Monday, March 26, 2012

Batman in the 1970s Part 11: May and June 1971

by Peter Enfantino
& Jack Seabrook

Detective Comics #411 (May 1971)

"Into the Den of the Death-Dealers"

Story by Denny O'Neil
Art by Bob Brown & Dick Giordano

Batman meets with a shady character atop the Statue of Freedom one night only to be ambushed once again by The League of Assassins. Batman's informant is murdered but not before telling the Caped Crusader the whereabouts of Dr. Darrk. The good doctor will be traveling on the famous Soom Express train the next day. Disguising himself, Bats gains passage and tails Darrk and his mysterious but lovely companion. The duo hop off the train as it slows to ascend a mountain and Batman follows. Darrk has been expecting him though and has some of his henchmen waiting. Batman is clobbered and awakes to find himself unmasked, being looked after by the beautiful young lady from the train. She introduces herself as Talia, daughter of Ra's Al Ghul, a captive of Darrk. The dastardly villain cuts a page out of the 1966 TV series by strapping Talia to a pole and setting a bull loose. He gives Batman the choice of freedom or fighting the bull and saving the girl's life. The Dark Knight gets the upper hand, first on the bull and then on the villainous doctor. While transporting his prisoner to the train, Batman is once again tripped up by Dr. Darrk. Talia proves to be a good shot, though, and Darrk is killed. Batman holds the frightened girl in his arms for the first, but certainly not the last, time.

PE: Obviously a landmark issue in that it introduces a key character in the Batman mythos. As vital as Talia is, her father Ra's will prove to be just as important. The new villain can't come at a better time as this League of Assassins storyline was going nowhere. Each "League" installment had basically the same framework. Batman is attacked by assassins and conquers them. Next. I do like the Soom Express backdrop, even as quick as it passes. "Batman on the Orient Express" is a scenario I'd like to see explored again. The master detective investigating a death on a train: seems a natural. Someone out there should be able to tell me if we're going to run into such a story in the future. The art's not bad but the Brown/Giordano Talia obviously can't hold a candle to Neal Adams' version. Her breasts seem to fluctuate in size from panel to panel. All in all, a decent read more important for what it's set up for the upcoming Batman #232.

Jack: Peter, her eyes are up here . . . this story continues to show the growing popularity of martial arts in the early 1970s--at one point, Batman is attacked by assassins wielding Bo sticks. Dr. Darrk dies a violent death at story's end, as do so many villains in these Batman tales. Finally, I have to comment on Batman's nickname for the raging bull: Ferdinand! Peaceful, flower-sniffing hero of one of my favorite childhood volumes.

"Cut . . . and Run!"

Story by Frank Robbins
Art by Don Heck & Dick Giordano

Batgirl manages to save herself from the material cutter she was trapped in (from last issue) by the skin of her teeth... literally. Once free, she heads for the Riviera to save Mamie Acheson from the clutches of the Maxi/Mini/Midi Mob. Mamie shows her gratitude in the end by ripping off Batgirl's costume for a new fashion show. Never trust the rich.

PE: Another seven pages wasted. Either run these stories over the course of three or four issues and flesh out the plot and characters or add a few more pages to the main feature. I'd vote for the latter if I had my way. As they are, these stories have no consequence or soul to them. They're filler and the writers approach them as such. I'll give Frank Robbins the benefit of the doubt that Batgirl can pretty much leap tall buildings in a single bound or drop three stories and land on her feet but you're asking a lot of me to believe that Batgirl could move that heavy bit of material with nothing but her pearly whites. Nope!

Jack: Actually, it wasn't a heavy bit of material, but rather a brass template. How did those Bat-choppers bite down on metal? For me, one of the saving graces of these Batgirl stories is that Batgirl is just so darn good-looking. While the Don Heck Batgirl is not as cute as Gil Kane's version, she's still easy on the eyes.

Batman #231 (May 1971)

"Blind Rage of the Ten-Eyed Man!"

Story by Frank Robbins
Art by: Irv Novick & Dick Giordano

"Ten-Eye" Reardon still blames Batman for his condition; he suffers from Vietnam combat flashbacks and confuses the Batman with the Viet Cong. He takes a job as a civilian sky marshal and hijacks a plane, telling the pilot to alter course and head for Vietnam. He sends a message to Washington, demanding that Batman be exchanged for the planeload of hostages, and the Caped Crusader heads for the Far East. Reardon lures Batman into the jungle, where he believes he'll have the advantage. He springs various traps, trying to blind Batman in retaliation, but our hero outwits him and heads home with Ten-Eyes in the Batplane.

