Monday, January 23, 2012

Detective Comics #47 (January 1941)

"Money Can't Buy Happiness"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos
Synopsis: Batman busts up a robbery, then returns home, with Finger elaborating on the trap door in the abandoned barn that leads to an underground tunnel that comes up in Wayne Manor. This takes about three pages, so I guess the initial story must've come up short? 
The next morning Bruce leaves to meet with his banker, Hank Midas (har har). Midas' son, Roger, walks in and asks his dad if they are going to the football game, but Midas is too busy and refuses. Roger walks out upset but Midas explains to Bruce "business before pleasure, after all." Bruce agrees, but thinks to himself that he would never let his business interfere with his relationship with his son, which is an interesting attitude for Bruce to have. It says something about the kind of father Thomas Wayne must have been, and it also says something about Bruce's habit of drafting youth into his war on crime.
Bruce decides to spy on the Midas family as Batman, I guess just because the lack of a father-son relationship bothers him? It seems a little odd for Batman, a bit of a flimsy rationalization for why he's witness to the following events: Turns out Mama Midas is a bitch too, daughter Diane has a thing for Johnny Brown, a clerk in Midas' company, but mother believes he is too lower-class for Diane. 
As Bruce, he journeys into nightclubs to follow Roger, who has a serious gambling problem on one hand, but a serious musical talent on the other. Bruce questions Roger about why he hasn't pursued this talent, but of course Midas would never approve of his son as an orchestra leader.
Soon thereafter, Diana Midas is married to a defunct European Count, the marriage having been arranged by her parents, the Count marrying her largely for the money. 

Bruce reflects that these parents have done a swell job screwing up their children's lives, and essentially wishes he had an excuse to intervene as Batman. Which is kind've weird.
As the months pass, Roger's gambling debts lead him into bad company (implied to be loansharks and gangsters). One night as they are exiting a club the Batman confronts them and demands they let Roger go. They jump into their car and speed away, frightened by the Batman so much they don't look where they're going and hit a newspaperboy. The kid is dead, but Roger can't bear the thought of his dad finding out about the accident, and demands the crooks keep driving. So now Roger Midas is party to a hit and run, and if you think about it -- it's entirely Batman's fault. A Batman who was just recently waiting to have a reason to intervene and has now manufactured an event to allow him to do so. Yikes. And who says it wasn't until the Modern Age that comics started having morally ambigous heroes.
So of course the crooks demand blackmail payments from Midas so they won't leak the story to the press. Midas, concerned more with his image than morality, is prepared to pay, at which point THE BATMAN enters dramatically through the window. Batman, being a paragon of justice, advises Midas to take his punishment and bear the brunt of being slammed in the press. Nevermind that this whole situation wouldn't exist if it wasn't for Batman, it's still a good moral lesson about not giving into crooks. But Midas doesn't listen, and Batman accuses him of believing his money can solve all his problems when it can't. Which is a pretty hypocritical thing to say when you're waging a war on crime funded solely by your massive inheritance.
Meanwhile, Robin is spying on Diane and the Count -- because apparently both members of the Dynamic Duo have decided to devote themselves to butting in on other people's business this month. Anyways, Diane has decided to tell Count Alexis she doesn't love him and that's she's going to divorce him and leave him penniless (you go girl!). But since "European Count" is synonymous in early forties American English for "dastardly fiend", Alexis is immediately planning to "do as I did with my first wife!" Yeesh, Mama Midas sure can pick 'em, can't she?
So Robin follows Alexis and listens in as he hires two goons to steal the Midas family jewelry for him, splitting the take 50/50.
Robin meets back up with Batman, and we find out that the heist is planned to occur two hours before Midas is going to meet to pay the blackmailers. Batman and Robin make short work of the Count and his goons (one page fight) with Batman indulging in the groan-worthy "Looks like the Count is down for the Count!" Of course, the Midas parents walk in, and Batman explains that Alexis was going to steal all their shit. Midas thanks Batman, but still refuses to take Batman's advice about the blackmailers. Of course, it's not like Batman is really going to give him much of a choice.
Batman and Robin stow away on the roof of Midas' car, and then wait until the blackmailers arrive to meet with Midas and Roger, before bursting through the door, chasing the blackmailers out the window, up a fire escape, down another fire escape, into a car, and then crashing that car while of course not killing anybody. It's a great three-page fight scene. Oh, and during the commotion one of the blackmailers shot Roger. Sorry, I got swept up in the Bat-action. 
Roger will bleed to death if something isn't done soon, so Midas takes him to his doctor (implied to be an expensive private doctor who is on Midas' payroll). The doctor operates, but tells Midas that his son's recovery is in the hands of a greater power, now. Batman takes the opportunity to gloat and tell Midas that all his money can't save his son now -- which is both hypocritical and somewhat untrue, given that Midas' money did hire a doctor who could arrive and operate on Roger immediately and well enough that there is some hope of recovery.
Anyways, Roger pulls through, and mans up and admits culpability in running over the newspaperboy. Who isn't dead, I guess, since it's mentioned that Roger uses his money to pay for the boy's operation as well as his future college education. Since, y'know, you can't solve all your problems with money? Oh, wait.
Sometime later, Hank Midas puts off a meeting with Bruce to go to a football game with his son, while Mrs. Midas admonishes Diane for being late to a date with Johnny Brown. Everything's worked out, because the parents have learned to be friends with their kids. Isn't that a great lesson, we think as Bruce stares accusingly at us through the fourth wall.
My Thoughts: Oh, jeez. I have really mixed feelings about this comic. I actually tend to like "message comics" more than most, for example I loved "Crime School for Boys" from Batman #3. But years of devotion to Steve Ditko and "Mr. A" comics has taught me: there are good message comics and bad message comics (and not much in between), and they can come from the same creators in the same series.
"Money Can't Buy Happiness" is all over the map, but it's main problem is that what it claims the moral to be isn't actually what the moral is, which is actually a pretty common problem when superhero comics get preachy. A writer decides to make a point, but then can't create a superhero plot out of that without creating contrived circumstances. So in this case, we have a comic that's trying to say that "money can't buy happiness", but in fact the real problem is "these parents are huuuuuge dicks". At the end of the day, Midas' money is why he's able to afford to take his son to football games, and get him a job as an orchestra leader, and is why Diane even meets Johnny Brown, and it's what saves Roger's life and enables him to make restitution to the kid who's run over. 

