Monday, March 11, 2013

Batman in the 1970s Part 61: January and February 1979

by Jack Seabrook
& Peter Enfantino

Batman 307 (January 1979)

"Dark Messenger of Mercy!"
Story by Len Wein
Art by John Calnan and Dick Giordano

A homeless old woman is murdered and two gold coins are left covering her eyes. Angry Quentin Conroy storms into Commissioner Gordon's office, claiming that the gold coins were stolen from his collection and he wants them back. Batman journeys to the underground world of winos and bums to track the killer, who appears to be Limehouse Jack, a derelict thought dead but now returned on a mission of mercy to put other unfortunates out of their misery by means of poison-coated coins. All is not as it seems, however, and Batman discovers the truth--Quentin Conroy is the son of Limehouse Jack and has gone off the deep end, pretending to be his father and killing street people.

PE: "Dark Messenger" opens with a bang - the murder of street woman Ballerina is very effective, very nasty - but then devolves into a standard "whoisit" with predictably ludicrous results. Seriously, are we to buy that young Quentin Conroy could completely change his appearance by "twisting his face up?" I'd have fallen for one of those incredible make-up jobs we're always falling for rather than this end result.
Limehouse Jack was obviously inspired by a certain radio star who knew what evil lurked... On the letters page, future writer, publisher and Will Eisner historian cat yronwode (no caps, thank you!) raves about 1978 Award Winner for Worst Script, "Attack of the Wire-Head Killers"(Batman #302). Since cat was already in her thirties and, ostensibly, knew better, I wonder how she arrived at her estimation.

Jack: It is always interesting to read the contemporaneous reactions of letter-writing fans to these stories that we are reading decades after the fact. They rarely seem to agree with our evaluations! I thought this was a decent script, though I had to wonder at the Irish and English folks living below the streets of Gotham and speaking in broad cockney accents. Dick Giordano really helps pull John Calnan's pencils up to a level of respectability; the art is actually pretty good!

Detective Comics 481 (January 1979)

"Ticket to Tragedy"
Story by Denny O'Neil
Art by Marshall Rogers

As a favor to his butler, The Dark Knight travels to London to look after Alfred's cousin, Sir Basil Smythe, a brilliant surgeon who has created a new technique for heart transplants. Batman arrives just in time to see Smythe's best friend gunned down accidentally by an assassin aiming for Smythe. Furious and convinced the world doesn't deserve his new transplant theory, Smythe gives Batman a day and a half to catch his friend's killer or he'll burn the documents. Working only on one clue, a train ticket dropped by the killer, the caped crusader tracks down the murderer and prevents the good doctor's bonfire.

PE: Definitely the least of all the Marshall Rogers stories for Detective, mostly due to the average script. Is it just me or does Alfred have cousins in every part of the world? A wordless full page final scene, depicting Batman handing over the assassin to Smythe just before he burns the transplant papers, is one of Marshall's finest hours. Sadly, this is the last we'll time we'll marvel at the art of Marshall Rogers.

Jack: Rogers really outdoes himself here, inking his own pencils. Set aside for a moment the ridiculous notion that Smythe would throw away his life's work out of bitterness over his friend's murder, and this is an excellent story. I admit that the sight of Batman riding the rails on his Bat boots is a bit far-fetched, but I enjoyed it.

"Does the Costume Make the Hero?"
Story by Bob Rozakis
Art by Don Newton and Dan Adkins

Robin, the Boy Wonder finds himself with three new costumes as a result of agreeing to a local contest.  He'll have plenty of chances to try out these uniforms as he battles The Raven.

PE: Since we didn't cover the Batman Family title, where this strip continues from, I'm completely lost as to what's going on. New girlfriend, new girlfriend problems, new police chief partner, and a costume contest that threatens to break "the fourth wall." Not to be a jerk about this since I don't know the ages of the readers who submitted the three designs, but they aren't too dynamic. Forgettable even. Don Newton's art is dynamic and Golden Age-esque in spots but it's hard to get excited when it's illustrating such a by-the-numbers story.

