Monday, January 28, 2013

Batman in the 1970s Part 55: March and April 1978

by Jack Seabrook
& Peter Enfantino

Batman 297 (March 1978)

"The Mad Hatter Goes Straight!"
Story by David V. Reed
Art by Rich Buckler and Vince Colletta

When the filming of a lavish TV commercial goes awry and ends with a hat being passed and the onlookers putting their valuables into the chapeau, it can only mean one thing--the Mad Hatter is back to menace Gotham City once again! Yet for Jarvis Tetch, the thrill is gone and he decides to go straight. He masquerades as the sheriff of Midtown Park and saves Bruce Wayne and a damsel from a robbery, only to steal the woman's pearl necklace. Frustrated by his inability to stay within the law, Tetch pretends to be a Rhodesian zookeeper and steals a valuable armadillo. His crimes continue until Batman lures him to a party for private eye Jason Bard. The Dark Knight corners pastry chef Tetch and ensures that the only hat he will wear from now on is a dunce cap.

PE: Unless I'm mistaken, this is the first time (other than a cameo in the "What Were You Doing..." arc) we've encountered The Mad Hatter. A third-tier Rogue, The Mad Hatter really came to popularity because of David Wayne's portrayal of the villain in that show. David Reed's story is harmless enough (certainly better than his previous attempts at other Rogues) and it's made better by Rich Buckler's art. Curious that when Bruce Wayne mentions the fundraiser for Jason Bard, Commissioner Gordon almost seems oblivious to who Bard is. Jason explains that he's been in Vietnam for a while but wouldn't Gordon remember the guy who was dating his own daughter a few DC years back? This Jarvis Tetch, by the way, is evidently a "fraud," and the real Tetch, a somewhat vertically challenged fellow, will return in the 1980s to reclaim his throne. Jarvis tries to quit crime but just can't do it. That horrible urge creeps on him every time. Nice twist!

Jack: I think that when Bard referred to his time in Vietnam he was referring to the period before his adventures as a private eye and sometime boyfriend of Barbara Gordon, since (by 1978) no one had been in Vietnam for a few years--at least not any U.S. military personnel! I have read about the criticisms of Buckler for aping or swiping from Neal Adams, but I really don't see it in this story. He does a pretty good job of drawing Batman but some of his non-costumed humans look pretty wooden. I was surprised to see Jason Bard return, even if it was for such a brief time. We haven't seen him since his series ended in Detective a few years back.

Detective Comics 476 (April 1978)

"Sign of the Joker!"
Story by Steve Englehart
Art by Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin

The Joker, enraged that Gotham won't grant his copyright on his Joker-fish, murders Thomas Jackson, his second member of the Gotham Commission. Since Batman had been protecting Jackson, he takes the crime personally and vows to bring The Joker in. Bringing in a dangerous madman proves to be a daunting task, however. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne's girlfriend, Silver St. Cloud, continues to wrestle with her doubts about Bruce's night time activities while hitchhiking with Boss Thorne, himself wrestling with apparitions. When Silver says one offensive line too many to the mob boss, he kindly asks her to hoof it. Minutes later, Thorne is attacked by the ghost of Hugo Strange. Back in Gotham, The Joker and Batman have a fierce battle in a storm atop a high-rise construction. The girder The Joker is standing on is struck by lightning and he falls into the Gotham harbor waters. As The Batman scours the harbor for any sight of his foe, Commissioner Gordon relates how Boss Thorne stumbled into police headquarters and confessed all his crimes.

PE: A very satisfying conclusion to the groundbreaking first part of this saga but I'd have liked a couple more chapters. Why, oh why, couldn't we have been graced with a four-part arc like this one rather than those DVR abominations we had to settle for over in Batman? Marshall Rogers seems to be growing in leaps and bounds issue to issue. He's even more cinematic in his panels here than ever before. Witness the sequence in the car between Boss Thorne and Silver. One panel shows the two talking but their heads are out of the shot while a subsequent one shows the pair from the floorboards of the vehicle! It's like a short Scorsese film. There's some experimenting going on here and we're the lucky guinea pigs. Unfortunately, this is the last we'll see of Terry Austin on inks (other than for the cover of #477). Austin quit DC after a harrowing run-in with DC editor Joe Orlando over pay for the inking done on that cover. Dick Giordano will fill those big shoes beginning next issue. Cross your fingers.

Jack: I was thinking the same thing as I read and enjoyed this issue--it's very cinematic, and your observations that it influenced the Nolan film trilogy are incisive. I am looking forward to Dick Giordano's inks, since he's one of my favorite Bat artists.

