Thursday, March 12, 2009

A Life in Four Colors (Part Twenty-Two)

1964 was much more than the year that the Beatles came into my life. It was also the year that something remarkable happened to Batman.

Batman had been one of my favorite comic book characters for several years; The logo in the corner may have said "Superman DC," but I knew that Batman was the real star of the company's comics line (I had no idea at the time that the "DC" actually referred to Detective Comics, the book that introduced Batman to the world). While Batman had featured some pretty strong stories (most notably "Robin Dies at Dawn," a book that I found so riveting that I must have read it at least ten times in the month after it was published in Batman #156), it was clear to me that DC's books, for the most part, lacked the visceral appeal of Marvel's growing line of superhero books. Marvel told most realistic stories, or so it seemed; DC offered multiple short tales in each issue, and there seemed to be no relation between them. The idea of continuity was new, and Marvel was mining it for all it was worth; DC was still largely continuity free, producing stories that could have been published in pretty much any order.

But I knew right away that there was something wrong when I saw a copy of Detective Comics #327 on the spinner rack at Hunt's Drugs in Cedartown. We were visiting my grandmother, and I had walked the almost two miles to Hunt's to look for comics. As I mentioned previously, hunting for comics was more of a true hunter-gatherer routine then that it is now. Today, readers can be relatively sure that the local comic shop will have every major release each and every week. Back then, we had no such assurances; the haphazard system of magazine delivery meant that each store might be the only neighborhood source for several of that week's releases.

So I hiked to Hunt's Drugs with a dollar in my pocket, looking for a couple of comics to read. And there was that cover--a three-panel affair set against a white background. Robin could see that something was amiss, but we couldn't... at least, not without reading the comic. And the bottom of the page featured the Elongated Man, a supporting character from the Flash that I had come to enjoy because of his fascination with mysteries (I, too, found mysteries intriguing, and loved to try to solve them before the end of the tale).

Even though I couldn't see whatever it was that Robin saw, I could see one thing right away: this didn't look like Batman as I had come to know him. Batman and Robin were drawn more realistically; they looked more like characters from The Flash or from the Adam Strange stories in Mystery in Space (I would soon discover that the resemblance was due to Carmine Infantino's handling the art duties on all three books). I even remembered that I had seen Batman drawn this same way in another comic in my collection: Mystery in Space #75, my absolute favorite Adam Strange story because it featured guest appearances by the Justice League and their ungainly pink-skinned alien adversary Kanjar-Ro.

And oddly enough, I was struck by the fact that all three panels were constructed in such a way that we didn't see Batman facing front in any of those three panels. DC was justifiably proud and protective of that Bat-symbol on Batman's chest, so almost every cover depicted a shot of Batman facing front so that his symbol could be seen. But here we had one, two, three panels and no front view of Batman. What was up?

So I opened the book, and I was stunned. Batman's costume had changed!

Not only did the art look just as realistic in the book as it did on the cover (Infantino again!), but Batman had added a yellow circle around the black bat-symbol.

My comic book world had shifted on its axis. A character whose costume had been largely the same (except for stylistic differences between artistic representations) for much longer than I had been alive was now wearing different clothes!

You wouldn't think a yellow oval would make that big a difference, but I was both shocked and fascinated. The story didn't make a big deal of it, but to me it was an incredibly big deal. If DC was willing to change costumes, what other changes might they make?

This issue of Detective is now known as the first "new look" Batman, and it also marked the debut of Julius Schwartz as editor of the Bat-books. Schwartz also edited many of the other books I enjoyed, including the aforementioned Flash and Mystery in Space as well as Green Lantern. And now he was in charge of Batman. At the time, I had no idea what an editor did; I presumed that his job was to read the words and make sure that they were spelled correctly and that the sentences were punctuated properly. It would be years before I would begin to appreciate how much the editor shaped the direction of a comic book.

Not only was the Batman story radically different in look and tone (it was much more real-world than most Batman tales), but the Elongated Man story in the back was also different. The art looked similar to the art on the Batman story, but it was somehow scratchier and more angular. I would learn later that the difference was due to penciller Carmine Infantino inking his own work. At the time, I wasn't sure what an inker did, but I could tell that different inkers gave very different looks to the artwork. (I interpreted this as a budgetary thing; for some reason, I figured it was cheaper to have the same person ink the book than it would be to hire someone else to do the inks.)

Two great stories, the same artist on both, a change in Batman... and then, as a bonus, there was a letters column! I loved letters columns; in those pre-internet days, it was a great way to find out what other readers thought of earlier issues. Some books had letters columns, but none of the Bat-books had them... until now.

Suddenly, Batman was newly fascinating...

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