Monday, February 27, 2012

Batman in the 1970s Part 7: November and December 1970

by Peter Enfantino
& Jack Seabrook

Detective Comics #405 (November 1970)

“The First of the Assassins!”

story by Denny O’Neil
art by Bob Brown & Frank Giacoia

Commissioner Gordon has been notified by Interpol that 15 of Europe's leading shipping magnates have been murdered and their choice for #16 happens to have his yacht parked in Gotham Harbor. But K.C. Agonistes refuses police protection, assuring Gordon his security force is prepared for anything. The Commish asks a favor of Batman and our hero is only too happy to try on this vaunted security. Once on board, Agonistes takes a shine to Batman and invites him to sail with him and his crew to Nova Scotia. Thanks to a school of trained, explosive-laden dolphins, the ship is destroyed and the four survivors (Agonistes, his fiance, the first mate and Batman) find themselves shipwrecked on an anything but deserted island. Tejja, a member of The League of Assassins, waits in hiding for The Dark Knight and the trio he's committed to protect.

Jack: One would think that Commissioner Gordon would not need Interpol to tell him that 15 of Europe’s leading shipping magnates had been murdered recently. That should make the news, even in an eventful year like 1970!

PE: Our cover promises lots and lots of deadly Silek assassins but possibly the budget wasn't there this month as we get one lukewarm would-be killer, dispatched with the oldest trick in the assassin-defense handbook: flares in the cape, concealed just for the right moment (when you're getting your ass kicked badly).

Jack: The League of Assassins is an intriguing idea that transcends this rather tepid tale.

PE: Here I thought Batman a Master of Detectives and yet he falls for the oldest trick in the book: a straw dummy sitting in front of a campfire. Did he really think a master assassin would be warming himself on the other side of the island in front of a blazing fire? He can tell a dolphin is trained to carry explosives from a half mile off but he steps right into a snare and ends up helpless, hanging from a tree! My confidence in this superhero is shaken, I must say. But then, the Silek assassin does what all the TV villains always did to Adam West and Burt Ward: he's got The Caped Crusader ready for the throat-slitting and, instead, excuses himself with a "I'm gonna take care of the others, then come back for you!" How long would it take to take care of your most dangerous adversary on the island?

Now we know what Bob Brown could draw really well!
Jack: I had never heard of Silek before, but the web tells me that it is, in fact, a branch of the martial arts!

PE: I had never known Batman carried flares in his cape! Was it just a lucky morning or are they always there? We never find out a thing about the nefarious League of Assassins or why they want to put down 16 shipping bigwigs. Was it a badly shipped crate of shurikens? Nothing else to do? It's sloppily told story with the only plus being the promise that we'd see more of the League (weird that Denny would tip his hand so much as to tell us the name of the leader) in the upcoming issues of Detective.

“The Living Statue!”

story by Frank Robbins
art by Gil Kane & Frank Giacoia

Batgirl is a prisoner of a madwoman who has murdered the avant-garde director Billy Warlock and framed Barbara Gordon/Batgirl's beau, Jason Bard. Lucky for Batgirl, Warlock's girlfriend is hanging around his studio as Batgirl watches her captor engulf the studio around them in flames. Batgirl delivers evidence to the police to prove Jason's innocence and the hippy with a cane goes free.

PE: Other than the Gil Kane art, this is a bad installment of Batgirl. It seems that this series seems to run alternately hot and cold, with the opening chapter a right corker and the conclusion a stunning failure.

Jack: This is reminiscent of the conclusion of Inglourious Basterds, as Batgirl must save Infra-Red while a film studio burns around them.

PE: Bizarrely, as a second back-up, we get "The Sleuth in the Iron Mask" from Gang-Busters #62 (Feb-March 1958). What made editor Schwartz opt to reprint a 6-page non-Batman story when he had thirty-plus years of The Caped Crusader adventures to choose from? Perhaps the Bob Brown art?


Batman #226 (November 1970)

“The Man With Ten Eyes”

story by Frank Robbins
art by Irv Novick & Dick Giordano

A robbery is nearly thwarted by a night watchman, who was trained in combat while in Vietnam and earned the nickname “Three-Eye” Reardon due to a shrapnel scar on his forehead. He is knocked unconscious by a brick thrown by the gang’s leader. Staggering to his feet, he encounters Batman inside the building, where a bomb is set to blow open a vault. Reardon does not realize that his opponent is the Caped Crusader and fights him, even though he is temporarily blinded. The bomb goes off, blinding Reardon for good and giving Batman blurry vision.

