|Edited by Jon B. Cooke||Comic Book Artist, Eisner Award winner for "Best Comics-Related Magazine", celebrates the lives and works of great cartoonists, writers and editors from all eras through in-depth interviews, feature articles, and unpublished art.|
Sheldon "Shelly" Moldoff's rendition of Batman and two of his arch enemies, Catwoman and the Penguin. [From the private collection of Roy Thomas.] Batman, Catwoman, the Penguin ©1998 DC Comics.
First of an On-Going series on the best of the 1960s Fanzines
by & © Bill Schelly
From Comic Book Artist #3
Comics fans had existed on the fringes of science-fiction fan groups as early as the 1930s, but it wasn't until Dick and Pat Lupoff's Xero in Sept. 1960 that a continuing series of articles about comics graced an SF "fanzine" (a term coined by SF fandom for amateur fan magazines). This seminal series, "All in Color for a Dime," was the bellwether for an outpouring of appreciation for comic books and strips. Starting with the March 1961 publication of the original Alter Ego (founded by Jerry Bails with the help of Roy Thomas), a comics fandom especially for super-hero fans took hold. At virtually the same time, SF/comics fans Don and Maggie Thompson launched Comic Art, dedicated to all facets of comic strips and comic books. Numerous fanzines were launched by a talented, energetic group of teenagers and young adults in the wake of this initial trio. Distributed through the mail to points all around the globe, these fanzines had a special charm and provided vital hobby information....
"For Batman, we accept nothing as impossible."
--Motto of the Batmanians
Despite the remarkable longevity of Gotham City's Caped Crusader, his career has definitely had its hills and valleys. One of the lowest points came in 1963, when his two titles had suffered through too many years of strange aliens and formula stories. Sales figures had dipped alarmingly, and National Periodical Publications decided something had to be done.
The story goes that editor Jack Schiff threw up his hands in dismay, claiming he had tried every type of cover imaginable to attract readers, to no avail. He retreated to the safe haven of the DC mystery books, happily relinquishing the editorial chores of Batman and Detective Comics to fellow editor Julius Schwartz.
Schwartz was given the job of reinvigorating the Batman comics. He assigned his favorite writer, John Broome, to raise the level of the stories, and his most popular artist, Carmine Infantino, to upgrade the visuals. Schwartz decided the new stories would emphasize Batman's detective prowess and crime-fighting skills. The gimmickry of the past was jettisoned, as was the Batman "family" (Batwoman, Batgirl, Bathound, Bat-Mite). The first of the "New Look" issues were Detective Comics #327 (May 1964) and Batman #164 (June 1964). Gardner Fox and a revitalized Sheldon Moldoff, among others, were soon added to the creative mix.
Unbeknownst to the powers-that-be at DC Comics, the fledgling comics fandom movement of the early 1960s was about to weigh in with support for the Caped Crusader that was so perfectly timed, and so effective, that it must be given some degree of credit for the resurgence of interest in Batman and Robin (and the "New Look")-in fandom, at least.
In July 1964, Bill J. "Biljo" White launched the first fanzine devoted exclusively to one costumed character, coining the term Batmania for its title-no doubt inspired by the Beatlemania that had swept the U.S. earlier in the year. Some might understandably have felt that assigning the term "mania" to anything relating to Batman at this point in time was the sheerest wishful thinking.
"I felt it was time for someone to stand up for Batman," White stated in a recent interview. "I thought, `Why not me?'"
Biljo White earned his living as a firefighter in the mid-sized town of Columbia, Missouri, home of the University of Missouri. He had long considered Batman his favorite comics character, a devotion which had begun with his purchase of Batman #1 off a newsstand in 1940. White owned a near-complete run of the Golden Age Batman comics, which he kept under lock and key in a cinder-block structure in his backyard. With tongue in cheek, he nicknamed that building "The White House of Comics."
Having grown up reading comics in the '40s, he naturally reserved his greatest admiration for the days when Bob Kane had worked on the strip, and when Batman had been truly a creature of the night. Kane was one of White's idols, alongside artists Alex Raymond, C.C. Beck, and Hal Foster.
An aspiring artist showing considerable potential, Biljo had begun drawing as a youth, and had continued honing his skills during a stint in the military in Germany, doing a regular cartoon for the base newspaper called "The New Bunch." Soon after his discharge, he wrote a letter to Bob Kane c/o DC Comics, asking for hints about getting into the comics field, and received a gracious three-page handwritten reply, in which Kane suggested: "You can even go up to see my outfit [DC] and mention my name. Ask to see Jack Schiff, one of the editors."
