Feb 17, 2014

Batgirl, Girl Detective: Charmingly Ridiculous!

Batgirl, Girl Detective: Charmingly Ridiculous!
Ben Smith

To the surprise of my family and close friends, I’ve been on a bit of a Batman reading kick in recent weeks. Having never read much of the seminal Neal Adams drawn issues from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, I embarked upon a quest to acquire and consume those legendary issues. What I found was something much different than I expected.

The Neal Adams lead stories were good enough, probably high quality for the time, and I understand their place in the history of Batman, returning the character to his dark roots after a period of high camp running alongside the ‘60s TV show.

No, what I found myself enjoying much more were the backup stories in the issues of Detective Comics from that time. The Robin solo stories were entertaining enough, with their attempts to be relevant, but it was the Batgirl issues that provided the right level of zaniness and madcap mayhem.

My favorite Batgirl story begins in Detective Comics #396, written by Frank Robbins, with Gil Kane and Murphy Anderson on art.

The tale begins with Barbara Gordon, having a nightmare about being attacked by the brutal Orchid-Killer that she had been reading about in the newspaper. The mysterious killer had been targeting and killing red-haired females, leaving a crushed orchid behind at the scenes. The next day, Babs is at her job at the Gotham Library, when she notices a computer card sticking out of a returned copy of “The Femme Mystique” book.

Shockingly, it’s the computer dating card of the Orchid-Killer’s last known victim, Jennifer Linford. She looks up the last person to check out the book, Darren Tomkins. A passage about the vulnerability of “plain-jane” women was underlined, suggesting that it might have been the killer doing some research. Barbara thinks to herself, “plain-janes, just the type to try and land a man through a computer dating service!”

(There’s absolutely no way DC could publish a comic with this in it today without taking a lot of heat.)

Babs tracks Tomkins to his last known address, but she’s too late, he’s already moved out. For some reason, she decides to immediately rent the place herself.

Later, at the offices of Programmed-Dating Quiz Incorporated, Batgirl tries to get information about Tomkins. Unfortunately, they are not willing or able to provide her with any information on their client.
Barbara decides to fill out a computer card herself, in an attempt to lure the killer to her. As she drops the card into the mailbox, a gentleman by the name of Jason comes a callin’. He makes a pass at her, but she shuts him down, having to keep herself free for “a more deadly date.”

I love when people use the word “mating” in all seriousness. It never fails to make me giggle.

A few days later, she gets a notice that a date with a Mr. Max Tournov has been arranged for her. The date is arranged for later that night. Barbara puts together her “homely” disguise. Inspiring a slew of future teen comedy movies, her disguise consists of her pulling up her hair, and putting on glasses. (The ongoing joke from Not Another Teen Movie, which stars the young Captain America himself, Chris Evans comes immediately to mind.)

Max arrives, but with no orchid. She thinks to herself “no wonder he needs a computer to find dates!” The date is a bust, and Babs takes a second to drop her computer card back in the mail on the way home. Suddenly, Max pulls out an orchid after all, and moves in for a smooch. Barbara’s Batgirl instincts kick in, and she responds by flipping him over right on his ass.

Max screams “you’re like all the others,” and then crushes the orchid and throws it in the trash, saying that’s where she belongs.

Unable to determine if he had acted out in frustration at a denied goodnight kiss, or if it was the rage of a madman, Barbara changes into Batgirl to follow him home. She loses sight of him after he seemingly disappears. Frantically moving to find him, a man’s hand reaches out from an alley and grabs her from behind.

The first part of the story ends there, and is continued in the very next issue, Detective Comics #397, The Hollow Man, again by Robbins, Kane, and Anderson.

The mysterious attacker has ahold of Batgirl by her face, from behind. She manages to flip him overhead and onto his back.

Expecting to see Max when he returns to his feet, Batgirl is surprised to see a man she does not recognize.

He backhands her into unconsciousness, sending her falling to the ground of the alleyway. An indeterminate time later, she’s awakened by a gentle patting of her face. It’s Max.

He claims to have chased away her attacker, and Batgirl bounds away, having decided she was wrong about Max after all.

Two nights later, Barbara prepares her “homely” disguise as she awaits the arrival of her second computer date. John Milman arrives, orchid in hand. According to Babs, he’s “even uglier than Max!”

Again, no way this gets published now.

After an uneventful date, Milman walks her back to her brownstone (ah, so that’s why she rented that place). Barbara tries to pleasantly end the evening, but Milman flies into a rage, accusing her of thinking he’s too ugly.
He crushes the orchid in his hand, saying “you’re all fragile blossoms – too precious to touch!” Barbara is convinced he is the real killer, which means her attacker from the alley must have been just a regular mugger.

Milman moves toward her, crazy hands outstretched. Before she can respond with her Batgirl skills, Jason comes to her rescue.Thanks to Jason’s “darned trick-knee,” Milman is able to shake him off and escape.

Someone cursing their darned trick-knee is not anything I would expect would come from someone under the age of 70.

Jason followed Barbara and Milman from the movie, out of jealousy. Babs ditches the “adorable, jealous idiot” as soon as she can, so she can follow Milman as Batgirl.

Batgirl uses her amazing deductive skills to look up Milman’s computer address. Girl detective! She busts in through the window, kicking down the man inside.

She’s shocked to discover the handsome man that had attacked her in the alley, and his two masks. A mask of the “ugly” John Milman, and a mask of the “homely” Max Tournov. All three of them had been the same man, the Orchid-Killer.

After he wakes, Batgirl questions him for motive, why would he kill all those harmless redheads, especially when he’s so handsome. Turns out, he considered his looks to be a curse, masking the real person inside. Conversely, he targeted homely women, wanting to release their inner beauty. But to his chagrin, they were just as hollow and shallow inside as anyone else, so he killed them.

Batgirl proclaims him the Hollow Man, finding the ugliness in everything, before she hauls him off to jail. The end.

I’m really surprised this story isn’t more well known for singlehandedly launching an entire genre of films. The supposedly “homely” girl with glasses, that turns smoking hot once she takes them off and lets her hair down. John Hughes read a lot of Detective Comics, I’d be willing to bet.

I originally read the second part of this story first, which may have added to my appreciation of it a little more. I wasn’t sure what the heck was going on. Batgirl was going on computer dates, a guy with a trick-knee shows up out of nowhere, Barbara is wearing glasses in disguise, and then there’s this dude with masks killing redheads. Just the kind of insanity that was bound to excite me to the point I had to share it.

The other backup stories from the time offered the same kind of wackiness. One Robin story in particular sees him depressed after breaking up a fight in the school cafeteria, by mistakingly assuming the bigger guy was the instigator of the conflict. The whole situation leaves him questioning his detective abilities, and even if a grownup should be going by the name Robin. It was charmingly ridiculous.

Hopefully I’ve sparked a flame in some of you to track down some more stories featuring comic’s resident sexy librarian. If you’re into high grade silliness and brilliant Gil Kane art, I highly recommend that you do.

Next time, something else!

1 comment:

Martin Gray said...

Fun article, but Jason Bard hasn't come out of nowhere, he was Babs' regular beau, and the 'trick knee' was a Vietnam wound. I remember he had his own strip in the Seventies. Here's his Wiki entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jason_Bard

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