Monday, May 14, 2012

Batman in the 1970s Part 18: May and June 1972

by Jack Seabrook
& Peter Enfantino

Detective Comics 423 (May 1972)

"The Most Dangerous Twenty Miles in Gotham City!"
Story by Frank Robbins
Art by Bob Brown & Dick Giordano

The Pentagon turns to The Batman for aid when they need to smuggle Russian spy "Ivanescu" out of Gotham. He's to be traded to the Russians for a captured American agent and it's feared he'll be taken down by patriots on his way out of the city. Several plans are tested but all are thwarted by the genius of The Dark Knight. An actor is hired to play "Ivanescu" throughout all the scenarios and the thespian works into Batman's plan to successfully swap spies. In the end, the Russians get their man boarded onto their SST and we get our agent back safely.

PE: I wonder if the American government, like Commissioner Gordon, has something called "The Red Red-Alert." There's that annoying expression again. Someone tell me how you pronounce "Ye-ah." I almost laughed out loud when one of the schemes (which took me completely by surprise) goes awry after the "Faux-Ivanescu" stages a con escape but is unwigged by Batman because the dope was holding his cigarette Russian-style. Batman tells him that's why the plot won't work, because the real spy will hold his ciggy the same way. The entire scenario is scrapped because "Ivanescu" can't go without a smoke for a couple hours? It's a fairly entertaining read (rare for a Frank Robbins story) and it's got a nice twist at the tail end, including a rare Batman kill.

Jack: Other than the clichéd hippies who pop up briefly, this is an entertaining story. Batman comes up with a clever trick to solve the problem of how to get the Russian spy to the airport for a prisoner switch before the crazy patriots can kill him.

"A Shadow of a Doubt!"
Story by ?
Art by Irwin Hasen & Joe Giella
from Big Town #15, May-June 1952

Jack: Big Town comics ran for 50 issues from 1951 to 1958 and was based on a radio show/film series/tv show that I had never heard of until I Googled it.

PE: Well, I Wiki-ed the show and found out that it was the #1 "reporter-like" radio drama from 1937 through 1952 and starred Edward G. Robinson and also hit the big screen four times. I like how Johnny Law comes to the conclusion that the number one suspect is innocent because, when faced with all the proof against him, he refuses to confess. "Anyone confronted with such powerful evidence against him would confess!" Was that in the police manual back in the 1950s? I thought it was "when the suspect won't confess, beat it out of him!" But I guess Law is right since when he nabs the real killer and throws circumstantial evidence in his face, the dope fesses up!

"Candidate for Danger!"
Story by Frank Robbins
Art by Don Heck

Barbara Gordon's jump into the political waters hits a speed bump when her campaign headquarters is robbed and all her contribution money is stolen. Luckily, she's a very bright girl and has a very pretty suit and saves the day. Gotham's distorted politics can return to "normal."

Jack: Babs runs for office on a youth ticket with her go-go boots as her gimmick. This being a Frank Robbins-penned story, a seemingly friendly young dude turns out to be the bad guy. Kind of embarrassing!

PE: You can tell where Babs gets her hipness. When she tells The Commish of her decision to run, he exclaims "Kick off, baby!" The idea that the American public is so shallow it would vote for a pair of (admittedly stylish) boots instead of ideals and a platform is, well, it would never fly in a Stan Lee Universe, that's for sure. I can't wait to see what happens in a couple months when Watergate hits the fan. At least it might force the "with it" DC writers to come up with ideas that don't have to do with tie-dye and flowers. Stay tuned in about a year for the obligatory rant about endless plots involving crooked politicians.  On the letter's page, editor Julius Schwartz comments that several readers have asked if recent developments point towards the completion of the Batgirl series. Though Schwartz plays catty with an answer, it's a lot easier to know what was up his sleeve from a vantage point of forty years later. 

"The Big Heist"
Story by ?
Art by Ralph Mayo
from Gang Busters #26, February-March 1952

Jack: I have never heard of Ralph Mayo before, and there’s not much about him online, but I was impressed by his art on this neat little detective tale. I got sucked in to the policeman’s many-year quest to find the killers!

PE: Great art, great story. Multi-layered and full of crisp dialogue and some pretty grim stuff for a DC comic (including a body found in a lime-pit). You can really feel for Lt. Sylvester as the case dominates his life, on-duty and off, for twenty years. I love how the chief officially calls the case "The Big Heist." What will the chief call other heist cases now, especially since this one will remain open? "The Small Heist?" "The Even Bigger Heist?" "The Heist That's Big but Not as Big as the Big Heist We Haven't Cracked Yet?" Are you following me on this one?

