Monday, March 25, 2013

Batman in the 1970s Part 63: May and June 1979

by Jack Seabrook
& Peter Enfantino

Batman 311 (May 1979)

"Dr. Phosphorus is Back!"
Story by Steve Englehart
Art by Irv Novick and Frank McLaughlin

Glowing footprints leading away from Gotham's nuclear reactor can mean only one thing: Dr. Phosphorus is back! Angry that protesters want his plant shut down, the glowing ghoul plans mayhem! Meanwhile, in Washington, DC, Batgirl stops the Killer Moth just in time to cast a vote in Congress, a vote that sets her at odds with her own party's bosses. Batman seeks information from Boss Thorne, now a resident of Arkham Asylum, but ends up chasing Dr. Phosphorus, who announces his plan to attack the city. Meeting up with Barbara Gordon as she gives a speech to the nuclear protesters, Batman realizes that Dr. Phosphorus plans to seed the clouds with radioactive material. The Dark Knight and the Dominoed Daredoll race to the airport just in time for Batgirl to put an end to the menace--for now.

PE: In her first team-up with The Dark Knight since Batman #214, Batgirl proves to be more than just a gimmick, actually contributing to the capture of Dr. Phosphorus. I vaguely remember Batgirl revealing to her pop, the Commish, that she was Batgirl but I didn't know that Batman knew her secret as well. While a good story, this one's reeeeeally preachy. To be fair, Three Mile Island and The China Syndrome had to be a couple months down the road when Steve Englehart penned this cautionary tale so it's not like he was riding the coattails of "a fad." Obviously, nuclear energy was bothering Englehart and he wanted to get his message out the best way he knew how - through four colors. I have only one nit: I question whether a guy who "burns like the sun" could sit in a cockpit without blowing sky high. A good story with a whole lot of interesting sub-plots (who are these politicos threatening Babs with an early retirement and will we see more of them?) and a great villain (Phosphorus is about as close to a non-supernatural monster as you can get), but that's no surprise since it was written by Steve Englehart.

In a DC comic?
Jack: I enjoyed this story too! Dr. Phosphorus seems a little goofy to me and we won't even mention the Killer Moth, but Novick is at his GGA best with Batgirl. Englehart really is head and shoulders above the other Bat-scripters we've seen in the 1970s with his ability to weave interesting subplots in and out of a 17-page story. In one brief issue, he picks up the Boss Thorne thread that had been dropped some time back. Too bad he won't stick around.

PE: Now editor of all three Batman titles ('tec, Batman, and Brave and the Bold), Paul Levitz contributes a long and interesting letter to readers this issue outlining the future of the Bat-titles. Levitz promises the return of several of the Rogues (and some obscure villains as well) and mentions the idea of crossover stories between titles.

Jack: That's the sort of letter that comic fans drool over--a direct address from the editor in charge that says things are under control and asks fans for their opinions. Let's hope the quality stays high. It's too bad we did not keep up with The Brave and the Bold, since Levitz writes that it, along with Batman and Detective, will feature story lines that intersect with the other Bat books.

Knock it off, Phos---!

Detective Comics 483 (May 1979)

"The Curse of Crime Alley"
Story by Denny O'Neil
Art by Don Newton and Dan Adkins

Once again patrolling Crime Alley on the anniversary of his parents' death, The Batman stumbles onto an insidious plot to smoke out a two-bit gangster who's about to turn state's evidence on a mob boss named Zeus. The gangsters have narrowed their search down to the Skirley Apartments, home to over 900 residents. To bring the rat out into the open, they'll dump poison gas down the ventilator shaft and kill all the occupants. The Dark Knight gets to the scum just as they're about to unwrap their prize and makes quick work of them. He then delivers a message to their boss: he's next.

PE: I think a better tale could have been whipped up to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the first appearance of The Batman. Proof that going to the well twice is one time too many. Whereas "There is No Hope in Crime Alley" (Detective #457) was a powerful look at what makes The Dark Knight tick, this is just a simple gangster story with old favorite Leslie Thompkins thrown in to make the connection. Nothing here advances Batman's mythos like the former story. Sure, there are a couple powerful scenes (as when Bats is beating on the tough in the apartment hallway) but the whole has no real impact. Despite my fondness for Don Newton, I didn't like the art here at all. Batman looks, in some panels, as though he's having an epileptic seizure and the supporting cast look to be made of lumpy clay (Val Mayerik's "human characters" have the same deformities. I wouldn't go so far as to say this is a bad story but, compared to the fun I had reading the tales in the Batman title this month, it's easily the most inferior.

