If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you might have noticed that it’s been a while since I’ve written here about either Detective Comics or Batman. The last issue of the former title to receive the “Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books” spotlight was issue #369 (Nov., 1967), while the most recent issue of the latter to rate a post was #197 (Dec., 1967). Not counting the hero’s appearances in issues of Justice League of America, World’s Finest Comics, and (most significantly) The Brave and the Bold that I have posted about, this blog has been a Batman-free zone for more than two years. That’s quite a contrast to the first two years of this enterprise, during which time the blog covered comics published from mid-1965 to mid-1967, and Batman and Detective accounted for nine posts between them.
What changed over the course of the following two year period, fifty years ago? Well, to begin with, “Batmania” — the TV-fueled craze for all things Bat-related — finally ran out of steam. By the autumn of ’67, when the last two Bat-books I posted about were published, the Adam West-starring show was still airing, but was in decline (in fact, the third season didn’t even air in my area). The books themselves were also changing around that time, as the single strongest artistic talent associated with them, Carmine Infantino, moved into an executive role at DC (and consequently stopped drawing), and veteran writers like Gardner F. Fox were let go by the publisher. Plus, I was getting older, and my tastes were evolving. (Indicative of that, I’d “discovered” Marvel that summer, though I wouldn’t go “all in” on the company’s wares until early ’68).
But I don’t want to give you the impression I didn’t buy any issues of Detective and Batman during the two years prior to the publication of our present topic of discussion, Batman #219; while there weren’t many, there were still at least a few (even if none that I wanted to devote a whole blog post to). The most recent examples of such had been Detective #389 (July, 1969) and Batman #214 (Aug., 1969). Both were fairly typical of this post-Batmania period, as both featured Bat-tales written by Frank Robbins (best known as the creator and cartoonist of the comic strip Johnny Hazard prior to 1968, when he’d begun freelancing for DC as a writer) and inked by Joe Giella, who’d been working on both titles on a regular basis for as long as editor Julius Schwartz had been in charge of them (i.e., since 1964). Though neither of these comics could be called one for the ages (well, not by me, at least), Detective #389 had an edge over Batman #214 in several respects. The latter featured a book-length story (pencilled by Irv Novick) about a campaign by the young women of Gotham City to get Batman married off; this was apparently an attempt to comment on (or at least evoke) the burgeoning women’s liberation movement, and was every bit as cringeworthy as you might imagine. The former comic, on the other hand, featured a major Bat-villain, the Scarecrow, in the Bob Brown-drawn lead story, and also boasted a Batgirl back-up tale with art by Gil Kane and Murphy Anderson. And, of course, it also had a cover by Neal Adams.
Adams, as we’ve covered in previous posts, had been quietly redefining the standard visual representation of Batman and his milieu over in Brave and the Bold for about a year, beginning with issue #79 (Aug.-Sept., 1968). Unable to convince Julius Schwartz to give him a story assignment for Batman or Detective, the young artist had found more success with BatB editor Murray Boltinoff. In collaboration with writer Bob Haney, whose scripts during this period tended more towards gritty crime dramas than had much of his recent Brave and the Bold work, Adams turned out eight issues in which readers met a Batman who rarely appeared during the daytime, relied on a minimum of Bat-themed gadgetry, and generally came across as more of a “weird figure of the night” than had been seen in almost thirty years.
Those readers noticed the difference, and largely approved, as they indicated both via letters to DC and through newsstand sales.* The positive response wasn’t lost on Julius Schwartz — though he doesn’t seem to have been entirely sure just what to do about it, at least not at first. The aforementioned Detective #389 perfectly exemplifies this ambivalence, as Bob Brown’s art nods towards Adams’ version of Batman, depicting the hero in a long, billowing cape (an innovation Schwartz proudly highlights on the book’s letters page), while Frank Robbins’ story evokes the idea of Batman’s appearance striking fear into the hearts of criminals — but only in the past tense, as something Batman and Robin recall rather wistfully, rather than as something that could have meaning or utility for them as present-day crimefighters:
Around this same time, Schwartz also made a subtle but significant tweak to the look of the Batman title by replacing inker Joe Giella with Dick Giordano. Giordano was a fellow editor with Schwartz at DC, of course; but he was also an experienced artist who, beginning in mid-1968, had embellished practically every Neal Adams DC job that Adams didn’t ink himself, and so may have been expected by Schwartz to bring something of Adams’ illustrative, photorealistic style to the work of regular penciller Irv Novick. Schwartz proceeded to highlight this artistic change in the letters column of Giordano’s first issue, #215 (Sept., 1969), while at the same time promising that it was merely a “preliminary move” in preparation for a “BIG CHANGE” for Batman that was coming before the end of the year. Having first teased this impending development a couple of months earlier in Detective #388 (June, 1969), Schwartz continued to promote it in later Batman and Detective lettercols as well.
