This cover always reminds me of Frank Miller's Batman, for some reason. Something about seeing the Dark Knight somewhat sinisterly smiling as he watches his young aide (or "soldier") take down a bad guy. But on the other hand, it's also a very in character Finger/Kane Batman, who by this time in the series has lightened up quite a bit from his initial portrayal as a harsh avenger of the night. This transformation began, of course, with the introduction of Robin himself, and has been Batman gaining a bit of a quipping, daredevlish personality as opposed to the grim Shadow-like character of his initial appearances.
"The Case of the Prophetic Pictures!"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: We open with a great Bob Kane symbolic splash page depicting a green skeleton in a white cloak painting a picture of the Batman's death. This is a great visual, suggesting a great idea, but unfortunately the story doesn't 100% follow through.
This time, we open with Bruce Wayne attending a party of wealthy socialites being hosted by a Mr. Wylie. The occasion of the party is that Wylie has brought a genius young artist over from Europe named Antal (the implication is more that Wylie has rescued Antal from Europe, where WWII was already in full swing). While Bruce is at the party, we get some snide comments from the other guests about what a lazy and useless fellow he is. This is some good character development work that is resulting from the growing page count the feature is receiving. The idea of Bruce Wayne as lazy, useless, layabout playboy is very much a Golden Age one. It's roots are in the adopted identity of Lamont Cranston assumed by The Shadow, and it's currently getting a comeback in Chris Nolan's recent movie interpretation of Wayne's public persona, although he's more openly abrasive there. In the comics themselves, Wayne transformed into a publicly respected philanthropist in the SIlver and Bronze Ages, before becoming essentially a powerhouse recluse CEO in the Modern Age.
Anyways, Wylie is working with manager Bleek to turn Antal into a fashionable society portrait painter, even though Antal prefers working on landscape art. This is because society portraits will bring a repuration faster. As they explain this to Bruce, a crazy looking man bursts in and begins yelling at Antal. This is Mikoff, a rival artist whose sister loved Antal and committed suicide when Antal left her. Seems he came to the party just to threaten Antal.
Bruce follows Antal outside, where he has an argument with a man named Ryder in one panel and Drake in the next. Apparently Antal is having an affair with Ryder/Drake's wife. It is clear to Bruce that things are not all right with Antal's new life in the US.
Antal soon becomes a hit society portrait artist, as planned, but strange things start happening. His portraits start becoming targets of bizarre vandalism. The portraits will have knives sticking out of them, bullet holes in them, darts in the neck, etc. Soon after these vandalisms appear, the individual in the portrait is killed in the same manner. This happens several times, until one man, Mr. Warren, demands police protection after his portrait is done. Gordon arranges a cordon of men to be placed outside Warren's rooms (he lives in a penthouse), since this method has been so successful in the past, lolol.
Batman decides its time he gets involved, and so scales the walls of the skyscraper (with suction cups no less!) He enters at the top in a frame copying art from Detective #28, but then Kane loved swiping panels. Anyways, he discovers Warren has been killed. The police burst in, to find Batman with the murdered man, and we get an always fun Batman vs. the Police sequence that ends in Batman escaping in his suped-up 1936 Cord.
A few days later, Bruce visits Gordon, and of course Antal comes bursting in at the same time. Damn, Bruce always plans these visits conveniently doesn't he? Anyways, Antal is upset because all these murders are natually causing him to lose clients. Gordon believes someone is intentionally trying to ruin Antal, but the list of suspects is pretty long: Mikoff, Drake, Bleek, etc. Then, Wylie bursts into Gordon's office! Apparently the commissioner of police doesn't have a secretary?
Anyways, Wylie's portrait has bullets holes in it, and Wylie himself is suffering from an injury caused by the murderer himself, who got away of course. Then a Mr. Travers bursts in, and this is starting to get ridiculous. Anyways, his portrait has an arrow through it. Travers decides he can't rely on the police and is retreating to the safety of his yacht.
Batman orders Robin to guard Travers on the yacht, and hopefully the Boy Wonder does a better job than the last few times he was put on "make sure this guy DOESN'T die" duty.
Anyways, while Robin is on the yacht, a guy wearing an artist's beret, a purple overcoat, and a green skull mask shows up, and tries to shoot Traver's with an arrow. Robin fights him, but he escapes on the speed boat that Robin used to get to the boat! Robin consoles himself that at least he saved Traver's life, but I'm sure Batman will still be pissed.
When Dick gets back, Bruce announces that he's figured out who the murderer is, and that it all has to do with the "root of all evil -- money!" Which is a pretty douchey proclamation when the sole reason you've been able to devote your life to fighting crime is that you're an old money rich New Englander. Anyways, Bruce announces he's going to have his portrait painted by Antal, obviously in a scheme to draw out the murderer. Antal is surprised, and concludes that Bruce must either be the bravest or stupidest man he's ever met.
Anyways, Bruce takes the portrait back to Wayne Manor, where it is promptly shot in the head. Bruce concludes that the best course of action is to sit in his easy chair, smoking his pipe, and wait for the murderer to come. Dick is confused.
Sure enough, green skull dude with the artist's cap shows up, and shoots Bruce (sitting in a pose stolen from Detective #33 I believe) point blank in the back of the head. At that moment, of course, the Batman bursts in, and after a customary two page fight scene, subdues the murderer! Turns out the Bruce in the chair was a dummy, with Dick inside to move the arms.
Bruce then unmasks the skeleton and it turns out to be... old man Wylie! Turns out Wylie was heavily in debt, and bought a ton of Antal's pictures for cheap in Europe, and brought Antal to the US to turn him into a star in order to raise the value of the pictures. And, because of the logic of Golden Age comics, figured the best way to raise Antal's notoriety was the prophetic murders scheme.
Wylie panics, and in order to avoid being taken to jail and disgraced, shoots himself in the head. Batman's verdict? "Much better this way". Woah, Bats. Woah.
My Thoughts: Basically, this is the exact same story as the last two issues of this book, with a masked or mystery murderer knocking off victims one at a time, while a multitude of suspects all harbour grudges, and Batman unmasks the villain Scooby-Doo style at the end. At least this time we get a neat gimmick (the paintings) and a fun visual for the villain -- although he would've been way cooler if his appearance had matched the initial splash page, which promises a kind've spectral, undead menace. Of these plots, Clayface was probably the most successful due to a good visual and a good villain name. Oh, and he's carted off to jail instead of killing himself.
The Art: Pretty standard affair from Kane and Robinson this ish, although Kane swiping from himself is pretty noticeable, and none of the "homaged" panels are as well done as the first time. The green skulled disguise Wylie uses looks pretty cool, but, again, would've looked cooler had it matched the splash page.
The Story: Again, Finger is retreading material here, and this Agatha Christie/Scooby-Doo formula is starting to get tiresome. However, I'll say this is probably the best use of it since Clayface. It's also nice to see a few non-plot related scenes of Bruce and Dick and Gordon, developing their characters and relationships if only just a little bit. It was a cool idea to make the murderer a member of the "high society" that Bruce rubs elbows in, in order to give Bruce a more natural role in the story. This is something the Bat-comics will use over and over, of course.