Monday, May 7, 2012

Batman in the 1970s Part 17: March and April 1972

by Peter Enfantino &
Jack Seabrook

Detective Comics 421 (March 1972)

"Blind Justice . . . Blind Fear!"
Story and art by Frank Robbins

It's the Seventh. Everyone knows that's the day "he" gets out. Everyone in Gotham is afraid of "him." Who's the mystery man? Why, it's former assistant D.A. Carlton Quayle, who kept quiet about city officials taking bribes and paid a high price: prison. Now that he's getting out, Batman and Commissioner Gordon are worried that "he" will use his information to bribe the corrupt. Usually "they" that are corrupt in high places don't cotton to bribes and "he" may end up in a landfill. The night before "his" release, a black militant group takes over "his" cell block. Bats and Gordon are convinced this is a facade for an assassination. Batman goes into the cell block to try to rescue "him" but The Caped Crusader is captured and used as a hostage for the militants' demands.

PE: Obviously Frank Robbins took a day off from his typewriter and drawing board to take in a double feature of Superfly and Shaft's Big Score. How else to explain a script littered with such 1972 black colloquialisms as whitey, honky, "the man," and brother? In one scene, a black militant, riding piggyback on Batman, tells our hero "No cracks about a 'monkey' on your back." How the hell did this story get by the editor? What surprises me most is that the word "nigger" was allowed by the Comics Code but vampires were taboo. Thank goodness we had this governing body to clean up the minds of 1972 youth. If Julius Schwartz okayed this crap out of some kind of false sense of civil rights awareness, he was reading too many of his own comic books and not enough of The New York Times.  And when did Batman get Superman's powers? On page 7, he bends back the steel bars of a prison window with his bare hands

Jack: This story could not be published today! The characters are stereotypes, especially the black militant. The art by Robbins is herky-jerky as usual, but his black characters certainly look black, in contrast to those in Batman 230 just a year before.

"Up Against Three Walls"
Story by Frank Robbins
Art by Don Heck

Things get personal in Mexico for Batgirl when banditos kidnap her pop, The Commish, and Police Chief Da Vega's son, Carlos. Babs quickly figures out that there's more to this than first meets the eye thanks to Carlos's gambling debts.

Jack: If there's one thing that makes circa 1972 Don Heck art look good, it's following a story illustrated by Frank Robbins!

PE: Robbins proves he can write for Latinos as well as any other nationality. Our Mexicans in this story speak fluent English unless they're using easily identifiable words such as Americanos and porcos (I'm pretty sure I can figure out the former but thank goodness Robbins provides a translation for the latter).

Neal Adams, it ain't!
"Police Line-Up!"
Story by Don Cameron and Joe Samachson
Art by Jerry Robinson
From Batman 24 (August-September 1944)

Jack: Not a very good Alfred story, and the bar is already set pretty low.

PE: Daryl Barker, in the Batman's Hot-Line letters page, touches on something I brought up in a previous post: the lack of appearances by the classic rogues' gallery. Evidently, before our tenure on the 1970s' Batman, fans were asked what kind of villain they'd like to see the most in their Batman comic books. The majority of readers picked gangsters. Daryl says that initially he went along with the idea and didn't think he'd miss the old villains. Now, though, he's calling for the updating of "foes such as The Joker, Scarecrow, especially The Catwoman and Poison Ivy." It'll be another year and a half before Daryl and I get our wish. Oh, and the Alfred story, where Batman's butler decides he needs to investigate crime just like his Master, is just as awful as the previous installment. The writers seem to have wanted to establish Alfred as a buffoon who gets crimes solved by mistake. At least we can say it's mercifully short.

"The Riddle of the Doomed Magicians!"
Story by Bill Woolfolk
Art by Leonard Starr
From Detective Comics 205 (March 1954)

Jack: These Mysto the Magician stories are not bad!

PE: Thoroughly enjoyable. Mysto has to find the party responsible for offing his fellow magicians while they perform on national TV (including a fabulous dynamiting that harms none but the wizard). The Mysto strip must be the only comic in history whose hero dresses in the same clothing as his alter ego. In one panel, Rick Carter has on a brown suit. In the next, he shows up at a TV studio where a murder has been committed "in his role of--Mysto, the Magician Detective!" in the same brown suit! Talk about schizoid--do you think he's ever entered a room and had another character address him as Rick Carter only to rebut "I'm not Rick Carter, I'm Mysto -The Master Detective!"?

Batman 240 (March 1972)

"Vengeance For a Dead Man!"
Story by Denny O'Neil
Art by Irv Novick and Dick Giordano

Novick goes overboard
with the cape again.
Mason Sterling, head of a think tank, has died and his brain has been removed! Batman investigates a dealer in odd cigarettes and is nearly killed but for some quick shooting by Talia, daughter of Ra's Al Ghul. The next evening, Batman and Talia pay a call on Sterling's partner, who had Sterling killed to prevent his own exposure as a traitor. The man knows nothing about the missing brain, however. Talia heads back to her father's yacht and Batman, aided by Alfred, follows her in the Bat-Copter. Beneath the river he discovers a labyrinth where Ra's Al Ghul is conducting an interview with Sterling's brain, trying to learn diplomatic secrets. Batman stops the proceedings before anything important is leaked, and the brain tricks him into destroying it.

