Somehow, someway, in the 18 months that I’ve been doing this blog — during which time I’ve written 26 posts tagged “Batman”, 8 tagged “Detective Comics”, and 14 tagged “Carmine Infantino” — I’ve neglected to write about a single one of the Batman stories Infantino drew for Detective during the corresponding span of time in the 1960s. And since I believe that Infantino’s artwork for the Caped Crusader holds up better after half a century than virtually any other aspect of the “New Look”/”Batmania” era of the character, that’s an oversight that needs to be rectified — which I am happy to do, at last, with this post.
It’s generally well known among fans of 1960’s comics that Carmine Infantino was one of the most important figures involved in editor Julius Schwartz’s 1964 revamping of Batman and Detective Comics, even though the majority of his work was uncredited when it was first published. At that time, Batman’s co-creator Bob Kane seems to have had a stipulation in his contract that his name was the only one that could appear on any Batman story, even though for many years all of “his” art had actually been created by Sheldon Moldoff and other ghost artists. Additionally, he was contracted to provide (or at least, to be paid for) a certain number of pages a year — and so, while Infantino would pencil most of the covers for both Batman and Detective from mid-1964 through early 1968, “Bob Kane” would continue to produce the interior story pencils for every issue of the former, and approximately every other issue of the latter.
Of course, I wasn’t aware of any of this as a young reader in the 1960s. I knew Carmine Infantino’s name from the credits in Flash and other comics titles where Bob Kane’s deal with DC held no sway, but I’m not sure that I was truly cognizant that there were different hands behind the pencil art in different issues of Detective. That may have been in part due to the fact that almost all the stories in both Detective and Batman, whether penciled by “Kane” or Infantino, were inked by Joe Giella, who helped provide a consistent look to the art. Even so, I’d like to think I was sharp enough, even at the age of eight, to realize that the artist who drew those crazy disembodied caption-hands on the cover of Detective #352 (June, 1966) must be the same guy who routinely used that same graphic storytelling device in the pages of Flash — but, maybe not.
In any case, since I was picking up both Bat-books on a semi-regular basis in 1966 and 1967, my odds of catching an Infantino-pencilled story were fairly good — and I did so several times, including the one in Detective #349, featuring the second appearance of the Blockbuster (though, oddly enough, as noted in my Justice League of America #46 post a few months back, that issue sported a Joe Kubert cover), as well as the one in Detective #351, the first appearance of the Cluemaster (probably best known to today’s fans as Spoiler‘s dad). Not to mention Detective #357, featuring real-life radio personality William B. Williams (who?).
And also, of course, the tale in Detective Comics #361 — which issue is the subject of this very blog post.
The issue’s cover was pencilled by Infantino and inked by Giella, and I must say right off the bat that I don’t think it’s one of their best efforts. Infantino was a great cover designer — indeed, somewhere around the time this issue was produced he was given the responsibility of designing most (if not all) of the covers throughout DC’s entire line — but this particular effort is weakened by the awkward positioning of the Batman figure, especially the odd jerked-thumb gesture. The dominant visual element, however — Robin simmering to death in a red-hot glass case (“Holy Steam Bath!”, as trumpeted by Ira Schnapp’s lettering) — is very strong, and the fleeing robbers are depicted with Infantino’s usual graceful, almost elegant touch. It’s not a disastrous cover, by any means.
The lead story, “The Dynamic Duo’s Double-Deathtrap!”, bore no credits, as was the norm for Batman tales of this period — but the Grand Comics Database, drawing on Julius Schwartz’s editorial records, tells us that the script was by Gardner Fox, the pencils by Carmine Infantino, and the inks by Sid Greene. As already noted, Infantino’s Batman stories in Detective were usually inked by Joe Giella, but Sid Greene had already done a couple prior to this one, including the aforementioned #351, as well as the debut of Batgirl in #359 (which I either missed or passed on when it came out in late November, 1966, darn it). And while I do appreciate Giella’s inkwork over Infantino’s pencils, I have to say I prefer Greene’s embellishments (at least I do today — I’m not sure my nine-year-old self could tell the difference in January, 1966), finding him second only to Murphy Anderson as a finisher for Infantino.
