Over the course of writer Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams’s classic early-’70s collaboration on Batman, the team was responsible not only for introducing one major new adversary (Ra’s al Ghul) to the ranks of the Darknight Detective”s greatest foes, but also for reclaiming and refurbishing of two vintage baddies who’d fallen out of favor in recent years. The second of these restorations to appear, “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge!” (Batman #251 [Sept., 1973]), is doubtless the best-remembered of the two, due to its ultimately having had such a dramatic impact not only on the Bat-mythos, but on the DC Universe as a whole — rehabbing what had become a joke of a character (no pun intended) during the camp “Batmania” era of the mid-Sixties into the comics medium’s quintessential avatar of psychopathic evil — a character arguably more popular than all but a small handful of DC’s best-known superheroes, and one with enough cultural gravitas for screen portrayals of him to have earned Academy Awards for two different actors.
I didn’t buy that one.
Actually, I don’t remember even seeing the book on the stands when it came out in June, 1973 — so maybe I didn’t have a chance to buy it. Perhaps unscrupulous speculators, cognizant that Neal Adams-drawn comics were almost certain to increase in value, swooped in and nabbed every copy of Batman #251 before they could reach the spinner racks of my local retail outlets. It’s possible.
But if I’m going to be honest, it’s also possible that my younger self (I would have been fifteen, going on sixteen years old at the time) saw it and simply decided to take a pass. What can I tell you? At the time, I thought of the Joker as just being that goofy clown that Cesar Romero had played with a makeup-obscured (but not hidden) mustache. What could even the vaunted O’Neil-Adams team do with such a silly character as that? Not to mention that I had no idea that this would in fact be the last collaborative Bat-effort by that team, or that Adams’ days as a reliably regular producer of pencilled interior comic book pages were rapidly nearing their end. I may well have glanced at the cover of Batman #251 and thought, ehh, there’ll be plenty more where that came from.
So, yeah — I definitely blew that one, 48 years ago. But at least I’ve always had the consolation of having had the good sense, almost exactly two years prior to the release of that comic, to pick up O’Neil and Adams’ first rehabbing of a major Batman villain — namely, the return of Two-Face, in Batman #234’s “Half an Evil”.
In truth, it’s arguable whether Two-Face should even be counted as a “major” Bat-villain, circa 1971. After all, prior to Batman #234 he’d only appeared six times since his 1942 debut, and the most recent of those had been in 1954. I mean, the guy hadn’t even made the cut for the ’60’s Batman TV series, which featured a different costumed villain every single week; obviously, he was hardly in the same class as the Joker.
Of course, the facts given in the paragraph above only apply to the original, “real” Two-Face, Harvey Dent (or, as he was called in his first three appearances, Harvey Kent*), who was created by writer Bill Finger and artist Bob Kane for Detective Comics #66. But, oddly enough, Harvey wasn’t the only Two-Face who bedeviled Batman and Robin in the Forties and Fifties. If you add up all the appearances of any villain who called himself by that name… well, you’re still not in Clown Prince of Crime territory, but Harvey (and co.) do make a better showing.
The character arc of the original Two-Face — which had taken Harvey Kent/Dent from being a handsome, upright district attorney (and friend of Batman) through becoming a acid-scarred, deranged costumed criminal, and then, finally, back to “goodness” with the restoration of his face and (presumably) his sanity — had reached what appeared to be its natural conclusion with Finger and Kane’s appropriately titled “The End of Two-Face”, in Detective #80 (Oct., 1943). But the character’s nifty accoutrements — the “double” themed crimes, the moral decisions determined by a coin flip, the simultaneously compelling and repulsive visual of the villain’s visage — were all too good to let go of forever, and so the first of multiple Harvey Dent impersonators showed up in Batman #50 (Dec.-Jan., 1948). This one happened to be Dent’s butler Wilkins, who was attempting to frame his boss for his own crimes (yeah, see what kind of reference you get, buddy); he at least had some legitimate connection to the original, which was more than you could say for Paul Sloane, an actor playing the real Two-Face in a movie, who was disfigured on set in the same way Harvey had been and thus became the “new” Two-Face in Batman #68 (Dec.-Jan., 1951). Or George Blake, who tried to impersonate Harvey using make-up in Detective #187 (Sept. 1952), but got the good/bad sides of his face backwards, which, as you might well imagine, proved to be a dead giveaway for the World’s Greatest Detective.
