Monday, November 12, 2012

Batman in the 1970s Part 44: September and October 1976

by Peter Enfantino

& Jack Seabrook

Detective Comics 463 (September 1976)

Story by Gerry Conway
Art by Ernie Chua and Frank McLaughlin

Batman busts up a million-dollar heroin deal but the dealer, a pimp named Slinky, is killed in a car bombing. The Dark Knight suspects that this is more than a territorial feud and becomes convinced of it when the #1 suspect, the pimp's boss, is shot dead. This time, Batman is able to track down the shooter, a masked vigilante calling himself The Black Spider. The killer at first hopes the Caped Crusader will fall in with him in his nightly street cleanings but Batman scotches that idea fast. Weakened by blood loss from a bullet wound, Batman is easy prey for the Spider and is left helpless on a runway, a plane about to land and put an end to his fabled career.

Huggy Bear's second cousin?
PE: "A city is like a living thing, with its arteries and cells, its muscles and its fat. It's health... and its disease. Like all cities, Gotham has its clots of cancer..." Has a ring to it, doesn't it? Gerry Conway, like most major comic writers in the 1970s, played the game of musical chairs with DC and Marvel. He's best known for killing Gwen Stacy (an act he received death threats for -- my eleven-year old crayon scrawlings may have been among them but nothing can be proven) in The Amazing Spider-Man #121 and, as an encore, putting The Green Goblin to rest the following issue. In '76, Gerry wrote the first DC/Marvel crossover, Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man. "Death-Web" was written after Conway returned from a very brief stint as editor-in-chief of Marvel (lasting just a month and a half) and carries all the pros and cons of mid-70s comic writing. It's miles above most of what we've been reading in these titles the last few years but it also contains some annoying cliches (like the black pimp dressed in Huggy Bear clothes named Slinky). Blink and you'd miss Conway's tenure on Detective in the '70s. The writer will contribute only three scripts this decade but will take over scripting chores during a celebrated run on both Batman and Detective from 1980-1983. Someone tell me if Marvel's lawyer was in the Bahamas the month this issue came out. The Black Spider, complete with red hood and web designs? Written by Spider-Man's longtime chronicler? Looks pretty close to Peter Parker's alter ego to me. The Reeves character has outgrown his usefulness (if he ever had any, that is), now reduced to showing up every time Batman gets beaten or framed and uttering half-sentences like "Should be jailed!" How long until we get to the inevitable "He's really the Joker in disguise!" story? There has to be a reason why Julius Schwartz wants this character continued but I'll be damned if I can figure it out.

Nope, looks like a completely original character to us!

Jack: Gerry Conway’s first Batman story for Detective features the above average amount of violence one would expect from the author, but it also features more characterization and interesting plot than most Batman stories of this era. Stereotypical pimp Slinky Hamilton is blown up by a car bomb and it looks like the Back Spider is responsible. The Black Spider appears to be a vigilante of the sort that was popular in the 1970s in the wake of Charles Bronson’s Death Wish (1974). Batman is grazed by a bullet to the shoulder and feels the effects in his next fight. This story shows a Marvel influence, with the Caped Crusader looking a little bit human. I am looking forward to seeing where this goes next issue!

"Crimes by Calculation"
Story by Bob Rozakis
Art by Mike Grell and Terry Austin

Scientist Richard Bagley is discussing his breakthrough invention, The Quake-Breaker, to a less than packed house at Ivy University. Among those in the paltry audience is Ray (The Atom) Palmer. Just as Bagley gets to an interesting tidbit about his gizmo, which would channel the power of earthquakes into "good use," his speech is interrupted by a costumed criminal going by the name of The Calculator. Utilizing the power of computer data, The Calculator can predict events to come. Bagley hightails it but The Calculator is right behind him. Palmer suits up but proves to be no match for the villain. An earthquake opens up a fissure in the earth and Bagley falls to his death. Enraged, The Atom pulverizes The Calculator and sends him to jail. But that may have been what the evil genius wanted in the first place. We'll see.

