There’s an interesting story behind Detective #408’s lead Batman feature (and cover story), “The House That Haunted Batman!”. Or perhaps we should say, in the interest of total accuracy, that there are four of them.
Back in 1998, in the 1st issue of Comic Book Artist, editor Jon B. Cooke published “The Story That Haunted Julie Schwartz”, a collection of interviews with four of the personnel who’d been involved with producing this classic Detective story: editor Julius Schwartz, writers Len Wein and Marv Wolfman, and penciller Neal Adams. The funny thing about it, though, was that in spite of the interviews’ brevity (the entire article ran only two pages) the four veteran comics pros’ recollections differed in certain details, lending the whole enterprise a Rashomon-like quality.
This much, at least, the quartet could agree on: Quite early on in their professional careers, longtime friends Len Wein and Marv Wolfman wrote a Batman story together which they hoped to sell to Julius Schwartz. Somewhere along the line, Neal Adams took an interest in the as-yet-unbought script and ended up drawing it in his spare time, on spec — a remarkably generous gesture, considering how busy the artist was (not to mention what his time was worth). Ultimately, despite the irregularity of the process, editor Schwartz did indeed buy the completed 15-pager, and scheduled it for the next available issue of Detective Comics.
While the relevant parties’ accounts deviate from each other in a number of minor details, the most significant involve the timeline — more specifically, just when did Wein and Wolfman write their script, and how long did Adams work on it before submitting the results to Schwartz? I have some thoughts about this, but they’ll probably make more sense to you after we actually get into the story. So, then, let’s turn the calendar back to December, 1970, and join up with my then thirteen-year-old self as he opens the cover of Detective #408 to find…
The story establishes itself as being something other than your ordinary Batman fare from the very first page, both by beginning in the middle of the action and by using second-person narration. Neither of these storytelling techniques was unheard of in DC comics circa 1970, of course, but neither were they commonplace.
Marv Wolfman’s account of how this tale came to be (which he expanded on somewhat in a 2012 interview for Alter Ego) suggests that he and Len Wein originally developed this story, and even pitched it to Schwartz, in the immediate aftermath of the “Batmania”-fueled camp era, prior to the “re-darkening” of the Caped Crusader begun by Neal Adams in Brave and the Bold in mid-1968. Robin, however, didn’t decamp from stately Wayne Manor to pursue his higher education at Hudson University until mid-1969 — a development that was part of Schwartz’s “Big Change” for Batman, which officially incorporated Adams’ darker, more mysterious approach to the hero. Of course, the reference to Hudson U. here could well have been added after the story’s original plotting, and even its scripting, in the editorial phase of production.
Wolfman has also indicated that Adams began work on pencilling the story quite early in the timeline. As he told Comic Book Artist in 1998:
Neal loved it [the story] so much that on his own he spent about a year drawing this story without letting Julie know about it. In the meantime, he was starting to change the look of Batman on The Brave and the Bold, giving him the longer ears and making him the more mysterious character — it was just on his own because it was not in the writing. In the meantime, he was secretly drawing this story.
Adams may indeed have worked on the story for a year, but it seems unlikely that this period was concurrent with his year-long stint on Brave and the Bold, if only because the Batman we see on each and every page of “The House That Haunted Batman!” represents Adams’ fully realized interpretation of the character, with no indication of the gradual visual evolution that took place over those eight BatB issues. Or, to put it another way: his ears and cape have reached their full and final length under Adams’ watch.
One thing you can’t say about Detective #408 is that it has a misleading cover. Presumably, the story’s page 2 came first, since Adams was drawing the story on spec prior to when a cover would have been commissioned. (Was the artist paid for a cover as well as for the page? I expect that he was, at least for the inking part of the job, as Adams gets a solo credit for the cover art in every resource I’ve checked, while Dick Giordano is credited for the story’s inks; and there are indeed subtle differences in the linework, if you look close.)
This is a wonderfully designed page, although the storytelling is, perhaps, a little less clear than it might be in that last panel. Going by the first panel on the following page, however, we can deduce that someone has fired a bullet which has shattered the gramophone record, while leaving Batman unharmed:
Our hero pursues the mysterious gunman until the hallway reaches a dead end; but then…
As best as I can determine, these two pages represent the first time that Neal Adams had drawn Superman within a story (as opposed to on a cover) since his two issues of World’s Finest in 1968. (And yes, I realize that this isn’t the “real” Man of Steel that Batman encounters here, but you know what I mean.)
