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.

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