Monday, April 15, 2013

Batman in the 1970s Part 66: November and December 1979

by Peter Enfantino
& Jack Seabrook

Batman 317 (November 1979)

"The 1,001 Clue Caper or Why Did The Riddler Cross the Road?"
Story by Len Wein
Art by Irv Novick and Frank McLaughlin

The Riddler teases the Dynamic Duo with a book of 1001 riddles and hijacks a seemingly worthless truck filled with chickens. While Robin looks for clues to the Riddler's next caper, the Riddler uses his chicken truck to steal a supply of guns hidden in a load of old magazines. Bruce Wayne reconciles with Selina Kyle before doing a quick change into his Batsuit and cornering the Riddler at the Gotham docks, foiling yet another plan. Meanwhile, Lucius Fox has his first meeting with Gregorian Falstaff.

Jack: Falstaff is true to his name, having apparently left the other two members of the Warriors Three behind (in Marvel's Thor) and moved to Gotham City in order to consume mass quantities of food and drink while rivaling Bruce Wayne for richest man in town. This issue is another Len Wein special, where a lukewarm story involving a supervillain is the basis for a few subplots to inch along. The Novick art is pretty sharp this time around and the Riddler is no more annoying than usual.

PE: Len Wein continues to ease DC into a Marvel-style of writing, taking several issues to sneak in hints as to what's going on in Lucius's private life. The dispatch of the central villain a few pages before the finale and a last panel reveal are another of the Marvel trademarks on display here. If there's one thing I've learned from reading thousands of comic books in the last two years it's that drumsticks = morbidly obese villains. This is a perfectly average 1979 DC comic book story. It's not horrible and it's not particularly good. It's a flatline; unmemorable in both script and art.

Detective Comics 486 (November 1979)

"Murder by Thunderbolt"
Story by Denny O'Neil
Art by Don Newton and Dan Adkins

While crime figure Maxie Zeus lounges in Arkham (ostensibly, with a drumstick), pretenders to his throne attempt to seize control of his operations. That doesn't sit well with the present-day God and he lashes out, destroying his enemies with a bang. Batman finds himself in the unenviable position of protecting bad guys he'd sooner put behind bars.

PE: Like a middle finger to Jack and me as we exit the 1970s (and the parameters of this blog), Denny O'Neil denies us the satisfaction of a conclusion to the Bronze Tiger saga from last issue. Instead, we're given a lukewarm continuation of the Maxie Zeus storyline left off in #484. What kind of thinking goes on here? Run two different multi-part tales at the same time? Bonkers. There had to be an easier way to gain access to the pier than allowing the thugs to blow up his precious Batmobile but I'm sure the Caped Crusader has several more models back at the Cave. There won't even be a disclaimer next issue, I suspect. The gorgeous art is wasted on a confusing and disposable plot. Very slyly and quietly, DC dumps 10 pages of story in this month's "dollar comic" titles by bringing back ads. Judging by the quality of back-up stories we've had to slog through (for the most part) I'd say it's a pretty darn good deal. On the letters page, editor Paul Levitz explains why DC is ripping off the kids: "After holding the "value" (italics mine) line on Dollar Comics for two and a half years (almost a record in these inflationary times), we've had to bow to cost pressures and trim our page count," but neglects to give me a reason why we don't get a conclusion to the Bronze Tiger storyline. Harrumph.

Jack: I forgot all about the Bronze Tiger in the space of time between reading issues, so the change in storyline did not bother me. I focused instead on what you correctly call the gorgeous art. There is a great panel in Arkham Asylum where we see the Joker in his prison outfit on the edge of the frame. The scene in the laundromat is Eisneresque and other places seem to show a Joe Staton influence. The opening scene, where the skeleton falls from the plane, reminded me of the "cheat" cover and story from Batman 219 (February 1970).

PE: Though this is the last Detective we'll ever discuss, the title continued to be published until the dimwits that run the company proclaimed that the entire line of DC titles should be rebooted and 'tec was cancelled in October 2011. The following month saw Detective Comics Vol. 2 Number 1. 'Tec's first volume run of 881 issues stands as the second longest-running American comic in history (Action Comics saw 904 issues before a similar "cleansing").  The Dollar Comic line stumbled its way into the 1980s but 'tec was reduced in size with #496 (November 1984).

"The Devil and The Deep Blue Sea Contract!"
Story by Len Wein
Art by Dick Giordano

Christopher Chance is hired by a deep sea scavenger to find out who tried to kill him while he was on a dive.

