Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Detective Comics #50 (April 1941)

"The Case of the Three Devils!"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos
Synopsis: Batman and Robin, while on patrol, spot a trio of men in bright red devil costumes leaping across rooftops carrying a purse. Batman (correctly) assumes the purse is stolen and the Dynamic Duo jumps down and starts fighting the devils, who manage to get away using some impressive acrobatics.

The three devils go on a crime spree which the GCPD is powerless to stop (there's an amusing panel of Gordon yelling at his men for results and his men essentially giving up). After they steal some diamonds, Bruce explains to Dick (and thus, the audience) that they will need to take the diamonds to a fence in order to get any money, so Batman and Robin stake out the only two fences big enough to handle the diamonds involved.
It is at this point that Robin decides to take along "those rocket-powered roller skates we developed recently", and we may have the debut of the first overly ridiculous Batman gadgets. Granted we've seen the batarangs, bat-gyro, batplane (that turns into a batboat), a crude batmobile and some IR goggles and radioactive paint, but all of that stuff is fairly plausible for a 1940s billionaire and also have become tried and true elements of Batlore. But rocket powered roller skates? Oy.
Anyways, the devils show up at Frankie the fence's, and Batman and Robin swoop down to fight them. During the fight, Frankie pulls a knife on Batman, but Robin knocks him out by literally throwing the book at him (a book titled "Crime Does Not Pay", no less). Batman gets knocked out (by hitting his head on a table while ducking a bulllet!) and the devils escape. Robin then becomes the best sidekick ever by deciding that Batman will probably be fine and going after the devil's car using his rocket-powered roller skates. Oh, jeez.
When Batman wakes up, a police patrolman has arrived on the scene. The policeman has Batman cornered, but admits he actually admires the Dark Knight's work, and suggests that if Batman were to say, knock him out, then he could get away while the cop could still have appeared to have done his duty. Batman obliges, punches the cop in the face, and makes his escape.
Robin follows the devils to their hideout in an abandoned subway track. The devils attack and leave Robin to be run over by a coming train, but Robin pulls the old trick of lying flat between the rails and letting the train pass over him (something I see in movies all the time and that I totally doubt works). Robin then meets up with Batman and leads them to the lair. The devils are gone, out on a job, so Batman looks around the hideout and finds evidence that the devils are in fact ex circus acrobats turned to crime (gee, what tipped you off?) and finds clues pointing to their next job.
The Dynamic Duo surprises the devils on the observation floor of a clock tower and there's a fight. Robin ends up falling and getting his cape caught on one of the giant hands of the clock, dangling precariously -- a soon-to-be classic Batman image.
The kid gets rescued, and Batman uses the bell in the tower to defeat the devils, kicking them down to a lower level where they presumably are knocked unconscious rather than killed. Batman and Robin then escape into the night, remarking that the devils should have stayed with the circus rather than try to gain wealth "the easy way". Frankly it seems like working at the circus would be easier than being criminals. Meanwhile, since Batman didn't really do anything than knock out the devils, unless the police show up right away then they have clearly been left at large.
My Thoughts: This is a really lightweight story. Kind've thing that just feels like a filler, get it out and done kind've deal. Basically nothing happens. Crooks show up, Batman defeats them. They've got a gimmick look and MO, so Finger/Kane are clearly aware that even their second-string villains need to be colourful, but there's nothing really to go on in this story. There's some "crime does not pay" moralizing, and interestingly there are several situations where the devils could've just shot Batman but don't because "it would bring the cops down on them", but that's about it. They don't even take advantage of the fact that these guys are ex-circus like Robin is, other than giving them some nifty fight moves. But that similarity isn't actually brought up in text. Would've been neat if they were from the same circus, for example.
The Art: The art is good. On the same high level it has been recently. That really saves this story because it makes it enjoyable to read. There's some really good, dramatic panels, great use of shadows, and some dynamic action scenes.
The Story: It's just so... forgettable. Nothing motivates the devils. They are criminals because... they decided it was easier than being circus performers? We don't know if they were down on their luck or what. Basically it's just a series of action and chase scenes. Nothing really happens. Crooks show up, Batman defeats them. Finger seems to be taking a breather this month and letting the art do all the work.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Detective Comics #49 (March 1941)

Oh, look! It's the pirates from Batman #4. I wonder when the idea of a comic book cover actually having something to do with the story inside on a regular basis will come into play?

