It’s not so long ago that the very idea would have sounded thoroughly absurd. Yet, the Batman tales of the late ’50s and early ’60s by editor Jack Schiff, writer Bill Finger, and penciler Sheldon Moldoff are slowly gaining an odd and guarded measure of – whisper it – credibility. It’s a creeping process of apostasy that began with Grant Morrison’s incorporation of elements of the run into his “Batman R.I.P.” stories. What had long been considered far beyond the boundaries of the canon was suddenly re-annexed back into it, with stories and characters long since verboten suddenly declared fit for a guarded degree of homage and exploitation.
Even the slightest nod of the head in the direction of Zebra Batman and “Robin Must Die” is a remarkable thing, given that comics fans have long wanted to pretend that the era’s only value lies in its capacity to serve as a cautionary tale describing how not to frame the character. And if the po-faced mainstream of today’s Batman books has largely preferred not to step back into comics history and appropriate anything to do with the likes of Zebo the silver-thieving scientist or Doctor Dorn, the cartoon series Batman: The Brave and the Bold gleefully reintroduced the idea of the Dark Knight as an intergalactic adventurer. As a series, it enthusiastically reflected the ever-more influential idea that there’s no such thing as “Batman” but rather (as Grant Morrison intimated to Andrew Harrison in Q #313) a long history of Batmen each working to a lesser or greater degree to represent the culture and market of a particular time.
It’s an idea that would have horrified the diehard fans who’d responded with exasperation and even loathing to the Batman-Lite adventures of the ’50s and early ’60s. But time has worn away, if not dissolved, the idea that there’s a fixed set of fundamental qualities that define Bruce Wayne’s costumed identity. (“Batman-Lite” is a phrase of Denny O’Neil’s, as used in the introduction to DC’s Batman in the Seventies.) According to director Christopher Nolan, for example, ex-DC President Paul Levitz had assured him when he began his Dark Knight trilogy that the character of Batman “thrives on reinterpretation.” It’s an argument that can be used to justify any crass reframing of the franchise, of course, but it does inevitably create the sense that there’s a plurality of Dark Knights, each with its own particular strengths and weakness. In doing so, the areas of the character’s past that have previously been considered unacceptable are dragged back into the fold. All Batmen are equal, it seems, although some, of course, are more equal than others, and the critical consensus is no longer one that supports the total exclusion of any single take on the grounds of taste. And with the blogosphere constantly returning to the more ludicrous conceits of the period, and with pop-culture textbooks endlessly discussing the representation of issues such as sexuality in those comics, there’s an unprecedented degree of attention being paid to the efforts of Bob Kane’s secret studio during those years. (The public was assured during the period that Kane was responsible for the Batman books, but despite his perpetual by-line, Kane had little to do with the comics.)
But it’s still hard to believe that the period between the setting up of the Comics Code in 1954 and the replacement of long-serving Batman editor Jack Schiff by Julius Schwartz ten years later can ever be entirely rehabilitated. There’s surely no revisionist campaign that could achieve that. The charge sheet against the Batman comics of that period is just too comprehensive, and the alleged crimes all too sinful. Poor Schiff, who was so often remembered by his colleagues as a honourable and knowledgeable man, is forever associated with the final excision from the Bat-books of what Grant Morrison has called “the crime-haunted streets where [Batman] belonged” (Supergods, pg. 80, 2011). Schiff’s tenure was marked by the absence of aspects of Batman’s set-up that have long been considered part of the strip’s irreducible minimum. There was the loss of the last Gothic tinges from the strip, a final turning away from Bruce Wayne’s traumatic past, and a neutering of the threat if not the fact of lawlessness. Instead, Batman became a vehicle not for the themes and concepts that had originally made him so popular but for any supposedly child-enticing pop culture fancy that could be loaded into his stories. Part of the reason why the Schiff-era issues tend not to impress later generations is the fact that they lack the unifying, driving themes. For the very young, distraction and wonder for its own sake is an undeniably compelling thing, but it soon wears thin without a hint of something just a little more substantial to anchor page after page of spectacle.