PE: If I had to point to one aspect of 'tec I'll miss discussing, it's the rare back-up that actually confounds expectations and both stimulates and entertains. Len's Human Target stories are simple narratives but they are crammed with wonderful character development and little surprises that keep you guessing. I'm going to be reading the further adventures of The Human Target but gladly skipping the rest of the ink splatters and drivel that waste the back pages of 'tec. I'm not a weapons expert but would a .357 Magnum really fire under water? And how long does it take for a body to be picked clean to its white skeleton if stashed in a box at the bottom of the sea? Surely more than a month. If I had a Great White heading for me, mouth wide open, I doubt I'd be enjoying a mental rerun of the day's events (in fact, Chris manages the unenviable task of another man's flashback within his flashback!). Fabulous Giordano art on display here.

Jack: This is the best Human Target story to date. The whole thing reminds me of one of those random backup stories we saw in the 100-page issues back in the mid-'70s. Giordano's art is really striking. His layouts don't rival those of Adams, but his technical skill is outstanding.

"Crime Calls Killer Moth!"
Story by Jack C. Harris
Art by Don Heck and Joe Giella

Double duty time: Congresswomanpersonwhatever Babs Gordon attempts to help a boy whose father was murdered and Batgirl's hands are full with Killer Moth.

PE: It may be the narcolepsy that vexes me while I read many of these back-ups but I didn't realize that Killer Moth actually had a gimmick. I thought he was just another colorful, badly-drawn, skimpily-scripted sixth-tier Batman villain but there's an interesting hook to the character: he's hired to rescue bad guys in a pinch. How the thugs contact him is anyone's guess. Do they have the time to call Moth as the cops are closing in? Is he always in costume just a block or two away? More research is needed, I fear.

Jack: Moths don't strike fear into my heart. Is Killer Moth really the Batman of the crime world, as one caption says? He drives the Mothmobile, so I guess he must be. With a fond wave of the hand, we say farewell to Don Heck and his decades of mediocre art.

PE: Batgirl's career post-December 1979  mirrors that of her sometime-partner Robin. The character continued to meander through guest roles in various titles before being famously retired by a paralyzing gunshot delivered by The Joker in Alan Moores's seminal The Killing Joke (1988). Babs is confined to a wheelchair but becomes a computer and multi-media expert known as Oracle, an assistant to other superheroines such as Black Canary. In a radically different form, the Batgirl moniker was passed on to a martial arts-trained teenager in 2000 in Batgirl, a well-written series that would last 73 issues, and then rebooted yet again in 2010. In 2011, with the advent of "The New 52," a gimmick that effectively ignored quite a lot of history of the previous 70 years of DC "continuity," Barbara Gordon once again donned her cowl. Evidence that, in comics, everything old can become old again.

"The Hospitable Hostage!"
Story by Bob Rozakis
Art by George Tuska and Bob Smith

On his way up to his boss's penthouse suite, Alfred the Butler/Chauffeur/Scientist/GP/detective is forced to give the grand tour to a band of thugs who want to ransack the billionaire playboy's love nest. There, Alfred must think fast lest his boss come home after his nightly rounds and give away the big secret.

PE: This could be the only strip that gives Robin a run for the Worst Back-Up prize. Thankfully, we didn't have to set the shutter speed on our brains too many times during the 1970s as Alfred's solo career was represented in 'tec mostly by Golden Age reprints (don't tell Jack but I didn't really read those things). How is it that Alfred Pennyworth never got his own title? George Tuska continues the annoying habit, on full display over at Marvel University, of drawing humans who look like apes. A definite plus if you're on staff at a comics company that loves gorillas.

Jack: Just when I thought Don Heck was bad, along comes toothy George Tuska, providing appropriately low-level pictures to go with another sub-par "story" by Bob Rozakis. There's really nothing good to say about this one other than that it was only seven pages long.

"Fear Times Four"
Story by Jack C. Harris
Art by Kurt Schaffenberger & Jack Abel

Robin must face the fear-producing powers of The Scarecrow, who's terrorizing the rich beneficiaries of Hudson University.

PE: Why is the head of security of HU, Chief MacDonald, the only "law enforcement officer" involved in the investigation of the harassment of three very rich men? MacDonald even tells the trio at one point that he's basically a cop for hire and has no police powers. Why would The Scarecrow target only HU beneficiaries? Why would Paul Levitz continue to populate such a "serious and dark title" like 'tec with such juvenile pap as this series? Awful... awful... awful.

