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.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

BATMAN Chapter 7 (August 27, 1943)

"The Phoney Doctor"
Screenplay: Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, Harry Fraser
Producer: Rudolph C. Flothow
Director: Lambert Hillyer

Last Time: Alfred disguised himself as Colton in order to head off an attempted by Daka to steal Colton's radium mine - he meets Daka's men in a smelting plant, there's a fight, Batman and Robin swing into action, but a chemical accident causes the building to explode, burying Batman under a pile of rubble.
Synopsis: Luckily, the rubble fell in such a way as to form a convenient arch that actually protected Batman from any harm. 
They phone Colton to let him know that it wasn't actually Martin who wanted to meet him, but the claim jumpers. Bruce tells Colton not to admit anyone to his room at any cost. Luckily, Colton's ready for them - he has a revolver stuffed down his pants, and a derringer used as a sleeve gun that he calls his "little Black Widow". Unluckily, Colton's stupid - he admits Fletcher to his room, who is disguised as a doctor (the disguise consisting of a medical bag and a monocle!) and claims to have been sent to check on Colton by Linda.
Meanwhile, Bruce and Dick are actually reporting the attempts on Colton's life to the police! Captain Arnold shows them a photo array, and Dick picks Fletcher out of it, reiterating as a former civil engineer who served time. Arnold puts an APB out on Fletcher. 
Meanwhile "Dr." Fletcher does a check-up on Colton which allows him to get close enough to chloroform the guy and then have him removed from the hospital on a stretcher and into an ambulance to be taken back to Daka's hideout. 
When Bruce and Dick arrive at Colton's hotel they find him gone, but Bruce smells the chloroform in the air and Dick finds the discarded hankerchief used to gag Colton with it.
In the crime lab, Bruce uses a "new black light process" to look over the handkerchief for clues. Standard procedure on CSI, but pretty new stuff in 1943, black lights having been invented in 1935. They find a Japanese laundry mark on the cloth, causing Dick to racistly remark "Never heard of a Japanese laundry", but Bruce knows of an abandoned one in the warehouse district.

Fletcher brings Colton to Daka, who offers him the ol' "join me or be a zombie" offer. Colton of course refuses and Daka shows him what happens to people who refuse -- showing him Zombie Martin Warren. But Colton uses his black widow to get the jump on Daka. He holds Daka hostage, moving to escape the lair through the door into the Cave of Horrors ride, but FINALLY the greased up immoving "not-actually-a-statue" dude gets something to do, and clubs Colton over the back of the head.
A bunch of Daka's men show up at the "Nakina Laundry" to pick up some supplies Daka has stashed there for the trip to Colton's mine. Because of course the only Japanese laundry in town is a front for the Japanese spy ring in town, because patrioic jingoist racism.
Anyways the Batman and Robin meet them up on the top floor, and it's fistfight time! During the fight, Batman gets overpowered by a bunch of them and they toss him down the loading elevator shaft! The suuuuper fake dummy playing Batman hits the ground hard enough that if it were actually a dude he'd probably be dead anyway, but the crooks then hit the elevator switch anyway to crush him with the loading elevator! Will Batman make it out of this alive? Find out Next Time: Daka puts the zombie machine on Colton! Linda and Alfred are at Colton's cabin, and even the narrator doesn't know what the fuck is going on! Guess you'll have to watch next week's episode to find out!
Thoughts and Review: The best bit in this whole episode is seeing Bruce and Dick do some detective work, sniffing out the chloroform and then analyzing it with some pretty cool and real forensic science. Stuff like that really feels like the comics when they were throwing in some educational bits about science and criminology. Otherwise this is a move from point A to point B episode - Daka captures Colton, that's about the gist of it. That dummy they throw wearing a Batman costume gets me every time, as does the narrator's hilarious promo for next week, where it just seems like he's talking over the footage without actually knowing what's up. I also really like the scene between Bruce and Dick and Captain Arnold - Arnold's a great character in this serial, with a lot of fun character dialogue that feels almost improvisational and gives a very appropriately cynical view of the effectiveness of the police in Gotham, he comes across very world-weary and wry. Too bad he gets so very little to do over all these chapters. On the whole this one was a plot necessary, but otherwise unremarkable episode.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

BATMAN, Chapter 6 (August 20, 1943)

"Poison Peril"
Screenplay: Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, Harry Fraser
Producer: Rudolph C. Flothow
Director: Lambert Hillyer

Last Time: Daka's spies steal a new secret airplane, but Batman's stowed aboard! He fights Daka's men, but the ever-vigilant US army spots the stolen plane and shoots it down with artillery fire! It crashes and explodes with Batman inside, inevitably he must surely be dead?
Synopsis: Nope. The fiery wreckage is completely nonfatal to Batman, who simply walks away from the crash after pulling both of Daka's men to safety - the second really disappointing cliffhanger "escape" of this serial thus far.
While pulling the men out, he discovers Daka's mind control caps, removes them and takes them for evidence. 

