Monday, November 21, 2011

Detective Comics #31 (September 1939)

Okay, I have to open by saying this is a bloody magnificent cover. The combination of moody etherealness and iconic imagery makes it memorable and dynamic, and has led to it being copied at least twice. Inside this cover, we'll find the first part of DC's very first multi-part story - a story which resonates so well that it has been retold in both the Bronze and Modern Ages. The story of...

"Batman Versus The Vampire, Part One"
Writer: Gardner Fox
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Sheldon Moldoff
Synopsis: The story begins with moody, iconic imagery of the Batman patrolling the rooftops of New York (not yet Gotham) City. He spots a young woman about to attack an older man, apparently under the orders of "the Master Monk." The Batman saves the man, and discovers the young woman to be none other than Bruce Wayne's fiancée, Julie Madison. He takes her back to her apartment, and the next day Bruce takes her to a doctor. The doctor believes Julie was hypnotized, and recommends an ocean voyage to Paris as treatment (???) and later to Hungary, land of "history and werewolves!" The doc has an odd look on his face, as if he too is hypnotized - the reader can almost imagine his shifty eyes. Bruce buys Julie the ticket, but then decides to follow her as the Batman. For this purpose he has two new inventions, the Bat-gyro (a plane with the rotors of a helicopter, look it up kids), and the Baterang, which is described as being specifically designed after the Boomerang. The Batman then follows Julie's ocean liner in the Bat-gyro over the Atlantic. He leaves the Bat-gyro hovering above the ship, climbs down a rope ladder to speak to Julie, and they get attacked by a mysterious figure in a red rope with a somewhat KKK-looking hood -- it's the mysterious Monk! His hypnotic glare seems to paralyse the Batman, but he manages to throw a baterang at him, which breaks his concentration. The Batman then jumps onto the rope ladder and back into the Batgyro. Which... I suppose leaves Julie helpless to the Monk, who is still down there???
Ignoring that, the Batman soon reaches Paris, where he then searches all over town looking for clues to Julie's whereabouts, which I assume is a lot easier than just following her? And presumably much, much easier than if he'd just come with her on this trip as Bruce Wayne?? Nevertheless, he tracks her to her hotel room and jumps in through the window whereupon a GIANT GORILLA IS WAITING TO KILL HIM! Batman sidesteps the gorilla, but in doing so he somehow manages to fall down a trap door and into a giant net!
He is now suddenly in the lair of the Monk, who taunts the Batman and flips a lever to lower him into a pit of snakes. But the Batman throws his baterang, which smashs an overhead chandelier, and the Batman uses the shattered glass to cut through the ropes and out of the death trap. He runs after the monk, but is again trapped in a giant cage which also holds the GIANT GORILLA! However, Batman manages to escape by climbing up the rope that lowered the gorilla into the cage, and he proceeds to escape the building and get back into the Bat-gyro.
He then pursues a car speeding away from the building, throws gas pellets at it, and then after it crashes into a tree, recovers Julie from it and gets back into the Bat-gyro. He then sets a course for Hungary, land of werewolves and vampires. Part two next month!
My Thoughts: This is one of the all-time classic Batman stories. The first time I read it was in the first edition of The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told TPB. Yet, it really shouldn't be. It continues Gardner Fox's habit of gaping plotholes and leaps of logic, and really doesn't hold up well as a tale by itself. But there is just so much excitement and iconic action and suspense and mystery and macbre, weird details that the whole thing seems far more fantastic and exciting then a Batman comic has ever been. The fact that the tale ends with the Monk still out there, and Batman continuing to track him was a unique and unheard-of ending in comics at the time, and has the reader waiting with baited breath for next month's issue.
The Art: The art is what really sells this story. While the actual plot borders somewhat on nonsensical, Kane and Moldoff create moody, dynamic, exciting action and suspense images. The Batman looks great in these panels, with a long, swooping cape, long ears, and now longer, extended gloves. The visual design of the Monk is unique -- instead of the stereotypical Dracula look, he wears a red cloak and hood, and upon the hood a yellow skull and crossbones on the forehead. All in all it is Kane's artwork here and in part two that contributes to this story being well-remembered, and shows a definite move forward in the quality and style of the art for the Batman feature.
The Story: While Gardner Fox does deliver on his promise to introduce a foe worthy of Batman's mettle, and gives us the first truly fantastic Batman tale, his actual plotwork is shoddy at best. If Julie was being hypnotized into attacking people, why didn't the police get involved? If the doctor was obviously shifty, why take his advice to travel to Paris? What kind of prescription is that anyway? Why did the Batman not take the Monk down when he (somehow) appeared on Julie's ocean liner, instead of leaving him there to commit further evil? Luckily, Bob Kane's artwork sweeps us along the story so well that we don't really ask these questions while we're reading, happy as we are to just keep going with the story. An interesting note is how the character of Julie Madison is introduced into the strip with no introduction or development -- she's just suddenly Bruce Wayne's before-now unseen fiancee and is already the damsel in distress focus for the plot. That's the Golden Age for you. Julie will be the first of many attempts to introduce a regular love interest character into the Batman stories.
Notes and Trivia: First appearance of Julie Madison, first appearance of the "baterang" and "Bat-gyro", first appearance of the Mad Monk, first death-trap and death-trap escape, first multi-part story in comics, first unresolved ending,

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