Sunday, April 1, 2012

Batman #5 (Spring 1941)

A good and memorable cover, but it's actually the opening splash page from Batman #4 repurposed as a cover image. Except that last time they used it they remembered to put the Bat-logo on his chest. Seriously, Kane!

"The Riddle of the Missing Card"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos
Synopsis: Last time we saw The Joker, he had fallen down a trapdoor in his hideout which led into the sewers, where he was washed out to sea. There he is picked up by a gang of crooks smuggling diamonds on steamer ships, who quickly realize his true identity. Since their diamond smuggling business is running dry (due to the war), they elect Joker as their new leader in order to develop a new racket. The gang introduces themselves as Queenie (a beautiful raven-haired femme fatale), Diamond Jack Deegan (former leader), and Clubsy (the muscle). This overjoys Joker, who declares them the Four Cards gang -- the Joker, the Black Queen, the Jack of Diamonds, and the King of Clubs! The Joker's idea is a gambling ship outside the three-mile-limit for society high-lifes where Queenie will play host, while Jack pumps the players for information about their jewels, which the gang will promptly steal. Which is sort've convoluted, but okay, sure.
So, of course the gambling ship becomes a great success, and an outrage to City politicians. Bruce decides he's going to investigate the ship in his guise as a layabout playboy. While shaving, he nicks his chin with his razor, and the only reason I mention this is because of course it's going to be important. Chekov's gun and all that.
Bruce arrives on the ship, remarks at how people people who gamble are losers, and is then chatted up by Queenie. The two dance and begin to share a connection -- Queenie even guesses to herself that Bruce's boredom is merely an act. A while later, while lighting a match for his cigarette no less, Bruce overhears Queenie, Jack, Clubsy, and the Joker disguised as an old man, discussing their next heist: the yacht of rich Mrs. Logan! But Joker sees Bruce eavesdropping and has Clubsy knock him out. Although Queenie objects, Joker decides to throw him overboard so he'll drown, and then in a great bit of overkill, shoots into the water just to be sure.
Of course, Bruce is fine. He swims to shore and makes his way back home to join Dick and change in Batman and Robin. They rush through the secret tunnel to the (Bat)barn and the two drive out into the night in... the Batmobile! And not the red Cord that the Batman's been driving since Detective #27, but an actual Batmobile.
It's got all the traits that would be defining characteristics of the Batmobile for the remainder of the Golden Age: the dark blue colour, Batface battering ram, and single batwing-like fin at the back. While other details of the car would change with the artists, these features would be definitive and first appear here.
Anyways they drive down to the dock where the Logan yacht is, where they catch Joker and his gang in the act, and engage in a two-page fight scene. The Joker tries to escape, and Batman goes after him, leaving Robin to fight off the rest of the gang all by himself. So yeah, child endangerment wasn't really a concept in 1941.

