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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, June 16, 2017

COMIC BOOK RETROVIEW: DC 100-Page Super Spectaculars, Part Eight

Continuing a look back at DC Comics' 100-Page Super Spectaculars in the 1970sBegin with Part 1, move on to Part 2, then Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6, and Part 7. We had planned to conclude here, but the story is too large and sprawling to contain within just eight parts, unless one is more disciplined than, y'know...me. For now, the penultimate chapter focuses on Gotham's Guardian, THE BATMAN!

I was not happy when new material finally made its way into the formerly all-reprint 100-Page Super Spectaculars in 1973. In retrospect, I know my reaction was in error, and I came to realize that pretty quickly. I mean, it was hard for me to argue with the results presented by the first ongoing title to assume the Super Spectacular format: Detective Comics, starring The Batman. Granted, much (most) of my interest in the Super Specs up to that point had been in the reprints of superhero stories from the '30s and '40s; I could get new stories anywhere, and stuff from the '50s and '60s generally didn't interest me as much as the earlier material. Detective Comics # 438, the first issue to take the 100-page format, contained no Golden Age material at all, just familiar-seeming Silver Age fodder packed between new bookends starring Batman and the all-new Manhunter

It was an inauspicious beginning to the final era of Super Specs. I recall finding my copy in a stack of comics at a department store called Two Guys in suburban Syracuse's Northern Lights Shopping Plaza. The idea of a stack of comic books for sale sounds initially intriguing, right? But the allure evaporates when you realize it was a stack--two or three stacks--of the same comic book. Two Guys carried Detective Comics # 438, and that was it, comics fans. I never saw any other comic book there, either before or after my acquisition of 'Tec # 438. But the stacks of that issue that the folks at Two Guys had set out for sale? Those stacks were there for a long, long time.

Both of the new stories in this issue were first-rate; even this curmudgeonly li'l Golden Age fan had to admit that. As we noted before, new editor Archie Goodwin had taken over stewardship of Detective Comics with the previous issue, and Marvel Comics vet Goodwin was clearly invested in producing comics that could rival the best of anything else on the racks in '73. Goodwin wrote both of the new stories, a pair of gritty, atmospheric gems illustrated by the great Jim Aparo (on Batman) and newcomer Walt Simonson (on Manhunter). The effort resulted in two rock-solid new comic book adventures, separated by what I felt were some boring stories from the 1960s.

And even that wasn't really fair, for two reasons. First, although I'd developed a passion for the Golden Age of the '40s, the Silver Age was a pretty special time for superheroes, too. And second, as we would learn soon thereafter, the reprint selections in this issue were thrown together at something approaching the last minute. The decision to switch both Detective Comics and Batman to the Super Spectacular format came down quickly and unexpectedly, leaving editorial assistant E. Nelson Bridwell the rhetorical equivalent of no time at all to pull out some old funnybook pages to fill the book, stat. The late, great ENB should be commended for assuring that Detective Comics # 438 hit Two Guys (again and again) with something other than scores of blank pages in between your Batman and your Manhunter. From my vantage point in this far future world of 2017, I've gotta give Bridwell enormous credit for pulling that off, and I like those Silver Age reprints a lot more now than I did then. Subsequent issues would allow more prep time, and would include more older reprints in the mix.

The 100-page Batman # 254 followed the next month, with Batman reprints stretching back into the '40s and '50s as well as the '60s, and a nice new Batman story combining '70s character Man-Bat and '60s villain The Getaway Genius. As a bi-monthly Super-SpectacularBatman would continue to offer new stories with varying levels of pizazz, from the five-star blowout of superstar artist Neal Adams' final Batman work of the '70s (on Len Wein's "Moon Of The Wolf" in # 255) to the silliness of writer Denny O'Neil's attempt to understand the character of The Penguin in # 257. We'd see Catwoman, Two-Face, The Joker, and even Batman's inspiration, the legendary avenger known as The Shadow, and we would enjoy a selection of reprints from throughout The Dark Knight's history. This was all very entertaining, and it was the second best Batman book on the stands.

Archie Goodwin's Detective Comics, though? Will WOW!! suffice?

Detective Comics # 439 looms large in my legend for its lead-off story; "Night Of The Stalker!" is my single favorite Batman story, and I have a lot of favorite Batman stories. This is just pure pulp on the one hand, a story of this grim avenger The Batman relentlessly hunting and pouncing upon a hapless trio of murdering thieves; but it packs an emotional punch as well, as The Batman gives in momentarily to his need to pause and grieve for the parents that were violently taken from him so long ago. Script by Steve Englehart (moonlighting from Marvel in his first Bat work; he would return a few years later to write the definitive short run of the character, also in Detective Comics), plot and pencils by Vin and Sal Amendola, the gorgeous art inked to stellar effect by Dick Giordano, and even including a scene (of Batman fighting in the water) suggested by Neal Adams; "Night Of The Stalker!" is Batman done to perfection.

(Though an obvious highlight of Archie Goodwin's run on Detective Comics, "Night Of The Stalker!" was actually begun under the auspices of previous 'Tec editor Julius Schwartz. Hat off to everyone who had any involvement whatsoever. More than four decades later, the story still gives me chills.)

This issue also offered another terrific new chapter in Manhunter's saga, and the reprints included Golden Age exploits of Hawkman, Dr. Fate, and Kid Eternity, and '60s adventures of The Atom, Elongated Man, and Batman and Robin. 

But a funny thing had happened with Detective already. Where I'd originally been resistant to the idea of new material appearing in the Super Spectaculars, the new stuff in Goodwin's 'Tec was freakin' irresistible, and I loved it even more than the reprints. And I still loved the reprints, too! The price increased by another dime to 60 cents with 'Tec # 440, but that was more than okay. Between the new and the old, this was the best package in comics.

Ah, but the magic ended prematurely, even before the Super Spectacular format itself went away. After seven issues as editor of Detective Comics, Archie Goodwin returned to Marvel following issue # 443 (which concluded his Manhunter story with a combined Batman-Manhunter adventure). Every issue in Goodwin's run was a gem, with terrific storytelling and luscious artwork from Jim Aparo, the Amendolas, Howard Chaykin, Alex Toth, and Walt Simonson, bolstered by an amazing selection of reprints starring Doll Man, The Spider, Plastic Man, The Spectre, The Creeper, even Ibis the Invincible, the only appearance by any of the former Fawcett Comics heroes (other than Captain Marvel and company, of course) in any of the Super Specs. A very brief Golden Era ended abruptly.

Goodwin's replacement was Julie Schwartz, whose contributions to comics history remain legendary. It was still something of a letdown, even with Jim Aparo returning to regular art chores. I've liked and even loved a lot of things that Len Wein wrote over the years, but I never warmed to his version of Batman. The reprints became pedestrian, but it didn't matter; the Super Spectacular format only ran for two more issues, and Detective Comics returned to regular size, no reprints, with its 446th issue, cover-dated April 1975. At least it returned to monthly status.

From that first 100-page issue of Detective Comics all stacked and forlorn at Two Guys in the fall of 1973 through the final 100-Page Batman that hit the stands in December of 1974, the final phase of the 100-Page Super Spectaculars flared and ultimately failed in a little over a year. We'll talk a little bit about some of the rest of the 100-pagers published during the format's last hurrah when Comic Book Retroview's retrospective on DC's 100-Page Super Spectaculars concludes. All in color for six dimes!

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