Thursday, September 20, 2012

Batman #8 (December 1941/January 1942)

First up, we have one of the most classic Batman cover images of the Golden Age, brought to us by regular World's Finest cover artist Fred Ray. Almost immediately popular, and still a kind of emblem of the carefree enjoyment of 1940s comics.

"Stone Walls Do Not a Prison Make"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: So in an interesting twist we begin at the usual end of these stories, with Batman nabbing Big Mike Russo, crime czar of Gotham City, and sending him to prison.
But while everyone writes Russo off, he has big plans to continue his criminal empire from within the prison. He has his men capture the prison warden, then make up one of their own to look like him (and sound and act like him thanks to studying newsreel footage). The prison guards are also all replaced by hoods in guard uniforms. With this Russo makes the prison his new headquarters, able to act freely without suspicion. His gang engages in daring robberies, with the loot loaded onto boats headed for the state prison island on the East River -- the harbour police assume there's no way a crook would be headed in that direction and loose them.  When Batman attempts to stop one of the robberies he notices that one of the perps is supposedly already in prison. Gordon tells him this is impossible and the two journey to the state prison for a tour, accompanied by the "warden". When passing Big Mike, Batman notices his shoes are finely crafted and comfortable, not the standard regulation shoes. He mentions this to Gordon and with the commissioner, concocts a plan to get into prison.
In one of his patented make-up disguises, Batman pretends to be "Killer Sikes", and discovers that Russo is using the prison as his headquarters. He manages to smuggle word out to Robin, before Russo sends "Killer Sikes" and some other men out at a job to the Fink Warehouse. However, under the hot incandescant lights, Batman's make-up begins to melt, arousing the men's suspicions. Quickly changing back into the Dark Knight, and joined by Robin, there's a brief warehouse fight scene before the Dynamic Duo are overwhelmed and put in prison by Russo.
Russo plans to kill Batman in the gas chamber (as "this state has no electric chair", despite Batman mentioned the electric chair in several previous stories, and Gotham has been roughly synonymous with New York so far, which never used the gas chamber, neither did New Jersey, the modern location of Gotham -- if Gotham is indeed an east coast city, this statement would place it in Maryland, rofl). Russo describes the method as a cyanide "egg" hitting a pan of water, the fizzing of which produces an odourless, colourless gas that kills the victim instantly with no pain. Which is also nothing like how a US gas chamber works -- in reality, potassium cyanide pellets are dropped into sulfuric acid, generating a visible hydrogen cyanide gas and the process is quite slow and painful.
Robin brings Batman his last meal, and when Batman complains of stomach pains, Robin is allowed to grab him some "Burpo" Seltzer tablets. The Boy Wonder is then placed in solitary as Batman is taken to be killed. However, by using the magnetic dynamo in his belt radio, Robin is able to lift the door latch from the inside and escape. The cyanide eggs are dropped into the water pan and Russo watches as the Batman dies. His men remove his body, which suddenly springs to life and begins to fight the men. Robin joins in and the crooks are persuaded to go back into their cells peacefully when Robin threatens to use the cyanide eggs to gas the whole prison.
With Russo behind bars, Batman explains that he and Robin switched the seltzer tablets for the cyanide and so there was fizz but no death. Batman then announces he'll go find the real warden and put him back in charge so as to wrap up the case.
My Thoughts: Another gangster story, another Al Capone stand-in. Russo I think represents the fears that Capone would somehow manage to still run his criminal empire from within prison. But in fact, Capone's health and mind deteriorated greatly in the pen, and he left a shell of the man he was. But as a Batman story, it's a neat idea, addressing the issue of what happens after the standard ending of a Batman story with the crook thrown in jail. It makes this a unique and memorable story.
The Art: Artwork is pretty fantastic in this tale, with great character design for Russo (who resembles Zucco from Detective #38), fantastic panel layouts, and evocative shadowy inks. It's exciting, dramatic and dynamic, topnotch work from this team. It's really the art in many ways that make this story shine.
The Story: Finger provides a script that is at once brilliant and bungling. The central issue is the fear of a criminal continuing on his criminal acts once being jailed -- an understandable fear when your hero won't resort to more permanent methods of ending a criminal career. And while that issue is explored, it isn't addressed or even solved. Russo is put behind bars at the end of the story, but he's been behind bars the whole time. The real warden isn't even restored on panel, it's something Batman is going to go do now that the fighting's done. So really, nothing is accomplished. We're in the same place at the end we were at the beginning. Also, you're telling me no one noticed that the warden was replaced by a gangster? Even if he was a perfect mimic, the dude stayed at the prison the whole time with Russo -- did the real warden not have a home or family to go back to? And while using Robin's magnetic dynamo in his radio belt (established in many stories previous to this) was genius, Batman's escape from the gas chamber relies on this gas chamber not working in any way like a real one. So while this is a great story in some ways, it's frustrating in others.
Notes and Trivia: There's no electric chair in the state Gotham is in? And they use a gas chamber??

