Out of the Vault – The Brave and the Bold Monster Spectacular

Finishing off our five-week Halloween Monsters Who Are Heroes in epic fashion, we have The Batman, a hero who pretended to be a monster to frighten his enemies, teaming up with four honest-to-goodness monsters: a golem, a demon, a werecreature, and a ghost. It all happened in the pages of The Brave and the Bold, Batman’s monthly team-up comic, in the 70’s. And unusually for a round-up of DC issues, all four stories, from 1972 to 1977, feature the same creative team: writer Bob Haney and artist Jim Aparo.

First up: issue # 101, cover-dated April-May 1972, featuring Metamorpho, the Element Man. It may be stretching things to call Metamorpho a golem, but he did have a body apparently composed of different kinds of minerals. His special power was to change the chemical composition of his body at will.

As “Cold Blood, Hot Gun” opens, a rich corporate fatcat falls to his death from his skyscraper office. Batman deduces that the suicide is more homo- than sui-, and further realizes that the hitman is none other than his recurring foe, the one-armed Bounty Hunter (even though the modus operandi is nothing like the Bounty Hunter’s usual pattern). Checking the dead man’s typewriter ribbon, which bears the impressions of the letters typed on it, Batman decides that the Bounty Hunter typed up a neat list of his future victims after throwing his first one out the window.

Don’t try to make sense of it. Number one, we only have 25 pages to get through the plot, including a major guest star, so things have to pretty much fall right into our laps, and number two, it’s a Bob Haney story. Anything can happen.

Anyway, the important thing here is that one of the names on the list is Sapphire Stagg, daughter of rich industrialist Simon Stagg and beloved of Rex Mason, alias Metamorpho. Metamorpho has been in a chemical stasis bath for a couple of years as an attempted cure for his condition, but Stagg takes him out early to guard his daughter from the threat. Meanwhile, other names on the list are dropping one by one, and for Batman, it’s personal, because the last name on the list is Bruce Wayne.

Turns out all of the people on the list were bidding on a mansion being offered for sale by two brothers. And it’s a good thing Metamorpho came out of his bath early, because…

We finally discover that the Bounty Hunter was hired by one of the brothers who didn’t want the estate sold. But the Bounty Hunter kills him for a really stupid reason, then ends up in a final fight with Batman.

But the Bounty Hunter manages to use Sapphire as a human shield and get away, leaving Batman to vow to get him someday. I figure he probably did. And as we’ve seen before, the World’s Greatest Detective(TM) is really not, or else every other detective in DC-world really sucks.

Brave & Bold #109Our next monster team-up features the star of last week’s Vault, the Demon Etrigan.  Keep in mind, this story–“Gotham Bay, Be My Grave,” cover-dated Oct. Nov. 1973–was actually published during Jack Kirby’s original run on the character, so Etrigan does no rhyming here. He is played less as a monster and more as a straight super-hero.

But the 10-year-old me didn’t care, because this was Aparo at the height of his powers (and doing his own inking, to boot). Team-up books are hard, because you have to be able to draw every character in the entire line and make them all fit in with the main character’s aesthetic while being true to the guest star’s character as well. Some artists aren’t really able to pull it off, but Aparo was in the top tier. He could do anybody and make them look good next to Batman. Aparo, George Perez, John Byrne: was anybody else as good as these three?

The story: A strange creature emerges from the ocean as a construction crew is building a new bridge. The monster kills the captain of a tugboat in the harbor, but disappears before Batman can confront him. Later he kills the harbormaster, and even later, he attacks Jason Blood’s friend Harry Matthews (who would later die during the Matt Wagner miniseries as seen last week). So Jason chants the mystic poem…

Wait, “Leave, leave the form of man?” Every other time I’ve seen it, it was “Gone, gone the form of man” or minor variation. But Bob Haney writes his own rules, man. He colors outside the lines.

There’s actually not much here, story-wise. Jason Blood’s psychic sidekick, Randu, gives us the monster’s origin in a psychic vision. The monster is the ghost of a sailor killed in the eruption of Krakatoa after an attempted mutiny (hence his rocky, hardened lava skin). He hates all sailors. He tried to kill advertising exec Harry because he was wearing a captain’s hat, having come from his yacht.

So Batman tries to lure the monster out by disguising himself as a sailor (wearing a rubber mask over his Bat-cowl–man, he must have been sweating), but gets his ass kicked. Jason Blood, meanwhile, has figured out the monster’s weakness and changed to Etrigan once more, except…

Yeah, Bob Haney story. The power of ESP waves. But I love that last panel of Blood in mid-transformation. Batman wakes up to find out that Etrigan has killed the monster already by hanging him with the noose he was supposed to be hanged with before the eruption. Batman manages not to mutter something about being a guest star in his own book and heads off to the next issue on our list.

