Monday, April 9, 2012

Batman in the 1970s Part 13: September and October 1971

by Peter Enfantino &
Jack Seabrook

Detective Comics #415 (September 1971)

"Challenge of the Consumer Crusader"
Story by Frank Robbins
Art by Bob Brown & Dick Giordano

Batman learns that a contract has been put out on Tom Carson, a leading consumer advocate, and arrives just in time to prevent Carson from becoming part of the Gotham landfill. Carson tells Batman that his latest target is Magna Industries, a firm attempting to market a microwave anti-pollution device that may have safety issues. If Magda is forced to pull their product from the market, they could face huge financial losses. The Dark Knight hides Carson out at Commissioner Gordon's house while he sorts out the trouble. His first stop is the home of Magna president Ben Ames, where he scares the businessman into confessing about hiring the assassins but claims Tom Carson was attempting to extract some dough from Ames. When Batman heads to Carson's office, he discovers the truth: one of Carson's lab-techs, Joan Wilde, with the aid of her army of "private commandos," has been blackmailing Ames.

PE: More gawdawful tripe from Frank Robbins. We're to believe that Batman can putty his face up into a likeness of Tom Carson, spray himself with phosphorescent paint and hang himself from the top of Ames's mansion so that he can drum a confession out of him? There are easier, and less melodramatic, ways. Sillier yet, Ames has a calm, collected conversation with what he assumes is Tom Carson's ghost! Want more? How about the consumer lab that Wilde and her goons trap Batman in? Why do you need to test products with psychedelic lighting?

Jack: Terrible! Frank Robbins again veers into Batman TV show territory with his efforts to put Batman in a seemingly-inescapable death trap as a car plunges at 80 miles an hour from a great height--thank goodness for an early prototype of the air bag, not to mention a jackknife rear somersault!

PE: You gotta love a guy who can jackknife somersault into the backseat of a car traveling 80 miles an hour straight down. This must be the month that Babs is smitten with Robin as she didn't even remove the curlers from her hair when Batman returned to her house to pick up Carson.

Batgirl sans makeup
"Death Shares the Spotlight!"
Story by Frank Robbins
Art by Don Heck

Investigating the shooting at the theater (as seen last issue), Batgirl tracks the would-be assassin to a rodeo. Turns out the shooter was a spurned lover of Tiz Marlow's. Batgirl and Jason team up to put down the rifleman after they find out he's actually shooting blanks.

Jack: Barbara Gordon's boyfriend Jason comes to the rescue of Batgirl (sort of) in this uninspired Robbins/Heck collaboration. Heck's characters all have very high cheekbones and without a good inker his art looks sketchy.

Not a good issue for Batgirl
PE: It's hard to find anything worthwhile here. The pace is so quick since it's only seven pages long but at double the length it's padded. My favorite bit is when Batgirl spies gunpowder residue on Big Chuck Walla's glove from the rafters of the arena just as Big Chuck notices it himself! Not wanting to be conspicuous, Big Chuck drops what he's doing (as he's being introduced to the crowd) and heads for the backstage area to burn his gloves. I've seen subtler exits.

"The Forbidden Trick!"
Story by Bill Woolfolk
Art by Leonard Starr
(from Detective Comics #211, September 1954)

Those Egyptians sure could build 'em
Jack: Mysto the Magician solves a mystery from ancient Egypt. Sadly, this story was better than the two new ones this issue!

PE: If you have no problem suspending disbelief, this is a lot if fun. Mysto seems to have more than tricks up his sleeve. In one scene, he utters an incantation and Jarko, a rival magician, is pinned to the floor, unable to free himself. Later, Mysto explains he slipped a giant magnetic plate under the rug and a "similar magnetized plate of opposite polarity" down the back of the other man's suit! Talk about sleight of hand. And how about the razzle-dazzle of Mysto's mid-air rescue of Jarko, caught in an ancient urn suspended from an airplane thousands of feet in the air? Mysto puts his plane on autopilot, climbs out on the wing and jumps onto the urn, releases Jarko, then gets back into his own plane and lands it! Indiana Jones has nothing on this magician.

