According to the Grand Comics Database’s entry for this issue, the cover of Batman #227 has been reprinted seven times by DC Comics. The story it illustrates? Just twice.
The perennial popularity of the cover isn’t all that surprising, of course. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric and technically accomplished effort by the artist widely considered to be the definitive visual interpreter of Batman during this era, Neal Adams — a great cover even if (like my thirteen-year-old self, back in October, 1970), you have no idea that’s it’s an homage to a classic Batman cover from the first year of the Darknight Detective’s existence…
… though, obviously, if you do recognize Adams’ piece as having been inspired by Bob Kane’s cover for Detective Comics #31 (Sept., 1939), it’s all to the better.
But having said that, I’d like to suggest that the deserved fame of Batman #227’s cover may have somewhat unfairly eclipsed the reputation of “The Demon of Gothos Mansion!” as a comic-book story — a story which, admittedly, wasn’t drawn by Neal Adams, but which nevertheless stands as an effective — and affecting — tale by the writer who was probably Batman’s definitive verbal interpreter of this era: Denny O’Neil.
Before getting directly into that story itself, however, I’d like to call your attention to one more thing about this cover — something that hasn’t been ignored, exactly, but still doesn’t seem to have been discussed nearly as much as the Detective #31 homage business — and that’s the fact that, in addition to paying tribute to that classic comics forebear, Adams’ illustration is also riffing on the covers of the Gothic romance paperback novels of its own era.
If you’re not an aging relic like your humble blogger, you may not remember these books, which were damn near ubiquitous wherever paperbacks were sold in the ’60s and ’70s. As noted in the Flashbak.com article “Loads of Women Running from Houses: The Gothic Romance Paperback”, virtually every single one of these babies sported a cover illustration based on the exact same template:
1. There is always a sinister looking residence in the background.
2. There is often a single lighted window. Never two – never a porch light or car headlights… just that one damn window!
3. Sometimes there is a shadowy male figure lurking between the girl and the house – sometimes the figure is located in the entryway or in the window. You can never get a clear look at this mysterious person.
4. There is always a woman in foreground. She is usually running; she may be paused or hiding, but always in the process of escaping the sinister house.
Take another look at the cover of Batman #227, and you’ll see that Adams has ticked every one of those boxes. About the only one you might quibble about is #3, since Adams does in fact give you a pretty “clear look” at the “male figure” menacing the heroine. But, of course, in doing that, he’s following the lead of his other primary inspiration, Bob Kane’s Detective #31 cover, which also clearly renders (even if only via a long shot) the villain of the piece. Indeed, it’s precisely that depiction of the young woman’s pursuer (or pursuers, if you count the dogs) — plus, of course, the looming, symbolic figure of the Batman that dominates the whole picture — that keeps it from being just a straight-up take on the “woman running from a house” Gothic romance template, and makes it instead a sort of mashup between that and a ‘Tec #31 homage.*
And that’s a perfect approach for Adams to have taken for a cover illustrating “The Demon of Gothos Mansion!” — a story with a title that not only sounds like it should be fronting a 1970 Gothic romance novel, but which also evokes the element of supernatural horror that has been part of Batman’s milieu practically since the beginning — exhibit number one being the very story illustrated by Kane’s classic Detective #31 cover, “Batman Versus the Vampire”.
The place of the supernatural within Batman’s mythos has been somewhat ambiguous over the decades, as it doesn’t really sit all that well with the hyper-rational, “World’s Greatest Detective” aspect of the character. Still, the basic image of “the Bat-Man” inevitably suggests at least a visual affinity with Gothic horror; and in the strip’s earliest days, Kane and his collaborators (such as Gardner Fox, who wrote “Batman Versus the Vampire”) seemed to be almost as comfortable pitting their hero against bloodsucking ghouls as against gun-toting gangsters. Nevertheless, by 1969, which is when Denny O’Neil began writing Batman stories for editor Julius Schwartz, the Caped Crusader hadn’t encountered bona fide paranormal phenomena in quite some time.** But ,as O’Neil recalled in an interview with Michael Kronenberg for The Batcave Companion (TwoMorrows, 2009), that didn’t mean that there was a rule against him doing so:
The Batman’s sandbox was mine to play in. I can’t ever remember Julie saying, “No, we can’t use that character or that villain.” We sort of had an unspoken agreement that I was not going to do hard science fiction or fantasy, but the supernatural was certainly on the table, as were any of the old Batman villains.
