Monday, November 21, 2011

Detective Comics #29 (July 1939)

Bob Kane's caped detective, the Bat-Man, had lasted two issues of Detective Comics, but still had yet to truly make a lasting impression. He was unique in his oddly dark and macabre costume and his grim and determined method of crime fighting, but had so far fought only the likes of jewel thieves and murderers. To succeed, he would need a foe worthy of his mettle, someone as weird and morbid as himself.
Meanwhile, DC Editor Whitney Ellsworth had grown annoyed by the tendency of writer Bill Finger to turn in his scripts at the last minute, or late. In the Golden Age there was no such thing as a star writer and publishers didn't let writers take three year breaks between issues. (Yes, I'm still looking at you, Kevin Smith.) So Ellsworth dismissed Finger from the Bat-Man feature until he could get his act together, and Gardner Fox was brought in as the new writer. Fox is probably the most prolific writer of the Golden and Silver Ages of Comics, and is responsible for creations like the Golden and Silver Age Hawkmen, the Golden Age Flash, the Justice Society of America, and the Justice League of America. His first stint on the Bat-Man would prove to be influential as well, and in Detective Comics #29 he would create the very first member of what would become the infamous Batman Rogues Gallery. Who is this fiend? The Joker? The Scarecrow? Ra's al Ghul? Dr. Daka?? No, it is the insidious.... DR. DEATH!!! "Who," you ask? Read on, my friend, for the tale of how...