"The Strange Case of Professor Radium"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: Professor Henry Ross is collecting dead dogs from the city's pound. He has developed a radium serum that he believes will bring the dogs back to life. He injects the corpses and waits all night, and in the morning the dogs indeed live again! However, the director of the institute that Ross works at believes that the experiment is a hoax and that Ross simply swapped the dead dogs for live ones, and fires Ross for appropriating thousands of dollars worth of radium.
Ross, of course, decides that the best course of action is to prove his theory by experimenting on himself, killing himself with poison and then leaving instruction to his assistant to revive him with the radium serum. It works, Ross returns to life but it turns out that his body is highly irradiated (duh!) and his very touch is deadly. In the dark, his body glows green, even. He accidentally kills his assistant with his touch. Horrified, Ross races to find a cure, and discovers that injections of the serum Volitell can restore him, but the effects wear off after twenty-four hours. Wishing to prevent any more deaths, Ross develops a special rubberoid-lead containment suit and sets off to steal more Volitell to treat his condition. However, most hospitals only have a small amount, so he must keep on stealing to gain the amounts he needs.
Batman and Robin decide to stake out Gotham Hospital in case of a burglary, and of course run into the Professor. There's a two page fight scene during which Ross removes his glove and burns away a drain pipe in order to escape. While they've lost the culprit, Batman takes the glove, bringing it back home.
Bruce explains that a criminal's fingerprints can be gotten from the inside of a glove if the glove is recovered. After a brief lesson in how to obtain the fingerprints (powdered lead oxide, photographic citrate paper, voila!), Batman brings the fingerprints to Gordon, who is able to run them against records to determine that the culprit is Professor Ross (Ross' fingerprints are on record as a former civil service employee).
Meanwhile, Ross believes the Volitell injection has cured him, but when he goes to visit his fianceé Mary, his touch kills her! Horrified, he escapes, but the maid witnessed everything. Gordon, Batman and Robin show up at the scene, and an autopsy reveals the woman died of radium burns, the same cause of death as Ross' lab partner. Batman deduces that Ross is a human radium ray and needs Volitell to treat the condition. Police begin a manhunt, and station themselves outside his home. Without the volitell injections, the radium in Ross' blood cause him to go mad, he becomes a violent murderer -- Professor Radium!
Batman decides to trap Ross by convincing Gordon to withdraw his men and publicize the end of the search in the news. Ross falls for it and returns home, where Batman and Robin attack him. The professor gives chase, donning his suit, but finds in his attempts at counterattack that the Dynamic Duo have coated themselves with a thin layer of transparent rubber, which immunizes them to limited radium exposure. In a battle at the shipyards, the Professor falls into the river, his heavy lead suit undoubtably dragging him to the bottom. 
Batman returns the stolen Volitell to the hospitals, and reflects on the tragedy of Ross' life. But will the mad Professor Radium return?
My Thoughts: Professor Radium establishes a classic archetype for the Batman villain: Brilliant scientist's experiment goes tragically wrong, causing him to live out his life in a special suit, and warping his mind to use his new special powers for crime. See Mr. Freeze in the Silver Age, or the Bronze Age Clayface. But despite a promising and well produced debut story and an open ending clearly intended for the character to resurface, Professor Radium never appeared again in a Batman comic. His second appearance wasn't until the 2006 Battle for Bludhaven mini-series where writer Justin Gray repurposed him as part of the Nuclear Legion. And speaking of nuclear, the use of radium in this story can be considered typical. The highly radioactive element was a standard MacGuffin in genre tales of this era, particularly in Saturday matinee serials, where the glowing blue rock was a plot element in everything from sci-fi tales to Westerns, including the 1943 Batman serial. Despite being a real element, its properties were warped to serve any plot ends, similar to this tale.
The Art: Kane and the gang really do a superb job with the art in this story. The inks are glorious, the shadows expressionistic, the layouts brilliant, the style minimalist and evocative. Ross resembles a green, glowing, Hugo Strange, but his suit is also visually memorable, resembling a kind of diving suit with a gas mask. Above all, the art is really what makes this great.
The Story: As said before, the story establishes a kind of archetype for Batman villains, and so it's somewhat hard to see in retrospect what Finger is doing so brilliantly here. But this is a great story, and Finger is clearly giving his all in establishing what he obviously hoped would become a recurring villain. I wonder why Finger never wrote Professor Radium again? Either way, it's an exciting and original tale that really stands out in this issue.
Notes and Trivia: First appearance of Professor Radium

