Monday, May 21, 2012

Batman in the 1970s Part 19: July and August 1972

by Peter Enfantino &
Jack Seabrook

Detective Comics #425 (July 1972)

"The Stage is Set . . . for Murder!"
Story by Denny O'Neil
Art by Irv Novick & Dick Giordano

Someone is making a statement about the acting of Barry Johnstone. The Shakespeare in the Park lead actor has a critic in his audience who wouldn't mind seeing Barry doing an imitation of Poor Yorick but The Batman is backstage to make sure that doesn't happen. A full roster of suspects confounds The Batman for a bit but thanks to a little "handiwork," The Dark Knight is able to deduce just exactly who the culprit is.

Jack: What a great Berni Wrightson cover! The inside art doesn’t hold a candle to it.

PE: Not even close. Novick and Giordano usually do a passable job on Batman's art but here it looks like they took the month off. Our lead character doesn't have the usual flair (his cape just dangles in most panels rather than the billow we've come to expect). The story's a dud as well. I've never been a fan of four-color whodunits. There's not enough time to establish the characters. O'Neil starts the story off with a list of the five "suspicious characters" but there was only one that seemed to be the likely varmint and I was dead on. The major thing that bugs me about this yarn is the introduction of the House of Mystery element. Why have the bad guy dress as a ghostly carriage driver? It lasts for one scene and plays no part in the drama. I suspect that Bernie Wrightson came up with a very cool cover and editor Schwartz ordered O'Neil to write a story around that illo.

Jack: This is an average story by Denny O’Neil. I wonder if he was cutting corners by using so much dialogue by “William Shakespeare, Esq.”

PE: In stark contrast to the Ra's al Ghul storyline running at the same time in the Batman title, here in Detective we get one-and-dones and the stories suffer for being so brief. As I noted above, if you want a successful whodunit, you gotta know the whos. We know nothing about the possible motives the other "suspects" may have for the simple reason that we aren't given any information to work with. Without that, the "whodunit" becomes a "Whocares."

Jack: Though Julius Schwartz writes (on the letters page) that reader reaction to Frank Robbins’s art has been 75% positive, he does publish a letter by Lori Mead of Phoenix, Arizona, who comments that Robbins not only didn’t go “to drawing school” but he “didn’t even graduate from finger-painting!” It appears that people in Arizona do not appreciate the Robbins touch.

PE: I suspect that it's not only Arizona that has high standards for adults who run around in tights. 

"Open-and-Shut Case!"
Story by Frank Robbins
Art by Don Heck

Jason Bard's old war buddy Matthew Clay has escaped from a "private sanitarium" and Jason wants to find Matt before he hurts someone or someone hurts Matt. Jason stumbles into the office of the psychiatrist that sent Clay to the nuthouse mere seconds after Matt has murdered the doctor. Or did he? Batgirl's favorite private dick aims to find his screwy buddy and ask him some pertinent questions. Good luck with that, Jason Bard!

Don Heck's idea of a crazed Vietnam vet.
PE: Why is it that DC has cut out the reprints but Jason Bard's first solo adventure feels just like one of those stuffy old 1954 stories starring Harry "Winkie" Winklebean, Private Sea Captain Detective? Bard has always come off to me as a rip-off of Matt Murdock (sans blindness and tights, plus gimpy leg and sexy superhero girlfriend) and failed to elicit one iota of excitement as a supporting character in the Batgirl back-ups. Why editor Schwartz thought readers would eat up tales that centered around him is beyond my powers of ESP. This story's yawn-inducing and not very well told. Matt Clay's psychiatrist, the doc who had him committed, just happens to have his office in the same building as Jason Bard's? Hmmm, that's quite a coincidence, wouldn't you say? The reason Robbins's story doesn't work is the same reason O'Neil's doesn't: brevity and a lack of good suspects. In this case, Robbins only introduces one other character in the entire story so if Clay's not the killer then it must be the other.

Jack: The crack team of Robbins and Heck makes us suffer through nine pages of Jason Bard, private eye. I am not looking forward to a long run for this series.

PE: Well, we did get that Wrightson cover so I guess we shouldn't complain too loudly.

Batman #243 (August 1972)

"The Lazarus Pit!"
Story by Denny O'Neil
Art by Neal Adams

Now that Batman has saved the life of Ra’s Al Ghul’s assassin Ling, Ling’s loyalties are divided and he and Batman must fight to the death. Batman uses his Judo skills to win the battle; sparing Ling’s life once again puts the man wholly in his debt. Ling, Dr. Blaine, and Batman—disguised as Matches Malone—fly by private jet to Switzerland, where they have a run in with Ubu and Talia at the airport. Batman meets international ski champion Molly Post, who bears a grudge against Ra’s Al Ghul, and the foursome travel by jet ski to Ra’s’s mountain chalet. After Dr. Blaine uses some scientific know-how and quick thinking to disarm a bunker filled with machine guns, they enter the chalet. Batman subdues Ubu and Talia greets him with a kiss. She shows him her father’s dead body and they prepare to leave, but after Batman is gone the body of Ra’s Al Ghul is revived by being dunked in a pit of bubbling liquid.

Jack: Boy, it seems like a long time since we’ve been treated to a full-length Batman story illustrated by Neal Adams! He does not disappoint, as this is an exciting and suspenseful tale that is a treat for the eyes.