The robbers and Batman end up at the same eye doctor. He gives Batman black contact lenses to rest his eyes, but he operates on Reardon, connecting his optic nerves to the sensory cells in his finger tips so that he can see through his ten fingers.

Reardon believes that Batman is to blame for his blindness and knocks him out in the clinic’s hallway. He puts Batman on the operating table and nearly destroys his eyes with a laser. Batman escapes and the nearly blind Dark Knight battles the man with ten eyes. Batman wins the fight but his opponent escapes.

Jack: What a long, strange trip this story is! We have a Vietnam vet who is too honest to join a gang. Yet when he fights Batman unknowingly and a blast destroys his vision, he immediately hates Batman and wants revenge. And what is a flopover on a TV screen? I can guess, thinking back to the old days when TV pictures would roll, but I’ve never heard it described as a flopover. The neuro-ophthalmologist examines Batman’s eyes with his mask on! And then he hooks up the watchman’s optic nerves to his fingertips! The watchman, who started out as an honest man, tries to burn Batman’s eyes out with a laser. This story is just too much to be believed. I think Frank Robbins may have been experimenting with some magic mushrooms when he penned it.

PE: Preposterous! I'm wearing out the word inane when describing some of Frank Robbins's Batman stories, but sometimes there's no other word left to describe a mess like this. Can someone tell me why this mob boss would bother spending time on some sap who was, by his braggadocio only, unkillable in Nam but is now for all intents and purposes blind? In real life, they'd kill this guy to avoid witnesses, not take him home and hope he becomes Daredevil. Speaking of Marvel, there are a lot of those scenes here that I call "The Rhett and Scarlett Factor." Bear with me, this will only take a moment and you'll think, "Hey, he's right!" Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara were the masters of mistiming. Rhett would tell Scarlett how beautiful she was and how he couldn't live without her while she was in one of those moods and, conversely, Scarlett would dote on Rhett as big and strong and her Captain Butlah while the big dope was still moping over the mistreatment his wife has heaped on him. Constantly, ships passing in the night. That's the same vibe I get from a lot of the 1960s Marvel Comics stories that have, say, Spider-Man fighting The Torch. If the heroes only stopped their fighting for a moment and talked, they'd realize there's nothing to fight about. Then there would be no comic story. Never mind.

Jack: So I take it you did not like this story?

We really can't add a funny caption to this one.

PE: Laughably, Batman makes a big deal out of not wanting anyone in Gotham to know he's got trouble seeing, so he goes to Dr. Engstrom (evidently the only eye doctor in Gotham) and then Alfred takes his boss through the lobby on the way out! But wait, it gets better! The doctor calls out across the lobby: "I want you back in a week for a re-check, Batman!" No wait, this is even better! Our hero decides he can't take a breather from crime-fighting, so he spends "day after day" of research and intense computerizing (all the while, blind as a... bat) and crafts mini-cameras  in his contact lenses that shoot images back to Alfred in the Bat-cave, who then radios what's going on to Batman through a micro-receiver in Batman's earphones so that he can, ostensibly, deliver that blow to the bad guy's chin! Batman's so excited about this new technology he can't help but tell his ornithoclogocologist about it right in front of Ten Eyes! I desperately wanted to see graphic panels of Dr. Engstrom stretching Reardon's optic nerves to his finger tips. As noted before, I'm no scientist but I still have to wonder how you can see through the skin in your fingertips. So many collections have cobbled together the best Batman stories but I'd like to see a volume of "Batman's Stupidest Adventures." Who wouldn't pay for that? "The Man with Ten Eyes" is a shoe-in.

Jack: I actually had this procedure done, but I had a problem in winter when I wore gloves, so they reversed it (that can't be a pretty picture, Jack!-PE).

PE: We get "Kirby is Coming" banners this issue. Thank the comic Gods he didn't attempt Batman. The back-up feature this issue does not feature Robin. It's a reprint of "The Case of the Gigantic Gamble," which first appeared in Gang-Busters #37 (December 1953-January 1954) and was drawn by Bill Ely. The reason for the absence of a Boy Wonder solo story is not given but I'd venture a guess that the amount of time and energy spent on the lead story precluded a back-up.

