Batman #183 (August, 1966)

The estimable and invaluable web resource known as the Grand Comics Database, without which the production of this blog would be exponentially more difficult (if not downright impossible), generally confines its content to verified (or at least verifiable) facts.  Its entry for Batman #183, however, contains the following anonymous “Indexer Note”:

“Camp style stories in the fashion of the TV series begin.”

That statement, on the face of it, appears to assert as fact something which, if we’re going to be honest and objective, surely must be reckoned a matter of subjective opinion, no matter how well-informed.  But because it is from the Grand Comics Database — and also because we’ve already noted how, in the letters column of the last non-reprint issue of Batman prior to this one, editor Julius Schwartz dropped a non sequitur reference to “camp” — I think it’s worthwhile to examine Batman #183 in the context of that claim. 

Not to mention the fact the book’s very cover invites us to consider the allegation of camp influence from the TV series.  Here, the comic book series not only directly acknowledges its recent adaptation to television, but even goes so far as to incorporate the show within its own “reality” — thus “squaring the metafictional circle”, as Glen Weldon puts it in his new book, The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture.  Plus, of course, there’s that “Holy emergency!” in the blurb at the bottom.  (The same blurb also poses a puzzle which I invite my readers to consider as we progress through the issue.  I can guarantee that its declaration that the answer to the mystery of Batman’s sudden irresponsibility is evident from the cover illustration is genuine — so, go ahead, knock yourselves out.)

The story illustrated by the dependably fine Carmine Infantino-Joe Giella cover doesn’t actually lead off the issue, however.  That honor goes to “A Touch of Poison Ivy!” — a direct sequel to issue #181’s “Beware of — Poison Ivy!” (and, like that story, written by Robert Kanigher, with art by Sheldon Moldoff and Joe Giella, though bylined to Bob Kane).  The tale picks up soon after the end of its predecessor, which found the freshly incarcerated Ivy vowing to escape from prison with Batman’s help.  And we readers soon learn that the Caped Crusader does indeed seem to still be down with a case of Poison Ivy, as we watch Bruce Wayne going out on dates with one beautiful young socialite after another, only to have them suddenly turn into Ivy in his imagination:


To help break Ivy’s spell, Robin takes his pal out for a night of crimefighting.  The fresh air and violence do seem to do Batman good, but little do the dynamic duo know that Ivy has been working away in the prison shop, making a “special” mirror for Batman with her own two hands.  As her matron heads off to put the gift in the mail, Ivy breaks the fourth wall to address the reader:


Up until this point, there hasn’t been any demonstrable difference in content or tone between this Poison Ivy story and the first one — but this caption’s promotion of the next and concluding chapter does seem to push us just a little further in the camp direction.  (Not that hyperbolic captions were anything new to Schwartz’s comics, whether or not they featured Batman — but they weren’t usually quite this over-the-top.)

The next chapter opens as Batman admires Poison Ivy’s gift in the Batcave, seeing the gesture as a sign that the villainess is trying to change.  “Into what,” Robin grumbles, “poisonous mushrooms?”  And the Boy Wonder’s suspicions seem well-founded, as Bats is soon staring into the mirror, seeing Ivy’s face and hearing her voice.  (Whether the mirror truly has some sort of mind-altering powers, or whether this is just more evidence of the same “fever” that had all of Bruce’s dates turning into Ivy in his imagination, is never made clear.)  Once again, Robin tries to help his mentor shake it off:


(Yes, that does appear to be the Statue of Liberty, doesn’t it?  That must mean either that Lady Liberty resides in Gotham’s bay, rather than New York City’s, on DC’s “Earth-One” — or that Gotham City just plain is New York.  In 1966, I’m pretty sure that the latter option is what the comic book’s makers intended.)

The ferry ride is interrupted by the attempt of a motley group of criminals to hijack the ferry.  (Yes, they try this when Batman and Robin are riding the ferry, in costume and in full public view.  Shhh.)  At first, Batman is too bedazzled by the magic mirror to even notice what’s going on; luckily, however, he snaps out of his trance before the crooks pummel Robin into complete insensibility.  Once he enters the fray, the hijackers are quickly overcome, and Batman smashes the mirror under his heel, resolving that he’ll no longer be prey to Poison Ivy’s wiles.

Of course, after he sends the broken pieces of the mirror back to Ivy in a box, the villainess feigns a heartbreak so severe that it puts her at death’s door.  A remorseful Batman rushes to the hospital, only to be captured and used as a hostage to help Ivy escape, as she threatens to blow everyone up with explosives she’s created and disguised as strands of her hair.  (That is one awesome prison shop, isn’t it?)  Before you know it, Poison Ivy is safely ensconced back at her gang’s hideout, with a helplessly bound Batman under her, um, domination:


(Is this unexpected touch of B&D intended as a campy wink to the adults in the audience?  Or is it just the unintentionally kinky story idea of some pretty straight-laced, maybe even naive, comic book creators?  Your guess is as good as mine.)

