To celebrate the release of The Dark Knight Rises, July is “Batman month” here at the m0vie blog. Check back daily for comics, movies and television reviews and discussion of the Caped Crusader.
It’s very hard to believe, but there was a time when both Batman and Detective Comics were on the verge of cancellation. While the character had been one of the first major superheroes to emerge, and had a profound impact on many who followed, the fifties had not been kind to the Batman. When changes in the market forced the publisher to move away from the traditional crime stories, they tried to tell science-fiction epics. This approach actually worked quite well on Superman and Action Comics, as Superman leant himself to stories about aliens and other dimensions, but these elements felt somewhat out of place in a Batman comic book. In a last ditch effort to save the titles, editor Julius Schwartz was drafted in to revamp the character and his world, resulted in a “new look” version of the Caped Crusader who would inspire Adam West’s version of the character, but felt like something of a return to the character’s roots.
Schwartz was, of course, the editor who had revitalised several Golden Age DC comic book characters by reimagining them as science-fiction rather than magical heroes. He was the editor responsible for introducing Barry Allen as The Flash and Hal Jordan as Green Lantern, two iterations of those characters radically divorced from the original versions, yet maintaining crucial thematic ties. Looking at the state of Batman, emerging from about a decade of sci-fi heavy stories featuring alien worlds and strange civilisations, Schwartz knew better than to suggest a science-fiction reworking of the character.
This collection opens with an introduction from Mark Waid, who clearly know his stuff. He quotes Schwartz discussing his approach to this relaunch of the character. “I saw no need to make wholesale changes,” the editor explains. “I simply wanted to update the character. Replace the stairs to the Batcave with a modern elevator. Trade that old, fifties-style car for an open-top roadster. Equip it with a mobile hot-line to Commissioner Gordon’s office. That sort of thing.” While by no means the most profound changes, these superficial updates were the most noticeable changes – at least at first. Indeed, in the first issue collected, “Batman’s Hot-Line” concedes fans may notice “an aburpt change.”
Some of these are design changes acknowledged in the story. “The original Batmobile has had its day!” Bruce tells Robin. “The trend now is toward sports cars — small, maneuverable jobs!” How very with the times, Bruce. However, the most significant cosmetic change was the shift in art styles. Schwartz drafted in Carmine Infantino to give the books a makeover. Infantino had done a fabulous job on The Flash, and is quite possibly one of my very favourite artists of the period at either company. His style was more nuanced and three-dimensional than a lot of his predecessors, with a hint of realism, but also a distinctly cartoonish element.
While Infantino’s style was perfectly suited to The Flash, which is a book that looks best as a living cartoon, I’m not entirely convinced that it worked so well with the Dark Knight. Infantino’s work is always a joy to behold, but I don’t think he’d rank among my personal favourite Detective Comics artists. Batman is a character who tends to work best playing with shadow – even the very early bob Kane comics were at their best interplaying between light and darkness. Infantino’s art lends itself to bright colours, and that feels slightly surreal for a Batman comic.
For contractual reasons, a large volume of the work still had to be handled through Bob Kane’s art studio, although they did try to match and compliment Infantino’s distinctive style. Kane and his artists always rendered their Batman comics in a strange two-dimensional sort of way, where it seemed like the characters (or their faces) were almost paper cutouts. It was a style that actually looked relatively dated by the time that Kane started publishing the character, and had never really evolved past that point. So it feels like a much-needed artistic update.
However, while Kane and his studio make a valiant effort to match the more rounded and three-dimensional style inspired by Infantino, it can’t help but feel a little forced in places. The Joker’s Last Laugh sees Kane stalwart Sheldon Moldoff illustrating the Joker, and it looks very strange in the context of the rest of the comic. It’s almost as if Moldoff copied the character’s head from a classic Golden Age comic and just pasted it into a new Silver Age adventure. It feels like the Joker’s face really doesn’t belong in that comic. Still, I always felt a bit sorry for Moldoff, along with many of the artists toiling in obscurity under that contractually obligated “Bob Kane” signature – Carmine Infantino was, I believe, the first artist not to sign Kane’s name to his Batman work.