Am I crazy, or did Frank Robbins
redraw this panel?
Jack: This is not a great story but it does have a few things going for it. Irv Novick is the best artist drawing Batman this month, it's always good to see Ra's Al Ghul and Talia return, and a story with a talking brain is bound to be entertaining. I like the relationship that continues to develop between Batman and Talia--he as much as admits he's in love with her. I also like the way Ra's Al Ghul is portrayed as somewhere in the grey area between good and evil.

PE: Ra's's "secret underwater cavern" is marked with his demon's head signature. That's the definition of keeping a secret. A weird story, this one. The climax seems rushed as if O'Neil couldn't figure out until the last couple panels whether to make this a two-parter or not. It's not clear whether Batman is trapped behind a glass partition or free to go. The "living brain" sub-plot lasts all of two pages. The announcement to "watch for further developments in a forthcoming issue" is pretty vague.

"Theater of the Mind!"
Story by Mike Friedrich
Art by Rich Buckler

Robin tracks down Gordon Asher and convinces him to come to visit his son Rick and reconcile. Somehow, Terri Bergstrom gets psychically involved and summons Robin to her.

Jack: This is sure a weird mix of the relevant Robin stories and the supernatural events going on with Terri. Robin's disguise as a Black man is a riot. Hopefully, the Terri story thread will lead somewhere interesting and get this series off the track of contemporary events.

PE: I must have missed something since Robin is introduced as "the youthful, former partner of a certain crime-avenging Darknight (sic) Detective." I know they haven't had too many team-ups of late but is Robin really considered the "former" partner of Batman? As to that black mask, it's lucky The Boy Wonder had such a disguise in his little bag of tricks, but what was the point? It was discarded within seconds of the charade. What was the point? I'll tell you what the point was. A writer (and comic book company) showing where they stood on racism and equal rights. They was hip, whitey. Friedrich's writing is gobbed up with obtuse imagery ("The teen wonder flies solo--but the vengeance-scream echoes just as deeply within him!"), confusing sub-plots (so . . . is Terri some kind of witch or something?), and goofy morals (Robin refers to his inane mask as his "black like me" disguise while decrying the Ashers as " . . . just a mite racist--a huge mite!") but that doesn't detract from Rich Buckler's gorgeous art. From here on out, I might just look at the pretty pitchers.

"Batman's Great Face-Saving Feat!"
Story by France E. Herron
Art by Bob Kane and Joe Giella
From Batman 164 (June 1964)

Jack: Peter, I don't know about you, but for me these 1964-era "new look" Batman stories are almost unreadable. This one doesn't even have the saving grace of art by Carmine Infantino. They lack the nostalgic charm of the stories from the 40s and are just plain dull, at least the ones we've seen in the reprints to date. No wonder they had to relaunch the series again at the end of '69!

PE: Funny you mention that, Jack. "Batman's Great Face-Saving Feat!" appeared in the first issue of the "New Look" Batman reboot. But for a handful of stories, I find the "new look" Batman stories, published from 1964 until it was rebooted yet again with the "Bronze Age" in December 1969, unreadable. The mid-60s Batman output was a snake that was eating its own tail. The TV show (first aired in 1966) fed on the New Look camp and then, once the show was a colossal success, the comics got even campier until a fan outcry convinced Julius Schwartz that something had to give. As a footnote to my question above about Robin's solo career, their partnership was one of the casualties of "The Bronze Age shake-up" (along with a darker edge to The Caped Crusader and the aforementioned dismissal of the classic villains). In the same issue "Feat" appeared, we were blessed with "Two-Way Gem Caper" wherein Robin becomes obsessed with a hootenanny group (which was all the rage in 1964, despite what Beatlemaniacs avow). "Feat" featured the first appearance of "The Mystery Analysts of Gotham City," a group of sleuths who would guest-star now and then for the next several years.

Detective Comics 422 (April 1972)

"Highway to Nowhere!"
Story by Denny O'Neil
Art by Bob Brown and Dick Giordano

Bruce Wayne's blissful evening reading ghost stories is interrupted by the panicked claims of Buzz Riley, a truck driver who works for a company that Bruce is a major share holder in (of course, what company in Gotham is not partly owned by Master Wayne?). Riley claims that a series of truck jackings is more than what the authorities are reporting. The roadways catch fire and glow rainbow colors before the trucks are sucked off into space. At least that's what Buzz says he witnessed. Immediately believing the man, Bruce has Alfred gas up his private jet and he flies out to investigate. What Batman finds is an intricate plot by the truck manufacturer. A defect in the brake-hoses has been discovered and, instead of issuing new hoses, the owner of the company has hired out henchmen to use a huge helicopter to fly the trucks out over the ocean and dump them so no one will discover the  flaw.

Jack: The 1970s trucking craze hits Batman, as the Caped Crusader gets behind the wheel of a big rig to figure out why trucks are being hijacked. Too bad he did not get to spout any CB radio lingo! Bob Brown's pencils are not very impressive, even with Giordano's strong hand as an inker. This is an unusually pedestrian script for Denny O'Neil, too.

