Seven months ago, I blogged about a number of comics that I wish I’d bought back in April, 1970, the only month in the last 55 years in which I didn’t acquire a single new comic book. (At least not until April, 2020, when COVID-19’s temporary shutdown of the comics industry took the matter out of my, and everyone else’s, hands for a while.) Regular readers of this blog with good memories may recall that among those “comics that got away” was the 400th issue of Detective Comics.
That, of course, was the issue that featured the first appearance of Man-Bat — an important new adversary (and sometime ally) of Batman — created by artist Neal Adams. Unless, of course it was actually editor Julius Schwartz who came up with the character. In any event, it wasn’t writer Frank Robbins. Probably not, anyway.
Adams has told his version of the story of Man-Bat’s creation on a number of occasions. Here’s an account he shared in a 2005 interview for Groucho Reviews:
So when Frank Robbins was in a story meeting with Julie Schwartz, Frank Robbins didn’t have a story. I had already written a synopsis for Man-Bat, and because I was kind of a fan of Frank Robbins, and I saw they were in a — and they were going nowhere, and they asked me if I had a story idea, I said, “Well, sure, I actually do have a good story idea.” They said, “What?” I said, “Man-Bat.” And Julie Schwartz laughed at me, as if I was an idiot. And I said, “I’ll tell you what, Julie. If Marvel Comics decides to do Man-Bat, and they have the right to do it, DC Comics is screwed. This is a terrific idea. I’m not going to take it over there, but I’m telling you, sooner or later, it’s going to occur to somebody at Marvel: ‘Hey, why don’t we do a Man-Bat?’ And that’ll be it. “Alright, let’s do the story.” So I started to go over the story, and then I pulled out the synopsis, and I gave it to Frank Robbins. And that’s what he did it from. So it’s all my story: hundred percent. With Frank’s grateful thanks.
Julius Schwartz, however, remembered things a little differently. In his 2000 autobiography Man of Two Worlds, the late editor wrote:
I distinctly recall I was plotting in the office, and I was sitting there with Frank Robbins. We were trying to come up with a new villain for Batman when it occurred to me that our problem could be solved by just reversing the words bat and man and coming up with Man-Bat… and that was the beginning of it, and he did the rest of the plotting and the writing and so on.
Neal claims he was sitting in the office and that he suggested the idea of a “manbat”..but that’s not how I remember it. As I recall it, he wasn’t there until later, after Frank had worked it all out.
As for Frank Robbins’ take: to the best of my knowledge, the writer-artist never publicly discussed Man-Bat’s genesis, either in an interview or anywhere else; and since he died in 1994, we’re unlikely to ever learn more regarding his thoughts on the topic.
So… take your pick, I guess? Adams, or Schwartz, or even Robbins. Who knows?
What’s not under dispute, thankfully, is who did what on the actual first Man-Bat story; it was edited by Schwartz, scripted by Robbins, pencilled by Adams, and inked by Dick Giordano. “Challenge of the Man-Bat” introduced readers to Kirk Langstrom, a chiropterologist at the Gotham Museum of Natural History who, when not busy at his day job attending to the museum’s “night creature habitat exhibit”, was experimenting with a glandular extract from live bats, hoping to give a human being bat-like sonar abilities. Would he be so rash as to conduct these experiments using himself as a test subject? Um, have you ever read a comic book?
Langstrom quickly discovered that his extract had indeed given him the ability to navigate flawlessly in pitch-black darkness. Unfortunately, the concoction soon proved to have adverse side effects much more serious than a mere hypersensitivity to sound and light:
Afraid to be seen leaving the museum, Langstrom was hiding out there after hours when the “Blackout Gang”, a band of thieves who used special equipment to operate in darkness, showed up to rob the museum’s gem collection. In short order, Batman arrived to thwart them, but the Gang had prepared for him, and he ran into trouble — until Langstrom, whose research had been inspired by his admiration for Batman in the first place, came to the Caped Crusader’s aid:
After the gang was subdued, Batman turned on his flashlight to get a better look at his unknown ally, and…
Editor Schwartz was apparently pleased by how well this first Man-Bat story turned out, as he waited just two issues before scheduling the follow-up promised in the last panel above. Unfortunately, your humble blogger was still working his way back into the habit of regular funnybook buying when Detective #402 was published in late June, and I missed this one too.