One thing that strikes me in revisiting this story after fifty years — and it applies to many other Batman stories of this era, as well — is the range of emotions demonstrated by the hero. Having grown accustomed to contemporary portrayals of the Dark Knight in which that range often seems to go right from grim determination to barely-controlled rage, with very little in between (or beyond), it’s almost startling to witness Batman exhibiting shock, confusion, dismay, and even fear over the course of just eight pages — at least, not without having first been subjected to weeks of psychological torture, or some such. I actually happen to find a good deal to enjoy in modern Batman comics (some of them, anyway) — but when old-time fans complain about missing the good old days when Batman was actually a human being, this is the kind of thing they’re talking about.
The story’s plot — and tone — takes a significant turn on page 9, which may reflect the influence of Julius Schwartz on Len Wein and Marv Wolfman’s original plot. As Wolfman explained in his 2012 Alter Ego interview:
We came up with a grim and gritty plot and presented it to editor Julie Schwartz, but its darker nature was so out of tune with what was going on at the time that he suggested we take out our ending — which I no longer remember at all—and put in a Batman-like death trap to liven it up. That turned out to be what I’ve always called the giant ping-pong ball machine you see at the end. Batman and Robin were trapped in pneumatic tubes that shot them around, or something to that effect. We did it, but Julie still didn’t like it and finally rejected it.
Today, the “giant ping-pong ball machine” (whose fatal aspect will become clear in a page or two) does indeed readily put one in mind of the ’60s Batman television series, and its weekly use of deathtraps to set up end-of-episode cliffhangers; on the other hand, I don’t really recall thinking of this odd contraption as any kind of throwback when I first read this story in 1970. Perhaps you weren’t seeing this sort of thing in Detective or Batman very much any more, but if you were also keeping up with the Masked Manhunter’s appearances in Brave and the Bold, Justice League of America, and (until recently) World’s Finest, you still saw him getting into situations that didn’t exactly fit the “grim and gritty” mold on a pretty frequent basis.
If the ping-pong ball trap was a reminder of a just-recently-concluded era of Batman, the revelation of the story’s “special guest villain” was an even more potent one. If I recall correctly, I was pleasantly surprised (if only mildly so) at the return of Dr. Tzin-Tzin — after all, I’d been around for the debut of the guy back in Detective #354 (Aug., 1966). And even if the best thing about that comic had been its snazzy Carmine Infantino-Joe Giella cover — well, you never know, right? In 1970, the wicked Doc still seemed to have as good a chance as eventually making it onto the “A”-list as the other Bat-villain whose first appearance the nine-year-old me had snagged in 1966. (And while Poison Ivy would certainly end up becoming a much bigger baddie than Dr. T.-T., her first post-1966 appearance wouldn’t come along for another eight months; so there.)
One unusual aspect of the Dr. Tzin-Tzin character that’s ignored here is the fact that, despite surface appearances, he’s not really Asian. As Commissioner Gordon helpfully explained back in Detective #354, this insidious criminal mastermind is, in truth an “American” — by which the story’s scripter, John Broome, evidently meant “United States citizen of white European ancestry”. Considering that this quirk was about the only thing that sets Tzin-Tzin apart from any of the other Fu Manchu knockoffs scattered throughout western popular culture, one wonders why Wein, Wolfman, et al, didn’t follow up on it. On the other hand, it was ultimately such a strange notion — perhaps even an offensive one, by modern standards — that it’s probably just as well that it was left by the wayside for most of the villain’s later appearances (few as they were).
