BATMAN #156 June 1963
Sheldon Moldoff and Charles Paris original artists
|While fondly recalled by all those who plunked down their 12 cents for this issue at the newsstands four decades back, it was, undeniably, stories like "Robin Dies At Dawn" that almost fatally wounded the Caped Crusader himself, Batman, and not his kid sidekick...|
|This particular story--like the book-length
"Prisoners of Three Worlds" three
issues earlier--made a considerably deeper
impression on the young comics readers of
the day than the standard Dynamic Duo adventure,
what with this tale's unusual demonstration
of a memorable but still only slight increase
in the emotional content emanating from the
lead characters, the then-current norm in
the DC Comics of the era hovering around
a percentage of, gosh, I don't know? Zero
per cent, maybe? ANY uptick made for glorious
Silver Age reminiscences, kids, but the truth
is--sorry gang--this ain't that great a story!
But then, why should this episode be all
that different from any of the others slinking
out of editor Jack Schiff's office? Even
as a kid, I recognized his take on the supposedly
iconic feature to be wrong-headed, generally
silly, and poorly illustrated. The only thing
that kept me going during my initial years
as a paying tourist up and down the four-color
avenues of Gotham--1961 into 1964--were the
truly nifty reprints of artist Dick Sprang's
vastly superior fifties material found in
various BATMAN ANNUAL collections. That,
and the knowledge that the fella in the grey
suit was, for reasons not entirely clear
to me, best pals with my number one guy,
the good ol' Man of Steel, and if Superman
vouched for him, hey, I figured Batman must
be worthy of my attention. Even if he was
trying my patience...
Just look at this highly vaunted issue. Though advertised as a "Sensational 2-Part Adventure" on the cover, the first 8 pages are nonetheless devoted to a story entitled "The Secret of the Ant-Man" that ties in directly with the cover feature, acting, for all intents and purposes, as it's prologue--and just maybe, Robin's last hurrah?....
Seems Batman is going off on a top secret mission for a while, leaving the junior member of the firm to fend for himself. Soon after, Robin encounters a mysterious little dude going by the name of Ant-Man. Is he a good guy, or a bad guy? What's his secret? And for heaven's sake, didn't ANYBODY at DC ever think to stop for a minute and take a peek at what their competitor's were doing? Would it've killed 'em to pick up a copy of TALES TO ASTONISH occasionally? THEN maybe they would've learned the REAL secret of Ant-Man--that his name was Hank Pym, and he worked for the competition!
What turned out to be essentially a solo adventure for the supposedly doomed Boy Wonder ends not with Martin Goodman's lawyers serving up papers accusing DC of copyright infringement, but rather with a pensive Robin wondering just where oh where his mentor mysteriously disappeared to. Good question, kid, but you've only to flip past a house ad and a Henry Boltinoff featurette to find yourself center-stage on the splash page of the ominously titled "Robin Dies At Dawn"! As the story starts proper we find Gotham's Guardian far, far from home, swirling through the distant reaches of space, finally landing on an arid alien landscape, adorned with the Play Dough-like plants, creatures and architecture penciller Sheldon Moldoff was rightly infamous for--all brightly colored in such menacing shades as bright pink, lime green, pale yellow, and lilting lavender! Oooo, scary! Tossed into this otherworldly environment stripped of not only his handy-dandy Utility-Belt, nifty Bat-Rope, and bountiful Batarangs, but his very memory as well, our confused crimebuster readies himself for whatever garish grotesqueries await him. He doesn't have to wait long...
Quicker than you can say "WHAT the @#$% is Batman doing in outer space anyway?", a big, nasty, man-eating pink flower grabs our hero with it's slimy tendrils, and the fearless adventurer does the only thing he possibly can do--he screams out for help, hoping against hope that young Robin is nearby, preferably armed with an extra-large bottle of weed-killer! And guess what, gang--he IS!! Okay, maybe he doesn't have the chemical defoliant on him, but he does manage to handily free his senior partner. Relieved to no longer be so utterly and totally alone, Batman nonetheless gets very little information regarding Robin's unexpected drop-in out of the lad, so the pair merely proceed to walk across the desert landscape for hours until the sun begins to rise and they encounter a large, segmented, multi-armed statue creature, seemingly made up of boulders. And yes, IT'S pink, too. It's also not the happiest of campers, and the three mix it up pretty fiercely--well, about as fiercely as things got inside the pages of a DC Comic back in 1963, which usually wasn't very, but...