"The Superstition Murders"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: A theatre company is preparing a new play, "The Superstition Murders" for a summer production. To drum up some publicity for the play, the writer decides to hold a superstition-breaking party (?) and invite the press. And Bruce Wayne, of course. There's Fred Brooks, the lead actor, who starts the party off by walking under a ladder. Then the play's author, Johnny Glim, lights three cigarettes on one match. Even the press photographer gets in the spirit, smashing a mirror. The play's star actress, ingenue Ms Francine, walks in the path of a black cat, and the producer, Banks, opens an umbrella in doors. Meanwhile, a weird old man who's present for some reason keeps saying things like "when folks start breaking superstitions, things are bound to happen!" in a vaguely threatening mannner.
So of course, someone gets murdered. A ladder falls onto Brooks, and everyone takes for granted that this killed him, despite that being hilariously ridiculous. The weird old man basically says that Brooks got what was coming to him. However, Bruce notices a fallen glass by Brooks' body, and takes it for further study. Meanwhile, the photographer realizes that Brooks was poisoned when he develops his photos, and hits the murderer up for blackmail. 
Examining the crime scene, Batman is attacked by a mysterious masked man. In the scuffle, the masked man gets the glass, the prime piece of evidence. Chasing after him, Batman bumps into another man, Paul Mett, who was going to be the star of the play but was fired for his alcoholism. Mett is paranoid, and thinks that Batman believes him to be the murderer of Brooks, pulling a gun, but Batman is saved by the timely intervention of the writer, Glim. Mett is cleared of suspicion when police reveal that he had been in jail at the time of the murder. Batman turns on Banks, as Brooks had been his business partner and with him out of the way Banks will get all the money -- although from what is unclear, since it's sorta hard to run a play without a lead. Then the weird old man pops up again and says "mark my words, there'll be more murders!" Anyone consider arresting that guy?
Straight outta luck, Bruce sends Robin to the photographer's house to see if any of the photos contain a clue. Upon arrival, Robin hears the photographer threatened by a man refusing to pay out any more blackmail. Entering the house, Robin finds the photographer murdered, a mirror smashed over his face. But the murderer/masked man is still there and, attacks Robin! After a brief fight scene, Robin's quarry gets away, but at least Robin gets a clue -- he finds a card for Larry Paine of Argus Pictures in Hollywood (same studio Bruce's ex-fianceé works for!)
Batman believes that Glim ruled out as a suspect because he saved his life, and considers either the weird old man or Banks, who had the most to gain. Gordon brings Banks in for questioning, but doesn't crack -- there's no evidence against him.
Bruce shows up for the premiere of the play. Glim wonders if the bad publicity will affect ticket sales, and they have -- positively. People are attracted by the morbid, and show up in droves. The weird old man declares the play cursed. Banks gets out on habeas corpus to attend. During the show, Francine is killed when a black cat attacks her, its claws having been dipped in poison. Gordon starts accusing everyone in a panic -- Mett, Banks again, but no one has motive or evidence against them for all the murders. Bruce tells Gordon and Glim that he's found a clue that points to the real murderer, and is planning on coming back to the threatre once everyone's gone to collect it.
Of course, it's a ploy to draw out the masked man, who shows up and tries to kill Bruce. Robin saves him, Bruce changes to Batman, and a short fight later the masked man is revealed to be Glim. Turns out that Glim had been offered a massive sum of money for the movie rights to the play, but Glim had sold his rights to Banks. Rights would only revert if the play closed after two weeks, so Glim started murdering people in an attempt to stop the play, and earlier saved Batman to put himself in a good light. Glim is arrested, the end.
My Thoughts: We're back in the Agatha Christie murder mode, with a parade of possible suspects and a list of victims. The superstition aspect adds a possible macabre element, but ultimately it's all stuff we've seen and done before, very hackneyed stuff. 
The Art: Pretty standard fare, not nearly the quality of the last two stories, but not terrible by any stretch either.
The Story: This story sucks, plain and simple. Disregarding all the cliché elements, it doesn't play fair as a mystery because the one vital clue to figuring it all out is withheld from the audience, meanwhile the story has to make Batman and Gordon look like idiots so the murders aren't solved too early. If Glim wanted to get his rights back from Banks and was willing to kill to do it, why not just kill Banks? Why the elaborate series of murders, why the supersition theme? What the hell was up with that old man? Just poor storytelling overall.

