Thursday, October 2, 2014

October is Spookey Month: Batman #310 (April 1979)

Batman #310 (April 1979) is a comic I bought solely for its cover.  Even back then I was a big Joe Kubert fan, and I believed the cover artist always did the interior art.  I was wrong.

Choosing Kubert as cover artist makes perfect sense because he and Robert Kanigher co-created Gentleman Ghost as a Hawkman/Hawkgirl adversary.  Gentleman Ghost debuted in Flash Comics #88 (August or October 1947, take your pick) but I’d never heard of him.  Why?  Because I never read any Hawkman comics.  Never had anything against Hawkman, just wasn’t my thing. 

Joe Kubert, on the other hand, certainly was and still is very much my thing.  Being 11 years old when this comic book came out I had no idea he’d ever done anything other than war comics and Tarzan.  A chance to see him draw a Batman story piqued my interest, but I can’t say the Irv Novick-Dick Giordano team that actually did the inside art disappoints.  They do a bang-up job.  Theirs is my ideal visual representation of Batman.  He has human proportions and he's not always gritting and grinding his teeth to the point where his molars must be just about gone.  He's a serious guy, but he has recognizably human emotions!
Here we are 35 years later and I’m still not particularly into Hawkman and my knowledge of Joe Kubert’s long comics career remains spotty at best.  I love his art and still adore this attractive, exciting cover, though.  I just find it odd I’d have an Irv Novick comic and never have it click with me despite coming to appreciate his solid Bat-work from all the reprints I’ve read over the years.  Maybe it’s not so odd.  I once had a Russ Heath Sgt. Rock and didn’t realize it until much later.  Same with a Rich Buckler-Bernie Wrightson Batman book.  I’m kind of an idiot.

Script: Len Wein/Pencils: Irv Novick/Inks: Dick Giordano

The story, titled "The Ghost Who Haunted Batman," is a jaunty, assured effort by all involved.  It would have made an excellent episode of the 1990s Batman: the Animated Adventures TV series.  Len Wein's script sets up a neat double mystery and wraps it all up in a single issue.  One one hand we want to know why is Gentleman Ghost, known for stealing jewels, suddenly after things like antique lanterns and furniture?  And on the other, where did Bruce Wayne's loyal butler Alfred Pennyworth disappear to?  Wein also plays the whole "is Gentleman Ghost a real ghost, or is he just some clever illustionist with a gimmick?" routine to great effect.  Batman remains pretty skeptical of the supernatural throughout, and when his bat-rope falls ineffectively between Gentleman Ghost's cuffs and gloves, he's disturbed.  But not enough to stop scoffing, as when he sneers, "Mister, you're about as supernatural as my shoe."

No doubt like Batman himself, I distinctly remember expecting some kind of prosaic explanation at story's end.  A special effects artist or magician revealed in an unmasking...

What I admire about this book is how every moment moves the story forward or reinforces the then-current Batman status quo.  There's no waste.  Even for a reader like me, who bought books based on whim and might go months between Batman purchases, could pick this issue up and learn all its players and how Batman relates to each of them.  There's a quick bit of Catwoman romance, a Lucius Fox appearance and even a return visit to Wayne Manor, and yet the central plot remains at the fore.  It's a quick read and certainly no gyp for being self-contained and short.

One of my favorite scenes in this book comes when Batman disguises himself as a portly fellow butler to infiltrate a UK-themed bar where Alfred likes to hang out on his nights off and brag to anyone who will listen and buy him a pint about his awesome job with the Waynes.  In the interest of blending in, Batman goes for the old school stereotype complete with bowler and crooked little pipe.  He kind of goes from one panel in his Batman jammies staring down at the pub to the next walking-- the caption tells us it's a mere few minutes later-- in all dressed up with a waistcoat and padded suit.  I'm not sure how Batman pulls this off so quickly when he doesn't even have his Batmobile around to carry things for him, but Wein doesn't let a little detail like this slow the story's pace.

Script: Len Wein/Pencils: Irv Novick/Inks: Dick Giordano

I like to imagine Batman spouting off with a Dick Van Dyke-quality accent and all the ex-pat Brits mocking him after he leaves.  For the story's purposes, Batman probably puts on an accent not only dead-perfect for some particular region of the UK, but also a specific neighborhood.  Came up with a complete biography for this one-off character and everything.  He is a master of disguise, after all.  He's right that it would be odd for Batman to go around asking about Bruce Wayne's butler-- but why doesn't he go in as Wayne?  Because subterfuge is fun!
Novick and Giordano lovingly create a creepy, fog-bound mood throughout, turning Gotham City into a vast haunted house.  The atmosphere compares favorably with that ultimate night-bound comic, Marvel's Tomb of Dracula.  And Gentleman Ghost makes an excellent Batman foil.  I’ve always enjoyed Batman stories where he comes up against the supernatural and he’s left a bit befuddled in the end.  Batman benefits from being depicted as vulnerable and not as hyper-competent.  Nowadays he’d anticipate Gentleman Ghost’s every move and have some kind of pre-built anti-ghost device.  In 1979, a hypnotized Alfred could sneak up behind him and knock him out with a heavy gold lamp and he could be deked by an empty suit, then try and fail to save Gentleman Ghost from a carriage crash.  The final scene certainly lives up to the story's title as Batman is left there with the Ghost’s mocking laughter ringing in his ears in one of those ambiguous “just what the heck was that guy?” endings. 
Batman and Gentleman Ghost would tangle again shortly and we'll talk about that one when I get the time to read it and react to it.

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