PE: Do we have the first Mike Kaluta Batman cover here?

Jack: Looks that way! Followed by Batman 242 down below. I have been reading a fair amount of Golden Age comics lately, including the first volume of the All Star Comics Archives. It now makes sense that Detective Comics ran all of these non-Batman detective stories, while Batman ran mostly Batman stories. In the early 1940s, Flash Comics ran a Flash story as a lead, with other hero stories as backups. When they decided to give Flash his own comic, they had a contest to come up with a name and chose All-Flash Comics. See, All-Flash Comics only had Flash stories, while Flash Comics did not. It all made so much sense when I started writing this paragraph . . .

PE: That was Jack Seabrook, heading out his front door for a bit of sun.

Batman 241 (May 1972)
"At Dawn Dies Mary MacGuffin!"
Story by Denny O'Neil
Art by Irv Novick & Dick Giordano

Top secret government papers have been stolen. Batman quickly deduces that wealthy Howard MacGuffin is involved and races to his apartment. After dispatching two goons, Batman learns that MacGuffin’s wife is being held hostage by the insane Colonel Sulphur, who promises to kill her at dawn. Batman must find the girl and stop her murder before the sun rises.

Jack: A very serviceable little mystery/crime tale, with some nice interplay between Batman and officials who resent his unorthodox crime fighting methods. You’d think that after 30+ years, they’d have figured out that he’s one of the good guys!

PE: Well, it's not thirty years in DC's crazy, mixed-up timeline. It could be ten. Who knows? The story's not bad. This is the first appearance of Colonel Sulphur but there's not really a chance for him to shine or for the reader to get to know him. Batman makes reference to having heard of him but we get the sense they've never met up. I trust we'll eventually find out Sulphur's back story. We get a new cover logo too, by the way. Much more classy than the old one, if you ask me.

Jack: Since we can’t have Neal Adams very often, Irv Novick and Dick Giordano are the next best thing. They work together to create quality pages and draw Batman very well. The bit where the sunlight gleams on the killer’s blade and momentarily blinds him stretches credibility, though!

"Secret of the  Psychic Siren!"
Story by Mike Friedrich
Art by Rich Buckler

Terri Bergstrom tells Robin that she has psychic powers and that he is the mental link to her “relative.” She contacts the relative, who turns out to be Lilith, one of the Teen Titans. They meet in the woods, where the Cult of Cthulhu is having an evil rally. Robin and the gals break it up but Robin is in danger of becoming a human sacrifice to the cult’s leader!

Jack: At last! After slogging through numerous bad Robin stories, we’ve finally hit upon one that really works! I love the Buckler art, I love the girls, and I’ll leave the Lovecraft stuff to you, Peter!

PE: Why, thank you, Jack! I loved this story too, for the obvious reasons. I really dig Lovecraft pastiches and Friedrich is clearly in the same camp as he handles the material with a fondness rather than a sneer. In the story, Lovecraft is called a prophet and the name of his most lasting creation, Cthulhu, is invoked a couple times. I'd have liked to see Friedrich take it a little further, obviously, but this being a Robin story I'm sure Schwartz wants to keep it in "the real world." Rich Buckler's art continues to make me smile. At this stage of his career his art reminds me of the work of my favorite comic artist, Alfredo Alcala, albeit much less detailed and ominous. I'd love to see Buckler unleashed on the Batman feature. Our cover, by the way, has an interesting history. According to Julius Schwartz in the letter column for Batman #244, the cover was originally a "sketch Neal Adams was dashing off for a friend." When Schwartz saw it, he "commissioned Neal to blow it up as a cover." Pencils by Adams, inks by Bernie Wrightson (who will contribute a very sharp solo cover for an upcoming Detective).

"The Case of the Honest Crook"
Story by Bill Finger
Art by Bob Kane, Jerry Robinson & George Roussos
from Batman #5, Spring 1941

Jack: The primitive Bob Kane art and the raw story make this a real gem from the early days of comics. Batman threatens to kill a doctor and takes three bullets in his body because he is so angry about Robin’s having been hurt. This kind of stuff is the reason these comics sold by the zillions in 1941!

PE: I think I'd like them a lot better if we could get some of those vintage Joker or Catwoman stories that appeared in the first years of the title, but I'm guessing Schwartz had a "No-Rogue's-Gallery" rule in effect for the reprints as well as the originals. The 1940s Batman strips, with their threat of bloody violence just around each corner, were certainly better than those from the 1950s (and Ant-Man stories were better than Batman in the 1960s), but I can't believe that someone like Bob Kane ended up with the fattest slice of the pie in the end. His work is unremarkable in every way.

