SDCC: O'Neil, Adams & More Revisit Batman of the 1970s

There has been criticism in recent years that the 'Comic' aspect has been lost in Comic-Con International in San Diego, but one look around the room of the "Batman in the '70s" panel proved otherwise. Fans and legends alike gathered to celebrate the era of Batman that served as a bridge between the pop art camp of the 1960s and the resurgence of the Dark Knight in the 1980s. The nostalgia-fueled celebration of all things Gotham was moderated by comic book historian extraordinaire Mark Evanier and attended by a who's who of Bat legends celebrating 75 years of the DC Comics hero: legendary artist Neal Adams, acclaimed editor and writer Denny O'Neil, Michael Uslan, executive producer of the Batman film franchise, legendary comics writer Len Wein and one of the most skilled colorists of his or any other era, Anthony Tollin.

The 1970s were a pivotal time for Batman, one in which he stepped back into the shadows and became the character the character beloved by comic book readers and moviegoers today. Evanier opened the fast moving panel by declaring the era of the Dark Knight began "when Adams started drawing Batman," to which the crowd wholeheartedly agreed. Evanier introduced Tollin, telling the audience that the colorist and his late wife, Adrienne Roy, colored hundreds of issues of "Batman," "Detective Comics" and "The Brave and the Bold."

"All Batman fans can't stand certain eras of Batman," Evanier said, admitting that each era is someone's favorite, his own being the Carmine Infantino "New look" era. The historian admitted that like many fans, he fell in love with the O'Neil and Adams era that followed it.

When he was first offered "Batman," O'Neil said the camp sensibility was still firmly attached to the character, but soon "someone turned out the lights on that TV show." At that time O'Neil said he and Adams were "kind of flavors of the week" and legendary editor Julie Schwartz asked them if they had any ideas. O'Neil said his plan was to "take the character back to May of 1939 and do to what Bill Finger and Bob Kane did."

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Adams, in his own inimitable fashion, said that at the beginning of the decade Infantino had "Batman in the day time walking around in his underwear." When Adams asked Schwartz to allow him to draw "Batman," the editor kicked him out of his office. Finally, Schwartz told Adams "Batman" wasn't selling well and "Detective Comics" was in danger of being cancelled. The editor hadn't changed his mind about putting Adams on the book, but he did ask editor Murray Boltinoff if he could draw "The Brave and the Bold." Legendary Silver Age writer Bob Haney was willing to adapt his scripts to suit Adams style and suddenly Batman wasn't "walking through doors but coming through windows."

It quickly became apparent that the only Batman fans were buzzing about was the one in "The Brave and the Bold." Schwartz asked Adams what made the artist think he knew what Batman should be and Adams told him, "It's not just me that knows what Batman should be -- every kid in America knows what Batman should be." Adams "got rid of the fantasy bullshit" and finally Dick Giordano paired Adams with O'Neil, creating a creative pairing for the ages. According to Adams, O'Neil did the Batman everyone wanted to see and "the Batman we still see today."

Adams added that he also did "World's Finest Comics" before "The Brave and the Bold" even though, he said, editor and noted curmudgeon Mort Weisinger hated him. Adams told a story about Infantino trying to foist him upon Weisinger. Adams told Weisinger that if he wanted Infantino to let up, the editor should just let him do a "World's Finest Comics" cover and that he would screw it up so Infantino would leave Weisinger alone. Of course, Weisinger loved the cover, and the rest is history.

While giving Adams well deserved credit as the greatest Batman artist of the'70s, Evanier also brought up Bob Brown and Irv Novick as well as the inks of Dick Giordano. Evanier said Giordano's inks gave the work of many Batman artists of the day take on the same feel as Adams' art. Adams said the other artists were told to draw like him and everyone did it and was happy that "there was no friction." Adams said artist "Jim Aparo did the best job of all," an assessment the Comic-Con crowd audibly agreed with. With regard to the late artist, O'Neil stated that "Aparo was the best writer's artist he ever worked with." He said Aparo understood "this is not about pictures; this is about pictures telling a story."

Len Wein told a story about pitching an issue of "Detective Comics" with Marv Wolfman during the Neal Adams era. Like Adams, when Wein asked Schwartz for the go ahead, the editor kicked him out of his office. Wein told Adams about the story, and the artist agreed to draw it and that Schwartz wouldn't reject it. Wein said that Schwartz "glowered as only Julie can glower," but couldn't turn down a story by Adams at "the height of his powers." The story was featured in 1971's "Detective Comics" #408 and reintroduced the nearly forgotten villain Dr. Tzin-Tzin. Adams, Wein and Evanier all agreed that the story remains a Bronze Age gem.