Much is made of the argument, repeated in the foreword by Mark Waid and by Schwartz, that both Detective Comics and Batman were in sales freefall and on the verge of cancellation. There are some comic book historians who dispute this claim – after all, Batman remained a very high profile character at DC even during this troubled time, and while his sales were in decline, Batman (at least) was still selling comfortably better than the books that Schwartz had reintroduced to great acclaim – books like The Flash or Green Lantern. Sure, Detective Comics was selling lower, but it was still in the top twenty, well ahead of Wonder Woman, for example.
Some would argue that these rumours of cancellation were were merely rumours and just an attempt to break Bob Kane’s stranglehold on the character and to get the character’s creator to accept DC taking a firmer hand in the character’s style and direction. After all, cancelling the books would only cause the character’s rights to revert back to Bob Kane, and it’s hard to imagine DC seriously considering the option. Kane’s creative control over the character is a historically fascinating topic, and it’s always interesting to hear fans comment on it. With the exception of Will Eisner on The Spirit, Kane is virtually the only major Golden or Silver Age creator to have that sort of control over his character, and I find it interesting that fans who so readily leap to the defense of Seigel and Shuster and Kirby tend to treat Kane with contempt.
Of course, they would argue that Kane shortchanged his fellow creators like Bill Finger, and it’s a legitimate position. That said, I do find it interesting that nobody seems to mourn the loss of creative control that came with the “new look” Batman. Indeed, I think it’s possible to argue that – for the character at least, and arguably even for Kane – it was the best thing that could have happened. While these stories collected here are hardly truly exceptional of themselves, they do feel important for what they represent. While Schwartz might not have known immediately “how to do Batman”, the “new look” era felt like a very conscious effort to learn from the mistakes of the past and figure out a way to avoid “how not to do Batman.”
Schwartz himself concedes that it was a somewhat steep curve. After all, Schwartz worked best on DC’s sci-fi titles, reimagining and reworking old concepts. He seemed somewhat ill-suited to organise a “back to basics” approach to Batman. Indeed, he acknowledges his very first issue featured some significant mistakes. “John Broome, my favourite writer, and I worked out that first Detective Comics story, ‘Mystery of the Menacing Mask’,” he explains, “and we made not one but two mistakes. The first was that the adventure took place during the daytime despite Batman’s motif as a nighttime hero. The second, and far more glaring and horrifying, was that when Batman caught the crooks, he pulled a gun on them – something it was later pointed out to me that Batman would never do!”
Sure enough, Batman only pulls a gun once in this collection. That mistake was not repeated. After all, while trying to avoid the awkward science fantasy of the fifties, Schwartz didn’t want to go back to the gun-totting Batman from the first year of publication. The other lesson proved a bit more difficult for Schwartz and his team to learn. Batman seems to spend most of the collection running around during the daytime, in broad daylight. (There is, however, one great sequence where Batman takes on a bunch of crooks by taking out the lights first – but it’s the exception, rather than the rule.)
There’s a great deal of trial-and-error here. Personally, I think that it was later creative teams who more firmly anchored the character There were, in particular, three amazing writer-artist teams in the seventies who really managed to turn in some defining Batman work. There were Rogers and Engelhart on Detective Comics, O’Neil and Adams on Batman and Haney and Aparo on The Brave and the Bold. Those were three different interpretations, but I think they really rooted the idea of the character quite firmly. While Schwartz and Infantino’s “new look” isn’t quite as iconic, I think that made runs like that possible. Without Schwartz and Infantino trying to avoid earlier mistakes while finding the golden mean, I don’t think Batman would have entered the Bronze Age in as healthy a fashion.
So the stories collected here are a bit all over the place – there’s a real “throw anything at the wall” approach to the character that I admire, as the creative teams try to update a character who had gotten a little stale. There’s also, incidentally, a very conscious Marvel influence on these adventures. The first issue focuses on “Gotham Village”, a very clear attempt to anchor the story in the New York zeitgeist. “Gotham Village” might as well be named “Greenwich Village.”
Marvel had anchored its stories in New York to great effect, so it’s hard not to see this as an attempt to emulate the competitor. That said, there’s also a rash of coincidences that couldn’t be down to any form of plagiarism. For example, Batman taking on a terrorist cell called “Hydra.” Marvel’s Hydra would not appear until the following year, although it was mentioned in the fifties. At another point, in the first issue, Batman and Robin get a mark burned into their foreheads in the shape of an “X” with a circle around it. Of course it’s benign coincidence, but it couldn’t help remind me of the X-Men, who spent a lot of their early years hanging around Greenwich Village.
