Monday, August 20, 2012

Batman in the 1970s Part 32: October, November and December 1974

by Peter Enfantino
& Jack Seabrook

Batman 258 (October 1974)

"Threat of the Two-Headed Coin!"

Story by Denny O'Neil
Art by Irv Novick & Dick Giordano

Angry at the way he sees America changing, General John Harris pays to have thugs spring Two-Face from the Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane. Two-Face gets his hands on an atomic bomb and sneaks it into Congress, where he threatens to blow up the seat of the U.S. government unless he is paid two billion dollars. It's up to Batman to use his wits and fists to stop Two-Face and save the nation.

PE: Two-Face is the fourth of the Rogue's Gallery to be resuscitated by Denny O'Neil and the third consecutive one to be mishandled. Maybe it's the absence of Neal Adams that hampers my enjoyment of these revamps. I was the one whining about Batman hunting down tax dodgers and vending machine vandals and I got my wish granted for the old villains to return. It's just not what I had hoped for. I wanted the dark, edgy Joker from #251, not the Catwoman from ABC-TV. There's absolutely nothing new to this story, the dialogue is bland and corny, and the art's not all that great either. Only one scene stood out for me and it was for a wrong reason: bizarrely, very close to the climax, Robin tells Batman that he has to get back to Hudson University immediately to study so The Dark Knight will have to find and dismantle Two-Face's bomb all on his own. Never mind the millions in peril, this kid has to get his homework done or he's gonna get a B in history! Is this Denny trying desperately to tap into the kind of continuity that runs wild over at Marvel despite being told these stories must be stand-alones?

Jack: It's hard to believe that the same Denny O'Neil who wrote some of my favorite DC comics of the early 70s is responsible for dialogue like this: "It's a singing party--and you're the star canary!" and "Okay, chum--warble!" It's almost as if he went to the Frank Robbins school of Bat-writing. The most memorable thing in this story is that it marks the first appearance of Arkham Asylum, which would become such an integral part of the Batman legend starting in the 1980s. And who else do we see in the asylum in a cameo appearance? None other than the Joker, who vows revenge when Two-Face leaves him behind bars.

Attack of the Weird Heads
PE: If nothing else, the Batman reprints this issue give the reader an opportunity to "taste" several of Bob Kane's ghost-artists. Jerry Robinson (who has a problem with head sizes at times), Sheldon Moldoff and Dick Sprang all get to show how hard they worked to earn that ten bucks that Kane would throw their way now and then. In the final reprint, "The Man with a Thousand Eyes," the "Master" himself shows just why he needed those ghosts in the first place.

Jack: The reprints this issue are much better than those in Batman 257. They include five Batman and Robin stories, ranging from "The Three Racketeers!" (1942) to "7 Wonder Crimes of Gotham City!" (1967). As usual, the older the better with the Batman reprints. There is also an extra letters page called "Rally 'Round Robin," in which readers debate whether to keep Robin in solo stories or put him back together with Batman.

PE: Can I have a vote?

Detective Comics 443 (November 1974)


Story by Archie Goodwin
Art by Walt Simonson

After the brutal murder of his good friend, detective Dan Kingdom, and the assassination of the prime minister of Congola at Wayne Manor, Batman teams up with Manhunter to bring down The Council.

PE: Unlike previous installments of Manhunter, this chapter never gels. It always feels like two separate Archie Goodwin scripts, one for a Batman story involving Kingdom and Congola and the other, an attempt to wrap up the Manhunter series before Archie heads to Marvel. Because of that, it's a very confusing read. Simonson's art, as usual, is a plus with the exception of his awful rendition of Bruce Wayne. Even though it appears that Manhunter is killed in an explosion in the story's climax, the character was resuscitated in 1999 for Manhunter: The Special Edition. In this later story, we find out that it was actually one of Paul Kirk's clones that was vaporized. In the letters page, Goodwin allows that there was never enough room to tie together all the plots and threads he and Simonson and concocted and, alas, some of those threads are left to dangle.

Jack: I thought that this was a terrific conclusion to the Manhunter saga, with the extra bonus of having Batman get involved. The art is nothing short of spectacular, with page after page of creative use of panels. The subplot involving the newly emerging African nation ties the story in with then-current events, something I had really liked about Batman stories in the early '70s but something they had gotten away from by 1974. All in all, this is a very enjoyable story and I'd recommend Simonson as a regular Batman artist. Archie Goodwin will be missed both as a writer and an editor.