“Man or Bat?”, by the same team of Robbins, Adams, and Giordano, picked up the saga with Langstrom desperately trying to find a cure for his condition, and running afoul of Batman when he raided a biochemical company. The Darknight Detective’s search for the mysterious “Man-Bat” took him back to the place he’d first encountered him, the Museum of Natural History; there he met Francine Lee, Langstrom’s fiancée, who was distraught over her intended’s having gone missing. Batman and Francine soon found the mutated Langstrom in a secret lab within the museum, but the Man-Bat fled the scene. Batman then headed to the Batcave* to attempt to synthesize the compound Langstrom took from the biochemical firm, which he’d correctly deduced could cure the scientist’s affliction. Meanwhile, the Man-Bat’s flight** eventually led him to seek sanctuary in a cave — which, by sheer coincidence, turned out to be something quite different from what he’d expected:
Man-Bat immediately realizes he needs to get out of there; but, unfortunately for him, that’s when the Masked Manhunter arrives in his Batmobile. Batman prevents his adversary from escaping through the cave’s automatic garage door, but then…
“Man or Bat?” may have ended on a cliffhanger, but it would nevertheless take another five issues (and months) before readers received the third (and, for the time being, final) installment of the Man-Bat saga. By that time, of course, my thirteen-year-old self was fully back in the comics buying groove; and while I probably knew who Man-Bat was by then, the stunning Adams cover for Detective #407 would doubtless have induced me to at least take a closer look at the comic, even if I hadn’t. And once I opened the book to the first couple of pages, and saw that Adams (with Giordano) had also produced the story’s interior art, I was sold.
Since I hadn’t read Detective #402, it didn’t bother me that the cliffhanger ending wasn’t immediately addressed in these opening pages, but I suspect that a number of other readers were momentarily thrown. As it turned out, however, they’d only have to wait another half a page for the answers to their questions to begin arriving:
Realizing that the odds of his being able to coax Man-Bat into taking the antidote on his own were slim to none, Batman decided to fetch Langstrom’s fiancée, Francine:
But though Kirk was gratified to learn he still had Francine’s love, he still had no interest in returning to his human form. Instead, he offered her another solution to their dilemma — one which began with her returning to the museum to retrieve certain items from his lab:
The revelation of Francine’s “new look” shocked the hell out of my thirteen-year-old self in November, 1970. It’s still a powerful, indelible image.
Realizing that Kirk and Francine will head for the one place in the great cathedral that has open windows, Batman races to the bell tower to head them off:
And thus concludes what I, at least, like to call the “Original Man-Bat Trilogy” — a complete story with a beginning, middle, and satisfying ending (even if I wasn’t able to fully appreciate that fact until after I’d scored and read both Detective #400 and #402, some time later).
Of course, Detective #407 wasn’t the last time Kirk Langstrom would ever appear — far from it. Sometimes, though, I rather wish it had been. Because no matter the merits of any later story featuring the character, none of them had interior art by Neal Adams (well, not until 2010-11’s Batman: Odyssey, and I choose to ignore that one). And regardless of whether Adams came up with Man-Bat all on his own, as he claims, or was simply the first artist to visualize him, I don’t believe anyone else ever drew him better, or even as well.
I can still remember how disappointed I was, just nine months later, when Man-Bat returned to the pages of Detective in issue #416. Because this time around, although Neal Adams was still involved as cover artist, the interior art was by writer Frank Robbins himself (his first artwork produced specifically for the comic book medium, incidentally, though Robbins’ career as a comic strip artist extended back to 1940). And frankly, it didn’t work all that well for me.
Over the decades, I’ve developed more of an appreciation for Robbins’ artwork than I had back then, having eventually come to realize that although his style might not have been especially well-suited for the superhero genre he found himself mostly working in from 1971 on, his art still had its merits. Nevertheless, I remain inclined to think my younger self had it about right when it came to Frank Robbins’ Man-Bat. Neal Adams’ ability to render realistically while also imparting a strong Gothic mood made the potentially absurd notion of a half-man, half-bat creature seem frighteningly plausible; by contrast, Robbins’ more cartoony, expressionistic version came off as more ridiculous than scary. That’s my opinion, anyway; I realize that other fans, with different tastes, may see things differently.
