Friday, September 7, 2012

Batman #7 (October/November, 1941)

I must question Bob Kane's proclivity for drawing Robin diving headfirst into guy's asses when he tackles them. Seriously, who does that?

"Wanted: Practical Jokers"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos
Synopsis:  So, first up, of course the Joker survived his fall from the lighthouse two issues ago. He places an ad in the morning paper for experienced practical jokers to meet I. Rekoj at 13 Gloom St. Which is hilarious. A bunch of practical jokers show up to meet old man Rekoj, who watches the men demonstrate their skills. He weeds out the applicants, keeping only those whose pranks are most harmful. Then he gets their fingerprints on a number of items involved with recent crimes, so that he has the power of blackmail over them. Then he reveals his true identity as the Joker and enlists the men in playing a series of practical jokes all around town: false calls to the fire department, water taps switched from cold to hot, counterfeit money being thrown around in the streets. Then the Joker increases the severity of the pranks: signs are changed on roads, causing fatal accidents; medicines are replaced in their bottles with poisons, killing hospital patients; and railway switchs are pulled in the wrong direction, causing disatrous train wrecks. The Joker's team of "humorists" have become too enamored of their work and their boss to notice the harm they are causing, it's all about wreaking havoc and chaos. (It's also kinda reminescent of the plot to Fight Club). 
The Joker drops leaflets all over the city taking credit for the deadly pranks, and mocking the Batman and the police for their inability to stop him (he hasn't been succesfully captured save for two days in jail back in Batman #1) and once again threatening to steal a large gem. A man named Henry Verne visits the exasperated Commissioner Gordon and shows him a letter from the Joker threatening to steal his diamond. The police do the standard thing and go to protect Verne. Batman and Robin also show up, but the police have already been killed by Joker venom when they arrive. Batman bursts in to find the Joker about to kill Verne, but during the fight another Joker arrives, and then another, and then another, until an entire gang of Jokers is upon them and overpowers the Dynamic Duo. They remove their masks to reveal themselves as the Joker's gang, and they do not kill the heroes because "he wants them alive so they may hear him laugh at them!"
The entire Verne scheme was a scam to make Batman and Robin look stupid -- the diamond itself merely a glass door knob. The real Joker was in fact stealing a real gem from another man across town. The Joker even phones the fake Verne apartment, purely to gloat at the Dark Knight. And then he offers the Batman a clue to his next crime, a riddle -- "When is a Duke not a Duke?"
Batman concludes that the Joker plans to abduct and impersonate the visiting Duke Michael, in Gotham to raise aid money for his wartorn country, and will steal the money. Which of course is exactly what happens. The Dynamic Duo crash the ceremony and attack the Duke, who is of course the Joker in disguise. The Clown Prince of Crime makes an exit, stealing a car, while Batman and Robin race after him. The Joker boards a train, and the heroes jump from their car onto the moving train and chase the Joker in, around and finally on top of the speeding train cars. It comes down to a fightfight atop the hurtling locomotive, and Batman finally knocks the Joker off with a mighty right hook, sending the Joker toppling off the train and into a ravine.
Robin is sure the Joker is dead this time, but Batman feels that Joker has cheated death so many times that he's sure to return.
My Thoughts: The team behind Batman continue to raise the stakes and excitement with each Joker story, slowly transitioning him from the serial killer/gem thief of his original appearances towards the insane supervillain with a twisted sense of humour that he would become widely known as. This tale shows the Joker, for the first time, assembling his own gang of loyal followers, and for the first time assembling his scheme largely around his conflict with Batman, intentionally committing crimes purely to wreak havoc and make Batman look the fool. This progression in the character's motivations will continue to become more prominent as the battle with the Dark Knight becomes more important to Joker than any criminal gains. However, the strip once again ends with Joker falling to a supposed but unlikely death, a repeated pattern that is beginning to become stale.
The Art: Kane and his team do another great job of the art, with dynamic chases and fights that really sell the ramped up aspects of this particular tale.
