Monday, November 21, 2011

Detective Comics #38 (April 1940)

At the end of last month's story, we were promised Batman facing off against hideous Man Monsters. On the cover of this month's issue we are introduced to "the Sensational character find of 1940: ROBIN - the Boy Wonder"! Well, then. Okay.

Convince me.

"Introducing Robin, the Boy Wonder"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson
In a small town outside the big city, at the Haly Circus, the Flying Graysons are a family team of acrobats comprised of father John, mother Mary, and son Richard. One day, young Dick overhears a group of gangsters pushing Mr. Haly to pay them protection money against "accidents", which he refuses to do. The next night, Bruce Wayne is in the audience of onlookers as the Flying Graysons perform their act. The finale of the show is the two parents performing the death-defying Triple Spin. The trick comes off fine, until the ropes snap and both acrobats plummet to their death, right in front of their son. The gangsters revist Haly, and this time he agrees to pay them.
Young Dick deduces what has happened and decides to go to the police. He is stopped however, by the Batman, who tells Dick to come with him. The young boy gets in the costumed vigilante's car and they drive off (oh, the Golden Age!). Batman explains that Boss Zucco runs all the crime in town and controls the police. If Dick were to go to them he'd be killed. Batman offers to hide Dick in his home and to assist him in his war on crime, since he empathizes with Dick's plight, given that his own parents were killed by criminals.
Dick is eager to fight crime, but the Batman warns him that it is a perilous lifestlye. Dick replies that he is not afraid, and so the Batman has him swear an oath to fight crime and corruption and never swerve from the path of righteousness.
The Batman begins training Dick, realizing that the young boy's acrobatic training makes him more agile and adept than even himself in many aspects. After many months, he adopts a costumed identity as Robin, the Boy Wonder, an identity modeled as a modern-day Robin Hood.
Dick begins to press Bruce as to when they can make their move against Zucco. Bruce replies that they are ready to return to the small town and tighten the noose around Zucco. Bruce sets Dick up in the guise of a newspaper boy, and almost immediately Dick discovers that even a cut of his money from that goes to Zucco. Dick follows Zucco's enforcers to the gangster's home, and learns many of his plans. Over the next several days the Batman busts up Zucco's protection rackets and gambling operations with much glee. He sends Zucco and his men a note (by carrier bat, no less) saying that he knows Zucco is trying to squeeze money out of a local construction company and that the Batman will be waiting for him there.
Zucco and his men go to the unfinished skyscraper to cause an "accident" to convince the company to pay up, and are ambushed by Robin, who dispatches several of the men with his acrobatics and slingshot skills. Then the Batman shows up. He manages to beat a confession out of one of Zucco's men, Blade, that Zucco paid him to put acid on the ropes at the circus. Zucco murders his lieutenant but Robin gets it on camera and this, combined with the written confession, puts Zucco behind bars.
Afterwards, Bruce asks Dick if he wants to return to circus life now that Zucco is dealt with, but Dick replies that he wants to continue fighting crime as Robin alongside the Batman.
My Thoughts: What can I say? This is an all-time classic story. It's been repeated and retold many, many times - in the "Batman: Year 3" storyline from Batman #436-439, in Legends of the Dark Knight #100, in the Batman: Dark Victory series, in cartoons such as Batman: The Animated Series and The Batman, and in film in Batman Forever. It's most recent retelling has been in the much lambasted All-Star Batman & Robin series from Frank Miller and Jim Lee. And the many critics who have hated that series may be surprised to find, upon reading Detective Comics #38, that it is one of the more accurate retellings of the tale. For example, in the original tale it is the Batman who first confronts young Dick, taking him in his car back to his lair, training him to become his partner, and only later revealing himself as Bruce Wayne. In fact, there is never any mentioning of Bruce Wayne legally adopting Dick as his ward, rather the young boy merely chooses to stay with Wayne. These details are retained in Frank Miller's version. In later adaptations, Dick is sent to a Gotham orphanage after the murders, and adopted by Bruce (or alternatively immediately taken in by Bruce as part of a witness protection program, thanks to Bruce's friendship with police Commissioner Gordon). Only later does Dick discover Bruce is Batman and only with much reluctance from Batman does he join his crusade as Robin. These elements were added to improve realism and help ease the reader into the idea of the Batman allowing a ten-year-old boy to join his crusade. Because Miller retains the idea that it is Batman who recruits Robin, it keeps the Dark Knight in line with Miller's interpretation of him as a borderline-insane fanatic willing to do anything to further his goals - an interpretation that became very popular with writers in the late 90s.