And, as I pointed out above, using Batman to make a point about how money can't solve all your problems is a huge load of shit. At this point in the mythos, Bruce's parents' money pays for everything. The idea of a Wayne Enterprises, or that Bruce does any work at all, is far far away -- at this point his civillian identity is a layabout playboy and all of the money is going into fighting crime. So yeah, Bruce has a ton of money he hasn't earned and he's using it to solve everyone's problems. All of the problems in this issue? Solved, thanks to Bruce's money.
And then of course there's the bending-over-backwards to even get Batman involved, since "meddling in people's family relations" is hardly "warring on all criminals", and this narrative tomfoolery essentially turns Batman into a morally questionable figure, which is not what you want to do with your hero in a message comic. If your story has a moral message, you want your hero embodying the essence of good in your moral.
However, there's a lot to like in this story, which I'll get to in a bit.
The Art: The Kane Studio art team does their usual good job, having hit a nice stride that is producing some consistently good work, if not exactly as stylish as it can be at its heights. The best work in this story is the action scenes, which flow with a motion and excitement that has come along way since Kane's somewhat stiff offerings of a few years ago. 
The Story: Okay, so there's some good and some bad here. Most of the bad comes from the slapdash moralizing throughout, which I already went over. Some of the bad comes from the pacing (those first three pages literally have nothing to do with the rest of the story, despite doing a nice job of elaborating on the whole barn/secret tunnel thing that Finger is developing). 
So what works? Well, if you realize the message is "parents shouldn't be dicks" instead of the money thing, there's a lot to like here. I especially like the kids themselves. The way Roger slowly spirals down into gambling debt and then blackmail is really well done, and believable for a talented kid starved of attention. And I like Diane's chutzpah as she leaves the Count, who wants only her money, for her true love. I also like that Finger is trying to make scripts that mean something, that teach something to not only kids but (as is clear in this case) the parents who might be reading these comics with their kids. It also makes the stories more fun to read and write about from a critical perspective than another "Batman breaks up smuggling ring" kind've tale.
Notes and Trivia: There's an abandoned barn where the Batplane is kept with an underground tunnel that goes to Wayne Manor! 

Monday, January 16, 2012

Detective Comics #46 (December 1940)

"Professor Strange's Fear Dust"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos
Synopsis: We begin in medias res, as we are often wont to do, with the Batman breaking up a robbery at a silver warehouse. After a two-page fight scene, he has defeated all but one of the gangsters, finding the final one to be a frightened seventeen year old who begs Batman not to take him to jail, lest his parents find out! He offers Batman information in exchange for leniency, and Batman agrees. Turns out the robbery was arranged by a racketeer named Carstairs, who is in league with a mysterious professor who plans to make them all rich.
The professor gave all of the crooks a pill to be taken when doing the jobs, because it will make them immune to a compound he's developed. Batman takes several of the pills from the boy for his own purposes, then agrees to the let the boy and the gang go free, so that they can proceed to meet with Carstairs and the professor and learn the plan, and then the kid will meet with Batman tomorrow night and report.
Of course the professot is Professor Hugo Strange, not seen since Batman #1, and he has developed a diabolical new chemical -- a fear gas that when shot from a special gun, causes those who inhale it to become paralyzed with fear!! That's right, Strange is the first Batman villain to use fear gas, predating the Scarecrow! Anyways, the first crime is planned for tomorrow afternoon, before the kid can tell the Batman!
And so the job goes as planned, with the police too paralyzed with fear to foil the bank robbery. For the crooks this is like Christmas come early, and soon the whole city is paralyzed by a series of robberies, too frozen by fear to stop them. (Or as Kane/Finger's awesome panel puts it "FEAR! FEAR! FEAR!")
Batman goes to meet the boy, but Strange has figured out that the boy is the Batman's stool pigeon (of course he did) and sends his men to follow him. They capture the Batman, bring him back to Strange, who taunts him and then has the men administer a beating to the Bat. And it's extreme, Batman is held while all the crooks take turns just beating the crap out of him as revenge for all those times he's done the same to them. Finally, he passes out, and Strange administers one final kick. 
It is sometime before Batman recovers, and he overhears Strange explaining his true plan -- they will gas the entire city, then the entire country, until the people are so overcome with fear they have no choice but to make Strange DICTATOR OF AMERICA! Hugo Strange: The Criminal Mastermind. Seriously, he figures out the best/only reasonable use for fear gas in one story and yet after 70 years Scarecrow has never been this threatening. Because Hugo Strange is a Boss. Strange instructs his men to administer the fear gas in certain places and times throughout the city, while he prepares his plane to fly above and administer it in the air.
After Strange has left, Batman staggers into the room with the crooks, all weak and shaky from his beating. They figure they have an easy fight, but turns out Batman has just been pretending to be weak! His peak physical training has allowed him to shake off a beating that would kill most other men (of course!) He takes them out, then contacts Robin and instructs him to take an antidote pill and follow Batman's instructions.
Then some asskicking begins. Batman intercepts some crooks at a train station and just straight wrecks them. So fast he doesn't even quip -- just takes them out and leaves instructions with confused civillians to hand them to the police.
Meanwhile, Robin is after some crooks who are going to dump the gas into the water resevoir (first time the Gotham water supply has been threatened, not the last), and uses his circus acrobat abilities to take them out. Then he pulls the same on some crooks about to spray the gas at a line-up for a new movie. Seriously, Robin kicks ass in this story.
Batman, meanwhile, has caught up to Strange at his private plane, overlooking a large cliff. It's down to mano a mano, as Strange and Batman grapple for the fate of America in a fist fight on a cliff. It's kind've epic. Anyways, Batman gets the upper hand and punches Strange off the cliff and into a river below. Is this truly the end of Hugo Strange?
In the denouement, some exposition says that Batman and Robin rescued the stool pigeon kid Strange had tied up and that Batman gave the antidote pills to some research scientists who will hopefully be able to mass produce an antidote from that (Which will come in handy once Scarecrow starts pulling this kind've stuff, right guys? Right?)
My Thoughts: Wow. I love seeing big stories like this, and more than that, I love seeing the Golden Age do them in twelve freakin' pages, instead of twelve issues. Hugo Strange returns, having been a character Bill Finger clearly intended to be Batman's Moriarty, but sorta hit the back burner once the Joker was introduced. Here he gets to even greater heights of villainy than before. I like that the Hugo Strange stories get bigger every time, there's an escalation to his plots. Also, holy fear gas, Batman! Yep, Strange did it first, and there's elements here that we'll see pop up in Scarecrow stories all the way to Batman Begins! What's really interesting though is the ending, which is similar to the Joker's fate in last month's issue: punched off an edge into some water, with Batman wondering if this is the end. At this point Strange has appeared in three stories and the Joker in four, so I'd say it's fair game at this point that either one could return or not -- but of course Joker will pop up in another couple of months, while ol' Hugo won't make a reappearance for another THIRTY-SEVEN YEARS, thanks to Steve Engelhart and his brilliant "Strange Apparitions" run on Detective Comics. Which is too bad. Hugo is a great Finger/Kane creation who was simply made obsolete by Finger/Kane's later villains. 
The Art: It's a mixed bag. It's occasionally awesome (the action scenes, montages, and splash panels especially -- FEAR! FEAR! FEAR!) but sometimes key details are forgotten (Batman goes several panels without his chest emblem, and even without his cape in a few instances). So it's good, but a little sloppy, with an overall feel of being rushed. Still, the final Batman/Strange fight is pretty great, feeling evocative appropriately of the final Holmes/Moriarty fight in The Final Problem.
The Story: It's pretty great, if unevenly paced. Batman's warehouse fight at the start gets two pages, but defeating Strange's plan (all four action scenes) is squashed into about a page each. Ultimately I wish Finger had written more Hugo Strange, but where could you take him from a plan to TAKE OVER AMERICA? I mean, it probably would've resulted in the character getting watered down over the years, so it's probably for the best that the character was left alone, able to retain some power. In conclusion, this was pretty good, but I feel like it could've been better with better pacing.
Notes and Trivia: First appearance of fear gas, last appearance of Hugo Strange til the Bronze Age