Jack: Dick Grayson continues the longest college career in history--nine years at Hudson U and counting! By the way, where is page 11? The page numbers in the story jump from 10 to 12 mysteriously. This is not the first time in our journey through the 70s that readers have suggested new costumes for the Teen Wonder, yet they never seem to work out.

"A Slow Death in China!"
Story by Bob Rozakis
Art by Don Heck and Bob Smith

Barbara Gordon (aka Batgirl) is in China investigating The Sino-Supermen, a super-powered group of Chinese baddies patterned after American heroes like Superman and The Flash. After a terrific battle, Babs and her traveling newswoman companion, Leslie Tauburn, are kidnapped by the (COMMIE ALERT!) Sino-Supermen.

PE: Like the Robin strip, we're dropped into the middle of a storyline with not much introduction. Is Babs still the pretty, unassuming librarian we all grew to love "years" ago in her back-up in 'tec? Don Heck hasn't missed a beat since his stint on that aforementioned run (he penciled four of Batgirl's adventures, both solo and with Robin, over in the Batman Family title). His Batgirl art outshines anything he did in the 1960s for Marvel.

Jack: I'm not sure I'd agree that Heck on Batgirl is better than Heck on The Avengers! I'm happy to see the Dominoed Daredoll back in action but I did not know that Yellow Peril stories were still in vogue as late as 1979!

"The Whittles Snatch"
Story by Bob Rozakis
Art by Don Newton & David Hunt

The private eye firm of Bard & Langstrom has a new job: find J.J. Whittles's kidnapped wife. The police have been unable to help, so Whittles turns to the private dicks. After quite a bit of deduction, the pair manage to track down Mrs. Whittles, who admits to just wanting to have a little fun at the discos. As they're leaving the dance hall with Mrs. Whittles, a real kidnapper announces his intentions. With a little help from Kirk Langstrom's alter ego, Man-Bat, Bard & Langstrom quash the attempt and deliver the Mrs. back to her Mr.

PE: Since last we saw him, in 'tec #459, Kirk Langstrom has definitely cleaned up his act: he can monitor his changes, he doesn't want to turn his wife into a vampiress, and he's a private detective. That's some change. What's not clear is whether Jason Bard, once Babs Gordon's sweetie, knows that things can get hairy at times for Kirk. The one thing that hasn't changed for Man-Bat is that he seems to be stuck in sub-par adventures, this one included. There's nothing here that elevates the story above your average lazy comic writing. You could easily subtract the character and replace him with anyone else, as there's no specific element crying out for his participation. With just a few panels of "screen time," Man-Bat is nothing but a gimmick. And has Mrs. Whittles been living in the disco for a week? We don't know as that info isn't forthcoming. She had to sleep somewhere. I will admit to chuckling at the climax, where the beautiful Mrs. Whittles doesn't exactly instill confidence in her dumpy hubby when he asks her if she's had enough of the wild life and she says "For now!"

Jack: I liked this story better than you did, if only for the opportunity to see Jason Bard and Man-Bat again. I did not recall the Langstroms having a baby--that could lead to some interesting tales! The problem with this issue is that we have to read three Rozakis stories in a row. The art is above-average in two of them, but Rozakis--even if he was a super-fan/pro--has yet to impress me with his writing.

"Murder in the Night"
Story by Jim Starlin
Art by Jim Starlin & P. Craig Russell

Three men have been brutally murdered in Gotham City and only Batman can tie the three together. Turns out the three served in WWI with Bruce Wayne's father, Thomas. The four men testified against a fellow soldier, Xavier Simon, and put him behind bars for five years. Upon release, Simon swears vengeance. It takes him years but he finally gets around to it by financing a scientist's mad experiment, a mind-transferring machine that Xavier uses on a gorilla. Batman comes to find out that the three murders are not all that the mad man wants: he's tired of his ancient body and he's got his sights set on a new one. Guess who. To be continued.

