5.27.2014

Batman 1979


Shakedown, 1979.
We have arrived at the last stop. End of the 70s, everybody out. 

As a calendar date, anyway - the mood and mojo of an era always linger a little longer, as much as the defining characteristics of the decade-to-come materialize before the decade actually arrives. 

As I mentioned way back in the first part of this series, I've been describing the Bronze Age as my favorite era of Batman for many years. But the more I thought about it the more I realized I'd extended an awfully generous credit line to 70s Batman based only on a handful of much-loved stories. What about the rest of it? Was 70s Batman taking me for a ride? The idea of an overview began to take shape, and here we all are. 

I've added an "And What Did I Learn from All This" to each title below as a special end-of-the-line treat.
To make sure I am not ending this series without missing anything * this time around I'm covering everything from cover date January 1979 through the issues on sale in December 1979. (Which were cover-dated Mar-May 1980.) 

* And I missed quite a few things. There was a DC Super-Size Something-or-Other, and Batgirl appeared in Superman and Freedom Fighters and a few others. And Robin, of course, appeared all over the place.
I'll forego the writers/artists credits, as they're more or less the same assortment of writers and artists credited previously. Before we get to our main titles, let's take a spin through:

ADVENTURE COMICS
(Issues 461 - 466)

The JSA had a temporary home in the pages of Adventure Comics, where the Golden Age Batman was put to rest in rather poor form.

Heroic self-sacrifice, team rallied, funeral scene with self-growth/new direction speeches, yadda yadda.
You'd figure the death of Batman - "even" Earth-2 Batman - would be pursuant to a better or more memorable plot than this one, which feels like a late season bid for ratings.

That's the Earth-1 Batman (r) reflecting on his counterpart's demise, from JLA 171.
The original Batman gets a much better send-off elsewhere, as we'll see next time.
The other big Bat-death of '79 was Kathy Kane aka Batwoman, and it's handled much worse than the above. 


Denny O'Neil felt Batwoman was superfluous since they already had Batgirl. So despite the fact that Kathy Kane was already very much written out of the Batverse and could just as easily never have been mentioned again, she's brought in only to be murdered, practically off-panel, and provide Batman with some temporary motivation and enthusiasm for an otherwise unmemorable story. Again, very much like a late-season bid for ratings. 

Batwoman appeared in 128 different Batman stories - a pretty sizable slice of Silver Age Batman. For her farewell appearance, she gets to play the role of the dead body. I've seen Law and Order episodes with better parts for vagrants. Pretty lame.

Her death does not appear in Adventure Comics but in:
DETECTIVE COMICS
(Issues 481 - 488)


A pretty forgettable year. There's a sequel to the Leslie Thompkins story (DC #457) for the Batman's 40th anniversary that's as pointless as the original was poignant. I chuckled at this bit from Peter and Jack's bare-bones-e-zine Bat-overview that I've been referencing here and there re: DC #486:

"Like a middle finger to Jack and me as we exit the 1970s and the parameters of this blog, Denny O'Neil denies us the satisfaction of a conclusion to the Bronze Tiger saga from last issue. Instead, we're given a lukewarm continuation of the Maxie Zeus storyline left off in #484. What kind of thinking goes on here? Run two different multi-part tales at the same time? Bonkers."

"I forgot all about the Bronze Tiger in the space of time between reading issues, so the change in storyline did not bother me."

I'm with Jack - nothing really bothered me because I didn't really keep anything in mind from issue to issue. And I also agree with Jack when he writes elsewhere that 1979 is a year that's typical of Denny O'Neil (who wrote most of the stories)'s late-70s output: "aspires to be grand but ends up grandiose." I'd say the same for all of his output, actually, late-70s or otherwise. For all the demonstrable good he did for the Batverse, he presided over an awful lot of bad, too, both as an editor and a writer.

Some of the non-O'Neil scripted ones have their moments:


The gorilla in question is channeling his inner Dr. Roger Korby...

If this was at all legible, it'd probably be funnier.

As for the back-ups:


If you're into Ditko, there's plenty to dig into here, a lot of which I've never seen discussed. Granted I'm not a Ditko connoisseur, so perhaps it is well-mined material, but it was all new and fairly accessible to me. 

As I've mentioned, I run hot and cold on the guy's work. But I liked most of this well enough.

I was pleasantly surprised to run into Johnny Craig in one of these "Tales of Gotham City" back-ups. He's possibly my favorite of all the old EC artists.


