Monday, July 30, 2012

Batman in the 1970s Part 29: January, February and March 1974

by Jack Seabrook &
                                        Peter Enfantino

Detective Comics 438 (January 1974)

"A Monster Walks Wayne Manor"
Story by Archie Goodwin
Art by Jim Aparo

A huge beast seems to be stalking Wayne Manor and when Alfred is attacked by the apparition, Bruce Wayne calls in ghostbuster Dr. Vanov. Turns out the monster is Ubu, servant of Ra’s Al Ghul, who has survived the huge explosion that ostensibly killed Ra’s. Knowing Batman’s true identity, Ubu travels to America to kill Bruce Wayne.

PE: Archie Goodwin slips easily into the writer's role here and steals a little trick from Roy Thomas' bag: he goes back a ways and ties up a few loose ends. What ever happened to Ubu that fateful day? It's a fun story, very much like the quasi-supernatural fare Denny O'Neil serves us now and then, but without any of the Scooby Doo elements. If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say "A Monster Walks Wayne Manor" was, at least in part, inspired by Richard Matheson's novel, Hell House. I'm a Jim Aparo neophyte but I'm eager to see more. He's got a Neal Adams vibe to him and that can't be bad. I can't think of poor Ubu without thinking of that annoying "Sit, Ubu, Sit" at the end of each episode of Family Ties.

Jack: I'm glad I wasn't the only one who made the Ubu connection. There is so much junk in my head! I loved the atmosphere in this story and felt like we were right back in O'Neil/Adams territory. I also love the Mike Kaluta cover with the main scene in a circle and the heads along the bottom.

"The Manhunter File: Chapter Two"
Story by Archie Goodwin
Art by Walt Simonson

Interpol agent Christine St. Clair continues her pursuit of the elusive assassin known as Manhunter.

PE: I have no idea where this series is going. At times I have no idea what the heck I'm reading. All I know is that, amidst seven pagers featuring Robin and his hippy buddies and reprints about Batman's secret twin brother, Manhunter's got my full attention. By this point in the story, it's hard to tell whether it's the costumed Paul Kirk or the (equally costumed) Christine St. Clair for whom the series is named. I still find it hard to believe a strip like this got green-lit outside of a zine like Epic or Heavy Metal. It's unlike anything in "mainstream" comics at the time. Since those venues didn't exist yet and a crummy back-up spot in a fading title probably wouldn't ruffle feathers, Archie took what he was given. It helps he was the editor of Detective at the time.

Jack: I was happy to see the use of the Japanese Shuriken, known to 1970s kids like me as a Ninja star. I can't remember if this Manhunter series came before or after Marvel's Master of Kung Fu, but I do remember loving it all--my dad used to take me and my little sister to grindhouses in Newark, NJ, to see kung fu movies on weekends. No wonder I'm nuts. As for the Manhunter story, I love Simonson's creative panel and page designs and I agree with Peter that the art is unique for its time.

PE:  Reprint stories include “World of the Magic Atom” wherein The Atom teams with Zatanna to defeat the Druid and release her father Zatara the Magician. In “The Men Who Moved the World,” Hawkman and Hawkgirl must fight three aliens who have shifted earth out of its orbit and sent it towards the sun. Not being a follower of Hawk-lore, I was completely lost while reading this story. It’s easy to see that a science fiction writer (Gardner Fox) was the author since he populates his story with words and objects like “Thanagarian Duplicator,” “Transi-Globe,” and “Protonic Lancer.” What’s funny is that the editor bothers to asterisk only one word: Taxonomy. Obviously, eleven year-olds know what an “Orbitron Machine” is but not the word signifying the science of Biological Classification. The story, by the way, is fascinating – the three aliens turn out to be of an ancient race that came to earth twelve thousand years ago and founded their home of Lansinar. When another planet “entered our solar system it passed near Earth, altering the world’s axis so that the tropics became the frozen arctic,” thus burying Lansinar under tons of ice. The three were placed in suspended animation until the day they could awaken and put the world back the way it was. None of this confuses me, but I must confess I couldn’t figure out what Hawkgirl’s real name is, since it’s mentioned several times as both “Shayera” and “Shiera.” Art is by the magical Joe Kubert, best known for his DC war stories. To round out this massive package, we get a limp Dynamic Duo reprint, "Gotham Gang Line-Up" (from Detective #328, June 1964) and a sleep-inducing Green Lantern tale (with a rare sub-par art job from Gil Kane) from the same year.

One of many reasons to love Gil Kane!
Jack: I liked the Atom story because of the gorgeous Gil Kane art. Boy, can he draw beautiful girls! I found his art less mannered than it would be later in the decade over at Marvel (the Atom story is from 1965). I also enjoyed being reminded of Zatanna's method of casting spells by saying all of the words backwards. I have not had a lot of success with this myself. I thought the Hawkman story was boring, despite Kubert's stellar art. The Batman story is notable only because Alfred appears to get killed off and Aunt Harriet moves in to take his place. I agree that the Green Lantern story is weak and below-average Kane.