The first actual marker of the “Big Change” finally arrived with Detective #393 (Nov., 1969), in which Robbins, Brown, and Giella presented the “final” case of Batman and Robin as a team. However, the question posed on that book’s Novick-drawn cover — why were the Dynamic Duo breaking up? — wouldn’t be answered until the next month’s Batman #217, as Robbins, Novick, and Giordano revealed that Dick Grayson was leaving for college. And that was by no means the extent of the changes; for, as heralded by Adams’ dramatic cover, Batman himself was leaving his Batcave — and much of the old life it represented — behind. He (along with faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth) was moving from stately Wayne Manor to a penthouse apartment in the heart of Gotham City, where Bruce Wayne would abandon his idle-playboy pose to begin playing a more active role in helping others, through the Wayne Foundation. As Bruce explained to Alfred, Batman’s methods needed to change as well:
And with that, the notion of Batman as a frightening figure wasn’t a matter for nostalgia anymore; he could be a “creature of the night” again, in Batman and Detective as well as in Brave and the Bold.
As most readers of this blog will already be aware, many if not most of the particulars of Schwartz’s “Big Change” for Batman would eventually be walked back by DC, some in fairly short order. While Dick Grayson would never move back to Wayne Manor full time (well, not permanently, at least), Robin would nevertheless continue to make “guest” appearances in Batman stories on a relatively frequent basis (in addition to continuing both with his solo strip in Detective [later Batman] and as a member of the Teen Titans) — and, of course, he’d eventually be succeeded by other, younger Robins. Bruce Wayne, on the other hand, would return to his family’s manor, even as his alter ego repaired to his cave; he’d also resume his feckless playboy role (though, it must be said, not on a consistent basis). And as for “streamlining the operation” and “discarding the paraphernalia of the past”, while the Caped Crusader would never again possess the vast panoply of Bat-themed gadgetry (most of which he’d carried improbably tucked away in his slim yellow utility belt) that had burgeoned during the camp era, he would eventually again come to rely on highly advanced technology just as much as he ever had.
The change which did stick — and the main reason why Batman #217 is still seen as representing a watershed moment for the character — is the “reestablishing” of the “trademark of the ‘old’ Batman” — i.e., the return to the character’s functioning as a “weird figure of the night”. This change was, of course, at the heart of the revolution that Neal Adams had begun over a year previously, in Brave and the Bold. But I think it’s questionable whether it could have taken hold as successfully as it quickly did in the two primary Bat-books — ultimately becoming the foundation for how the hero would generally be presented, both in comics and in other media, from this time forward — if Julius Schwartz hadn’t finally given Adams the chance to draw Batman within the pages, as well as on the cover, of both Batman and Detective.
Perhaps it took so long in part because Adams had been keeping quite busy with regular gigs pencilling Marvel Comics’ X-Men as well as DC’s Brave and the Bold (not to mention his cover work, and the odd short story for both DC’s and Marvel’s “mystery” and Warren Publishing’s horror anthology titles). But the artist’s X-Men run was coming to an end (his last issue, #65, came out in December, 1969, the same month as Batman #219), and he was off BatB with #86, which had been published back in August — by some accounts, because he’d taken liberties with Bob Haney’s script for that issue. However it happened, Adams pencils finally graced the interiors of one of Schwartz’s Bat-books when “The Secret of the Waiting Graves” appeared in Detective #395 (January, 1970).
Notably, that story was scripted by Denny O’Neil (as well as inked by Dick Giordano); in fact, it was the first work by the O’Neil-Adams team, whose subsequent collaboration on Green Lantern would push the boundaries of the superhero genre even further than their work on the Darknight Detective. For many fans (including yours truly), these two comprised the definitive “Batman” creative team of this era; and it can be argued that O’Neil’s contribution to the successful revamp of the hero, if not as absolutely essential as Adams; was still critically important, as he brought something to the project other writers as yet had not — a psychological insight into the obsessive nature of Batman’s unending war against crime.
