Monday, April 8, 2013

Batman in the 1970s Part 65: September and October 1979

by Jack Seabrook
& Peter Enfantino

Batman 315 (September 1979)

"Danger on the Wing!"
Story by Len Wein
Art by Irv Novick and Frank McLaughlin

The Kite-Man steals blueprints from Gotham City Hall. Bruce Wayne's second-in-command, Lucius Fox, fields an offer to work for Gregorian Falstaff, Wayne's rival, who is behind the decision to move big employer Trans-Atlantic Airways's headquarters out of Gotham City. Fox decides to do some undercover work on his own. If that's not enough, the Bruce Wayne-Selina Kyle relationship hits a rocky patch. Fortunately, Kite-Man proves to be a less than formidable adversary, and the Dark Knight makes short work of him in a mid-air fight on hang gliders.

Jack: The Internet tells me that Kite-Man appeared previously in Batman 133 (August 1960). They should have left him in the archives. This issue is notable for spending almost as much time on the non-Batman subplots as on the hero vs. villain story. Lucius Fox is popping up in every issue now, though I was annoyed at him for not telling Bruce about his plan to go undercover to investigate Falstaff. The Selina Kyle love/hate affair is dragging on but doesn't seem to be getting anywhere. The cover, by Dick Giordano, is very striking; too bad the story inside isn't up to its level.

The Novick/McLaughlin splash page
evokes the work of Jerry Robinson
with the giant Batman looming over Gotham
PE: If you're going to reboot a villain from all the dozens of villains that appeared in the "Golden Age" of the Batman titles, why in the world would it be such an utterly worthless dope like Kite-Man? Really? A criminal for the 1980s?

Jack: A word to Shatner fans everywhere--the inside cover this issue features an ad for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, "coming this Christmas to a theatre near you." I remember the excitement of seeing this movie and how the audience erupted in applause when the Enterprise first appeared onscreen. Okay, Peter, go ahead and mock me.

PE: I remember the audience booing that awful bilge as the end credits rolled. The beauty of it is that the multitude of fans who read our words can do the mocking for me. I'll save my tsk-tsk for another day, Jack!

Detective Comics 485 (September 1979)

"The Vengeance Vow!"
Story by Denny O'Neil
Art by Don Newton and Dan Adkins

An anonymous tip sends Batman to the circus owned by Kathy Kane, an old friend who once fought side-by-side with The Caped Crusader as Batwoman. Just as The Dark Knight is filling Kathy in on why he's popped up out of the blue, the big top is invaded by a band of thugs led by the masked Kung Fu master known as The Bronze Tiger. A fight between our hero and the baddies leaves Batman unconscious. When he awakens he finds Kathy murdered and his arch-enemy Ra's al Ghul, emerging from the shadows. Ra's explains that the killing was ordered by the Sensei, leader of the League of Assassins. Once he finds the Sensei, Batman discovers that where the leader goes, his henchmen are sure to follow and another confrontation with The Bronze Tiger follows. As the two battle, an industrious assassin shoots Batman with a toxic dart. Enraged that he's been cheated of a fair fight, The Bronze Tiger rebels against the Sensei and is stabbed for his troubles. Having prepped for any poison the League could throw at him, The Dark Knight pops an antidote but, by the time he comes around, he finds himself alone again, with a trail of fresh blood his only clue.

PE: By 1979, Kung Fu was as fresh a source for ideas as campus riots but Denny O'Neil manages to find interesting alleys to explore regardless. I'm obviously intrigued as to the motive behind Kathy's death (none is given in this first part) but also surprised that Batman seems rather calm about the murder.The story is called "The Vengeance Vow," but other than a few cross words and a grimace upon finding her lifeless body, there's no vow in sight. For instance, his exchange with Alfred, shortly after the murder, contains no reference to Kathy's killing. Here's an admittedly lower-tier superheroine dispatched off screen with little or no fanfare (not even a bit of hype on the cover) ostensibly because 1979's audiences would confuse Batwoman with Batgirl. The character first appeared in 'tec #233 (July 1956) but had pretty much run her course and retired by the mid-1960s, replaced by the younger, sexier Batgirl. Batwoman had reappeared recently in Batman Family #10, where she tag-teamed with Babs against the Killer Moth. DC rebooted the character in the 2006 as a Jewish lesbian (hey, I only report this stuff!). A good opening chapter to this thriller. Let's hope that next issue sees an equally good conclusion.

