In the late 1950’s, the Batman was yanked from his familiar dark alleys and moonlit rooftops, to be thrust into alien dimensions and distant solar systems. Even readers of that era were left scratching their heads and muttering “What th--?” But especially the fans of to-day, accustomed to the notion of the Masked Manhunter as a dark avenger of evil, and with the benefit of hindsight, regard the “science-fiction Batman” as a genuine “What were they thinking?” period.
Truth to tell, by the start of ‘50’s, the Batman's mystique as a grim, mysterious figure warring relentlessly against all criminals---the image so embraced by modern Bat-fans---was passé. The Caped Crusader had dropped the article the from his name and had become plain old familiar “Batman”. He and Robin operated more often during the day, travelled the world, and enjoyed a great deal of acclaim as lawmen. Yet, Batman hadn’t strayed that far from his roots. He was still a detective, following clues, donning disguises, and employing modern forensic techniques. He had emerged from the shadows, but his adventures were still squarely in the realm of what was plausible for a costumed hero without super-powers.
Then, in 1957, that plausibility hit the wall when the direction of Batman’s adventures took a radical shift---a thematic “left turn at Albuquerque”---and the Gotham Gangbuster went plunging into a climate more suitable for Flash Gordon. As the editor in charge of Batman and Detective Comics at the time, Jack Schiff is viewed as the guy who gave him the shove.
A managing editor for National Periodical, Schiff also held the reins of such DC titles as House of Mystery, House of Secrets, My Greatest Adventure, and Tales of the Unexpected. By the middle of the decade, these titles had shaken off their supernatural overtones and featured tales centering on weird creatures, alien devices, and the occasional adventure in space. (The futuristic Space Ranger was the headliner in Tales of the Unexpected for five years.) It is his association with these titles which, I think, causes many finger-pointers to blame Schiff for putting Batman into the same milieu.
The irony is that, unlike Julius Schwartz and Mort Weisinger, who thrived on science fiction elements, Schiff never really warmed to the genre. Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs, in The Comic Book Heroes, provided some background on Schiff. He had begun as a pulp editor at Standard Magazines in the 1930’s, but strictly over the mystery and horror titles, not Standard’s SF output. In fact, he convinced Standard to hire Mort Weisinger to handle to its SF titles. Later, after Weisinger jumped over to DC, he returned the favour by having Schiff hired to take his place when he left to join the military during World War II.
The fact that Schiff was uncomfortable with science fiction adds to the criticism of his handling of Batman. After all, while merging the detective genre with that of science fiction is an odd fit, it isn’t unworkable. Chester Gould was able to insert SF into the adventures of Dick Tracy---Batman’s kindred spirit---and it wasn’t too terrible. But not only did Schiff shove SF down Batman’s throat, insist the detractors, it was bad SF.
It was bad science fiction; Schiff should probably take a hit for that. But the detractors are wrong in holding Schiff to blame for putting Batman in space in the first place.
For that, one needs to look at Irwin Donenfeld, son of NPP’s co-founder, Harry Donenfeld, and editorial director for the DC line.
Donenfeld noted how the company's science-fiction titles were outselling its standard super-hero magazines. He had also observed the public's growing interest with flying saucers, the launching of Sputnik, and the space programme. Thinking he was on to something, Donenfeld issued marching orders to the DC editors to add aliens and space travel to their stories.
(Years later---as related in Les Daniels’ Batman: the Complete History---Irwin Donenfeld dissembled a bit on the subject, by stating that he couldn’t recall exactly what his rôle was in the SF shift. “I like to take credit for everything,” he said, “but truthfully I just don’t know.”)
Conversion to a science-fiction slant wasn’t a problem for Schwartz, who was already operating in that genre, nor for Weisinger, whose Superman family of titles leant themselves to SF. But for Schiff’s Bat-titles, it was a disaster. And he knew it.
Schiff recognised that such alien concepts ran against the basic premise of the Batman as a sleuth and argued against the changes. As he stated in an interview published in 1983's Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide: "I was having disagreements with the management about the 'monster craze' everybody was into. I fought the introduction into Batman and Superman of this trend, but I was pressured into using them."