Circa 1955, he traveled to New York City to show his portfolio to Schiff, hoping to gain a Batman assignment. Unfortunately, the DC editor didn't offer encouragement. "Mr. Schiff left me with the knowledge that, when artists were needed, it was an easy matter to obtain them through the area art schools," White recalled recently.
Biljo became one of early comics fandom's most active fan writers and artists. Beginning with Komix Illustrated in 1962, he published a slew of fanzines and contributed comics features to many others of the day, including Masquerader, Star-Studded Comics, and Alter Ego. In fact, he was briefly set to succeed Ronn Foss as the third editor/publisher of A/E, until it became clear that Batmania-the Fanzine Especially for Batman Fans was his first love. (Fellow Missourian Roy Thomas then took the helm of A/E, though Biljo served as art editor for Roy's three fan-produced issues.)
White was brimming with ideas for Batmania, but he realized one ingredient was lacking: DC's official permission to publish a magazine full of illustrations of one of their premier trademarked properties.
"I had such confidence that I printed [the first issue] up and sent a copy to Julie Schwartz," White recalls. "I told him I was prepared to destroy the entire print run if he didn't approve. Luckily, he did."
In Batmania #1, Biljo announced the formation of the Batman-ians, an informal organization of Batman fans which would boost the cause of Batman and Robin in every possible way. White sent official membership certificates to each new member, with his/her name filled in and a membership number assigned. Everyone who received the fanzine was automatically inducted into the club. A drawing of the Batmanians (by White) which depicted the members as a group of shadowy figures all wearing the cape and cowl of the Darknight Detective gave the group the aura of a secret fraternal order. When Julius Schwartz printed a plug for the zine in Batman #169, the membership roster of the Batmanians grew nearly 1000-strong. In each issue, White printed one or two pages of the addresses in the "Batmanians Roll Call" section.
"Truthfully, I was surprised by the demand for copies of Batmania #1," Biljo admits. "I kept printing up more and more copies, until the ditto masters gave out-and I still couldn't satisfy all the requests. It convinced me more than ever that there was a large body of fans who enjoyed the adventures of Batman and Robin as much as I did."
Batmania provided page after page of features which both entertained and educated readers on aspects of the Dynamic Duo's career in the late 1930s. (The 25 annuals and giants of the 1960s generally reached only a few years into Batman's past for their reprints.) Beginning in issue #2, the first of two landmark articles called "Batman before Robin" appeared, recounting what Batman was like in the year before he adopted Dick Grayson as his ward.
Younger readers were shocked to learn that their hero had occasionally used a gun in those 1939 adventures, and that he had deliberately killed one of his foes. When White printed a large re-creation of a grimacing Batman firing a machine gun from the Batplane, muttering, "Much as I hate to take human life, I'm afraid this time it's necessary!", it was a real eye-opener. Remember, this was long before Batman had returned to his roots as a frightening denizen of the night.
Another popular feature of the fanzine was "The Batmanians Speak," a forum where fans sent in their views on any topic they cared to discuss. Naturally, the first debate centered on Batman's New Look. Some, like the erudite Richard Kyle (originator of the term "graphic story"), were reluctant to give up on the Old Look: "Under Jack Schiff [Kyle wrote in Batmania #3, January 1965], both the story and the art had deteriorated seriously, but Batman's essential character remained the same. Today's Batman story is better, technically; today's art is, as well. But the stories are about another man who is wearing Batman's costume, and the illustrations depict him as a well-muscled ballet dancer who can do anything the old Batman can do, except be convincing in the part. The old character was not only good, it still is. Instead of being junked... it should have been used as the base for the New Look."
Others, however, took a quite different view. Rick Weingroff wrote, "There can be no doubt that the... artwork and writing have both been raised to a higher level." Ronn Foss even liked the new yellow circle around Batman's chest-insignia, "not only marking the change in quality, but fulfilling a long-needed lack of balance in the yellow on Batman."
Editor White concluded, "It is my misfortune that I do not know Bob Kane personally... but as a dedicated follower of his great creation, I am also a supporter of Bob Kane. If a vote of confidence is needed, my vote has been cast. Everything else aside, I don't think Infantino's super-realistic drawings are suited to... the qualities of the bizarre and mysterious that gave the original stories such atmosphere. Like the Dick Tracy strip, Batman needs a touch of the cartoony to keep it from being absurd. In that context, oddball villains like the Joker and the Penguin seem normal and reasonably believable."
The great majority of his readers, however, resoundingly supported the New Look. In the first annual Batmania Poll, their answer to the question "Do you prefer the New Look Batman over the Old Look?" was ninety percent "Yes!"
