In addition to being a fine piece of artwork by Michael W. Kaluta, the cover of Batman #242 represents a minor milestone of sorts; outside of those for a small handful of giant-sized all-reprint issues, it was the first cover since October, 1969 for either Batman or its companion title, Detective Comics, not to have been drawn by Neal Adams. (That particular month, not so coincidentally, was the same one in which those titles’ editor at DC Comics, Julius Schwartz, introduced the Caped Crusader’s “Big Change” — a return to a moodier, more grounded approach to the hero that was largely inspired by what Adams had been doing over in Brave and the Bold for the last year or so.)
Of course, Adams’ cover output for the Bat-books, as significant as it was, represented only a fraction of his overall production of cover illustrations for DC over the past years. Since first coming to work for the publisher in 1967, the artist had contributed to just under 400 covers; it had been a rare month when he didn’t draw at least six (and on at least a couple of occasions, his output for the month reached twelve). But that era came to an end in the spring of 1972. Probably due to the greater demands on his time made by Continuity Associates, the commercial art business he’d started in 1971 with fellow artist Dick Giordano, Adams chose to cut way back on his cover production; after March, 1972, he’d continue to do some here and there, but almost all of them would be for comics for which he’d also drawn the lead story.
But if Neal Adams was going out (if only after a fashion), he was doing so in grand style, at least as far as Batman was concerned. Issue #241’s cover — pencilled by Adams, and inked by Bernie Wrightson — was an all-purpose, poster-worthy image, which (according to an editorial note by Schwartz in the letters column of Batman #244) had its origins as “a Batman sketch Neal Adams was dashing off for a friend”, which Schwartz happened to see, and consequently commissioned the artist to adapt for a cover. It made for a great capstone to the run of covers Adams had contributed to the title since issue #217 — even though, as already noted, it wasn’t actually his last; in fact, Adams would draw the next three covers for Batman (as well as the stories accompanying them) following issue #242.
Still, Adams’ big step back from cover work did create opportunities for other DC artists, including Mike Kaluta — who seems to have lucked into the Batman gig (which ultimately also included Detective) by literally being in the right place at the right time. According to an interview published in Comic Book Creator #13 (Fall, 2016):
I was at the office, everybody had gone off to the Sparta Color folks, or something like that, to go on a bus trip. I decided not to go and I was alone, in Neal’s room… I was in there, just doodling, and [DC publisher] Carmine [Infantino] came by. “Mike, I thought you went with the other boys.”“Nope, no.”… He said, “Well, if you ever come up with some Batman cover ideas, I think you’d be good for that. [chuckles] So I started drawing right then and the first sketch has the “Bruce Wayne, R.I.P.” thing on it, but the Batman’s back a little further. He’s got a flashlight… But somehow I came up with Batman crouching on top of a gravestone, and it was, “Yay! That’s the one. That’s good.”
It certainly was. And I’m sure it caught (and dazzled) my fourteen-year-old self’s eye when I first saw it in the spinner rack, half a century ago. But, as I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I rarely — if ever — bought a comic book just for the cover, no matter how good it was. And though my memory concerning this point is, admittedly, less than crystal clear all these years later, I’m pretty certain such was the case here as well.
Nor would I have bought this comic simply because it was the latest issue of Batman. In this era, I tended to buy Batman only when it had Neal Adams art on the inside, as well as the outside — though I made an exception whenever the cover, or a blurb in DC’s “Direct Currents” column, or a quick flip-through the book as I stood in the convenience store, clued me in that the issue advanced the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t plotline that had been weaving in and out of the title for the past year.
Many of you out there reading this will know what plotline I’m talking about, and will quickly guess (assuming you’re not already aware) that Batman #242 does indeed pick up its tantalizing thread. But as my younger self evidently had to flip all the way to page 8 to discover this fact — since neither the comic’s cover nor its “Direct Currents” plug gave any indication of it — you’re going to have to wait a bit to have that confirmed. (That, or scroll down a ways until you get to page 8, which is, I suppose, the blog equivalent of skimming a book while standing at the spinner rack.)
The interior art for “Bruce Wayne — Rest in Peace!” was by the two artists who generally handled the job when Neal Adams wasn’t around — penciller Irv Novick, a solid storyteller who did a respectable job evoking Adams’ approach despite lacking his graphic flair, and inker Dick Giordano, Adams’ most frequent collaborator at DC (as well as his business partner in Continuity Associates), who helped keep the look of the Bat-stories in both this title and Detective consistent, regardless of whose pencils he was embellishing.
The writer was one of editor Julius Schwartz’s two regular go-to’s for Batman tales (the other being Frank Robbins), Denny O’Neil. O’Neil was the scripter behind that intermittent plotline I was following, so seeing his byline here was a good sign.