Most sources cite the tale “Batman’s Super-Enemy”, from Detective Comics # 250 (Dec., 1957), as the beginning of the “science-fiction Batman”. To be sure, there had been earlier Batman stories that had been based at least in part on SF (e.g., the two adventures involving the Batman of the 31st century from Batman # 67 [Oct.-Nov., 1951] and Detective Comics # 216 [Feb., 1955]). But this was the first of what proved to be a six-year run of overwhelmingly SF-oriented tales in both Bat-titles.
Almost immediately, the Batman comic followed suit with “Batman---the Superman of Planet X”, in Batman # 113 (Feb., 1958). And the concept was off and running. Between December, 1957 and April, 1964, the Dynamic Duo were confronted by a giant lizard-man from Planet X, alien creatures springing from the mysterious space seeds, a crystal being from an atomic dumping ground, a jigsaw menace, a super-powered sky creature, a chemical monster created by lightning, a Cyclops from a space capsule, a giant wasp-monster, the Beast of Koba Bay, ogres created by a cosmic Z-ray, an other-dimensional silver thief, and a volcanic rainbow beast.
They conducted a manhunt for an alien criminal in outer space, ended an extra-terrestrial duel, thwarted two alien invasion forces, captured a space pirate, led a coup to overthrow the despot of another world, represented Earth in the Interplanetary Olympics, and became the captives of an alien zoo.
Batman visited the planets X, Ergon, Tora, Alcor, Zur-En-Arrh, the world of the Bat-People, and the Dimension of Doom. He teamed up with the other-worldly lawmen Mahan, Tal-Don, Goga, Ardello, and Inspector Tutian.
And when he wasn’t dealing with “another bizarre creature with a fantastic weapon“, the Masked Manhunter was undergoing some bizarre changes of his own. He was transformed into a giant and into a merman. He was rendered invisible. He acquired super-strength. And at various times, he was turned into Zebra-Batman, Mummy-Batman, Element-Batman, Flame-Batman, Negative-Batman, Batman Genie, and Bat-Baby.
On the surface, one could see a certain logic in Donenfeld’s insistence on spacemen and monsters. The late ‘50’s were also a time of some phenomenally popular science-fiction and monster movies. Films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Blob, Them!, Earth Versus the Flying Saucers, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and The Thing (from Another World) were packing movie houses and drive-in theatres. The thing was, in the case of the Batman, rocket ships and garish monsters stood in direct opposition to the mood that had been originally established for the Darknight Detective. He was meant to operate in an environment as much like the real world as comic-book convention would permit. Let Buck Rogers fight giant space dragons and Martian death-rays.
And if the premise was flawed, the execution was worse.
No matter how much one loves steak and lobster, if he eats nothing but steak and lobster every day, pretty soon he’s going to be dying for a grilled cheese sandwich, and Batman fans were exposed to almost a steady diet of aliens and monsters. But overkill was only part of the problem.
As I mentioned, Jack Schiff never connected with the theme of science fiction, and I would hazard a guess that the writers were similarly flummoxed. Most of the Batman stories during this period were written by Bill Finger---the man who had originated most of the aspects that marked the original concept for the hero, as a mysterious foe of evil, who assumed a bat-like motif because criminals were a cowardly, superstitious lot. Finger must have had a difficult time wrapping science-fiction elements around the character he had envisioned as a dark avenger.
On rare occasion, it worked. One of the most fondly remembered stories of the period was “Robin Dies at Dawn”, from Batman # 156 (Jun., 1963), and it has emerged as one of the classic Batman tales. But it worked because Finger was able to provide a grounded explanation for the aliens and monsters. The Masked Manhunter’s off-world visit, in this case, was actually a hallucination, the result of a sensory-deprivation experiment for which Batman had volunteered, to enable scientists to measure the effects of isolation on U. S. astronauts. In fact, the true thrust of the story was how the after-affects of the hallucination interfered with the Batman’s ability to handle his regular duties.
