Monday, February 18, 2013

Batman in the 1970s Part 58: September and October 1978

by Peter Enfantino
& Jack Seabrook

Batman 303 (September 1978)

"Batman's Great Identity Switch"
Story by David V. Reed
Art by John Calnan and Dick Giordano

Batman gets conked on the head while fighting a couple of cavemen in the Natural History Museum. As a result, he thinks that Batman is his civilian identity and Bruce Wayne his crime-fighting alias. He confuses everyone in Gotham for awhile until another encounter in the same museum snaps him back to his senses.

Jack: Is Frank Robbins back in town? This is the dumbest Batman story yet! The only thing they left out was Batman getting bonked in the head a second time and reverting to normal. While out prancing around Gotham in his Batman outfit, wondering why everyone is looking at him so strangely, Batman happens upon what is probably the last remaining bunch of hippies in Central Park as of 1978. They must have missed the punk rock revolution. We also learn that Alfred's full name is Alfred Thaddeus Crane Pennyworth. Surprisingly, the Dodo Man (don't ask) who pops up at the end of the story is drawn in a pretty frightening way. Still, this is about as bad as it gets for the Caped Crusader.

PE: One of the most confusing comic stories I've ever read (and, considering the amount of comic book stories I've read in the last couple years, that's saying something). Not sure what exactly is happening in this story so I'm glad Jack was in charge of writing the synopsis. Near as I can figure, DVR was watching the Gilligan's Island episode where Mary Ann is hit on the head by a falling coconut and believes she's Ginger and thought it would make a great Batman story. He was wrong. In the only memorable scene in this mess, The Dark Knight gets to hang out in a pub with a gaggle of hippies ten years after the Summer of Love ended. Simply... gawdawful.

Jack: The price is hiked to 50 cents with this issue and the page count increases to 44 pages overall, with 25 pages of new story material.

PE: Oh happy day!

Could this have been ghost-written by Roy Thomas?

"If Justice Be Served"
Story by Dennis O'Neil
Art by Michael Golden and Jack Abel

Aging Angus McKame collapses and dies of a heart attack while playing tennis with Bruce Wayne. That night, Batman decks a giant who is about to attack yellow journalist Marty Rail, not knowing that the giant was the adopted son of the late McKame and was trying to stop Rail from bringing to light an old news story that would cast his beloved, late stepfather in a bad light. Too late to stop tragedy when both Rail and Buzzy die at each other's hands, Batman is comforted by the knowledge that Angus's name will not be dragged through the mud.

Jack: Now this is more like it! Leave it to Denny O'Neil to save the day in the backup feature. Golden and Abel's art is very nice, as well, and the story combines the dark elements that we all love with a sense of pathos that feels right at the eight-page length.

PE: A strange story this one, with a high body count. We're supposed to believe that Bats, with his high moral standards, would bury the truth about a murderer and sweep it away with a simple disclaimer:  "the crime was paid for a thousandfold"? Don't get me wrong, though. This short tale gives me hope that the Batman title could regain the edge that its sister title was flaunting at the time. Seems like a million years since we read that classic Joker tale in these pages. Mike Gold's art is noir-ish and perfectly suited but, as with a lot of the Bat-artists, his Dark Knight is much more fully realized than his "human" characters. Good start to this new feature.

Detective Comics 479 (October 1978)

"If a Man Be Made of Clay...!"
Story by Len Wein
Art by Marshall Rogers and Dick Giordano

Clayface continues his reign of terror in Gotham, attempting to find a cure for the disease which forces him to leech the life force from anyone unfortunate enough to cross his path. Finding his way back to his wax museum lair and his beloved mannequin, Helena, the muddy madman discovers an intruder: The Dark Knight! During a violent tussle, a fire breaks out and Batman deactivates Clayface's power pack. As he's being handed over to the police, Clayface breaks away and heads back into the inferno to save his wax love. As Batman opines that perhaps an autopsy will tell them just what befell the tragic figure, a fire fighter lets the pair know that no corpse was found in the wreckage.

PE: Our hero acts so nastily this issue that the two characters (good and evil) are almost reversed. I suspect that was exactly the vibe Len Wein was trying to achieve. He shoots. He scores. Perhaps the most tragic of all Bat-Villains (edging out Man-Bat and the similar Mr. Freeze by a few lumps of clay), Clayface makes for fascinating reading. Wein and Rogers are clicking on all cylinders. And just who is that mysterious woman who comes to call?

