As of March, 1971, my thirteen-year-old self was picking up Detective Comics on a fairly consistent basis — but it was a habit I’d acquired only recently (or perhaps I should say reacquired, as I’d been a regular reader of the title before, back in 1965-67). For that reason, I’d missed writer Denny O’Neil’s first two “League of Assassins” stories, which had run in issues #405 and #406, respectively. On the other hand, I had bought and read Detective #408, whose lead Batman story, though not scripted by O’Neil, had featured an attempt by the villainous Dr. Tzin-Tzin to eliminate the Darknight Detective at the League’s behest. So it wasn’t like I was completely unfamiliar with the sinister organization prior to my purchasing issue #411. Rather, I was intrigued by the little I knew — and though I realized I was coming in late, I was eager to catch up. Luckily, this third installment of O’Neil’s League saga didn’t depend very much on knowledge of the previous two at all — and what little I did need to know, I’d manage to pick up easily through the script’s unobtrusive exposition.
While the comic’s superlative cover was by Neal Adams (as were virtually all the covers for Detective and Batman during this era), the interior art for “Into the Den of the Death-Dealers” was by penciller Bob Brown and inker Dick Giordano. Brown was the regular, month-to-month artist for Detective‘s lead Batman feature (though Adams also drew it on occasion); like his counterpart over at the Batman title, Irv Novick, he’d been instructed to emulate Adams’ style when drawing the Gotham Guardian. This represented an effort on editor Julius Schwartz’s part to achieve a consistent “look” for the two Bat-titles — an effort that was facilitated here by the inking of Dick Giordano, who was also Adams’ most frequent embellisher. (Giordano had also been finishing Novick’s art over on Batman for almost two years, but for whatever reason had not been assigned to ink Brown’s pencils prior to this issue.) In general terms, I’d say that Brown was somewhat less successful than Novick in capturing the spirit of Adams’ approach to Batman, at least on a consistent basis, still, he was never less than efficient and effective as a storyteller.
Yes, the second caption above does indeed say “Statue of Freedom“, rather than “Statue of Liberty” — and that’s evidently intentional, as Batman’s reference to Police Commissioner James Gordon on the next page implies that the locale of this opening sequence is the fictional Gotham City, rather than the real world’s New York.
Batman fends off both this assailant and a second one that turns up; as they make their escape, he turns to attend to his would-be informer:
I believe that O’Neil must have had a real-world model in mind for his Soom Express — the “oldest, creakiest passenger service in the world” — but I haven’t been able to determine what it would be. Any railroad enthusiasts out there want to give it a go?
Pay attention to that “aged mother” — she’s more than she appears to be…
Batman does his best against Darrk’s bō-wielding underlings — but their advantage in numbers ultimately proves to be too much:
With page 8, we finally come to the main reason that this story is remembered so well, as we learn the identity of Darrk’s “lovely companion”:
Yes, it’s the introduction of Talia al Ghul, a character destined to become one of the most significant women in Batman’s fictional life: a formidable foe as well as ally, his most serious “love interest” this side of Selina Kyle, and (last but certainly not least) the mother of his son.
There’s a lot of information to unpack regarding Talia’s origins and inspirations — but as a great deal of it is mixed up with the same sort of material concerning her (probably) even more famous father, Ra’s al Ghul, we’ll postpone the discussion of most of those matters until next month’s post about Batman #232, featuring the first appearance of Ra’s — and limit ourselves here to discussing Talia’s role in this specific story; in particular, the surprising fact that she evidently was originally intended to appear only in this story.
Several months ago, I shared a brief excerpt from “The Batman Tapes” — a lengthy interview with Denny O’Neil, conducted around 1984 by fellow Bat-scribe Mike W. Barr, that provided a chronological survey of all of O’Neil’s stories about the hero from 1970 to 1980. (The interview was published in Amazing Heroes #50 [July 1, 1984].) Here’s what the two men had to say then about our current topic of discussion:
BARR: … In this story here, this story from Detective #411… this is the first appearance of Talia.
BARR: And so by this time, I would think that you had some sort of, that Ra’s-al-Ghul had attained some sort of identity in your mind.
