Saturday, January 24, 2015


DC Comics' THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD holds pride of place as the first of the "alternating crossover" titles. The title technically began teaming up its heroes in issue #50, but a few "spotlight" features showed up to interrupt this pattern. Batman, the hero whose presence defined the team-up title, debuted in the title alongside Green Lantern in issue #59-- dated April-May 1965. But the Caped Crusader did not become the dominantly featured character until after the January 1966 BATMAN teleseries had debuted as a runaway success-- and the first of these new "Batman-centric" issues is the one on which I focus, BATMAN #64 (February-March 1966). However, that's not the main reason I chose it to be representative of the feature, which lasted until 1983.

Like the Marvel team-up features that followed later, BRAVE AND BOLD was not known for consistent quality. The dominant gimmick-- that the Darknight Detective would be teamed up with very nearly every starring character in the DC universe-- meant that there was no consistent tone: Batman could have a grim-and-gritty urban adventure with Wildcat or Black Canary in one issue, and then jet off to Rann to meet Adam Strange or have magical misadventures with the Spectre or the Phantom Stranger.  Similarly, though there's some very good art in the feature at times-- Jim Aparo, Nick Cardy, and Neal Adams (who debuted his very influential version of Batman in this feature)-- even good artists could do little with workmanlike scripts.  

However, for some devotees the feature's lack of consistency, its tendency to favor wild, attention-getting gimmicks over slick, streamlined storytelling, is BRAVE AND BOLD's greatest strength. And it's a virtue most fans associated with Bob Haney, who wrote the most BRAVE AND BOLD scripts, though he certainly was not the only contributor,

Haney's scripts fall into two main categories: the workmanlike formula stories and the wild gimmick-stories. The latter are the ones that most fans remember with affection, and I tend to agree with that preference. When forming this list I decided that I only wanted to represent each of the "alternating crossover" comics with just one selection. I might have chosen the crazy story in which both Wonder Woman and Batgirl break away from their normal characterizations and spontaneously fall in love with Batman, or the one where Batman and Sergeant Rock must keep a terrorist from killing Jim Aparo, the artist drawing their team-up tale. But I chose #64 because the Batman-Eclipso crossover is one of Aparo's daffiest Bat-outings.

The opening deals with Batman encountering an old flame, a rich girl named Marcia Monroe. In his flashback Batman reveals that he almost gave up being Batman in order to marry Marcia, until she did a "Casablanca" on him and left without explanation.  If that by itself sounds rather uncharacteristic for Batman, it should, because Haney tended to write the Caped Crusader as if he was some latter-day derivation of Mickey Spillane's PI, Mike Hammer.

However, in some adventures Haney's Hammer-esque Batman is so dumb that he ought to have been called "Mike Dumb-as-a-Bag-of-Hammers." Marcia feeds the crimefighter a story about how a fabulous stolen emerald came into her hands, and she wants Batman to help her return to the museum so that her dead boyfriend, the original thief, won't be implicated. Batman buys the whole story, hook-line-and-sinker, and he sneaks the jewel back into the museum. But it's a set-up: Marcia has Batman photographed so that it looks like he stole the gem, and then she re-steals it, so that the Dumbass Detective is arrested.  While Batman's in jail, it's revealed that Marcia is actually a costumed villain, the Queen Bee, and the head of an international crime syndicate named Cyclops.  One of her first acts after jailing Batman is to liberate Eclipso, the demonic other-self of altruistic scientist Bruce Gordon. Gordon's secret self was not a subject of public knowledge, but apparently during one of Eclipso's earlier peregrinations outside his Jekyll-side's body, he had something to do with instituting Cyclops-- though Haney's script is far from clear on this.

Batman breaks out of jail and seems to get killed by police bullets. However, he survives and tracks one of Cyclops' agents to the villains' HQ. Artist Win Mortimer wasn't the most dynamic artist ever to work on the BRAVE AND BOLD feature, but Haney gives a fast-paced pulp-tale full of wild incident: desks that spring up and hit people, flying bee-men, Eclipso's black-diamond death-rays, and Batman pretending to be a Cyclops assassin for no good reason whatever.  But the stand-out moment is when the Queen Bee helps the Bat-dude out of a jam because she really still loves him; she just put him in jail so that she wouldn't be forced to have him killed.  By story's end the Cyclops HQ has been raided by police and Eclipso has been returned to Bruce Gordon's body without anyone, including Batman, knowing of the phenomenon. Marcia gets away, leaving behind her Queen Bee costume, while Batman manfully swears to bring her in despite his tortured feelings. Happily, to the best of my knowledge neither Haney nor anyone else ever brought Marcia back, and that's the way I like it: having her disappear forever into Haney's dopey, lovably corny Haney-verse. 

Monday, January 12, 2015


I've recently finished Wilkie Collins' THE WOMAN IN WHITE, often cited as one of the first novels that cemented the European mystery-detective genre. I didn't find it nearly as salutary an experience as his arguably more famous novel THE MOONSTONE, which boasts not only a better plot but an exciting pace and more rounded characters.

That said, THE WOMAN IN WHITE has one thing going for it that MOONSTONE did not: a story that totally invalidates one of the major tropes of the detective genre, so much so that I view it as being "anti-detective," at least in theme.

One of the most enduring themes of the straightforward detective story is the reader's experience of salvation when the clever detective sees the solution to some puzzle that has confounded all others. I don't know whether literary pundits still deem Edgar Allan Poe to be the creator of the detective story, but in at least two of his Dupin stories, Poe concretized the idea of the detective as the solver of great puzzles, both in "Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Purloined Letter."

