Monday, April 1, 2024

Batman in the 1960s Issue 19: January/ February 1963

The Caped Crusader in the 1960s
by Jack Seabrook
& Peter Enfantino

Detective Comics #311

"Challenge of the Cat-Man!"
Story by Bill Finger
Art by Jim Mooney

"The Invaders from the Space Warp"
Story by Jack Miller
Art by Joe Certa

Gotham has a new villain! He's the Cat-Man, secretly a bored millionaire and good friend of Bruce Wayne named Tom Blake, who runs an animal farm just outside the city. In addition to being bored, Blake is also broke, thanks to bad gambling, so he turns to a life of crime, with every heist cat-themed.

Blake seems to idolize Batman, so he apes all of the Caped Crusader's accessories, including a tricked-out Cat-Car. Cat-Man's first job goes well, with Blake making off with a priceless cat statue and eluding capture by the boys. The next night, while robbing the Cat and the Fiddle nightclub, the Cat is confronted by Batwoman and is able to capture and bind her. While standing over her, Cat-Man declares a certain fondness for Kathy and proposes a team-up: Cat-Man and Batwoman!

Kathy, of course, shoots down that idea and, as if on cue, her beau arrives to save her. Batman and Robin swing in and a tussle ensues, with Cat-Man escaping (yet again), this time minus his ill-gotten gains. Something Cat-Man says to Batwoman, together with a strange white talc on Robin's cowl where Cat-Man had taken a swipe, leads Bats to believe the criminal is actually Tom Blake. After a quick (probably illegal) look at Blake's finances, Batman is convinced that Blake is his man and he and Robin head to Blake's animal farm.

Discovering the entry to Cat-Man's "Cat-acombs," the Dynamic Duo descend into the darkness and are quickly caught in a "mouse trap" of electrified bars. Blake's voice issues out of an intercom and, while Robin keeps the dope talking, Bats figures out a way to shut down the electrical charge around the bars and the pair escape. They enter Cat-Man's lair and are immediately attacked by the criminal atop a giant mechanical feline. Bats tosses a can of "Nuts & Bolts" (so labeled!) into the cat's mouth and the whole contraption malfunctions. Chasing the Cat-Man through his cavern, they come across an underground river. Cat-Man attempts to jump the raging river but slips and goes under, gone forever. Or is he?

A very enjoyable and immensely dumb adventure, "Challenge of the Cat-Man!" introduces a memorable (if a bit familiar) villain who never really caught on with fans or DC writers. He'll be back in 1964, but that's about it for a couple of decades and then he'll be rebooted for another title. Tom Blake is an interesting yin to Bruce's yang (or vice versa); a bored millionaire who considers a life of crime-fighting but decides that, since Batman does such a good job, he'll never see fame. So why not a life of crime? The fact that he's got bookies breathing down his neck and his fortune has been squandered is only mentioned in passing. It probably would have made for a better backstory if we'd seen him face some pressure from his shylocks.

Diane Meade is vacationing on Jade Island, when a pair of mangy aliens walk through a time warp and begin looting the island's general store. Diane gets on the horn to Captain Harding, who alerts the Martian Manhunter that something dangerous is afoot.

J'onn J'onzz arrives on Jade Island to seek out the two visitors but comes across a cute little varmint (known as a Zook) who can change his molecular structure (and body color) to radiate heat or cold. The locals chase the critter into the woods and are about to bean the little guy when J'onn intercedes. He cuddles the little guy and talks baby talk to soothe it, but it's only a matter of time before the two alien hoodlums arrive to wreak havoc again. MM stumbles across a third alien, R'Ell, who reveals that he's a good guy and that the other two are criminals who took advantage of a time warp  to come to our dimension to cause trouble. 