So we get a genuine car chase as the Batmobile races after the Joker along a series of winding mountain roads. But Joker stops his vehicle in the centre of the road, forcing Batman to swerve off to avoid him, crashing the Batmobile down a steep ravine. Joker is overjoyed with the apparent death of his great foe. (But of course, Batman has jumped out just in time).
Meanwhile, Robin is captured by the Joker and his gang. Having taken the Boy Wonder's utility belt, the Joker discovers the wireless radio in the belt buckle and decides to use it to test whether the Batman is really dead. So of course Batman answers and Joker promptly sets Robin up as a hostage, telling the Dark Knight to come alone. Robin manages to yell out that it's a trap, which Batman is counting on, and gosh we're gonna see replays of this storyline over and over in future issues after this aren't we?
When Batman arrives on the gambling ship, Joker introduces him to the gang -- the Black Queen, Jack of Diamonds, and King of Clubs, and proceeds to challenge the Dark Knight to a game of cards for Robin's life. It is at this point that Queenie notices Batman has the same nick in his chin. Clearly they are one and the same! Joker wins the card game (with a joker, of course), so Batman kicks the table over (poor loser), and starts a fight. Joker, having planned for this (It is a trap, after all), lights the room on fire, leaves and locks everyone in with steel doors and shutters so they'll all die in the fire.
Realizing they've been betrayed by the Joker (gee, what'd you think was gonna happen?), Jack takes his chance to try and shoot the Batman, but is shot instead by Queenie. Revealing that she has fallen in love with the Dark Knight, she embraces him but is shot by the dying Jack. Surrounded by the rising flames, Batman holds her in his arms and kisses her as she dies. Then he unties Robin and blows a hole in the wall by combining two vials from his utility belt.
The Joker has taken off in a speedboat, so Batman and Robin hop in the boat Batman used to get here and pursue. Of course there's a huge storm, with waves crashing and lightning striking and so on, and Finger describes Joker's laughter to be loud enough to be heard even about the storm. Joker makes it to a lighthouse and the Dynamic Duo catch up. Batman battles Joker at the top of the lighthouse, but he manages to knock the Dark Knight over the railing. Holding on with one hand, the Batman hangs as Joker gloats. But of course he's forgotten about Robin, who beats up Joker and sends him over the edge for yet another "Joker has fallen to a watery grave... or has he?" ending. 
Upon getting back to Wayne Manor, Bruce remarks that the one card Joker forgot about was Hearts, and remarks that it was the heart of Queenie that saved them. A corny, but effective, ending.
My Thoughts: This is a big scale epic Joker vs. Batman adventure that really feels like the next step up in these kinds of stories. While the gambling ship angle is pretty lame, the subplot of Queenie and Batman's relationship will inform Batman/Catwoman stories for a long time as well as most Bruce Wayne romances (girl finds out his secret, promptly dies). You have the debut of the Batmobile and a gripping car chase, the kidnapping of Robin, that epic boat chase in the storm, and the big lighthouse finale. It feels very cinematic. A great Batman story.
The Art: The art is really fantastic, especially the last three pages or so of the boat chase and lighthouse fights. Roussos and Robinson's dark and moody inks really make all the difference. And the Batmobile is, of course, awesome.
The Story: I think the biggest problem Bill Finger is going to have is that he keeps making each Joker story bigger and better than the last and eventually it's going to get very difficult to keep topping them. This one in particular is very spectacular and feels like a huge confrontation for the two antagonists. While it's enjoyable and a great sweeping read, I do find myself wondering how Finger can make the Joker last as a continuing villain after each huge story, especially with these repetitive "maybe dead, maybe not" endings.
Notes and Trivia: First appearance of the Batmobile, first uncovering of Batman's identity by an outsider
Joker Body Count: 17

