Monday, February 11, 2013

Batman in the 1970s Part 57: July and August 1978

by Jack Seabrook
& Peter Enfantino

Batman 301 (July 1978)

"The Only Man Batman Ever Killed!"
Story by David V. Reed
Art by John Calnan and Tex Blaisdell

Batman foils a bank robbery but a bystander named Judson Price is killed by a stray bullet. At autopsy, a tiny Ankh is found embedded in his skull, proving that the rumor that Gotham City's overlord of crime had a network of people wired to seek revenge for his death is true. An oddly dressed man who calls himself Akeldama the Annihilator appears on the scene and seems to possess the ability to kill people with his mental powers. Masked crooks kidnap Akeldama and force him to kill a businessman; they leave to check that the man is dead and Akeldama reveals himself to be Batman in disguise. A mob boss finds the businessman alive and manages to shoot him dead despite Batman's intervention. When Batman discovers that the dead man was Gotham's overlord of crime, he takes the rap for his murder, hoping to entice his network of killers to come after him.

PE: Another in the seemingly endless string of stories where Batman disguises himself as someone else in the story (someone who doesn't have big bat-ears, for some reason) and we're supposed to be surprised when the unmasking takes place. These reveals always make me snicker. The "overlord" looks suspiciously like a head honcho mobster over at the rival comics company. Calnan's art is back to being dreadful but that might come down to Tex Blaisdell's inking. The title's a cheat but we should have expected that.

Jack: This is not a stellar issue, but at least the story made sense. It is beyond belief that there would be an overlord of crime who had planted tiny Ankhs in the skulls of unsuspecting Gothamites to avenge his own future murder. The cliffhanger is not bad, though.

PE: On the "Publishorial" page, Jenette Kahn announces a new comic strip to begin appearing in national newspapers. Starring the Justice League of America and titled "The World's Greatest Super Heroes," the daily strip ran for nearly eight years (April 9, 1978, through February 10, 1985) and featured Superman, Batman, Robin, The Flash, Black Lightning, and Wonder Woman. Among the artists to contribute was old Marvel standby, George Tuska.

Jack: I don't remember that strip at all, and I loved the Justice League! I guess this was around the time I stopped reading comics and discovered girls.

Detective Comics 478 (August 1978)

"The Coming of Clayface III!"
Story by Len Wein
Art by Marshall Rogers and Dick Giordano

Born an acromegalic, Preston Payne only wants to find some normalcy for his life, an end to the laughs and prods from "normal" people. Unfortunately, Preston thinks the way to achieve a shifted life is to inject himself with blood from Batman super-villain Clayface, now in a Gotham prison. Things go terribly wrong for Payne when his face begins to slide down his chin and he discovers the only way to survive is to infect others with his "virus," leaving nothing in his wake but a puddle of ooze. Fresh off a nasty dumping from Silver St. Cloud, The Dark Knight is itching for a fight but this may not be the one he comes out on top in.

PE: A smooth transition from Steve Englehart to Len Wein this issue. No surprise since Wein had already proven himself a master of dark comic book writing with his run on Swamp Thing in the early '70s. Nicely macabre, with an almost Dr. Phibes-ian vibe, is the scene where Preston Payne converses with his one true love, Helena. It's only towards the end of the story that we find out that Helena is actually a waxworks figure propped up at the dinner table. No mention is made of why this character is monikered Clayface III rather than II, but a little digging (thank us later) unearths the fact that the original Clayface dates back to 'tec #40 (June 1940), was an actor driven to murder, and possessed no muddy super powers. By the 1990s, there were four different Clayfaces shlopping around Gotham (one a female!) and it was only a matter of time before the quartet made an appearance together (as the super villain group "The Mudpack" in 'tec #604, September 1989).

Jack: It really struck me with this issue that we're beginning to see a darker, more violent Batman who has trouble controlling his rage, something that would only grow in the decades to come. I do love a good wax museum setting and the origin story for the new Clayface is very cool in a horror comic sort of way.

