Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Detective Comics #327 (May, 1964)

The "New Look" Batman and Robin began in the 300th appearance of Batman in Detective Comics, with a cover that featured a brand new masthead for the first time in the series history. (Y'know, because maybe after 36 years it's time to modernize a little?)
The cover art is by Carmine Infantino and is essentially a blow-up of some panels from within the issue - although with one key difference that makes the cover kind of a cheat.
It's most interesting feature is that the big visual change of the "New Look" (Batman's yellow oval) is coyly avoided on this cover. It's hard to imagine these days, when superheroes have new costume and relaunches every couple of years, but the New Look was a huge change and a big gamble, and so it seems DC was trying to ease readers into the changes a bit.
The other big thing on the cover is the announcement that the back-up feature starring Martian Manhunter has been replaced with one starring Elongated Man -- aka the stretchy-powers superhero you care about even less than Plastic Man or Mr. Fantastic.

"The Mystery of the Menacing Mask!"
Writer: John Broome
Pencils: Carmine Infantino
Inks: Joe Giella
Synopsis: We start with a splash page elaborating a later scene in the story in which Batman and Robin helpless to make a move against a smug criminal. Our story proper takes us to Gotham Village, an uncreatively named analog for Greenwich Village. Imagined as an electic place filled with bohemians, cafés, and apparently lots of CRIME, it is currently the centre of a controversy to tear it down in order to lower crime in Gotham City (aka gentrification) or to be preserved for it's historic value.
Bruce Wayne is Vice Chairman of the committee to preserve the village, and so he takes his youthful ward Dick Grayson down to take a look at the place. There they meet a young woman named Linda Greene. Her fianceé, James Packer, wants them to live in the Village after they are married, but Linda wants to move Uptown because CRIME. Apparently Jimmy's been disappearing a lot lately and recently Linda found a map of the Village among his stuff with a certain area marked with an X, so what if Jimmy's a criminal?!
The circled X on the map causes Bruce and Dick to go into a mututal flashback to when they were pursuing a gem thief as Batman and Robin. The thief hid in a penthouse apartment and Batman rushed in to get him and was greeted with a blast of Crazy Purple Knock-Out Gas.
Robin runs up to the knocked-out Batman, and we get a replay of the cover. Only this time Batman's hands cover his whole face, and so when he turns to Robin who demands the Caped Crusader take off his mask, he does so and reveals a big pink circled X on the forehead - in a spot that should've been perfectly visible in the cover page's version of events.
Batman then looks up to see that the same mark has appeared on Robin's forehead as well! However after a few minutes the marks fade away... while the gem thief is long gone.
Meanwhile, the escaping gem thief inner monologues to himself that the explosion knocked out Batman long enough for the crook to brand him, "as well as Robin who entered the room moments later" -- which makes no sense, because Robin was never knocked out... so when was he branded?? How did the mark mysteriously appear on his forehead?
Anyways, at the Batcave, Batman does a chemical analysis on his mask and finds a trace amount of phosphorous isotope - which can only be bought at the Rare Chemical Company store! (Seriously?)
An inquiry with the store's owner reveals the only person to have purchased the isotope recently is a man named Frank Fenton, and the owner gives Batman his address. Turns out it's real, and a dude named Fenton lives there! This is the easiest mystery ever!
They show up at Fenton's place and we get the scene from the splash page - the Dynamic Duo find themselves unable to move. Fenton mocks them for a bit, take his loot of jewels and leaves. 
After the paralysis wears off, our heroes regroup at the Batcave. Dick thinks the paralysis has something to do with the X marks, and Bruce agrees. They formulate a plan to undermine Fenton's control on their next meeting, and decide to search for him in Gotham Village, since it's a notorious hideout for crooks. 
And that brings us back to the present, with Bruce's visit to the Village revealed as a cover for Batman and Robin to do some sleuthing. At that moment, Jimmy Packer walks by, and Bruce and Dick offer to tail him for Linda, who agrees.
And so Batman and Robin follow Jimmy to an abandoned house at the location Jimmy had marked with an X. Jimmy goes through a secret door in the back of a room, and our heroes follow him, revealing a staircase down into an underground cavern. 
This is Sub-Gotham Village, a haven for criminals where they hide out until the heat dies down, paying a percentage of their loot to a crime boss named Smiler. Fenton is striking a bargain with Smiler, saying that he should get a discount rate because he can provide insurance against Batman and Robin as long as he's down there.