"Book of Enchantment"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos
Synopsis: All right. Just bear with me on this one. The Dynamic Duo stop a house burglary to discover the homeowner is a scientist named Professor Anderson, who right after his introduction insists that he is not a comic book mad scientist. He shows Batman and Robin his latest invention, a machine which beams the user into the world of any book the user is reading. Batman insists that isn't possible, but the professor comes back by saying that at one point flight wasn't considered possible. Which doesn't really explain anything. Anyways, turns out that the professor's daughter was testing the machine by reading a fairy tale anthology. She disappeared and hasn't returned, so the professor wants her rescued. Batman agrees, and the Duo is sent into Fairyland.
They immediately run into Father Time, who explains the girl has been captured by the black witch Gruel, and that they have until sundown to rescue her otherwise they are all trapped forever. For some unexplained reason. Right away Gruel shows up on her broomstick and sets a man of fire and a man of ice on the heroes to destroy them. By knocking the two men into each other, fire melts ice and is put out by water.
Batman and Robin run into Simple Simon, who explains that to get to Gruel's lair they must pass through the mountain of the Great Dragon. Batman fights and defeats the dragon by tossing a vial of explosive chemicals into its mouth and blowing up its head. They ask directions of Humpty Dumpty who informs them that Gruel's castle is up Jack's beanstalk. They climb up and reach the castle in the clouds, complete with Cyclops giant, who chases Batman and Robin around the castle with another giant but are both defeated. 
Making it to the witch's lair, they fight some more monsters in her dungeon, one of whom reveals to Batman that to defeat Gruel he must wrestle her and stay on until she has shifted shape three times. If he does that, she becomes powerless. Batman promptly does so, defeating Gruel, who throws herself over the parapet in despair. The Dyamic Duo rescue the girl and use a flying carpet to get back to the point where they arrived, where they are pulled out of the world of the book by the Professor. The End.
My Thoughts: Yeah, I did not enjoy this one. As much as I've been gradually learning that Batman can be fun in multiple genres and doesn't have to be urban and dark all the time, this ridiculous "Batman in Fairyland" premise is just way too childish for me. 
The Art: I wish I could say the artwork here redeems the story, but it doesn't. The only particularly memorable sequence is of Batman and Robin fighting the dragon, a huge almost Oriental beast that slithers and moves extremely convincingly. But the rest of the story is pretty lazy and flat.
The Story: Okay, so here's the deal. This whole story is basically a rehash of Detective Comics #44. Dynamic Duo is sent by a mad scientist into a fairytale world to fight giants and demons. The major difference is that in the previous version Finger saw fit to make the story a dream of Robin's. Here it's all real. Oddly enough, I'd have an easier time believing that story than this one. In Detective #44, the professor's invention sent the heroes into another dimension which resembled a fairytale world (because Dick had been reading fairytales when he fell alseep), whereas here it's a machine that beams people into the world of a book. Which makes no sense whatsoever and raises a ton of questions, some existential (to what degree are the world's inhabitants sentient if they were created by a writer? Could I beam into a book and change it's ending?), some practical (why the hell would the professor send his daughter into any book for a test that could possibly be dangerous?). Finally, because the Dynamic Duo are in a fairytale, Finger uses it as an excuse for a ton of lazy plotting, because it's a fairytale and doesn't have to make sense. This is a weak, weak, Batman story, and I can't even say it's unique because it's largely a rip-off of a story from the previous year.

