Celebrating the Unpopular Arts
 

Cavemen, beast-bombs and an outsider: the weirder side of 1965 in Gotham City

As I mentioned last week, the New Look Batman era toned down the SF elements that Jack Schiff had pumped into Batman such as alien criminals.

Weird changes either to Batman or his supporting cast.

Batman on alien worlds, which almost never worked as well as Bill Finger’s “Robin Dies at Dawn” (while Robin doesn’t die, the cover isn’t a cheat).The Schwartz New Look period didn’t dispense with SF, but the style shifted — less like 1950s SF films, more like a story from one of Schwartz’s SF comics. Though the first SF story of the era, in Batman #165, doesn’t fit that description: the account of a politician who became a super-evolved mutant and thus “The Man Who Quit the Human Race” would have fit perfectly well into the Schiff era. But in 1965 we get a trio of Detective Comics issues that show a change from the “old look.”

First, “The Deep Freeze Menace” in #337. A caveman, Klag, ends up in suspended animation while trying to kill a thief. Millennia later an earthquake wakes him so he sets out to hunt down anyone who looks like his old foe (spoiler: one of the lookalikes is Bruce Wayne!). Klag proves a tough foe because he has superpowers from the minerals that have coated his body under the ice sheathing it. Drop Batman and I could see this Gardner Fox/Carmine Infantino story showing up in Strange Adventures.

The following issue, the Masked Manhunter acquires “Batman’s Power-Packed Punch” when a chemical experiment at the Alfred Foundation (this was when Alfred was still dead) turns Bruce’s hands steel-hard. Here the difference from the Schiff style really stands out. Rather than treating this as a monstrous transmutation, the Fox/Sheldon Moldoff story approaches it as a temporary, practical problem. Batman can’t hit criminals without doing them serious injury so he has to find ways to take them down without punching them directly.Detective #339, “Batman Battles the Living Beast-Bomb” feels like a leftover plot from “Strange Sports Stories.”  In the middle of a superhuman crime wave, a puny scientist shows up at police headquarters, confesses to the crimes and demands to see Batman. The cops don’t take him seriously until he tears his cell door off the hinges and fights his way out. It turns out that even as an adult, science Wally Hewitt couldn’t get over his teenage hangups about being a lousy athlete, so bad the kids called him “Worthless Wally.” To compensate, he developed a ray that endows him with animal abilities — leaping, strength, speed, etc., similar to what the “Hot-Shot Hoopsters” did to make themselves basketball stars. But oops, when he tapped a gorilla for strength, things went wonky and the gorilla, Karmak, got Wally’s brains, plus mental control over him. Karmak wants revenge for humans kidnapping him from Africa and forcing him to perform in a circus; after Batman cages Wally, Karmak takes action himself, culminating  in battling Batman while wearing a suicide-bomber vest. Fortunately it shuts down when the ape is off the ground for too long; that makes no sense but does justify the cover (the first of DC’s “gorilla covers” that I’ve seen in a while).

While an improvement over the Schiff SF stuff, these stories aren’t up to the level of the more down-to-Earth material I wrote about last week. The exception being the next two installments in the story of the Outsider.

Detective #336 at first appears to have no connection to the mysterious foe from #334. The Dynamic Duo’s adversary is a witch who turns a pumpkin and some mice into a carload of crooks. When Batman and Robin catch up, she fights them by taking away their senses: turning her gang’s car invisible, making the criminals untouchable, blanking out the sound of a lethal rockfall. Finally, at the climax, she steals the taste of victory away by turning Batman into a scarecrow. Fortunately Robin realizes she has no magic when she isn’t touching her broomstick so he snatches that away.

As Bruce and Dick hang the broomstick in the trophy room it starts talking to them, another recorded message from the Outsider. The mystery adversary reveals the witch was his agent, and that her powers are merely psychic abilities triggered by the rare wood of the broomstick. This makes no sense — what kind of psychic can turn a pumpkin into a car? — but up to that point it’s an effective story (the later retcon the witch was Zatanna in disguise makes no sense either. I’ll get to it down the road).

In #340 “The Outsider Strikes Again” with a method for animating objects by touch. He takes great amusement in turning the Dynamic Duo’s own weapons against them, though they can’t understand how he managed to touch a batarang or the trophies in the Batcave. Unmasking the Outsider as a transformed, resurrected Alfred the following year explained that away, but that wasn’t the original reveal. So how did they originally plan to explain it? Who would the Outsider have been?

Maybe we’d know if they’d kept up the pace. The first three Outsider stories came out over a seven month span, so if I’d been reading these at the time, I’d have expected another encounter soon. Instead, he ghosted our heroes until 1966, by which point DC wanted Alfred resurrected to fit with the TV show. Hence the “it was Alfred all along” twist replacing whatever might have been planned. Though given the long gap, I wonder if Fox and Schwartz stopped in ’65 because they hadn’t figured it out themselves. Fox is on the record saying they didn’t know when they introduced him.

I’ll be doing at least one more New Look post dealing with the era’s costumed villains, but that’ll wait for another day.

#SFWApro. Top three covers by Moldoff, everything else by Infantino.

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