But such logical space-age stories were the exception. Most often, the readers were subjected to an endless parade of little green men, bug-eyed monsters, and grotesque distortions. In short order, the tales grew repetitive and unexciting. The effect on the Batman was disastrous. As DC historian Les Daniels put it: “There was no core character left, just a hollow man being battered from place to place by whatever gimmick could be concocted . . . . “
Schiff occasionally resisted the publishorial dictates and inserted some stories pitting the Dynamic Duo against ordinary crime figures, and he managed to include a few of the vintage villains, like the Joker and the Penguin, in adventures hearkening to the old days. He was also responsible for the early 1960's Batman Giant Annuals which reprinted the old Batman-as-dark-detective stories. Again, from Overstreet, Schiff related, "Letters from fans indicated their liking for the old stories," and he felt vindicated by this evidence that readers preferred the earlier-era traditional Batman foes over aliens and bizarre transformations.
Unfortunately, the suits at NPP refused to see what was clear-as-crystal to Schiff---even though sales on the Bat-titles were dropping precipitously. Figures for 1962 showed an average total circulation of 410,000 for Batman and 265,000 for Detective Comics (and those numbers were down 82,000 and 49,000, respectively, from a mere two years earlier). In contrast, for the same year, Superman sold 740,000 copies and Action Comics, 435,000. Even Lois Lane (at 490,000) and Jimmy Olsen (470,000) outsold the Bat-titles.
Certainly contributing to this slide was the decline in art. The dynamic, detailed art of Dick Sprang had been a drawing point on the Bat-titles for years. Then, in 1954, he ended his regular run on Batman and Detective Comics to take over as the primary artist on World’s Finest Comics. Stepping up to replace the loss of Sprang was Sheldon “Shelly” Moldoff.
Moldoff had served briefly as Bob Kane’s assistant back in 1939; in 1953, he returned to work for Kane as his “ghost”. It was a good fit. Moldoff matched Kane’s art perfectly in many ways: the uneven sense of perspective, the stiffness of his figures, their undersized hands and feet, and the characteristic poses, such as characters stroking their chins. What Moldoff couldn’t replicate was the sense of mood that Kane, for all of his shortcomings as an artist, managed to instil in the earliest Batman tales.
At least, the exceptional brush of Charles Paris was able to provide some strength and depth to Moldoff’s pencils. But often as not, Moldoff inked himself, with a flat, scratchy, cartoon-like result.
It was a dismal showing for the Cowled Crusader under any circumstances, but as it was, it came at the worst possible time. The other DC shops---the ones for which science fiction was more suited---were enjoying a renaissance.
Mort Weisinger had consolidated Superman and his various off-shoots---Superboy, Supergirl, Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane---into a solidly unified mythos. Weisinger saw to the introduction of one startling concept after another. The Fortress of Solitude. The Phantom Zone. Bizarros. The Legion of Super-Heroes. Multi-coloured varieties of kryptonite. The bottled city of Kandor. And they weren’t just one-shot wonders. They crossed over, interlocked, opening new vistas for the Man of Steel’s adventures.
And even that paled next to what was going on over at Julius Schwartz’ editorial fiefdom. Schwartz had scraped the barnicles off of some of DC’s Golden-Age characters---the Flash, the Green Lantern, Hawkman, and the Atom---and gave them space-age updates. Green Lantern was one of an interstellar police force. Hawkman and his wife, Hawkgirl, were cops too, from the distant planet Thanagar, sent to study Earth’s law-enforcement methods.
The revised origins of the new Flash and Atom emphasized the “science” in science fiction. The physics were a little shaky but sounded sufficiently authentic for the readers to buy into it. The rising generation of comics readers appreciated the new sophistication and swarmed each new issue.
It didn’t hurt that Weisinger and Schwartz employed the top tier of DC’s artists: guys like Curt Swan and Gil Kane and Murphy Anderson.
Meanwhile, poor Batman was left to die of creative anemia.
Uninspired in both script and art, sales on Batman and Detective Comics continued to plummet. The concept of a science-fiction-oriented Batman hadn’t just failed; it had sucked the life out of the franchise. By 1964, NPP was considering the unthinkable---cancelling the two titles featuring DC’s second-most-famous character.
It was going to take a “Hail Mary” play to keep Batman alive, and fortunately---as I will discuss next time---DC had just the quarterback to call it.