PE: In an interview published in The Comics Journal #52 (March 1980), Marshall Rogers told editor Gary Groth that he preferred working with Steve Englehart over Len Wein. Rogers cited Wein's "Marvel style" of writing: "Len gave me a synopsis, and then I was to go on home, do up the visuals, and then come back and he would script it. Which is the process I found I don't really like. I like to play off of what's actually being said, so I can show reactions, emotions, etc." He further complained that the plots Wein would give him were "too complete and detailed . . . the artist should really be given free rein. But Len gave me too much to allow any freedom of the actual story pacing. I became very restricted." All that behind-the-scenes angst really doesn't show through in this initial effort, a nicely told action story with the only drawback being the uncharacteristic moaning and groaning from the Dark Knight about his love life while he's beating on a couple of hoods. Haven't seen much of that before.

Jack: I'm not surprised to read that quote, since Wein's writing in this issue really reminded me of the Marvel style of hero--one whose personal problems run like a thread through multiple issues and affect his crime fighting. I find it very enjoyable and different than what we've seen so far with Batman in the 1970s.

Batman 302 (August 1978)

"The Attack of the Wire-Head Killers"
Story by David V. Reed
Art by John Calnan and Dick Giordano

Believed to have killed the overlord of crime, Batman becomes the target of various wire-head assassins. It turns out that the wire-heads were a group of carnival performers who had had the ankhs implanted in their heads years before. They try to attack Batman and Bruce Wayne but the Dark Knight dispatches with them with a little help from Robin.

PE: Bruce Wayne shows what a hipster he is by taking his date to a disco that plays reggae (and is named The Garden of Allah!). That's an awful big pill to swallow when Robin steps into Batman's cowl and cape at the climax and no one notices he's a full foot shorter. It's almost as hilarious as last issue's unmasking (when Bats took off his old man disguise and up popped the ears!). This was one confusing two-parter and by the finale I never remembered nor cared what it was all about. By the way, with Dick Giordano as proof, it's obviously not Tex's fault that Calnan's art comes off like chicken scratch.

Jack: What a letdown! After nearly four pages spent recapping last issue, Giordano mails in a sloppy inking job on Calnan's pencils and the whole thing turns into a fistfight with some carnival performers. This is not one of David V. Reed's better efforts.

Batman Spectacular
DC Special Series 15 (Summer 1978)

"Hang the Batman"
Story by David V. Reed
Art by Mike Nasser and Josef Rubinstein

Famed mystery writer Archer Beaumont, found dead in an apparent suicide in his study, reaches out from the grave to The Dark Knight in an effort to convince him that he didn't take his own life. Every night that Batman does not find the killer, a hangman drawing appears somewhere. When the drawing is complete, Batman will be hanged as well. Laughing at Commissioner Gordon's suggestion that the supernatural is at work, The Caped Crusader hits the streets in search of clues. It finally leads him to the recently-paroled murderer Bucky Somoza, a con about whom Archer had written a best-seller. This was a book that Bucky was not too happy about. In the end, it turns out that Archer Beaumont's writing partner (and, perhaps, partner in general) Horace Hobson 'fesses up to rigging the Hangman game to get Batman interested in the case since the police wouldn't listen to his pleas.

PE: Overlong and badly illustrated, "Hang the Batman" is a chore to read from start to finish. Once we discover the true identity of the Hangman artist, the natural proclivity is to go back and look at how those drawings were displayed. An insane amount of trouble goes into what turns out to be a way to interest the Batman in the case. No explanations are given as to how Hobson got close enough to Batman or the Batmobile in order to plant his tricks. An entire city is blacked out and a city building's lights are manipulated to show the Hangman, yet we're never privy to how Horace pulls these stunts off.  The killer, Bucky Somoza, is a stick figure introduced three pages before the climax as an almost "Oh by the way . . ." Mike Nasser (who later changed his name to Mike Netzer) is a tough nut to crack. At times his art is striking, but it's also obviously heavily influenced by other Bat-artists of the day, chiefly Neal Adams. There's a bit too much of the "billowing cape" stances and his supporting characters (outside of Jim Gordon) lack disparate facial characteristics. They all blend into one after a while. The main problem is the length, a heavily padded 30 pages, which is something I've complained about before in opposite. Though it deals with the same old "Batman vs. the Mob" for most of its length, this might have made for a fairly enjoyable 13-page Detective story back in 1974.