Batman does indeed ultimately outwit Ivy, of course, by going on a starvation diet, and then using her own gambit of pretending to be much worse off health-wise than he actually is.  There’s a bit where Ivy’s pet panther gets loose (one has to wonder, did she borrow the animal from Catwoman?) and Batman has to defend his captor — then Robin comes crashing into the hideout, and after a brief scuffle Ivy and her gang are rounded up.  At the story’s end we’ve come full circle, with Ivy back in the pokey, swearing that she’ll get free again with Batman’s help.  “Is this the end of the contagious villainess?” the closing caption asks.  “Only time and future Batman issues will tell!”  (A true enough prediction — even though, as we’ve already covered in our discussion of Batman #181. Poison Ivy’s next appearance in this publication wouldn’t come along for another eleven years.  Of course, that delay didn’t prevent her from ultimately rising into the upper echelon of Bat-villains, as also detailed in that earlier post.)

So, does the camp quotient in this story rise to the level of marking a turning point in the series’ direction?  In my opinion, no.  Although some of the more hyperbolic captions (and a single, possible allusion to sexual kinkiness) may be indicators of the Batman TV program’s growing influence on the comics, there’s not enough difference between the tone and style of this Poison Ivy appearance and the one immediately preceding it to mark Batman #183 as Ground Zero for the Advent of Camp.

What about the second story in the issue, then — the one actually featured on the cover, with its depiction of Batman-on-TV and “Holy emergency!” blurb?  “Batman’s Baffling Turnabout” features art by the same Kane-ghosting team of Moldoff and Giella, though the script is this time by Gardner Fox.  In this tale, an anonymous criminal whom Batman sent to prison years ago has devised a fiendish plot to destroy Batman and take his place.  The story opens as Batman and Robin are battling some crooks in a riverfront warehouse.  Batman pursues a couple of the lowlifes into a room off from the main action, but then falls through a trap door.  He lands in a super-sticky net, inches away from the river running below; then a figure calls down from the trap door’s opening to gloat that to pay Batman back for sending him up the river, he’s going to have the river finish Batman off with the rising tide.  “So sweat out these last few minutes of life,” says Batman’s captor…


(Yes, there’s that “telltale clue” again, the same one referred to on the cover.  Have you spotted it yet, gentle reader?)

When the impostor rejoins Robin, claiming he lost the fleeing crooks due to twisting his ankle, the Boy Wonder immediately realizes that, in spite of the guy’s uncanny physical and vocal resemblance to Batman, he’s not Batman — though, of course, he doesn’t let us in on how he knows.  Due to the impostor’s aforementioned supposedly twisted ankle, he has an excuse to ask Robin to drive them back to the Batcave — and Robin, playing along until he can find out what’s happened to the real Batman, appears to oblige.  In fact, however, he drives them to the “auxiliary Batcave on the other side of Gotham City!”  (Yep, the Dynamic Duo have a complete, fully equipped second headquarters that we’ve never heard of before.  Sure, why not?)

Once there, Robin fakes getting a call from police headquarters on the Hot-Line, setting up the scene portrayed on the cover.  Batman begs off responding due to his ankle injury, as Robin knows he will, saying he’ll just stay in and watch a documentary about himself on television.  “I’ll give you a full report,” he promises Robin as the latter heads out again in the Batmobile.  Of course, just as soon as Robin gets out of sight, the Boy Wonder uses the car’s “Bat-noculars” to tap into the closed circuit TV cameras in the auxiliary Batcave, just in time to see the faux Batman set a bomb to blow up the place and then high-tail it out of there.  There’s a bomb in the Batmobile, too, as Robin soon discovers, but he quickly defuses it and also takes care of the one in Batcave Jr. before going in pursuit of the impostor.  The trail leads back to the riverfront warehouse where it all began, as the impostor has of course returned to gloat over Batman’s drowned corpse  But, surprise!  Batman’s not dead after all, and after a brief battle he overcomes his doppelgänger, just as Robin arrives on the scene.  How did the Cowled Crusader escape the cunning death trap, you wonder?  Well, as he explains to Robin (and us):


Somehow, Batman then managed to get a finger low enough to the water to trigger the laser-torch on, and then to aim it so that it could burn through a strand of netting before it floated away.  Hey, they don’t call him the World’s Greatest Escape Artist for nothin’.

It’s interesting (at least to me) to note the role of Batman’s trusty utility belt in his escape, as Gardner Fox, the author of this tale, is generally credited with the introduction of that all-important fashion accessory, way back in 1939.  But that’s probably not quite the most significant thing going on in this panel, is it?

I did the Batusi on that netting…”

Ah, yes.  The Batusi.