The Story: The most interesting aspects here are the transitionary elements in play between the earlier and later Joker stories, as well as all later rogues gallery stories. Joker gloats at Batman and offers him a clue to solving the next crime. This is a seminal moment, as the idea of Batman villains intentionally dropping clues in an attempt to goad Batman and test his wits against theirs will become a greater and greater element in Batman stories, to the point where an entire character (The Riddler) will become based around it, and become a formula for most Silver Age Batman stories. But while these are all interesting new changes, the story itself is a little fragmented, and ends with a predictably "epic and dramatic" one on one duel on the train. While I know Finger felt that the Joker could not be held in an ordinary prison, and showing him escaping repeatedly would make Batman look ineffectual, these repeated "falls from a great height and might be dead" endings aren't much better.
Joker Body Count: 24

"The Trouble Trap"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos
Synopsis: Batman and Robin are too late to stop a man being murdered on the streets during their nightly patrol. They confront the murderers, but find themselves attacked by two giant Hindu men who attempt to choke them to death. They escape thanks to Batman's exploding gas pellets, but so do the criminals. After searching the corpse, Batman finds the dead man is Henry Abbot and that he has been withdrawing large sums of money at regular intervals from the bank. The vigilantes take off before the police get there, and Batman feels this is only the beginning, although he has no idea why Henry Abbot was murdered (already I'm thinking it's blackmail).
While Dick does some homework (that kid still goes to school??), Bruce meets with an old friend named Dwyer who seems troubled, especially when a bunch of armed men burst in and demand payment by eight o'clock or there'll release some records. Bruce can't figure out what's going on (blackmail?) but figures Batman should be back at eight o'clock as well. Batman arrives to spy on the payoff, then follows the hoodlum to the house of a swami named Granda the Mystic. According to Batman, it doesn't make sense (maybe Granda is running a blackmail racket?)
After questioning Dwyer, Batman discovers that Granda is running a blackmail racket where he uses his position as a popular high society mystic to hypnotize the rich into revealing their secrets, which he blackmails them with. Batman's response? He actually phones Commissioner Gordon and tips off the police to raid Granda. A very different solution than his usual "punch everything". However, the police fail to find anything, because they are the Gotham City Police. C'mon, what did you expect?

Granda wishes to prevent further meddling in his affairs by Batman, and decides to send his men to capture Linda Page, as she's been involved in many of Batman's recent cases. Batman stops the kidnappers, then impersonates them and continues taking Linda to Granda, while Robin calls the kidnapping into Gordon, who sends a squad car over. However, the hasty police get in a car crash (seriously?) and fail to arrive, forcing Batman to break his cover and fight Granda himself.
Granda sicks the giant Hindus on him from earlier, but after some fighting Robin arrives with the police and there's a shootout. Granda jumps out a window and steals a car, so Batman and Robin commandeer a police cruiser and go after him in a thrilling car chase that includes a spectacular (if cliché) jump over a lifting drawbridge. Batman captures Granda and returns to meet up with Gordon.
The police have found the blackmail records, and Granda's men have confessed to the murder of Henry Abbott, who was going to inform the police of Granda's activities. The story ends with Gordon shaking Batman's hand and thanking him on behalf of the police department.
My Thoughts: This is a pretty slapped together, haphazard Batman tale, standard in all its elements, with a thoroughly forgettable villain who feels like a throwback to the pre-Joker days. The story is largely saved by the art and by the interaction between Batman and Gordon. This is probably the most positive interplay between the Dynamic Duo and the police department we've ever seen. The two are seen as illegal vigilantes, and we've had many sequences of cops attempting to capture Batman, yet here the Dark Knight reaches an olive branch out to Gordon, who is already friends with Bruce Wayne, and the two establish a trust as Batman saves Linda and captures Granda. And so the story ends with the police commissioner of Gotham shaking hands with the city's notorious costumed vigilante. This new sign of trust will be very important later in this very issue.
The Art: The art is the saving grace of this issue. The car chase sequence is particularly spectacular, although the panel of Batman arriving at Dwyer's apartment is also very memorable: dark and moody. With Batman all in black, and his white eyes the only visible feature, it's the kind of image that continues to be dramatically utilized to this day. I give all the credit to the inking from Robinson and Roussos.
