Tuesday, April 03, 2007

DETECTIVE COMICS #479 DC Comics, 1978

They used to call it ‘TEC.

Back in the Seventies, when they had these old fashioned things called “letter columns” in the back of comic books, Detective Comics was always abbreviated ‘TEC. When I was a kid, I thought that was cool as hell: a comic book that had its own nickname.

Everything about ‘TEC was cool as hell to Young Dave. My first print exposure to Batman was in Detective Comics, specifically the era when Marshall Rogers was penciling the book. Everything about those comics seemed designed to be -yes- cool as hell.

The most classic comics in this most classic of Batman eras were Detective Comics 471-476, issues that teamed Marshall Rogers with writer Steve Englehart and inker Terry Austin. These “Dark Detective” comics were considered the definitive interpretation of the character for years and truly deserve the reverence many old school fans hold for them.

I came to the party a little late, but have since hunted down and collected originals of all those Englehart/Rogers issues, which are as rad as everyone says they are. Silver St. Cloud? The Laughing Fish? Phosphorous Man? Radness, I say.

However, my first exposure to Marshall Rogers’ “cool as hell” version of Batman was in this particular issue, ‘TEC #479, where he takes on the Preston Payne version of Clayface. My dad bought me this issue in 1978 during our annual automobile pilgrimage to Saskatchewan for summer vacation. Laying in the back of our family’s huge Malibu station wagon, I read this comic over and over and over again as the endless Canadian prairie rolled by.

Man, I loved this book.

Even Young Dave could tell that there was something special about the art. I had a few other DC comics and a Gold Key or two on that trip, but with the exception of a Superboy and the Legion of Super Heroes issue, the art sucked compared to ‘TEC.

Marshall Rogers was in a class all his own. His clean, smooth pencils were really enhanced by top inkers like Austin and, in this issue, Dick Giordano. Trained as an architect, Rogers had a particular knack for drawing buildings, cars, bridges, technology - you name it. His perspective drawings were impeccable. Plus, Rogers drew his own sound effects, integrating them into the art -- none of those stock drag-and-drop computer-generated sound effects that kids use these days. The background effects and zipatone shading are like icing on top of a delicious sequential art cake. Nearly nobody in '78 was producing comics that looked this good.

To be honest, ‘TEC 479 isn’t quite the same caliber as the Englehart/Rogers issues that preceded it, mostly due to Len Wein’s overwrought script. In a nutshell, Batman tries to stop Clayface, who is on a maniacal quest to resurrect his beloved dead wife. His strange condition is very painful and more than a little ugly, so on occasion Clayface has to melt some poor schmuck’s face in order to feel better. I think we’ve all been there.

Here’s Clayface meeting his next victim, a drunk asshole in a Datsun. You can tell he’s drunk becaushe 1) he's waving a party horn, 2) he’s wearing a party hat, and 3) he announces that he’s drunk. Subtle, no?

Comic book physics are in play here: despite the fact that the Datsun is speeding towards Clayface, the driver still has time to utter two entire sentences, which Clayface can clearly hear. Only in comics, folks.
As in all good horror stories, vice and weakness are punished. Clayface totally melts the drunk guy's face while his trophy girlfriend looks on in horror.
Batman arrives, but too late for drunk guy. Ah, no big loss. Batman comforts the hysterical woman, who reminds him of his lost love Silver St. Cloud. Then, in an uncharacteristically emo moment, Batman loses his shit:

