Thursday, December 22, 2016

BATMAN Chapter 9 (September 10, 1943)

"The Sign of the Sphinx" 
Screenplay: Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, Harry Fraser
Director: Lambert Hillyer
Producer: Rudolph C. Flothow
Last Time: Daka's men had found Colton's radium mine, but Batman, Robin, Colton, Linda and the gangsters were trapped in the mine with a dynamite explosion went off and collapsed it! 

Synopsis: Four of Daka's men manage to make it out before the cave in, and Robin is luckily shielded under a staircase leading down from a trapdoor in Colton's cabin. Batman and Linda were saved by the old "fallen beams make a protective arch" trick, but Colton didn't make it. One of the gang survived though, and is taken prisoner by Batman and Robin.
With so many of the gang killed, Daka assigns a man named Wallace the task of recruiting new ones. Meanwhile, down in the Bat's Cave, the captured Marshall refuses to talk. They decide to leave him alone to "sweat", but purposely tie him up poorly so he can get loose and get to a phone. Marshall calls the Sphinx Club, the hideout for all these gangsters Daka uses, but the line is a fake, leading to Batman on the other end, allowing Batman to learn of the Sphinx Club and its location. 

Using his make-up kit, he creates the personage of Chuck White, a down on his luck tough guy which allows Bruce Wayne actor Lewis Wilson to really let loose with his East Coast accent. As White, he goes to the Sphinx Club, claiming a guy named Marshall told him to go here to look for a job. Fletcher, Daka's point man, decides to give White a looking over, as he's suspicious of someone coming looking around so soon after Marshall's presumed death.
Robin, looking in through the window, flashes a Bat-signal as a distraction, drawing the men outside and allowing White to escape. They chase Robin to the docks, where the Boy Wonder boards a freight ship, and the Batman appears atop a building, cape outstretched like wings, to leap down upon the crooks and attack them -- a classic sequence that appears without fail in any Batman adapation, but is perhaps a bit lacking in this first live action iteration.
There's a pretty good fight scene following, but eventually the crooks knock Batman out and then drop the ship's gangplank on top of him! Really? We blew up a mine last week and this is the best we got this time? Okay...
Next Time: Daka is trying to get a shipment of radium in by air courier - can Robin stop it in time?

Thoughts and Review: With Colton killed, the radium mine plotline that's gone on for the last three installments is done.This serial is broken up into smaller arcs within its fifteen part structure, offering temporary focuses for a few chapters before moving on to another.

So it's time to introduce a new angle, thus the invention of Chuck White, an attempt to infiltrate the gang. Chuck White is another example of this serial using elements of the Batman comics of the day that don't get a lot of play today -- namely Batman as a master of make-up and disguise similar to Sherlock Holmes. In the character of Chuck White, a common low class hood who can interact with criminals and gain information Batman cannot, I see a lot of elements that later appear in Matches Malone, a very similar persona who doesn't appear in Batman comics until 1972, a very long time from now. Did Dennis O'Neil ever see this serial? I can't find any information one way or the other. Either way, it's a great performance from Lewis Wilson, really showing his range between White, Bruce, and Batman. It's a shame his career never really went anywhere after this.
The waterfront fight is a pretty good fight so far as this serial goes. There are a lot of good efforts to be dramatic and exciting despite the ubiquitous daytime cinematography. Robin continues to a joy in this series -- young, skilled, useful, dynamic.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

BATMAN Chapter 8 (September 3, 1943)

"Lured by Radium" 
Screenplay: Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, Harry Fraser
Director: Lambert Hillyer
Producer: Rudolph C. Flothow
Last Time: Dr Daka has captured radium mine owner Colton. Batman and Robin track Daka's men to a Japanese laundry, but after a fight, Robin is knocked out and Batman's been tossed down an elevator shaft -- about to be crushed by the loading elevator! 