After a lead article and the readers' forum, issues of Batmania would typically be filled out by "Comic Oddities," a compendium of funny or strange information about comic books of the past, and "Bat-Facts" which presented all manner of trivia about the Dynamic Duo. There were also advertisements to buy, sell, or trade old comics, as well as checklists, news of the Batmanians, and occasional features on non-Batman material like the James Bond craze. Issues ran from twenty to thirty pages, first with covers printed via spirit duplicator (with that distinctive purple printing), and then via photo-offset, occasionally incorporating photos.
One of the most intriguing articles to appear was "The Big Parade" by Tom Fagan of Rutland, Vermont (Batmania #3). Fagan revealed to comicdom that Batman was the parade marshal of the annual Rutland Halloween Parade, and he invited one and all to attend-and they did, as covered elsewhere in this very issue of Alter Ego.
A key reason for the formation of comics fandom was to provide collectors with data about their favorite comic books. Who were the artists? The writers? For the most part, no one knew, until the information was gradually ferreted out by tenacious fans.
Most Batman readers, for example, assumed that Bob Kane wrote and drew all the adventures of the Darknight Detective, because his name appeared in the splash panel of each and every story. During the 1960s the cover was ripped off this myth, and it became known that a whole platoon of writers and artists had toiled to produce those memorable tales, and no one had done more for the character of Batman than scripter Bill Finger. Therefore, when Finger joined in a panel discussion at the 1965 New York comic con, fans learned (most for the first time) how much he had contributed.
Bill Finger revealed that he had written the very first Batman story in Detective #27... and hundreds more during the 1940s and 1950s. He recalled to eager fans how he had received a phone call from Bob Kane announcing that he'd just drawn a new costumed hero called "The Bat-Man," and asking him to come over right away to help Kane further develop the character. Finger said he had come up with the name "Gotham City" and many other aspects of the strip. And he loved to write scripts calling for Batman and Robin to battle villains amid giant props like over-sized typewriters, musical instruments, and bowling pins. Fans who attended this early comic con were fortunate, indeed, for Bill Finger didn't attend many fan gatherings.
Finger's statements at this convention, and in discussions with key fans like Tom Fagan, led fandom co-founder Jerry Bails to write a piece called "If the Truth Be Known, or, A Finger in Every Plot!" Though it saw print in CAPA-Alpha #12 (September 1965), it deserves summarizing here, because of its soon-to-come fallout in Batmania.
The article commenced by focusing upon "a small piece of notepaper tucked away in a desk drawer" somewhere in Greenwich Village, New York City: "Both sides of the notepaper are crammed with possible names-all short, snappy monikers, like Pepper, Socko, Tiger, and Wildcat-nothing as blah as Batboy, Kid Bat, or Batlad. No, this was to be the trademark for 'The Greatest Character Find of 1940!'" The latter, of course, was the young hero soon to be christened Robin the Boy Wonder, presumably after Robin Hood as much as the red-breasted bird; and both notepaper and desk drawer belonged to Bill Finger, whom Jerry Bails called "The Silent Legend behind the Batman!"
Jerry detailed how Bob Kane had hired the unassuming Finger to write his (Kane's) feature "Rusty and His Pals" and then "Batman." With Batman's success, Bill soon began working directly for DC, co-creating such famous strips as "Green Lantern" and "Wildcat." He was noted for his ability to "adapt the freewheeling style of the pulps to the four-color panels, and break down the action of a Douglas Fairbanks-type adventurer into a panel-by-panel description for the artist."
The K-a article was probably the first anywhere to publicly state that "Bill is the man who first put words in the mouth of the Guardian of Gotham." By Finger's account, Jerry went on, "The cowl and cape, the utility belt and gauntlet, were all Bill's contribution to the dialogue that gave rise to the final form of Batman's famous costume"-along with the Joker and "all the other principals and supporting characters of the early strip: Robin, of course, but also Commissioner Gordon (who appeared in the first Batman story), Alfred, the Penguin, and the Catwoman, as well as the many unusual and sympathetic characters that made the early Batman so popular."
While recognizing that other writers (beginning with Gardner Fox, who had scripted the third Batman tale) had also contributed to the strip, Jerry credited Bill with being by far the most important Batman writer, and a co-creator of the Darknight Detective.
"When fans clamor for a return to the Days of Old when Batman was a mystery man who battled the underworld in action-packed human-interest yarns," Jerry said in conclusion, "they are clamoring-if the truth be known-for the return of the Batman as created by Bill Finger!"
This provocative article, which in retrospect seems almost to overreach in places to make its point (e.g., artist Jerry Robinson is a third comics professional who has claimed to have created the Joker), sparked a fiery response-from none other than Bob Kane himself.
However, Kane's lengthy retort, written just days after seeing the Bails piece, didn't appear until the Batmania Annual in 1967. Why did it take so long to see print?
