June 15th, 2003

Those of us who are hopelessly infected with this inordinate love of comic books can say all we want to justify our peculiar interests. We can go on and on about the intrinsic yet barely explored storytelling possibilities inherent to the medium and all that other pseudo-intellectual gibberish. And believe me, at one time or another, we all have. But you know what? When you get right down to it, a whole lot of the doe-eyed appreciation we generously heap on these cheaply produced four-color pamphlets has a lot less to do with their content than it has to do with the emotions they stir in each of us. It all boils down to their uncanny--and magical-- ability to transport us on a joyful trip back through the years--OUR years--in their own private and personal way-back machine!

It happened to me recently. Preparing to research a strip focusing on J'onn J'onnz, the Martian Manhunter, for an upcoming issue of Jon Cooke's fine publication, COMIC BOOK ARTIST, I went downstairs and yanked out all the DETECTIVE COMICS I owned pre-dating the Green Guys switch over to HOUSE OF MYSTERY in 1964 (I pulled those out as well, though that's off point...).Now, over the years, I've thumbed through most of my old Superman, Flash, JLA, early Marvel titles, et al, time and time again, sometimes in the course of duty, and sometimes just for fun. Whatever nostalgic power they may've had over me has been diminished by viewing the material repeatedly, but I experienced an unexpected jolt of childhood consciousness flipping through those DETECTIVEs. Why? Well, probably because I hadn't cracked open their covers in decades, much less years. And frankly, the reason for that seemingly undue neglect is pretty straightforward--the unadorned truth is that I've always thought they were pretty much, well, AWFUL!

Now, I fully realize Bob Kane's primary ghost artist from that period, Sheldon Moldoff, is still out there, active among the many fans who grew up on--and loved--his version of the Caped Crusader. Good for him--and good for his fans, but I sincerely hope he doesn't come across this particular commentary--which, in any event, is merely just the opinion of one man--but darn it all, I never liked his work! Never. Uh uh. Didn't like it when Charles Paris inked him and he attempted an ersatz Dick Tracy cartoony style with his characters, and I didn't like it still when Joe Giella finished his pencils when he attempted a more realistic approach during the "New Look" era several years later. Given those prejudices, WHY I even liked Batman at all was a mystery to me in some ways, though I believe there were several mitigating factors that account for my initial appreciation...

Dick Sprang. Lew Schwartz. Jim Mooney. But mainly, Dick Sprang. He'd mostly retired by the time I began buying my own comics in 1961, but the twice yearly BATMAN ANNUALS that commenced publication that very summer were generously packed full with reprints of his fabulous work. Those Annuals are REALLY what kept my interest up until which time Julie Schwartz came along and provided the Gotham City regulars which a long overdue change in administration, but more on THAT happy little topic in the days ahead...

The OTHER pertinent reason I may well've latched onto Batman at an early age? Simple--he was friends with my main guy, Superman himself!! They shared an adventure in each and every issue of WORLD'S FINEST COMICS, a situation I was made well aware of by the second grade buddy who introduced me to the wonders of the Weisinger mythos in the first place (events which are told in easy-to-read-cartoon form over in the "Little Freddy" section of this very site, minus the extraneous Batman details, revealed here for the very first time!!). Why, I even managed to wrangle an issue of WF from him featuring the saga of the ill-fated Caveman from Krypton (drawn by Sprang, I'll have you know!) Finally breaking down and digging into my own pockets to purchase the sort of amazing adventure comics I'd seen bandied about amongst my pals in the spring of 1961, there was no stopping me! After grabbing one each from the then-extensive Superman Family selection, I decided to take a chance on Supes grey-garbed chum, and wound up with an issue of his home away from home. Specifically, I'm talking about DETECTIVE COMICS#292, dated June of that year.

I looked through it the other night for the first time in, as I said, no exaggeration, decades, and my gosh! The memories that came vividly flooding back!?! Oh, sure, in the course of my investigation into the world of J'onn J'onnz, I perused the next thirty plus issues as well, and while there may've been the occasional small jolt of recognition here and there, nothing came close to rivaling that initial encounter with the Cowled Crimefighter, back when every move he made was entirely fresh and unique to my single digit sensibilities! Suddenly, as if I had yelled something silly like "Shazam!" and been mystically transformed, I was eight years old again! I HAD to pause and reread the doggone thing , I just had to! Hey, how could I NOT?? "The Colossus of Gotham City"! A classic in my own mind! The first thing that popped into my head was that this was where I first stumbled across the word "colossus"! You sure could build yourself a decent vocabulary from reading comics back in those days, I gotta admit! You could always tell who were the funny-book fans in the third grade--they were the ones who could define, and maybe even spell, "invulnerable"!?!...

