Batman in “Freak-Out At Phantom Hollow!”

What’s it all about?

Batman is drafted to help the small country town of Phantom Hollow break a witch’s curse. Generations ago, the citizens of the town put a woman named Ol’ Nell to death for witchcraft. At the end of her life, she declared that the bell atop the local church would remain silent until the night of the town’s destruction, and unfortunately it had rung just as Batman drove by on his way back to Gotham.

Over the years, the bell rusted until it could no longer function. However, two young men, who recently had their long hair cut by some of the anti-hippie townsfolk, decide to play a prank on Phantom Hollow. Using a tape machine and a large speaker, they cause the bell to ring out! The local citizens fear that the end is nigh – and it appears that they might be correct as various buildings begin to explode! This wasn’t part of the boys’ plan! What’s going on?

As he investigates, Batman find many suspects. The “straights” in town immediately finger the two hippies, Shecky and Jamie, simply because they are different; however, their teacher, Miss Antrim, assures Batman that the boys wouldn’t blow up buildings. The Dark Knight Detective takes an interest in Barney, the gossiping mailman who believes in the curse and is “yearning for a place in the sun.” There is also an outspoken real estate dealer named Congreve who would benefit from the publicity of the curse coming true. So many possibilities!

After being pushed, almost to his death, from the top of the bell tower and exploring a maze of underground tunnels, Batman discovers the true culprit: an ancestor of Ol’ Nell named Big Lanny. Lanny has spent years masquerading as a learning-disabled handyman so if an opportunity like this presented itself, he would never even be a suspect. As the muscular Lanny is actually stronger than Batman himself, Shecky and Jamie need to pitch in to help save the day.

The story wraps up as Batman and Miss Antrim lecture the town on how ignorance and superstition caused a tragedy both years ago with Ol’ Nell and today when the stuffed-shirts lashed out at hippies just because they were “different.”

What does Brian think?

This is one of the worst Batman stories that I can remember, as if you couldn’t tell that from just the title. The one thing it has going for it though is that it is bad in a way that you can laugh at! Still, it was difficult to get through it.

In my “May, 1971” post, I said that I wasn’t a fan of Frank Robbins as a writer. Issues like this one are the reason why.

From the heavy-handed “accept people as they are” message to the idea that someone would spend years acting mentally disabled just for a chance to avenge an ancestor he never met, this story is just…not good.

Brown and Giordano do a serviceable job with the art, but if you compare it to what Neal Adams was doing just a month earlier in Batman’s “Daughter Of The Demon” story, you can see this is a step backwards from Swartz’s “New Look” Batman. The sleek, modern sheen is nowhere to be found. Having said that, the book doesn’t look terrible, just old-fashioned.

The assault on the hippies and the forced haircut should be a horrific ordeal, but the dialogue and the fact it all happens off-panel negates any impact it might have. Jamie’s first comment after being clipped made me laugh. After a vicious attack, instead of crying out against his assailants or checking to see if his friend was all right, he name-checks the long-dead witch Ol’ Nell and echos her opinion on the town, as if she is always on his mind.

Later, Batman survives a fall from the top of the town’s bell-tower, not through any acrobatic skill or well-practiced use of his bat rope, but because EVERY TIME he is at the top of a tall structure, he subtly ties one end of a rope around his ankle and the other end around some sort of support. All I can say is that it was a good thing his rope wasn’t even a foot longer or he would have broken his neck!

I’m not going to say too much more because I’m a firm believer that if I could write these stories better, I’d be doing it, and obviously I’m not. Also, I’m sure part of the problem with this tale is the simple passing of time. Having said that, I’m sure that some of the kids’ dialogue rang false the very month the book hit the stands. Allow me to share a few panels that made me chuckle aloud, and we’ll leave it at that. Not every issue can be a classic!

(What does that even mean? “An official upstate mission.” I guess not all of Batman’s missions are “official.” Or maybe for this one night he was working for the state government? Weird – to say nothing of the policeman’s declaration of desire!)

(The world’s greatest detective in action. That inspires confidence – he doesn’t notice a body until he slips his foot into it.)

(“These people stink, man – just like that old woman who we talk about all the time and who lived more than 300 years ago said!!”)