by Jimmm Kelly
no yellow spot
The first 80 PAGE GIANT that I got from DC (aka National Periodical Publications) was the June-July ’67 issue of SUPERMAN (No. 197 / G-36). Realizing what a great deal this was, I managed to finagle my father into buying me another 80 PAGE GIANT, when we were both in Ryan’s Drugstore. This was the July-August ’67 issue of BATMAN (No. 193 / G-37) [note: the numbering on DC's giant-size comics is confusing, best not to get into it].
Not long after that I got WORLD’S FINEST COMICS No. 170 / G-40 (featuring Superman and Batman together) and–from the second-hand bookstore–an old coverless 80 PAGE GIANT (starring Batman). Some sleuthing revealed this to be No. 5 in the GIANT series, a Silver Anniversary issue dated December ’64.
I had been reading Batman comics for some months by then and I knew how the Caped Crusader was supposed to look, but this Batman had a square jaw, was a bit on the stocky side and there was no yellow spot around the bat on his chest! How come?
Now, prior to the BATMAN TV show airing on January 12 ’66, I was totally unaware of who or what Batman was. As far as I knew, he was a new character. It came as a shock to me that there had been another Batman before the one that I knew.
the silver anniversary
Studying letter columns like a scholar, I pieced together the truth: that the Batman I knew had been born in the spring of 1964– in DETECTIVE COMICS 327 (May ’64), almost exactly 25 years after the first appearance of this original Batman in DETECTIVE COMICS 27 (May ’39). The ghost of this original Batman is the one that haunted the giants–in fact, the previous editor who had overseen Batman for twenty of those twenty-five years, Jack Schiff, was the editor of the Batman giant-size issues [note: Julius Schwartz was the regular editor of the new Batman].
Reading between the lines, in the letter columns of the day, I found hints that a few Methuselahs still remembered the old days of the true Dynamic Duo and mourned their loss. One such reader was Biljo White, a major force in comic book fandom, the publisher and main creative wellspring behind BATMANIA, an infrequent comic book fanzine dedicated to all things Batman.
The relative popularity of this ‘zine took off in ’66, thanks to the TV show and the Batman craze which itself was called Batmania (in the fashion of Beatlemania). However, White had launched his publication in ’64, soon after the birth of the New Look Batman and the death of the old one.
the white pages
That White’s BATMANIA should be a calling card for the New Look, despite Biljo’s personal attachment to the Old Look, is just one of the many ironies that seems to hang around this super-fan.
Before his own fanzine, White had been contributing a lot of exceptional art, as well as some articles, to ALTER-EGO–one of the most significant ‘zines for comic book collectors of the day. Back then, fandom is mostly made up of teenagers and adults–in contrast to the main readership for most comic books, which are little kids.
The “past” for common readers doesn’t extend beyond five years. This is the editorial assumption at National Periodicals and a guiding principle for the composition of their giant reprint issues–editors believe they can reproduce out-of-date stories, because for their readers these are totally new. It also means editors aren’t beholden to any continuity that is more than five years old, since the kids won’t know any different if some major detail is changed.
But the comic book collectors who publish fanzines have long memories.
In BATMANIA No. 1 (dated July ’64), Biljo White presents excerpts of letters which reflect what most fans think about the extinguishing of the old familiar Batman and the introduction of the New Look. The bulk seem to believe the early Batman was all right enough, but the bloom had definitely gone off the rose–and the new art by Carmine Infantino is an improvement over the work of Bob Kane (Batman’s de facto creator).
As the prime Batmanian, Biljo takes a different posture:
“With so many fans lining up with Infantino, I feel it is most necessary I form the line for Bob Kane. There has been no other artist I’ve studied more than that of Bob and it is not my intention to defend him. I’m convinced this fine artist does not need defending, for who else do you know that has worked continuously on his own strip for so many years?
“An artist’s style is continually changing so I wonder how many fans will still value Infantino, Kubert, or Manning art ten years from now . . .”
Biljo then goes on at length about the virtues and the changes in Bob Kane’s style over the years. [This whole fanzine can be found at Comic Book Plus]. What White says about Bob Kane is yet another irony. Time has revealed a lot about Batman’s creative history that the fans didn’t know back then. But I’m not about to muck that rake here. Like most kids at the time, when I saw the Bob Kane credit I believed it (but trying to figure out why art looked so different from one story to the next inspired a lot of theories on my part).
While Biljo might have got some of his facts wrong, he still makes a valid argument. The fanbase are being fickle and ought to give the ’63 Batman his due!
the black casebook
Even in the early 21st century, Batman readers continued to dismiss the ’63 Batman out of hand as somehow invalid. Jack Schiff was heaped with scorn for having dragged down the Caped Crusader with stories that were too bizarre or childish. Bat-fans had forgotten that this was the same Jack Schiff who had edited Batman since 1943, who had overseen some of the classic adventures of the Dynamic Duo, working with many of the great creative talents of comics’ Golden Age, as well as editing a whole range of DC comics besides just Batman.
