Friday, December 30, 2011

Detective Comics #43 (September 1940)

"The Case of the City of Terror"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos
Synopsis: Bruce and Dick have decided to take a "vacation from crime-hunting", which is a hilariously Golden Age idea that I could never imagine modern Bruce doing, and go on a cross-country tour in their 1936 Cord, aka the exact same car the Batman drives. Which is another hilariously Golden Age idea. But their break doesn't last long when it turns out the town that they've stopped in is filled top to bottom with corruption.
After witnessing the abusive policeforce, Bruce inquires with the locals about what is going on, but they're all too afraid to talk. Bruce decides to question Mr. Carter, the richest man in town, because bird of a feather I guess? Oddly enough, he decides to visit him as Batman, and discovers the corrupt police about to rough up Carter for speaking out against the mayor.
The Batman makes short work of them, of course, and proceeds to question Carter. He explains that Mayor Greer came to power through suspicious means and is allied with a mobster named "Bugs" Norton, and they promptly replaced all the officials with toadies and the cops with thugs and turned the town into a racketeer's paradise. There's no legal way to touch them, but luckily the Batman operates outside the law and agrees to help. He sends messages of warning to Greer and Norton (delivered by live bats, no less!) that their days are numbered. Meanwhile, Robin has been listening in on Norton's meeting, and learns of an upcoming heroin delivery!
The Batman and Robin attack the shipment (the state police would never think to check a big unmarked truck! Uh guys? Isn't that exactly the kind of thing they'd check?), and beat up all the crooks. Batman actually grabs a guy by his ankles and swings him around to knock out the others. Now THAT's how you get things done! Anyways, with the crooks all tied up, the duo confiscates the dope. And here's where I have to make a point about how this is really indicative of one of the key difference between Golden Age and Silver Age comics -- yeah, these stories are being written for kids, but there's really no self-censorship here. It's sort've shocking to read about Batman taking down heroin dealers in NINETEEN-FORTY but the fact is that teens and young adults were reading these things too -- as WWII came to the US, comics in fact got a big audience with overseas GIs. Whereas in the Silver Age there was NO references to drugs allowed, heck -- you could hardly even have someone die in a storyline!
Now that Norton's more, let's say adult, shenanigans are fooled, Batman decides to send Robin to destroy all the slot machines that Norton is using to get the town's kids hooked on gambling. Apparently Batman has NO tolerance for such things, smashing them with an axe and having Robin tell the kids that he would never play such machines. (Apparently, despite being fugitives of the law, Batman and Robin are already nationally well known and respected figures. One of the kids talks about seeing pictures of Robin in a magazine!)
Then Batman goes after the corrupt cops, taking them down one at a time, until they've all gone "missing". Robin, meanwhile, works with the kids of the town to produce a leaflet to turn the town against Norton and Greer, and Batman even gives a speech in a music hall encouraging the out of work former cops to take their town back by force! Holy Leninists, Batman?
The town complies, and soon everything is back to normal -- thanks to violence!
But there's a loose end to tie up -- Greer and Norton! Robin intercepts Greer while he's trying to escape, while Batman does his standard breaking and entering following by severe beat down on Norton. The townspeople are grateful, as Batman reveals all the crooks are tied and gagged in Carter's cellar, awaiting the state police. With everything turned right, Bruce and Dick get back in the car and resume their "vacation".
As a final gesture, the town unveils a statue to honor Batman and Robin -- y'know, two fugitive vigilantes.
My Thoughts: Wow! Okay! Here's something fun and different! The idea of Batman versus corruption, specifically a mob-run police force, is really gangbusters (no pun intended) and this must have been a story Frank Miller looked at when writing the seminal Year One storyline. It's a really great idea and plays on the natural notion that Batman is someone who breaks the law in order to be a hero, therefore having him fight villains who are supposedly upholding the law is a natural conflict. At the time this was written, mobsters were still high profile, almost celebrity like individuals who had a lot of sway over public perception. For example, Bugsy Siegal had just been acquitted for the murder of his "Murder Inc" syndicate operatives. Comics like these come from a time when the idea of a town run by the mob wasn't an unbelievable idea. It also explains the somewhat pedantic nature of some of the storytelling and dialogue -- with Batman and Robin serving as a heroic ideal to the children reading the comics to stand up to crooks and bullies and to fight them instead of idolizing them, even if that means standing alone. This theme, that crime does NOT pay and encouraging children to abandon the idea of worshipping gangsters, is a recurring one in early Batman comics, and makes me really laugh at Dr. Wertham's later notion that reading these comics was turning young children into delinquents. Another interesting notion introduced here is that Batman and Robin have become known to the public, and are respected as heroes despite their outlaw status. This is a change from Kane and Finger's initial "mysterious avenger of the night" character, and the beginning of a slow transformation that by the end of the decade would have Batman placed in a much more standard benevolent superhero kind of role.
The Art: Pretty good, standard work from Kane and Robinson here, although Kane swipes the cover of Detective #33 for Batman and Robin's assault on the heroin delivery. Still, for the most part this is good, exciting Batman vs. gangsters stuff. Roussos is beginning to settle in, his penchant for filling panels with all black backgrounds adding a kind've darkness to the strip -- which is getting brighter all the time in the foreground art -- and will soon earn him the nickname "Inky".
The Story: Ah, I am SO glad Bill Finger decided to do something different for this ish! The stories had really been following a formula since #40 and it was refreshing to read something breaking out of that format. And this story is an epic! I mean, the idea of Bruce and Dick going on a cross-country crime-fighting roadtrip against smalltown corruption is something that Grant Morrison would probably do like four to six issues of in a modern comic, if not an entire damn series! That being said, there is one element I don't like about this story: it's not in Gotham. I mean, I understand why. For one thing, Gotham isn't even the main setting of the series yet. At this point, we're still in an undefined, vaguely fictionalized New York. So saying that all of New York is corrupt and having Batman fight that would be a pretty large statement, and having Batman accomplish something like that in eleven pages would probably be too big a story. Also, while the City police are against Batman, Gordon has been established as a competent and honest official who knows Batman is one the side of justice -- so it would be hard to do this story there and keep Gordon's integrity as a character intact. But I just don't like Batman stories set outside Gotham! I just don't. Maybe it's an irrational thing, but despite young Bruce vowing to war on "all crime", I've always felt Batman was tied to the City. I've never liked globe-trotting Batman stories, they've never felt right to me, unless there was some personal reason (like Batman going after the Monk and Julie in #31-32) And the whole notion of Bruce and Dick going on a vacation from crime fighting is pretty unthinkable, although that's probably just me applying my 21st Century ideas about the character. I mean, it's probably more a vacation for Dick's sake, given that he's like ten years old or so, and his parents have been dead for only like five months, and since then Batman's just been continually putting him in life-threatening scenarios. So he probably needs a break.
But anyways, outside my metatextual analysis, I have to say this was a great story and a much-needed change of pace at this point.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Detective Comics #42 (August 1940)

This cover always reminds me of Frank Miller's Batman, for some reason. Something about seeing the Dark Knight somewhat sinisterly smiling as he watches his young aide (or "soldier") take down a bad guy. But on the other hand, it's also a very in character Finger/Kane Batman, who by this time in the series has lightened up quite a bit from his initial portrayal as a harsh avenger of the night. This transformation began, of course, with the introduction of Robin himself, and has been Batman gaining a bit of a quipping, daredevlish personality as opposed to the grim Shadow-like character of his initial appearances.