Jack: I have to disagree! I really like Newton's art, but the Eisner student in me always deducts storytelling points when an artist has to use arrows to guide the reader to the next panel, as on page seven. Still, I like O'Neil's writing and the sense of hope it conveys, and I think this is an excellent story where we once again use an anniversary as an excuse to return to Crime Alley, where it all began.

"The 'Lights!... Camera!... Murder!' Contract!"
Story by Len Wein
Art by Howard Chaykin and Dick Giordano

Christopher Chance, aka The Human Target, is hired by super stuntman Brad "The Nailer" Nayle to find out who's been making attempts on his life. Chance's schtick, disguising himself as his client and becoming a "human target," almost gets him killed before he can get to the bottom of the mystery.

PE: An intriguing premise but, as with a lot of the 'tec back-ups, it's just too short to work in character, suspense, and surprises. This was the first Human Target story I'd read and, despite my problems with the brevity, I wouldn't be adverse to reading another. Nice Chaykin/Giordano art as well. Christopher Chance made a handful of appearances in Action Comics in the mid-70s and then disappeared from the face of the DC-Earth. Interestingly enough, the character was revived again in 1999 by writer Peter Milligan for DC adult-oriented offshoot, Vertigo, and was the basis for two separate TV shows.

Jack: This story left me cold. Wein is just writing filler that is at best average for a DC backup story. As with Simonson in the issue of Batman discussed below, Giordano's inks overwhelm Chaykin's pencils and rob them of much of their individuality.

"A Date with Batgirl"
Story by Bob Rozakis
Art by Bob Oksner and Vince Colletta

While helping the military in a stand-off with the Squadron for the Advancement of Everybody terrorist group, Batgirl is asked on a date by a young sergeant. Unfortunately, the date turns into a disaster when Batgirl's multitude of fans prevent any kind of privacy.

I'd stutter too

PE: In the immortal words of Batgirl: "...rather ludicrous, but what can you do?" This isn't bottom of the barrel, it's underneath the barrel itself, and should have been relegated to DC's Young Love. Come back Don Heck, all is forgiven. About the best thing you can say about Oksner and Colletta's art here is that they draw a very nice tail on Batgirl and they draw it quite frequently.

Jack: That was clearly the highlight of this wretched story! Leave it to Bob Rozakis to make Len Wein's Human Target tale look like high art.

"Return to Castle Branek!"
Story by Len Wein
Art by Steve Ditko

Since he has the Eternity Book, Baron Tyme holds power over Etrigan, The Demon and forces him to break into Merlin the Magician's tomb. Tyme is hoping he'll find a way to unlock the dimension he's trapped in and make his way to our world. The pair make their way to Castle Branek, the final resting place of Merlin. Once there, The Demon manages to free himself from Tyme's control and the two do battle. Tyme gets the upper hand when he conjures the "spell of transformation" and Etrigan becomes his alter ego, the very human Jason Blood. No match for the sorcerer without his demonic powers, our hero watches in horror as Tyme opens Merlin's tomb... only to find it empty!

PE: I like the writing on this strip a lot. There's some neat twists and turns and, despite the fact that I have no history with The Demon, I'm being caught up in the mythos through the flashbacks and fill-them-ins. Having said that...  I may be strung up in the courtyard for saying so, but I much prefer Mike Golden's art on this character.  Unfortunately, with Ditko on board, The Demon becomes just another Dr. Strange knock-off in the graphic department. Watch for the one-armed burgomeister, an obvious "homage" to Son of Frankenstein. When does an "homage" become a "steal," by the way?

Jack: Count me as a fan of '70s Ditko since it was new! The fact that Ditko was drawing a DC character created by Kirby blows my mind. It's clearly Dr. Strange territory all over again, though Baron Tyme looks an awful lot like Shade, the Changing Man. Whatever the case, it's fun to see full-blown Ditko art that is not shackled to godawful Ditko writing.

Story by Bob Rozakis
Art by Kurt Schaffenberger and David Hunt

Robin busts up the Crime Syndicate and then reveals to Lori that her new boyfriend is actually The Raven.

PE: A cockeyed strip is this one. One part tepid action, one part insipid dialogue, and a heaping helping of soap opera romance and the pitfalls of young love on campus. I'm not surprised one bit, of course, since the Robin feature that ran as a back-up in mid-70s 'tec wasn't worth the paper it was printed on but what audience would editor Levitz think this was aimed at? The pre-teens would deem it boring due to the lack of action and anyone else would write it off as unimaginative and cliched claptrap.

