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THE EVERLASTING FIRST: Batman

Continuing a look back at my first exposure to a number of rock ‘n’ roll acts and superheroes (or other denizens of print or periodical publication), some of which were passing fancies, and some of which I went on to kinda like. They say you never forget your first time; that may be true, but it’s the subsequent visits–the second time, the fourth time, the twentieth time, the hundredth time–that define our relationships with the things we cherish. Ultimately, the first meeting is less important than what comes after that. But every love story still needs to begin with that first kiss.

This was originally posted as part of a longer piece covering both pop music and comic book characters. It’s separated here for convenience.My introduction to Batman, my favorite comic book character, came in the person of Adam West, star of the 1966-1968 Batman TV series; I wrote about that here, so we don’t need to cover all that again. For now, suffice it to reiterate that no TV series ever had as great and as lasting an impact on my life as did the campy, twice-weekly adventures of The Dynamic Duo in 1966.

But that’s just the first part of a first impression. Where did I go from there? Well, the massive nature of Batmania ’66 made the Caped Crusader as ubiquitous as The Beatles had been just two years before. There was so much Bat-merchandise everywhere you turned; the J.M. Fields department store had a small section devoted exclusively to Batman tie-in stuff, and I still have the Batman wastebasket I got there.

One of the most intriguing Batman products would have to be the bubblegum cards. There were two entirely different series of Batman cards; there was a series featuring stills from the TV show, capturing images of Adam West and Burt Ward capturing Gotham’s Most Wanted, and there was another series with painted, pulpy images of Batman and Robin battling their deadliest foes. Oh God, those painted cards were awesome, and I sprang for a complete set of reproductions a couple of decades ago. Those cards, with their hints of an unknown wonderland of Batman adventure, were my first teasing taste of (excuse the expression) a Batman beyond what I’d seen on TV.

(I recall a similar feeling of Bat-discovery in, I think, a tie-in from Hostess or some other sweet treat distributor, which carried images of Bat-villains I’d never seen, like The FoxThe Shark, and The Vulture; I got another sideways glance into Batman’s vast rogues gallery with coloring-book appearances by The Bouncer and Blockbuster.)


I can’t quite remember my first Batman comic book story. I have a vague memory of a battle with The Joker involving giant tubes of paint (which would have been from a 1966 Kelloggs promotion), and that may or may not have been my first. If not, then the honor probably goes to a 1966 Signet paperback, collecting Batman reprints in black-and-white. Most of the reprints were from the ’50s–I particularly loved a Joker story called “The Crazy Crime Clown!”–but the first story in that book was a reprint of Batman’s origin story by (uncredited) writer Bill Finger and (too-credited) artist Bob Kane, as it appeared in Batman # 1 in 1940 (except for, y’know, the expensive color part). I still have that paperback, and if that’s where my Batman comics-readin’ started, then I picked a hell of a great place for my Batman to begin.

Subsequently, the first bona fide Batman color comic book I owned was Batman # 184, purchased off the rack at a grocery store in Aurora, Missouri in the summer of ’66.  I’ve purchased a few more Batman comic books since then.

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Dennis O’Neil

Comics is a visual medium. But no matter how dazzling the individual images, how pretty the pictures, how powerfully the lines have been drawn, the story is what’s at the heart of it all. Without a story, all we have are pinup pages. Maybe they’re great pinup pages. But it’s not really comics without a story. Writer and artist. You need both to create comics.

Sometimes the writer and the artist are one and the same, from Will Eisner to Art Spiegelman to Carol Lay. More often (especially in commercial comics), there is a division of labor. The writer writes, the artists–usually more than one artist–pencil, ink, and letter, and also color if the work’s not for black-and-white publication. When I was a teenager, I decided I wanted to be one of the writers. I wanted to be like Dennis O’Neil.

Dennis O’Neil had been a journalist from Missouri before breaking into comics as a writer in the ’60s. O’Neil initially wrote for Marvel Comics, then for Charlton, and began writing for DC Comics in 1968. It was at DC that O’Neil made his name.

I’m not sure of when I first became aware of O’Neil, nor can I identify which comic offered my first exposure to his work. Maybe it was in Beware The Creeper, or possibly Justice League Of America, neither of which would be among my favorite O’Neil runs. There was also his underrated work on Wonder Woman, chronicling the adventures of a de-powered Amazon Princess. I can tell you I loved his early ’70s work on Superman, the “Kryptonite Nevermore!” run that moved Clark Kent out of The Daily Planet to new duties as a TV newsman. O’Neil brought an unexpected sense of verisimilitude to his portrayal of the Man of Steel. I was 11 and 12, 1971-72, and I thought it was just the greatest thing ever.