Jack: On the letters page we have a missive from David Michelinie, who would go on to write for DC only two years later.

Detective Comics 424 (June 1972)

Story by Frank Robbins
Art by Bob Brown & Dick Giordano

During a bank robbery, a stockbroker is accidentally killed in a cross-fire between the bank guard and the hoodlums. An open and shut case, or so believes Commissioner Gordon. The Batman isn't so sure about that so he stakes out the guard's house and finds out that, sure enough, the man was allied with the robbers. But the web of intrigue stretches even farther as we find out the stockbroker's wife was in on the plan to murder her husband as well for, you guessed it, the inheritance.

PE: Another 14 pages of cliches and insubstantial characters. How many times have we seen the ol' "sobbing widow is behind the whole thing" chestnut? I'm not saying that any other writer filling these 14 pages would do a better job than Frank Robbins . . . well, yeah I guess I am saying that, based on the evidence. The story also reduces Gordon to a dimwit (also being accomplished with Robbins's Batgirl series).

A No-No Prize to the first reader who can tell us how this could physically be done.
Jack: I knew that clock was the clue! After reading all of these Detective Comics issues I will soon be qualified to solve actual crimes. I even beat Commissioner Gordon to the punch.

PE: I think you're giving yourself too much credit. This is Frank Robbins, after all. I'm sure you could whip up a more original story with both hands tied behind your back, Jack!

Jack: And here I was starting to feel good about my detecting skills.

"Batgirl's Last Case"
Story by Frank Robbins
Art by Don Heck

It's Election Day! Babs Gordon is understandably nervous about her chances of winning, but she's cautiously optimistic. That may be because she doesn't know that the underworld will do anything to keep the anti-gun, anti-crime Gordon from winning, including strong-arming every housewife in Gotham or doing naughty things to Babs's squeeze, Jason Bard. In the end, though, Babs is elected to Congress thanks to fast thinking by Jason. Our final shot is of her plane taking her to her new life in Washington.

PE: Batgirl gets an unceremonious kick out the Detective Comics porthole with a maniacally rushed finale and no real goodbye to the character. The bad guys are literally "rounded up" off-panel and we don't even get a "wave bye-bye from Babs" from her airplane window!

Jack: About all these stories involving the “Dominoed Daredoll” have going for them at this point is Don Heck’s ability to draw some pretty nice curves! It looks like this is the last Batgirl story for the time being--Jason Bard will get his own backup series next issue.

PE: What you're hearing is the sound of two sets of hands nervously clapping as we shut the lid (for now) on the career of Frank Robbins's Batgirl and trepidatiously "look forward" to the arrival of Jason Bard's regular series. 

"Case of the Teetering Tower"
Story by Joe Millard
Art by Alex Toth
from Dale Evans Comics #7, September-October 1949

Jack: Another Sierra Smith mystery, with solid art by Alex Toth.

PE: Extremely enjoyable story, fabulous art, genuinely funny climax. I could go for an entire book's worth of Sierra Smith stories if they're all this good.

"The Cop who 'Shot' 1000 Crooks"
Story by ?
Art by Howard Purcell & Ray Burnley
from Gang Busters #47, August-September 1955

PE: The forgettable exploits of Johnny Perry, police photographer, who aids the cops in the apprehension of notorious  thief Willie the Wisp. There's a letter from future Batman writer Steven Grant, who's probably best known for the character he created for Capital Comics in 1983, the ninja Whisper. In the letter, a veritable cry for help, Grant wishes that Detective was "all Robbins stories."

Batman 242 (June 1972)

"Bruce Wayne--Rest in Peace!"
Story by Denny O'Neil
Art by Irv Novick & Dick Giordano

Bruce Wayne has vanished and is believed to have died in a plane crash in the jungle. It’s all part of Batman’s plan to go after Ra’s Al Ghul and eliminate him as a threat once and for all. Batman tries to enlist the help of gangster Matches Malone, but Malone resists and is killed when his own bullet ricochets and strikes him. Batman then goes after a scientist while in a disguise as Malone; he has to battle one of Ra’s Al Ghul’s disciples, whose life he ends up saving. The story ends with Batman planning to meet his new recruits in a week to plan their next move against Ra’s.