Leaving Commissioner Gordon’s office, Batman ruminates how he’s had to arrange for Bruce Wayne’s demise “because the war I’m waging is against someone who knows Wayne is the Batman! And I can’t chance his striking at me through my civilian identity!” That’s right, Batman is still being cagey about the threat he’s facing, even while monologuing within his own head — though, admittedly, “someone who knows Wayne is the Batman” narrows down the list of potential suspects quite a bit.
So just who is it that Batman is turning to for “help” in this, his hour of need? I may be wrong here, but I don’t think any of his Justice League colleagues — or any of his non-Leaguer Brave and the Bold team-up buddies, for that matter — are the type to employ “goons” to keep a lookout while they eat dinner…
“Matches” Malone tries to escape Batman by cutting through the cafe’s kitchen, but…
So… somebody got shot and killed at the end of the previous page… and here “Matches” is, walking around and looking very healthy. Could it possibly be that — gulp — Batman is dead? Of course not; but O’Neil is going to keep you guessing about what’s really going on for a few more pages…
And now we come at last to the big reveal (which, as I’ve indicated, wasn’t really much of a surprise for anyone who’d been following Batman for the last year): the Masked Manhunter’s quarry is none other than the “master of evil called Ra’s al Ghul!” Although Bats’ statement that he’s “clashed [italics mine] with him and his daughter, Talia” on several different occasions might justly be deemed something of an oversimplification of how their previous encounters had actually gone…
To recap: Both Batman and we readers had first heard Ra’s’ name back in Detective #411 (May, 1971), when, in the concluding chapter of a three-issue sequence that pitted Batman against the League of Assassins, our hero rescued Ra’s’ daughter Talia from the clutches of the League’s Dr. Darrk. Then, a month later, in Batman #232 (Jun., 1971), Ra’s himself had shown up unannounced in the Batcave (as he casually noted at the time, it had been “a simple matter of detection and research” to uncover Batman’s secret identity) to seek the Darknight Detective’s aid in rescuing Talia yet again — though this time from an unknown foe who had also kidnapped Robin. As it turned out, the whole thing was an elaborate ruse staged by Ra’s himself as a test for Batman, whom he’d previously decided might be worthy of marrying his daughter as well as succeeding him as the leader of his “organization”. At this point, Ra’s al Ghul was portrayed as exotic and mysterious, and it was certainly implied that he was probably a little shady — but O’Neil had yet to establish that he was an out-and-out criminal, let alone a “master of evil“.
Ra’s and Talia next turned up in Batman #235 (Sep., 1971), though, again, this was less of a “clash” than an oddball team-up, as the al Ghuls allied themselves with Bats to recover a stolen plague-carrying chemical. Then, in Justice League of America #94 (Nov., 1971), writer Mike Friedrich had given us a tale that established a connection between O’Neil’s ongoing Ra’s plotline and Neal Adams’ “Deadman” stories in Strange Adventures from several years back. While neither Ra’s nor Talia actually appeared in this issue, Friedrich had Batman inform Deadman that Ra’s was “the head of the world’s crime structure” — something that the World’s Greatest Detective didn’t quite seem to have sussed out yet in O’Neil’s stories, but, well, there it was.
The al Ghuls seemingly laid low for the next several months, not making another appearance (or even being referred to, as best as I’ve been able to determine) until Batman #240 (Mar., 1972). Here, at last, Batman and Ra’s came into unequivocal conflict, as the former’s investigation of the murder of a research scientist, Dr. Mason Sterling, led him to the latter — who, although he hadn’t killed Sterling, had removed his still living brain and preserved it, so that he could interrogate the unfortunate man for U.S. government secrets — secrets Ra’s said would be valuable to him in realizing his dream of “a better world — one not commanded by fools!“. With this incident, Batman finally came to understand whom he was dealing with, and following Sterling’s self-inflicted death, he vowed to seek “Vengeance for a Dead Man!” (the story’s title). That said, it still took him a couple of months to get going — although I suppose faking Bruce Wayne’s death in a plane crash required a fair amount of time to set up, even for Batman.
Anyway, that’s how we got to where we are now; so we’ll return to our story, as Batman continues his briefing of Dr. Blaine: “Ra’s will stop at nothing short of a criminal dictatorship! I believe that’s why he attempted to kidnap you!” “Could be…” allows Blaine. “I’ve been working on something that would be useful to a Hitler-type!”
A moment or two later, when Blaine can see again, he realizes that both Lo Ling and the Batman’s body have disappeared. Malone, who tells Blaine he was briefly blinded as well, directs the scientist to head down to the lobby to see if he can catch up with Ling; Blaine balks, still unsure about getting involved…
So now we know what happened to the real “Matches” Malone back on page 5. And as he heads for the hotel’s roof, Batman helpfully clues us in through his continuing interior monologue that he’d blinded Blaine on purpose, just so that the scientist wouldn’t see Ling headed in that direction; sending him to the lobby instead would keep him from getting into a physical altercation with Ra’s’ agent, whom our hero figures is “mean… tough… too rough for a man whose heaviest work is hoisting test tubes!”
