A Tribute to the of

I had a couple of options for this edition of the Silver Age Sage, but even though it’s the 55th anniversary of the debut of the Elongated Man, I discovered that once again my collection isn’t as comprehensive as I’d hoped. I don’t seem to have much in the way of Ralph Dibney’s adventures on my shelves. Granted, it’s a bit challenging since he didn’t have a lead feature in any of the books and you had to find him the Flash or Detective Comics for the longest time unless you sought out later tales of the Justice League. Ah, well. At least we know and appreciate that the Ductile Detective has been with us over 5 decades now and I have covered a couple of his adventures in past installments of this feature. So, while once again easing out of our beloved Silver Age and into the Bronze Age, albeit the early Bronze Age, I thought I’d review an unusual tale of the Batman from Detective Comics #442, with a publication date of August/September 1974. This is one of those great, much sought after (at least by the webmaster and I) 100-page wonders that usually had one or in this case two new stories and a handful of reprints. You got a great value for your 60-cent investment. The cover is by Jim Aparo with colors by Tatjana Wood and the cover feature is also the story I’m reviewing here. “Death Flies the Haunted Sky!” was scripted by Archie Goodwin, who was also our editor while both art and lettering were provided by Alex Toth. On the splash page, Alex lists Archie as “Friend, Writer Editor” and also makes a notation after his own art credit: “With due homage to: Bob Kane, Jerry Robinson, George Roussos and Neal Adams.

The splash, incidentally, is actually page 2 after a prologue page in which we see something rather bizarre when an obviously successful aeronautical engineer named Mason Terrell is receiving a lady caller to his penthouse apartment, but no sooner has he invited her in for a nightcap when he spots something out the window and cries, “Oh, my God! Ben Dancer!! It can’t be!” Then a ghostly Spad XIII bi-plane sprays the penthouse with machine gun fire.

Having completed the awful task, the plane continues its arc and happens across Gotham’s Guardian, the Batman on a nearby rooftop water tower. Our hero leaps to the landing gear, but is quickly disengaged by the pilot and falls back toward the tower. Alex Toth shows us how the Dark Knight uses his athleticism to control his fall, hitting tht wooden roof of the tower feet first into the cushioning water. Slowly he emerges, unharmed.

Across the way, neighbors and a doorman are investigating the penthouse carnage when they realize the woman who’d come up is gone. Outside, as she gingerly makes her escape, she is intercepted by the Batman. She introduces herself as Eve Dancer, daughter of Korean War Ace Ben Dancer, who’d died in a plane crash a few years prior, but she also explains it was a suicide and that the three men who drove him to the deed are being killed unless they can get to the Richthofen Aerodrome.

The backstory is that Ben Dancer was a jet pilot, but had a particular passion for World War I era bi-planes and he and three other amateur pilots who shared his interest, Mason Terrell, Doug Garth and Rick Halstrom partnered up to buy and restore the old planes they loved so much.

One day Ben was approached by the other three about a place they’ve come up with to create an airstrip and to put on shows to help subsidize their weekend vintage flying passion, but Dancer is adamant that he won’t allow his beloved planes to be part of a circus. They are at loggerheads, but due to being outnumbered and after a bitter lawsuit, Ben took his plane on a final flight, ending in the disastrous crash.

At Dancer’s funeral, his son Benjy, an active duty Air Force pilot has vowed revenge on those who drove their father to his doom. Resigning his commission, he laid plans and contacted his sister to see the Spad he’d restored to look like a ringer for Ben’s. Despite Eve’s pleadings, she could not convince her brother to give up his schemes for revenge, so she tried to warn her father’s former partners, leading her to Terrell’s place and the ensuing attack.

The pair have now arrived at Doug Garth’s farm, but a blazing inferno is all that they see. Finding a security guard attempting to battle the flames, the man explains that a bi-plane strafed the field and bombed the office with Garth inside. Despite his best efforts, Batman cannot save Garth, so the only alternative is to get to Rick Halstrom as quickly as possible. Eve suggests using the nearby bi-plane, a Hanoveraner CL-11 that she is qualified to fly. With Eve at the controls, they’re soon aloft as Batman muses to himself that he has some experience with the old planes as Archie Goodwin notes happened in Detective Comics #404’s “Ghost of the Killer Skies!” [Sage #175]

Soon they encounter a burning, machine-gunned car and then spot Halstrom running for his life and the roadway being strafed by the ghostly pale aircraft. Eve does the only thing available, which is to bump the wing with her landing gear, putting the Spad out of firing range long enough for Halstrom to find cover.

