My favorite era in “Batman” comics – actually all of DC – is the late ’50s and early ’60s.
Oh, these weren’t the comics I grew up with.
By the time I came along, Batman was already years into his “New Look” – the artistic reboot that pushed for realism, jettisoned most of the Bat-Family and made for a dull crime-fighter.
Over the years, I have gone back and tried to collect as much as I can – not much, all things considered – of “Batman,” “Detective Comics” and “World’s Finest” during this era.
The stories are just so much fun.
Many comics fans – and certainly DC itself – disagree.
That period of Batman is considered too silly, too juvenile to be worthy of consideration. Yes, Batman had zebra costumes and a dog who wore a mask and encountered space monsters the way you or I run into postal employees when we go to the post office.
But that was true of all comics at the time.
The idea that there was no weight or depth to these stories, that the art was substandard, is just absurd. True, there were clunkers and plenty of silliness to go around, but that’s true of comics in any era. Have you tried re-reading the 1996 Bat-crossover “Contagion” lately? I did. I ended up chucking the trade paperback into the trash.
One of the best stories appeared late in this period and featured Batman facing his greatest fear.
In “Robin Dies at Dawn,” in “Batman” No. 156, cover date June 1963, Batman awakens on an alien world, with no knowledge of how he got there.
As he stumbles across the bleak landscape, rendered by Sheldon Moldoff, he finds himself under assault by both flora and fauna. He calls to the Boy Wonder for aid, and Robin, as he always does, comes running.
The Dynamic Duo are attacked by a giant stone idol. The two flee across a gorge, but Robin is intent on taunting the behemoth. The creature retaliates by hurling a boulder, crushing the teenager.
It’s a stunning, shocking moment.
Batman buries the body of his young ally on the forbidding planet. And then, when his grief seems to overtake him, he wakes up in a Gotham City laboratory. He was a volunteer in an experiment studying how a long spaceflight might affect astronauts mentally and the loneliness provoked his greatest fear, that his actions would somehow lead to the death of his young partner.
That’s just part one of the story. In part two, as Batman and Robin try to apprehend the nefarious Gorilla Gang (led by Magilla, no doubt. Oh, come on. Too easy.), Batman suffers from harrowing flashbacks to Robin’s death on that alien world and endangers himself and his partner.
Believing he can no longer be trusted patrolling the city he loves, Batman vows to never don his cape and cowl again.
Retirement lasts about two panels as the Gorilla Gang captures Robin and ties him to a giant balloon, planning to launch him into the stratosphere. The shock of the real peril propels Batman to overcome the trauma of the isolation experiment.
Bill Finger’s terrific script works on a couple of levels, as an adventure tale and as a psychological thriller. The idea that the Caped Crusader’s concern for his ward could be both their undoing is a bold insight, coming from the co-creator of Batman no less, and proving these stories could and did convey some gravitas.
I don’t know how anyone can dismiss Moldoff’s brilliance. That cover is iconic, and I want to point out a few more panels that show his talent for capturing mood, first here on the alien world –
– and then standing vigil over his young ally’s grave –
– and finally, in Gotham City, as Batman wrestles with his doubts.
Exactly one year later, in “Batman” No. 164, the “New Look” debuted. It is credited with saving the Batman comics. But a lot was jettisoned, and while it may have been necessary to keep the character viable, it’s nonsense to pretend these great stories never existed. Get over your shame, DC, and embrace your heritage.