Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Crime clowns and deconstructed deathtraps: notes from Batman’s New Look era

As I approach the end of 1964 in my Silver Age rereading, I keep meaning to do one humongous post about all the 1964 stuff I want to cover. But as that isn’t happening, I’ll see if a few shorter posts work better.

As I’ve mentioned before, the New Look was the era when Julius Schwartz took over Batman and Detective Comics, dropped the Batman Family (Ace, Batwoman, Bat-Mite) and went with a smoother, cleaner look for the art. It’s not my favorite period but I’m enjoying it more this time around. After reading stories from earlier in the decade (the relatively few I have available) I can appreciate what a refreshing break these mysteries and crime-busting yarns were from “Batman undergoes freak transformation” or “Batman fight crime in space” stories.

I’m also enjoying them because I’m reading the Elongated Man backups in Detective Comics alongside the main feature. When I read the Showcase Presents the Elongated Man some years back, I just read it by itself. Pairing up the adventures the way I’d have done back in the day somehow makes rereading more fun. I have the same feeling about reading Strange Tales with Dr. Strange backing up the Human Torch or pairing the Iron Man and Captain America stories in Tales of Suspense as a set.

Detective #332 is an interesting issue, the first where the Schwartz team used one of Batman’s costumed foes. For a long time I thought it was odd the New Look de-emphasized them, but reading the Batman Omnibus shows they were less omnipresent than I assumed. Batman has always spent a lot of time battling ordinary crooks alongside his Rogue’s Gallery.

Written by John Broome, this specific story was adequate, but not a stand-out. What’s interesting though is that it feels like an effort to revive elements of the early Golden Age Joker but comics-code friendly. The Hoodlum Harlequin uses a drug derived from loco weed to compel his crime victims and bystanders to laugh at him hysterically — but not lethally.

Gardner Fox’s backup story, “Elongated Man’s Otherworldly Wife,” is noteworthy for launching a recurring gimmick. Sue is apparently kidnapped and replaced by an alien but it’s actually her faking it to set up a mystery for Ralph’s birthday — the best present he could ask for.

A month earlier, “Two-Way Deathtrap” in Batman #166 gave me a real surprise. I usually think of deconstructing comics tropes as a thing that started in the Bronze Age (except for humor books like Inferior Five, which deconstructed as well as parodied).  I was wrong.

The Frances Herron/Sheldon Moldoff story (this will shock you but contrary to what we were told at the time, Bob Kane did not single-handedly write and draw all the Bat-comics!) has hoods Mitch and Beany discover that the cave system under Gotham City conducts echoes from the Batcave to a particular underground spot. They can’t trace the sound back to its source but they can eavesdrop on Dynamic Duo. Listening in, they hear Batman talking about a recurring nightmare in which he’s trapped in a chamber filling with water, a machine-gun strafing the air just above the surface. He can’t see a way out.

Excited, the two crooks make a hefty bet with Big Joe, a pint-sized gambler with deep pockets. He has a standing offer of ten-to-one odds that no crook can come up with a trap Batman can’t escape. As Batman’s admitted there’s no way out of this one so Mitch and Beany can’t possibly lose, right?

Wrong. But you knew that. What stands out about the story isn’t the trap itself but that Robin points out the idea of criminals setting a trap like that is ridiculous (Beany and Mitch missed that part). If they had Batman in that position why not just take the machine gun and shoot him? It’s the criticism countless fans have made of supervillain deathtraps in the years since. I didn’t realize even non-parody comics were joking about it this early.

I assume Big Joe and the eavesdropping cave were intended as recurring features for the New Look. Ditto Patricia Powell, a detective with a crush on Bruce Wayne who made her second and final appearance in Herron’s backup story for this issue(Commander Benson has the details). Herron wrote less than a half-dozen Bat-stories after this issue so I’m guessing he didn’t have the chance to follow up. And presumably Broome and Fox didn’t want to.

#SFWApro. Covers by Carmine Infantino


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