With the help of R'Ell, J'onn shoves the two miscreants back into the hole just before it closes but realizes too late that the furry little Zook is still here on Earth. Oh well, chuckles Diane, now we have a new pet! More batty nonsense. We're never told why these two nutty aliens are robbing a mom and pop store of its "merchandise"; I guess we are to infer that simple pots and pans will help build the awesome weapon that will win them the power they crave. What are the odds we'll ever see the Zook (who's drawn like it's a Hanna-Barbara cartoon) again or whether Diane will ever be anything but a hostage in these stories?-Peter

Jack-That wasn't a very good Martian Manhunter story, was it? I'm concerned that the Zook will be added to the series as comic relief, which is not something I'd welcome. On the other hand, the Batman story in this issue was really good. Bill Finger and Jim Mooney went all out with the Cat theme, even down to having the Cat-Car--which should have been called a Catmobile--feature whiskers and a tail! I love Mooney's Jerry Robinson-esque splash page with the giant cat and I'm certain that Mooney's version of Batman was the one used for the credits on the TV show.

Batman #153

"Prisoners of Three Worlds"
"Chapter 1: Prisoners of Three Worlds"
"Chapter 2: Death From Beyond"
"Chapter 3: Dimension of Doom"
Story by Bill Finger
Art by Sheldon Moldoff & Charles Paris

A green alien from outer space arrives in Gotham City and is searching for something called Vaux. Batman, Robin, Batwoman, and Batgirl are alerted and respond. The Dynamic Duo intercept the alien at a jewelry exhibit but are knocked out by his ray gun. Batwoman and Batgirl join up with Batman and Robin outside the Ace Film Co., but another blast from the ray gun nearly causes a crash! Our heroes follow the alien to a deserted factory, where he zaps them with another device that makes Batgirl and Robin disappear!

Batman and Batwoman feel like they've been split in two and that their other selves are on "'some strange world'"! Sure enough, on the other world, the pair are pure energy. Their auras destroy everything around them and a race of bird people launch a failed attack. The bird people are then set upon by a flying purple monster, so Batman and Batwoman concentrate their energy and save the bird people. However, the no-longer-flying purple monster begins to absorb B & B's energy. On Earth, B & B realize they're in trouble and declare their undying love for each other as countless pre-teen readers toss this issue in the trash!

Meanwhile, Batgirl and Robin have materialized in the green alien's dimension, where Zebo explains that he sent Karn (the alien visiting Earth) on a mission to find Vaux (silver) to power his disintegrator cannon, a weapon he plans to use to make himself dictator. Batgirl uses a trick lipstick case to send out tendrils of wire to ensnare the aliens and she and Robin escape out a window. They make their way through an alien forest, avoiding bizarre dangers, until Batgirl plants a big kiss on Robin's lips, ensuring that any readers left will stop reading in disgust.

Robin and Batgirl warn the president of Zebo's nefarious plan and he sends troops, causing Zebo to transport himself to Earth, where Batman and Batwoman are fading fast. Fortunately, Batman reversed the power on the ray gun and, when Karn zaps them, their energy forces are reunited with their bodies and, somehow, Batgirl and Robin reappear. Karn and Zebo are teleported back to their planet to face justice, Robin and Batgirl walk off hand in hand, and Batman explains that his declaration of undying love to Batwoman was uttered because he thought she was going to die and wanted to make her last moments happy!

Whew! A 25-page, three-part blast of a story that is fun from beginning to end! Like letter writer Robert O'Neill, I want to see more expanded stories in Batman! I love seeing Batgirl show up again and the panels with our heroes kissing are hilarious. It's great that Finger was able to take all of these disparate elements and craft them into something so entertaining. Even the art seems better than usual.-Jack

Bill Finger's script is action-packed (at times, too action-packed) and rather complicated but not half as chaotic and overwhelming as the Moldy-Paris panels. At some point in '62, the pair must have been told to fill in those bland backgrounds with something--anything!--and they did just that, be it goofy-looking alien creatures or death rays. The double smooch is interesting; I thought for sure both couples would have been blasted with a mind-erasing beam that would eliminate all events of the previous few hours from their brains but, nope, the kisses linger on. Paging Professor Wertham: Batman looks less than pleased with Kathy's smooch. I like the triple-sized adventure format; more room to use on "plot" and Jack only has to write one summary!