Gasp! Batman just let that guy fall to his death! Or did he…?
Considering how many fake-outs O’Neil has already pulled on readers in this 14-page story, I’d recommend going with, “No, he didn’t”…
And now we know how Batman and “Matches” managed to be in the same place at the same time. Of course, we still don’t have a clue as to why Batman wanted to enlist the real “Matches” Malone in the first place — or why he wants Blaine and Ling to believe that Batman and Malone are two separate people. Still, I’m sure that Denny O’Neil will fill us in as the saga progresses over the next few issues. Won’t he?
And thus, after over a year of build-up, we’ve finally begun the main event: Batman’s war against Ra’s al Ghul. Granted, the man himself only appears in the story as a still image on a screen — and the elaborate moving of pieces into place seems to raise more questions than it answers — but you have to start somewhere, right? Over the next several issues, O’Neil and his artistic collaborators — who after this installment will once again include Ra’s’ co-creator, Neal Adams — will bring us the culmination of one of the defining storylines of Batman in the Bronze Age. I look forward to sharing the saga’s remaining chapters with you in the coming months.
Batman #242 also includes Mike Friedrich’s final script for the title’s “Robin” backup feature, contributed as the writer prepared to go full-time at Marvel Comics. As such, it’s largely focused on wrapping up a subplot that Friedrich had been developing ever since issue #230, when he’d introduced the character of Terri Bergstrom, a fellow student of Dick Grayson’s at Hudson University — and a potential love interest, or so at least it seemed at the beginning. Over the course of several issues, Terri had begun to exhibit signs of psychic powers; she also claimed to be searching for “someone”, a search that kept causing her to cross paths with Dick in his secret identity of Robin. Finally, in issue #241, the truth came to light — Terri was indeed psychic, and the person she’d been trying to find — her “mental relative”, as she put it — was none other than Robin’s fellow Teen Titan, Lilith Clay. Unfortunately, when Terri and Lilith at last met face to face in a children’s playground near Hudson U., they and Robin were attacked by some Cthulhu-worshiping cultists — which is right where #242’s installment picks up the narrative:
Robin recovers in time to avoid the cult-leader’s sword-stroke, and then leaps to the attack, knocking his assailant out. But there are plenty more cultists still to contend with — and Terri, inexperienced in the use of her mental powers, may not be able to help Robin and Lilith rout them…
When Robin and Lilith come to some time later, Terri is gone — and so are the Cthulhu cultists, with the exception of their still-unconscious leader, whom the two Titans take into custody.
The next morning, Lilith and Robin (as Dick Grayson) return to the scene. Dick begins to explain how Hudson U students have been helping to remodel the rundown park…
“Perhaps someday…” Well, I guess it’s still possible, Lilith, but I hope you haven’t been holding your breath, as half a century has gone by and, as best as I’ve been able to determine, Terri Bergstrom has yet to make a return appearance. That being the case, I suppose it’s just as well that Mike Friedrich made the effort to bring some sort of resolution to Terri’s story, even if it’s something of a downer — and even though it didn’t leave him much room for exploring the topical themes that had marked most of his previous “Robin” tales (themes which he had handled with relative deftness, by the way, at least when compared to some of his peers). On the other hand, the artwork by Rich Buckler and Dick Giordano here is very nice — some of the best the “Robin” feature had yet seen, in my opinion.
Batman #242 was the last issue of the title that DC would release in the 25-cent, 48-page format; as such, it closed with a vintage reprint from the Golden Age of Comics — more specifically, from Batman #7 (Oct.,-Nov., 1941):
Crafted by Batman’s co-creators, writer Bill Finger and artist Bob Kane (with inks by Jerry Robinson and George Roussos), “The People vs. the Batman” is a pretty entertaining yarn on its own, involving Bruce Wayne being framed for murder at a time when readers hadn’t already seen a dozen or so stories with similar premises. But that’s not what makes it, in the words of the blurb added to the reprint version, “a milestone in the career of the Caped Crime-fighter” — rather, that distinction comes from an incident that occurs near the tale’s end, mid-way through its thirteenth, and last, page:
Yes, this was the story in which the Dynamic Duo stopped being extralegal vigilantes, and became officially sanctioned members of the Gotham City Police Department. Over eight decades later, you’ll still find plenty of fans who’ll tell you that this was a bad move that took Batman farther away from his dark and gritty roots (said roots being less than three years old at this point in time). Other fans, meanwhile — perhaps preferring that their superheroes not have even the faintest whiff of outlawry about them — have a different view. For his part, your humble blogger must admit to a certain amount of ambivalence about the whole business — and in this, he rather suspects he’s not alone.