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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

THE BATTLE FOR BAT-LEGITIMACY PT. 3

Regarding the first three ages that I assigned to the Batman franchise here, modern fandom knows little or nothing about what concerns attended the transitions from one phase to the other, be it on the part of the producers or the readers. Since the BATMAN titles did not start carrying regular letters-pages until 1959, fans today cannot know what was on the mind of the fans in the 1940s as they saw Batman's adventures change from the weird horror of the first period to the Gould-like sophistication of the second one. Nor did the producers of the Batman comics call attention to the changes when they started having Batman encounter more aliens and magic imps in the hero's "Warm and Fuzzy Age," though a few fan-writers recorded their (generally negative) impressions in the burgeoning world of fanzines.

In the letters-page of the BATMAN features, we do have some clues as to how both comics makers sought to portray the transition from "Warm and Fuzzy" to "the New Look," as well as contemporary reactions by readers. It's a subject that might reward an exhaustive study, were I writing an essay on the topic for academic publication. But I'm only writing this blog largely for my own amusement, I'll confine myself to just a few representative quotes.



The first "New Look" Batman comic to appear on U.S. news-stands was DETECTIVE COMICS #327 (May 1964).  The letters-page does not print any responses to the preceding issue by Jack Schiff, substituting instead half a page to the plans Julie Schwartz (who is, however, not mentioned in the text) has for the title. The page's other half is allotted to a letter from Big Name Fan Tom Fagan talking about the fourth annual Halloween parade in Rutland, Vermont, in which he mentions that the parade included several members of the Batman Family-- including newly dumped semi-regular characters Batwoman and Bat-Mite. Schwartz, or whoever may have written his copy for him, does not precisely denigrate the works of the previous era, but the copy does extol the "New Look" over its predecessor in subtle ways.

There's a "new look" about the BATMAN art (the handiwork of the peerless pencil-and-pen pair, Carmine Infantino and Joe Giella)-- and there's a slicker, more dramatic style of storytelling (from the "talented" typewriter of John Broome).
The ensuing paragraph further informs the readers that a new backup feature, that of the Elongated Man, has ousted the Martian Manhunter from the pages of DETECTIVE COMICS; this section does not specifically champion the qualities of the new feature except to mention-- evidently playing to the hardcore fans in the audience-- that its writer and artist, Gardner Fox and Carmine Infantino, are both winners of awards from the Academy of Comic Books Arts and Sciences. Schwartz's announcements conclude with obliquely informing the readers of the "big event" to come in the next issue of DETECTIVE-- which, as all good Bat-fans should know, was the death of Alfred, a "big event" subsequently reversed when the producers of the teleseries wanted to keep the Bat-cave's butler around on the show.



The art of the "New Look" Batman is not compared to that of the previous raconteurs, largely Dick Sprang and Sheldon Moldoff, because all of this art was billed as having been produced by Bat-creator Bob Kane. Some fans were certainly deceived: a letter from BATMAN #172 credits the improvements on the art to the inking of artists like Giella and Sid Greene on "Kane."  But the letters-page's comment on the writing of John Broome is without a doubt an attempt to persuade readers that the "New Look" would offer improvements on the previous period's writing, calling Broome's style "slicker" and "more dramatic."



One cannot always be sure that all the letters in Silver Age lettercols were genuine, save those that were written by "Big Name Fans" whose frequent appearances insure that the editors were not likely to have used their names flagrantly.  The letters-page of BATMAN #168 leads off with a representative comment by a known letter-hack of the period, Leonard Tirado, and this reader makes no bones about unfavorable comparisons to the previous Schiff regime as he comments on a story from BATMAN #165:

"As all of us in fandom know, the new look policy in BATMAN and DETECTIVE COMICS will mean newer and better stories like those featured in the current BATMAN. All previous attempts at faked-up science-fiction have been wiped off the somewhat depreciated slate of the dynamic duo. "The Man Who Quit the Human Race" was different than all others in that the science element was just used for what it was intended... to make the tale plausible, and not serve as a cover-up for "A monster is on the loose, boys" type plot."




