Batman’s Great Identity Switch!

First impressions can be tricky.

Here I am, writing the first installment of a new column that I hope you folks will follow every week, and I realize that, unlike some of the ex-CBR guys like Travis and the Gregs, most of you probably don’t don’t who I am. Sure, I’ve written for BACK ISSUE from TwoMorrows for the last few years, moderate BI‘s Facebook page, and used to draw for “The Line It Is Drawn” over at CSBG, but I’m still not exactly what you’d call well-known on the comics blogosphere. So who am I, and why should you care what I have to say?

And you know, I’m not sure if I have a good answer for that. So instead, I’m just going to talk about Batman #303.

Batman 303
Jim Aparo. You’ve got to love him.

This was my first Batman comic book, and the first comic book I ever read, period. It’s the September 1978 issue, which means that it was on the stands in June. I got it as a hand-me-down from my friend Geordy, so it’s possible that I read it as late as 1980. But it didn’t matter, because I was entranced. I already knew who Batman was from the Adam West show and Super Friends, but this was the very first time that six-to-eight-year old me had ever read a comic book starring him.

The story was by 50s and 70s Batman writer David V. Reed, penciler John Calnan, and inker Dick Giordano, and it starts the way all great Batman stores do: with Batman fighting two Neanderthals. As we discover on page two, they’re criminal henchmen in disguise. It turns out that Batman is staking out Gotham City’s Museum of Natural History, trying to prevent one of his foes from looting an exhibit. It doesn’t go terribly well, as one of the hench-cavemen hits him with a rock to make his getaway.

Hit Him With A Rock
Hit Him With A Rock!

The effect of this knock on the head soon becomes apparent: Our hero starts to think that Bruce Wayne is the nighttime crimefighter and that Batman is the daytime secret identity. And we’re off to the races.

Bruce Wayne Swinger
Yeah, Gordon’s slow on the uptake.

After an awkward visit with Commissioner Gordon and beating up a criminal while wearing a three-piece suit, Bruce heads back to his penthouse and calls it a night. The next morning, Alfred tries to figure out how to bring Master Bruce back to his senses without jeopardizing his secret identity.

Meanwhile, Batman goes about his day in Gotham City, buying hot dogs, taking taxi cabs, and totally not understanding why everyone is hassling him so much:

Batman Tennis
Pay attention to the name of that tennis club. It’ll be important later.

The villain of the issue is the Dodo Man, who, according to Batman’s “Work in Progress” journal, “compulsively steals anything having to do with the extinct Dodo bird.” The Penguin wishes he specialized like this, people. You wouldn’t think that you could extend a Dodo-based crime career for longer than two weeks, but the Dodo Man’s made a go of it. As the story opens, he’s already robbed the Gotham Museum of a priceless Roelandt Savery painting, four books, and 16 valuable prints on loan from Vienna and Oxford. A quick check of Wikipedia tells us that Roelandt Savery “is famous for being the most prolific and influential illustrator of the extinct dodo, having made at least ten depictions, often showing it in the lower corners.” You can tell that this is Julie Schwartz-edited comic from the real-world factoids peppered in.

Here’s Edward’s Dodo, the Savery painting that the Dodo Man pinched, that’s become the standard image of the Dodo:

edwards_dodo

So hats off to the Dodo Man. The man knows what he likes, and he’s making it work. He’s pulling off really specific crimes, and he’s spreading awareness of art history while he’s at it. You’ve got to admire that.

Oh, and I almost forgot – Here’s what the Dodo Man looks like:

Dodo Man

Yeeah… That’ll cause a few nightmares. It’s been nearly 40 years since I first read this issue, and I still have no idea why a Dodo bird enthusiast would look like a pink-haired, ax-wielding Crypt Keeper, but hey, it works. And you’ve got to admit that he looks scarier than Bane or Killer Moth.

Oh, and I should mention that this issue also taught me the most valuable lesson of all — Namely, that when it all becomes too much for the Caped Crusader, Batman mellows out with hippies:

Batman Hippies
Tune In, Turn On, Bat Out.

So yeah, it’s a goofy story. Even if it was drawn by Neal Adams at the height of his powers, it would still be a goofy story. Heck, it doesn’t take much to imagine it as an episode of the Adam West show. But I don’t care. I love it.

The backup story is a cool noir-ish piece by Denny O’Neil, Michael Golden, and Jack Abel, starting a new feature called “The Unsolved Cases of Batman.” It’s a more serious story, but it does have a few notable features, namely a wonderfully atmospheric splash page by Golden:

Batman Unsolved Splash
How cool is this?

I just love this splash: the stalactites, the bats flying overhead, the florescent lights, Batman’s casual pose, and late-70s office equipment galore, with filing cabinets, a manual typewriter, a rotary phone, and a cool-looking reel-to-reel tape recorder. This is what high-tech looked like in 1978.

The story opens up at the Gotham Tennis Club (because a man of Bruce Wayne’s stature can’t belong to just one tennis club, dammit), where Bruce’s friend, philanthropist Angus McKame, suddenly drops dead of a heart attack. There’s no foul play, but Batman still keeps an eye on McKame’s mansion, as rumor has it that McKame had a fortune stashed away in his house safe.

Batman soon encounters sleazy tabloid reporter Marty Rail, who artist Michael Golden obviously had a bit of fun with by making him look like writer Denny O’Neil:

Marty Rail Denny O'Neil

But Batman soon learns that he’s been played for a sucker, as the goon attacking Rail was Angus’ adopted son Buzzy, and Rail just robbed Angus’ house safe. Investigating further, Batman discovers a newspaper clipping revealing that Angus McKame was wanted for murder 50 years before. Rail plans to break the story and make his name by ruining McKame’s.