Ultimately, having apparently come to the belated realization that there ain’t nothin’ like the real thing, baby, DC threw up their hands and reversed Detective #80’s “cure” of Harvey Dent in Batman #81 (Feb., 1954). In “Two-Face Strikes Again!”, poor Harvey was attempting to prevent a robbery when he was caught in an explosion; tragically, this blast permanently reversed the plastic surgery that had restored Mr. Dent’s good looks, causing him to retreat into madness and resume his criminal career. And so, after having been upstaged by no fewer than three different impersonators in a little over a decade, the one and only, original Two-Face was back for good…
…just in time for the advent of the Comics Code Authority, which went into effect in October, 1954.
In the more restrictive atmosphere heralded by the Code, DC seems to have decided that several of the Dynamic Duo’s traditional foes no longer fit the changing needs of the market. Among these were Catwoman (whose romantic attraction to Batman may have been deemed inappropriate, her being a criminal and all) as well as our old friend Two-Face (who was presumably considered to be simply too gross and scary for the newly small-child-safe medium of comic books).
And so, Harvey Dent slipped into obscurity, and the name and visage of Two-Face remained unknown to those younger fans who, like myself, didn’t discover comic books until the mid-’60s. Or, rather, they would have, if not for “The Jekyll-Hyde Heroes!”, a Jim Shooter-Curt Swan-George Klein number that appeared in World’s Finest #173 (Feb., 1968). In this gem, an evil scientist dosed both Superman and Batman with a formula that transformed them — physically and psychologically — into their most feared foes. For Superman, this was “Kralik, the Conqueror” — a previously unknown villain dreamt up by scripter Shooter for the occasion — but for Batman, it was none other than Harvey Dent. Both heroes eventually got better, of course, but for a while there, the Caped Crusader was Two-Face Number Five.
I should stipulate here that I didn’t actually buy or read World’s Finest #173 when it came out; but I easily could have, as I was an occasional purchaser of the series around that time. As it was, I probably saw the book on the stands, or maybe glimpsed the cover in a house ad, or saw the story mentioned later in a letters column. In any event, I’m pretty sure I’d at least heard of Two-Face by the time Batman #234 rolled around in the summer of 1971, even if I knew next to nothing about him.
That said, I’m sure that the presence of Two-Face, in and of itself, had little to do with my decision to buy this comic when I saw it. To the extent that the villain was a factor at all, it was entirely due to the use of his portrait as the dominant element on Neal Adams’ great cover — a cover that pretty much demanded I at least pick the book up out of the spinner rack and give it a look. When I did, I discovered that Adams had handled the lead story’s interior art as well (aided and abetted by his most frequent artistic collaborator at DC, inker Dick Giordano) — and I was sold.
According to Michael Eury and Michael Kronenberg’s The Batcave Companion (TwoMorrows, 2009), the background for this splash page was prepared for publication by shooting Adams’ uninked pencil rendering as a halftone. Of course, at age thirteen, I didn’t know that, and I’m not sure I would have cared if I had. But I did know that it looked awesome.
This wonderfully atmospheric opening is immediately followed by a scene featuring a drastically different setting and tone:
The older and/or more savvy Bat-fans of 1971 may have picked up on the significance of the “Janus Hot Dogs — Doubly Delicious” verbiage printed on the side of the stolen balloon, as shown in panel 1; it blew right past your humble blogger, however.
Page 3’s comedy bit, which advances the story’s plot not at all, may not represent the most judicious use of space in a 15-page story. But it’s amusing enough; and hey, it’s nice to know that “the dread Batman” (as O’Neil referred to him on page 1) has a sense of humor.
Of course, Batman beats Commissioner Gordon and the rest of the GCPD to the scene…
“Your boss is one of the strangest criminal geniuses who ever lived,” Batman confidently informs his prisoner. “One of the most tragic… and one of the deadliest!”