Jack: Pocket calculators were all the rage by 1976, so it’s not surprising that DC would introduce a corny villain named the Calculator. That aside, Mike Grell’s art is really sharp in this six-pager, and he draws the Atom as well as anyone in recent memory. The Atom’s compact size helps Grell avoid the long, lanky bodies that could sometimes mar his artwork.

Next stop: Main and 5th Street!

PE: You'd have to look high and low (or maybe just in the Detective lead-ins) for a dopier villain than The Calculator, whose headgear simultaneously shoots out jets of fire and tells you what the next stop on the bus line will be. Rozakis was obviously poring over old issues of The Fantastic Four and figured he could do a better version of The (Mad) Thinker than Jack and Stan. He was wrong. Turnabout is fair play though, I guess, since The Atom was "borrowed" by Stan for Ant-Man. Fifth-tier villain notwithstanding, I enjoyed this goofy little adventure and thought the death of the innocent scientist particularly grim (once Bagley falls into the crevasse, The Calculator closes it). Grell and Austin are easy on the eyes as well. 

Jack: DC is now featuring a one-page house promo called The Daily Planet, with news of upcoming comics and an abbreviated checklist. This was one of their occasional attempts to copy Marvel’s Bullpen Bulletins. The really big news, though, is in tiny print at the bottom of the splash page—Jenette Kahn is now listed as publisher, a change that would affect the entire comic industry for decades.

Batman 279 (September 1976)

"Riddler on the Rampage"
Story by David V. Reed
Art by Ernie Chua and Tex Blaisdell

The Riddler escapes from jail during a riot and Batman is after him, aided by Robin, who is back from school to do some research. The Dynamic Duo follow the clues and capture the Riddler at the Gotham Museum of Art, where he is in the midst of trying to steal a solid gold jeweled sphinx.

Jack: The key to a good Riddler story is having good riddles. I like the explanation for why a clock is the most modest of all mechanisms: because it covers its face with its hands. The story is basically a long chase with art by Chan and Blaisdell that is serviceable but no better. It’s nice to see Robin working with Batman again, though, and I’ve always liked the Riddler from the TV show, so this issue gets a pass.

PE: Barely a pass. It reminds me of one of the 1950s issues and that's not a good thing. Appropriate since Reed got his start writing Batman in that decade. I give extra credit to the writer however since most of the riddles and clues are more clever  than silly. The art's awful though and I'd suspect that's due to Blaisdell's inks since we've seen what Chan (Chua) can do on his own (or with another inker). 

Us too!

Detective Comics 464 (October 1976)

"The Doomsday Express!"
Story by Gerry Conway
Art by Ernie Chua and Frank McLaughlin

Escaping death by jet airplane, The Batman once again tries to stop The Black Spider from assassinating a drug dealer. As before, The Dark Knight is just one step too slow and the big-time Parisian junk seller is shot dead as he gets off the plane. Batman decides he has to find out what's motivating The Spider. Thanks to a very well-connected hooker, The Dark Knight discovers that a buddy of the Spider got hooked on horse and accidentally shot his own father. Since that day, the vigilante has tried to rid the world of dope pushers. Later, during a tussle atop a speeding subway train, Batman unmasks The Spider and guesses his real identity as "the buddy." The Spider, attempting to set off a bomb on the train, is killed and Batman is left to wonder who was the villain in this case.

PE: Writer Conway gets around to exploring an area that would be revisited countless times in the future: what gives Batman, clearly operating outside the law, the right to dress up and take down villains? Obviously The Spider's methods are a bit more extreme but, at times, Batman's had blood on his gloves as well. Commissioner Reeves (when did he get a promotion?) exclaims that Batman is nothing but "another costumed vigilante" and The Dark Knight finds he can't argue with that. Some deep thinking here for the twelve-year olds. Hats off to Gerry Conway.

Jack: Part two was even better than part one! Is this the same comic book we’ve been suffering through recently? The Black Spider murders a heroin dealer, Batman visits a hooker to get background information, and the Black Spider turns out to be an African-American former junkie determined to wipe out anyone trafficking in heroin. I must admit I suspected the Black Spider’s race when he told Batman, “I’m done with you, man!” Maybe it’s just my ear for dialect.