But speaking of Frank Robbins… Detective Comics #407, like every other issue of the title during this era, included a backup feature in addition to the lead Batman story. And this issue’s Batgirl backup tale was, like the lead story, written by Robbins.
This was the second half of a two-parter by the same creative team of Robbins, Gil Kane, and Vince Colletta. Nor having picked up Detective #406, I hadn’t read “The Explosive Circle”, and the two narrative captions Robbins provided on this first page didn’t give me a whole lot of help in piecing together what was going on. (Granted, he only had 7 pages in which to wrap up his whole story, but still.) Why was Batgirl tracking “‘love-child’ Shelley Simms“, and what connection did this young lady have to “a suspected ‘bomb-factory'”?
Of course, readers of the previous chapter would have recalled how it had opened with a Gotham City house suddenly blowing up…
OK, maybe you didn’t need all that background about the library book to be able to follow the rest of “One of Our Landmarks Is Missing!” But as a retired public librarian, I couldn’t resist sharing it with you. (Although I do feel obliged to point out that a court order is generally required for the release of borrower information to law enforcement officials, as most public libraries have policies in place to safeguard patron confidentiality. But, hey, Babs was relying on her own photographic memory here, rather than on official library records — plus, lives might have been at stake, time was of the essence, etc., etc. — so I’m going to give her a pass on this one.)
After arriving at Shelley’s apartment “in the heart of the ‘where it’s at’ district”, Batgirl confronted the young woman. Shelley was visibly shocked at the news that her library book was found damaged at the site of a bombing (and probably not just because she realized that, as the borrower of record, she would be liable for the cost of replacing the book); neverthess, she refused to cooperate with the Dominoed Dare-Doll, whom she called a “fuzz-fink”. Batgirl pretended to back off, but later tailed Shelley to a meeting of supposedly peaceful protestors, where she got herself knocked unconscious. Some time afterwards, our heroine woke up to find herself in the predicament we see her in at the beginning of Detective #407’s installment, courtesy of Shelley’s not-so-peaceful boyfriend, Mal.
But a little thing like a mined floor can’t hold Batgirl for long; she quickly figures out a way to deactivate the floor’s detonator-circuit without stepping out of the chalk circle, using her cape and one of her boots to extend her reach:
Since the militant Mal oh-so-helpfully announced the Traymore Mansion as his next destination (not to mention the target of his next intended bombing), Batgirl heads there directly. Meanwhile, at the site itself, Shelley — already disheartened to have learned that her boyfriend, for whom she borrowed “that ugly novel” It’s Your City… Take It! from the library, and whom she also assumed shared her commitment to peaceful protest, was indeed responsible for the earlier bombing — is even more disturbed to discover that Mal is conspiring with the mansion’s owner, Slavin. Slavin wants to raze the landmark and put up a luxury high-rise, but has been stymied in his aims by Gotham’s Landmarks Commission; for a cool 10 grand, however, Mal and his confederates are more than happy to do the job.
Thanks to Shelley’s warning, Batgirl is able to make quick work of Mal’s remaining accomplices. The GCPD then arrives to take all the malefactors, including Slavin, into custody. As for Shelley…
It’s interesting to compare this story with those that were running in the Robin backup feature in Batman at around this same time (and which were discussed last month in our Batman #227 post). Their writer, Mike Friedrich, while taking as dim a view of violent protest as Frank Robbins obviously did, nevertheless demonstrated considerably greater sympathy for the social and political concerns of young people. Perhaps that’s only to be expected, considering that Friedrich was only 21 years old when these stories appeared, whereas Robbins was 53. Still, it’s a telling detail that in the next to last panel, Shelley puts Batgirl firmly on the other side of the generational divide from herself — despite the fact that, as rendered by Gil Kane and Vince Colletta, it’s hard to see much difference between the two women’s ages.