Indeed, O’Neil’s first published Batman story was “The Secret of the Waiting Graves” in Detective #395 (Jan., 1970), a tale in which the hero’s adversaries are revealed to have achieved immortality through uncanny means. And now, a little less than a year later, he was back with another weird one.***
Of course, the evocation of Gothic romance motifs via both the story’s title and Adams’s cover didn’t necessarily mean that “The Demon of Gothos Mansion!” would in fact feature the supernatural, at least not in literal terms. Following the precedent set by one of the genre’s architects, the 18th century author Ann Radcliffe, Gothic romance stories of the ’60s and ’70s often (though not always) wrapped up their plots by providing rational explanations for any and all spooky goings-on. Anyone who was already familiar with the genre and its conventions could have reasonably assumed that O’Neil’s story would follow that pattern, regardless of how eerily atmospheric his writing for the splash page’s narrative captions might be:
As we mentioned earlier, the interior art for this story was provided by Irv Novick (pencils) and Dick Giordano (inks). While editor Schwartz was relying on cover artist Adams to set the visual standard for the new direction the Bat-books had taken starting in in the latter half of 1969, Adams wasn’t able to draw every single Batman story in Batman or Detective all by himself (though he did draw virtually all the covers). So it was that Novick, a veteran comics artist who’d been active in the field since 1939, drew most of the non-Adams Bat-tales in Batman, while his fellow old hand Bob Brown pulled the same duty in Detective.
Both Novick and Brown began their long-running gigs on the two Bat-titles in 1968, in the post-“camp” era that followed both the cancellation of the Batman television show and the ending of Bob Kane’s professional relationship with DC at around the same time. Neal Adams was then just beginning to develop his own “back to basics” interpretation of the character in Brave and the Bold, edited by Murray Boltinoff. But not long after Adams began contributing to Schwartz’s titles — first just covers, then stories — both artists began to emulate the younger artist’s style — not simply the way he rendered the Gotham Guardian, but his approach to storytelling, as well. This appears to have been mandated — or at least encouraged — by Schwartz, although Adams recalls that both Novick and Brown came to him and asked him for his permission (Back Issue #50 [August, 2011]).
Meanwhile, Dick Giordano had become Adams’ regular embellisher at DC, as the two artists were now collaborating on Green Lantern as well as on Batman. Since beginning his work with the younger artist in 1968, Giordano had been adjusting his own inking style to better mesh with Adams’ pencils; and as he brought this same new approach to his inking of Novick (and, some time later, of Brown, as well), it helped provide a continuity of look and tone to the Batman feature, regardless of who the penciller was on any given story.
As stated in page 2’s editorial note, Alfred’s niece Daphne had first appeared the previous year, in Batman #216’s “Angel — or Devil?” (this story,incidentally, was also the first appearance of Alfred’s family name, Pennyworth). Also as noted (this time via Alfred’s dialogue), that story had established Daphne to be an actress by profession — and not just any old actress, but a member of Ye Olde Avon Players, a troupe headed up by her own father (and Alfred’s brother) Wilfred. That latter detail makes Daphne suddenly being “at liberty” and needing to take a gig as governess to a couple of “very odd” children at a “remote and isolated” house (about as Gothic romance-ready an employment situation as they come, I’d say), somewhat less than fully convincing. But, hey, the use of a pre-existing character allows our storytellers to get Batman into the main action of the story quickly, with little muss or fuss.
As you’d doubtlessly expect, dear reader, as soon as Batman turns his back on the guards, they jump him. But our hero is no less familiar with hoary old narrative conventions than are you; and so, he’s ready for them:
Is Novick merely aping Adams’s approach to staging action in his layout for this wordless page? Perhaps, but if he is, I’d say he’s doing a damn fine job of it.
Just a few years after this, one might not have gotten away with the implication that a coven would, by definition, be devoted to black magic; in 1970, however, most readers probably hadn’t yet come across the terms “Wiccan”, or “neo-pagan”.
Although Batman describes the demon, Ballk, as “one of the nastiest creatures in mythology”, the name appears to have been invented by O’Neil out of whole cloth.
Speaking of phrases that haven’t aged all that well — “a pair of hideous dwarves!” must surely also be counted among them.
