Monday, June 25, 2012

Batman in the 1970s Part 24: March and April 1973

by Peter Enfantino &
Jack Seabrook

Detective Comics 433 (March 1973)

“Killer in the Smog!”
Story: Frank Robbins
Art: Dick Dillin & Dick Giordano

Socialite Patti Dalton is murdered, strangled with an ascot, and Batman and Commissioner Gordon assume it's a one-off until they read the inscription on the murder weapon: "This is the second." They don't have long to wait before two other victims turn up in the Gotham "smog." This corpse, a man named Ben Milgrim, comes with an ascot reading "This is the third." The only clue they have is that the murderer has a hacking cough. After a bit of detection, however, The Dark Knight surfaces with the usual amount of suspects: Dalton's jilted lover, Rick Manton; Clyde Wilson, major league umpire; and James Corwin, addicted gambler. In the end, Batman discovers all three men are involved as each had motives for the crimes.

PE: Only in the DC Universe are umpires treated like celebrities. Go ahead, baseball expert, name me MLB's "top ump!" Gordon refers to the dead folk as victims of "the smog killer." This goes back to my complaint last installment with Jason Bard labeling his files with inane case names. Is this mysterious "smog" confined to only one area of Gotham? Seriously, is it so thick that a killer can "hide" in it? I've spent a good deal of time in the warmth and glow of Los Angeles smog and I daresay nothing outside of a helicopter is going to get lost in it. I doubt if the Dodgers ever had to cancel a game because of a "smog out" like this issue's Gotham Mets. When Bats approaches Rick Manton for an alibi, the man attacks him with a steady diet of powerful punches while offering up his alibi. When the dust clears, Batman's thought balloon says: "Rick's attack on me sure wasn't the reaction of a guilty man." Say what? How can you be sure of that? Like most of Frank Robbins' whodunits, this one is a boring and uninvolving dog. We never even find out which killer has the silly outfit and the smoker's cough.

Jack: Dick Giordano continues his quest to be the most prolific Batman artist by turning in a nice, evocative cover and some story inks that overpower Dick Dillin’s pencils. This is the first time I can recall a Batman story where both cover and splash page are cheats—nowhere in the story does Batman get strangled by a mysterious figure in the smog. In fact, we never see anyone get strangled, only the aftermath. That makes the cool character in the hat basically nonexistent, except for a couple of panels early on where he wears a much duller hat. The story is not bad (for Frank Robbins) though it has been done before in Strangers on a Train. Here, I guess it would be called “Strangers in a Steambath.”

“The Case of the Forged Face!”
Story: Frank Robbins
Art: Don Heck & Murphy Anderson

Commissioner Gordon accuses Jason Bard of planning the assassination of a senator.

Jack: Once again, Anderson makes Heck’s pencils a little more bearable, but another Jason Bard story by that Dean of detection himself, Frank Robbins? Enough already! And if that’s not enough, the editor promises that the next Bard story will also be illustrated by Mr. R. I may have to consult the thesaurus for some vituperative adjectives.

PE: Where's the obligatory "conversation with Babs' photo" at the climax of this exciting story? Should we take it that there might be rainclouds on the horizon of Jason and Barbara, or is just me looking for something to write about this dreary series? Since there's nothing either new or interesting to say about this latest installment, I'll focus our attention on the letters page. You don't have to be eagle-eyed to notice that the letters page of the Batman titles are dominated by the same half-dozen or so letter hacks. You'll see the names of Mike W. Barr, Bob Rozakis, Gerard Triano, and Jim Balko constantly. Was there a little treehouse group that Julius Schwartz initiated or were there really only a handful of readers who could put sentences together in a semi-intelligent manner among the 180,000+ readers?

Jason should also wonder why the girl to his
front/left went from blond to redhead!

Batman 248 (April 1973)

“Death-Knell for a Traitor!”
Story: Denny O’Neil
Art: Bob Brown & Dick Giordano

Lt. Friss is released from prison after serving 30 years for treason during WWII. He is immediately captured and taken away despite Batman’s best efforts to protect him. The Caped Crusader quickly figures out that Colonel Sulphur (last seen in Batman 241) is after the valuable diamond Friss received for betraying his ship’s position to the Japanese. At the Gotham Navy Yard, Batman dispatches Col. Sulphur, but Friss has a flashback to the war and dives overboard to his death.

Jack: It’s been 11 months and 7 issues since Batman last knocked out Col. Sulfur, who is not much of a foe this time around. The story is not very interesting, with the overused WWII flashbacks not adding much. Bob Brown is my least favorite of the artists who rotated on Batman stories in this period, except for Frank Robbins, of course. 