Jack: This is a very cool introduction to what I think will become a classic story arc, as Batman and Ra’s Al Ghul eventually face off against each other. It’s a little odd that Novick and Giordano’s art seems less crisp than it did in the previous issue, but I like where this is going.

PE: Well, having not read any of the Ra's stories while growing up, I have no idea where this is going and, to me, he's just another foe, albeit one who wants not only world domination but to become Batman's father-in-law. That's unique, I'll grant you. Our splash page has a strange
announcement that this story arc takes place after the events in the other Batman titles. Puzzling that the editor should worry about continuity in a strip that has never shown the slightest bit of continuity. Events happen and are seemingly forgotten from month to month. The only mythology being built on and commented on here is Batman's origin. Batman doesn't seem to swing around Gotham wondering if Penguin, Catwoman, Mr. Freeze, and The Joker are all holed up in a warehouse somewhere planning their next attack on him. Are they all in Arkham right now? One thing I won't question, though, is the coming of a multi-issue arc. It's about time! Though Ra's doesn't figure in my comfort zone of classic villains, I'll take him in a heartbeat over the number of faceless henchmen and cliched underworld bosses we've been subjected to these last several months.

Jack: I am a little unclear as to why Batman tried to recruit Matches Malone and apparently intends to keep up the masquerade even though the crook is dead, but hopefully this will be cleared up in a future issue.


Story by Mike Friedrich
Art by Rich Buckler & Dick Giordano

Robin escapes death but Terri becomes possessed by a demon—or so it seems. She tries to do away with Lilith and Robin until the Teen Wonder figures out that having Lilith near her makes Terri psychically unstable. Lilith must use her psychic powers to cure Terri but must leave due to her fear that her proximity to Terri creates problems.

Jack: What a letdown after last issue! Buckler must have run out of time, because Giordano inks his pencils and it doesn’t mesh well at all. The story is also a confusing mess. After all of the buildup, this is a real disappointment.

PE: Wow! We are in total agreement here, Jack. I'm not sure what happened in this story (or what happened to this story, as well). What started out promisingly last issue as a Lovecraft pastiche featuring acolytes of Cthulhu degenerates into a hodge podge of Teen Titans psychic mumbo jumbo and dopey dialogue. Friedrich fills his narration boxes with such pulpy outbursts as "Almost as if to fulfill Robin's portent of evil, a chilling shriek gushes from the font of a wounded soul--" Reads almost as if the author wanted to emulate Lovecraft himself. The whole supernatural aspect of the story is explained away in the best Scooby-Doo tradition. I didn't have a problem with the art, though. It's still preferable to all but Adams in my book.

"The People Vs. The Batman"
Story by Bill Finger
Art by Bob Kane, Jerry Robinson & George Roussos

from Batman #7, October-November 1941

Jack: A very average Batman story takes a sharp turn when we realize that this was the first time Batman was recognized as a force for justice rather than an outlaw. In other news, I have two observations from reading Golden Age comics. One: were the circular panels supposed to be like movie close-ups? And Two: when did superheroes stop spouting incredibly corny one-liners during fights?

PE: This features one of the most interminably long courtroom speeches (delivered by The Commish) this side of Sam Waterston. In other news, this will be the final 52 pages for two bits issue ever. The price would decrease to twenty cents and the page count to 36 beginning with the next issues. An explanation by the DC editors en masse is reprinted below. Cynics will see gunmen on the grassy knoll but we like to believe that DC's telling the truth when they say they did the whole 25 cent comic book experiment for their readers. Nothing to do with Marvel.

I will go out on a limb and say the 25 cent experiment was a failure.

$4.00 was a lot of money in 1972! But I think it was worth it.


Greg M. said...


I have a feeling that Matches was created precisely for the reason that he could give Bats a new ID in Gotham. Since R'as knows Bruce and Bats are one in the same, then Bats needs another ID while Bruce is dead. Enter Matches. Matches becomes Batman's go-to ID when he wants to do undercover work. He's been using it ever since.

Have to agree on Kaluta's work. He's done some absolutely stellar stuff. My personal favourite is his Madame Xanadu. Gorgeous.

Keep up the great work, guys!

Jack Seabrook said...

Greg, I agree with you about Kaluta and I'm also looking forward to Jim Aparo's art, which I hope was not confined to The Brave and The Bold.

Greg M said...

Yeah, Aparo is another name I think of when I hear the name Batman. Brave and the Bold is quite an enjoyable series, though Bats can go really off character in that one. I'm pretty sure Aparo did covers for Detective Comics, but I can't recall if he did interior work for it too. The only other series I can remember him doing is Batman and the Outsiders.