Jack: My expectations were low when I saw that this was drawn by Schaffenberger, but it was actually better than the two stories that preceded it. Why does Kurt's Robin look about 12 years old when he's supposed to be in college?

PE: Robin would achieve new heights of success in the 1980s, chiefly due to the success of George Perez's run on The New Teen Titans. After that, the saga of Robin gets a little too complicated for a couple paragraphs. During the Titans run, Dick Grayson retires his cowl but stitches up another costume, that of Nightwing. Robin was later rebooted (and killed) and rebooted again in the form of several upstanding teenagers. The character was awarded several different titles through the years, the most successful of which lasted 185 issues from November 1993 through April 2009.

Batman 318 (December 1979)

"My City Burns at Both Ends -- It Will Not Last the Night!"
Story by Len Wein
Art by Irv Novick and Frank McLaughlin

Batman saves a little girl from a burning apartment building before chasing the colorfully costumed man who started the fire and who calls himself Firebug. Bruce has another date with Selina, who longingly eyes  some Egyptian Cat-God artifacts. Firebug turns out to be Joey Rigger, a young man and former Army demolitions expert whose father, mother and sister died in accidents in poorly maintained buildings. He has vowed to burn those buildings down in revenge. Lucius Fox turns down Falstaff's job offer as Batman confronts Firebug, who is about to burn down the Gotham State Building. The Dark Knight barely averts tragedy, but trouble is brewing in the cemetery, where the Gentleman Ghost makes a return visit!

Bruce and Selina party down!
Jack: Our last Bat story of the 1970s is a bit of a flashback to earlier days, when Denny O'Neil was writing socially-conscious stories like this. The character of Firebug is interesting and it's a shame he dies at the end. 1979 was on the early side to have a Vietnam veteran using his Napalm skills to create mayhem, especially in a DC comic. Wein is hitting his stride juggling a few subplots and Novick's art once again is about as good as it ever gets. While the December 1979 Batman is not one of my top comics of the decade, and certainly not as good as where we started way back in January 1970, it's still pretty good and a long way from the depths of the Reed/Calnan days.

PE: I couldn't disagree more, Jack. It's a cliched story, one we've seen countless times before (and very recently, over at Marvel University) and Firebug's costume is laughable. It's a comic book, I know, but I question not only the notion that a man could shoot napalm from his wrists but also that our hero could fashion a costume that could be so completely fireproof that it would protect him from said napalm. That trampoline-style jump from the roof of a burning building (with a child in his arms) made me roll my eyes as well. I'm just sorry that we're exiting our survey of the 1970s on a valley like this and issue 317 rather than a peak like the one-two punch of the Dr. Phosphorus and Calendar Man stories back in 311 and 312. I should add that, though we're officially done with our survey of Batman, don't be surprised to see me check in with specials now and then as I slog my way through the 1980s Batman and 'tecs on my "own time." As I recall there were some very special stories to come.

From Batman 318's Daily Planet page

Set your sights on this site in two weeks


Anonymous said...

Gentlemen, this has been great. Thank you for an enjoyable series.

One thing about doing a thorough, chronological review, as opposed to the easier "best of" approach: you really get a feel for how much filler there was, how many lows there were that made the highs stand out that much more.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks! It was a bit of a slog at times but fun!

Greg M. said...

And so it ends.

Well, guys, this column has been a great read. I've loved seeing what you had to say about these comics I've loved so much. Very entertaining.

Thanks for the interesting times, and I look forward to the next columns you have up your sleeves.

See you around!

Jack Seabrook said...

Greg: we have one more Batman post this coming Monday (an overview of the 70s), then it's off to war!

mikeandraph87 said...

Looks like you are one of on both books guys going by cover dates Batman#318 with Firebug and #487, my personal favorite cover.

Well done on the reviews. I agree, I disagree, I found some interesting tidbits I overlooked. In the next week I will go through the archives and reply on specific issues. I will post again here which blog entries if you want to reply to my thoughts.~MikeandRaph87/Robin4084

Peter Enfantino said...

Mikeand Ralph87-
We're very interested in your thoughts. We'll be presenting an individual list of our Top Ten Batman stories of the 1970s tomorrow. We'll be looking forward to seeing what you think. I know I was surprised!