Monday, January 23, 2012

Batman in the 1970s Part 2: January and February 1970

by Jack Seabrook and
Peter Enfantino

January and February 1970

Detective Comics #395 (January 1970)
"The Secret of the Waiting Graves"
written by Denny O'Neil
art by Neal Adams and Dick Giordano

"Drop Out... Or Drop Dead"
written by Frank Robbins
art by Gil Kane and Murphy Anderson

"A bleak hillside in central Mexico ... a pair of open graves ... and the shadow of the dread BATMAN"

So begins our first look at The Dark Knight of the 70s, 31 years after he was created for Detective Comics #27. A well-to-do couple, The Muertos, are hosting a balloon race at a huge shindig in a novel setting: a graveyard. One of the participants, Pedro Valdes, is attacked by trained falcons high above the ground. Only the athletic skills of the Batman can save Valdes from a nasty death on the rocks below. Batman is only present because Bruce Wayne is one of  Juan Muerto's honored guests. As he does his millionaire playboy routine, dancing with Muerto's wife, Dolores, Bruce thinks to himself how beautiful the senorita is, but that there's "a strange feeling of mustiness about her." Just then, another attack on Pedro Valdes by riflemen on a nearby hill convinces The Dark Knight that Muerto is behind the assassination attempts. But why? Turns out that Valdes is actually a government agent sent to spy on the Muertos, who have been cultivating the dangerous (and apparently illegal) Sybil flower. Legend has it that the flower can grant immortality but at the cost of the user's sanity. Juan and Dolores take Valdes prisoner and, when Batman comes to the rescue, he discovers just how dangerous the Sybil can be. He is overwhelmed by the fumes of the flower and hallucinates, becoming an easy target for the shackles of Juan Muerto. But, as we've come to learn, nothing can restrain the Batman and, once loose, he burns the Muertos' stash of Sybil flowers. The destruction of the drug spells death for the couple, who age in a matter of moments, falling conveniently into their respective open graves.

The back-up is a solo Robin story, detailing the Boy Wonder's squelching of a communist-backed campus uprising.

PE: When I think of the 70s Batman, I tend to look at him with rose-colored glasses. The '70s was my peak comic book reading time. Just about anything I picked up was worth reading. Or so it seemed. I've always remembered the era of Neal Adams' Batman as being very realistic. That is, the adventures of Batman didn't rely on misguided aliens, talking apes, or Bat-shark repellent. Judging by the nicely choreographed but wholly fantastical river rescue that opens Detective Comics #395, my memories may be challenged very quickly. Not a criticism, merely an observation. What would a comic book be without a helping of the fantastic? Speaking of fantastic, let me just say those magical two words once again: Neal Adams!

Jack: Just seeing the cover of this issue brought a flood of memories. This is about as good as Batman gets. I got this in my stocking for Christmas 1969, when I was 6 years old, and this is really when I started getting excited about comics.

PE: An atmospheric tale is ruined by a convoluted expository but we're never told why the government agent is there to arrest the Muertos. We know it's for growing the Sybil but not whether it's illegal in Mexico or how the flower is administered to attain the immortality. I assume the Sybil is a stand-in for the poppy since the Comics Code forbade drug use in a kiddies' four-color. Writer Denny O'Neil simply substituted the fictional Sybil for the all-too-real poppy.  We are told (by Dolores) that G-men in Mexico aren't all that bright since the undercover agent accidentally shows off his badge in front of his targets!

Jack: Did you notice how outrageously long Batman's cape is when Adams draws it? It looks cool but he'd trip as soon as he took a step!

PE: A dash of the fantastic certainly works in O'Neil's favor in our climax, an ending suitable for a visit to the House of Mystery, with the appropriately christened Muertos disintegrating into dust following the burning of the Sybil. The two shamble their way to their open graves like the rotting corpses who returned to exact "poetic justice" in Tales from the Crypt or Vault of Horror, two titles that were obviously an inspiration in the opening of the new-look House of Mystery.

Jack: This ending is really creepy! I like how Batman fills in the missing death year on their tombstones with his gloved finger.

PE: If Batman is the epitome of cool, Robin is an icon of square. The back-up feature, written by Frank Robbins (who would ruin two of my favorite 1970s titles, The Invaders and Captain America and the Falcon, with his hideous artwork) with nice art by Gil Kane and Murphy Anderson, attempts to redefine the Boy Wonder as a hip, with-it cool cat on campus and fails miserably. "Robin solo is deadly dull rather than deadly" would be the message I glean from this back-up. Dated euphemisms such as "the fuzz" don't help either. I'm afraid we'll probably be subjected to quite a bit of the topical story lines in the early 1970s.

