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.
DC’s archive line for their Silver Age Batman and Detective Comics line begins considerably later than it does for most of their other superheroes, including Superman, The Flash and Green Lantern. The Archives series are devoted to offering readers a chance to browse various comics from a character’s history in a chronological manner, often from the first book published featuring a character or at an appropriate point. For Batman, in the Silver Age, the point was deemed to be editor Julius Schwartz’s “new look” Batman.
The first collection of these comics showed potential. It was clear that the editor who had revived The Flash and Green Lantern was trying to pull Batman away from the wacky alien adventures of the fifties. While the creative teams hadn’t yet refined the darker avenger that would take root in the Bronze Age, it felt like a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, the second collection of the “new look” Batman and Detective Comics run feels like something of a regression, a step backwards rather than forwards.
I remarked in my post reviewing Batman: The Dynamic Duo Archives, Vol. 1 that the stories were still tinted with just a hint of Silver Age insanity, but that there was a conscious attempt to re-focus Batman, to ground him again. Barring a single appearance by the Joker, there were very few costumed criminals about, and Batman found himself confronting regular gangsters with conventional gimmicks. When the villain “Gorla” appeared in the last story in the collection, it felt almost like a deconstruction. It was a woman looking for Batman’s attention, trying to get him to save her husband.
Here, however, the spandex-clad card-carrying supervillains are back in full force. We get the first faint hints of “the Outsider”, the mysterious force who would threaten Bruce and Dick before eventually being revealed as Alfred Pennyworth, the faithful butler who seemed to have died in the last collection. (The authors had intended to kill the character permanently, but the success of Adam West’sBatman! earned the character a revival.)
Here we get a collection of new foes who hardly rank among Batman’s best or most iconic adversaries. We get “The Grasshopper”, a character whose gimmick turns out to be completely different from what his title might imply. While it’s a nice subversion of the supervillain norm, it hardly lends itself to repeat appearances. In The Deep-Freeze Menace, Batman and Robin take on a half-frozen, super-powered cave man. There’s also the super-strong muscle man Mr. Mammoth. “Let’s just say that you shouldn’t hold your breath waiting to see any of them show up in the next hundred Batman movies,” film producer Michael Uslan quips in his introduction to the collection.
There’s a creeping in of strong sci-fi elements into this collection that, to be honest, feel a little uncomfortable for the character of Batman. After all, Schwartz had been drafted in to pull the character away from the cheap gimmickry of the fifties, but it feels like he hadn’t quite learned his lesson. Batman, as a character, was fundamentally less well-suited to these awkward and contrived high concepts than Superman. When people think “appropriate foes for Batman”, they don’t think “frozen super-powered cave-man”, “a gang of audio-animatrons” or even “super-intelligent gorilla.” Indeed, even if the much-discussed rumour that Schwartz believed that apes led to sales were true, there’s still no way that a villain like that really belongs on a Batman or Detective Comics cover.
At one point, in Batman’s Power-Packed Punch, writer Gardner Fox falls back on the tried-and-tested “let’s give Batman superpowers!” plot that felt tired after the first three or four times it had been used. The fifties had been filled with stories of Batman gaining powers similar to Superman, and that sort of wackiness was exactly the sort of nonsense that Schwartz had been specifically drafted in to avoid. Fox’s script even acknowledges that the story is essentially doing “Batman-as-Superman” when Batman himself muses, “Make like Superman, eh?”
It really doesn’t matter that the writers try to explain these things away as “SCIENCE!”, as was the style in the Silver Age. A witch on a broomstick turning Batman into a scarecrow is still a pretty fantastic and ridiculous villain, regardless of how the story might try to rationalise it. The Outsider boasts, “Actually, of course, there are no ‘witches’ and no ‘magic! But some people — like the woman I singled out to be my agent — possess extra-sensory powers which the broomstick — being of a rare wood found only in a certain place on Earth — can release like a catalyst in a chemical reaction!”That doesn’t really make a difference, it’s still the silly gimmickry that supposedly got the title in trouble in the first place.
Don’t get me wrong. I know I’m reading a Silver Age comic book, I’m familiar with the tropes and storytelling conventions, and I know that they tend to be quite a bit sillier than modern comics. The truth is that I can go along with that – if the ideas or the writing are interesting enough to engage me. I don’t believe that Batman must be played straight or any nonsense like that. The character can be interpreted any number of ways, and they’re all valid. And there are actually a number of stories here that do manage to deliver the wackiness of the Silver Age in a way that sorta works with Batman.
Despite the generally surreal camp nature of the forgettable villains introduced here, I kinda like the premise of the Make-Up Man. He almost feels like a prototype for Morrison’s The Clown at Midnight, and feels like the perfect sixties Batman villain. He’s a character perpetually reinventing himself, shifting and changing. Nobody knows what he really looks like and even his goons can’t trust him not to change his face from moment to moment. “I am always different!” he boasts. “It is the key to my success! Ha!” I think the character’s actually a wonderfully post-modern counterpoint to Batman, a character who is also constantly changing his identity with the times. If there were one “new look” villain to make a return, I think that the Make-Up Man would be the one to use.