"The Case of the Prophetic Pictures!"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: We open with a great Bob Kane symbolic splash page depicting a green skeleton in a white cloak painting a picture of the Batman's death. This is a great visual, suggesting a great idea, but unfortunately the story doesn't 100% follow through.
This time, we open with Bruce Wayne attending a party of wealthy socialites being hosted by a Mr. Wylie. The occasion of the party is that Wylie has brought a genius young artist over from Europe named Antal (the implication is more that Wylie has rescued Antal from Europe, where WWII was already in full swing). While Bruce is at the party, we get some snide comments from the other guests about what a lazy and useless fellow he is. This is some good character development work that is resulting from the growing page count the feature is receiving. The idea of Bruce Wayne as lazy, useless, layabout playboy is very much a Golden Age one. It's roots are in the adopted identity of Lamont Cranston assumed by The Shadow, and it's currently getting a comeback in Chris Nolan's recent movie interpretation of Wayne's public persona, although he's more openly abrasive there. In the comics themselves, Wayne transformed into a publicly respected philanthropist in the SIlver and Bronze Ages, before becoming essentially a powerhouse recluse CEO in the Modern Age.
Anyways, Wylie is working with manager Bleek to turn Antal into a fashionable society portrait painter, even though Antal prefers working on landscape art. This is because society portraits will bring a repuration faster. As they explain this to Bruce, a crazy looking man bursts in and begins yelling at Antal. This is Mikoff, a rival artist whose sister loved Antal and committed suicide when Antal left her. Seems he came to the party just to threaten Antal.
Bruce follows Antal outside, where he has an argument with a man named Ryder in one panel and Drake in the next. Apparently Antal is having an affair with Ryder/Drake's wife. It is clear to Bruce that things are not all right with Antal's new life in the US.
Antal soon becomes a hit society portrait artist, as planned, but strange things start happening. His portraits start becoming targets of bizarre vandalism. The portraits will have knives sticking out of them, bullet holes in them, darts in the neck, etc. Soon after these vandalisms appear, the individual in the portrait is killed in the same manner. This happens several times, until one man, Mr. Warren, demands police protection after his portrait is done. Gordon arranges a cordon of men to be placed outside Warren's rooms (he lives in a penthouse), since this method has been so successful in the past, lolol.
Batman decides its time he gets involved, and so scales the walls of the skyscraper (with suction cups no less!) He enters at the top in a frame copying art from Detective #28, but then Kane loved swiping panels. Anyways, he discovers Warren has been killed. The police burst in, to find Batman with the murdered man, and we get an always fun Batman vs. the Police sequence that ends in Batman escaping in his suped-up 1936 Cord.
A few days later, Bruce visits Gordon, and of course Antal comes bursting in at the same time. Damn, Bruce always plans these visits conveniently doesn't he? Anyways, Antal is upset because all these murders are natually causing him to lose clients. Gordon believes someone is intentionally trying to ruin Antal, but the list of suspects is pretty long: Mikoff, Drake, Bleek, etc. Then, Wylie bursts into Gordon's office! Apparently the commissioner of police doesn't have a secretary?
Anyways, Wylie's portrait has bullets holes in it, and Wylie himself is suffering from an injury caused by the murderer himself, who got away of course. Then a Mr. Travers bursts in, and this is starting to get ridiculous. Anyways, his portrait has an arrow through it. Travers decides he can't rely on the police and is retreating to the safety of his yacht.
Batman orders Robin to guard Travers on the yacht, and hopefully the Boy Wonder does a better job than the last few times he was put on "make sure this guy DOESN'T die" duty.
Anyways, while Robin is on the yacht, a guy wearing an artist's beret, a purple overcoat, and a green skull mask shows up, and tries to shoot Traver's with an arrow. Robin fights him, but he escapes on the speed boat that Robin used to get to the boat! Robin consoles himself that at least he saved Traver's life, but I'm sure Batman will still be pissed.
When Dick gets back, Bruce announces that he's figured out who the murderer is, and that it all has to do with the "root of all evil -- money!" Which is a pretty douchey proclamation when the sole reason you've been able to devote your life to fighting crime is that you're an old money rich New Englander. Anyways, Bruce announces he's going to have his portrait painted by Antal, obviously in a scheme to draw out the murderer. Antal is surprised, and concludes that Bruce must either be the bravest or stupidest man he's ever met.
Anyways, Bruce takes the portrait back to Wayne Manor, where it is promptly shot in the head. Bruce concludes that the best course of action is to sit in his easy chair, smoking his pipe, and wait for the murderer to come. Dick is confused.
Sure enough, green skull dude with the artist's cap shows up, and shoots Bruce (sitting in a pose stolen from Detective #33 I believe) point blank in the back of the head. At that moment, of course, the Batman bursts in, and after a customary two page fight scene, subdues the murderer! Turns out the Bruce in the chair was a dummy, with Dick inside to move the arms.
Bruce then unmasks the skeleton and it turns out to be... old man Wylie! Turns out Wylie was heavily in debt, and bought a ton of Antal's pictures for cheap in Europe, and brought Antal to the US to turn him into a star in order to raise the value of the pictures. And, because of the logic of Golden Age comics, figured the best way to raise Antal's notoriety was the prophetic murders scheme.
Wylie panics, and in order to avoid being taken to jail and disgraced, shoots himself in the head. Batman's verdict? "Much better this way". Woah, Bats. Woah.
My Thoughts: Basically, this is the exact same story as the last two issues of this book, with a masked or mystery murderer knocking off victims one at a time, while a multitude of suspects all harbour grudges, and Batman unmasks the villain Scooby-Doo style at the end. At least this time we get a neat gimmick (the paintings) and a fun visual for the villain -- although he would've been way cooler if his appearance had matched the initial splash page, which promises a kind've spectral, undead menace. Of these plots, Clayface was probably the most successful due to a good visual and a good villain name. Oh, and he's carted off to jail instead of killing himself.
The Art: Pretty standard affair from Kane and Robinson this ish, although Kane swiping from himself is pretty noticeable, and none of the "homaged" panels are as well done as the first time. The green skulled disguise Wylie uses looks pretty cool, but, again, would've looked cooler had it matched the splash page.
The Story: Again, Finger is retreading material here, and this Agatha Christie/Scooby-Doo formula is starting to get tiresome. However, I'll say this is probably the best use of it since Clayface. It's also nice to see a few non-plot related scenes of Bruce and Dick and Gordon, developing their characters and relationships if only just a little bit. It was a cool idea to make the murderer a member of the "high society" that Bruce rubs elbows in, in order to give Bruce a more natural role in the story. This is something the Bat-comics will use over and over, of course.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

New York World's Fair Comics (1940 Issue)

It could be safe to say that the 1939/40 New York World's Fair is probably one of the most continually inspirational cultural events in American history. Created to inspire a country in the throes of the Great Depression, the Fair held a theme of "The World of Tomorrow", showcasing the potential of science and industry to transform our lives for the better. One of the most popular exhibits was Futurama, a GM exhibit demonstrating the "City of Tomorrow".
But the World's Fair wasn't without its share of problems. Launched as an international event in 1939, the timing wasn't exactly great for promoting international co-operation. The pavillions for Poland and Czechslovakia did not reopen for the 1940 season, for one thing.
The World's Fair was also a great opportunity for promotion. Many of the exhibits and events were corporate sponsored, and National Publications (aka DC Comics) was quick to take advantage. DC released two special length comics, one for each season, showcasing their most popular characters. The 1940 issue has the distinction of being the first comic to feature both Superman and Batman, although they figure in seperate stories. But the cover of the book certainly demonstrates how popular Robin had become in the very short time since his introduction, sharing the cover with Superman and Batman, his byline "and Robin" already becoming an almost mandatory addition to Batman's.

The format of these World's Fair comics, longer issues featuring a cross-section of DC's most popular characters, was popular, and ended up informing the format of the long-running World's Finest Comics.

"Batman and Robin Visit the 1940 New York World's Fair"
aka "The Man Who Turns Steel Into Dust"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: George Roussos
Synopsis: Bruce and Dick are out visiting the World's Fair, remarking on the notable attractions. Meanwhile, the "great West River Bridge" has suddenly melted away, collapsing into the sea. Hearing about it on the radio, Bruce orders Dick to scout over by the bridge, while he visits Commissioner Gordon.
At this point I'd like to stop and ask a question I haven't really thought about when reading these Golden Age Batman comics -- why are Gordon and Bruce friends? At this point, Gordon has never met Batman, has no alliance with him, no uneasy truce -- it seems more like that while Batman is a criminal in the eyes of the police, Gordon sort've turns a blind eye because he knows Batman is on the side of justice. As for Bruce? In this story alone Gordon remarks on how lazy and useless Bruce is, and Gordon is clearly far older than Bruce, drawn as a man in his fifties or sixties compared to Bruce's late twenties. So why the hell are they friends?
Anyways, at Gordon's office, Bruce confirms that the bridge has melted away. Just then, the head of an engineering firm bursts in, revealing a ransom note he has received threatening construction on a new bridge. Gordon tells him that it's probably a crackpot cashing in on the recent disaster, and blames the first bridge on the steel being faulty. Bruce isn't too sure, however.
Meanwhile, Dick discovers two men at the site of the destroyed bridge trying to rough up a girl. He beats up the two men, and the girl gets away, but the men claim to be detectives trying to arrest the girl. This doesn't sit well with Dick, who reports back to Bruce.
Bruce thinks the best course of action is to wait and see what happens to the bridge that was threatened. Because in case you haven't noticed, waiting around and seeing how things play out is Golden Age Batman's favourite method of crime fighting. It's less about preventing horrific crimes than it is letting them occur so he knows where and when to beat up the criminals.
Anyways, the bridge collapses and soon enough another bridge is threatened. So NOW Batman and Robin spring into action.They arrive at the "Flavin Bridge" and there is a standard two page fight scene in and around the bridge, from which Batman and Robin recover a strange device. The girl Dick saved earlier suddenly appears and announces se knows what the device is. Turns out her uncle, Dr. Hugo Vreekill (what a name!), is a mad scientist who invented a machine that melts steal with short waves! Naturally, he wishes to use this machine to extort men and become a "king of crime!" Ambitious, ain't he?
Anyways, the niece reveals her uncle's plan is to use the device to break a bunch of crooks out of prison and form a kind of criminal army. Okaaay. Anyways, Batman and Robin arrive in the Batplane at the State Penitentiary just as the breakout is occurring. They stun all the prisoners with gas bombs, beat them up, tie them up, and hop back in the Batplane before the police can arrive and arrest them.
Batman and Robin then fly in the Batplane to the under construction "Monarch Building" where Vreekill's men are attempting more sabotage. A patented two-page "Batman and Robin fight gangsters on girders" fight scene occurs, then they hop back in the Batplane and fly to Vreekill's laboratory. Batman punches Vreekill, who falls back into some equipment and ends up electrocuting himself. Batman's response? "He saved the State the job!" Yes, Golden Age Batman. He won't kill you, but he won't save you, and has no compunctions about someone else killing you either.
Dick hopes nothing else happens to interrupt checking out the World's Fair and Bruce breask the fourth wall to recommend it to the readers.
My Thoughts: So it's pretty clear to me that this is a standard Finger/Kane Batman story that was hastily repackaged into being placed in the World's Fair comic, given that the only references to the Fair are at the beginning and end of the tale. And that's somewhat unfortunate. It would have been great if the story was actually set at the Fair, especially given the somewhat unique position the Fair holds as an influence on Batman art. The oversized props and exhibits at the Fair would inspire fictional settings for Batman's adventures for decades to come, perhaps reaching a zenith under the team of Finger and Dick Sprang in the 1950s. Meanwhile, the specific art deco style of the World of Tomorrow and Futurama exhibits would prove a major influence on the look of the 1992-1999 Batman animated series, to such a point that the 1993 film Batman: Mask of the Phantasm would include significant scenes set at a "Gotham World's Fair" as a direct homage.
Instead, we get a really standard Golden Age Batman story with a hokey mad scientist villain and repetitive fight scenes.
The Art: Kane's art here is really, really weak and clearly rushed, and Roussos just doesn't do a good enough job with his inks to cover up Kane's hurried pencils. The whole thing looks rather amateurish. That being said, some of the ideas for the scenes are creative enough that it still works, but most are ideas we've seen already in the strip, and they look nowhere near as good as when Kane and Moldoff or Kane and Robinson were doing them.
The Story: A pretty paint-by-numbers affair for Finger, the villain seems like something more out of Superman than Batman, but given that this was essentially a throwaway piece for a promotional comic, I'll let it slide. The most interesting thing here is that with locations such as the "West River Bridge" and the "Monarch Building", Finger is taking his first steps towards fictionalizing Batman's hitherto New York location.
Notes and Trivia: First shared Batman and Superman cover.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Batman #2 (Summer 1940)

