by KC Carlson
DC Comics began a great time of experimentation in the late 1960s. Faced with the increasing popularity and growing sales dominance of Marvel Comics and an aging editorial staff and talent pool, DC needed a radical re-think. Behind the scenes, DC made many crucial staff changes and editorial reassignments, sought out new talent, and finally encouraged some of their regular guys to break out and try new things. Key in this overhaul was Carmine Infantino’s transition from artist (The Flash, Adam Strange) to DC staffer and eventually Publisher of the entire line. One of Infantino’s best decisions was to install key artists into editorial positions – most notably Joe Orlando, Dick Giordano, and Joe Kubert – beginning DC’s transition from doing frequently stodgy 1950s-style comics into something increasingly more contemporary. While this didn’t completely happen overnight, the period from approximately 1967-1971 was one of the most interesting – if not always immediately successful – in comics history.
Key artifacts from this era include Batman reclaiming his original “creature of the night” status, the groundbreaking “relevant” Green Lantern/Green Arrow, the recently (finally) collected Diana Prince: Wonder Woman era, and radical re-thinks for books like Aquaman and Teen Titans. There were many other genre-busting but less-heralded experiments from this period, including Anthro, Deadman, Enemy Ace, new mystery/horror anthologies like House of Mystery and House of Secrets, new experiments with humor like Swing with Scooter and Angel and the Ape, as well as some interesting new superheroes in Beware the Creeper and The Hawk and the Dove.
One of the very best of these experiments was Bat Lash, a modern spin on the classic American Western hero. He was one part Clint Eastwood spaghetti western (a major influence at the time of its creation), one part James Bond (the elegant, cool-headed rogue and ladies’ man), and one part James Garner’s Maverick (a respected/reviled gambler who strives for the “good life” in everything while avoiding violence at all cost). Similarly, Bat Lash was a devil-may-care character who attracted trouble wherever he went. He strove to be left alone – he was a peaceful, violence-hating man at heart – but this seemingly genteel side inevitably attracted the most beautiful women to him, and just as inevitably got him into more trouble.
This series has been much discussed but seldom reprinted, a lack finally remedied in the recent Showcase Presents Bat Lash collecting all eight of the original issues (Bat Lash #1-7, plus the Showcase #76 try-out appearance), plus a handful of later-day appearances of DC ‘s Western anti-hero.
Bat Lash’s comic book origins are complex and contested, with several editors, writers, and artists involved with the earliest concepts – including Orlando, Infantino, and Sheldon Meyer (best known for his humor work including Scribbly and Sugar & Spike). Mad Magazine artist Sergio Aragonés also contributed early ideas. The bulk of the writing of early stories eventually fell to Aragonés (plot) and Denny O’Neil (script). But the series today is probably most associated with its artist Nick Cardy for very good reasons! Cardy’s work on Bat Lash is largely considered – along with his stellar work on Aquaman and Teen Titans – as the pinnacle of his comics career.
Cardy’s artwork on Bat Lash is exceptional, utilizing a number of different stylistic tricks, a multiplicity of line weights, amazing layouts and storytelling, and unusual textures and shading. Plus, Cardy has an unerring ability to capture dramatically realistic characters as well as extreme slapsticky caricature – often in the very same panel! (Some of his collaborators thought Cardy was occasionally a little too slapstick – especially in the Cardy-plotted issue #2.) There is also no shortage of Cardy’s exceptionally rendered females throughout the series, one of Nick’s trademarks.
Another nice touch is the non-ruled panel borders – with rounded corners – and the amazing sound-effects lettering, with serifs for that little added rustic touch. I have no idea if these ideas came from Cardy or the uncredited letterers, but, man, ALL the lettering at DC was great in that era, so it could have been any of DC’s graphic giants from that time.
While Cardy’s Bat Lash work cries out for a sympathetic modern coloring presentation, it’s wonderful to see the detail in Cardy’s work in the black & white presentation in the Showcase book (although it appears some of Cardy’s fine linework may have occasionally dropped off from the now 40-year-old film, especially in the very inconsistent-looking issue #2. This issue is also particularly lackluster without color as it seems that Cardy was very much considering color while drawing it.)
Cardy’s art isn’t the only strong suit here. The writing by Aragonés and O’Neil is remarkably strong for such an odd collaboration. Stylistically, Bat Lash is so much more than a standard comic book western hero (who was mostly the same guy with different color hats and horses), and the series often goes from comic farce to deadly tragedy in the blink of an eye. The Bat Lash character is also so much more than his broad other-media inspirations. He’s so well-defined and multifaceted (and in so short a time!) that often you really have no idea how he will react to the unusual situations and predicaments he finds himself in. O’Neil is considered one of the grand masters of comics these days, but this is some of his early work for DC, and a warm-up for his groundbreaking work on Batman and Green Lantern/Green Arrow. Aragonés, on the other hand, is so vastly underrated as a writer (and stereotyped as a humor cartoonist) that Bat Lash may be a shocking – but welcome – surprise to his legions of fans who may not be aware of this work.
After talking to a lot of collectors and fans over the years, a common quirk of many of them is that they have a special box of comics filled with valuable comics or personal favorites. That box is always in the forefront of their personal collections, mostly because those are the comics that are either re-read or referred to often or the ones to save in case of an emergency. My special box has a lot of those late ‘60s DC comics in it, including Bat Lash. It’s that good!
KC Carlson has been working in, around, and adjacent to comic books since the 1970s, most notably for DC Comics as an editor (including Collected Books) in the 90s. KC’s Bookshelf is an ongoing attempt to catalog the great comic book collections and history books that should be on your bookshelf.