All told, I really can’t complain too much about getting older. After all, it most certainly beats the alternative.
But one of the things that I dislike most about no longer being a young punk is that it means I have to watch the heroes of my childhood leave us. I still find it difficult to believe I’m living in a world without Maurice Sendak in it. How can that even be so?
Which brings us to tonight, and the news that just now crossed my desk of the death of comic-book artist Ernie Chan at the age of 71.
Chan (who began his career under the name of “Ernie Chua”) had a lengthy career in comics, working steadily throughout the 1970s and ’80s for both DC Comics and Marvel Comics, on titles like Power Man and Iron Fist, Doctor Strange, The Incredible Hulk, Adventure Comics and the work he was probably best known for, Conan the Barbarian and Savage Sword of Conan, often inking the work of John Buscema.
But for me, when I think of Ernie Chan, I think of Batman. Ernie Chan’s Batman was the Batman of my childhood, with the first two Batman comics I ever bought both having sprung from his pencil. Chan’s Batman combined the angularity and tension of Jim Aparo with the illustrative style of Wally Wood, and an eye for complex, inventive page layouts that wouldn’t be rivaled until the coming of George Perez.
If you’ll indulge me, in the way of tribute, I’d like to re-present a couple of pieces I wrote a few years ago about those first two Batman comics I ever purchased, took home, and devoured repeatedly over the years. My condolences to Ernie Chan’s family and all who knew him. I never met the man, and only knew his work, but for that alone I’m grateful. Thanks, Ernie.
THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMICS IS FIVE
(originally published December 14, 2005)
Frequent readers of this column will recognize the quote that makes up this week’s entry, one that I believe I first heard Roy Thomas use in an introduction to one of DC’s hardcover collections: “The Golden Age of Comics is five.” In other words, the comics you read as a kid are always the best comics ever, no matter if you were reading them in the ‘40s, the ‘70s or the ‘90s. Well, today we’ll be putting that theory to the test with the inaugural edition of our new IN FOCUS feature, in which we take a comprehensive look at a single issue; in this case, the first comic book I remember buying for myself, DETECTIVE COMICS #462 (August 1976).
Just from looking at the cover, it’s clear why five-year-old Li’l Scott was drawn to it on the spinner rack. First off was that great 1970s DETECTIVE COMICS logo, with Batman’s head and extended cape billowing out to reveal the title in giant dropshadowed block letters. Once again, the best logos are the ones that can be read from across the street, and this certainly qualifies. Then you have the central image, of a cutlass-wielding Batman half-frozen in a block of ice, while some pirate dude whacks away at his frozen lower extremities. And as if all that wasn’t enough, in the background two additional Batmen can be seen chained to the wall, struggling against their bonds.
Just what was going on here? This was certainly worth the thirty-cent investment to find out.
The mystery was kept going with the story’s splash page, which showed the same pirate, now described as “Captain Stingaree, Batman’s newest foe” gloating before the three captive Batmen, all under the foreboding title “Kill Batman – in Triplicate.”
The story, by the way, was the work of writers Bob Rozakis and Michael Uslan (years before he would eventually produce the landmark BATMAN movie) and artists Ernie Chua and frank McLaughlin.
Switching gears, the story opens with a scene of Robin tracking down rumored drug dealers at Hudson University, and in a genius move, he’s carrying out a stakeout in the dead of a snowy winter in his usual green Speedos.
I’m sure it’s important to stay in costume and all, but there surely must have been a version he could have cobbled together that involved pants. It’s not like the superhero union is gonna fine him or anything. Regardless, as it turns out, the then-Teen Wonder quickly discovers that it was a trap, and finds himself buried beneath an avalanche of snow.
The next morning, when Robin is dropped off in a solid block of ice in front of Gotham’s Police Department, rather than rushing him to the hospital, Commissioner Gordon places a rather casual call to the Caped Crusader, who stumbles out of bed and heads on down to check it out, just in time to thwart a couple of goons intent on stealing the Robinsicle, since Gordon was apparently too busy to send anyone down to guard it.
It was also a nice stroke of luck on the goons’ part that they just happened to bring along their own ice hooks…
So after Batman punks out the Robin-nappers, he takes his frozen sidekick back to his lab, where his efforts to thaw Robin are met with much resistance, in the form of a mysterious layer of ice forming on his own body. When he realizes the trap, Batman calls in “Jerome,” to replace him in the trap, and allow himself to be frozen. I hope Batman’s paying him well…
Who’s Jerome, you ask? It turns out that Batman had hired three identical-triplet private detectives, Jerome, Michael and Robert Courtney (and where do you even find triplet private eyes, anyway? I never seem to see that section in the Yellow Pages…) to take his place as Batman during three kidnap attempts by Captain Stingaree. Sure enough, once Jerome is frozen solid, just like Robin before him, Stingaree shows up and hauls “Batman” away to his lair, where he plans to behead all three Batmen at once.
Before he can start lopping off heads, though, he’s shocked to discover that, although his deduction that there were three Batmen was correct, he seemingly captured the wrong three Batmen:
Now faced with a half-dozen Batmen, Stingaree is shocked to see them begin to vanish before his very eyes. Left facing the one real Batman, Stingaree quickly falls to the Caped Crusader’s superior hand-to-hand combat skills.
Shortly thereafter, reinforcements arrive, in the form of the now-thawed Robin and Batman’s Justice League teammate the Flash, who not only uses his super-speed to thaw out fake Batman #3 (the same way he earlier freed Robin, we’re told), but was also responsible for the illusion of three additional Batmen attacking Stingaree, by moving Batman around the room at near-invisible super-speed. Flash also reveals where Stingaree got his cold-generating technology: knowhow learned from an ex-cellmate, Flash’s enemy Captain Cold.
