Hey there Olympic-level comics fans! The world is singing the praises of the true north strong and free and admiring us crazy canucks as much for our ability to compete on snow and ice as for our ability to throw a massive party. So let’s keep the Olympic party going a little longer!
Walter Langkowski here. Some of the science geeks out there know me for my pioneering research in physics and biophysics. Yeah right!... It’s not like they put out highly collectible trading cards series for Nobel Prize front-runners, now is it?
And yet, I do look familiar don’t I? I sometimes get stopped in the streets or make some extra cash appearing at car dealerships or local sports collectible shows thanks to my years as a utility player for the Green Bay Packers.
No? Perhaps you were once a student at my McGill University classes or you’ve seen me on various tabloid covers during the very messy divorce from my actress wife, Veronica. Of course, I was trapped in the body of an impossibly leggy, willowy, muscular, platinum blonde, woman-type female at the time.
Still not sure? Well, I’ll give you a hint. Who’s humungus, orange and furry, can stop a plane with his bare hands, went toe to toe with the rampaging Hulk, came back from the dead and gives the fuzziest, bestest hugs in the Marvel Comics universe? Why the ever-lovin’ Sasquatch, that’s who!!! (and points off to anyone who guessed that blue beastie X-man, scientist and ex-footballer, Hank McCoy.)
No, not that one.
Not this one either. Work with me here.
Ah! Now you're cookin' with back bacon!
This week of Olympic posts are partially inspired to help Canadians come down slowly from the wonderful Olympic high we’ve been on without having to do it cold turkey (or in our case, cold Canada goose). But it was also inspired by my memories of reading another series of Olympic stories way back in my wayward youth.
I had hoped to write about these tales during the actual Olympics but I didn’t want to draw only from the web for my recollections. I wanted to read the stories again, dang it! And since the comic shops in town did not have the back issues in question, I was left to rely on mail order and the books simply did not arrive in time.
But they’ve arrived at last true believers -- a set of Olympic-themed stories from Batman Comics that have stayed me with since I first read them way back in the seventies. Like these past few weeks, the Olympics in question took place in Canada, almost bankrupting the beautiful city of Montreal in the process! (What's the big deal? It only took the city thirty years to pay off the 1.5 billion dollar debt from the 1976 Games and the disastrous Olympic Stadium).
Some highlights of the Games (Thank you, Wikipedia! Wish I had you around when I was at Penn State or studying for my Ph. D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) include the fact that it was the first time a host country for the modern Games won no gold medals (a fact broadcasters hammered home through out these latest Games), the U.S. cleaned up in the boxing using as bunch of unknown stumblebums like Sugar Ray Leonard, Leon Spinks, Michael Spinks, Leo Randolph and Howard Davis Jr., Bruce Jenner set a world record for the decathalon and future prime minister of Japan, Taro Aso, competed, as did Britain’s Prince Anne. And the world fell in love with Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci, not only the first competitor in the modern Olympic Games to earn a perfect ten in competition, but the only one to do it seven times in one OIympiad!
That the Montreal Olympics occurred in North America, allowing for more daytime and prime time live network coverage, and the fact that 1976 was also the United States’ bicentennial year, meant the event created a huge buzz in America. So it was only natural that comics picked up on that in its endless search for a good story hook.
And as a young comic fan I was already diligently prowling the comic book racks of my local variety stores for stories and the Batman and Detective Comics of the time never let me down. (What? A Marvel character can't dig a DC book?) This is a series of four interconnected tales that left me wishing for more… especially since I never actually found the final issue until years later to find out how it ended.
Get ready for The Underworld Olympics 1976!!!!
This classic Olympiad of evil kicks off in Batman 272 in a story by David V. Reed. The art is supplied by the team of J.L. Garcia Lopez - who would go on to become the artist behind all DC licensing images for more than a decade - and Ernie Chua – who would go on to change his name back to Chan and rock the comic book world of Conan the Barbarian for more than a decade.
I was a fan of Batman at the time for a number of reasons. Stories were more or less one-offs so I could generally get a complete adventure without having to track down a follow-up issue. In a world before the direct market that could prove difficult. You never knew if the store you bought one issue would get the same batch of ongoing titles from month to month. That’s why I developed a string of variety stores and supermarkets to visit month in and month out. I had to cast a pretty wide net.
Secondly, DC was back to focusing on Batman being the world’s greatest detective and escape artist, so each issue generally presented some form of impossible mystery that highlighted Batman’s observational skills, esoteric knowledge and cleverness. Generally presented at a breakneck pace and filled with plenty of action. Revisiting the world of the Bronze Age, one is reminded of how much story we were given in a conventional comic compared to today.
