BHOC: BATMAN #296

Here’s another book that was bought for my brother, Ken–it seems as though at this time, he was trying to match me book-for-book. And eventually it ended up with me in any case. That’s a pretty dramatic cover by Sal Amendola. I wasn’t as wild about his work on the interior of the book–he took some of his inspiration on page layouts from Neal Adams, with the result that his pages often seemed cluttered or confusing to me. But here, the simplicity of the image really works in its favor. In particular, the Scarecrow looks creepy, which wasn’t always remotely the case with him.

At this time, a lot of the writing for the Batman titles was being handled by David Vern, under his pen name David V. Reed. And since each story was self-contained, my impression was that editor Julie Schwartz had a bunch of these all working at once, and he’d slot them into the series as they neared completion. This meant that it was rare to see the same artist two months in a row, and there wasn’t even any casual continuity from one issue to the next. This is the way almost all comic book stories had been done for decades, beginning in the 1940s, but after an exposure to the Marvel books, it seemed to me to be a old school way of thinking.

The issue opens with the Scarecrow outlining his new plans to his henchmen, the Strawmen–and it’s very much like every plan he comes up with. He’s isolated the portion of the brain where a person’s most deeply-rooted fear sits, and created a gas that will make it seem to that person that this fear has become true. As a test, he tries it out on one of his Strawmen, who is terrified of the Batman. Fortunately for him, the Scarecrow hasn’t given him enough of a whiff for the experience to last any longer than 30 seconds–but he almost dies within that time at any rate. The Scarecrow is sure that this time, Batman will follow suit.

As a first move, the Scarecrow seeks out the crook in possession of recently stolen State Turnpike Bonds, and using his fear gas, he coerces the man into returning them to the bank from which they were stolen. This is enough to attract the attention of the Batman, who is among the directors of the bank in question. Intrigued, he decides to track down the perpetrator, and pays a visit to a local underworld informant. The informant is in the process of getting shaken down himself, so this gives Batman an excuse to get some action into this story,

Batman convinces Commissioner Gordon to plant information in the news story about the Bonds’ return that what had been returned were counterfeits. This draws the Scarecrow out–he was certain that his fear gas would make his pigeon return the genuine bonds. But when he and his Strawmen go back to the guy to try to get answers, Batman is waiting for them, and a melee breaks out. The Scarecrow escapes, but Batman is able to lay hands on one of his minions, scaring the guy into giving up the details of the Scarecrow’s plan.

The Scarecrow intends to plunder the loot of criminals who have stolen goods too hot even to fence, by using his fear gas to coerce them into turning the loot over to him. Going over recent police reports, Batman is able to zero in on the recent theft of a Guttenberg Bible as a likely target, and to solve the theft while just standing there. With that information in hand, he disguises himself as the perpetrator and waits for the Scarecrow to make his move. He doesn’t have long to wait.

Of course, it’s at this point that Batman is exposed to the Scarecrow’s fear toxin–and his greatest fear turns out to be running into something he could not handle, which would end his war on criminals. That seems a bit antiseptic to me, but whatever. In the space of a page, Batman overcomes the toxin by focusing on why he is the Batman. Strangely, there is no mention of his parents or his motivations in this sequence, just a lot of teeth-gritting. But either way, Batman clocks the Scarecrow and his men, then wraps up a few loose ends with Gordon, and the story is finished. I have to say, it was a pretty dull story, too. I can see how this kind of thing didn’t grab me and make me a regular BATMAN reader just yet.

The letters page this time out includes a missive from Peter Sanderson, who would go on to research the DC Library in preparation for CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS in a few years, and thereafter come on staff at Marvel as an archivist for a time. It also included the yearly results of a poll conducted in the long-running fanzine BATMANIA, originated by Biljo White but at this point under the auspices of Rich Morrissey.

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