Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

The Three R’s: Robbins, Robin and Relevance

“One Bullet Too Many” in 1969’s Batman #217 (Frank Robbins, Irv Novick) is the story I think of as the end of the New Look Batman and the beginning of the Bronze Age Dark Knight. Dick goes off to college leaving Batman flying solo; Bruce and Alfred relocate to a Gotham City penthouse; and Batman has a new focus on urban violence and street crime.

Like so many transitions, it turns out the shift from New Look to Dark Look was more gradual than I thought. If I ever knew that Novick and Robbins first worked together on Batman more than a year earlier, I forgot it.

Perhaps that’s because in most ways Batman #204’s “Operation Blindfold” feels very New Look rather than the start of something fresh. We have a villain, the Schemer, who’s not that different from any of the other masterminds Batman’s battled recently. We have a ridiculous scheme involving an army of hoods disguised as blind men. However, we also have the opening scene which does have a novel vibe for the Silver Age.
Reading it makes me realize how often Silver Age Batman has operated in daylight. Even when he’s active at night, it doesn’t feel like these opening pages. Nor does the inevitable scene of Batman Trapped resemble anything Sheldon Moldoff or Carmine Infantino would have drawn.

Unfortunately I don’t believe for a minute that the Schemer’s hoods are a serious threat. Plus Robbins hits Commissioner Gordon with the idiot stick. Gordon accepts without question that the dead man was indeed Batman undercover. That means Batman has to be an imposter. Gordon refuses to listen to any counter-arguments, nor does Batman offer any “only I would know that you and I …” reminiscences.Still, change is clearly in the air.

Unfortunately, as I grumbled last week, so is relevance. In Detective Comics #378, “Batman! Drop Dead … Twice!” (Robbins and Bob Brown) Robin blows up at Batman, fed up with being treated like a sidekick instead of an equal partner. He slugs Bats and walks out; the cover is not only accurate, it’s not a hoax or an elaborate ruse (it’s a two-part story but the synopsis for Part Two confirms it). The 1960s’ “generation gap” has torn the Dynamic Duo apart. As you can see, Dick’s conflict is mirrored in Chino’s conflict with his mobster boss. Chino, struck by how much Dick looks like Robin, bullies his new roomie into impersonating Robin so they can lead Batman into a trap and kill him. Then the mob will have to respect them! This time it’s Dick who gets hit with the idiot stick, completely unable to think of a way out of this.

This embodies one of the problems of the relevant era, writers having to contort characters’ personalities into pretzels to make them fit the story. To make me buy Dick slugging his partner would require a very strong inciting incident. Instead, Robbins never explains what pushed Robin over the limit. He simply shoehorns the Boy Wonder into a Relevant! story about the decade’s ongoing conflict between Youth and Age.

Fears about kids running wild were nothing new by the 1960s (e.g., juvenile delinquency fears in the 1950s). By the late 1960s, however, the differences between under and over-thirties in political views, cultural tastes and social attitudes seemed so drastic, a magazine editor described it as a “generation gap.” The sheer size of the Baby Boom issue made the gap feel even more significant, spawning “youthquake” stories about kids taking over: Wild in the Streets, Gas!, Logan’s Run and of course Prez.

In 1968 a good kid unquestioningly taking orders from his father figure didn’t fit the zeitgeist. Of course plenty of kids listened to the parents (at least as much as kids ever have) and shared similar tastes and attitudes, but that’s not how the media portrayed it. Hence an earlier story by Mike Friedrich and Chic Stone showing Dick conflicted over crimefighting: he wanted to run for student body president but had to save Gotham City from that contemporary menace of menaces, the biker gang.

As you can see, Bruce, clueless old fart, can’t imagine what his buddy is so upset about. Oh well, at least DC isn’t writing stories that show teen sidekicks turning to drugs — Wait. Never mind.

#SFWApro. Prez cover by Jerry Grandenetti, other covers by Novick.

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