PE: Silly question, I know, but why would Batman keep in his files the mystery of a diamond that had gone missing in World War II? I'd like to see the "Unsolved Purse Snatching" file cabinet. Another of those O'Neil stories that introduces a supernatural element at the last moment but doesn't necessarily validate that element. This angle worked a couple times but it's getting really old really fast. Both the art and story are uninspired this time out. With so many pedestrian scripts thus far, I'm wondering if the stories that made Denny O'Neil the "greatest comics writer of the 1970s" are still to come or if his name is built on just a couple of issues punched up by Neal Adams graphics.

“The Immortals of Usen Castle”
Story: Elliot Maggin
Art: Irv Novick and Frank McLaughlin

Robin takes some kids from the housing project on a tour of Usen Castle, only to find that there are some surprising scares in store.

Jack: Do you think any hardened criminal ever really called Robin the “Devil-Child with the Laughing Eyes?” That seems awfully eloquent for a Gotham hood. And as for the kids in the housing project near Hudson U, they look pretty healthy to me. It seems DC’s brief experiment with black people appearing in comics was not in effect for this issue. The ending is bizarre—the castle’s caretaker tries to scare people away because he has his 200+ year old ancestors locked in a cell in the dungeon because they are . . . senile! Call the ombudsman! This is elder abuse!

PE: The intro had me believing this might be one of those two-page social commentary ads that comics used to run about the bad things in the world that can happen to youngsters who stray down the wrong path: V.D., juvenile delinquency, and voting for democrats. From there it quickly devolves into an adventure fit for Shaggy and Scoob and ultimately wraps up with one of the most abrupt and out of left field climaxes I've ever witnessed. "The Immortals of Usen Castle" is the four-colored equivalent of a joke told with the wrong punchline. 

Detective Comics 434 (April 1973) 

“The Spook That Stalked Batman”
Story: Frank Robbins
Art: Irv Novick & Dick Giordano

"Big Turk" Ramis escapes from Gotham's brand new high-rise maximum-security facility with a little help from The Spook. When Batman goes on the trail of the two bad guys, he finds The Spook to be a formidable foe, one of the "greatest challenges" ever faced by Batman or Commissioner Gordon. The Dark Knight is able to nab "Big Turk" and then, in an elaborate undercover operation, disguises himself as Ramis and waits for The Spook to come spring him again.

Jack: Although I have a feeling we’re in for a Scooby-Doo conclusion next time, I thought this was a good story. The most surprising thing was that it ended on a cliffhanger and will be continued next issue. There have not been too many multi-part stories in the first 3+ years of Batman stories that we’ve been reading. I also like the little Spook dolls that get left at the scene.

PE: The biggest surprise to me this issue was not that it ended on a cliffhanger but that this was actually a decent story. My interest was grabbed and held right up to the final panel. I was waiting for Shaggy and Scooby to show up and offer our hero some assistance since this is more like the kind of adventure they'd solve. Even though this is the first appearance of The Spook, Frank Robbins' dialogue had me convinced this was a foe that Bats had encountered pre-1970. A quick check through various sources proved my theory wrong. 

You said it, Dark Knight!

”Riddle of the Red-Handed Robber!”

Story: E. Nelson Bridwell
Art: Rich Buckler & Dick Giordano

Magician Sandor Peale enjoys stealing priceless gems and mocking the police by making the evidence disappear into thin air. Despite disapproval from the cops, Hawkman feels the need to get involved.

PE: "Wheet!" Hawkman's bird friends sure talk like squares. If it was Robin who had the power to converse with the winged world, they'd be like "Yo, Robin daddy-o! Why the need for speed?" I love how Hawk flies his suspect right into the office of the sergeant. Did he hover outside while opening the precinct door? Carter Hall (Hawkman's aka) wears the worst suit jacket in comics.

Jack: His art on this short story may not be quite as unusual as it was when he inked his own pencils last year on a few Robin back up stories, but it sure is great to see Rich Buckler again! He draws Hawkman very well and his panels and page layouts are creative and energetic. The story is fine, without much new going on, but the art makes it worth reading. Here’s hoping Buckler turns up again in Detective!

PE: Buckler won't be back for another installment of Hawkman until Detective #448. In the meantime, he'll jump ship and spend a very productive several years over at Marvel, relieving John Buscema on Fantastic Four and creating Deathlok the Demolisher for Astonishing Tales. In 1983, Buckler sued The Comics Journal (who didn't in those days?) for claiming that the artist had been "swiping" from Jack Kirby. The lawsuit was dropped the following year.

Did we really dress like this in '73?


Matthew Bradley said...

Nice work, as always, gentlemen. To paraphrase the ad campaign for my favorite John Carpenter film, "There is something IN...the smog."

