Batman #194 (August, 1967)

Recalling my early comics-reading years, I can’t think of another comic book that I looked forward to with as much breathless anticipation, simply based on the house ads, as I did Batman #194.  And I can’t think of another comic book that I considered as huge of a letdown once I finally got hold of it and read it, as I did Batman #194.

It was the cover that grabbed me in those ads, of course.  That amazing Carmine Infantino-Murphy Anderson cover, with its impeccably rendered figures of Batman and Blockbuster, its dynamic action, and, most of all, its imaginative (and, for the time, daring) incorporation of the book’s title within the illustration.  My nine-year-old self had never seen anything like it. 

Unfortunately, the interior artwork — credited to “Bob Kane”, as were all Batman stories of that era that weren’t drawn by Infantino — wasn’t up to the standards set by the cover.  At all.  It was plainly evident, beginning with the splash page:

While I’ll be the first to admit that my younger self sometimes had a hard time making the distinction between “bad” and “different” when it came to comics illustration, in this case, I think my judgement that this issue’s interior art was, to put it plainly, inferior to the cover art has stood the test of time.  In this splash panel, the figures aren’t rendered with the same detail as those on the cover; and while that could be considered a legitimate stylistic choice, there’s also the matter of the figures’ positioning, which is simply stiff and awkward; even the anatomy (especially on Blockbuster) seems off.  It’s a contrast in quality that can’t simply be attributed to the artists in question working in different styles.

It’s a bit of a puzzle, however.  Why was the contrast between the cover and interior art so striking in this particular issue of Batman, compared to so many others?  As we’ve discussed in previous posts, Carmine Infantino pencilled virtually all the covers to both Batman and Detective Comics during this era, but because of Bob Kane’s contract with DC Comics, editor Julius Schwartz could only afford to have Infantino pencil roughly every other Batman story appearing in Detective.  The rest of the Batman content in Detective, as well as all the stories in the Batman comic itself, had to be by “Bob Kane” — or, rather, by one of Kane’s ghost artists, hired by Kane to produce the work that appeared under his name.  By June, 1967, I’d been reading Batman and Detective for almost two years, so I had seen a lot of Carmine Infantino covers gracing books with “Bob Kane” interiors — but I’d never been as struck by the disparity between the two before, as I was with Batman #194.  Again, the question — what was so special about this particular issue?

Part of it is probably due to the fact that the cover is, unquestionably, one of the greatest the Infantino-Anderson team ever produced — a highlight of their long and distinguished collaboration.  But there’s also something about the interior artwork, something which I noticed as a nine-year-old and can still see, today, as a fifty-nine year old.  It just doesn’t look quite the same as all the other “Bob Kane” art I’d been looking at for two years.

Bob Kane had a number of ghost artists over the years, but in the mid-to-late Sixties his primary ghost was Sheldon Moldoff.  Moldoff is credited in virtually every reference source (and in DC’s reprint editions) with pencilling almost every non-Infantino Batman story I read in the years 1965 to 1967.  And DC’s official credits for this issue in Showcase Presents Batman, Vol. 3, affirm that the pencils for “The Blockbuster Goes Bat-Mad!” were by Moldoff, as well.  But to my eye, it just doesn’t look like the artwork in all those other issues of Batman and Detective.  If it was done by the same guy, and that guy was Moldoff, what happened?

I just said that virtually all reference sources credit the art in this story to Moldoff, and that’s true, but there is at least one that at least acknowledges the possibility of the pencils being by a different artist — and that source is the generally reliable Grand Comics Database, which credits the story’s pencilled art thusly:  “Chic Stone ?; Sheldon Moldoff [as Bob Kane] ? (signed)“.

