier in the story and now am a bit worried about what will happen to Silver. And just so we don't avoid being snarky once in awhile, was Silver named Silver from birth and it is just a coincidence that she has silver hair?

PE: We're snarky?

From Batman 295

Batman 296 (February 1978)

"The Sinister Straws of the Scarecrow"
Story by David V. Reed
Art by Sal Amendola

The Scarecrow has developed a new potion that will release a person's most secret fear. After testing it out on one of his Strawmen/henchmen, he uses it to force Jarvis Skibo to return bonds he had stolen from Gotham City National Bank. Batman plants a fake news story claiming that the bonds were counterfeit and follows Skibo to track down the Scarecrow. Though the villain escapes, Batman is waiting for him in disguise at his next crime scene. Overcoming the fear potion by force of willpower, the Dark Knight once again defeats the Scarecrow and his minions.

Jack: I had high hopes after last issue's fine story by Conway and Golden. Sadly, they were dashed to bits again by the return of David V. Reed and Sal Amendola (last seen in Detective Comics 440--May 1974). The Scarecrow's henchmen wear ridiculous outfits and Amendola's drawings of Batman are poor. The story is a mixed-up jumble of the usual Scarecrow tropes and the usual Batman triumphs. Hopefully, editor Schwartz can come up with a new writer soon for this title as well as an artist who can actually draw the Caped Crusader. Five of the last six issues have featured sub-par art, first by Calnan and now by Amendola.

Would you mind repeating that?
PE: Wow! I couldn't disagree with you more, Jack. I've never been a fan of David Reed's writing and you'd be hard-pressed to go back through our past posts and find a single complimentary thing I've had to say about him but, with this one, he hits a triple. Maybe it's the fact that I'm such a fan of The Scarecrow. Who knows? Reed had written tales involving most, if not all, of Batman's Rogue Gallery and proven inept at all of them but, for some reason, he seems to have gotten a handle on the villain who uses exactly what The Dark Knight uses as a primary weapon: fear. And, as for Amendola's art, yeah, it's very sketchy at times (reminded me a lot of Bill Sienkiewicz in some panels), but I thought it atmospheric and creepy as befits the subject. It's been way too long since we saw Sal in these parts (Detective #439-440) and, unfortunately, it's the last time we'll encounter him during our run.

Wanted: someone who can draw Batman

The splash page is easily
the highlight of this issue.

Jack had at least one of these posters up on
his wall at age 14--guess which one!


Yankee Cowboy said...

Those pics of a horribly drawn Batman make me appreciate the greatness of Aparo even more.

Greg M. said...

Another great column guys!

As I've mentioned time and again, I love the Austin/Rogers/Engleheart run in Detective. It all works so brilliantly well. I have it in multiple formats (original comics, collected TPB, and Greatest Stories TPB), and love them all. The Joker two-parter is probably the peak of this stellar run. And the cover for the next issue of Detective is probably my favourite, and the standout of the entire run.

Keep up the great work!

Jack Seabrook said...

Yankee, I completely agree about Jim Aparo. It's too bad we did not see more of his work in the course of doing this series.

Greg, the run you mention is great! Probably the best we've seen since O'Neil/Adams.