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Detective Comics #45 (November 1940)

Another Golden Age cover that has nothing to do with the interior story. At no point does Robin get roughed up by Quasimodo. Instead, the Joker returns.

"The Case of the Laughing Death"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos
Synopsis: Our story opens with Batman foiling a robbery at a private museum. A gang of crooks attempt to steal some artifacts, but Batman drops a giant statue on them to defeat them, and while it's not too too big, it may be the earliest instance of Trademark Bill Finger Giant Props that will reach an apex in the early 1950s. Anyways, the police show up and one of the thugs flees, with Batman in hot pursuit.
He follows him to an old music shop, but when he tries to follow him inside, he meets a blank brick wall. Batman concludes that there must be a trick door, but he gives up on trying to find it.
Inside, the surviving crook meets with an old man named A. Rekoj, who admonishes him for his failure at the hands of the Batman. Rekoj orders the crook to bring what's left of the mob tomorrow night, as he has another job planned. Alone now, Rekoj retreats to a private chamber, filled with art treasures, and removes the make-up on his face to reveal THE JOKER! It's important to note that Finger is clear that the Joker removes flesh coloured make-up to reveal the ghastly white face underneath -- this is how the Joker looks naturally!
The Joker announces that now that he is back he will complete his revenge upon his old enemies (a plotline last seen in Batman #1) and will kill District Attorney Carter! I believe this is the first mention of the District Attorney, but in the past the Joker has targeted and killed the Chief of Police and a prominent judge -- hinting that before he was the Joker he was already a criminal.
Anyways, the next day the District Attorney receives a record sent anonymously in the mail. It has no label or identifying marks, but Carter's reaction? "Oh well, I'll play it anyway." Idiot. Anyways, as eerie, forbidding music begins to play, a gas is released from the record. The Joker's voice (still described as toneless and droning) on the record explains that the grooves in the record where coated with a Joker Venom designed to release as a gas as the record scratches across it. The District Attorney dies laughing.
The murder makes the papers -- Bruce and Dick know the Joker is still alive. The next night, Batman returns to the music shop, where "Rekoj" is instructing his gang about their next job.
The plan is for the crooks to impersonate a band in order to gain entry to a swanky party and steal all the loot. This works out well, but then the Joker shows up and holds-up the crooks! He steals the loot and makes off just as Batman arrives on the scene.
Batman quickly (in one panel) deals with the thugs and then goes after Joker, but the Harlequin of Hate gets away. Batman decides to follow the escaping crooks back to the record shop, this time gaining access through the secret door. Rekoj once again yells at the crooks for failing, then retreats to the private room to remove his make-up.
The gag is that this way Joker steals all the loot but doesn't have to share with the other crooks. What's interesting is that Joker isn't shown to fence his ill-gotten goods, but instead keeps and hoardes them as trophies of his brilliant jobs. Anyways, turns out Batman followed him down here, too! Never one without a trick up his sleeve, Joker hits a button and traps Batman in a giant glass chamber, to slowly suffocate. Obviously Joker read Detective #27. Joker runs off gloating about his next job, and Batman escapes using vials of acid in his utility belt. Batman figures out the Joker is going to steal a jade Buddha worth half a million dollars that is being shipped from China. The Chinese hope to sell it to buy humanitarian supply to help Chinese being attacked by Japan (there was a war on at the time, you see). Batman vows to stop the Joker's scheme, for the sake of the war-torn Chinese.
Joker gets onto the ship by (buying/stealing, then flying and) crashing a one-man plane into the ocean near the ship and getting picked up and rescued while in his musician Rekoj disguise. Robin drops Batman off using the Batplane, meanwhile.
Joker hits the crew with his gas, then burns through the safe with an acetelyne torch he brought along. But Batman is there, and soon they are engaged in a running battle for the Buddha throughout the ship. The Chinese see the two and assume Joker is attempting to save the Buddha from the menacing looking Batman. So Robin shows up to help (who is piloting the Batplane??) and beats up some Chinamen so Batman can corner the Joker. Batman gets the Buddha away and then punches the Joker over the railing of the ship. As his body sinks into the waters, Batman wonders "is this truly the end of the Joker?" I doubt it.
Batman returns the Buddha to the Chinese, and he and Robin are off in the Batplane. The Chinese conclude that the Batman is a great man. Yes, he sure is.
My Thoughts: Well, we get a true return of the Joker after his appearance in Batman #2 as a comatose plot device, but it's a rather tamer one than his debut stories in Batman #1. I think this is largely because Finger realized that for the Joker to be a recurring character that he couldn't be a grandiose serial killer of the scale of those first appearances, because the Batman would look ineffectual not capturing or killing him. Granted, this is the first of many times that the Joker dies an "ambiguous" death, as Batman assumes he may have drown. Does that count as a Batman kill? I'm not sure.
The Art: Not as good as the Joker's first two appearances, but better than Batman #2. Joker's hairstyle is slightly altered here, a little crazier and messier than the slicked back original look. The art looks rushed, but maybe that's just Roussos' inking. In other words, this is okay, but not great.
The Story: We're kind've all over the place here. We get a classic Joker kill, a plot about gangsters stealing things and working for Joker, and a climax on a boat. These three elements never really coalesce or match up, other than the Joker using a music gimmick in all three. It's okay, and has an early use of a Joker deathtrap (recycled in concept from the Batman's first appearance), but it's basically an average, forgettable kind've tale.
Joker Body Count:

