Monday, September 10, 2012

Batman in the 1970s Part 35: April and May 1975

by Jack Seabrook
& Peter Enfantino

Batman 262 (April 1975)

"The Scarecrow's Trail of Fear!"
Story by Denny O'Neil
Art by Ernie Chua and Dick Giordano

Robert Toomey stole a hundred grand from a charity ball and Batman wants to know where he stashed it. Toomey dies of fright after giving a partial clue to the money's location and Batman knows the Scarecrow is behind the death. The Caped Crusader finds the Scarecrow in an amusement park and must combat a device that creates a crippling sense of fear before he can defeat the villain and recover the money.

PE: Scarecrow's got a wonderful new Scare-O-Meter that's supposed to be even more powerful than the old gizmo. So how does the Batman conquer the fear that should be crawling up his spine? Um, he reasons that he has nothing to fear. Wow! I'd say the Scarecrow doesn't have much of a career left in Gotham. The Scarecrow's a character I've always loved the hell out of, even before Christopher Nolan made him famous in Batman Begins, but he isn't used to his full potential here. He merely makes appearances in a few panels, no real menace, with a story that's about as humdrum as they come. My fondness for the villain comes from more contemporary story lines such as Doug Moench's Knightfall. Though The Scarecrow was introduced way back in World's Finest Comics #3 (Fall 1941), he's been one of the most underutilized of the Gallery and we'll only see him a couple more times in our study of the 1970s Batman. 

Jack: This is one of the best of O'Neil's revivals of the classic villains. Ernie Chua debuts as Batman artist and his work is outstanding. There are two separate full pages that are completely free of dialogue, but Chua's ability to tell a story in pictures is very impressive. The amusement park setting is a bit reminiscent of Scooby Doo, but the fights between Batman and the Scarecrow's goons are exciting and genuinely tough. Chua uses panels in a creative way, mixing cross panel work (where a wide picture is divided into a few panels, with the white space between panels representing missing space) with occasional art that goes beyond panel borders. It all has the feel of work by Adams or Steranko and it's vibrant. 

 PE: I very distinctly remember feeling ripped off when DC dumped 32 pages from their "Giants" but only shaved a single dime from the price. The reprints in this last bonus-sized package (before returning to 32-page glory) are a two-parter (from Detectives #366 & 367, August and September 1967) involving brainwashing and amazingly inconsistent art perpetrated by Carmine Infantino and Sid Greene. I find Infantino to be a reliable artist (though he's got his detractors, to be sure) so I have to believe it's Greene's inks that gum up the works at times. It's not like the whole thing's abysmal, but there are some real lapses here (Bruce Wayne appears pop-eyed in one panel and suave the next). No use dissecting Gardner Fox's story. It was published amidst rampant Batmania and that's all that really needs to be said.

Jack: In the process of reading the reprints for this series I have concluded that the 1960s was a pretty bad decade for Batman stories. With that said, this two-parter was not as bad as some of the stories we have read (with the nadir being the series of stories about the Outsider). Infantino's art is inconsistent, as you point out, but I have such a lot of respect for him and his place in comic history that I don't want to be too negative.

Detective Comics 446 (April 1975)

"Slaughter in Silver"
Story by Len Wein
Art by Jim Aparo

When an accident at a Wayne warehouse damages a statue of the Batman, Bruce Wayne finds a startling surprise within: a human skeleton. With greasepaint and wig in tow, the Dark Knight investigates the remains at the police morgue, only to be interrupted by goons in search of the very same booty. Luckily, the police happen onto the scene and the Batman escapes, tracking the henchmen to their boss's lair. The brains of the group turns out to be Sterling Silversmith, eccentric silver hoarder and vicious killer. Silversmith has been smuggling huge amounts of silver into Gotham in statues, manipulating the world's market and waiting for the day that silver becomes more valuable than gold.

PE: I found this to be an enjoyable enough story but it does nothing to advance the plot of the "Batman-Murderer" arc. Silversmith's remark, when he's about to ventilate The Batman, that "no outlandish doom-trap for you to test your ingenuity upon this time... just a plain and simple bullet between the eyes," is a sly wink to readers like me who sigh and shake our heads when a villain traps Batman under a giant mattress stuffer and then leaves the room before the job is done. Nicely done, Len. I thought for sure that Silversmith must be a returning villain but, nope, this was his debut. Readers must not have been all that impressed with him as this will be the first of only two appearances (the other being Detective Comics #495, October 1980). A shame, since Silversmith seems to be a bit on the homicidal side (the skeleton inside the statue is that of his murdered brother) and you can never have enough maniacs in a Dark Knight comic book.

Jack: There is a nice echo of the Shadow when Batman uses one of his old disguises to gather some information. The character of Sterling Silversmith appears to be a thinly veiled imitation of one of the Hunt brothers, the Texas billionaires who tried to corner the silver market in the 1970s. The US government eventually took them down, without any help from Batman.