In particular, this process of searching for reader-enticing hooks meant an obsessional reliance upon thin, well-worn, and tacky sci-fi tropes: weird alien planets, weird alien creatures, and weird alien technology. It was a desperate attempt to combat constantly falling sales while compensating for the absence of the last vestiges of grit removed by DC’s kowtowing to the CCA. But the faux-fantastical could never replace the forbidden, exorcised traces of darkness. No matter what Schiff encouraged Finger and Sheldoff to produce, Batman kept tumbling towards cancellation. Strategies proving successful in fellow editor Murray Boltinoff’s Superman books at the time were borrowed without considering the fundamental differences between the two franchises. Aping the extended family that had been clustered around Superman without replicating the tragic core of the Man Of Steel’s mythos resulted in the creation of a domesticated, stifling, nuclear Bat-household: Batman, Batwoman, Robin, Bat-Girl, and Ace the Bat-Hound. Perfect comfort-reading for particularly young and nervous children, who surely deserve their own comics as much as anyone else, but quite inappropriate for any older readers of the Dark Knight. (The common belief has always been that editor Jack Schiff had unthinkingly aped the work of Murray Boltinoff’s Superman line, but Ken Gale suggests that intense pressure from Boltinoff is a more likely explanation.) “We wanted to get something other than just the plot. We wanted to have characters that the kids could talk about, and I tell you, they really worked,” Schiff later argued, and yet the sales figures over the long term would suggest a contrary interpretation of the situation.
It wasn’t simply the fact that this particular era’s Batman and Detective Comics so often appeared moribund in terms of their own content, although the fact that DC really was considering cancelling the comics tells its own truth. Yet, in comparison with the leading super-hero books of the time, Schiff’s comics could be as dull as they seemed anachronistic. Little of significance changed in terms of their style or content as the months and years passed, a problem that was made all the more obvious by the fact that the period was one of the most radical and innovative in comics history. Marvel’s new-born fusion of dynamism, quirkiness, cross-line continuity, and soap opera quickly established the company’s products as the most exciting line of super-hero comics since the early years of the Golden Age. Though the best of DC’s products lacked that invigorating mix of innovative qualities, the likes of Broome and Infantino’s Flash and, of course, Boltinoff’s Superman titles were marked by smart and sharp scripts matched with graceful and lively art. The affable, unambitious titles starring the strange shadow-free Bat-family weren’t just isolated from any sense of the character’s own history but from the spirit of the age too.
But to turn away from the long-standing decay of the character’s appeal and focus on some of the best of the later issues of Schiff’s stewardship is to be suddenly forced to accept that the period was anything but entirely bereft of charm and value. Published just a year before Schiff was removed from his responsibilities, “Prisoners of Three Worlds” (Batman #153) reveals itself to be a vigorous if ultimately confusing and insubstantial comic. The pace of events is often frantic, though strangely stiff and uninvolving too, while there’s an attention to novelty that makes the story interesting even if it isn’t always compelling or moving. A goblinesque alien is discovered stealing silver from various locations in Gotham, and the Bat-family’s attempts to stop him result in their being transported to various otherworldly destinations. Robin and Bat-Girl find themselves on the thief’s homeworld in another dimension, where they struggle to inform the planet’s authorities that a rebellion is developing deadly silver-powered weapons. Through the misfortune of standing upon a metal manhole cover while being struck by the alien teleport ray, Batman and Batwoman are each split into two. On Earth, their original bodies are so weakened by the experience that they are on the edge of death, while on a mysterious alien world, their other selves have assumed the form of “pure energy.” With each world having its own jeopardy-filled plot, the three-pronged tale jumps from MacGuffin-driven incident to incident. Dying monsters who, for no logical reason at all, absorb energy from the environment as they pass on! Aggressive alien plants with flailing knobs designed to aggressively absorb water! Cities constructed by tiny, spear-wielding bird people! “Prisoners of Three Worlds” is, whatever else, an idiosyncratically energetic tale.