The cover’s “holy” blurb aside, Fox’s story owes little to the “camp” influence of the then-popular Batman television series. There’s even a Cold War angle, played as straight as any such element ever was in Sixties superhero comics:
As the story goes on to tell us, the East German secret police, keen to learn who’s designing these escape devices, send operatives all the way to Gotham City to make inquiries of “the only man who can identify them for us!” — one Eivol Ekdol, a master craftsman of ingenious traps for the underworld community, who’d been previously introduced in Detective #346 (December, 1965). Ekdol is willing to help out the Esst Germans — whose leader, Yuri Melikov (aka the “Berlin Butcher”), he recognizes from his days back “in the old country” — for the modest sum of $100,000. First, however, he has another job to complete — the story’s titular double-deathtrap for the Dynamic Duo, which he’s made to order for a gang boss whom Fox never bothers to give an actual name:
(By the way — was there a mini-pop-cultural craze for “hot box” death traps in the mid-Sixties? Because I definitely recall secret agent Illya Kuryakin being stuck in a similar contraption in a Man From U.N.C.L.E. episode around this same time. Does anyone remember any other examples? If you do, please tell us about ’em in the Comments section.)
All of this setting-up takes time (and space) — so much so, that the Dynamic Duo themselves don’t show up until page 5 of this thirteen page story:
The robbery attempt is, of course, just a ruse by the crooks to get Batman and Robin to a location where they can spring Ekdol’s cunning, near-invisible trap — which, after a couple of pages of the ZWAP! PWOW! action that’s de riguer for every Batman story of this period — finally happens on page 8:
Yes, we’ve reached the cover scene! One thing you have to say about DC’s covers in this era — however unlikely the situation depicted, you’d generally find a pretty close approximation of it within the comic’s interior.
Sure, there must be a reason why Batman is running off and leaving his partner to save himself, rather than just telling him the solution he’s already figured out. He’s got to catch those crooks before they get away!
Except that in the very next panel, Robin joins Batman on the sidewalk outside the import company to find his mentor empty-handed — the crooks have made a clean getaway, and the whole point of Batman’s abandoning Robin has been rendered moot. (Remember, I only said that the unlikely cover scenes of Sixties DC comics would usually be incorporated into the stories; I never claimed that the stories’ creators found a way to make them plausible.)
Next, almost as soon as they can begin to speculate about where Eivol Ekdal might be hiding out, the Dynamic Duo get a call on the Batmobile’s Hot Line phone from Commissioner Gordon, telling them that there’s a young woman’s at police HQ with a tip on the trap-maker’s whereabouts. The young woman is Thea Albrecht, a “freedom fighter for oppressed people behind the Iron Curtain”, whose inclusion in the story seems primarily to serve the functions of 1) extending the Cold War subplot and 2) providing the otherwise all-male story with a single female character. It turns out that Miss Albrecht has seen Yuri Melikov and his henchmen exiting a house on the other side of Gotham, which our heroes deduce may well be Ekdal’s hideout.
Meanwhile, back at that very hideout, Ekdal is providing Melikov with the information the East German agent seeks:
Unfortunately for Ekdal, he’s immediately betrayed by Melikov, who orders his men to kill the trap-maker. No sooner have the foreign operatives completed their grim task, however, than Batman and Robin show up. Of course, Melikov orders his men to attack our heroes…
The Dynamic Duo quickly overcome Melikov’s men, however, while the “Berlin Butcher” himself is killed when a hand grenade earlier booby-trapped by Ekdal goes off in his hand.
And with this one final fight scene, choreographed by Infantino with his usual flair, the story winds down to its close. With Melikov and Eldal both dead, the secret of the East Berlin escape-mechanism designers is safe, and our heroes can take pride not only in having taken down a local criminal gang, but also in helping strike a blow for Western democracy on the world stage:
Looking back at “The Dynamic Duo’s Double-Deathtrap!” from our fifty-years-later perspective, is it an outstanding Batman story of its time? I wouldn’t say that, but I do think it’s worthy of at least minor note for several reasons: the relative lack of “camp” elements; the atypical inclusion of a geopolitical theme; and, of course, the reliably fine art job by Carmine Infantino and Sid Greene.
Sid Greene also lent his artistic talents to Detective #361’s Elongated Man back-up story, “The Curious Clue of the Circus Crook!” — but, unlike the first story, here he contributed pencils as well as inks. Though Greene had worked consistently as a penciller throughout the ’40s, ’50s, and early ’60s, by the middle of the latter decade he had pretty well settled into a routine as an inker for Julius Schwartz, working primarily over Gil Kane’s pencils, as well as Infantino’s — so this full-art job by Greene was something out of the ordinary. Indeed, if the list of the artist’s credits on the “Mike’s Amazing World” site is accurate, this is the first opportunity I ever had as a young comics reader to view Greene’s pencil art.
