Wednesday, September 9, 2015

MB1: The Challenge of the Man-Bat!

Detective Comics #400 (June 1970)
cover: Neal Adams (unsigned)
title: "Challenge of the Man-Bat!"
writer: Frank Robbins
penciller: Neal Adams
inker: Dick Giordano
editor: Julius Schwartz 

At the Gotham Museum of Natural History, Kirk Langstrom is experimenting on live bats in order to try to gain abilities that even Batman does not have.
Elsewhere, crooks wearing "light intensifier" goggles and foam-soled shoes try to steal gems by breaking into a jewelry store from underground. Batman finds them but can not see them; he manages to stop them, but they escape. He picks up their ultra-sonic weapon, and hopes to use it to track them. The crooks for their part plan to use a similar tool with the same frequency as so that they can lure Batman into a the Museum of Natural History.

Langstrom thinks he has perfected the bat gland-extract and tries it on himself. He is instantly bothered by the water dripping in the sink, and the brightness of the lab light. He turns the light off, then moves around in total darkness. Kirk now has natural sonar, but normal light and sound bothers him.
Meanwhile, Batman is working on an artificial aid to hear better in the dark. He creates an audio intensifier. To test it, he can find Alfred in total darkness by listening to his heart-beat. He's ready for the Blackout Gang.

At the museum, Langstrom is finally on his way home when he notices that his hands have become longer and gnarled. He reaches for gloves, and suddenly his hat falls off his head. Afraid of what he will see, he rushes to a mirror and finds that he now looks more like a bat than a man! In shock, Langstrom immediately returns to his lab to start working on an antidote. He sends the curator a telegram saying he was rushing off to Chicago, and stays overnight in the museum.
The next night, the Blackout Gang goes after jewelry on display at the Natural History Museum. By using their similar weapon they "call" Batman, who arrives just as they expect. They guess that he is using improved hearing aids, so they drop a bag of ping-pong balls to confuse him. The Gang jumps on Batman and has the advantage over him.
Still in the museum, Kirk hears the trouble and rushes to Batman's aid. Working together, Batman and Man-Bat make quick work of the Gang.
Kirk Langstrom tries to escape before Batman can see him, but Batman insists on thanking him for his help. Kirk admits that Batman is his hero, so he agrees to show himself.
Batman is impressed because he thinks Kirk is wearing a costume. Sobbing, Kirk runs off. Batman lets him go, not knowing exactly what his problem is.

This story still works, 45 years after it was originally published. The "horror" aspects of Man-Bat are strong here: a scientist works to improve on Nature for the greater good, but ends up being the victim of his own hubris. The story reminds me of the horror movie classics The Invisible Man and The Fly in that regard.
And the visuals! Neal Adams and Dick Giordano are two of the greatest Batman artists of all time, so it is fantastic that they get to design Man-Bat and set his "look." There is just enough humanity in his face to see that Kirk Langstrom really is buried deep within him; that picture of him at the mirror is priceless! I'm reminded of the scene in the Disney cartoon Beauty & The Beast, where Belle recognizes the humanized Beast by his eyes. Of course, that movie came along some twenty years after this!

I don't know the story behind the story, but my guess is that this story was originally written as a book-length adventure. Then for some reason, it was split and published separately, here and in Detective Comics #402. I say this for two reasons: 1. this story sort of simply ends, with no real resolution; and 2. Man-Bat is shown on the cover and on the last page with wings, which he does not yet have in this story. Regardless of the reasons, Man-Bat (and Neal Adams) would be back after taking a month off.

Man-Bat Trivia Notes:  
  • The cover is a fantastic illustration by Neal Adams, but the city shown is clearly New York City. 
  • The back-up story in this issue stars Batgirl (with a cameo by Robin) by Denny O'Neil, Gil Kane, and Vince Colletta. Because the cliff-hanger is continued in the next, non Man-Bat issue, it took me years to track down and read the conclusion. 
  • There is a letter in this issue's letter column by fan Alan Brennert criticizing Frank Robbins' stories. Brennert, of course, grew up to write some of the most-loved Batman stories of the Eighties, as well as becoming a best-selling novelist and television screenwriter and producer. 
This story has been reprinted in the following books:
Batman Family #1 (Oct 1975)
Man-Bat vs Batman (1984 reprint collection)
Batman Illustrated by Neal Adams vol 2 
Showcase Presents Batman vol 5   

Man-Bat was created by Frank Robbins and Neal Adams

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