About Me

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I'm the co-host of THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO with Dana & Carl (Sunday nights, 9 to Midnight Eastern, www.westcottradio.org).  As a freelance writer, I contributed to Goldmine magazine from 1986-2006, wrote liner notes for Rhino Records' compilation CD Poptopia!  Power Pop Classics Of The '90s, and for releases by The Flashcubes, The Finkers, Screen Test, 1.4.5., and Jack "Penetrator" Lipton.  I contributed to the books Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth, Shake Some Action, Lost In The Grooves, and MusicHound Rock, and to DISCoveries, Amazing Heroes, The Comics Buyer's Guide, Yeah Yeah Yeah, Comics Collector, The Buffalo News, and The Syracuse New Times.  I also wrote the liner notes for the four THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO compilation CDs, because, well, who could stop me?  My standing offer to write liner notes for a Bay City Rollers compilation has remained criminally ignored.  Still intend to write and sell a Batman story someday.

Friday, February 5, 2016

My Two Batmen, Part 2

After the campy Batman TV series was cancelled in 1968, sales of DC Comics' Batman titles plummeted.  To save Batman, to redeem the character from the joke of his cathrode-ray caricature, he would need to return to his pulp roots.  He had to become, once again, a dark and terrible creature of the night, striking fear into the hearts of superstitious and cowardly criminals.

 He had to become a bat.  Or rather, he had to become The Batman!

In the aftermath of mid-'60s Batmania, there was little or no grand plan at National Periodical Publications (aka DC Comics) to make Batman exciting again.  Even at the height of the TV show's popularity, the comic books rarely succumbed to the sillier aspects of the show; even before camp receded, editor Julie Schwartz had already eased up a bit on some of the flashier elements that had migrated from the tube to the comics pages, nixing Robin's "Holy Tombstone!" exclamations, and scaling back the colorful sound effects graphics.  But the damage was done.  Attempts to return to a pre-1966 status quo were done in by the sheer efficiency with which the TV show had highlighted the absurdities of Batman and his milieu.  Even when Batman wasn't trying to be camp, Batman stories now seemed unintentionally corny, square, old hat.  Worse:  Batman was boring.

Man, was that about to change!

An artist named Neal Adams had come to DC with a background in advertising and newspaper comic strips.  There isn't space here to detail Adams' accomplishments as a comic book artist; suffice it to say that it is not even the slightest exaggeration to say that Neal Adams revolutionized the look of superhero comic books from the late '60s on.  Adams' realistic style was vibrant, exciting, irresistible.  And Neal Adams wanted to draw Batman.

Editor Julie Schwartz told Adams to go away and stop bothering him.  

But Adams, then and now, was not shy about getting his way.  If Schwartz wouldn't allow Adams to work on the main Batman titles (Batman and Detective Comics), then Adams would go to another DC editor, Murray Boltinoff, who was in charge of the Batman team-up comic book The Brave And The Bold.  In the pages of The Brave And The Bold, veteran writer Bob Haney was plugging along in his own world, teaming Batman with a wide array of other DC characters, blithely unconcerned with what was going on in any other Batman book.  Haney's scripts and dialogue could often be sillier than anything found in other Bat-stories, but Haney always seemed committed to whatever outlandish tale he told.  Neal Adams began illustrating Haney's B & B stories, beginning with The Brave And The Bold # 79, cover-dated August-September 1968, the first meeting between Batman and Deadman, a character that Adams had been drawing in the pages of DC's Strange Adventures.

It was freaking awesome.

In those days at DC Comics, writers and artists rarely had any contact, and shared no real collaboration on their stories.  The writer turned in a script to the editor, and moved on to his next assignment.  The editor gave that script to a penciller, who would follow the script and turn it into comic book pages, usually to be inked by another artist.  So one presumes that Haney wasn't suddenly so jazzed at working with Adams that he pulled out all of the stops to make his script a classic.  It's hard to tell objectively if it really was intrinsically better than the Haney scripts that preceded it (though it was a great improvement over the previous issue, where Wonder Woman and Batgirl fell in love with the Caped Crusader and...I don't even want to talk about it...!).  

