Friday, September 27, 2013

"Goodbye Palefaces!", a look at Bob Haney's The Brave and the Bold

On my recent road trip to New Mexico and Colorado, I promised myself I would finally crack open my copy of DC's Showcase Presents: The Brave & The Bold. This 527-page black and white, phone book sized volume contains issues 59 through 87 of the series, all of which are stories featuring Batman teaming with another hero or team in the DC universe. The recent Batman: Brave & The Bold cartoon inspired this purchase years ago, but I never got around to actually reading this massive tome of Silver Age goodness. With the beautiful landscapes of West Texas, New Mexico, and the Rocky Mountains by my side, I indulged my inner ten-year-old and embraced the kookiness of late 60's DC comics. Almost every issue is written by Bob Haney and features art by legendary names like Carmine Infantino, Mike Sekowsky, Ramona Fradon, and of course Neal Adams. For the purposes of this review I'll be focusing on the writing of Bob Haney, whose carefree approach to superhero storytelling I've come to admire over the last few weeks.

Bob Haney was born in 1926 and grew up on a steady diet Prince Valiant comic strips and Shadow-era radio dramas. After serving in the Navy in WWII, earning a Master's Degree at Columbia University, and publishing a number of novels in a variety of genres under several pen names, Haney went to work in comics. He wrote crime and war titles for a number of publishers including Fawcett, Standard, and Harvey Comics. Following Fredric Wertham, Sedution of the Innocent, and the thinning of the comics publishing herd in the 50's, Haney eventually found work at DC. Working on war characters like Sgt. Rock and creating new characters like the villainous Eclipso, Haney became a staple for DC readers of the time. He even claimed to have been a co-creator of the Doom Patrol, but Arnold Drake and others have disputed this, recalling that Haney only advised them on the first few stories.

Haney's biggest achievment at DC would have to be the co-creation of the Teen Titans concept with artists Bruno Premiani and Nick Cardy. The Teen Titans are still published today, albeit with a different roster than the original, and Cartoon Network still airs the Teen Titans Go! series every Saturday morning. It was a delightfully simple idea to take the popular sidekick characters and team them up. What's interesting about the Silver Age incarnation of the Teen Titans is how in touch with the fashion trends and speech patterns of the youth of the day these characters were in their portrayal. While Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and Don Heck were certainly ahead of the curve over at Marvel in terms of plot and pathos, some of the early Marvel issues depiction of young people hanging out were pretty laughable. I still get a kick out of Reed Richards blaming Johnny Storm's rebellious notions on all those "twist records" he's been listening to. Another feather in Haney's creative cap is the co-creation of one of my favorite freaks, the mutated Metamorpho, with artist and all around groovy chick Ramona Fradon. Metamorpho was a fun twist on the Ben Grimm type; he was a at least twice as ugly as the Thing, but instead enjoyed and flaunted his freakiness. Neil Gaiman and Mike Allred evoked the zany nature of these Silver Age tales in their Wednesday Comics Metamorpho strip a few years back, and who can forget the Element Woman (a spin-off of Metamorpho) issue of Gaiman's Sandman series? Anyhoo, let's move on to my personal favorite work from Mr. Haney, The Brave & The Bold starring Batman.

Haney didn't feel the need to pander to more continuity minded readers and older fans, for he always stated his stories were "for the 11-year old in Ohio". I support the sentiment, as comics should be for kids and no matter what Christopher Nolan or Zack Snyder have to say, Batman and Superman have more to say to an 11-year old than a thirty or forty something who's really just chasing the dragon when it comes to superhero books. Decompressed six to twelve part stories priced at three or four dollars a chapter are never going to peel kids away from Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty. Heck, if adults can't affor this habit anymore, what hope do kids have? Put value back in the single issue is all I'm sayin'. Apologies, rant over.

The stories in this volume follow a simple formula. Batman investigates a crime or mysterious occurance, clashes with another hero due to a smple misunderstanding, then works with the hero to stomp evil on the neck usually with an ironic or at least mildly humorous twist at the end. Haney's Batman is a more than capable crimefighter with no shortage of gagdets. My personal favorite is the Whirly-Bat, a one man helicopter chair. Haney's Batman is also quite fallable, and as prone to mistakes as any man. He's a far cry from the Grant Morrison Bat-God version we've come to know and love and even farther from the dark avenger of the O'Neil/Adams era. This Batman is more like Adam West with a larger budget. Haney finds time to plug his Teen Titans series near the beginning of each issue by reminding us that Robin is away on a Titans mission. Another funny tidbit is how Batman remarks each issue that "things have been quiet in Gotham lately". Without any real notation for the passage of time between each issue, and coupled with the fact that I was reading these back to back, it seems Batman has strange definition for "quiet". Similar to the Brave & The Bold cartoon series I mentioned above, Batman is rarely seen out of costume, and Batman often fights crime and attends social functions (like a wicked Chinese New Year Celebration) in full costume and in broad daylight. Batman's villains claim to be murderers and such, but their schemes are usually non-lethal, at least in their execution. The limitaions on what could be shown on-panel during this era of comics publishing meant villains and heroes alike had to be more creative in their machinations and the creators pulling their strings would have to invent more imaginative scenarios. The mining of the Silver Age for ideas and characters in the years leading up to the advent of the New 52, coupled with modern comics more violent sensibilities, led to some brutal sci-fi/horror scenarios in the work of big names like Geoff Johns and Grant Morrison.

Everything that makes a Bob Haney comic either great or not-so-great can be found in one prime example I'm going to share with you today. Some might point to Haney's socially-relevant work on Teen Titans or even the classic Batman/Deadman team-up with Neal Adam's art "Trail of the Hook", but I stumbled on an issue in this collection that is pure uncut Haney, at least in terms of plot and pacing. The Brave & The Bold issue #71 by Haney and artist George Papp features "The Wrath of the Thunderbird", a Batman/Green Arrow team-up where the urban vigilantes play the part of teachers to a Native American man looking to out-perform corrupt rival and win leadership of thier tribe.

