Monday, February 1, 2021

Batman in the 1980s Issue 20: August 1981


The Dark Knight in the 1980s
by Jack Seabrook &
Peter Enfantino

Batman #338

"This Sporting Death!"
Story by Gerry Conway & Roy Thomas
Art by Irv Novick & Frank McLaughlin

In the middle of a deserted sports stadium one night, a sportswriter is murdered by a mysterious hockey player. This is just the latest in a series of sports figures being killed, so Commissioner Gordon calls in Batman to investigate. A hockey player is killed in the middle of a game and Batman is there to battle the Sportsman, who gets away after attacking the Dark Knight with a tennis racket rigged to be a buzz saw.

When the Sportsman goes berserk at a sports mall, Batman confronts him and hears of his sad upbringing: the Sportsman's father was a doctor who injected his son with experimental chemicals to make him into a star athlete. Now that he's grown, the drugs are killing him and he's taking revenge on the wide world of sports. Batman makes short work of the villain and promises to get him psychiatric help.

Jack: "This Sporting Life" is one of the lesser efforts by Conway and Thomas, though Novick and McLaughlin give it the old college try with their usual, workmanlike art. From the first murder, the story seems ludicrous, as the killer skates off across grassy turf. The flashback to his childhood is unintentionally funny and the conclusion, with Batman promising mental therapy for a villain who has murdered numerous people, is incredible. Hockey was hot in the wake of the U.S. hockey team's upset victory at the 1980 Winter Olympics, but this story should've been tossed in the waste bin.

Peter: Gerry seems to be saving his quality scripts for Detective but, as with that Snowman mess he pumped out last issue, I suspect he's getting a little help from Roy Thomas. The Sportsman has all the earmarks of a seventh-tier Marvel villain, perhaps created to lob explosive softballs at Frank Castle, and his M.O. is laughable. How do you manage turf on ice-skates, no matter the turbo power? Sportsman even gets a cliched origin; the old "weakling abused by dad" warhorse. Final laugh for this issue comes as the EMTs haul Mantle off to jail in a strait-jacket but are kind enough to leave him in his quasi-Punisher football helmet. You weren't getting chuckles like these over at Frank Miller's Daredevil, believe me.

"Murder on the Midway Part 2:
Killer Under the Big Top!"
Story by Gerry Conway
Art by Don Newton & Steve Mitchell

Robin continues his search for the "Killer Under the Big Top!" Lorna Hill didn't do it; she was trying to help Waldo the clown. Magnificent Melanie, the lion tamer, didn't do it; she's going to marry Waldo! Waldo wakes up in the hospital and admits that a gun fell into his hand but was not pointed at Jo-Jo when the latter was shot. Robin deduces that Jo-Jo set up an elaborate plan, using a hidden gun, to shoot and kill himself and pin the blame on Waldo, since Jo-Jo had terminal cancer and was jealous of Waldo's relationship with Melanie.

Jack: Newton and Mitchell's work is a bit shaky this time out and the story could've used more pages, since the complicated scheme has to be explained by Dick Grayson in the final panels. Still, it's better than the lead story by a long shot.

Peter: Best opening line from a comic book in 1981: I'd waited in the darkness of the Hill Circus's Big Top for most of the night, hoping that the killer who'd framed my friend Waldo the Clown for the murder of Jo-Jo Jones would return to the scene of his crime... Eight pages later, "Murder on the Midway" comes to a satisfying, if far-fetched finale. I like its simple whodunit style; big props to Gerry Conway, the guy I was just ragging on, for resurrecting a dead back-up strip. 

The Brave and the Bold #177

"The Hangman Club Murders!"
Story by Mike W. Barr
Art by Jim Aparo

Bruce Wayne attends a party thrown to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Hangman's Club, an organization set up by four people who claim they were jailed in error and who want to help others reform their lives. Wayne leaves but is soon called back as Batman to investigate the first of "The Hangman Club Murders!" Elongated Man shows up to help and the duo soon encounter a costumed killer who calls himself the Hangman! It doesn't take the detectives long to figure out that one of the four club founders is the killer and to catch him after one more murder has taken place.

Jack: Jim Aparo is really on target this issue, with a striking cover and gorgeous interior art. Adrienne Roy also provides excellent colors, especially in the night scenes, where Batman's figure is lit yellow against dark blue backgrounds. Elongated Man can be annoying or funny; this time, he's funny, and I like how he calls his partner "B.M." The Hangman's costume is silly--why would someone wear a noose around his neck? You'd think it would make it easier to grab him. The mystery is simple but I didn't figure it out; I thought the killer was the other founding member who was rumored to be a strangler. The story is dedicated to Bill Finger. In the letters column, Dick Giordano writes that he wants these three titles to follow Batman's adventures in chronological order and suggests that he'll move away from the practice of having Batman be devoted to costumed bad guys and Detective be more focused on investigative work.

