Friday, August 10, 2012

World's Finest Comics #2 (Summer 1941)

The title has been changed from World's Best Comics, after DC received a cease and desist letter from Better Publications, which had a series called Best Comics. The early days of comicbook publishing were very cutthroat, with a lot of back and forth litigation.

"The Man Who Couldn't Remember"
Writer: Bill Finger
Artist: Bob Kane
Synopsis: Gotham has been engulfed in a gang war for two months. With innocent citizens being gunned down in the crossfire, the governor himself appoints a new special prosecutor, William Kendrick, to clean up Gotham City, ousting the previous D.A., Graves, who of course was corrupt and in the pocket of Big Tim Bannon, political boss of the city.
The leaders of the East and West side mobs, run by Trig Cooler and Mitch Mason respectively, make death threats against Kendrick. These threats are countered by the support of citizens' groups such as the one led by wealthy businessman Ambrose Taylor, which support Kendrick. Kendrick himself attacks the racketeers with a vengeance, wriring down every face and connection in his little black book. At a lunch with Bruce Wayne, Wayne points out that Kendrick seems to have signed his own death warrant by mentioning the existence of the little black book publicly, but Kendrick isn't swayed. He invites Bruce to dinner at his place, mentioning that it's the servants night off and he'll be all alone.
A waiter at the restaurant reports up to Bannon and Graves, who agree that it seems like the perfect opportunity to get rid of Kendrick. So do the mobs. But Kendrick also invites Taylor up to his place that night to speak about the citizens' committee and its support. Bruce decides that Kendrick might be in danger and instead of attending as himself, goes out into the night as the Batman. 
Arriving at Kendrick's apartment, Batman recognizes Bannon's car parked in front. Heading up the fire escape he bursts into Kendrick's room to discover a batch of gangsters standing over a shot Kendrick and Taylor. Batman attacks, but the gangsters get away. Taylor is alive, the bullet having merely creased his scalp. Kendrick is not soon for this world however, his last words to Batman are "home... black book... devil's dungeon..." Batman spots Graves' face at the window, but the ex-DA is away before Batman can pursue. Grabbing Taylor's body and leaving, Batman wonders about the presence of Bannon and Graves, wonders who shot Kendrick, and knows that he'll only get an answer when Taylor wakes up, as he is the only surviving witness. 
Batman brings Taylor to Linda Page, society girl turned nurse and current love interest of Bruce Wayne. Linda manages to get Taylor conscious, but the wound has given him amnesia, he has no memory of who shot who in Kendrick's apartment. Aggravated that his one witness has amnesia, Batman turns to trying to solve the riddle of Kendrick's last words. He thinks he has the answer, but isn't sure whether Graves overheard them at the window.
He did. Reporting to Bannon and Trig Cooler, the mobsters determine that whatever "devil's dungeon" means, the black book is somewhere in Kendrick's house and that they have to get it before Batman does. Cooler also vows to finish off Taylor. 
Batman and Robin take off for Kendrick's in the Batmobile. Batman decides to take Taylor along in case he regains his memory, and Linda insists on coming too to look after Taylor. But Bannon and his men are right on their tail. Bannon knows a short cut, and gets ahead, setting up a trap by barricading a tight corner with their cars so as to crash the Batmobile. With no way to slow down or stop in time, Batman decides to ram straight through the barricade. Since the Batmobile is reinforced steel and has a giant battering ram at the front, it smashes through the mobsters' cars undamaged, while they are left as nothing more than scrap metal.
The group makes to Kendrick's and Batman soon locates the famous painting Devil's Dungeon, behind which is of course hidden the black book. Bannon and his men arrive, and split up to find the book. Robin goes after one group, while Batman goes after the other. Losing their way in the large, dark house, the gangsters are attacked by Batman, who sees them easily using his infrared goggles. Rounding up Bannon and Graves, Batman goes to assist Linda, who has been discovered by a third group of mobsters. Batman and Robin attack, but not before Taylor is pistol whipped in the head. His memory returning, Taylor announces that in fact HE KILLED KENDRICK! Producing a gun from his jacket, Taylor sturggles with Batman, who punches him off a second floor balcony railing.
Bannon and Cooler reveal that Taylor was, in fact, the real leader of the West Side mob, Mitch Mason was only his lieutenant. Kendrick had discovered this, with the evidence in the black book. Taylor shot Kendrick, then Cooler's men shot Taylor as he was from the rival mob. Cooler was working with Bannon for political protection. The mobsters couldn't squeal on Taylor or he could've revealed a lot about them in plea bargaining. Batman and Robin call the police to come and arrest everybody, heading home with Linda. Batman feels the fool for having the murderer in his custody the whole time and never suspecting it, asking Robin to remind him of this case if he ever becomes too overconfident of himself.

My Thoughts: This is a pretty great Batman tale with a lot of unique elements. The mob war and it's resulting political effects in Gotham is a perfect backdrop for a Batman story, and really ups the stakes. We have a lot of elements here that are going to pop up again and again in later stories: a crusading DA trying to clean up the city, a corrupt DA working with the mob, warring mobsters, a single boss who has political protection, etc. Probably the most notable thing here is that Batman doesn't have the answer to the central murder mystery, he's just as shocked as the reader when it's revealed as Taylor. It's a rare moment of failure for the Golden Age Batman.
The Art: This is all Bob Kane here, including inks, for the first time since Detective Comics #29, and it actually looks pretty great. It looks like a lot like George Roussos inkjob, in fact, and shows that perhaps Kane had learned a lot from the young artists in his employ. It's dark, moody and noirish, and the Batman looks great in it. Also worth mentioning is the attention paid to giving all the civillian characters unique and distinctive faces, which helps a lot towards recognizing who's who as the tale goes on.
The Story: It's a really good story from Finger, and certainly a tale suited to Batman and his world. Perhaps the only complaint I may have is that from a murder mystery standpoint it doesn't really play fair, as there aren't a lot of clues towards Taylor's identity, besides Cooler mentioning his specific desire to finish Taylor off. But that's really immaterial. What's effective is the crime drama elements and the twist ending of Batman's failure. 

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