Our story begins with Batman rescuing a truck driver who's been run off the road by one of Tom Tallwolf's "road pirates", aggresive truck drivers who keep the competition at bay through illicit means. Batman and police confront Tallwolf, but he uses his race and status as a businessman to deflect the accusations and even threatens to sue Batman! "Sure I play rough! Becasue it's a rough world! Not that you palefaces would know!" Tom Tallwolf is a delightful villain, even if he falls into the stereotype of the Angry Indian. Next, Batman encounters John Whitebird, another member of the same tribal descent who left his native land to seek a fortune in White Man's World. Whitebird reveals that the elder of their tribe has passed away and now he and Tallwolf must compete in a series of contests to deetermine who is fit to lead them. Normally, these trials would be held on their native ground, but Tallwolf is in league with a scummy promoter named The Promoter to hold the contest in Gotham City and lure the rest of the tribe by masquerading the event as a charity benefit. Of course, Tallwolf and The Promoter plot to rig the contest. This is a comic book after all...

Batman agrees to train John Whitebird to be all he can be. Horse riding, wrestling, and other activities are a natural to a bon vivan like Bruce Wayne and an adventurer like Batman, but one contest just happens to be up another hero's alley. When it comes to archery training, Batman enlists the emerald archer Green Arrow to aid Whitebird. This is the baby-faced Oliver Queen of the Silver Age, still sporting his Jack Kirby-esque costume and armaments. It wouldn't be for another few years that Neal Adams would give him the goatee and strip him of the gimmick arrows and Denny O'Neil would turn him into a stern Liberal activist. With Green Arrow's help, Whitebird is a whiz with a bow and arrow in just the span of few panels. As the contest draws near, The Promoter reveals to his fellow goons, as well as the reader, that his real intention for Tallwolf winning the contest is the secret power of the Thunderbird, a beast of myth that can only be summoned by the tribe's leader. This "tribe" is never named, so I will just assume it's A Tribe Called Quest and move on.

The contest begins, Whitebird is screwed out of his birthright and Tallwolf becomes leader of the tribe. By now, the issue has remained well within the realm of the plausible (insensitive and vague portrayals of Native Americans aside) and wouldn't be out of place on the Adam West Batman show. Just add a few more puns. Haney injects some Silver Age wackiness in the form of a giant Bird-beast in the third act just to spice things up as The Promoter cajoles Tallwolf into releasing the mythical Thunderbird. "Plausible" gets on the bus and leaves town as The Promoter foolishly thinks he can somehow control the Thunderbird through his influence over Tallwolf and it all ends with a big showdown on the reservation where Whitebird gets to redeem himself for losing the contest earlier and show off his archery skills when Green Arrow and Batman are both incapacitated. It should be noted that the way the Thunderbird plows through both heroes, it probably could've taken the whole damn Justice League just short of Superman or maybe J'onn J'onzz. The Thunderbird should be jockeying for a position with the Legion of Doom or the Secret Society or something.

This three act structure, with a bombastic third act full of Silver Age tropes and near-miss attempts at cultural awareness, is typical of most Silver Age DC books. What makes this such a Haney issue is the role of Batman and Green Arrow. In most of Haney's stories, the drama never centers around the actual heroes, but rather the normal citizens whose lives are entangled in their larger than life clashes. Batman and Green Arrow aren't only crimefighters, they're problem solvers. Nasty Tom Tallwolf being in charge of this tribe isn't really going to effect Gotham City in any way, but it's a moral wrong that Batman decides needs righting. Batman and Green Arrow aren't aloof and Haney never allows their costumes and abilities to set them apart. Even in other stories with super-powered characters, the heroes serve mankind but are also treated as civilians themselves. Haney's world is one where being a superhero or villain is no different than being a volunteer at a soup kitchen or a weekend biker. It's just something some people do, and it often causes a ruckus. This strange subculture of Haney's DC Universe borders on fetishism, but that's a topic for another time!

Even at the time of their publication, Haney's stories were a little left of center at DC. They often clashed with established continuity and Haney chose to ignore smaller changes that characters like Batman were undergoing in their own titles. The Brave & The Bold was a playground comic book, written with a devil may care appproach to modernism and logic. These stories were fast becoming a favorite for critics of DC, and DC loyalists would often refer to the non-canonical stories in Haney's Brave & The Bold as taking place on Earth-B. Those among you familiar with the Multiverse comcept at DC might get a kick out of the fact that over time "Earth-B" was officially recognized as an alternate Earth decades later in the Crisis Compendium. As the Multiverse folded in and "worlds died" as the COIE tagline goes, I like to think that Bob Haney's Earth-B survived somehow, defying logic in the cosmic sense the way his stories did in common sense.

Haney would go on to write comics less and less in the next decade, as his style and sensibilities were enventually phased out at DC. He found work in other mediums, like animation, where complex plots were still in their infancy and his flights of fancy were more than welcome to young Saturday morning viewers. Fans of Thundercats and Silverhawks might be able to spot his name in the credits of a few episodes. The Haney legacy can be found in what fans refer to now as Johnny DC, their current line of kids comics, usually based on whatever cartoons are currently airing or in development. Bob Haney didn't try to deconstruct superheroes or make allusions to Christianity or Greek Myth. He saw the superhero concept for what it was at the time, a fad. Maybe he was more at home writing war books or crime stories, but he certainly never seemed to run out of ideas for superheroes.

Of course, back in Haney's day they called them "long underwear characters"...what did I tell ya? Fetishism.

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