Monday, November 21, 2011

Detective Comics #33 (November 1939)

Even though there's technically only one Batman story in this issue, the first two pages are completely removed from the main story and (according to DC) is written by a different scribe. This prologue is also vitally important to the Batman mythos, so I am going to discuss it separately.

"Legend: The Batman and How He Came to Be!!"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Sheldon Moldoff
Synopsis: Thomas Wayne, his wife, and son, are walking home from a movie when a mugger holds them up for the wife's pearl necklace. He shoots Thomas Wayne when he tries to defend his wife, and shoots the wife when she tries to call for help. He does not shoot young Bruce Wayne, who vows to spend the rest of his life warring on all criminals. To this end he becomes a master scientist and athlete, but needs a disguise to strike fear into the hearts of criminals. At that instant, a bat flies through the window, and Bruce Wayne becomes the Batman!
My Thoughts: These two pages finally give an origin and reason for the Batman character. DC says they were written by Bill Finger, so they must've been scripted separately from Gardner Fox's main story and then inserted as a prologue once available. These two pages manage to set Batman completely apart from the rest of the growing number of costumed heroes in comic books at the time. Most heroes, such as Superman, fought criminals simply because it was the "right" thing to do with their powers, but as Batman had no powers, there needed to be additional motivation, and this tale offers a powerful explanation for why an otherwise normal person would dress up like a bat and fight crime. The origin story is so strong, so tragic, dramatic, and iconic, that it has remained virtually unchanged for seventy years. Only the details are missing in this initial version -- Mrs. Wayne's name (Martha), the movie they were seeing (The Mark of Zorro), the name of the criminal (Joe Chill). These two monumental pages lay the foundation, tone, and inspiration for almost every incarnation of the character for the rest of his history, giving a near operatic backstory for comicdom's most determined crime fighter.
The Art: Frankly, as some of the most reprinted art in Batman territory, Bob Kane's art here is quite iconic and well-recognized. The frame of young Bruce crying, making his vow, lifting a massive dumbell over his head one-handed, sitting in his study in contemplation, and finally, silhouetted against the moon as the Batman, are all frequently copied and homaged. For these reasons and others, it has to be considered fairly spectacular art. Moody and perfect. Kane himself would revisit these panels in 1941's "The Origin of Batman" to frankly lesser results.
The Story: If indeed Bill Finger wrote these words, he's a genius. Even if he HADN'T written the first Batman story, or created the characters of Bruce Wayne and Commissioner Gordon, or helped design Batman's costume, the writing of Batman's origin alone would justify calling him the co-creator of the character, so essential has this story become to the character's psychology and history. This simple story and motivation is so powerful that it has been copied and re-used with variations for a variety of later superhero characters (such as the Punisher, whose origin is kind've a reversed Batman).
Notes and Trivia: The motherfucking Origin of Batman!!!

The second story in this issue is another large-scale, pulp-style epic by Gardner Fox, and his third attempt to create a memorable Batman villain (and most failed).

"The Batman Wars Against the Dirigible of Doom"
Writer: Gardner Fox
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Sheldon Moldoff
Synopsis: Bruce Wayne is strolling through downtown Manhatten (not yet Gotham) when a large futuristic dirigible is sighted in the sky. It emits a ray with proceeds to level most of the city. Thousands are killed. The perpetrators announce themselves as the Scarlet Horde.
Returning him, Bruce checks his files and concludes the madman in charge is one Professor Carl Kruger, who suffers from a Napoleon Complex and developed a new kind of "death-ray".
The Batman sneaks into Kruger's home, where the mad doctor is meeting with his lieutenants. His Napoleon complex is interpreted literally -- he is dressed and styled exactly as Napoleon, and his lieutenants wear Napoleonic uniforms. They announce that the Scarlet Horde has an army two thousand strong, but just as Kruger is announcing no one can stop him, in enters the Batman! Kruger escapes however, after rigging the house to explode. The Batman narrowly escapes, and trails one of Kruger's lieutenants to the docking bay of the dirigible.
The Batman sneaks inside the compound and destroys all but one of the death-ray machines. He is about to smash the last one when Kruger enters the room and shoots him. He instructs a guard to watch the body while he fetches the death-ray machine to use it to kill the Batman. He returns and explains the machine works by combining ozone gas and gamma rays. He then fires at the limp body, which disintegrates.
However! The Batman had switched places with the guard, and narrowly escapes yet again. At Wayne Manor, Bruce coats the Batplane (still drawn as a Bat-gyro) with a special chemical, and flies it at the dirigible in a suicide run. The two collide and explode, but the Batman parachutes away just in time (Phew! Losts of close calls this issue!) He is pursued by Kruger in a bi-plane but manages to get on the wing of the plane and hit Kruger with a gas pellet. Kruger is knocked out and crashes in the water, while Batman gets away.
The radio reports that the body of Kruger was recovered (implying his death) while the Batman remains at large...
My Thoughts: Ho-boy is Gardner Fox trying to get a lot out of this one. This issue is a cinematic spectacular, like some high-budget movie serial mixed with a fantastical pulp adventure. It's really over-the-top for Batman, and reminds me of the James Bond style adventures that Denny O'Neil would put the character in when he battled Ra's al Ghul in the seventies. In addition to delivering an over-the-top, action-packed, exciting adventure, Fox is clearly making a covert jab at Adolf Hitler, through the character of Carl Kruger, a German with a Napoleon complex who wishes to conquer the world. Before the US joined WWII in 1942, comic books couldn't actively attack or deal with Hitler or the Nazi party, even though the predominantly Jewish writers and artists very much wanted to have their heroic characters strike back at the facist anti-Semite. Therefore, a lot of super-hero stories from this era had their heroes punching out Hitler surrogates from fictional European countries.
The Art: Bob Kane improves with every issue and here his renderings of Wayne, Kruger, the Batman, and the destruction of Manhatten are quite dramatic and well-done. He takes to Gardner Fox's cinematic storytelling quite well and really helps lead the reader along in what is, to be blunt, a fairly ridiculous outing for the Batman. However, Sheldon Moldoff's inks are not as good as last month, perhaps because this story is less dark and moody than Batman's fight against the Monk. Luckily, Kane's linework has improved enough that he doesn't have to hide in Moldoff's inks as much.
The Story: Gardner Fox apparently likes his stories big -- he must've seen a good movie serial the weekend he wrote this. However, the fast pace of the story works to its detriment. Downtown Manhatten is leveled and thousands are killed, yet this really has no impact on the rest of the story. The Scarlet Horde suddenly has two thousand members -- there is a feeling they come out of nowhere. Additionally, the Batman takes down only the dirigible, Kruger, and the death-ray machines, doesn't that leave the rest of the army still out there? It feels like we're only reading the climax of a story, removed and tried to make stand on its own. If this story where given a Modern Age re-telling, it would probably be spread out over six issues and given more thought and depth. So I realize its somewhat beside the point to criticize a ten-page Golden Age story for feeling rushed and unexplored. Again, an example of how writers in the Golden Age produced more story on a regular basis than comic writers today. On another note, unlike his last two villains, Fox would not attempt to bring Kruger back next issue, instead leaving him dead. However, just like his last two villains, he would be brought back by Gerry Conway in 1982 (was this all Conway did on his Batman run???), renamed as Colonel Blimp (rofl).
Notes and Trivia: First and final Golden Age appearance of Dr. Carl Kruger, second time Batman uses a gun,
Batman Body Count: 7, plus however many may have been on the dirigible

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