While much was made of the departure of Alfred and the arrival of Aunt Harriet, most of the discussion tends to focus on the attempt to have a female influence around Wayne Manor, as if to dispel any lingering traces of Seduction of the Innocent. However, I find the dynamic itself somewhat interesting. Unlike Alfred, Harriet does not know that Bruce and Dick are Batman and Robin. She’s also the aunt of a teenage superhero. In many ways, she feels like a rather conscious shout-out to Aunt May in The Amazing Spider-Man, as she finds herself living with two superheroes who try to conceal their double lives from her.
That said, the Aunt Harriet subplot definitely falls into the “does not work” category of plot devices here. She makes little-to-no sense. She’s Dick’s aunt, and yet she just imposes on Bruce without an invitation. Bruce could just hire another butler or a maid and would be perfectly within his rights to politely boot her out after she’s hung around for a week or two. There’s also the fact that… well, she doesn’t do anything. She actually doesn’t appear that often in the issues collected here, only once having a near-miss with her charges’ secret identities, answering the hotline. However, all that leads to is clunky exposition. It seems, at this point, Harriet was a half-thought-out idea that somebody in the office had that never quite worked out.
Still, there was a conscious effort to ground the character again. While elaborate deathtraps and surreal cold openings remind the reader that this is still a Silver Age comic book, Schwartz made a conscious effort to pit Batman against more traditional foes – rather than monsters or aliens. Most of the bad guys here are gangsters or spies. Some do have very strange gimmicks and oddly realistic masks, but it seems like Batman is fighting regular guys causing irregular crime.
Even Batman’s iconic rogues gallery is mostly absent. Only the Joker puts in an appearance, and there’s a very conscious lack of supervillains. In fact, the final issue here includes a very clear subversion, as Batman and Robin confront what appears to be a jungle-themed supervillainess… only to reveal her as a woman concerned about her lover. “Hold it, Miss Foss,” Bruce states. “Why did you feel it necessary to work up that Gorla bit? It was too, too melodramatic!” She responds, “I just had to do it! I wanted to attract your interest — in whatever provocative way I could! Evan wrote regularly ever since he went away — up to three months ago! Then his letters stopped — and I feared the worst! If anyone can find him — you can!”
(Of course, that issue does feature a bunch of mind-controlled elephants, but they are controlled by a normal guy in regular clothes, at the behest of individuals with very clear motives. There’s no cackling spandex-clad supervillain behind it all. I do love, however, that “dressing up as a completely insane supervillain” is a legitimate way to grab Batman’s attention – like a sort of a personal Bat-signal.)
There are times when the book doesn’t seem too far removed from what came before. In particular, an early issue offers us The Man Who Quit the Human Race. In that story, a politician, who is a “mutant” evolves into “a… future man!” Curiously enough, the initial set-up actually does a half-decent job of grounding the adventure, with a subtext which speaks to the sort of deviance that people tend to read into Batman. Given how the character has been a gay icon, it’s interesting to read a story about a public official forced to resign from office due to a personal secret.
The subtext feels rather overt, especially for a story told in the wake of Seduction of the Innocent. It’s clear that the governor is repressed, and that he’s not who he claims to be. It’s telling that the first person he talks to about his transformation is a psychologist, and that the transformation is firmly rooted in the character’s subconscious. “My dreams have been nightmarish lately,” he explains, “as though my subconscious mind were trying to tell me something different about myself.” Given that it was the “something different” about Batman that made him something of a gay icon, it’s not too difficult to read into the governor’s subconscious desires.
However, the dtory comes off the rails towards the end. Using a keen sense of bat-deduction that would make Adam West green with envy, Bruce deduces how to solve the crisis through a series of intricately connected clues that less nuanced intellects may have missed. “Of course! The last few traces of humanity in Warner have been leaving clues for me to understand! But until this moment I never realised what they meant! Gold! Leaf! Green! Light!” Still not getting it? “He teleported onto green grass, a green car, a green roof. His footprint was in the shape of a leaf. Our faces turned gold when we contacted his air-barrier! And, finally, he emphised that light would make him invulnerable!”