The Many Faces of Thomas Wayne
PE: Once again, the goofy chronology problem that most comic books face raises its ugly head with the Xavier Simon character who claims he's ninety years old. Since he was in World War I with Thomas Wayne, that opens up a whole can of ancient worms: just how old is Bruce Wayne? Our flashback panels show Thomas Wayne to be a fairly young guy but if Bruce is supposed to be presently in his mid to late 30s, that would put Thomas in his mid to late 50s. Nope. I'm not sure which artist is responsible but Thomas Wayne is obviously a shapeshifter since he doesn't look the same in any of his panels. The story's been told a thousand times before and is a meandering bore. Ordinarily, that wouldn't be such a problem when you consider the two artists involved, but neither rises to the occasion. The art's not horrible (other than the aforementioned "Thomas Wayne: Man of a Thousand Faces" segment) but it's not what you've come to expect from Jim Starlin or P. Craig Russell. A big disappointment.

Jack: The art is definitely freaky in spots, and not up to the cool front and back covers by Starlin. I did not know he and Craig Russell worked for DC! When I saw we were going down the road of the brain transference I though, uh oh! That never goes well. And sure enough, we get another in the endless line of DC gorilla villains.

PE: So, obviously we have a bigger package each issue but, in the long run, is that a better thing? So far, I'd have to say it's just a larger example of the problem we had with 'tec in the mid-70s: weak back-up stories starring third-rate heroes.

Jack: I liked this, the first Detective dollar comic in the series that will run into the '80s. I thought the stories were okay and the art (except for Heck) was very good. It's interesting to note that Julius Schwartz only edits the first Batman story, while Al Milgrom edits the last four tales. The ad rates must not have been very good by this time, since this issue is free of advertisements.

Batman 308 (February 1979)

"There'll Be a Cold Time in the Old Town Tonight!"
Story by Len Wein
Art by John Calnan and Dick Giordano

Batman's old nemeses are popping up everywhere! Mr. Freeze is back in town, killing a traitor with his freezing ray. Selina Kyle is also back, visiting Bruce Wayne with a plan to invest some of her money in his foundation. Mr. Freeze's latest scheme is to promise immortality through cryogenics to those wealthy enough to pay his price. Unfortunately, the process is not quite working yet, and his subjects end up as frozen zombies. The Dark Knight is captured and placed in the freezing chamber, but some quick thinking prevents him from becoming another ice pop and he puts his old foe . . . on ice. Meanwhile, something is not right in Gotham Cemetery, as a pair of monstrous hands burst up through the ground at the site of a recently buried man.

PE: Like last issue's story, this one starts out on strong footing but quickly unravels into a silly mess. I can believe that The Dark Knight pulled the plug on most of Freeze's power but how would he know about the Cryogenic Chamber he'd be locked into (and, luckily, he knew to bring along some frosty make-up just in case)? I couldn't get a handle on Ms. Hildy, who seems to want to undergo a frosty transformation so that she can, ostensibly, rule the world but can't keep her brilliant plan in the thought balloons but rather talks to herself loud enough for Freeze to hear in the next room! The only time we've had a glimpse of Mr. Freeze in the Bronze Age was as a "juror" in the "Where Were You the Night Batman Was Killed" arc (Batman #291-294) so I didn't know what to expect. I was delightfully surprised to see Freeze wasn't of the Otto Preminger variety (from that show) but rather a muscular madman who can take care of himself. Emphasis on the madman; this guy has no problem committing murder to get what he wants. With only one full Bronze Age appearance, the frosty fiend is easily the most under-utilized of the Rogues' Gallery during our journey. While I liked this incarnation, I much prefer the Mr. Freeze who was rebooted in the mid-1980s.

