Monday, February 25, 2019


Story: Frank Robbins | Art: Neal Adams & Dick Giordano

Note: Screenshots below come from BATMAN ILLUSTRATED BY NEAL ADAMS VOLUME 2 and are not representative of these stories' original colors (the covers are presented as published, however).

For the vast majority of his Batman output in the seventies, Neal Adams worked with Dennis O'Neil as writer. But he did illustrate scripts from a few others as well: Mike Friedrich, in a Christmas backup story we skipped. Len Wein and Marv Wolfman, and then Wein alone, in a pair of stories we'll eventually cover.

And, of course, Frank Robbins. According to Adams in the introduction to BATMAN ILLUSTRATED BY NEAL ADAMS Volume 2, Robbins had expressed interest to editor Julie Schwartz in working with Adams. Adams, meanwhile, had been doodling and come up with a character called Man-Bat. Adams and Robbins crossed paths at the DC offices, and Adams asked Robbins to write the creature's debut appearance -- which brings us to "Challenge of the Man-Bat" and its sequel, "Man or Bat?"

In the first story, Batman fights a group he calls the "Lights Out Gang", who commit robberies in complete darkness. When they bait Batman into a trap at Gotham's natural history museum, the Caped Crusader is joined by a mystery bat creature to fight them. The gang is defeated in the end, and Man-Bat escapes into the night.

The story ends with a blurb advising readers to watch for more Man-Bat in an upcoming issue of DETECTIVE COMICS. And sure enough, two months later, DC published a sequel. This was far too short a time for sales figures on Man-Bat's premiere to have reached DC, so it seems likely they were just hoping for the character to be a hit. "Man or Bat?" gives Man-Bat a first name -- he was referred to only as Langstrom in "Challenge", but here is identified as Kirk Langstrom by his fiancee, Francine Lee, in her first appearance.

In this story, Batman encounters Man-Bat again and attempts to capture him when he tries to rob a chemical shop. Langstrom escapes, however, with plans to mix up a cocktail and cure himself. Batman, unaware of this plan, intervenes, and the glass containing Langstrom's formula shatters. Batman chases Man-Bat, who finds his way into an underground cave which turns out to be the Batcave.

We'll pause here for a moment to note that it was only about eight months earlier that Robbins mothballed the cave and Batmobile as he set up Batman's new status quo in "One Bullet Too Many". But it seems likely Adams really wanted to draw those trappings, if only for an issue or two. "Challenge of the Man-Bat" features the Caped Crusader driving a stylish new Batmobile, with a caption -- apparently lettered in after the story's other letters -- informing readers that it's an "experimental car" loaned to Batman by a manufacturer for testing. Then, in "Man or Bat?" the car returns, and the Batcave with it. And if there's any doubt Adams really wanted to draw these things, I point only to his two glamour shots of the Batmobile, one in each story, and the big establishing image of the Batcave, which goes out of its way to show the giant penny, the Batcomputer, etc.

Interestingly, and also on the artistic front, Adams draws these two stories differently from his collaborations with Denny O'Neil. In particular, and especially in "Challenge", he uses way more panels per page, usually smaller than is typical of him. I suspect that O'Neil and Adams collaborated, "Marvel Style", on their stories -- plot first, then pencils from Adams, followed by a script from O'Neil -- while it seems evident that Adams is working from a full script when drawing Robbins' stories. Mind you, I could be totally mistaken here, but the differing art styles depending on the writer certainly makes it seem like O'Neil and Robbins were doing something different, at least.

And now back to our story: "Man or Bat?" wraps up when Batman stuns Man-Bat inside the Batcave, then takes him over to his lab to try and find a cure. A blurb tells us we'll learn whether our hero was successful in a future issue of DETECTIVE COMICS -- which brings to mind an oddity of these Julius Schwartz-era Batman comics. We'll see more of it very soon as O'Neil starts into his Ra's al Ghul saga: a lot of the time a story will end on a cliffhanger of sorts, but there's no immediate resolution in the next issue. Eventually, the cliffhanger will be resolved, but not until some amount of time has passed. Case in point: Man-Bat's fate is left unresolved as this story ends, but he won't appear in another story for five more months.

This is obviously still a form of continuity between stories, but it's not the sort of serialized continuity readers have been trained to expect from comics. I don't know if this was uniquely a DC thing at the time, or perhaps even simply a Schwartz thing -- but I do know that Marvel had been running with serialization for years at this point, so perhaps DC was simply slow to catch on. For the majority of these seventies stories, we'll see one-off adventures, with only occasional two-or-more-part arcs, all the way up to the latter part of the decade. And while I don't mind done-in-one stories, my preference in comics generally leans toward full-on serialization (though I will say the done-in-ones of the seventies, coupled with its status quo, remind me quite a bit of BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES, which is never a bad thing) -- but this halfway approach feels disjointed and weird, and it's one of my least favorite things about the seventies Batman.

