On History: Penn & Teller on Batman

By | Tuesday, May 09, 2017 Leave a Comment
The May 1989 issue of Detective Comics was the 50th anniversary of Batman, who debuted in the May 1939 issue of that title. The series was also approaching a milestone of #600 in the months beforehand, so the rejiggered their numbering a bit to get #600 to line up with the May date. (Issues #594 and #595 should have been the January and February issues, after #593 being the December issue, but were instead re-labeled as "Winter" and "Holiday" in order to make #596 the January issue.)

As an anniversary/milestone issue, the issue is longer than usual as it finishes the "Blind Justice" storyline. Unlike the 80-Page Giants of old, however, DC doesn't reprint any old Batman stories at all, but rather uses the last 14 pages for tributes from a variety of folks, mostly from within the comics industry. There are pin-ups by Will Eisner, Neal Adams, Sergio Aragones, Dick Sprang, and others. And there are text pieces from Julie Schwartz, Stan Lee, Alan Brennert, and Adam West. There's a couple pieces by novelists Eric Van Lustbader and Samuel R. Delany.

And then, there's this short text piece by Penn & Teller. The magicians. I recall reading it back when it came out and immediately thinking, "Why were they included?" Everyone else kind of made sense -- creators who had some connection with the character, even if it was only as imaginative springboard from their youth that helped them in thinking about the creative process. Penn & Teller, though, had no obvious connection and, even after reading their piece, still gave no sign they had been impacted by the character in any way. Their contribution reads, in its entirety...
Batman does not believe in superstition. He knows that criminals are a cowardly, superstitious lot. He lives dark and scary with a sense of justice. He knows that accessories DO make the outfit. His only fault is beating us to the kill-your-partner-900-number scam.
The last line, of course, is a reference to the ending of "Death in the Family" in which a 1-900 number allowed readers to call in and decide the fate of Robin. That storyline had only concluded a few months earlier, and was one that made national headlines. The Penn & Teller line is pretty funny, and it's stood in my memory for the past two decades, but it also shows no real familiarity with the character outside that storyline.

The magic duo had certainly gained some notoriety throughout the late '80s and, with my father himself being a magician, I was perhaps a little more inclined to take notice than most people. But if DC was going for a celebrity endorsement, why choose them? With the Tim Burton movie only a couple months away from release, and an accompanying marketing machine that was seemingly on overdrive, I would think they could've have gotten about anyone they wanted. Did someone at DC have an "in" with Penn & Teller, and they didn't think any further? Did they consider one actor (West) too many to bother trying to get Michael Keaton or Jack Nicholson, who featured in the film? Did anyone try contacting Prince or Oingo Boingo lead singer Danny Elfman, who both contributed heavily to the movie soundtrack? Roger Ebert was an old comic fan back in the day, as was Gene Simmons. You'd think they could come up with somebody equally (or more) famous, that at least had some connection with the character beyond reading a headline from a few months earlier.

The "kill-your-partner-900-number scam" line is still a good one, but why Penn & Teller? I don't get it.
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