Molly? Or Jill St. John?
PE: The mental and physical chess match between Batman and Ra's Al Ghul is finally drawing me in. Having not read this arc (or any other Ra's story) growing up, I have not one clue where it's leading me. The Lazarus Pit itself is a bizarre plot device (is the concept crossing over into that quasi-supernatural realm that Bats enters now and then or is there a perfectly rational explanation for raising the dead?) and I can't wait to see what O'Neil has up his sleeve. I do know that this particular set of stories is held up as a pinnacle of Batman in the 1970s. Michael Eury in The Batcave Companion (Twomorrows, 2009) calls Ra's "Batman's deadliest enemy."The change in format from 52 to 36 pages certainly helps the title in two ways: Jack and I no longer have to read those crappy reprints (at least for now) and the extended story page count from 13 to 20 pages certainly expands the canvass. Now we can have a little more back story for these nameless underworld thugs we're saddled with each month. If this issue is any indication, it's also opened the door for multi-issue arcs, something heretofore almost unheard of in the pages of Detective and Batman. So a major DC bungle (the 52-page experiment) may turn out for the best.

Welcome back, Mr. Adams!
Jack: With the new 20 cent cover price and page count reduced to 36 comes another change: Batman is now published eight times a year rather than the ten we’ve been used to since we started our reviews with the January 1970 issue. Peter, what do you think of Robin’s brief appearance and of the whole Matches Malone disguise? So far, I don’t see the point, but maybe something’s coming next issue.

PE: Matches Malone is an embarrassingly silly disguise and the quicker he bites the dust the better. Love that "gruff tough henchman" voice Bats adopts for the Matches role.

Detective Comics #426 (August 1972)

"Killer's Roulette!"
Story and Art by Frank Robbins

Three noted Gotham-ites have committed suicide in three successive nights. Batman finds a few oddities about the crime scenes that have him convinced the men didn't take their own lives. All three men had heavy gambling debts s to follow up leads, he turns to his good friend, Bruce Wayne, and the two investigate the floating casino known as "The Fortune Wheel." There Bruce runs into Conway Treach, a man with a strange addiction: he loves to bet on Russian Roulette. The Batman plays along.

PE: It's hard to take Batman using the slang "bread" for money or calling a gossip columnist "Gingie-baby."  Just doesn't jibe with The Dark Knight I know. That gun in the splash looks awfully big. Looks like Robbins may have had a few problems with perspective. Our hero, as noted in the past, also looks like he could use a few meals as well.

That's a mighty large heater you've got there, Caped Crusader!

Jack: Oh no, another Frank Robbins story! Try as I may to be even-handed, I just can’t stand his art. Note that Batman goes undercover as “John T. Hazard,” and Robbins drew the Johnny Hazard comic strip for decades. I cannot figure out how Batman slips into his costume from his civvies in the space of about three seconds while Treach’s back is turned.

PE:  I would expect a boat called "The Fortune Wheel" to have a wheel but, no, this is a nice big yacht instead. And the ending is way too abrupt. Having laid out all those negatives, perhaps it's surprising that I actually enjoyed this story. It's got a harder edge than any of the Batman stories we've read in a while. The art still sucks big time (Conway Treach looks like a fat rat but then that may be the idea) but I can ignore things like that if I'm given a decent enough yarn to lose myself in. This is the best Frank Robbins has been able to conjure up since we began our journey.

Jack: I do like the cover, though, along with the one from last issue. I am a sucker for these “frame” covers.

A decent Robbins panel--notice the lack of people.
PE: I'm really surprised that the Comics Code, which supposedly existed to police the harmful aspects of comic books, didn't shut this one down quickly. The last two pages depicting Batman and Treach with guns to their heads, even with Frank Robbins's rubbery ink spots, are very stark and adult. There's nothing remotely funny book about them. Of course, in the end we find out Batman had rigged the gun so that it would not fire but we don't know that during the action. How this passed the censors, I don't know. Ostensibly, the Code Guardians were too busy looking for clandestine breasts in Peter Parker's hair that month.

Gingie-Baby? B-M?

"Trail of the Fadeaway Footprints!"
Story by Len Wein
Art by Dick Giordano

Ralph Dibney, The Elongated Man, and his wife Sue run out of gas in the middle of the desert. While looking for shelter, they stumble across a dying scuba diver.

PE: I always thought it funny that the villains would cry out "Oh no, it's The Elongated Man!" Doesn't exactly roll off the tongue like Spider-Man or The Hulk. "By jove, Claude, we've been found out by The Elongated Man!" I'd think most bad guys would have trouble pronouncing that word and eventually, after several stuttering foes ("You won't take me to prison, Elonja . . . Elongo . . . Rubber Man!"), our hero would effect a change: "Look out boys, it's Ralph Dibney!" Not quite the ring, I guess.

Jack: I was so pleased to see Elongated Man rather than Jason Bard that I did not mind that the story was kind of corny. I think this is the second time Len Wein has popped up in one of our Batman/Detective comics, and can I just say that Dick Giordano may be the unsung hero of the Batman in the 1970s blog? He draws very well and he inks just about everything and everybody.

PE: I don't normally have a problem with Dick Giordano but this strip cries out "Gil Kane" in my opinion. Don't get me wrong, the art's good enough. That panel of Ralph's eyeballs stretching out of the water to get a look at the bad guys is a corker! It beats the hell out of Batgirl, Robin, and Jason Bard though. From here on out, the Detective back-up will rotate between Bard, Ralph and Sue, Hawkman, Robin, and The Atom. Of the four, I'm most looking forward to The Hawkman stories. At least until I read them, that is.

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