Jack: The insipid Rozakis script is matched by the bland Schaffenberger art. I was kind of grateful for the lack of word balloons on the last page of the story, since it let me "enjoy" the art unimpeded.

"Gotham's Great Kangaroo Race!"
Story by Denny O'Neil
Art by Dick Dillin and Frank McLaughlin

Using a $125,000 purse as bait, Bruce Wayne attempts to smoke out arms dealer "Swagman" Ginty by sponsoring a kangaroo race. Ginty needs the 125K award to buy illegal firearms. By rigging a detector amidst the bills, Batman tracks Ginty to the deal and puts the kibosh on the terrorist.

PE: This is the same guy who wrote "The Joker's Five-Way Revenge" and "There is No Hope in Crime Alley"? In lieu of a letters page this issue, Mike Barr presents a short but well-written look at the early days and the developing of The Batman in 'tec.

Jack: Does the fact that Julius Schwartz is listed as editor of this story mean it was a leftover used as a fill-in? I have a soft spot for Dick Dillin because he drew the JLA forever, but this story is awful. This dollar comic should have quit at 40 cents.

Batman 312 (June 1979)

"A Caper a Day Keeps the Batman at Bay!"
Story by Len Wein
Art by Walt Simonson and Dick Giordano

The Calendar Man robs Gotham's Metropolitan Museum and escapes Batman's pursuit by means of a special motorcycle and a laser beam that shoots out of a gizmo over his eye. He has been committing a crime each day using costumes based on the origin of the day's name.  On Thursday, while another thief is secretly stealing the secret code to the country's missile defense system, Calendar Man robs an art gallery and gets away, damaging Batman's hearing during the escape. The Caped Crusader is laid up for a couple of days, unable to halt crimes on Friday or Saturday, but when Sunday comes along he sneaks out behind Alfred's back and catches Calendar Man as he is about to leave town. Batman is unaware that Two-Face has the missile defense codes and plans to sell them to the highest bidder.

PE: It's been way too long since two consecutive issues of Batman brought a big smile to my face but I'm happy to report the drought is over. I'm not sure if it's a result of Paul Levitz taking over for grumpy, stodgy Julius Schwartz or just the elevation of quality in writing and art. No David Reed, Frank Robbins, or John Calnan. Instead we're blessed with the talents of Wein, Englehart, Giordano and Novick. "A Caper a Day" is the perfect example of how different things are being done around the Batman offices this month. A story centering around the exploits of a nothing villain like The Calendar Man, in the hands of David Reed, would be silly or, worse, boring. Len Wein knows The Calendar Man is a sixth-tier baddie and plays up that aspect within the story. He's wearing the most outlandish costumes and going to all sorts of trouble to stage elaborate heists when all he really needs to do is knock over some jewelry stores. There's something really wrong with this guy. In one scene he asks Bats: "So who appointed you servant of the people anyway? You're just another guy in a crazy costume -- like me!" I've got a hunch that line was borrowed by the Nolans for a similar scene in The Dark Knight. Paul Levitz gave us the heads-up that we'd be seeing some obscure characters pop up in these titles and, true to his word, we get a nut whose last appearance prefigured the eccentric baddies on that show by eight years! Simonson and Giordano contribute fabulous art as usual. Who knew some of the most exciting Batman stories would appear at the end of the decade? Not me.

Simonson's tribute to Mike Sekowsky?
Jack: I was disappointed by this issue after the prior issue was so good. Simonson's art seems overwhelmed by Giordano's inks; the trademark Simonson touches only peek through in a few spots. The Calendar Man is a dopey villain and some of his outfits seem like the worst excesses of Mike Grell. The story left me cold, but I do like the direction the book is heading. I've yet to be convinced that Len Wein can write a good story because he seems all too willing to fall back on old cliches, such as getting stuck on the railroad tracks.

The back cover of Detective 483

Mike Barr's piece on the first 40 years

Do You Dare Enter on May 13th?


Greg M. said...

I enjoyed your comments as always, guys. These runs of Batman and 'Tec always rank highly for me, and I think it comes down to the fact that they're moving to expand Batman's Rogues Gallery. Gentleman Ghost, Firebug, and Maxie Zeus are all enjoyable villains. Brave & the Bold did develop a much more solid base around this time too, and a stellar back-up in Nemesis. It's a shame you guys don't get a chance to follow his feature, because it's an outstanding one.

Can't wait to enter the House of Mystery with you guys! Keep up the great work!

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Greg! As you may have guessed, we're going to alternate weeks between war comics and horror comics.

Greg M. said...

That suits me fine. I've jumped into both genres over the last few years, so I'll be looking forward to hearing what you guys have to say about them.

See you then!