And speaking of Kane and Colletta — I’ve given their art pretty short shrift in this post, but frankly, it’s the best thing about this two-part tale. Kane was in his usual fine form whenever drawing the Batgirl feature, and the oft-maligned Colletta delivered solid, sensitive embellishment to his pencils here. Unfortunately, this was the last new work we’d see from Kane on this character — or, indeed, in any DC superhero comic book — for quite some time, as he was about to go to work almost exclusively for Marvel for most of the remainder of the decade. Replacing him on the Batgirl feature would be another veteran artist who, ironically enough, had mostly worked for Marvel throughout his career to date. But for more about that, you’ll have to come back next month for our post on Detective Comics #408.
*A mere eight months prior to the publication of Detective #402, DC had promoted Batman’s abandonment of the Batcave (as dramatized on the cover of Batman #217, shown at left) as one of the key factors of the hero’s much vaunted “Big Change”. But a bad (giant) penny will always turn up eventually, I suppose; in any event, the notion that Batman didn’t need his ‘cave anymore, like most of the other plot-specific aspects of the “Big Change” (as opposed to the visual or thematic ones), lasted a good bit less time than “forever!“.
**I use the word “flight” here in both its “fleeing” and “flying” meanings, as Langstrom sprouted leathery wings right after his departure from his museum hideout, thereby completing his mutation into a Man-Bat — and also giving him a closer family resemblance to Sauron, the “energy vampire” that Neal Adams had designed for Marvel’s X-Men series, a little over a year earlier.
Frank Robbins was a good, solid writer and I never had any problem reading his work, which was full of generally clear and entertaining story-telling. He was never my reason to pick up a book, but he was never the reason I put one back, either. His work as an artist, however, was another story. Being an artist myself, I hate putting down someone else’s work or denying their vision, but Robbins’ work didn’t fit the comic medium at all (or any medium was my opinion at the time) and his rendering of Man-Bat (and anyone else he drew) was a far cry from Adams’ version of the character and not up to the expectations of my thirteen-year-old self. It used to make me nuts that Schwartz let him draw Batman when he clearly wasn’t good at it and it upset me so badly it prompted one of the very few letters I ever wrote in to a comic book, begging them to let him go. Now, in my dotage, I can afford to be kinder in my judgement of Robbins’ work, but he will always be in the very bottom tier of the talent pool for me, along with a couple of others I won’t denigrate here. Gil Kane, on the other hand, is one of my two or three favorites of all-time, along with Adams, and seeing their art here on the page, alive and vibrant and at the top of their respective games more than makes up for the trauma I experienced looking at that one Robbins panel you posted above. As for the character of Man-Bat, I always thought that, like Superboy and Supergirl, he was invented just to protect the copyright (as Adams points out), but there was enough basic tragedy inherent in the character to make him relatable, even for a guy stupid enough to dose himself with an untried and untested bat-serum. He’s been used badly far more often than he’s been used well, but it’s fun to go back and see his origins again. Thanks.
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I feel like Robbins was doing an extreme take on Milton Caniff’s style, which just didn’t work that well in the superhero genre, or in the related ones of science fiction and fantasy. Unfortunately, those are my favorite genres, so… 🙂
Vince Colletta was Robbins’ saving grace because without the soft touch of Vinnie’s inks, Frank’s characters would have loked like today’s comic art- angular and out-of-proportion.
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Here is where we get into the EXTREMELY subjective nature of fandom, and how each person’s early experiences can play a major role in shaping their later interests. As I was born in 1976, the very first Man-Bat story I ever read was “Man-Bat Over Vegas” written & drawn by Frank Robbins from Detective Comics #429 (Nov 1972) when it was collected in The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told, which I bought in 1990. So it was Robbins’ depiction of Man-Bat that initially lodged itself in my teenage mind, and I never even saw Neal Adams’ version until a number of years later.
As with many comic book fans, some of my other early exposure to Robbins work, via back issues of Captain America and The Invaders, left me unimpressed (it took me quite some time to connect the Robbins who drew for Marvel with the Robbins who did “Man-Bat Over Vegas”) but over time I became a huge fan of his art. So I have the exact opposite opinion of Don: I wish Robbins had drawn a lot more Batman stories.
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And, as they say, that’s what makes a horse race! Thanks for weighing in, Ben.