Here’s my favorite thing about the whole setup: much of this overly complicated subterfuge on Batman’s part was to find Stingaree’s hidden lair, right? So where was he hiding? In the hold of his pirate ship-shaped theme restaurant, as it happens. The name of the restaurant? “STINGAREES.”
Unbelievable. Next time a new villain hits Gotham, Batman had better remember to check the Zagat’s Guide first.
Wrapping up the details of the case back at Commissioner Stand-Around’s office, we learn that the Caped Crusader had overheard Stingaree’s theory that the Courtney triplets were secretly Batman, and hatched up this giant, overinvolved circuitous scheme to teach him a lesson, and hopefully round up Stingaree’s whole gang, which as it turned out, was non-existent, as Stingaree apparently preferred to work alone. Stingaree’s plan was even shakier than his theories, as he had schemed to replace the Courtneys as Batman after their untimely demise, working on both sides of the law to haul in the dough.
And why did Stingaree suspect the Courtney brothers of being Batman? Here’s the kicker: the Courtneys weren’t really triplets, they were quadruplets, with Stingaree himself being the black sheep of the family, their evil brother Karl.
Wow. Their evil brother Karl.
Goofiness aside, there’s some great stuff here, particularly in the artwork by Chua and McLaughlin, which combines a Neal Adams-like realism with some of Jim Aparo’s angularity. I also like Chua’s innovative panel layouts, which utilize bat shapes in a way I’ve never really seen another artist do.
Chua’s layout here for this full-page fight scene, in which the characters move in and out of the frames, is at once both complex and easy to follow.
So, to sum up: a few goofy situations, some real stretches in the plot department, and some appealing art. Looking at it now, is it the best comic ever? Of course not.
But when I was five, it was magic.
BATMAN’S DEATH KISS!
(originally published August 27, 2008)
One of my favorite things about the San Diego Comic-Con is the “accidental discovery.” Sure, there are always plenty of things I’m looking for at the show, but oftentimes even better than that is the stuff I stumble across by accident, through sheer blind stinking luck.
Such was the case with one of this year’s finds, DETECTIVE COMICS #456 (February 1976), “Death Kiss!” by writer Elliott S! Maggin and artist Ernie Chua (looking for all the world like he’s doing his best Jim Aparo impression. Here, take a look:
Another one of those comic books that fall vaguely into the category of “First comic book I ever read,” this may have been the first Batman comic I ever read, as I remember this comic book being around the house virtually my entire life, and in progressively worse shape over the years from the re-readings. In fact, for most of my childhood it looked more like this: with the cover torn away and lost at some point:
Now that’s a splash page. Batman cowering in fear from hundreds of pairs of giant floating lips. Comic-book gold.
The story here opens with millionaire Bruce Wayne in full smoothie mode, macking on his new ladyfriend Angie, before rushing off to his night job.
Soon Batman is out in patrol, and before long suffering from flashbacks and hallucinations, as rendered in this snappy bat-shaped interlude:
The Dark Knight shakes it off, though, and gets back to work, apprehending a band of building-climbing drug thieves:
In the midst of the fight, Batman suffers another hallucination, this time mistaking one of the thugs for Robin:
Curious thing about this panel — I don’t know if it was the hallucination aspect, or the weird all-blue coloring, but when I read this as a kid, I somehow translated it to mean that Robin had died somehow. Even when I started reading as lot more comics and saw that Robin was still out there and running around, still, every time I would read that comic, I’d think,”So I wonder how Robin died, anyway”? Weird.
Speaking of weird, here’s my nomination for the two worst sound effects in a comic ever — when Batman kicks two of the drug thieves, it makes this noise:
“Tuck”? “Pluck”? Really? I’m gonna just chalk that up to whatever drugs Batman is on…
Batman returns the stolen drugs to the doctor’s office, than promptly passes out. Not long after, he comes to in the grips of another hallucination:
This was another one that creeped me out as a kid, for some reason. It’s not even that scary, but just the sight of Batman seeing his dead parents always gave me the chills. Of course, Batman recovers quickly, thanks to the good doctor’s excellent bedside manner:
After slapping the Batman around, the doctor gives him the four-one-one: he’s been poisoned with an industrial material called “amory,” a sweet-smelling cream used to lubricate machinery, and eliminate one’s enemies. How versatile. The creation of an antidote would require more time than Batman has left, so his only hope so to track down the killer and hope they have the antidote, and to do so within the time he has left before the poison kills him: one hour.
After interrogating a single informant with a poolcue and extrapolating from that that no one must be out to kill Batman (which seems like a bit of a deductive stretch to me), Batman reflects on the sweet-smelling poison he’s been dosed with and has a bit of an epiphany:
Heading out to Angie’s place, the Batman once more leads with his feet, kicking two criminal goons there apparently just shooting the breeze with Bruce Wayne’s new squeeze.
Those don’t exactly look like the most powerful kicks, but again, I’ll chalk it up to the drugs…
Batman learns that Bruce Wayne was the target, a scheme by one of his business rivals, who forced Angie to dose Wayne with the poison lipstick. After Batman kayos the last of the thugs, Angie hands over the antidote, which he gulps down, and there’s your story.
It’s an odd little Batman tale. It’s hard to really get anything going in only 12 pages, and any sort of suspense is rendered pretty much moot by the fact that the critical twist of the whodunit, that it was Angie who poisoned Batman, is given away both on the cover and on the splash page.
But it sure looks pretty.