"The Mystery of the Flyaway Car!"
Story by E. Nelson Bridwell
Art by Rich Buckler and Klaus Janson

Museum curator Carter Hall seems to have a problem keeping his car on the ground while on the way to work one morning. Turns out a thief has stashed his goods, a super-duper remote control that can levitate objects, in Carter's trunk. Luckily enough, Carter has also stashed his costume in the car and swiftly transforms into his alter ego, Hawkman, to nab the felon and return the stolen gizmo.

PE: Not much to say about this one as it's just too brief to establish anything but a skeleton of a tale. As I've noted before, I really like Rich Buckler's art and Klaus Janson brings out the best in Buckler (some of the panels have an almost Howard Chaykin-ish vibe to them) just as he'd make Frank Miller even better a few years later on Daredevil. If I was a newbie to the Hawkman mythology picking this up in 1975, I'm not sure I'd give the strip another try.

Jack: The best thing here is the art. Hawkman has been fortunate to have some great artists draw his adventures over the years, from Sheldon Moldoff in the 1940s, through Joe Kubert, and on to Rich Buckler.

Batman 263 (May 1975)

"Riddler on the Move!"
Story by Denny O'Neil
Art by Ernie Chua and Dick Giordano

The Riddler is back in Gotham, luring Batman into a museum death trap and posing curious questions to passers by. Our hero escapes and tracks the puzzling fiend to the Gotham Zoo, where he knocks him into a cage of monkeys!

PE: Whereas last issue's villain, the Scarecrow, has always been a favorite, the Riddler has always seemed to me to be a lackluster foe, essentially a poor-man's Joker. This is the only area where I believe the ABC-TV series version trumps the comics. There's quite a bit of insanity to Frank Gorshin's portrayal of The Riddler, a sharp contrast to the smiling buffoon we got with Cesar Romero's Joker. This comic version of Edward Nigma displays not one bit of that maniacal edge. He's just another lower-tier bad guy who got a break and became part of the Rogue's Gallery. With "Riddler on the Move!" writer Denny O'Neil does nothing to add to the character's vanilla personality. This is the first time we've encountered the character in the 1970s and I believe he's the last of the Gallery to be reintroduced to comics fans since the embargo was lifted by Julie Schwartz. Created by Bill Finger and Dick Sprang for Detective Comics #140 (October 1948), the Prince of Puzzles appeared in only a handful of issues of either Batman title before experiencing an upsurge in popularity thanks to the TV show in 1966. Still, Nigma had been on ice since Detective #377 (July 1968) and didn't exactly take the comics world by storm when he resurfaced with this issue.

 Jack: As usual, I'll take the more juvenile approach and say I enjoyed this story, silly as it was. It probably has a lot to do with the fact that the Riddler was my favorite villain on the Batman TV show and I was always excited to see him in the comics. Chua's art is good but not as good as in last issue's Scarecrow story. It's nice that we have two strong Bat artists drawing both comics for now on a monthly basis. 

PE: If The Riddler is the last of the Gallery to be dusted off, then the two titles face a problem: rotate the Gallery or go back to villainous motorcyclists and one-shot, fourth-tier villains. Having cheated and peeked at the covers of the next half-dozen issues, I'd say it'll be six of one, a half dozen of the other. Reader Paul Emrath echoes my sentiments about the Gallery (though he does give props to writer O'Neil's handling of the villains): The Joker and Two-Face are obviously the big guns, with the others a decidedly mixed bag. Emrath calls out for the return of Batman's oldest foe, Professor Hugo Strange (first appearance: Detective #36, February 1940), but will have to wait another two years to see his wish granted.

Jack: This is the first issue of Batman to be 25 cents for 36 pages, and the story has now been cut down to 18 pages from the 20 pages we'd been getting for some time. Looking back, the reduction to 18 pages of new material began with the April 1975 issues of both books.

Detective Comics 447 (May 1975)
"Enter: The Creeper!"
Story by Len Wein
Art by Ernie Chua and Dick Giordano

Seeking answers, the Batman digs up Ra's al Ghul's coffin and finds it empty. When confronted by police at the grave site, the Dark Knight presents his evidence that Ra's is not kaput after all, only to find the casket inhabited by his "dead" foe. The cops are convinced that the Batman has gone bats and word soon gets out to the good folks of Gotham that the hero who has been saving their skins all these years is now a Bat-Maniac. Meanwhile, the Creeper, feeling a debt is owed to the Dark Knight for helping him out years before (Detective Comics #418, December 1971), tracks down the Caped Crusader at the Gotham Zoo but finds it very tough going to haul his old friend in. While the pair scuffle, a shadowy figure releases the lions on them. The animals contained, the pair turn to the mysterious antagonist but the man is murdered before he can spill the beans. Now convinced that the Batman is innocent, the Creeper agrees to help clear his name.

PE: As I quizzically asked a few weeks ago, couldn't this whole misunderstanding have been avoided if the cops would just look at the bodies of Ra's and Talia? The Batman opens up Ra's's casket (using a convenient shovel, I might add) only to find the old man ain't there. Not once does he think, "Hmmm, I wonder how these two corpses were embalmed." We all know that, back in 1975 Gotham City, forensics wasn't what it is now but, seriously, the holes in this scenario are big enough to fly the Bat-Plane through. Though the story's decent enough, this arc is shaping up to be a whole lot of nothing. We knew from the beginning that the Ghuls were alive and manipulating the events the whole time. Let's just cross our fingers that Wein can wrap the whole package up satisfactorily next month. 

