Though Batman's rogue's gallery
is arguably the greatest in comics, the early Bronze Age
saw the Joker, the Riddler and Catwoman sidelined in favor
of more conventional killers, gangsters and lowlifes, and
the occasional supernatural terror.
hugely popular live-action television show of the 60s had
conferred an unprecedented celebrity to Batman's more colorful
foes, but it had also made them symbols of high camp to
the general public. As the 70s dawned, DC Comics was determined
to return Batman to his roots as a "dark avenger of
the night," and as shadows and dark alleys re-entered
the visual lexicon of the books, the brighly colored supervillains
of an earlier age were sent packing. In their place came
a new collection of villains more in keeping with the more
"realistic" and spooky spin given to the Bronze
Easily the most important of these was Ra's Al-Ghul,
an evil genius whose mad dreams of reshaping the world led
Batman on a series of James Bond-style international exploits.
Throughout the 70s and into the 80s, Batman would pursue
Ra's across arid deserts, through snow-capped mountains
and finally even to outer
space. Like the Bond villains he resembled, Ra's had
a global network of loyal agents and high tech, secret bases.
Plus of course a beautiful female helper who falls in love
with the hero, only this time she was Ra's own daughter,
Talia, and Ra's actually approved of the romance. In fact,
when he wasn't trying to take over the world, Ra's chief
hobby was trying to make Bruce Wayne his son-in-law. Several
adventures seemed to end with the villain's demise, only
to see him later resurrected in his "Lazarus Pit,"
a literal deux ex machina which, it was suggested, had been
keeping him alive for centuries.
back to Batman's earliest days in Detective Comics,
there was a new emphasis on supernatural foes, from vampires
to werewolves to immortal madmen. Most of these were one-off's
but one "monster" foe who came to stay was Man-Bat,
a grotesque figure combining a bat's ears, wings and talons
with the body of a man. In reality bat-researcher Kirk Langstrom,
Man-Bat set out to fight crime alongside the Caped Crusader,
but often ended up battling him instead. Treated alternately
as a villain, a hero and a nuisance, Man-Bat attracted enough
of a following to co-star in several issues of Brave
and the Bold before getting his own title (for a mere
Other Bronze Age foes included The Spook, a cloaked
killer who could escape Gotham Penitentiary seemingly at
will, the improbably outfitted Calculator, and a
third version of Clayface, this one with the
ability to reduce victims to puddles of protoplasm with
a mere touch of his diseased hand.
the allure of Batman's A-list villains soon proved irresistible
and they made their inevitable return, albeit in ramped-up,
newly lethal forms. The Penguin and the Riddler
became more dangerous and less comical. Two-Face,
whose acid-scarred face kept him sidelined throughout the
kid-friendly 50s and fun-loving 60s, now took his place
among the top ranks of Bat-villains in the horror-tinged
70s. Hugo Strange, AWOL since Batman #1, returned
with his Golden Age, monster-making M.O. intact.
No villain went through more changes in this period than
the Joker. Portrayed in the 50s and 60s as a larcenous
prankster devoted to humiliating Batman with corny gags,
the Joker returned to Batman's world in the 70s as a homicidal
maniac, a four-color nightmare who proved that yes, kids,
clowns can indeed be scary. In the classic and oft-reprinted
"Joker's Five-Way Revenge," (Batman
# 251) writer Denny O'Neill and artist Neal Adams presented
a Joker unseen since the earliest tales of the Golden Age;
a psychotic killer who left his victims' faces twisted into
horrible smiles. Later Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers
would complete the Joker's evolution into a true madman
who "masterminded" such insane plots as putting
smiles on schools of fish in order to copyright seafood
and earn millions in royalties.
Before slipping into abject madness, the Clown Prince of
Crime made history of a sort by being spun off into his
own magazine, easily one of the oddest experiments in DC's
history to that point. In the nine issues of his own book,
the Joker escaped repeatedly from his cell at Arkham Asylum
to travel the country in his "Ho-ho-home on wheels"
and match wits with fellow villains Two-Face, the Scarecrow,
Lex Luthor and (perhaps inevitably) The Royal
Flush Gang. Also joining the fun were heroes Green
Arrow and the Creeper. This version of the Joker,
primarily written by Denny O'Neill was somewhere between
the "old" and "new" models; a prankster
more comic than lethal; dangerous to be sure, but not the
homicidal killing machine he would later become. And small
wonder...devoting a book to a villain was challenge enough,
but making a murderous lunatic into a protagonist was too
tall an order even for a comic book writer.
A memorable four-part story line saw Batman's rogues gallery
take center stage. With the hero apparently deceased, the
Joker, the Riddler, Lex Luthor (!) and others claim to have
done him in, and one by one enter "testimony"
before a jury of their fellow villains to determine who
will get the credit. In another memorable arc, Batman himself
becomes Public Enemy Number One when it appears he's fatally
shot Talia in the back...with Commissioner Gordon himself
as witness. For the next few months, Batman has to stay
one step ahead of Gordon and his men as he struggles to
clear his name.
In all, the Bronze Age was a great time for Bat-villains,
with new ones joining the rogue's gallery and older ones
taking on a greater sense of menace. But of course no era
can be truly "great" from the bad guys' point
of view. In the end, they're always going down!
A GOLD STAR FOR THE JOKER
issue #4 of his own book, the Clown Prince of Crime matched
wits not with the Caped Crusader, but with the Emerald Archer.
Oliver (Green Arrow) Queen and Dinah (Black Canary) Lance
guest star in this off-beat tale that reflects the odd stage
of transition in which the Joker found himself in the 70s.
The Joker's scheme here falls somewhere between the flashy
pranks of his TV days and the genocidal excesses of modern
comics. Similarly, there is an odd dynamic at work in a
tale featuring a protagonist who (a) is a self-confessed
raving nut job and (b) leaves a body count in his wake.
Perhaps in deference to the comics code, the Joker seems
to meet his demise at story's end, but given that the next
panel advertises his adventure for the following month,
it's hard to count him out.
Two Superman alums handle creative chores on this one,
S! Maggin writing and Jose
Luis Garcia Lopez on pencils. Maggin had an affinity
for Green Arrow that shows through here, and Lopez's layouts
and figures are so masterfully rendered that, for once,
even an ink job by the dreaded Vince Colletta can't spoil
No Batman in this one (except for a brief "cameo"...don't
blink!), but "Gold
Star for the Joker" provides a great example of
one of the odder offshoots of Bat-mythology in the Bronze