But not every “Batman” story completed by O’Neil was destined to be illustrated by Adams; nor would every Bat-tale ever drawn by Adams be based on an O’Neil script. Indeed, the very first interior art job that Adams did for Batman — as opposed to Detective — was from a script by another young writer, Mike Friedrich.
And what was more, it wasn’t even the lead story in the issue.
Of course, when my twelve-year-old self bought Batman #219 in December, 1969, I didn’t know most of the information above. Thanks to my irregular Bat-buying habits, I had missed not just the debut of the “Big Change” in Batman #217, but the lead-up to it in the letters columns, as well. Thus, when I pulled this comic from the spinner rack, I wouldn’t have been thinking of it as anything but just another Batman comic.
So why did I pick it up at all? As regular readers of this blog know, in late 1969 I was growing less interested in comic books in general — a sort of malaise that would end up lasting roughly half a year. Seeing as how I hadn’t been buying Batman on anything like a regular basis for quite a while, and that I wasn’t buying many comics around this time, period, what grabbed me? I feel pretty certain it must have been the cover — a typically well-drafted, but also very dramatic effort by Neal Adams. I imagine that I was extremely keen to learn how our hero had gotten himself into such a jam — and, of course, how he was going to get out of it.
Was I disappointed when I turned to the first page, and discovered that “Death Casts the Deciding Vote” had been drawn not by Adams, but by Irv Novick? Perhaps, though I don’t recall.
On the other hand, I do think it’s very likely that I raised my eyebrows at Batman’s line referring to this particular exploit as his “first venture into the murky world of politics“, for the very good reason that I’d seen him hip-deep in political affairs just six months previously, in Brave and the Bold #85‘s “The Senator’s Been Shot!”, by Bob Haney and Neal Adams. That tale had found Bruce Wayne actually becoming a United States Senator for a brief period, after the shooting of the incumbent legislator put the fate of an important anti-crime bill in doubt. As I’d soon discover, this story echoed that one in more than one respect.
First, however, I’d be introduced to one of the new concepts that, unbeknownst to me, had entered the Bat-mythos with Batman #217 — namely, the new initiative of the Wayne Foundation aimed at helping the victims of crime, the “Victims, Inc. Program” — acronymed, naturally, as “V.I.P.”:
“‘Old Silver Mane’ — Senator Lincoln Webster!” is virtually a stock character, with his name that evokes both Abraham Lincoln and Daniel Webster, his crusty demeanor — and, oh my goodness, he’s even got a string tie. As Bruce quickly learns, the senator is meeting with their (unnamed) state’s governor to discuss his “strong anti-crime bill” (shades of BatB #85, again), scheduled for a vote on the Senate floor the very next morning. This is such an important matter that Senator Webster, “the mouse who roars like a lion” has flown in just for this strategy session with the gov, and so sensitive that said session is being kept secret — as is Sen. Webster’s whole jaunt, though the precise reasons for this latter precautuon are never really made clear.
In spite of the fact that Bruce’s interest is in supporting the victims of crime, and his own bill is intended, as he tells the younger man, “to put your lobby out-of-business!“, the irascible statesman takes a liking to Mr. Wayne; he even goes so far as to invite Bruce to fly back to Washington, D.C. with him, so that the wealthy philanthropist can advocate for the V.I.P. cause on the federal level. Sure, why not? As Bruce/Batman’s first-person narration has informed us, financially supporting V.I.P. is “already beyond [his] means” (as hard as that might be for fans even to comprehend in this current era, when the Wayne family fortune has long been portrayed as all but inexhaustible). So Bruce readily agrees, accompanying the senator as the latter heads back to the airport, without so much as an overnight bag (hey, maybe Bruce, being the jet-setter that he is, keeps an apartment in D.C., and he’s got clothes and other stuff there? Yeah, that could work… although if he’s really supposed to be strapped for cash… oh, the hell with it):
No longer feeling compelled to act the part of a foppish playboy, Bruce shows no hesitation going into action. He rushes into the cockpit, where he’s unfortunately cold-cocked by a hood with a pistol. He and a compatriot then carry Bruce back through the passenger cabin, claiming that he was trying to hijack the plane (as fans in my age bracket will recall, this was an era when that sort of thing seemed to happen a lot):
Bruce is trussed up and left in the plane’s food compartment, but frees himself after saturating his bonds with hot coffee (!). Swiftly changing to Batman, he inflates a couple of “Mae West” life jackets and uses them to fill Bruce’s clothes, so the crooks won’t cop to his secret identity — and then it’s back into action:
Well, that didn’t go so well, did it? Bats is still tied up when, at the hijackers’ orders, the plane lands at an airstrip “somewhere deep in the backwoods”. The plane is then quickly boarded by the crooks’ boss, a hooded man called… well, actually, no one in the story ever calls him anything but “boss”; not until the last page, anyway, where Bruce calls him the “Masked Marauder” (which is the moniker we’ll use as well):
Just like in Brave and the Bold #85, organized crime is so terrified of an anti-crime bill passing Congress that they’re willing to take extreme measures to make sure it doesn’t. (Though the Masked Marauder is notably less bloodthirsty than crime-boss Miklos Minotaur in the earlier story — that M.M. had the bill’s sponsor shot, while this one’s willing to settle for a simple kidnapping,) Boy, those must have been some tough pieces of legislation.
