Saturday, December 17, 2011

New York World's Fair Comics (1940 Issue)

It could be safe to say that the 1939/40 New York World's Fair is probably one of the most continually inspirational cultural events in American history. Created to inspire a country in the throes of the Great Depression, the Fair held a theme of "The World of Tomorrow", showcasing the potential of science and industry to transform our lives for the better. One of the most popular exhibits was Futurama, a GM exhibit demonstrating the "City of Tomorrow".
But the World's Fair wasn't without its share of problems. Launched as an international event in 1939, the timing wasn't exactly great for promoting international co-operation. The pavillions for Poland and Czechslovakia did not reopen for the 1940 season, for one thing.
The World's Fair was also a great opportunity for promotion. Many of the exhibits and events were corporate sponsored, and National Publications (aka DC Comics) was quick to take advantage. DC released two special length comics, one for each season, showcasing their most popular characters. The 1940 issue has the distinction of being the first comic to feature both Superman and Batman, although they figure in seperate stories. But the cover of the book certainly demonstrates how popular Robin had become in the very short time since his introduction, sharing the cover with Superman and Batman, his byline "and Robin" already becoming an almost mandatory addition to Batman's.

The format of these World's Fair comics, longer issues featuring a cross-section of DC's most popular characters, was popular, and ended up informing the format of the long-running World's Finest Comics.

"Batman and Robin Visit the 1940 New York World's Fair"
aka "The Man Who Turns Steel Into Dust"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: George Roussos
Synopsis: Bruce and Dick are out visiting the World's Fair, remarking on the notable attractions. Meanwhile, the "great West River Bridge" has suddenly melted away, collapsing into the sea. Hearing about it on the radio, Bruce orders Dick to scout over by the bridge, while he visits Commissioner Gordon.
At this point I'd like to stop and ask a question I haven't really thought about when reading these Golden Age Batman comics -- why are Gordon and Bruce friends? At this point, Gordon has never met Batman, has no alliance with him, no uneasy truce -- it seems more like that while Batman is a criminal in the eyes of the police, Gordon sort've turns a blind eye because he knows Batman is on the side of justice. As for Bruce? In this story alone Gordon remarks on how lazy and useless Bruce is, and Gordon is clearly far older than Bruce, drawn as a man in his fifties or sixties compared to Bruce's late twenties. So why the hell are they friends?
Anyways, at Gordon's office, Bruce confirms that the bridge has melted away. Just then, the head of an engineering firm bursts in, revealing a ransom note he has received threatening construction on a new bridge. Gordon tells him that it's probably a crackpot cashing in on the recent disaster, and blames the first bridge on the steel being faulty. Bruce isn't too sure, however.
Meanwhile, Dick discovers two men at the site of the destroyed bridge trying to rough up a girl. He beats up the two men, and the girl gets away, but the men claim to be detectives trying to arrest the girl. This doesn't sit well with Dick, who reports back to Bruce.
Bruce thinks the best course of action is to wait and see what happens to the bridge that was threatened. Because in case you haven't noticed, waiting around and seeing how things play out is Golden Age Batman's favourite method of crime fighting. It's less about preventing horrific crimes than it is letting them occur so he knows where and when to beat up the criminals.
Anyways, the bridge collapses and soon enough another bridge is threatened. So NOW Batman and Robin spring into action.They arrive at the "Flavin Bridge" and there is a standard two page fight scene in and around the bridge, from which Batman and Robin recover a strange device. The girl Dick saved earlier suddenly appears and announces se knows what the device is. Turns out her uncle, Dr. Hugo Vreekill (what a name!), is a mad scientist who invented a machine that melts steal with short waves! Naturally, he wishes to use this machine to extort men and become a "king of crime!" Ambitious, ain't he?
Anyways, the niece reveals her uncle's plan is to use the device to break a bunch of crooks out of prison and form a kind of criminal army. Okaaay. Anyways, Batman and Robin arrive in the Batplane at the State Penitentiary just as the breakout is occurring. They stun all the prisoners with gas bombs, beat them up, tie them up, and hop back in the Batplane before the police can arrive and arrest them.
Batman and Robin then fly in the Batplane to the under construction "Monarch Building" where Vreekill's men are attempting more sabotage. A patented two-page "Batman and Robin fight gangsters on girders" fight scene occurs, then they hop back in the Batplane and fly to Vreekill's laboratory. Batman punches Vreekill, who falls back into some equipment and ends up electrocuting himself. Batman's response? "He saved the State the job!" Yes, Golden Age Batman. He won't kill you, but he won't save you, and has no compunctions about someone else killing you either.
Dick hopes nothing else happens to interrupt checking out the World's Fair and Bruce breask the fourth wall to recommend it to the readers.
My Thoughts: So it's pretty clear to me that this is a standard Finger/Kane Batman story that was hastily repackaged into being placed in the World's Fair comic, given that the only references to the Fair are at the beginning and end of the tale. And that's somewhat unfortunate. It would have been great if the story was actually set at the Fair, especially given the somewhat unique position the Fair holds as an influence on Batman art. The oversized props and exhibits at the Fair would inspire fictional settings for Batman's adventures for decades to come, perhaps reaching a zenith under the team of Finger and Dick Sprang in the 1950s. Meanwhile, the specific art deco style of the World of Tomorrow and Futurama exhibits would prove a major influence on the look of the 1992-1999 Batman animated series, to such a point that the 1993 film Batman: Mask of the Phantasm would include significant scenes set at a "Gotham World's Fair" as a direct homage.
Instead, we get a really standard Golden Age Batman story with a hokey mad scientist villain and repetitive fight scenes.
The Art: Kane's art here is really, really weak and clearly rushed, and Roussos just doesn't do a good enough job with his inks to cover up Kane's hurried pencils. The whole thing looks rather amateurish. That being said, some of the ideas for the scenes are creative enough that it still works, but most are ideas we've seen already in the strip, and they look nowhere near as good as when Kane and Moldoff or Kane and Robinson were doing them.
The Story: A pretty paint-by-numbers affair for Finger, the villain seems like something more out of Superman than Batman, but given that this was essentially a throwaway piece for a promotional comic, I'll let it slide. The most interesting thing here is that with locations such as the "West River Bridge" and the "Monarch Building", Finger is taking his first steps towards fictionalizing Batman's hitherto New York location.
Notes and Trivia: First shared Batman and Superman cover.

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