As expected, Bats has no trouble getting Daphne and himself out of the locked room — unfortunately, they’ve only taken a few steps down the hall when a trapdoor opens beneath the Caped Crusader, sending him plunging straight into Clifton Heathrow’s quite literal net:
No, there’s no point in asking why Heathrow doesn’t just empty his pistols into Batman while our hero is helpless, rather than subject him to an elaborate deathtrap. Or why he feels compelled to reveal his entire plan to the presumably soon-to-be-deceased crimefighter. Look, the guy’s obviously not playing with a full deck, alright?
At this point in our story, we have no reason to believe that the demon Ballk exists anywhere other than in his cultists’ fevered imaginations. Still, if the demon is real, it’s interesting to note that the last time he was summoned, he apparently returned to its netherworld some time later without having done any obvious lasting damage to the world as we know it. Of course, that fact would be cold comfort to the young woman sacrificed to raise Ballk that last time — or to Daphne Pennyworth, this time.
Page 10 is another example of an action sequence that’s hard to imagine being laid out better than Irv Novick has done here — even by Neal Adams.
If it weren’t already obvious, page 11 makes clear that this isn’t a standard Gothic romance where a beautiful young governess (or whatever) is at the center of the mysterious events. The hero of this romance is the Batman, himself.
Does the demon Ballk actually partially materialize, prior to Batman’s interruption of the ritual? Or is the “wavering figure” glimpsed in page 13’s third panel Batman himself? Three pages out from the conclusion of his story, O’Neil is still allowing wiggle room for us to imagine there’s an entirely rational explanation for everything we’ve witnessed.
Besides providing irrefutable evidence that our hero has, indeed, had a close encounter with the supernatural, the ending of “The Demon of Gothos Mansion!” is the first instance I can remember of seeing an emotional reaction from Batman quite like the one we witness in the final panel. As such, it packed a dramatic wallop unusual for its era, and has helped keep the story alive in my memory for half a century.
Is the notion of Batman falling instantly and deeply in love with a nameless young woman he encounters in the woods — even allowing for the influence of mystical forces — a little outlandish? I suppose it is — but in October, 1970, when I was thirteen years old and had no experience whatsoever of romantic love, I bought it completely. Today, at age 63, I of course know better, but I’m still very fond of this story, and… look, I’m just going to go with “mystical forces”, all right?
One more thing worth noting before we move on: if “The Demon of Gothos Mansion!” were to be written and published today, there’s little doubt that the story point of Batman’s newly lost (and long-deceased) love having a doppelgänger among the living — not to mention that she’s his own butler’s niece — would be considered a loose end that virtually demanded to be followed up. But, it seems they didn’t see things that way at DC in the Seventies; and to the best of my knowledge, Daphne Pennyworth never made a single further appearance after Batman #227, either in that or in any other decade.
Actually, there’s still something else that I need to share in regards to this story before we take a look at the rest of the issue. A couple of weeks back, in my post about Justice League of America #84, I mentioned that my younger self had a theory about the identity of the “only one” that Batman “ever wanted to marry” — as alluded to in the Robert Kanigher-written, Dick Dillin and Joe Giella-drawn panel below — but that I couldn’t share it at that time, since the story featuring my candidate hadn’t yet been published at the time JLA #84 was released, and I wouldn’t be blogging about it until a couple of weeks later.
But now that it is a couple of weeks later, and you know all about what happens in “The Demon of Gothos Mansion!”, I can tell you that thirteen-year-old me believed that Batman’s “only one” was, in fact… oh. You figured it out already, huh?
JLA #84 was actually published on September 10, 1970, a full forty days before Batman #237, which came out on October 20. Still, I’m pretty sure that I read the former comic after I’d already read the latter — not all that unusual a circumstance, really, considering how long comics tended to stay on the racks (especially at our local Ben Franklin Five and Dime, which often hung onto “old” issues even after a new issue of the same series had come out) — which is how the idea got into my head that Kanigher’s JLA story was drawing on O’Neil’s Batman one, and that the One That Got Away whom Batman confided in Black Canary about must be none other than the never-named ghost of Gothos Mansion.