Woah, Batman's pulling a Shatner. Get a hold of yourself, man. It's embarassing. Write it in your journal or something.
Presumably after stranding the traumatized woman on a dark roadside next to the melted corpse of her boyfriend, Batman listens to a couple of Smiths songs on the BatiPod and gets his head together. Then he resumes his relentless pursuit of Clayface. Hey, sometimes even Batman loses his shit.
Batman eventually tracks Clayface to a wax museum, where the tragic villain whispers sweet nothings to a mannequin, his "wife."
Clearly Batman can see that Clayface is a tragic figure, almost pathetic were it not for his melty handshake and the suit of powered armor that enhances his strength. Batman can sympathize, but that doesn't mean he's not going to beat the living hell out of Clayface.
Kicking ass is Batman's job - and business is good.
And kick ass he does. Batman busts some bat fu on Clayface and steals his armor's battery, leaving the monster helpless. Then, when this clearly deranged individual is helpless and beaten, Batman does what you'd expect him to do: he talks smack.
While Batman is rubbing his victory in, some candles catch a curtain on fire and FOOOSH! The whole frickin' place goes up within seconds. Apparently Clayface's hideout was both a Wax Museum and a Gasoline Museum. Clayface runs back inside for his mannequin wife - and the entire place collapses, apparently killing Clayface.
I seriously have read this comic from cover to cover dozens of times during that summer trip to Canada alone. There was a Hawkman and Hawkgirl back-up story as well, but the main attraction was Marshall Rogers' fantastic, precise art. He was the creator that really kindled my interest in Batman, that made superheroes and comic books cool as hell. I moved on to Neal Adams and Jim Aparo, but Marshall Rogers started me off and he's the artist most responsible for my lifelong interest in not just Batman, but the comics medium.
Of course, I'm writing this particular post because Marshall Rogers died last week at age 57.
I didn't know the guy and I would have passed him in the street without recognizing him, so it seems more appropriate to talk about his work than about his life. I guess the nicest thing I could say about Marshall Rogers was that Detective Comics # 479 really had a positive influence on my life. So on behalf of Young Dave and myself, thanks Marshall for making comic books cool as hell.


Skipper Pickle said...

i echo your sentiments about Marshall Rogers and this run of 'TEC in pretty much every way. i started collecting 'TEC just before Marshall Rogers started his run. i was thirteen? fourteen? Instead of rolling through endless Canadian prairie, i was living in South America, and i'd talked my parents in a couple of comics subscriptions. Issues arrived 2 to 4 months late, all beat up*.

Rogers' work is the first that made me start thinking about how the artist chooses what to draw. i still remember a panel of Rupert Thorne fleeing the ghost of Hugo Strange and realizing that the angle of the drawing was from the footrest of the passenger's side of the car he was driving. i was looking at Thorne through the freaking steering wheel! i thought, "You can't do that on TV. Comics are cool**!"

*And i still have them in my collection.

**Well, yeah: "cool." i was fourteen. It was the late 70s. Gimme a break.

Dan said...

Nice one, Dave.

Rogers wasn't so prolific as Neal Adams or George Perez, and therefore never quite achieved that "legendary" status, but he clearly had a big impact and a huge fanbase.

Jon the Intergalactic Gladiator said...

I'm with you, Skipper, a lot of those comics were cool.

Gabriel Villa said...

RIP Rogers. At least you will never be substituted by the punisher.

Michael said...

I had remembered Rogers working on a couple Calculator stories. The guy who is Oracle's opposite, reinvented for "Identity Crisis" - he was a loser villain in the 70s. He started out fighting the second-stringers like Hawkman, Elongated Man, Black Canary, Atom, and Green Arrow in the backup stories in issues 463-467. Rogers, a new hire at DC, did the last two backups with Terry Austin, and they were kept on as the story reached the climax in a full-issue story with the Calculator vs Batman. Fan reaction after that was good enough to team them up on the lead stories for a little while. And that's how they got to do their celebrated run.

(Info via Bob Rozakis and John Wells at Silver Bullet Comics, parts 1, 2, and 3

Anonymous said...

Hey, cool! Alan Moore did a story (it's collected in "the DC Universe Stories of Alan Moore") that was a clear sequel to this one, involving Clayface's obsession with a department store mannequin, who he becomes convinced is "cheating" on him. It was a hoot. Didn't realize it had inspiration in an earlier story.

Steve Flanagan said...

