Batman #237’s “Night of the Reaper!” wasn’t the first comic book story set at the real-life Rutland, VT Halloween Parade; that distinction goes to Avengers #83, which was published one year earlier (and was covered here on this blog last October). Nor would it be the last such tale.
But it was almost certainly the best of the bunch.
That’s really not surprising, given that the story was crafted by one of the most outstanding creative teams of the era — writer Denny O’Neil, penciller Neal Adams, and inker Dick Giordano — as well as that it, more than most of its fellows, aspired to be about something more than either the Parade itself, or conventional superheroic goings-on — something decidedly more serious, in fact — and was largely successful in achieving this aim, ultimately addressing the subject of the Holocaust in a dramatic, but sensitive, manner.
Nevertheless, the origins of this classic story in certain actual (but not very serious) events — and the appearance within its pages of several equally actual persons who either already were, or would soon become, well-known comics industry professionals — can’t help but be responsible for a certain amount of “Night of the Reaper!” lasting appeal. And it’s with those events, and persons, that we begin.
There have been several accounts of the circumstances surrounding the story’s genesis offered by some of those who were there over the past five decades; but the best probably remains the first; a letter from writer O’Neil to his editor, Julius Schwartz, that was printed in the “Letters to the Batman” column in Batman #237 itself.
It goes like this:
“Night of the Reaper” has a genesis in reality.
The Halloween bash at Rutland happens, every year. It’s quite a freaky experience, walking down the main street of this really pleasant New England town, and suddenly, you come upon a parade and there are Superman, Captain Marvel, Batman, Thor— the whole pantheon of super-heroes. All around them are high school bands and drum majorettes who look so sweet, so innocent, so absolutely wholesome American that a sentimental man might shed a tear.
A bunch of us went last year in Mark Hanerfeld’s minibus. The trip would make another story. (Once, on the way, we encountered a crew of gun-nuts—in a restaurant parking lot, yet. One of them fixed a steely—well, tinfoily—gaze on a certain young writer* and drawled, “Hey, boy, what for yew don’ cut yewr hair?” The writer started to laugh; then the guy pulled a single-action .44 revolver from beneath his jacket. We all grinned—very friendly grins there, ha ha—and Mark handled the minibus as though it were a racing model Porsche.)
Anyway, after the parade, Tom Fagan throws a monumental party. On the occasion I’m describing, it lasts a solid 48 hours, and friend, if you have a taste for festivities, it ought not to have been missed. I mean, we did party! Explored the two-dozen-plus rooms of Tom’s fantastic house (like something from Lovecraft) and drifted into the lovely, autumnal woods surrounding the Fagan property. Laughed. Sang. Climbed cliffs and threw a boomerang and played touch-football and, probably, discussed the Meaning of Life.
At one point, Al Weiss, Gerry Conway. Bemi Wrightson, Eliot Wagner and myself found ourselves in the forest. It was, I’d guess, midnight. Quiet, except for the odd trillings and gentle stirrings and distant sounds that may have been whistles, wheezes, or groans. And dark. So dark the eye, hungry for something to seem conjured up shapes that loomed in the night.
“You remember that weird dude back at the party?” Bemi asked. “That cat with the orange wig?”
Sure, we answered.
“What if he’s a murderer? A maniac? And what if he doesn’t like comix artists and writers? And what if he’s sneaking through the trees right now?”
We heard the rustlings, those stirrings. . .
Later, when we were safely in the midst of the merrymakers again, having completed a rather astonishing run, I promised I’d use Bemi’s sadistic fantasy as a Batman plot.
And a few weeks ago. that estimable science-fiction writer and friend; Harlan Ellison, suggested I do a story about Nazi war criminals. I put Harlan’s and Bemi’s ideas together and voila! “The Night of the Reaper!”
But most of the credit should go to Tom Fagan and the people of Rutland. Man. that was a good weekend!
Notably, artist Neal Adams, O’Neil’s primary collaborator on the completed comic book story, wasn’t actually present for the 1970 festivities. Nevertheless, he did have an advantage most of his fellow “Rutland stories” artists, before and after, don’t appear to have had. According to parade organizer and party host Tom Fagan, DC Comics’ production manager Sol Harrison sent his own son to Vermont to take pictures of the story’s locations, so that Adams could work from reference.**
Of course, Adams didn’t need any photo reference for the comic’s arresting cover. As he told 13th Dimension‘s Dan Greenfield in 2013:
Well, the concept behind the cover was first of all to make a cover doing horror… I had learned at DC a magical lesson: You don’t actually do the horror — you imply it’s going to happen. It’s going to happen in about two seconds, but not now. So I honed that weird craft in their House of Mystery stories.
