If we were listing this by the name of the comic, we'd call it Detective Comics #408. But we're listing it by the name that got me to beg my mom to buy the book all those years ago. We're listing it by the name that thousands of comics fans still know it by. It's The House that Haunted Batman.
So let's say you are a youth in 1971, and you come across this comic on the spinner rack in your friendly neighborhood Safeway. What's it look like?
Below the familiar Detective Comics logo at the top is a five-panel grid -- four panels side-by-side and one large panel at the bottom.
In the first four panels, Batman, looking ever more horrified, is looking into Robin's face as the Boy Wonder rapidly decays into a skeleton. In the last, an anguished Batman holds in his hands nothing but dust, the remains of his partner falling through his fingers. "Robin! What's happening to you?!" the Dark Knight screams.
Would you pay the 15-cent cover price for that? You're damn right you would.
The story was written by Len Wein and Marv Wolfman, with Neal Adams and Dick Giordano providing the art. The backup story was a Batgirl tale called "The Phantom Bullfighter" -- but we ain't talking about that one.
The first page of the story sets us up with some chills. Robin has been kidnapped from Hudson University, and Batman has followed the trail to this old mansion on the outskirts of Gotham City... "to this rotting remnant of better times," as the narration caption puts it. And the narration reminds Batman: "Only one thing bothers you -- this house wasn't here last week!"
A brief search of the mansion soon turns up Robin, standing in a shaft of moonlight. He topples in a faint, and Batman catches him -- only to have the scene from the cover re-enact itself as Robin crumbles to dust. Then a terrified scream pierces the night. The Dark Knight eventually finds the source -- an old-timey gramophone -- but when he takes the needle off the record, the screams don't stop. And then someone shoots at him. He pursues and quickly learns that the gunman is Robin himself. And then he ends up in a dark room watching the Justice League and Commissioner Gordon around a coffin containing his own body -- and then the walls start closing in -- and then --
Then he finds himself trapped, suspended inside a clear plastic tube in an ultra-modern laboratory. Robin is trapped in another tube nearby, both heroes getting bounced on a current of air from the top to the bottom of the tube. And the mastermind reveals himself -- Dr. Tzin-Tzin, an absolute disaster of a Yellow Peril supervillain who menaced Batman periodically during the Bronze Age. A self-styled master of illusion, the evil doctor had accepted a contract from the League of Assassins to kill the Dynamic Duo, and he revealed that every time the heroes bounced on the top of the tube, it activated a counter -- when the counter reached 100, bombs would explode, killing both Batman and Robin. But Batman managed to get the bombs to explode early, while both of the heroes were a safe distance away from the explosives.
But Tzin-Tzin had even prepared for that -- he orders his henchmen, a horde of martial artists called the Deadly Dozen, to attack. Batman defeats all but two, who are able to bind his arms. Tzin-Tzin emerges with a pistol to kill Batman the old-fashioned way. But he'd forgotten about Robin, who strikes the villain down.
As Batman and Robin escort the handcuffed Tzin-Tzin out of the house, they're surprised by mocking laughter behind them -- how did Tzin-Tzin get back inside the mansion? No, it was another illusion, and the villain manages to slip away in the confusion. Almost at once, the mansion collapses and explodes, gone within seconds. The sun rises on Gotham City, the heroes are safe, and the House that Haunted Batman is no more than a memory.
The story itself has a fun origin story. Wein and Wolfman had written up a script that aimed for a spooky 1940s vibe and ended up with Batman and Robin stuck inside a giant ping-pong ball machine. They showed it to legendary editor Julius Schwartz, who rejected the script, feeling it was too similar to the campy "Batman" TV show that DC was now trying to distance itself from. After a quick rewrite to darken the story some more and reduce the camp, the writers showed it to Giordano, who showed it to Adams, who loved it so much, he worked on it in secret for a couple months before dropping the completed story on Schwartz's desk. Initially angry that his staff had been working on a story behind their editor's back, Schwartz still appreciated the high quality of the tale and greenlit it for the next issue.
It's a fantastic story, particularly the creepy, bizarre, dreamlike beginning of the tale, told more like an EC Comics horror story than a tale about superheroes. As for Tzin-Tzin? Well, there wasn't a lot to him as a character but the racism, and there's a reason he hasn't appeared in any comics in the last four decades.
But the art is absolutely beyond belief. Neal Adams was one of DC's greatest artists, and his work on Batman was among his best work. Adams' Batman was a fighter and athlete, but more than that, he was an acrobat -- muscular but trim, agile, fast, moving almost like a dancer. And the rest of the art was similarly beautiful. The first image from the comic is a gorgeous shot of Batman running through the mansion, his scalloped cape billowing behind him, lit like a spotlight by a gigantic eye in the middle of a stained glass window behind him. It's an image I think I've never gotten dislodged from my memory.
And even after, when the setting changes to Tzin-Tzin's futuristic lab, Adams' art is still beautiful and exciting. The big fight scene hits here, and the battle is much more balletic than the usual action sequence. Smart artists study Adams' style in scenes like this because he did action better than almost anyone else, and he was still able to bring the mood people expected from a Batman comic, too.
The tale was reprinted years later in June 1978's Detective Comics #477 with an added framing sequence involving Batman visiting Arkham Asylum to check up on crime boss Rupert Thorne, driven mad by what he claims was the ghost of Hugo Strange. This prompts Batman to remember a time when a villain tried to rattle his own sanity, as the original story is then reprinted as a flashback. This is probably the comic I actually read -- I was much too young in 1971 to care about comic books, and I do specifically remember the spectral Hugo Strange making a brief appearance.
If you'd like to see most of the story, check out this link. It leaves out a page or two, but the tale is essentially complete. And it's colossal fun, too.
The Bronze Age of Blogs: The House that Haunted Batman
DC Fandom Wiki: Detective Comics #408
DC Fandom Wiki: Detective Comics #477
For reQuest 2020
("For Jet-Poop...review a comic book that you read at a very young age.")