Out of the Vault – Batman #247

So with New Year’s coming up, as well as Christmas just past, here’s a combined issue of Batman to enjoy. Batman #247, dated Feb. 1973, bucks the trend of its fellow DC Comics of the period with long main features followed by short back-up tales.  Instead, this issue begins with a short 6-pager titled “Merry Christmas,” by Denny O’ Neil and illustrated by Irv Novick and Dick Giordano.

Irv Novick was one of those DC guys, talented but unspectacular. In general during the 60’s and 70’s (at least to me), Marvel may have had the energy, but DC had the superior artists. Sure, Marvel had John Buscema and John Romita, with talented inkers like Sinnott and Giacoia, but once you got past that, their bench was really thin, filled with dudes like Sal Buscema and George Tuska and Don Heck and Rich Buckler and inkers like Vince Colletta.

DC, on the other hand, was the home of Neal Adams and Jim Aparo and Russ Heath and Joe Kubert (father of Andy and Adam and founder of the Kubert School), as well as the Swan/Anderson team on Superman. And their second-tier guys, like Dick Dillin and Irv Novick and Bob Brown, could draw circles around Tuska and Heck. Which is not to mention the freelancers who bounced back and forth between the two companies, like Infantino and Andru/Esposito and Kane.

The story opens with a man and a woman carrying a newborn child, seeking shelter from a snowstorm (cause this is a Christmas story, after all). Unfortunately, they’ve picked the wrong house to seek shelter in, because the homeowner is being held hostage by crook Chimp Manners, who has stolen a vial of top secret experimental nerve gas. But before he can kill the intruders, he is interrupted by Batman, who found Manners’s crashed helicopter and deduced he would hole up in the nearest available shelter.

Unfortunately, Manners pulls out the vial of gas, and unlike Captain America, Batman isn’t willing to risk the vial being opened. Instead, he surrenders to Manners, who orders everyone out of the house at gunpoint.  He plans to hole up in the house a while, and he doesn’t want their dead bodies stinking up the place. But before he can pull the trigger…

Batman decks Manners and recovers the vial, and the homeowner (an amateur astronomer) informs Batman that the mysterious flash was in fact a star that suddenly flared for no reason. One Christmas miracle made to order, which leads into our second story, “…And a Deadly New Year,” which takes up the rest of the book. This one is also written by O’Neil, with Giordano doing both the pencilling and inking this time.

It starts literally moments after the previous story, as Batman drags Manners to his Batmobile for delivery to jail. Only on the way back to Gotham, the Batmobile is run off the road by a truck carrying Christmas trees, and we see that, for this one story anyway, Batman is not driving a generically sporty black car, but is in fact driving a real-world model, a Ford Mustang Mach 1.

With Manners dragging on the handcuff, Batman is overpowered by the thugs, and Manners makes his escape, along with the vial and Manners’s mysterious employer. The unconscious Batman is left alive however, and still masked, because, well, that would turn this into a completely different kind of story. To add insult to injury, they steal Batman’s car (on the plus side, there are at least 6 of them, so they’re very uncomfortable).

When Batman comes to, he checks the abandoned truck for clues and finds an invitation to a New Year’s Eve Gala at Gotham’s Citytop Room. He returns to the city, where Commissioner Gordon tells him someone has made a terrorist threat: unless Boss Halstrom is released from prison by midnight on New Year’s Eve, they will release the gas in the city, killing thousands if not millions (Manners earlier said the vial could kill half the city).

Problem is, they can’t release Halstrom even if they wanted to. He has just had a heart attack and died in prison, which the terrorist is sure to consider just a ruse (take that, all you serial and comic book heroes whose plans revolve around planting fake newspaper stories).

So Batman calls in Alfred and Robin, and gives them assignments: Robin is supposed to find out who in the police department leaked the news of Batman’s route back to the city, and Alfred is to look for connections between Boss Halstrom and the guests at the New Year’s Eve gala. Batman, meanwhile, visits Dr. Harris Blaine, a scientist he worked with during his battle with Ra’s Al Ghul. Blaine can tell him little about the nerve gas, except it’s super potent and might smell like violets.

Batman’s next stop, disguised as thug Matches Malone, is an underworld hangout where he finds Chimp Manners regaling another thug with the story of how he beat the Batman. Batman offers some editorial comment with his fist, and Chimp shoots out the lights. And then…

Say what you will about the relative merits of Marvel and DC during the 70’s, but this sequence of panels is a perfect example of what DC did well that Marvel didn’t even attempt. Marvel was all about big, colorful conflicts. Even when they brought in groups like the Maggia, their mob bosses tended to be cartoonish figures like Hammerhead and the Kingpin (in his Spider-Man days). Marvel didn’t–couldn’t–do this kind of street-level noir until Frank Miller took over Daredevil: The Man Without Fear in the 80’s.

Manners is dead, shot by his buddy, so Batman’s search for Manners’s boss has come to a literal dead end. Robin, meanwhile, finds an abandoned wiretap in police headquarters, with no clues as to who put it there. It’s up to Alfred to find the crucial clue. Three millionaires set to attend the party have all recently received mysterious payments from an unknown source. Batman deduces that one of them must have been paid off by Boss Halstrom to secure his release.

But which one?

There’s no way to find out, and no time to evacuate the city, especially given the panic that will ensue. So Batman plans a sting, which requires Robin to give up on parties with his college friends to mix up chemicals in the Batcave. On New Year’s Eve, Bruce Wayne attends the gala (now described as being in the Skytop Room), where he sits with the three suspects, waiting for the ball to drop.

Batman isn’t just a master of detection and combat, he’s a master quick-change artist as well, changing out of his tux in into his Batman suit in seconds without anybody even noticing. Batman deduces from Ennet’s glance toward the window that the vial is out there, and sure enough, it’s attached to the ball that is even now dropping toward the crowd below. Batman rides the ball down and dismantles the gas bomb with only seconds to spare. Happy New Year!

All in all, it’s a decent enough story, pretty typical for a Batman story from the 70’s. Batman works alone; Robin is an older teen who helps out when needed, but otherwise seems to be his own man. Batman is tough and smart, but not even close to invincible. And he mainly fights street-level criminals, not costumed super-powered masterminds. Even his own colorful Rogues Gallery appears only occasionally. This is not the Batman of the movies, with the right bizarre gadget always at hand, or Frank Miller’s Batman, the master strategist who always knows how to exploit every situation. He gets beat up, he adjusts, he triumphs.

I think other creators have done really good variations on Batman since, but I’ve got to say, I have a soft spot in my heart for this Batman.

Happy New Year.

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