Meanwhile, in a dark shack near the city docks, the other thief is reporting in to his “mysterious” boss. (Pssst, Denny and Neal… we’ve all looked at the cover, so we already know it’s Two-Face, OK?) Since the theft was successful, the boss could care less about Batman nabbing one of his hirelings…
This recap of Two-Face’s origin and career is highly reminiscent of the similar sequence doing the same for Batman and Robin in O’Neil and Adams’ “Daughter of the Demon”, published just two issues earlier. As on that occasion, Adams’ renderings include several homages to artwork from the original comics, including the panel from Batman #81 shown at right. (Text by David Vern Reed; art by Dick Sprang and Charles Paris.)
Readers primarily familiar with Harvey Dent via portrayals in comics (and other media) of the past thirty years or so may be surprised at how little is made here of his relationship with Batman prior to the incident that made him Two-Face — indeed, other than the Darknight Detective’s predilection for referring to the villain simply as “Harvey”, there’s no suggestion that the two men were once friends.
Batman speeds to the marina, where the old schooner has already been cut loose and begun to drift. He’s temporarily delayed by a couple of gun-toting thugs guarding the pier where the ship had been moored. He takes them both out in one action-filled page, and then…
There’s the kind of reader who likes to try to work out the solution to a mystery when challenged to do so by a writer… and then there’s the kind of reader that I am. I confess that I did not pause at the bottom of page 11 to ponder the puzzle when I first read this story in 1971, and I didn’t do it when I re-read it in 2021, either (and not because I remembered the tale’s ending). But if you’d like to take a moment or so here to consider the clues before proceeding, please be my guest.
Having already provided a plausible reason for Two-Face’s theft of the parade balloon back on page 2 — i.e., the “double” motif — O’Neil now lets us in on the real reason for the crime, which the Batman has just now deduced — Dent has placed the balloon in the hold of Captain Bye’s ship and rigged it to inflate after a certain interval, raising the ship in this quiet cove so that the arch-criminal can complete his caper out of sight.
Batman boards the ship, planning to hide in wait for Harvey, but then…
In contrast to his earlier return back in 1953, this time Harvey Dent — the real, true Two-Face — would stick around. If he hadn’t been an “A”-list Batman villain prior to this story, he quickly joined their ranks following its success; henceforth, Two-Face would never be out of action for very long, all the way through to the present. Later writers would flesh out Harvey Dent’s pre-acid attack biography (including his friendships with both Batman and Jim Gordon) and also further explore his complex psychology, helping him to become ever more compelling as a character as the years rolled by. Two-Face would also more than make up for having been snubbed by the ’60s Batman TV show, scoring appearances in multiple animated series as well as in more than one major motion picture (though there’ve been no Oscars, at least as of yet).
It all just goes to show that you can’t keep a bad penny down… or something like that.
In addition to its 15-page lead story, Batman #234 also featured another 7 pages of new material in the form of the latest installment of the title’s regular back-up feature, Robin the Teen Wonder. At this point, writer Mike Friedrich had been this feature’s regular author for a couple of years; during his tenure, he’d regularly used Robin’s status as a student at Hudson University as an opportunity to tell stories inspired by issues of concern to the young adults of the era. Being himself a student at Santa Clara University at this time, Friedrich had an inherent credibility when writing about his age cohort that was matched by few other comics writers in the early Seventies. (For a look at one of the writer’s earlier Robin stories, see our Batman #227 post from last October.)
The tale begun by Friedrich in Batman #234 was the most ambitious of his run — in terms of its length, if nothing else. It ultimately took three issues to tell, coming in for a combined 21 pages by the time it concluded in Batman #236.
Somewhat unusually for this era, my younger self actually bought and read all three installments of the serial when first published (although I’m sure that the Robin feature wasn’t the main driver of my decision to purchase Batman #235, and probably not #236, either.) Unfortunately, I’ve determined that I’m not going to have the bandwidth for full blog posts on either of the comics featuring the latter chapters (no, not even for the return of Talia and Ra’s al Ghul in #235. What can I tell you, folks, it’s going to be a busy July), and so I’m going to review the entire storyline here.
Before we launch into “Vengeance for a Cop”, however, I’d like to note that all three episodes were pencilled by Irv Novick and inked by Dick Giordano — the same team who, more often than not, were responsible for the artwork of the title’s lead Batman story whenever Neal Adams wasn’t involved with it, and thus helped to bring a visual consistency to the Batman book overall.
