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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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Comic Book Cover Cavalcade #1

As the music portion of my former series Comics And LP Cover Cavalcade already split off into its own separate LP Cover Cavalcade, the comics portion also needs its own space. This inaugural entry of Comic Book Cover Cavalcade shares five DC Comics covers from the 1970s.
ALL-STAR COMICS # 58 (January-February 1976)

When writer Gerry Conway left Marvel Comics for DC in the mid 1970s, one of his highest-profile assignments was this opportunity to revive All-Star Comics, which had been the home of comics’ original 1940s super-team, The Justice Society of America. Continuing its numbering from the final JSA issue of All Star Comics in 1951 (pretending All-Star Western # 58 and onward never happened), the new series initially soft-pedaled the old ’40s JSAers to focus on the three younger heroes–Batman‘s former partner Robin, former Seven Soldiers of Victory member The Star-Spangled Kid, and a buxom new character called Power Girl–who comprised the team-within-a-team referred to as The Super Squad. Conway script, Mike Grell cover, Ric Estrada pencils, and inks by the legendary Wally Wood helped get the new All-Star Comics off to a solid start. Conway returned to Marvel before long, but the series continued with style and distinction.

BATMAN # 253 (November 1973)

I was thirteen years old in 1973, and I was a big, big DC fan. The Batman was my favorite character, and you bet I insisted on calling him THE Batman. The Batman was a creature of the night, a dark avenger, not the campy crusader whose TV show hooked me on superheroes when I was a mere child of six. No! The Batman was serious stuff! You can look back now and smirk at my sanctimonious nerdiness, but I say to hell with you. I was having a grand old time, and I remember the comics of this period with great fondness. Writer Denny O’Neil was on a roll, having already given The Dark Knight a new classic adversary in Ra’s al Ghul; penciler Neal Adams and inker Dick Giordano provided sleek visuals that were as integral to the mood, setting, and storytelling as any word within the captions and balloons, and alternate penciler Irv Novick (also inked by Giordano) deserves credit for maintaining that style in the many issues Adams didn’t have time to draw. In Batman # 251, O’Neil, Adams, and Giordano had reintroduced The Joker in “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge!,” returning the character to the murderous roots of his debut in 1940’s Batman # 1. It is not an exaggeration to say that “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge” influenced every single Joker story published since 1973.

And, a mere two issues later, The Batman got to meet his greatest inspiration, The Shadow. DC had licensed the character of The Shadow in hope of tapping into ’70s-era nostalgia for the pop culture playthings of the ’30s and ’40s. I was all in, as I read my Doc Savage paperbacks, watched The Marx Brothers on Saturday night TV late shows, listened to old adventure radio shows (including The Shadow) on the public station’s Radio Rides Again presentations, and devoured histories of comics, histories that taught me about the Golden Age of Comics in the ’40s, and even about the blood ‘n’ thunder pulp magazines that helped to sire those comics. Pulp magazines like The Shadow.

The Shadow was the biggest single influence on Bill Finger and Bob Kane when they created the character of The Batman in 1939. I knew that, so I was more than primed for The Shadow’s DC’s series (written by O’Neil), and absolutely psyched to see The Shadow finally meet his disciple in the pages of Batman # 253. Beneath an atmospheric cover by Mike Kaluta (regular artist on DC’s The Shadow), the actual story by O’Neil, Novick, and Giordano could be viewed as anti-climactic, or even a cheat. The Shadow is an off-stage player in most of the tale, stepping out from the shadows only near its end. I didn’t care. I loved it without reservation, and I still do.

DC SPECIAL # 10 (January-February 1971)

If I had to pick my all-time favorite comics artist, I would acknowledge the above-mentioned Neal Adams and Wally Wood, plus (of course) Jack Kirby, and a long, long list that would include Dick SprangCarl BarksJack ColeAlex TothJim Aparo, and…listen, we’re gonna be here all night, and I haven’t even mentioned Marshall Rogers yet. But when I have to name just one, I usually say Nick Cardy.