Greene’s return to pencilling at this stage of his career (for the record, his first pencil art for DC since 1964’s Mystery in Space #91 * appeared in Detective #358, just a few issues before the one currently under discussion) seems almost certain to have come about due to Carmine Infantino’s increased workload at the publisher. As noted earlier, sometime in late 1966 the latter artist took on additional responsibility for designing covers across DC’s line, and something had to give. Indeed, within the year he’d relinquish his regular gigs illustrating both Flash (which he’d drawn regularly since the character’s revival in 1956) and roughly half of the Batman stories in Detective. But the first sign of slippage (if you want to call it that) came with the Elongated Man.
Carmine Infantino is generally credited as the co-creator (with scripter John Broome and editor Schwartz) of Ralph Dibny, the “Stretchable Sleuth”. He pencilled the character’s first appearance in Flash #112 (April-May, 1960) as well as his subsequent guest-shots in that series; and when Schwartz took over Detective with issue #327 and slotted the Elongated Man in as the book’s regular back-up feature, that, too, was illustrated by Infantino. Indeed, with the exception of a single “surprise” guest appearance in Batman #177 (Dec., 1965) drawn by Sheldon Moldoff, Infantino drew every story featuring the character up to Detective #357’s “Tragedy of the Too-Lucky Thief!”, which was pencilled by Murphy Anderson and inked by Sid Greene.
Greene had inked most of Infantino’s Elongated Man stories in Detective for the first couple of years of the feature’s run, so he was no stranger to the character; for that reason, the “look” of his art could be expected to seem familiar to Detective readers of late 1966 and early 1967. However, Infantino had begun inking his own pencils for the feature with issue #351, using a looser, scratchier style than most of his regular embellishers — and thus, the cleaner, sleeker art of Anderson and Greene, and later just Anderson or Greene alone, represented a significant change in the look of the strip.
But, while it presented a different look than readers had become accustomed to for the Elongated Man, Greene’s art was still well-suited to the Strechable Sleuth’s adventures. The more light-hearted, even comedic aspects of Gardner Fox’s storylines, usually involving the interplay between Ralph and his wife Sue, seemed to come naturally to the artist:
And while Greene seemed less inclined towards the distinctive ways in which Infantino depicted the hero’s abilities by having him stretch specific, isolated body parts (as we discussed in our Detective #354 post awhile back), his work showing Ralph’s powers in action was imaginative and convincing:
When Fox’s script inevitably set Ralph against the story’s bad guy, Greene was up to the feature’s standard, set by Infantino, of action that was simultaneously exciting and humorous:
As already noted, “The Curious Clue of the Circus Crook!” wasn’t the first Elongated Man story that Sid Greene pencilled as well as inked. It wouldn’t be the last, either. He’d return to contribute full art for #365, and then, over a year later, for a run of issues — #378 to 383 — which happened to be the last issues of Detective in which the Elongated Man feature ran. In between #361 and #383, several other artists would come on board to pencil one or more stories, including Gil Kane, Neal Adams, Irv Novick, Mike Sekowsky — and Carmine Infantino, who somehow found time to pencil one last handful of Ralph Dibny adventures, though not to ink them. Infantino’s final pencilling jobs for the feature he’d helped launch in Detective #327 would, rather, be inked — as many of his earlier ones had been — by Sid Greene.
To close today’s post, I’d like to note that while Carmine Infantino’s work as an artist directly involved in creating comic book stories for DC was winding down in 1967, he wasn’t quite done yet. He still had one last major character to introduce, and it would turn out to be a pretty big one, at least as far comics fans were concerned — none other than Deadman, co-created with writer Arnold Drake, who would make his debut in Strange Adventures #205 (October, 1967). Ironically, however, though Infantino helped design the character, drew his origin story, and plotted the next four series installments, Deadman would come to be most closely associated with another artist entirely — Neal Adams, who took over the pencilling with the second issue and would continue as the regular artist through the rest of its run.
In the comic book era to come, Neal Adams would become as large an artistic influence at DC as Carmine Infantino had been in the one now coming to a close, if not more so. And as Infantino advanced further into DC’s upper management, he would spearhead a new, largely artist-driven creative ethos at the company in which Adams would play a major role.
But… that’s a post for another day.
*Probably not coincidentally, that issue of Mystery in Space was the final issue edited by Julius Schwartz, who took Greene with him when he moved over to the Batman books. Greene actually drew Schwartz into several of the story’s closing panels, including the one shown at right.