"Because ... it's my job."

Strictly speaking, Bats, it's your hobby.

That was, indeed, a great run. I've always remained slighly disappointed that we never got to see a Rogers Catwoman, after Selina turned up for a panel or two in his last issue.

Anonymous said...

Good stuff Campbell! Worth waiting for.

Siskoid said...

That candelabra really pops off the page, doesn't it?

Most of the Marshall Rogers stuff I own is his Silver Surfer, which I really have to dig out.

Jason said...

I, too, first read this very comic on a summer vacation. Spooky.

To me, the Marshall Rogers Batman has always been the ideal version, moreso even than Neal Adams or Aparo. Everything about it is just right. It's got the darkness, but is never too dark. There's still giant typewriters in Gotham City (as god intended). And Silver St. Cloud was pretty much the only Batman love interest that really worked for me, even if her dumping him really made him lose it. Jeez, pull it together. You're the Batman. Show some dignity.

Yatz said...

Rogers and Austin, oh yeah! This was just before the dawning of the Age of Byrne, and the Detective stories were something like I have never seen before. Artistically, I think they couldn't hold a candle to the classic Adams & Giordano team-up from a decade earlier; but - unlike those earlier masterpieces, scriptted by people like Denny O'neil and Frank Robbins - the Rogers run was the complete package, offering a good story (rather than a mood piece) as well as clean, precise visual storytelling.
I enjoyed this short run immensly - I think it helped sustain my interest in comics, and kept me around for the '80s explosion (Byrne, Miller, Sienkiewicz). Rogers himself never did anything that I found as captivating as the Detective stories - but thay should be enough to put him in the comics HoF.

Anonymous said...

Bought some of those Rogers 'TEC issues back on the rack (damn, we're old) and while I LOVED the art, and liked Batman, the DC universe just left me cold.

I have the Calculator issue, and them fighting on a giant typewriter was just too ridiculous for me.

I truly appreciated Rogers' work on his run of Doctor Strange.
That was a fine blend of story and art.
Some pathos, time-travel and a horrific "cosmic" deadline was the stuff of wonder!

I was NOT a fan of Rogers' Silver Surfer, however.
Nothing in space for him to really DRAW!

He did some other great stuff though.
SCORPIO ROSE and other little projects were VERY good.

His last work (Marvel Westerns: Strange Western featuring BLACK RIDER) with Engelhart was some beautiful artwork as well.
Sadly, the story was a bit rushed due to page restrictions.

Still...Marchall Rogers will be missed.


Markie said...

Aparo and Adams (followed by Byrne) are some of my big influences.

Also thought you might get a kick out of this

Anonymous said...

Excellent Tribute to Marshall Rogers, Dave.

Phillip said...

Jason said...

I, too, first read this very comic on a summer vacation. Spooky.

Well, it's not really that spooky, is it? The cover says October, so the comic probably came out in... August, maybe? Pretty much anyone who bought it new read in the summer, I'd imagine quite a few were on vacation...

spencer said...

"cool as hell"

what a great way to describe superhero comics.

Mister Sinister said...

Somehow the insane Clay-Amoeba Man doesn't realize that melting people & eating their melted bodies because they touch his mannequinn is a BAD THING

Mister Sinister said...

In about that same storyline ende w/ him in Arkham drinking a beer (somehow through his helmet/trash bag) & whining she's quiet.

Clayface... representing the amorphous rednecks of America

Anonymous said...

Batman listens to a couple of Smiths songs

No way, in '78 he was into Big Star, Big Black Car, Nightime, and all that stufff. :-)

Anonymous said...

Great tribute, Dave.

The Englehart/Rogers run on Batman was great. I still consider the Denny O'Neil/Neal Adams stuff to be the definitive Batman run, but this was some great work, too. I particularly enjoyed the Hugo Strange storyline you mentioned.

If you asked me (and you didn't, but...), Batman was at his all-time best in the '70s.

thepenetrator86 said...
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