"Joker Meets Cat-woman"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos
Synopsis: Last we saw The Joker, he was presumed dead after stabbing himself at the end of his second appearance in Batman #1. Thankfully, DC editor Whitney Ellsworth saw fit to save the Joker's life, metaphorically speaking, and it is revealed that Joker has survived his wounds, but is recuperating in a hospital.
Upon hearing of this, Batman develops a plan of action: abduct Joker from the hospital before he can escape, and take him to a brain surgeon for an operation so he can be "turned into a valuable citizen". So, Batman wants to force Joker into a lobotomy? That's an interesting idea, certainly, and I don't think I've ever seen Batman consider anything like it for Joker. Batman often wishes to rehabilitate his enemies (Harvey Dent is a good example), but has never shown any hope for Joker. Unfortunately, this one line of dialogue is as far as the story gets with this intriguing idea.
Instead, we cut to the headquarters of "Crime Syndicate Inc.", an organization of gangsters whose "Chief" has recently died. Since this isn't a reference to a past Bat-story, I can only imagine that Finger is referencing recent events in the real life "National Crime Syndicate" -- a newspaper coined name for the loose organization of mobsters operating out of New York and Chicago.
Anyhow, with the "Chief" dead, the de facto leader Weasel decides to kidnap the Joker and turn him into the new Chief, starting by having Joker plan the theft of the Pharaoh Gems, owned by E.S. Arthur.
The gangsters slip into the hospital, and force doctors at gunpoint to operate on the Joker. However, their activities attack the attention of Commissioner Gordon and the police, who blockade the building. At that moment, the Batman appears. Gordon orders his men after him, but Batman fights back, killing two of the cops. Gordon remarks that this behavior is out of character for Batman, but orders his men to leave the hospital in pursuit. The police chase Batman to a barnhouse, where after an exciting fight sequence, they shoot down the Batman. Gordon unmasks the vigilante to discover the face of "Circus Charlie", a known criminal.
Meanwhile, the gangsters leave the hospital with Joker in tow, their ruse to divert the police a success. However, the mysterious Cat-Woman (last seen in Batman #1), has been watching them from across the street. Just then, the real Batman appears, grabbing the Cat and throwing her into his 1936 Cord (with Robin in the driver's seat?). She demands to be set free, but Batman wants information on the Joker. She tells him they are bringing the Joker to Weasel's hunting lodge, and so Batman agrees to let her go. But! The floor of Batman's car is coated with a radioactive material, and using a special flashlight, Batman can track the Cat's movements! Which is precisely what he orders Robin to do while he goes after the gangsters.
Meanwhile, the Joker has recovered, but is unsatisfied with his present company, and decides to poison the gangsters. At that minute, Batman bursts in and beats up the crooks in typical fashion, allowing Joker to get away.
Then the story gets really, really, rushed, even by Golden Age standards. Basically, the Cat-Woman has seduced E.S. Arthur, gaining access to his castle (castle??). She sneaks into his study to take the gems, but finds Arthur murdered by the Joker, who sticks her up. Robin swoops in, having followed Cat-Woman, but is bested by Joker, who is held up by Cat-Woman, at which point Batman swoops in the window, and challenges Joker to a swordfight (??). Batman beats up Joker, and leaves him to die in the burning castle (Joker lit it on fire in the course of the fight), while he rescues Robin and the Cat-Woman in the Bat-plane. However, to avoid incarceration, the Cat dives into the waters below. But Batman saved the jewels! So, um, happy ending?
My Thoughts: This story is several half-baked ideas mushed into one. Every element is just an excuse to get to the next plot point, but none of it adds up to anything special. Both the Joker and the Cat were introduced last issue, but this story doesn't really do anything new or interesting with either of them, much less the idea of the two of them in one story. It feels more like a placeholder story, acknowledging that the characters were popular and keeping them alive in the minds of the readers, but biding time until a better outing could be thought up.
The Art: Frankly, it stinks. George Roussos debuts as an inker in the Bob Kane studio, helping ease the load from Jerry Robinson now that the strip's output has increased. However, this story's pen-work is poor to say the least, leaving the art with a rushed and unfinished look. Joker is barely recognizable, and key details are missing in many panels. At this point, the Cat-Woman is still just an ordinary woman, although now she has a hood. Either way, its not an improvement. This is probably the worst the art has looked since Kane was inking himself, possibly worse.
The Story: Finger's writing is hurried and plot-driven, feeling like we're moving from setpiece to setpiece rather than being told a story. It could've been interesting to contrast Joker and the Cat-Woman, both brilliant jewel thieves, but one happens to be a murdering psychopath. Instead, their interaction is limited to two or three panels, and the entire climax feels very undeveloped. It also could've been interesting to contrast the Joker with the regular criminals of the Syndicate, but alas their only purpose in this story is rescuing the Joker. What a waste.
Notes and Trivia: First appearance of multiple Bat-villains in one story.
Joker Body Count: 16

"Wolf, the Crime Master"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: Cyrus Craig is a millionaire who owns a private museum, curated by a meek little man named Adam Lamb, who loves reading crime novels. One night, Lamb is so enthralled by a novel called "The Crime Master" that he stays very late at the museum. Hurrying to leave after finishing the book, he trips on a loose carpet, falls down a flight of stairs, and hits his head just as the bell tolls midnight. The last thing his eyes see before passing out are the novel "The Crime Master", and the mounted pelt of a bat. He awakes several hours later, and once again heads home. But as he walks, he hears a bell toll midnight (was he lying there in the museum for a whole day? And no one noticed?) Anyways, when the bell tolls, Lamb's entire personality transforms, and he becomes an evil man named Wolf (har har). Wolf comes upon a random passerby, and beats them to death with a crowbar. The next morning, he awakes as Lamb and dismisses events as merely a dream. Each night, he transforms in Wolf, slowly building up a criminal empire, until he becomes known as... The Crime Master!
One night, Batman and Robin come across Wolf's gang raiding a warehouse. A fight ensues, during which Batman notices a dent in the fender of the getaway car, storing it as a detail to possibly identify the car later. As it happens, Bruce Wayne ends up visiting Cyrus Craig's museum, where he meets Lamb and sees that Lamb's car has the same fender dent.
Batman and Robin follow the car to the waterfront, where they attack the gang. There's a really good fight scene, featuring a fantastic panel of Batman rising up out of the water, and Batman is shot in the shoulder (not covered by the bullet-proof vest he wears). The pair use a smoke pellet to cover their trail and escape back to safety.
We catch up with them in "Bruce's laboratory" (still no Batcave), where it falls upon young Dick to remove the slug from Bruce's shoulder (no Alfred either!). This is a great little sequence of realism for the two, although I can't imagine the pressure a ten-year-old kid like Dick would feel in this situation. Anyways, while recuperating, Bruce deduces Lamb's connection to Wolf, and that in his altered state, Lamb has been following the plot of the "Crime Master" novel. They arrive at Craig's museum just as Lamb transforms and tries to kill Craig. A fight ensues, but Lamb is paralyzed at the sight of Batman. In his fear, he trips and falls down the stairs (again?) and breaks his neck. As he dies, he explains what happened to other three. Batman and Robin regret Lamb's death, as medical attention might have helped him.
My Thoughts: The story of the Crime Master is Finger and Kane's first attempt at creating a Jekyll and Hyde type character. Its not entirely successful, mainly because the resulting character isn't all that unique or interesting. Only in a Golden Age comic will you find a bump on the head sufficient to creating a psychotic murderer! Eventually, Finger would hit upon the idea of a character who is Jekyll and Hyde simultaneously, a far more interesting notion that will give birth to the villain Two-Face.
The Art: Kane and Robinson do serviceable work here, with perhaps the best sequence being the fight on the waterfront, which includes a great panel of Robin crying out in anguish as Batman is shot. Another excellent panel is the one of Batman rising out of the water, frightening the crooks.
The Story: This is a very "Golden Age" story, and it feels kind've rote and standard for Bill Finger, but its most interesting aspect, other than the Jekyll/Hyde aspect, is that I believe its the first time a Batvillain has been repentant, a villain of circumstance and fate rather than choice. Lamb begs Batman to forgive him, as he dies, and is in some ways a very tragic figure. This tragic nature has become something of a trope of Bat-villains, and will figure more prominantly the next time Kane and Finger attempt the Jekyll/Hyde archetype.