"The Case of the Honest Crook"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos
Synopsis: Batman stops a thief who has stolen six dollars from a storeclerk. Both Batman and the clerk find this odd, and give the crook a chance to explain himself. He says his name is Joe Sands, and his story begins two years ago when he was working in a garage and engaged to a beautiful girl named Ann. Joe wanted to get married, but Ann wanted to wait until the couple had $200 in the bank. One day, a bunch of gangsters ask if they can keep a stolen car in Joe's garage until the heat dies down. They offer him $200, so Joe agrees. Overjoyed, he shows Ann the money, but she refuses to marry him if he takes the money from the gangsters. So the next day Joe returns the money, promising the gangsters he won't say anything to the police.
But the gangsters won't take his word. They arrange a car crash and make it look like Joe was a drunk driver and responsible. Joe is sentenced to two years in prison, the judge not believing his tale of being framed. When he gets out, Ann is waiting for him, and convinces him not to go after the gangsters for revenge. Instead, they get married. But Joe finds he can't get a job anywhere once employers find he has a prison record. One day, Ann gets sick. Doctor says she'll be all right as long as Joe can get some medicine. 
But Joe can't afford the medicine, which is six dollars. Hence, the robbery. Luckily, Batman's in a charitable mood, and believe's Joe's story. He gives him some money to pay for the medicine and tide him over, and vows to go after the mobster from Joe's story -- Matty Link of Smiley Sykes' mob.
Batman pays a visit to Smiley in his office, demanding to know if Matty Link was responsible for the framing of Joe Sands. Smiley sicks his goons on the Dark Knight, who proceeds to beat them up and leave, assuming Smiley's attack as admission of guilt. Smiley tells Matty that Batman's looking for him and Matty decides to skip town. Smiley decides that may not be good enough, and sends a hitman to kill Matty and ensure he doesn't talk.
When Bruce reads of Matty's death in the paper, he decides to send Dick to investigate Matty's room and try to find some evidence, while Bruce pays a visit to Commissioner Gordon's office to find out if the police found anything on Matty's body. Robin arrives at Matty's apartment at the same time as some of Smiley's thugs, who are there to destroy any remaining evidence. They attack the Boy Wonder.
Waiting back at Wayne Manor, Bruce concludes that Robin should've been back hours ago. He heads out in the Batmobile to investigate. So we know that Batman must be quite a mechanic and can easily fix one up when it's been damaged, since the Batmobile crashed off a ravine just two stories ago.
When he arrives at the apartment he discovers Robin has been beaten to a bloody pulp and left to die. He picks up the body of the Boy Wonder (an oddly familar image to modern fans), and swears horrible vengeance on the criminals responsible. However, as he places Robin's body in the Batmobile he notices the Boy Wonder is still breathing. With a chance that Robin could survive, Batman rushes to the home of a doctor and demands that he operate on Robin immediately. The doctor is hesitant, but Batman threatens to kill the man if he does not operate. The doctor agrees, but because it is his duty to help not because of the Dark Knight's threats.
Back in the Batmobile, Batman speeds across town to Smiley's sanctum. And he is not to be fucked with. 
As he pulls up, he is shot in the shoulder by a lookout man. Not a problem. Batman bursts through the locked door, Superman-style, tackles some dudes, and takes another bullet in the shoulder without even flinching. He beats up the rest of the gangsters, at one point picking a dude up by the foot and beating them other gangsters with him. Smiley takes a shot, hitting Batman square in the chest, but the Dark Knight presses on, grabbing Smiley by the throat and not letting go until Smiley agrees to write a signed confession about Joe Sands. 
Batman then drags Smiley and the confession into a police station and leaves him there. Then he heads back to the doctor he left Robin with, who tells Batman that Robin has recovered. It is only them that Batman succumbs to his injuries and passes out.
He wakes up later to discover the doctor operated on both members of the Dynamic Duo successfully, even honouring their privacy and not removing their masks. Joe Sands name is cleared and he gets a job at the store he robbed at the start of the story. Hooray!
My Thoughts: So here's a story that starts slow but gets a real visceral pay-off. The best section is undoutably Batman's vengeful rampage after Robin is beaten. Do not make the Dark Knight angry, man. It sort've fits into the "social crime drama" subgenre of Finger's, with this poor boy who became a criminal because of all these external factors, but then it definitely becomes a straight Batman beat-'em-up by the end. It's a pretty good read, but mainly memorable for the "almost dead Boy Wonder" sequence.

The Art: The art's good, but not spectacular. There's a good moody sequence of Robin sneaking into the apartment, and of course the image of Batman holding Robin's bloodied body in his arms, which has been much homaged and copied to the point where I think most people would identify the 1988 version as the original.
The Story: There are two stories here: the honest crook and the revenge of Batman. They are only tenuously related and only one of them is interesting. Joe Sand's story is so over-the-top with how put-upon he is that it kind've strains credulity. It's really only there to motivate the Bat-action later. 