PE: If I didn't know better, I'd say that ol' Bob Kane was responsible for the primitive art found in "Dr. Mephisto," a 1941 Spectre story actually penciled by one Bernard Baily (who co-created the strip with Jerry Siegel). In the story, a fake spook is stealing jewelry from the audiences at a magician's show and The Spectre manages to elicit important information from one of the crook's henchmen by zooming him up to the clouds, where they are both swallowed by a purple dinosaur. Evidence that marijuana was used even in the early 1940s to heighten the comic book writer's "artistic tendencies."

Jack: You won't catch me criticizing Bernard Baily or The Spectre! I love this strip and its primitive art. I have also been reading the All-Star Comics Archives, where I get more of The Spectre, and I am fascinated by his seemingly unlimited powers. He can get big, he can zip up into outer space, he can walk through walls--he is one crazy dude. I recall that when Mike Fleisher took over the character in the '70s things got pretty gruesome. By the way, did you catch the caption where the Spectre is referred to as "The Dark Knight"?

PE: The longest reprint, and probably the most important, would have to be Steve Ditko's "The Coming of the Creeper!,"a barely-written, badly-illustrated origin story that first appeared in Showcase #73 (March 1968). The character's moniker is derived from the old Marvel chestnut: the bystander (in this case, a beat cop) who makes an offhand remark (to himself, no less) about this guy being a "creeper!" Two pages later, half the city is calling him "The Creeper" despite the fact that Joker, Jester, Laugher, or Howler would have been more appropriate. The Creeper's costume looks a bit like one of Ditko's other creations, Kraven, the Hunter.

Jack: Barely written? Badly ILLUSTRATED? This is classic Ditko! I love a good origin story and this one fits the bill. The Creeper's costume is so colorful and the other characters are so crazily drawn that I can't help loving this story. With the benefit of hindsight I can see early signs of Ditko's Objectivist politics creeping (sorry) in around the edges of this story, but this is the introduction of a major DC character and thus a key story. I admit that it's funny that whenever the Creeper makes his costume invisible there is a handy fern for him to stand behind.

Other reprints include a Golden Age Green Lantern tale that is not one of Alex Toth's better efforts, and a very early Batman story notable for a rotund Alfred who calls Batman "Mawster." The really sad news in this issue comes from Archie Goodwin, who announces that he is leaving DC and turning the editor reins back over to Julius Schwartz. Farewell, Archie--it was a terrific year!

Batman 259 (December 1974)

"The Night of the Shadow!"

Story by Denny O'Neil
Art by Irv Novick & Dick Giordano

It's 1939 and young Bruce Wayne is traumatized by the gunfire that erupts when he witnesses the Shadow defeating a jewel thief and his henchmen. Flash forward to 1974 and the jewel thief has been released from prison. He attempts vengeance on Bruce Wayne and a nurse who had been at the scene of the earlier crime, but he fails to reckon with the Batman and his mysterious helper, the Shadow.

PE: Simultaneously a sequel and a prequel to "Who Knows What Evil--?" (#253), "The Night of the Shadow" takes us back to Bruce Wayne's childhood and a close encounter with a shadowy legend. It's noted that the encounter takes place 25 years earlier but Willy Hank Stamper looks no older when he's released from jail than when he went in. A lot of silly coincidences collide here: though Bats and Gordon have been working together for years, it's only on this night that The Dark Knight reveals he has a hatred for firearms, as if Gordon wouldn't know by now; on this night, Bruce Wayne decides to visit "poor old Mildred" who "never quite recovered from the shock of that gunfight 25 years ago," only to find Stamper heaving the old broad off the roof; and on this night, luckily enough, the jeweler involved in the heist a quarter century before is right by Mildred's side.