When Grant Morrison becomes the main writer on BATMAN in 2006, he makes it his mission to rehabilitate, or at least excuse, some of those more outlandish yarns. The convenient story device he uses is the Black Casebook–a special file that Batman keeps for his outre cases.
Mind you, Batman has always had bizarre adventures, even in his early days. Witness his encounters with the Duc d’Orterre in DETECTIVE COMICS 34 (December ’39) and Professor Strange in DETECTIVE COMICS 36 (February ’40) and others. Horror and science fiction are always in the mix together with the more down to Earth mystery cases. When the industry adopts the Comics Code in ’54, the funny books become arguably more sanitized. The Code prohibits a lot of supernatural elements (like ghouls and vampires), leaving science to be the usual excuse for why a giant monster might menace Gotham City.
“Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism are prohibited.”–Comics Code Authority, 1954.
After the Comics Code, in addition to science fiction, there’s more about Batman’s growing family. Meanwhile, the traditional villains fall out of favour. Catwoman and Penguin are nowhere to be seen, but the Joker continues to enjoy a recurring role.
like flies in amber
In ’63, if Jack Schiff knows the end is near, he doesn’t betray the fact. On the face of it, events proceed in the Batman books that year, as they have for the last few years. The final year sees two more imaginary stories added to the others that Alfred typed for his own enjoyment, promising a bright future for the whole family. The expanded Batman family of characters–Batwoman, Bat-Hound, Bat-Mite, and Bat-Girl–routinely appear in stories alongside the Dynamic Duo. There are also the usual science fiction and mystery stories.
However, precisely a year before Jack Schiff’s finale, the Penguin makes a redoubtable return in BATMAN 155 (May ’63), The Return of the Penguin! This is followed by several other returns. Mad Hatter after a seven year absence, Mirror Man after nine years away, Dr. Double-X after five years, the Terrible Trio also after five, and an ersatz Cat-Woman nine years after the original had gone.
Two other recent foes are based in part on earlier creations. Clayface (Matt Hagen) debuts in DETECTIVE COMICS 298 (December ’61); he has the same name as the earlier Clayface (Basil Karlo) from DETECTIVE COMICS 40 (June ’40) and 49 (March ’41) [the resemblance ends with the name, since Matt Hagen has shape-shifting powers where Karlo did not]. The new Cat-Man first appears in DETECTIVE COMICS 311 (January ’63); he must be based on Catwoman–or the Cat as she is known when she debuts in BATMAN No. 1 (Spring ’40). Meanwhile, the Joker–who first appeared in the very same issue as Catwoman–is still a going concern.
[For a full run-down of stories see 12 Last Months of Batman and Robin.]
So maybe in ’63, Schiff sees an opportunity to bring back other concepts. The Flying Batcave (from eleven years earlier) is re-introduced. And the new Dr. No-Face (assumed to be Paul Dent) is reminiscent of both Two-Face (Harvey Dent), last seen in BATMAN 81 (February ’54), and False-Face from BATMAN 113 (February ’58).
It’s possible that, in going through the old files for the BATMAN ANNUAL reprint collections, Schiff sees the potential in giving some of these old ideas another go. And if you look at the stories in BATMAN ANNUAL 3 (Summer ’62)–on sale June 19 ’62–a few inspirational stories are reprinted there.
Bill Finger, the uncredited co-creator of Batman and many other residents of Gotham City (including Oswald Cobblepot, aka The Penguin), scripts The Return of the Penguin. While the team of Sheldon Moldoff and Charles Paris provide the artwork, as they have on many another Dynamic Duo adventure.
The creative team digs into the story with relish, as if the old memories give them a new energy. And for the reader (the little kids I’m talking about–not the long in the tooth collectors), this is unknown history, so they must be educated on who the Penguin is and where he’s been all these years.
Bill Finger stories are always educational. The writer has fact files and idea files that he consults whenever creating a new script. You can learn a lot by reading a Bill Finger story. Did you know that the ancient Chinese considered bats a good luck symbol and bat-wings signify happiness flying everywhere? Well, if you’d read BATMAN 155 you would!
Sheldon Moldoff is the primary Bob Kane ghost at the time (from 1954 up until 1967). Most DC (aka NPP) comics feature PSAs–one page, informative comic strips promoting public values. These are written by Jack Schiff, while Sheldon Moldoff handles the artwork on the bulk of them.
