When I think abut the Christmas season, I’m often put in mind of this issue of DETECTIVE COMICS, the seminal issue #500. I bought it on Christmas eve, 1980, and I don’t know that any of the gifts I received the following morning were a match for that reading experience. It’s all tangled up in my memory with the excitement of the season, the anticipation of waiting for Christmas morning, that feeling that fades with age and which is strongest in childhood. DETECTIVE COMICS #500 was a Perfect Game comic book if ever there was one. As I’ve mentioned in these pieces before, having worked out that special oversized issues could bring in more profit, both Marvel and DC began to make their centennial offerings an event. somehow, over the years, the ability to do this among both companies has been lost a little bit–maybe it’s simply age talking here, but I don’t think I’m giving in to nostalgia too much in assessing books like this one. They were qualitatively superlative. To start with, the wraparound cover on this monster is a jam piece with contributions from Dick Giordano, Walt Simonson, Joe Kubert, Carmine Infantino, Tom Yeates and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, an all-star line-up. I’m told that the original art is still in the DC offices for this one, as there wasn’t any good way to determine which of the many artists involved should receive the artwork back.
While Batman had been the feature that made DETECTIVE COMICS a huge success, for most of its existence up until this point it had been an anthology comic, with more than one story in each issue. Editor Paul Levitz chose to pay homage to those roots by filling DETECTIVE #500 with seven different stories, only some of them devoted to the Caped Crusader. But the story that leads off the issue is an acknowledged classic, written by Alan Brennert. Today, Brennert is better remembered for his television and novel writing, but in 1980 he was sort of a proto-Alan Moore, a bit of a sensation who appeared out of nowhere, did a number of well-remembered stories and then vanished again. This is one of his most reprinted, in which the Phantom Stranger transports Batman and Robin to a parallel Earth. In the same manner that Earth-2 was twenty years earlier in birthing super heroes, on this parallel world everything is happening twenty years later–and so Batman is given the opportunity to prevent the murder of his parents by gunman Joe Chill. There’s a bit more to the tale than that, it’s an affecting and emotional outing with a strong kicker ending–one of the best Batman stories of its vintage. And it’s relatively easy to find, as it’s been reprinted a few times, as I mentioned earlier.
The second entry in the issue ostensibly stars Slam Bradley, the private detective/adventurer created in the title’s very first issue by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster as a precursor to Superman. But in fact, it’s a bit of a gimmick story paying homage to a number of the other detective-themed series that filled the back pages of DETECTIVE COMICS (and a couple other anthology titles) over the years. So writer Len Wein and artist Jim Aparo bring together not just Slam, but also Captain Compass, Jason Bard, Roy Raymond (“TV Detective!”), Mysto the Magician-Detective, Pow-Wow Smith and Christopher Change, the Human Target to solve the murder of an older detective who had been a mentor to all of them at one time or another. In doing so, they close their late friend’s final case, and there’s also a final twist in terms of who pulled the trigger that puts me in mind of an earlier Batman story that turned on the same idea. It’s a pretty fun outing, and was recently included in the DC: THE END OF ERAS hardcover for those who are curious about it.
The next story is only two pages in length, but it’s super-clever and stylish, and modern-looking enough that you could publish it today and nobody would know that it wasn’t new. Len Wein and Walter Simonson craft a short Batman adventure using nothing but the cliche phrases that cartoonist Charles Schulz made famous in his comic strip PEANUTS by having Snoopy use them in his attempts to write the Great American Novel. The whole thing is a gimmick, but it’s a really good gimmick, and Wein and Simonson are able to craft a wonderful, tight adventure in only these two pages.
The next tale stars frequent DETECTIVE COMICS back-up star the Elongated Man. His back-up series always cast him more as a gimmick detective rather than a full-fledged super hero, so it seems appropriate that he’s represented here. The artwork is by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, one of the absolute finest draftsmen of the age. Jose Luis never quite exploded as a fan favorite likely because he never worked on a particular series over a long stretch of time as many of his fellows did. instead, he became DC’s go-to artist for licensing artwork, and his style defined the DC characters in merchandise for twenty years. The story is an ode to Edgar Allen Poe, the father of the detective story, written by Mike W. Barr, who was an aficionado of the form.
The following entry isn’t a comic book story at all, but rather a prose feature provided by a very special guest author. Walter Gibson had been the first and primary writer of the pulp magazine stories featuring the Shadow, who had been the precursor to and inspiration for Batman. Here, he writes the only Batman story that he would ever pen, with spot illustrations provided by Tom Yeates. In effect, for the next eight pages the reader is perusing the pages of the Batman pulp magazine that never existed. It’s a fine, pulpy short story, and Yeates was an excellent choice to illustrate it, as his work is of a piece with the style of the great pulp illustrators of the past.
After that comes a story written by editor Levitz himself (and Len Wein steps in to provide services as a guest editor since DC policy prohibited editors from writing for themselves.) It’s a Hawkman adventure illustrated by the Silver Age incarnation’s artistic father, Joe Kubert–Kubert had always been a fan favorite on Hawkman, but in the early 1960s the fan community made up only a small portion of the overall audience, and it took other hands (specifically, Murphy Anderson’s) to eventually earn the Winged Wonder his own series. Nevertheless, Kubert was always associated with the character an so any chance to see his depiction of the pair from Thanagar was very much welcome. The story also serves as a homage to another mainstay of DETECTIVE COMICS in years past, J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter, whose strip had debuted as another gimmick detective series, this one tying in to the public’s growing hunger for science fiction. In this latest story, Katar Hol investigates the cold case of the death of Dr. Erdel, the man whose robot brain had pulled J’onn J’onzz to Earth from Mars in the first place.
And the final piece in this oversized issue returns to the Masked Manhunter, with artist Carmine Infantino, who had helped to usher in the “New Look” Batman in 1964 returning to the character one more time. The story’s special guest star, Deadman, was also originated by Infantino as artist, though he went on to greater prominence under the pencil and pen of Neal Adams. Writer Cary Bates delivers a story that wouldn’t have been misplaced in the Bob Haney-written BRAVE AND THE BOLD. In it, Batman is struck down by a criminal’s trap and lies in a near-death state, contemplating whether or not all that he’s done in his life has made any difference at all. It is up to Deadman to help usher him through the afterlife and help him to find the will power to return to the land of the living–and then Boston Brand takes over the Caped Crusader’s body in order to hunt down the bad guy who put him in the hospital in the first place. I can remember flipping through the issue at the spinner rack in my local 7-11 and being excited by the moment in which Batman is confronted by the spirits of all of the people he saved over the years who had thereafter gone on to their final reward. It was a powerful moment, and it made me want to race through the rest of the issue to get to it.
Editor Levitz gets the last word himself in a text page that runs on the inside back cover–for this extra special issue, no advertising at all was run, a real departure from policy. Additionally, the page gives a rundown of the development of the front cover artwork, and credits production man Bob LeRose with putting together the montage of vintage covers on which the characters are climbing–no easy task give that the covers were drawn in perspective, requiring LeRose to distort each vintage image precisely before dropping it in. This issue of DETECTIVE COMICS was one of the last comics directly edited by Paul Levitz before he moved over to the business side of DC and began his slow, steady rise through its ranks. It’s a hell of a good issue to go out on.