The year is 1970 and the place is Gotham City, a metropolis undergoing a radical transformation. Most of the giant prop replica factories have moved overseas, gutting Gotham’s post-war prosperity and causing a backslide into the bad old years of the Depression.
The changes have even affected the city’s most famous inhabitant, the legendary Batman, who has slimmed down from the grinning barrel-chested father figure figure of yore into a sleek, hi-tech urban vigilante. Gone are the aliens and pet sidekicks with which he hobnobbed during the Silver Age; they’ve replaced with more sinister incarnations of his classic rogues’ gallery alongside newer additions such as Arabian eco-ninja death cults.
Yet remnants of the old high concept goofiness linger in this realm of moody pseudo-realism, flashes of “Hey, wouldn’t it be neat if” or “y’know, if we switch the elements of the name around” imperfectly woven into the revised spandex-noir tapestry…
…which is how we ended up with the dreaded (and dreadful) Man-Bat.
Readers were first introduced to the character in the pages of Detective Comics #400, where a creepy scientist-type named Kirk Langstrom decided to one-up his superheroic idol by injecting himself with an untested cocktail of bat-hormones. While the logic behind these actions mirrored that of a Survivor fan who surgically implants real eyes of the tiger in his skull, Langstrom’s fondness for sinister soliloquies and unexplained penchant for Dark Shadows cosplay indicated that the scientist was playing with a couple of suits short of a full deck.
The serum worked, though with side effects that would have been easily predicted by anyone who has ever seen a drive-in horror flick, read a cheap mad science potboiler, or picked up any funnybook published in the past sixty years.
Here’s a protip for any of you kiddies thinking of super-scientifically tampering in God’s domain: Never indulge in self-experimentation unless you have inconvertable proof you are leading character material. Otherwise you could end up looking like a Deviant Art furry’s rendition of Frodo from Ralph Bakshi’s Middle-Earth cartoons.
Langstrom’s post-mutation angst caused him to cross paths with his superheroic inspiration, then suffering a beatdown at the hands of a gang of high-tech museum thieves. Using his superhuman strength and powers of perception, Langstrom quickly dispatches the goons in time for an uncomforable face-to-horribly-altered-visage with a bewildered Batman.
Man-Bat’s introductory tale was soon followed up by a pair of additional installments in which the uncharacteristically slow-on-the-uptake Dark Knight worked out both Langstrom’s identity and true nature while Langstrom’s codependent-yet-hot finance Francine agreed to convert to Woman-Batism for the couple’s impending marriage. It concluded with a happy yet open-ended wedding in which Batman got the opportunity to weigh in on the importance of traditional marriage.
As silly a concept as Man-Bat was, his original trio of appearances made for some entertaining reading (or in my younger self’s case, “book-and-record-ing”). You’ve got some decent Frank Robbins scripting supported by some excellent Adams/Giordano art that pretty much exemplifies the qualities that made Bronze Age Batman my One True Iteration of the character.
The problem was that having introduced a gimmicky new component to the Bat-franchise, DC felt obligated to make extensive use of him. Some of that could probably be laid at the door of emerging “horror hero” boom of the early-to-mid 1970s, within which Man-Bat’s sanitized mixture of (CCA-approved nevernude) lycanthropy and vampirism must have seemed like a sound basis for wider popularity. While logical in theory, it fell apart in practice as the character tended to be much less than the sum of two archetypes.
For all intents and purposes, Man-Bat is little more than a Bat-adapted counterpart to the Lizard (with a dash of a another bit Spider-player I’ll be dealing with next week). The narrative potential of the character — relapses and rampages and failed “temporary-permanent” cures — in a supporting role is limited enough. It falls apart completely when Man-Bat is tossed into the protagonist’s seat, where he invariably comes off as a simpering, less effective Hawkman knock-off.
(“How much less effective?” you may be asking. Let me put it this way — Man-Bat almost had his slacks-covered ass handed to him by the Ten-Eyed Man.)
Too whiny to be tragic, too silly to be scary, the Man-Bat has managed to coast by on the fumes of franchise association for over four decades. Yet no matter what undeserved perch he happens to presently occupy, the fact remains that he maintains a permanent roost in the neglected belfry of Nobody’s Favorites.
Recommended listening: Experiments With Ice – Lambs and Bats (from Experiments with Ice, 1981)
Minimal synth obscurity or entree item at a roadside BBQ joint? Either way, you’ll want to keep a bowl of slaw handy.