Monday, December 17, 2012

Batman in the 1970s Part 49: May and June 1977

by Jack Seabrook
& Peter Enfantino

Detective Comics 469 (May 1977)

"By Death's Eerie Light!"
Story by Steve Englehart
Art by Walt Simonson and Al Milgrom

Alfred has been struck down by a mysterious ailment and when Batman calls for an ambulance he discovers that Alfred's not alone. Several others in Gotham have been stricken with the same malady. Delivering his faithful butler to the hospital as Bruce Wayne, he quickly finds a deserted broom closet and exits as The Dark Knight--just in time, as he literally runs into Commissioner Gordon, who gives him a rundown on the new plague befalling Gotham. The epidemic is the work of a Dr. Phosphorus, who warns that the citizens of Gotham will pay for their sins. While meditating, The Dark Knight hits upon how the virus has been transmitted to the people: through Gotham's drinking water. As the method becomes apparent, a phone call interrupts his thoughts: Gordon ringing to let The Batman know that he, the Commissioner, is the latest victim. Heading down to the Gotham water reserve, our hero is confronted by the one and only Dr. Phosphorus, a glowing skeleton whose body gives off deadly, burning phosphorus. The two battle to a standstill and Phosphorus escapes, vowing to return to finish the job.

Jack: It looks like it's reboot time again, since a note on the splash page states "Presenting the Batman You've Been Waiting For." The brief period in which Detective returned to bi-monthly status is over; now it will be published eight times a year. Steve Englehart has come over from Marvel as the new writer and Walt Simonson returns after a long absence to take over the pencilling chores, with art by Al Milgrom. The final product is not bad, but it's a far cry from the top-drawer Batman tales of O'Neil/Adams or Marshall Rogers. Simonson's art seems hurried and not as striking as it did on the Manhunter series. Englehart's writing is solid, though at 11 pages it's hard to get much of a story going. I'm looking forward to seeing were these two take the Dark Knight next!

PE: If quizzed without credits, I'd never have guessed there was Walt Simonson in there anywhere! Like you say, Jack, it ain't bad but it's cartoony at times. Nice to get a new villain even though he's a bit sketchy and his powers reminiscent of other villains (Marvel's The Molten Man and Molecule Man come to mind). I like that Englehart has Bruce Wayne enter the hospital with Alfred in arms as "Bruce Wayne gets the best wherever he goes" and then notes that Wayne's words may be callous or arrogant but that we shouldn't "judge him too harshly!" Indeed, this is the guy who probably donated the money to build the hospital. He should get preferential treatment.

"The Origin of Dr. Phosphorus!"
Story by Steve Englehart
Art by Walt Simonson and Al Milgrom

Dr. Phosphorus reveals to Gotham surgeon Dr. Bell just how he became an evil menace through a series of bad breaks and worse investments.

PE: A rushed but satisfactory origin tale but I'm curious as to why the parties in charge chose to split this from the main feature. Why not make it one long story? Here we get our first look at the influential Boss Thorne, an underworld mob leader who was, more than likely, the basis for Jack Palance's Carl Grissom (in Tim Burton's Batman). Thorne will come to play a major part in the title in the months to come.

Jack: I don't think we've ever seen a backup feature in Detective that was a supplement to the lead story! It's neat to get the origin story of the villain, although it's basically just another atomic energy accident, and I like the way it ties in with the lead story and looks forward to next issue's tale. A final note says that, as of next issue, Batman stories will be full-length. I think we can agree that this is a development that was long overdue. The sales figures report that Detective was selling an average of 146,000 copies per issue.

PE: Well, I'm jumping for joy that we don't have to read any more execrable tales of The Elongated Man (and Frank Robbins seems to be in our rear view mirror as well) but this is not the end of the back-up feature. It's just a respite.

Batman 287 (May 1977)

"Batman-Ex--As In Extinct!"
Story by David V. Reed
Art by Mike Grell and Bob Wiacek

Bruce Wayne attends a posh museum reception until he has to intervene as Batman when a giant mechanical Pterosaur bursts out of a statute of Napoleon. Batman deduces that the Penguin has returned. The Feathered Fiend strikes next at a movie theater, where an Archaeopteryx bursts through the giant screen. A Diatryma suddenly appears at the Gotham Docks. Batman puts all of the puzzle pieces together and makes it to the next crime scene in time to confront the Penguin, who manages to escape with motorized umbrellas. What is the Penguin's dastardly plan? Stay tuned!

The Case of the
Missing Nose
Jack: The less-than-exciting return of the Penguin makes me wonder if editor Schwartz was paying attention to his own notes over in Detective heralding the Batman we've all been waiting for. Here in Batman, it's the same old thing, as David V. Reed presents another by the numbers tale featuring a member of the Rogues' Gallery. Bob Rozakis, in the letter column, writes that Ernie Chua has left DC and that Mike Grell will be the new regular artist on Batman, which is good news, though he has a problem with noses at some spots in this issue. The sales figures report that Batman  was averaging 178,000 copies sold. More interesting (to me) than the story is the editorial by Jenette Kahn, who explains that the time from when a script is assigned to when sales figures come in was a staggering 11 months! These comic book publishers were really working in the dark. This proves that when Stan Lee wrote that a new comic was a smash hit he was almost certainly making it up!

