Picking up from the cliffhanger ending of Batman 217, Detective Comics 394 continues the story (loosely) of the Wayne Foundation's VIP program.
In a story written by Frank Robbins and drawn by Bob Brown and Joe Giella, Bruce Wayne finds himself confronted by a one-eyed Native American named "Dakota" Jones. Jones, a race car driver, accuses Wayne of having his car shot at during a recent race, so that Wayne's own driver could make his way to victory. This is, of course, absurd, so Batman and Jones investigate.
Unlike Batman 217, the mystery here is a bit overly complicated and Byzantine, and doesn't feel quite as natural. The idea that the shot was fired from a weapon concealed in the Wayne driver's car, triggered from the spectator stand with a remote control disguised as a transistor radio, is just a couple of layers too deep and complicated for what is essentially a gambling scam.
There's a lot more clunky dialogue in this issue, and a lot more of Bruce calling Alfred "Alf" or "Alfie." It's hard to tell how much of that stuff was a result of the Batman writers and editors trying to make a transition away from the camp tone of the Batman TV series, trying to sound "hip" and contemporary, and how much is just clumsy writing.
As one might imagine in a mainstream comic from 1969, the question of "Dakota" Jones' ethnicity isn't dealt with particularly sensitively. He's colored red, and there are a lot of references to pow-wows, peace pipes, and scalping. Having said that, at least Jones' heritage doesn't color every piece of dialogue or action he's involved with. The fact that he's Native American is actually fairly incidental. Since it's not important to the story, I'm not sure why Robbins made this choice. Maybe he was looking for a more exotic option than the usual bunch of white guys? Hard to say.
The art, by Brown and Giella, is fine as far as it goes, although it pales in comparison to the Novick/Giordano team on Batman 217. Brown's figures are just a little more stiff, and his action is just a little less dynamic. It's straightforward and serviceable, but not spectacular. And the fact that I know that the next issue is drawn by Neal Adams makes this issue seem that much less visually exciting.
The book also features a Robin backup story, written by Robbins and drawn by Gil Kane and Murphy Anderson. Telling the story of Dick Grayson's first day at college, we get a view of campus protests that very much feels written by an old man trying to be relevant. The notion of campus protestors faking their arrests and brutality at the hands of the (fake) police isn't bad, but it's not great, either. And the execution feels very simplified, when a story based in any sort of political situation should have all the complexities that political stories bring.
Still, it's only the first part of a multi-part story. And the art, by Kane and Anderson, is gorgeous as always. So no complaints there.
Overall, in its first month, the Bronze Age Batman is still finding its way. The emphasis on Batman as a detective is very welcome. And, with the first Denny O'Neill/Neal Adams story right around the corner, it's only going to get better.