BHOC: BATMAN FAMILY #19

I was and am a creature of habit. When something becomes a part of my routine, I tend to continue with it even past the point that made it part of the routine in the first place. In the case of BATMAN FAMILY, I had begun to read the series when it was largely a reprint title, and I stayed with it all the way through to the end–I bought BATMAN FAMILY because I was a person who bought BATMAN FAMILY, if that makes sense. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I wasn’t a huge fan of the Darknight Detective in these years, preferring the earlier approach to Batman by and large. But even though BATMAN and DETECTIVE COMICS were only infrequent purchases, I kept up with BATMAN FAMILY all the way to the end. A little of that was that I liked Earth-2 and so was pulled in by the Huntress strip. But really, it was mainly momentum that kept me going.

That isn’t to say that BATMAN FAMILY was without its merits. All throughout this period, it published a bunch of work by a youthful Michael Golden, which was always worth a look. But the problem with the Dollar Comics format in general from my point of view is that too much of the package felt like also-ran material, perfectly good stories by competent craftsmen but nothing that was going to compel a reader to fork over his buck every issue. The day of the anthology was really just about over at this point, but nostalgia has kept people attempting to crack it in a modern context for years. This issue is a good example. The lead story has some strong appeal to it, on the basis of Golden and P. Craig Russell’s strong artwork. But the rest of the contents of the issue are really no better than all right. In a competitive marketplace, all right wasn’t all right enough. The audience was transitioning from casual impulse consumers to more regular hardcore fans.

This lead story looks good and is solidly written by Denny O’Neil. But it’s very much a cop show story that just happens to have a guy in a Batman costume running around in it (which is a good description of Matt Reeves’ THE BATMAN film as well…) In it, Batman has gone to the mountains following a tip that an important ambassador is going to be assassinated there. A bit part of the appeal of the story is putting Batman in a fish-out-of-water situation, in this case silhouetted against all of the ice and snow. There’s also a supernatural thread in the form of a 100-year-old white vampire bat that has been making appearances in the area, and whose presence factors into the ending. It’s a solid, well-told story. But it wasn’t of much interest to me as a young reader, as most Batman tales of its ilk weren’t. It was too rooted in reality–in 1978, I didn’t care at all about international diplomacy or human limitations. I wanted to see colorful figures with awesome powers contend with one another for high stakes. The very elements that made the Batman of this era so appealing to so many were lost on me.

The Batgirl story that came afterwards was more fanciful, and was thus more to my liking, even if the craftsmanship wasn’t so strong. It involved Batgirl contending with the Sino-Supemen, a group of Chinese super heroes (with some unfortunate skin coloring) who had been manufactured by the Chinese government as their answer to Superman, the Flash, Green Lantern, etc. They’re in the United States because their superiors believe that the newly-debuted Firestorm was a creation of their super-powers process–a U.S. deep cover agent had escaped to America with information about their process, and the Sino-Superman were tasked with bringing him back, or ending his life if necessary so that the U.S. wouldn’t be able to benefit from their discoveries. In the end, it’s intimated that the agent in question was Tony Gordon, Barbara’s supposedly dead brother.

There’s a break at this point for another feature on the then-upcoming SUPERMAN movie. DC was pimping the production big time, but for whatever reason–possibly the crummy screen qualities of the photographs that were printed in these–I wasn’t all that interested in it. I would eventually see it, of course, and it would become a favorite. So i really can’t explain my malaise towards it as a kid apart from the fact that, at 11, I wasn’t so plugged into the Hollywood hype machine that I paid any attention to what might be in production. I became aware of movies when they opened, when their commercials ran incessantly during my afternoon cartoons or during evening shows.

Bob Rozakis and Juan Ortiz, the writer and artist duo responsible for the Batgirl story also contributed a Robin adventure to this issue. This story, i remember precious little about after all these years. It’s seemingly the first installment in an extended run, one that expands on Dick Grayson’s circle of friends and acquaintances at Hudson University in a clear attempt to mimic AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. The adventure du jour concerns a high-tech stress-tester device that criminals have stolen and turned into a tool for robbing banks by using it to smash through walls and vaults. There’s also a mysterious player called the Raven who mixes it up with Robin a bit, and who seems to be being set up to be his rival for t affections of his college girlfriend Lori Elton. At the very end of the episode, Dick gets a call from Barbara Gordon asking for his help with a situation in Washington DC, setting up next issue’s combined Robin-Batgirl adventure. It’s all perfectly fine stuff, but so by-the-numbers that it’s not all that memorable. I do get a sense, for whatever reason, that many of the new cast members that Rozakis brings in here are based on young DC staffers of the era.

The issue also contains a Man-Bat adventure. With Michael Golden handling the main story, the art chores on this one have fallen to newcomer Danny Bulanadi. Bulanadi would become better known as an inker in later years, and it’s not hard to see why from what’s here. The art is all perfectly fine, but it’s completely undistinguished and very matter-of-fact in the way it lays out the story. The adventure is the second part to what was begun last issue, with Man-Bat’s wife Francine sneaking off in her sleep to become She-Bat and take on Kirk Langstrom’s abandoned crime-fighting duties (he’d promised her he’d retire when their baby was born.) That situation is cleared up and Kirk is back in the saddle by the end of this tale, with both Bats having taken on and defeated Snafu, a sound-and-light-based villain. But Man-Bat is told by the police to get out of crime-fighting and vigilante work, so he doesn’t earn any reward for his capture of Snafu. It again feels very Spider-Man-like in its approach.

The final story in the issue is a Huntress adventure put together by the ALL-STAR COMICS creative team of writer Paul Levitz and artists Joe Staton and Bob Layton. They’d come up with the Huntress as an Earth-2 alternative to Batgirl and a contemporary of Power Girl, and the character drew enough attention to warrant giving her her own strip in BATMAN FAMILY. Helena Wayne was the toughest elements of the Earth-2 revival of the 1970s–her strip survived both BATMAN FAMILY’s end and being transplanted to DETECTIVE COMICS, eventually becoming a long-running back-up in WONDER WOMAN. But even that wasn’t enough to get me to follow WONDER WOMAN on a regular basis–the stigma of following a “girl’s comic” was just too great. In this story, the Huntress is on the trail of an arsonist setting fire to Gotham City’s buildings. And she makes some progress, but is cold-cocked right at the end for a To Be Continued climax.

2 thoughts on “BHOC: BATMAN FAMILY #19

  1. This was one of my very first comics ever. Lots of nostalgia for me.

    I was absolutely transfixed by the art of the Batman story. I wouldn’t know who either Michael Golden or Craig Russell for many years, or that they were following an interpretation set forth years prior by Neal Adams — but WOW! I barely even read O’Neil’s story, I just soaked in those images. In retrospect, I’m not at all surprised I liked it so much — and still do.

    The other thing I remember from this issue is just how ah… *curvy* Batgirl and Huntress were drawn in some of these panels. Portrayals of women would go much farther in the successive decades, but a few of these panels really stood out from the handful of portrayals I had in my nascent collection.

    Like

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