And, hey, perhaps she was. It’s certainly at least possible, as both series were being edited by Julius Schwartz at the time. But such a reference implies a level of coordination between different writers — and a strong interest in tight cross-title continuity — that doesn’t quite jibe with the way I understand things were usually done at DC during that era, in any editorial office. (Not to mention that little matter of the order in which the stories were published.) That said, we’ll probably never know for sure, one way or the other.
Batman #227’s back-up story marks the first regular appearance in the title of the Robin solo feature, which up until this month had been appearing as a back-up in Detective, alternating with Batgirl. “Help Me — I Think I’m Dead!” was written by the 21-year-old Mike Friedrich, a comics fan and frequent letterhack who’d broken into the industry back in 1967 (when he was still in high school) by selling Schwartz a “Robin” script. He’d been writing them off and on ever since.
Robin wasn’t the only costumed superhero attending college in the fall of 1970, but there was a significant difference between him and his best-known fellow comic-book undergrad, Marvel’s Spider-Man; because while Spidey’s adventures on and off campus were being scripted by a middle-aged man (the then 47-year-old Stan Lee), the chronicler of Robin’s exploits was still a college student himself. At the time this story was published, Friedrich was in his fourth year at Santa Clara University.
Okaaayy… just three pages in, and Friedrich has asked us to accept the notion of a young photographer driven temporarily insane by film developing chemicals absorbed through a cut in his skin– and then, that when said photographer makes a panicked call to Hudson U’s “Friend’s Phone”, he just happens to get Dick Grayson on the line — and then, that when Dick responds as Robin, his motorcycle arrives at the scene at the precise moment that the unfortunate shutterbug goes tumbling off a cliff. That’s an awful lot of credulity to demand of your audience in a very short amount of time — especially since the whole sequence has virtually nothing to do with the rest of the story, and seems to exist merely to justify the “Help Me — I Think I’m Dead!” title, which I imagine was probably thought up (either by Friedrich or by Schwartz) independently of the main plot.
The whole business is absurd enough to almost sink the story — but not quite, if only because Friedrich immediately segues into the stuff he actually cares about, involving the industrial pollution of Gotham River, and the upcoming U.S. congressional election in which it’s the primary issue:
Y’know, you might well expect a fifty-year-old comic book story focusing on a then-current social and political issue to feel dated — but, somehow, this page’s rejection of a false choice between public health and a well-functioning economy feels remarkably timely in 2020.
The preceding three-panel sequence takes a more subtle and nuanced view of corporate malfeasance than I would likely have been able to appreciate in 1970; i.e., the board chairman of “ICM” never officially sanctions any sort of illegal operation to quash the political opposition to his plant — but that’s what happens, nonetheless.
Soon afterwards, Dick Grayson is tootling along in his microbus when he sees two men fleeing from the Stuart campaign headquarters — which is on fire — and, after changing to Robin, attempts to come to their aid:
It’s interesting to compare the art in this story to that in the lead feature, both tales having been pencilled by Irv Novick. Here, Novick is inked by Mike Esposito, who gives the work a rather generic look in comparison to Dick Giordano’s atmospheric finishes on the earlier story. The action scenes lack the Neal Adams-like flair of those in “The Demon of Gothos Mansion!”, as well. Which isn’t to say that the art is bad — it’s not — but it’s difficult not to feel that the veteran artist just wasn’t trying quite as hard with this one.
The two arsonists ultimately escape, leaving Robin to try to mitigate the damage of the blaze until firefighters can arrive. Unfortunately…
“This has been the year of the involved college student…” Without proper historical context, you might read that caption and roll your eyes at Friedrich’s apparent tone of generational self-congratulation. If, on the other hand, you’re aware of what was happening on college campuses across America in the year 1970 — especially the events that transpired at Kent State in Ohio on May 4, and at Jackson State in Mississippi a mere eleven days later — you might decide that Friedrich showed restraint by not referring to “the year of the martyred college student”.
Confession time — back in December, 1970, when the second and final part of this continued story was published in Batman #229 (November’s Batman #228 having been a giant-sized reprint collection), I passed on it. And truth to tell, I’d forgotten prior to my preparation for this blog post that the “Robin” story in issue #227 even was continued. But fear not, faithful reader, I’m not going to leave you hanging.
