COMIC BOOK RETROVIEW: The 1966 BATMAN Signet Paperback
by Carl Cafarelli
I don’t think I’ll ever know this for sure, but it’s possible that my first Batman and Robin comic book wasn’t really a comic book at all. I mean, it could have been. It could have been Batman # 184, which I selected out of other four-color choices perched in the comic book display at a grocery store in Aurora, Missouri while on vacation in the summer of 1966. Or it could have been a mini-comic given away as a promo item from Kellogg’s Pop Tarts. Stretching our parameters a bit, it could have been a Batman coloring book. But no–I think my first Batman comic book was really a paperback book: a little 1966 package from Signet Books, promising “The BEST of the original BATMAN–the Caped Crusader’s greatest adventures.” I was six. And a new world was waiting for me.
’66 Batmania had a deep and lasting effect on me. Although my older brother Art had to pry me away from my beloved Wednesday night TV appointment with Lost In Space because he wanted to watch Batman instead, I came to prefer our Dynamic Duo in very short order. Presaging my future life as a pop obsessive, I immediately had to immerse myself in all things Batman. Toys! Coloring books! More toys! Although I had already read (or had read to me) some Superman comic books, the Batman TV show was the true Ground Zero for my lifelong fascination with superheroes.
In retrospect, given the January ’66 debut of Batman, it seems odd I didn’t get to comic books faster. Did I really wait until summer to start amassing these twelve-cent wonders? That simply can’t be true, but I have no memory of reading a Batman comic book prior to Batman # 184 in Missouri, months later. Damn the Swiss cheese of my memories from when I was…all right, only six years old. I guess I can take a mulligan there. Regardless of whether the Signet Batman book was my very first or merely one of my first exposures to Batman in comics form, its significance in my burgeoning hero worship is beyond question. This book mattered to me. A lot.
I’m trying to remember where I got the book, beyond the obvious answer that my parents bought it for me. I have a vague recollection (real or imagined) of plucking it from a spinner rack, and I want to say it was at either J.M. Fields (a department store chain that had its own dedicated Batman merchandise section at the time) or at Switz’s variety store. Neither of those retail outlets carried comic books, damn them. But one of them peddled this, the gateway drug to my lifetime addiction to comics.
The first story in the book has been called the most-reprinted two-page sequence in the history of comic books: “The Legend Of The Batman–Who He Is And How He Came To Be!” It was my first glimpse of Batman’s back story, of how the young Bruce Wayne witnesses his parents’ murder, and the grief-stricken boy’s solemn vow: “I swear by the spirits of my parents to avenge their deaths by spending the rest of my life warring on all criminals.” After years of training his mind and body, the now-adult Bruce prepares to begin his war on crime, brooding and telling himself, “Criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot, so my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible….”
And the appearance of a bat flying in Bruce’s window provides his inspiration. “A bat! That’s it! It’s an omen…I shall become a BAT!”
It was a far cry from the BIFF! and BAM! of the TV show. On the tube, actor Adam West‘s lines as Bruce Wayne made occasional reference to the murder of his parents; the comics page brought that horror to life, vividly, perhaps even more starkly in this paperback’s black-and-white reproduction.
(The Signet book reprinted Batman’s origin in its most familiar form, as seen in Batman # 1 from Spring 1940, albeit edited into a six-page sequence to adjust for the different page size of a paperback. This two-page origin was first seen, with a different splash image, as the introduction to “The Batman Wars Against The Dirigible Of Doom” in Detective Comics # 33 [November 1939]. Although “The Dirigible Of Doom” was written by Gardner Fox, comics historians believe the origin sequence was written by Batman’s then-uncredited co-creator Bill Finger. The art was by Bob Kane, the guy who took the byline and sole credit for Batman’s creation, ensuring that history would come to regard Kane as a schmuck.)
The rest of the book’s reprints were from the early ’50s, and if they sacrificed some of the pulp noir feel of Batman’s origin, they made up for that loss with sheer zest and commitment. “The Web Of Doom!” (from Batman # 90, March 1955, credits believed to be Finger with artists Sheldon Moldoff and Charles Paris) doesn’t even skimp on the pulp tension, with its riveting tale of amnesia, danger, and time running out. “Fan-Mail Of Danger!” (Batman # 92, May-June 1955, same presumed credits) mixes humor with suspense to winning effect, presaging our current cult of pop idolatry and obsession.
“The Crazy Crime Clown!” (Batman # 74, December 1952) is next. Written by Alvin Schwartz, penciled by Dick Sprang with Charles Paris inks, this tour-de-force of Batman and Robin versus The Joker offers the book’s only use of any of Batman’s most famous foes, and it’s fantastic. The art’s phenomenal, of course–I regard Sprang as one of the definitive Batman artists, perhaps even more so than later masters like Neal Adams and Marshall Rogers–and the images jump off the page, even in a black-and-white pocket book. And the story remains one of my top Joker appearances, its natural sense of humor balanced with adventure and intrigue. Reading it when I was six, there were times I laughed out loud, while still being thrilled by the storyline. (I do recall being confused by an image of Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson standing in a foggy night scene; rather than fog, it appeared to my young eyes as if our intrepid heroes had burrowed their way up from the depths of the Batcave–like Quisp‘s subterranean rival Quake would have done in commercials for Quisp and Quake cereals–and were surrounded by displaced dirt, not fog. Man, I was an odd kid.)
“The Crime Predictor!” (Batman # 77, May-June 1953), “The Man Who Could Change Fingerprints!” (Batman # 82, March 1954), and “The Testing Of Batman!” (Batman # 83, April 1954) completed the paperback’s collection of Bat-treasures. I loved each and every one of them, then and now. Having already been introduced to Batman and Robin via the TV series, I found the Signet paperback to be my best possible introduction to my hero’s comic book adventures.
This was the first of three Batman comics collections published by Signet in 1966, though I didn’t get (nor even see) copies of Batman Vs. The Joker or Batman Vs. The Penguin until many years later. I also didn’t see either of Signet’s two Batman novels, Batman Vs. Three Villains Of Doom and Batman Vs. The Fearsome Foursome(the latter a novelization of the 1966 Batman feature film) until well, well after the fact. I have them all now, secured in varying condition from dealers in the ’70s and ’80s. My copy of Batman Vs. The Fearsome Foursome was autographed by Adam West at a car show in Buffalo in 1987.
And I still have that original, worn, tattered, dog-eared, loved-to-death copy of a paperback collection called Batman, plucked from a spinner rack when I was six years old. It’s falling apart, and its inside front cover was customized in ’66 by that very same six-year-old, a kid who would (sort of) grow up wishing to create fictional adventures of his own.
Hadda start somewhere. Before trading my twelve cents for a copy of Batman # 184 in Missouri, before Detective Comics or The Brave And The Bold or Justice League Of America or World’s Finest Comics, before Denny O’Neil or Steve Englehart, Irv Novick or Jim Aparo, or any other stellar iteration of The Batman in comic form–before any of that–I started here.