For better of for worse, modern, “decompressed” comics average four or five panels a page. As far back as fifteen years ago, comics probably average 7 or more panels per page. That means a story that may have taken one issue back then is often spread out to two, three, or even four issues now. That leaves plenty of room to accent character, play with pacing and reveal that approximately 85% of modern comic writers have no idea how to work in this elongated format. Bronze Age books wasted no time. They had less than twenty pages to get you in, get you involved, get out a couple of fights and few surprises then wrap it up so they could do it all over again next month.
“The Underworld Olympics ’76” opens in a suitably international environment, Gotham International Airport. Thanks to an anonymous tip, Batman (who was still at the point where he had complete cooperation from all levels of police and security personal) gets all Homeland Security up the ass of several suspicious looking tourists.
What follows is an insight into Batman's loathing of gaucho gangsters and one of the most unique displays of comic book jui-jitsu I've ever seen. The battle quickly flows through numerous kung fu moves like "Whirling Camera Chin-A-Chunka" and "Come Hither Thigh Trap" to finish off with "Death Palm Camera Smash".
The felonious pair turn out to be smuggling uncut emeralds in their suitcases. Batman reveals the hidden gems and the inadequate training of the Gotham Customs officials in a quick series of panels.
The final panel on the page reveals the entire operation is a decoy allowing members of the South American team to slip into the city unnoticed. Soon, in the “carefully guarded confines of a townhouse on Gotham’s east side, the “first international Crime Olympics” are officially kicked off. Rather than stretch the Games out with teams from each country, author Reed divides the players up by “continental blocks” with South American, North American, European and Afro-Asian teams, comprised of multicultural representatives from various countries “chosen from among its own master criminals.” Each team is given a different assignment and tries to amass points by completing an assigned crime. Meanwhile, a whole bunch of unsavory types lay bets in a smoky den of iniquity.
Lopez and Chan have a lot of fun giving every face and character in the story personality - even the sketchy background figures. It adds a nice sense of realism to the events. I especially like the guy in the green suit in panel above to the left of the frame. That could be a threatening scar on his face or a prominent bead of sweat. Either way, from his effete way of smoking, to his highly manicured nails and overabundance of hair product, we can tell that this is one metrosexual who's not to be trusted.
The South American team is up first. They are assigned to murder J. P. Vandermeer, chosen at random from a phone book. Apparently it was a very upscale phone book, because Vandermeer turns out to a member of Gotham’s elite, serving on the board of the Gotham Museum and hobnobbing with the likes of Bruce Wayne, millionaire playboy. Vandermeer is lured away with a phone call.
A suspicious Bruce notices he has a direct line to the museum and yet the emergency call came over a regular phone. A quick change of costume and the Batman is soon off in hot pursuit in Bruce Wayne’s roadster. He quickly finds Vandermeer’s wrecked and an even more wrecked Vandermeer, deader than a doornail. Deducing that a second vehicle rammed him, Batman catches up to the car and battles the South American team, capturing two of them. In between we take a short break for a one page advertisement featuring Captain Marvel and Hostess Cupcakes.
Since nothing is stolen, Batman can’t figure out a motive, nor why one of the murderers’ chosen weapons was an espada brousse or Bolivian jungle sword. Of course, he doesn’t realize the phone book is an accomplice. Perhaps he should take that phone book into an interrogation and beat a confession out of it with a… phone book? Er, never mind.
Batman gets a second chance when the remaining members of the South American team steal Vandermeer’s body from the morgue. Luckily, the eagle-eyed pathologist has already removed a transistorized tracking device from the body (used y the team to determine it’s whereabouts for the second phases of their assignment). Batman uses the bug’s frequency to track the team as they attempt to bury the stone cold Vandermeer in an equally cold stone monument.
Batman arrives to kick butt and order ice cream (The team has hidden the body in an ice cream cart for discreet transport through a park) in one of the worst I’m-gonna–joke-while-I-hit-you lines ever...
You heard the Bat. Here's a double scoop of justice... with sprinkles, you crooks!
Batman wraps up the case and wraps up the South American team in a vender’s umbrella. Back at Olympic HQ, the absent team is assigned a final score - a mere 20 out of a possible 100. The world's “finest criminals” retire to prepare for tomorrow’s challenge while poor Batman and Commissioner Gorden are left to ponder why Vandermeer’s body wasn’t stolen when the car was wrecked and why all the baddies hail from south of the equator.
For once, the reader is one step ahead of the Bat, leaving a nice sense of anticipation for what's to come next issue.
And in the next blog post.