Clearly, putting the Masked Manhunter in a science-fiction milieu had failed to grab readers---which vindicated Bat-editor Jack Schiff, who had argued, insightfully, that SF ran contrary to the core concept of the Batman as a sleuth who operated from the shadows. As a “reward” for his literary instincts having been proved right, Schiff was removed as editor of Batman and Detective Comics at the beginning of 1964.
The brass at National Periodical Publications at least had the awareness that a drastic overhaul was needed, if DC was to avoid the embarrassment of cancelling the two titles headlined by its second-most-well-known character. Up against it, they turned to an editor who had demonstrated the ability to draw large numbers of fans by modernising old formats---Julius Schwartz. In light of Schwartz's impressive successes with the revivals of the Flash, Green Lantern, and the Atom, and the creation of the Justice League of America, it was expected that he would work his magic yet again on Batman and Detective Comics.
As reported in Les Daniels’ Batman: the Complete History, Schwartz was reluctant to take the job. “I took over Batman, which I didn’t want to do, but they said I had to because the magazine was doing badly,” said Schwartz. “I wouldn’t say they were going to kill it, but it was certainly being discussed.”
To be sure, there has been some debate over whether the axe was ready to fall. The Batcave Companion, by Michael Eury and Michael Kronenberg (Twomorrows Publishing, 2009), includes a 2007 interview between Eury and DC artist Carmine Infantino. Infantino related that he was present at the editorial conference which assigned the mission of renovating Batman to Schwartz. According to Infantino, editorial director Irwin Donenfeld told them, “The Batman books are dying and you two have six months to save them, or, very simply, it’s over.”
But somebody who wasn’t at that meeting, Jack Schiff, had told Overstreet Price Guide, in that 1983 interview, that there was never any serious consideration of cancelling Batman.
Logically, checking the sales figures for 1963 would provide a hint. But for some reason, DC released its 1963 Statements of Ownership without sales figures. So there is no way to readily determine how much sales on Batman and Detective Comics had slipped from the previous year.
There’s another factor to consider, which I’ll get to in a moment.
The first step Schwartz took in creating what would be called the “New Look” Batman was an obvious one: there would be no more stories involving aliens, outer space, bug-eyed monsters, or freakish transformations. Schwartz then banned all of the Bat-hangers-on. Gone were Batwoman, Bat-Girl, Bat-Mite, and Ace, the Bat-Hound (though the intrepid pooch managed a cameo in a 1964 World’s Finest tale).
Emphasis would return to the concept of Batman as a detective---a hero who relied on logic, modern forensic techniques, and a store of esoteric knowledge to solve mysteries and track criminals. His opponents would not be bizarre costumed villains, but crime bosses with a special talent or gimmick which elevated them beyond the reach of regular police, but still within the realm of real-world sensibilities.
In keeping with the new theme, Schwartz called for artistic changes. To ring in the New Look and to give it a fresh appearance as far from the old Bob Kane style as possible, Schwartz drafted Carmine Infantino. The scratchy lines and sharp edges of Infantino’s pencils were polished by the inks of Joe Giella and Sid Greene, resulting in a sleeker, more dynamic Caped Crusader. Gotham City became a cosmopolitan city, providing the perfect backdrop for the realism that Schwartz was shooting for. As with Curt Swan's work over in the Superman titles, Infantino's work added a gravitas to the Batman stories, carrying a story which might otherwise not work as well.
There’s some static about exactly who---Schwartz or Irwin Donenfeld---fingered Infantino as the illustrator to restore Batman’s credibility. But either way, Infantino was immediately relieved of all his regular DC art assignments, except for The Flash, to make him available for Detective Comics.
The sudden restructuring of Infantino’s assignments shows an urgency in the effort to put Batman back on his feet. And that suggests that the possibility of cancelling the Bat-books was a real one, indeed, and a humiliation that DC hoped mightily to avoid.
Infantino did roughly every other Batman story in Detective Comics. The others, as well as all of the art in Batman, continued to be drawn by Shelly Moldoff. But no longer was Moldoff required to mimic Bob Kane. Once he was freed of that constraint, and ably assisted by Giella and Greene, his own style proved to be more fluid and lifelike. No-one would ever mistake him for Alex Ross, but his night scenes were skillful enough to restore a sense of mystery to the series, particularly in his use of shadows.
Officially, the "New Look" Batman debuted in Detective Comics # 327 (May, 1964), in the story "The Mystery of the Menacing Mask". This was an eclectic crime drama drafted by John Broome, and rendered by Infantino and Giella.