"The Case of the Clubfoot Murders"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: While on routine patrol, Batman spots a murder being committed by a large, clubfooted man with a hook for a hand. Clubfoot defeats Batman, leaving him dazed as the police arrive. They attempt to arrest the Batman, but he makes good his escape. It turns out the murdered man is the millionaire Harley Storme. The next day, Bruce Wayne bumps into Commissioner Gordon, who invites Bruce to accompany him to the Storme mansion to question Haley's relatives. Where police procedures more relaxed in the forties, or is Gordon just really, really casual about these kinds of rules? Anyways, Bruce naturally agrees and the two are greeted by young Portia Storme, a niece who lets the two into what is essentially the opening scene of Young Frankenstein, as the Storme family lawyer (Ward) reads out the will to a greedy family that is full of feuding parties. Anyways, turns out none of the Stormes are getting anything, except a piece of gold with the inscription "united we stand, divided we fall" and some illegible scratchings. The family is annoyed, but Ward tells them all will be explained if they attend another meeting in 30 days at which time he will open a sealed letter from Haley.
Later, Tommy Storme is confronted by gangsters to whom he owes a gambling debt. Tommy had been banking on paying it off with his inheritance, so he tells the gangsters about the sealed envelope in Ward's possession. Meanwhile, Abel Storme is murdered by Clubfoot, who announces his intention to kill more of the Stormes.
Meanwhile, having heard of Abel's death, Bruce asks Gordon about Clubfoot, who tells him that a man named "Clubfoot" Beggs was last seen boarding a train headed for New York (where the Bat-stories are still set at this point, remember). Bruce and Dick conclude that Beggs must want vengeance against the Stormes for some reason. As Batman and Robin, they leave to break into Ward's house and learn more about the will.
Of course, they arrive just as the gangsters are casing the joint. We get the typical two-page fight scene, and then Batman does his interrogation bit to figure out where the gangsters have taken Ward. Of course, its an abandoned power house on the riverfront, and we quickly get another two-page fight scene as Batman and Robin rescue Ward. Batman and Robin question Ward, who claims to have no idea what is in the envelope. Returning home, Bruce concludes that there must be a secret message on the gold pieces that would be revealed when they are all brought together. Batman sends Robin to protect Roger Storme from Clubfoot, while he once again attempts to get to the contents of Ward's letter.
Robin arrives at Storme's home to find Roger already murdered. Good work, Boy Wonder. Clubfoot attacks, the two fight, but the murderer gets away. Meanwhile, Batman is searching Ward's home and finds Clubfoot, the REAL Clubfoot, locked up in the basement. Turns out Ward has been masquerading as Clubfoot, and killing the Stormes, so that he could take the inheritance for himself, because it was an entire goldmine. Huh. Anyways, Batman and Robin beat up Ward, rescue Clubfoot, and call it a day.
My Thoughts: This is another standard pulp mystery story with Batman and Robin inserted. There's really not much of significance to say.
The Art: Kane and Robinson do their usual thing here, for the most part working by the numbers, although Clubfoot is a nicely creepy visual reminescent of Hugo Strange's monster men.
The Story: Finger seems to have been really rustling through the Agatha Christie pulp mystery stock plots at this point, with this tale have so little to it that it gets padded out with an entirely unneccessary gangster subplot, with several red herrings added in for good measure. Its an okay read, but the ending is just a big "so what?"

"The Case of the Missing Link"Writer:
Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos
Synopsis: We begin in medias res with Batman jumping onto a moving train, fighting some African pygmies who are shooting arrows at him (also on top of the train), then jumping into a car, fighting more pygmies and rescuing an apparently famous scientist named Drake.
Turns out Drake has brought back with him from Africa a giant, living, caucasian, prehistoric cave-man which he has dubbed the missing link between man and ape. At this point I must interject and point out that none of that makes any kind of scientific sense. At all.
Even Batman is dubious, wondering why the missing link would be so tall. Drake says its a glandular defect. Uh-huh. Anyways, turns out Drake found it living wild in the jungles of Africa (why is it white? Even Drake remarks that this is odd!) where the pygmies were worshipping it as a god. Naturally, Drake drugged it and took it back to the States, and the pygmies have been following and attacking Drake since. Batman asks what Drake wants to do with the giant, named Goliath, and Drake says he wants to civilize it, teach it English, and introduce it into society. What the fuck? This guy may be the single worst scientist, ever.
When Drake arrives in America, his discovery makes headlines. A duo of circus owners, Hackett and Snead, decided Goliath is perfect for their show. They visit Drake and Goliath (dressed in a tuxedo!) and offer a ton of money. Drake angrily refuses. Hackett and Snead threaten his life, so Drake tells Batman. Not the police, mind you, but Batman.
So Batman sends Robin to watch Drake, which tells you how seriously our hero is taking this.
Anyways, some hitmen show up and murder Drake, and Robin arrives too late to stop them. Great job, Boy Wonder.
The hitmen arranged the murder to look like a suicide, leaving a note that bequethed Goliath to Hackett and Snead. When reading of these events in the paper, Dick suggests telling the police. Bruce rightly points out that Dick is an idiot, and decides to "bide his time". Classic Golden Age Batman move.
Anyways, at the circus, they are exhibiting Goliath, but he spots one of Drake's murderers in the crowd and goes berzerk and after throwing the hitman into a pole and killing him instantly he begins attacking the crowd and causing general pandemonium. Of course, at this moment Batman and Robin arrive. Robin calms the rampaging animals, and the duo defeats Goliath. The beast unfortunately dies in this struggle.
Turns out that the hitman somehow managed to confess to the police about Hackett and Snead before he died, so they are arrested.
My Thoughts: So, I'm gonna go on the record with saying this is the first really ridiculous Batman story. Well, except for Detective Comics #34, because seriously, what the fuck was that? But anyways, this is the first time any element of "science fiction" is introduced into Batman, and frankly, it just doesn't work. Batman vs. the missing link is just preposterous. But I guess this is Golden Age comicbook storytelling after all. As a side note, the whole notion of the missing link is something the public was and still is taken with to some extent, but which has always been something of a misnomer. As of this writing, the links between man and primitive ape are well documented in the fossil record, it's not like evolutionary theory has this big blind spot of there being no connection. Nevertheless, the missing link is a trope that shows up a lot, although why ANYONE would think it would still be ALIVE, much less WHITE, is beyond me.
The Art: It's okay. Kane does his usual thing, but Roussos needs a lot more practice if he's gonna be as good as Robinson at inking him. Kane's art on its own is basically lazy cartooning, and it's really been Robinson who's been adding depth and dimension to the books. Roussos still needs to learn this.
The Story: Yet another stock story from Finger, this time full of pygmies after their god (a trope as old as The Moonstone), missing links, gangsters, circus pandemonium, etc. I don't know why, but ever since Detective #40, Finger seems to just be coasting. But then, I suppose stock plots help when you're a notoriously late writer.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Detective Comics #41 (July 1940)

