I believe this issue of BATMAN was bought by my younger brother Ken–which may help to explain why I remember so little about it. Ken would go through these periods when he’d become interested in a particular character or title, follow it for a little while, then drop it and pretty much never mention it again. All of the various books that he had (that survived) ended up with me at some point–including a small stack of duplicates of issues that I already owned from my own purchases. But it was an easy way to experience a few more comic book stories, so I didn’t mind–even if BATMAN at this point was very much not my cup of team. This was a relatively dull period for the Caped Crusader, although relief was in the wind just a year or so later.
But there was no relief to be found here. This was another BATMAN story written by David Vern, operating under his regular pseudonym of David V. Reed. He had written Batman stories as far back as the 1950s, and he was a reliable professional, which is likely why editor Julie Schwartz tapped him so regularly on the BATMAN title–he was as close to a regular writer as the series had during Julie’s days. Vern’s Batman wasn’t quite as ridiculously bombastic and his story plots made a lot more sense than those spun by Bob Haney over in BRAVE AND THE BOLD. But they were most often puzzle and mystery-driven crime thrillers, that just so happened to have a lead character who ran around in a cape for some reason. For all that the sensibility of darkness that Neal Adams and Denny O’Neil had restored to the character was still present, these Batman adventures read as being akin to episodes of a television cop show. You could envision Kojak or any of his ilk in the Batman role a lot of the time.
The story hook here is also typically provocative: there’s somebody that Batman has killed with a gun, a violation of one of the central premises of the character. How can this be? You were meant to plunk down your 35 cents in order to find out. Even the splash page pushes against this conceit heavily. And the answer is relatively mundane, and actually dispensed with by page 5 of the story: Batman intervenes as a gang of criminals attempt to rob the proceeds from a major Gotham charity auction, and a bystander is struck and killed by a bullet fired by one of the gunmen whose aim was loused up by Batman’s punch. So there was a death and there was a gun and batman was involved–but it was nothing as provocative or life-changing as the cover and splash page would lead you to believe. But by this point, DC had your three dimes and a nickel–so you might as well continue reading and see if anything interesting happened beyond this.
And it turns out, there is! A twist as absurd and implausible as anything Bob Haney ever put to paper. When the dead man is autopsied, a tiny platinum ankh is discovered in his skull. Batman and Commissioner Gordon realize that this marks the man as an operative of a mysterious Overlord of Crime who has plagued Gotham for years. According to rumor, the Overlord has a phalanx of close operatives each of whom was implanted with such an ankh, and who were given a post-hypnotic command to kill any and all people related to the Overlord’s death should he be killed in any unnatural fashion. The fear of unleashing this bloodbath on the city is what’s held the Masked Manhunter and Gordon in check up till now–especially because Gordon suspects that the Overlord is positioned high up in the police command. But this accidental happenstance gives them an angle through which they can investigate.
Shortly thereafter, a strange figure in mystic robes bursts into police headquarters. He introduces himself as Akeldama, and claims that he’s mastered the psychic ability of being able to cause anyone within a five mile radius to drop dead of a heart attack. To prove his power, he demonstrates on a random person buying nuts a short way away. True to Akeldama’s word, the man drops dead–and the mystic has vanished before Gordon and his crew can interrogate him. The Batman has gone away on vacation and cannot be contacted, so Gordon and his cops are on their own. After a futile search of several days, Akeldama reappears once more on a golf course where Gordon is playing a few holes. As another demonstration of his power, the mystic causes one of the caddies to keel over, then once more eludes his pursuers. Gordon is perplexed and stymied.
But not so stymied are a gang of criminals. They catch up with and surround Akeldama and abduct him, taking him to a secluded building. There, they indicate that they want him to kill a particular target–and while they don’t name the victim, they do provide a picture and his approximate location. Akeldama goes to work, and in moments claims that the man is dead. The gang withdraws, leaving the sorcerer locked up, to check on the veracity of his statement–whereupon the mystic pulls off his disguise, revealing himself as the Batman (who appears to be somehow wearing his pointy-eared cowl under the old wizard make-up. Your guess is as good as mine.)
Batman proceeds to escape from the locked room and fight his way through the remaining bad guys. He played the role of Akeldama in the hopes of flushing out the Overlord–and he believes that he’s done so. As Batman goes in pursuit of his quarry, we cut to mob boss Luke Brant, who is clearly one of the figures who abducted Akeldama, heading to the home of retired real estate magnate Malcolm Milbrook, to check that he’s dead. Milbrook is, of course, the Overlord, and Brant had been under his thumb for years, fearful, that the criminal’s “wire-head” assassins would hunt him down if he ever killed the shadowy puppeteer. But a heart attack of the type Akeldama causes wouldn’t set off any alarm bells with the wire-heads; hence, Batman’s ruse. But Brant is horrified to discover that Milbrook is still alive. What’s worse for him, his own disloyalty has been revealed to the Overlord.
It’s at this moment that Batman comes crashing into the place. But his startling arrival has an unexpected result., The cornered Brant starts blasting at him randomly–and while the Batman is able to relatively effortlessly take down the mob chieftain, one of the stray shots kills Milbrook. This is the second person in 16 pages to get cut down by a stray round in a Batman fight–not exactly a crowning achievement in safe and secure crime-fighting. Realizing that the wire-heads will now have been set off, starting a wave of bloodshed across the city, Batman does the only thing he can think of: when the dead man’s wife shows up, the Caped Crusader himself takes credit for the murder–reasoning that the wire-heads will thereafter only target him. And that’s where this story is To Be Continued! But Vern did manage to get the cover scene in right before the closing bell.
This issue also included a few different ads and miscellaneous features that I got to see for the first time. Publisher Jenette Kahn’s column in this issue announced that the DC heroes were going to be appearing in newspapers coast to coast in the World’s Greatest Super Heroes daily strip, which sounded exciting. New York was one of the areas that got the strip, and I followed it avidly, especially at first. There was also this ad for the first issue of DC COMICS PRESENTS, which was a home run ad for me–though it would turn out to be a bitter one, as DC COMICS PRESENTS never shipped to my regular 7-11, and so I didn’t get to read the story of this new contest between Superman and my favorite the Flash for quite some time. But almost as interesting to me was the two older covers that were shown, for both WORLD’S FINEST COMICS and BRAVE AND THE BOLD. These glimpses into a publishing history that I was desperate to find out more about were like catnip to my sensibilities.