Monday, February 11, 2019

BATMAN #217

"ONE BULLET TOO MANY!"
Art: Irv Novick & Dick Giordano | Story: Frank Robbins

Our look back at Batman in the Seventies begins with the issue cover dated for the final month of 1969 (and, for what it's worth, will end several months from now in 1981!), but this story is essential to the upcoming look at that decade in the Darknight Detective's life. "One Bullet Too Many" spends its opening pages putting into place the status quo which will define Batman for the next ten-plus years.

The story begins with Bruce Wayne surveying Dick Grayson's bedroom at Wayne Manor. He's joined by Alfred, and the two head downstairs to see Dick off as he departs for his freshman year at Hudson University. And right off the bat, it's evident to a modern-day Batman fan that this isn't the character they know. Bruce gets choked up and sobs a bit as he mulls over Dick's departure. He also calls Alfred "Alf", and comes across as more congenial and emotionally available than any iteration of the character for the past thirty-some years. He is, in my opinion, a far superior product than the Batman of today because he comes across as a real person rather than a soulless, psychotic robot. As we move along through these cherry-picked seventies adventures, I'll try to note whenever this Batman puts in any especially noteworthy appearances, because he truly is my favorite iteration of the character. (And I'll also point out whenever we see shades of the Batman-to-be, for the seventies would ultimately lay the seeds that would transform the more jovial Caped Crusader into the grim and gritty Dark Knight.)

Once Dick has departed -- shedding a tear of his own as he leaves -- Bruce and Alfred abruptly depart Wayne Manor, moving into Gotham City proper to live in the penthouse atop Bruce's Wayne Foundation Building. Bruce explains to Alfred that he will be taking on an active leadership role with the Foundation, which has opened a charity for "victims' victims" -- i.e., those left behind when a loved one and/or breadwinner has been killed. Bruce's plan is for the foundation to help the victims while Batman dishes out justice for the deceased, as the cases may warrant.


I assume writer Frank Robbins was working under instructions from editor Julie Schwartz when he made these changes. Robbins had been writing Batman for a few years at this point, and he had stuck with the classic formula of Batman and Robin operating out of Wayne Manor. He had been, I believe, steering the antagonists away from colorful villains and more toward common criminals, but the status quo of the characters themselves had remained intact. Yet now we have Robin semi-written out of the series (he'll return as a guest star a few times a year), with Batman operating solo for the first time in decades (Robin had been a fixture since his introduction nearly thirty years earlier) -- and even the setting has changed from stately Wayne Manor to the towers of Gotham City. The Batcave and Batmobile are both gone (though they'll return in fairly short order), as Bruce explains to Alfred that he plans to "streamline the operation" and fight crime with nothing more than "...the clothes on our backs... the wits in our heads!"

It's all too sweeping to have come from the mind of a writer alone. Perhaps this was an idea Robbins had and pitched to Schwartz, but it seems more likely to me that Schwartz had fond memories of the earliest Batman stories and wanted to return the character to his roots. Schwartz, after all, was known to commission covers and then instruct writers to come up with stories to go with those illustrations -- so ordering his writers to change the series' status quo seems something he'd be likely to do.


The rest of the story is concerned with Batman solving the murder of a pediatrician who left behind his co-practitioner and wife, and who can now no longer afford to make payments on all the state-of-the-art equipment the couple purchased for their business. Wayne Foundation floats the widow an interest-free loan, while Batman figures out who killed her husband. And then, in classic Batman fashion, he gets shot and tells the police who the killer is so they can arrest him themselves. (I don't love the modern-day, supernaturally competent and invulnerable Batman, but this is just a shade too far in the other direction!)

Robbins does, however, use a neat narrative device -- while Bruce Wayne chats with the widow for information, we see a ghostly Batman analyzing the clues as they come up. I have no idea if Robbins invented this or if it's even something he did more than once, but it's a cool way to depict Batman doing his detective thing while Bruce is out of costume.


The story ends on a cliffhanger, which we're told will be resolved in this month's issue of DETECTIVE COMICS, but that tale -- about Batman participating in a V-8 race, sponsored by Bruce Wayne to avenge a driver who lost his eye to a sniper -- is ridiculous and unnecessary for this ongoing review project. Plus, it's never been collected anywhere! From what I've seen, reprints of this issue often omit the final two panels to let the story end without the setup for the next chapter, and I tend to think that's the best way to do it.

Though the Wayne Foundation headquarters will remain a fixture of Batman's world for the entirety of the seventies, the "Victims' Victims" angle will be dropped pretty quickly. Robbins will return to it himself only a handful of times, while other writers will disregard it entirely. And speaking of Robbins -- we're only going to check in with him a few more times during this excursion into the Batman's defining decade. He wrote on both BATMAN and DETECTIVE COMICS for a number of years, but very little of that work has been reprinted, outside of this story and the Man-Bat saga he produced with Neal Adams.

I've read a lot of Robbins' stuff, and I have to say, that while it's often nicely drawn (this story is beautifully delineated by Irv Novick and Dick Giordano, who I personally believe did more to define the seventies Batman than the more celebrated Neal Adams), I can understand why DC hasn't seen fit to collect it anywhere. Even as he returns the Caped Crusader to a shadowy figure of the night, Robbins continues to write some pretty hokey stories (see the racing tale described above for the tippy top of that iceberg), which are at odds with the mood being created by the series' other main writer, Denny O'Neil -- who we'll meet next week, partnered with Neal Adams, in -- "The Secret of the Waiting Graves"!

4 comments:

  1. What a nice way to jumpstart your review series of some classic "Batman" material, and on the character's 80th anniversary no less. ^_^

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    1. Thanks! It actually didn't even occur to me that this is Batman's 80th year. I feel like we just had the 75th not very long ago...!

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  2. I’ll comment on the rest later, as I’ve had a migraine for a day plus, but after seeing your first line I just wanted to share one detail: When I resolved several years ago that in paring down my collection I’d start with selling off everything published before I was born I opted to make an exception for this issue.

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    1. Ouch! Sorry about the migraine. That's one ailment I've happily never had to suffer through, but I've known people for whom they're chronic, and I can tell how miserable they are.

      I think I would've kept this one too, in your shoes. The main mystery story is so-so, but the opening pages are wonderful.

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