Michael Uslan was just a reader of Batman at the time and joked that "half the letters touting Adams' Batman were written by me." Uslan recalled working as an intern at the time and was even able to write an issue of "The Shadow," one Schwartz gave the ultimate compliment to, telling him it "didn't stink." With "The Shadow" on his resume, Schwartz consented to let Uslan co-wrote a "Detective Comics" run with Bob Rosakis beginning with issue #460. Together, the two writers wanted to create a pirate villain because, according to Uslan, "Batman was missing that from his rogues gallery." They came up with a pirate villain they named Black Beard, but Schwartz immediately changed him to Captain Stingaree. Uslan said Rozakis came up with a premise that James Gordon was trapped in his squad car which was sabotaged to blow up if it went under 55 miles per hour. Of course, the movie "Speed" used a very similar conceit.

Longtime Batman fan Uslan paid respect artist Ernie Chan, whom he called a workhorse and a "great graphic storyteller, an anchor on Batman." He also mentioned Steve Englehart-Marshall Rogers era, comparing it to Frank Langella's "Dracula."

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Adams said the era of comics in the '70s, and Batman in general, would not exist without Julie Schwartz, the mover and the shaker who took the same sensibility he learned editing sci-fi writers in the 1920s and applied them to comics. O'Neil agreed and called Schwartz "the almost perfect editor... whose ego never got into it," and said Schwartz's only priorities were good stories and that he was never given enough credit for perfecting how to reintroduce characters. He reminded fans that Schwartz was responsible for reintroducing three-fourths of the DC pantheon, and was successful because he "was able to find the essence of the characters while reflecting the contemporary world."

Tollins then paid tribute to artist Frank Robbins and added that, in addition to Adams, Boltinoff also put Aparo on "Batman." He also gave credit to the late Archie Goodwin and revealed that "Detective Comics" was cancelled for a week or so in the '70s until future long time writer and former DC President Paul Levitz had the idea of moving the more successful "Batman Family" concept to "Detective Comics," thus saving DC's flagship title.

Asked about the cinematic interpretations of Batman, Uslan talked about what Batman books he gave director Tim Burton as he prepared for 1989's "Batman" film. Uslan said he did not want Burton to see Bat-Mite, Bat-Genie, Bat-Robot or Bat-Baby. Instead, he opted to give the filmmaker just three things: the first year of "Batman," which introduced Bruce Wayne, the Joker and Catwoman, the entire run by O'Neil and Adams, and Englehart and Rogers' run edited by Goodwin, as well as "Night of the Stalker" ("Detective Comics" #439, 1974) by Steve Englehart and Sal Amendola, a book that inspired the memorable opening sequence of Burton's "Batman."

Speaking to the uniqueness of the character, Tollin said he needed an entirely different palette when coloring Batman because the character has his own dark visual language that makes him stand out from other characters and gave a huge amount of respect to inker Dick Giordano who Tollin said "kept a consistency to the character" throughout the era and beyond.

Wein then told the crowd DC will be releasing a huge collection of his Batman work.

The panel wrapped up with Evanier asking the panelists to pick one Batman story that is the Batman story. Tollin choose "Joker's Five-Way Revenge!" ("Batman #251, 1975) by Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams, an issue that is widely credited with redefining the Joker and turning him into comics' greatest and most complex villain, and "The Batman Nobody Knows" ("Batman" #250, 1975) by Frank Robbins and Dick Giordano, a short story in which a group of kids gathered around a campfire all present to Bruce Wayne their version of what they believe Batman to be. Wein also selected "Five-Way Revenge" while Uslan picked a Crime Alley story written by O'Neil and the first appearance of Ra's al Ghul and Talia ("Batman#232, 1971) by O'Neil and Adams. O'Neil picked his own, "A Vow from the Grave" in Detective Comics #483 (1979) with artist Don Newton which saw the creation of Maxie Zeus. O'Neil joked that the character was just supposed to be a disposable villain but after a bunch of animated appearances "people are still giving me money for him." Wrapping things up, Adams also chose the "The Joker's Five-Way Revenge" as the definitive Batman story.

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