Jack: I completely disagree and I'm surprised you didn't like this story! While Nasser does a lot of fancy work with the cape, we have seen other artists succumb to the temptation to do some crazy things over the years with the Batcape, usually making it much too long. There is also what looks to me like a new version of the Batmobile. I thought Reed's story was one of his best and the art by Nasser is striking. This is a strong story with a good plot and art that was completely enjoyable from start to finish! Nasser worked for Neal Adams at Continuity Studios in the late '70s and Rubinstein holds a Guinness World Record for inking more pencilers than any other artist--he has inked over 2500 comic books!

"I Now Pronounce You Batman and Wife!"
Story by Denny O'Neil
Art by Michael Golden and Dick Giordano

Batman is kidnapped by Ra's al Ghul and, while drugged, is married off to Talia. The honeymoon doesn't go as the Ghuls had planned, though, and soon Batman has stolen one of Ra's's helicopters and escaped the freighter he was held on. The Dark Knight makes it back to Gotham just in time to find out what his arch-enemy was up to: releasing a gas that puts Gotham to sleep while he steals millions in diamonds. A battle between Batman and Ghul's henchmen ensues and, when one of the goons gets the upper hand on The Dark Knight, Talia steps in to save her lover. It pisses off her pop but she's willing to take the heat.

PE: Though the story doesn't make much sense (why exactly does Ra's need The Batman as a son-in-law when he's been shown time and again that the hero cannot be swayed from the path of righteousness?) the Mike Golden art is pretty nice (though a bit too heavily inked in spots). There's no real reasoning behind the appearance of Talia in a bikini at the climax, but then why do fanboys need a reason to see barely-contained female breasts? Nice to see Ra's again, but the story doesn't really advance the Ghul mythos. It could easily have starred any of Batman's rogues or a Gotham mobster, for that matter.

Jack: Talia in the skimpy bikini at the end was totally unnecessary and yet it did not bother me for some mysterious reason (!) I also did not like seeing Ra's al Ghul reduced to the level of a common bank robber, and I REALLY didn't like the scene where Batman hauls off and punches Talia in the face for no other reason than to knock her out so he can escape. Golden's art is sharp and it's always nice to see the Ghuls, but you're right--this does nothing to further the Ra's al Ghul mythology.

"Death Strikes at Midnight and Three"
Story by Denny O'Neil
Art by Marshall Rogers

Batman must save a blind man who's about to turn state's evidence on mob boss Milo Lewes.

PE: Something we've not encountered in our tenure: a prose Batman short story. The story's okay, certainly not in the league with the tales found in Martin Greenberg's The Further Adventures of Batman (Bantam, 1989), a paperback released in the wake of Tim Burton's blockbuster, but it suffers from the same old "Batman goes after the mob" plot line and a talkative Dark Knight. It's saved by Marshall Rogers's marvelous spot illustrations and a killer climax. That back cover, incidentally, was one of the nails in the coffin for Rogers as far as his tenure on Detective Comics went. Promised a wrap-around cover assignment (and thus a good payday), Marshall was disappointed to find out, when the comic went to press, that editor Schwartz had opted for reprinting one of the interior illos on the back cover. Rogers got paid a "reprint fee": $7.50 for the illo, a check he never cashed. Very soon after, he jumped ship. This entire package, by the way, resembles one of those Marvel Fanfare-type titles, a book designed to exhaust any finished jobs on file. There's no sign of continuity with the regular Bat-titles (not that Julius Schwartz encouraged continuity--or reality, for that matter--in the titles he edited) and O'Neil's prose tale feels like an experiment waiting for a venue to be showcased in.

Jack: I assume they needed some prose pages to meet the requirements of the mailing permit. The illustrations are fine but they never mesh with the story; they are more like impressions that sit alongside it. The whole thing doesn't work as a whole because the pictures don't enhance the words, and vice-versa. O'Neil's story is straight pulp fiction and overwritten but darker and grittier in tone than the usual Batman fare. I think this issue is really cool--68 pages with no ads, no letters page, no house ads, nothing but comics, comics comics!

All-reprint with a cover by
Berni Wrightson and Neal Adams!

The contents of this treasury edition.


Anonymous said...

