Friday, December 30, 2011

Detective Comics #43 (September 1940)

"The Case of the City of Terror"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos
Synopsis: Bruce and Dick have decided to take a "vacation from crime-hunting", which is a hilariously Golden Age idea that I could never imagine modern Bruce doing, and go on a cross-country tour in their 1936 Cord, aka the exact same car the Batman drives. Which is another hilariously Golden Age idea. But their break doesn't last long when it turns out the town that they've stopped in is filled top to bottom with corruption.
After witnessing the abusive policeforce, Bruce inquires with the locals about what is going on, but they're all too afraid to talk. Bruce decides to question Mr. Carter, the richest man in town, because bird of a feather I guess? Oddly enough, he decides to visit him as Batman, and discovers the corrupt police about to rough up Carter for speaking out against the mayor.
The Batman makes short work of them, of course, and proceeds to question Carter. He explains that Mayor Greer came to power through suspicious means and is allied with a mobster named "Bugs" Norton, and they promptly replaced all the officials with toadies and the cops with thugs and turned the town into a racketeer's paradise. There's no legal way to touch them, but luckily the Batman operates outside the law and agrees to help. He sends messages of warning to Greer and Norton (delivered by live bats, no less!) that their days are numbered. Meanwhile, Robin has been listening in on Norton's meeting, and learns of an upcoming heroin delivery!
The Batman and Robin attack the shipment (the state police would never think to check a big unmarked truck! Uh guys? Isn't that exactly the kind of thing they'd check?), and beat up all the crooks. Batman actually grabs a guy by his ankles and swings him around to knock out the others. Now THAT's how you get things done! Anyways, with the crooks all tied up, the duo confiscates the dope. And here's where I have to make a point about how this is really indicative of one of the key difference between Golden Age and Silver Age comics -- yeah, these stories are being written for kids, but there's really no self-censorship here. It's sort've shocking to read about Batman taking down heroin dealers in NINETEEN-FORTY but the fact is that teens and young adults were reading these things too -- as WWII came to the US, comics in fact got a big audience with overseas GIs. Whereas in the Silver Age there was NO references to drugs allowed, heck -- you could hardly even have someone die in a storyline!
Now that Norton's more, let's say adult, shenanigans are fooled, Batman decides to send Robin to destroy all the slot machines that Norton is using to get the town's kids hooked on gambling. Apparently Batman has NO tolerance for such things, smashing them with an axe and having Robin tell the kids that he would never play such machines. (Apparently, despite being fugitives of the law, Batman and Robin are already nationally well known and respected figures. One of the kids talks about seeing pictures of Robin in a magazine!)
Then Batman goes after the corrupt cops, taking them down one at a time, until they've all gone "missing". Robin, meanwhile, works with the kids of the town to produce a leaflet to turn the town against Norton and Greer, and Batman even gives a speech in a music hall encouraging the out of work former cops to take their town back by force! Holy Leninists, Batman?
The town complies, and soon everything is back to normal -- thanks to violence!
But there's a loose end to tie up -- Greer and Norton! Robin intercepts Greer while he's trying to escape, while Batman does his standard breaking and entering following by severe beat down on Norton. The townspeople are grateful, as Batman reveals all the crooks are tied and gagged in Carter's cellar, awaiting the state police. With everything turned right, Bruce and Dick get back in the car and resume their "vacation".
As a final gesture, the town unveils a statue to honor Batman and Robin -- y'know, two fugitive vigilantes.
My Thoughts: Wow! Okay! Here's something fun and different! The idea of Batman versus corruption, specifically a mob-run police force, is really gangbusters (no pun intended) and this must have been a story Frank Miller looked at when writing the seminal Year One storyline. It's a really great idea and plays on the natural notion that Batman is someone who breaks the law in order to be a hero, therefore having him fight villains who are supposedly upholding the law is a natural conflict. At the time this was written, mobsters were still high profile, almost celebrity like individuals who had a lot of sway over public perception. For example, Bugsy Siegal had just been acquitted for the murder of his "Murder Inc" syndicate operatives. Comics like these come from a time when the idea of a town run by the mob wasn't an unbelievable idea. It also explains the somewhat pedantic nature of some of the storytelling and dialogue -- with Batman and Robin serving as a heroic ideal to the children reading the comics to stand up to crooks and bullies and to fight them instead of idolizing them, even if that means standing alone. This theme, that crime does NOT pay and encouraging children to abandon the idea of worshipping gangsters, is a recurring one in early Batman comics, and makes me really laugh at Dr. Wertham's later notion that reading these comics was turning young children into delinquents. Another interesting notion introduced here is that Batman and Robin have become known to the public, and are respected as heroes despite their outlaw status. This is a change from Kane and Finger's initial "mysterious avenger of the night" character, and the beginning of a slow transformation that by the end of the decade would have Batman placed in a much more standard benevolent superhero kind of role.
The Art: Pretty good, standard work from Kane and Robinson here, although Kane swipes the cover of Detective #33 for Batman and Robin's assault on the heroin delivery. Still, for the most part this is good, exciting Batman vs. gangsters stuff. Roussos is beginning to settle in, his penchant for filling panels with all black backgrounds adding a kind've darkness to the strip -- which is getting brighter all the time in the foreground art -- and will soon earn him the nickname "Inky".
The Story: Ah, I am SO glad Bill Finger decided to do something different for this ish! The stories had really been following a formula since #40 and it was refreshing to read something breaking out of that format. And this story is an epic! I mean, the idea of Bruce and Dick going on a cross-country crime-fighting roadtrip against smalltown corruption is something that Grant Morrison would probably do like four to six issues of in a modern comic, if not an entire damn series! That being said, there is one element I don't like about this story: it's not in Gotham. I mean, I understand why. For one thing, Gotham isn't even the main setting of the series yet. At this point, we're still in an undefined, vaguely fictionalized New York. So saying that all of New York is corrupt and having Batman fight that would be a pretty large statement, and having Batman accomplish something like that in eleven pages would probably be too big a story. Also, while the City police are against Batman, Gordon has been established as a competent and honest official who knows Batman is one the side of justice -- so it would be hard to do this story there and keep Gordon's integrity as a character intact. But I just don't like Batman stories set outside Gotham! I just don't. Maybe it's an irrational thing, but despite young Bruce vowing to war on "all crime", I've always felt Batman was tied to the City. I've never liked globe-trotting Batman stories, they've never felt right to me, unless there was some personal reason (like Batman going after the Monk and Julie in #31-32) And the whole notion of Bruce and Dick going on a vacation from crime fighting is pretty unthinkable, although that's probably just me applying my 21st Century ideas about the character. I mean, it's probably more a vacation for Dick's sake, given that he's like ten years old or so, and his parents have been dead for only like five months, and since then Batman's just been continually putting him in life-threatening scenarios. So he probably needs a break.
But anyways, outside my metatextual analysis, I have to say this was a great story and a much-needed change of pace at this point.

No comments:

Post a Comment