And I don’t pick Cardy on the basis of most of the covers he cranked out as DC’s go-to cover guy in the early to mid ’70s. Those were fine, obviously, but his best work was his brief stint as the regular artist on the Batman team-up title The Brave And The Bold, his Teen Titans (especially his later issues), and his exquisitely-rendered Western series Bat Lash. Oh, and the gorgeous covers he drew for Aquaman.

And there’s also this gloriously atmospheric cover for DC Special # 10, dressing up a basic collection of 1950s cop and fireman stories, reprinted from old issues of Gang Busters and Showcase. Calling them basic isn’t meant as a put-down–I read this damned thing over and over when I was 11–but there’s nothing inside that could hope to match that dynamic Cardy cover. 

SHAZAM! # 8 (December 1973)

The same pursuit of the nostalgia market that prompted DC to license The Shadow also led to the company licensing Superman‘s biggest sales rival from back in the ’40s, the original Captain Marvel. DC had effectively sued Fawcett Comics‘ Captain Marvel out of existence in the early ’50s. When licensing and attempting to revive Cap in 1973, DC Publisher Carmine Infantino‘s intent to restart the World’s Mightiest Mortal’s former comic book Captain Marvel Adventures was immediately thwarted by another, more powerful rival. Marvel Comics had trademarked the Captain Marvel name for its own unrelated use during the original Cap’s decades-long dormancy, and wasn’t about to allow DC to use it. DC went with the alternate title Shazam! instead. Each issue of DC’s Shazam! series featured vintage Cap reprints backing up the new adventures, and the reprints were…well, better. A lot better. The eighth issue was a 100-Page Super Spectacular collection containing only the old stuff, and I felt like it was a gift given to me directly from the Rock of Eternity. This was just magnificent.

SHOWCASE # 100 (May 1978)

DC’s original try-out book Showcase survived on newsstands from 1956 to 1970. It was a series that offered readers an opportunity to sample potential new series, with sales presumably determining which concepts would graduate to ongoing series and which would, y’know…not. Some point to Showcase # 4 (which introduced a brand-new superhero called The Flash, inspired by the 1940s character of the same name, but reimagined as something minty-fresh) as the beginning of comics’ Silver Age, and I would agree. Showcase produced a lengthy list of, well, showcases for both new characters introduced in its pages and already-existing characters given a shot at joining DC’s A-list. The series was revived briefly in the late ’70s, and that revival brought us Showcase # 100.

For this celebration, writers Paul Kupperberg and Paul Levitz teamed with artist Joe Staton in an attempt to craft a new adventure that would feature at least a cameo by each and every one of Showcase‘s stars and woulda-beens. Well, almost; Showcase # 43 had featured a reprint of a British adaptation of the James Bond novel and film Dr. No, and DC’s license to thrill with 007 had never been renewed. And I’m not positive, but I don’t think The Doom Patrol or Power Girl–the stars of the Showcase revival issues that preceded # 100–made it into the big party either.

But yeah, everyone else is represented, from Fireman Farrell through Manhunter 2070. Even Archie ripoff Binky, even Dobie Gillis and Maynard G. Krebs stand-ins Windy and Willy. We’ve got Bat Lash, AquamanGreen LanternLois LaneThe CreeperThe AtomSgt. RockEnemy AceThe Teen TitansDr. Fate and HourmanThe Challengers of the UnknownThe Inferior FiveThe Phantom StrangerJonny DoubleAngel and the ApeTommy TomorrowThe Hawk and The DoveThe SpectreAnthroAdam StrangeThe Sea DevilsThe Metal MenSpace Ranger, the pop group The ManiaksNightmasterCave CarsonRip HunterB’wana BeastDolphinFirehair, Johnny Thunder, and Jason’s Quest protagonist Jason. Maybe someone else I missed. Hell, maybe 007 is in there somewhere, hidden behind the rest of this large cast.

And it’s a blast. It’s goofy in all the right ways, serious where it needs to be, and never so serious that it gets in its own way. Forgive the comparison, but it’s like a Marvel movie in comics form, a lighthearted superhero epic that satisfies. It’s fun.

Quick! Someone go back to 1973 and tell my 13-year-old self that’s it’s okay for superheroes to be fun. Lighten up already, young man.

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