The artist even managed to work in the trope he favored using in so many of his “mystery” covers for DC, showing a young person being menaced by a macabre entity. (Sure, Robin the Teen Wonder may be a good bit older than most of the kids Adams depicted on his cover illustrations for House of Secrets, et al, but the idea is still there.)
Moving on from the cover to the story’s actual first page (yes, I can hear you all out there sighing “finally”), Adams gives us an image that may be less dynamic, but is perhaps even more chilling:
The story’s credit box gives the artists, Adams and Giordano, pride of place over the writer, O’Neil — unusual, especially for this era. If there’s ever been a reason given for making that choice, I’m unaware of it.
I can remember being startled in October, 1971 when I turned to this two-page spread and saw… Marvel superheroes? In a DC comic book? Sure, those’re just some parade participants costumed as Captain America, Havok (an Adams co-creation, incidentally), and Quicksilver, not the “real” ones… but still! Marvel sure hadn’t tried anything like that in Avengers #83, where even Tom Fagan, who perennially dressed up as Batman for these things, was obliged to appear in a Nighthawk outfit.
The spread also introduces four members of our story’s cast of characters, all of whom are Hudson University students who’ve come up to Rutland for the Halloween weekend; as seen to their best advantage in the third and final panel, they are, from left to right:
- Bernie (then Berni) Wrightson, whose 22-year-old Earth-Prime counterpart was already well established as a comic-book artist at both DC and Marvel by October, 1970;
- Gerry Conway, whose real-life analogue had by this time started writing for Marvel, but still had a foot in the door at DC;
- Dick Grayson, who… never mind;
- and finally, Alan Weiss.
Artist Weiss, 22 years of age in October, 1970, would likely have been the least well-known among this page’s trio of “actual persons, living or dead” to even the most savvy comics fan present in Rutland for that year’s Halloween festivities, his professional credits at that point being limited to a single short tale for Warren Publishing’s Creepy. By October, 1971, however, he’d logged a number of jobs for DC’s Western and mystery titles, and had just made his official Marvel debut, providing pencils over Barry Windsor-Smith’s layouts for Daredevil #83.
This is probably as good a place as any to note that Weiss’ character is evidently high as a kite in this scene; a state which will continue throughout most if not all of the remainder of the story. O’Neil’s script naturally dances around this (see Dick’s reference to “who-knows-what else”) since it was still verboten to depict the use of controlled substances in a Comics Code-approved comic book in 1971, except in expressly negative terms. But it seems to reflect the actual state of affairs for at least some portion of the experience of the comics industry contingent in Rutland, in 1970 as well as in later years — at least if we’re going to go by the published reminiscences of some of the participants, who, understandably enough, have been less circumspect than O’Neil was required to be in the Batman #237 letters column.
Following this very nice close-up portrait of Mr. Wrightson (who was indeed Mr. Weiss’ real-life roomie for several years), Dick’s three buds depart from the storyline for a bit, so that we can follow Dick as he investigates further as the one and only true Robin, the Teen Wonder. (Hey, he was the only one in 1970/71, excluding his Earth-Two counterpart.)
Certain that the thugs that roughed up the “other” Robin were pros, our young hero heads off into the woods — where he soon comes upon the same figure of Batman we saw on page 1…
It’s another take by Adams on his cover image (more or less — obviously, there’s no Batman swinging into the scene, though he’ll be along before you know it) — and the tableau is just as startling here, due to its context in the story, as when we first saw it.
In their introduction to the reprinting of “Night of the Reaper!” in We Spoke Out: Comic Books and the Holocaust (IDW, 2018), the editors note that while the idea of the fugitive Nazi war criminal was already a familiar fictional trope by 1971, one specific aspect of O’Neil’s script — that the Nazi has been living in the United States — represented “an unusual, and historically significant, element”. They go on to observe that at the time of this story’s production, there had been but one widely publicized case involving such a war criminal being discovered in the United States (that being Queens housewife Hermine Braunsteiner Ryan, aka “the Stomping Mare”, who was outed in 1964, but not extradited to West Germany until 1973). But “Night of the Reaper!” proved to be prescient in this regard: “In the years to follow, journalists found evidence that dozens of Nazi war criminals were living in the United States.” In fact, it would eventually come to light that agencies of the federal government had intentionally brought over a thousand ex-Nazis into the U.S. after World War II to work in the defense and intelligence industries.