"A Master Murderer"
Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: Right off the bat, an homicidal maniac has escaped from an (unnamed) insane asylum. Later, on the grounds of the “Fashionable Private School for Boys”, the superintendent is found strangled to death. Next, a young boy named Ted Spencer is kidnapped from his dorm in the school by a mysterious shadowy stranger. These events together make headline news, spurring Bruce Wayne to believe it is a situation worth investigating. In order to get close enough, he enrolls his new ward, Dick Grayson, at the school – implying that Dick has not been attending school in the time he has been with Bruce so far. At the school, Bruce and Dick meet the principal, Blake, who agrees to enroll Dick. At that moment (of course), an angry teacher named Greer bursts in to yell at Blake. Turns out Blake dismissed him from the school because he failed a student for doing poorly on a test (instantly this principal is a favourite of the comic's youth audience). Greer leaves, but not before making some vague threats.
Blake decides to introduce Bruce and Dick to the rest of the faculty. First up is Graves, the art instructor, a master engraver who boasts of his skills. Then there is Hodges, the history teacher, who brushes off the introduction and who Graves does not trust. The police then arrive to begin their investigation for the missing boy (a little late, guys), so Bruce takes his leave of Dick, who will work alone as Robin.
Dick hears that the police failed to locate the boy's diary, and believing this to be a vital clue, he sneaks into the room at night, dressed as Robin. He finds the diary (the police missed it because it looked like his other school books -- worst police ever) and begins to read the final entry. It turns out Spencer spotted a masked man wandering the school and was going to tell the principal about it. Robin deduces that the boy was killed to keep the secret. And of course, at that moment the masked man is right behind Robin and attacks him! After a brief fight the masked man escapes with the diary.
Defeated, Robin contacts Batman using the wireless radio in his belt. Batman suggests searching the principal's office, since he was mentioned in the diary entry. So the next night Robin goes out to search Blake's office. But he's interrupted by a scream on the grounds, and discovers the escaped maniac attacking one of the janitors, convinced he's actually staff from the asylum come to take him back. Robin saves the janitor and fights the maniac. The commotion gets the attention of the police, who arrive and take the maniac back into custody while Robin escapes.
The next day the faculty members discuss these events, deciding that this must mean the case is wrapped up. Blake especially is convinced, until Hodges reminds him that the boy is still missing. That night, Robin returns to search Blake's office. He immediately discovers that Blake has been murdered. The next morning the police arrest Greer in connection with Blake's murder. It turns out the student Greer failed was Ted Spencer, the missing boy, but Greer protests his innocence!
At this point, Finger pauses the narrative to directly address the audience and ask which of the suspects they think is behind everything: Greer, Blake, the Maniac, Hodges, or Graves?
Batman does not believe Greer is the culprit, and orders Robin to patrol the school. Robin discovers the masked man lurking the halls, and follows him into a classroom, where he uses a sliding panel to access a hidden tunnel. Because that makes sense. Robin follows him and it leads into an old dwelling somewhere nearby. Turns out the masked man is running a counterfeit money operation, and Blake was involved somehow. Robin attacks, but is quickly overpowered by the gangsters. Of course, just then Batman arrives and saves the day. The two proceed to beat up all the bad guys, and unmask the villain. Turns out its Graves, the art teacher, and he was using his skills as an engraver to counterfeit money.
Batman proceeds to explain that Graves and Blake were partners, but Blake got greedy and Graves killed him. Graves is placed in custody, the young boy is rescued, and Bruce complements Dick on his detective abilities in this case.
My Thoughts: This story is essentially the first Robin solo story, which speaks to the popularity of the character, given that he was only introduced as Batman's sidekick three months ago. The plot itself is pretty formulaic, resembling both last month's Clayface story and an Agatha Christie novel with its parade of possible suspects and then reveal and explanation at the end. Its a decent Robin story, placing him in the appropriate setting of a private school for boys, but on the whole there is nothing particularly special about it. It feels like the creative team have settled into a pattern beginning here -- ending a great period of desperate innovation, now that the Batman character has proven successful.
The Art: Kane and Robinson deliver a product about on par with last month's issue, but the pedestrian nature of the story doesn't really produce any particularly memorable images.
The Story: Finger's writing feels like he's on autopilot. The Batman feature was now officially successful, and there just seems less at stake now. Robin solves a mystery is the long and short of this issue, which after over a year of really groundbreaking storytelling, just feels like coasting.
Notes and Trivia: First Robin solo story.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Detective Comics #40 (June 1940)

"Beware of Clayface!"
Writer: Bill Finger
Bob Kane
Jerry Robinson

Synopsis: Suddenly, Bruce Wayne's fianceƩ Julie Madison (not seen since Detective #34) is a motion picture actress. From reading the newspaper, Dick discovers she's acting in a new movie at Argus Pictures. Bruce decides to meet her at the studio (which is assumedly across the country in Hollywood). All this transpires in a single panel, because this is the Golden Age, dammit! Julie introduces Bruce to Bentley, head of the studio (drawn carrying a golf club!), who in turn introduces Bruce to Kenneth Todd, the star of Bentley's new picture "Dread Castle", a remake of an old silent picture.
Just then, the star of the original version, Basil Karlo, steps in to wish Todd good luck in the role. Karlo is remarked upon as an excellent character actor and make-up artist who ruined his career with his bizarre behavior. Just as Karlo leaves, Ned Norton bursts in, proving that Bentley has the worst secretary of all time. Norton is the director of "Dread Castle" but Bentley fires him because he has been chronically absent from set and causing delays. Norton leaves, but not before making some ominous threats.
Bentley takes Julie and Bruce down to the set, and it turns out he has spared no expense and built an entire castle for the movie (proving that Bentley is the worst film producer of all tim
e). As they arrive, star actress Lorna Dane is breaking up with her boyfriend Frank Walker because he hasn't had a role in "months" and she can't be seen "tied to an actor that's slipping!" Jeez, they must've really cranked them out under that old studio system, eh? Frank gets angry and leaves, but not before making some ominous threats.
Bruce decides this is an appropriate time to take Julie home (back to Gotham? Or some house in LA?), but not before Bentley can make a joke about how women are property. Oh, 1940, how I miss you. As Bruce leaves, a gangster named Roxy Brenner shows up and begins hustling Bentley to pay him protection money on the set. Either Bentley is way more of a B-movie producer than the story wants us to believe, or Brenner is the dumbest gangster of all time. Major studios pay insurance, Brenner, which is like protection money, but without the guns. Also, worst studio security ever, am I right? Anyways, Bentley refuses to pay, so Brenner leaves, but not before making some ominous threats.

A few days later, Bruce returns to visit Julie on the day they are shooting the pivotal scene where Lorna Dane's character is killed by The Terror (Kenneth Todd's character). Because again, worst studio security ever. But just as the scene reaches its crescendo, we are introduced to a frightening figure in the shadows in one of Kane and Robinson's spookiest panels ever (right -->). The mysterious man kills the lights and in the darkness there is a scream, and when the lights return, Lorna Dane is dead.
The police investigate, but after a week, Bentley decides to resume production. Julie confides in Bruce that she is worried she may be next, but Bruce reassures her by saying the killer was probably only after Lorna. Privately, however, Bruce is not so sure, and so he and Dick suit up as Batman and Robin, apparently driving Bruce's 1936 Cord all the way to Argus Pictures. As they get there, Roxy Brenner is using Lorna's death as a point to insist upon Bentley paying up, but Bentley still refuses. Batman and Robin leap in, unannounced, and spend a page beating up Brenner and his men, but once Batman is satisfied they had nothing to do with Lorna's death, he lets them go. Bentley tells Batman that he suspects either Frank Walker or Ned Norton, so Batman goes to confront Walker at his home and instructs Robin patrol the studio lot. Yeah, real good use of your partner.
Batman discovers Walker unconscious and hanging from a coat hook in a closet (??), any attempts to interrogate him yielding only the mumbled name "Clayface". Batman wonders who Clayface could be -- Ned Norton or Ken Todd? Meanwhile, back at the studio, Robin is attacked by Clayface and dropped off the side of the castle, into the moat below. Luckily, Batman returns at just that instant and saves Robin from drowning. With no new leads, Batman and Robin decide to wait until Clayface makes the next move.
The next morning, the scene where Julie's character is to be murdered by The Terror is being shot. Clayface shows up to attempt to kill her, but Batman is waiting and foils the attempt. The two battle on the catwalk, and Bentley (who appears to be directing this picture as well), orders the cameras be turned on the fight because "the shots will be knockouts!" Clayface tries to make an escape, but is foiled by Robin. Captured, Batman removes the mask to reveal Clayface to be... Basil Karlo! The master of monster make-up was jealous the remake of his great role did not feature him, and decided to murder the characters in the order they die in the film, as the scenes were shot. As for Frank Walker, he had found out and threatened to black mail Karlo. Bentley is greatly impressed by Batman's fighting and detective abilities and offers to put Robin and him in movies, but he refuses because they have devoted their lives to fighting crime. Julie once again wishes Bruce could be as dashing as the Batman.
My Thoughts: The introduction to Clayface may be the peak of the classic Batman creative team's obsession with cinema, specifically genre cinema. We've seen in the past how the character of Batman is essentially Zorro crossed with The Shadow, how Robin is inspired by Robin Hood, the influence of King Kong on the Monster Men, of Conrad Veidt on The Joker. Clayface's story clearly results from Bill Finger's love of horror, and Kane's art reflects a semi-expressionist sensibility. Basil Karlo's name comes from Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff, two popular actors of the time, but his character is largely based on Lon Chaney Sr., a silent film horror character actor who was known as "The Man of a Thousand Faces" due to his amazing ability to create make-up to slip into any role. Chaney died before making any kind of transistion to the sound era, but many of his films were indeed remade with others in the lead roles. By turning him into the fictional Karlo, Finger and Kane create a creepy, murderous villain that remains my favourite interpretation of the Clayface character.
The Art: Kane and Robinson succeed in one thing in this issue, and that is the spectacularly spooky and shadowy design of Clayface himself. Shadows and blacks are used very evocatively in this issue, courtesy of Robinson's pen. But the art itself seems rushed, even lazy, compared to the past two issues of Detective. Kane's compositions are crowded and unclear, with the fight scenes feeling very familiar by this point.
The Story: Finger's plot would probably require a six issue mini-series if done today. As is, it passes by extremely quickly, its tale of revenge wrapped inside a whodunit mystery -- whose answer might seem quite a twist to a young child reading the story, but in retrospect Karlo is fairly circumspect in being the only character who doesn't immediately start swearing revenge on the movie. That being said, linking a Bat-villain to a tragic, mad, revenge filled origin story is unique at this point, and in fact will remain that way until the 1980s or so. And while the plot of this story is fairly unique for a Batman tale, I suspect the writers of Scooby-Doo must've read it because it follows the formula of that show to a tee!
Notes and Trivia: First appearance of Clayface

