Monday, November 21, 2011

Detective Comics #28 (June 1939)

No Robin. No Batmobile. No Batcave. No Alfred. No Love Interest. No Rogues Gallery. Hunted by the police. Bob Kane's dark avenger, The Bat-Man, has appeared in just one story. But already he's a regular feature in Detective Comics, if not yet the lead feature, or even (gasp!) the only feature. There are several other stories in Detective Comics #28, but we're only looking at one -- the second Bat-Man story --

"Frenchy Blake's Jewel Gang"
Writer: Bill Finger
Artist: Bob Kane
Synopsis: The first panel reminds us that the Bat-Man is a mysterious figure whose identity remains unknown (and by unknown what we mean is that he's bored young socialite, Bruce Wayne). Which raises the question, why is bored young socialite Bruce Wayne risking his life as a costumed vigilante? Is it just because he's bored? Well, the answers to these questions are not coming in this story because this is the Golden Age and we've only got six pages to tell an exciting story, so nuts to character development!
Our story starts with a series of high stakes jewel robberies being committed. By impersonating the voice of Commissioner Gordon, Bruce Wayne learns over the phone from a stool pigeon that the man behind the robberies is Frenchy Blake. That night, as two of Frenchy's goons are finishing a robbery, they are attacked by the Bat-Man, who throws one of them over the edge of the building and beats up the other. As the police arrive, the Bat-Man makes it seem as though he was one of the gang, before escaping in the first use of his "silken rope". The papers publish that Batman is the leader of the jewel theives. Frenchy Blake reads this paper, and is revealed to us as a dapper man in a monocle and goatee (late-thirties for "villain"). Believing that now no one will be looking for him, he plans his next robbery. But the Bat-Man, who was hoping for just such carelessness, is listening outside the window, and attacks the next band of robbers as well. After beating them both senseless, he "phones" [sic] Commissioner Gordon and lets him know where to pick him up -- this is the first time the two ever interact. Then he speeds off in his red sedan to Frenchy Blake's place, surprising him. He ties Blake up and hangs him out a window, demanding a written confession -- which will become a classic Batman maneuver once Denny O'Neil restores his darker personality in the 1970s. Frenchy writes the confession, but attacks Bat-Man in a last ditch effort. The Bat-Man beats him til he can't take it anymore, and then ties him up and leaves him at police headquarters with a note. We are promised more intriguing adventures next month.
My Thoughts: This story is very pedestrian, like another day's work for the Bat-Man. It's interesting seeing the strip take its formative steps forward though, but it's also clear why the second Bat-Man story isn't exactly an oft-reprinted classic. The problem was that the Bat-Man was a weird avenger of the night, a caped vigilante leaping from roof to roof, yet so far all he's fought are hired thugs, white collar crooks, and jewel thieves. What the feature needed to thrive was to give the hero an adversary as weird and unique as him. Finger and Kane would make their first attempt in the next issue.
The Art:
Bob Kane's art is already a lot better here than last month. It's stetchier, and the characters seem less flat -- but there's still very little inkwork. The appearance of the Bat-Man has changed slightly from the last story -- his cape is more like a cape and less like two big wings, and he now lacks gloves entirely. However, there's something oddly appealing to the appearance of this early Batman -- something raw and real. He looks less like a comic book superhero and more like the "weird creature of the night" he's described as. Kane puts him in all kinds of weird, yet distinctive and memorable poses, many of which would inspire artist Paul Pope's Batman work. I also think that Bill Finger might've started taking Kane to see old silent movies. Finger was a big fan of silent and foreign movies and German expressionism, and I can see he's trying to impress some of that on Kane -- there's a panel near the end when the Bat-Man breaks in on Frenchy Blake that is absolutely brilliant and reminds of the classic German horror film Nosferatu (1922).
The Story: Bill Finger's really not doing anything special here. The Bat-Man rounds up some jewel thieves. Like last month, it's a story that could appear in any strip in Detective or Adventure Comics. Frankly, there are elements in the six-pages that don't make sense. If the Bat-Man finds out in the third panel that Frenchy Blake is behind the jewel gang, why not go after him immediately? Why go to the trouble of implication himself with the thieves when he ends up finding out Frenchy's plans by listening outside his window, which he could've done anyway? However, we do get some new elements to the Bat-Man legend here, like Bruce Wayne's ability to disguise his voice, and the very first time the Bat-Man is shown helping the police, even though he is still clearly outside the law and hunted by the cops.
Notes and Trivia: First appearance of Bat-Man's silken rope, first time the Bat-Man delivers crooks to the police, first time the Bat-Man talks to Commissioner Gordon
Batman Body Count: 2

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