Since one of the more vocal fan-complaints in later years concerned the inappropriate injection of science-fiction motifs into the Batman stories, Tirado's 1964 comment suggests that some readers didn't mind such motifs in Batman; they just didn't approve of seeing these elements dumbed down for the purpose of simplistic monster-stories, as Tirado implies was the case during the Schiff regime. For Tirado at least, Schwartz and his stable of raconteurs succeeded in bringing a "slicker, more dramatic" feel to the Batman franchise. Modern fans might not see that much difference between the Gardner Fox story in BATMAN #165 and previous alien-happy offerings from the Warm and Fuzzy Era. But there can be little question that some readers not only found Schwartz's editorship more pleasing, and that they found his version of Batman more "legitimate" even though Schiff's version, having been authorized by DC Comics, was just as legitimate. For many years, most fans echoed Tirado's verdict in respect to "Schiff vs. Schwartz," though in recent years Schiff's legacy has received a bit more critical attention.




The issue of legitimacy, however, was raised with far greater force with the debut of the BATMAN teleseries in 1966. Again, while one cannot be 100% sure of the authenticity of Silver Age letters-pages, I tend to consider genuine letters expressing grievances about how the teleseries was adversely affecting the comic books. My representative example is from another BNF, Peter Sanderson. from BATMAN #194:

"... it seems to me that you [editors] think, 'If the readers want campiness, let's give some to them-- if we don't, we won't sell as many mags,' Now, look. Your magazine will NOT drop in sales if you get rid of the 'batbrellas,' the 'holy ____.' If you think that your sales will be crippled without campiness, remove the camp stuff from BATMAN and DETECTIVE and have those two mags for people like me, and for the Camp-ers, put Batman in another mag wherein he teams up with the Inferior Five, because to readers who won't read an 'Uncamp Batman,' he's just a bundle of laughs."
I see one implied element held in common by all three of the quotes cited. Schwartz (or his spokesman) emphasizes "slickness" in a non-pejorative manner, meaning something like "streamlined," and claims that the work will be "more dramatic," which connotes a better appreciation of how to make stories work in dramatic terms. Many fans of the period would agree that the stories from Jack Schiff's editorship had become too ritualized, too formulaic, with rare exceptions like the fan-favorite story "Robin Dies at Dawn." Schwartz was no less invested in delivering formulaic stories-- certainly, in later comments the editor cantankerously disparaged his Silver Age readership.  At the time, though, Schwartz understood that one way to boost the readership of the Bat-books might be to appeal to the hardcore fans, who didn't want to see their favored genre as routine and repetitive, and enjoyed seeing genre-works that paid closer attention to matters of drama and verisimilitude.

Oddly, what the BATMAN teleseries delivered was closer in spirit to Schiff than to Schwartz. Whereas Schiff invoked formulaic elements simply in the belief that this was what the readers ought to want, the TV producers invoked those elements for purposes of spoofing and/or satirizing. Both were, for very different reasons, invoking the Langerian concept of *the gesture,* but in a very ostentatious manner, calling attention to the gestural nature of the fantasy so much that I'm tempted to consider it a sub-division of the gesture, which I will provisionally label "artifice." Thus Sanderson dismisses the camp teleseries as irrelevant to what he wants, since it's just "a bundle of laughs."

In conclusion, this brief overview shows that the original statements of Noah Berlatsky, cited here, were flawed in presuming that all comics-fans ought to have embraced the teleseries if they wanted legitimacy. I don't think most fans of any period wanted legitimacy if it meant trashing the original stories that they enjoyed; it's my impression that fans wanted Batman to be loved for the very escapism he incarnated, not as an ironic commentary on some in human society or psychology. And even the considerations of legitimacy were secondary, just to wanting better Batman stories.



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