Detective Comics #39 (May 1940)

"The Horde of the Green Dragon"
Bill Finger
Bob Kane
Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: Two millionaires are abducted by mysterious shadowed figures, with a chauffeur getting a hatchet through the head in a particularly violent addition. Does make one wonder how many millionaires this city has though -- two or three seem to die in every Batman adventure. Anyways, because of the use of the hatchet, Batman figures its the work of Chinese assassins. This must be a 1930s era stereotype because I'm certainly not familiar with that association -- a modern version would probably evoke more Hong Kong style Chinese villains than the Mongolian stereotypes we see here.
Anyways, Batman goes to visit his ally Wong (mayor of Chinatown) for information, but tells Robin to stay behind, since this Tong societies are dangerous. Meeting with Wong, he learns that a new Tong is indeed operating, called the Green Dragon, and they are dealing in opium smuggling. What that has to do with kidnapping millionaires is never really explained in the story.
Wong is killed by the hatchetmen, but manages to scratch out the location "Pier Three" into his desk. Batman fights the hatchetmen, but falls out a window and is knocked unconscious.
Meanwhile, the Boy Wonder has completely ignored his mentor's orders and followed him to Wong's. He finds the "Pier Three" clue, and heads down to the docks, but is followed by one of the hatchetmen who attacked Batman earlier. Easily captured (seriously, the bright yellow and red is not the best night-time camouflage), Robin awakes in the den of the leader of the Green Dragon Tong (apparently Bob Kane can't draw a Chinese dragon, so the large jade idol of the Tong instead resembles a Mongolian version of the Jolly Green Giant).
The leader has Robin duel with a talented swordsman, only Robin is given a wooden sword. But before the child is brutally killed, the shadow of the Bat descends on the Chinese criminals. After a two-page fight scene, Batman beats the Tong leader senseless, and then rescues the captured millionaires.
In a brief epilogue, the people of Chinatown make Batman a local hero, Bruce Wayne's fiancee Julie Madison chastises him for not being as exciting as the Batman, and the debut of the third addtion to the Batman's Rogues Gallery -- Clayface -- is previewed for next month's issue.
My Thoughts: This is another classic pulp/noir style Batman story. The late thirties Shadow influences in Bill Finger's work are pretty evident here, but it's nice to see some continuity in these tales, with this being a semi-sequel to the "Ruby Idol" storyline in Detective #35.
The Art: This is another big win for Kane and Robinson, who show great line work and excellent shadowing, though I'll admit they have a big weakness when it comes to character expression -- most faces in Kane's art look like static masks. Still, the dark noir compositions help make an otherwise fairly forgettable tale pretty exciting to read.
The Story: Other than the continuity, this story is pretty much standard pulp magazine fare. For the most part it also pales in comparison to where Finger had brought Batman in Batman #1, so this sort've thing feels like a step back.
Notes: Second story in Finger's "Chinatown" cycle, following Detective Comics #35.

Batman #1 (Spring 1940)

In June, 1939, Superman became the first comic book character to be given his own series. In April, 1940, Batman became the second. This issue sees the debut of numerous elements, not the least of which is the "Batman" title logo, a famous image that would be used in various forms for years to come. While it merely says "Batman" on the cover, interior art in both this and Detective Comics will read "Batman with Robin the Boy Wonder".

Batman #1 contained five stories within its covers, the first of which was "The Legend of the Batman - Who He is and How He Came to Be" which was primarily a reprint of Batman's two-page origin story from Detective Comics #33. Following this came four of the most memorable and reprinted Batman stories of all time.

"The Joker"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: Late one evening, the regularly scheduled radio broadcast (oh, radio!) is interrupted by a toneless, droning voice of a man calling himself The Joker, threatening to kill millionaire Henry Claridge and steal the Claridge diamond at midnight that very night. While the public figure it must be a hoax (the Joker is thanking Orson Welles, I figure), the police take things very seriously and set up a full cordon of men around Claridge, with no chance of anyone getting in or out. When midnight comes, Claridge becomes hysterical about still being alive -- then bursts into laughter, and dies. The police are baffled by the hideous grin Claridge continues to bear, even in death. A check of the premises reveals the Claridge diamond is also stolen, and what the police have been protecting all this time has been a glass fake. Underneath the diamond is left a Joker playing card -- the sign of a madman.
We then get our first look at the Joker. Bill Finger describes him as a man without mirth, filled with hate, and Bob Kane draws him with the hollow face of German Expressionist actor Conrad Veidt. He gloats about his brilliance to himself -- completely calm, completely monotone, which makes it all the more terrifying. He poisoned Claridge yesterday with a poison that takes twenty-four hours to take effect, and took the diamond at the same time -- announcing a crime that had already been committed. Truly he is mad, brilliant, and a showboater.
At Wayne Manor, young Dick Grayson asks his mentor, Bruce Wayne, whether they should deal with the Joker in their identities as Batman and Robin. But Wayne prefers to wait until they have a more solid lead. More people dead, more clues right??
So the next night another announcement from the Joker comes over the radio, this time declaring the death of Jay Wilde and the theft of the Ronkers Ruby (which Wilde presumably owns). Again, the cordon of police officers. Again the man dies at exactly the appointed time. Also, a strange gas suddenly appears and renders all the police paralysed. From out of a suit of armour in the corner of the room the Joker emerges. He reveals that he killed Wilde with a poisoned dart. He then taunts the dead body, and departs.
Meanwhile, the "normal" criminal underworld feels intruded upon by this new upstart. In particular, one Brute Nelson announces his opinion that the Joker is a "yeller rat". Hearing this through the criminal grapevine, Batman decides that now is the time to act.
The Joker attacks Brute Nelson in his home, but its a trap, with Nelson's gang waiting to spring. Luckily, (for the Joker?) the Batman deduced Nelson would be the Joker's target, and begins fighting the gang. However, this gives the Joker the distraction necessary to kill Nelson. He shows he's not above simply shooting an enemy, stating that the Joker venom would be a "waste" on Nelson.
The Joker proceeds to make a getaway in his car, but the Batman grabs on and begins to struggle with him inside the car. Eventually Batman pries Joker out of the vehicle as it careens off a bridge. But the Joker proves he's no slouch in a fight and kicks Batman into the river. Batman realizes he's finally met a worthy foe. So do the readers.
The next night, the Joker threatens to kill Judge Drake (interestingly, as revenge for the judge once sending him to prison). The Judge is being guarded by the chief of police -- who turns out to be the Joker in disguise. Revealed, the Joker promptly kills him with the venom.
However, the Batman has ordered his trusty aide, Robin, to follow anyone coming out of the house. The young boy follows the Joker to an abandoned house -- where he is quickly taken out by the Joker.
The Batman realizes his young partner is missing, but luckily coated Robin's boots with a special paint visible only under infrared light. Using IR goggles, Batman can follow Robin's trail. He bursts in just as the Joker is going to inject Robin with the venom. He rescues Robin, but in the fight with the Joker, the house is lit aflame. The Joker manages to spray Batman with his paralysing gas.
However, and I quote, "the Joker has not reckoned with the amazing recuperative powers of the mighty Batman" and our hero merely shakes off the gas and makes his escape with Robin.
Robin reveals that the Joker told him his next target will be the Cleopatra necklace, owned by Otto Drexel. The duo makes their way to Drexel's penthouse, where they discover the Joker's robbery already in progress. The Joker grows tired of the battle and shoots Batman point blank, crying "DIE -- BLAST YOUR -- DIE! WHY DON'T YOU DIE!"
But the Batman is wearing a bullet proof vest, and so the Joker's bullets appear to have no effect. Having wasted his bullets, the enraged Joker makes flight, but is cornered by Robin, and finally defeated by Batman.
The Joker is imprisoned at the State Penitentiary -- but vows to escape and have the last laugh.
My Thoughts: This is, at the end of the day, THE Batman story. This is where all the elements that make up what a Batman story is essentially crystallize. This is the classic, and you can feel it when you read it. Finally Bill Finger and Bob Kane have hit upon what makes a good villain for Batman. To this day, the Joker is the pre-eminent Batman villain, almost invariably following the Dark Knight into whatever media he is adapted to. The essential mix is that of the weird, the threatening, and the real all in one form. The Joker is a carnival clown mixed with the 30s gangster to create a precognition of the merciless serial killer. The Joker is a performance criminal, something never truly seen in fiction before then and only rarely seen in reality. Like Batman, he has no special powers -- simply a bizarre appearance and a relentless evil that defies explanation.
Finger gives no origin for the Joker, no reasoning for his appearance or motives -- although he does provide tantalizing clues. We know he was a criminal before he became the Joker, since he seeks revenge for a former imprisonment. He must not have always looked the way he does, otherwise he would've been known in the underworld before now. But it would be eleven years before Finger would pen an origin for The Joker, following up on some of the clues given here.