Johnny Craig didn't have the easiest time of it after EC. He got sporadic work as an inker, but he took his time with the work and was unable to keep up with deadlines. Sympathetic editors still gave him work whenever they could, a kindness extended to many of the old maestros - not the least of whom was Jack Kirby, as incredible as it is to think of it now, over at Marvel - whose work was somewhat out of step with the times or current practices .

WHAT DID I LEARN FROM ALL OF THIS? (Detective Comics 395 - 488) Outside of the late-70s Englehart / Rogers stretch, the feature stories were often overshadowed by the back-ups, first the counter-culture-in-a-cuisinart ones featuring Robin and Batgirl, then the Manhunter stretch, then the variety of guest stars for the rest of the decade. You get a lot of bang for your buck here (literally, by decade's end) and an impressive variety of artists and writers. It loses steam here at the end, though, definitely.


THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD
(Issues 146 - 160)

This year, Batman guest-starred with the Unknown Soldier, Supergirl (twice,) Plastic Man, the Teen Titans, Superman, the Flash, the Atom, Red Tornado, Metamorpho, Green Lantern, Doctor Fate, Kamandi, Wonder Woman, Ra's Al Ghul. That's one damn busy social calendar.


What can be said about this year's crop of stories that I haven't said for every other year of Brave and the Bold? I apologize for the lack of individual-issue breakdowns; the truth is, they kind of all blended together on me.

This guy, man, seriously:

It sure the fuck can, Red Tornado.
WHAT DID I LEARN FROM ALL OF THIS? (The Brave and the Bold 87 - 160) Would it corroborate my charge that 70s Batman is the greatest era of Batman? Probably not. Is it all worth having, though? Definitely. Moreso than Detective Comics. I was disappointed with the lack of variety of guest-stars, though; that's a definite minus.

You've got to hand it to Bob Haney and Jim Aparo, the creative team for the majority of these 83 issues; they consistently delivered a certain level of quality and a ton of product. Which is really all you can ask of any comics creator of any period but perhaps even more particularly of the Bronze Age. They brought an undaunted spirit to these pages. Some issues were more amusing than others, some knocked on the door of true surrealist greatness, but most hit the same mark of perfectly-entertaining-but-not-particularly-fantastic.  

JLA
(Issues 162 - 176)

Would that I could say the same for JLA, either this stretch of it or '70s JLA in general. As was the case in 1978, it's not just a matter of repeating what doesn't work but also of calling attention to itself, again and again, and tripling down on it all in some cases. 

"J'Accuse!" has to be among the most widespread pre-internet memes there is. If one is unfamiliar with the reference point, it must be confusing to see it pop up in so many different places.
First off, this Red Tornado business has been ridiculous from the get-go, but surely by 1979, someone had to notice how the same note had been struck with the character several hundred times too many. 

Apparently not, though. Unfathomably.

Second, Wonder Woman. A more enterprising reader should go through these issues and replace every bit of her dialogue with "Mister Ma-aaa-aaan!"


The cumulative effect of the JLA writers' failure to give her anything but "Ewww, men!" dialogue is to make her - and by extension, feminist perspective - unintentionally ridiculous. I'm not saying whatsoever that feminist perspective is ridiculous - quite the opposite. I'm very much of the opinion that when writers reduce female characters (or people voluntarily reduce themselves) to angry-feminist cliches, they're even more regressive to issues of gender than a thousand Willie Scotts from Temple of Doom. Granted, no one's asking me. 

Third, Green Arrow and Black Lightning. 


Holy frakking moley. Okay, so I've always known that the Green Arrow of the 70s seemed more like a staff writer for MSNBC (i.e. not above doctoring the narrative to support its conclusions) than an actual character -
 

but I was unprepared for just how obnoxious and poorly written he is throughout the decade. If you've ever observed a white person who sees a non-white person and projects volumes of oppression, solidarity, rage, and assumptions upon them - all for their own good, of course - regardless of cultural context, individual circumstance, or common humanity, multiply this by ten and you've got 1970s Green Arrow.

