Scott D. Parker
As a kid in the late 1970s, comics were one of my go-to things (Star Wars, KISS, and early Star Trek fandom were the other main loves of my life) and Batman was my favorite. Still being a young kid in late elementary, I didn’t pay attention to the names of the writers or artists. I just bought the books and read them, ingesting the stories over and over again.
When I review the covers of my issues of Batman, it turns out some of my favorites were all scripted by the same guy: Len Wein. Unknown to me at the time, Wein had already co-created Swamp Thing for DC and rebooted the X-Men over at Marvel, including the co-creation of Wolverine, Storm, Nightcrawler, and Colossus. Nope, all I cared about was good Batman stories, and for a stretch there in late 1978 and all through 1979, Len Wein was the monthly writer (mostly) for Batman.
With the cover date for Wein’s first issue being January 1979 (although it hit the spinner racks a month or so earlier), I thought it would be fun to re-read Wein’s Batman run forty years later and see how it holds up. Spoiler: his run is among my favorites of all-time. In fact, Wein wrote one of my favorite all-time comic stories, Batman vs. The Incredible Hulk. But that’s a different post.
Speaking of holding up, Batman and Bruce Wayne in the 1970s is my favorite version of the character. Dick Grayson is off to college, leaving Bruce to move out of Wayne Manor and into Gotham City proper. He takes up residence at the Wayne Foundation building, and operates there for most of the decade. It is one of the neatest buildings in comicdom, what with the giant tree in the middle of the building, which secretly houses an elevator to the basement where the Batmobile is kept. For a young boy like me, this was the coolest thing ever.
The building shows up in Batman issue 307, but not before in intriguing two-page prologue. A beggar woman is asking for spare change. A man in a trench coat, fedora, and scarf approaches and gives her two gold pieces. The next page, she falls dead, right under the title, “Dark Messenger of Mercy!” The artist in this issue is John Calnan and Dick Giordano.
Darkness literally falls over Gotham in one short panel, and Wayne excuses himself. He tags up with Alfred who has the Batman costume at the ready. As he swings off the top of the Foundation building, Batman makes a comment to Alfred: “When I start making value judgements—deciding who’s important enough to avenge—it’ll be time to hang up my mask forever.” Here in 2019, with the recent passing of Stan Lee, many folks mentioned Lee’s strong streak of social justice running through his words. Here, in 1979, Len Wein does the same thing for Batman.
Meanwhile...at police headquarters, a man named Quentin Conroy is livid. He wants Gotham’s finest to help him find stolen property, gold coins to be exact. Unbeknownst to both men, Batman is sitting in the same room, legs casually crossed, fingers steepled. The Caped Crusader in convinced he can find Conroy’s missing money, especially since two of the coins turned up on that dead woman’s corpse.
Street level, Batman approaches a sleep bum and there is a funny couple of panels. In the boxed panels, Wein writes “Without question, the Batman is an impressive figure. His unexpected visage, looming large out of the darkness, is often viewed with admiration...or hostility...or outright fear…” “But rarely indifference.” This as the bum goes back to sleep. See? You can have humor in a Batman story. Anyway, an Irishman named Shamrock (natch) approaches and asks the hero if he needs helps. When Batman says he’s investigating the murder of the woman, Shamrock knew her. He volunteers to escort Batman down into the sewers to meet some folks who might have seen something.
What Batman sees is a group of people living in an underground tunnel, the area kept warm by the steam pipes. Here, Batman meets Slugger (from the ‘48 Gotham Giants baseball team), Poet (Shakespeare of the sewers), and Good Queen Bess. Through dialogue alone, Wein gives these characters their accents and particular ways of speaking. Shamrock always says, “Laddie,” while Slugger talks like a New Yorker: “Pleased to meet ‘cha!” Batman learns there have been other deaths...and Queen Bess actually has two of the coins with her. The Dark Knight Detective ascertains the gold coins are laced with a contact poison, absorbed through the skin.
No sooner does Batman make this discovery than a piercing scream fills the bowels of Gotham. Another woman is being attacked! It’s the man with the fedora and red scarf. Batman leaps to action. A fight ensues, and Batman gets himself whacked by Scarfman’s cane. In the melee, two things happen. One, Scarfman’s hat and scarf fall away, revealing a face the citizens of the underworld know. Two, Scarfman’s cane cracked a steam pipe. It’s about to blow. So Batman gets between the pipe and the people. It explodes, hurling Batman across the room.
Later, Batman’s “new tattered friends” say Scarfman looks just like one of their own: “Limehouse” John Francis Conroy, a man who used to sleep with them before just disappearing. Being the detective, Batman soon finds his way to Quentin Conroy’s house (because Batman can get into any room in Gotham, right?). Heated words are exchanged and Quentin confesses John Francis was his father. He kept the gold coins as a remembrance of his father, a man who ran out on his family while Quentin was a kid. The modern pressures of the world drove John Francis to the streets, supposedly dying in a gutter.
But Batman isn’t so sure.
The next night, we see Scarfman prowling about. He gives coins to a man who extends his hand...the gloved hand of The Batman! Oddly, Batman is wearing a sling, proof not only did the steam explosion hurt him worse than we saw three pages ago, but reminding readers the Caped Crusader is really just a man, a man who can get injured. A second battle commences, but Batman’s shoulder hampers him. Scarfman swings the cane too wide, allowing Batman to come in underneath him. A powerful punch to the mid-section topples Scarfman. The odd cast of characters are also there, cheering on Batman. Scarfman questions their motives. All he wants is to give these street people some mercy and peace. But “the peace of the grave” is something they shun. Just as they shun him.
Scarfman’s mind snaps. He accuses Batman of turning these “friends of his” away from him. His face is misshapen, resembling John Francis Conroy, but a few panels later, it is revealed to be Quentin all along. Quentin, looking almost like a young boy.
Wein wraps up the entire story in three thin panels. We see Quentin being led away and Commissioner Gordon asking Batman about the clue. It was the heels of Quentin’s shoes, something we saw a few pages before. Many of the 1970s stories had clues the reader could follow, and it’ fun to go back and notice certain things you might have missed the first go-round.
Wein wrote a pretty decent script. I enjoy the non-super-villain aspect of these kinds of stories. Kind of like a breather before we get to the next issue featuring Mr. Freeze. Wein brings Batman’s humanity to the fore, both in how he protects the homeless but also, at the end, when he hopes young Quentin will receive the help he needs. He’s a true hero to all, discriminating toward none.
What did y’all think about this story?