Monday, December 16, 2019

DETECTIVE COMICS #416, #420, & #421

Surprise! Oh man, you should see the look on your face! We're not quite done with "Batman in the Seventies" after all. See, about seven months ago, in my look at DETECTIVE COMICS #429, I said:
"I should note that if I could, I'd look at all of the half-dozen or so Batman stories [Frank] Robbins drew, but over all these years, so far as I can see, DC has only ever collected "Man-Bat Over Vegas", which was in THE GREATEST BATMAN STORIES EVER TOLD. Anyone else up for a TALES OF THE BATMAN: FRANK ROBBINS book??"
Well, DC hasn't published such a tome, but at some point after I typed those fateful words, they did release all six of writer/artist Robbins' Bat-stories to Comixology. I bought them in a DC sale a few months back, and I've been saving them for now. I simply wouldn't have felt this retrospective was complete if I didn't write about these tales, knowing they were out there. Plus, two posts to cover these issues will take us right up to the end of the year, so the timing works out perfectly.

So, without further ado...

"MAN-BAT MADNESS!" | "FORECAST FOR TONIGHT... MURDER"
"BLIND JUSTICE... BLIND FEAR!"
Story & Art by: Frank Robbins

We lead off with the return of Man-Bat. This story falls between Neal Adams' final Man-Bat story, "Marriage Impossible" from DETECTIVE COMICS 407, and Frank Robbins' second (and final) Man-Bat story as writer/artist, "Man-Bat Over Vegas" from DETECTIVE 429. In this one, Kirk Langstrom and Francine Lee are finally married, with Batman serving as the best man at their wedding. The Caped Crusader warns the newlyweds that although he appears to have cured them, there's always the chance they could become bat-creatures again. He gives them a case of antidote vials as a wedding gift and tells them each to always keep one vial on their person.

After the honeymoon, an odd confluence of a full moon coupled with some high-frequency soundwaves awaken Man-Bat's instincts in Kirk's body, and Kirk begins work on a stronger Man-Bat formula. Then, that night at the opera, Kirk changes into Man-Bat before he can take his antidote. Batman goes after the creature and, with Francine's help, eventually defeats him and restores him once more to normal.

Frank Robbins clearly liked his co-creation, Man-Bat; he used the character five times over his tenure as Batman's writer. Personally, I've always felt that a little Man-Bat goes a long way. Much like the Lizard in Spider-Man's comics, I get tired of the mild-mannered alter ego transforming to go on a rampage every few months or so. Mind you, I like the Lizard; just in small doses -- once every few years rather than once a year or more. I much prefer Curt Connors as Spider-Man's science advisor, and I think I feel the same way about Man-Bat/Kirk Langstrom. If Langstrom were a recurring character who Batman visited once in a while for scientific advice, but who only changed into Man-Bat on occasion, I'd like him more.

The next story, "Blind Justice... Blind Fear!" sees Batman working to protect a diamond magnate who has received letters threatening his life. It seems the man, Piet Van Doorn by name, came into his fortune by killing his partner, Allan Trevor -- but Trevor has returned from the grave to kill Van Doorn for this crime. Batman tracks a coffin around the city, then breaks into Van Doorn's home to save his life. The story itself is kind of so-so -- the sort of thing that wouldn't have warranted a second thought if drawn by Bob Brown or Irv Novick -- but as is usually the case with Robbins-illustrated tales, the artwork elevates it considerably.

And lastly we have "Blind Justice... Blind Fear!" In this one, Robbins casts Batman as "The Establishment" and sends him into a prison to rescue a parolee with secrets about corruption in Gotham from an angry black inmate and his cohorts. There's lots of racial debate in this one (and lots of offensive "jive-talk" as well, plus a use of the N-word). However the discourse is about on the level one would expect from a comic written in 1972 by a then-fifty-something white guy. Robbins means well, presenting Batman as sympathetic to the inmates' anger about institutionalized racism, but it's all kind of simplistic and... I dunno, weird, I guess.

Notably, Robbins utilizes a new-to-us supporting cast member in these issues: Marla Manning, a beautiful reporter and acquaintance of Bruce Wayne's (she appears to be on a date with him at one point). She shows up in issues 416 and 421, and a little research indicates that she had only two other appearances ever: her first, in BATMAN 220 from 1970, and her final in BATMAN 249 from 1973. All four of her appearances were written by Frank Robbins, and the two he didn't draw were illustrated by Irv Novick.

Next week, The rest of Frank Robbin's Bat-stories as writer/artist, including one we already looked at previously, and one that doesn't feature Batman at all!

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