As in many such detective stories, the 1860 novel WOMAN IN WHITE does present the audience with a very convoluted scheme involving certain villains' attempts to despoil an heiress of her inheritance, And two of the principal witnesses to the scheme-- main characters Walter Hartright and Marian Halcombe-- become amateur detectives in order to figure out what has been done and what they can do about it.

Without detailing that scheme, though, I will say that Collins structures the novel so that even when the heroes find out the truth, the villains have arranged things so thoroughly to their advantage that the detectives can't DO anything with their knowledge. At the very time when a Dupin or Holmes would unveil the secret that solves the whole difficulty, Walter and Marian find themselves helpless to make that revelation, because they know that no one will believe them.

Collins, in other words, has no faith that society will listen to the detective once he reveals the truth.  Early in the novel the main villain Count Fosco pokes fun at one character's belief that "murder will out," claiming that only stupid criminals are easily found out, and he does arrange things so that it takes advantage of both the inertia of society and the straightjacketing effects of the legal system. On a side-note Collins' father nagged the author into studying law, so that Collins might have some more profitable employment than being a writer. Collins, in showing in his novel that the law hampers more than it helps, may be demonstrating his extreme dislike for the legal profession in THE WOMAN IN WHITE-- though to be sure, Collins' friend and collaborator Charles Dickens had provided an even greater excoriation of the law in 1852's BLEAK HOUSE.

The undoing of the novel's villains takes place not because of any great revelation, but simply because Walter, by sheer coincidence, lucks into making contact with an enemy of Fosco, and that enemy is key to tearing down Fosco's tapestry of deception.  And thus, though THE WOMAN IN WHITE still qualifies as a "detective novel" in terms of content, in terms of theme it rejects one of the main emotional satisfactions of the genre.

Monday, January 5, 2015


On my original "top 100 crossovers" list-- which has been revised several times since I started posting entries here-- I included DC's BRAVE AND THE BOLD #63, which had the distinction of being the only crossover of two starring female characters without any other heroes participating in the main plot (though Superman does make a very brief appearance). But when I recently reread the story, I found it pretty disappointing. Though it was written by Bob Haney, who produced many enjoyably daffy stories for B&B, the winsomely titled "Revolt of the Super Chicks" proved fairly workmanlike, despite a few inspired moments. (For instance, the story begins with Supergirl deciding to chuck her superheroine career-- and when Superman tries to lecture her on her responsibilities, his cousin intimates that his obsession with responsibility has made him a stick-in-the-mud in the romance department.)

So I began hunting in earnest, to find if the DC Comic was actually the first time comic book characters in any genre had assumed co-starring roles in a story. Frankly, I didn't confine my search only to comic books, but I was pretty sure that I'd find a big goose-egg in such media as films, radio, and comic strips. All three lacked the sort of unitary business model found in American commercial coniic books, the sort of approach that has made crossovers particularly viable. I found some suggestions that various female characters in comic books had crossed paths in the Golden Age. most notably Timely teen-humor character Patsy Walker and Madeline Joyce, a.k.a. "Miss America," though apparently Madeline did not appear in her costumed identity.

A few other comedy-characters met one another, but most of the adventure-oriented genres-- superheroes, space opera, westerns, and jungle-stories-- very few writers seemed to have given a second thought to the pleasures of having female characters meet one another. Granted, pound for pound there aren't that many male/male crossovers in the Golden Age if you discount regularly occurring teams. Still, even publishing giant DC Comics seems to have only one story comparable to the 1965 team-up of Supergirl and Wonder Woman: 1943's ALL-STAR COMICS #15, in which several girlfriends of the Justice Society meet one another and don the costumes of their male counterparts in order to save the main heroes from a villain. This is a cool little story, which James Robinson re-wrote for a sequence in his STARMAN title, but it doesn't satisfy my criterion for a crossover of featured characters.

Happily, in 1943 another story appeared from Fawcett Comics, which keeps the 1965 BRAVE AND BOLD from holding the honor of being the first crossover of two female superheroines.  The story "Mary Marvel and the Riddles of Death" from MARY MARVEL #8 may not be the first time Mary Marvel and Bulletgirl met, whether on the comics-page or behind-the-scenes. But both heroines know one another's identities at the start of this story, as Susan "Bulletgirl" Kent attends the high-school graduation of Mary "Mary Marvel" Bromfield-- a graduation attended by no one else in Mary's circle, not even her brother Billy Batson. Still, the absence of other supporting characters indicates that the writer wanted to have no distractions from the central plot: showing two female crimefighters taking on a pair of murderous crooks.

One can read the full story here at this January 2013 post at THE TIME BULLET.  While the 1965 B&B story seemed predictable in a bad way, the MARY MARVEL tale is formulaic in a good way: a way that suggests the basic appeal of the formula rather than its limitations. Susan Kent is attacked by two previous antagonists of the Bulletman-Bulletgirl team: the Weeper-- technically, the son of the Weeper, since the original character died-- and Doctor Riddle, who had perfected the schtick of leaving riddle-clues a good five years before the birth of Batman's Riddler.  It's not a momentous tale, but it's perfectly enjoyable on its own terms, though one might wonder why the villains don't cause Susan trouble by simply revealing her real identity to the world. But had they done that, it would have read more like a standard DC tale, instead of a good little rock-'em, sock''em story that lets the ladies deal out distaff justice.

One quick notation: while Mary Marvel did maintain her own feature, Bulletgirl shared feature-status with the hero after whom the feature was titled, Bulletman. Bulletman did initiate the feature without a female co-star, but by the time this story was published, Bulletgirl was an integral co-star, not merely a supporting character-- and so she satisfies my "featured character" criterion.