Monday, November 21, 2011

Detective Comics #36 (February 1940)

On the cover, Batman battles the Mongols from last issue. Inside, he battles his first truly memorable (and long lasting) opponent.

"Professor Hugo Strange"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: On routine patrol, the Batman sees a man pushed out of a moving car and shot. He listens to the dying man's last words, "strange fog", but is chased by the police who arrive on the scene and assume the Batman was responsible.
Back at Wayne Manor, Bruce deduces that the man was not talking of a strange fog, but rather of a fog caused by a man named Strange, Professor Hugo Strange! If you want to know how he deduced it, it was basically as I just described. Apparently, Bruce already knows of Professor Strange as a "scientist, philosopher, criminal... and greatest organizer of crime in the world", to which he adds "little is known of him". Okaaay. Also, Bruce took a notebook off the dying man, which includes a list of locations and names him as an agent of the FBI. Bruce vows to clear Batman's name of the FBI agent's murder and solve the mystery of the fog.
Meanwhile, Professor Hugo Strange is ruminating evilly in his evil high chair in front of his evil fireplace when one of his minions reports on the death of the G-Man. Strange is worried about about the interference of the Batman, and decides to step up the timetable and begin tonight.
The next night the whole city is blanketed in a fog "such as one would find only in England", which results in numerous robberies taking place and the police being unable to pursue the criminals due to the thick fog.
At home, Bruce hears a radio report about the robberies, whose locations match those on the list, as well as a side story about the kidnapping of a prominent electrical engineer. Bruce begins to put the pieces together....
Strange's gang make a move to rob the Sterling Silver Company, but the night watchman turns out to be The Batman in disguise! The Batman explodes into a whirling dervish and pretty much destroys the gang before making a getaway. With the news of Batman's interference, Strange decides that he must concentrate on keeping the Batman out of his schemes, and decides to cut up his hand with glass to accentuate the point.
When Batman shows up to the next plae on the list, he is forced into a trap and cornered by several men. The next two pages are an epic battle as the Batman tries to take on all the men at once, but is finally overpowered.
At Strange's lair he ties Batman up and whips him with a lash he had hanging on the wall. Okay, Doc.... whatever floats your boat. The Batman escapes by flexing his muscles and snapping the bands holding him (hawt?) and then gassing his enemies with a pellet from his utility belt. However, Strange is crafty enough to avoid the gas and gets Batman in a chokehold. But Batman is stronger and socks Strange out and ties him up.
With the villain dealt with the Batman discovers the giant machine powering the artificial fog, and the kidnapped scientist who created it. The machine creates artificial lightning that causes condensation in the air, generating the fog. The two of them turn off the machine and save the city. The Batman is praised by the media and people of the city, while Hugo Strange is imprisoned at the State Penitentiary, vowing escape and vengeace.
My Thoughts: Wow! Now, that was a story! This is probably the first really spectacular, memorable, cohesive Batman story. Gardner Fox tried to reach great heights with his Monk and Dirigible stories but fell short due to bad plotting. Finger here keeps things down to earth while still creating a large scale, impressive foe for Batman to face and a devilishly clever criminal scheme for him to destroy. Professor Hugo Strange is the first Batman villain to really catch on -- he'll appear in two more Golden Age stories before being retired however, before being revived by Steve Engelhart in the Bronze Age, and becoming a popular alternative Modern Age Batman villain. In this tale, he is less of the quirky psychiatrist/geneticist he'll be in those stories and is basically presented as a modern age Professor Moriarty, which at this point was a great villain characterization for the Holmesian Batman.
The Art: Big news this issue is the arrival of inker Jerry Robinson. With this addition the basic Golden Age team of Kane/Finger/Robinson is formed and it is this team that will create and shape the most enduring Batman stories of the era. Robinson's inks provide a kind of gritty, sketchy, tactile quality to the art, and really gives Kane's art a boost into a great kind of pulp-art quality. It's a huge improvement over even Sheldon Moldoff's inks and makes the art almost a joy to look at rather than a chore. Another stand-out feature this issue is Kane's character design for Hugo Strange, with his bald, misshapen head, round spectacles and bad-guy goatee, I think that this unique design became part of why people remembered Hugo Strange over other Golden Age villains. There are some great panels in this issue, including a really cool one of Batman's silouhette in the fog.
The Story: Finger manages a great feat here, which is giving Batman a powerful and effective villain while avoiding plot holes and nonsensical plotting. His story is much better written and clearly stated than past efforts, and only contains two small holes -- the first of which is that if the fog prevents the cops from following crooks, would it not also stop the crooks from escaping? The other is that Batman vows to clear his name of the G-Man's murder, which he never does. On top of everything, there are subtle changes to the characterization of Batman in this story. The city begins to regard him as a legendary fighter of crime, rather than a weird creature of the night --- also, Batman's silent, grim-faced determination has been subtly replaced with a more jocular, devil-may-care attitude, as Batman mocks the criminals he fights and jokers with them -- a precursor of the "bad puns" that would characterize the Silver Age Batman. End decision: great story, great issue.
Notes and Trivia: First appearance of Professor Hugo Strange, beginning of the Finger/Kane/Robinson team,

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