This seems as good a place any to wrap up the whole "Relevance" movement in general. It was over by the mid-70s, but it permeates each and every Green Arrow appearance throughout the decade. I've defined it many times previously, but here's Grant Morrison's summation from Supergods:

"To make the big concept behind (Relevance) work, unfortunately, O'Neil was required to overlook 15 years of work on the character of Hal Jordan. (In O'Neil's hands) he became a soul-searching, bewildered representative of every dumb-ass cop, the unthinking stooge of geriatric authorities from a galaxy far, far away. Recruited a hip foil to Green Lantern's boneheaded knee-jerk conservativism was Green Arrow, stripped of his fortune and his faux Batman trappings and remade as a jive talking Douglas Fairbanks-style Lothario with a goatee, a bachelor apartment on the Lower East Side of Star City, and a newfound love of rock and roll. (...) Green Arrow seems the cruel archetype of the born-again midlife man of the 60s."  


"In any real world where the laws of physics and some interstellar immortal judiciary permitted his existence, Green Lantern's response would be all our * responses to the same accusation: "I've been saving the entire planet Earth and every living thing on it, regardless of race, color, political affiliation, or species since Green Lantern issue number 1." Instead, he hung his head in shame as O'Neil subverted believability to hammer home his powerful indictment of the superhero's role as a weapon of the status quo and ruling elite."

* Well, not Green Arrow's. And really, in 2014, not a lot of people's, unfortunately.

So... confused... (This is actually from World's Finest 256, but it's all of a piece with Green Arrow.)
Morrison is overall positive on the Relevance movement, as am I - after all, it did expand the possibilities of the medium, however heavy-handedly - but I agree with Howard Chaykin on the overall futility of things like Relevance-by-decree (from Back Issue 49:)

"I never thought of it as a movement; I thought of it more as a casual annoyance. I found it banal and silly. (...) We're talking about an era in which Crossfire and Point/ Counterpoint were popular, and it all became a "yes! no!" shouting match. I'm a great believer in the messiness of social relevance, as opposed to the doubt-free conviction that comes out of what passes for social relevance. I'm a patron saint of doubt."

WHAT DID I LEARN FROM ALL OF THIS? (JLA 78 - 176) Some heroic efforts from Dick Dillin, a real workhorse to be sure, and the occasional fun story amidst the tedium, but overall 70s JLA is very much not my cup of tea. Pursuant to learning anything further about my affection for Bronze Age Batman? Nada 

 

Actually, I did learn that the best bits of it all were written by Steve Englehart, as was the case in Detective. So there's that - chapeau, Mr. Englehart.

BATMAN
(Issues 307 - 321)

I am posting this cover: 

solely so that I have a reason (albeit a flimsy reason) to post:
 

which is among my favorite things ever mashed-up for YouTube consumption.

I quite enjoyed this year of Batman. At no point is the wheel in any danger of being reinvented, but it's a fun collection of stand-alones, sub-plots, and unexpected Rogue's Gallery appearances. Such as:

or

There's also a fun Two-Face two-parter, and the Gentleman Ghost - a character whose visual and conceit I've always enjoyed - makes a few appearances.

 
On the sub-plot front, Bruce's romance with Selina Kyle hums along.
And Batgirl - in addition to being ogled by Gotham's finest - struggles to reconcile her extracurricular activities with her congressional obligations.
The Joker issue (321) is probably not in anybody Top Ten Joker Stories, but this set of panels is great:


WHAT DID I LEARN FROM ALL OF THIS? (Batman 218 - 321) I learned pretty much the same thing I learned from Detective and Brave and the Bold: the best of these are likely represented in that Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told trade I've referenced throughout. But there's a lot more good than bad in these 100+ issues, and it's a fun era. I recommend it.

I also learned the Batman got knocked unconscious an awful lot, and that this amuses me.
WORLD'S FINEST
(Issues 254 - 259)

As per usual, the most offbeat Bat-stories of the year take place in the pages of World's Finest. Damn. 

Take this issue, for example.
I don't even need to provide commentary, here, really.
Whatever Bob Haney was smoking needs to be passed around to current DC writers. And then to everyone else.
 

Haney only wrote a couple of issues. Most were scripted and plotted by Denny O'Neil. Including this are-you-kidding-me-another-Batman-turns-into-a-literal-Bat story.
 

But it's Denny who writes the lead story in WF 257, which is definitely one of the more offbeat Bat-stories I've ever read. (Excluding the Super-Sons ones) On the surface, it appears to be another half-baked slice of Relevance, as a bag lady uses newfound wish-fulfillment powers (bestowed by an alien named "Fred") to rid Metropolis of everyone who bugs her - particularly foreigners. She does this by turning everyone in the city into statues. Batman figures this out and uses his superior powers of deduction to stop her:

How Batman whipped together that George Washington disguise so quickly is unknown, but I'm very impressed.
This works, naturally, and everything is put to right. Fred returns to the stars, and it's off to the looney bin for the old girl.