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Batman #3 (Fall 1940)

"The Strange Case of the Diabolical Puppet Master"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos
Synopsis: Out one night on patrol, Batman comes across a man being accosted by a brute in a cossack outfit. Batman comes to the fellow's aide, but is attacked by an acommplice of the cossack. The two get away, and Batman discovers the man he rescued is none other than "Dr. Craig", a leading researcher in the field of atomic energy. Turns out that he has discovered a formula to perfect its use, something which Batman realises would be of great value to the warring powers of Europe.
After Batman leaves, Dr. Craig discovers he has an odd scratch on his arm -- oh well, it's just a scratch... or is it??
Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne runs into the two men from the other day and follows them to a music hall showcasing "Dmitri, the Puppet Master". Bruce is suspicious and sends Robin to spy on Dmitri and his men.
The duo finds out that the Puppet Master is after Dr. Craig as well as something called the Voss Rifle. Bruce decides to head over to Dr. Craig's to protect him and stop the Puppet Master.
Meanwhile, at the Puppet Master's lair, we learn that his men have been scratching their targets with a needle containing "thought serum" a drug wich enables the Puppet Master to hypnotize and control his victim's thought waves -- which is some grade A comic book science if you ask me!
And so the Puppet Master begins to control Dr. Craig from afar, having him get up from bed and get the atomic formula from his safe and deliver it to his waiting men. But of course, just then, the Batman intervenes! After a two-page fight scene the henchmen get away. Batman and Robin take Dr. Craig back to "the Batman's laboratory", which at this point is still presumably just a room in Wayne Manor!! Bruce proposes electric shock as a method to bring him out of hypnosis and so...
We suddenly get a new scene in which Bruce annnounces that the Voss Rifle the Puppet Master is a new army gun and that Batman and Robin will prevent its theft! Huh. Okay, Bill Finger.
Meanwhile, using the thought serum the Puppet Master gains himself an army of hoods to take on the soldiers guarding the Voss Rifle, a concept illustrated by a fantastic panel visualizing the Puppet Master reaching his clutches out into the underworld.
Back at Wayne Manor, Batman and Robin race along an underground passage that leads from Wayne Manor to an abandoned barn in which the Batplane is kept and can be launched from!! Now THIS is a new concept! When the Batplane was first introduced, it was the Batgyro, and just kept in a large room in Wayne Manor along with the laboratory.
Anyways, the plane launches, but the hypnotized hoods have already attacked the "Metropolis Limited", the train carrying the Voss Rifle. The Batplane swoops down, and Batman and Robin launch themselves onto the train to fight the hoods. They are successful in beating them back (the army also helps), but during the fight Batman is scratched with the thought serum! Unfortunately he doesn't know what it does, and assumes it's just a scratch.
One of the Puppet Master's lieutenants reports this to his master, who is delighted and immediately devlops a plan. He summons Bruce from his sleep hypnotically and, without knowing his true identity, orders him to steal jewels from a downtown shop as Batman and bring them to the Puppet Master. Then the Puppet Master calls the police and tips them off, hoping to discredit and disgrace Batman.
The Batman obeys the hypnosis and arrives at the shop, confronted by the police -- but even hypnotized the Batman defeats them and escapes, and heads back to the Puppet Master's place as per his instructions. Meanwhile, Dick notices Bruce is gone and concludes he has left to capture the Puppet Master and may needs Robin's help.
Robin knows where the Puppet Master is because when he was giving his puppet shows his home address was listed in the newspaper (!!!) and once there he spots Batman going in. He confronts him about what's in the bag, and Batman slaps him across the face! Robin is hurt, but realises Batman has been hypnotized, and clocks him in the jaw, which manages to knock him out! Robin carries Batman home.
In the next panel, Batman arrives at the Puppet Master's, and Bill Finger tries to pretend like he's still hypnotized, but he isn't! He beats up the Puppet Master and he and Robin deliver him to the police, where Batman intends to explain that he was hypnotized and will never cease fighting Crime!
My Thoughts: This is a really fantastic return to form for Golden Age Batman. A classic "comic book" style story with a big villain, plot twists, and heroism. It seems clear from his strong gimmick and open ending that Finger intended Dmitri the Puppet Master to become a recurring villain, but to the best of my knowledge this his only appearance. Both DC and Marvel would have subsequent villains known as "The Puppet Master" but this is it for Dmitri. Other items of note: Craig's atomic formula and Dmitri's thieving of military secrets points to the specific era this story was written in -- World War II was raging in Europe, but the US was not yet involved. Although Finger could not have known it, the US Army was even at this early point already looking into the possibility of nuclear arms.
The Art: Kane, Robinson, and Roussos do really good work this time. There are some fantastic panels in this, mainly revolving around the Puppet Master -- including a great circular panel of hoods falling under his control, with the Puppet Master's leering face and outreached hands in the centre. Great stuff. Batman gets a lot of great poses as well. It's a topnotch effort from the art team.
The Story: Finger does a great comic book supervillain type plot here, moving away from the mystery type stories he's been doing in Detective Comics. Probably the weakest point is the ending -- the Puppet Master's address was in the newspaper??? Why the hell didn't Batman just nab him at the start of the story then?? Also, while it appears the electric shock therapy works (it's how Robin breaks the Puppet Master's control of Batman), what happened to Dr. Craig?? It's a loose end left entirely hanging -- at first because Finger needs the suspense of if the electric shock works, but then he seems to just forget about it. Also, Batman's just going to explain everything to the police?? Even if he was hypnotized, he's still a wanted vigilante, as Finger has demonstrated many times. Aside from these holes in the story's resolution though, it's a good and ambitious effort.
Notes and Trivia: Establishing a tunnel from Wayne Manor to an abandoned barn where the Batplane is kept, an early precursor to what will eventually be the Batcave.