The Story: The script is all over the map. It's so slapdash that it makes the previous Joker story well plotted. Granda is a petty blackmailer, made into a hypnotizing mystic with Hindu bodyguards in a pale attempt to make him interesting. Batman takes forever to figure out the blackmail plot, the police are hampered randomly, the fake kidnapping plan from Batman amounts to nothing, really the whole thing feels completely pedestrian from beginning to end if it wasn't for the great art and the unique ending with Gordon.
Notes and Trivia: First time Police Commissioner Gordon and the Batman work with each other directly.

"The North Woods Mystery"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos
Synopsis: Bruce Wayne is on a date with Nora Powell, society girl, because I guess his relationship with Linda Page is an open one. Her uncle, owner of a large lumber camp in the "North Woods", has been shot. His adopted son, Jack Clayton, is suspected of the murder as he has inherited ownership, but was cleared on lack of evidence. Nora decides to head to the camp to offer her support, although in a phone conversation Jack implores Nora to stay in Gotham, and that he'll pay her a share of the profits so she can keep up her nightclub lifestyle.
However, Nora wants to show everyone that she can be more than a society girl, and heads out, inviting Bruce with her. Bruce decides to use this opportunity to investigate the murder, and of course Dick tags along as well.
Dick disguises himself and gets a job as the "camp boy" doing odd errands and such, while Bruce and Nora survive several mysterious "accidents" soon after they arrive. Nora transitions to being a working girl and finds she loves the outdoors, the camp and the work, and wants to help Jack run the place. Clayton is totally against it, however, showing nothing but distaste for Nora. 
When Batman and Robin snoop around the camp that night, they are instantly attacked and during the battle a man whom Batman tries to interrogate is accidentally killed. The next day, Bruce offers to help Jack get to the bottom of all the accidents, claiming to have learned about detective procedure from Commissioner Gordon, but Jack denies his help. Nora is worried, but Bruce promises to get to the bottom of things.
The next day Jack introduces Nora to Mr. Asher, owner of a rival lumber company. Jack has agreed to sell his shares in the Powell company to Asher. Nora, however, likes the business and refuses. When alone, Asher pressures Jack to convince Nora to sell. Jack offers to buy Nora's shares, so he can sell them to Asher, but again Nora refuses. 
Nora finds herself the victim of another "accident" when Batman must rescue her from a runaway logging train. Nora accuses Jack of killing her uncle and trying to kill her. Jack denies this wholeheartedly. Then another attempt is made on Nora's life, as she's shoved into the log chute, breaks her arm, ends up in the river, Robin tries to rescue her, is attacked by thugs, almost falls down a waterfall, is rescued by Batman, while meanwhile Nora is on the conveyor belt to the buzzsaw and is of course saved by Batman at the last possible moment!
Asher is suddenly there with a gun and tries to shoot but is punched out by Batman. Turns out Asher killed Powell, then blackmailed Clayton. Clayton was an ex-con before he came to work for Powell and was adopted by him. Asher then started the accidents in an attempt to get Nora to sell out. Clayton thought Nora wouldn't mind selling, as she was happy being rich and idle in Gotham. He never counted on Nora developing into an independant woman. With everything settled, the two realise they love each other and embrace while Bruce and Dick return to Gotham.
My Thoughts: Oh man, this was worse than the last story. Filled to the brim with clichés, predictable to the last, there's basically nothing interesting about this story. About the only thing that saves it is that Batman has yet to do the "northern" genre yet, but if you grew up watching Dudley Do-Right cartoons its really weird to see all these old (even by 1941) tropes played straight. They even do the whole jumping across logs on a river gag, and the conveyor belt buzzsaw thing, which is straight out of Perils of Pauline or something. It's really hack stuff.
The Art: The artwork is the only thing that makes this story worthwhile. The art is gorgeous. Robinsona and Roussos just go nuts with the blacks, doing exquisite shadow work. They use a motif of constantly silhouetting the characters, but leaving the hair detailed and coloured. It's a really cool visual look. The entire waterfall sequence is also spectacularly done. The action is dynamic and exciting. The great art lifts up the entire tale.
The Story: Just about every beat of this is standard for this genre. The corporate take-over, the damsel-in-distress, the tough mug with a good heart. Finger's using the oldest clichés in the book to string together setpieces. The only noteworthy occurrence is the incident wherein a man is accidentally killed during Batman's interrogation of him. It's weirdly gruesome and deadly.