PE: Or the fact that you read too many bad comic books when you were a kid (a habit you've yet to kick, I fear). I wonder if Stan and Jack knew what they were doing when they created The "Black" Panther. How long before an African-American hero (or villain) had a moniker minus the "black?"

Jack: Just ask Black Goliath.

"A Hot Time in Star City Tonight!"
Story by Bob and Laurie Rozakis
Art by Mike Grell and Terry Austin

The Black Canary heads to Star City for its tricentennial celebration but gets waylaid by The Calculator, who manages to synch The Canary's sonic scream to a raging heatwave. The Canary uses her super intelligence (and great legs) to once again put the fifth-tier villain behind bars. But how long will his imprisonment last this time? We'll see.

Exactly two reasons to read The Black Canary.
PE: 526 degrees will melt the gizmo on The Calculator's chest but not his chest itself? All these two could work up was a bit of sweat? I smell a rat. The Canary's got a great set of gams and Grell and Austin know how to show them off but The Rozakii don't deliver the goods this time. 

Jack: I am always glad to see Black Canary for the same reason I am always glad to see Zatanna—in fact, their outfits are strikingly similar. It’s interesting that the Calculator arc is spanning different superheroes in these back-up stories in Detective. I was a little concerned about some of the temperatures reached in Star City (526 degrees?) but this was not a bad little story.

PE: The mini-stories starring The Calculator will culminate in a big battle with Batman (and the rest of the Justice League) in Detective #468. In the letters page, Bob Rozakis puts the kibosh on any further adventures of Jack and Peter fave Tim Trench, Detective, explaining that most of the reader reaction was unfavorable. Yet these bozos loved The Olympics of the Underworld? You can't make these things up, folks!

Batman 280 (October 1976)

The Only Crime in Town!"
Story by David V. Reed
Art by Ernie Chua and Frank Giacoia

Batman is in the middle of foiling a robbery when the crooks throw up their hands and give up precisely at one a.m. Conferring with Commissioner Gordon, Batman learns that there seems to be a curfew on crime between the early morning hours of one and two. Batman receives a tip that a criminal plans to pull two jobs during the curfew and the Caped Crusader deduces that a valuable coin collection is the target.

Jack: Aside from the run of the mill plot and sometimes awkwardly “hip” dialogue, such as Batman telling a crook to “stay cool,” the most interesting things about this issue are Frank Giacoia’s inks and the ads. Giacoia’s inks over Chua’s pencils have a real 1960s Batman look that reminds me of Carmine Infantino’s work. The internet tells me that Giacoia and Infantino knew each other well, but I don’t see any Batman credits for Giacoia in the 1960s. Perhaps he was paying homage to the recently departed DC publisher. The ads in this issue are fantastic! Aquaman shills for Hostess Twinkies, DC promotes four comics that are tie-ins to TV shows, a couple of new dollar editions are out, Bugs Bunny invites us to visit Jungle Habitat, a book called Very Special People is on sale, and we can order our very own Batman utility belt! Once again, I wish for a time machine.

I'm blowin' town--stay cool!
PE: Ulp! I couldn't agree with you more, Jack. Thank goodness there's more pages for ads, letters, and in-house promotion than actual story here. This one darn near put me to sleep with its unending wrap-up expository. As good a detective as The Dark Knight is, how the heck could he know all the behind-the-scenes info he spouts in the final seven frames? The letters page lately has been aflutter with "who is David Reed?" questions. Reader Nick A. Grassel does some ace detective work (reading through old issues of "Bill Bower's excellent fanzine Outworlds" - an endorsement I most heartily second) and discovers that Reed is actually pulp writer David Vern (aka Vern Reed), whose agent back in the 1940s was (coincidence?!) Julius Schwartz! David Vern Reed wrote science fiction stories for Amazing, Fantastic Adventures, and other top pulps.

