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!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

John Collier on TV Part Seven-Alfred Hitchcock Presents: "I Spy"

Mrs. Morgan and Mr. Frute inside the Royal Pavilion
by Jack Seabrook

"I Spy" is a charming light comedy that was filmed on location in the English seaside resort of Brighton. It begins at a London office where a lawyer reports to his client, Captain Morgan, on the efforts of a private detective named Frute to discover why Morgan's wife left him. The scene shifts to the Queen's Hotel in Brighton, where Frute masquerades as a waiter in the hotel's dining room in order to keep an eye on Mrs. Morgan, who now works as a waitress. Frute is not a very dashing investigator, dropping plates as he attempts to carry four at once along his arm. When he follows Mrs. Morgan along the Boardwalk as she spends her day off with her friend Gladys, he is easy to spot in his costume as a priest and he ends up catching a cold from a sudden rainstorm.

Exterior of the Queen's Hotel, Brighton
Back in London, Captain Morgan is vainly certain that another man must have swept his wife off her feet; why else, he reasons, would she fail to be attracted to her exemplary husband? In Brighton, Frute's surveillance of Mrs. Morgan blossoms into romance. The lawyer confronts the detective in the dining room, pretending to be a diner, and insists that the investigation must soon yield results or the man will be fired. Frute takes Mrs. Morgan out on a date that ends with a chaste kiss; he subsequently writes a report to the lawyer detailing the woman's outing with an unidentified man. Satisfied that he has learned the truth, Captain Morgan agrees to divorce his wife, and she and Mr. Frute celebrate by planning to wed.

Cecil Parker as the lawyer
"I Spy" is not suspenseful but it does represent a pleasant diversion that is characteristically British. It was adapted by John Collier from a one act play by John Mortimer (1923-2009), the lawyer turned writer best known for Rumpole of the Bailey. The play takes place in the fictional Cold Sands Hotel in a seaside town called Cold Sands, Norfolk. The overall story is the same; in adapting it for the small screen, Collier compresses events, reorders scenes, and essentially rewrites the entire play, using only bits and pieces of the original dialogue. The effect is one of streamlining and removing some of the more British touches. The location filming takes advantage of the Queen's Hotel and the Palace Pier in Brighton, both of which are real places that still flourish today. The exterior of the Queen's Hotel is seen in an opening shot. Frute, dressed as a priest, follows Mrs. Morgan and Gladys along the Palace Pier as he attempts to surveil her in his bumbling fashion. Later scenes in the program are filmed outside and inside the Royal Pavilion, formerly a vacation home for the Prince of Wales but a museum by the time this episode was filmed.

Eric Barker as Frute
Direction by Normal Lloyd is unremarkable, with a few odd camera angles that don't add anything to the tale. On two occasions, early in the show, he shoots upward toward the characters from a low angle; midway through, he includes closeups of Frute's feet soaking in a bath and in one instance the camera tracks the man's lower legs as he walks across the room.

The cast of "I Spy" is wholly British, and none of them ever appeared in another episode of the Hitchcock series. As Mrs. Morgan, Kay Walsh (1911-2005) is kind, demonstrating a middle-aged beauty that is appropriate for the character. She was married to director David Lean from 1940 to 1949 and appeared in many films from 1934 to 1982, including Oliver Twist (1948) and Hitchcock's Stage Fright (1950). Eric Barker (1912-1990) plays Frute as a gentle man who seems to have taken up the wrong profession. He was a popular British comedic actor who had his start in films in 1916; he also appeared in an episode of The Avengers.
Kay Walsh as Mrs. Morgan

The lawyer is played by Cecil Parker (1897-1971), who was seen in Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938) and Under Capricorn (1949), as well as an episode of The Avengers and an episode of the American TV series I Spy, starring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby. Finally, as the disgruntled husband, Captain Morgan, William Kendall (1903-1984) is gruff in a British military sort of way.

The crew of "I Spy" features a series of names that never appeared in the credits of Alfred Hitchcock Presents except for this episode: director of photography Peter Hennessey, art director Jack Maxsted, assistant director Kip Gowans, makeup artist Eddie Knight, and hair stylist Biddy Chrystal. A clue to the reason for their participation is provided at the end of the credits, where it reads that "I Spy" was "Filmed in Cooperation with Eyeline Films, Ltd., London, England."

William Kendall as Captain Morgan
Unlike the majority of episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which were filmed at a studio in Hollywood, "I Spy" was filmed on location in England. Anthony Perry, founder of Eyeline Films, wrote me that they made it entirely on location and "did it all except for the director--Norman Lloyd." Mr. Perry wrote that he had to meet with Hitchcock to be approved and he thinks the project came about because one of his "colleagues knew Joan Harrison," the show's producer.