PE: There are so many textured layers here to love. The haunting of Boss Thorne spreading to The Dark Knight. Silver St. Cloud's maddening doubts and suspicions. The Joker's insane reasonings behind murdering the Gotham Commission one by one. The whole thing reads like an intricately-planned novel. Not so surprising since Steve Englehart abandoned his comics career following this issue to write his novel, The Point Man. On his website, Steve reveals that his eight-issue run was the foundation for Tim Burton's first Batman flick and that Englehart worked on a couple of drafts of that script in the 80s. The Englehart/Rogers/Austin powerhouse would return to the Batman/Joker gold mine for the 2005 six-issue mini-series, Dark Detective (and a one-issue follow-up in 2006). Once again, Hollywood stood up and took notice as several of the ideas from the mini-series found their way into The Dark Knight. The new 'tec writer effective next issue, Len Wein, has some huge shoes to fill: Steve Englehart, at least to this point in our study, was the best writer ever to script the Caped Crusader. Who knows how many more classic stories may have come out of Englehart had he not jumped ship so quickly?

Jack: Can I raise my hand meekly to suggest Denny O'Neil (at his best) should be included in that conversation? One interesting thing I noticed in this issue is that the Joker image on page 5 is a dead ringer for Cesar Romero! And he looks fearsome, at that.

Batman 298 (April 1978)

"The Case of the Crimson Coffin!"
Story by David V. Reed
Art by John Calnan and Dick Giordano

Beneath an abandoned house, Batman discovers a ritual murder in the works and makes short work of the two costumed killers, each of whom wields a machete. Also below ground, Batman discovers three illegal aliens and a female reporter who has been tied up. Yet the Caped Crusader has other concerns above ground: someone is placing clues to his secret identity in highly visible places around Gotham City. Batman discovers that the reporter is in league with the costumed killers. Does someone know who Batman really is? Tune in next issue, same Bat-time!

PE: Amazingly enough, I think we've hit a patch of really good David V. Reed scripting the last three issues. This story certainly kept my interest and I was delighted to see that Reed (or Schwartz) opted to carry it over to the next issue rather than deliver a rushed climax. I thought for sure we'd be given the standard "Yep, it's The Riddler doling out the clues" reveal but, nope, Reed keeps the intrigue going (at least for now). Who's the pretty girl who wears the (pretty silly) 'X' dress? Has she stumbled over to the wrong comics company? This is the second time we've had an encounter with the nonsense-speaking fink Batman uses to get info (of course, if he's the world's greatest detective, what does he need a two-bit fink for, right?). I swear I thought he was talking Australian. And a big thumbs-up to Dick Giordano's inking skills this issue, working magic on John Calnan's pencils. One only has to gander back at Calnan's previous Bat-art to know Giordano earned his $20 a page (or whatever pittance they were paying these guys in 1977). Nice to see we've got two enjoyable Bat-titles to discuss this week.

Fortunately, Julie Schwartz understood gibberish.
Jack: One of the disappointments with the recent issues of Batman for me has been the letdown in interior art after the great covers by Jim Aparo (though the reflection on the sword's blade doesn't make sense spatially). Aparo was one of the best Batman artists of the 1970s but he only did a few stories for Detective, mostly sticking with The Brave and the Bold. This issue, however, marks the welcome return of Dick Giordano as inker, who puts his own style on Calnan's pencils in a way that Tex Blaisdell could not in the recent four-issue arc with the trial. It's nice, for once, to see a splash page that isn't just a waste of space and actually starts the story. In our ninth year of reading through these two titles in the 1970s, I think it's safe to say that Giordano has done more to establish the best look for Batman than any other artist.

The record club finally hit the skids when CDs came along.


Anonymous said...

Can someone please tell me what that white thing is on the final splash page of Detective 476 (the one shown above with Batman swinging through the city)? I've read that comic probably a dozen times in the past 30+ years and still have no idea.

Is it a crosshair? Is it some attempt at lens flair?

Greg M. said...

Another great column, guys!

I'm really enjoying reading your reactions to these comics because these are likely the ones that drew me to Batman in the first place. My first was likely the Riddler issue of the "Who Killed The Batman?", as I have memories of having a very beat up copy of it as a kid. I was by no means a collecter, though, as I believe my next Batman issue was #305, which you guys should be covering in a couple of months. But from that point on, I started picking up Batman semi-regularly. Or as often as I could on an allowance. :-)

I also think that after #300, Batman becomes a much more solid, if not outstanding series. They finally start building some sort of recurring storyline for it, which makes a nice change (even if it does pale in comparison to the Boss Thorne story over in Detective). There's also a nice mix of Batman villains (Riddler, Two-Face) and crossover villains (Gentleman Ghost). Plus the creation of Firebug, one of the more interesting creations in the 70s.

Strangely enough, given how amazing the Detective run is during this time, I don't recall ever actually buying it (except maybe the Deadshot issue).

And I'm guessing that the white thing in the Tec 476 splash page is a stylised lens flare.

Lots to say today, folks. Keep up the great work!

Jack Seabrook said...

It's weird, isn't it? I have no idea what it is supposed to be. Why does it obscure Batman's face? It looks like two scythes or a yin-yang design, though the lens flare suggestion is as good as any!