Detective Comics #312

"The Secret of Clayface's Power"
Story by Bill Finger
Art by Sheldon Moldoff & Charles Paris

"J'onn J'onzz' Pesky Partner"
Story by Jack Miller (?)
Art by Joe Certa

Look out, Gotham! Clayface is back! Thanks to the usual lax security at Gotham Prison, Bruce and Dick must cut short their fishing vacation and head back to town to track escaped felon Matt Hagen, a/k/a Clayface! Hagen immediately goes to his underwater hideout, where his regenerating pool is located (remember: Clayface has to bathe every 48 hours or he resumes his life as ordinary criminal Matt Hagen) and takes a dip in the strange water. Hagen changes into a vulture and flies away.

Sometime later, we witness Batman hurrying away from a bank, an attache case supposedly holding a bomb in his hand, when a second Batman appears from around the corner. What is going on here? Turns out that Clayface was impersonating Batman, went into the bank claiming there was a bomb, and filled the case with cold, hard cash. The vile demon! The two Batmans have a tussle in the street and a well-placed right hook breaks Clayface's concentration so that he reverts to his mud shape. Quickly, he changes into a "prehistoric" (as opposed to the alternate version) pterodactyl and flies away. Drat, Batman and Robin let a villain get away again!

The next morning, art collector Mrs. Vanderhoeft visits sculptor Pardu to buy his most recent work, "Man of Mars," and arranges to have the monstrosity delivered to her mansion the following day. The article in that afternoon's paper catches Bruce's eye and he suspects that Clayface might be behind this unknown artist. The boys head to Pardu's loft and very quickly get the truth from him: he's actually criminal Eddie Leeds, working for Matt Hagen, and Clayface is indeed about to rob the naive (and obviously half-blind) Mrs. Vanderhoeft of her priceless paintings.

The Caped Crusaders get there just as Clayface is about to make off with said paintings and they put the kibosh on his grand scheme. Clayface escapes (again), but this time he's empty-handed as he drills his way out of the gallery. A further grilling of Eddie Leeds reveals that Hagen is holed up in a furnished mansion on the edge of town. Batman and Robin arrive just as Hagen is getting into his car. Robin wants to bust the crook right then and there, but Bats reminds his pre-teen partner about the lousy security (not to mention the six- to nine-month maximum sentences) at Gotham Prison and, without the location of Hagen's muddy waters, he'll always be a danger. Our heroes need to locate "The Secret of Clayface's Power."

So the boys follow their prey to the bay where Hagen's lair is hidden and Batman dives down into the water. When he surfaces inside the cave, he and Hagen battle and both fall into the transforming pool. They surface onshore and both turn to clay, transforming themselves into various kitchen appliances and beating each other silly. Finally, Batman hides and changes himself into a tree, delivering the knockout punch when Hagen is not looking. The Dark Knight pumps Hagen full of sedatives so that he can't awaken and change form again and then dynamites the grotto, forever destroying the threat of Clayface. Two days later, the now-human criminal stares out from behind bars and thanks his lucky stars he saved some of the pool in a bottle. Clayface promises he'll return!

I like the Clayface villain a lot, despite the routine. Clayface, as a dangerous force, became much more lethal and crazy in the 1980s, but these adventures are entertaining all the same. Bill Finger really needs to break away from the formula of villain pulls job, gets away; villain pulls job, gets away without loot; villain pulls job, gets nabbed. The eight-year-olds probably didn't catch on, but he's not foolin' me.

Why would Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson take a fishing expedition more than five miles away from Gotham when the Dynamic Duo patrol every night and investigate every purse-snatching? In fact, that begs the question: when Bruce goes on business trips abroad, who holds down the fort? I thought Mrs. Vanderhoeft's appraisal of the Sheldon Moldoff-sculpted "Man From Mars" was ridiculous. No one could take a gander at this amateurish Burroughs rip-off and cry "Genius!" Then I remembered the dopes who've paid millions for Warhols. Happily, Clayface will return in November's Batman #159.

Even the eight-year-old readers would run screaming from the ultra-juvenile "J'onn J'onzz' Pesky Partner," wherein new Martian Manhunter sidekick, Zook, helps his idol take down the evil inventor, Doc Duggan. Obviously, my prayers about any future Zook appearances fell on deaf ears and we're sidled with what is obviously a way to cash in on the baffling popularity of Bat-Mite. As bad as the Martian Manhunter series has been, this is the nadir. At least I hope so but, fair warning, Zook will return.-Peter

Jack-The Moldoff/Paris art is nowhere near as strong in the Batman story here as it was in Batman #153. Aliens are so prevalent in Gotham that even the sculptors create them! Clayface is great--a super-villain who has no limit to what he can become is only limited by the writer's imagination. I love the ending that promises more of Clayface! What I don't love is the new sidekick named Zook. It's not "okey-dokey," despite what the little guy (gal?) tells us. When the Martian Manhunter series got more pages, I was hoping for better stories than this!