PE: "Blind Rage" has the same problem that I find with a lot of the Marvel comics we're reading: the trap of the coincidence. Batman has probably gone months without thinking about that nutty guy with eyeballs in his fingers and vice versa. Then Batman happens to be talking to Reardon's old boss and, quick as that, ol' Ten-Eyes is launching a plan. I'll give the same advice to The Dark Knight that I gave to Reed Richards: once you defeat a villain, don't ever think about him, talk about him, or watch old fight footage of him. You're only asking for trouble! You gotta hand it to Frank Robbins though, he knows how to stretch out a one-trick pony. That's the last we'll see of The Man with Ten Eyes in this blog. He'll be resurrected a couple more times though, in Man-Bat #2 (Feb-Mar 1976) and Crisis on Infinite Earths #12 (March 1986). Just dreadful stuff all around.

Jack: I am getting more and more fond of Irv Novick's artwork, and I think Giordano's inks improve the quality of whatever they are on top of. I continue to find the early 70s plotlines interesting--this time, Reardon is a shell-shocked Vietnam vet who drags Batman back into the jungle even though he's having flashbacks. I agree that the whole ten-eye thing is weird and crazy, but something about this story worked for me.

PE: On the letters page, Cerebus creator Dave Sim writes in to praise Neal Adams's homage to Detective Comics #31 (on the cover of Batman #227).

"Wiped Out!"

Story by Mike Friedrich
Art by Irv Novick & Dick Giordano

Recent events make Robin feel like he still doesn't fit in at college. He is cheered up when cute Terri Bergstrom shows up as his computer date, but the date is over before it begins when both discover that their rooms have been ransacked and robbed. Robin quickly traces the crime to members of the Kappa Zeta fraternity. He finds the three villains at the gym, dispatches them quickly, and meets up with Terri to resume his date.

PE: Our splash page confuses me. We've got the obvious title - "Wiped Out!" spread across the top but then at the bottom we've got the word "Grounded" in a large font as well. It's almost as though Friedrich couldn't figure out what to title this thing. Sweet little Terri Bergstrom (why do I think she's going to break Dick Grayson's heart--or vice versa?) must have a photographic memory. She opens her  apartment door and, with one look, immediately surmises that "everything of value" in her place has been stolen. Of course, Dick Grayson does the same thing, but he's the Boy Wonder. These two really are compatible.

Novick tries his hand at a very Gil Kane style panel.
Jack: After his broken date, Dick thinks that there is something mysterious and weird about Terri, yet after he mops up the bad guys he resumes their date quick as can be. Either we'll hear more about the mysterious side of Terri in future tales, or else his suspicions were just another of his "notorious bad conclusions."

PE: As with the Batgirl back-up over at Detective, this strip simultaneously feels like way too much packed into seven pages and not enough for a story spread across several installments. There's a very crucial scene where Robin spies Computer Club president Phil Real's house being robbed and notes that he had seen a panel truck parked nearby with his own stolen stuff inside. Wouldn't that be a panel of art we should see rather than offhandedly noted in a thought balloon? Then Robin's big confrontation with the goons who walloped him (back in #229) is played out over three panels and we're handed a very quick expository finale. This seems rushed.

Jack: Definitely rushed, but would you want longer Robin stories? I prefer Batgirl, unless Don Heck is doing the art on his own.

Detective Comics #412 (June 1971)

"Legacy of Hate!"