O’NEIL: (laughs) No, really. Talia was a lady who was invented —
BARR: Oh, well.
O’NEIL: — to serve the needs of that plot and that story, with no thought that she would ever appear again, or that she would have a father, or any of that stuff. I needed a woman to make the plot work. So I invented Talia.
BARR: Well, she mentions that she is the daughter of he who is called Ra’s-al-Ghul.
O’NEIL: Oh, she does?
O’NEIL: I wonder if we didn’t maybe add that later..
BARR: And down here is the explanation of what that means.
O’NEIL: No kidding? If I had to guess, I would say that we plotted the story, and then before it got edited we probably invented Ra’s.
BARR: Well, the next month, then, Batman #232, “The Daughter of the Demon,” was on sale. So by that time it seems reasonable to assume that things were starting to come together, that you…
O’NEIL: Yeah. They probably came together very quickly, but I recall, Talia initially appeared in my head just as the woman that we needed to make that particular story work. I don’t recall the details, and maybe [DC editor] Julie [Schwartz] does. And I’d be kind of interested myself to know.
Did O’Neil ever put his head together with that of Julius Schwartz, the editor of Detective and Batman at that time, to try to nail down who had come up with what details concerning Talia (and her dad) when? I have no idea. But it does seem quite possible that Ra’s al Ghul — whose name Schwartz himself invented — was a late addition to the story. (There was even some recent precedent for this kind of thing; as we discussed in our Detective #408 post back in December, the reference to the League of Assassins in that issue appears to have been a late-in-the-game touch-up to a Len Wein-Marv Wolfman script that had been knocking around the DC offices for months, perhaps even years.) If so, it indicates that the decision to continue O’Neil’s “League” sequence for Detective — which otherwise would have tidily concluded in this issue — into the “Ra’s al Ghul” saga in Batman was pretty much made on the fly.
But I suppose it’s a little early to talk about tidy conclusions, when we’re presently only up to page 9 of our tale…
Having momentarily stunned the bull, our hero uses his cape, toreador style, to lure the animal away from Talia — and towards the watching guards. Then, as “Ferdinand” scatters Darrk’s men in a fence-shattering charge, Batman turns his attention to freeing Talia:
With Darrk now out of commission, Batman hauls Talia up onto the balcony and finishes untying her. Talia then picks up the assassin leader’s dropped gun, and the two make their escape through a window, taking the unconscious Darrk with them.
As Darrk slowly comes to, Talia tells Batman that the Soom Express will soon be back at the spot where they all jumped off earlier, and suggests they may be able to intercept it.
As the group walks to meet the train, Batman asks Darrk a couple of questions related to loose ends left over from the previous League outings in issues #405 and #406. The answers didn’t mean anything to my younger self in March, 1971, since I hadn’t (yet) read those stories, but I’m sure they were appreciated by readers who’d followed the entire sequence. Then…
In the context of March, 1971, O’Neil and Brown’s conclusion to “Into the Den of the Death-Dealers” is suitably dramatic and narratively satisfying. In the context of March, 2021, however, it’s likely to raise all sorts of questions, especially if one has much familiarity with the intervening half-century of DC Comics continuity. Can this Talia — a young woman who first meekly lets Dr. Darrk drag her onto a public train without making a peep of protest, and then behaves as those she’s never fired or even held a gun before — possibly be the same Talia whom we’ll see handling multiple firearms like someone with considerable experience using them as early as her third appearance, in Batman #235 (Sept., 1971)? Let alone the woman who’ll later take over the League of Assassins itself, as well as help lead the Secret Society of Super-Villains, form Leviathan, and (most recently) join the Totality?
We may find ourselves doing a bit of rationalizing for the sake of our own headcanon, adding in bits of story that don’t exist in the original telling: Talia was surely playing a long game here, consciously misleading both Dr. Darrk and Batman in regards to how meek and helpless she was, to serve her and/or her father’s secret goals. Yeah, that’ll work.*
But, of course, the latter-day Talia that lives in our imaginations today didn’t actually exist fifty years ago; or, to put it another way, O’Neil and his collaborators (and their successors) hadn’t discovered her yet. That’s the nature of comic-book narratives about continuing characters — while long, complex story arcs may be planned out meticulously, months and even years in advance, they may also grow and develop in a more haphazard or organic fashion. Sometimes you, the reader, can look at the end result and be confident which process was followed; but not always.