The Dynamic Duo springs into action, but once again are paralysed by Fenton. However when the crooks approach to gang up on them, they suddenly spring into action! Quickly they have all the crooks beaten up, and Batman stops them from trying to escape BY PULLING A GUN ON THEM?!!
The cops show up and arrest everybody, and in a Scooby-Doovian twist, Smiler's revealed to be wearing a mask and to be Roland Meacham, the chairman of the committee to preserve Gotham Village!
Yep, turns out the conservative reactionary anti-crime dudes who wanted to tear down the bohemian paradise were right all along - it was a haven for criminals!
Meanwhile, Fenton is revealed to have been using an energy signal from an electronic box directed at the radioactive phosphorous marks on Batman and Robin's heads to affect the motor areas of their brains, which the Caped Crusaders were able to block by wearing lead-lined masks. Which, is.... ugh. Okay.
And it turns out that Jimmy was just trying to find out where the criminal element was in Gotham Village so he could alert the police, figuring that if crime was gone then no one would want to tear it down and he and Linda could live there in peace!
And he was right! Even though the chairman was a crook, Bruce as Vice Chairman convinces the city to let the Village stay. Happy endings all around!
My Thoughts: It's really hard to give an accurate picture of how amazingly huge this issue was when it dropped. I mean, it's basically just a regular average story about Batman and Robin fighting some regular crooks, with some vague topical allegory and a slightly weird gimmick for one of the criminals. But that's WHY it's such a big deal! Because Batman comics for the past seven or eight years had been about the Dynamic Duo fighting invading aliens from Dimension X and so on! Heck, the very issue of Detective before this one was called "Captives of the Alien Zoo", and featured a plot that is exactly what that title sounds like.
So this lowkey, quasi-realistic tale is a huge breath of fresh air in comparison to what came before. Which, ultimately, was the whole idea behind the "New Look".
The Art: And what a look! Again, in comparison to the issue just before this one, and indeed any Batman comic since Dick Sprang stopped drawing it (around 1954, I think), this thing is GORGEOUS! Ten years of Sheldon Moldoff ghosting for Bob Kane had meant flat, dimensionless, boring art! From a modern perspective Carmine Infantino might not look like much but in 1964 for Batman fans it was a huge leap forward. Infantino rendered his characters in a much, much more "realistic" style, delivering a Batman and Robin who looked like real people. Robin finally has a normal looking hairstyle instead of Bob Kane's weird double spitcurls, and Bruce finally has a normal looking chin instead of the perfectly square jaw he'd been sporting for decades. The art is dynamic as well - their capes move like fabric instead of cardboard, everything just looks and feels amazing. It's the art, and more importantly the contrast between this art and the art that came before, that makes this issue memorable, far moreso than the story.
The Story: As much as it's nice to have a down-to-earth Batman back, Broome's story is not very good, from an objective standpoint. It's got too many strands - there's Gotham Village, Jimmy Packer, Fenton and his gimmick, it's all over the place. The science of the gimmick makes no sense at all, but at least it's lowkey I guess. I know Schwartz felt that while Batman should go back to fighting regular crooks, they should still have some sort of gimmick that puts them beyond regular police, so I guess this is an iteration of that notion. 
The weirdest thing about the story is that Gotham Village is like a version of Greenwich Village, and all the bohemian artist types living there made me think this was a kind of attempt to get at the folk movement teenager types, the burgeoning beginnings of the counter-culture movement as it stood in 1964. By having Bruce on the committee to preserve the village, it seems like the story is siding left here, natural since the youth audience of the comic probably would too. But then it turns out the hardliner "tear it all down" conservatives are right all along! Weird. It makes the comic come off very "square" in its sensibilities. 
Although it is cool to see a story in which Bruce Wayne actually has some part to play. Putting him on a committee transforms him from a bored playboy/non-character to someone who's actually doing some social work in his civillian identity in addition to punching people as Batman. It's a cool beginning to a trend that will eventually culminate in Wayne Enterprises being introduced in the Bronze Age.
Okay, so the actual weirdest thing is Batman pulling a gun on those crooks - but Julie Schwartz has long since fessed up to that being because he was still a little unfamilar with the specifics of Batman's M.O., and soon promised it would never happen again.
Notes and Trivia: First "New Look" Batman and Robin, first appearance of the "Yellow Oval" bat-symbol, Batman pulls a gun on some dudes, first appearance of Gotham Village, first Batman issue drawn by Carmine Infantino.

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