Eve flies alongside the Spad so her brother can see her, but instead of recognition, the masked pilot pulls a pistol. Fortunately, a batarang takes care of the revolver and soon the Batman is leaping toward the Spad and delivering a solid punch to the pilot. Then the battle is on for control of the stick, but the pilot does a barrel roll and our hero is once again airborne, but fortunately Eve has positioned the mock-up of the Red Baron’s bi-plane to catch him.

The maneuver by the Spad ends in a crash, though, as it remained upside down and collided with a water tower. A horrified Eve is soon reassured by Batman that it was not her brother at the controls.

The World’s Greatest Detective elaborates after they unmask the pilot to find Doug Garth, who had bombed the Aerodrome himself. Batman had seen footprints outside Garth’s office, partly washed away by the storm, but indicating someone had sneaked away before the destructive strafing.

Halstrom adds that Garth had racked up significant gambling debts he’d been paying with Aerodrome profits and the other partners had allowed him time to pay them off. The effort to bomb the office destroyed the records and he’d planned to fake an injury leaping out of the building to leave the suspicion on Benjy.

In the final panels, Batman locates a trussed up Benjy Dancer in a barn near the Aerodrome. “Garth had to have the Spad nearby and this barn was his only hiding place! He’d want to hold your brother, too…so that, with his partners finished, he could wreck the Spad, leaving the police a dead ‘killer’ to find in the cockpit…Benjy!” Benjy reports that Garth had feigned interest in helping him only to gain control of the Spad, but as it turned out, he did Dancer a favor by holding him captive and keeping him from seeking revenge.

And that wraps up the 11-page tale.

I must confess, I’m a latecomer to the Toth train. Some of the work of his I’d seen just didn’t seem like my cup of tea, being used to work by Infantino, Kane and Swan, but as time has gone by and after all the countless accolades given Toth, particularly by the many professionals I’ve had the pleasure to speak with, it seems I’d missed something. While his style is often a bit simplistic, lacking some of the detail I’d grown accustomed to seeing, his layouts and sophisticated work with panels, particularly in this story, are quite a visual treat, One might say deceptively so. At any rate, it garnered inclusion in the first volume of The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told and also Batman in the Seventies.

I also have an extra treat for you, dear readers. I’d recently knocked out a piece for Comics Bulletin about our beloved DC Comics’ move to California and I contacted some of my favorite creator contacts to get their take on it. Steve Mitchell [Sage #261 & #262] offered some very good stuff and among his comments, an unexpected gem, about this very story that I hope you’ll enjoy hearing as much as I did:

“Here is my favorite 75 Rock moment. On a rainy, dark, sort of dreary morning, that was typical for NYC, during the summer months, I was working in the production department, and uncharacteristically for me, I got in rather early. The only other person in the office was Sol (Harrison.) He was always the first in, and the last to leave, and he was a bit shocked to see me walking down the hall that morning. "You're early," he said, with his perennial poker face -- Sol kept a check on his emotions most of the time. Anyway, we meet right in front of Archie Goodwin's office where Sol noticed an art size envelope leaning against the door. It was from Alex Toth. Sol picked it up and said, "Let’s take a look." He opened it up -- committing a Federal crime by doing so, I think -- and removed a batch of pages that comprised the famous Batman story with the bi-planes which was published in Detective 442... "Death Flies The Haunted Sky." Sol set the pages on a flat surface and turned the pages at an even pace. He was calm as he did it. I was buggin'! This was such a cool story and I was, along with Sol, the first east coast eyes to see this now famous and classic Toth story...before everybody else. Like I said, I was going nuts as Sol turned each page. When he was done, he turned to me and with just a hint of a smile said, "Nice job." That Friday, a bunch of freelancers went nuts like I did, because Archie summoned everyone and any one that walked by his office to come in and take a look at what would become, justifiably so, one of Toth's best color comics jobs. As crappy as the weather was that day, it was bright and sunny in the halls of 75 Rockefeller Plaza, because when you could lay eyes on new work by Toth... it was for pros and fans alike a very good day. By the way, Sol was probably the biggest fan in the company. He kept it to himself, but he really was very proud when DC got special work from the greats like Toth. He loved the company more than any one knew, I think. I liked Sol a great deal even though most folks found him to be somewhat cold and impersonal. It was really just a mask. The company owes him a great debt and even though he made a good living, I don't think that he ever really collected for all the blood and sweat he gave the company.”

Thanks, as always, for joining us, dear readers and of course the invitation remains open to share your thoughts and opinions at: professor_the@hotmail.com

See you again in the middle of June and…

Long live the Silver Age!

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