Jack: I thoroughly enjoyed this story! This is one of those rare stories where an important character gets killed and really stays dead. I never had much interest in Kathy Kane/Batwoman, but I was sorry to see her go. I always like to see Ra's al Ghul and Talia, especially when they are used here as mysterious, recurring characters rather than common thieves. The League of Assassins did not impress me when it first appeared several years ago, but this time--with the martial arts component front and center--it looks good. I recall not liking Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter very much during its first run, mainly because of the Ric Estrada art. However, the character of the Bronze Tiger is intriguing. I was a big fan of the "Sons of the Tiger" series in Marvel's Deadly Hands of Kung Fu black and white magazine, so I guess I like tigers that do martial arts.

PE: Wikipedia tells us that The Bronze Tiger actually first appeared in the paperback novel, Dragon's Fists (Award, 1974), written by Denny O'Neil and Jim Dennis under the pseudonym of Jim Dennis. The adventure also featured the first appearance of Richard Dragon.

"The Case of the Cavorting Corpse!"
Story by Paul Kupperberg
Art by Kurt Schaffenberger and Dave Hunt

Robin investigates a dead student who doesn't seem to want to stay dead.

Note to Jacques Cousteau: the depths have been reached

Jack: My expectations are so low now for Robin stories that I was pleasantly surprised by this one, despite the Schaffenberger art. It's a tidy little mystery that finally clears up one question I have had: perhaps Robin is so busy fighting crime that he doesn't have time to study and keeps flunking out. That could explain why his career at Hudson U is now ten years long and counting!

PE: Though I'm with you, Jack, on the lowered expectations, it doesn't make this any easier to read. I'm amazed that there is nothing resembling style to be found anywhere near the name Kurt Schaffenberger. It's simply that kind of cookie cutter style of art that found a willing audience on Saturday mornings.

"The Fatal Finale!"
Story by Len Wein
Art by Steve Ditko

The boxers or briefs debate of 1979 is settled
Seeking to pull himself completely into our dimension, Baron Tyme blackmails Etrigan the Demon into allowing him to absorb our hero's energy . The process will leave Jason Blood in limbo forever and ensure a long, lingering death in The Dark Dimension for Etrigan, In the end, though, The Demon has a few tricks up his sleeve and it's Tyme who ends up in The Dark.

PE: As much as I've enjoyed the series, this installment completely confused me. Is the finale hinting that Jason's days as a Demon are over? The twist ending, where a janitor finds the discarded Book of Eternity and vows to read it from cover to cover before selling it on eBay, insists otherwise.

Jack: I loved this episode of the Demon saga! Wein and Ditko really clicked on the final part of the Baron Tyme story. The art is Ditko at his best and the story is gripping. I am disappointed that this is the end of the Demon's run in Detective, according to the editor's note. This makes me want to go back and read the Kirby series, which I haven't seen since its original run in the early '70s.

"The Case of the Untouchable Crook!"
Story by Jack C. Harris
Art by Don Heck and John Celardo

The Dynamic Duo of Batgirl and Babs Gordon come under fire from a crook and assassin who has diplomatic immunity.

PE: Ironic that Don Heck was artist on so many of those "Red Scare" tales that populated Iron Man in the mid-1960s. A decade later and we're still dealing with thinly-veiled COMMIES! 

Jack: I must be in a good mood because I enjoyed this Batgirl story! Celardo tightens up Heck's sometimes sketchy pencils and the story is interesting. One question: since when has Batgirl done a quick change by turning her mask into a hat and her cape into a skirt? How do they magically transform from black (or blue) to yellow?

PE: Well, I'm not sure how well a job Celardo does since I had become fairly fond of Heck's attempts at art the last few installments anyway. Check out that awkward splash of Batgirl I've reprinted here and you'll swear our girl Babs has had quite a bit of constructive surgery done on those amazing breasts of hers between issues.

"SST--The Super-Sonic Threat!"
Story by Bob Rozakis
Art by Don Newton and Frank McLaughlin

A woman hires Kirk Langstrom to follow her husband when she suspects he's up to no good. Turns out the dope is working on a superhero costume with a jet pack and the costume has gone haywire. Kirk's alter ego, Man-Bat, saves the day when he ropes in the runaway suit.