Detective Comics #406 (December 1970)

“Your Servant of Death, Dr. Darrk!”

story by Denny O’Neill
art by Bob Brown & Frank Giacoia

Carrying over the story line from last issue, a seventeenth shipping magnate, Count Orsoni, is attacked and severely wounded. His friend, Bruce Wayne, goes to his castle to visit and takes along his alter ego, the Batman. While there, Wayne is introduced to Dr. Ebenezer Darrk, supposedly another friend of Orsoni's there to offer support, and Orsoni's cousin, Mara Thursday. While patrolling the Count's castle at night, Batman is attacked by another envoy of The League of Assassins and is helpless as Orsoni is kidnapped. Tracking him down, Batman is captured by the president of The League of Assassins, revealed to be Dr. Darrk. Escaping death by hatchet with the mysterious aid of Count Orsoni (who has been paralyzed and yet walks), Batman swears to bring down The League and Dr. Darrk if it's the last thing he does.

PE: Denny O'Neil must have been chowing down on a steady diet of the West/Ward Batman show during 1970 as we're subjected to yet another criminal who traps Batman in an elaborate death-device and then leaves before the job is done. We still have no idea why The League of Assassins is wasting their time killing off shipping magnates. Why not fry bigger fish? Presidents? Ambassadors? Gas company CEOs? Since it's the 70s, I gotta believe it has something to do with the environment and, since I'm a professional, I won't peek ahead and come back here and act like I'm a know-it-all. But I am. O'Neil's 1970s output is fondly remembered as that of a writer at the top of his game, but he had his off days just like everyone else.

Jack: Another shipping magnate! How many are there? While The League of Assassins sounds like a good idea, the two assassins we’ve seen so far don’t seem very memorable, and the League president is a bore. Once again, a great Neal Adams cover features a scene that does not occur in the story!

PE: Shouldn't this have been titled "The Second of the Assassins"?

“The Explosive Circle!”

story by Frank Robbins
art by Gil Kane & Vince Colletta

An apartment explosion leaves only one clue: a library book called "It's Your City - Take It," a typical early-70s revolutionary tome carried around by hippies who use just as much violence as the "pigs" they protest. Being a moonlighting librarian, Barbara Gordon knows exactly who checked that volume out and goes to see Shelley Simms, only to be rebuffed by the girl as a "fuzz-fink." Following Shelley to an off-Broadway playhouse, Batgirl discovers that the ringleader of the revs, Mal, is behind the bombing and has another planned for that evening. Unfortunately for Batgirl, Mal traps her in a circle in the Playhouse basement. If our hero steps out of the circle, she'll explode.

PE: What exactly is going on in that panel on Page 3? It looks like Batgirl is giving Shelley Simms a left uppercut. So, Mal, the hippie, blows up the apartment building and leaves behind a book he's had Simms check out of the library for him. Was he trying to set the girl up or is it just lazy plotting?

Jack: Shelley goes to see a show called “Up Against the Wall, Baby.” She doesn’t need Batgirl’s fuzz-fink help, knowing that Batgirl is an extra-legal chick. The 1970-era slang is laid on pretty thick in this story, and Colletta’s inks don’t do Kane’s pencils any favors.

Batman #227 (December 1970) 

“The Demon of Gothos Mansion!”

story by Denny O’Neil
art by Irv Novick & Dick Giordano

Alfred receives a note from his niece Daphne, who has taken a job tutoring children. Alfred is worried by the letter’s tone and Master Wayne agrees to investigate as Batman. Traveling to the remote Gothos Mansion where Daphne now lives, Batman is attacked by two men with an axe and a scythe. After dispatching the attackers, Batman witnesses a procession, whose leader says that he will raise the spirit of demon Ballk. Unfortunately, the leader of the coven is Daphne’s employer, Elder Heathrow.

Batman finds Daphne held captive in a tower but falls into a trap while helping her to escape. Batman barely avoids hanging and is led to a chapel by a mysterious girl who resembles Daphne. He breaks up the coven just as they are about to sacrifice the girl and raise the demon. He chases her mysterious lookalike into the forest but she fades away, having been freed with the coven’s defeat.

A nice page by Novick & Giordano.

Batman is really missing Robin, who is away at college.
Jack: This is a very spooky and strangely effective O’Neill/Novick/Giordano story. It seems like O’Neil’s script makes the artists try harder, since the art this issue is much better than it was last issue. I would love to see what Neal Adams would have done with this story—some panels even look like the work of Adams.