Story by Frank Robbins
Art by Bob Brown & Dick Giordano

Bruce Wayne is summoned to the mansion of a distant relative, Lord Elwood Wayne, who lives in Waynemoor Castle in the North of England. When he gets to Waynemoor Station, Bruce meets up with three of his kinfolk: the beautiful Wilhemina, missionary Reverend Emelyn, and Aussie farm hand Jeremy, all three of whom were also summoned to the estate. To lend gloom to the already damp and creepy atmosphere, the quartet are picked up at the station by a hearse driver, who tells them the legend of Lord Harold, whose ghost still haunts Waynemoor Castle. When Bruce and his three companions finally meet face to face with Lord Elwood, they find a dying old man who bequeaths, on his death, one-fourth of his estate to each of his heirs. Unless, that is, they should die, and then the spoils go to the survivors (or survivor). Should all four meet an untimely demise, Elwood's physician, Dr. Merrin, will suddenly be in a higher tax bracket. That night, after all have turned in and Bruce and Wilhemina are sharing a nightcap, the duo see a figure in ancient armor outside their window. Wayne decides Batman should investigate and, as he's tracking the knight, Wilhemina is almost done in with a battle-axe. The Caped Crusader tracks the knight to the weapons room where he unmasks him as Asquith, Lord Wayne's butler. Asquith tells Batman that he is compelled by the spirit of Lord Harold and then the man drops dead, leaving Batman to ponder the possibility of a supernatural presence in Waynemoor Castle.

PE: Hmmm. To enjoy a really good whodunit, there has to be mystery and suspense. There's neither on display in this creaky old filler. The minute Lord Elwood tells his four relatives that if none of them should survive, his vast estate will go to his old friend and family doctor (who just happens to be there to overhear this proclamation), you just know who the ghostly knight on the cover really is. It's Asquith, the butler! This is one of those quasi-supernatural adventures where Batman never really finds out if the spirit world was acting up or if Asquith was insane and acting on his own. It's not a very good story either way.

Jack: I liked it better than you did. Sure, it's an old story, but the setting and the mist on the moors always get me. Did you notice that this was the second issue in a row where a woman from a foreign country had never heard of Batman? Last issue, she even removed his mask, but did not know who he was. It all reminds me of the time Keith Partridge met a new girl at school who did not know he was a rock star.

"The Head-Splitters!"

Story by Frank Robbins
Art by Don Heck

Barbara Gordon falls into the hands of two wig-makers who are trying to extort money out of rich women by squeezing their heads to a pulp with a specially-made wig. Babs inadvertently gets handed one of these killer wigs and must deal with the villains as Batgirl.

PE: This has to be one of the silliest and most sexist comic stories I've yet read. What's next? Fingernail files that become switchblades? Pantyhose that double as TNT? The final panel, depicting Batgirl in the throes of agony after the deadly duo have thrown a wig in her face, defies description, so I've reprinted it below. As with the Robin back-ups, most of these Batgirl stories are, unfortunately, a waste of paper and time. Bring on the reprints! Don Heck flies solo on art chores this issue. I find Don's work here is much better than either his Iron Man or Avengers work (at least for those issues up into 1966). It's not so cartoony and sketchy.

Jack: I have to disagree on the art here, Prof! This is the only story in the four comics we review this time that is not inked by Dick Giordano--and it suffers for the omission. I think Heck on his own draws a terrible Batgirl, and one of the villains looks like a man in drag. Now, next issue may reveal that it is a man in drag, but if not, it's just shoddy artwork in my opinion!

Never send a Batgirl to do a Batman's job.

Batman #232 (June 1971)

"Daughter of the Demon"

Story by Denny O'Neil
Art by Neal Adams & Dick Giordano

Robin is kidnapped and Batman receives a ransom note. He heads from his Gotham City penthouse to Stately Wayne Manor and the Batcave, where he finds Ra's Al Ghul and his oversized bodyguard Ubu waiting for him. Ra's has deduced Batman's secret identity and seeks Batman's aid to recover his daughter Talia, who has been kidnapped by the same villain who abducted the Boy Wonder. Clues in the note lead Batman and his new companions to Calcutta, where Batman finds a map that points toward the Himalayas. Batman scales a snowy cliff while Ra's Al Ghul is apparently hurt by gunfire. The caped Crusader finds the hidden mountain lair of the Brotherhood of the Demon and he and Robin fight their way through the bad guys, only to discover that the whole episode was fabricated by Ra's Al Ghul. It turns out that Talia is in love with Batman and her father was testing him for the role of son-in-law and successor!

PE: Here's a legendary story, one that is constantly picked for "Best of" lists and one that mostly lives up to the hype. Having never read this era of Batman and Detective (my first Batman comic book was purchased in 1974 if I recall correctly), my only exposure to Ra's Al Ghul is from Liam Neeson's excellent portrayal in Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. I've no idea at this point who or what this villain is. I loved the punchline delivered in the final panel. That wasn't one I saw coming. O'Neil also had me fooled as to the identity of the man behind the kidnappings. When Ra's tells Batman that Talia is his daughter, Batman is surprised even though Talia herself told him this information (back in Detective #411). No back-up feature this issue. Just 22 pages of solid storytelling and the usual awe-inspiring Neal Adams art. This is more like it.