It was enough to bring the now-prophetic title of the story to it's grim fruition along the top of page 6, as the valiant Robin leaps in front of a boulder tossed by the pink rock monster in a last volley as he himself is sliding off the side of a cliff to his (presumed) doom. Hit flush by the hurled missile of death in an awkwardly drawn panel, the bystanding Batman soon realizes the sad truth, and by that page's last panel, has already buried his now-former partner under--irony, anyone?--a large pile of rocks. This is where all that extra emotion comes in, kiddies, especially as ol' Bats starts flailing about on the very next page when he's suddenly confronted by yet another big monster--this one's red--shouting, "Let it come! I don't want to live! It's my fault Robin died! I don't want to live..."
And at THIS point, we readers are let in on the TRUE nature of this unusually angst-drenched drama--Batman isn't in space at all, y'see, but has actually been hooked up to a series of machines by government scientists! Mr. "How Can I Help?" apparently volunteered to let them test the effect abject loneliness would have on potential astronauts on upcoming spaceflights! Especially if they landed on planets decked out in designer shades! Seeing how their little experiment had turned the brave crimefighter into a whimpering, defeated, whiner, the chagrined scientists rush in, accompanied by the "late" Boy Wonder! Once disconnected from the various electrodes and such, the shaken hero is taken home by his sympathetic side-kick, and thus ends chapter one...
Chapter two? Well, essentially that deals with a series of flashbacks that wrest control of the Darknight Detective at the most inopportune of times, resulting in his effectiveness patrolling the rooftops of Gotham reaching an all-time low. Tossing and turning violently in his sleep, needing the company of Ace the Bat-Hound just to make it through the night, clearly, the man needs a break before he even THINKS about donning the mask and cape to hit the streets again. And that indeed was the plan--until word came in that the deadly consortium of thieves known as the Gorilla Gang was on the loose in Gotham City!!
(Let's pause for a moment to consider the inherent logic involved--here's a group of crooks who slip into large, cumbersome ape outfits before they pull a job. The suits don't make them any stronger. as far as I can tell. And while the pull-over masks may well hide their identities, wouldn't they ALSO severely limit their peripheral vision, something generally of increased importance whilst committing a crime? And wearing those hot, heavy, hairy suits can't help but restrict their movements appreciably--wouldn't it be so much easier to just dress casually for better job performance? But, A)that wouldn't look NEARLY as cool, and B) I'm WAY over-thinking this, aren't I?--sorry...)
So anyway, with our prime protagonist's psyche at it's most precarious, an opportunity presents itself wherein the Gorilla Gang gleefully holds the final fate of the bound Boy Wonder in their hairy little palms, with his ultimate demise scheduled for--yes!--dawn!! Our hero, at this, his shakiest, least confident moment in his entire storied career, realizes the tremendous stakes at play, and wonders--good golly gosh, can he do it? Can he get it together in time and rescue his ward, rescue him in a way he was unable to while trapped in the alien landscape that was, in fact, his mind?
What do YOU think?...
Yup, the hard cold reality of the dire threat to Robin-boy managed to shock Batman out his hallucinogenic spates once and for all, and as the sun rose on the triumphant duo, the two crime-fighters knew a new dawn was finally, well, dawning. (Actually, it WASN'T, but it would soon. More on that to follow...)
I hadn't read this story in ages when I sat down with it the other night, and had totally forgotten the senses-deprivation gimmick that fueled the plot. The satisfaction gotten from viewing Batman's visceral expression of grief was tempered by the way in which he all but gave up when faced by Robin's bogus demise! Some hero, this guy! Uh uh, this is one tale no dose of misguided nostalgia, rose colored glasses (or better still--pink) or not, is ever going to help. The Batman franchise was in deep trouble by 1963, and even a ten year old like myself could see it. Alien space-monsters were everywhere, permeating even the Caped Crusader's imagination if need be for some lame story's sake! And if there was ONE place in the DC Universe other-worldly critters definitely didn't fit in, it was in the once-gritty milieu created by Bob Kane nearly a quarter of a century earlier...