The plot's not all that's pedestrian here: the dialogue is dreadful (Stamper tells the jeweler, "I seek revenge, not your paltry goods") and Novick and Giordano seem to have given up the good fight they've waged these past five years. Their characters are barely distinguishable from each other and most backgrounds consist of a solid color and not much else. Bruce's escape from atop a plunging elevator (he steps onto an access ladder while the car is hurtling down the shaft!) stretches all credibility, even in a strip about an ancient gunman who can cloud men's minds and disappear into the shadows. The only positive is a dedication to Bill Finger, who had passed the previous January.

Jack: OK, Bat-grouch, this is MUCH better than the past few issues of Batman, which have featured less than stellar returns of Catwoman, the Penguin and Two-Face. The Shadow's use of guns is a refreshing change for the Batman strip and any time we get a flashback to the 30s and a little addition to the Bat-mythology it's fine with me. Bill Finger died January 18, 1974, and this issue was released at the end of August of that year.

PE: There's a theme for the five reprints this issue ("impersonators of Batman"), though the most interesting could only tangentially fit that theme. "The Strange Costumes of Batman" is admittedly very silly but it at least gives the readers an answer to the FAQ: "What ever happened to that gold uniform Batman wore during "The Case of the Midas Touch"? Bats rolls out his wardrobe rack and relives many of his more colorful adventures. Dopey but not as entertaining is "The Great Batman Swindle" (from Detective #222), wherein a quartet of villains have the bright idea of impersonating a host of Batmans in order to con Ned Judson, "Wealthy Yachtsman" and "real Batman fan," out of thousands of dollars. What stops the narrative from being completely believable is the fact that the crooks go to great lengths and expense to convince Judson that The Dark Knight is actually four different people (after all, "one man couldn't survive so many dangers and get about to so many places") and Robin only hangs out with Batman #1 (ostensibly because they couldn't find four comic book readers/juvenile delinquents to masquerade as The Boy Wonder). One of the faux-Batmans wears a natty mauve three-piece suit.

Jack: "The Great Batman Swindle" was written by Bill Finger, to whom this issue's new story was dedicated. He also wrote  "Two Batmen Too Many!" where the Atom and Elongated Man wear Batman costumes to help the Caped Crusader, and "The Failure of Bruce Wayne!" the last reprint this issue. It's nice that the editors paid tribute to Finger by reprinting four of his stories; it's odd that they continued to perpetuate the illusion that Bob Kane drew stories that he obviously didn't draw by adding new boxes crediting him as the artist! I'm surprised you did not mention the two pages of suggestions by readers for a new costume for Robin. The various outfits appear to have been drawn by the readers as well.

PE: I didn't mention the fanboy feature on Robin's new threads because you were already complaining about my grumpiness. Putting a new uniform on Robin is like putting a dress on a pig. It's still a pig.

The Natural Trading Company???

And it was a good fanzine, too!


Greg M. said...

Another great column. We're now deep into a portion of comics that I'm greatly familiar with, as I have most of the issues in the past couple of posts (minus the Penguin one from last week.)

I've never really had a problem with any of the stories featured in these issues. Granted, none of them hit the artistic and storytelling high of Batman #251, but it would be extremely difficult to do that. So much went right for that one, that doing it again would be difficult. I'm also wondering if there was any editorial restraints preventing them from going that far again.

But, as I said before, I don't think these ones are that bad. The Joker one coming up is quite fun, IMO, and there are far less interesting ones coming. For example, the "Who Killed the Batman?" four issue arc of Batman's 291-294. Not exactly the finest hour for Riddler, Catwoman, Joker and...Lex Luthor?

Still, keep up the fine work, folks.

Anonymous said...

70's Batman is the greatest of any period. Today's Batman has gone too far off the deep end. It's terrific to see these books getting the respect they deserve.

Matthew Bradley said...

With my decidedly different frame of reference, I'm in the early days of Archie's first stint at Marvel (c. 1968), about to begin his doomed effort to follow Steranko on NICK FURY, AGENT OF S.H.I.E.L.D. Sounds like a lot has happened in the interim!

Jack Seabrook said...

Greg: From this week's stories, I liked the one with Manhunter the best, followed by the one with the Shadow. I thought the Two-Face story was pretty weak.

David: Having read my way through half of the 70s Batman comics, I agree with you! I can't read the current DC comics, mainly because of the art and lack of writing.

Matthew: As you saw, we thought Archie Goodwin did a great job with the Caped Crusader in 1974. Too bad it ended!