PE: Any bit of terror we young folk might have felt upon seeing another appearance of Man-Bat in 1979 (and yes, I'm keenly aware that it's a different sort of terror I feel approaching a Man-Bat story three decades on!) is dashed to bits by a splash page that shows the hero/villain cradling and feeding his infant.

Jack: Newton's art saves this pointless exercise by "Mr. Filler," Bob Rozakis. Do we really need a  recap of Man-Bat's origin? Now we know that Kirk Langstrom is tired from getting up in the middle of the night to feed the baby. We also know that he can turn into Man-Bat easily by popping a pill and that he uses his other identity to make snooping easier. The her/villain of the piece looks like the Crimson Dynamo, at least until Man-Bat attacks him for no good reason. Despite this weak story, this was one of the best dollar Detectives so far in 1979!

PE: How many more months are left in the 1970s?

Batman 316 (October 1979)

"Color Me Deadly!"
Story by Len Wein
Art by Irv Novick and Frank McLaughlin

When a punk tries to burn down Gotham Hospital he only succeeds in damaging one floor. That's enough for Crazy-Quilt, who has developed a special laser to aid a doctor in performing an operation to restore his vision. The Dynamic Duo intervenes after getting past Crazy-Quilt's booby-traps; in fighting him off, they inadvertently cause him to lose his vision for good.

Jack: This story has its good and bad points. On the good side, it is less dependent on subplots than the prior issue. On the bad side, it marks another return of a villain better left forgotten. I had trouble understanding just what Crazy-Quilt was doing that was such a problem. Sure, he was behind the arson at the hospital, but all he wanted was to get his vision back. Is that so bad? It seemed like the ending was a bit sad, since Batman and Robin really didn't need to go all out and leave the guy blind.

Oops! From the splash page of Batman 316
PE: Wiser minds prevailed when it came to titling this tale "Color Me Deadly" rather than the awkwardly-worded "The Man Who Stole His Eyes." Robin's faux outrage at old-timer Gordo's assessment of the younger generation (the equally awkwardly-worded "I'm starting to think all the kids today know nothing about responsibility!") is reminiscent of all those early 1970s solo Robin stories about kids who take over the campus because they can't get ketchup at the cafeteria tables. By 1979, I was well into my teens and we never harumphed over the old folks dissing us. We just ignored them. So what's up with Lucius Fox and his son? At the rate we're going, we'll never find out since the only reference to the problem is Bruce Wayne's "Hmmm, something seems to be on Lucius' mind lately. I hope there's not trouble to come" forewarning. I'm sure young Fox will end up as a sixth-tier villain on roller skates or high on smack. Someone please fill me in on the juicy details. And, for those who just have to know, Crazy-Quilt (another in a line of forgotten-baddies-who-should-have-stayed-forgotten Len Wein resurrections) will return in Batman #384 (February 1984). Daredevil never let a little blindness slow him down.

Jack: Like Roy Thomas over at Marvel, Len Wein seems to be mining old issues of Batman to find obscure characters to revive. Crazy-Quilt seems to have been created by Jack Kirby as a villain who first appeared in Boy Commandos 15 (June 1946). He had four more appearances in that comic, then battled Robin in Star-Spangled Comics 123 (December 1951). The Robin story was reprinted in Batman 255 (April 1974) and now he turns up here. He tells Batman that "you've never faced me before"--and he's right!

From Batman 315

Coming in May!


Greg M. said...

Peter & Jack,

Another fun-filled column. Just a few notes:

-I agree about Kurt Schaffenberger's art. It always screams "for juveniles" to me.

-If I remember correctly, my first exposure to The Bronze Tiger was in the phenomenal Suicide Squad series that came much later than this. So reading stories like "The Vengeance Vow" gives me an enjoyable look at him from earlier in his life. And who said it's Batman who made the "Vengeance Vow?" :-)

- As for Lucius' son, from what I recall, joining a gang of toughs run by *duh**duh**DUH!!!* Falstaff is the extent of his nastiness. Sorry to disappoint you (if you are, that is).

Keep up the great work, guys!

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Greg! Just back from vacation and catching up on the comments!