It would be difficult for to-day's comics reader to fully appreciate what a thrilling thing the debut of the "New Look" Batman was to a reader of that day. To-day, significant events are presented in hyperbole plastered across the covers: "After this issue, one Avenger will never fight, again!"; "The all-new, all-powerful Wombat-Man!" However, it is noteworthy that cover of Detective Comics # 327 announced the New Look in one small banner reading "Introducing a 'New Look' Batman and Robin . . . ."
And, unlike now, in those long-ago days, there were no mechanisms in place for the fans to communicate "inside information" to each other---fanzines were nascent; there were no trade magazines and no Internet comics fora (for that matter, no Internet)---so word of upcoming changes didn't leak out.
So the changes to the Batman presented in Detective Comics # 327 came as a real surprise. At least they did to me.
The art of "The Mystery of the Menacing Mask" grabbed me from the get-go. Of course, in those days, I had no idea who the artists were (and in truth, it hadn't been that long since I realised that there were talents behind the stories I had been reading), but I saw that the art in this story was richer, more realistic---and to a youngster like me, "neater".
Interestingly, the plot of this "debut" story engendered as much curiosity in me as excitement. Even when viewed among the New Look stories that came later, "The Mystery of the Menacing Mask" read as an odd duck.
Except for the Dynamic Duo themselves, their secret identities of Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, and the Batcave, none of the regular trappings of a Batman story were present. No Alfred, no Commissioner Gordon, no Bat-signal, no Batmobile. And the setting for most of the story was DC's version of Greenwich Village---Gotham Village. To a boy raised in mid-western Ohio, Greenwich/Gotham Village was as alien to me as the landscape of Rann. Not to mention the incongruous panel showing Batman holding a handgun on a gang of defeated crooks to keep them at bay (which Julius Schwartz admitted later was a major mistake, stemming from his unfamiliarity with the character).
To my unseasoned eye, the story just didn't "read" quite right. Kind of like when one reads one of those late-'40's Doc Savage stories which were actually written as standard detective adventures, with Doc inserted as the main character after the fact. Still, it was a huge leap in sophistication over “The Alien Boss of Gotham City”.
The principal change “The Mystery of the Menacing Mask” brought to the fictional conceit of the series was the addition of the yellow ellipse around Batman’s bat-emblem. This was Schwartz's idea. Unlike his revivals of the Flash, GL, and the Atom, where he was free to completely re-write the characters and change their costumes, Batman was one of DC's icons, and Schwartz was not permitted to significantly tinker with the Masked Manhunter's basic appearance. The addition of the yellow ellipse was the one visual change he could get away with.
In the chapter covering the New Look Batman in Tales of the Dark Knight; Batman's First Fifty Years: 1939-1989 by Mark Cotta Vaz (Ballentine Books, 1989), the author provides the following commentary, punctuated by a comment from Julius Schwartz himself:
The crowning touch [of the New Look], and Schwartz's own editorial signature, was his enclosing the black bat image on Batman's chest in a yellow moon.
Schwartz had always been as precise as a diamond cutter at reviving and updating the careers of old, out-of-work crime fighters. One of his own successful superhero reclamation efforts was the Flash, whom he outfitted with a new identity, origin, and costume. But there were some built-in restrictions on how far and fast he could play with the Batman mythos.
"With the Flash there was a whole new generation [who hadn't read the long-gone Golden Age-era Flash], so I could do anything I wanted," Schwartz explains. "But I couldn't take over a continuing series like Batman and say, 'Hey! We've got to change the uniform.' It just wouldn't work."
Though the yellow oval appeared in that first New Look Batman tale and was the hallmark of the change in direction, it was curiously downplayed. On the cover of Detective Comics # 327, the images of Batman were arranged so that his insignia was not visible and no reference within the story was made to the change. It was just there.
The next Schwartz-edited Bat-tale---"The Two-Way Gem Caper", from Batman # 164 (Jun., 1964)---was when the New Look really took off. This was the story which instituted the majority of updates to the Batman mythos. Bruce Wayne presented them to Dick Grayson at the same time that they were unveiled to the reader: the elevator to the Batcave replacing the old winding staircase; the new Italian-sports-car convertible Batmobile, replacing the old bubble-top sedan model; the new moveable cave wall entrance to the Batcave; and the Hotline.
These changes were timely and appropriate. In a matter of three pages, Batman and Robin had become modern and innovative.