"The Batman Meets Doctor Death" (gosh, I love Golden Age titles)
Writer: Gardner Fox
Artist: Bob Kane
Synopsis: First off, he's no longer The Bat-Man. Just, The Batman. No hyphen. Not sure if that was Gardner Fox, or Bob Kane, or Ellsworth, or whoever the letterer was this month, but thank Zod. "The Bat-Man" just looks awkward. Like filler. The Batman can stand next to Superman and feel like he's just as cool. But is he? Maybe when Gardner Fox is done with him. Which brings us to this month's story.
We begin in the study of Doctor Karl Hellfern, who, deciding that name isn't ominous enough, will go by the moniker of Doctor Death for the remainder of the story. He's wearing the same monocle/goatee combo as Frenchy Blake from last month, but also sporting some wicked pointed ears and a tuxedo. Clearly he's independantly wealthy, and he promptly summons his servant, Jabah. Jabah turns out to be a massive hulking Sikh (judging by the turban), which is never really explained. This is the Golden Age. Turns out the good Doc has finished his experiments on deadly pollens and decided that the best way to use this knowledge is to demand the wealthy of the world pay tribute to him or else die. And if I were a doctor who just discovered flower love juice that kills people, that would be my immediate plan, too, I think. What else would you do, really?
However, Dr. Death realises that the Batman would naturally try to stop him, and thus must be destroyed. Which is actually a very proactive attitude for a supervillain. "Hey, I live in a city with a superhero. Let's kill the hero first, and then commit evil!" So Dr. Death lures the Batman into a trap the only way he knows how -- by placing an ad in a newspaper. A massive ad addressed directly to Batman. Anyone else feeling our good Doctor was dropped on the head as a child?
Bruce Wayne reads the notice (why is a billionaire reading the classifieds??), which directs him to pick up a letter at the post office addressed to John Jones. Luckily for Wayne, the Martian Manhunter won't show up in Gotham for another 14 years, so the letter is all his. Not wearing any kind of disguise, Bruce shows up at the post office and asks for the letter which anyone who reads a newspaper would know is meant for Batman. Way to protect the ol' secret identity there, Batman. The letter tells Batman where Dr. Death means to plan a murder, so off goes the Batman in his red sedan to stop the fiend! I can't wait for a Batmobile, the sight of Batman driving around in a ditzy little car is just too comical. Gardner Fox, meanwhile, gives the Batman his first utility belt gadgets -- exploding gas pellets (classic) and suction cups (lame).
The Batman scales the building he's been sent to with the suction cups (lame) and comes in through some unlocked French doors. Bob Kane must've liked this panel because he would improve and reuse it several times throughout the Golden Age. Of course, it's a trap, and our hero is attacked by two gunmen who he soundly defeats. He demands to know who sent them, but they say he'll kill them if they talk. Our hero replies that he'll kill them if they don't. Luckily, wholesale murder isn't necessary as Jabah shows up and announces they are working for Dr. Death before promptly shooting the Batman! In the arm! He's even shown bleeding and everything! Call Dr. Werthram! Luckily, he has the sense of mind to throw the gas pellets at Jabah and jump through the window to escape. After changing back to Bruce Wayne, he pays the Daily Globe to put a message from Batman to Dr. Death in their paper. I wonder what the average Gothamite thinks reading these things?
Then comes one of those great "only in the Golden Age" moments. To get that nasty bullet wound healed up, Bruce goes to, and I quote, his "family doctor", since his shoulder is "beginning to ache". The Doc asks Bruce how he managed to shoot himself, especially since there are no powder marks on the flesh. Has he known Bruce long enough that the obvious question, "Why did you shoot yourself?" not seem necessary? Bruce tells the doc that he does "funny things sometimes" and that one day he'll tell him all about it. Who is this Doctor? Whatever happened to him? In a Modern Age comic this guy could get his own spin-off series, Bruce Wayne's Family Doctor. Run at least 25 issues.
Meanwhile, Dr. Death yells at his minions for failing to kill the Batman, and proceeds to order Jabah to kill John P. Van Smith with the deadly pollen (to which Jabah is immune) because he refuses to pay tribute. Waitasecond, Doc -- wasn't the whole idea to wait until the Batman was dead before committing murder, for fear he'd interfere? Oh well. I guess Mr. Van Smith's rejection letter must've been particularly harsh.
Jabah sneaks up behind Van Smith and sprays pollen at him. Truly the height of villainy right there. Luckily, Bruce Wayne just happens to be driving by and quickly grabs Van Smith and gags him. Van Smith is visibly confused, but Wayne (who must be in the same social circles) just brushes him off with a quick "no time for questions, now!" and goes after Jabah.
Upon learning the location of Dr. Death's home, the Batman breaks in and discovers the Doctor and Jabah in the laboratory. After promptly strangling Jabah to death, he chases after Dr. Death, who believes the best way out of this is to cackle wildly holding dangerous chemicals. The Batman tosses a fire extinguisher at him, which knocks the chemicals to the ground and starts a blazing inferno, ironically enough. Way to go, Batman. Way to go. As the walls burn down around him Dr. Death laughs maniacally. The Batman observes, "He has gone mad." Great detective skills. Then he calmly stands there, watching the inferno, quipping " Dr. Death!" What a guy.
But Garnder Fox it really death to the arch fiend? Well, you showed us Batman watching him die, so I say yes. But you asked me the question in the ad box for next month, so I guess no?
My Thoughts: So the best Gardner Fox could come with for a Batman villain was a mad scientist, which even by 1939 was considered a hackneyed stereotype. And while he has a cool character design, and a memorable (if racist) minion, Dr. Death has lousy motivation (shits and giggles) and a pretty lame MO (blow flower dust on people until they die. Hopefully the wind blows the right way). Both the Doc and Batman act kind've like stunned pigeons in this issue, circling around each other making weird decisions until they finally meet and one of them dies.
The Art: I would say that Bob Kane is again improving, and while his rendition of Dr. Death is quite good, it's clear from his mishapen attempt at Jabah that he has never seen a turban or a person of East Indian descent outside of pictures or books. He tries throwing Batman in some iconic poses, but his art-style is still too flat and simplistic to make anything pop, and its hard to make your character blend in with the shadows when you refuse to have an inker come in and draw those shadows.
The Story: Fox's first Bat-story is hackneyed and cliche even by Golden Age standards. The comic book medium was only four years old at this point but already mad scientists and Hindu servants were pretty old hat. Bruce Wayne practically hands out his secret identity three times in the story and Dr. Death basically does nothing but sit in a chair the whole story. We're up from six pages to ten pages this month, and yet Fox's story has actually less plot than Finger's from last month. Fox never really makes Dr. Death a threat, and wastes this introductory story, presumably assuming he has all the time in the world to make an impression with the character in the next story. But there's a reason the emphasis gets placed on first impressions, Gardner.
Notes and Trivia: First appearance of the utility belt, first appearance of Dr. Death, first time Batman fights a "supervillain".
Batman Body Count: 4...?

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