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Frantic as a cardiograph scratching out the lines, Day 214: Detective Comics #395

Every day this year, I will be examining the first pages of random comics. This month I will be looking at four writer/artist duos, as voted on by you, the readers! This week features Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams! Today’s page is from Detective Comics #395, which was published by DC and is cover dated January 1970. This scan is from Batman Illustrated by Neal Adams volume 2, which was released in 2004. Enjoy!

That can't end well

The votes have been tallied, and we have three winners and one “second” place finisher. The three artist/writer teams that received the most votes will be featured for eight (8) days, which leaves seven (7) days for the final duo. That’s awfully handy, isn’t it? I’m going in chronological order for the first three duos, which means O’Neil and Adams are up first! I will apologize in advance if I don’t feature a comic you’re looking for. Obviously, over the next week (+1) we’ll see a lot of Batman, but there’s some other stuff in here as well!

First up is one of the early collaborations between these two, Detective Comics #395, “The Secret of the Waiting Graves.” Based on the timing of certain other books, it might actually be the first time they teamed up, which makes it all the more impressive considering how excellent this story is. This was actually one of the earliest Batman stories I’ve ever read – it was collected in a book that I checked out of the library when I was probably 10 or 11, and it holds a special place in my heart because, frankly, it’s brilliant.

O’Neil begins with portentous narration – we know we’re in central Mexico, and O’Neil superfluously tells us that there are two open graves in front of us. It doesn’t matter that we can see the graves, because O’Neil is going for a mood, and the opening passage certainly sets that up well. That continues with the caption box on the opposite end of the panel – O’Neil is simply setting a mood, and with phrases like “hear the wind howling like souls in torment” and “breathe deeply and sniff the scent of death,” he does a fine job. O’Neil was 30 when this book came out, and presumably he read some of the horror comics back when he was a young lad, so this comic is deliberately evoking those creepy tales. I can’t find out who lettered this, but whoever did the title gave it a nice, 3-D effect that seems to be more “horror”-oriented than just a flat font. You might feel differently, but it’s always seemed that way to me.

In the second panel, O’Neil catches us up on some of the particulars, as we learn that the Muertos (Denny O’Neil: Not the most subtle of writers) are throwing a party in the family burial ground, that Bruce Wayne is attending, and that a balloon race is about to start. All of this is fairly important, and O’Neil does a pretty good job of making the exposition as naturalistic as possible. We move onto the second page with a good grasp of the basics, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Adams gives us a tremendous opening panel, if you ask me. The cape off to the left helps guide us into the panel, leading us to the oversized moon (I love fiction that gives us giant moons, because it’s so ridiculous – the first time I can recall seeing something like that is E.T., where a moon that big would cause gigantic tides and probably wipe out Elliot and that alien) that sits on the horizon, acting as a bridge to the gravestones. The crypt in the background is a nice touch, as it gives us a good sense of place, and then we get to the gravestones and the names with no death dates. Adams lays Batman’s shadow across the open graves, drawing our eyes to them (we might question where the light source is if we were cynical bastards, but let’s not question it!) and over them to Batman’s feet. The panel is framed wonderfully by the cape and the feet, implying the large presence of our Caped Crusader. The fact that the graves are empty and the people for whom they are reserved are apparently well over 100 years old is freaky, but Batman’s presence there is calming – he has found a mystery, and his shadow has now fallen over the graves and he will solve the conundrum.

Panel 2 is a nice introduction to the other characters, as Adams places the Muertos in the foreground and on the right, so that our eyes gravitate toward them as we pass over the scene behind them. We take in the other people, but we can figure out that they’re not too important, and we see the balloons in the background, but the Muertos dominate the scene, as they are the important people in the story. Dolores’ hair even points us to the second page, which is fun.

I don’t know how this was originally colored, but Adams and his Continuity Studio “reconstructed” the coloring, and it’s okay, I guess. It’s better than some modern recoloring, certainly, but I don’t know what it originally looked like. Sorry!

Anyway, this is a fine place to begin our look at the O’Neil/Adams partnership. They produced a lot of superb comics over the first 3-4 years of the new decade! Unfortunately, our next installment isn’t quite one of those. It’s not a terribly comic, but it’s a little goofy. But onward we forge! Be sure to waste some time in the archives!

18 Comments

I’ve never read this story, so I don’t know if this is intentional or significant, but right in front of the moon, the shadowed corner/tower of the building looks like a person looking at Batman. I had to look closely for a few seconds to figure out it’s supposed to be part of the building. Is there in fact supposed to be a person there? If so, it would seem to be a very big person or a very low building. Weird.

Did Adams redraw this story for that volume? (I don’t own it) I had heard he recoloured it but it sure looks to me like he re-inked it. (The names on the graves certainly seem like a modern touch).

Craig: It’s part of the crypt. I was going to mention it, but I forgot to go back and put it in there somewhere. You’re right – it does look like a person, but it’s part of the building.