"Clayface Walks Again!" 
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos
Synopsis: So after a brief recap of the last Clayface story (and by brief I mean a single-panel of all-text infodump), we start in the office of Bentley, head of Argus Pictures, who is discussing the reviews of their latest picture Dread Castle, which starred Bruce Wayne's fiancee Julie Madison. Julie has been getting rave reviews, so Bentley and his publicity man, Gabby (yeesh), decide to remake her as a Hollywood star and push her into the public eye. In a fairly goofy satire of the process, they rename her Portia Storme and spread her face over all the national magazines. His girl now a major star, Bruce heads to LA to see "Portia", who confides that she is tired of waiting for Bruce to do something with his life and breaks off their engagement (although, like a good '40s woman she promises to come back to him if he ever makes something of himself). Bruce is mildly taken aback, but quickly gets accustomed to the idea and announces he'll always be there for her when she needs him ("I'm free!", you can practically see him thinking).
Meanwhile, someone else is soon to be free as well, when the transport carrying horror movie star cum psychotic serial murderer Basil Karlo to the State Asylum is crashed into a ditch during a freak thunderstorm. Karlo wastes no time, immediately heading to a make-up/costume store and resuming his role as the killer Clayface.
Clayface's escape and return makes the news, which of course Bruce and Dick are reading. I swear in these Golden Age stories Batman finds out about crime only three ways: happening upon it accidentally during a patrol, hearing about it from Commissioner Gordon, or most frequently reading about in the newspaper. Anyways, Bruce immediately deduces Clayface must be after Julie, ahem, "Portia" and Bentley at Argus since they were pretty much the only people he didn't kill last time. Sure enough, they show up at the studio and there's Clayface. Finger and Kane have fun with props, including having Clayface and Batman fighting over a miniature movie set in a scene that reminds me of Godzilla movies that won't be made for another twenty-five years or so. Clayface attacks Robin, knocks him out, and sets the studio on fire. 
Clayface escapes, and the fire department shows up to combat the blaze. Batman douses himself with water and dives into the blazing inferno to save the Boy  Wonder. Bruce swears he's going to get Clayface if it's the last thing he does. Which it won't. Meanwhile, Clayface has taken the TMZ route and begun obsessively stalking Portia everywhere she goes. Portia feels threatened but insists they continue shooting her latest movie because "if you stop now, you'll lose a fortune!" Portia is a producer's actor, that's for sure. Gabby, excited by the publicity possibilities, actually promotes that the star of the movie is being threatened by a serial killer. Batman decides to take action, and confronts Portia with a plan...
The next day, Clayface sneaks onto the set by -- I shit you not -- stealing a robe from the wardrobe department (it appears to be a medieval period piece) and wearing it OVER HIS CLAYFACE MAKE-UP. This is how you know Basil Karlo is completely insane. We know he's a master of disguise and could appear as anyone he wished, but he's become so consumed by the murderous persona of Clayface that he continues to use that appearance and attempt to cloak it rather than adopt a new one. 
Batman and Robin, meanwhile, attempt to get on the lot to protect Portia, but are confronted by the guards hired by the studio to protect her. The guards fight the Dynamic Duo, which is odd because the head of the studio has multiple times expressed great affinity for them, and during the commotion Robin grabs Portia and takes her off into an alcove. Immediately after, the Duo retreats from the guards. Seizing his opportunity, Clayface strikes by firing an arrow into the back of Portia Storme. 
Batman rushes in to fight Clayface, and after a gripping battle promptly knocks him cold. Bentley rushes in to discover that in fact the Portia that was shot was Robin wearing a cloak and a life preserver lined with cork and cotton to stop the arrow (what if Clayface had aimed for the head?) and that Portia had escaped with Batman wearing a Robin costume! (Rule 63!)
Once again Bentley offers the Dynamic Duo a job in movies, once more they turn him down, while Portia once again wishes Bruce would be more like Batman, albeit it's too late for him now.