Synopsis: If you guessed that Robin would just get up off the ground and then hit the "off" switch on the elevator to save Batman, congrats. Luckily the actual fall down the shaft didn't seem to do any damage either.
As Bruce and Dick they meet up with Linda, who's decided to go look for Colton herself, following his map to his cabin. Bruce is a big dick about it for a while, but eventually gets her to agree to bring the two of them along without making them seem to eager about it.
Meanwhile, Daka still has Colton, so after he again refuses to take them to his radium mine, they put him into the zombie machine. They turn on the machine for a few moments and Colton immediately relents, agreeing to take them to the mine.
They drive out into the (California) countryside, with Colton leading them to the mine entrance. This leads to the hilarious sight of Colton, in a wide brimmed hat and suit, leading a bunch of mobsters, also in suits and fedoras, into a mine carrying lanterns and pickaxes. Like, you guys are a bit overdressed for this? Colton leads them into the tunnels a bit, and of couse makes a try at escaping.
Bruce, Dick, Linda and Alfred follow some time after, getting directions from a Indigenous man at a trading post who gives perfectly clear directions but his broken English gets a real racist response from Dick, unfortunately. They head up to Colton's cabin. When they don't find him there, Bruce leaves Alfred and Linda at the cabin while he and Dick go to take a look at the cave entrance that leads to the mine.
After spotting the gangster's car outside the mine, Bruce and Dick change to Batman and Robin and engage the crooks in fisticuffs inside the mine. Meanwhile, Colton shows up in his cabin, emerging through a trap door in the floor. He decides to dynamite the mine with the claim jumpers inside. Unfortunately Batman and Robin are down there too, and an attempt to warn them ends up with Colton, Linda, Batman, Robin, and the gangsters all down in the mineshaft when the dynamite goes off!
Next Time: Some new character named Chuck White wants in on Daka's gang, but what does he really want?

Thoughts and Review: I guess you could say there's some forward momentum in this episode, with the characters all finally going to Colton's mine -- although its a little unclear if it's actually a mine, a cave with ore in it that Colton intends to mine, etc. Ultimately it's good to finally move this little subplot forward, especially as it takes up so many episodes of this serial. It's pretty standard A to B plotting, although the scenes with the Indian at the trading post are really cringeworthy. He speaks in a kind of "me Tarzan, you Jane" style English, but he tells the group "Colton Cabin, right road; Colton cave, left road" and Dick says "that's clear as mud!" Really Dick? What a little asshole. The scenes where Bruce keeps playing at being a disinterested jerk with Linda are also starting to wear thin, as she's seriously upset about things like her missing uncle, his missing friend, etc etc, and Bruce keeps trying to play like she shouldn't be so concerned. Ultimately I'd say this is an average installment. 

Sunday, June 12, 2016

World's Finest Comics #11 (Fall, 1943)

I know, I know. It's been over a year since the last post. And I know I've promised no long breaks between posts before. Guess I shouldn't make promises I can't keep. But here we are again, in Fall of 1943. I am excited to be back, hope you'll join me again for Golden Age Batman goodness, because this one is excellent.

"A Thief in Time!"
Writer: Bill Finger
Penciller: Jerry Robinson
Inker: Fred Ray
Synopsis: Our story begins in the Gotham City of the late 21st century! Yes, it's the future, complete with rocketships and Flash Gordon looking fashion. A laboratory worker named (no shit) Rob Callender comes out of a Batman Museum, wishing he was in Batman's time, because then he could be a millionaire!
And then he's so absent minded about that at work, he accidentally mixes some chemicals and BOOM, space-time warp to 1943! It's just that easy. 