I noted earlier that the story’s first-page reference to Robin’s attending Hudson University didn’t necessarily date it to mid-1969 or later, as that bit could have been added in the later stages of production by Schwartz (or by Wein and Wolfman, following his editorial direction). By contrast, the reference to the League of Assassins on page 9 pretty much has to have been added at something close to the last minute, as the organization had only been introduced three issues earlier, in Detective #405* — after which they’d had an immediate return engagement in #406. The League’s creator, Denny O’Neil, would have another outing for the deadly group coming up in another few months (in issue #411, to be precise) — and it’s not too hard to imagine Julius Schwartz coming up with the idea to keep reader interest in these new, recurring Bat-adversaries alive in the interim between #406 and #411 by working this otherwise unrelated tale into what we’d now call the overall League of Assassins story arc. And since the next League tale would introduce yet another major new figure to the Batman mythos, Talia al-Ghul — and thereby would lead directly into the classic Batman #232, and the debut of Talia’s father Ra’s — “The House That Haunted Batman!” would ultimately become part of one of the most classic extended storylines in Batman’s long history — if only a small one, and only inadvertently, at that.
Despite the build-up Dr. Tzin-Tzin gives his giant henchman Fong Wu just above, Batman proceeds to take the bruiser down tidily in the very next panel. The rest of the “deadly dozen” don’t fare much better, with Batman dispensing with them one by one over a couple of action-filled pages (and trading trash talk with Tzin-Tzin as he does so), until…
Setting aside his illusory appearances, Robin’s role in the story has been an entirely passive one all the way up to page 14 — but better late than never, right?
Presumably, the Dynamic Duo has already put in a call to the GCPD to come take the unconscious members of Dr. T.-T.’s not-so-deadly-after-all dozen into custody — or are planning to do so, just as soon as they secure the Doc himself within the Batmobile — but it’s all about to become a moot point, as we’ll see on the next (and final) page of our story…
“Uh, Jim? Yeah, it’s me. Look, scratch the paddy wagon… better make that a morgue van, instead. Right, a big one.”**
Marv Wolfman may have forgotten the details of how his and Len Wein’s story ended prior to the Julius Schwartz-inspired addition of the “human accelerator” (AKA the giant ping-pong ball machine), but I imagine that everything that followed Batman’s defeat of that deathtrap didn’t change much, if at all, between the original plot and the final, published version. At any rate, the concluding scene certainly matches the eerie and unsettling mood that helps make the first half of the story so memorable, a half-century after its original publication.
As to the never-to-be-fully resolved question of just when Wein and Wolfman wrote their original story, versus when it was published, the primary competing narrative to Wolfman’s account is the one offered by Neal Adams to Comic Book Artist, back in 1998. After acknowledging that he did indeed pencil the story on spec simply because he liked it so much, Adams offered the following points “to set the record straight”:
1) I had penciled only the first half when I showed it to Julie (not yet the ping-pong sequence).
2) I had already done some Batman stories with Denny [O’Neil] by the time Len and Marv approached me (or so says my memory).
3) That sequence I showed Julie took about three months to jam it out between my other work. I would have to say the first new/true Batman writing was done by Denny (if you except The Brave and the Bold reworking that I did). I feel that Len and Mary were first to recognize and be inspired to work in the new Batman direction Denny and I initiated. I think that we have to say that Denny created the new wave in writing for Batman.
Adams’ reconstructed timeline would put his personal involvement with the story as beginning no earlier than the latter half of 1969, as his first collaboration with O’Neil — Detective #395’s “The Secret of the Waiting Graves” — wasn’t published until November of that year. The first stories of the “new Batman direction” actually appeared a month before that (Schwartz’s “Big Change” for Batman began with the issues of Batman and Detective shipping in October; contrary to Adams’ assertion, the earliest stories [to be published, at least] were scripted by Frank Robbins, not O’Neil***). Assuming that Adams’ recollections are accurate, he couldn’t have been working on “The House That Haunted Batman!” concurrently with his Brave and the Bold run — though, of course, that doesn’t mean that Wein and Wolfman couldn’t have conceived, plotted, and even scripted the story prior to either of them laying eyes on Adams and Bob Haney’s “The Track of the Hook!”, which was published in Brave and the Bold #79 in the summer of 1968.
Does any of this actually matter? Perhaps not all that much, in the grand scheme of things. But considering that DC’s reworking of Batman in this era can justifiably be called the most important development the character’s history since his 1939 debut, I think it’s of some historical interest, at least, to contemplate who among the company’s creative personnel is most likely to have first had, and acted, upon the “back to basics” idea — even if it’s not a question that will ever be definitively answered.