Graeme: I don’t think so. Perhaps he changed the lettering on the graves, but when I read this story in the early 1980s, I specifically remember the names on the stones. Maybe he didn’t like the lettering and changed it, but I’m not sure. He doesn’t say anything about re-inking it or re-lettering it in the introduction, although he does talk about recoloring it, so I think he would have written something about it.

Adams was just … amazing right off the bat. I think it’s a shame his most recent work he’s also written, because he’s as bad a writer as he is good an artist, but this stuff just looks classic.

But, yeah, I groaned when I read “Muertos.” Ay dios mio.

sandwich eater

August 1, 2012 at 3:09 pm

I also love images of the moon in fiction, especially in cityscapes. It is strangely ominous but it’s also comforting (it’s a source of light in the darkness).

I suspect that this fascination of images of the moon comes from the introduction of the original TMNT cartoon which I watched a lot at a really young age. The show basically opened with a shot of the moon. So it was drilled into my head over and over when I was a child.

PJ: But, you also get the sense that the couple are fully aware of (if not reveled in) their name’s meaning and are playing it up by having the party in the cemetery, when you get to the next panel. The part though that really pops to me are the birth dates…. mid-NINETEENTH-century, which is a pretty good indication that there’s something strange about the couple, other than just their name being “death”,

At a guess, I’d say it’s probably Ben Oda lettering, but that’s just a guess.

I think there are times the moon can look that big, but not if it’s that dark. Maybe. Oh, I’ve forgotten all my astronomy knowledge!

Pete Woodhouse

August 1, 2012 at 4:41 pm

I know you’ve ranted and railed against modern reprint (re-)colouring’s treatment of older stories, Greg (and from what I’ve seen I agree with you).
How do Adams’ efforts compare with the rest of comicdom in general? Judging from one page above (and it is only one page) it seems OK.

Pete Woodhouse

August 1, 2012 at 4:43 pm

Bugger, Travis you beat me to it while I was writing about the colouring! Yes it seems like Ben Oda’s lettering work.
Oda’s probably my favourite from DCs of that era

Yes, the engraving on the tombstones has been redone. The reason is that in the original version, extra shading has been added to the face of the tombstones in the form of black diagonal lines, to convey the idea they’re facing away from whatever light source is behind Batman. (It’s not the full moon. Look.) They also obscured the lettering on the tombstones a little, which may or may not have been intentional at the time. Since the shading lines aren’t needed in the newer version — Adams having full control of the coloring here — they were taken out, but that meant the inscriptions had to be relettered.

Just as a matter of personal preference, I find Adams’ recoloring a little too George Lucas for my tastes. I don’t mind the recoloring being done with a more tasteful or appropriate palette, but I’d also like new readers to get a better sense of how these stories might have looked when they first appeared and why we fell in love with them back then. Using techniques that definitely weren’t an option back then detracts from a sense of history.

P.S.: that said, this is actually pretty restrained as modern recoloring jobs go!

Pete: Yeah, I’m with Richard that this is a bit more restrained than some recolorings that have been done. The page we’ll see tomorrow is not done well, but Adams’ studio didn’t do it. I think Adams and his collaborators are slightly above the mediocre norm. I do wonder if Adams and his gang did the recoloring on the Deadman collection DC recently put out, because that’s more recent and it doesn’t look as good as this does. Maybe they tried too many tricks!

The coloring looks fine to me, but then I was never a huge fan of Ben-Day Dots.

I thought the recoloring in these volumes was done well for the most part. It was the redrawing that Adams did that really bugged me. His scratchier, modern-day inking style does not mesh well with the lushier brush style that others inked his 70s work with, so the revisions always stuck out like a sore thumb. Since these volumes are for the ages, I’d much rather get the stories in their classic state, rather than how Adams would approach the same material today. Besides, Secret of the Waiting Graves era Adams > Batman: The Odyssey era Adams.

Just as a matter of personal preference, I find Adams’ recoloring a little too George Lucas for my tastes. I don’t mind the recoloring being done with a more tasteful or appropriate palette, but I’d also like new readers to get a better sense of how these stories might have looked when they first appeared and why we fell in love with them back then. Using techniques that definitely weren’t an option back then detracts from a sense of history.

TOTALLY agree, Richard. Blatantly modern coloring techniques in reprints just throw me out of the story. I once passed up a Marvel reprinting of the Thomas/Adams X-Men run because Iceman had been rendered with color holds throughout. Make the reprints look at good as possible, please, but let’s not rewrite history.

Pete Woodhouse

August 2, 2012 at 9:12 am

@Greg, Richard, John: I just don’t get this tinkering with history thing. We all know Golden, Silver & Bronze Age colouring and printing techniques were not as advanced as today’s. It doesn’t detract from the product at all.
In fact looking at what people acheived DESPITE the limitations they encountered is even more rewarding. This is especially ironic given that Adams himself helped to advance colour technique in comics, working alongside Jack Adler.
Surely Adams’s work is gorgeous enough to speak for itself?

It’s good to know the next one isn’t a “terribly” comic. :P

Andrew: Oh, sure, point out the typo! :)

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