A while back, my comic lovin' daughter challenged me to take on some reader requests. The call went out, a decent list was formed, and now I occasionally draw one randomly from a hat (An actual hat. A set of Micky Mouse Ears monogrammed with my daughter's name from Disney World, to be specific) and then here we are!
Congratulations goes out to Spector of Comic Book Realm for his fine request for some Man-Bat!
I WAS originally going to do the 1996 3 issue Man-Bat mini for this entry because I like how it feels like a non-branded Vertigo horror comic. Spector's request was actually for the 1975 two issue Man-Bat "series", but between me and my daughter, we only have the first issue of that one, and I usually only like reviewing complete stories.
BUT. . .
You know what? There's no real rules here at Longbox Junk, so I decided to just go ahead and steal my daughter's Man-Bat #1 for a nice single issue combination Retro Review and Reader Request Edition, because why not? Spector wanted Bronze Age Man-Bat, so here's some Bronze Age Man-Bat!
A bit of introduction first.
Man-Bat is one of those characters that's hard to pin down. He's a great supporting character (mostly in Batman-related comics) that's sometimes a hero, sometimes a villain, but is never really able to hold down an ongoing series. He's had several rebooted origins (Let's not even talk about what they did to the poor guy in the New 52), but at the heart of things, Man-Bat is actually a horror character.
Digging down to the essence of the character, he's sort of a combination of the Hulk and Werewolf by Night. Basically, he's a brilliant scientist named Kirk Langstrom who fell victim to an experiment gone wrong. He transforms into a vicious flying humanoid bat-like creature where he has varying degrees of control over both the transformation and his state of mind once transformed.
Sometimes he has control over himself and is able to work alongside others as sort of a heroic figure (as seen in the recent Justice League Dark comics). Other times (as in the 1996 mini I mentioned above) he's almost completely inhumanly feral and capable of the most brutal and bloody acts.
So. . .science gone wrong forcing a man to share his body with a vicious creature he may or may not be able to control. I should have done some Man-Bat for Longbox Junk Halloween!
In the comic at hand, Kirk Langstrom is able to control his transformation, retains his intelligence in Man-Bat form and is able to communicate with others. . .in other words, the more heroic version of Man-Bat. Let's take a look!
SCRIPT: Gerry Conway
PENCILS: Steve Ditko
(His one and only time drawing Batman, by the way)
(His one and only time drawing Batman, by the way)
INKS: Al Milgrom
COVER: Jim Aparo
As usual, before we get inside, let's take a quick look at the cover.
I have to say. . .it's a real eye-catcher! This great Jim Aparo cover is all about the contrast. I love the contrast between the plain dark purple background and the giant bright yellow logo, boldly telling us that this ain't Bat-MAN, this is MAN-Bat! Then there's Batman's cape framing the action in the center, which features a very nicely detailed Man-Bat and his "victim". I love the banner at the top as well, which firmly cements this comic in the Bronze Age.
This cover is just so well done that I'm not sure that my daughter is getting this comic back when I'm finished with it! It deserves a turn up on my rotating "Wall O' Covers" on my office wall at work.
So that's the cover. . .here's the story.
BEWARE THE EYES OF BARON TYME
We begin in the home of scientists Kirk and Francine Langstrom, where Kirk is shocked by the sudden and unexpected transformation of Francine into She-Bat! (The origin of She-Bat can be found in Detective Comics #407, if you're interested)
The transformed Francine Langstrom attacks Kirk and then flies into the night, helplessly following the mental commands of a mysterious figure (that Francine calls Baron Tyme during her attack on her husband) telling her to track down and kill a man.
Kirk immediately takes his "Bat Gland Formula" and transforms into Man-Bat in order to give chase to his wife. As he follows her, Man-Bat encounters several illusions produced by Baron Tyme to stall his pursuit. . .
Man-Bat finally catches up to Francine/ She-Bat just in time to stop her from killing her victim. After Man-Bat subdues his transformed wife, he interrogates the man she was hunting and discovers that "Baron" Tyme is actually a Professor of Medieval History named Clement Tyme.
But before Man-Bat can learn more, his wife regains consciousness and attacks, killing the man! Man-Bat quickly subdues Francine again and flies away from the scene of the crime with her.
And with that, the scene shifts to Wayne Manor, where Batman is preparing to leave for the night, determined to investigate the mysterious killings that have been taking place while he was out of town a few days tracking down the Joker. . .
Seeing a familiar pattern in the killings, Batman's first stop is the Gotham City Museum to inquire about their resident Bat expert. . .Kirk Langstrom. The museum's director tells Batman that Langstrom no longer works for them since coming into some money (from Batman himself in Brave & Bold #121) and that he's set himself up in a private lab near Antioke University.
In the meantime, Man-Bat has taken Francine home and restrained her in order to try an antidote, hoping to transform her back into human form. The antidote is successful, but suddenly, Man-Bat is assaulted with powerful sonar pulses from an unknown attacker!
As Langstrom attempts to escape the sonic attack, it's revealed that the attacker is Batman, who has arrived to capture Man-Bat, thinking he is behind the recent murders. As the two of them fight, Batman falls from the skies, only to be rescued by Man-Bat.
With their battle finished, Man-Bat explains the situation to Batman, revealing that since he hypnotized Francine to find the cause of mysterious gaps in her memory, he has been aware of her being controlled by Baron Tyme. . .but because of Batman's constant interference in their lives, Langstrom was determined to find Baron Tyme and end the killings without the Dark Knight's assistance. . .something he is still determined to do.
Batman reluctantly agrees to let Man-Bat take on the challenge of stopping Baron Tyme on his own.