"I Spy" is not available on DVD but can be viewed online here. The play on which it was based , I Spy, by John Mortimer, was first performed on November 19, 1957, on the BBC Third Programme, then performed again on the BBC on January 28, 1958. It was first performed on stage at the Salisbury Playhouse on March 16, 1959. The adaptation for Alfred Hitchcock Presents was broadcast on NBC on Tuesday night, December 5, 1961. The play is available in several collections of Mortimer's plays.


Mrs. Morgan and Gladys on the Palace Pier, Brighton
"Brighton Uncovered : Historical Hotels | Brighton Visitor - Brighton & Hove, Sussex, UK." Brighton Visitor Brighton Hove Sussex UK Brighton Uncovered Historical Hotels Comments. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2013.
"Eyeline Publications." Eyeline Publications. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2013.
"I Spy." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. NBC. 5 Dec. 1961. Television.
IMDb., n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2013.
Mortimer, John. "I Spy." 1958. Five Plays. London: Methuen &, 1970. 103-36. Print.
"Norman Lloyd." Archive of American Television. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2013.
Perry, Anthony. "I Spy." Message to the author. 17 Feb. 2013. E-mail.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2013.

Exterior of the Royal Pavilion, Brighton

A happy ending!

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.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Batman in the 1970s Part 57: July and August 1978

by Jack Seabrook
& Peter Enfantino

Batman 301 (July 1978)

"The Only Man Batman Ever Killed!"
Story by David V. Reed
Art by John Calnan and Tex Blaisdell

Batman foils a bank robbery but a bystander named Judson Price is killed by a stray bullet. At autopsy, a tiny Ankh is found embedded in his skull, proving that the rumor that Gotham City's overlord of crime had a network of people wired to seek revenge for his death is true. An oddly dressed man who calls himself Akeldama the Annihilator appears on the scene and seems to possess the ability to kill people with his mental powers. Masked crooks kidnap Akeldama and force him to kill a businessman; they leave to check that the man is dead and Akeldama reveals himself to be Batman in disguise. A mob boss finds the businessman alive and manages to shoot him dead despite Batman's intervention. When Batman discovers that the dead man was Gotham's overlord of crime, he takes the rap for his murder, hoping to entice his network of killers to come after him.

PE: Another in the seemingly endless string of stories where Batman disguises himself as someone else in the story (someone who doesn't have big bat-ears, for some reason) and we're supposed to be surprised when the unmasking takes place. These reveals always make me snicker. The "overlord" looks suspiciously like a head honcho mobster over at the rival comics company. Calnan's art is back to being dreadful but that might come down to Tex Blaisdell's inking. The title's a cheat but we should have expected that.

Jack: This is not a stellar issue, but at least the story made sense. It is beyond belief that there would be an overlord of crime who had planted tiny Ankhs in the skulls of unsuspecting Gothamites to avenge his own future murder. The cliffhanger is not bad, though.

PE: On the "Publishorial" page, Jenette Kahn announces a new comic strip to begin appearing in national newspapers. Starring the Justice League of America and titled "The World's Greatest Super Heroes," the daily strip ran for nearly eight years (April 9, 1978, through February 10, 1985) and featured Superman, Batman, Robin, The Flash, Black Lightning, and Wonder Woman. Among the artists to contribute was old Marvel standby, George Tuska.

Jack: I don't remember that strip at all, and I loved the Justice League! I guess this was around the time I stopped reading comics and discovered girls.

Detective Comics 478 (August 1978)

"The Coming of Clayface III!"
Story by Len Wein
Art by Marshall Rogers and Dick Giordano

Born an acromegalic, Preston Payne only wants to find some normalcy for his life, an end to the laughs and prods from "normal" people. Unfortunately, Preston thinks the way to achieve a shifted life is to inject himself with blood from Batman super-villain Clayface, now in a Gotham prison. Things go terribly wrong for Payne when his face begins to slide down his chin and he discovers the only way to survive is to infect others with his "virus," leaving nothing in his wake but a puddle of ooze. Fresh off a nasty dumping from Silver St. Cloud, The Dark Knight is itching for a fight but this may not be the one he comes out on top in.