Admit it, you’re in awe of the man’s clearly logical train of thought. Of course, it turns out to be exactly correct. In the final page of the adventure, Batman sends Warner into space in “suspended animation” until mankind has evolved to his level. I love that Batman has that sort of unilateral authority over both the United States space program and its cryogenics industry. Still, The Man Who Quit the Human Race is still the exception rather than the rule. While other stories feature some Silver Age elements, none really feel as consciously retro and dated as that encounter.
Sure, there are lots of other elements here that date the collection as a decidedly Silver Age bunch of Batman adventures. A bunch of mobsters looking for “secret pirate treasure”, buried in Gotham. An old English castle rigged with deathtraps. A deathtrap straight from Batman’s nightmare. A literal hate plague, which causes people to be hated on sight. All of these are elements that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Flash or Green Lantern adventure from the same time. However, there’s always the faintest hint of sophistication – whether in the ideas or the execution or the psychology – that suggests the writers and artists were slowly learning how to build a better Batman.
For example, the very distinctly super-dickery-esque The Fallen Idol of Gotham City, which opens with a splash page of Robin refusing Batman and Gotham exiling him, is actually a chemical weapons thriller, one that almost foreshadows the climax to Batman Begins. Discovering a chemical compound that could cause a mass outbreak of violence, “a diplomat from a certain foreign embassy” conspires to test it on Gotham. The implications are, despite the bright colours and gimmick-y story hook, terrifying.
He boasts, “All our scientists have to do is analyse these pills — make enough of them! Then our agents drop them in a city’s water supply, let’s say –! In a few hours, the whole city would be in a fury! Everybody attacking everybody else!”Sure, it’s a silly enough story, but the undertones are clear. After all, this story was told at the time that Operation MK ULTRA was on-going, with the US government testing mood-altering drugs on its own population. I won’t pretend that it’s a solemn exploration of the theme, but it is a fascinating and very sinister theme for a book like this to handle.
In another story, a bunch of crooks conspire to build a deathtrap even Batman can’t escape. They design it by eavesdropping on Batman confessing his nightmares to Robin. It’s a very hokey premise, and it is decidedly daft. However, there’s an interesting idea buried at the nub of the story: Batman dreams about some pretty messed-up stuff. He dreams about traps he can’t escape. What is his subconscious telling him?
It’s a recurring dream, Robin! A sort of nightmare! And each time it’s the same! I’m in an enclosed room lined with concrete blocks that’s filling rapidly with water! Above me is a rotating machine gun firing bullets across the room… As the water rises, it brings me close to the deadly spray of bullets! I try to find a way out of being drowned — or shot — but I never can! Then, just as I’m about to perish — I wake up in a cold sweat!
I know, of course, that this probably wasn’t intended as some deep comment on Batman’s psychology, but it’s still interesting to explore the dream as it’s constructed. And I think it foreshadows a lot of the darker and more complex iterations of Batman we’d see over the years to follow.
Drowning represents fear that he’s running out of time, perhaps acknowledging he knows that he won’t be able to change the world. The gun features as well, and is an important part of Batman’s iconography. Batman was, in effect, created by a gun – and yet he swore never to use one. So it seems appropriate that he has nightmares about dying at the hands of one in an anonymous trap somewhere. Notice he doesn’t mention who put him the trap. It wasn’t the Joker or anybody. It was just a random trap with a gun and water. Nobody is even firing the gun – it’s firing itself.
And yet this isn’t the dark man of mystery that later generations would come to recognise. Batman appears to be a very active member of Gotham’s community, even in costume. He’s a member of an amateur mystery-solving group, and is even good-natured enough about it to pretend to reveal his identity to its members. Batman is at one point chosen to address the graduates of Gotham City’s Police Academy. In a wonderfully awkward moment of sixties sexism, Bruce is tasked with awarding the prize to the best student. “And now will Patricia Powell step up here and… PatriciaPowell?!”
The relationship between Batman and Robin is shown to be as wholesome as one might expect from a comic of the era. The two talk candidly and share their hopes and fears. One especially charming moment has Batman discovering that Dick’s school is having a basket ball game and dance that night. “Yes, Batman,” Robin confesses, “but I thought I’d skip it and stay with you! It’s our patrol night…” It almost sounds like he’s afraid to leave the old man by himself. Batman responds, “You’ve got high school responsibilities too, Robin — don’t ever forget that! So you go and root for your team — and then dance up a storm!” Aw, shucks.