The Penguin does not
have the same problem.
PE: Not even Mike Grell can save this soggy slop. The Penguin's inexplicable plan based on numerology, famous figures, and Gotham addresses seems better suited to The Riddler or possibly a new villain (The Numerologist?) but I can't make heads or tails of the story nor, half way through, do I want to. Reed shows he can't craft suitable stories using the Rogues any better than Frank Robbins or any of the other previous Bat-writers, so we're left to wonder if these villains ever actually starred in any good comic stories at all. Not that a man dressed like a penguin seems like much of a menace anyway.

Batman was aiming
at a juvenile audience.

Detective Comics 470 (June 1977)

"The Master Plan of Dr. Phosphorus!"
Story by Steve Englehart
Art by Walt Simonson and Al Milgrom

While breaking up a robbery, Batman is issued a subpoena to appear before the court, courtesy of the Gotham City Council and Boss Thorne. Meanwhile, Dr. Phosphorus continues his reign of terror by taking control of Sprang Memorial Arena, an indoor music venue, and pumping poisonous gas into the crowd of thousands. Eventually, Phosphorus and Batman duke it out at a power plant where the mad radioactive genius falls to his death.

PE: When we get a look at the "new" Batcave, it sure looks like the old one. How does Julie Schwartz justify large pennies and fake dinosaurs when presenting "the new Dark Knight" for the umpteenth time? This, along with the sudden reappearance of Chief O'Hara (last seen wearing beach clothes on the set of the ABC series) and the Batboat give me a sneaking suspicion that, for some reason, Julie was getting nostalgic for a decade earlier when Batman was all the rage. Love him or hate him, Christopher Nolan wisely ignored the campier aspects of The Caped Crusader and gave us a hero only the 1966 crowd disliked. First appearance by Silver St. Cloud, a future love interest of Bruce Wayne's who will, one day, learn his deep, dark secret. Amazingly, the issue's biggest set piece, the Sprang Arena attack, where thousands are in jeopardy, is dismissed with a caption box that reads "we need not detail the ensuing pandemonium" and a one-liner from Chief O'Hara to Batman on the phone. How could Englehart have brushed aside what could have been a chilling sequence, perfect to emphasize the grave danger that faces Gotham should Phosphorus be left to roam the streets? Equally, the climax is rushed after a few panels of battle. After setting us up with a nice first chapter, Steve drops the ball here. Of course, the real culprit, as always, is the page limits. This easily could have been stretched to a three-parter without much filling.

Jack: Lots to like this issue--the changes are all good. Following last issue's brief scene where Bruce Wayne revealed that he had moved some of the furnishings from Stately Wayne Manor into his place in Gotham City, this issue shows that he has built a new Batcave below the city streets on the site of an abandoned subway tunnel. Chief O'Hara is also back, as are page numbers (which disappeared when the page count dropped to 17). The story is not terribly original and it looks like Simonson is being held back from being as creative with his layouts as he was in Manhunter, but the series seems to be on the right track. There is a nice nod to the past with the Sprang Memorial Arena; Dick Sprang was one of the great Golden Age Batman artists, who retired in 1963 but lived till 2000. The story is 17 pages, eliminating the need for a backup feature. Most interesting is the Publishorial by Jenette Kahn, who explains the history of Batman and gives credit (as we have in the past) to O'Neil and Adams for breathing life back into the character.

Uh oh! Warning! Danger! Warning! Look at that cover! Another price hike, this time to 35 cents! This is getting alarming. I may not be able to keep buying comics much longer at this rate. Or I may have to get a part-time job after school!

PE: Cripes! The price has more than doubled just since we've been on watch. I say we bail.

Batman 288 (June 1977)

"The Little Man's Hall of Fame!"
Story by David V. Reed
Art by Mike Grell and Bob Wiacek

The Penguin is confident that he will anticipate Batman's next move and defeat him. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne is still being followed by journalist Chester Cole for a magazine profile. Batman interrupts a robbery in progress but is tripped up when Cole suddenly enters the room. The Penguin puts Batman and Cole at the bottom of an empty chemical tank and sends a pair of mechanical vultures to kill them. The Caped Crusader beats the birds and uses the parts to fly himself and Cole out of the pit. He surprises the Penguin in the middle of another act of pilferage and ships him back to jail.

Jack: The story is still dopey but Grell's art is better this month, looking more like his work on "Heart of a Vampire" from January 1976 and the Calculator stories from more recent issues. One thing that always struck me about his art is that so many characters seem to be sporting what we used to call "flare" pants--it looks very '70s. There is a nicely drawn fight sequence near the end that features some dramatic layouts.


PE: Another weak Rogues' Gallery tale by David Reed redeemed, as Jack has pointed out, by some nice graphics by Mike Grell. The standout being the panel (reprinted below) of a Hawkman-like Dark Knight ascending with reporter Chester Cole in tow. Worth the read for that panel alone.


Yankee Cowboy said...

Good stuff guys, as usual.

Question- When you get to the Dollar Comics issues are you going to review all the stories in them?

Peter Enfantino said...


We'll spotlight the Batman stories but also briefly mention the back-ups ala the 100-pagers and the 'tecs that carried back-ups.

Thanks for tuning in.

mikeandraph87 said...

The story was goofy for its time,but I was glad to see Penguin. It also showed Batman/s ingenuity with the mechanical bird parts.

Where can we see sale figures from 1977 and other past years? Its funny how Detective Comics was sa inknig ship back then becuase it was saling 145,000 copies on average. Not even the #1 comic sales in 2013 can reach that iite most of the time! Things ure have changed!

Jack Seabrook said...

Here's a link to a site that has all of the sales figures for the 60s: We pull ours from the comics themselves. Peter may have a link for the 70s.