"The Cross Country Crimes!"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: Bruce and Dick are hanging around listening to the radio, when a sudden annoncement declares that G. Henry Mover (J. Edgar Hoover), head of the FBI, wishes to meet the Dynamic Duo in Washington and congratulate them on behalf of the president (Franklin D. Roosevelt) with a parade and everything. Instead of assuming it's a trap, they suit up and drive the Batmobile to Washington, D.C., and holy shit there's a parade and everything! Guess that answers the question of whether Commissioner Gordon's move to deputize a vigilante and his underage partner was politically popular.

Batman shakes hands with the head of the FBI, saying he can never be as good as the G-Men (this is just so weird), when suddenly J. Edgar Hoover is SHOT! It's the Joker! On a rooftop with a sniper's rifle! Turns out he was aiming for Batman and missed! Hoover lives, and declares nationwide war on the Joker (about time!) And so with a national bounty of $100,000 ($1.3 million in today's money), and all of the nation's police after him (including Batman and Robin naturally), what does Joker do? Laugh, of course, in a spectacular splash page. 
Joker responds to the nationwide manhunt by killing a radio DJ, and then mocking the entire nation on the air. Batman and Robin show up too late, but Joker has left a clue -- a Joker playing care with "New Jersey" written on it. And so the Dynamic Duo is off to New Jersey (although modern DC atlases actually place Gotham in that state!) 
A play about a rich family called the Vandgilts (not the Vanderbilts at all) is opening and for the premiere show the real Vandgilt diamonds have been loaned as props. So Joker shows up on stage with a tommy gun and robs the diamonds. Batman and Robin swing onstage and the people in the audience get the best show ever, as they battle. Joker takes Robin hostage until he can escape, leaving behind another card, this one reading "Ohio".
In Ohio, Joker meets up with some of his old crew from the gang of practical jokers, and asks them what's the best job to pull in, y'know, Ohio. They tell him of a bus full of jewelers heading for a jewelry convention and carrying a million dollars in jewels (or around $14.6m today), and Joker comes up with a hilariously cunning plan. He offers the men cigars in celebration, but upon smoking them they erupt in laughter, they faces twisted into Joker grins -- the cigars were ammounium nitrate, becoming laughing gas when smoked and the tips were dipped in Joker venom. Oh, that Joker.
His plan to get the bus? Pure Wile E. Coyote. He repaints the white line on the highway to lead right off a cliff, and since it's a pitch black night that the bus is en route, it totally works, killing everyone on the bus. The Batmobile just happens to be driving along the same highway that night and they chase after the Joker, but after a two page chase the Joker gets away... again! He leaves another clue... Kansas!
The Joker is reported seen entering a house, and Batman and Robin arrive to assist the local police. But it's a trap! An electrified Joker dummy hits the heroes, and there's another clue left behind (so there's no crimes worth committing in Kansas besides murdering Batman? lololol). This card reads "Delaware" and by this time Batman has (finally) figured out the Joker's scheme -- writing his name in crimes across the country:
New Jersey, Ohio, Kansas, Delaware, and of course Rhode Island. Batman and Robin head to Rhode Island ahead of the Joker and place a notice that a "I. Namtab" will be staying at a hotel in Providence with the "Jonkers Diamond". Hilariously Joker falls for this, despite Batman using his own usual "I. Rekoj" ploy against him. In a titanic struggle, Batman finally manages to overpower the Joker and capture him. "There's another bit of territory with an "R" in it," Batman gloats, "Alcatraz!"