PE: This is as good a time as any to discuss Archie Goodwin as editor. One only has to read the editorial in the "Batman's Hot Line" letters section of #438 to get an idea that Goodwin treated his readers with respect. It's almost as though he imagined his audience to be, God forbid, near voting age rather than barely able to read. In the editorial, Goodwin explains in detail why DC has initiated the 100-page format:

There's also a letter from Mike Shoemaker of New York telling (the editor) what's wrong with Detective Comics and why its sales are sliding. It's an excellent analysis, one that highlights all the problems Jack and I have discussed about the Batman books. The back-ups, the artists ("Have good artists [by good, I mean everyone but Frank Robbins, Don Heck, Dick Dillin, and Joe Giella..."]), everything. Archie addresses Shoemaker's issues (at times, admittedly, toeing the party line) and offers up hope for the future. Since we know that future will only last a year, we can hope that the man who takes over the vacancy learns a few lessons from Archie Goodwin.

Jack: Note that Peter only selected the letter that agreed with us to single out. Another letter writer this issue praises Frank Robbins and the Jason Bard series.

PE: That was the only letter that mattered, Jack.

Batman 254 (February 1974)

"King of the Gotham Jungle!"
Story by Frank Robbins
Art by Irv Novick & Dick Giordano

Scientist Kirk Langstrom decides he can control his Man-Bat alter-ego and helps Batman defeat a gang of burglars.

PE: Seems as though Man-Bat was a character that Frank Robbins just could not get a handle on. Is he friend or foe? Here he seems to be almost re-booted, with his ever-present wife absent. We don't even see Langstrom take his potion, he's just suddenly there to help fight crime with Batman. Whereas in the past, The Dark Knight has been forceful in his refusal to take on a mutant as a sometime partner, here he almost shrugs and sighs "Why not?" It's in this issue that we learn that Batman has gained super powers. How else to explain his leap from a rooftop into his waiting Batmobile? A ludicrous scene in a series that, for the most part, is grounded in reality. And it looks like Frank Robbins has been hitting the beatnik lounges again. From Batman's excited proclamations, "I've been jobbed!" to the final descriptive "Heavy!" the dialogue is about six to ten years' tired.

Jack: Batman introduces each of the stories in this issue with appropriate comments. For this one, he says "Listen, gang!" and tells "a swinging story of today!" At the end, the narrator (presumably still Batman) remarks that the Caped Crusader and Man-Bat make a "winning combo." While this story would have been average in the 1973 world of Batman, it pales beside what's been going on in Detective since Goodwin and Aparo took over.

"The Phenomenal Memory of Luke Graham!"
Story by Elliott S. Maggin
Art by Dick Dillin & Murphy Anderson

When a cab driver is killed by some holdup men, Robin taps the memory of a fellow college student to help solve the crime.

PE: It would just be repeating myself to say the Robin back-ups are a waste of good timber but just to prove I actually made it through the whole thing (I get some kind of reward for that, don't I?), I will say that Elliott S. Maggin seems to be aiming his story at the Spidey Super Stories crowd. Silly, inane, juvenile, all this and more in only seven pages.

Jack: The backup series in Detective is much better at this point. It seems evident that Archie Goodwin, the editor of Detective, is aiming at a more teenaged reader than Julius Schwartz does with Batman.

The Fabulous Forties
PE: In addition to the 20 pages of new material, we get five Batman reprints. I used to think, when I was a wee lad, that the 100-page Detective was a rip-off because we got a lot of non-Batman stories. Who wanted to read about The Atom, Hawkman, and all the other boring DC characters of yesteryear? Funny thing is, I now look forward to reading the non-Bats material in Detective and cringe at the "classic reprints" on display in the 100-page Batman. Most of the fifties and sixties Batman and Robin tales are just dreadful. I don't mind the art so much but trying to read these things is a nightmare. Especially those "alternate reality Batman stories" or whatever they call them (Elseworlds?).

The Furious Fifties
Jack: The reprints in this issue provide a good lesson in the development of Batman comics from The Fabulous Forties (as Batman calls them in his introduction to a story from 1941) to The Swinging Seventies. The Golden Age story features primitive storytelling by Bill Finger and rudimentary art by Bob Kane, though it has a visceral power that I find appealing.

PE: In "The Witch and the Manuscript of Doom," a villain named "The Witch" murders mystery writer Erik Dorne and steals a manuscript he was working on. Batman and Robin discover that "the Witch" is actually Dorne's publisher, who's got a side job printing "subversive literature" extolling the virtues of the "fatherland." Dorne had discovered his publisher's secret and was blackmailing him. One of those strange one-off villains who really has no reason to be costumed in the first place.

