Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Detective Comics #44 (October 1940)

Damn, that's a cool cover. Great pose for Batman. In typical Golden Age fashion, it has nothing to do with the interior story however, which is insane in a way that at this point is unique for a Batman tale.

"The Land Behind the Light"
Writer: Bill Finger
Bob Kane
Jerry Robinson

Synopsis: Dick Grayson is at home in Wayne Manor, staying up late reading waiting for the Batman to return. The clock strikes midnight, and Dick grows tired, but decides to continue waiting.
Finally, Batman arrives, announcing to Dick that he must suit up and accompany him on an investigation of the mysterious Dr. Marko! The two depart into the night, shrouded in fog, until they arrive at Marko's home, an odd cottage on "13 Bleak Street".
Entering the building we arrive at perhaps one of my favourite pages I've ever seen in a Golden Age comic. This has to be self-parody. Marko is an old mad scientist who shakes his fist at the duo and denies his madness with the fantastic line "Is it MADNESS to have discovered the secret of the Fourth Dimension?" He then reveals to Batman and Robin his insane machine (which looks very Teslaesque) is apparently capable of opening a portal to the Fourth Dimension and to prove it he proceeds to walk through.
In order to find out the truth behind the matter, Batman and Robin follow Marko behind the light and into the Fourth Dimension!
They emerge on the other side in a forest of massive trees, and are immediately set upon by a giant in medieval clothing, who lifts Batman and Robin as if they were dolls. He believes they may be agents of the "Little People", sent to spy on the king, but notes they are larger than the little people. The giant takes them to a town of giants, and places them in a giant dungeon. Of course, Batman and Robin easily escape by using the batrope to climb up through the bars at the top of the door. On their way out, they are attacked by a housecat, about the size of a puma in comparison to Batman, who of course wrestles it down and defeats it (implied killing it?).
At this point, they are once again seized by the giants and brought to the King, who is fat and eats a lot. Batman escapes by throwing pepper in his face, and then there's an inventive two page fight scene in which Batman and Robin beat up the giants using their ropes and in Robin's case, his sling (Finger can't resist a David/Goliath comparison). The two escape, and have a series of wacky adventures such as Robin being carried off by a hawk (who Batman kills with a knife thrown from the pilot's seat of a working model airplane he found!) to battling a crocodile the size of a dragon (who Batman kills with a fork to the face). Robin compares this victory to St. George and the Dragon, meaning that Bill Finger knew how to make pretentious literary references fifty years before Grant Morrison.
Finally, the two find Dr. Marko in a tiny city of dwarves, who are all cartoonishly drawn. Turns out the dwarves are at war with the giants, and so Batman agrees to help them defend their village when the giants attack. Using cunning traps, the dwarves defeat the giants, but Robin is cornered by a giant, who comes ever closer... closer... closer....
Until Bruce wakes him up. Turns out Dick fell asleep reading "Giants and Dwarfs In Myth and Fable" and had a nasty nightmare.
My Thoughts: Okay, so WHAT is this, and WHERE did it come from?? I mean, I appreciate Finger and Kane deciding to go against the formula, and try new things, but whose idea was this? It seems to out of left field to suddenly take their urban avenger and his sidekick into a fantasy world of giants and dwarves? It's so bizarre. Granted, this kind've thing will become common in the late 50s under editor Jack Schiff, but at this point, just over a year into the character's existence? It's like, WOW, what was that? I just have to wonder what the impetus was, other than straight up wanting to plop Batman into a completely different scenario and see if it works. I'm not sure if it does in this particular instance, and it feels really out of place, and I can say for certain that fighting monsters in a fantasy world isn't what I want to see Batman doing -- BUT: this story is significant for one very important reason. It is the first demonstration of Batman's versatility. As much as I and many others will say they only want Batman as a urban crimefighter battling realistic enemies in Gotham City, this story would lead to 70 years worth of comics proving that Batman could work in any story. Which, frankly, is what makes him so great.
The Art: So one thing I gotta admit here, is that the artwork is great. Robinson lays off the inks a little, so there is less shadowing and blacks, and that fits the lighter fantasy tone of the story. And Kane does some absolutely great and creative things with his panel layouts here that really enhances the story and makes it enjoyable to read. Probably my favourite moments include having Batman and Robin walking BETWEEN panels to transition between the two worlds, and the fog enshrouded city the duo walks through at the start. Kane also sneaks in some pretty funny cartoonish stuff into the panels, like the dwarf general reading the funnypapers while directing a battle.
The Story: So despite the compeltely insane turn into fantasy here, Finger knows what he's doing. For one thing, it's all a dream. Which is a classic cop-out ending, but also the only thing that could have this make sense. Dick reading a storybook and having a nightmare explains the childish nature of the tale, as well as the inconsistencies and overly cliche nature of the story. Finger basically riffs on Gulliver's Travels in the main section, but frankly I think he's also having fun satirizing mad scientists in the first few pages, and I find it funny to think that such a character was already a worn-out cliche this early in the Golden Age of Comics.
Notes and Trivia: First "out-of-genre" fantasy Batman story.

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