Similarly, Sheldon Meldoff’s much maligned artwork reveals itself to be, on occasion, every bit as alluring and appealing as it is regularly formulaic and static. Meldoff’s Batman is an undeniably stiff, charisma-free figure, with a habit of seeming to totter on tiptoe, posed as if he’d been caught reaching with his oddly tiny hands for the last chocolate on the dinner table. Yet, Batman’s tale-closing jaw-breaker of a knockout punch is a forceful enough shot, while the scene of Robin and Bat-Girl plunging down a hill-side of mica crystals on giant leaves is an undeniably effervescent one. Indeed, what Meldoff’s alien vistas lack in rigour, they make up for in charm. Most impressive are the scenes in which the electro-Batman and Batwoman are shown accidentally devastating an extra-terrestrial landscape. With the bodiless Bat-folks portrayed as glowing, shadowless forms defined by sharp, thin, black outlines, the scenes suggest a wonderful children’s colouring book, a fact that’s particularly obvious in black and white reprints of the tale. In the second decade of the 21st century, in which the default setting for Batman appears to be both bleak and hyper-violent, Meldoff’s work can appear as refreshing as it once suggested anything but.
There’s even suggestions in “Prisoners of Three Worlds” that all the creators concerned are responding to the changes in the comics marketplace of the time. In particular, there’s a peculiar and untypical degree of romantic intensity in the tale. Robin and Batgirl indulge in both a first kiss and an intimate, hand-holding walk together, while their adult mentors are presented declaring true love for each other. The latter is a scene which admittedly occurs while both characters are convinced they’re dying, and Batman does later attempt to weasel out of his admission, but it’s still a comparatively emotional sequence of events. Much of the tale’s fascination for later generations has been rooted in these brief and chastely passionate moments. Those who seek a gay sub-text, for example, focus on both men’s largely passive and perhaps even unenthusiastic response to their prospective partners’ lips in addition to noting earlier scenes in which each of the Bat-family is shown alienated from everyday hetrosexual activities such as school dances and beach partners. That’s a reading that quite ignores the fact that Robin is shown quietly wandering off while securely attached to BatGirl’s hand at the story’s end, but it’s any not less interesting and insightful a deconstruction for all of that. These are, after all, comics that are open to a considerable degree of revisionist analysis. Because Finger’s stories are a confection of novelty and incident floating free of any thematic purpose beyond grabbing the reader’s attention, their meaning remains intriguingly ill-defined and ripe for reinterpretation. And yet, surely the truth is that any sexual ambiguity in the tale comes from Finger’s choice to adopt the point of view of a pre-pubescent male tottering on the farthest edge of adolescence to guide his tale-telling. Robin may just be beginning to understand that girls have a peculiar and unexpected fascination, but he doesn’t want to think of his Bat-parents having any such intimate feelings. Batman’s later retreat from his declaration of love for Batwoman is surely what many young lads would prefer to hear.
Compared to a great many Batman tales, “Prisoners of Three Worlds” has, for all its faults, a quality of liveliness that few of its peers from any other era can improve upon. Some of that can be explained by the peculiar and, on occasion, entirely successful artistic choices made by Finger and Meldoff. Some of it is determined by the historical context of the time in which it was created and some from the following debates that have driven each subsequent reinterpretation of the character. But how many other Batman tales can still excite such fascination as well as such contempt? To smooth out the history of the character and regard this period as nothing but mistaken is to make Batman’s backstory far too tidy, far too credible, and far less interesting. If all we allow ourselves to see and value when we look backwards is a string of lantern-jawed, criminal-terrifying costumed vigilantes, then the present day’s preference for a brutal Gotham and a brutalised Batman becomes the inevitable outcome of the Batman’s evolution. And yet, accept that the character has had a far more colourful and far less blokeishly constrained career, and who knows where the Batman’s next epoch might take him?
There’ll be a discussion of Sheldon Meldoff’s artwork on the Batman comics of the period over at my blog, Too Busy Thinking about My Comics, posted on the same date as this piece went up here.