The Sizzling Sixties
Jack: The Furious Fifties are represented by a story drawn by Dick Sprang, whose art is an improvement in technique over Kane's. The story is also more developed, though still for kids. From The Sizzling Sixties we get a goofy story with a villain named The Grasshopper, demonstrating the wrong turn that the series took just as Marvel Comics were getting off the ground.

PE: In our trip to The Fifties, The Dynamic Duo belong to an elite Gotham Club called "The Bullet Hole Club," members of which must be shot and able to produce the bullet to join! The Sixties reprint, "The Man Who Stole From Batman" is noteworthy for two reasons: the first appearance of The Grasshopper(s) and also the first mention of "The Outsider," a presence that would be felt throughout a series of Bats stories in the 60s, culminating in the ludicrous resurrection of Alfred Pennyworth. 

PE: I got the most enjoyment out of the silliest yarn in the package, "The Son of the Joker" (reprinted from Batman #145, February 1962).  Alfred decides he's going to chronicle the events in the life of a future Batman and Robin, the jobs taken over by, respectively, Dick Grayson and the fruit of a marriage between Bruce Wayne and Kathy Kane (the original Batwoman), Bruce Wayne Jr. When a costumed clown claiming to be the son of The Joker terrorizes Gotham (well, terrorizes in a 1960s Comics Code fashion), the retired Bruce Wayne puts on his cowl one more time to visit the aged and similarly out-to-pasture Joker. Bats finds the Clown Prince of Crime watering his flowers and is quickly invited in for a glass of lemonade. Though The Joker claims he's just as appalled at this new villain claiming to be his son, we all know better. Most of us have read The Dark Knight Returns and know The Joker will never retire. Sure enough, we find out that the old man is behind the new kid in town (not actually his son, but I was hoping we'd get to hear who the lucky lady was) and, with a little help from the other old man, Batman II and Robin II defeat the gang and return Gotham to peaceful nights.

Jack: Not surprisingly, the Joker tale was my favorite as well. One great touch is how the Joker's hair is going gray, though some green remains. I was not clear on who Robin II was. One part of the story seems to say that Bruce Wayne Jr. is Batman II, but another says that there are three generations of the Wayne family battling the Joker and his son. Does this make Robin II the son of Batman II--that is, Batman's grandson?

Most intriguing was the column, Behind the Scenes at the DC Comic World, where we learn of the Comicmobile, a van that drove around parts of New Jersey and Long Island selling DC comics to kids who couldn't find them at the store. A great article about this short-lived phenomenon can be found here.

Detective Comics 439 (March 1974)

"Night of the Stalker"
Story by Steve Englehart
Art by Vin & Sal Amendola and Dick Giordano

In an incident eerily reminiscent of his childhood tragedy, Batman watches as robbers murder a couple in front of their young son. Driven by revenge and perhaps slipping into a psychotic state, The Dark Knight stalks the killers, one by one.

PE: Wow! Coming so quickly on the heels of The Joker story (back in Batman #251), here's another grim fable that pulls no punches. A very Dark Knight on view here, mixing horror and noir. Just when you think you've seen the origin story done once too often, a writer as adroit as Steve Englehart gives it an extra knifing and a couple twists. The Amendolas' art is rough, almost primitive, but it has a wonderful Val Mayerik vibe to it and they shoot right to second place on my favorite Batman artist list after only one appearance! On his website, Steve Englehart  reveals that it was editor Archie Goodwin's idea to have Batman remain silent throughout the entire story (he utters not one word) and, though the writer protested, he now looks back on  the story as "some of my favorite writing."

Jack: The Amendolas also get a plotting credit and the story is said to be from an incident as described by Neal Adams. Did the great Mr. Adams see someone get shot outside a bank? Or did he see Batman almost get drowned in a swamp? I need to know! I was really impressed by the Amendolas' art on this story. Batman is presented as an avenging angel and he never says a word. Englehart's writing is excellent as well.

PE: That "inspired by Neal Adams" credit is a joke. Archie reveals in the letters page of Tec #441 that Vin Amendola once overheard Adams remark that he'd love to read a Batman story with a "fight in the water." Yep, that's it. Imagine all the six year old kids who should have got an inspiration credit in the 1950s when they wrote in to DC asking for stories where Batman fights dinosaurs, mirror images, and giant peacocks!

"The Resurrection of Paul Kirk"
Story by Archie Goodwin
Art by Walt Simonson

Christine St. Clair's continent-hopping pursuit of Paul Kirk leads her to Marakech (sic) and the wounded object of her travels. Prompted by her request for information, Kirk tells the Interpol agent of his origin: a 1940s superhero asked by his government to retire. Unable to give up the adventure, he became a big game hunter in Africa where he met his fate at the tusks of a bull-elephant. Though technically dead, he is put in a cryogenic sleep for 25 years and thawed out by the brilliant Dr. Mykros, a surgeon and member of the mysterious "Council," a group comprised of the world's top ten brains. The goal of the "Council" is to "save the human race from itself." Kirk soon learns that a small army of killing machines has been cloned from his DNA and that fighting force will soon be used against him.