I find it interesting that so many of these stories get a thumbs-down from one or both of you. If Marvel had the same batting average during the period we're covering, Marvel University might not be very much fun.

Re: Buckler, I'm sure I saw somewhere (probably on Bronze Age Babies) that somebody had actually taken the time to juxtapose specific panels swiped from Kirby with Jolly Jack's originals, and I feel rather certain that "Swash" was the main offender, much as I liked his work. Don't know if such one-to-one correspondences had anything to do with the lawsuit being dropped, but it seems logical. I think the feeling was that Buckler eventually came out of Kirby's shadow and did all right by himself.

Peter Enfantino said...

Thanks for checking in with us, Matthew. You keep us in line, I think.

The quality of Batman stories we're reading now (at least the majority of them) are on a par with the Ant-Man and Torch stories from the very early days of Tales ot Astonish and Strange Tales. Since we're not reading any other DCs of the day, we don't know what their batting-average would be but, off the top of my head, I'd bet it would be much worse than that of Marvel.

I've read the majority of Marvel Comics from 1970-1975 and I'd sign an affidavit in court that they're more entertaining than the more fantasy-based Superman/Superboy/Superdog junk we got at the same time. I know we're going to hit some bumps in the road when we reach the 1970s Marvel University (Spider-Buggy anyone?), but that's further down the road. As I mentioned to Marty in last week's installment of "Man, Do we Hate Batman in the 1970s," we had to pick a chunk and 1973-1977 just seemed random. There's some good stuff (and some bad) coming up in the next couple weeks though.

As for Rich Buckler, I have not revisited his Marvel stuff since reading FF and Deathlok in the 70s. Swipes are a part of comics (just ask Todd McFarland if he's sent any royalty checks to Bernie Wrightson's PO Box lately) so that doesn't bother me. I like pretty pitchers. I did, however, run across that reference you made to the panel swipes when doing a little Buckler research.

Matthew Bradley said...

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, as they say. But if it doesn't seem like hairsplitting, I might distinguish between swiping, er, emulating someone's style and copying a panel outright.

And you're right, we've got our Big Wheel and Rocket Racer skeletons in our Marvel closets, as well! Nobody's perfect.

Greg M. said...

Another great column, guys.

I really enjoy the Spook in his appearances. He's not top tier, but he's definitely one of the better creations from the 70s. I don't think he lasts much past the that decade, though...

And I can understand the annoyance factor with the creative minds (or lack of them) in Batman and Detective Comics. Part of the problem, I think, is that the creative teams were like a merry-go-round. Have they actually had the same writers and artists for more than one or two issues in a row?

I can guarantee you, though, that you're gonna be hitting one of the 70s high water marks within the next two weeks. I look forward to your reviews of Batman #251.

Keep up the great work!

Greg M. said...


I actually kind of dig the Rocket Racer/Big Wheel issues of Amazing Spider-Man. They're just so unabashedly 70s. I especially love the fact that Big Wheel turned out to be an average guy who bought himself a vehicle just to attack Rocket Racer. You could not write stuff like that in any other era.

The 70s is the decade of choice in my collection. So horrible in many ways, and yet, such fun, too.

Peter Enfantino said...

Greg M-

You're not alone in your estimation of the 1970s. Put me on a desert island with my Aerosmith LPs, Jaws and The Godfather on blu-ray, and a locker full of Ross Andru Spider-Man, Neal Adams Batmans, Tales of the Zombie, and Castle of Frankenstein magazine.

Can we just pretend that the 70s never ended?

PS. I think you're going to very pleased with our column in two weeks!

Greg M. said...


The 70s are still alive, man. They're just so laid back you don't realise they're still there...

80s John Scoleri said...

So Peter, just remember when you pack your handy Blu Ray player in the wayback machine dialed into the 70s, you're going to have a hell of a time connecting that to your 19" color television (I'm being generous).

Jack Seabrook said...

We did not get a color set till '74 or '75. I used to hope really hard that when it said "Batman In Color" it would actually BE in color, but it never happened.

Matthew Bradley said...

And the ironic thing is that as much as I poke fun at those Rocket Racer/Big Wheel issues, I'd still probably rather read those than almost anything from the '80s, if only for the Ross Andru artwork.

It's funny, when it comes to music and movies, I rank the '60s and '70s pretty equally, but when it comes to Marvel Comics, I'll take the '70s any day (although the '60s are a strong second).

GregM said...

My cut off date for collecting comics is 1985, Marvel or DC. I do hold onto more recent stuff, but only certain titles. But the 70s and before will always attract me.

As for Batman, I make it my mission to get at least 1 issue from each decade of his existence. No 30s or 40s yet, though. My earliest is Batman #70 from 1952...