I also have to admit that I have a soft spot for the use of the returning villains here. The Riddler and the Penguin are definitely “a-list” Batman bad guys, but they’re hardly at the very top of Batman’s rogue’s gallery. Indeed, the Riddler had only appeared twice before his appearance here. In fact, The Remarkable Ruse of the Riddler would actually inspire the pilot episode of Batman! that would make the Riddler such an iconic part of Batman’s selection of foes, thanks to the sensational portrayal by Frank Gorshin. It actually seems like a case of perfect timing for the character.
In fairness, the script shows the first hint of complexity around the character. I’ve always really liked the Riddler, to the point where he’s arguably my favourite Bat-villain, but he is very tough to do right. Here we see hints that The Riddler could be a fitting ally to Batman, and that his intellect does rival that of the Caped Crusader. Almost foreshadowing Paul Dini’s decision to reinvent the character as a private investigator, he vows to help Batman solve a case that has been stumping him. He claims to have reformed in prison, and promises, “To show you how sincere I am — I’m going to help you catch the Molehill Mob!”
There’s a faint trace of tragedy around the character, as it seems that the Riddler is already trapped in a destructive cycle. Everybody from the prison warden to Batman seems to know that he’ll end up back in prison, despite the fact he claims to have reformed. Bruce observes, “I don’t think he can change his nature any more than a leopard can change its spots!” Although not quite as developed as it would be, there are already hints that the Riddle is motivated by some compulsion he can’t resist to play against Batman.
He seems to have to rationalise “cheating” with his riddles when he needs to throw Batman off the cent – even though he isn’t playing by a set of external rules. The Riddler isn’t obliged by any external force to leave clues, so why does he feel the need to justify being a little underhanded? “But I played fair!” he insists to himself, when it looks like he might actually get away. “I gave Batman the necessary clues! If he misinterpreted them — that’s his tough luck!”There are already hints that the Riddler is the ultimate self-defeating bad guy, the character who would probably get away with his crimes if not for his pathological need to prove himself smarter than Batman.
I’m not a massive fan of the Penguin as a character, mainly because the character doesn’t really have a standard archetype and varies wildly from appearance to appearance. However, this appearance of “that pompous, waddling master of fowl play” is actually quite delightfully fun.I can almost imagine Grant Morrison getting a kick out of this story as the villain decides to extract revenge against Batman by screwing with the vigilante’s apophenia, his need to make everything fit together – long before the Joker would ridicule it in Batman R.I.P.
“Tell me boss,” a goon asks as the Penguin engages his plan, “why did you move your monocle to the other eye?” The Penguin responds, “Just strategy, Herbie! It’s a little something else that’ll keep Batman guessing — keep him worried! That’s the only reason I did it!” I love that the Penguin knows how completely OCD Batman is, and just how to screw with him – and how to really get at Batman in a way that will frustrate the Caped Crusader more than any attempt to kill him with a trick umbrella. The best part, however, is that it works. At the end, Batman boasts, “The case is beaten, Penguin– except for the mystery of why you pulled the monocle switch! We’re taking it along for further study!”The Penguin, quite rightly, counts it as a victory.
Even more than his delightful mind-screw of the Dark Knight, the Penguin gets a lot of credit here for a very post-modern approach to crime. He uses Batman to predict his crime, effectively doing a bunch of random stuff until Batman’s apophenia deduces a crime that the Penguin must be committing. The Penguin then basically does what Batman thought he was going to do, which is a rather silly plan for any serious supervillain to commit, but it’s absolutely ingenius “pop crime.” It’s stuff like this that I adore about these sorts of comics, and it’s actually a fairly clever use of character, fitting Batman and the Penguin quite well. “Batman has told me what to steal!”
Another nice little post-modern Gotham yarn features the Genius of the Getaway Gimmicks. The eponymous crook is a character who seems to have been paying attention to the past few hundred stories featuring the character, and has deduced that bad things tend to happen to crooks who try to kill Batman, regardless of how much trouble the Bat might be in. The character explains, “Far smarter crooks than you or I have tried to capture Batman — and always they failed! It’s the one way to court disaster!” He goes on, “All my efforts are directed to committing a crime and getting away safely! The minute I concentrate on trying to get rid of Batman and Robin — it’ll boomerang on me and cause my doom!”
It’s quite a clever attempt to exploit the laws of narrative in his story. He knows that any attempt to kill batman, regardless of how the hero might appear to be in great danger, will ultimately fail. After all, the dude has his own comic. When people are queuing up to buy Genius of the Getaway Gimmicks #954, then things might be different. The character’s “fundamental principle” reads like a law of writing Batman: “Whoever tries to doom Batman — dooms himself!” (Naturally, this philosophy ultimately doesn’t do him any good, but I would have loved to see the character get away. Sadly the Comic Book Code would never abide such a thing.)