Issue 119–“Bring Back Killer Krag,” cover-dated June 1975–features Man-Bat, a character I’ve always loved visually, but who has never seemed to really live up to his potential.

The story opens with the murder of a rich man named Moran by a hit man who never misses. Is this the elusive Bounty Hunter again? Nope, it’s new top gun-for-hire Max Krag, who manages to kill Moran right under Batman’s nose and get away clean. Krag flees to the island nation of Santa Cruz, which does not have an extradition treaty with the U.S. Unfortunately for him, Batman doesn’t work for the government. I mean, it was easy to forget given how openly he worked hand-in-hand with Commissioner Gordon during this time, but the Batman was still a vigilante working outside the law.

Too bad that Moran’s widow decides to take matters into her own hands, offering a huge reward for Krag, which means there will be others getting in Batman’s way. Including Kirk Langstrom, the Man-Bat.

Batman travels to Santa Cruz and parachutes in covertly, just like a super-spy. But he lands in the wrong place.

Yeah, since bats can’t swim, the fishermen assumed he was a giant frog. A giant blue and grey frog with pointy ears or something. Luckily, Man-Bat saves him, though it’s never explained how Man-Bat can carry Batman with his hands like that and still flap his arms to fly. Then again, it’s not the goofiest thing Aparo pulls in this issue. Keep reading.

After a couple of misadventures apart, Batman and Man-Bat decide to work together to kidnap Krag. Unfortunately, they are captured and thrown into iron cages instead. And strangely, though Domingo Valdez, the “Black Napoleon” who rules Santa Cruz, is smart enough to capture his foes with no difficulty, he not smart enough to take away their stuff.

Dude. See, Man-Bat just happened to have a spare vial of his bat serum in his pocket. But just as silly, if not more, is the fact that Batman still has his utility belt, so he probably could have escaped in about 50 different ways if he hadn’t just wanted to feel the forbidden thrill of turning into a man-beast for a page or two. And I love the way Batman’s cape merges into his arm wings and his cowl just magically manages to accommodate Batman’s new giant bat-ears. Man, Haney’s crazy was obviously rubbing off on Aparo by this time.

Let’s move on to the last issue in our Halloween Spooktacular (you thought you’d make it through the entire month without me using that word? Hah!).  Issue #133, cover-dated April 1977, features Deadman in a story titled “Another Kind of Justice.”

I always thought Deadman was a cool character, even though I never knew much about him. The first Deadman story I ever read was in a barber shop in the shopping center where my dad’s store was. I don’t remember anything about the story except that the art was awesome (by the superb Neal Adams, I later learned). I later got in trouble with my teacher at school by inserting Deadman into a drawing illustrating that children’s story about the family of ducks stopping traffic.

So I’d had a fondness for the character for years. Deadman was former circus acrobat Boston Brand (former as in dead) given the power to search for his killer  in the afterlife by possessing the bodies of living people. So it was like Ghost without the pot throwing, crossed with The Fugitive . His killer was even missing an arm, or at least a hand, having replaced it with a hook. Hmmm, a one-armed killer… might it have been the Bounty Hunter?

Who knows? In this story, Batman intercepts a shipment of heroin (though in an attempt to make him sound like Kojak or something, Haney has Batman refer to it as “skag”). Batman figures out that an infamous smuggler seems to be at the bottom of it (a smuggler who rose to power by killing his mentor years before), so he comes up with a plan.

Step one: get in touch with Deadman. How do you contact a ghost? Get Jason Blood or Randu or even Zatanna to perform a seance? How about placing a classified ad?

Yeah, at this point, Haney’s crazy has lost the power to surprise. And at this point, the details don’t matter. Suffice it to say that Deadman uses his powers to put the bad guy in a spot of trouble.

What’s remarkable about this particular issue to me is that this was apparently Batman’s plan all along–not to get the guy to confess and get arrested, but to get him killed by his fellow mobsters. The guy manages to get away, but crashes his boat on Dead Man’s Reef and drowns, taunted by the spirit of his ex-boss. Batman and Commissioner Gordon share a laugh about it at the end.

I’m not sure why this never bothered me before. Perhaps just the generally bad level of writing in all the pop culture I was devouring at the time, or just a different societal mindset toward justice at the time. But I can’t imagine Batman, with his principled code against killing, doing anything like arranging the murder of one mobster at the hands of others nowadays.

And that brings us to the end of five weeks of Halloween Vaults. Be here tomorrow for our final Super Scary Movie, Blade II, and Monday for an extra-special surprise. And for next Saturday’s Vault, a total change of pace. Maybe something with a gorilla…

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