Jack: I didn't mind it so much, mainly because of the dynamic art by Kane and Anderson. I think Robbins was a better writer than artist.

Batman #218 (January-February 1970)
"Batman and Robin's Greatest Mystery"
(reprinted from Detective Comics #234, August 1956)
"The Hand from Nowhere"
(reprinted from Batman #130, March 1960)
"The Man who Couldn't be Tried Twice"
(reprinted from Batman #118, September 1958)
"The Body in the Batcave"
(reprinted from Batman #121, February 1959)
"Four Hours to Live"
(aka "Death Row's Innocent Resident")
(reprinted from the Sunday Syndicated Batman, June 11-July 30, 1944)
"The League Against Batman"
(reprinted from Detective Comics #197, July 1953)

PE: I suspect that the reason reprints were being stuffed into "Giant Batman"s was because they were cheap and easy. Nothing more than a quick mock-up cover was needed to slap together a batch of old stories. In the letters page of Batman #218, we learn that some of the stories reprinted from the very early days of Batman are being censored because "in the original version, the Dynamic Duo occasionally acted in a way contrary to their code." Editor Julius Schwartz "made a few minor changes and put in some new details" to make the old classics more palatable for eight year-olds in 1970. The fact that there are two issues cover-dated February 1970 must have played havoc with collectors at one time.

For some reason, this big,
green, disembodied hand
always stuck with me!

Jack: This issue also blew my mind, because I remember it so fondly. Back in the early 70s, reprint comics were about the only way to get to read the old stories. Sure, they can be silly, but it was exciting to see this stuff. Another interesting tidbit from the letters column: they lost the original art from the 1940s and only had negatives from the early 50s, so they were limited in what they could reprint and still make it look good. This same problem cropped up later with The Spirit reprints, but the plethora of high quality Golden Age reprints in the last 10-15 years makes me think they figured out a solution—probably a digital one!

Batman #219 (February 1970)
"Death Casts the Deciding Vote"
written by Frank Robbins
art by Irv Novick & Dick Giordano

"The Silent Night of the Batman"
written by Mike Friedrich
art by Neal Adams & Dick Giordano

In "Death Casts the Deciding Vote," Bruce Wayne is invited to visit Washington by a maverick senator who's hoping to get a tough anti-crime bill passed. It'll be a close vote (ostensibly, because there are a lot of crooks in Washington), so if the senator misses the meeting, his bill will go down. A masked underworld boss has decided that the senator should be elsewhere when the voting begins and hijacks his plane. Trouble is, Bruce Wayne is on board with the senator and anywhere Wayne goes, Batman can't be far behind. The Caped Crusader  puts the kibosh on the boss's scheme and gets Senator "Silver Mane" to his destination in time.

In the back-up feature, Batman is convinced by Commissioner Gordon that Christmas Eve will be crime-free and that he should let his cowl down a little and come caroling with the cops. Batman smiles and imagines that Gordon's a little off his rocker but accompanies him anyway. Unknown to the pair, there actually is crime and misery in Gotham but it's all headed off at the pass in various ways and the city rings with the sound of singing voices.

You be the judge.
PE: A by-the-numbers job with unimaginative story and passable art. You really have to wonder (as we did while watching the Batman TV series) how stupid can the public really be? Bruce Wayne is on the plane and taken hostage. He's put in the hold by himself and five minutes later out pops Batman. No one, in particular this brainy senator, thinks to themselves, "Hold on a minute! Where the hell did he come from? Why would he be on this plane and hidden?" I'd ask. The climax, where we see a deflated Batman suit exiting the high-flying plane, is a cheat of the highest order. At the beginning of the story, we're shown essentially the same panel, drawn to clearly show Batman falling from the plane.

Jack: I can live with the splash page cheat because it's from behind and kind of looks like a costume stuffed with inflatable pillows if you squint. What is really a cheat is the cover! That scene is totally misleading, though any art by Adams is welcome.

PE: Irv Novick (1911-2004) grew to prominence in the DC ranks with his art on Our Army at War. He would do tons of jobs on Batman and Detective Comics throughout the 1970s.

Jack: I like his art here more than Bob Brown's in the Feb. 1970 Detective. Maybe it's the inks by Dick Giordano.