The highly sympathetic portrayal of Officer Robert Beeker — portrayed as a dedicated public servant caught in the middle between two factions — will likely strike some contemporary readers as hopelessly naive. And perhaps it was naive, even in 1971; but in the context of the times, I find it difficult to fault Friedrich for attempting to be evenhanded.
“Why would she do this?” Um, well, your daughter Nanci didn’t have anything to do with your shooting, Officer Beeker — at least, we have no reason to think so. (I think I understand the sentiment that Friedrich was reaching for here, but it’s awkwardly phrased.)
Terri Bergstrom had first been introduced in Batman #230 as a love interest for Robin/Dick Grayson. Despite her mysterious psychic abilities, her impact on this story’s main plotline following her delivery of the letter will prove to be minimal; it seems obvious that Friedrich wanted to keep the character in readers’ minds, but didn’t really have a meaningful role for her to fulfill in this three-issue serial.
As for the “Van Winkle” commune, I would guess that Friedrich wanted to evoke the sense of a community that exists “out of time”, in somewhat the same way that Rip Van Winkle finds himself displaced in time in Washington Irving’s short story. (Though it’s also possible that our young scribe just liked the sound of the name.)
Oh, and if you ask me, it’s darn convenient that Robin learns that there’s “new evidence” connecting the shooter to the commune after he’s already on site…
“You guessed wrong, Terri!” Robin privately assures his companion. “I’m not looking for anyone who limps!” Um, correct me if I’m wrong, faithful readers, but didn’t we see Officer Beeker get off a shot as he fell, back on page 1? And wasn’t Nanci saying something just now about the “police bullet” she’s wearing as a necklace having come from the leg of a commune member? Maybe Robin has a good reason for dismissing any limping suspects; but if so, he never shares it with us.
Accompanying Nanci and Pat en route to the commune’s “weekly get-together”, Robin and Terri soon find themselves confronted by an imposing figure:
“Man,” thinks the Teen Wonder as the combat begins, “I’m beginning to feel just like ‘Robin’ Hood — facing down ‘Little Jon’!” Presumably, the use of a Robin Hood reference is intended to underscore a parallel between the legendary Merry Men of Sherwood Forest and the modern “Outlaw Society” (the title of the serial’s second chapter) of the commune — as well as to play off our hero’s name, of course.
As the fight continues, Robin begins to suspect that Jonathan — who definitely fits the (admittedly vague) witness description of a “tall, long-haired young man” who fled the scene of the Beeker shooting — might be the culprit he’s looking for…
… just as his opponent brings their contest to an end the same way the legendary Little John did in Sherwood.
Picking up with the next installment in July’s Batman #235, we readers didn’t have to wait long at all to learn whom Robin had ID’d as the shooter.
Wait, didn’t Robin say in the previous episode that he wasn’t looking for a suspect who limped? Oh, never mind.
In any event, as Jonathan indicated at the end of that chapter, the commune members aren’t going to let Robin take Pat Whalon just on the Teen Wonder’s say-so. But the rule works both ways — since Robin has passed the Van Winkle group’s initiation ritual, he, too is now a member of the community, just as much as Whalon is. And as long as he remains committed to keeping things peaceful, he’s welcome to stay and try to convince them of the young man’s guilt. Feeling like he has little choice, Robin accepts these conditions.
Earlier in this installment, Robin had expressed disdain for the lifestyle at Van Winkle, noting that the people live in rickety shacks, without running water, telephones, and other modern conveniences — not to mention that they’re almost totally isolated, and the neighbors they do have don’t trust them. “How can you give up so much — for so little?” he’d asked. Now, Jonathan takes Robin on a tour, hoping to enlighten him:
Soon afterwards, Robin and Jonathan have another go at staff-fighting, and this time, of course, Robin wins. Whalon, who’s been observing the bout, makes a telling comment:
Sometime later, Robin offers a karate lesson to the commune’s youngsters. Explaining that the first principle of that martial art is to avoid combat at all costs, our hero tells his pupils: “Only when completely forced to, does one fight — and then with the least necessary force to protect oneself!” Meanwhile, Pat Whalon has some sharply contrasting advice for the kiddos: “The idea is to hit ’em hard and wipe ’em out, so they won’t even know what’s happening!” We then see the children’s mothers hustling them away from this pro-violence creep.
