Monday, August 27, 2012

Detective Comics #55 (September, 1941)

And once again, a cover whose artwork actually represents the story inside! A rare enough occurrence at this point that I have to keep noting when it happens. Another note is that the interior "Batman" title logo has changed. In addition to shorter ears on Batman himself, reflecting the current drawing style, the "with Robin the Boy Wonder" byline has changed to a different, more modern, font and "the Boy Wonder" has been dropped.

"The Brain Burglar"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos
Synopsis: Professor Jon Henry has developed a machine that when applied to a human, forces him to tell the truth. He plans on selling it to police forces for interrogations. But Henry is kidnapped by Doctor Deker, a fifth columnist working in secret for the Fatherland (obviously Nazi Germany). Deker's men beat up Henry and then use the Brain Machine on him to force him into revealing how it operates, as well as spilling the beans about Henry's "atom destroyer" and another mysterious invention that will aparently give Deker the ability to control "entire armies." Isn't that just called being a General? Deker gets all his agents together, and asks if they are willing to submit to a myterious operation. Of course they are, they're all loyal agents willing to die for das Vaterland! More prominent scientists go missing, from all areas of industry, kidnapped by Deker and becoming his pawns thanks to the Brain Machine.
Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne is on a date with Linda Page. She's taken him to her uncle's aviation plant, where they're making bombers for the army. Linda's ulterior motive is attempting to inspire Bruce to do more with his life than just be a playboy. But as they are there, the workers suddenly go mad and start attacking Bruce. Linda runs off with her uncle, and after being knocked behind some boxes, Bruce turns into Batman. The maddened workers are attacking the bomber, trying to destroy it and the factory. Batman takes them down in a two-page fight scene, before turning back into Bruce and pretending to have been unconscious the entire time. Once again, Linda admonishes Bruce for sleeping out the whole affair while the Batman rescued her and her uncle. Agents report back to Deker that the airplane factory operation was a success, apparently the German word for success is "foiled by Batman". Deker notes that next time they will increase the power of the machine and the men shall become more vicious. 
Bruce discusses the case with Dick and notes that the men who went mad at the factory are permanently insane and have been sent to an asylum. Bruce feels this is connected with the disappearing inventors, despite there basically being nothing to suggest such a connection. Bruce has read a newspaper story of a scientist named Mason who has invented a new gunpowder formula. He believes Mason may require the Batman's protection.
Where "protection" means Batman hitting Mason over the head and taking his place using a clever disguise. When the agents arrive to kidnap Mason, it is of course Bruce in disguise. He's brought to a private hospital at the edge of town, where all the other kidnapped scientists are being kept. Deker subjects "Mason" to the Brain Machine, but under it's power Bruce still manages to keep up the deception that he is Mason, developer of the gunpowder. 
It doesn't matter much as Robin bursts in at that moment, having tailed Batman, and so Mason whips off his disguise to reveal the Batman in full costume (just how does he do that?) and he promptly beats up Deker and puts him under the Brain Machine. This results in three panels of heay exposition from Deker where he reveals his true intentions, and that the third invention he stole from Henry was a method of beaming instructions into a man's mind via radio beams after a special sliver of metal has been placed in his head at the base of his brain, essentially radio mind control. Before Batman took down Deker, he had already given orders to his agents to attack a factory developing a new, stronger formula of steel. Also, there's a dirigible arrive later tonight to deliver more agents from the Fatherland.
So, this is a job for Batman and Robin, who take off in the Batplane and arrive swiftly at the steel mill. They fight the workers in a two-page fight sequence that includes the suspect event of Batman punching a mind-controlled worker over a railing and into a vat of molten steel, which would obviously kill him. After rounding up the agents here, they take off in the Batplane after the dirigible. Batman drops sleeping gas on the Nazi agents, they they set the plane on automatic and swing through the dirigible's front windows, punching out Nazis, and inevitably coming to battle on the surface of the zeppelin itself, because we are in full-scale Saturday afternoon serial mode, folks. Batman punches all the Nazi's to their deaths and a stray pullet hits one of they hydrogen tanks. Batman and Robin make it back to the Batplane just in time to fly away from the massive explosion.
Finally, Robin asks how Batman managed to thwart the Brain Machine. Simple, he wore a rubber lined wig as part of his disguise so that the electrical waves the machine operated on couldn't penetrate to his mind. Victory is in the preparation, after all.
My Thoughts: This story is an interesting artifact of the period when World War II was rocking almost every country in the world except the United States. So tales like this, where foreign agents work secretly against America, played upon the fears of readers, but don't explicitly mention the Nazis or the war. The overall jist of this story, an evil fifth columnist using a mind control machine to attack Linda Page's uncle and other American resources to support an Axis power, is basically the plot of the 1943 serial, with German Dr. Deker transformed into Japanese Dr. Daka. 
The Art: The layouts are pretty spectacular, especially the delightfully dramatic and over-the-top finale with the Zeppelin, but there's a lot of corners being cut here all over the place. All the scientists look exactly the same, Batman is occasionally missing his cape, the inks are all over the place in quality. High ambitions in this tale, but the execution feels rushed.
The Story: Finger does a pretty good job with this kind of tale, even if the idea of Linda having an industrialist family member attacked feels a lot like the latest issue of Batman. But there's a lot of oddness that doesn't stand up to scrutiny. First off, the fifth columnists' plan of operating on all his agents to subject them to radio controlled madness seems kinda unnecessary, after all, they're already doing his bidding and he still has to go to the trouble of arranging them jobs in the factories they want destroyed. Secondly, there's the bit where Batman kills a dude. Now, all he does is punch him off a catwalk, but it's straight into molten silver and it's hard to pretend Batman didn't know what was there. Now, one could say that it was an foreign enemy agent, but it's not a time of war and why should that be special? Then there's the Nazis Batman punches off the top of the zeppelin. The zeppelin's explosion kills a bunch more, but technically a Nazi caused that himself. Still, it's a little weird given that the Batman does not kill. Period.
Batman Body Count: Around 23.

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