Wednesday, March 5, 2014

DC Comics and Me#6

Continuing my look back on my time as a DC Comics reader. 

Click the links 
here for Part One 
here for Part Two.
here for Part Three
here for Part Four
here for Part Five

Now, Part Six of DC Comics and Me

In the mid-1970's, young Dave-El's journey as a DC Comics reader took me, of course, to Batman. The first new Batman stories I encountered were the work of Denny O'Neil and Irv Novick. To my young mind, O'Neil seemed so "mature" compared to other writers but it was Novick who wowed me. Novick drew Batman and Robin with lithe athletic grace and capes that flapped and flowed everywhere. Boy, I loved Novick's capes. 

Irv Novick & Dick Giordano & one hell of a long Batman cape! 

The funny thing was I thought Irv Novick was some new up and coming artist because his art looked so fresh, modern and exciting. Imagine my surprise when I learned several years later that Novick got his start back in the Golden Age of comics and what I was witnessing in Batman was the culmination of an astonishing evolution in Novick's art. 

The problem was that Irv Novick drew an incredibly good Flash as well and when something had to give, it was Batman that took a back seat with the exception of a fill-in story here and there. And I treasured those fill-ins because the new go-to guy for Batman art was not to my liking. 

The guy who drew the bulk of Batman stories for about two years in the 1970s after the heyday of Novick and Adams was Ernie Chua. Now it's hard in hindsight to be critical of this man's art. Why? 

1) His real name was Ernie Chan when he came to the US. However, someone in custom's mistaken his last name as "Chua" and that's who he became for some time after that. Things eventually were sorted out and "Ernie Chua" became Ernie Chan once more. 

2) Ernie was a very good artist. At what he did. The guy was a whiz at motion using multiple panels, he put detail in his work and he was very good at establishing a mood of dark menace. He could also pull off some very innovative layouts. 

But his Batman, compared to Irv Novick, was stocky and square jawed and I did not like it. All the other skills and talents and tricks that Ernie brought to bear never quite made up for what I thought was the less than appealing image of Batman himself.  Later, when "Ernie Chua" rolled over for Ernie Chan, I found his work in other places and was dutifully impressed. And maybe I was too hard on him for his Batman. 

But Ernie was frequently paired up with the go-to writer for Batman who came in after Denny O'Neil. And David V Reed was an odd writer indeed. 

Like his artist, David V Reed was not, in fact, his real name. Turns out he was also known as David Vern who wrote a truck load of stories for DC back in the 1950's. 

A writer from the 1950s producing work for DC in the 1970s was virtually unheard of. The old guard represented by Gardner Fox and John Broome had been shown the door in lieu of newer blood like Denny O'Neil, Len Wein and Cary Bates. The idea of a writer from 50s leap-frogging into the 70s to write comic books as a contemporary of writers like Wein, Bates, Gerry Conway, Elliot S! Maggin and others was a bit outside the norm.  

And Reed's stories were definitely outside the zeitgeist of the 1970s. Early on, Reed focused on Batman as a detective adventurer. Few if any stories featured any of Batman's rogues gallery, at least in the first year or so. The stories had a harder edge than the stories of the 1950s but Reed still portrayed Batman as a policeman who happens to be wearing a Batman suit which was pretty much in keeping with Batman's persona 20 years prior.  

"The Daily Death of Terry Tremayne" by Reed & Chan.
Batman crossed with "The Maltese Falcon".

As I write this, I'm hard pressed to say that Reed's stories in the 1970s were bad. I think that's painting Reed's work with too broad a brush. Reed could come up with some real twisty mysteries and puzzles for his Batman stories. But the new vanguard of writers were a bit more interested in WHO was doing all the daring action-adventure stuff than in the stuff itself. In this regard, Reed was definitely out of his time. And nothing pointed that out so glaringly than what was going on over in Detective Comics by Steve Englehart & Marshall Rogers

Rogers' art was a bit stiff compared to Novick's but it still belied a grace and fluidity of motion that really captured my attention. Rogers drew a Batman who was dark and intense and put him to work in a Gotham City that was just as dark and intense as he.  And Englehart was definitely writing Batman for the 1970s with arcing plot lines and character development. 

Art by Marshall Rogers & Terry Austin

Rogers and Englehart were on Detective for way too short a time but their mark remains indelible after all these decades. Meanwhile, mention David V Reed to a modern reader and they are likely to respond with "Who?" But for good or ill, Reed was THE Batman writer of my formative years. 

Eventually David V Reed gave way to Len Wein who with a returning Irv Novick picked up the baton that Englehart and Rogers had handed off and brought modern continuity and storytelling to the main Batman title and that was a very good run. 

But eventually Batman, much like Superman at the same time, began to fall off my radar. I had to control my comic expenditures and for whatever reasons made sense to me at the time, I let Batman go.  I had a return to the series during the run of Doug Moench and Tom Mandrake but dropped the book again when they left. 

But while I may have stopped reading Batman, I had not actually stopped reading Batman. 


More on that next time.  

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