Monday, November 21, 2011

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

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