It doesn’t take long for the commune’s long-time residents to get the message. A meeting is called so that “Brother Robin” can make his case against Whalon to the entire community…
In Batman #236’s concluding chapter, the commune members leap into organized action to save their homes from the spreading blaze — and Robin is right there with them…
But the fire is growing too quickly to be contained by the Van Winkle folks alone — and so, our hero races off in his trusty microbus to get help…
The help from the commune’s neighbors is eventually supplemented by the arrival of army helicopters bearing fire-fighting chemicals, and before long…
Catching up to Whalon is the stolen truck, Robin uses dart-tipped Batarangs to blow out the vehicle’s tires. Then…
Despite its undeniable flaws, I feel that this story holds up pretty well after fifty years. Is the resolution too pat? Maybe, but like the song says — what’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?
As for the mysterious Terri Bergstrom… if all goes as expected, we’ll be taking a look at another Robin solo adventure some months from now that’ll answer all your (and Robin’s) questions. Stay tuned!
That concludes the “new material” portion of this blog post, and brings us to the “Bigger and Better” section — or, in other words, here’s where we check out what reprint(s) editor Julius Schwartz used to fill out the remainder of this comic’s pages.
As we’ve discussed in earlier posts, all of DC’s editors faced some challenges in finding vintage material to run in the new, larger format that would make sense in the context of a particular title, as well as meet the specific length requirements. That said, you’d think that Schwartz must have found Batman one of his easier books to handle in that regard, as he had over thirty years’ worth of Batman and Robin stories of varying lengths to choose from. If anything, there was almost too much material to sort through.
I think it’s interesting, then, that the very first story Schwartz selected for re-presentation in the “Bigger and Better” Batman was… one of the very first Bat-stories that he himself had edited, after taking over both Batman and Detective in 1964:
This was the second appearance of “Trail of the Talking Mask!”, which had initially run in Detective Comics #335 (January, 1965) — but the very first that included credits for its scripter, Gardner Fox; penciller, Carmine Infantino; and inker, Joe Giella, since the contract that DC had with Batman’s co-creator Bob Kane at the time it was first published had precluded anyone’s name but the latter’s from appearing on a Batman story.
I wish I could tell you what I thought about this yarn when I first read it back in 1971, but I really don’t remember. I’m sure it must have been a plus that I hadn’t read it before — my own first issue of Detective having been #344, published some ten months after #335 — but beyond that, I have no idea.
Re-reading it today, of course, I’m warmed by nostalgia for the “New Look” era of Batman in which it originally appeared — the era in which I myself first discovered the Caped Crusader. Speaking more objectively, I have a great deal of appreciation for Fox’s clever, puzzle-focused plotting, Infantino’s stylish, design-centric drawing, and Giella’s clean finishes. But in 1971, I think I would still have been too close to this kind of comics storytelling to feel nostalgic about it, and I might also have felt too newly enamored of the darker, more realistic take on Batman then being promoted by Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams (and their peers) to give this earlier work as much respect as it deserves. Again, I really don’t remember, and can only speculate.
One must assume that Julius Schwartz, at least, felt some affection, and likely took some professional pride, in these early stories of the “New Look” approach that he had developed in concert with Infantino and others — an approach which has ever since been widely credited with revitalizing the Batman franchise at one of its lowest moments. After all, with thirty years of stories to pull from, Schwartz began this new series of reprints with a tale no older than six. He’d do much the same for #235, which reprinted a story from Detective #329 (Jul., 1964), although with #236 he’d finally reach back into the pre-Schwartz days with something from Batman #30 (Aug.-Sep., 1945). And after #236? That’s a topic we’ll have to leave for discussion in future posts.
*Harvey evidently had his surname changed after someone at DC decided that there was a potential for confusion with the name of Superman’s alter ego, Clark Kent. (I guess Zack Snyder should be glad that the same person didn’t have similar concerns about Superman and Batman’s moms both being named “Martha”, hmm?)