Monday, February 25, 2013

Batman in the 1970s Part 59: November and December 1978

by Jack Seabrook
& Peter Enfantino

Batman 305 (November 1978)

"Death Gamble of a Darknight Detective!"
Story by Gerry Conway
Art by John Calnan and Dave Hunt

Wearing a skull mask, red cape, and thigh-high boots, a terrorist named Thanatos and his Death's Head gang nearly kill the Batman with a grenade when he tries to stop a robbery at Star Lab. Italian reporter Lina Muller is on the scene, both to investigate the crime and to date Bruce Wayne. When the two of them attend a charity gambling night at ritzy Gotham Isle, Bruce is zapped by a ray that turns him into a reckless gambler. He's a little shaky when he gets back in costume, but he still manages to capture Amos Fortune, who was behind the gambling ray. That night, back at Gotham Isle, Batman dispatches with Death's Head and exposes Thanatos as none other than Lina Muller.

Jack: I guess Bruce won't be going on any more dates with Lina! Batman is a little careless when he tells Commissioner Gordon that he was at Gotham Isle the evening before in his secret identity and was infected with gambling fever. If Gordo didn't know that he was Bruce Wayne by then, he'd have to be an idiot not to put two and two together, judging from the goofy show Bruce put on. This is a disappointing story by Gerry Conway, who usually could be counted on for a better effort. Tossing old Justice League villain Amos Fortune into the mix just confuses matters, and the conclusion, with the giant roulette wheel and dice, is a throwback to bad old Batman tales of the 1950s.

PE: After what seems to be hours of gambling, Bruce racks up startlingly high gambling losses of one thousand dollars! Was he betting quarters? Not a good start to Gerry Conway's two-issue tenure on Batman. Very confusing story. I couldn't figure out if we were dealing with one criminal or two until Amos Fortune is nabbed for the "gambling fever" sub-plot. Conway's "ripped from today's headlines" terrorist group, The People's Liberation Army, obviously borrows its title and perhaps inspiration from Patty Hearst's gang, The SLA, which is pretty bizarre since that chapter of American history was a few years in the rear-view mirror by the time this issue rolled out onto newsstands. Mixing serious grown-up stuff like terrorism with funny book characters doesn't work unless it's written exceptionally well. Here it's not. Rather than investing new ideas, it appears that Conway was reading his predecessor's run of stories or watching a marathon of that show. Oh, and unmasking new criminals in the same issue they debut never works. The secret identity is always the other new character debuted that issue.

"With This Ring Find Me Dead!"
Story by Bob Rozakis
Art by Don Newton and Dave Hunt

 A woman is found dead in a Gotham alley, her only means of identification a gold wedding ring that reads: "To My Darling Wife, Love, The Batman." Batman analyzes the ring and travels to Maine where, in disguise, he finds the jeweler who may have made the ring. Batman must fight off some local toughs before returning to Stately Wayne Manor, where a mysterious businessman arrives with photos that he says prove Bruce Wayne is Batman. Confessing to the murder of the unknown woman in the alley, the man threatens Batman with exposure unless he stays away.

Jack: Not a great story, but more interesting than this issue's feature. Hopefully, the conclusion next issue will be as interesting--and will have more art by Don Newton!

PE: Nice art and an engaging, if somewhat silly, story. Don Newton is settling into his new post as Batman's regular artist. That's good news because Don will be with us throughout the rest of our journey. I'll admit I'm interested in the outcome of this two-parter but I'm not holding my breath that it'll be half as good as this one since it's got such a silly title. Elsewhere in this issue, there's a blurb for The Vixen #1, which became one of the first victims of The DC Implosion. The character, a dead ringer for Marvel's HellCat, would be revived by creator Gerry Conway for an issue of Action Comics in 1981.

Detective Comics 480 (December 1978)

"The Perfect Fighting Machine"
Story by Denny O'Neil
Art by Don Newton and David Hunt

In an effort to create a race of supermen, Ivan Angst and Doctor Mon transform a bullied social outcast into a killing machine, devoid of emotion or pain. To prove their experiment a success, the pair deem it necessary to send their "Gork" after Batman to defeat him. The power of "Gork" proves to be too much for The Dark Knight but, just before the final blow, his system breaks down and he turns on his creators. In the end, both "Gork" and Angst are dead and Batman is left to ponder the meaning of life.

PE: Not an awful story (especially when compared to the drek that's been passing for good fantasy in the sister title) but, largely due to the absence of Wein and Rogers, an obvious letdown. Gork's origin is right out of Comic Book Writing 101 (the kid's name isn't Steve Rogers but that's about the only change noticeable) and this is one of those tales that adds nothing to the mythos, past or future. No mention of the mystery girl from #479 but I'm sure this was a fill-in story, meant to be popped in any space needed. Again, this is why I loved Marvel so much. Each story seemed to add to the history built up before it, even if just a brush stroke. A tale like "The Perfect Fighting Machine" would have been tough to ease into an open slot of a Marvel comic.

Jack: I always liked Don Newton, from his art for RBCC, through his Charlton work, to his work for Marvel and DC. This story is much stronger from the standpoint of the art than the script. O'Neil seems to be looking back to his early '70s Batman work with Adams, when a tale such as this would not have seemed out of place. The sad, fat boy being turned into a super soldier is the sick flip side of the Captain America legend, and it's distasteful. The letters column reports that Len Wein is moving over to write Batman, which means we may be seeing a lot more of Denny O'Neil in Detective.

