Arlen Schumer’s history of one of the great Bat-Christmas tales.
TV has A Charlie Brown Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story — reruns that are holiday traditions. At 13th Dimension, we’ve got the SUPER-STAR HOLIDAY SPECIAL — a series of timeless remembrances by some of the best in the comics biz, including Kelley Jones, Ron Marz, Annie Nocenti and MORE! Click here to check ’em out!
And now, a 13th Dimension Christmas Eve tradition …
By ARLEN SCHUMER
If you were a Batman fan in the Christmas season of 1969, you were given the best present of all: The great DC artist Neal Adams was going to start illustrating Batman in the pages of his own titles!
Adams had just completed a yearlong run on the Batman team-up book, The Brave and the Bold, in which he redefined Batman as the “creature of the night” he was originally intended to be in the earliest years of his creation, but which had been all but forgotten when the Adam West TV series buried the character under a mountain of camp clichés by the time it ended its network run in the spring of ’68.
That’s when Adams began his Bat-magic in B&B, and the rest is history: “Months later, (Batman editor) Julius Schwartz comes down the hall at me,” Adams said, “with letters saying the only Batman at DC Comics is in Brave and Bold, and asks me what makes me think I know how Batman ought to look? I said, ‘Julie, it’s not just me who knows what Batman ought to be, it’s me and every kid in America.’”
Bowing to the public pressure, Schwartz teamed Adams with DC’s best new writer, Denny O’Neil, and the two began a four-year run of Batman solo stories that rank among the greatest — some maintain the most definitive — in the character’s history.
But one of the first Batman solo stories Adams illustrated was not written by O’Neil, was not a book-length story but an eight-page backup, and yet remains one of the most unique, beautiful and memorable Batman stories of not just Adams’ formidable career, but of the character’s, too.
And it’s a Christmas story, to boot. In 1969, there hadn’t been a special Christmas-themed Batman story for years; even the Batman annuals of the ’60s didn’t reprint the ones that were done in the ’40s and ’50s. Will Eisner did some memorable Christmas stories in his magnum opus The Spirit, making them truly about “The spirit of Christmas,” but those wouldn’t be reprinted until the ’70s, and thus weren’t common knowledge to fans in ’69 born after Eisner ended publication in ’52.
And by ’69, the climax of the tumultuous decade of the Sixties, old-fashioned sentimentality was out and countercultural revolution was in, and Marvel Comics’ “heroes with problems” realistic approach had usurped DC’s hegemony, so no one expected a throwback, seasonal sentimental superhero story from either company.
And so The Silent Night of the Batman came as something of a surprise, a true gift to all Batman fans then, and to all students and lovers of great comic book storytelling since, because it’s proven to be the gift that has kept on giving, five decades later.
The story, in Batman #219, was written by Mike Friedrich, one of the first Silver Age fans to turn pro (following Roy Thomas at Marvel and Jim Shooter and E. Nelson Bridwell at DC). In fact, his first script sale, a book-length Spectre story for editor Schwartz in late ’67, had the great fortune of being illustrated by fellow DC newcomer Adams, and was one of his earliest artistic successes, one that made DC fans first take notice of the awesome new talent that would sweep over the entire DC line overnight.
That talent is on prodigious display on every one of this little gem’s eight pages.
Silent Night… begins silently (foreshadowing the mostly silent panels to come) with Adams’ splash panel perfectly staging the scene with a cinematic worm’s eye camera view isolating the lone, tiny figure of Batman perched at the top of a Gotham City department store on Christmas Eve. After he sees the Bat-Signal, he leaps off to answer the call.
What follows are four of only nine panels in this forty-panel, eight-page story that carry dialogue, of Commissioner Gordon beseeching Batman to take a night off of crimefighting on Christmas, and join the guys on the force for some caroling (and perhaps a spiked toddy).
The Batman, this newly renovated ”creature of the night” singing Christmas carols? In Neal Adams’ realistically rendered reality, all things are possible.
Over the next four pages, Adams and Friedrich take us on a wordless tour through Gotham on Christmas Eve, and show us three sensitively drawn (in both the visual and verbal sense of the word) urban vignettes of people trapped in situations in which somehow, someway, the ephemeral, enigmatic spirit of Christmas, personified in the iconography of Batman, intervenes to help them:
A gang of kid robbers steals a present, only to find it’s a Batman doll, and, feeling guilty for maybe the first time in their lives, they rewrap it and give it back; a gunman bumps into a blind, street corner Bat-Santa, and, also guilt-stricken, throws his gun into the garbage; and a woman, having received a letter saying her husband fighting in Vietnam had been killed, decides to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge, but stops when she sees the shadow of the bridge’s towers cast on the water below as Batman’s bat-eared cowl—just as her husband pulls up behind her in an Army transport.
Adams’ visual acuity and trademark realism make these tableaux come alive like a silent film, imbuing this story with a timeless, fable-like quality, like the last act of Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life in comic book form.
The story ends with Friedrich’s cryptic caption: “For two thousand years, mystics have experienced the many mysteries surrounding Christmas. Tonight there is one more … the Silent Night of the Batman.”
Though slight in quantity of pages, in quality Silent Night … ranks with the greatest of Adams’ early illustrated works that would go on to inspire the international graphic-design trade magazine Graphis to write in 1972, “An innovator in several ways, Neal Adams, juggling incessantly with his pictures to striking effect, remains the master of narrative technique.”
Arlen’s The Silver Age of Comic Book Art is revised and back in print, a lustrously illustrated hardcover, coffee-table book. To order a signed hardcover from Arlen directly, hit up www.arlenschumer.com. There are also links to Archway Publishing (an offshoot of Simon & Schuster) for the unsigned hardcover and an e-book edition.
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