"Crime Does Not Pay"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos
Synopsis:  The Dynamic Duo are in the process of breaking up a bank robbery when Batman is shocked that one of the crooks actively takes a hit from the Dark Knight to save another. The crooks run to get away and Batman sees the one they were protected was just a kid! (This seems familiar). The crooks hop in a car and the heroes make pursuit in the Batmobile, but lose them in a bad neighbourhood. Knowing that allowing the police to case the neighbourhood would be useless, Batman decides to investigate the next day as Bruce Wayne.
Wandering through the neighbourhood, Bruce bumps into Linda Page, a society girl from Bruce's group of rich friends whom we've never seen before. Bruce asks where Linda's been, since she seems to have dropped out of society functions. Linda, as it turns out, had gotten fed up of doing nothing with her life and has gotten a job as a nurse, working in less fortunate neighbourhoods. She scolds Bruce for wasting his time as a playboy, and Bruce offers to walk her home.
They pump into old Mrs. Crogan, whose son Tommy has been spending too much time with his gangster brother Mike, whom he idolizes. Bruce concludes this is the same kid and gangster from the other day. Later that afternoon, the gang robs another bank. Tommy is shot and wounded by a police officer, so Mike decides to kidnap Linda to force her to treat Tommy's injuries. Mike swears to Linda that he never meant for Tommy to get hurt, but he just idolized his older brother so much that he insisted on coming along. Linda agrees to help.
Meanwhile, Batman and Robin are searching Linda's room for information about the Crogan gang (okay,) and find a note written by Linda from when she was kidnapped. The Dynamic Duo rush to the rescue. Batman decides to go to the pool hall Mike hangs out at disguised as a mobster named Trigger Burns so as not to arouse suspicion.
He arrives at the pool hall, but unfortunately Trigger had been killed the other day, so the gangsters see through the disguise. They assume that Batman is an undercover dick, and he has to fight his way out. Asssuming the cops are after Crogan, the gangsters go to warn him. Batman and Robin follow them to Mike's hideout (so this was the plan all along?). 
Turns out the gangster sent to "warn" Mike is actually there to kill Mike, along with Linda and Tommy, so they don't rat anyone out to the cops. Mike is shot, but before Linda and Tommy can be hurt, the Batman arrives. There's a three page fight scene between the Dynamic Duo and the gangsters, during which the shots fired bring the police. When they arrive, our heroes quickly flee the scene.  Mike dies in the arms of a police officer, insisting that his brother Tommy had nothing to do with any of it, that his only crime was wanting to be like his brother. Mike makes Tommy promise to go straight, and he does. 
Later, Batman is meeting Linda for dinner, and we get a typical "if only Bruce was more like the Batman" sentiment from her.
My Thoughts: So this is another Bill Finger moral allegory story. Yet again we get the message not to idolize gangsters, otherwise we'll probably end up dead. I wonder how many variations Finger's going to be able to find on this theme before it gets old. Either way, this story and the last one are both interesting for Batman showing a kind've understanding of criminals and the situations that drive them to crime. This injects the strip with a bit of liberal humanism, that some criminals aren't as bad as others because they've been driven to this by outside circumstances. Its' an inconsistent attitude for Batman to have, and it begs the question "at one point does a criminal cross the line and become irredeemable?" Because a lot of Batman villains and criminals in general have tragic backstory, but not all of them get Batman's understanding. If I had to hazard a guess, that line would probably be the same as Batman's: murder.
This story also sees the first appearance of Linda Page, Finger's latest attempt at a love interest for Bruce Wayne/Batman. She's got a bit more of a personality and character than Julie Madison, but not much -- ex-society girl who becomes a nurse and wishes Bruce was more like Batman isn't all that different from society girl who becomes an actress and wishes Bruce was more like Batman. The main difference is Bruce and Linda only have a flirtatious friendship relationship whereas Bruce and Julie were engaged. Anyways, we'll see how long Linda lasts -- Batman never manages to have a lasting love interest for long.

The Art: Standard level of quality from the Kane Studios. There's a couple of great panels of Batman's shadow rising up the walls that are really cool. Generally the whole strip has adopted the feel of Warner Bros. crime dramas, only in colour. It's always enjoyable to read.
The Story: Very similar to a few previous Batman moral allegory stories, including the previous story in this issue. The main new concept is the addition of the Linda Page character. That being said, it's not a bad story from Finger, just a familiar one. It's clear that Finger was intent on providing regular anti-crime message stories to kids as well as entertainment. In this way, Batman #5 is very similar in format to Batman #4 -- a Joker story, a "fantasty" story, and two urban crime stories with strong moral messages.
Notes and Trivia: First appearance of Linda Page.

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