Batman Annual #4

"The First Batman"
Story by Bill Finger
Art by Sheldon Moldoff & Stan Kaye
(Reprinted from Detective Comics #235, September 1956)

"Am I Really Batman?"
Story by Bill Finger
Art by Sheldon Moldoff & Charles Paris
(Reprinted from Batman #112, December 1957)

"The Batwoman"
Story by Edmond Hamilton
Art by Sheldon Moldoff & Stan Kaye
(Reprinted from Detective Comics #233, July 1956)

"The Vanished Batman" 
Story by Edmond Hamilton
Art by Sheldon Moldoff & Stan Kaye
(Reprinted from Batman #101, August 1956)

"The Phantom of the Bat-Cave!"
Story by Edmond Hamilton
Art by Sheldon Moldoff & Stan Kaye
(Reprinted from Batman #99, April 1956)

"Batman's College Days"
Story by Bill Finger
Art by Sheldon Moldoff & Charles Paris
(Reprinted from Batman #96, December 1955)

"The Marriage of Batman and Batwoman"
Story by Bill Finger
Art by Sheldon Moldoff & Ray Burnley
(Reprinted from Batman #122, March 1959)

"The Second Boy Wonder!"
Story by Ed Herron
Art by Sheldon Moldoff & Charles Paris
(Reprinted from Batman #105, February 1957)

"The Man Who Ended Batman's Career"
Story by Bill Finger
Art by Sheldon Moldoff & Charles Paris
(Reprinted from Detective Comics #247, September 1957)

After a fantastic cover that features four great covers from the past, the nine stories inside this annual are disappointing, mainly because they're all penciled by Sheldon Moldoff. They span the years from 1955 to 1959 and there are a few interesting moments, such as in "The First Batman," where we learn that Joe Chill was hired to kill Bruce Wayne's father. "The Batwoman" features her origin and first appearance, while "The Vanished Batman" shows Robin driving the Robinmobile!

One of my favorite panels appears in "The Phantom of the Bat-Cave," where, in the background, we see Alfred up on a ladder dusting the giant dinosaur trophy! In "The Marriage of Batman and Batwoman," she wears a spare costume of Batman's and looks just like TV's Batgirl. Many of the stories focus on trying to keep the Caped Crusader's identity a secret. I love the annuals, but I hope that the next one has more variety in the art.-Jack

Rebooting origins is a dime a dozen these days, but I'll bet "The First Batman" is one of the earliest of the redos. The iconic "bat through a window" had never been challenged before and Bill Finger does it here with a clever twist. Problem is, this new origin would probably not stand long before another writer came along to make it his own. I'd like to know who was filming the ballroom heist while Doc Wayne was sacrificing his life. The mental institution scheme of "Am I Really Batman?" is just about the most convoluted ever put to paper. There had to be an easier way to keep Batman "active" than to adjust the Batcave, have Alfred dress as Bats, and have the poor guy committed (all with the help of the Commish). It's amazing that Alfred has a lifelike Bruce Wayne mask laying around the mansion.

I really enjoyed the hilariously un-PC "The Batwoman." Rather than a utility belt, this crime-fighter keeps her accessories in a purse and distributes compact powder that makes her adversaries sneeze. A great souvenir of the 1950s. Not as fun was "The Vanished Batman." More like an "Alfred tea-time at the typewriter" story; all I could think of was the dough blown to replace all the Velcro Bat-symbols with big "R"s! "Batman's College Days" proves Bruce Wayne graduated head of his class because the rest of the students were morons.  How do you not figure out the guy missing from all the action is Batman's alter ego? Of the remaining stories, only "The Man Who Ended Batman's Career" did anything for me. I'm with Jack on Moldy's penciling; it's the pits. But... it's not quite as awful as it got in the 1960s.

Next Week...

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