White has written, "I had originally planned to print [Kane's letter] in Batmania immediately upon its arrival. But... Associate Editor Tom Fagan-who was in contact with Bill Finger-told me that Finger and Kane were getting together to talk things over... and that I should hold up the article until further notice. Whether Bill Finger and Bob Kane ever got together I can't say," White continued. Biljo wrote immediately to his idol for news of that meeting, but never received a reply. Finally, White decided that, response or no, he should print Kane's letter for all of fandom to evaluate for themselves.
Certainly, in the years that followed, Kane became more generous in his recognition of Finger's contribution than he was in this early letter. Therefore, the letter he wrote to Batmania in 1965 is reprinted here not as an attempt to stir up an old controversy, especially in light of his recent passing, but as a fascinating artifact of the time:
The news of the upcoming Batman television show hit 1965 comicdom like a bolt of lightning. The rumor mill ran rampant, and on January 12th, 1966, fans across the country gathered at their TVs (often visiting friends who owned color sets, which were not yet commonplace) to see "Hi Diddle Diddle," their first glimpse of Batman's amazing foray into prime time.
Suddenly BIFF! POW! ZAP! began appearing in media headlines, and the Batman craze was upon us. The TV and print news media were abruptly afloat with the word "Batmania," which they doubtless believed they had coined. Sales of the Caped Crusader's comics spiked. (Batman even outsold Superman for a while, something it wouldn't do again until the 1990s.) Just as suddenly, the Bat-craze sent the circulation of Biljo White's Batmania into the stratosphere. Having begun with a respectable print run of 300 copies, it had burgeoned to over 750 by mid-1966 and showed no signs of abating.
The Fanzine Especially for Batman Fans was circulated internationally. "There were Batmanians in such Far Eastern countries as Australia, Thailand, and India, through England and Italy and so on," Biljo remembers. "Some of my Batmania material was reprinted in both England and Italy."
750 to 1000 copies may not seem like a large circulation in the grand scheme of things, but imagine if you had to print each and every page yourself on a mimeograph machine, assemble all the copies by hand, staple them, address them, affix stamps to them, and then cart them to the post office. No easy task! Though grateful for the enthusiasm of its large following, after three years at the helm Biljo had tired of the demands of being "Batman's #1 fan."
With the 1967 Batmania Annual (#17), White ceased publication to take a well-deserved break. Thus ended a major chapter in the history of Batman Fandom, for no one else had the talent, time, and energy to step into the breach with quite the same flair and bravado. The writing, the artwork, and the attention to detail had all been strictly topnotch. Biljo had every right to be proud of it.
"Batmania was my best effort as a part of comicdom," he commented recently. "I believed my work on it should be regarded as a blueprint for producing a fanzine."
With Biljo's blessing, Batmania found new life at the hands of other editors over the next several years. It even graduated from mimeograph to professional photo-offset printing. The last issue under that name (#23) was published by Rich Morrissey in 1978. Then, when DC withdrew its permission to use the title, it ran still more issues under the name Behind the Clock, an allusion to the entrance to the Batcave.
How much are copies of Batmania worth? Today, these fanzines, with their print runs of under 1000 copies, can go for over $50 each for the earliest issues, and they aren't easy to find. Much of the material that was groundbreaking at the time is now common knowledge, and the artwork (most often by White) is generally inspired by, if not traced from, the comics themselves. Still, Biljo White's way with a mimeograph stencil... the steadfast devotion given to Batman and Robin... and the view they give of the Dynamic Duo's career before he was even a glimmer in Neal Adams' eye-all make these simple little publications magical to read and re-read. Batmania is one of the central parts of any fanzine collection from comicdom's first golden decade.
White had done his job well. His magazine had focused the energy of fans of the Caped Crusader at a time when he was at an all-time low, and rallied support for Julius Schwartz' successful effort to resuscitate the strip. By the time the TV show had run its course, the Batman of the comic books had found new life, and soon would benefit by a further re-tooling. The era of Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams brought a welcome return to the days of Batman as an eerie creature of the night, very much as he had been originally envisioned by Bob Kane.
But that's always been Batman's lot: Continual renewal, development, and growth. Fans need never worry about the Darknight Detective becoming stale, for there will always be writers and artists with new visions of the strip, and fans to rally around in support. Such is the great, almost limitless potential of Batman.
Or, as we former Batmanians used to say: "For Batman we accept nothing as impossible!"
Bill Schelly is the author of The Golden Age of Comic Fandom, the first book-length history of comicdom's origins in the 1960s, which will be reissued in an expanded edition in March 1999. With Roy Thomas, Bill co-edited Alter Ego: The Best of the Legendary Comics Fanzine, the trade paperback reprinting (with new notes and commentary) the cream of the original fanzine issues of A/E, Volume 1.
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