Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Batman, right before Adam West

In January of 1966, Batman would debut on ABC TV, launching a craze that would make Batman DC’s biggest star and pump “camp” into DC’s comic book line. In 1965, however, Batman’s still in the New Look era that launched the previous year.

The New Look was an attempt to juice Bat-sales (at the link there’s some good debate in the comments about whether sales were approaching cancellation levels). Editor Julius Schwartz and his team took over from Jack Schiff, jettisoning Schiff’s gimmicky stories about aliens and freak transformations.  While New Look stories included the occasional supervillain, they were more likely to feature gangsters with a gimmick or a unique angle. They also included stories that played with the formula in ingenious ways, such as Ed Herron’s deconstructionist “Two-Way Deathtrap” (covered at the link).

Herron also plays with the Batman formula in Batman #169’s “Partners in Plunder.” The Penguin’s stuck for ideas for a new crime so he resorts to a string of random umbrella pranks, knowing Batman will assume they’re clues to the Bold Bird of Banditry’s next crime. Penguin also switches his monocle to the other eye, which Batman assumes is yet another sign of what his foe has in the works. The one thing Penguin doesn’t do is use birds; while those were a staple MO during the Golden Age along with umbrellas, New Look Penguin sticks to bumbershoots.Via a radio in one of the umbrellas, Penguin listens as Batman deduces what crime the Penguin is about to pull, how Penguin will pull it off and how the Dynamic Duo can thwart him. Now all the Penguin has to do is adjust Batman’s hypothetical plan to counter their countermoves and presto, victory! It doesn’t work out that way, but it’s still a clever riff on the usual supervillain clue-and-crime scheme. Clever enough that it became one of the stories adapted for the Adam West series.

In a nice ending touch, Batman never does figure out he was scammed. He ends the story puzzling over the nonexistent hidden meaning of the monocle switch.

Herron’s backup story in that issue, “A Bad Day For Batman,” is also a fun one. During a press conference, a reporter asks Batman’s opinion about a fluke costing the Gotham Goliaths’ pitcher a perfect game. Batman responds that bad luck can take anyone down and describes how his efforts to nail a common crook that day consistently went south. A woman sunning herself reflected light off a mirror into Batman’s eyes. A group of kids came up and hounded him for autographs at the wrong moment. At the end of the story Batman catches the crook, but he admits it’s a hunch more than brilliant detective work: after so many bad breaks, Batman figured he was due for a good one.

I can’t imagine anyone would do a Batman story today showing him that vulnerable to chance.

In #170, Gardner Fox has a clever story of his own, “Genius of the Getaway Gimmicks.” Roy Reynolds is a gang boss with a simple philosophy: “whoever tries to doom Batman dooms himself.” From ordinary hoods to the Joker, criminals have tried and failed to do Batman and Robin in; even when the odds are 100 percent in crime’s favor, Batman always wins. Reynolds, instead, focuses on plans for escaping Batman if he comes across the gang’s robberies. By the opening of this issue, they’ve already pulled off three jobs without the Dynamic Duo showing up. This time they do, but Reynolds’ getaway gimmicks let his men escape, just as he guaranteed.

Batman’s solution? Fake a mystery villain, the Hexer, who plans to destroy Batman with the Bat-Signal’s beam. Reynolds scoffs at the Hexer’s threat but when it appears to come true, his men can’t resist an obvious shot at the Bat — I mean, there’s no way he can escape this time, right? After the hoods are busted, Commissioner Gordon points out Batman put himself and Robin in extreme danger; in an unusually sensible moment, Batman admits they both wore bulletproof uniforms, just in case.

The backup that issue, “Puzzle of the Perilous Prizes,” by Bill Finger, is one of the few stories to do anything interesting with Aunt Harriet. She asks Bruce and Dick to investigate how a friend of hers could win a jingle contest without ever entering it; donning costumes later, the guys wonder if this means she knows Bruce is the world’s greatest detective. It turns out the win isn’t a con, it’s a gift arranged by someone who owes Harriet’s friend a favor. However the investigation results in the Dynamic Duo stumbling onto a real crime as well. At the end of the story, Harriet reams Bruce out for not investigating himself like he promised—but does she really buy his explanation? Does she suspect who they are? It would have been interesting to follow up on that, but as Commander Benson notes, Harriet hardly appeared at all in the next year, despite becoming a fixture on the TV show.

This kind of thing was a long way from Old Look stories such as “The Alien Boss of Gotham City” but that didn’t mean the New Look went completely down-to-Earth. As you’ll see in my next post.

#SFWApro. Top and bottom covers by Sheldon Moldoff, middle two by Carmine Infantino.


  1. Le Messor

    Considering how much people talk about the ’66 Batman making it camp, and the ’89 Batman making it dark again, I’ve vaguely wondered what Batman was like right before Adam West.
    Now I know.

    Some of those stories sound really clever.

  2. I believe that Batman #169 is only the 2nd Silver Age app. of Penguin so presumably Cobblepot had stepped aside amid all the alien threats and Batman transformations.
    Blimey, Batman’s Twitter self-identification (“negative/zebra/rainbow”) profile must’ve changed every week!
    I’m not a fan of the Sheldon Moldoff art which continued into the New Look era: it’s too flat, and the frequent Giella inks make it even more DC slick and bland. While being great on sci-fi or super speed like Adam Strange or Flash, Carmine Infantino was ill-suited to a street-level, urban character.
    With many stories being Rogue’s Gallery villain-absent, when buying back issues 30+ years ago as a lad I wasn’t impressed with the host of gimmicky hoods. But like you, Fraser, this era is probably worth a reread because of the deconstructionist stuff and I may appreciate it more now.

    1. It works better for me than it used to. Partly, I think, because this reread has exposed me to a lot more of the weaker Jack Schiff stuff than I’ve read in a concentrated dose before.
      Infantino’s and Moldoff’s Batman work for this era, even though Novick and Adams were a better fit for the character. As others have said, it must have been a headscratcher for anyone who thought Bob Kane was still doing all the art — why were Detective and Batman suddenly so dissimilar?

      1. True. Moldoff’s (as “Kane”) & Infantino’s styles were so dissimilar you wonder, Kane’s contract aside, how Julie Schwartz and co thought they could maintain the pretense. Odd, as by now it was obvious to Schwartz that from letter columns a significant amount of readers were: (a) older; (b) intelligent. Guess Schwartz’s looking-down-the-nose attitude to fandom (have you seen/read those interviews where he’s dismissive?) was hard to wear off, despite his encouragement and so on in lettercols.

  3. According to the Commander Benson blog post I linked to up top, DC’s publisher assigned Infantino to the Bat-books. I imagine Schwartz didn’t have any say in keeping Moldoff either.
    Infantino also got to draw Elongated Man’s series, which he loved. He’s easily the best artist for stretching superheroes next to Jack Cole.

  4. Le Messor

    The title of this article always makes me think “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra”.

    He’s easily the best artist for stretching superheroes next to Jack Cole.
    Is there a lot of call for stretching superheroes next to Jack Cole? Seems pretty niche to me. How often do superheroes stretch next to Jack Cole?

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