My Thoughts: Wow. This is like the climax of all the Joker stories leading up to this point. For the first time since Batman #1, the Dark Knight manages to capture his arch-nemesis, this time in the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, rather than just a 48-hour stay in city jail. The nationwide manhunt, the Joker's biggest caper yet, and the finale all hammer home the huge scale and drama that a Joker story now commands. While it makes for a fantastic story, it does make you realize that it will be hard to top, and that the creative team runs the risk of overexposure for the character if they keep trying to go bigger and better. Almost as interesting is the prologue to the story, where the FBI and the President praise Batman and Batman accepts their praise, a phenomenally weird sight to a modern Batman reader like myself brought up on the likes of The Dark Knight Returns. But it pays to remember that this is December, 1941. A wartime Batman is right around the corner, so seeing him as a patriotic agent of the FBI, a costumed G-Man as it were, might become more common than one might initially suppose.
The Art: Everyone knocks it out of the park. The art is dramatic, gothic, violent, action-packed, dynamic, exciting, it's everything it needs to be and more. It's one of the best that the Kane/Robinson team has ever produced. Clearly everyone knew that this was going to be a huge story. I still can't get over that splash page, which is one of the most amazing things I've ever seen in this book so far.
The Story: This thing is just brilliant. You can tell that Finger knew it too, you can tell he's really been building up to this. This takes the Joker to the next level -- this is full blown supervillainry. Finger makes Batman and Robin government approved just in time for the war, then makes Joker public enemy no. 1 nationwide. Joker's scheme is small scale in each individual crime, but brilliantly points out his overwhelming arrogance and egotism when the true nature of the caper is revealed -- more than the jewels or the murder, Joker wants an audience, wants attention, wants frame, wants to be the topic of discussion and to control that discussion. I love the bit where he murders his former accomplices after they are no use to him -- it takes the gang-leading Joker of the previous story and reconciles him with the earlier, solo Joker who doesn't play well with others. That Batman manages to get him by using his own hoaky ploy of the backward spelt name just shows how Joker is so arrogant that he couldn't imagine anyone ever being as "clever" as that. And finally, Joker arrest and behind bars in a federal prison. Even though he vows revenge and escape, this ending feels more satisfying, more final, than the last several "fall from a great height, maybe dead, maybe alive" Joker story endings because Batman has at last definitively triumphed over the madman, even if he is going to escape later. Damn this is a good story!
Notes and Trivia: Joker captured and imprisoned in Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, Batman and Robin acknowledged and celebrated by the FBI and President
Joker Body Count: Approximately 38.

And with that I am pleased to announce I have caught up to "Batman Completion", a similar blogspot site that I greatly admire and that has been reviewing Golden Age Batman comics since January, 2010. Feels good, man.

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