"The Ugliest Man in the World"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos
Synopsis: While on his regular patrol, Batman spots a man being attacked by a gang of hideous looking men. Batman beats them all up, of course, but they escape in a car -- spewing gunfire at the man who Batman narrowly saves. Turns out the man Batman saved is Detective McGongile, who was attempting to stop the hideous gang from setting fire to a museum. McGonigle then realises he is talking to Batman, and tries to arrest him, but Batman pulls a fast one on him and gets away. McGonigle returns to police headquarters, and vows to arrest and unmask the Batman.
Meanwhile, Batman returns home in time to change into Bruce Wayne and visit a rich friend of his named Harvey Dodge. When Bruce arrives, Dodge introduces him to a Mr. Larry Larrimore, another handsome young rich man. After eating dinner and talking for a bit, all of a suddent a ghastly change comes over Dodge, and his facial features suddenly contort and droop and change into the visage of a fat, ugly, idiotic man. Bruce and Larrimore call a doctor, but he is unable to discover what is wrong with Dodge.
Soon, however, men all over the city begin to be affected by what the newspapers dub "The Ghastly Change", while a gang of criminals known as the Ugly Horde begin attacking and destroying works of beauty in the city -- museums, statues, models, paintings, etc -- police follow the getaway car but it always manages to disappear.
Bruce pays one of his customary visits to Commissioner Gordon, who admits the case is driving him "batty" (I don't think Finger intended the pun). McGonigle bursts in, announcing that he believes the Ugly Horde is the same gang that tried to assault him the other night. Gordon assigns him to the case.
Meanwhile, the Ugly Horde gathers at their lair, to hear from their leader...The Ugliest Man in the World! He gives a speech in which he essentially declares war on beauty because people worship beauty and shun ugliness, thus he and his cohorts have been shunned and deserve revenge.
Bruce learns of a painting being shipped to America from a country that the Nazis have invaded in Europe and guesses the Ugly Horde may try to destroy it. So Batman and Robin head out in the Cord to the docks, where they meet the gang and have a two page fight scene. But McGongile shows up and blasts the gangmembers, claiming to be saving Batman's life only because Batman saved his. He once again attempts to arrest him, but Batman pushes him into the sea, and the two escape, hoping to catch the escaping Horde. However, even Batman can't catch up to the car, which once again disappears.
Over the car radio, Batman and Robin have learned that a Dr. Ekhart has discovered the cure to the Ghastly Change, and they figure the Horde might make an attempt on his life. They defeat the crooks, and Batman orders Robin to guard Ekhart while he follows the escaping gang. He discovers they cover their tracks by driving the car up into the bed of a shipping truck. He follows the truck, but once he leaves his car he is knocked out from behind and captured.
He awakes to find himself chained in a dungeon with two other prisoners -- a Mr. and Mrs. John Tyler. The Ugly Horde is guarding them, and announces the approach of their leader -- LARRIMORE! He removes the mask to reveal The Ugliest Man in the World! His real name is Carlson, and it turns out that in college he was accidentally injected with an unknown drug during a fraternity initiation prank. The drug's side effect was that Carlson's face was ruined -- contorted and twisted into a horribly ugly visage. Carlson's fiancee left him, later marrying John Tyler -- the man who injected Carlson! It turns out all the men struck by the Ghastly Change, from Dodge on, were members of the fraternity. Carlson had, after 15 years of research, replicated the drug, and is now going to use it on the Tylers and Batman!
But, as it turns out, Robin had followed Batman, deciding Ekhart was all right. Using the radioactive material coating the tires of Batman's car (previously established as coating the bottom of the duo's shoes), Robin tracks Batman using the infrared flashlight. He appears in the nick of time and rescues Batman. During the fighting, Carlson sneaks up behind Batman with a knife, but is shot by McGonigle! McGonigle spotted Robin and followed him there (that's what you get when you wear red, yellow and green!) Once again he attempts to arrest Batman, once again Batman and Robin escape.
At Wayne Manor, Bruce explains to Dick that the drug deactivated the thyroid gland, causing the men to develop acute myxdesma, which caused their hideous appearance. Which, actually, is pretty good comic book science considering how ridiculous the explanation of the Puppet Master in the previous story was. Bruce and Dick feel sorry for Carlson, remarking that he would never have gone mad if he hadn't been rejected by his friends, who were really the truly ugly ones.
Back at Police Headquarters, McGonigle is pleased he cracked the case, but vows to nab Batman!
My Thoughts: There are two really interesting ideas going on in this story. The first one is McGonigle -- a slightly oafish, stereotypically Irish detective who has vowed to go after Batman, but while not entirely incompetent is far below Batman's level and is always being mad a fool of. This will be a recurring character for a while, a kind of Golden Age Harvey Bullock, really. McGonigle is a kind've incongruous character -- while on the one hand hilarious and bumbling, on the other hand he's actually pretty effective, he shoots and kills several crooks in this story, something Batman would never do. Or, at least hasn't since Robin came around.
The other interesting aspect here is the villain. It's clear that Finger and Kane are attempting to create memorable and interesting villains after the creation of the Joker -- unfortunately Whitney Ellsworth isn't stepping in to save them all from Finger killing them off, so it's a little hard to build a consistent rogues gallery. But regardless, it's clear that Kane has decided that the key to a good villain is a good, horrific visual -- a hallmark of the villains in probably the best rogues gallery in comics before Batman came along: Dick Tracy. Tracy's villains are a lot like Batman's -- their twisted visages reflect their twisted natures. But Chester Gould, who wrote and drew the strip, also painted his villains with pure black and white morality -- there was no redemption for Tracy villains, who were evil to the core and usually punished mortally.
But here, with Carlson, we see a core difference with Batman villains. It will soon be a standing trope that Batman villains are motivated by revenge, jealousy, betrayal -- they are often pathetic, damaged people. So there is a sympathy for them and their plight, even as they do villainous acts. We see that clearly here, when Bruce and Dick feel sorry for Carlson -- which also represents a change in attitude for Bruce, who up until this point has often remarked with grim satisfaction upon a villain's death, even if he is no longer the one dishing them out.
The Art: Kane here displays a gift for caricature which he uses to create the freakishly ugly members of the Horde. It's very effective line work, much better than in the previous issue of Batman. Robinson and Roussos seem to be working more in harmony on the inks now, although Robinson's effectively nuanced shadowing is now being largely replaced by Roussos' solid black swaths in backgrounds.
The Story: Finger creates a neat tale of revenge, madness, mob hysteria, and action. These tales of colourful villains and heroics are far better than his recent attempts at mystery. I enjoyed this one, which was perhaps more creative and better suited to Batman than the previous "Puppet Master" tale.
Notes and Trivia: First appearance of Detective McGonigle.