Chic Stone is an artist that, to this day, I know primarily as a prolific inker of Jack Kirby’s Marvel work in the early-to-mid-Sixties, on features such as Fantastic Four, Captain America, and Thor (the splash page to his first work on the latter strip, in Journey Into Mystery #102, is shown at right).  He did a lot of work for other companies as well, however, and his role as a Bob Kane “ghost” seems to be pretty well-attested via various sources; still, as far as Batman-book credits go, Stone’s seem to be pretty sparse.  Mike’s Amazing World lists one job done in 1964, for Batman #163 — the last issue published prior to Julius Schwartz’s taking over the editorial reins and introducing a “New Look”, largely crafted by Infantino, to both Batman and Detective — and then there’s not another Bat-credit for Stone until #200, published in early 1968, near the end of Kane’s “production” of art for DC.  The Grand Comics Database lists those credits as well — but, in addition to the story currently under discussion, it also notes Stone as the possible penciller of a back-up story in Batman #181.  Unfortunately, at least for purposes of comparison, that story appears to have been inked by Sid Greene, whose distinctive style gives the art a very different look from the lead story in issue #194, inked (according to all accounts) by Joe Giella.

Bob Hughes, writing on the “Who Drew Batman: The “New Look”: 1964-68″ at his “Who’s Whose in DC Comics” web site states that Chic Stone “filled in for Sheldon Moldoff on and off even before the ‘New Look’ began.”  Stone himself, in a 1997 interview published in The Jack Kirby Collector, described how he was “pencilling Batman” prior to landing the gig inking Kirby at Marvel.  Together, those statements strongly suggest that Stone may have had a hand in some work that most sources attribute solely to Moldoff, perhaps doing full pencils over the latter’s rough layouts, or collaborating in some other way.  We may never know, of course, since all parties involved are now deceased; but, if Stone did indeed work on “The Blockbuster Goes Bat-Mad!”, it may have been his first (or at least second) go at illustrating a Batman story in the “New Look” style — which could help account for why the art isn’t up to the (admittedly, not very high) level of the other “Bob Kane” art coming out at around the same time.

But — getting back to the summer of 1967, and the perspective of my then-nine-year-old self — while I was let down by the interior art from the splash page on, I wasn’t going to let it stop me from reading the story (which all sources agree was written by Gardner Fox).  After all, I’d followed the saga of the Blockbuster from his second appearance, in Detective #349, into his subsequent adventures on Earth-Two, as chronicled in Justice League of America #46 and #47.  At the end of that two-part tale, the brute had been rendered completely docile and harmless after he and fellow man-monster Solomon Grundy “knocked the hate” out of each other — so how and why was he going to turn “bad” again?

The story opens at the Wayne (formerly Alfred) Foundation, where Blockbuster works as a handyman while the resident scientists search for a cure for his chemically-induced condition.  We learn how the once-fearsome creature has become so friendly that he likes to spend his earnings buying small gifts for his fellow employees.  On one of his regular visits to a nearby department store, however, something goes wrong:

The former Mark Desmond suddenly freaks out, and runs rampant until Batman and Robin show up to try to stop him.  Batman uses a ploy which has usually worked before, due to an experience he (as Bruce Wayne) had shared with Mark prior to the latter’s turning himself into the Blockbuster:

Unfortunately, this time the gambit fails — Blockbuster now understands that Bruce Wayne and Batman are the same guy, and he hates them both.  After trouncing the Dynamic Duo, he flees to the island where Bruce saved him from the quicksand bog years before.  Batman follows him there; but no sooner has he beached the Bat-boat than he’s seized by his foe:

Luckily, Blockbuster’s reversion to type isn’t 100% complete — he still considers his former foe Solomon Grundy to be a bosom pal.  He hastens to pull “Grundy” out of the quicksand; but as soon as that’s accomplished, Batman turns the tables, shoving Blockbuster himself into the bog:

“… maybe he’ll go on being his friendly self…”  Yeah, I’m sure that’s going to last.

(It actually lasted until around 1976, and Justice League of America #135, another adventure teaming up the JLA with their Earth-Two counterparts, the Justice Society.  The once-again-malicious Blockbuster went on from there first to a brief stint as a member of the Secret Society of Super-Villains, and then to an even briefer stint in the Suicide Squad, where he met a violent end in Legends #3 (Jan., 1987).  Sometime later, Mark Desmond’s brother Roland assumed the identity and bedeviled Nightwing (the former Robin) for a while.  Most recently, the Mark Desmond version was revived for DC’s rebooted “New 52” continuity in Savage Hawkman #18; his status in the currently evolving “Rebirth” continuity is, as yet, anybody’s guess.)