Notes and Trivia: Batman kinda killed a dude
Batman Body Count: 24

"The People vs. The Batman"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos
Synopsis: Batman is skulking around in a wallway and overhears a conversation about a poultry racket. He bursts in to discover to find some goons taking orders from a man named Horatio Delmar. The lights get turned off and there's some gunfire, bringing the police into the room. Everyone's gone except a dazed Batman, who escapes through the window as the police make chase.
Mobster Freddie Hill decides that it's too much of risk to their operation that Batman can identify Horatio Delmar as their boss, and this is also his perfect chance to eliminate him and take over. He figures out a scheme and tells it to his hitman, Weasel Venner. Meanwhile, Batman decides to investigate the outwardly respectable Delmar as Bruce Wayne in order to not arouse suspicion, thus falling into Hill's trap.
Weasel is meeting with Delmar when Bruce shows up. Weasel shoots Delmar dead, then calls out "Drop that gun, Mr Wayne!", shoots his hat, and then tosses the gun at Wayne, who catches it. Delmar's secretary runs in, and sees Delmar dead and Wayne holding the gun. Weasel punches Bruce out and the secretary calls the police, who arrive by the time Bruce wakes up. Bruce is arrested.
It's a bad scandal, given that Bruce is a rich socialite and friend of the police commissioner. Gordon and Dick visit him and Dick swears he'll find the evidence to exonerate him. Robin head to Weasel Venner's apartment, where he discovers that mob hitmen are about to bump him off so that he won't talk. Robin bursts in, trying to save Weasel, but the hitmen beat him up and chase after the running Weasel, eventually running him over with their car. But they don't do a good job, as Weasel lives, albeit in a coma. 
Realizing that Robin might be able to tell the cops that the mob was trying to bump Weasel off, which might ruin the frame, Freddie Hill comes up with a scheme to discredit the Batman. He has one of his hitmen buy a Batman costume from a costume shop and sneak into Weasel's hospital room with a gun. The place is crawling with cops and the hit attempt is unsuccessful, but it serves the purpose of making it look like Batman is trying to kill the witness against Bruce. 
Meanwhile, Robin has been studying old city maps, and discovers that an abandoned sewer tunnel runs under the jailhouse that Bruce is being kept in. He uses this to break Bruce out, and they replace him with a dummy which should fool the guards long enough, anyhow. Bruce changes to Batman, and the Duo head to Delmar's house in an attempt to find records that would tie Delmar to organized crime and exonerate Bruce.
Unfortunately Freddie Hill is there too, searching for the records to destroy them. The Batman and Robin tussle with the gangsters, but are overpowered. Tied up and weighed down with iron, they're thrown off a pier and into the river waters. Meanwhile, Weasel wakes up from his coma, and realizing that Hill tried to double-cross him, decides to testify in favour of Wayne at the trial. Double meanwhile, when the guards try to fetch Wayne for the trial, they realize he's escaped, which doesn't speak well for his innocence. 
On the bottom of the Gotham River, Batman manages to cut through his bonds with a convenient tin can (hooray for littering!) He frees Robin and then they beat the living hell out of Freddie Hill. Bruce Wayne is being tried by the D.A. in absentia, which hardly seems legal, and the D.A. further argues his breaking jail proves his guilt. And that's when Batman bursts into the courtroom with Freddie Hill in tow, because not giving a damn about due process is kind've Batman's whole deal. 
Batman declares that Hill ordered Delmar killed and that Bruce Wayne is innocent. Delmar exclaims that Batman beat him up and is trying to get him to take the rap, after all, why did he try to kill Venner? Batman's rebuttal is that it's easy for anyone to put on a Batman costume and frame him. The D.A. posits that it is indeed Batman's costume that is the entire problem, and produces a lengthy list of the vigilante's crimes, including aiding Bruce Wayne's escape, trying to murder a witness in a criminal trial, obstructing justice and meddling in police affairs and asks the police present to arrest the Batman!