PE: "The Silent Night of Batman" is a nice series of vignettes portraying a carol-singing Batman taking the night off during a Christmas Eve blissfully free of incidents. Other than the opening (where the usually stiff Gordon convinces the equally stiff Dark Knight to blow off a little steam with him) and the finale (Batman meets the Christmas spirit), this strip is blissfully free of dialogue and captions, letting Neal Adams do what he does best. Guy's got real broad shoulders. If anybody can pull off something that could easily be cornball and maudlin (where's the crippled kid who's begging on the street?), it's Adams. How was this not the lead feature this issue rather than the unimaginative and clumsy "Deciding Vote"?

Jack: This really is a beautiful piece, one that reminded me of the Green Lantern work.

PE: On the letters page, a 17 year-old Klaus Janson writes in with praise for Joe Giella's penciling. A decade and a half later, Janson would ink the most influential Batman story of the 1980s, The Dark Knight Returns.

Jack: Heck, he was inking Marvel comics within 4 years of this letter! I knew I should have written more letters . . .

Detective Comics #396 (February 1970)
"The Brain Pickers"
written by Frank Robbins
art by Bob Brown & Joe Giella

"The Orchid Crusher"
written by Frank Robbins
art by Gil Kane & Murphy Anderson

Wall Street whiz kid Rory Bell becomes the target of underworld bosses wanting to pick his brain to get a jump on the next big investment. But Rory's even smarter than his business knowledge lets on. He leads the bad guys on a wild goose chase while phoning in clues to his assistant. Coincidentally, one of Rory's best clients is Bruce Wayne and when the millionaire playboy gets wind of some of the clues Rory's dropping, he gets into his long underwear and investigates.

In the back-up story, Barbara Gordon has a terrible dream involving the notorious Orchid Killer, a serial killer who specializes in redheads. Next day, coincidentally, as Barbara works her job at Gotham Library, she comes across a computer dating card belonging to the latest victim. Thinking she's on to something, Barbara joins the dating service to bait the killer. Will she find true love or a mad killer on the first blind date?

PE: More of that hellish hipster talk that mucked up all the comic books (and all the world actually) in the early 70s. Protesting the mobsters who want to drag him off to their hideout, Rory exclaims: "Uh-uh -- you don't dig my style! I can't make market decisions 'less I've got this throbbing heap under me ... and the wind blowing my mind -- so we play it my way -- or no play!" The wind blowing my mind? Well, that's an obvious nod to the fact that Rory is a smart cookie and wears a helmet but I've never heard of a Moped addressed as "a throbbing heap." And how long after 1970 did we have to put up with the whole "You dig" scene? This could get ugly.

Jack: Man, you are too square! Get with the scene!

PE: Holy stretch of the imagination, Batman. How the heck am I supposed to believe that, not only is Bruce Wayne a big-time client of Rory's and is in the right place at the right time to get the clues the motorcyclist is phoning in, but our hero then takes meaningless initials and stitches them into a quilted map leading them right to Rory? One of the dumbest Batman stories I've ever read and easily one of the worst artistic depictions of millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne. Millions or no, looking like this he doesn't land all the models he likes to gather on his arm. Klaus Janson may have found Giella's pencils to be outstanding, but this Bat-fan finds him sorely lacking.

Jack: Wasn't Bob Brown the penciller? Either way, the art is not great--except for the Adams cover, which depicts a scene completely opposite to what happens in the story!

The Lamborghini. Much less conspicuous.

PE: The Batgirl story is highlighted by the always reliable Gil Kane and it's capped by a genuinely puzzling cliffhanger that could go either way: humorously (Barbara flips her date over her shoulder when he leans in for a kiss) or violently (all the evidence points to this guy). We'll just have to find out in the next issue. As a trivial side note, it's interesting that, in the TV series, Barbara Gordon is actually a brunette and wears a red wig to disguise herself. In the comics, with that gorgeous flaming top, how could anyone not put two and two together when Barbara disappears and Batgirl comes into view?

Jack: Gil Kane sure draws one sexy Batgirl, and Barbara Gordon is no slouch either. This librarian is much hotter than the one on TV, courtesy of the long red hair. But is she wearing a wig as Batgirl? If not, does she include a stint with the curling iron as part of her quick change? Her hair goes from long and straight to shoulder-length and curly.

PE: I wasn't familiar with the Jason Bard character who was hitting on Barbara this issue. Turns out he'll remain a semi-regular in the Bat-titles throughout the 70s, usually when Batgirl is around.

