BHOC: BATMAN #278

Every once in a while I would run across comics in strange places. So it was with this issue of BATMAN, which turned up in the toy department of a particular department store–it was the only comic book in the place, and it had been stickered to move at a quarter. So I bought it. It was an older issue by this point, so that was of interest. And it felt like a little bit of found gold. I wasn’t a huge follower of Batman, honestly. I had grown up on the 1966 television series, and still watched it in reruns in the afternoon most of the time. And I had some attraction to the Batman eras of the past: the early stuff, the Dick Sprang 1950s and the carmine Infantino New Look of the 1960s. But in the mid-1970s, Batman was most often treated in the vein of a television detective show, battling ordinary criminals and monstrous freaks with a dollop of the supernatural around the edges. I wanted super-heroics, so this wasn’t entirely to my tastes.

I don’t know that it was entirely to anyone’s tastes, really. This era of Batman isn’t talked about much, but it isn’t help up as a strong point in the character’s history. There had been a movement away from the campiness of the 1960s, Neal Adams and Denny O’Neil in particular had attempted t make the Darknight Detective a creature of the night and mysterioso again. But mostly, Batman was treated as an oddly dressed private investigator. He worked alongside the police and was universally respected by them, and walked the line of the letter of the law more often than not. There’d be a lot of talk about how scary and imposing a figure he was in each story, but that really seldom came across that way on the page. He was Kojak crossed with Jim Rockford, an independent contractor for the Gotham Police Department, on permanent retainer. Editor Julie Schwartz was leaning heavily on writer David Vern (credited as David V. Reed) for much of his Batman material–and to Vern, it seems to have been an assignment, little more than a paycheck. His work on the character never felt especially inspired. He rounded the bases, collected his check and went home.

As the story opens, a hijacking in progress is broken up by the sudden appearance of the Batmobile. Batman leaps to the attack, as does his passenger, Inspector Kittridge from Scotland Yard. The two men take down the hijackers, but when the pair is interviewed later by reporters, Kittridge comments that he was hoping they’d come across the sort of truly baffling case that was said to be the Batman’s stock in trade. he wants to match his deductive skills against those of the Masked Manhunter. As this is going on, Batman is accosted by a civilian, who runs up to him but can’t seem to spit out whatever it is he’s trying to say. Frustrated, the man dashes off–and Batman doesn’t think any more of it.

Commissioner Gordon does have a lead on a weird crime that might fit Kittridge’s bill: earlier that evening, a cloaked and masked figure leapt on stage during a performance and wrung the neck of a wooden marionette before dashing off. Not much of a crime as these things go, but hey, Batman is having a slow night of it. The next morning, Kittridge is dining with his host, Bruce Wayne, and mentions his desire to match deductive prowess with the Caped Crusader. The two men decide to bet on the outcome, with Wayne backing the Batman, of course. That evening, as Batman and Kittridge are on their evening patrol, they come across a commotion at a nightclub. Racing inside, they confront the caped and cowled strangler, who is busy choking the life out of a ventriloquist’s dummy. You would think this is now an open-and-shut case, but the wringer fights off both Batman and Kittridge and makes his escape–but not before his hood slips off, revealing that he was the speechless man who tried to speak with Batman the evening before. Batman deduces that the criminal deliberately revealed his face here, that he is trying to tell the Gotham Guardian something. But what?

As the pair continues their patrol, batman is forced to jam on his brakes as a little girl walks out in front of the car. Turns out, this isn’t a really girl at all, but rather an animatronic doll which is thereafter grabbed up by the criminal the pair have now nicknamed the Wringer. Batman and Kittridge give chase, but once again, this single figure is able to fight off the Masked Manhunter and make his escape. But the pair is convinced now that the Wringer is trying to give them advanced warning about a murder he is going to commit, as though he wants to be stopped. And Kittridge has what he thinks is a clue as to the identity of the victim.

The next day, Bruce Wayne accompanies Kittridge to the Gotham City Bicentennial Expo–this story was released in 1976, so the bicentennial was everywhere. As hey walk, Kittridge is especially interested in the animatronic display of President Woodrow Wilson. In an astonishing 12-panel page, Kittridge lays out his belief that the Wringer will strike here next; that his ultimate target is somebody named Woodrow. His prediction is proved to be accurate when the strangler does appear and attacks the figure of the President. But Batman puts in no appearance, and the Wringer once again gets away. From there, the narrative follows the wringer as be breaks into the home of his intended victim, finally ready to commit the revenge-murder that has driven him all through the story.

The only difficulty is that the Batman is waiting for him. And this time, as we’re at the end of the story, the conclusion of their fight is foregone. Kittridge shows up soon after Batman has captured the Wringer–the victim was to have been Douglas Walker, not a Woodrow at all. And so, the Batman explains in a slightly less crowded 8 panel page how he deduced the identity of the victim and took steps to thwart the Wringer. The killer had wanted to be stopped, at least in part, hence his efforts to forewarn the Batman and the authorities. So Kittridge is shown up, Bruce Wayne wins his $100.00 bet, and everything ends in fine fashion. But in terms of a gripping story, there wasn’t a whole lot here to stick to the ribs, and I promptly forgot every detail. Such was the drawback with a lot of the Batman stories of this era.

One thought on “BHOC: BATMAN #278

  1. Thank you for spotlighting another David V. Reed-penned issue. You’re right that his period is generally overlooked in most Batman histories. He was neither a jobbing comic book writer nor a particular fan of Batman. However, he was an accomplished mystery and science fiction writer, an old friend of Julius Schwartz, and a former BATMAN writer back in the 50s (thougheven then treating it as just another job). What he brought to BATMAN was pretty much what Schwartz wanted at that time: puzzle-box stories. That is, generally a done-in-one mystery to solve, deathtrap to escape, or both.

    By all accounts I’ve read, Schwartz didn’t particularly look for character development, expansion of mythos, or unusual plots — if his writers did that without sacrificing the puzzle-box aspect, he was fine by it. So Reed did not add anything to the legend the way, say, Frank Robbins did in his tenure as a Batman writer. If anything, Schwartz apparently had to remove some outdated nuances that Reed remembered from his original tenure. Even so, Reed’s only extended storyline (“Where Were You the Night the Batman Was Killed”) still reads like something from a much simpler time for the character.

    But Reed’s run is notable in hindsight for focusing on an aspect most modern Batman writers gloss over or ignore completely — the World’s Greatest Detective. Though some of his plots could be hokey, Reed always delivered a mystery for the Batman to solve. I didn’t appreciate that as a Bronze Age kid but I do now as a wizened oldster.

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