The last of Schwartz’s revamps came in the third Batman story to appear under his direction---“Gotham Gang Line-Up”, from Detective Comics # 328 (Jun., 1964). To blunt the accusations of latent homosexuality in two men and a boy living together without female influence---made by the uninformed, of course; such a thing never occurred to the fans---Alfred Pennyworth was killed off. At the climax of this tale, a steam shovel operated by a member of the Tri-State Gang dropped a boulder over the heads of an unsuspecting Batman and Robin. Seeing this, Alfred shoved the Dynamic Duo out of danger. However, the loyal butler's effort put him beneath the falling rock and it crushed him.
The death of Alfred launched two new additions to the Batman mythos. First, in memory of their friend and confidant, Bruce Wayne established the charitable Alfred Foundation (which, upon Alfred's revival later, underwent a name-change to the Wayne Foundation). This rounded and deepened the character of Bruce Wayne. Now, more than a mere socialite, he was a businessman shown to have a CEO's interests and concerns. Wayne's work as an executive provided a plausible springboard for many cases.
Second, the hitherto unseen and unmentioned aunt of Dick Grayson, Harriet Cooper, took residence in Wayne Manor. As depicted, Aunt Harriet was warm-hearted, but overprotective; she arrived at Wayne Manor unannounced and insisted on remaining to take care of her "helpless boys".
Of all the different “eras” of the Batman, the New Look remains my favourite. The scripts provided by Gardner Fox and John Broome, while not scrimping on action, evoked the tone of a police procedural. Here was Batman, the professional sleuth, respected by the police department, the citizens of Gotham City, and, grudgingly, the underworld. There was more than one crime boss shown to regard Batman as someone to be avoided, rather than to attack or attempt to kill. These savvier crooks knew that they would lose going toe-to-toe with the Masked Manhunter. “Getaway Genius” Roy Reynolds and Johnny Witts, “the man who was always one step ahead of Batman”, were two examples of this.
Victor Iago, Mr. Incognito, and B. G. Hunter were other non-costumed criminals who demonstrated a capacity for intelligence which made them genuine challenges to the Dynamic Duo. In Batman # 167 (Nov., 1964), the Dynamic Duo tackled an international criminal combine known as “Hydra”, a year before Nick Fury ever heard the name. To keep the stories on the cutting edge, there was occasionally a smattering of science fiction, but never more than a half-step beyond what was currently possible. And one could count on Fox or Broome providing a footnote or two documenting the actual technology, discovery, or research upon which they based their story elements.
As it had been back in the '40's, the fact that Batman and Robin were detectives was underscored. Many a scene showed the pair in the Batcave, hunched over a lab table or relaxed in armchairs, capes and masks draped over the backs, while they discussed the salient points of their current case. One of the more welcome touches was the effort made to show Robin as a contributing member of the team, with his own flashes of insight or day-saving initiative, as opposed to the days when he was just a shill there to be impressed by his older partner.
Writer France Herron made his own contributions to the New Look Batman mythos. He established a new love interest for Bruce Wayne in the person of Gotham City policewoman Patricia Powell. Pretty, quick-witted, and very capable, Patricia seemed a good match for the socially conscious Wayne. But for some reason, she never took off with the readers, and she made only two appearances.
More successful was Herron’s creation of the Mystery Analysts of Gotham City. The Mystery Analyst tales were creatively crafted puzzlers which brought together the leading crime-solvers of Gotham. Although too often, but naturally, too much of the action and detection was handed over to the Batman (the book was, after all, entitled Batman, and not The Adventures of Martin Tellman, Armchair Detective), still it was fun to see Commissioner Gordon out from behind his desk and showing his mettle. And it was a nice nod of continuity to the reader when, occasionally, we saw one of the members in a story outside of a Mystery Analyst tale, such as when Batman teamed up with private eye Hugh Rankin or when he turned to newspaperman Art Saddows for information. And, of course, District Attorney Danton would pop up in courtroom scenes every now and then. It gave the reader the feeling that these people really were part of the Batman's professional circle.
The New Look Batman was a badly needed shot of adrenaline. Julius Schwartz had restored the structural integrity of the Batman concept. In the letter columns, the readers overwhelmingly approved of the changes Schwartz had wrought. For the first time in years, there was genuine excitement in looking forward to the next issue.
Unfortunately, the fans’ runaway enthusiasm did not translate to runaway sales. The 1965 statements of ownership---twenty months after the debut of the New Look---showed Batman had an average total paid circulation of 453,745; Detective Comics, 304,414. Up from 1962, but not that up. Lois Lane was still kicking him around the block.
Still, Schwartz had done what he had been charged to do. The minor rise in sales was enough to pull Batman from the brink of cancellation, but little more. It would be the mid-season debut of a television show that once again turned the Masked Manhunter into a cash cow for DC---and ruined the New Look in the process.