Jack: If the librarian at my local library looked like Barbara Gordon, my card would get a workout!


Greg M said...

Great column, fellas. I have to agree that Detective Comics #395 is the choice of the first two months. I have been a Batman fan for pretty much my entire life, and that is one of the stories that I remember vividly. Back then, my school library had a book that became my comic bible, so to speak. It's called "Batman: From the 30s to the 70s", and it was released back in 1971-72. I remember taking that book out time and time again, rereading it over and over. I marvelled at the cover art, especially the 70s stuff.

When I started seriously collecting, those covers became my Holy Grails. Reading reprints was fine, but I wanted the real thing. Detective #395 was one of them, and I am glad to say it now sits in my collection (as does, it turns out, a copy of the aforementioned book, which I found at a comic show last year).
The 70s were definitely "my" decade of Batman, and Neal Adams' work from them still stands the test of time. I look forward to your discussion of classics like "Joker's Five-Way Revenge", and the introduction of a certain Ra's Al Ghul to Batman's Rogues Gallery.

As a side note, I can't help think that some mention of Batman #217 should be made, even though it was December 1969. You want to talk change? Robin goes to college. Wayne Manor is closed down. Bruce and Batman move operations to the Wayne Enterprises building. The Victim's Inc. Program. All that in one issue. And we even got a decent mystery too.

But that's a minor point. Keep up the fine work.

Peter Enfantino said...


Thanks for your kind words and comments. Believe you me that Jack and I eat up any input on this blog. I agonized over what the starting date was going to be. Would it be Adams' first cover? Go back to just after the show detonated or how about when it sunk? Schwartz's "new look" years before? Then I remembered how much I loved those goofball Batmans from the 1940s. But I hated the mid-50s through late-60s so couldn't force myself to get that crazy. So I decided it had to be the 1970s so... Anyway. I thank you again for following us along and (SPOILER ALERT) Joker's Five Way Revenge is my single favorite Batman story ever and has been since I picked it up off the stand in the Summer of 1973 and read it two or three times that first day. Forget Alan Moore for a moment... this is the definitive Joker.For more commentary, you'll have to wait another 16 or so weeks. I've got a feeling Jack and I will have a LOT to say about that one.

Greg M said...


Oh, I can understand wholeheartedly the problem of where to start. And I'm not criticizing the fact you didn't start with issue 217. In fact, I didn't even realise how close it was to your starting point until I started reading the Showcase Presents Batman vol. 5 TPB that DC released a month or so ago, which reprints this era. It is hard to pick a good starting point, but I can't complain with month one/day one of the 1970s. It is a decade full of some of the best Batstories ever. Joker aside, I can't wait to see your look at Night of the Reaper (one of my all-time favourites), and the amazing Austin/Rogers run on Detective.

I could go on naming stories, but I think I'll let it go for now. Suffice to say I'm in for the duration. :-)

GregM said...

And you are absolutely right about Batman 219. A definite cheat with the costume. There is an obvious difference between the two, no matter what angle they show it at. There's obvious muscle definition on the splash page costume.

Jack Seabrook said...

Greg, wait till we get to later in 1970--I just saw an issue with an Adams cover listed at $400! And he didn't draw the inside story!

Greg M said...

I'm intrigued. Can't wait to see which issue it is.

Matthew Bradley said...

Good stuff, but I'm confused: did at least some of this material run elsewhere (e.g., To the Batpoles!) previously? I'm experiencing quite a strong sense of deja vu while reading it.

Peter Enfantino said...


I might have mentioned a few times that Neal Adams was a god on that Batpole blog but the material presented here is 100% brand spankin' new. Jack and I just took the cellophane off it this morning.

Matthew Bradley said...

Totally bizarre. I must be having precognitive dreams or something.

I am the great big mouth said...

Hey there guys, brilliant blog, I lost myself for quite awhile reading up on old Batman stories. Just a quick question, I sem to remember an old Frank Robbins era story about Batman becoming afraid of the dark and being unable to function, and the cause of this WASN'T linked to Scarecrow's fear toxin. Any idea on what forgotten gem this issue may be? Cheers for your help and keep up the great work!

Peter Enfantino said...

Hey Mouth!

Thanks for the kind words. Glad you found us. Jack and I are currently reading the first part of 1971 and we haven't run into a story like you describe yet. Of course, this story may have run in 1969 and that would be out of our scope. There's a really nice website that features all the Batman covers. You might try checking that out and seeing if you can match a story to a cover. This link will get you there:

Good luck!