RETRO REVIEW: Batman #253 & #259 (November 1973/Nov.-Dec. 1974)

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Or – “Paging Mr. Gibson, Mr. Walter Gibson…  We’ve Found Your Intellectual Property!”

Years ago, there were very few licensed titles around that weren’t cartoon properties (the respective Adventures of Bob Hope & Jerry Lewis were exceptions) and Dynamite, Boom! & IDW didn’t yet exist to vie for the licenses for everything that ever existed in the known universe.  The days where Optimus Prime might meet up with Spider-Man or Pete Venkman and Jim Kirk might take down the same undead freak were still decades in the future.  Still, in the late 70′s, the vagaries of fate and publishing contracts brought The Shadow to the National Periodical fold, the same shared universe where a character whom Mr. Cranston strongly influenced was already ruling the roost…

BATMAN#253/Batman #259 – “Who Knows What Evil?”/”Night Of The Shadow!”
Scripter: Denny O’Neil
Penciler: Irv Novick
Inker: Dick Giordano
Colors: Unknown
Letters: Unknown
Editor: Julius Schwartz
Publisher: National Periodical Publications Inc. (DC Comics)
Cover Price: 20 Cents/60 Cents (Current NM Price: $47.50/$85.00)

Previously, on Batman: Blah blah happy family, blah blah midnight showing, blah blah Crime Alley, blah blah blah Joe Chill, blah pearls in the street, childhood trauma blah.  Blah blah blah family fortune, blah ninja training, blah world’s greatest detective, blah blah once carried a gun even if they don’t admit it anymore.  Blah blah superstitious and cowardly lot blah blah Alfred blah blah blah young lad in green underpants.  Blah blah blah this is before he was truly annoying, blah blah blah yes, that means before Frank Miller blah blah blah fishcakes.  Most importantly, folks, this story takes place at a time when Batman didn’t have two monthly titles, but shared two books that came out approximately 8 to 10 times per year apiece.  Put THAT in your bat-pipe and smoke it, old chum!  We open at the Gotham City freightyards, where a gang of ne’er do wells runs afoul of the caped crusader while trying to make off with a fortune in counterfeit bills.  One of the young hooligans catches Batman in his sights, but before he can make himself a legend, his revolver is shot out of his fingers!

The bills themselves are near-perfect, but their binding holds a clue that leads Batman halfway across the country to the tiny hamlet of Tumbleweed Crossing, Arizona.  Bruce crosses swords (or at least spiky gauntlets) with another gang of toughs, this one armed with dune buggies and bad attitudes and bribed with counterfeit money.  Breaking up their mischeif, Bats returns to his hotel.


As was the case with Batman #222 a couple of months ago, the art is by Irv Novick and future DC editor-in-chief Dick Giordano, and their work is simply amazing.  The leisure suits worn by Bruce Wayne and Lamont Cranston (a vaguely familiar name, there?) are pretty awesome, as is the fact that Cranston is clearly in his 60′s or so.  Given that the Shadow’s purview was the 1930′s, and this story takes place in the mid-70′s, it’s a nice touch.  Wayne and Cranston’s discussion leads Bruce to the answer he’s looking for, and sends Batman out into the night.  He is nearly overtaken by the counterfeiters, but the appearance of an ancient autogyro saves his bacon, sending the Dark Knight into a whirlwind of activity…

Tracking the criminals to their lair, Batman again makes a rookie mistake, letting the last of the criminals escape (and taking a faceful of printer’s ink for his troubles.)  But the fleeing bad guy discovers the hard way about the weed of crime and the distinct lack of sweetness in it…

“Oh, I’m sorry, did I break your concentration?”  Heh…  The gunman melts away again, and a badly wounded counterfeiter sets Batman on the trail back to the mastermind behind it all:  Bammy, the hotel owner!  Once more, a shot from the darkness saves the Dark Knight’s bacon, and he finds a note inviting him to meet the next evening, a note signed simply, “Cranston.”  Witness as the Darknight Detective meets his thematic ancestor!

