Happy New Year readers and friends; Happy New Year to one and all! I hope this year proves a happier and more peaceful one for our world and for all of you. What better way to celebrate the dawning of a new day than to look back at an older one and see what it has to teach us? There are probably many better ways, but seeing as this is a blog about Bronze Age DC comics, this is what I’ve got to offer. Welcome to another edition of Into the Bronze Age, my journey through the Bronze Age of the DC Universe, book by book, month by month! I hope you enjoy the Bat-stories I’ve got in store for you today from Detective Comics.
Roll Call (You can see everything published this month HERE)
- Action Comics #393
- Adventure Comics #398
- Aquaman #52
- Detective Comics #404
- Green Lantern/Green Arrow #80
- Phantom Stranger #9
- Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #105
- Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #133 (Jack Kirby’s debut!)
- Superman #230
- Teen Titans #29
Bolded entries are covered in this post, the others will be covered soon.
Detective Comics #404
“Ghost of the Killer Skies!”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Neal Adams
Inker: Dick Giordano
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Julius Schwartz
Writer: Frank Robbins
Penciler: Gil Kane
Inker: Frank Giacoia
Letterer: Ben Oda
Editor: Julius Schwartz
This is a fine issue, with two solid enough tales, though it isn’t anything to write home about. Of course, that won’t stop me from writing to the Internet about it. It isn’t particularly impressive, but Neal Adams’ art is always a big plus for any comic, especially a Bat-book. The real highlight of the issue is the almost cameo of Enemy Ace, who is a pretty fascinating and unique character. To start with, he’s on the side of the “bad guys” in his story, yet he’s the protagonist, which is exceedingly rare. Add to this the fact that his stories were routinely surprisingly mature (in the real sense) and challenging, questioning the nature of war, honor, and patriotism, and you have quite an unusual character, especially considering that he was created in the Silver Age. This story doesn’t quite manage to take advantage of the compelling history of the character or the challenging themes that predominated his books, but it makes it touches on them in an interesting way.
The story begins with a WWI era biplane careening out of control into a mountainside in Spain to meet a fiery end. It just so happens that the Dark Knight himself is observing this crash. He arrives in time to pull the pilot from the wreckage, only to discover that the unfortunate aviator has been strangled…while in mid-air! This is a mystery tailor-made for the Dark Detective. He begins to investigate as his alter ego, and we learn why the hero happened to be on this particular mountain. Bruce Wayne has invested in a film about Baron Von Hammer, the Enemy Ace, and the production has been in trouble, suffering all manner of mysterious misfortunes. The playboy-turned movie mogul is on hand to monitor his investment.
Back at the set, the director suggests that they should perhaps just give up, but the billionaire insists that the movie is important. This is actually a really interesting little beat, as Wayne declares “I believe in ‘The Hammer of Hell’ and the things it can say to audiences about the nature–and folly–of war!” Considering the character being adapted and the continuing war in Vietnam, this is actually a subtle and intriguing character moment. We have seen relatively recently that Bruce Wayne is involved in movies and uses his influence to try and shape the nation’s cinema in a positive fashion, so this fits in rather well as a (likely unintentional but nevertheless pleasant) bit of continuity. It’s brief, only one panel, but it is noteworthy nonetheless. We might even imagine that there’s an implied critique of the current conflict to be found in that statement. Whatever the case, this is the type of sign of the changing nature of comics for which we’ve been watching.
We are also introduced to Henrich Franz, the technical advisor of the film, who claims to be a descendant of the Baron. The morose German flyer professes his admiration of Von Hammer but suggests that perhaps his ancestor is their antagonist; perhaps the production is…cursed! Of course, Batman suits up and pursues more mundane leads, leads that pay off that night when he ambushes a team of local toughs who are sabotaging the film’s planes. After incapacitating the treacherous trio, the Masked Manhunter interrogates one of his captives and discovers they were paid by a mysterious figure who always wore flying goggles and a scarf.
In a nice touch, Batman simply lets them go, warning them that they had better turn themselves in to the nearest policeman or he’ll track them down. Unlike Aquaman’s ill-conceived mercy in this month’s Aqua-adventure, this actually makes some sense. Batman is a very scary guy, and Adams’ moody art and O’Neil’s straight-forwardly intimidating dialog helps to emphasize this characteristic. I’m pretty sure that, were I in this fellow’s shoes, I wouldn’t risk making this grim avenger of the night angry with me.
Next, the Caped Crusader confronts the head saboteur, who is revealed as none other than Gavin the cameraman! The hero noticed the same thing I did while reading the story, that the cameraman reported on the manner of the pilot’s death before he really should have been able to tell. However, now we receive another twist. Gavin admits to having taken money from a rival production to torpedo The Hammer of Hell, but he denies any involvement with the murder.
I’m a little disappointed that the cameraman’s observation was just a red herring, because it doesn’t really make sense that way. It’s a bit of a cheat, and a good mystery story doesn’t cheat. It’s a delicate balance to provide your reader with just enough information that they COULD s0lve the case, or at least feel like they could, yet also make it difficult enough that most will still be surprised by the reveal. Anyway, that red herring gets the director killed, as he is gunned down while Batman interrogates Gavin. In a fun beat, the cameraman makes a break for it, and the Dark Knight, intent on his pursuit of the murderer, simply cold-cocks the saboteur as he runs past. I really enjoy a good, competent portrayal of Batman. He doesn’t have to be perfect, but I like stories in which he’s presented as capable of handling average challenges without much effort.