My Thoughts: So we get a Clayface follow-up story that's basically a retread of the original minus the mystery angle and plus a few new elements. I'll discuss the new elements here. First up, we have the exit of Julie Madison as a "regular" castmember. She was the first recurring love interest for Bruce Wayne, and she's the first to leave him. Bruce seems only mildly affected, which makes sense given that Julie's only appeared in a handful of stories largely as a damsel-in-distress. You get the sense Bruce was engaged to her for appearance's sake rather than any real emotional connection -- she was part of his playboy disguise. Still, Finger and many other writers will continue to try and find a love interest character for Bruce, and to this day, none have been successful, at least not to the degree of Lois Lane and Superman. A whole list of female characters have been tried, to the point where the Christopher Nolan feature films even invented one for themselves, but none really work. I think it's because largely there isn't a place for a love interest in Batman. Bruce is so devoted to his cause that the love interest always falls into the pattern of choosing either love or Batman, and he's always gonna choose Batman so she's always gonna go away. She's to be rescued or to be pitied. The only way I could see to make it work would be to really change the formula and to have Batman's partner in crime fighting be his life partner as well. Only a woman dedicated to all of Bruce Wayne's personality could ever last. The closest thing to a lasting relationship with a woman Batman has is with a criminal, Catwoman, and that's very telling of his devotion to the war on Crime, I think.
The return of Clayface speaks once more to Finger and Kane's love of the movies -- I feel like the main reason for using Clayface again had to do with using a character with history with Julie so they could axe her, and provide a setting for the great studio props department battles. Eventually Finger will stop finding rationales for weird props and start inserting them everywhere. Every time Bentley begs to put Batman in a movie, it feels like Kane and Finger begging the movies to adapt Batman -- I know it was always one of Kane's great goals and I would bet Finger wanted it to. They'd get their wish in two year's time, when Columbia Pictures would make a Saturday matinee serial of Batman.

The Art: Another great job from the art team, it's refreshing that everyone's settled into a style and look that seems to really work for the feature. Kane draws Clayface wonderfully, and there are some really dynamic action panels. The fire sequence is quite memorable as well, and the fight "choreography" has gotten much better.
The Story: Finger must be commended for his attention to continuity. Whenever he does a sequel it always stays true to the details of the original, even if it's just as simple as establishing a villain's return. Here he's smart and uses the characters and situations of the first Clayface story to propel this one. Unfortunately this also leads this story to feeling like we've seen it all before. Once Clayface escapes it's another round of fights on the studio lot, attempted murders, defeat and unmasking, wrap-up, etc. After three pages the story's on autopilot and the art takes over.
Notes and Trivia: Julie "Portia Storme" Madison breaks off her engagement with Bruce Wayne.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Detective Comics #48 (February 1941)

It's worth noting that the Batman icon in the upper left-hand corner of the cover has been finally changed to resemble the current Kane/Robinson Batman with the shorter ears and blue highlights, rather than the Kane original it has been representing since #32.

