By Scott Tipton
The Bat-Marathon continues here at Comics 101 (and feel free to write in to tell me to change the subject if y'all are getting bored), as we examine more of the heavy hitters in Batman’s Rogues' Gallery...
Accordingly, the Penguin sported a tux and top hat, a monocle and cigarette holder, and carried around an umbrella. Bob Kane told a different story, claiming the inspiration for the Penguin was an advertising character used by Kool cigarettes, a little penguin used in print and radio ads who would insistently squawk "Smoke Kooools!"
Also like the Joker, in the Penguin's first appearances he was decidedly more lethal, then later mellowed, becoming a flamboyant thief who based his crimes around one of his two trademarks, penguins or umbrellas.
Usually, the Penguin would be armed with some sort of trick umbrella, be it a machine-gun umbrella, a knockout-gas umbrella, or the ever-popular whirlybird umbrella for quick escapes. While the Penguin (later given the sufficiently foppish-sounding name Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot) remained a popular recurring villain, without any of the psychological underpinnings and dark nature that made so many of the Bat-villains distinctive, he seems a little tame and quaint in comparison. Without any real "hook" to base his actions on, it’s no surprise that so many Penguin stories seem to be re-used over and over in comics, TV and the movies. Think about it: How many times have you seen the Penguin either running for mayor or trying to steal the Batmobile? In fact, were it not for the bravura portrayal of the character by Burgess Meredith on the ABC series, I doubt the Penguin would have been utilized much past the 1960s.
The Riddler didn't make his debut until years after the Joker and The Penguin –- seven years, to be exact, in the October 1948 issue of DETECTIVE COMICS. In "The Riddler," by writer Bill Finger and artist Dick Sprang, readers were introduced to Edward Nigma, or "E. Nigma," who grew to become obsessed with puzzles, but made sure to cheat so that he'd always win. Bolstered by his own ego, Nigma decides to use his mastery of puzzles to commit grand crimes, baffling the police and Batman for good measure.
Donning his trademark question-mark-covered costume, Nigma dubs himself the Riddler, and embarks upon a puzzling crime wave, giving Batman clues to the crime he's about to commit on Gotham’s giant electric crossword-puzzle billboard (always a dead giveaway that the story was written by Bill Finger –- Finger loved to have his characters running around on giant oversized props). The clues mislead Batman, allowing the Riddler to flood a local bank, rob the vault and make off through the sewer system.
Batman and Robin start a fire inside the maze, with the intense heat expanding the metal frame, allowing them to push through the glass pane and escape. As the bomb goes off, the Riddler, who apparently failed to plan ahead, is trapped at the end of the pier, and is blown into the waters below.
As the Batman comics got progressively darker in the '80s, the more whimsical villains like the Riddler seemed increasingly irrelevant, and this trend was verbalized wonderfully in a Riddler origin story by Neil Gaiman and Bernie Mireault published in the pages of SECRET ORIGINS. Here we see a despondent Riddler reliving the glory days of Gotham crime for a TV news crew in a junkyard, surrounded by the giant Gotham props of yesteryear, lamenting the loss of innocence: "What happened to us? The Joker’s killing people, for God’s sake!"
One character that never strayed from his original conception is Harvey Dent, a.k.a. Two-Face. Making his debut in DETECTIVE COMICS #66 (August 1942), Two-Face was by all accounts the sole creation of Bob Kane, who took inspiration from Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE. (More likely from the Hollywood versions –- the poster for the 1941 Spencer Tracy version in particular showed the actor's face split down the middle between his two personae; at first glance, anyone familiar with the character would think it was meant to be Two-Face.)
Harvey Dent was Gotham's district attorney, permanently scarred by gangster "Boss" Maroni, who threw a vial of acid at Dent from the witness stand, horribly disfiguring the left side of Dent's face. While in the hospital recovering, the traumatized Dent found himself transfixed by Maroni's two-headed silver dollar, which had been a piece of evidence in the case against him. Scratching out and disfiguring one of the coin's sides, Dent now considered himself a mere puppet of fate, and relied on a flip of the coin to make all his decisions. In addition, Dent had become obsessed with the concept of duality and the number two, and began plotting his new criminal career as "Two-Face" (sporting a stylish orange-and-purple two-toned suit, custom tailored, no doubt) around these themes.
After only three appearances in the 1940s, BATMAN creators cured Harvey Dent with plastic surgery, but it wasn't to last: the character returned for good in BATMAN #81 (February/March 1954) in "Two-Face Strikes Again" by David V. Reed and Dick Sprang.
When Dent's reconstructive surgery is undone by safecrackers' explosives, he returns to his life of crime as Two-Face, this time victimizing fellow Gothamites who also have two faces: actors, skin divers, clowns, etc. The story’s climax is a classic Two-Face deathtrap, in which Batman and Robin are strapped to a giant replica of Two-Face's silver dollar, and flipped with a catapult over an enormous bed of spikes: if the coin lands face down, that’s it for the Dynamic Duo. Thanks to a bit of happenstance (Two-Face's thugs tie them in such a way that their hands can reach their belt-radios), Batman and Robin are able to convert their radios into electromagnets, and create a negative magnetic field, repelling the spikes. I guess all that practice in blindfolded electronics only seems pointless until you need it...