Jack: This is some of the best Adams/Giordano art yet in this series, right up there with the work Adams did in Brave and the Bold 93. The story is exciting and very adult in nature--no one would mistake this for a kiddie comic. I remember Ra's Al Ghul from the first time I read these back in the early 70s, but other than recalling some very cool covers I don't know the details of what's yet to come.

PE: Michael Eury, in his indispensable volume The Batcave Companion (which I'm sure I'll continue to rave about from time to time) says that "Daughter of the Demon" is "surely the seminal Batman story of the 1970s." While I agree with his comment that it "stands as one of O'Neil, Adams, and Giordano's best efforts," I can't go along with it being the Batman story of the 1970s. Of course, Michael Eury is one of the preeminent Batman-ologists in the world and I'm not one to argue with an expert but I'd say the seminal Batman story of the 1970s would have to be "The Joker's Five-Way Revenge" (Batman #251, September 1973), a story so obviously influential to the generation of comic writers and artists that followed.

Jack: I have to admit I don't remember the Joker story from almost 40 years ago, so now you really have me looking forward to it!

PE: Also in The Batcave Companion, it's revealed that the two-page origins of Batman and Robin that appear in this issue were done at the request of Neal Adams because he'd never drawn The Dark Knight's origin before. It does seem strange that half-way through the adventure, Batman pauses to contemplate his origin and that of Dick's but because it's Adams's art, we all just smile.

Jack: Especially nice is the panel at left, which sure looks like a swipe from an early Batman tale, though I can't figure out which one!

Now THAT'S no Don Heck heroine!

This ad may look corny, but take a closer look. It's
early 1971 and here's a comic book ad addressed
to military men. I can imagine these comics were
shipped in bulk to military bases here and overseas,
and young G.I.s read them and would happen upon
this page and think about a girl for whom they'd
like to buy a diamond. Kind of sad!


Greg M. said...

Another excellent column, guys. I've only ever had the opportunity to read most of these stories collected book form, so I really appreciate the added little touchs at the bottom (like the ad).

I'm curious, though: what is it about Don Heck's work that you don't like? I've never really minded it, and his is not the worst art I've seen. I'd like to know.

Keep up the great work.

Peter Enfantino said...

I don't really mind Don Heck's art that much on the right strip. His Batman stuff might be his best work (that I've seen) so far.

It's a little too generic at times over at Marvel University but, despite what the almighty Mr. Ellison and the equally almighty Mr. Groth might think, he was nowhere near the worst artist in comics.

Greg M. said...

Definitely not. I can think of a few more recent artists who I find absolutely horrible...

Jack Seabrook said...

The matter of liking one artist's work or not is necessarily subjective. What is it about Neal Adams's art that appeals to so many readers? Why does Frank Robbins's art draw such ire? For me, it's a preference for naturalistic over expressionistic art, as well as an appreciation of more careful work over more sloppy work. I think we're always a bit unfair to a penciller who has a separate inker, since we don't know what the inker's contribution is. However, Don Heck's work on the Batgirl series is his and his alone, and it seems sloppy and rushed to me, with poorly delineated faces, an over-reliance on tricks (so many of his characters have the same cheekbones), and anatomical positions that sometimes seem to defy logic.

But in the end, I like what I like, and my opinions are no better than those of anyone else. Just think--in the 17th century, the majority thought the Earth was flat, and Galileo disagreed. Who was right? The weight of opinion is not always a good scale.

Matthew Bradley said...

Jack, excellent points about the art, and I share your preference for naturalistic and careful work (hence, for example, my loathing for Robbins). Of course, it's easier to assess the contribution of the inker once you've seen a fair amount of the same penciler's work with various inkers. That way you have a sense of what his underlying work is like, and how well he does or does not mesh with individual inkers (or himself).

Not familiar with Heck's DC work but am, of course, notorious for defending his AVENGERS...yet only in the hands of the proper inker. In the issues I'm reading now, a little ahead of the curriculum at Marvel University, he's inking his own pencils, and I have the same problems you've had on Batgirl.