This was the last issue of BATMAN picked up new by my younger brother Ken. And so, it would be another year or more before I would sample another issue. As with most of Ken’s other comics, this one wound up with me after his interest in it had waned. This really wasn’t a great period for the character overall. While he was still popular, he hadn’t yet become the juggernaut he is today, both in-world and as a pop culture icon. So somehow, while his stories were competently executed, they didn’t really have a whole lot of snap to them. I’m not certain who they may have been aimed at, as their often quasi-realistic cop show plots and lack of notable villains wouldn’t seem to indicate that kids were the target. By the same token, the stories didn’t usually have enough depth to enthrall an older reader either. This wasn’t the Camp Batman of memory, but it was the dull Batman of far too many years.
This was the second half to a two-part story by writer David Vern (AKA David V. Reed) that had begun the preceding month. The art was competent but undistinguished, with Dick Giordano adding some luster to the direct-but-uninspired penciling of John Calnan. The pages were open (largely), they told the story directly, and the art did nothing to draw attention to itself. One gets the sense of craftsmen building furniture, following the plans represented by the script but apart from that not being any more invested in this outing than the cabinet you built yesterday, or the one you’ll build tomorrow. People with talent doing a professional job, but not one that they invested any emotional connection into.
When we had left off last time, the Batman had claimed responsibility for a murder. He did this because he’s on the trail of a mysterious Overlord of Crime who has a unique method of maintaining his position: he’s got a series of unwitting assassins, called “wire-heads” who act as sleeper agents for him scattered across the world, Should the Overlord meet his maker, the Wire-Heads would be activated, compelled to seek out and destroy those responsible for the killings. As Batman has no other way to locate the Wire-Heads, he’s set himself up to be their target, hoping that they will come after him now that the Overlord is deceased and then he can take them off the board without putting innocent people at risk. Robin has shown up demanding answers from Batman, having come down from Hudson University in response to reports that the Batman is wanted for murder. After duly recapping the earlier chapter, Batman orders Robin to go him–telling him, quote, “There are problems about the legality of my continuing on patrol.” Yeah, no doubt, you think?
This is one of those areas where the Batman of the era really didn’t make any sense. He was clearly a vigilante, operating outside the law. But he’d also been deputized by Commissioner Gordon, and so was also considered an official part of the Gotham City PD when the need arose. Here, Gordon tells Batman that the Mayor wants him to suspend all activities due to the threat of the wire-heads. Batman retorts that continuing his regular patrol is the only way that he can bring the wire-heads to him, and that Gordon can’t really stop him anyway. But the whole scene is like something out of Dirty Harry, with Harry Calahan being called on the carpet by his boss and telling him to stuff it because his hard methods are the only way to deal with crime. Regardless, Batman does continue to “walk his beat” in Gotham, and within an evening, he is attacked by more of the wire-heads.
The assassins who target Batman are unique in many ways. One is a strongman, others are acrobats and aerialists, and one even has a “human dynamo” act, and threatens to electrocute the Masked Manhunter. Being the world’s greatest detective, batman puts together the subtle connection between them: they are all circus performers. He heads back to visit the wife of the slain Overlord, to see if she has any recollection of her husband entertaining members of a circus troop. Wouldn’t you know it? Not only does she, but she’s also handily got names, addresses and photographs of all of them. This business of being a secret detective isn’t as difficult as it’s cracked up to be! Batman turns the list over to Gordon and his boys to round up, then figures that the affair is over. He even decides to take a rare evening out in his Bruce Wayne identity. Oh, caped crusader, what are you thinking?
Sure enough, no sooner is Bruce Wayne out boogieing with a date at a fashionable Reggae club than he is attacked by more carnival performers. According to Bruce’s inner thoughts, the assassins somehow are able to home in on Batman even though he is not in costume and they have no connection to him. It’s magic! But Bruce is in a spot–not only must he cope with the attacking magicians and snake-charmers and fire-breathers, he needs to do so while preventing his date from realizing that he is the Batman. Wayne gets a break, though, when Robin unexpectedly shows up. The Teen Wonder didn’t follow his mentor’s directive to return to college–in later years, Batman would have fired him for not following orders! But here. he’s a welcome ally against the remaining wire-heads, because this Batman is also a lot more vulnerable than the guy we’ve had for the past thirty years or so.
I hope I’m not spoiling too much when I tell you that Batman and Robin are able to subdue the killers, all without seriously hurting them. Then, Bruce has Robin change into his Batman costume so that he and Batman can appear together–never mind that Dick Grayson must be a full head shorter than Bruce Wayne. Robin’s agony doesn’t end there–Commissioner Gordon wants a full debriefing back at headquarters, and even he can’t seem to tell the difference between the Teen-In-Man’s Clothes and the genuine article. An exhausted Dick Grayson waits up for his mentor’s return at Bruce Wayne’s penthouse after having bluffed his way through his interrogation by Gordon. And where’s Batman? He’s jet-setting to paradise with his date, this whole situation left in his rear view mirror. And, really, who can fault him? The plotting on this story can charitably be characterized as “not good.” But it was very much at the level at which the series was performing in these years.