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.