"The Crime School for Boys"
Writer: Bill Finger
Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos
Synopsis: We begin with a bang, as Batman jumps a gang of thieves on a high rooftop. What follows is fucking dynamite! Batman beats up the crooks, chases them across rooftops, is shot at, swings from one building to another on a rope, fights them on a fire escape, and down to the alleys. Finally, he is down to the last thug -- who turns out to be a mere boy, a little older than Robin! Batman makes the kid swear to go straight, and then follows him to an empty warehouse. The child enters, and Batman heads up to the rooftop to watch through the skylight. Inside a man named "Pockets" runs a Crime School for poor young boys, teaching them to pickpocket and so on, like Fagin in "Oliver Twist". He speaks of boys who have graduated and gone on to serve in Big Boy Daniel's mob, such as the young boy who runs from Batman and who Pockets convinces to stay in the mob, because he's bright and could go places. The boys look up to Pockets and Big Boy and are eager to learn. As you can imagine, Batman is angry about this and returns to Wayne Manor to tell Dick.
Dick asks the question I was thinking, which is why Batman didn't just bust in and start punching people, and Batman responds that it wouldn't do to attack the criminals, because the kids look up to and admire them. Batman must change the children for the better, win their hearts and minds, before he can shut down the crime school. The first thing he does is buy a property in the neighbourhood, and turn it into a free gymnasium for underprivileged youth. Then he sends in Dick as "the new kid on the block", introducing himself to the kids of the crime school. They try to beat him up and bully him, but he beats them easily cause, y'know. He tells them he works out at the free gym Bruce set up, and they follow him there. They start having a lot of fun and coming there regularly, and Dick teaches them to understand that in sports you have to play fair -- that the game isn't worth playing if you aren't honest. The kids learn this and love it -- but they don't apply it to anything outside sports and they keep going to Pockets' "school".
Eventually they invite Dick to the school, and there he learns that Big B
oy Daniels himself will be making an appearance, reporting this to Bruce. That night, Pockets introduces Big Boy to the kids. He picks two of the older boys for jobs -- one will help rob a warehouse, the other an apartment.
Batman, who has been listening in, vows to stop both kids from turning to crime.
At the warehouse, the shadow of the bat hovers over the crooks -- Batman is pissed. He leaps down and grabs a ladder, using it to trap the crooks and sock them. Then he scares the kid straight, saying "The next time I see you hanging around these rats you'll get a taste of what they got!" At the apartment it's a similar deal -- Batman beat sup the bad guys and threatens the kid til he agrees to be good.
Big Boy is convinced someone must have squealed for the Batman to know of both jobs, and just then the Batman phones! He tells Big Boy to shut down Pockets' school or else. Big Boy is convinced Pockets might be the rate and goes to the school -- murdering him in front of the kids! Batman is watching from the skylight and bursts down, now able to definitively pin murder on Big Boy. It's ambiguous, but it seems like Batman set up and allowed Big Boy to murder Pockets to play into Batman's bigger plan. That's cold.
Batman taunts Big Boy, saying he can't beat him without his gang or his guns. Big Boy takes him on and engages him in combat. They go head to head, and the Dark Knight ends up judo flipping Big Boy by his head! Defeated, Big Boy pulls his gun on Batman -- but the kids see this as cheating after Big Boy had agreed to Batman's rules. Dick spurs them on and they turn on the mobsters. They clean up and the mobsters go to jail.
The kids go straight, continue using the gym, while Dick "moves out of the neighbourhood". Dick thinks the job is finished, but Bruce counters that they and others must continue to support the construction of playgrounds, gyms, public schools, church organizations, etc. for youngsters in poor areas -- only then and "we will wipe out crime!"
My Thoughts: WOW. Now THIS is a Batman story, possibly the best since Detective #40. The best part is that it's a story with a great moral and message, but without speaking down to kids (or even directly to the audience, like in past instances of Batman moralizing) and keeping Batman thoroughly in character throughout. It fits into past themes of Batman morals, such as teaching kids not to admire gangsters, who's lives seem to be glamourous but only have one ending (Batman's fist) and that crooks are cowards without their guns. But by incorporating them fully into the themes of the story, and keeping the moralizing realistic within the story's confines, it reads far more powerfully and naturally rather than stopping things cold.
There are times when I love comics that have a message and get across a point, like Steve Ditko's Mr. A stories. This comic does that brilliantly. It didn't hurt that it was damned exciting and awesome to boot.
The Art: The art team does dynamite work here. The fight scenes are inventive and exciting and Batman gets all kinds of cool poses -- including the classic "shadow on the wall" bit that will be done over and over for the next 70 years. The four page fight that opens the story is gangbusters (no pun intended) and the work in making all the crooks look really grimy is just aces.
The Story: I love the little details. It's so in character for Batman to just really, really, loathe the idea of turning kids into crooks, given his reaction to Dick's plight and of course his own origin. In turn, it gives Dick a natural spot to fit into the story as Batman's mole. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne is well used as he uses his wealth to buy the gym. And THIS is maybe the greatest thing the story does -- realise that Batman cannot Stop Crime by fisticuffs alone, that there needs to be an element of social reconstruction as well, and that Bruce Wayne as a billionaire provides that with his wealth being able to support charitable organizations and philanthropy. This is a brilliant notion because it supports the idea that in BOTH identities, he is engaging in his war on crime, which he swore to as a boy. It's one of the things that overtime allowed the Wayne personality to become more interesting than just "bored playboy" and therefore get more "screen"time, which decreased in the nineties as once again Wayne was given little to do.

