Tuesday, January 21, 2014

BATMAN LEADS AN INTERESTING LIFE : THE UNDERWORLD OLYMPICS ’76!



BATMAN No.272-275 February-April 1976 – THE UNDERWORLD OLYMPICS ’76!
Before multi-issue story arcs were the norm, DC Comics began experimenting lightly with abandoning their largely-episodic formula for three- and four-issue continuing stories in some of their flagship titles. Although DC’s books had maintained, since the Silver Age, an internal consistency (and no shortage of those little “See Issue such-and-such” caption boxes that would encourage the reader to go dig up some comic from years in the past), they’d only rarely, before the mid-Seventies, experimented with much more than a two-issue adventure separated by a single cliffhanger.

There's something tremendously
entertaining about The World's
Greatest Detective using the
phrase"How come?"
Naturally, Batman was one of these titles, and what with 1976 being the year of the Olympics in Montreal, this format experiment crossed over with the Olympic theme and came up with – THE UNDERWORLD OLYMPICS.

The concept of the story is decidedly Silver Age – International teams of criminals are invited to compete in a Crime-athalon (I just made up that word, but I powerfully wish it had been in the comic) for the honor of taking home the acclaim of Best Crime People Award ‘76, I think. Even with the extended format, brevity is an issue, so rather than being broken out by countries, the international crooks and murderers visiting Gotham for the felonious festivities are organized by continent.

With that in mind, let’s meet the teams!

Representing South America is … well, we don’t actually learn their names – mind you, there is a big bruiser almost inevitably named “Pancho” who gets sacrificed early on to distract Batman and the Gotham City Airport customs agents (I have their first five albums) from the incoming international ne'er-do-wells. What we do know about the South Americans is that they’re characteristically adorned in traditional costume and armed with regional weaponry, their Bolivian representative carrying an Esada Brousse and an Argentinian player hucking bolas and punching soccer balls right into the goal, for instance.

The European squad covers a lot of ground and, additionally, gets names; The Italian Paolo – who, as the world’s classiest criminal, is portrayed in a loud red tie and fiestaware green suit, playing with his balls through his pants pocket – acts as Team Leader. Serving under him is the cantankerous British Cobb (heir to the salad fortune), the stern and easy-to-anger German Helmut, and the world’s stealthiest Russian, the red-bearded former KGB agent Boris who actually manages to sneak up on Batman despite wearing something like fourteen parkas and a pair of knee-high hobnailed boots.

With the South American and European teams eating up the page count in the first two issues, things have to condense a tetch in issue three, so the African and Asian contingent band together as The Afro-Asian Bloc, which sounds like something you’d hear struck at a drum circle. 

Marge Gunderbat.
Despite representing two whole continents AND the sub-continent of India, the Bloc – and when you say it like that, it sounds like a wrestling clique – is represented by only four members; There’s Calabar of Nigeria, Quong of China (decked out in a lavender People’s Uniform, so I defy you to suggest there’s not an interesting backstory to that character) and Hartley, a Great White Hunter type because honkeys gotta stick their noses into everything.

The leader of the Afro-Asian Bloc ends up being a sort of criminal superstar, Amba Kadiri, “The Scourge of Bombay”, whose razor-sharp fingernails and martial arts prowess end up almost besting Batman. The Caped Crusader has even heard of her – this is back in the days when Batman was still a mortal human bound by mildly fantastic but otherwise common-sense limitations of knowledge and ability, you understand, and not a guy who memorized Interpol every morning before breakfast and could beat five different Supermans with a single nerve pinch - so that implied she was something special. Yep, special, dangerous, a match for Batman, a female Indian martial artist with a deadly reputation that spreads half a world, lots to discover about a character like that, lots of stories to tell ... She never ever shows up ever again, the end.

And lastly, there are the North American scum; An unnamed Mexican fella (And before you ask, yes, complete with sombrero and sarape. Of COURSE he is, this is comics), an unnamed Canadian fella or at least I assume he’s Canadian because he’s got a perm and a buckskin leather jacket and it’s the Seventies, plus an easy-to-anger bald fella named  Joey One-Eye of indeterminate national origin (Unless we have an independent island nation of kvetchy cyclopses floating around Lake Michigan which no one mentioned to me before). Also filling the copious Nor-Am ranks are an African-American fella with the unlikely codename of Gopher and a Native American named Duke, which is possibly irony.

Batman's having a "fat day".
The covers and the title seem to imply some globe-spanning superheroics, but the action all takes place in Gotham City with each team of baddies being assigned an esoteric and needlessly complicated crime scheme at random – and when I say it’s “at random” I mean from start to finish, half of the things the Crime Olympians are doing don’t count as any crime above, say, noise violations. 

To wit: The Europeans have to steal a cannon, disassemble it, smuggle it to a Gotham Bank, steal it from the bank, fire it from Gotham and retrieve the shell which has a safe deposit from the bank in it, YOU COULD HAVE JUST ROBBED THE FUCKING BANK. 

Additionally, the seriousness of the crimes vary arbitrarily – While the Afro-Asian bloc only has to break into a few safes, the South American team, by contrast, has to murder a guy, abduct his body, then hide the body inside a park statue. Gross.

Despite a gimmicky premise that doesn't really pay out in long-term dividends, the arc has a lot to say for itself. In regards to the art, particularly, it boasts the excellent Ernie Chan on full art duties on three issues and inking the incomparable Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez on the first issue – and, strangely, the art for that issue doesn't work. It’s not terrible, mind you, but somehow the combination of Garcia-Lopez and Chan combines to make something actually lesser than their individual efforts. Terrible shame. Really jarring. I’m still in therapy. I've come back home, but I've not returned whole…

The most entertaining takeaway from the four issue arc, though, is Batman’s utterly bizarre complement of battle cries which he seems to have generated randomly from an ESL phrasebook, pretty much all of which I've assembled here in some sort of ultra-violent visual beat poem:

That last one – I love that he thought the first part and said the second part out loud. 

And finally, the coup de grace:

I AM THE NIGHT!



3 comments:

neofishboy said...

Dayum! Seven new posts and it's not even February yet. I've been following Gone and Forgotten since the days of Hansi and her swastikas, and I'm extremely happy to see it back ... unless you've gone back to writing it because you're injured or lost your job or some shit, in which case ... dude, that sucks.

Anyway, thanks for introducing me to that single panel of Batman screaming "HELLO!" at an unconscious thug.

Poktori said...

37Just want to say "thank you"... Been following this blog for a few years now, and am super-happy to see new posts. Oh, heck, I'll say it again: thank you.

Calamity Jon said...

Well heck fellas, glad to be back, and thanks for hanging around so long!

The goal is to deliver three new articles a week throughout the year, plus occasional bonus material. Let's see how I do!

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