But then, something happens that changes everything. Commissioner Gordon, present in the audience, stands up and addresses the bench (man, the extent to which none of this is legal!), and Gordon proceeds to give an impassioned speech in the Batman's favour that is five whole panels long (which is forever in Golden Age terms). It's so important that I'm going to reproduce it here in it's entirety:
"I speak for the Batman -- the friend of the people! Yes -- he works "outside the law", as  you call it, but the legal devices that hamper us are hurdled by this crime-fighter so he may bring these men of evil to justice. The eminent district attorney calls him a meddler with a theory -- Washington, the Wright Brothers, Lincoln, Edison, and others, they were "meddlers", too -- who proved their theories. They made sacrifices so that we might enjoy the security and comfort we do. The Batman has done that, too! This man who has saved a nation's gold reserve, fought fifth columnists and saboteurs, beaten the Joker, the Puppet Master, and other crime geniuses. This man who daily risks his life to save others -- who never carries a gun -- who's aided by his young friend, Robin, fights crime with the courage and zeal born of love for his fellow man. This is --- the Batman! Perhaps this comes a little late, but I, the Police Commissioner of Gotham City, appoint you an honorary member of the police department! From now on, you work hand in hand with the police!"
After Gordon finishes having his Rearden moment, Batman and Robin accept the Commissioner's offer. Weasel finally bursts into the courtroom (because why not at this point?) and proclaims Bruce Wayne's innocence and Hill's guilt before dying dramatically. Bruce Wayne emerges, looking haggard, saying that Batman had hidden him away for his own safety from the mob. Bruce ironically remarks that the life of Bruce Wayne depends quite a bit on the existence of the Batman. 
My Thoughts: Okay, so if only for the last page and a half alone, this is the most significant story in Batman since the introduction of Joker or Robin. And what's really amazing is that this incredibly large paradigm shift in the series' premise is done in a manner that utilizes the series' internal continuity, which is amazing given that this is 1941. Gordon's trust of the Batman has been developed over time, most notably in another story earlier in this issue, and in his climactic speech he notes actual accomplishments of the Dark Knight's from past issues. This is narrative progression. It also notes that Bill Finger realized he couldn't continue to have Batman operating on the run from the law forever. He makes Gordon's acceptance of Batman and the Dynamic Duo's recreation as "honorary members of the police department" seems like a natural development, the logical next step as the City continues to recognize and honor its hero. It shows that Batman is making progress in fighting crime and corruption in Gotham. After all, the only way Batman could be publicly accepted and heralded as a hero is if the good people in Gotham were beginning to feel safe enough to do so. On the other hand, Gordon sees that he still needs Batman -- he's endorsing a vigilante, tacitly legalizing the Batman's extreme methods because he needs them to continue, because crime is still beyond the GCPD's ability to handle. It's going to be intriguing to see where the new direction takes us.
The Art: The art is pretty good, with Kane and Robinson's work coming out the best, while Roussos seems a little off here. The figure work is well done, but everything else is occasionally very splotchy. It's unfortunately not as good as the previous two stories in the issue.
The Story: Man, this story could be six issues if it was done in the Modern Age (anyone remember "Bruce Wayne: Murderer" from Batman #599-605?). At thirteen pages it feels incredibly confined. The pacing is breakneck and things happen very suddenly. I would have easily traded one or two of the earlier stories in this issue to get this expanded to a larger page count. Finger should've argued for it, given the significance of this story, but he's lucky DC allowed him to make such a change to the strip at all. Jerry Siegel had tried to make a similar change in Superman #8 (January/February 1941) -- which would've featured Superman encountering Kryptonite for the first time, learning of his alien heritage, and revealing his identity to Lois Lane -- but DC had pulled the story, not wanting to disrupt the formula of its popular character (these events would finally happen in 1943, 1949, and 1991 respectively) but it was the moment when control of the Superman story was essentially pulled from his creators. Finger maintains control of Batman here, and establishes a new paradigm for the strip that will last for many years. But because of its rushed nature, the plot that leads up to this startling change feels extremely arbitrary, with plot points happening almost at random and with far too much suddenness. It's too bad, because it is in fact a very good story, but it's just too much squeezed into too little.
Notes and Trivia: Commissioner Gordon makes Batman and Robin honorary members of the Gotham Police Department, legalizing their activities while retaining their ability to work outside the regular confines of due process

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