PE: What an incredibly intricate and fascinating puzzle we have here, one whose pieces are starting to come together. It's a shame that, looking back as I can 40 years later, the series will only last just a handful of installments. Goodwin does a grand job of tying his Manhunter in with the 1940s version (albeit providing his character with a bridging device "borrowed" from Marvel's Captain America) and capping it with a nice Ludlum-esque twist at the climax.

Jack: The series is beginning to make sense, so now we don't just have great writing and great art but also a plot we can follow. The Manhunter in flashback sure looks like the Simon & Kirby one from the 40s. The poor guy was brought back to life only to have to fight off an army of clones of himself!

Sure looks like Simon & Kirby's Manhunter to us!

Jack: The reprints are a mixed bag as usual. The Hawkman story is early Kubert art (1948) featuring The Ghost, a recurring Hawkman villain who always made me nervous. That floating top hat and monocle always freaked me out. The Atom story is another Time Pool adventure with tepid Kane art from 1964. The real treats are a Dr. Fate story from 1941 and a Kid Eternity story from 1946. I loved both of these Golden Age characters, who were revived in the Justice League comics beginning in the 60s. There is also a Batman reprint from 1965 and an Elongated Man story from 1966, neither of which deserves comment.

PE: The Golden Age art on the Dr. Fate (Howard Sherman) and Kid Eternity (Pete Riss) stories is worth four bits alone!

Neil Young guest stars as the witch.

Infantino's Zatanna

Great Golden Age splash page!


Greg M said...

Oh, Zatanna...

She is definitely one of my favourite female characters ever from DC, and her outfit back then was perfect. It got really horrible back when she joined the JLA, though.

Love the 100-pagers.

Matthew Bradley said...

It may interest my fellow Marvel University professors to know that Ubu Roi ("Sit, Ubu, sit!"), the mascot of Ubu Productions, was named after the 1896 proto-Absurdist play by Alfred Jarry, in which Yours Truly played the role of the Scots captain--"McNure," in our translation--during his collegiate days. I figure if you guys are gonna evoke Matheson, I have to throw you some kind of a pun intended.

Since I'm just beginning to explore Goodwin's work at Marvel c. 1968, it's perfect timing that you're looking at him through the DC lens here and now. Funny how many writers and artists bopped back and forth between the two companies over the years. I am, of course, largely unfamiliar with the DC stuff.

For the record, Shang-Chi (the aforementioned Master of Kung Fu, son of Fu Manchu) debuted in SPECIAL MARVEL EDITION #15, cover-dated December 1973, so they were pretty much simultaneous. Then again, martial arts were all the rage in pop culture at the time.

Marty McKee said...

Shayera was her Thanagarian name and Shiera the name she adopted on Earth (Hawkman is Katar and Carter).

I love 100-pagers and have managed to collect the whole run. One reason I love them was because it was the only way then to read stories from earlier eras. Reading Golden Age stories was--and is--a real kick!

I'm surprised you guys don't know who Aparo is. Next to Adams, he's the greatest Batman artist ever (and maybe the most prolific). That said, Amendola's "Night of the Stalker" is unquestionably one of the ten best Batman stories ever.

Jack Seabrook said...

Greg, Zatanna probably appeals to me more at my current age (49) than she did when I was a kid. Back then, I had a crush on Supergirl.

Matthew, who knew Ubu was anything more than an annoying dog! And thanks for reminding me of Special Marvel Edition 15--I used to have that one. MOKF was one of my favorite series.

Marty, I agree with you about Aparo. I used to read B & B every month when I was a kid in the 70s. Too bad he didn't do more work for the 2 series we're covering now. I would have preferred him to Frank Robbins!

Greg M. said...


My first exposure to Zatanna was back in the 70s-80s JLA. Recently, though, she has become a mainstay of DC, and Batman's circle of friends in particular. I love how they made her and Bruce friends when they were younger (thanks to Bruce studying Escapology with her father Zatarra.) That's made her one of the few people Bruce could actually end up in a relationship with.

Of course, with the recent DC reboot, there's no telling if they're going to keep that early relationship going.

Anonymous said...

DC published a book a few years ago called "Solo" which featured stories by certain artists. Issue #5 was devoted to Darwyn Cooke and he remade the Englehart/Amendol story you talk about above.

You can see a page of it here:

Anonymous said...

Here's another page from earlier in the story:

Jack Seabrook said...

That's pretty cool! I just can't take the way they draw Batman now.