Later writers increased the tension by revealing that Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent had been the best of friends before the accident, making Batman's later encounters with Two-Face even more troubling for the man behind the cowl.
From this appearance alone, it's easy to see why the character didn't catch on. Although the art by Sheldon Moldoff is fine, the costume design for Mr. Zero is pretty awful –- wearing either light green and red tights or a bathrobe and ascot combo doesn’t exactly scream "badass villain," and the fact that he always seemed to be grinning was just unsettling.
Once again, if it wasn't for his appearances on the ABC series, Mr. Zero/Freeze would be barely a footnote –- even his TV spots were less than memorable. It wasn't until Paul Dini and Bruce Timm re-created the character on the animated series in the Emmy-award-winning episode "Heart of Ice" that Mr. Freeze had any meaning whatsoever, but we'll be getting to that down the road a ways…
As it turns out, the mystifying Clayface is actually skindiver Matt Hagen, who discovered an undersea grotto containing a mysterious pool of protoplasm, which Hagen accidentally stumbled into. When the substance comes in contact with his body, it immediately mutates him into a freakish, clay-covered form.
Hagen soon discovers that he can mentally command his body to take on any shape or color, and proceeds to use his powers to go on a crime spree, stealing charity funds and priceless art. Hagen also learns that his powers only last 48 hours and that he must bathe in the mysterious protoplasm whenever he wants to regain his powers. Eventually, Batman and Robin corner Clayface when he's just at his power's ebb, and manage to apprehend the now powerless Matt Hagen.
The Scarecrow didn't quite catch on, though, either with the readers or the Batman editors, and made only one more appearance in the '40s before taking a leave of absence for several decades, resurfacing in the late '60s. Part of the reason the Scarecrow never seemed to click is that it's hard to portray hallucinations, phobias and the like in cold, hard newsprint, making much of the character's menace very difficult to capture. And without the psychological manipulation being made real in the reader's eyes, you're left with just a spindly geek standing there in a brown canvas suit. Compared to the genuinely creepy antics of the Joker, it doesn't make much of an impact.
Catwoman received some long-awaited competition as Batman’s resident femme fatale, in the form of Poison Ivy, courtesy of writer Robert Kanigher and artist Sheldon Moldoff in BATMAN #181 (June 1966). Ivy was initially conceived as little more than a criminal vamp, out to prove herself the queen of crime while snaring one of her two romantic obsessions, Bruce Wayne or Batman.
In later appearances, Ivy would be less interested in affairs of the heart, shifting her devotion to the plant world and the health of the planet, and would even develop superpowers, allowing her the ability to generate poisons and toxins from her body, as well as giving her limited control over vegetation and plant life. Ivy's new perspective was best crystallized in an excellent origin story by Neil Gaiman and Mark Buckingham in SECRET ORIGINS #36. In recent years, Ivy has become increasingly plant-like, with her skin now even taking on a green tint.
With the 1970s came a new opponent for Batman, in the monstrous person of Man-Bat, created by Frank Robbins and Neal Adams. DETECTIVE COMICS #400 (June 1970) featured "Challenge of the Man-Bat," in which Batman first encountered Dr. Kirk Langstrom, a scientist who was studying bats in the hopes of mimicking their sonar abilities to allow the blind to see. Creating an experimental serum derived from bat glands, Langstrom tries the formula on himself (always a good idea), and is soon transformed into the freakish Man-Bat, complete with sonar and enormous and functional bat-wings.
Batman is able to produce an antidote for Langstrom's formula, but not before Langstrom is able to convince his lovesick fiancee Francine to also take the serum, leaving Batman with two monsters to contend with.
In later appearances, Man-Bat learned to control his monstrous form, and even embarked on a short-lived career as a superhero-for-hire, in both his own comic-book series (lasting only two issues) and in the pages of BATMAN FAMILY and DETECTIVE COMICS throughout the 1970s. More recently, Langstrom has given up his Man-Bat identity, but occasionally lapses back into his monstrous form from time to time. In addition, Langstrom and his wife have had two children, one of whom, Aaron, was born as a man-bat creature due to his parents' repeated exposure to the formula, and is unable to assume human form. Tough break there, kid.
Ra's hoped that Batman would marry Talia and take over his global organization, through which Ra's is attempting the lofty goal of world conquest, so as to make the world a better place. Unfortunately, making the world a better place in Ra's' eyes usually means handling issues like overpopulation by killing off a large percentage of the population –- "a necessary evil." Repeatedly, Batman has halted Ra's' plans from coming to fruition, usually simultaneously increasing his estimation as a suitable heir to Ra's' empire. Complicating matters further are several small details: Talia holds genuine feelings for Batman, and the feeling is mutual, with only Talia's loyalty to her father keeping them apart.
In addition, Ra's al Ghul, aside from being a master swordsman and a genius-level strategist, is for all intents and purposes an immortal. Ra's has discovered in various remote locations around the world what he calls "Lazarus Pits," bubbling natural cauldrons of unknown chemicals which can rejuvenate the dead or near-dying, and restore youth to the aged, but not without side effects: temporary insanity and super-strength.
Thanks to the Lazarus Pits, Ra's al Ghul has lived much, much longer than normal, having been around for several centuries.