The second story in Detective #408 brought a change to the ongoing Batgirl back-up feature, as with this installment, Don Heck replaced Gil Kane as the strip’s regular artist. Kane had been a steady presence in Detective for the last two years, drawing both Batgirl and (before it moved over to a new home in Batman) the alternating Robin strip; and, in the opinion of your humble blogger, his departure from the title represented a net loss. While the Batgirl stories — usually scripted by Frank Robbins — were generally nothing to get very excited about, Kane’s art had at least always been a pleasure to look at. Heck’s, by contrast, was, well, less so; at least for me. Dick Giordano’s inking may have made it slightly more palatable, but not much.
Along with bringing change to Detective, Don Heck’s arrival also signified something of a career change for the veteran artist himself. For the past quarter century, Heck had worked for Marvel Comics almost exclusively (though he had done a few jobs for DC’s various anthology titles over the years). In recent months, however, he’d begun picking up work from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition on an increasingly frequent basis, turning out stories for the company’s mystery anthologies as well as for its romance books; he’d even done a single backup story for Flash. Batgirl, however, was his first ongoing series assignment for the publisher.
As in the Batgirl story that immediately preceded this one, Frank Robbins’ plot for “The Phantom Bullfighter!” takes the Dominoed Dare-doll’s day job as Gotham City’s chief librarian as a jumping off point — something I’m pretty sure interests my present-day retired librarian self more than it did the thirteen-year-old me of 1970. In that previous tale, it was Barbara Gordon’s recollection of who’d checked out a library book subsequently found in the rubble of a bombed-out building that set her on the road to adventure; this time, it’s the opportunity to travel to Spain to obtain a rare manuscript of Alan Termagent’s Of Fighting Bulls and Men (an obvious fictional stand-in for Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon, as an editorial note in the next issue will acknowledge) for her library’s collection. (And before you ask — no, my own 35-year career in public librarianship never provided me with any all-expenses-paid overseas jaunts. But as I was never the director of a major metropolitan library system on the scale of Gotham’s, we probably shouldn’t read too much into that.)
Babs’ business trip also includes a trip to the plaza de toros (presumably Madrid’s Las Ventas) that inspired Termagent’s writing; there, she has the privilege of watching the great bullfighter El Granados — who’s considered an “old master” in the sport, despite only being in his mid-thirties — ply his craft. Unfortunately, El Granados isn’t having a very grand day…****
The young man, Paco, does indeed come to El Granados’ rescue by distracting the bull, but the master bullfighter is unimpressed, claiming he didn’t need the help — and the “faithful old assistant” Manolo is pissed off as well, feeling he’s been robbed of his honor.
Later, Babs joins the manuscript donor, Don Alvarado, at his ranch — as does El Granados, who’s come there to personally choose the next two bulls he’ll face in the ring. But later that evening, as the bullfighter sleeps, a mysterious figure enters his room, steals his sword, and takes off into the night — though not before being spotted by the wakeful Babs, who pursues him as Batgirl:
When our heroine recovers, she finds she’s too late to have stopped her assailant from achieving his ultimate aim — using the bullfighter’s sword to stab and kill the animal that was El Granados’ first choice. The 7-pager concludes with Babs speculating about who the bull-killer is, and wondering whether he’ll strike again — something which seems especially likely after she discovers that a second sword has been stolen from a wall display in Don Alvarado’s home.
And now, confession time: Fifty years ago, I didn’t care enough about the solutions to either of those mysteries to pick up Detective #409 when it showed up on stands in late January, 1971. In fact, I had no idea how the story had turned out until, well, now, more or less — i.e., until I began doing my research for this very blog post. Nevertheless, because we like to give full service here at Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books, we’re going to go ahead and take a brief look at that issue’s “Night of the Sharp Horns!”, as produced by the same creative team of Robbins, Heck, and Giordano.
The night after the slaying of the first bull, Batgirl is patrolling Don Alvarado’s ranch when she discovers the mysterious swordsman from the night before (or so she believes) threatening yet another of the formidable horned beasts — El Granados’ second choice for the ring, this time:
(While it’s not enough to suddenly make me a Don Heck fan after all these years, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that I find his use of negative silhouette in the first panel above quite effective.)
