Monday, July 16, 2012

Batman in the 1970s Part 27: November and December 1973

by Jack Seabrook 
Peter Enfantino

Batman 253 (November 1973)

"Who Knows What Evil -- ?"
Story by Denny O'Neil
Art by Irv Novick & Dick Giordano

Batman foils a gang of counterfeiters unloading funny money at the Gotham Freight Yards and is helped by an unseen marksman with an echoing laugh. Bruce Wayne follows the money trail to Tumbleweed Crossing, Arizona, where unruly hippies have been wreaking weekly havoc. Bruce meets Lamont Cranston, a scientist who is staying at the same hotel, then Batman journeys out into the desert, where a shadowy figure shoots down the counterfeiters’ plane before they get away. The unseen marksman helps Batman dispatch the leader of the gang, then meets him back at the Gotham Freight Yards at midnight and reveals himself as The Shadow.

That's quite a cape, Batman!
PE: The Bat cape grows to even more idiotic lengths, this time as long as the car he's driving. Obviously, Bruce Wayne never read the biography of Isadora Duncan. The "big surprise" reveal of The Shadow, who's kept in the shadows until page 14, might have been a bit more... surprising... had the character not been featured so prominently on both cover and splash. The story itself is just another bad crime drama about counterfeit dough that could very easily have been authored by Frank Robbins. Why would Batman jump to the conclusion that his hidden ally is The Shadow based only on maniacal laughter? Why couldn't it be The Joker setting up Bats for a fall?

Jack: I think the marksmanship was what led Batman to deduce that The Shadow might be the laugher. Plus, he has a deeper voice than the Joker.

PE: Once again, when the bad guy is revealed, he turns out to be the only other supporting character introduced in the story. Haven't O'Neil or Robbins read Agatha Christie? If you want a reveal to be shocking, you need a few more characters. I'll go out on a limb and say the only reason this story exists is to give the debut issue of The Shadow, which was on sale the same time as Batman 253, a push. Denny O'Neil wrote ten of the twelve issues of the 1973-75 series. I'm assuming that O'Neil, Giordano, and Novick were privy to Jim Steranko's painting for The Living Shadow (Dell paperback) since the book wasn't published until 1974 and the two images are a little too similar. I find it highly doubtful that Big Jim would base his now-famous painting on the Novick/Giordano panel but then stranger things have happened.

Jack: I thought that the parts of this story involving The Shadow were cool enough to overcome the more banal bits with the hippies being paid to ride dune buggies through town and the hotel owner who ran the gang. I especially liked the ending, where Batman tells The Shadow that "you were my biggest inspiration." That's a nice touch and a bit of a comic/pulp history lesson by Professor O'Neil.

Detective Comics 437 (November 1973)


Story by Archie Goodwin
Art by Jim Aparo

The Gotham Museum plays host to the exhibit "Art of the Xochipecs," featuring priceless artifacts of an ancient Central American tribe. Some of the visitors, such as the gang of hoods on the roof, are not on the guest list. Batman takes care of them very quickly but the real menace seems to be an appearance by the Xochipecs' god of death, Matuchima, a robed figure with a skull mask and a mean disposition. Batman's not buying that Matuchima is an ancient God risen from the tombs and he sets out to prove that point. 

PE: I expected more from Archie Goodwin's first Batman story. Unfortunately, it falls into the same traps as the stories of Frank Robbins and Denny O'Neil: uninteresting villains and disappointing reveals. Aparo's an artist whose work I'm not familiar with but I've heard and read glowing reports. He does an admirable job illustrating The Dark Knight but I find his work to be very similar to that of Novick and Giordano. Nothing bad about that though.

Jack: This issue marks Jim Aparo's first Batman story for Detective. He had been drawing DC horror comics and the Batman team-ups in The Brave and the Bold. I think he is the second best Batman artist we've seen since January 1970, after Neal Adams. I do see a resemblance to the Novick/Giordano style, but I think Aparo's art is better. I especially like the wordless sequences.

PE: A couple of firsts here: Archie Goodwin's debut as both writer and editor of Detective, and the first Bat-gig for Aparo outside of his regular chores on Brave and the Bold (which he'd already been holding down for the past two years). Aparo would become well-respected in fandom for his Batman work, behind only Adams and Marshall Rogers in 1970s/80s popularity. Aparo had a hand in two of the most popular Batman arcs in the 1980s, "Ten Nights of the Beast" (written by Jim Starlin) and the controversial "A Death in the Family" (chronicling the death by Joker of Jason Todd, the second Robin). Archie Goodwin had been the guiding force behind Jim Warren's comic line, Creepy, Eerie, and Blazing Combat, editing the line and writing the majority of the stories that appeared in all three. One only has to look at the gruesome collapse of the Warren books after Goodwin's departure in 1967 (and the advent of reprints to fill up vacant pages) to realize just how important this guy was. Unfortunately, his tenure here at Detective would last only seven issues.