"The Secret Cavern"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos
Synopsis: In Kentucky, a man idly rowing his boat down a stream ends up floating into a mountain and discovering a vast limestone cave, which just so happens to pass directly under the federal gold vault at Fort Knox! (cue dramatic music). He rushes back into town and blabs about his discovery to a bunch of guys in a bar, who of course turn out to be criminals on the lam. They recognize the gentleman as a millionaire named Lewis, who does spelunking as a hobby. When he refuses to tell them where the cave is, they kidnap him and threaten him. One of the criminals remembers he has a daughter named Linda who is a nightclub singer in Gotham City. One of the crooks, Nick, meets with the club's owner, Renaldo, and convinces him to join in on the scheme.
That night, Linda is seeing Bruce Wayne at the club (uh, Bruce, aren't you still engaged to Julie Madison?), and after she sings she makes a date to go to the movies with him. But when she retires to her dressing room she is startled by a man waiting for her who attempts to grab her. She takes a gun from her dresser and shoots him. Renaldo bursts in and announces that she has killed the man. Scared, Linda agrees to flee to her father in Kentucky with Renaldo's help, while he covers up the murder.
But of course, no one has died. The man she shot was Nick, who replaced the bullets with blanks. It was all part of the plan. Back in the club, Bruce questions Renaldo as to where Linda is, but is told off. Bruce begins to suspect something has gone wrong.
Linda arrives in Kentucky by train, and meets Renaldo there. Her father has been told about Linda "murdering" Nick, and agrees to rell Renaldo and the crooks about the cave's location in order to keep the "murder" quiet and keep Linda out of prison. 
Meanwhile, Bruce continues to be suspicious of Linda's sudden disappearance. "She worked for Renaldo, Renaldo went out of town, she went out of town, it all adds up!" Okay, sure thing. Anyways, Bruce gets Dick in on this, and as the Dynamic Duo they rush down to the abandoned barn and burst onto the scene in the... Batmobile! Actually, it's the same red 1936 Cord they've been driving this whole time, but Finger is calling it the Batmobile in the narration for the first time. 
They drive to Renaldo's apartment, hoping to find some clues as to Linda's disappearance. There they discover a crook talking on the phone with Nick, reminding him to lay low. Batman and Robin burst in, and Batman beats the crook into giving them Nick's location -- a garage that fronts a gambling joint. Back in the Batmobile, the Dark Knight realizes he was in such a rush that he forgot to tie the crook up, who is now phoning Nick and warning him of the Batman's approach!
So knowing that the element of surprise is lost, Batman simply RAMS into the garage with the Batmobile! Batman and Robin brutally beat up the gangsters and capture Nick, who reveals Renaldo and Linda's location in Kentucky. The Dynamic Duo journey there in the Batplane, arriving at the Lewis cabin. Batman makes his entrance via the best knock-knock joke ever. (Image courtesy of Chris Sims).
 Batman then proceeds to introduce Linda and her father to Nick, the man she "killed". But it's too late, Lewis has already told the crooks about the cave, and they're already on their way there!
Batman demands that Lewis take the Dynamic Duo to the cavern, so that they may stop the criminals. Rowing down the stream through the limestone cave, the Dark Knight and the Boy Wonder comment on the awesome solemnity of the place -- you can almost see the thought balloons of "gee, why don't we have a cave? These things are great!"
Meanwhile, the crooks have finished digging up into the vault, but are being spooked by bats from the cave. So of course, Batman steps out of the shadows and kicks their asses. The fight brings the National Guard down on them, who shoot all the criminals and offer Batman and Robin commendations for medals of bravery! The vigilante Batman refuses however, saying that "being Americans is enough of an award!" Wow. Well, I guess it is January, 1941.
My Thoughts: This is a fantastic story that really showcases a team working at the top of their game. Finger, Kane, Robinson, Roussos, they all deliver here. The tale itself is pretty standard comic book, but its the effort and care being put into the story that makes this a Batman comic not worth missing. The only thing about it that's a little odd is the US Soldiers offering Batman, a wanted vigilante, a medal. But pretty soon I guess I'm gonna have to get used to patriotic flag waving.
The Art: The art is GORGEOUS! It's the absolute BEST it's been since Detective Comics #38, I kid you not. It's got Robinson's detailed inking alongside Roussos' solid black swaths of shadows, and Kane's layouts are dynamic and engaging. It's seriously the artwork that elevates this story. You need to see it. Go out and buy "Batman Chronicles Vol. 3" right now, damnnit!
The Story: Finger's story is pretty good, but it's not his best. What's nice about it though is the pacing. Nothing feels especially rushed, like how most Golden Age stories feel. And given that it's gonna be another fifteen years or so until Ian Fleming writes Goldfinger, this is a pretty good "rob Fort Knox" scheme. What's great here is that there's beginning to be a distinction between the way Batman and Robin are written -- with the daredevil attitude and joke-y quips being Robin's forté and Batman being a brutal and determined avenger of crime. Good stuff.
Notes and Trivia: First time Batman's vehicle is referred to as the "Batmobile".