The second story in Batman #194 featured the Mystery Analysts of Gotham City, in their first appearance since a story in Batman #181 (which, coincidentally, happens to be the same story whose pencils the GCD tentatively attributes to Chic Stone, as discussed earlier); and since I covered that august assemblage of crime-solvers in some detail in my post about that issue, I’ll just note here that “The Problem of the Proxy Paintings” (story by Gardner Fox, art by “Bob Kane”) is another reasonably clever traditional mystery yarn, which, like all Mystery Analysts stories, offers the novel pleasure of seeing the Darknight Detective operating as one member of a group of peers, none of the rest of whom happen to wear costumes (though, of course, our hero is, as usual, shown to be the smartest, bestest detective of the bunch).

The other thing worth noting about the story is that all sources agree in attributing the art to Sheldon Moldoff (pencils) and Joe Giella (inks).  As already noted, Giella was, by all accounts, the inker on the issue’s first story as well; thus, if Moldoff was indeed the sole penciller on “The Blockbuster Goes Bat-Mad!”, as most sources claim, you’d expect the artwork in one story to look extremely similar to that in the other — and it doesn’t.  It’s another piece of evidence that strongly suggests that Moldoff either didn’t pencil the issue’s lead story at all, or that he had help — whether that help came from Chic Stone, or somebody else entirely.

We’ll wrap up our discussion of Batman #194 with a quick look at the issue’s letter column.  Among other missives, the column included the latest epistle from Peter Sanderson, a prolific letterhack who would later work for both DC and Marvel as a researcher and continuity expert.  In this letter, Sanderson gently reprimanded editor Schwartz for the latter’s perceived willingness to include camp elements in Batman and Detective stories in hopes of increasing sales to fans of the then-current television series — a pointless exercise, said Sanderson, because “campiness is on the way out.”  Schwartz responded:

Was Schwartz right?  Had Batman left TV-inspired camp behind, and returned to the earlier, “New Look” style of storytelling?  Based on this issue’s contents, you could make a pretty good case that he was.  Robin’s dialogue was free of puns, as well as of exclamations beginning with the word “holy”.  Sound effects were present in the fight scenes (though only in the second story, interestingly enough) but not over-emphasized, and Batman didn’t pull any absurd new Bat-devices from his utility belt to get out of a jam.

On the other hand, readers of Batman #194 would have also come across this promotional item, in the book’s “Direct Currents” coming-attractions column:

Maybe that’s not exactly camp — still, it certainly seemed to signal that we weren’t quite done with the Batman TV show era at DC Comics just yet.

But — I’ll have more to say on this subject in my next post.  See you then.

UPDATE posted on June 14, 2017:

Just a couple of days after this post went up, I realized that in discussing the iconic Infantino-Anderson cover of Batman #194, I’d forgotten a very significant and salient fact — namely, that the issue went on sale the month that DC Comics finally dropped the “Go-Go Checks” design that had been a part of their whole line’s trade dress since December, 1965.

Honestly, can you imagine how the impact of that cover might have been lessened, if Batman’s dramatic entrance into the frame from above had been marred by those checks, as seen in the ad for Justice League of America #55, above? (Incidentally, the actual JLA issue in question was ultimately published without those checks, as we’ll see in this blog’s very next post.)

Did Infantino come up with his Batman cover concept before or after the decision was made to drop the checks?   While I’d love to think that it was the latter, or that the aesthetics of this specific cover helped drive the decision-making that led to the checks’ demise, I doubt that either of those is actually the case.  I’ve read accounts over the years of how Infantino got a good bit of pushback from the brass at DC, as well as the production department, over the “logo-less” aspect of this Batman cover, but I’ve never read anything to indicate that the checks came into play.  And as the “Direct Currents” ad depicted above shows, when Batman #194 was in production, the checks were still part of the company-wide cover design.  The decision to dispense with the checks seems to have been made very late in the production cycle, and probably well after Infantino and Anderson had completed and turned in their work.

Still, whenever the decision was made — as far as this classic cover goes, it was in the nick of time!

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