O’Neil wrote about this aspect of comics storytelling in the context of the Ra’s al Ghul saga in his afterword to Batman: Tales of the Demon, a collection of his al Ghul stories that was originally published in 1991:
The overall design was never imposed on the material; rather, it emerged gradually as we produced the individual episodes. We were guys sticking tiles up on a wall, just interested in covering the space, and after a while, Look at that! Darn if we didn’t make a mosaic! This kind of process is denied to storytellers who create conventional plays, movies, novels — forms that demand structure with clearly defined beginnings, middles, and ends. It lets the writers and artists share, at least to some extent, in the audience’s pleasure of anticipation, of being surprised by what happens next. It can be an absolute joy.
In early 1971, Denny O’Neil was about to be surprised by what would happen next, just like the rest of us; the main difference, of course, was that he’d find out just a bit earlier.
Like all issues of Detective Comics in this era, issue #411 featured a Batgirl back-up story. “Cut… and Run!” was produced by the strip’s regular creative team of Frank Robbins (writer), Don Heck (penciller), and Dick Giordano (inker), and was the concluding chapter of a two-part story that had begun in issue #410. (Since I hadn’t bought that comic, I had to rely on the first-page recap to get caught up on the plotline; I hope you won’t mind too much if I ask you to do the same.)
Fifty years following its original publication, what’s most interesting about this yarn is also what’s most dated about it — namely, its “battle of the mini-midi-maxi!” premise. This was actually a thing in the early 1970s, though I’ve never read or heard anything about the competition being quite so cutthroat. (Although considering the jam our heroine has gotten herself into, maybe that should be “cut-torso”.)
Of course, once they’ve set up their diabolical death-trap, the bad guys make themselves scarce, the way they always do — giving Batgirl the opportunity to save herself and escape, if she can only figure out how:
Ah, for the old days. You just don’t see superheroes using their mouths to escape from tight spots like this anymore. Extra points to Robbins for his use of the word “waggling” to describe Batgirl’s oral activity.
Having narrowly escaped bisection, our heroine is still faced with freeing herself from her bonds; luckily, midi-man Milt, who’s not all that keen on becoming an accessory to murder in the name of fashion industry success, returns to the scene to turn her loose. Batgirl then places a transatlantic phone call to warn fashionista Mamie Acheson, who’s recuperating on the Riviera; Maime, however, thinks that the Dominoed Dare-doll is trying to con her to get early word on her all-important decision. There’s nothing for it than to catch the first flight out to Europe. But, of course, the crooks have a head start…
Batgirl proceeds to dispatch the second hood as easily as the first one, and then it’s on to the wrap-up, and the answer to the all-important question: Who will win the battle of the mini-midi-maxi?!
A half-century after reading this story for the first time, that last panel is just about the only thing that’s remained in my memory. I guess we can chalk that up to the fact that as a thirteen-year-old cis hetero male, I was generally more interested in superhero costumes than I was in women’s fashions. (Though to the extent that I had an opinion in the “hemline wars”, I was all in on the miniskirt. Quelle surprise.)
And there you have it. Another entirely competent, but also eminently forgettable, Batgirl back-up story in Detective. If I can trust my notes, this is the last one of these I’ll be covering here on the blog; and I can’t say I’m going to miss them much.
But, having said that, let me add that I don’t mean to denigrate anyone who does relish such fare; if Robbins and Heck are your jam, then more power to you. I’ve got plenty of other fifty year old comic book stories I can read, y’know?
UPDATE 3/31/21, 1:00 p.m.: The original version of this post implied that Dick Giordano was already the regular inker on the Batman feature in Detective prior to issue #411. My thanks to Osgood Peabody over at the DC Archives Message Board for the correction.
*And if our name happens to be Grant Morrison, we may eventually even see our personal headcanon enshrined as bona fide, official DC Comics canon (at least until some other writer overturns us via a continuity reshuffle). See “Eye of the Gorgon” in Batman Incorporated (2012 series) #2 (Aug., 2012).