It would not be O’Neil’s only claim to greatness. With artists Neal Adams and Dick Giordano, O’Neil took over Green Lantern in 1970, bringing the titular cosmic hero down to Earth to team with a costumed archer named Green Arrow, an also-ran superhero who’d hung around without much distinction since the ’40s. This dynamic creative team infused Green Lantern/Green Arrow with new energy, excitement, and an embrace of social relevance that drew the attention of mainstream media. Understand: Green Arrow was strictly a second-banana character up to that point; O’Neil and company revamped this Emerald Archer into the model for the popular character we know today. You don’t get to the Arrow TV series or the subsequent successful DC superhero shows on The CW without O’Neil, Adams, and Giordano showing the way. O’Neil also revived The Shadow for DC, wrote the return of the original Captain Marvel in Shazam!, crafted the magnificent Superman Vs. Muhammed Ali one-shot, and much later turned in some stunning work on The Question. He did more work for Marvel, as well. This isn’t even a thumbnail of O’Neil’s c.v.

But O’Neil’s most important and lasting work in comics was on Batman. No–make that THE Batman. Following the cancellation of the campy 1966-68 Batman TV series, the once-formidable Caped Crusader had become a joke. Batman’s tarnished reputation could only be salvaged with a return to his pulp roots. O’Neil wasn’t the first to consider reestablishing the shadows in The Batman’s world; Neal Adams had started adding noirish visuals to Batman’s appearances in the team-up book The Brave And The Bold, and writer Frank Robbins and artist Irv Novick (inked by Giordano) had already separated Batman from Robin the Boy Wonder by sending the latter off to college, all prior to O’Neil’s first Batman script.

Nonetheless, it all came together when O’Neil began to chronicle the goings-on in Gotham City. Whether working with Adams or Novick (both almost always inked by Giordano), O’Neil’s Batman was undeniably The Batman. From the early ’70s onward, this vision of The Batman as The Dark Knight influenced nearly every subsequent interpretation of the character. O’Neil created a new nemesis named Ra’s al Ghul, revived Golden Age villain Two-Face for the first time since the ’50s, and turned The Joker from the buffoonish Clown Prince of Crime that he’d become back to the murderous harlequin created by Bill Finger (and, I guess, Bob Kane, maybe) in 1940’s Batman # 1. 

Dennis O’Neil saved Batman. The lasting impact of his Batman writing is beyond measure; if not for O’Neil, you can be damned sure that Batman–THE Batman–wouldn’t have become the multimedia juggernaut we now know. It wasn’t just O’Neil, of course. Still, none of it–the movies, the mania, the pop cultural preeminence, none of it–could have ever existed otherwise.

I was blown away by O’Neil’s Batman. I’d been hooked on superheroes in general and Batman in particular by the TV show in 1966, when I was six. As an adolescent and young teen, I read O’Neil’s Batman and exulted in the thrill of a Dark Knight, a Batman I could believe in. 

I was 13 or 14 when I decided I wanted to be a writer. Specifically, I wanted to write comics. I wanted to write Batman. Goddamn it, I wanted to write Dennis O’Neil’s Batman.

I failed at that. And that’s okay. The effort made me better, gradually, over time. Dennis O’Neil was one of my biggest influences as a writer. If you have ever enjoyed anything I’ve written, fiction or non-fiction, for this blog or elsewhere, it all comes from me wanting to be Dennis O’Neil, and Harlan Ellison, and Woody Allen, and Mark Shipper, and Max Allan Collins, and…yeah, it’s a long list. The list starts with Dennis O’Neil.

Dennis O’Neil passed away last week. He was 81. Comics fandom mourns. Gotham mourns. If The Batman also mourns, his emotions remain hidden in the shadows that are his home, his mask and cloak concealing any hint of his thoughts. He sees a signal in the night sky, and knows he is needed elsewhere.

And he is gone. As if he were never there.

Thank you, Dennis O’Neil. My life and my imagination would have been much poorer without you. Thank you. Just…thank you.

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Comic Book Retroview: The 1966 Batman Signet Paperback

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 EnglehartIrv Novick or Jim Aparo, or any other stellar iteration of The Batman in comic form–before any of that–I started here.