Issues 260 and 261 receive amusing overviews here and here, respectively.

WHAT DID I LEARN FROM ALL OF THIS? (World's Finest Comics 191 - 261) There was some bat-cracker-crazy going on in this title, back in the day. Loads of fun. You have to overlook an awful lot of stuff, to be sure, but I'll remember these 70 issues fondly, even the ones I didn't care for.

AND THE BEST BATMAN
STORY OF 1979 IS...
Written by Len Wein, art by Walt Simonson and Dick Giordano.
Here's another one that I first came across in that Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told trade. It's a simple enough story: the Calendar Man is on a spree and making a laughing-stock out of Gotham's Finest. Batman is drawn in the case, but halfway through the story, he's home with a (this cracked me up) concussion and on bedrest, as enforced by the Commissioner, Lucius Fox, and Alfred.

The Calendar Man's gimmick is silly but kind of cool. And handled in this issue better than it's handled anywhere else:

Something a little extra for Simonson fans.

Throughout the story, both the Batman and Commissioner Gordon are convinced they'll catch him on Sunday, as "there's only one thing worth stealing on that day: the golden obelisk of the sun god Ra." This turns out unsurprisingly to be a red herring, but luckily the Batman figures it all out. (Probably a result of letting his head heal a little between concussions.) 

~

Well, that just about does it, folks.


I've got a "Best Of..." post planned, and a coda examining 3 stories that fall beyond the 70s but sum up (arguably) the best attributes of the Bronze Age Batman. So not quite at the finish line, but we have moved officially beyond the year-by-year breakdown of 70s Batman. I hope you've enjoyed this completely subjective tour through the decade's stories and the few wrap-up posts to come.

6 comments:

  1. (1) THAT'S how Batwoman went out?!? Lame.

    (2) It's every day that brings a "What Are Little Girls Made of?" reference. Nice.

    (3) I don't know what to say about Bruce in that white disco suit. I wish I did; it'd be extremely witty and cutting.

    (4) I always kinda liked the look of Red Tornado, and I guess I must have just never actually read anything he was in. I had no idea he was such a crybaby. It's difficult to imagine why anyone ever thought that would be a good idea for a character.

    (5) "they're even more regressive to issues of gender than a thousand Willie Scotts" -- agreed. Not a good use of Wonder Woman at all.

    (6) That Green Arrow stuff is kind of horrifying. I've never really liked Ollie as a character anyways (based on the limited samples I've read), and that does nothing to change my opinion at all. Actually, no, that's not true; it changes it toward the more negative.

    (7) I'd never seen that "Batman and Robin: The Musical" thing. Good lord. Hilarious. My favorite thing is the attention to the specifics of Arnie's accent, and how they actually use it to rhyme a few things.

    (8) Also: I always forget just HOW bad that movie is until I see clips from it. Astonishingly awful.

    (9) I know nothing about them, but Kite Man and Crazy-Quilt strike me as being good candidates for the all-time worst villains list.

    (10) I like to think that Batman had a George Washington costume in his utility belt for decades, and finally -- FINALLY! -- had a chance to put it to use. Best day of his life.

    (11) That panel of Batman and Superman looking bummed is great.

    I've loved this series of posts! Glad to hear it's not quiiiiiite finished.

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    1. (3) If I did a Batman movie, I'd have a whole sequence in the late 70s with him in a disco suit. I picture it like the beginning of Temple of Doom, but with Prom Night music. I'd be off the movie by the end of the week, I'm sure, but it might be worth it.

      (4) Totally on Red Tornado's visual design - I was rooting for him for the first few years solely due to his cool look. But man! Go home, you mopey bastard.

      (7) Jon and Al do amazing work. I don't know which of them does the Arnold impersonation, but it is definitely among the better ones out there. And used with laser precision. I highly recommend their youtube channel for a rabbit hole and a half. (If you'll forgive one more link, here's a different but equally perfect musical mash-up for The Thing:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8faq5amdK30

      No Schwarzeneggar, alas, but a spot-on Sinatra.

      (8) Oh yeah.

      (9) Also a big "Oh yeah." The weird part is, that Kite Man issue is pretty cool, and you find yourself thinking, "Oh hey, well, Kite Man's okay, I guess," until your better self comes in and shakes you clear of it. I mean: Kite Man. It's just... I mean, to say it aloud should have punctured the balloon immediately.