Man-Bat flies to Antioke University and enters a high tower that Francine described while under hypnosis. Inside, he discovers Baron Tyme waiting for him. The villain quickly captures Man-Bat with powerful energy tentacles, then begins to gloat and monologue about his nefarious plan and how it came to be. . .
In his role as a Professor of Medieval History, Tyme discovered ancient books of black magic that he experimented with, managing to combine magic and science together and successfully summon a demon! Tyme made a bargain with the demon. . .in exchange for magical powers, Tyme would supply the demon with human lives.
The demon also gave Tyme information about the Langstroms that enabled the would-be sorcerer to use Francine as his tool for killing.
After he's done revealing the details of his evil plot, Tyme begins a ritual to summon the demon, intending to give Man-Bat as a final sacrifice. As the ritual proceeds, Man-Bat realizes the bonds holding him are nothing but powerful illusions controlled by Baron Tyme.
Man-Bat uses his sonic screech to painfully disorient Tyme, weakening his mental control over the illusions and stopping him from completing the ritual.
Man-Bat escapes his bonds, determined to bring Tyme to justice. But before he can attack, the sorcerer bursts into flame! Man-Bat escapes the tower just in time to avoid a powerful explosion. There is no longer any sign of Baron Tyme.
As Man-Bat flies into the night, he wonders if it was explosive chemicals or demonic forces that caused the explosion. A question that is left unanswered. . .
Well now. . .that was. . .Bronze Age. Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's just that, like a lot of Bronze Age stories, this one felt extremely rushed and compressed to fit into a single issue.
For someone who didn't really come into comic collecting until the early 90's it just seems sort of strange to see a story like this crammed into a single comic book. If this story were to be done today, it would either be a double-sized (and double-priced!) one shot or a 3 issue mini-series.
But does that make it a bad story? No it doesn't. This isn't a great story, but it's not bad. Truthfully it's just okay. It sits right in the middle of the road, squarely on the line between good and bad.
It moves along quickly and is well written (Gerry Conway is the kind of writer that can polish a potato and make it look good, so there's that) but it also just sort of drops the reader into the world of Man-Bat without any introduction, with the action hitting straight out of the gate with the first story panel.
It just sort of assumes that readers will already know Man-Bat from other comics, and indeed, there are several editorial references to Detective, Batman, and Brave & Bold through the story, which sort of hangs the whole thing on the hook of previous Man-Bat appearances and leaves little for new readers to get into the character with.
To be fair, there's a full-page summary of Man-Bat's previous appearances at the end of the issue:
I like that DC included this, but it doesn't really help the story feel less like the first issue of what was supposed to be an ongoing series and more like a story that could have been found in #35 or any other random issue of a Man-Bat series. It just doesn't seem. . .special.
I'm not sure if it's because of my more modern reading tastes, but this story just doesn't seem like what one would expect in a first issue meant to hook in new readers on the idea of a Batman villain becoming the hero. As I said above, it's not BAD. . .but at the same time, it's not really memorable or remarkable in any way.
But the draw here for many who pick this issue up will be the art.
As I noted above, this issue features Steve Ditko (Best known more for his Marvel work as the artist and co-creator of Spider-Man & Doctor Strange. . .among others) drawing Batman for his first and only time. That and well. . .it's the legendary Steve Ditko. For some people, that's all that needs to be said.
So here's the thing. There are some mighty high pedestals that some creators from the Silver Age are set on. In the minds of many comic fans, Steve Ditko sits up on one of the highest there is. I mean, Spider-Man IS a pretty high bar for other creators to try and hurdle. I won't question that.
THAT SAID. . .
I've never been one for unabashed worship of comic creators. There's not a single one out there, no matter HOW legendary, that hasn't phoned it in at some point. Fortunately, Ditko didn't phone this one in. But to be fair, this also isn't his best work. It seems that the unremarkable nature of the story might have carried over to the artwork as well.
There ARE some really good panels scattered throughout this story. . .the aerial battle between Man-Bat and Batman is outstanding, for example. And Ditko's portrayal of Batman is likewise outstanding. I really like the way he keeps Batman's face mostly hidden in the dark, and Batman himself as a dark figure, mostly defined by shadows, often just a silhouette of the distinctive cape and cowl. . .as Batman SHOULD be!
Based on this issue alone, I would have REALLY liked to see Ditko as a regular Batman artist during his short time at DC! I'd wager it would be considered a defining run among collectors today.
But beyond a few standout moments, the art here is generally good, but certainly not the best effort coming from someone as highly-regarded as Steve Ditko. It's not phoned in or bad in any way, but based on other work I've seen from Ditko, it could have been a lot better.
Overall, this issue is a pretty average effort. The story feels rushed and crammed into too small of a space, but I have to blame the Bronze Age in general for that, and not Gerry Conway. His writing is good here, but not remarkable or memorable in any way. It certainly doesn't feel like the first issue of a series because the story hangs firmly on the hook of previous Man-Bat appearances in other comics.
As far as the art goes, the big draw here is Steve Ditko drawing Batman for the first and only time. For a lot of people, that's enough. For me, it's plainly not his best work. Ditko's take on Batman IS the best part of this comic, but the rest of the art (while good) could have been a lot better.
Good taken with bad, If you're a Batman or Steve Ditko fan I'd recommend picking this one up if you can find it at a decent price. I'm not sure it's worth taking much effort to specifically hunt it down unless you're a Batman, Man-Bat or Ditko completionist. This isn't a bad comic, but it's not a great one either. It's just okay.
Up Next. . .
I just picked up a TON of Longbox Junk from a closing comic shop. . .as in two full Longboxes of it! SO MUCH GREAT JUNK! There's a bunch of NOW, Continuity, Acclaim, Malibu, and early "We wanna be like Marvel!" Image comics in there. If I have a full run of anything, I'll probably drop that next.
Be there or be square!