Still, there are elements of Batman being just a bit of a jerk. In particular, I feel sorry for poor Ralph Dibny. Affected by an amnesia ray (don’t ask), Dibny will have a blank spot in his memory. Keeping in mind that Ralph got hit by the ray to protect Batman, Bruce decides to repay that respect by revealing his identity to Ralph. “I already thanked him as Batman — when I told him that I was Bruce Wayne in my civilian identity!” Bruce boasts. when Robin has a mini freak-out, Bruce clarifies, “Relax, Dick! I revealed it to him while he was in his amnesia state! When he comes out of it, he’ll never remember what I told him!”What a jerk.
There is a rather conscious attempt to make Batman modern, as if to acknowledge that the character has drifted a bit out of touch with his readers. The campaign to save
Greenwich Gotham Village is an early example, but there’s also an early issue that reveals Batman and Robin are in touch with the music of the time. We open one issue with Robin playing guitar, clearly preparing to be that guy when he goes to college. In a line that seems endearingly square in retrospect, Robin advises his mentor, “Hootenany folk-singing is the big rage nowadays!” At another point, Batman shows up on the set of Cleopatra to save Liz Taylor’s necklace. What a shame he couldn’t save the rest of the film.
And yet, despite all these forced elements, there is a sense that Schwartz and Infantino might be slowly figuring out what makes Batman tick. Although none of the stories here will be considered great detective stories, there is a conscious effort to hark back to Batman as the World’s Greatest Detective by having him solve mysteries. None of them make perfect sense, and a lot of them are oddly esoterical, but it’s still a nice touch. Robin, “This checking up on people might be okay, but I’m itching for action!” Robin suggests at one point, perhaps speaking for the title’s younger readers. “I’d like to tangle with those crooks.” Batman sternly assures him, “In time, Robin! But first, we’ve got to locate them — by deductive detective work!”
Some of the plotting is a bit forced in the way that comics of the time frequently are. For example, Batman’s amnesia just happens to go away when it’s most expedient. Even Bruce himself comments on the serendipitous circumstances. “I remembered who I was — just in time to get here when Robin needed me most!” At another point, held captive by crooks and sentenced to death, Batman asks, “A condemned man is always granted a last request — so how about telling me about your big job –” And it works.
And yet, despite all that, there’s an element of grit to be found here that feels welcome after years of fighting aliens, as if Schwartz and Infantino are really on to that thing that separates Batman from his fellow heroes. One of the most interesting stories here, Zero Hour for Earth, seems to foreshadow both Grant Morrison and Neil Adams, playing Batman as James Bond on a trip around the world to fight a secret evil organisation and save the planet.
It even features a scene with Batman skiing, which would become a bizarrely effective sight during the seventies. However, what really distinguishes Zero Hour for Earth is that it opens with not one but two deaths on the second page. One character is assassinated, while his killer is crushed by a landing aeroplane. It’s moments like that which establish this as just a slightly edgier take on the character, after years of playing it relatively safe.
A bizarre espionage thriller is an idea that probably shouldn’t work in the context of Batman. However, it does work, and it works wonderfully. It’s the kind of new idea that Schwartz was willing to try, and which paid off dividends. While Zero Hour for Earth might not be a classic itself, it inspired a whole rake of them. And that is, I think, the best aspect of “new look” Batman. It’s the willingness to do something a bit more daring with an established character, going against the past few years of stories.
I don’t think the “new look” is a classic Batman era, to be frank. It’s too erratic and inconsistent to really mark itself as an exceptional time in the Caped Crusader’s career. However, it is an era that made all manner of classic Batman stories possible, and one that is massively important as the root of a lot that followed. You can see the origins of modern Batman here, and while it’s fairly equally trial-and-error, it’s still fascinating enough to watch chemistry in action.
Filed under: Comics Tagged: | Batcave, batman, Batmobile, Bob Kane, Carmine Infantino, Dark Knight Rises, dc comics, detective comics, gordon, gotham city, james gordon, John Broome, joker, Kane, Patricia Powell, robin