The master of disguise?
PE: I'm getting the vibe from these run-of-the-mill stories that writers like O'Neil are itchin' to bring in the big guns (Catwoman, Joker--heck, even Mr. Freeze) but editor Schwartz is poo-pooing any such nonsense. So that leaves Denny & Co. to write about current events (although 1972 seems a tad early for the whole trucker fad) like truck drivers, black militants, backwoods farmers and their dimwit sons, pet rocks, and vixenish seventh-grade teachers who seduce their pupils (well, we can only hope for the latter). Batman's disguise is a dead ringer for a young Commissioner Gordon, but never mind that--how did he manage to hide that cape in his trousers? One of those Bob Brown capes would drag about eight feet behind him if he didn't do some major tucking and we see an all-but-impossible costume change while driving a big rig! Lapses in logic I can take but I'm getting tired of these boring tales of nothing. The expository on this one is especially annoying. This company owner hires a gargantuan helicopter and a crew of bad guys, has them fly the trucks out to sea and dump them, all the while risking discovery (no one but the drugged truckers sees a truck flying through the air?) and potential murder charges to avoid sending out new brake hoses? Sounds like Denny O'Neil making another statement, this time about corporate greed in America. And, oh, the supreme irony! The greedy American dies behind the wheel of one of his defective trucks. I'll take a visit from Bat-Mite right about now.

"The Unmasking of Batgirl!"
Story by Frank Robbins
Art by Don Heck

Librarian Babs Gordon gets a visit from a con-man from her past, Gregg Wilson, now supposedly gone straight since doing time. Gregg's looking for work and the library seems to be the natural place to inquire. Meanwhile, The Commish has been nominated for Congress by the "Fusion Faction." It doesn't take long for Wilson to show his hand when he and some of his goon buddies break in to Gotham Library to steal a rare manuscript of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Gold Bug." Batgirl puts the kibbosh on the robbery but is so disgusted by Wilson's betrayal she has no choice but to unmask herself in front of her father and state her intention to run for Congress. Huh?

Jack: The original manuscript of Poe's "The Gold Bug" is in Gotham Library? What else do they have in that vault? At 42nd Street and 5th Avenue, Gotham's Library happens to have the same address as the New York Public Library's main branch. Wait--could Gotham City be a thinly-veiled New York City?

PE: Don't be silly, Jack. It's Gotham. Unlike most of these solo stories, this one didn't bother me much. The art's not bad, the story ends with a punch, albeit one that makes very little sense, and the main plot is all inclusive. Gregg Wilson's non-story doesn't drag out the usual two or three issues. And I say punch but, truthfully, it wasn't much of a shock after the cover illo and story title! Speaking of the cover, someone obviously thought this was an imposrtant story since it nabbed BabsBats her first solo cover in our tenure.

"The Bush Trackers!"
Story by ?
Art by Chad Grothkopf
From World's Finest Comics 59 (July-August 1952)

Jack: Intrigue down under, and a very long eight pages!

PE: You're not kidding, Jack. This felt more like eighty pages. Unremarkable story told in a very dry manner.  "The Bush Trackers" was an installment of the "Manhunters Around the World" series that ran in Star-Spangled Comics. I find it odd that the readers of the "main event" of Star-Spangled, Robin solo stories, would clamor for a back-up such as this, but the strip was popular enough to run on and off from 1949 (when it debuted in Star-Spangled #94) to 1956 (in Showcase #5). Again, a lot of these stories don't seem geared toward a pre-teen mentality.

"The Unseen Clue"
Story by ?
Art by Howard Purcell
From Gang Busters 54 (October-November 1956)

Jack: The oldest trick in the book--walking in your own tracks!

PE: I enjoyed this short-short. It's tantamount to a 1950s version of Columbo. Let's see how the villain screwed up.


Greg M said...

Howdy, guys.

I'm beginning to wonder if Julie was looking at what happened in GL/GA, and decided that was the way to go with Batman too. It kind of makes sense in a way. He wanted to find a way to make the comic "relevant" to the youth of the day. Just a thought...

Keep up the great work.

Matthew Bradley said...

Never thought I'd see the words "saving grace" and "Carmine Infantino" in the same sentence.

The usual excellent job, gents.

Jack Seabrook said...

Matthew: I have a lot of respect for Carmine Infantino as an artist, though some of the reprints we covered in this series have been on the dull side.

Greg: If you were to look at the house ads for other DC comics around this time, there was a lot of "relevance" going on--not just in Batman. I think it was just the zeitgeist of the early 70s.

John Scoleri said...

I remember being introduced to Infantino through his work on Marvel's Star Wars comic. What always stood out to me was how all of his characters, be they male, female, or Wookiee- all looked alike. And not in a good way...

Greg M said...

Jack,that is true, but not all the other DC Comics had the same pairing of Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams. Perhaps he was looking for lightning to strike twice?

John, what I remember most about Carmine's artwork is how, whenever he was drawing someone flying, their landing was exactly the same. Arms held out at right angles, one foot touching down first.