That’s definitely Denny O’Neil talking to “Thor” in the last panel above. And it’s almost certainly Len Wein making the snide comment regarding “Webslinger Lad” in the foreground as “Cain”, as not only had that DC horror host had been visually based on him, but he’s known to have dressed up as the character in Rutland at least once (paired with the minibus driver of O’Neil’s letter, Mark Hanerfeld, as Abel). Which is kind of funny in retrospect, considering that Wein would go on to write Amazing Spider-Man for Marvel in later years. But I digress…
One of the decorations that we had put up was a cupola with a blinking red light with an eagle that masqueraded as a bat, blinking on and off. Denny, Bernie, and others were out at the dam and they could see this blinking on and off, and they were talking about, “What if there was a madman loose? What if the light was used as a signal?” That’s how Denny came up with the idea.
At the top of the stairs, Batman finds an armed guard waiting; dispatching him quickly, he ascends into the tower cupola…
Batman proceeds to extract information from this defeated foe by his time-honored method of dangling the “aging goose-stepper” over the edge of the roof:
Batman’s all-too-human outburst of frustration on page 19 may be startling to those readers who mostly know him from more contemporary portrayals in comics and other media; it’s a good reminder that although O’Neil and Adams’ efforts in bringing the Darknight Detective back to his roots are rightfully given credit for largely setting the tone for the following half-century’s worth of Batman stories, the standard interpretation of the character has nevertheless evolved since 1971.
We must also take note here of what seems (at least at first) to be a minor stumble in O’Neil’s script: Batman says in the next-to-last panel that the Nazis pursuing Schloss “had no reason to murder the man dressed as me”; but back on pages 10 and 11, he’d accepted Dr. Gruener’s hypothesis that those men had both attacked “Robin” on the street and killed “Batman” in the woods because, being bad guys themselves, they “would fear Batman and Robin!” Does Bats now have some reason to suspect that someone else was behind both of those attacks?
OK… so it now looks like the Reaper told the Schloss-hunters that the real Batman was on the scene, and they then assumed that the false Batman and Robin they saw were the genuine articles — or, at least, they thought they couldn’t take the chance that they were simply dressed up for the local Halloween festivities — and decide to get rid of them. So why didn’t it occur to Batman back on page 11 that the Nazis had no more reason to target Batman and Robin than any of the other “superheroes” thronging Rutland and vicinity this night, unless they’d been tipped off? Ehh, I guess even Batman occasionally needs time to mull things over for a while.
(In other words, O’Neil didn’t actually stumble on page 19 — though the scripting could arguably have been a bit clearer on these points.)
While I’m sure that my fourteen-year-old self had a basic understanding of what the Holocaust was in 1971, I’m also fairly certain that my knowledge of the extent of its horrors was quite limited. At that time, references to the subject in American popular culture weren’t nearly as prevalent or frequent as they would be in the years and decades to come; and so, while I can’t claim to have learned many (if any) new “facts” about the Holocaust from “Night of the Reaper!”, I believe it’s fair to say that the story had an educational impact on me (and likely other young readers as well), simply by making the events of what then seemed a remote past more immediate and real.
According to most accounts, the young woman who joins Alan, Gerry, and Bernie for this final scene is Mary Skrenes, a comics writer probably best known for her collaboration with Steve Gerber on Marvel Comics’ Omega the Unknown (1975-77).
O’Neil shows considerable restraint in his scripting for the story’s last two pages, resisting the temptation to explicitly spell out the significance of Alan’s Star of David necklace, or to offer a closing moral following Dr. Gruener’s death; I’d say that this is especially noteworthy given the comics writing conventions of the time.
In a mostly positive review of Batman #237 on his blog The Greylands, Benton Grey opines that “Night of the Reaper!” is “a bit uneven in tone, with moments of comedy, clever cameos, horror, and tragedy all fighting for space and balance.” He has a point. To my mind, O’Neil and Adams largely achieve the goal of keeping their narrative’s humorous elements sufficiently segregated from the serious ones so that the story is able to work on different levels at different times, while also succeeding as a unified whole. (I might also note, without trying to be glib, that real life tends to be a mishmash of humorous and serious elements that doesn’t show a lot of regard for consistency of tone. ) Nevertheless, I can understand how the tonal transitions could be off-putting for some readers — especially those for whom the Holocaust is a less abstract concept than it inevitably must be for my Southern Baptist-raised self.
As a 25-cent/48-page format DC comic, Batman #237 was required to fill out its page count with one or more reprints; in this case, the available space went to a very early Batman tale: an unnamed 12-pager from Detective Comics #37 (Mar., 1940), written and drawn by the hero’s two co-creators, Bill Finger and Bob Kane (with assistance from Jerry Robinson), which has the historical distinction of being Batman’s last solo adventure prior to the introduction of Robin in Detective #38.