But Neal Adams' depiction of Batman in that issue?  It was as different from recent depictions of the characters as day and night.  Literally!  Because the familiar costumed crimefighter, good ol' Batman, was now being shown only in night scenes, draped in shadows, blanketed in dark, moody tones. Everything seemed more alive, more real...but Batman, in particular, suddenly seemed like a creature of twilight, a midnight avenger, a scourge of crime sent to Gotham from Hell itself.


As Neal Adams continued to illustrate Batman and his various guest-stars in The Brave And The Bold, Julie Schwartz took note of letters coming into the DC offices, clamoring for more of the "real" Batman they'd seen in The Brave And The Bold.  Schwartz was no dummy.  Adams would be working for him from then on.

From this unlikely starting point, Batman was revitalized.  Schwartz turned to writer Dennis O'Neil to become his main Batman scribe, while still retaining the services of writer Frank Robbins, as well.  O'Neil and Adams concentrated on returning Batman to his original image as a dark knight, symbolized in part by referring to the character as The Batman, returning the original billing unused since the early 1940s.  An earlier story by Frank Robbins had already split up the Dynamic Duo, as Dick (Robin) Grayson left stately Wayne Manor to attend college.  Flamboyant criminals, which had been a hallmark of Batman since the beginning, were now eschewed as being too reminiscent of the super criminals with whom Adam West and Burt Ward had wrestled on TV.  (The only exception was Two-Face, a classic Batman villain who had not appeared anywhere since the '50s, until he was revived in stirring fashion by Adams and O'Neil.)   O'Neil created Ra's al Ghul, a new adversary that has become as integral a part of the Batman mythos as any villain this side of The Joker; Ra's al Ghul's daughter Talia, a morally ambiguous femme fatale in love with The Batman, added spice to the storyline (and was incomparably sexy as drawn by Adams).  O'Neil and Adams, along with inker Dick Giordano (and also with artist Irv Novick, who pencilled the stories the meticulous Adams didn't have time to do), had taken Batman from the banal shenanigans of the '60s to becoming one of the most compelling superhero comics of the early '70s.  When O'Neil and Adams brought back The Joker in Batman # 251 (September 1973), the formerly buffoonish Clown Prince Of Crime was once again the vicious, cold-hearted killer he'd been when first introduced in 1940's Batman # 1.

To all intents and purposes, Neal Adams left Batman in the mid-'70s, but his mission was accomplished:  he'd wanted to re-establish The Batman, The Dark Knight, and he and Denny O'Neil had certainly done that.  O'Neil did quite a bit more Batman work over the ensuing years, and eventually became editor.  A writer named Steve Englehart, who'd been successful at Marvel Comics, decided to leave the comics business, but wanted to write one year of Batman stories (in Detective Comics # 469-476, May 1977 through March-April 1978) before retiring from the industry.  Englehart's Batman stories became my all-time favorite run on the character, mixing in everything that had ever made Batman great, from the '30s through O'Neil and Adams, and spinning a tale that actually made me quit comics for a while; seriously, after Englehart's Batman stories, everything else I read seemed an empty disappointment to me.  After two stories pencilled by Walt Simonson, the remainder of Englehart's run was pencilled by Marshall Rogers, who combined a hint of Adams' realism with a stylized approach that also drew inspiration from Batman artists of the '40s and early '50s (from the great Dick Sprang, in particular), all inked by Terry Austin.  Rogers, in fact, remains my all-time favorite Batman artist; believe me, dethroning Neal Adams wasn't easy!

  Adams.  O'Neil.  Giordano.  Novick.  Englehart.  Rogers.  Austin.  There were others (like Jim Aparo, who wound up becoming the definitive Brave & Bold artist), many others, who contributed to this long, successful effort to rehabilitate Batman's image.  In the mid-'80s, writer/artist Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns grabbed mainstream headlines for its gritty depiction of an aging Batman coming out of retirement to save Gotham one more time.  1989's Batman movie, starring Michael Keaton, washed away the camp image of Batman '66, and brought the Dark Knight to the consciousness of the mass market.  Much later, director Christopher Nolan's own Dark Knight film trilogy would further cement this more serious image of Batman within the public consciousness.


Have we gone too far?

Stay tuned for the third and concluding installment of My Two Batmen.