Our confusion of where the fuck this serial takes place continues when Batman wanders over to the highway to check out a road sign and figure out where he's crashed. Despite early episodes establishing the serial as using Batman's comic book home of Gotham City, last week's chapter had us in LA - perhaps because the real world Lockheed factories where in California? Anyway, the road sign has nearby places as Edgeworth (a town in Pennsylvania), Edenville (in Michigan), and Garden City (there are several) so we're apparently back on the East Coast.
Losing contact with his men, Daka realizes Batman must have overpowered them. He contacts the submarine and tells it of the failure of the mission. The sub believes that rather than wait for the Americans to build another prototype, it will be better to secure the blueprint of the plane rather than the plane itself. But this plotline is rendered irrelevant when the sub is spotted by American destroyers and sunk in a combination of newsreel footage and stock footage from other war movies.
Linda stops by Wayne Manor to pay a visit, informing Bruce that Ken Colton, an old friend of her Uncle Martin, is back in town wanting to get in touch with Martin. Ken has struck it rich with a mining prospect and wants to register the claim in both names. Linda hasn't yet told Ken of her uncle's mysterious disappearance. Bruce agrees to come meet Ken with her at her apartment.
Daka finally comes to the realization that he's never gonna get anywhere in life unless he kills the Batman. His men spitball that Batman seems to always hang around Linda Page, and that Page is seeing Bruce Wayne, so maybe Batman and Bruce Wayne are the same guy? Daka dismisses the idea as "that simpering idiot could never be the Batman!" But he does agree that Linda Page is the key - so they bug her apartment to see what they can find out.
Colton meets up with Linda, Bruce and Dick at her apartment. Turns out Colton has a found a rich radium mine (of course) - and Daka hears all about it thanks to the bug! Luckily, Dick notices the hidden microphone and pulls it out just before Colton reveals the location!
Hoping to take advantage of this opportunity before it disappears, Daka sends Preston and some men to Colton's hotel room to search it for clues to the location of the map.
Bruce and Dick drop Colton off at the hotel, and Dick reports about the bug to Bruce. They decide to switch to Batman and Robin and keep an eye on Colton.
The prospector arrives at his room while Daka's men are still searching it, and a fistfight breaks out. Batman and Robin burst through the window and fight the intruders off, but they escape. The duo switch back to their civillian identities and check on Colton, who reveals that the "claim jumpers" didn't find anything, which means they're liable to try again. 

The next day, Colton calls Bruce to let him know that Martin Warren has contacted him, wanting to meet him at the Atlas smelting plant (the explanation being that he's gotten some work there for the Defense Department). Bruce thinks it sounds fishy, and asks Colton to wait, that Bruce will go to meet this person and if it really is Martin then he'll call Colton down there. Colton agrees to be cautious.
Bruce's real plan is a little bit more tricky - he pressgangs Alfred into service, using his make-up kit to transform his butler into the facsimile of Colton. Alfred-in-disguise heads down to the smelting plant, and is met by Fletcher and some other goons of Daka's.
Alfred won't give them the location of the mine (since he doesn't know it anyway), so they decide to rough him up, and discover in the process that he's not really Colton. At that moment, Batman and Robin swing in on their ropes from the plant's high windows, and the usual fistfight breaks out. Its pretty fierce, with Alfred and Robin both getting punched into another room, and then a goon locking them in there behind a big metal door. 
An electrical box gets smashed and a wire gets loose, so of course the vats containing the acidic smelting chemicals get shot and starts leaking, and so then of course it's just a matter of time before the chemicals reach the live wire, so the crooks high tail it out of there, the wire hits the spill, the whole place goes ablaze in flame, and the building EXPLODES with Batman inside it!
Next Time: Fletcher poses as a doctor to get at Colton to find the location of the mine, while Robin (maybe) faces off with Daka!
Thoughts and Review: Chapter 6 feels a lot like Chapter 3, in the way that it deals with the fallout from Chapter 5, and then starts into a whole new storyline. It's certainly the biggest step forward in the storyline of the serial since we started, since it introduces a major new character and plotline in the story of Ken Colton and his radium mine.
So, when it comes to old school serials, I know most people know them through imitation rather than firsthand experience. You watch Star Wars or Indiana Jones and understand that they are evoking this older style, or you see parodies or what have you. When I was a kid the biggest straight-up serial parody I was exposed to was Six-Gun Justice which was a segment on the utterly brilliant Canadian sketch comedy series SCTV. It was a western style serial, with a hero, his sidekick, his love interest, and her father figure who was a prospector with a mine that the villains wanted to steal. Real cliche stuff, which added to the parody. But SCTV, being brilliant, added an entire hilariously surreal wartime propaganda element as well, in that the mine was a radium mine, and the bad guys were working for Tojo. It made no sense in the western context, but it introduced me to the idea of serials as wartime propaganda obsessed with radium mines.
So when I finally saw Batman, and it also weirdly shoehorned in Japanese spies and radium mines into a series that should've been about an urban vigilante fighting gangsters, well, let's say I was prepared by Six-Gun Justice. But I was also surprised at how accurate the parody was!
Anyways, Ken Colton may be one of the weirdest characters in the serial, but I love how Alfred gets drawn into it. William Austin really is fantastically funny as Alfred and I can see why his performance became so iconic as to inform the comic book version. 
The final battle scene in the smelting plant is also one of the serial's best, as is the cliffhanger. But one question... what does the "poison peril" of the title refer to? The chemicals in the plant are gonna explode Batman to death, not poison him...