"The Case of Finders Keepers"
Story by ?
Art by John Prentice
(from Gang Busters #54 October-November 1956)

Jack: A halfway interesting story spoiled by the far-fetched denouement. The art looks like swipes from photos, especially regarding the main character.

PE: I'm assuming that police didn't have what we call now "warrants" back in 1956 as we see Sgt. Welky enter the con man's house, not through a door but through the window! I think I'd rather have seen the story behind the chompers Welky's holding in the second panel. Might have been more interesting than this turkey.

Not bloody likely!
Batman #235 (September 1971)

"Swamp Sinister"
Story by Denny O'Neil
Art by Irv Novick & Dick Giordano

Bruce Wayne receives a delivery--a hideously deformed body in a pine box! Ra's Al Ghul appears and confesses to having sent the macabre present in order to capture Batman's attention. It seems that Ra's has developed a chemical that serves as a deadly plague carrier when exposed to air, and one of his employees has stolen it! Batman sets out to find the criminal before Talia, Ra's's daughter, can track him down. Batman trails the evil-doer to the Louisiana bayou, where he finds Talia holding the thief at gunpoint. After a fight, the bad guy is exposed to the plague, and Batman escapes safely with Talia.

Jack: Like next month's Man-Bat story in Detective 416, this is an example of a major character who was last drawn by Neal Adams and is now drawn by another of the Batman artists, this time the solid Irv Novick. This story moves along at a fast pace and is reasonably satisfying, though it is not one of O'Neil's strongest tales.

PE: It's not a bad story but I found it uninteresting, which surprised me given the guest star. If you can't have Neal Adams then I guess Irv Novick, whose art looks quite a bit like Adams's at times, is a fair substitute.

Jack: If we ever needed proof that the DC editors did not want continuing stories or cliffhangers, here it is. In Batman 232, Ra's Al Ghul tricks Batman into traveling halfway around the world because Ra's wants Batman to marry his daughter Talia and take over his empire. That issue ends with such a surprise that I thought surely it would be continued in the next issue, but it was not to be. Batman 233 was a giant reprint issue, and Batman 234 featured the Neal Adams Two-Face story. Now here we are in Batman 235, returning to Ra's Al Ghul, and it seems like all is forgiven and pretty much forgotten. One would think Batman would be at least a little bit annoyed at Ra's for dragging him to the Himalayas, but no--this time, Ra's delivers a plague-ridden body to stately Wayne Manor to get Batman's attention, tells Batman that there is a vial of plague on the loose, and Batman leaps into action! It's as if Ra's Al Ghul is the new Commissioner Gordon!

PE: That was my problem with the story. Batman's a lap dog for Ra's here. The future arch-enemy shows up at Wayne Manor with a dead body, tells a story, and Batman completely puts his trust in him. Too quick for me. I'm wondering if, at this point, O'Neil hadn't made his mind up yet whether Ra's Al Ghul would be sometime ally (a la Man-Bat) or enemy.

I do like Talia's fashion sense!
"The Outcast Society"
Story by Mike Friedrich
Art by Irv Novick & Dick Giordano

Robin accuses Nancy's boyfriend, Pat Whalon, of shooting her father, the cop, because Robin can show that the bullet Nancy wears around her neck as a protest reminder was fired from her father's gun. Unfortunately, my copy of this issue ends halfway through the Robin story, so I can't say for sure if Pat is really the culprit or if Robin has jumped to the wrong conclusion.

Jack: This is another preachy Robin story in which the hippies at the commune explain how they are living the way man was intended to live. I wonder how that worked out for them?

PE: Ask how it worked out for me, Jack. More hippie mumbo jumbo. I especially liked the bit where the eight foot tall hippie puts his arm around Robin and tells the Boy Wonder about the founding of America and hippie rituals such as battling any outsiders visiting the camp. Can you dig that?