The story--drawn by, you guessed it, Moldoff and Paris--concerns our hero accidentally transforming his six foot plus sized frame into that of one with the stature of a giant (How? Don't ask. Something about inhaling experimental gases or some such--don'tcha just HATE when that happens?...) and the myriad of problems his unwanted growth spurt subsequently causes in crimping his crime-fighting efforts. Mostly--and this was TOTALLY in step with what I was learning over in the many mags presided over by the Metropolis Marvel--it caused him grief maintaining that ever-important secret identity of his!?! When boy wonder (and fibber-in-training) Robin phones a rightly suspicious Kathy Kane (a/k/a Batwoman) to cancel a date for his ward, Bruce Wayne, spouting some lame trumped up reason for his sudden unavailability, well, an early lesson for Little Freddy was that the two most important things about super-heroing was stopping immaculately dressed bad guys, and preventing your snoopy gal pal from figuring out a secret that appears all too obvious to even an unsophisticated eight year old kid reading his very first Batman comic!?!

There are some stark images in that tale that are forever emblazoned in my cerebellum, mostly having to do with an enormous Batman attempting to cope with his outsized condition. Catching a small commuter plane that's about to crash with his bare--make that gloved--hands is a good one. How about knocking over a billboard with a sneeze, the overwhelming "ah-choo" brought about by the baddie rather ludicrously tossing a barrel of pepper at big ol' Bats? Then there's taking up residence at night in a cave for real, and best of all, having his lunch delivered to him by a procession of trucks stacked with massive quantities of food in Gotham Stadium! The panel where he uses a hose as a straw to drink milk directly out of the top of a milk truck--why, that tops 'em ALL!!! It sure wasn't something you saw every day! In fact, in the many years of stories that inevitably followed, that was probably the ONLY time I saw the Dark Knight Detective concern himself with the easily overlooked matter of food! I guess a big man just naturally has a big appetite, and in this instance, he certainly was BIG...

But the real clincher once again concerned the face under the mask. While he was able to blow off that dinner date with Kathy easily enough, she was well aware--as were the stories sneaky writers--that an appearance by featured speaker Bruce Wayne at a charity function the very next evening wouldn't be nearly as simple to squirm out of! But lo and behold, when the standard sized millionaire shows up to glad hand Commissioner Gordon on page 8 of our 13 page saga, Ms. Kane seems shaken, startled and shocked to see him!! We readers are just as much in the dark, because in panels just below the elegant affair, we witness the still gigantic Batman captured by a motley group of thugs, helplessly trussed up in chains, and ultimately--gasp!--unmasked!?! Surprise--that ain't Bruce Wayne, either!! According to the thought balloon hovering over the unrecognizable Batman's enormous and exposed noggin, he earlier disguised his face just in case this unlikely eventuality presented itself. Why, after over forty years, I STILL haven't figured out. WHY a ten-story tall crimefighter would consider his hidden identity more at risk at that inflated size rather than in his everyday stature I just couldn't tell ya. At least we discover he's merely feigning unconsciousness while patiently waiting for as many underworld minions as possible to show their ugly mugs so that he might then easily bust out of his chains and capture the whole nasty lot of 'em! Nice plan, Big Guy!

When the gargantuan effect finally wears off and all the crooks are grabbed by Robin, Batwoman (who was conveniently on hand to witness the bogus revelation), and the now standard issue Gotham Guardian, all loose ends are tied up--except one: HOW exactly did Bruce Wayne attend that dinner (food again!!) whilst a giant? How? Well, the very LAST panel clears up that particular mystery, and I include it nearby for your edification.
SEE? SEE? I TOLD you he was friends with Superman? What I can't believe is that I actually FORGOT this surprise little twist that put the finishing touches on this, the very first solo Batman story I ever did read!
Everyone of you that's been inexorably sucked into this fantasy-filled little realm has their own personal experience that defines that magic moment that accounts for them being won over by the comic book medium--and folks, I can easily boast a score of them!--here's a crucial one that's been neglected far more than most! Reliving it again all these many years later made for a pleasant if wistfully happy/sad experience! On the one hand, it's fun thinking back to what it was like to be eight years old again when everything--even a silly old Batman comic--was new. On the other, try as you might, you never ARE going to be eight again, are you?...

So, anyway--yeah, how could I NOT stick with Batman after THAT? He's tight with the Man of Steel! Like me--or so I hoped! What I DIDN'T know at the time was that Supes would NEVER make another appearance between the covers of a BATMAN or DETECTIVE comic again for the duration of the sixties!?! I may be wrong on that point--yes, I humbly admit it's possible--but in this instance, I don't think so. Now, good old Mort Weisinger wasn't at all shy about dropping the Dynamic Duo willy nilly into one of his brilliantly convoluted Superman Family scenarios, and of course, the threesome always met up for their contractually mandated teamings in WORLD'S FINEST, but this here was IT for the Kryptonian crossing over into the stomping grounds of the, well, fill in your OWN favorite nickname here, okay? I'm running low on alternatives...

