A Study in Bronze: Empty Graves and Empty Nests

Detective 395.png

(Hey, I said I’d try to get this out on Monday nights.)

First, we must define our terms.

The Bronze Age of Comics is said to generally fall between 1970 to about 1985-1986, depending on when you want to pinpoint the era’s end. It’s an incredibly vague description, really; more than likely thought up well after the fact of the time period going into full swing. Unlike the Golden, Silver and Modern Ages, there’s no real massive flashpoint for the beginning of the Bronze Age. There is, in my humble opinion, a point of no return for the whole era, but that’s still down the road. For now, let’s ask ourselves a question: why am I starting my mad little quest through the Bronze Age in 1969?

For one, my blog, my rules. For another, it gives me a chance to touch on the early appearances of some notable figures of the Bronze Age, both real and fictional. The former is what interests us right now, for our subject for today is Detective Comics #395 (cover dated Jan. 1970), the first appearance of the O’Neil/Adams team.

Note: Allow me to explain the discrepancy. Cover dates for comics generally put the date as two to three months after the comic is initially published, so a book with the cover date of May 2017 would more than likely have come out around February or March. From my research (i.e. Wikipedia) DC was on a two month discrepancy at the time, so the issue we’re talking about today probably came out sometime between October or November.

For those of you who have no idea who I’m talking about, Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams were a comic book writer/editor and comic book artist respectively. To say that both these men would have a transformative and, dare I say, a possibly profound effect on DC’s output in the Bronze Age would be a gross understatement. But let’s cross those bridges later; right now, my dear friends, we must focus on the story at hand, “The Secret of the Waiting Graves!”

Waiting Graves.png

I love this panel

The story we get is a rather simple one, but effective and entertaining nonetheless. Our villains are a married couple named Juan and Dolores Muerto, and they’re throwing a fabulous little soirée in a graveyard at their Mexican estate (they must be related to the Addams family), with every socialite in the western hemisphere invited. They use the party is actually a front to eliminate one Pedro Valdes, an undercover cop investigating the two*. Batman is there as millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, naturally (and dressed in one of the Third Doctor’s suits), and manages to save Pedro from the Muerto’s assassination attempts, the first of which involves setting up a late night hot air balloon race and sending trained falcons to rupture the balloon and make poor Pedro fall to his doom**.

After the second assassination attempt (which goes the more sober route of having a sniper shoot at the poor bastard) the Muertos take Pedro to an abandoned monastery and reveal why the birth years on their graves peg both Juan and Dolores to having been born in the mid-nineteenth century: there’s a special breed of flower that grown in the monastery that can confer immortality…at the cost of the person’s own sanity. Pedro tries to arrest the two, Dolores knocks Pedro out with a judo chop to the back of the neck, and Batman shows up to try and do a slightly more competent job with capturing these two. Sadly, he steps into the flowers, and faster than you can say Timothy Leary, the Dark Knight finds his mind going through a pink-hued hellscape.

BatDrugTrip.png

Bat Drug Trip #386

The Muertos tie up the two and sick their pet falcons on them, because when you have killer birds, it’s a waste not to use them to eliminate your enemies. Bruce powers through, thanks to sheer willpower and the falcon’s attack snapping his mind back to reality. He escapes his bonds, gets Valdes and himself the hell out of dodge, and uses a torch Juan dropped to burn the Muerto’s stash. (I guess Pedro was a narc.)

Not wanting to see their ticket to immortality turn to ash, Dolores rushes to stop the blaze, Juan following after her. Juan starts giving a speech about how excitement causes the years to come back rapidly, which to me seems like an excuse to give the World’s Greatest Detective an out of committing accidental manslaughter. The Muertos age to death and ironically fall into their own graves and we’re done.

Muertos Dead.png

What I find most fascinating it how much this story seems to represent the early encroachment of the Bronze Age. The story, from my very limited perspective, seems to fit in with the style of the time, but the two men involved help give it a unique flavor. O’Neil’s writing is melodramatic, yes, but it’s the good kind of melodramatic; never going too over the top and engaging the reader. The Muertos, while thinly sketched as characters, are nevertheless compelling one-off antagonists. And I can’t help but think of this a precursor to what O’Neil will eventually introduce with Ra’s Al Ghul, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Adams’ art is probably the highlight of this story to me. He’s already got his version of the Bat down (probably helped by the covers for Detective Comics he did before this) and the expressions he gives people are just so dynamic…yet, still somehow human. Every panel seems to have a sort of raw energy to it. Like, look at this shot of Valdes’ face when his balloon is attacked by the killer hawks:

Valdes.png

You can just see the terror in the guy’s eyes, can’t ya?

Detective 395 also has a story Robin story written by the then current main writer on the book, Frank Robbins. The yarn, “Drop Out…or Drop Dead!” is the second part of a story Robbins started in Det. 394, where the no-longer-a-Boy Wonder is caught in a scheme to discredit the university he’s attending by framing the police for police brutality against student protesters***. Dick figures out that the cops are phony and that the plan’s being led by a bunch of criminals wanting to get back at the cops. Dick, of course, foils the plan (after getting knocked out, kidnapped, changing into Robin while trapped in an empty silo, accidentally helping the phony cops plans by beating the stuffing out of the protesters, getting knocked out again, escaping, changing back into Dick and crashing one of the fake police cars into the one the fake pigs are driving) and gives a quite bland speech that somehow solves the unrest.

Grayson Speech.png

And everyone in the crowd immediately thought Grayson was an undercover cop for the rest of the year.

On its own, “Drop Out…or Drop Dead!” is an average story at best with some pretty good Gil Kane art. Compared to “The Secret of the Waiting Graves!” this just feels stale. I don’t mean that as an insult to either Robbins or Kane; I’m sure both were incredibly talented and professional cats. But neither of these men seems to be working at their full potential with this story…which, given it’s a backup story; I can’t really blame ‘em.

So the Bronze Age tentatively crawls forward; not fully replacing the old order but making its coming known. I hope you enjoyed this first entry and come back when we have another. And to those who think I haven’t talked about Denny and Neal enough, don’t worry; this isn’t the last O’Neil/Adams joint we’ll be covering.

*The investigation was started when la policía realized that there was a couple named Muerto running around and, having some degree of awareness of what universe they live in, immediately figured they were evil.
**Don’t ask me why the balloon race/killer falcons plan was their first assassination idea.
***This just makes me wonder what Robbins thought when the Kent State shootings happened months later. Yeah, I know that was the Ohio National Guard, but I still wonder.
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