I always read these PSA features when I was buying National Periodicals in the ’60s. They seemed to embody the National character. But I never picked up on the similarity between the art in those and in Batman. I don’t know of anybody who did–and yet it was staring us in the face all along.
red sky in the morning
While BATMAN 155 is a trip down memory lane, the next issue is a portent of doom, as it features Robin Dies at Dawn. Which is definitely one for the Black Casebook.
The issue begins with a Robin solo story–an innovative move for the time as it sets up the circumstances to follow in the next story. On his own, the Boy Wonder is assisted by a diminutive hero named Ant-Man.
I don’t know if this little guy is inspired by Marvel’s Ant-Man. After all, Tarzan had met “Ant Men” long before this and Doll Man had been one of Quality Comics’ big heroes in the Golden Age, despite his small stature. Plus the Atom (Ray Palmer)–DC’s shrinking super-hero–makes his debut in ’61. Any one of these “Tiny Titans” could be Finger’s inspiration for his Ant-Man.
Then the issue’s second story gets into the meat and potatoes right away: Batman is in a weird alien landscape, where he witnesses the death of his faithful partner and closest friend. He can do nothing to save the Boy Wonder.
But none of this is real! It is simply a psychic manifestation of Batman’s inner terror of losing his partner. The Caped Crusader is undergoing a secret psychological test for the space program. In the introduction for BATMAN: THE BLACK CASEBOOK (DC Comics, 2009, p. 6)– where this story is reprinted–Grant Morrison points out:
“As . . . the more credible ‘New Look’ approach looms, the aliens are no longer genuine extraterrestrials but creatures of innerspace, the products of hallucinations and distorted psychology.”
Moldoff and Paris do some stunning work on this story–capturing the emotion and the weirdness of Batman’s experience. The cover image–what comic book aficionados call a pieta–has become a common motif. As well, this theme recalls a much earlier case where Batman thought Robin had died–The Case of the Honest Crook, by Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson, in BATMAN No.5 (Spring ’41).
Batman’s worries had just begun . . .
TO BE CONTINUED NEXT ISSUE in . . .
. . for the second week in June . . .
THE COMICS No. 4 (July ’37), published by Dell, features popular newspaper strips of the day plus some original material. On the newsstands June 8 ’37.
June 10 ’66. The Beatles release PAPERBACK WRITER and RAIN on a single. PAPERBACK WRITER is a song by Paul inspired in part by John’s books–IN HIS OWN WRITE and A SPANIARD IN THE WORKS. RAIN has the Beatles experimenting with backward tape loops to create new music in the studio.
A precursor to DC–the National Allied Newspaper Syndicate’s NEW COMICS No. 6 (July ’36) comes out on June 11 ’36, featuring a big collection of funnies, including Federal Men by Siegel and Shuster, Steve Conrad by Creig Flessel–and the first episode in an adpatation of H. Rider Haggard’s SHE. From Major Malcolm Wheeler Nicholson, publisher and editor; and Vin Sullivan, associate editor and cover artist.
June 11 ’48 learn 1,000 Secrets of the Batcave, when BATMAN 48 (August-September ’44) goes on sale.
100-PAGE SUPER SPECTACULAR DC-20 (September ’73) on sale June 12 ’73. An all Golden Age issue, including the first three stories 0f Two -Face! Also starring, Black Canary, Dr. Mid-Nite, Blackhawk, Starman, the Spectre and Wildcat. Collected by editor E. Nelson Bridwell, cover by Nick Cardy.
Gardner F. Fox writes Batman for the first time, in the Darknight Detective’s third outing, in DETECTIVE COMICS 29 (July ’39)–The Batman Meets Doctor Death–on sale June 13 ’39. Bill Finger wrote the first two Batman stories in the previous issues for Bob Kane on the q.t. Unaware of this, editor Vin Sullivan brought in his friend, Gardner, to help out with the stories.
All on sale June 13 ’63 from DC . . . JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA 21 (August ’63) Crisis on Earth-One (Fox/Sekowsky/Sachs)–in what will become an annual event, the Justice League of America encounter the Justice Society of America . . .SUPERMAN ANNUAL No. 7 (Summer ’63) the Silver Anniversary Issue! edited by Mort Weisinger . . . And WORLD’S FINEST COMICS 135 (August ’63)–Menace of the Future Man by Finger, Sprang and Moldoff)–with the aid of their old friend Carter Nichols, Batman and Robin time travel to the time of the Vikings, while Superman heads far into the 21st century–this is the last classic work by great Batman artist, Dick Sprang!
June 13 ’74–Warren presents THE SPRIT No. 3 (August ’74) reprinting more classic stories from the ’40s by Will Eisner in a black and white magazine format–including the Strange Case of Mrs. Paraffin. Collection edited by Bill Dubey; cover painting by Will Eisner with Richard Corben.
All on sale dates might be approximate, as provided by Mike’s Amazing World of Comics (The Newsstand) and by other sources.
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