Monday, January 16, 2012

Detective Comics #46 (December 1940)

"Professor Strange's Fear Dust"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos
Synopsis: We begin in medias res, as we are often wont to do, with the Batman breaking up a robbery at a silver warehouse. After a two-page fight scene, he has defeated all but one of the gangsters, finding the final one to be a frightened seventeen year old who begs Batman not to take him to jail, lest his parents find out! He offers Batman information in exchange for leniency, and Batman agrees. Turns out the robbery was arranged by a racketeer named Carstairs, who is in league with a mysterious professor who plans to make them all rich.
The professor gave all of the crooks a pill to be taken when doing the jobs, because it will make them immune to a compound he's developed. Batman takes several of the pills from the boy for his own purposes, then agrees to the let the boy and the gang go free, so that they can proceed to meet with Carstairs and the professor and learn the plan, and then the kid will meet with Batman tomorrow night and report.
Of course the professot is Professor Hugo Strange, not seen since Batman #1, and he has developed a diabolical new chemical -- a fear gas that when shot from a special gun, causes those who inhale it to become paralyzed with fear!! That's right, Strange is the first Batman villain to use fear gas, predating the Scarecrow! Anyways, the first crime is planned for tomorrow afternoon, before the kid can tell the Batman!
And so the job goes as planned, with the police too paralyzed with fear to foil the bank robbery. For the crooks this is like Christmas come early, and soon the whole city is paralyzed by a series of robberies, too frozen by fear to stop them. (Or as Kane/Finger's awesome panel puts it "FEAR! FEAR! FEAR!")
Batman goes to meet the boy, but Strange has figured out that the boy is the Batman's stool pigeon (of course he did) and sends his men to follow him. They capture the Batman, bring him back to Strange, who taunts him and then has the men administer a beating to the Bat. And it's extreme, Batman is held while all the crooks take turns just beating the crap out of him as revenge for all those times he's done the same to them. Finally, he passes out, and Strange administers one final kick. 
It is sometime before Batman recovers, and he overhears Strange explaining his true plan -- they will gas the entire city, then the entire country, until the people are so overcome with fear they have no choice but to make Strange DICTATOR OF AMERICA! Hugo Strange: The Criminal Mastermind. Seriously, he figures out the best/only reasonable use for fear gas in one story and yet after 70 years Scarecrow has never been this threatening. Because Hugo Strange is a Boss. Strange instructs his men to administer the fear gas in certain places and times throughout the city, while he prepares his plane to fly above and administer it in the air.
After Strange has left, Batman staggers into the room with the crooks, all weak and shaky from his beating. They figure they have an easy fight, but turns out Batman has just been pretending to be weak! His peak physical training has allowed him to shake off a beating that would kill most other men (of course!) He takes them out, then contacts Robin and instructs him to take an antidote pill and follow Batman's instructions.
Then some asskicking begins. Batman intercepts some crooks at a train station and just straight wrecks them. So fast he doesn't even quip -- just takes them out and leaves instructions with confused civillians to hand them to the police.
Meanwhile, Robin is after some crooks who are going to dump the gas into the water resevoir (first time the Gotham water supply has been threatened, not the last), and uses his circus acrobat abilities to take them out. Then he pulls the same on some crooks about to spray the gas at a line-up for a new movie. Seriously, Robin kicks ass in this story.
Batman, meanwhile, has caught up to Strange at his private plane, overlooking a large cliff. It's down to mano a mano, as Strange and Batman grapple for the fate of America in a fist fight on a cliff. It's kind've epic. Anyways, Batman gets the upper hand and punches Strange off the cliff and into a river below. Is this truly the end of Hugo Strange?
In the denouement, some exposition says that Batman and Robin rescued the stool pigeon kid Strange had tied up and that Batman gave the antidote pills to some research scientists who will hopefully be able to mass produce an antidote from that (Which will come in handy once Scarecrow starts pulling this kind've stuff, right guys? Right?)
My Thoughts: Wow. I love seeing big stories like this, and more than that, I love seeing the Golden Age do them in twelve freakin' pages, instead of twelve issues. Hugo Strange returns, having been a character Bill Finger clearly intended to be Batman's Moriarty, but sorta hit the back burner once the Joker was introduced. Here he gets to even greater heights of villainy than before. I like that the Hugo Strange stories get bigger every time, there's an escalation to his plots. Also, holy fear gas, Batman! Yep, Strange did it first, and there's elements here that we'll see pop up in Scarecrow stories all the way to Batman Begins! What's really interesting though is the ending, which is similar to the Joker's fate in last month's issue: punched off an edge into some water, with Batman wondering if this is the end. At this point Strange has appeared in three stories and the Joker in four, so I'd say it's fair game at this point that either one could return or not -- but of course Joker will pop up in another couple of months, while ol' Hugo won't make a reappearance for another THIRTY-SEVEN YEARS, thanks to Steve Engelhart and his brilliant "Strange Apparitions" run on Detective Comics. Which is too bad. Hugo is a great Finger/Kane creation who was simply made obsolete by Finger/Kane's later villains. 
The Art: It's a mixed bag. It's occasionally awesome (the action scenes, montages, and splash panels especially -- FEAR! FEAR! FEAR!) but sometimes key details are forgotten (Batman goes several panels without his chest emblem, and even without his cape in a few instances). So it's good, but a little sloppy, with an overall feel of being rushed. Still, the final Batman/Strange fight is pretty great, feeling evocative appropriately of the final Holmes/Moriarty fight in The Final Problem.
The Story: It's pretty great, if unevenly paced. Batman's warehouse fight at the start gets two pages, but defeating Strange's plan (all four action scenes) is squashed into about a page each. Ultimately I wish Finger had written more Hugo Strange, but where could you take him from a plan to TAKE OVER AMERICA? I mean, it probably would've resulted in the character getting watered down over the years, so it's probably for the best that the character was left alone, able to retain some power. In conclusion, this was pretty good, but I feel like it could've been better with better pacing.
Notes and Trivia: First appearance of fear gas, last appearance of Hugo Strange til the Bronze Age

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