Real art

More Neal Adams PSAs:


Greg M said...

Hey guys. Another excellent column.

The Calculator is another one of those characters who, on their first appearance, lack any apparent future. Goofy costume? Check. Loony gimmick? You know it. I don't recall offhand if he had any sort of future outside of the 70s and 80s. Decades later, though, he would be put to much better use (minus his outfit), when he became the criminal's answer to Oracle (Barbara Gordon). So, as far as Batman's rogues gallery is concerned, he's probably on the same level as Deadshot.

And speaking of Deadshot, this is, if I'm not mistaken, Terry Austin's first work to appear in Batman or Detective. I believe we have about a year to go before he's paired up with a certain Marshall Rogers to create one of the most celebrated runs in Detective ever (which includes the triumphant return and redesign of Deadshot). I look forward to seeing your views on that run.

As for the Councilman, his story presumably runs into that of Boss Thorne, whom I'm sure we're all familiar with. They're starting to flesh out Gotham itself by this time, and that can only help Batman.

Keep up the great work!

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Greg! Peter and I are both looking forward to the Rogers/Austin run, especially after so much mediocrity in 1976.

Todd Mason said...

Indeed, David V. Reed was one of the more popular writers of BATMAN in the perior of my most assiduous reading of the character, from '74-'75...and, while Ziff-Davis was still based in Chicago in the 1940s/earliest '50s, Dave Vern had served as a sort of representative in NYC for ZD pulp editor Ray Palmer. Vern/Reed would contribute to such Palmer and Palmer-influenced magazines as OTHER WORLDS and Paul Fairman's initial issues of IF: WORLDS OF SCIENCE FICTION (later variously IF and WORLDS OF IF to one degree of formality or another, under better editors) in the '50s, as well.

Greg M. said...

I'm rather interested to hear that the guy writing Batman was a pulp writer, because it makes me wonder who else used to write pulps as well as comics. I have a novel written by a Gardner Fox, and I am all kinds of curious if it's the same Gardner Fox from the comics.
I'd really find it cool if it were.

Peter Enfantino said...

Yep, that's the same Gardner Fox. I read a Gold Medal novel about Jack the Ripper by Fox years ago, that was fabulous. Off the top of my head, other pulp writers who wrote comics include Edmond Hamilton, Arnold Drake, and Mickey Spillane.

Marty McKee said...

I can't defend it, but I love those Calculator backup stories. It was a good way to shine the spotlight on a few second-string DC heroes, and just a silly fun story arc that's unmistakably Rozakian.

Greg M. said...


he did a Gold Medal novel about Jack the Ripper? I'd love to see it. The one I have is about Ivan the Terrible. He seems to have chosen some interesting people to write books about. :-)

Peter Enfantino said...

The novel is called Terror Over London. You should be able to find it on ebay or abebooks.

Matthew Bradley said...

Jack's tantalizing reference to Jenette Kahn sent me over to Wikipedia, where I learned about the famous (or rather infamous?) D.C. Ex- and Implosions. Per Spock, "Fascinating." Marvel probably launched and cancelled just as many new books during the mid-'70s, but never in such a systematic manner, so their own "implosion" was more gradual.

I'm learning more and more about Conway from various sources (most notably MARVEL COMICS: THE UNTOLD STORY at the moment, courtesy of Professor Pete), and he seems to be an interesting figure, either Roy Thomas's natural heir or a pariah, depending on who you ask. Wrote a lot of really good comic books for Marvel, that's for sure.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Paste-Pot, you had to stink up the joint by mentioning that damned Arnold Dreck? Yeah, I know he was considered hot stuff at D.C., but at Marvel...ugh.

Anonymous said...

You say that Gerry Conway's Batman/Detective Comics run is celebrated. While I hope this is true, I want to know from any commenters that read this: A. Have you heard of it and B. Is it actually celebrated, or is that only among hardcore Bat-fans?

Jack Seabrook said...

I was no longer reading comics by the time Conway took over in 1980, so maybe Peter can shed some more light on this?