He realizes he's in Batman times, and promptly sets about getting some new old clothes, then "borrowing" (read: stealing) some vacuum tubes and other equipment to start assembling some future technology! Good thing he has the knowhow. If you sent me back to 1916 and told me to make an iPod with shit lying around, I'd have to just shrug.
Anyways, he manages to make a gun that shoots a light absorbing ray that creates an area of total darkness ahead of him, and with the aid of infrared goggles, he's totally ready to just straight up rob a bank. But, oddly, he makes a point of saying that if he's taken more money than he needs, he'll return the rest to the bank by mail... Weird.
Using the money he's stolen, he hires a bunch of criminal thugs, but makes a big point of there being absolutely no violence. They then proceed to dark-ray rob an elementary school for a third grade reader book, and an obscure woodworker for a random table lamp. The thug are understandably perplexed, but as long as he's paying, who cares right?
About this time Batman and Robin take an interest, because this weird shit is definitely up their alley. Luckily, Batman already has infrared goggles (he's used them before in the comic), so they're well prepared to fight these guys.
My favourite moment in this comic has to be when they head out in the Batplane, and two dudes spot them overhead and say "Here's where some gangsters get what's coming to them!" It's a great little moment showing normal people reacting to living in Gotham City.
Anyways, the crooks are robbing an unknown author who lives in a waterfront shack (jesus, I guess things could be worse for me), and steal an entire manuscriot from him.
Batmn and Robin show up for the fight scene, while Rob Callender exclaims "Dear, dear! This is so unnecessary and painful!"
Rob shoots the Dynamic Duo with a goddamn paralysis ray he whipped up somehow, but he won't kill them. Instead, he tosses them in a rowboat, rows them out to a derelict ship beached on a reef that heknew was here then dumped them in the hold, where the paralysis ray will wear off once the crooks are safely away. After all, he can't let anyone be killed... but he can leave clues, dude knows from going to a Batman musem how to be Batman villain afterall, and taunts the Dark Knight with a reference to "art in a textile mill".
However, once he's left, water begins pouring into the hold -- when the tide rises the ship goes under and fills with water through holes in the hull, ironically putting Batman and Robin in an unintentional death trap!
Batman figures how to get free of course -- the walls of the hold are covered in barnacles which they use to cut through the ropes -- but then the question is how to get back to shore! Luckily, the ship is a light ship, with it's own light tower! They light up the beacon, with Batman sticking a Bat symbol on the glass to form a makeshift Bat signal, which alerts the harbor police to come and rescue them.
Back on dry land, they ask the robbed author about the manuscript, who tells them it wasn't valuable, and in fact he was super dissatisfied with it and wanted to tear it up. The two look for clues, but all Robin finds is a penny... a penny minted in 2043!! (Goddamn it, America, you're really gonna hold on to pennies that long??)
The two hop back in the Batplane and head to the textile mill, where the night watchmen paints in his spare time, and of course Callender is there to steal the painting. Batman figures out that he's from the future, stealing seemingly worthless items that only become famous in a hundred years, after the unknown craftsmen become famous after their deaths. 
Callender reveals he got the idea from seeing all of the items in a collection of Batman's trophies in the Batman Museum, which is certainly a weird place to see them unless...
And then SWISH! The space-time warp closes, and Callender is back... to the FUTURE!
And then Batman and Robin are like "well, shit, what do we do with all this stuff?" None of the people who it was stolen from want it (despite now having certifiable knowledge it will be valuable one day?) So Batman and Robin put it in their growing trophy collection...
...and thus Rob Callender sees it in the Batman Museum over a hundred years in the future!
My Thoughts: I love time travel stories, especially when they are simple enough not to be aggravating, but clever enough to actually make sense. I am delighted this is a Bill Finger time travel story. I'm sure I've mentioned this, but Finger was always collecting weird story ideas from stuff he'd read -- odd facts, interesting gimmicks, and this is a story that seems fueled by those. But the mention of stuff like "space/time warp" and the pretty good looped time travel logic really makes this a surprisingly good time travel story for a 1943 comic! Very enjoyable. Also, I just love that Callender refers to the 1940s as "Batman times". Like, fuck World War II, Batman is the thing about the 40s that will be most remembered.
The Art: It's Jerry Robinson. This is the good stuff, but Fred Ray's inking makes it even better, just solidifying the work a little more so it looses some of Robinson's loose scratchiness and looks nice and polished. But it's top notch Golden Age Batman, just a joy to be looking at again. The best single panel is on the first page, with Callender shaking his fist in triumph in an utterly classic villain pose. 
The Story: The fact that Callender won't let anyone be killed (he's not such a bad guy, and it would cause paradoxes), the trick of everything he's stealing not being worth anything in the present, the little clever details like the waterline in the hold alerting Batman to danger, using the barnacles to get out, and figuring out how to light the DIY Bat signal, these are all great clever details you expect from a class act Bill Finger script -- but the bit about how the reason those items are in the Batman museum for Callender to get the idea to go back in time and steal them is because they are from the case where he goes back in time to steal them? That's some A+ classic time travel storytelling there. Love it.

Up next on Bat to the Beginning? It's time to keep on with the Batman serial, guys!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Detective Comics #79 (September, 1943)