As the Masked Marauder angrily sends his goons out to look for Batman, Bruce slowly “comes to”, and then…
Bruce argues that if the senator dies, “every ‘fence-sitter’ in the house will swing over to his bill”, guaranteeing its passage. Convinced, the M.M. agrees to fly Sen Webster to a “bush-pilot medic” located about ten miles away. But, once the plane is back in the air…
“… can’t think of a better man for the job!” Well, no, Alfred, I suppose not, considering that your boss has already been a United States Senator, if only briefly, per Brave and the Bold #85.
I can’t recall just how irritated I was in December, 1969 by how this story didn’t seem to square with the BatB one from the summer, though I suspect I must have been at least a little annoyed. Today, it serves as a gentle reminder that the DC editors all pretty much went their own way back in this era. If anyone was thinking in terms of a coherent “DC Universe” back in 1969, it was probably Julius Schwartz — but it’s doubtful that even he had any hopes of keeping things consistent beyond the confines of his own editorial fiefdom.**
I was also probably a bit irked that the cover scene turned out to be something of a bait-and-switch — after all, it was just an empty costume that got tossed out of the airborne plane, not our hero. Other than that, however, I believe I thought this was an okay story — though not one that gave much indication that any “Big Change” had occurred since the last time I’d read Batman, save for the glancing references to the Victims, Inc. Program. (Incidentally, “all mention of this program would disappear from the pages of Batman and Detective within a year”, according to The Batcave Companion by Michael Eury and Michael Kronenberg [TwoMorrows, 2009].) As for the art, it too was just okay — a workmanlike job by Novick, with Giordano’s inks doing little (at least to my eyes, now as well as then) to distinguish its look from that of the last Novick Batman story I’d read, which had been inked by Joe Giella.
But, of course, I was only 15 pages into Batman #219 at this point. The best (by far) was yet to come — namely, the story that comics historian Arlen Schumer calls “one of the most unique, beautiful and memorable Batman stories of not just [Neal] Adams’ formidable Batman career, but of the character’s, too.”
As Schumer also notes, Christmas-themed tales weren’t all that common an occurrence in the comic books of the late ’60s***, so virtually no one was expecting this kind of “throwback, seasonal sentimental superhero story” in the pages of Batman #219. I know I wasn’t.
Adams’ collaborator on this instant classic was Mike Friedrich, who was only twenty years old at the time, but had nevertheless been writing comics for DC for over two years. His first published professional work had appeared in Spectre #3 (April, 1968), and had in fact been drawn by — who else? — Neal Adams.
Friedrich’s script for “The Silent Night of the Batman” is notable for the economy of its verbiage; after this page, the wordsmith steps aside, and the only text that appears for the next four pages comes in the form of Christmas carol lyrics, signage, and the handwritten inscription on a photograph. Otherwise, Friedrich relies entirely on the skills of Adams and his artistic collaborator, Dick Giordano, to tell the story; and the writer’s faith proves to be well-placed.
With page 7, the spell is lifted, as the silent night ends, and dialogue returns to the story:
It’s a story for the ages — not only one of Neal Adams’ best, or even Batman’s best, as Schumer says; but also one of the best Christmas stories ever done in comic books. It’s my own personal favorite of that latter category, by a wide margin.