Jack: I looked back at the story after reading your comments and I think it is easily much better than anything Frank Robbins was routinely writing, and also better than the O'Neil Shadow story running the same month in Batman. It will be interesting to see what Goodwin does with the character in 1974.

"The Himalayan Incident"
Story by Archie Goodwin
Art by Walt Simonson

Interpol agent Christine St. Clair travels to Katmandu to interview a wise old man named Haj the Ancient. The focus of the interview is St. Clair's search for a man named Paul Kirk, who may be moonlighting as an assassin named Manhunter. Christine leaves frustrated, since the interview seems to raise more questions than it answers. If she'd looked back over her shoulder as she walked away, she would have seen Haj the Ancient reveal himself as Manhunter.

PE: Perhaps the most celebrated back-up feature in DC history, Manhunter had a very complicated journey leading up to its debut in this issue. A Manhunter (with the alter ego of Paul Kirk) appeared in the pages of Adventure Comics in the 1940s but writer Goodwin insisted that this was a new character altogether. A decade away from superstardom with the Beta-Ray Bill storyline in Marvel's Thor, Simonson bursts out of these pages like the breath of fresh air delivered by a Steranko or an Adams. There was literally nothing like this strip anywhere to be found in the Batman books up to this time. The antithesis of Goodwin's Batman story this issue, Manhunter reads like the opening chapter of a very adult and very intricately woven novel.  I can see a lot of 12-year olds (myself included) giving up on this confusing and, for the most part action-free strip, but 39 years later this comic reader thinks it's the first Batman back-up I'm looking forward to reading.

Jack: I agree that this is exciting stuff, but I think we had a similar jolt during the brief period when Rich Buckler took over the art on the Robin backup. The level of quality didn't last long, though. I only have a vague recollection of this series but I'm looking forward to more.

PE: No letters page this issue as Archie delivers a very detailed and very revealing editorial instead. He maps out his intentions for Detective and explains why Jason Bard, The Atom, Hawkman, and The Elongated Man have been put on the shelf (different from the reasons Jack and I would give) and why Manhunter has been given the green light. Goodwin explains that sales are down for the Bat-books and so the time is ripe for experiments. Amen!

Jack: Goodwin notes that Julius Schwartz will stay busy with Shazam and Strange Sports Stories, two series I loved at the time. Had I been on Peter's school playground, that admission probably would have gotten me beaten up (you wouldn't have lasted a day!-PE). There were no December 1973 issues of Batman or Detective Comics, and these two November issues were the last with a 20 cent cover price. The next issue of both titles would start the run of 100-page super-spectaculars that pervaded the DC line in 1974.


Greg M. said...

Another great column, guys. You've hit a number of milestones this week.

First off, the Shadow. While I have no doubt that the Shadow's new series was probably a reason for his inclusion here, the impact the Shadow had on Bats is undeniable. And I'm not just talking real life here. When Bats says that the Shadow was an inspiration to him, he wasn't lying. But that's something to discuss in a later column...

Second, Jim Aparo. I've always been a huge fan of his work, from Brave & the Bold to Batman and the Outsiders. There's just something about his look that I really appreciate. I think it gives a nice contrast to the darker one Adams drew.

Lastly, Simonson and Manhunter. Just brilliant. This ranks very highly in my favourite all-time Bats back-up strips. There's a nice pulp-y feel to his character, and he fits nicely into the Batverse. The Human Target back-up (from Detective) and Nemesis (from Brave & the Bold) round out my top three.

See you next week!

Jack Seabrook said...

Greg, I agree with you about Aparo. I always liked his clean lines. And the Manhunter series only gets better as it goes along!

Greg M. said...

Jack, I think another reason I love Aparo's work is that he was probably the first Batman artist I was exposed to. I don't remember my first comic, but I do have memories of owning a rather beat-up copy of a Brave and Bold drawn by him. I was missing most of the issue, so aside from knowing it featured the Joker and co-starred Black Canary, I had no idea which issue it was. I've since learned that it was Brave and Bold #141, and a full copy resides in my collection. :-)