"Destiny's Auction"
Writer: Don Cameron
Artist: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: Judy O'Casson is an aspiring young actress who hopes to break into broadway. She visits a gypsy fortune teller named Madame Calagra who tells her that her name shall be written large for all to see and she will move from humble lodgings to a great palace. Judy thinks this means she's gonna get her big break, but actually it means she's behind on her rent and getting evicted. The landlady won't even let her into the room to get her trunk until she pays what's owed! That's cold.
Tremaine Wentworth is an over-the-hill character actor who visits Madame Calagra and is told that he will take on a new role in which his past will be overshadowed. So Tremaine walks home thinking he's gonna have a big comeback, glad he hung on to his trunk full of momentos of his stardom days, and gets hit by a car and wakes up in hospital without any memory of who he was. Truly, Madame Calagra is from the douchey ironic school of fortune telling.
Diamond Pete Ransome is a diamond thief (don't say?) who visits Calagra and is told that strong fighters will follow him and help him enter a heavily guarded place. Ransome figures this means his hoods will help him break into a jewelry shop and steal some diamonds. The goons are still shook up because they had to kill a night watchman on their last job and haven't even been able to fence the diamonds from it yet because they're too hot, so they're stored in Ransome's hidden trunk. But Ransome's confident because, after all, he got a fortune told by a gypsy
Anyways, turns out the strong fighters who follow him are actually Batman and Robin, and after they beat up him and his mean they help him enter a heavily guarded place, which is to say - jail! So now we've got three people, and three trunks. We can all see where this is going, yeah?
A whole year passes, and Ransome's getting released from prison. Bruce and Dick decide to check up on him and follow him from the prison to see if he leads them to the still missing diamonds from the earlier heist. Ransome drives back to his old digs, but of course his trunk is gone, after being unclaimed for a year it's been turned over to be offered up for public auction!
As it turns out, Judy has just returned to Gotham with the money to buy her trunk back from that landlady - but the landlady has also turned the unclaimed trunk over for auction!
And golly, what a coincedence, but Tremaine Wentworth has undergone an insulin shock treatment that's restored his memory! And he's also got a trunk he needs to get that's up for auction!
Well, I think we can see where this is going. 
Judy shows up first and wins the auction on the first trunk, with Wentworth getting the second and Pete the third. Of course, they all get the wrong trunks. Batman and Robin have been following Pete and bust in for a quick fight before it turns out they have Wentworth's trunk full of old costumes and disguises.
Things get hilarious when the Dynamic Duo realizes they have no grounds for arresting or harassing Pete - technically, they're breaking and entering, and Pete purchased the trunk and its contents legally! So they have to leave him alone!
But they figure if Pete has Wentworth's trunk, maybe he has the one with the stolen diamonds. So they hightail it to his place, but all Wentworth got in his trunk was the typescript of a hitherto unknown play by a master playwright - which is cool, but not stolen blood diamonds, y'know? They realize the real trunk therefore MUST be with Judy, and head off to get her - but they've been unknowingly eavesdropped upon by Pete and his goons who've used Wentworth's old stuff to disguise themselves.
Pete makes it to Judy first, but just as he's about to straight up just throw her out a window to her death Batman spots her in time and swoops down on a bat-line and rescues her. Hot damn! Wentworth recognizes the disguises and Batman puts two and two together and we get our climatic fight scene. 
Turns out the famous dead playwright wrote his greatest play just for Judy, but could never find anyone to produce it (maybe it's not so great then?) and then died. She carried the script around to everyone in town but no one would bite (maybe it's... not so great then?) So Batman offers to get BRUCE WAYNE to put up the dough!
The play opens with Judy starring and Wentworth in a supporting role! It's a hit, she becomes a star and Wentworth's career is reignited! And with Pete in jail, about to get the electric chair for murder, it looks like all those old gypsy prophecies came true after all!
Curious, Bruce and Dick visit the fortuneteller, who tells them all she sees is a swirling mist and a bony finger pointed in warning -- for they are the hand of fate! 
They are understandably freaked out by this.
Thoughts and Review: So this is another entry into what I've started thinking of as the "literary" genre of Golden Age Batman. These stories try to be about "real" people, try to present a cast of various characters all pulled into the "drama", try to talk about social issues or perhaps just be a bit more sophisticated in their storytelling. They try to be more complex and clever than the standard bank-robbers-with-a-gimmick plot. They're cool - sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. Sometimes thirteen pages is too little to try to write in a "novelistic" manner, sometimes they're too few to drag a weak plot across.
But they always seem like they're trying to hard. Like a writer trying to prove he's better than the series he's writing for. 
I don't know where I stand on this one. I love the art, but the story's a big bag of meh.
The Art: It's all Jerry Robinson, so of course it's gorgeous. I mean, I love this guy's unique blend of cartooning, realism, light, shadow, detail, grit, grime and bravura. The thin line work isn't always very well reproduced in modern reprints, but it's still some really fantastic stuff. I've compared it to the work of George Freeman on Captain Canuck before, and that's still what it reminds me of, except of course that here's Robinson doing it forty years earlier. The art saves this story. It's great.
The Story: The story itself, thinks too highly of itself and is based entirely on one forced dramatic contrivance after another. It's all coincedences and happenstance masquerading as plot. Of course, it also suffers the number one problem of these "literary" stories. Without fail, they're always based around some new random characters we've never met, investing them with character development and pathos and all that, and we're never going to meet them again. Batman and Robin become observers and guest stars in their own feature. They can never get character development, they must remain static, two-dimensional, cardboard cutouts to facillitate more stories. 
It's not that I don't like the writing or I don't appreciate these kinds of stories, but I've seen Bill Finger write better and I know better is possible - if maybe not on the kind of demanding schedule Batman demanded of approximately forty-five stories per year. Granted, I think Batman appears in just as many if not far more comics at once nowadays - but I also feel quantity over quality wins the day now, just as it did then.