"Castle with Wall-to-Wall Danger!"
Story by John Broome
Art by Carmine Infantino
(from Detective Comics #329, July 1964)

While Bruce Wayne and his youthful ward Dick Grayson are having a bit of breakfast, Commissioner Gordon calls to let Batman know he's gotten a lead on a criminal who slipped through his gloved hands. Gordon has seen what looks to be the criminal in a magazine article about a castle in England. Eager to erase the name of Vincent Pragnel from his "at-large" chalkboard, Batman hops aboard his Bat-plane with Robin and heads overseas. When they get to the castle, they are greeted by the man in the article. It's not Pragnel, but Albert Maunch, who invites the Caped Crusaders to stay for dinner once he's heard their wild story. Once inside the castle, the boys are subjected to several perils including quicksand and falling suits of armor. In the end, we learn that Maunch is the cousin of Pragnel and the bad guy is holding Maunch's family hostage while he looks for gold under the castle. Batman makes short work of him and the dynamic duo and their prisoner head back to Gotham City, extradition papers in hand.

PE: If you feel the need to read one of these dopey 1960s yarns, you could do worse than "Castle with Wall-to-Wall Danger!" I'm glad Batman mentions that Pragnel would have gone unnoticed if he hadn't demanded Maunch to keep the boys at the castle. I was thinking the same thing. Some criminals are just plain dumb.

Detective Comics #416 (October 1971)

"Man-Bat Madness!"
Story and Art by Frank Robbins

Man-Bat and Woman-Bat Kirk and Francie tie the knot and begin their new life, hopefully, as simply man and woman. To this end, Batman is kind enough to provide anti-bat serum to keep them human for as long they need it. The lure of the night skies and eating small insects proves to be too great for Kirk Langstrom, though, and he's quickly working on new Man-Bat potions. At a performance at the Gotham Opera House, the high notes during an aria trigger Kirk's transformation into Man-Bat. He flees, Batman in pursuit, via the Gotham subway. An emergency stop causes a fire but Man-Bat proves there's still some humanity under all that rubbery skin and fur as he helps The Dark Knight evacuate the subway cars and get the riders to safety. Langstrom then heads to his office to drink down his new "permanent Man-Bat potion" but Batman, two steps ahead, has switched vials and the creepy but cuddly giant Bat with a tux quaffs an "anti-Bat antidote." Will the change back to human form be permanent? Only time and sales figures will tell.

Jack: Once I got over my knee-jerk reaction to seeing that Frank Robbins drew this story, I decided to try to give it a chance, and it's actually pretty interesting. The art, that is! Robbins's art is so stylized that it doesn't really fit in with the more naturalistic style of other Batman artists of this era, but it seems like he could've drawn horror comics very well with this style. The coloring is also quite unusual, with lots of yellows standing in for black and white and giving the story a film noir feel. While of course I would rather have seen this story drawn by Neal Adams, I have to say that Robbins's art was kind of intriguing.

PE: The only thing worse than a Frank Robbins script, it seems, is a Frank Robbins art job as well. I've got history with Robbins' art. It turned my favorite mid-70s Marvel title, Roy Thomas's glorious The Invaders, into unreadable drivel. His run on Captain America and the Falcon, following a classic stint by Sal Buscema, signaled the end of Captain America as a top Marvel title (the return of Jack Kirby to Cap in 1976 was the icing on top of that cake). Robbins was the anti-Ditko. Where Steve could make the contorted body look natural, Frank would render the human form almost boneless. The perfect example this issue of bad writing and horrid art melding together to make something almost the perfect parody would be the transformation of Kirk into Man-Bat in the middle of an opera. "A squirming Langstrom tries desperately to conceal his 'flashback' from Francie and those around him" reads the caption above a panel of huge bat ears blocking the view of theatergoers. And just as he's about to take the anti-bat serum, the diva onstage hits a High-C and shatters the vial! This could almost be funny, like an excerpt from a Batman spoof perhaps,  if Robbins wasn't so serious about the events. I'll grant you this, Jack: the two or three panels of the subway train have an eerie quality to them, but they seem lost in a haystack of rubber limbs and uncharacteristic features.