Jack: Tremendous art and a very good story. Poor Clayface is delusional if he is truly surprised that the female companion of Lester Burton runs from him in horror after he liquefies her mate. I am intrigued by the mysterious brunette who pays a call on an absent Bruce Wayne halfway through the story! And speaking of hot, Helena the wax dummy is a pretty sweet dish, as Ed Norton once said of Grace Kelly.

"True Heroes Never Die . . . !:
Story by Len Wein
Art by Rich Buckler and John Celardo

Carter Hall (Hawkman) and Shayera (Hawkgirl) return from a long absence to find they've both lost their jobs at Midway City Museum. When the pair confront the new curator, Anton Lamont, he transports them both to a nearby mountaintop. Lacking their wings, they commandeer a flock of seagulls (!) to lift them back to the museum. There they discover that Lamont is actually the notorious Fadeaway Man, who has stolen DaVinci's pistol of power and plans to put it to use in the name of evil. Hawk-team defeats the mad conjurer and restores Midway Museum to some normalcy.

Jack: I like Hawkman, but some of these backup stories in Detective featuring the winged wonder really try my patience. This eight-page throwaway wastes decent art by Rich Buckler on a silly story, where the bad guy can send people far away by covering them with his magic cloak. That same cloak can whip up a blizzard! The image of Carter and Shayera borne aloft by a flock of seagulls is laughable. The 1970s writers and artists have trouble bringing back the Hawkman magic that was seen in the Golden Age (with Shelly Moldoff) and the Silver Age (with Joe Kubert). Unfortunately, the 44-page comics seem to be an awful lot like the 36 page comics, just with the addition of a weak backup story.

PE: (Wheet!) This blows big time! Not only is this graced with the talents of Buckler but also of writer Len Wein. Both wasted here. Obviously the weaker character drags Wein's script down. At least that's what I choose to believe. This is Super Friends territory, not worthy of backing up our main event.

Batman 304 (October 1978)

"To Hell with Batman--and Back!"
Story by David V. Reed
Art by John Calnan and Dick Giordano

Knocked unconscious while trying to stop a truck from being hijacked, Batman finds himself in a strange, alternate reality where he appears to be a ghost, able to witness events but unable to participate. The culprit is none other than the Spook, who has Batman drugged and held captive until he sets him free just in time for the Dark Knight to be shot and fall into the drink. Our hero survives the ordeal and brings the Spook to justice.

PE: Syndicate man Jock Cafferty has been waiting for years to kill the Batman so, at point blank range, he shoots him in the arm? This is one of those interminably boring DVR tales where the writer presents an outlandish premise and then spends most of the running time trying to sell us on it. It's easier to fall asleep while reading this story than from taking a sedative. We won't have DVR to kick around from here on out as this was his final issue of Batman. Reed would write the final issue of Batman Family (just before it was merged with 'tec) and then disappear from comics.

Jack: At least it was better than last issue's Reed/Calnan debacle! The Spook is one of the better new villains of the '70s but this story doesn't use his special talents very well. Like so many villains before him, he passes up the chance to pull off the mask of the unconscious Batman, though his reasoning is absurd: "it may be booby-trapped"! Batman figures out what's going on in part by recalling that his arms were held apart 4 and 3/4 feet, the distance between railroad tracks, so he must have been lying on the tracks!

That's why he's the
Dark Knight Detective!
PE: Elsewhere, there's an ad for Army at War #1, DC's latest combat title. Perhaps it was the fact that DC still had a few of these war titles on the stands or that Army at War was a little too close a title to Our Army at War, a comic that had run 301 issues (from August 1952 through February 1977) before plastering its star, Sgt. Rock, on the masthead. Whatever the reason, this would be the only issue of Army at War. This segues into an announcement Jack and I will make in a few weeks. Stay tuned.

"The Amazing Secret of Dr. Dundee"
Story by David V. Reed
Art by Win Mortimer and Frank Chiaramonte

During a checkup with old family friend Dr. Dundee, Bruce Wayne witnesses a pair of thugs force the doctor to remove a bullet from one of their arms. Bruce tracks the crooks down and, disguised as the elderly doctor, dispenses some medicine of his own.