The tale starts out in a spooky mode, very appropriate for Halloween: “The Batman, having lost his way on a lonely by-road, stops before a lone house to ask directions. Suddenly, from the house comes a scream like the sound of a wild beast in pain…”
Once the story gets going, however, it quickly becomes a more conventional narrative of our hero’s efforts to thwart a ring of international spies. But it’s still a taut little thriller, and a good example for the uninitiated of what Adams, O’Neil, and their colleagues were going for with their late-’60s-early ’70s reinterpretation of Batman.
We’re going to close this post with a couple of postscripts, both of which concern stories that can be considered addenda to “Night of the Reaper!”, though of very different sorts:
First up is a “sequel” that I was unaware of before I began researching this post, involving the further adventures of Dick Grayson’s college chums Alan, Bernie, and Gerry in the very next mostly-new issue of Batman, #239. (#238 was a 100-page all reprint issue.)
In the Robin back-up tale “Soul-Pit!”, written by Mike Friedrich and illustrated by Rich Buckler and Dick Giordano, we find the trio sightseeing on “Gotham City‘s famous Bleeker Street!”
Their tour guide is none other than the Teen Wonder himself, who’s doing the guys a favor on behalf of his secret identity “for getting him [Dick Grayson] up to the Rutland Halloween bash!” There seems to be no good reason as to why it’s Robin giving the tour, rather than Dick — though it certainly comes in handy when, just like in Batman #237, our young friends suddenly find themselves involved in a violent altercation — though this time it’s with a group of especially militant Jesus freaks (!), rather than aging Nazis.
Following the resolution of this dust-up on page 6, Alan, Bernie, and Gerry exit the narrative — and though this 8-page story is continued into the next issue, #240 — which, unlike #239, my younger self did buy in January, 1972 — they don’t return. In the end, their role is so nigh-superfluous that one has to figure that Mike Friedrich, having already written noted author Harlan Ellison into an issue of Justice League of America earlier in the year — yes, the same Harlan Ellison that suggested Denny O’Neil write a Batman story about Nazi war criminals — just couldn’t resist the opportunity to get in on another reality-meets-fiction shindig.
But, as I said earlier, back in ’71-’72 I didn’t have any inkling that this little escapade had even occurred. No, as far as I was concerned, the next time Gerry Conway turned up as a DC comic-book character, rather than simply as a writer, it would be in Justice League of America #103 — a tale which would find him returning to the Rutland, VT Halloween Parade. But for more on that one — and the two Marvel Comics stories it unofficially crossed over with — you’ll have to check back in with us next October.
And speaking of Marvel Comics…
As you probably know already, or have guessed, “Night of the Reaper!” wasn’t the only “Rutland story” that came out in October, 1971. Having gotten the ball rolling the year before in Avengers #83, writer Roy Thomas returned to the scene of the crime — literally, as he and his then-wife Jean reprised their roles as characters in the story — with “Nightmare on Bald Mountain!”
Illustrated by Ross Andru (pencils) and Sal Buscema (inks), the tale featured the second unlikely get-together of Doctor Strange, the Hulk, and the Sub-Mariner as the Defenders, as they attempted to prevent the dread Dormammu from invading our reality through a mystical portal opened on Bald Mountain — a real-life location located near Rutland (though not quite as near as the story would have you believe).
While it’s inevitably a distant second in the “Best Rutland Halloween Comic Book Story of 1971” competition, the story definitely has its pleasures — especially this page, which is nothing but Tom Fagan freaking out Roy and Jean by telling then spooky local legends… a scene that had its roots in real life, according to Thomas:**
If nothing else, Marvel and DC both publishing their own in-universe version of Rutland’s Halloween bash in 1971 all but guaranteed that there’d be at least one more such story coming from each publisher in 1972 — though I don’t think any of us readers at the time were expecting a stealth crossover between the two rival publishers. For more on that event, however, you’ll have to… oh, wait, I told you already. See you next Halloween, OK?
*The “certain young writer” appears to have been Gerry Conway, who was 18 years old at the time. As Conway recalled for an interview in Alter Ego #131 (Mar., 2015): “I remember going to the first one [i.e., the first Rutland Halloween event he attended] when I was still in high school and getting horribly drunk in the car on the way up. Denny O’Neil kept me from getting into a fight with some Vermont hunters. It was a bizarre weekend!”
**Roy Thomas, “‘Hi, I’m Your Host, Tom Fagan!’ An Interview with the Man Who Led the Parade”, Alter Ego: The Comic Book Artist Collection (TwoMorrows, 2001), pp. 70-73.