There’s a school of thought that holds that the ’60s Batman TV series “works”, not because it parodies or spoofs its comic book source material, but because it presents it completely straight.  Glen Weldon — whose swell new book about Batman I referenced earlier in this post — goes so far as to claim that in adapting Batman #171 into the TV show’s two-part premiere adventure, “Hi Diddle Riddle/Smack in the Middle”, scriptwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. didn’t actually adapt that story from one medium to another; rather, “he directly transcribed it, flatly mapping the tropes of superhero comics onto the existing format of a half-hour television series.”


batman171I understand what Weldon is getting at with “mapping the tropes”, I do.  But I have watched that two-part Batman TV episode, and I have also read Batman #171 (you can too, by the way, for only $1.99 as of this writing) — and I can promise you that the former ain’t no way, ain’t no how a direct, literal transcription of the latter.  While there are indeed a number of plot points and minor characters — and riddles! — which have been transposed from the comics story to the teleplay, the TV story is most definitely an adaptation of the comic book, not a transcription — and a pretty loose adaptation, at that.

Most to the point — in “Remarkable Ruse of the Riddler!”, Batman doesn’t go into a discotheque, order an orange juice at the bar, and then dance the Batusi with Jill St. John., as he does in the “Hi Diddle Riddle” scene included in the YouTube video above.  In fact, it’s almost impossible to imagine the Batman of Schwartz’ “New Look” era ever doing such a thing — at least, not until after the premiere of the Batman TV series in January, 1966, and the rampant Batmania that followed in its wake.  For a comic book story even to imply that Batman would ever engage in such activity (by dropping the word “Batusi” into some expository dialogue, for example) would have been unheard of — and, as far as I know, was unheard of — until this issue.

And so, while our anonymous GCD indexer may be overstating things just a bit with the assertion that campy, TV-influenced stories “begin” in Batman #183, it’s quite reasonable to see this issue as marking a notable point of escalation in the comic’s incorporation of the camp approach, at least insofar as Julius Schwartz and his stable of creators understood the concept.

A point of escalation, indeed — though not, alas, the pinnacle of camp in Batman-featuring comics.  That was yet to come.

And thus, we conclue our review of Batman #183 — wait, what?  I’ve forgotten to provide the answer to the mystery of how Robin realized that the impostor Batman wasn’t the real deal?  Oh, right.  Here you go, then:


Yes, it was the absence of the distinctive yellow oval around the bat symbol on our hero’s chest emblem (as first introduced in the spring of 1964) that tipped Robin off, and would have tipped off the issue’s more astute readers, as well.  (For the record, I have no recollection of whether my eight-year-old self was able to solve the mystery when I first read this book, way back in June, 1966 — which probably means I wasn’t.)

It may be somewhat surprising to younger fans, who’ve seen any number of iterations of Batman’s costume in comics as well as other media over the last 25 years or so — but from 1939 to 1989, the basic Batsuit, in virtually all media, didn’t change — except for that one major change of 1964 which enclosed the black bat batman_lee-new52batman-capullo-rebirthwithin a yellow ellipsis.  That iconic version of the chest emblem, which evoked the Bat-Signal as well as the image of a bat against the moon, has come and gone in movies, television, and video games since the ’90s, but has pretty much remained a fixture in the comics — or, rather, it did, until Jim Lee‘s 2011 “New 52” re-design of the Batsuit (see left), which pretty much ditched the yellow everywhere except the utility belt.  However, that re-design has itself just been replaced, just in time for DC Comics’ “Rebirth” event of summer, 2016, with a new version designed by Greg Capullo (see right).  This iteration of the Dark Knight’s costume subtly evokes the post-1964 emblem with an outlining of the bat symbol in yellow.  No, it’s not a yellow oval, but one has to believe that we will see that version of the emblem again one of these days.  In comics, after all, everything old is new again — sooner or later.

Julius Schwartz, the editor of Batman from the “New Look” through the “camp” era — and beyond — died in February, 2004.  Later that year, DC published a series of eight one-shot specials in his honor, all appearing under the umbrella title of DC Comics Presents.  Each special paid tribute to Schwartz with a modern recreation of a classic cover from his long editorial career, accompanied by two different stories inspired by the cover — a conceit derived from Schwartz’ frequent gambit of commissioning a cover from an artist first, then challenging one of his writers to script a story around it.

DC_Comics_Presents_Batman_1DC Comics Presents: Batman #1 gave this treatment to the cover of Batman #183, with two stories by two different writer-artist teams.  The second tale was by Len Wein (writer) and Andy Kuhn (artist), but the first, written by Geoff Johns, featured art by none other than the illustrators of the original cover — Carmine Infantino and Joe Giella, teamed again on Batman for what was the first time in decades (and would also be the last, alas, due to Infantino’s own passing in 2013),

The cover recreation itself was by Adam Hughes, who obviously enjoyed updating several of the details of the original.  Note the “Bat Gulp” cup that replaces the generic bottle of pop from the original, as well as “Batman’s” acquisition of a mobile device (since this was done in 2004, I’m guessing it was meant to be a Blackberry).  Finally, there’s the TV show’s logo, which replaces the original cover’s not-actually-from-any-real-show version with the bona-fide logo of The Batman, an animated series that was running on the WB at the time this book came out.

Like the rest of the issue, Hughes’ cover is a fun piece of work, and an effective homage to the contributions that Julius Schwartz and his many collaborators made to the legend of Batman in the 1960s.

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