You certainly selected the best panel in "Attack of the Wirehead Killers," though my ten year old self thought Reggae was pronounced "Reggie", as in the New York Yankees player the Reggie Bar (candy) was named after...doesn't really make sense unless you are 10...when I discovered Reggae music years later, I was like, this is the music in that old Batman comic!
Thanks for the memories, p.s. you might have switch cover illustrations in your great article, thanks again!

Greg M. said...

Another great column, guys!

I'd like to share a few more fun Clayface facts, if I may:

- Karlo later did develop Clayface powers, thanks to injecting himself with serums from Clayfaces 2-4. Called himself Ultimate Clayface, from my understanding.

- There were at least 2 further Clayfaces. Clayfaces 3 & 4 fell in love and had a kid who inherited some of their powers. A part of him later infected a scientist with latent psi abilities, so he could melt things without touching them.

On the whole, I prefer this issue. Far more grotesque than we're used to.

Keep up the great work!

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks for reading, guys (unless anonymous is not a guy). I fixed the covers--thanks for pointing that out.

Anonymous said...

Rubinstein's record for inking the most pencillers is no doubt due to his being the designated inker on the "Marvel Universe Handbook", where he inked every single full-page pinup over the course of the series.

Amazed you guys are so hard on the O'Neil / Golden Talia story -- it's long been one of my favorites. As for the story "not advancing the Al Ghul storyline", I'm pretty sure this is where the whole idea of Batman and Talia "getting busy" and producing an illegitimate child originated -- which of course led to the "Son of the Demon" graphic novel and Damian, Bruce Wayne's bastard offspring in the current continuity. I'd say that's a significant game-changer.


Jack Seabrook said...

B.T., what bugged me about the Talia story was that Ra's was reduced to the level of just another thug robbing a bank (or whatever) and that Batman punched Talia in the face for no good reason. Not a very good way to treat someone whose picture hangs in the Batcave next to Selina Kyle's . . .

Anonymous said...

Valid points, Jack -- probably the main reason I dig the story is Golden's artwork. The Al Ghuls look great and his Batman is always dynamite. The hovercraft design is awesome too -- it actually looks functional, unlike most comic book vehicles.

One thing that always stood out for me is Golden's sneaky handling of the "honeymoon" -- if memory serves, Talia is seen in a head and bare shoulders shot, then a panel of her gown lying on the bed. Pretty clever way to get a nekkid lady into a code-approved book!


Anonymous said...

Okay, you don't like Batman vs the Mob (guess you HATED 'The Dark Knight' movie, which had almost nothing else). You don't like 99 percent of the stories with the classic costumed Bat-villains, either. You don't like the goofy sci-fi of Superman and Justice League, but Man-Bat gets a pass. You don't like fantasy and you don't like realism. You don't like the 60's Batman TV series (seriously, "THAT show?" Grow up). You don't like Robin. You don't like Batgirl. You don't like some of the most highly respected, admired and imitated comics writers ever. Apparently, what you DO like is Frank Miller Batman, and nothing else. So why did you bother? Every one of these 70's Batman entries is mostly complaints. It's COMIC BOOKS. Sorry they didn't check with you before they did all these apparently awful things to YOUR character. I hate the whiny grimdark of the Post-Crisis Batman, but I don't spend months and months griping about it. I started reading these yesterday and, let me tell you, it's like you don't even like Batman comics at all.

Peter Enfantino said...


First, thanks for reading our blog, even if you don't like what we have to say.
Second, to say we hated everything is a bit of an exaggeration, no? If you read the entire series of Batman in the 1970s posts, we have plenty of good things to say about various stages of 1970s Batman. I'll cop to a fondness for Frank Miller but if you read further you'll see I also have a jones for Englehart, Adams, Marshall, and bits of Denny O'Neil.
And I loved Nolan's The Dark Knight.

Jack Seabrook said...

If I didn't love Batman, I wouldn't have spent all that time reading and writing about him! I loved the TV show as a kid and still get a kick out of it. I never really read anything past 1980 so I don't know about that, and I never got into the Frank Miller stuff. Peter loves the Nolan films but I prefer the one with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson.

Anonymous said...

I loved the wire heads part two. Very poignant issue for me because I was just eleven. Loved reeds tale and calnan giirdanos art. Still treasure it to this day.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks for reading! It's cool to revisit these comics we loved as kids.

Anonymous said...

Oh yes. Absolutely.