Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Secret Origin of the "New Look" Batman, Part I: Jack Schiff

When Jack Schiff assumed the editorship of the Batman group of comic books National Publications (aka DC Comics) had been publishing Batman stories for almost two decades. The character had cemented himself as the second-tier superhero of the genre, behind only Superman in the pantheon. His adventures as a masked detective solving crimes with his youthful sidekick Robin were even popular enough to survive the death of the superhero fad in the early 1950s - where his contemporaries found their books cancelled and their stories ended, Batman and Robin continued on with Superman and Wonder Woman as the only three costumed heroes headlining their own series.
With the superhero trend dying off, the comic book industry reached into other new genres, finding success: romance, westerns, horror, and science fiction. Science fiction, especially, was finding itself in a boom period all over media in the "Atomic Age", with stories of giant monsters and invading aliens finding popularity in film, television, and comics. 
DC was more than willing to ride the trend, and so they infused their comics with a healthy dose of science fiction. Mort Weisinger's Superman books featured visits to other worlds, alien enemeies such as Brainiac, and of course survivors from Krypton such as the Phantom Zone aliens and Supergirl. Meanwhile, editor Julius Schwartz had revived older Golden Age heroes such as the Flash and Green Lantern, but had given them a decidedly sci-fi twist. The new versions proved immensely popular and helped usher in DC's Silver Age.
And so it was to be expected that the Batman titles would be pressured to follow suit, and join the trend. Certainly the Superman Family titles under Weisinger were popular enough that it made sense to imitate them. And so editor Jack Schiff's tenure on Batman was marked with a definite tendency towards sci-fi adventures.
Alien invasions, trips to other dimensions, bizarre giant monsters - it's an era that isn't looked back on fondly by many Batman fans. While Grant Morrison has recently rehabilitated this era through the lens of his run on the Batman titles, and they found reprinting in a trade collection called The Black Casebook tying into that run, and also found some wry references on the Brave and the Bold animated series - frankly most Batman fans see this era with distaste, and it's easy to see why. An urban crime fighter in a fairly realistic setting, a dark mysterioso vigiliante of the night, suddenly going to Planet X or growing sixty feet tall or fighting a Rainbow Monster?
But while Schiff gets a lot of the blame for this era, understandable considering it all happened under his tenure, that blame is a little unfair. Schiff himself was a long-time veteran of writing Batman stories, and he knew that the sci-fi mileau was wrong for the character. But he was also a good company man - he took orders and he wasn't one to stick up for himself, especially against imposing personalities such as Mort Weisinger or DC exec Irvin Donenfield.
And so Schiff did what he was told and copied Superman - not just in bringing sci-fi to Batman, but also in creating a "Batman Family" similar to Superman's. Now, in addition to Robin and Commissioner Gordon, Alfred and Vicki Vale, there would be an Ace the Bat-Hound to go along with Krypto the Super-Dog, and mischievous imp Bat-Mite who was similar to Superman's foe Mr. Mxyzptlk. Also, female heroes Batwoman and Bat-Girl would be added as ersatz love interests for the Dynamic Duo, partially to try and undo the charges of homosexuality leveled at the heroes by Frederic Wertham's book Seduction of the Innocent, which had ushered in the era of the Comics Code in 1954.
And so starting in 1957 the Batman books embraced this new era of sci-fi kookiness, where Batman must wear a different coloured costume every night, where Bat-Girl is always trying to get a kiss from Robin even though the Boy Wonder thinks girls are icky, and where the Super Batman of Zur-En-Arrh may team up with his Earthly counterpart for outer space escapades. The back-up feature in Detective Comics even introduced J'onn J'onzz, the Manhunter from Mars!
Frankly, the results were not successful. Sales dropped, readers complained, and while some of these stories are looked back upon fondly, the vast majority are hard to read. 
It didn't help that the art was perhaps the worst the book had ever had. Bob Kane hadn't drawn a page since around 1949, of course, but he had Sheldon Moldoff working as his ghost while he signed the art and collected the credit. While inker Charles Paris helped things somewhat, for the most part Moldoff's art was stale, cardboard, the uninspired efforts of an underpaid penciller trying to imitate the art style of someone who was never very good in the first place. 
And so while the rest of DC entered a creative renaissance, and comics as a whole experienced a new dawn with the arrival of Marvel Comics on the scene in 1961, the quality on the Batman books dipped lower and lower, as stories were recycled and writers scrapped the bottom of the barrel for ideas. 
New Batman annuals reprinted older, pre-Code, Bill Finger/Dick Sprang material was hugely popular with readers, resulting in letters asking what had happened to this Batman. And while Schiff tried to use this as evidence to his superiors that sci-fi and Batman didn't mix, they still insisted on continuing the sci-fi tone, even as sales dipped lower and lower. 
Finally, by 1963, sales had dropped by over 30%. DC would've cancelled the book then and there, but there was one problem - Bob Kane.
When Kane's contract had come up for renewal in 1947, he had lied to DC and told them he was a minor when he first created Batman in 1939. And so he was able to claim DC had taken advantage of him, and when he renegotiated he renegotiated hard. Despite having done almost no work on the character since, operating behind an army of ghosts, Kane retained exclusive rights and ownership of Batman, and if DC stopped publishing the character, Kane would be able to take him elsewhere.
So as much as they might've wanted to, DC could not cancel Batman. So instead, drastic measures were taken.

Mark Waid's Foreward to The Dynamic Duo Archives Vol. 1
"The Science-Fiction Batman: BEMs in His Belfry" 

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