“Temperature Boiling… and Rising!”was, like the preceding installment, written by Mike Friedrich and pencilled by Irv Novick, though inks were applied by Frank Giacoia, this time. The story opens by briefly showing us several deceptively peaceful scenes set on the Hudson University campus, before turning to a more obviously contentious one:
The character speaking, Hank Osher, is the most militant of the students we meet in this two-part story. (Probably not so coincidentally, he’s also the only one we see who has long hair and a beard.) Hank had been introduced a few months earlier, in a Denny O’Neil-penned back-up story (teaming Robin and Batgirl) for Detective #400, and would make one additional appearance, scripted by Friedrich, in Batman #229 — in which, unfortunately, he’d be violently killed in a car explosion. Here, however, he hangs around just long enough to drop a direct reference to the Kent State shootings — perhaps Friedrich had decided that he had shown too much restraint in the prior chapter — and then exits the scene, as well as the story.
The newspaper photo showing Prof. Stuart paying polluters is quickly determined to be a forgery…
…but it seems that might not matter, as the New Carthage Tribune isn’t willing to retract the story. The reasons, as explained to Robin by the paper’s editor, Mr. Albertson, are twofold: one, his publisher supports both Rep. Forte and the local ICM plant; two, he got the photo from a highly reliable source — none other than Stuart’s own official campaign photographer, Phil Real! (Yeah, the chemicals-spilling guy.)
Robin recognizes Phil’s roommate, Bill Perkins, as one of the two arsonists from the Stuart campaign headquarters fire; after he subdues Perkins and his confederate, he finds the evidence of their photographic forgery (produced using Phil’s equipment, of course). He takes it directly to the newspaper editor, Albertson — who, being a principled professional, agrees to run a retraction in the very next edition. Then he has another idea:
Ha ha! Funny one there, Robin. Or it would be, if “I go my own way” didn’t in fact mean, “I get all the cash I need and then some from my wealthy guardian, and so have no use for your gig.” Some teenage superheroes have to work to make ends meet, y’know? So don’t be such a dick, er, Dick.
Soon thereafter comes Election Day — and since the truth is out there, now, a well-informed citizenry goes to the polls and chooses the right man for the job. Just like in real life!
Dick Grayson might have wanted to go “back to the books” — but his chronicler, Mike Friedrich, would continue to attend to “the long road ahead” faced by those who, in 1970, hoped for a better nation, and a better world — not just in the pages of his “Robin” stories, but also on the somewhat larger canvas provided by his new gig as the regular writer of Justice League of America. I expect to be taking a look at some of those stories in the months to come; I hope you’ll join me.
*I should note here that DC published a number of covers during the late ’60s and early ’70s that were, in fact, straight-up takes on the Gothic romance cover template. Several of these adorned issues of the “mystery” (i.e., horror) anthology House of Secrets in 1970 — including that of issue #89 (coincidentally published in the same month as Batman #227), whose Gray Morrow-drawn cover not only faithfully toes the template’s line in its pictorial content, but even mimics the”Gold Edition” trade dress used by the publisher Paperback Library for the romances of the pseudonymous “Marilyn Ross” (which in addition to one-offs like the above-pictured Cameron Castle, included a long-running series of novels based on the ABC-TV daytime serial Dark Shadows).
I’m guessing that these covers represented an experiment on DC’s part — perhaps an attempt to tap into the Gothic romance genre’s market of (presumably) mostly female readers — and that those House of Secrets issues must have sold OK, because a year later, the publisher brought out two brand new titles featuring book-length Gothic romance stories, The Sinister House of Secret Love and The Dark Mansion Of Forbidden Love, both of which featured covers that adhered closely to the “woman fleeing house” template (as evidenced by the Victor Kalin cover painting for Sinister House #1, shown at right). Alas, the gambit ultimately didn’t pay off, as after four issues both series underwent a title change (becoming Secrets of Sinister House and Forbidden Tales of Dark Mansion, respectively) and were converted into conventional mystery anthology titles, each running for another couple of years after that.
**Actually, it would be more accurate to say that Batman didn’t encounter the supernatural in the pages of “his” books, Batman and Detective; in the series where he appeared as a co-star — World’s Finest, Justice League of America, Brave and the Bold — he got involved with wizards, demons, and such like relatively frequently.
***In between O’Neil’s two eerie entries, Batman #219 featured Mike Friedrich and Neal Adams’ “The Silent Night of the Batman” — a classic Christmas tale which suggested the supernatural, but ultimately left the “correct” interpretation of events up to the reader.