The ending of this story is rather grim, with Angus, Buzzy, and Marty Rail all dead, and Batman choosing to let the evidence of Angus’ crimes stay hidden so that his good deeds will be remembered instead. Pretty heady stuff for a kid brought up on Batman ’66 and Super Friends.

I probably read this comic book more than any other that I had as a kid. So much so that my original copy looks… well…

batman303_original

…I suppose “well-loved” would be the nicest way to put it. I bought a better-condition reading copy for $10 back in 2001, though, so I’m good.

It’s strange for me to think how this single issue ended up having such a huge impact on my life. Soon after this, I became a regular comic book reader, a hobby that I carried into adulthood. I developed an interest in drawing, with ambitions to someday work in comics. I ended up earning a BFA in Graphic Design, graduating from the Joe Kubert School, doing some licensing work for DC Comics, writing for BACK ISSUE, and now doing this column for Atomic Junk Shop. And none of it would have happened if a friend haven’t given me an old comic that he didn’t want any more.

So while it’s no bat flying through a study window, this comic book was certainly an omen that shaped the direction of the rest of my life. It’s the Secret Origin of John Trumbull.

Next Monday: I talk some more about Secret Origins, Originitis, and the Power of Mystery. See you then.

14 Comments

  1. Charlie 217

    Good article, John. I can’t remember my first comic! I have it narrowed down to one of three. Two of my great grandmothers kept a stash for her grandkids to read. One had a stash of Herbie, the Fat Fury comics and a Wonder Woman/Huntress origin retelling. The other had a worn out Adventures comic (digest?) which had the induction of Supergirl and Ultra Boy in it.

    1. John Trumbull

      Thanks, Charlie! It sounds like that WW/Huntress comic was from the early 80s. That’s when the Huntress was a backup on the WW book. They came out with a nice trade paperback of most of them a few years back: The Huntress: Darknight Daughter. Worth picking up!

  2. Edo Bosnar

    Hmm, that’s a pretty good secret origin, John. And you quite impressively still have the radioactive comic book that bit you (I don’t, but I remember that it was Marvel Tales #59).

    Great review, by the way. Sounds like a fascinating issue: not only do we have Batman/Bruce Wayne career switch (which I think merits its own mini-series, or at least an Elseworlds story), but also one of the awesomest members of Batman’s rogue gallery that I never knew existed. This story is definitely something that seems more suited to the Silver Age, or, at the very least, something that came from the mind of Bob Haney.

  3. Jeff Nettleton

    In all these years, I’ve never seen a picture of Denny O’Neil in his younger days; only his more follicly-challenged years.

    Identity mix-ups seemed to have been all the rage, in the 70s. Superman had a few and one of my earliest Justice League issues, #122, is all about the JLA=ers getting their identities mixed up (which would factor into Brad Meltzer’s Identity Crisis). Maybe it reflected America’s identity crisis, in relation to Vietnam and post-Vietnam. or maybe DC writers just had personal issues.

    1. John Trumbull

      In all these years, I’ve never seen a picture of Denny O’Neil in his younger days; only his more follicly-challenged years.

      Yeah, most of the photos of Denny that I found online were from the last 10 years or so. This was the best-quality one I could find from the 70s, but I’m not sure what exact year it was from.

      Interesting thoughts on the 70s identity crisis. With the distance of years, you really can see subtext like that come out in ways you couldn’t at the time. I remember that JLA story. I *think* it was Elliot S. Maggin who wrote it, but it was definitely another one that Schwartz edited.

  4. Simon

    Ugh. This looks fun and self-contained. Thankfully, that sort of comic has gone the way of the dodo.

    Why didn’t they make it a two-year BATMAN: CONFUSED event? The three-piece-suited Batman would beat up Gordon and break Barbara’s arms, then the costumed Bruce could relax with Joker in Penguin’s bordello. The villain would collect human lips° and be called the Xoxo Man. Now that’s something decent folks could get behind, and give to their kids too.

    ° Josh Simmons used that in “Mark of the Bat” but it was Batman doing it, not the villain, so this would be an entirely new and original story.

  5. M.S. Wilson

    I can’t remember my first comic, but I think it was probably from 1977. I don’t recall my first Batman comic either, but I have read this one. I always thought the whole “amnesia induced identity switch” was kinda goofy, but then Reed wrote some pretty wild stuff in those days. I’d completely forgotten about the scene with the hippies…I’m surprised none of them said “We Reach.”

  6. Le Messor

    “I’m still not exactly what you’d call well-known on the comics blogosphere.”
    Reminds me of this:
    “He even acknowledges how strange it would have been if a man not super famous within the comic book art community…”
    which I read last night. The ‘He’ here is Bill Sienkiewicz, talking about himself. What do you mean, ‘not super-famous’?

    When I first saw your name on CSBG, I recognised it. I thought as a comics professional, but I can’t find any reference to you working within the profession.

    “It’s the September 1978 issue… it’s possible that I read it as late as 1980… six-to-eight-year old me”
    That would imply you were born in 1972?

    I can’t remember the first comic I read. I read some comics as a child, and still remember some of those. Some were given to me randomly by parents, others borrowed from friends. Then came a gap where I didn’t read many at all, then I started collecting at 16.

    1. John Trumbull

      When I first saw your name on CSBG, I recognised it. I thought as a comics professional, but I can’t find any reference to you working within the profession.

      If you don’t know me from the stuff I listed at the top, I don’t know if I can help you. Unless you’re thinking of this guy:

      http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Trumbull

      “It’s the September 1978 issue… it’s possible that I read it as late as 1980… six-to-eight-year old me”
      That would imply you were born in 1972?

      Your math is correct. 🙂

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