Friday, October 30, 2009

1970's Batman

Recently, I was reading Michael Eury's terrific book The Batcave Companion, which covers Batman's history from the beginning of the "New Look" era in 1964, through the Batmania of the TV series, and into the bronze age period when Batman returned to being a dark and mysterious avenger of the night. This is my favorite period of Batman history because I was born in 1964 and Batman was the first super hero I was aware of thanks to the TV show. By the time I was old enough to read comics (or at least look at the pictures), Batman was already morphing into a character 180 degrees different from the goofy guy on television.

The first Batman comic I talked my father into buying for me was Batman #220 with a cover date of March 1970, which means it probably came out in January 1970. This was only three months after Dick Grayson had gone off to college to deal with war protesters, acid droppers, and hippies while Bruce Wayne ditched Wayne Manor for a penthouse at Wayne Enterprises and started chasing after drug dealers and corporate criminals rather than the Joker and the Penguin. The story for issue #220 dealt with a crusading journalist named Marla Manning whose series of articles under the title "Victims Anonymous" were not going down well with the corporate fat cats she was skewering. Someone was out to kill Ms. Manning and Batman scrambled to track down the guilty party before it was too late. Quite a long way from the silly capers I was used to seeing on the TV show and a more serious story than a five-year-old was used to, but I still loved it.

I was always ambivalent about the bronze age because, by this time, the new generation of comic book writers and artists were baby boomers who had grown up reading comic books. The comic books they read as kids were written for their reading level and their understanding of the world. When they grew up and got the chance to write for comics, they were creating stories for people of their own age group (i.e., teenagers and young adults). That was fine for the baby boomers, but for those of us who were cutting their teeth on Where the Wild Things Are and Encyclopedia Brown, the comic book writers of the 1970s seemed to be thumbing their noses at the new generation of readers. On the other hand, perhaps these more complex stories challenged us to read at a higher level and absorb concepts us younger readers may not have encountered until later in life. Maybe I wouldn't have read Jaws at the age of 10 if I hadn't already been reading these nuanced, character-driven Batman stories in the early 70s.

Anyway, as a kid, there were always two Batmans: the Adam West version on TV and the Denny O'Neil/Neal Adams version in the comics. Both were equally great in my mind, but for different reasons. The duality extended to the toy industry where all Batman-related merchandise in the 70s tended to reflect the Silver Age version of Batman rather than the one I was reading in the comics. For example, the Mego 8-inch Batman action figure sported stubby ears on the cowl and a friendly, smiling face even though the artwork on the box showed the grimacing, tall-eared version. Also, Mego always presented the Batman figure with Robin despite the fact that, in the comics, both characters were solo acts at this point. I guess Mego figured that more kids were familiar with the TV show than the comic and the TV version created a friendlier tone. I didn't agree, and during my whole childhood, I longed for a Batman action figure that looked like the Batman in the comics.

Last Christmas, my wife Kathy gave me a 1970s Batman costume made by Rauty, so that sort of put the pressure on me to create the figure I had been longing to have. The costume consisted of the unitard, the cape, and the bat symbol for his chest. That left the cowl, gloves, belt, and boots to create. The boots were relatively easy since Captain Action's boots are shaped in a similar way to Batman's, and I had plenty of those on hand. I just needed to paint them the right color. The belt could be made from yellow, foam-rubber sheeting with the tubes and buckle fabricated in some way. The big challenge was the gloves and the cowl. Classic Plastick makes Captain Action-style gloves which look basically like mittens. That wasn't the way I wanted to go. Most modern super hero figures have painted hands with cuffs on the wrists to simulate gloves. That seemed a better route, so I decided to fabricate finned cuffs out of polyvinyl clay.

While I was at it, I made small tube shapes out of clay which could be painted and glued to the belt. I also made a buckle out of PVC, but I didn't like the result, so I opted for a plastic buckle I cut off another action figure belt. It didn't glue on exactly the way I wanted it to, but it worked okay.

Next came the major issue: the cowl. I thought about making a cowl from PVC, but as with my Iron Man custom, I was afraid it would be too big and unwieldy. Then one day, while I was working on a different custom, I accidentally snapped the head off one of my figures. Kathy witnessed the event and said, "Now you have an excuse to try and fabricate an entire head out of PVC." If I was going to do that, I thought, why not make a head that had a mask on it so I wouldn't have to fill in all the facial details. At that moment, I committed myself to making a Batman headsculpt for my 1970s Batman custom.

I started with a wadded up ball of aluminum foil over which I layered PVC to make an oval head shape roughly 1/6th scale. I later discovered that this was a mistake because, as I layered on more pieces of clay to build up the face and mask, I found the head was growing slightly larger than what I wanted. Still, I was surprised that the head actually looked pretty life-like.

After baking the finished headsculpt, I painted it, trying hard to match the color of the cowl with the cape. The gloves and boots I painted a slightly darker shade of blue since I figured, in reality, they would be made of leather and have a deeper shade.

I think I'll take another shot at the headsculpt at a later date when I am feeling more confident. While it's far from perfect, it does bring to mind the caped crusader of my youth.

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