Peter: The Brave and the Bold might not be the best written of the Bat-titles, but I think it's the most fun. It's got a "throw it at the wall and see if it sticks" vibe to it. The last handful of issues (save the Lois Lane team-up, which was pretty much a dog) have all been very enjoyable and come equipped with fabulous visuals as well. As I've mentioned before, I've never understood the fascination with DC's 1960s hero comics (they're all safe and goofy), but that comes from being a Marvel Zombie of long standing. These issues of B&B actually give me a hint as to why people like Jack liked that junk so much. Not that it's driving me to read Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen or Legion of Super-Heroes. I haven't lost my marbles

"Honor Among Thieves"
Story by Cary Burkett
Art by Dan Spiegle

Nemesis shows Valerie his swanky New York City apartment and tells her she can join him in his fight against crime. Meanwhile, Samuel Solomon plans to take over leadership of the Council. Nemesis trains Valerie to pilot a helicopter and he parachutes out over Solomon's house, but he is quickly captured and held at gunpoint by Solomon's men. It seems the aspiring crime boss wants Nemesis to help him wipe out the competition!

Jack: More time with Valerie is welcome, though her spunkiness gets old fast. These eight-page backup stories just seem to pass the time until a final cliffhanger; they're quite like old serial chapters in that way, though with little of the excitement of their predecessors. In a few spots this time, Spiegle's art reminds me of the work of Ramona Fradon, though with nowhere near as much of her skill.

Peter: I absolutely hated the first arc of "Nemesis" but I'm willing to give this new storyline a try. Only it's not really a "new" storyline, is it? Just more of the same. I do like that Burkett focuses on the down time between missions (or assignments, or whatever Nemesis is calling them), but we'll see how the action pans out next issue. The art is still the pits.


Detective Comics #505

"Werewolf Moon"
Story by Gerry Conway
Art by Don Newton & Dan Adkins

Mrs. Lupus watches as her daughter is dying from leukemia in a hospital bed. As she explains to the Batman, the only hope is finding the girl's brother, the werewolf, Anthony Lupus. Bats sighs and tells Gordon that's going to be a tall order since (as we saw way back in Batman #255 ) Tony L. was reduced to ashes by a lightning bolt. "Well, no, simmer down there, young fella. There's this little bit of info I didn't tell you about two months ago, but I happen to have the newspaper clipping right here somewhere... ah yes, here it is..." murmurs the number one cop in Gotham, and presents his colleague in law and order with some pretty solid evidence that Lupus is alive and practicing lycanthropy in the Alaskan wilds.

Before you can say "eccentric billionaire," Bruce Wayne is off to Alaska to rope himself a werewolf (although how he'll later explain that to Gordon and the rest of the citizens of Gotham is another story altogether). Wayne hires a guide and they quickly locate Lupus (he's in the house that looks like a ski resort out in the middle of nowhere). There's a big battle between Lupus and Wayne and the guide swears off adventure, heading back to civilization and leaving Bruce to fun and games. Luckily, Wayne brought both his Batsuit and the silver-lined net he made after fighting Tony the last time ("After all, you never know when you'll run into another werewolf!"); after a quick tussle, the Dark Knight has the shaggy beast trapped. When the sun comes up the next morning and Lupus reverts to human form, he's convinced to return to Gotham City to help his sister and accept an antidote that Batman is sure he'll invent before the next full moon.

While I didn't rave over Len Wein's script for "Moon of the Wolf," I was very excited to see Lupus's return, if only for the supernatural element the character hauls in with him. We need a change from the Penguin-Catwoman-Joker carousel now and then. The whole DC Universe is unbelievable, so why not throw in vampires and werewolves to shake things up now and then? For the most part, Gerry does a good job working up the suspense in "Werewolf Moon," but most of the proceedings are exactly what you might think they'll be. These kinds of "dips into the old well" highlighted Roy Thomas's career, so I'm wondering if Rascally wasn't whispering in Gerry's ear "there's gold in them thar Adams issues." 

Batman assumes that Lupus's body was "destroyed in that lightning blast" that climaxed "Moon of the Wolf." Raise your hands if you assume that Batman ever assumes anything. Wouldn't he have a look at said pile of ashes to see if it was still moving around? World's greatest detective! And how did Lupus find his way to Alaska without alerting any authorities? The great equalizer known as "coincidence" then finds its way into Gordon's hands with a newspaper exclaiming that Lupus is now a hunter in Alaska. Like last month's burp when Arkham "forgot" to tell Gordon that the Joker had escaped three weeks before, the Commish thinks not to pester the Bats with the info that a dangerous werewolf might have immigrated to Alaska until just the right moment. And Arthur Reeves, the villainous candidate for mayor, is definitely headed for some kind of unbelievable pay-off (like he's the Penguin's nephew or Alfred Pennyworth's other illegitimate kid), so let's just get there already. Hopefully, Batman will find that cure for werewolfism before Anthony donates some of his bone marrow to his sick sister. We don't want two werewolves running around Gotham.