Next time, Adams reunites with O'Neil for a story that means a great deal to me, "Ghost of the Killer Skies!"


  1. Your point about serialized continuity is something I thought about when you first announced this project, since it's so notably absent during this era. The running development of O'Neil's Ra's al Ghul story is a notable exception, and even that doesn't quite fit the Marvel mold: it's a multi-part adventure over a period of years, but there are no long-simmering b-plots or personal developments percolating in the background, as they would be in a Marvel series.

    For all intents and purposes, I think it was really Len Wein at the end of the decade who brought sustained, ongoing story arcs to the Batman franchise, with Gerry Conway really cementing that as the standard mode for the Bat-titles. And needless to say, it's no coincidence that those two Bullpen refugees were the ones to spearhead the change.

    1. Yes, you're totally right. Wein actually takes a stab at it sooner, with the "Bat-Murderer" story arc, but that's only five parts (though I sometimes wonder if he had wanted it to be a longer Marvel-style storyline and had that notion rejected by editorial).

      And of course there's Steve Englehart's run, which is full-on Marvel with continuing stories and sub-plots -- but it's also finite, and was intended as such from the start, with Englehart having been hired to write only a specific number of issues.

      It does seem, however, that Englehart may have been DC's first true stab at "Marvelizing" their comics, at least from the editorial perspective -- as I understand it, he was hired to write JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA on the strength of his AVENGERS material. His writing Batman, I believe, was a byproduct of that, as he requested the character in addition to JLA as part of the terms of his employment.

      Anyway, I'm digressing. You're right, of course, that it's Wein in the late 70s who begins writing BATMAN in true "Marvel style", being the regularly assigned ongoing writer and peppering his stories with sub-plots. (Though even then, I believe he was thwarted by editorial -- something about Paul Levitz demanding costumed villains and done-in-one stories for every issue, though he did allow the sub-plots to remain serialized.)

      Conway's BATMAN/DETECTIVE is something I've wanted to read for several years. DC is in the process of collecting all of it; I think one more volume should wrap it up, though nothing has been announced yet. I'd also love to read the Dough Moench stuff that followed, but Conway is much higher up my priority list. I love the idea of the two series running as basically one biweekly title for however many years it was. I imagine it's something of a precursor to Conway's WEB OF SPIDER-MAN/SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN run from the late 80s, which I absolutely adore.

    2. That's an excellent reminder about the importance of the (truly phenomenal) Englehart Batman run, and it's worth mentioning that even though it was conceived as a limited arc, many of its threads were indeed continued by the succeeding creative team. I should also add that Marv Wolfman also deserves similar credit for helping to Marvelize the style of Batman stories, with his ongoing subplot around Talia and Catwoman.

      But it is indeed Conway who really stands out to me as the serialized writer par excellence during the pre-crisis era -- even better, really, than the Moench issues that followed it. While Conway certainly had some classic Marvel stories in the early '70's, I think it was his time at DC that saw his emergence into the top-flight writer he would be when he came back to Marvel for his Spectacular/Web run. Once it's fully republished (someday!) I think you'd really enjoy diving into it.

  2. I was pretty impressed with this latest review. We're getting very close to the "Batman" franchise's 80th birthday.


  3. I’ve never cared for the no-frills sportscar Batmobile. Sleek though it may be, I miss the decorative wing fins.

    Alan Brennert, writer of a few Batman tales that rank among my favorite comics ever, has a letter published in #400. Martin Pasko has one in #402. Pasko, Brennert, and Doug Moench all have letters printed in #401. (Yeah, I read the issues in their entirety since they were at hand.)

    I’m pretty sure I read the story from #402, via a black-&-white reprint in that Batman from the ’30s to the ’70s book I keep mentioning, before the one from #400. Running the second Man-Bat story instead of the first seems an odd choice for the collection; perhaps it won out because it had more closure, albeit not decisively. I’d have read that first one from #400 as a reprint in the first issue of Batman Family right around the time Man-Bat’s extremely short-lived solo title debuted.

    1. I agree; Batman just driving, essentially, a normal car is pretty lame. The flip side of that is that I also don't like the crazy overdone Batmobiles we've seen in recent decades. The "Tumbler" from the Nolan movies was particularly awful.

      Speaking of Brennert, I picked up TALES OF THE BATMAN: ALAN BRENNERT some time back on your recommendation. I haven't actually read it yet, but I own it!


    2. Yeah, I’m not a fan of the Nolan films’ Tumbler or the ridiculously elongated “snout” on the B:TAS Batmobile that’s based on the Burton films’ version. The head/cowl design with yellow eyes on the hood of this model is sorta cool but the car needs at least some modest batwing fins on the back.

      I hope you like the Brennert stuff!