Another detail from the original story that Miller retained was the Robin's identity is inspired by Robin Hood. Miller explains this by saying that Dick's father watched the old Errol Flynn version with him as a kid, which links Dick to Bruce in that Bruce's crime-fighting inspiration was the Tyrone Power Zorro film of the same era. Later retellings mostly associated the Robin identity with the flying bird, linking the Robin to the Bat as animal identities. This made reasons why Dick would adopt the name harder to explain -- with the Schumacher film conjuring up an elaborate back-story for the nickname and the Jeph Loeb version explaining that his mother always felt he was "bobbin' along", which is a pretty corny explanation for a superhero name.
As for why Robin was brought into the strip in the first place, the impetus seemed to come from writer Bill Finger. He found it frustrating getting development out of the Batman character when he had nobody to talk to. In order to get the hero's thought processes out, he wanted him to have a foil -- specifically, a Watson to his Sherlock Holmes. Bob Kane agreed, and came up with the idea of making him a young boy, so that the mainly young readers of the comic would have a character to identity with. And indeed it's a fantastic idea, as young boys might thrill to the adventures of the dark, crusading hero -- but then to be able to imagine themselves fighting alongside him? Fantastic! And it certainly proved successful, as the sales of Batman comics doubled within a year, and soon many other heroes gained kid sidekicks, such as Captain America and Bucky.
Jerry Robinson, the inker, also claims that Robin was his creation (similar to claims about the Joker). He ascribes Finger's Watson reasoning to himself (which makes little sense since Robinson wasn't even vaguely responsible for the writing of the strip). He also claims he came up with the name Robin (Jerry Robinson, right?) and designed the costume based on N.C. Wyeth's illustrations for The Adventures of Robin Hood. Now, maybe Robinson came up with the name, but the idea that he designed the costume is a laugh when you look at Robinson's solo artistic skill minus Kane's linework (the cover of Detective Comics #60, for example) or look at Wyeth's artwork, in which Robin Hood's look in no way resembles the Boy Wonder's. Frankly, as the only living member of the Golden Age Batman team, Robinson has it in his power to claim anything he wants - something he must of learned from Bob Kane, who claimed sole authorship of all Batman comics for the first thirty years of the character's existence.
The Art: Okay, so the art here is really great. I'm tempted to say it's the best art in the Batman feature so far. In fact I will say so. Kane and Robinson really put a ton of effort into this issue, with intricate line-work, shadows, and just a really gritty, urban, feel. Boss Zucco feels like something out of the Fleischer Studios (oh, a Fleischer Studios Batman would've been awesome, eh? Oh, man...) and the whole atmosphere is just lower to the ground and really helps the feel of the strip. Meanwhile, all the characters are given a lot more character and dimension here, like the puffs of smoke coming off from Zucco's face at all times. The depictions of Batman and Robin are purely fantastic and really just sell both characters. I'm phenomenally impressed.
The Story: Unlike the Batman, Robin debuts in an origin story. Bill Finger knew he would have to really sell the idea of a joking, smiling adolescent partner for his dark, driven avenger to make it work. To link Robin with Batman he makes young Dick also a victim of crime, which helps us believe the Batman would take such a youth under his wing. He makes Dick a circus acrobat in order to give a backing for why such a young boy would be able to keep pace with the highly-trained Batman. He specifies that Dick trains with Bruce for many months before going out, and still has Bruce scold Dick for being too impetuous in battle. Another great touch is to get the Batman fighting the world of true organized crime, with its hands in the pockets of the police and government. This sort've urban, avenging storytelling is perfect for Batman, a much better fit than jewel thieves or other small-time crooks. It's a classic story that's remained virtually untouched in its basic outlines for sixty-nine years. But what happened to that Monster Men story we were promised?
Notes and Trivia: First appearance of Dick Grayson - AKA Robin, the Boy Wonder; first and final Golden Age appearance of Boss Zucco; first battle on an unfinished skyscraper, first time Batman reveals his secret identity
Robin Body Count: 1!

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