Jack: I was thrilled to see the return of the werewolf, since that Adams run on Detective holds such fond memories. Conway's script is even better than the art by Newton and Adkins, which is very good indeed. I was turning the (virtual, electronic) pages quickly in this story because the chase and battle were so exciting. I can't say that about every "Batman in the 1980s" comic we read and it makes me wonder: why are Conway's scripts for Detective so much better than those he pens for Batman? Was he intentionally trying to make this a more adult book?

"Hunt for a Hunchback Killer"
Story by Cary Burkett
Art by Jose Delbo & Joe Giella

Batgirl races to stop a deformed killer from claiming another victim. Just when she thinks she has the drop on him, she drops her knock-out gas pellet, with no time to grab her Bat-nose-plugs. Out goes Babs Gordon, as the hunchback killer breathes heavily and drools on her silky, sexy neck.

Peter: I know what you're saying. Just how many hunchbacks live in Gotham City? I was thinking the same thing, amigos, but alas, we're being led down a stray path by an awkwardly-worded title. Shouldn't that be "Hunt for a Hunchbacked Killer?" Well, new editor Dick Giordano hasn't even rested his big feet on the desk yet, so I'll cut him some slack. And, besides, Dick would probably blame outgoing editor Paul Levitz for the blunder. In any rate, "Hunchback Killer" is as dumb as a room full of New York Jets coaches, but it's got charm. That hunchbacked killer for one. Iago spouts circa 1942 Universal Ygor dialogue and that, I think, is the key to his secret identity. Laugh at me now but you'll be saying, "That blogger nut was right" when it's revealed that Iago is an out-of-work actor who was hit in the head with a falling stage curtain and is now mentally stuck in Hamlet or some other Kenneth Branagh play. 

Babs is an incredibly likable character, as are the background folk. "Garsh, Ms. Batgirl" exclaims an aroused Jeff-the-motorcycle-maintenance-chap after Babs unmasks for his benefit, "I'd'a never thought you was Batgirl! Can I see the rest?" Cary Burkett is obviously trying to build a support cast that we can root for and remember. Now, Cary, could you get down to business and let us in on why Bob Barton doesn't like Babs Gordon and why he's suddenly out of town? The mystery is killing me.

Jack: This story gets right to it, doesn't it? I had to look back over the last few issues of Detective to see if it was continued from a prior episode, but no--this is our first sight of the hunchback. Why does he dress like he's in a Universal movie? If I were a hunchback, I'd try to hide it a bit better than that. And how exactly do Batman and Batgirl divvy up the crimes in Gotham City? A string of hunchback murders might warrant the A team, not the backup. Babs's feet might not hurt so much if she'd ditch those stiletto-heeled boots.

Next Week!
The full-length debut of Wrightson!
And you better believe it was worth the wait!


andydecker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
andydecker said...

With a name like Lupus the guy hadn't even a chance, did he? I remember Moon of the Wolf well; I read it as a young lad and there were panels I never forgot. Batman chained to the ground like a goat for the tiger, the ending. This was so far removed from the Curt Swan Superman, it was a relevation.

About # 330 and # 500 I began to buy Batman and Detective faithfully for a couple of years, I jumped ship before Knightfall. Giordano's statement is interesting; so here begins the age of the endless crossover. To be continued in Batman or 'Tec. Be sure you don't miss an issue. And for a long time there were the back-ups, and while there were a few interesting ones in terms of art - Trevor von Eden comes to mind -, most I remember as dire.

I am not a hardcore-fan, but there are books with much worse periods than Legion of Superheroes, Peter. I still have a soft spot for the Mike Grell and Sherman years because it made the book look so dynamic (even if everybody looked like a model. Or maybe just because of it :-)), but I love the later Levitz run when he transformed it into a full realized space/soap opera which for a while was better than sf on tv. After that it crashed and burned and never held enough interest for me to read it again, but these books I added to the digital collection.

Jack Seabrook said...

I'm with you, Andy. I liked the Grell LSH too. I really enjoyed the Wal-Mart 100-pagers the last couple of years because they exposed me to some great new stuff, but now that they've stopped I can't make heads or tails of the monthly DC output.

Joe Tura said...

I vaguely remember The Sportsman... and I wish I didn't. Ugh...

Another awesome post, gentlemen! I'm loving these more and more as they tickle my memories.

Anonymous said...

I have no real supporting evidence, but i have a strong suspicion that Ross Andru was involved in creating both of these Aparo covers, in some capacity. The posing on the figures and their proportions — in particular, their oversized feet — look VERY Andru-ish to me.

Andru was an editor and art director at DC around this time, and pencilled lots and lots of covers for the company. I think it’s entirely possible he did layouts for these two, which Aparo then pencilled and inked. I detect Andru’s hand in a handful of other Aparo covers from this period — BATMAN 333 and 337, DETECTIVE 496 and especially BRAVE AND THE BOLD 168 and 182. I could be totally wrong , but I don’t think so.


Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Joe, and it's great to hear from you!

b.t., I see what you mean. You're probably right that Andru was doing layout and Aparo did the finish. The faces certainly don't have that Andru look (pop-eyes, sweaty brows).