Jack: I thought this was a great issue! For some reason, the usual 17 page story expanded to a very Silver Age-like 23 pages, squeezing out this issue's letters column and editorial filler.  Wein does a nice job of setting things in motion, such as the Selina Kyle subplot and the mysterious, monstrous hands at the end. Giordano is inking Calnan very heavily, so much so that the lovely Hildy is 100% Giordano gorgeous! I think Wein was having a little fun with Batman and Mr. Freeze in this issue, since the sequence where the Caped Crusader is trapped in the freezing chamber cries out for narration by William Dozier. I liked it a lot and I'm looking forward to more! My only complaint is that when Bruce thinks of the two most important women in his life (Selina and Silver) he forgets his WIFE--Talia!

So who got the cape?


Yankee Cowboy said...

A rarity- I actually own 2 of the three comics reviewed, so (of course) I heartily agree with Jack's favorable reviews of 'tec
481 and Batman 308. "Ticket to Tragedy" IMO is the Darknight detective near his bronze age best, while Batman pretending to be a Mr. Freeze ice slave was just pure fun!

Must say I was a little disappointed by Peter's less than favorable reviews, tho I understand he had to call it like he saw it.
But the hate reserved for Robin's costumes? Ouch!

(Can you tell that I really liked the Robin story & the design contest idea? wink wink)

Jack Seabrook said...

Peter can be such a crank!

Yankee Cowboy said...

I wish there was a wink emoticon because my "criticism" of Peter was all in good fun. Had to settle for wink, wink.

Still love the reviews guys, whether I agree with them or not!

Greg M. said...

Peter and Jack,

I'm a tad melancholy that we've finally hit 1979. On the one hand, we're deep into a run of both comics which I actually own, so I can enjoy reading your reviews on them. On the other, we're almost at the end of this column. When it's over, I will miss coming here every Monday to check out your thoughts on this era of the Darknight Detective. But I will be along for whereever your comic wanderings take you.

Now, on to the issues. While I admit this run of Detective pales in comparison to the epic run we just had, I have nothing but kind words to say about the Dollar era. Lots of stories for your buck, and some of them are darn entertaining. My favourite issues will be showing up in the next couple of posts. The stories in this issue of Tec weren't particularly memorable.

As for Batman, I truly love this run of "one and done" stories. They start to lay groundwork for the background of future issues, and it's nice seeing some old and new villains (Mr. Freeze here, The Firebug later on). Of course, we'll also get Kite Man too, so you have to take the bad with the good. :-)

As for Man-Bat's child, we learn more of just what sort of problems she might have in issues of The Brave & The Bold late in 1980. As you might guess, things don't go well...

Another great job, guys!

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Greg! So far, the Dollar Comics seem to have strong lead stories and one or two good backups, but some of the backups--especially by a writer with the initials BR--are pretty tedious.

Peter Enfantino said...


There's some good stuff coming up in these dollar comics and it's not all in the lead spot. That's good news. Bad news is that I'm still gonna be hyper-critical about the bad stuff. I completely agree that it's all a matter of one's taste in this stuff (and nostalgia has a big role as well). Since I was already out of comics by 1979, I don't have that nostalgic vibe about the 1979 comics.

Jack knows that I'm a sweet guy until pics of The Shat are posted and then I'm at my crankiest. :>

Greg M. said...

I'm sure if they'd realised back then that people 30-odd years in the future would be able to take their comic stories apart piece by piece and share those views with the world, they'd have tightened up plot holes and bad writing. :-)

Greg M. said...

Jack and Peter,

I am really looking forward to your take on one of my favourite Tec back-up characters of all time, Christopher Chance aka The Human Target. I've always loved the guy, even the late Fox series (the way they tied it in to the comics was very nice.)

Having said that, the less said about the Rick Springfield version the better... :-)

Jack Seabrook said...

I'm glad you enjoyed the post. We had a lot of fun doing this series. We're doing DC war comics and DC horror comics now, though sometimes I wish we were still doing Batman!

Peter Enfantino said...

And all I have to say to that, Jack, is...
Frank Robbins!!!