PE: A smooth transition from Steve Englehart to Len Wein this issue. No surprise since Wein had already proven himself a master of dark comic book writing with his run on Swamp Thing in the early '70s. Nicely macabre, with an almost Dr. Phibes-ian vibe, is the scene where Preston Payne converses with his one true love, Helena. It's only towards the end of the story that we find out that Helena is actually a waxworks figure propped up at the dinner table. No mention is made of why this character is monikered Clayface III rather than II, but a little digging (thank us later) unearths the fact that the original Clayface dates back to 'tec #40 (June 1940), was an actor driven to murder, and possessed no muddy super powers. By the 1990s, there were four different Clayfaces shlopping around Gotham (one a female!) and it was only a matter of time before the quartet made an appearance together (as the super villain group "The Mudpack" in 'tec #604, September 1989).

Jack: It really struck me with this issue that we're beginning to see a darker, more violent Batman who has trouble controlling his rage, something that would only grow in the decades to come. I do love a good wax museum setting and the origin story for the new Clayface is very cool in a horror comic sort of way.

PE: In an interview published in The Comics Journal #52 (March 1980), Marshall Rogers told editor Gary Groth that he preferred working with Steve Englehart over Len Wein. Rogers cited Wein's "Marvel style" of writing: "Len gave me a synopsis, and then I was to go on home, do up the visuals, and then come back and he would script it. Which is the process I found I don't really like. I like to play off of what's actually being said, so I can show reactions, emotions, etc." He further complained that the plots Wein would give him were "too complete and detailed . . . the artist should really be given free rein. But Len gave me too much to allow any freedom of the actual story pacing. I became very restricted." All that behind-the-scenes angst really doesn't show through in this initial effort, a nicely told action story with the only drawback being the uncharacteristic moaning and groaning from the Dark Knight about his love life while he's beating on a couple of hoods. Haven't seen much of that before.

Jack: I'm not surprised to read that quote, since Wein's writing in this issue really reminded me of the Marvel style of hero--one whose personal problems run like a thread through multiple issues and affect his crime fighting. I find it very enjoyable and different than what we've seen so far with Batman in the 1970s.

Batman 302 (August 1978)

"The Attack of the Wire-Head Killers"
Story by David V. Reed
Art by John Calnan and Dick Giordano

Believed to have killed the overlord of crime, Batman becomes the target of various wire-head assassins. It turns out that the wire-heads were a group of carnival performers who had had the ankhs implanted in their heads years before. They try to attack Batman and Bruce Wayne but the Dark Knight dispatches with them with a little help from Robin.

PE: Bruce Wayne shows what a hipster he is by taking his date to a disco that plays reggae (and is named The Garden of Allah!). That's an awful big pill to swallow when Robin steps into Batman's cowl and cape at the climax and no one notices he's a full foot shorter. It's almost as hilarious as last issue's unmasking (when Bats took off his old man disguise and up popped the ears!). This was one confusing two-parter and by the finale I never remembered nor cared what it was all about. By the way, with Dick Giordano as proof, it's obviously not Tex's fault that Calnan's art comes off like chicken scratch.

Jack: What a letdown! After nearly four pages spent recapping last issue, Giordano mails in a sloppy inking job on Calnan's pencils and the whole thing turns into a fistfight with some carnival performers. This is not one of David V. Reed's better efforts.

Batman Spectacular
DC Special Series 15 (Summer 1978)

"Hang the Batman"
Story by David V. Reed
Art by Mike Nasser and Josef Rubinstein

Famed mystery writer Archer Beaumont, found dead in an apparent suicide in his study, reaches out from the grave to The Dark Knight in an effort to convince him that he didn't take his own life. Every night that Batman does not find the killer, a hangman drawing appears somewhere. When the drawing is complete, Batman will be hanged as well. Laughing at Commissioner Gordon's suggestion that the supernatural is at work, The Caped Crusader hits the streets in search of clues. It finally leads him to the recently-paroled murderer Bucky Somoza, a con about whom Archer had written a best-seller. This was a book that Bucky was not too happy about. In the end, it turns out that Archer Beaumont's writing partner (and, perhaps, partner in general) Horace Hobson 'fesses up to rigging the Hangman game to get Batman interested in the case since the police wouldn't listen to his pleas.

PE: Overlong and badly illustrated, "Hang the Batman" is a chore to read from start to finish. Once we discover the true identity of the Hangman artist, the natural proclivity is to go back and look at how those drawings were displayed. An insane amount of trouble goes into what turns out to be a way to interest the Batman in the case. No explanations are given as to how Hobson got close enough to Batman or the Batmobile in order to plant his tricks. An entire city is blacked out and a city building's lights are manipulated to show the Hangman, yet we're never privy to how Horace pulls these stunts off.  The killer, Bucky Somoza, is a stick figure introduced three pages before the climax as an almost "Oh by the way . . ." Mike Nasser (who later changed his name to Mike Netzer) is a tough nut to crack. At times his art is striking, but it's also obviously heavily influenced by other Bat-artists of the day, chiefly Neal Adams. There's a bit too much of the "billowing cape" stances and his supporting characters (outside of Jim Gordon) lack disparate facial characteristics. They all blend into one after a while. The main problem is the length, a heavily padded 30 pages, which is something I've complained about before in opposite. Though it deals with the same old "Batman vs. the Mob" for most of its length, this might have made for a fairly enjoyable 13-page Detective story back in 1974.

