TFMSR 009: Batman #147 …

Batman #147, May 1962. Cover by “Bob Kane” (Sheldon Moldoff) TM & © DC.

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Batman was in a scary place in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Both his books, Batman and Detective Comics, had reduced the Dark Knight from a fearsome creature of the night with one of comics’ best rogues galleries to an ongoing series of science fiction-tinged, embarrassingly unfit tales. And if it didn’t involve an alien, then Batman had undergone some kind of startling transformation. He was negative. He was zebra-striped. He was colossal. (He was also “Bat-Baby,” but we’ll get to that in a minute.) Or there was yet another tale featuring yet another new member of the burgeoning Bat-Family: Batwoman or Batgirl or Ace, the Bat-Hound, or the dimension-hopping Bat-Mite. There was even someone called “Batman Jones” at one point, a kid who was named after Batman and took up crime-fighting for a spell. Oh, and there was a Bat-Ape in one story (he wore a mask to protect his secret identity, as did Ace).

A gallery of Bat-Books and art from the early 1960s. Batman just wasn’t himself most issues, not to mention an every-burgeoning cast of Bat-characters. All art in this post TM & © DC.

Editor Jack Schiff edited the Bat-books at this time, including World’s Finest Comics, where—hyperbolic title nothwithstanding—Superman AND Batman (with Robin tagging along) teamed up each issue in an exciting new adventure (some drawn by Dick Sprang or Curt Swan, two of DC’s finest). Schiff also edited DC’s “House” books, House of Mystery and House of Secrets. And whether it was due to the success of science fiction movies at the box office in this era or Schiff’s own personal preferences, Batman frequently found himself encountering alien menaces both here on Earth and also on other planets. All those new Bat-Family additions were probably spawned by the success of Mort Weisinger’s Superman books. Old Supes had Superboy, Supergirl, Krypto the Super-Dog and Streaky the Super-Cat, plus the occasional Superbaby story (and don’t forget Comet, the Super-Horse). And he also had alien adversaries like Braniac, and incredible transformations due to the effects of Red Kryptonite. Batman was just keepin’ up with the Superman Family next door, but he was failing miserably at it. At one point, Detective Comics, the title the company’s logo—DC—was named after, featured on each and every cover, was on the verge of cancellation under editor Schiff.

Superman’s success as DC’s most popular character had a major influence on editor Jack Schiff and the Bat-Books.

Whatever the reasons for this awful state of affairs in the Bat-Books, they were still being produced by his “creator,” Bob Kane. Bob was smart enough to bring a lawyer with him when he signed over Batman to DC way back in 1939, and twenty years later, every Bat-Story in every Bat-Book had Bob Kane’s cute little signature box on it. Kane was guaranteed a certain amount of pages each month, but he probably hadn’t written or drawn a line in those stories in years, farming them out to an assortment of ghost artists like Lew Sayre Schwartz and Sheldon Moldoff. (I believe the great Dick Sprang worked directly for DC Comics, but his stories were still signed “Bob Kane.”) By this time, most of the Batman stories were drawn by Moldoff and you could recognize his old-fashioned art style just as easily as fans of Uncle Scrooge knew the art of of “The Good Duck Artist,” Carl Barks … but both those artists were light years apart in style.

So in May 1962, just a few months before the yet to be formally named Marvel Comics introduced Spider-Man in Amazing Fantasy #15—followed by The Mighty Thor in Journey into Mystery #83, and Ant-Man in Tales to Astonish #35—this is what Batman editor Jack Schiff gave us in Batman #147, cover-dated May 1962 (but released in March of that year): Three stories written by Bill Finger and drawn by “Bob Kane” (in reality, Sheldon Moldoff and Charles Paris). The first story, “The Plants of Plunder,” is yet another science fiction oriented story, featuring a “scientific farmer” who happens to be an alien. The second story, “The Secret of Mystery Island,” features Finger’s trademark giant props, this time a huge statue of Buddha on which Batman fights the bad guy. And finally, we have the piece de resistance, “The Story of the Year!,” at least according to the cover (and remember, it’s only March), “Batman Becomes Bat-Baby!” (Evidently these “Baby” stories are special at DC; three years later, Action Comics #325 featured Superbaby on the cover and proclaimed “The Skyscraper Superman”—another amazing transformation story—“The Best Superman Story of the Year!”).

When I started this series, I mentioned I wasn’t going to make fun of these books. Other people do that much better than I could hope to do, focusing on the inanity and absolute wonkiness of some of these books from across the history of comics. This era at DC is famous for said wonkiness (click here to look at TFMSR 002: Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #44 for a prime example). But this is quite possibly the lowest point ever for the Caped Crusader. But it’s a story that at least deserves a synopsis, so here goes …

Batman and Robin are hot on the heels of Nails Finney and his gang. An anonymous tip brings them to a building one night, but it’s a trap! Batman walks into a mysterious ray from an equally mysterious machine and he starts to shrink (not an uncommon occurrence in comics in the 1960s). But no! He’s not shrinking … his growth is being reversed! After the compromised Batman escapes in Robin’s arms, the evil scientist, Garth, gloats to Nails: “Instead of making a dead Batman into a martyr—we’ve made a live Batman into a laughing stock!” But fortunately, as teensy-weensy Brucie Wayne figures out, only his growth has been affected. Batman still has his adult strength and intelligence, which unfortunately doesn’t stop him from putting on a pair of little black shorts (with suspenders) and little grey socks with his little black booties, as he proclaims: “So gangland is now calling me a baby! Well, I’ll dress like a baby, and prove to them that I’m still a crime-fighter—as Bat-Baby!” It doesn’t quite have the ring of “Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot, so my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible, a … bat!”, but okay, fine. You be you, Bat-Baby.