"The Batman vs The Cat-Woman"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos
Synopsis: So Cat-Woman is back, having appeared in the previous two issues as well. She retains from her last appearance a confusing mixture of being referred to as The Cat and as the Cat-Woman, but what's new is she's got an actual costume! It's an ugly thing essentially made up of an evening dress with a cape and a lifelike cat's head mask. Anyways, she's been thieving jewels all over the city, becoming a media sensation. In other words, actually doing something in the story, unlike her previous appearances.
The Gotham police look like fools (neither for the first, nor last time) and Gordon angrily assigns McGonigle to the case, as McGonigle took credit from Batman for cleaning up the Ugly Horde. Meanwhile, Bruce is sitting at home reading the newspaper headlines about the Cat, and it's only now that he decides to do something about it.
So Batman's off on the prowl, and instead of running into Cat-Woman he runs into a bunch of hoods stabbing a dude in an alley. So of course he gives the hoods what for, and tries to help the stabbed man, who mentions some stuff about diamond syndicates and shipments before dying. Meanwhile, the crooks spot McGonigle coming along and escape in their getaway car. McGongile once again attempts to arrest Batman and is once again humiliated -- this time he chooses to leave "the Batman got away again" out of his report.
The next morning, Bruce once again gets his crime-fighting info from the newspaper, reporting that the man stabbed was a secretary for a large diamond firm. Bruce goes to visit Gordon, who is on his way to question the owners of the firm, so of course he lets Bruce tag along.
The three owners, Darrel, Blake and Hoffer, have no clue why the man may have been killed, unless it has something to do with the huge shipment they are bringing in to show off on models in a show in their salon. Y'know, nothing major. Gordon agrees to guard the salon with police, because that always works in these comics.
Bruce goes home and informs Dick of his cunning plan, while the Cat-Woman is also plotting to steal the diamonds (having learned of it while reading the paper, lounging in her apartment, still wearing that ridiculous cat's head mask!)
Bruce attends the show, but one of the models, wearing a million dollar's in diamonds, turns out to be Cat-Woman in disguise -- she throws a flashbomb into the crowd and escapes. Instead of just calmly leaving once removing her disguise, she actually changes into the totally conspicuous cat's head outfit and is quickly spotted by police and then nabbed by some random thugs and thrown into a car (hey, Cat-Woman -- when you are more recognizable with your mask than without, what's the point?). Anyways, the gangsters car is followed by a speeding one-man racer driven by... ROBIN! Yeah, because apparently Batman doesn't stop breaking the law at vigilantism. Meanwhile, Bruce canges into Batman and makes his way over to Darrel's apartment.
Darrel has been waiting for a call, but he's not gonna get it because Batman punches him! Punching. It solves everything. The Dark Knight calls Robin on the Boy Wonder's belt-radio, and tells Batman where he followed the crooks to. Batman brings Darrel there, and the whole reading audience is still confused.
Batman pushes Darrel through the door, where he comes across Hoffer about to shoot the Cat, who is tied to a chair by the mobsters. Turns out Darrel and Hoffer had hired the Cat to steal the diamonds but Hoffer didn't want to share the take so Hoffer is going to kill both of them (yet is still willing to pay the mobsters?) At that moment, Batman and Robin burst in and kick ass. Batman frees Cat-Woman and they immediately start flirting. Batman ties up Darrel and Hoffer and Hoffer believes he has the upper hand because Batman has no proof -- but it turns out Robin took pictures with a wrist-watch camera gadget!
Turns out Darrel and Hoffer had ruined the company with bad stock investments and planned on stealing the diamonds to get the money back -- since the company had insurance it wouldn't take the loss. The clerk they killed found out and had to die.
Batman tells the Cat-Woman that he must arrest her too, but first she kisses him to thank him for saving her life -- then pushes him away and escapes.
Robin proposes going after her, but Batman makes an excuse and once again lets her get away cause she's hot. Batman -- pinnacle of justice until he gets a little hard.
Batman drops the evidence off with McGonigle (including a note about being "your pal" which pisses the detective off) as well as directions to where he's left the villains tied up. Meanwhile, Cat-Woman has escaped in a car, but finds herself dreaming of a day when she and Batman could have a life together.
My Thoughts: Kane and Finger intro'd Cat-Woman in Batman #1, but this is the first story where she really does anything, and there's still not much too her other than a feisty independant jewel thief who Batman is attracted to and so always "accidentally" manages to let go. It's okay, but nothing really stands out about the character so far.
The Art: Okay, so after two appearances where she was just a dark haired dame in a dress, Kane gives Cat-Woman a visual. And it's ugly. Kane said he invented Cat-Woman to give the feature some sex appeal, but putting a realistic looking cat's head mask on the character is not making her sexier. It'll be a surprisingly long time before Cat-Woman gets anything resembling a recognizable costume, so we're gonna have to endure this look for a while. Other than that, the art is good, with tons of awesome dramatic shadows.
The Story: It's sort've a confused mess. There's Cat-Woman and then this thing with the diamond guys and it's sort've thrown together. Which is how all the Cat-Woman stories have felt, although at least this time it's a bit better. But it's also a story where the twist makes no sense the second time you read it -- the way Cat-Woman plans on stealing the diamonds (hell, the way she actually goes about it) makes no sense if the owners of the diamonds have hired her to steal them for them. It's a bit lazily plotted and never really goes anywhere. But it's still the best Cat-Woman story so far. It's just that they've all kinda sucked.
Notes and Trivia: First attempt at a costume for Catwoman