While we’re talking about Silver Age Batman concepts, there’s one element that is rather quietly introduced by way of pseudo-science that actually might work quite well as a Batman plot device, but is only used once and then forgotten. A scientist explains, “This encephitector picks out and filters the alpha waves that a human brain gives out! It is geared to react when those main waves show a person is thinking about committing a crime!” We’re talking about literally giving Batman the ability to recognise literal “thought crime.”
The idea is fascinating because it have some fascinating ethical implications. After all, Batman is an illegal vigilante. Would he listen in on people’s thoughts? Would he be correct to tackle them based on the fact they thought of committing a crime. Even in the sixties, this must have been a potentially contentious plot device, but it’s introduced and dropped rather quickly.I’m not sure if writers realised the potential political implications of such a device, or if they simply forgot about it, but it’s certainly one Silver Age Batman concept I would have loved to have seen just a little bit more of.
Robin attempts to justify listening in on Gotham City’s thoughts, observing, “We waste a lot of time driving around Gotham City on our patrols night after night…. and even then we miss most crimes that take place! This thing will zero on where a crime is being committed and make us much more effective!” That’s quite Orwellian. Bruce hooks it up to the Batmobile, uses it once… and than that’s all we ever hear of it.
Despite the Silver Age trappings, there’s still a bit of Bat-history going on here. The Alfred Foundation may have technically been established, and fleetingly mentioned, in the last volume, but it comes to the fore here. The idea actually fit the character so well that it evolved into the Wayne Foundation after Alfred’s return. Here we get a sense that it’s continually ticking along in the background, with charity auctions and other activities going on. In the final issue, Bruce even uses the now-established gimmick of using his wealth to lure a criminal away from crime – giving the lonely scientist Karmak a job with the Foundation.
I think the Foundation was an essential part of the evolution of Batman’s character, and perhaps the single biggest and best legacy of “new look”, updating Bruce for a new generation. After all, the sixties were the era of social engagement, so it felt appropriate that Bruce would finally be seen to consciously devote time, energy and resources into improving his community in a systemic manner. The character had, of course, given away money before, or used his wealth to resolve a case, but this was different. It placed a conscious obligation on Bruce to make Gotham a better place, to complement the activities of Batman. I do think it was the best of the changes made during Schwartz’s “new look”, even if it isn’t the most obvious one.
As in the previous volume, Batman appears to have quite the social life around Gotham. While Schwartz may have been easing the character back to his roots as a detective and away from the wacky sci-fi of the fifties, Batman remained the established upstanding Gotham citizen. Here, again, he’s an active member of Gotham’s “Mystery Club” and he even volunteers to host a charity auction. “I’ve donated a few articles I’ve used in my cases — to be auctioned to get the Alfred Foundation Charity Funds Drive off to a good start!” It’s like a very surreal and upbeat version of Scott Snyder’s Black Mirror.
In one of the strangest sequences, we’re witness to “a news conference with batman at a briefing room in Gotham City’s Police Headquarters”with Batman. We’re not told how regularly this occurs, but there’s something surreal about a masked vigilante holding his own news conference at police headquarters. Even more surreal is the fact that he and the reporters spend some time casually talking about local sport, culminating on Batman bringing a reporter with him on a stakeout. These masked vigilantes have to be accountable to somebody, I suppose.
There’s also a nice, tiny, little moment at the conference where a reporter asks Batman, “Do you think Robin will ever take your place?” Given the things that have happened since like Knightfall and Batman & Robin, it seems like a wonderful piece of foreshadowing. Batman’s response feels strangely appropriate, even if the whole scenario feels a little weird, “I’m not ready for retirement yet — but when I am I think Robin will be ready to take over!” Batman and Robin are a weird kinda crime-fighting team.
The artwork here continues to be split between the Bob Kane studio and Schwartz’s artists, led by the superb Carmine Infantino. Infantino’s art is great, if a little bit too light for the Dark Knight. It’s a shame he only draws a couple of issues. On the other hand, Sheldon Moldoff seems to be adapting a lot more fluidly to the modern style. His faces don’t seem quite as two-dimensional as the seemed in the last volume, and his work has a better sense of motion.
Batman: The Dynamic Duo Archives, Vol. 1 offered a great deal of promise – offering the faintest hints of the past while promising a bold new future. Unfortunately, Batman: The Dynamic Duo Archives, Vol. 2 seems to back-peddle a bit on that promise, feeling a lot more like the sort of strange a surreal stories that took place on the title before Schwartz took over. Still, there are good ideas here, and some hints of things to come. Sadly, despite these elements, it seems the “new look” wasn’t as radical a change as it initially seemed. It seems like it was almost just skin deep.
You might be interested in our other reviews of the “Dynamic Duo” archives collecting the adventures of the Silver Age Batman:
- Batman: The Dynamic Duo Archives, Vol. 1
- Batman: The Dynamic Duo Archives, Vol. 2
Filed under: Comics | Tagged: alfred pennyworth, batman, Bruce, Dark Knight Rises, dc comics, detective comics, frank gorshin, gotham city, Grantmorrison, green lantern, joker, Michael Uslan, riddler, robin, silver age, superman |