The ‘Freak Show Murders’ story promised actually appears later the same month in DC’s The Shadow #2 (a very well-done series by Denny O’Neil, who wrote this issue, with art by a young Mike Kaluta.)  It’s interesting to me to see that Batman is played as the junior vigilante here (as it should be) and makes the type of mistakes that you might expect from Robin in a standard tale.  The art is superb throughout the issue, and while The Shadow doesn’t take center stage in Batman’s book, he is clearly the driving force of the plot, and I like that Batman even admits that The Shadow inspired him.  Back in the day, the comics companies didn’t get instant reporting on their sales, but the Batman/Shadow teaming clearly got someone’s attention, because one year later (remember the Batman title was on 8 times a year frequency in the early 70′s), the twosome met again.  This story, however, began on the Shadow’s turf, roughly 25 years in “the past…”

The guns start blazing, and the criminals learn what evil lurks in the hearts of men (and also what blood, given the gaping bulletwounds they’re certainly going to have) as Dr. Thomas Wayne and son step out of a nearby elevator.  The Shadow acts quickly to keep the criminals (led by genius bad boy Willy Hank Stamper) from killing the bystanders, but young Bruce is horrified by all the gunplay…

While Bruce grows up to become Gotham City’s protector, Willy Hank spends the intervening years in prison, training his body to a level of perfection nearly as sharp as Batman’s own.  Years later, the Starlight Tiara is again in Gotham, and Batman receives a tip from Jim Gordon that Willy Hank is out of prison with a grudge.  (There’s also an important bit with Jim’s sidearm that underlines that Batman doesn’t like ‘em.  This is known as foreshadowing, and it is indeed your clue to quality literature.)  Tracking the owner of the tiara, Batman finds his prey…

Though Batman fights the thief off, the jeweler dies due to his dodgy heart, and the tiara goes up for auction.  Meanwhile, key figures in the incarceration of Willy Hank find themselves endangered, and Bruce Wayne is nearly murdered!  Worse than that, when the bauble finally goes up for sale…

Denny O’Neil always scripts an awesome Batman, and this sequence reminds me how much I miss thought balloons.  Sure, you can call them old-fashioned, but they gave you an instant gauge of the mood of the characters, and they’re no more of a cheat than the constant Raymond-Chandler-style Wolverine-captions that are so prevalent these days.  Realizing that the message was for Willy Hank, Batman follows the clue anyway, and ends up facing off with the criminal at the old Gotham Diamond exchange.  Batman is surprised to find that something (or someONE) is clouding his mind, and that it ain’t a batarang in his hand…

Leaping into action, Batman dodges the fusillade of bullets, but finds that the familiar place combined with the familiar sounds and smells of Pig Night brings his terror rushing back like a hot kiss at the end of a wet fist!  Willy Hank laughs that the mighty Batman is nothing more than a scared little boy, but is taken by surprise by a haunting, hollow laugh followed by an old-school Gotham City beatdown!

There’s great irony here, in that The Shadow was actually putting Batman through the kind of emotional strain that the almighty Goddamn Batman is now legendary for putting his various sidekicks through today.  The student has truly become the teacher, even if this story can’t possibly still be acknowledged as in continuity.  As for the missing jewelry, The Shadow has been living up to his name and out-Batmanning The Batman, staying two steps ahead of hero and criminal alike.

What makes these two stories truly a mixed blessing for me comes in what came next, as all the affectations used by The Shadow in this story slowly worked their way into Bruce Wayne’s arsenal as well, even the ones that no person in their right mind would ever want to adopt, such as the solo war on crime, the inability to trust anyone, the tendency to use your friends and family as pawns in a larger war, the tendency to brood…  I like this young, idealistic Batman with his human failings and his thought bubbles and even the quiet hero worship of the character who inspired him both in character and in our reality.  I truly miss the days when The Batman could slip up, when he could smile, when he could treat his son (there was only one back then, I might add) like family.

Still, these two stories are a heck of a lot of fun to read & look at, and are on the long list of things that almost certainly can’t be trade-paperbacked unless Warner Brothers buys Conde Nast or vice versa.  (Granted, that day could come at any given point, unless Disney gets there first and draws Moon Knight over the Bruce Wayne figures.  Hey, it could HAPPEN!  Look at Marvelman!)  After spending the whole day slaving over a stack of Silver and Bronze Age comics and breathing in their particular mix of mold and gently rotting paper, these kind of stories are just what I need:  The kind of entertainment you can only get from a comic, with just a bit of fanboyishness in the writing AND in the reading.  Batman #253 earns 4 stars, as does #259, leaving a composite score of 4 out of 5 stars overall. If I get even half as much enjoyment out of this summer’s blockbuster movie adaptations, I’ll be happy.

Rating: ★★★★☆