 Like many Golden Age characters, there is some question of who exactly created the Joker. In modern times, inker Jerry Robinson has assumed much of the credit, while at the time the books were published, artist Kane was the only creative force credited. It seems clear that Kane and Finger were the primary architects of the character, with involvement from Robinson being minimal at best. Finger was well known as a fan of expressionist horror cinema, and Kane practically admits that Finger came to Kane with the idea of basing a villain visually on German actor Conrad Veidt's appearance in the 1928 silent film The Man Who Laughs. Kane liked the idea and agreed. If Robinson did anything, it was to bring in a Joker playing card, the design of which Kane used for the villain's calling card, and perhaps suggest naming him "The Joker" after the card.
The Art: Kane and Robinson do a fine job here -- although Robinson's inks aren't nearly as good as his work in Detective #38. Kane creates a truly unique look for the Joker, and its clear he enjoys pencilling the madman. Robinson's claims that he alone created the character (similar to his claims that he created Robin) just lose credibility when you see how well Kane pencils the character, but how lazily Robinson inks him. However, while the art team's work is good, it isn't their best and not really up to how good Finger's script is.

The Story:
The actual plot of this story is so simple and so archetypal in comic books that its hard to look at straight on. If not for the creation of the Joker, there would be little exciting in it. What details are interesting are the new elements Finger is adding to the standard superhero plot -- the criminal announcing his crimes ahead of time, for example. The clever methods of killing the victims. The fact that the Joker actually seems frighteningly, truly, insane; as opposed to the melodramatic cackling insanities of most other villains of the period. However, Finger's writing here has hit a top-notch form -- and his repetition of the basic formula in this story for years shows that he knew it.
Notes and Trivia: First time Batman is referred to as "The Dark Knight", first appearance of the Joker, first use of Joker venom, Joker is placed in the State Prison.
Joker Body Count: 4

"Professor Hugo Strange and the Monsters"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inker: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: Okay, this is the story that was originally solicited to appear in Detective Comics #38, before that issue became the debut of Robin. As such, the Boy Wonder does not appear in this tale -- indeed, this is the last solo Batman story until 1969!
The tale opens with the violent escape of Professor Hugo Strange and several other prisoners from the State Prison, followed by his freeing of five mental patients from the Metropolis Insane Asylum, and Bruce Wayne learning of these events over the radio -- all in the space of four panels. Bruce concludes that something new in crime is brewing, but decides to bide his time - smoking his pipe - until Strange acts (Golden Age Bruce is much more laid back than the regularly patrolling, constantly suspicious Bruce we know and love today).
A month later, the narration tells us, a giant monster man (fifteen feet tall apparently) appears to lift up cars and throw them around, and when the police fire upon it, the bullets have no effect. The monster's size varies significantly from panel to panel, but the basic imagery shows a distinctive influence of King Kong.
At the end of its rampage, the monster jumps into the back of a truck and escapes, while Bruce decides its definitely the work of Professor Strange and that he must stop him. The monster appears again the next day, stealing more scenes from Kong, and once more escaping in a truck. Batman follows in the Batplane until the truck enters a farmhouse outside of the city. Batman acknowledges it is probably a trap, but enters anyway...
...And is instantly captured by three hulking monster men and brought to their master, Hugo Strange. Batman asks Strange to reveal his plan, "a dying man's last request", and Strange willfully does so. I'm not sure if I should take that scene straight, or if the villain revealing his plan was a tired old cliche even by this point. Either way, Strange reveals the monster men are created by a serum that accelerates growth glands, the side effect of which is decreased intelligence. He uses the monsters merely as distractions, so that he can rob banks while the police are kept busy. Strange then removes Batman's utility belt and injects him with the growth serum. Strange exposits that the serum takes eighteen hours to take effect, then has Batman knocked out.
Batman wakes up the next day with a dramatic fifteen minutes to spare until the serum takes effect, while Strange once again sends his men out with the monsters. Batman escapes his cell by mixing two explosive chemicals he keeps in his boots. He then proceeds to punch Strange out a window, off a cliff, and into the sea, pausing to wonder if "this is really the end of Professor Hugo Strange?"
He's attacked by three monster men, but deals with them all expertly (including causing two of them to kill each other) and then with five minutes to spare cooks up an antidote to the serum using Strange's lab and cures himself.
Then its time for vigilante justice as Batman swoops down upon the criminal trucks in the Batplane firing his machine gun while intoning to himself, "Much as I hate to take human life, I'm afraid THIS TIME its necessary!" The three men inside killed, the truck crashes, and the monster man inside escapes out the back. Batman ropes him up and essentially strangles him to death by hanging him by the neck from the flying Batplane. He then proceeds to find the second truck, kill all the men in it, and follow after the final monster man.
But with Batman in a plane and a fifteen foot tall monster on the loose, Finger and Kane couldn't resist one final King Kong rip-off, and so the monster man climbs the Empire State Building and is shot down by Batman, who wonders if Hugo Strange will ever resurface.
My Thoughts: Its interesting to note that the last Batman story without Robin is also the last Batman story where the Dark Knight kills anybody, and one of the last Batman stories in the original "dark, mysterioso" mode for the character. There are a few noirish tales after this one, but really this is the last really dark Batman story until Neal Adams and Dennis O'Neil revised the character in the late sixties. Seriously, though, Batman kills eight people in this story -- the Joker only killed four in his first appearance! Brian Azarello thinks its a great idea to bring back this version of Batman, and is teaming him up with Doc Strange I believe in a new mini-series -- but I think at the end of the day taking the gun away from Batman was a good call on Finger and Kane's part.
The Art: This is another really prime effort from Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson -- the art is evocative, moody, and atmospheric. There are frames of Batman and Strange in this story that are really quite well done. It's the last great hurrah of vigilante Batman before Bob slowly changed him into the square-jawed crusader of justice he would become under Dick Sprang's pencil.
The Story: This story idea is so bizarre that its no wonder its the one most associated with the Golden Age Hugo Strange as opposed to his other schemes. However, King Kong must've been on re-release at the time for filmaniac Finger to be stealing so many beats from it.
Notes and Trivia: Final time Batman kills anybody (on purpose?), final solo Batman tale until 1969.
Batman Body Count: 20 at least.