"The Case of the Off-Key Crimes!"
Story by Len Wein
Art by Murphy Anderson

The Pied Piper, armed with a Hyper-Sonic Transmitter-equipped horn, has been "orchestrating" a series of crimes around Midway City, baffling the police and Hawkman. A little good old-fashioned know-how aids the winged wonder in the end and The Piper is silenced.

Jack: Once again, the art is better than the script. The Pied Piper is one of those silly villains who was always giving the Flash fits, and this eight-page quickie doesn't really do much to advance any of the characters. I love Murphy Anderson's art and he is certainly one of the people most responsible for the classic DC look, but I am puzzled by the credit, where it says that they "welcome back" Murphy Anderson. From where? A walk around the block? He just drew a Hawkman story for the August 1978 Showcase, for cryin' out loud!

PE: Perhaps this is a "trunk story," Jack? In any event, I'm really not the one to review these kind of stories since I have not one per cent of patience in regard to DC heroes outside of The Dark Knight. This just reads like juvenile rubbish to me and the art, by the "returning" Murphy Anderson, looks like it was borrowed from the bad ol' days of early 1960s DC. Wein is slumming. On the letters page, reader Mike White (are you out there, Mike?) offers up the laughable suggestion that "unlike (DC's) competition, DC resorts to reprints only as a last-ditch effort to keep a book on schedule and then makes it up to the reader somehow." I seem to recall "One Hundred Page DC Spectaculars" stuffed full of reprints (and bad reprints at that) and wonder if Mike felt the same way when these forty cent titles saw their page counts dwindling by the month. Unless I misremember, Marvel was providing a couple extra pages of content at the same time our Batman stories were running 17 pages.

Batman 306 (December 1978)

"Night of Siege"
Story by Gerry Conway
Art by John Calnan and Dave Hunt

At the waterfront, Batman breaks up a heroin smuggling ring. He rides out to the yacht that is supplying the drugs, intent on arresting the wealthy Hannibal Hardwicke, but the Black Spider suddenly appears on the scene and tries to murder the drug kingpin. Batman attempts to hide Hardwicke at the Wayne Foundation but the Black Spider tracks him down and a battle ensues, with Batman lucky to escape with his life.

Jack: The sudden reduction in page count from 44 to 36 means that the lead story is only 15 pages long, but even that seems extended. The return of the Black Spider is nothing to get excited about, and the art by Calnan and Hunt rivals that which we saw in the "Where Were You On the Night Batman Was Killed?" arc--in other words, not so good. The best news this issue is the announcement that Len Wein will take over the writing chores next issue.

PE: Being that The Black Spider is not the most original character, you'd assume a disaster of a story but it's readable, if not remarkable. Alfred's eleventh hour revelation is a bit of a hoot. The art is awful and makes me question whether Frank Robbins was really all that bad.

"The Mystery Murderer of 'Mrs. Batman'!"
Story by Bob Rozakis
Art by Don Newton and Dave Hunt

The mysterious murderer takes the elevator down to the Batcave and defeats Batman for the moment with a freezing gas. Batman pieces together clues to discover that the man is a bit actor in a Broadway play. Batman follows him every night for a week and discovers that the man is spreading a virus that is killing people in the ghetto; he intends to start a panic and blackmail Gotham City. Unfortunately, he falls victim to his own germs, dying before he can reveal Batman's secret identity. The story ends with Batman no closer to learning who the murdered woman was or why her ring was inscribed to "Mrs. Batman."

Jack: Not surprisingly, the conclusion was not very satisfying. The whole story was set up around Mrs. Batman but the mystery of her identity is almost forgotten with the business about the ghetto virus.

PE: Not forgotten, Jack, ignored. As predicted by me on this very page, a rotten climax to a promising start. Bats' assumption that, since his unnamed guest's voice had something theatrical to it, his prey must be a professional whose voice is out there and can be recorded for voice recognition, is a stretch of Biblical proportions. Aren't most of Bats' nemeses theatrical? The climax is befuddling. I realize that it's the "Unsolved Case of..." but, really, isn't it just lazy writing to leave it hanging with no pay-off to that silly inscription?

Jack: I wonder if we will see any more issues with 23 pages of new material for 40 cents? I doubt it. They left out the letters page and the Direct Currents page to fit it all in. I suspect that the decision to lower the price and page count was a sudden one and they already had the stories ready to go.

Somethin's comin' in May!

Barnaby Bones! Hilarious!


Greg M. said...

I have fonder thoughts of Batman 305 than you guys do, but that's because it's one of the first comics I owned.

I do have to agree with the Detective Comics, though. Huge letdown after the fantastic work of the last year's stories.

Keep up the great work!

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks for reading, Greg!

Anonymous said...

I never was fond of Don Newton's art; his lines seemed sketchy and rough, his faces were too flat, too many characters looked like they had double chins.

But our tastes change as we age, and I'm hoping this re-read, and the enthusiasm you two show for him, will help me to appreciate Newton's work more than I did 30 years ago.

Jack Seabrook said...

I'll be interested to hear if your views have changed. Time has done little to make Frank Robbins's art look better to me!