PE: It's probably one of the iconic Neal Adams Batman covers but it looks a bit photoshopped up close.  As if he had three or four paintings and taped them onto each other. Of course, it's based on the famous September 1939 cover painting by Bob Kane (only the fifth Batman appearance) for Detective Comics #31. I'd never read this story before but always assumed it was gifted with Adams art on the interior as well. As you note, Jack, it sure looks like Neal Adams's work but I assume if it had been, DC would have trumpeted the fact to the masses, seeing as how Adams had risen to be their most popular artist.

Hard to believe this not is the work of Neal Adams.
Jack: I’m a little concerned about how quickly and hard Batman falls for the ghostly maiden. Does the fact that she is a dead ringer for Alfred’s niece worry anyone else? When the phantom fades out, won’t Batman get the hots for young Daphne the first time he sees her? Won’t that be awkward for Alfred?

PE: Exactly what I thought. Why is he crying over dead maidens when he's got her twin an arm's length away? It's a decent story (albeit one cribbed from Lovecraft), but I'd never hold it up as an example of one of the finest Batman stories ever. I do appreciate tales like this (and several other gothic- and horror-tinged Batmans coming in the future) that get us away from third-tier thugs who can see with their fingers and nutty big-game hunters and take us into that skewed Batman universe that can house both The Joker and werewolves.

I would watch out if I were Daphne.

“Help Me—I Think I’m Dead!”

story by Mike Friedrich
art by Irv Novick & Dick Giordano

Volunteering at the college’s emergency phone help service, Dick Grayson receives a call that makes him spring into action as Robin, the Boy Wonder. He arrives at the base of a cliff just in time to help Phil Real, who fell into the water below. Real explains that he became confused after some film developing chemicals got into his bloodstream through a small cut. Real had been investigating water pollution as publicity photographer for Professor Stuart’s congressional campaign. A fire breaks out at campaign headquarters, destroying all of Stuart’s campaign literature and photos. Will Professor Stuart win the election with the help of his students? Not if a smear campaign by his opponent succeeds!

Jack: Without Gil Kane’s art, these Robin backup stories are hard to take. This one is very confusing and jumps all over the place. The student activist subplot really dates it and I find it hard to care about Professor Stuart and his campaign.

PE: Batman has a great sports car and Robin rides a moped? I'm assuming Dick Grayson doesn't ride that same scooter--where does he hide it in the city for easy access? or does Dick have rolling license plates on the bike as well? That van's a hoot by the way, with its R-1 plates but no other noticeable difference when it becomes the Robinmobile. And our "public service message" at the climax to remind us that 1970 is "The Year of The Involved College Student" is too much bilge to swallow. "Help Me - I Think I May Be Ill!"

Jack: An interesting sidelight in this issue pops up in Direct Currents, the editorial page. It seems that the January 1971 issue of The Brave and the Bold (#93) will feature a story by Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams in which Batman visits the House of Mystery! Peter, is that issue framed on your living room wall?

PE: It is indeed, Jack! Isn't it sad that we find a blurb more interesting to discuss than the back-up feature? But what's more intriguing and perplexing is the 1 page "comedic" strip running immediately following that Direct Currents, "Casey the Cop." I've mentioned above the strange reprinting of Gang-Busters material but this one makes me scratch my head. According to its Wikipedia page, "Casey" was created by Murray Boltinoff and ran off and on in Action Comics, Detective, and Batman from 1947 through 1964. After reading the seven pages that pass as a Robin story, I say bring on more reprints instead. "Help Me - I Think I May Have Fallen Asleep!"

1 comment:

Greg M. said...

Hello again, guys.

I have to say that Issue 227 is in my collection, and if I recall correctly, it's one of the first issues I picked up when I first started collecting seriously. I really love the cover. The other issues you're discussing this week I've only read the reprints, but do agree on your comments about the League of Assassins. To paraphrase a Not the Nine O'Clock News sketch, "nice idea, shame about the stories".

When I read the first story you cover here, I actually thought the fiancee would be the assassin (would have made it a lot more interesting).

And as for Robin, I seem to recall the van was his mobile headquarters, and he kept his moped in it. I'm guessing he didn't do a whole lot of driving his friends around. Kind of hard to explain Robin's moped in the back...

Keep up the great work!