Unfortunately, the real murderer, who by conservation of detail, you have probably deduced is Franz, gets the drop on him. The flyer was incensed that the film was going to portray Von Hammer as merciful and compassionate, essentially, as the complicated figure he was, rather than a ‘noble’ killing machine. It’s a slightly flimsy motivation, but it more or less makes ‘comic sense.’ Batman convinces Franz to give him a fighting chance, so they each mount up in one of the movie’s planes and take to the skies. There’s a good touch of detail here as the Dark Knight notes that the is no expert on prop planes, which makes perfect sense.
Despite that, the hero mysteriously performs excellently, almost as if he was being guided! Still, Franz has a pistol and Batman is unarmed, so he is at a disadvantage. The Caped Crusader’s plane gets disabled, and he tries a last, desperate gamble, diving from one craft to the other. He’s locked in a desperate, losing struggle with Franz when the killer’s scarf gets caught in his prop, sending him on a last, long drop, another example of the villain hoisted by his own petard. Perhaps I should start tracking this trope. It seems to show up almost every month!
This is a passable story, though the mystery doesn’t really have enough room to breathe. In the same manner, the dogfight is given slightly short shrift, but the overall effect is interesting, and the story has a bit of personality despite its brevity. There’s something fascinating about the idea of a complicated figure and his contentious portrayal on film. We’ve all encountered that in real life, and it makes for a neat comics story, though I rather wish Batman’s involvement with the film and his interest in Von Hammer had been developed a bit more. There is definitely a hint of anti-war feeling in this story, though it is (mostly) subtle and easily overlooked. It marks one of the first times we’ve seen such a sentiment, other than the obvious, overt example of Hawk and Dove, and that is an interesting occurrence in light of our overarching goals for this feature. I will give this story an average score of 3 Minutemen. It’s ultimately just okay despite its neat features.
An interesting title and a fair little mystery characterize this backup. It’s another Batgirl tale, squeezed into the back of Detective Comics, but it’s better than most of the others we’ve encountered so far. It’s short, but Robbins keeps the plot simple enough that it doesn’t need much space to be relatively successful. Interestingly, this story is also a very clear product of its times, centering on Billy Warlock, a clear analogue for Andy Warhol who produces similarly odd experimental films as his real life counterpart.
The ersatz artist is killed in the opening pages of our story, and intriguingly enough, his murder is caught on film. He had set a camera up in a mailbox to covertly record the comings and goings of a seedy street in Gotham, and that very device provided a record of his demise. More surprisingly, it seems to show Batgirl’s sometimes beau, Jason Bard is the killer! Of course, Babs cannot believe that he would do such a thing, so, despite the mountain of evidence, she sets out to prove his innocence. Robbins handles his exposition well, weaving it into scenes between Commissioner Gordon and his daughter wherein he outlines the evidence against the private eye.
Jason himself tells Babs that he was in the area in response to a lead on a different murder suspect, but he claims he was ambushed by a strange woman who drugged him two hours before the murder. Batgirl returns home to her father’s private screening room (!) and pours over the video for any shred of evidence that she can use to clear the gumshoe. She finds just the clue she’s looking for when she realizes that the figure in the film walked without a limp, despite using a cane, something that Jason with his combat injury could never do. It’s a nice bit of deduction, and what follows, despite involving a bit of a leap, is just as good.
The red-headed heroine goes to Warlock’s studio in search of the earlier reels of his film, hoping that they might contain a shot of the vixen who framed her beau. Despite the fact that the film magically changes perspective, she discovers that one of the lead actresses in the pop artist’s films, Veda (interesting name, just Veda, like Cher) was the femme fatale behind it all. Just then, the deadly dame herself appears and tries to knock Batgirl out the same way she did Jason. Babs performs better than she has in some of the earlier tales and quickly uses judo to escape the attack, but a lucky throw of the knockout gas sends her into dreamland. She awakens just in time to see the psycho starlet preparing to turn her into a living statue with a batch of plaster!
To my great surprise, while refreshing my knowledge of Andy Warhol for this commentary, I discovered that this story is actually based on a real-life assassination attempt that very nearly killed Warhol himself. Just as with the comic, the assassin was a woman who was associated with the artist’s work, though, in reality, the relationship was much more tangential and the women even more bat-guano insane, if that’s possible. The assassin was a radical feminist writer named Valerie Solanas who actually advocated the elimination of men (which seems a rather short sighted policy to me, but what do I know?).
It’s a crazy story, crazier, in its way than the comic version. Of course, for our purposes, the most notable thing about this discovery is the evidence it provides of even more influence of the real world on DC comics. The assassination attempt took place in 1968, so it is another recent event that found its way into the pages of these comics, much like the Manson murders which were referenced in the pages of Green Lantern. Unlike that tale, there is not much made of this bit of real-life inspiration. Perhaps we’ll see the starlet’s madness explored further in the next issue, but at the moment, it seems that the real event has just been mined for plot and window dressing. The story is solid, and Batgirl is intelligent and dedicated, earning it an average 3 Minutemen despite its brevity. There is one big problem with the plot, though, and that is that the police would have been certain to go back and watch the earlier film if Jason claimed he had been ambushed before the murder. That would be easily checked on. The oversight makes the Gotham PD look rather incompetent. Of course, maybe that’s the reason they need a Batman in the first place.
Well, that’s it for these tales. I hope you’ll join me soon for the next few comics in our journey through October 1970. The next one promises to be quite interesting! Until next time, keep the heroic spirit alive!