Jack: Stories like this make my head hurt! Leaving aside the dreadful art for a moment, let's figure out how old Dr. Dundee is. A newspaper headline refers to him as "Senior Citizen Medico," and they're not kidding--he delivered Bruce Wayne as a baby! If we assume for the sake of argument that Bruce was 18 in 1939, when Batman first appeared, he must have been born in 1921. Say the doctor was a real whiz and was 21 in 1921. He would have been born in 1900, making him 78 in 1978. OK, that's possible, if somewhat far-fetched, and he looks pretty good for his age!

PE: Well, without knowing the answer, I'd have to ask why, after all these years, we're told that Batman has a doctor who not only delivered him as a baby but also knows his true identity! All this time, I figured Alfred had a degree in bone-mending. This is the sort of mindless drivel we were accustomed to while reading the backups in 'tec several months ago, the comic book equivalent of a bad episode of Barnaby Jones. Bruce pulls up in front of the right pool hall and questions a stoolie who not only knows the name of the guilty party but his address as well! The art is the by-the-numbers style I'll always associate with early '60s DC Comics, which makes sense since it was drawn by old-time DC-er Win Mortimer.

Jack: I guess I have to give Win Mortimer a break, since he's in the Joe Shuster Hall of Fame north of the border and began drawing Batman in 1945. Poor Frank Chiaramonte didn't live very long and actually inked some pretty good comics. Still, the art on this eight-pager is nothing to put in a DC Archive.

PE: This issue's "Publishorial" page finds Jenette Kahn basically blowing her own horn about changes made to the DC business practices since her tenure began a couple years before. Amazing to think that Kahn was only 31 years old in 1978 and holding down the company's most powerful job. Some of the changes she oversaw included payment for reprints, merchandising profits for creators of new characters, and tenure on titles for writers and artists. All these sweeping changes left Marvel (then about to enter the abyss run by the man we Marvel zombies know as "He Who Shall Not Be Named") in the dust as far as creative comic folk were concerned. An abyss they never crawled out of.

Dynamic Classics 1 (October 1978)

Jack: This reprints two great stories from Detective Comics: "The Secret of the Waiting Graves" (O'Neil & Adams, issue 395, January 1970) and "The Himalayan Incident" (the first Manhunter story, issue 437, November 1973). A very nice little reprint package!

Say it ain't so!

This won't end well.


Greg M. said...

I can't wait to hear your announcement. I hope it means what I think it does.

Keep up the great work!

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Greg! Keep reading--the 70s will be over before you know it.

Ed Howard said...

Nobody's a bigger David Reed detractor than me, but I think you're both way off on "Batman's Great Identity Switch." It's a totally absurd story of course, of a kind that's very familiar from earlier eras but feels out of place in the late '70s. But it's also a ton of fun, unlike most of Reed's other nonsense, and it also has the fairly clever subtext of exploring which half of the Batman/Wayne split is the real self and which half is the mask, a theme that would only become more prominent in future Batman stories. I think that's one of Reed's better stories, honestly, it's as bizarre and silly as most of his work but in a much more interesting way than usual.

I know you guys weren't reading Batman Family during this project, and honestly that was mostly a good idea, but it did suddenly start featuring good Conway and O'Neil stories starting with #17, when Al Milgrom took over as the editor. And in the final issue before it merged with Detective, #20, there's THE BEST David Reed story, a genuinely fantastic team-up between Batman and the obscure Ragman, which is totally different in tone from anything else Reed did in the 70s, and makes me wonder why he didn't tell this kind of serious, morally engaged story when he was writing Batman for 3 years. Why couldn't THIS writer have shown up month after month? Anyway, those last 4 issues of Family are well worth checking out; they're still loaded up with lousy backups but the lead features in all 4 issues are very good.

My own readthrough of the '70s Batman is almost done now, and then I'll be moving on to the rest of his history. Any plans for you guys to continue into the 80s?

Jack Seabrook said...

Ed, thanks for the tip on Batman Family. I recall liking Ragman back in the '70s but I haven't seen an issue of that comic since then. We're busy with our new series on DC War Comics and DC Mystery Comics, so if we ever get to Batman in the '80s it will be a long way off!