So the somewhat compromised Dynamic Duo go fight crime, causing Bat-Baby to observe, “My legs are too short to keep up with Robin!” and instead he jumps on a helium-filled balloon. “It’s only because I don’t weigh much that this helium-filled balloon will carry me right up to the roof!” The terrifying sight of Bat-Baby instantly instills fear and confusion into the hearts and minds of the criminals: “It—It’s Bat-Baby!”

“Bat-Baby Does Okay for a Kid” … a sterling endorsement from the media!

After an almost close-encounter with current Bat-squeeze Kathy Kane (she’s Batwoman!), Bat-Baby decides that this baby thing is great for surveillance, so he hangs out at a kids’ playground and spots Nails Finney. Having the foresight to “cache a pair of skates at the park,” Bat-Baby, disguised in his civilian persona as little Brucie Wayne, follows Nails back to a warehouse. Bat-Baby and Robin return that night, and round up the bad guys in an action-packed sequence, wherein BB “instantly … leaps upon an appropriate steed”—a hobby horse—and bashes the gangsters. Off panel, he turns on Garth’s ray, which instantly transforms him into Batman once again. “Yes, I discarded my Bat-Baby garb and slipped on this plastic costume I had folded up in a pants pocket.” (I guess those Bat-Shorts had Bat-Pockets.) And “That night, the Bat-Cave’s famed Trophy Room has a new trophy …” Bat-Baby’s cute little costume, encased in a glass box, just like the costume of the dead Robin, Jason Todd, who was beaten to death with a crowbar by the Joker, will be showcased later. The End.

There’s a full-page ad for the latest issues of The Flash (#128) and Green Lantern (#5) in this issue of Batman. Both of these books were edited by Julius Schwartz; Flash was drawn by Carmine Infantino and Green Lantern by Gil Kane, both in a sophisticated style that was clean, sleek, and of its era, the New Frontier of the 1960s. Batman at this time—still drawn by “Bob Kane,” but really Sheldon Moldoff, his uncredited ghost artist—looked chunky and old-fashioned by comparison. Before long DC’s editorial director Irwin Donenfeld (son of DC co-founder Harry Donenfeld; nepotism is nice) would take editor Jack Schiff off the Batman books due to dwindling sales and give him the Schwartz-edited titles Strange Adventures and Mystery in Space, along with House of Mystery and House of Secrets. Schiff retired in 1967 after 25 years with DC.

The start of a new Bat-Era, with editor Julius Schwartz taking over with the “New Look Batman” (both a yellow oval around the bat on Batman’s chest and a new artist). And oh, those covers by Carmine Infantino.

Julius Schwartz had proven himself to be the go-to superhero revival guy, so he was charged with using CPR (Comics Reboot Powers) to bring Batman back to life. He proceeded to do this with the “New Look Batman” that started in Detective Comics #327 (May 1964) and Batman #164 (June 1964), bringing on Carmine Infantino to draw the covers and some stories, at least those not guaranteed to Bob Kane by his contract. When Infantino was promoted to editorial director (and later DC Comics publisher) in a few years, he renegotiated Kane’s contract, and finally Bob Kane didn’t have to pretend to be the sole writer, penciller, inker, letterer, colorist, and janitor of Batman comics at DC, although that didn’t stop him from trying to hog that Bat-Signal spotlight until the day he died.

An example of marker drawings Sheldon Moldoff sold at conventions in his retirement.

These Batman comics have a certain level of clunky charm to them, but even as a kid, I kind of hated them. I know I certainly found them unreadable. Years later when Sheldon Moldoff was retired and making the rounds of conventions, I bought a couple of his marker drawings (Unfortunately I no longer have them, but one of them was of Bat-Mite; I’m pretty sure it’s identical to the one pictured above), and found they made me warmly nostalgic for that era. Bill Finger, the writer credited with coming up with a lot of the innovations that made Batman great in the Golden Age—and certainly as much the creator of the character as Bob Kane, if not more so—wrote a lot of these 1960s tales, but they rarely rose above the level of mediocre and are often just plain awful. The Batman TV series that debuted on ABC in January 1966 made the comic book a bestseller again, and it hardly mattered who was writing and drawing it: Anything with Batman on it, sold, Sold, SOLD. But Bat-Mania quickly petered out, and the character was once again reborn under Schwartz, with a kind of back-to-basics approach by creators such as Denny O’Neil, Neal Adams, and Dick Giordano. Batman was once again a creature of the night, preying on superstitious, cowardly criminals. The great Bat-villains—Joker, Penguin, Catwoman, and Two-Face—came roaring back, more menacing than ever, and in the case of the Joker, more psychotic than ever.

Batman recovered from the campy TV show and was reinvigorated by the introduction of new writers and artists such as Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams, and new characters like Ra’s Al Ghul.

Still, Bat-Baby haunted me over the years. I remember waking up in the middle of the night years ago and going online to eBay to see if I could find the issue he appeared in. I did … but it was way out of my comfort zone, price-wise. At Comic-Con in 2022, it was the first book I bought during a weekend-long orgy of sifting through white boxes. Still a pricey 40-bucks, the copy I found was a bit beat up (I prefer to think of it as well-loved and read repeatedly), but it made the visions of Bat-Baby dancing in my head quiet down. The reality of this being Batman’s nadir sunk in. The character could only get better from here, and after the camp disaster of the Batman TV show, thankfully, he did.

[Batman will return with issue #156—“A Sensational 2-Part adventure … Robin Dies at Dawn!”—coming soon!]

Next time: 1968. Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. “Who Is Scorpio?” Steranko. ‘Nuff said!

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