Jack: Do you think that Robbins intended this as some sort of Vietnam vet analogy? It's odd that Kirk Langstrom fears "flashbacks" and when he turns into Man-Bat, the word "FLASHBACK . . !" appears.

PE: Hmmm. What to give the newlyweds for a wedding present? I've got it! Enough antidote to keep them from turning into Bat-monsters and a personal, loving note from their best friend, Batman, that reads "Hey guys, just remember, as you head out on your honeymoon, that you could turn into killer bats at any second!" Gee, why do you think Kirk and Francie reacted so badly to the present? But then, Batman may have a point. Immediately after the honeymoon, Kirk is ready to turn into a Man-Bat again. Itching to. If only Batman had left well enough alone.

"The Deadly Go-Between"
Story by Frank Robbins
Art by Don Heck

After the killing of Officer Jim McLean, Commissioner Gordon devotes every waking hour to tracking down the murderer, to the detriment of his health. Worried for her father, Babs Gordon dons her Batgirl uniform and stalks the night, searching for clues. Meanwhile, the crooks have sent out a fake Batgirl to fool Gordon into thinking the gunman is Zed Kurtz, the very unpopular leader of the revolutionary gang, "The Ice-Men." Gordon and FakeBatgirl head to the den of the Ice-Men, where Gordon draws his service revolver and awaits Kurtz's exit.

PE: Another story that reminds me why the lack of any continuity in this strip bugs me. Officer McLean is an integral part of the plot here but we learn nothing about him. No personal information. He's just a name and worse, he's a name that will be forgotten by the next arc. Any rash moves made by Gordon will be wiped away by the end of this storyline. Not that Gordon will make any rash moves as I suspect he'll come to his senses by the beginning of our second chapter.

Jack: It's amazing that the crooks found a girl who was a dead ringer for Batgirl, then put her in an exact duplicate of Batgirl's costume so she could ride around with Commissioner Gordon and fool him completely!

PE: The real question is: why would the villains send a faux Batgirl rather than Batman? The Dark Knight is known to be tight with Gordon so I'd assume he'd get the nod. It's amazing to me that ace detective Batgirl considers lifting the receiver upstairs the same time as dad downstairs a "phone tap." The easy capture of Babs by the thugs just adds more weight to my argument that, without the Big Guy, Batgirl and Robin aren't worth the paper they're printed on. Though I must say that Don Heck's art seems to be back up the hill from the valley it's been in. I found it serviceable. What I found less than serviceable was the matronly outfit (complete with whatever that is she's got on her head) Babs wears to bed. I see the point of making her look like Adrian in Rocky but this goes way beyond the curlers we saw a few issues ago. Gordon's house looks like it could be Wayne Manor. Perhaps it's time for the guys down at IAD to check into The Commish's finances.

"Rex--Circus Detective!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Alex Toth and Sy Barry
(from The Adventures of Rex the Wonder Dog #3, May-June 1952)

PE: Hard to imagine that Rex was so popular he fronted his own title for 46 issues (January 1952-October 1959)!

Jack: Gee, Rex is so smart he even thinks in English!

PE: I'll be monitoring the letters pages as I have to believe that reprints about wonder dogs (even those performed by the crack team of Toth and Kanigher) could not be sitting well with the majority of comic readers who plunked down their two bits for a comic featuring Batman.

The always reliable Alex Toth
"The Case of the Gold-Dust Death!"
Story by ?
Art by Ramona Fradon
(from Gang Busters #30, October-November 1952)

Jack: I would not make a very good detective. I did not solve this one. Ramona Fradon was one of the rare female comic artists of the early 1950s.

PE: I enjoyed this little ditty but I would defy anyone to guess what the cop sees that tells him who the murderer is.

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