And speaking of the elusive Mr. Kane, while he'd successfully hired a series of artists to ghost the work he'd continuously signed his name to, effort free, almost from the feature's very beginning, the work of Moldoff was by far the least inspired yet to see print under the omnipresent boxed--and brazen--Kane signature. Now, I realize there are quite a few folks out there who look upon his tenure quite fondly, and I'm reluctant to offend either them or the artist himself, still active at conventions to this very day as best I can tell, but c'mon--that stuff was AWFUL. Just my opinion, mind you, but the amorphous pliability of the stiffly posed characters combined with the thoroughly unconvincing artistic environments that they went about their insipid escapades in, well, SOMETHING had to be done!!
Batman needed a freshening, an updating of some sort.
Batman needed a NEW look, and as far as I was concerned, he couldn't get one soon enough. Luckily for me--AND for the No-Longer-Quite-So-Dynamic-Duo--one was right around the corner...
AND on my next page...
Several other notes about this particular comic. The aforementioned house ad that bridged chapters one and two showed this to be an especially memorable month for DC Comics. Of the four covers reproduced, the initial teaming of the Tiny Titan and the Winged Wonder took place in that month's ATOM, as the little guy met the hero he was ultimately destined to share his book with in it's waning days, Hawkman. The FLASH cover depicts the Earth 1 speedster socking his Earth 2 counterpart squarely in the jaw as a grinning Vandal Savage flies off during this, the third meeting of the parallel heroes--but more importantly, it was the story that revived the Justice Society of America and led, a few months later, to the very first meeting of the JSA and the JLA. And the issue of MY GREATEST ADVENTURE? Merely the debut of a merry little band of characters known as The Doom Patrol!! Need I say more? (The fourth comic was just your standard, everyday, swell issue of MYSTERY IN SPACE featuring good ol' Adam Strange...) But as important as some of these books would loom in the nexus of comic book history, it's not their contents that unite them so much in my memory-muddled mind, but rather it's their LETTERING! Or lack thereof...
Y'see, excluding the MYSTERY IN SPACE, but including BATMAN 156, these books--and several others issued by DC that same month--shared one distinguishing characteristic, something that, even at that tender age, made these covers stick out like sore thumbs. Namely, the ever-present Ira Schnapp display-lettering was suspiciously absent, with the story titles set in a cold and formal typeface, rendering them impersonal and vaguely unsettling. The word balloons were the work of other staff letterers, but having come to expect Schnapp's warm and comforting style to appear on each and every DC Comic that I'd buy, I'll admit to being disconcerted by the unannounced switch in motifs, and was happy when equilibrium was restored with his swift return! But why was he gone in the first place? Was he sick? Striking for better pay? Temporarily fired by Mort Weisinger? Who knows--I was just happy to have him back soon afterwards. His distinctive style says "Silver Age" to me as much--if not more so--than the work of several prominent artists of the era does, and I can't help but look at the title blurb for "Robin Dies At Dawn" and shiver a little at the memory of my dreadful concern that, way back when, maybe Ira Schnapp had, too!! (Happily, he hadn't, as he continued to dominate DC covers, all the way up until his very last one, circa 1968. After that, I have absolutely NO idea what became of this treasured master craftsman, but if anybody knows the circumstances of his exit from the industry, I'd love to hear it!...)
A technical note about my re-do: generally, I keep solid blacks solid, thick line-weights thick and so on and so forth. However, I felt that by "dimming down" the background elements, it would help bring the iconic image of Batman carrying his fallen partner to the foreground with better effect. And yes, given my lack of enthusiasm for Mr. Moldoff's work, this was indeed a commission (Hi, Arthur!), and not a cover I chose to reinterpret my ownself! But in it's own way, it IS a classic, and it provides me with a springboard to investigate the FURTHER changes brought upon our two crimebusters.
Like I said, next page... (coming soon)
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