The Golden Age of Comics Is Five

You may 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 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 Roazkis 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.

But that’s not all, kids: in the same issue, we get an Elongated Man backup feature, “The Case of the Talking Orchid,” written by Bob Rozakis and drawn by the mysterious Union Studio. Here we see Ralph and Sue taking in an evening at the opera, only for Ralph’s twitching nose to detect a mystery when the corsage he bought Sue starts talking, about an upcoming kidnapping.

As it turns out, the radio corsage was a trap, to lure Ralph away so that thugs could kidnap his wife, in order to force Ralph to deliver a bomb in an extortion plot, naturally. However, when Ralph realizes that he had taken the corsage with him, and there’s no way Sue could have been lured out to be kidnapped, he swiftly returns to the extortionist and hauls him off to a waiting patrol car.

The story here can charitably be called thin, but the real appeal is the art, which melds an illustrative quality with a fun, light cartooniness, particularly in the renderings of Ralph’s fight with the extortionist, which has a Jack Cole-esque PLASTIC MAN vibe to it.

There’s also this shot of Ralph stretching his eyes to the top of a building for a sneak peek at the layout, which, I’ve gotta admit, really gave me the creeps as a kid.

Sue Dibny is rendered in a very odd, almost babydoll-like manner, which gives Sue a ditzy affect that seems very out of character.

So, to sum up: a few goofy situations, some real stretches in the plot department, and some appealing if slightly uneven art. Looking at it now, is it the best comic ever? Of course not.

But when I was five, it was magic.

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