Friday, August 31, 2012

World's Finest Comics #3 (Fall 1941)

"Riddle of the Human Scarecrow"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos
Synopsis: We start with a young boy, Jonathan Crane, who as a child enjoyed frightening birds. As a grown man, Crane has become a professor of psychology at Gotham University, teaching a class on the psychology of fear. During class he pulls out a gun, pointing it first at the students, then firing it at a vase, to demonstrate its destructive power and the fear it creates in others.

After class, Crane overhears some of the other professors mocking his shabby clothes and odd appearance. Crane spends all of his money on old, rare books rather than on his appearance. Alone at home, Crane decides that most people judge others by money, and that if he had more money he would be more respected, and could buy more books as well. As he continues to teach his course on fear, Crane decides he can use fear to gain money, using methods similar to the gangster's protection racket. Crane decides to use the mocking words of others in his favour, to adopt a disguise as a scarecrow, "a symbol of poverty and fear combined!"
Several nights later, the Scarecrow appears in the office of a businessman named Frank Kendrick. The Scarecrow is aware that Kendrick's business partner, Paul Herold, is suing him, and tells Kendrick to hire his services to scare Herold into dropping the suit. Kendrick agrees, and that very night the Scarecrow appears to Herold. The Scarecrow shoots Herold, non-fatally, but declares that next time it will be in the heart if Herold does not drop the suit. However, Batman and Robin (remember them?) hear the gunshot on their nightly patrol, and spot the Scarecrow fleeing the building. They take off after him, but the Scarecrow is nimble and quick and able to evade the Dynamic Duo easily, even taking a few shots at Batman (missing).
The police investigate Kendrick, but are unable to pin anything on him. Meanwhile, the Scarecrow once again appears to Herold and kills him, declaring that "The Scarecrow warns only once!" The police know the Scarecrow did it because he leaves loose straw behind as a calling card (?) and Kendrick is aghast but the Scarecrow demands his payment as he has successfully stopped Herold's suit.
At the University, Professor Jonathan Crane is dismissed from the staff by the president for his fanatical teaching methods (that whole bringing a loaded gun into class thing didn't go over well), but Crane doesn't even care. He waves a handful of money in the president's face and declares that he doesn't need anybody anymore now that he has money!
And so the Scarecrow's reign of terror continues, as Crane sinks deeper and deeper into his persona, feeding off the thrill of terrifying others. But of course Bruce Wayne is an old friend of the university president, and in a casual conversation he mentions the odd Crane, his resemblance to a scarecrow, and his sudden craziness and money waving, also mentioning Crane's collection of old books. Bruce begins to put some pieces together...
The Scarecrow bursts in on another prospective client, Richard Dodge. Dodge runs a failing department store, and Scarecrow offers to scare customers away from his rival, Fenton's store. Dodge agrees, and so the next day Scarecrow shows up at Fenton's and begins throwing smoke bombs into the crowd of innocents outside the store, causing mass panic. 
Batman and Robin head over to the store, and begin a two-page fight with Scarecrow in the store, using all kinds of department store props, including a cool bit where Robin fires an arrow at a bomb Scarecrow tosses at Batman and explodes it in mid-air before it can hit the Dark Knight. But ultimately Scarecrow escapes, no thanks to cops who show up to quell the riot and end up trying to arrest Batman and Robin. 
Batman discovers that Scarecrow stole two rare books from the department store, and this convinces him that Crane is the Scarecrow. He disguises himself as a man in need of a phone (his car broke down!) and gains entrance to Crane's apartment. He spots the two stolen books in Crane's collection. Outside, he changes back to Batman and explains to Robin that he's going to call on Dodge. But Crane spots them from his window and overhears the conversation, deciding to get to Dodge first and kill him. He leaves the building as Scarecrow, but is ambushed by Batman, as the entire set-up was Batman's plan all along!
Scarecrow attempts to flee into a playground, where he is primarily defeated by Robin, who hits Crane with a swing and a teeter totter before he can shoot the Batman. K-O'd by the Dark Knight's uppercut, the Dynamic Duo literallly drag Crane to jail, where he arrogantly declares that one day he will escape!
My Thoughts: All right, here comes the Scarecrow, our first real and lasting addition to Batman's Rogues Gallery since Clayface. And this story really is a great introduction to him, setting up his origin, personality, motivations, modus operandi and really doing a good job of saying "Hey! Here's a new, lasting villain for y'all!" Finger even remembers to put him in jail instead of killing him. But oddly enough, after an appearance in Detective Comics #73 two years from now, Crane will disappear from Bat-comics until the Silver Age, a hiatus of twenty-four years! The Scarecrow seen here is pretty different from the modern concept, most notably lacking in any way the character's Fear Gas. Fear Dust had been used by Hugo Strange in Detective #46, but the Scarecrow here frightens people with threats, with guns, with bombs, with his bizarre appearance. He's a terrorist for hire. The weirdest part about this introductory story is that while Scarecrow is obviously meant to be a major new villain, and the tale itself is exceptionally well told, it was published in the pages of World's Finest, probably the least read of the three Batman series and therefore probably why readers weren't all that familiar with the character. A story like this really should've been in Batman, as it's the best Bat-tale in World's Finest by a long shot until Batman starts teaming up with Superman in 1954.
The Art: Really great art from Kane and his team here. Crane has a wonderful character design, with a memorable face, clearly inspired by the description of his namesake, Ichabod Crane, in Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. There are a lot of great visual motifs as well, such as Scarecrow's poses, and the constant fog surrounding him. All in all it's a treat for the eyes as the art is not only dynamic, dramatic, and moody, but also very clear and easy to follow and understand. It's great stuff.
The Story: Finger's doing a lot of great, interesting things here that really show an intelligent storyteller at work, putting effort into his tale. Crane is obviously inspired by Ichabod, but he's not a carbon copy of that character. He's mean and spiteful, a teacher only because it's an intellectual position he can make money at. He delights in scaring and tormenting people because it means he's more powerful than them, he likes the thrill and the authority it gives him. He's the ultimate nerd-turned-bully, and I love that in this version of his story he doesn't even care when the University fires him because he's too high on the thrill of being the Scarecrow. It's great writing and you can really tell that the guy is totally, utterly, crazy in a very believeable way. We know he's been screwed up ever since those days spent scaring birds as a child. And what's amazing is how Batman just swoops in, beats him up and locks him up without ever really knowing any of this side of the story that Finger not only lets us in on, but actually opens with. It makes the story about Crane, about this man who falls into supervillainry and it paints a sympathetic and yet tragic picture. It's really good writing and definite formula that will be followed by later Batman villains.
Notes and Trivia: First appearance of the Scarecrow
Scarecrow Body Count: 1, at least 

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