After getting both herself and the swordsman out of El Aguila’s way, Batgirl discovers that he is in fact… Paco, the young, would-be matador we met in the previous issue. But Paco denies that he had anything to do with the bull-slaying of the previous evening, and scrams outta there, leaving our heroine to deal with the enraged bull alone. She deftly manages to elude El Aguila by slipping into the ranch’s private arena — but then the swordsman shows up again, bull-riding, this time:
Surprise! The bull-killer isn’t Paco after all; rather, it’s Manolo, whose motivation for their slaughter is that he’s afraid that his beloved master, El Grandos, has indeed grown too old for his sport, and is doubtlessly going to get gored to death before very long. When he learns the truth, El Granados is initially angry, but then upon reflection realizes that his faithful assistant and friend is right. He resolves on the spot to retire, effective immediately, and forgives Manolo his transgressions. (Presumably, Batgirl also forgives him for trying to trample her to death, and Don Alvarado forgives him for wantonly destroying a valuable piece of livestock, although we readers aren’t privy to either of these moments. And surely, the Don must also opt not to press charges against Paco, leaving the way clear for the young man to become a great matador in the future, although we don’t see that, either. So it’s a happy ending all around — unless, of course, you’re El Aguila, who is surely destined to face a matador’s sword in the ring one day, and will most likely die a bloody and painful death. But as Robbins’ script routinely refers to the bulls as “killers” and “monsters”, I don’t think we readers are expected to entertain any doubts whatsoever about the morality of this particular blood sport, I’m sad to say.)
And there you have it — the conclusion to another competent, if forgettable, Batgirl adventure. There’s be quite a few more to come, by the same team, though my younger self would read only one more of them… one which will, in fact, be coming up on the blog in just three months. After that, it would be close to three years before I purchased another issue of Detective — by which time, the backup slot in DC Comics’ namesake title would be taken by a feature that didn’t even exist in December, 1970; one which not only held its own against the headlining Batman strip, but even threatened to eclipse it, on occasion. But, of course, that’s another post… for another day.
*As the more erudite readers of this blog will doubtlessly already be aware, the League was later retconned to have actually first appeared two years earlier, in Strange Adventures #215 (Nov.-Dec., 1968). That issue’s Deadman feature — written and drawn by Neal Adams, coincidentally enough — had introduced the Society of Assassins, a group that was revealed to have been responsible for the murder of Boston Brand, the circus aerialist whose unquiet spirit subsequently became Deadman. Batman himself ran into the Society in Brave and the Bold #86 (Oct.-Nov., 1969), also drawn (and perhaps plotted) by Adams, which wrapped up the plot threads left dangling by the cancellation of Deadman’s series in Strange Adventures. By virtue of that adventure, Batman had actually had three run-ins with the League prior to Detective #408 — but since no one working for DC would have known that in late 1970, some months prior to scripter Mike Friedrich hitting on the idea of conflating the Society with the League (an idea that entered canon with Justice League of America #94, published in September, 1971) — we can’t very well fault Dr. Tzin-Tzin for getting that particular detail wrong.
**Actually, as I’ve already indicated, Dr. Tzin-Tzin somehow manages to escape being killed by the explosion and collapse of his house at the end of Detective #408 — in fact, his next appearance would come just a little over a year later, in Adventure Comics #418 (April, 1972), where he’d fight Supergirl (but, of course, never explain how he happened to be still among the living) — so maybe his dozen henchmen got out alive as well. Hey, why not?
***I don’t mean to minimize the significance of Denny O’Neil’s role in the late ’60s-early ’70s revamp of Batman by pointing out that Frank Robbins’ stories appeared first. As I’ve stated in other posts, I believe that O’Neil’s insight into Batman’s psychology was enormously important to establishing the hero’s new direction, and probably an essential factor in the ultimate, and enduring, success of that project.
****My Spanish is all but nonexistent these days (despite taking the language in both high school and college), but I had assumed that “granados” must have something to do with “grandness” or “greatness”. Checking the word in Google Translate just now, however, I see that it means… “pomegranates”?