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As I was reading this blog post Alan, I was looking forward to suggesting that it was likely that Neal Adams came up with Man Bat because of his 1969 creation of Sauron for Marvel, but then you beat me to it at the end. 🙂 Adams suggestion that Marvel might come up with a Man Bat was certainly not far fetched as Marvel came up with Morbius in 1971, and while that character doesn’t look like a Man Bat, who knows what Marvel was thinking about when they began thinking about such a character and whether the idea might have gone in another direction if Man Bat had not been created the previous year (a character like that would have been more analogous to the six armed Spider Man which was in the story in which Morbius made his first appearance). Incidentally, Morbius’ fiancee was Martine–I actually went back to look because I thought it might have also been Francine.
Reading this story again 50 years later (I don’t remember it from when I read it the first time), I found myself strongly disliking the theme. Here we have two individuals wanting to get married on their own accord. They aren’t criminals breaking any laws (unless you have Batman trying to uphold the civil laws of who can get married or some religious law, neither of which, fortunately, are stated here). They aren’t planning to take over the city or the world or do violence. Francine, as dubious as her decision to become a Woman Bat was (and her dubious decision making does show she and Kirk have something in common, plus consider that many women and men make stupid decisions for the people they love that are just as bad) was not hypnotized or brainwashed into making her choice–she did it willingly. Finally, both Kirk and Francine knew that a cure was available and elected not to take it. Can you blame them for attacking Batman and telling him to leave them alone?
As a result, Batman’s attempt to break up the wedding (and, by the way, how does he know, since Kirk is in a mask, that he didn’t find the cure on his own and use it?) looks to be him imposing his opinion and beliefs on other people. Watching Batman’s words and actions, I couldn’t help thinking of someone trying to break up a same-sex marriage, or an interracial marriage or an interfaith marriage for “their own good”. Following this analogy, watching Batman forcibly inject the antidote into the Engaged Bats, made me think of forced conversion therapy for folks attracted to the same sex. Of course, after the couple becomes human again, they are profusely thankful to Batman for doing this, despite the fact that throughout the book, they seem to have made their decision to be People Bats in a calm and rational manner, and did not appear crazy or under some sort of chemical or mind control. Finally, do this whole story but substitute “mutants” for “Man Bats” and ask yourself if the person seeking to break up the marriage and “cure” the participants would be seen as the hero.
With regards to the Batgirl story (I always loved Batgirl stories because the Yvonne Craig Batgirl was one of my first crushes), I agree with your comments about Robbins’ writing of the story. I do think that it isn’t odd that Batgirl and Shelley are of the same age and of different opinions–after all Barbara Gordon’s father is the Police Commissioner. I’m not an artist and art expert like you all are, but I did think that the illustration of Shelley in Batgirl’s thought balloon didn’t look very angelic and innocent as the text indicated (by the way, although Shelley is described as a “love child”, it’s her boyfriend who is the real bastard here).
Finally, perhaps you can help me answer a question that has puzzled me for more than 50 years–just what does a “dominoed” dare-doll really mean? Seriously.
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“Dominoed” refers to her mask — which is odd, because Batgirl’s cowl isn’t technically a domino mask at all, covering most of her head as it does. But Julius Schwartz must have liked “Dominoed Dare-doll”, I reckon, because it hung around for a while.
That’s a really interesting take on Kirk and Francine’s efforts to marry, and one I hadn’t really considered before. In the context of the whole trilogy (and, obviously, I’ve given the first two chapters pretty short shrift here), Batman’s determination to reverse Langstrom’s transformation is easier to justify; he’s seen how desperate the scientist was to cure himself at the beginning, and it’s reasonable for him to conclude that the serum has affected Langstrom’s mind. That rationale really doesn’t work for Francine, however, and Batman’s dialogue in this issue is full of assumptions about the superiority of “normal” humanity. So, yeah — I think you’re onto something, here, Stu. Thanks for sharing this insight.
Regarding Batgirl and Shelley — my objection wasn’t so much that they were of approximately the same age and had different ideologies, but that Shelley, at least, seemed to think of Batgirl as belonging to a whole different age cohort; she actually uses the word “generation” in the next-to-last panel. (I do take your point about Shelley’s looks not being all that “innocent”, however — I guess Kane and Coletta just didn’t have that in ’em. 🙂 )
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