Part of what I love about it is that it doesn’t rely on any sort of “Christmas magic” — neither the elfin variety, nor the angelic — to get its mood and message across. Outside of Batman’s brief hallucination (or is it just a hallucination?) in the last panel of page 7, there’s no hint of supernatural agency in the story. If you want to believe that some divine or other kind of unearthly spirit is at work in creating Gotham City’s miraculously silent night, Friedrich and Adams allow you to do so. But if you’d rather think of the miracle as originating from ordinary, mortal human beings rising to the occasion, choosing to be their best selves for just one night — well, they’ll let you do that, too.
And since we’ve been discussing how this issue fits into the late ’60s-early ’70s revamp of Batman that’s given us the Dark Knight we’re still reading about half a century later, it should be noted that this story is basically timeless. There’s certainly no hint of the plot elements recently introduced into Batman’s world as part of his “Big Change” — no penthouse apartment, no V.I.P., no “no more Batcave”. Friedrich’s script could well have been sitting in a file in Julius Schwartz’s desk for the past couple of years (and for all I know, it had been); or, it could have sat there for another couple of years, or even another couple of decades. It still would have worked.
The one aspect of the “Big Change” that was necessary for this all-time classic comic book story to come to be was a simple one: Neal Adams had to be allowed to draw Batman in the Batman comic. Comics fans would have many reasons over the next several years to be glad that that did, indeed, happen; but “The Silent Night of the Batman” was one very good reason, all on its own.
With the conclusion of the issue’s second story, we’ve had 23 pages of comics content (granted, one was only a 2/3-page, and another a half-page, but still). That’s pretty standard for regular-sized DC comics of this era, so you’d think we’d be done. But there’s actually one more comics story left in the issue — though it’s a rather odd fit:
“Time to Kill” is a four-page story reprinted from Phantom Stranger (1952 series) #5 (Apr.-May, 1953); it was written by Henry Kuttner, best known as a prose science fiction and fantasy writer (though he also turned out a number of Green Lantern tales in the Golden Age), and illustrated by John Giunta, whose credits include Archie Comics’ The Fly and Tower’s T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents. None of which explains what it’s doing in the back of a 1969 Batman comic, of course.
As best as I can figure, DC would occasionally drop short reprints of this type into their comics as fillers, in lieu of ad pages. Since they didn’t take any space away from new material, it was entirely appropriate for the publisher to label them “DC Extras”, as they have here. Still, even though it’s reasonable to assume that there may not have been any 4-page Batman (or Robin) stories lying around in inventory, this SF time-travel twist-ending tale seems a bit out of place in Batman #219.
For the record, however, when I first read this comic fifty years ago, I don’t think I had any complaints about this story’s inclusion; in fact, I remember thinking that the twist ending was pretty clever. Unfortunately, re-reading it today, I can see a plot hole large enough to pilot Rip Hunter’s Time Sphere through. Chalk it up to the prolific Kuttner having an off day. (Giunta’s art is nice, though.)
We’ll wrap up this look back at Batman #219 with a quick dip into the issue’s “Letters to the Batcave” column, featuring readers’ responses to #215 (which, as you may recall, was the first issue to feature Dick Giordano’s inks over Irv Novick’s pencils):
Yep, that detailed inking analysis came from Klaus Janson, who was seventeen years old at the time. Janson would of course go on to become an accomplished professional comics artist himself, eventually making his own major contribution to the ongoing evolution of the Batman character as the inker of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986). Recently, he’s been working on Batman once again, this time embellishing the pencils of John Romita, Jr. on the hero’s titular series — and doubtlessly influencing yet another generation of future Bat-inkers.
And so it goes.
*According to the historical sales data reported by John Jackson Miller on his “Comichron” web site, while annual sales on Batman, Detective, and Brave and the Bold all declined from 1968 to 1969, BatB went down less than the other two; in fact, in 1969 it actually outsold DC’s namesake title, coming in at #24 on the U.S. comics industry’s annual sales chart for that year, compared to Detective‘s ranking of #31.
**Which isn’t to say that there was never any coordination between DC editors in the late Sixties. For example, Schwartz and Boltinoff were jointly aware of what was being done to revamp the Green Arrow character by Neal Adams in Boltinoff’s Brave and the Bold and by Denny O’Neill in Schwartz’s Justice League of America, with each referencing the developments in the other editor’s book in their own.
***Not at DC or Marvel, at any rate. Of course, if you were Archie Comics, it was a whole different ball game.