This inaugural entry of Comic Book Retroview was written some time in the ’80s as a spec submission to Comics Buyer’s Guide; it was intended to be the first in a series of reviews of back issue comics (an idea a CBG reader had suggested in the letter column), but editors Don and Maggie Thompson passed on the idea. This is its first publication. All images copyright DC Comics Inc.
In 1966, Batman and Robin became household names. The vehicle for this new-found fame was, of course, a twice-weekly televised showcase on the ABC network, a comedy/adventure program which would catapult the Caped Crusaders to national prominence and magazine sales in excess of one million copies that year. Around the same time that the TV show was beginning to gain in popularity, Batman # 180 was published.
The issue’s cover set the mood. Gil Kane and Murphy Anderson produced a cover that re-created the spirit of the blood and thunder pulps of yore: pummeled by heavy rain, the hero struggles desperately with the gun-toting villain–the vision of death incarnate!–as his partner falls helplessly into an open grave. It could have been a cover for Black Book Detective (starring the pulp hero The Black Bat) as well as for Batman. The scene is completed by a tombstone marked, “R.I.P. Batman and Robin,” and by the ominous threat hissed by the villain: “I’ll be the death of you yet, Batman and Robin!”
Inside, the story “Death Knocks Three Times” fulfilled the promise of the cover. In twenty-four pages, uncredited author Robert Kanigher (with pencils by Bob Kane ghost Sheldon Moldoff, and inks by [I think] Joe Giella) spun a gripping, suspenseful yarn about a murderous thief called Death-Man, who was captured by the Dynamic Duo and brought to trial for the killing of an armed police guard. Throughout his capture, trial, and subsequent death sentence, Death-Man remains confident and unconcerned: “Do you really think you have the power to sentence me to death? I–and I alone–possess the power over life and death! I am beyond your feeble laws! You can no more jail a shadow–or punish it–than m-m-m–“
And with that, Death-Man fell to the ground, and was pronounced dead on the spot. This was on page seven. Mere pages later, Death-Man would soon rise from the grave to rob again, boast again, and die again before Batman’s eyes.
Although a one-shot character, Death-Man was arguably the most memorable addition to Batman’s gallery of rogues since the 1940s. Compared to the ineffectual clown that The Joker had become by this time, and to the costumed buffoons Batman would soon play with on the tube, the self-proclaimed master of death cut a striking figure. Indeed, Death-Man’s arrogant taunts and mocking death(s) were enough to shake even the dread Batman to the point of nightmares. In spite of an unconvincing explanation for Death-Man’s death-cheating–Eastern mysticism and self-discipline allowed him to enter a state of suspended animation–the villain’s cat-and-mouse games with Batman lent themselves to a fascinating storyline. The climactic cemetery confrontation alluded to on the cover is wonderfully atmospheric, as Death-Man meets his final fate for real.
“Death Knocks Three Times” was the final flourish of the New Look Batman, begun in 1964 by editor Julius Schwartz to streamline and revitalize the character. Soon after this issue was published, the camp silliness and “Holy Jet-stream!” expletives of the TV show began to show up in the comics as well, effectively destroying everything that Schwartz had worked for over the past two years. However, the saga of Death-Man was more than just the last story of that period; it was also the finest, and worthy of standing alongside the later accomplishments of Neal Adams, Denny O’Neil, Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers, et al. Really, they just don’t write ’em like that anymore.
POSTSCRIPT: Although the original version of Death-Man never again appeared in DC Comics continuity, the character was slightly revamped in the ’60s by Japanese manga artist Jiro Kuwata, who called the villain “Lord Death Man;” Kuwata’s version is included in the 2008 book Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga. Subsequently, Lord Death-Man has appeared in DC Comics continuity, and has even been retrofitted into Batman ’66, the 21st-century comic-book version of the camp TV show. Holy irony!
When I was 16, I wrote a script called “Nightmare Resurrection,” a sequel to “Death Knocks Three Times,” bringing Death-Man back from the dead one more time. It was terrible. I bow to Kanigher, Moldoff, Giella, and Schwartz.
By Carl Cafarelli