      (10) That would have been the best epilogue reveal ever. Always be prepared.

      I'll drag this out as long as I possibly can! Well, two more times.

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  2. A few things:

    That Green Arrow/Black Lightning banter...wow. Occasionally I forget how ham-handed both Marvel and DC got with their attempts at being "streetwise" and socially relevant, and that brought it back into focus for me.

    Giant green bat monster = fun, and an instant urge to stat it up for D&D.

    Simonson having someone throw Thor's hammer four years or so before he started his run on Thor is a truly fun find. Good catch.

    My memory of the '70s becomes a lot more sharp towards the end of the decade, naturally. I became a teenager in '79. That year in particular I really began to see the world as a big, colorful, chaotic whirl, and the comics of the time helped reinforce that perception. I clearly remember how stuffed with comics even small convenient store mag racks were, and how I had not an inkling of how good I had it, with 35/40 cent regular issues and $1 super-size books. I was going to say it was a great time to grow up, what with comics being cheap and plentiful, arcades hitting their stride, the genre explosion set off by Star Wars really hitting pop culture hard, and the thump of both Top 40 and Classic Rock radio blaring almost everywhere I went. But, really, I suppose anyone born anytime can claim that the time they grew up was great for being a kid. I'm just glad that I grew up when I did.

    Cool overview, very insightful.

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    1. Glad you dug it. I often try and find scientific reasons to prove the 70s and 80s were the best time to grow up, but I usually come around to the same conclusion, both that it's probably the same for most, and that I'm just happy as hell to have grown up when I did.

      "You have come across a Nazi Bat Monster -"
      "It's not a Nazi! It's the counter-clockwise swastika, not the kind the Nazis used!"

      (D&D fight waiting to happen.)

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  3. (3) The comedy Airplane for some reason, I can't imagine why (sarc). Also, man, Lon Chaney sure did get around back in the day.

    (5) Oh believe me, I have seen worse, FAR WORSE. What makes it more of an insult is that it's of recent vintage. Two words: Frank Miller:

    http://blip.tv/at4w/at4w-227-all-star-batman-and-robin-5-6521527

    (6) My own take on DC's Relevance movement is that while they meant well, it also shows up a lot of the shortsightedness of a lot the thinking behind some of the best intentions. Also, whether or not this is true, the more time goes on, the more I think we're more or less living in a post-racial era (though whether or not Hollywood has gotten the message remains to be seen). If by any chance that post-racial assessment is right, then all I can say is, thank gosh! That said, seeing the Nazi Bat Monster, my first response was to laugh out loud, even though I knew it's probably in bad taste.

    (9) There were my exact responses.

    Me (scrolling down to Kite Man): Really, Kite Man? (scrolls down to reveal Crazy Quilt) "Oh COME ONNN!" (to myself, I think this).

    (10) Not only am I willing to bet that Bats kept a Washington costume in his utility belt, you just KNOW there's a Lincoln disguise somewhere in the wing. Come on, Bruce Wayne was BORN to play Honest Abe!

    What have I learned.

    This is going to be embarrassing, in as much as it's the kind of comment that can only be made by someone who doesn't read as much comics as others. However, I realized that even after all these years, my take on Batman is still shaped by the original Tim Burton film, and to a more or less extent, the Animated Series.

    I was, and to some extent, still am willing to treat the Animated Series as a sequel to Burton film. What relevance does this have for the Bronze Age Batman. I don't know. I will say, however, that as choice for the best representation of the character in comics, especially compared to the direction things have taken now (see point (5) above), I have to say the Bronze Age isn't looking all that third place as it used to. Sure, there are problems with perceptions of race and gender that are grating, yet these seem thankfully few and far between, and on the whole, they didn't seem to have done all that bad with the character.

    You get a sense that, for all it's flaws, the writers were trying to preserve a sense of right and wrong that's a welcome change from the endless whiney angst that seems to be the mainstay of most comics these days In the Bronze Age, by comparison, there's more focus on doing the right thing. It's nice to see a version of Bats that has more or less of an act together.

    ChrisC

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    1. I echo your thoughts on Bronze Age Batman. (Well, obviously, I guess, all these blogs later.) I don't think too much of Burton's Batman, overall, but the Animated Series is fantastic. Whatever version of Batman we call that, I call it damn near spot-on to the Batman I know.

      Or, more accurately, I guess, that I prefer.

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