Jack: I completely disagree and I'm surprised you didn't like this story! While Nasser does a lot of fancy work with the cape, we have seen other artists succumb to the temptation to do some crazy things over the years with the Batcape, usually making it much too long. There is also what looks to me like a new version of the Batmobile. I thought Reed's story was one of his best and the art by Nasser is striking. This is a strong story with a good plot and art that was completely enjoyable from start to finish! Nasser worked for Neal Adams at Continuity Studios in the late '70s and Rubinstein holds a Guinness World Record for inking more pencilers than any other artist--he has inked over 2500 comic books!

"I Now Pronounce You Batman and Wife!"
Story by Denny O'Neil
Art by Michael Golden and Dick Giordano

Batman is kidnapped by Ra's al Ghul and, while drugged, is married off to Talia. The honeymoon doesn't go as the Ghuls had planned, though, and soon Batman has stolen one of Ra's's helicopters and escaped the freighter he was held on. The Dark Knight makes it back to Gotham just in time to find out what his arch-enemy was up to: releasing a gas that puts Gotham to sleep while he steals millions in diamonds. A battle between Batman and Ghul's henchmen ensues and, when one of the goons gets the upper hand on The Dark Knight, Talia steps in to save her lover. It pisses off her pop but she's willing to take the heat.

PE: Though the story doesn't make much sense (why exactly does Ra's need The Batman as a son-in-law when he's been shown time and again that the hero cannot be swayed from the path of righteousness?) the Mike Golden art is pretty nice (though a bit too heavily inked in spots). There's no real reasoning behind the appearance of Talia in a bikini at the climax, but then why do fanboys need a reason to see barely-contained female breasts? Nice to see Ra's again, but the story doesn't really advance the Ghul mythos. It could easily have starred any of Batman's rogues or a Gotham mobster, for that matter.

Jack: Talia in the skimpy bikini at the end was totally unnecessary and yet it did not bother me for some mysterious reason (!) I also did not like seeing Ra's al Ghul reduced to the level of a common bank robber, and I REALLY didn't like the scene where Batman hauls off and punches Talia in the face for no other reason than to knock her out so he can escape. Golden's art is sharp and it's always nice to see the Ghuls, but you're right--this does nothing to further the Ra's al Ghul mythology.

"Death Strikes at Midnight and Three"
Story by Denny O'Neil
Art by Marshall Rogers

Batman must save a blind man who's about to turn state's evidence on mob boss Milo Lewes.

PE: Something we've not encountered in our tenure: a prose Batman short story. The story's okay, certainly not in the league with the tales found in Martin Greenberg's The Further Adventures of Batman (Bantam, 1989), a paperback released in the wake of Tim Burton's blockbuster, but it suffers from the same old "Batman goes after the mob" plot line and a talkative Dark Knight. It's saved by Marshall Rogers's marvelous spot illustrations and a killer climax. That back cover, incidentally, was one of the nails in the coffin for Rogers as far as his tenure on Detective Comics went. Promised a wrap-around cover assignment (and thus a good payday), Marshall was disappointed to find out, when the comic went to press, that editor Schwartz had opted for reprinting one of the interior illos on the back cover. Rogers got paid a "reprint fee": $7.50 for the illo, a check he never cashed. Very soon after, he jumped ship. This entire package, by the way, resembles one of those Marvel Fanfare-type titles, a book designed to exhaust any finished jobs on file. There's no sign of continuity with the regular Bat-titles (not that Julius Schwartz encouraged continuity--or reality, for that matter--in the titles he edited) and O'Neil's prose tale feels like an experiment waiting for a venue to be showcased in.

Jack: I assume they needed some prose pages to meet the requirements of the mailing permit. The illustrations are fine but they never mesh with the story; they are more like impressions that sit alongside it. The whole thing doesn't work as a whole because the pictures don't enhance the words, and vice-versa. O'Neil's story is straight pulp fiction and overwritten but darker and grittier in tone than the usual Batman fare. I think this issue is really cool--68 pages with no ads, no letters page, no house ads, nothing but comics, comics comics!

All-reprint with a cover by
Berni Wrightson and Neal Adams!

The contents of this treasury edition.