"The Cat"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: Some old broad named Mrs. Travers is having a big soiree on her yacht. She actually announces in the paper that she will be bringing her famous emerald necklace and that there will be a masquerade party. In my opinion, she deserves to be robbed, but Bruce Wayne thinks he should send Dick Grayson to guard the jewels, because he has "another job to do first!"
With his various connections, Bruce gets Dick a job as a steward on the yacht, for Robin's very first solo mission. Dick does some eavesdropping and discovers that Travers has a nephew who is always borrowing money, and a doctor who always gambles his money away and a brother who loses big on the stock market. Dick deduces that "this yacht isn't the safest place in the world for a necklace until a half a million dollars!"
Dick observes the nephew toss a note over the edge of the boat, but the wind picks it up and blows it over to Dick, somehow. The note reads "Keep your aunt away from room. Will be by then," and it is signed "The Cat". But before Dick can do anything, Mrs. Travers runs out screaming that her necklace has been stolen. Geez, Robin, Batman would've solved the entire case by now. Travers' private detective has been killed, but luckily just at that moment the coast guard arrives to save the day!
But then the "coast guard" turns out to simply be mobsters after the necklace, unaware they've been beaten to the punch. But that doesn't stop them from robbing everything else -- until Dick springs into action with a trademark Robin tackle! (Which consists of flinging himself headfirst into someone's butt for some reason). The mobsters, not being retards, start shooting at Dick with tommy guns, but he dives into the ocean and they assume him to be shot and drowned.
Somehow, Dick manages to change into his Robin suit while underwater, meanwhile the thugs are getting ready to leave just as a high-powered speedboat pulls up to the yacht. A figure jumps off the boat and lands on deck -- it's the Batman!
We then begin a two-page lesson in how to write didactic literature for children, as Batman announces that he's going to "show the kids of America just how yellow you rats are without your guns!" Instead of wondering what the hell Batman's talking about and shoot him, the crooks agree to lower their weapons and fight Robin to help Batman prove a point beyond the fourth wall.
Robin easily beats up all the crooks, and Batman turns to the reader and says "Well, kids, there's your proof! Crooks are yellow without their guns! Don't go around admiring them - rather do your best in fighting them, and all their kind!"
Thanks, Batman. This from the guy who shot down twelve people in the previous story with a machine gun.
Now that all the crooks are stopped, Robin remembers to mention the note with "The Cat"'s signature on it, as well as the upcoming masquerade ball, and the fact that the necklace is still missing. Robin concludes that it's either the nephew, the doctor, or the brother. Batman rofls because he's already figured it out despite only being onboard a few minutes.
Meanwhile, at the masquerade, Travers' nephew asks old woman Peggs why she isn't dressed up -- turns out she's too old for that sort've thing, and her ankle hurts. THEN THE BATMAN SHOWS UP! And is immediately awarded first prize in the costume contest. He then proceeds to return all the stolen property at the ball, before the fire alarm suddenly goes off and everyone bolts for the door. As everyone runs off, Batman notices that Miss Peggs as awfully nice legs for an old woman. Wow, Batman. This is a side of you I've never seen before.
The captain announces it was simply a false alarm, while Miss Peggs realizes the Batman is after her just soon enough for Robin to dive tackle her!
Then, in a classic Scooby Doo manoeuvre, the pulls off Miss Pegg's mask to reveal -- The Cat!! She protests to this treatment, resulting in the hilarious Bat-quip: "Quiet or Papa spank!" Revealed to be a beautiful young woman with dark hair, the Cat asks "Haven't you ever seen a pretty girl before?"
The Cat had hidden the necklace in the false bandage for her ankle. She tries to seduce Batman, bring him in as her partner and split the take, but while tempted, Batman rejects her offer. The two partners take The Cat back to the wharf in the speedboat, but Batman leaves the Cat unhandcuffed, and she jumps off the boat and escapes. Robin tries to stop her, but Batman "clumsily" bumps into him, and when confronted by Robin responds with "hmmm, nice night, isn't it?"
The story ends with the Batman absentmindedly daydreaming about the Cat, and a promise for a full-page picture of Batman and Robin on the next page -- instead we get an extra bonus story first!
My Thoughts: So this is the "classic first appearance of Catwoman", eh? Well, to be quite honest, it kinda sucks. The focus seems much on the "first solo Robin story" aspect, and the Cat is only introduced in the last two pages. Kane said he created the character to introduce some interesting temptation and love interest for Batman other than the standard comic book damsel in distress -- in this way, she fulfills the "femme fatale" role in a classic film noir plot. But she seems to be a last minute addition to the story -- undeveloped, an interesting cliffhanger for further use, but not at all defined here, other than having a sultry, spitfire personality.
The Art: I think there is a definite split here in the art style between this story and the two previous stories in the issue. Things are more blocky, the lines are thicker -- this is the style of Batman that would persist throughout the nineteen-forties, and I believe shows a growing influence of Jerry Robinson on the look of the strip. The key way to tell the difference is the appearance of Batman himself: the ears get shorter, his jaw becomes squarer, the areas on his costume coloured blue or black begin to slowly shift (until the sixties when the only black left will be his face and the underside of his cape).
The Story: Basically this tale has three sections: Robin's first solo mission, "The More You Know", and The Cat. The first element is really rote and feels like a Hardy Boys book or something. The lesson from Batman to the kids of America is the very first time Batman ever speaks out against guns -- but I prefer Frank Miller's "this is the weapon of the enemy. We do not use it" version, personally. And as mentioned before, The Cat seems like a last minute addition designed to pucnh up an otherwise completely forgettable tale. Yawn.
Notes and Trivia: First appearance of the Cat(woman), first Robin solo mission, originally designed to be the last story in Batman #1.

"The Joker Returns"
Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: So apparently it's been less than two days since the Joker was arrested and put in jail to await trial. Which allows for barely enough time for the previous two stories -- but then I suspect the Hugo Strange one is meant to take place before Detective #38.
Angry that anyone would lock up one as smart as him, the Joker escapes by mixing chemicals stored in two false teeth he has been wearing -- the combination yields an explosion in the prison wall and soon the Joker is free again. News breaks over the radio, and is heard by Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson.
Meanwhile, the Joker makes it to his hideout -- a laboratory hidden in an abandoned crypt in an old cemetery. He's soon up to his regular tricks, as he threatens to kill Police Chief Chalmers at ten o'clock.
The police form a cordon to protect their chief -- but when was the last time that worked? Oh, right - never. The chief receives a telephone call, from the Joker no less, and then dies of Joker venom poisoning. Turns out the Joker had planted a poisoned dart in the receiver, and when he yelled into the phone the vibrations shot the dart into the Chief. That doesn't sound physically possible to me, but if I was a ten-year old American kid in the spring of 1940 I'd probably think that was pretty clever.
Soon the Joker is on a roll, stealing paintings and jewels and leaving a trail of smiling death in his wake. The Batman decides to go into action.
The Joker is going to steal the Cleopatra necklace from the city's museum. He emerges from the casket of a mummy and applies the Joker gas to the police guard -- but then Batman appears! The two battle for a few panels but the Joker manages to deal a glancing blow with a mace that is drawn curiously like an axe. Anyways, the Joker gets away, while the police back-up finds the Batman unconscious.
Eager to arrest the notorious vigilante, the lead officer makes a move to remove Batman's mask -- but the Batman suddenly regains consciousness, attacks the police, and makes a clean getaway.
Meanwhile, a reformist politician (which in forties-speak means disingenuous rabble rouser) named Edgar Martin makes speeches to the effect that the police are incompetent in being unable to catch the Joker, and that the public should take the law into its own hands. So, of course, the Joker marks him for death -- this time killing his victim from poison-tipped playing cards, all while Martin is being guarded by the police. Hmm, maybe they are incompetent.
Commissioner Gordon is certainly worried. He's afraid he's going to lose his job if the Joker isn't captured soon. Good thing his friend Bruce Wayne has an idea. Bruce suggests Gordon place publicity for the Fire Ruby in the newspapers, having noticed that most of the Joker's crimes revolve around gems. Gordon agrees -- unaware that this ploy is going to become a standard Bill Finger writing trope to draw a villain into the open. *Ahem*
The Joker is unable to resist, of course, despite suspecting it all to be a trap. He shows up, but is soon surrounded by police. He shoots his way out, but is followed by Robin. However, he pulls an awesome manoeuvre and punches Robin off the side of a building, leaving him literally hanging from a flagpole (is it just me, or are there more flagpoles on the sides of buildings in comics than in real life? They never seem to have any flags on them either). Joker doesn't hear Robin hit the ground, so he makes it to ground level to check around -- but is ambushed by the Batman. He aims for Batman's head, knowing he wears a bulletproof vest under his suit, but Robin jumps off his flagpole perch and takes Joker out.
Joker pulls a knife on the Batman, but our hero dodges, and the Joker actually stabs himself in the chest. Then we are treated to perhaps Bill Finger's greatest Joker moment -- for the Joker, accidentally killing himself appears to be the greatest punchline of all, as he begins to laugh maniacally, screaming "HA! HA! HA! The Joker is going to die! HA! HA! The laugh is on the Joker! HA! HA! Laugh, clown, laugh! HA! HA! HA! Ha-ha-ha-ha..."
Batman declares the Joker dead, while Robin notices the fiend is still smiling. "Yes," replies Batman, "and when the flesh is gone the grinning skull will still carry the sign of the Joker -- into eternity!"
As the police arrive, the two crime-fighters dash off, while an ambulance is called for the dead maniac.
But what's this? The doctor finds the Joker is not dead! And what more -- he is going to live!!!
We are then treated to "Robin's Code" for young boys (Readiness, Obedience, Brotherhood, Industriousness, Patriotism) and the full-page splash of Batman and Robin promised at the end of the Cat story.
My Thoughts: Okay, so it's my belief this story was originally meant for a later issue, and bumped up to this one at the last minute. For one thing, having both the first and "last" Joker stories in the same issue seems like a waste of the character. For another, the Batman and Robin splash page was promised at the end of the Cat story, but appears after this one. And finally, the art in this story seems very rushed, suggesting it was not given enough time for completion.
The Joker was originally meant to die at the end of this story, having killed himself it would allow Batman to be innocent of murder but at the same time not leave an unconscionable serial killer always on the loose, which Finger felt would make Batman look ineffectual over time. It is for this reason that the Joker is constantly linked with death imagery in the story -- the crypt, the mummy, narration comparing him to a Phantom, etc -- he's a dead man walking.
But editor Whitney Ellsworth decided the character was too good to lose -- after all, the Joker was the first foe in Batman comics who had really been worthy of the title character.
It was a good call -- as the Joker has gone on to be Batman's most popular foe, reinterpreted and brought back from the dead countless of times by countless comics writers and artists over seventy years of publishing, as well as appearing in multiple television series, cartoons, movies, and video games.
The Art: As mentioned earlier, the art in this story appears hastily done, from missing backgrounds to the final "Joker's alive!" panel (which, by the way, established for the first time that the Joker's skin was white all over, and it wasn't just make-up). The best panel in the story is one of the guards in the museum on patrol, with a use of black and white contrast that resembles the later work of Frank Miller.
The Story: The writing, on the other hand, is excellent, feeling like a real part two to the earlier story. The Joker's murders continue to be creative and eerie, and the ending is a disturbing classic that would be echoed in Miller's death for the Joker in The Dark Knight Returns. Christopher Nolan stated he based his Joker on these first two stories -- one can only imagine what the reaction would've been if Heath Ledger had stabbed himself and died at the end of The Dark Knight. Meanwhile, I liked the return of Commissioner Gordon, as well as the continuing subplot of Batman on the run from the police. All around a good effort from Bill Finger.
Notes and Trivia: The first escape of the Joker from prison, the first "death" of the Joker, and the first "resurrection" of the Joker.
Joker Body Count: 15