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Detective Comics #44 (October 1940)

Damn, that's a cool cover. Great pose for Batman. In typical Golden Age fashion, it has nothing to do with the interior story however, which is insane in a way that at this point is unique for a Batman tale.

"The Land Behind the Light"
Writer: Bill Finger
Bob Kane
Jerry Robinson

Synopsis: Dick Grayson is at home in Wayne Manor, staying up late reading waiting for the Batman to return. The clock strikes midnight, and Dick grows tired, but decides to continue waiting.
Finally, Batman arrives, announcing to Dick that he must suit up and accompany him on an investigation of the mysterious Dr. Marko! The two depart into the night, shrouded in fog, until they arrive at Marko's home, an odd cottage on "13 Bleak Street".
Entering the building we arrive at perhaps one of my favourite pages I've ever seen in a Golden Age comic. This has to be self-parody. Marko is an old mad scientist who shakes his fist at the duo and denies his madness with the fantastic line "Is it MADNESS to have discovered the secret of the Fourth Dimension?" He then reveals to Batman and Robin his insane machine (which looks very Teslaesque) is apparently capable of opening a portal to the Fourth Dimension and to prove it he proceeds to walk through.
In order to find out the truth behind the matter, Batman and Robin follow Marko behind the light and into the Fourth Dimension!
They emerge on the other side in a forest of massive trees, and are immediately set upon by a giant in medieval clothing, who lifts Batman and Robin as if they were dolls. He believes they may be agents of the "Little People", sent to spy on the king, but notes they are larger than the little people. The giant takes them to a town of giants, and places them in a giant dungeon. Of course, Batman and Robin easily escape by using the batrope to climb up through the bars at the top of the door. On their way out, they are attacked by a housecat, about the size of a puma in comparison to Batman, who of course wrestles it down and defeats it (implied killing it?).
At this point, they are once again seized by the giants and brought to the King, who is fat and eats a lot. Batman escapes by throwing pepper in his face, and then there's an inventive two page fight scene in which Batman and Robin beat up the giants using their ropes and in Robin's case, his sling (Finger can't resist a David/Goliath comparison). The two escape, and have a series of wacky adventures such as Robin being carried off by a hawk (who Batman kills with a knife thrown from the pilot's seat of a working model airplane he found!) to battling a crocodile the size of a dragon (who Batman kills with a fork to the face). Robin compares this victory to St. George and the Dragon, meaning that Bill Finger knew how to make pretentious literary references fifty years before Grant Morrison.
Finally, the two find Dr. Marko in a tiny city of dwarves, who are all cartoonishly drawn. Turns out the dwarves are at war with the giants, and so Batman agrees to help them defend their village when the giants attack. Using cunning traps, the dwarves defeat the giants, but Robin is cornered by a giant, who comes ever closer... closer... closer....
Until Bruce wakes him up. Turns out Dick fell asleep reading "Giants and Dwarfs In Myth and Fable" and had a nasty nightmare.
My Thoughts: Okay, so WHAT is this, and WHERE did it come from?? I mean, I appreciate Finger and Kane deciding to go against the formula, and try new things, but whose idea was this? It seems to out of left field to suddenly take their urban avenger and his sidekick into a fantasy world of giants and dwarves? It's so bizarre. Granted, this kind've thing will become common in the late 50s under editor Jack Schiff, but at this point, just over a year into the character's existence? It's like, WOW, what was that? I just have to wonder what the impetus was, other than straight up wanting to plop Batman into a completely different scenario and see if it works. I'm not sure if it does in this particular instance, and it feels really out of place, and I can say for certain that fighting monsters in a fantasy world isn't what I want to see Batman doing -- BUT: this story is significant for one very important reason. It is the first demonstration of Batman's versatility. As much as I and many others will say they only want Batman as a urban crimefighter battling realistic enemies in Gotham City, this story would lead to 70 years worth of comics proving that Batman could work in any story. Which, frankly, is what makes him so great.
The Art: So one thing I gotta admit here, is that the artwork is great. Robinson lays off the inks a little, so there is less shadowing and blacks, and that fits the lighter fantasy tone of the story. And Kane does some absolutely great and creative things with his panel layouts here that really enhances the story and makes it enjoyable to read. Probably my favourite moments include having Batman and Robin walking BETWEEN panels to transition between the two worlds, and the fog enshrouded city the duo walks through at the start. Kane also sneaks in some pretty funny cartoonish stuff into the panels, like the dwarf general reading the funnypapers while directing a battle.
The Story: So despite the compeltely insane turn into fantasy here, Finger knows what he's doing. For one thing, it's all a dream. Which is a classic cop-out ending, but also the only thing that could have this make sense. Dick reading a storybook and having a nightmare explains the childish nature of the tale, as well as the inconsistencies and overly cliche nature of the story. Finger basically riffs on Gulliver's Travels in the main section, but frankly I think he's also having fun satirizing mad scientists in the first few pages, and I find it funny to think that such a character was already a worn-out cliche this early in the Golden Age of Comics.
Notes and Trivia: First "out-of-genre" fantasy Batman story.