One other note about that particular issue. The long-running "Roy Raymond TV Detective'" feature put in it's final appearance that month, never to flicker across a comics page again. Was it me? Like Superman, did I do something to scare him off as well? Too bad, because that Ruben Moriera artwork was always of a high caliber, higher by far than, ahem, well, you know... Outside of a few images--a centaur in the Raymond tale, and a criminal dressed appropriately enough to warrant the name Human Squirrel--really!--scaling a building in the J'onn J'onnz offering--the backups had little to offer in jogtastic memory jolts. But what I DID encounter was such a trip it clearly made me realize a lot of why I loved this stuff so in the first place! I mean, hey--a giant guy in a mask drinking milk out of a truck! A man in a rodent outfit making off with a leather bag full of loot! You just didn't get that anywhere else in 1961! Part of the reason that comics aren't as popular as they once were is because nowadays you simply DON'T need them!! Forget the prohibitive prices and the impenetrable storylines found in today's books--what REALLY does 'em in is that you can get the sorta thrills you get in comics in all sorta OTHER media these days, usually faster and (it would often appear) better. Believe me, that WASN'T the case back when I was a kid, so I'm happy to still have most of my beloved old comics around to remind me of a simpler time, and yes, of a simpler me!!

(...Which begs the question, "Is such a thing even possible?"...)

June 20th, 2003

Not long ago, with wide sweeping hyperbole, I concluded that a careful review on my part of several years worth of issues of DC's DETECTIVE COMICS leading up to Julie Schwartz's much-needed "New Look" revamp of Batman in number 327 contained but only a single noteworthy panel, which I generously included for the edification of all. Well, in this addled addendum, I'd like to admit I was egregiously exaggerating. Actually, I found TWO panels of interest, and today I'm gonna happily clue you in regarding the second one!

Let the record show that it appeared in DETECTIVE #307, the September 1962 edition of that long-running title. The story, "Alpha, the Experimental Man" dealt with, well, this fella named Alpha who was some kinda experimental man, y'know? More to the point, as he's more clearly identified on the tale's second page, he's actually an ARTIFICIAL man. Yes, panelologists, several years before Roy Thomas and John Buscema would produce a certified comics classic over in the pages of AVENGERS treading much the same ground with the debut of their Vision character, the people who almost drove Batman to cancellation concocted a surprisingly effective treatment of a similar theme. Who'd a thunk it? (As a side note, one is almost obliged to credit the art to the standard team of Sheldon Moldoff and Charles Paris after giving the story a cursory once over--and I have no doubt they're involved in SOME fashion--but a closer look finds more of a spark than usually associated with the work of those artists during that less-than-stellar period, and, though buried deep beneath the house style, I can almost detect the hand of someone else, with my first guess being Pete Costanza? Anybody care to take a close look and offer their opinion?...) (Perhaps a better question might be, "Anybody care?", period? Anyway...)

Worry not--I don't intend to recap this story in detail, excruciating or otherwise. It's one of those rare early sixties DC episodes in which emotions play a role, ANY role! That alone makes it memorable, as does our erstwhile star's noble sacrifice at tale's conclusion. But what REALLY made this episode stand out in my mind after all these years was the method Alpha's scientist creator, aided and abetted by the Dynamic Duo, chose to teach his blank slate of a being human emotions--

Why, what BETTER way? Just unspool a Jerry Lewis flick for the poor artificial sap--THAT'S all he needs to know about us humans, ain't it?!...
And if you don't believe me, well, there's the panel in question! Alpha seems confused by what he's seeing and who can really blame him? YOU try being hatched full-blown, and practically the first thing they shove in your face is "The Disorderly Orderly"?!?
The funny thing is, despite running a caricature of the frenetic funnyman on an all-encompassing house ad on the inside front cover of that very issue, someone in editorial apparently got cold feet concerning their unsolicited crossover. Why else then the big glasses? (And no, he ISN'T also sporting a 'stache and goatee--those are merely shadows, though they look for all the world at first glance as extra hair follicles...)

Why this shyness on DC's part at making Alpha another one of Jerry's kids, albeit an adult if unformed one? At this late date, who's to say for sure, but I'd have to guess it might concern their trepidation in the unlikely but unfortunate event that the high-strung Mr. Lewis might accidentally open up that very copy of DETECTIVE, see an unpaid-for likeness of his distinctive noggin, and proceed to scream what for DC Comics would no doubt be that most unwelcome of exclamations:


HOME | Words About Pictures