Jack: Ernie Chua takes over the art duties this issue from Jim Aparo, which is a step down in my opinion. Chua's panels flow smoothly but his faces sometimes look like they're made of plastic. According to Wikipedia, Ernie Chua was a Filipino immigrant who came to the U.S. in 1970 and began drawing comics in 1972. Chua was a mistake on his immigration papers and that's why he's known by both that name and his real name of Ernie Chan.

PE: Officers Sinkovec and Tiefenbacher refer to Jerome and Mike (respectively), editor/publishers of the long-running, much-missed (by this subscriber, at least) The Comic Reader fan magazine. TCR was a monthly zine stuffed full of reviews, previews, and a checklist of that month's comics. Mostest incredible of all to this pre-teen was the Marvel and DC covers two months ahead of time!

Jack: The Comic Reader was a must-have in the 1970s, especially for the checklist of all of the comics coming out each month!

"The Puzzle of the Pyramids"
Story by Bob Rozakis
Art by A. Martinez and ? Mazzaroli

Robin foils the robbery of an expensive set of holographs at Hudson U. while his alter ego, Dick Grayson, judges a pyramid building contest.

PE: You get the sense from these Robin solo stories that no one else in Hudson University does anything. If a new exhibit is about to be unveiled, there's Dick Grayson. Rock concert in the cafeteria? Dick "the deejay" Grayson. Cherry Smith having a hard time with her algebra? Dick Grayson, part-time tutor. Back when these titles were 100-pagers, there was a ton of reading to be done but at least Jack and I had something to talk about. Sadly, when the topic turns to Robin, the Solo Star, I suspect we'll be bringing out the same old adjectives. The art here, by the mysterious Martinez and Mazzaroli, succeeds in simultaneously resembling a bad Neal Adams swipe and a Daisy BB gun advertisement. This seems to be the deadly dull duo's only art credit. Much better is the 1-page inside cover story, "Batman and The Mummy," which finds the Dynamic Duo rescuing an archaeologist and his beautiful daughter from a deadly mummy by luring the bandaged baddie away with a box of Hostess Twinkies.

Jack: Apparently, Martinez and Mazzaroli were from Continuity Studios, formed by Neal Adams and Dick Giordano. Uber-fan turned writer Bob Rozakis shows his love for comics in a few ways in this six-pager. Reporting for the GBS TV news on the scene of the pyramid building contest is none other than Clark Kent, who returns to Metropolis before Robin solves the mystery. The villain of the piece wears a Junior Woodchucks T-shirt, memorializing Donald's three nephews and their boy scout knockoff organization. Can we read some Carl Barks instead of another Robin story?

PE: Maybe the most important question is: how many times can The Boy Wonder be conked on the noggin before all the concussions catch up to him. He's knocked unconscious an average of 2 times per solo story. In fact, the DC bible must have read: 1/Introduce villain in the shadows; 2/introduce a new character to Dick Grayson; 3/have the villain conk Robin on the head; and 4/reveal the villain to be the new character. It's just that easy.

Jack: It's worth noting that The Joker #1 also came out at this time, with a May 1975 cover date. Written by Denny O'Neil and drawn by Irv Novick and Dick Giordano, this series was in the difficult position of having a villain as its lead character. In the first issue, the Joker faces off against Two-Face. The Joker managed to hang on for nine issues before being canceled.


Greg M. said...

Excellent article, folks!

The Riddler has always been one of my favourite Batman villains (so much so, in fact, that I appreciate Batman Forever), and I loved his origin story when I read it in the Batman 30s-70s HC. I did enjoy his occasional appearances in the comics, but do see that he was a villain in a rut. Having to challenge Batman every time he commits a crime is stupid, to say the least. And yet, that's how he was written decade after decade. I think it was only in the 1990s-2000s, though, where his character became more interesting. Instead of taking on Batman as a villain, he became a private detective, looking to solve crimes before Batman did. It made him that much more of a distinctive character amongst Batman's Rogues Gallery.

Though this story falls out of your range, I'd suggest checking out Brave and Bold #183 "The Death of Batman", where Bats reluctantly teams up with the Riddler to play a deadly game. It's one of the few stories where Riddler and Batman match wits as detectives. It's not overly fancy, but it does its job quite well, I think.

Keep up the great work!

Anonymous said...

The trouble with the Riddler is he's only as good as the cleverness of the writer taking him on. In the TV series, his riddles were often a random series of jokes that sometimes didn't even impact Batman's investigation. My favorites were the ones where all the clues combine into a metapuzzle, like Will Shortz did in Batman Forever; or riddles with multiple interpretations, like in "Riddles in the Dark" (Detective 493).

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Greg! I'll have to check that out. My Batman knowledge post-1980 is very limited.

Ambignostic--I did not realize Will Shortz was involved with that movie! I listen to his puzzles every weekend.