Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Batman #4 (Winter 1941)

Apologies for the extreme lateness of this post. Directing a short film is not a conducive activity to blogging about comics. 

Note that the Batman head in the title logo has now changed to resemble the shorter eared Batman of the Kane/Robinson team rather than the longer eared Batman of Kane/Moldoff team. The interior logos on the stories still featured long ear Batman though.

"The Case of the Joker's Crime Circus" 
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos 
Synopsis: Last time we saw the Joker, Batman had knocked him over the railing of a ship at sea. As we begin this story the Joker is discovered by a passing yacht, who bring him aboard and take him ashore, remarking upon yet completely ignoring his bizarre appearance and in no way connecting it to the serial murder who has been terrorizing Gotham the last few months. The Joker wanders ashore and finds his way back to the abandoned mansion he was using as his lair in Batman #1, which locals believe is "haunted" and don't approach. Now's a good time to mention that I really appreciate the continuity in these early Joker stories, explaining how Joker survived the last story and how we've gotten to this one. In modern stories it seems the opening is always "Joker has escaped Arkham"  regardless of how the previous story ended. Of course it helps that Bill Finger has written every Joker tale. Anyways, alive and well, Joker declares he shall get revenge upon the Batman!
Two months pass (aka the time between Batman #4 and Detective Comics #45), and Batman and Robin are on patrol in what is apparently a rich residential neighbourhood. They observe a burglary in progress, but the perps prove to be surprisingly acrobatic, evading Robin while a tall accented strong man takes out the Batman. 
The next morning, Bruce and Dick discover this is the fifth robbery of a rich home in recent weeks. Dick hands Bruce a letter informing him he's invited to a party on Saturday night hosted by C.R. Darcey. Arriving at Darcey's luxurious home, the other guests remark on Bruce's reputation as as a lazy, stupid, spendthrift. 
Darcey announces there is to be a unique entertainment at this party: a miniature circus act! The performers include acrobats, a strong man, and a clown whom Bruce finds oddly familiar.
Later that evening, the circus troupe arrives at the "haunted" house, revealing themselves as a new crime gang commanded by the Joker (wearing regular clown make-up over his bizarre clown-life face, hilariously).
Three days later, Bruce and Dick learn that the Darceys were robbed, and Bruce deducts that the circus act is actually casing the houses to be robbed later. The Morganbilts are the next to play host to the party and Bruce decides the Batman and Robin will be attending as well to prevent the crime! (Which is pretty pro-active for Golden Age Batman, who usually waits until the crime is committed, then beats up the crooks, helping nobody).
And so, in the middle of the Joker's act, Batman and Robin swing in through the window, and begin fighting the circus performers in a series of acrobatic death-defying stunts. Of course the rich snobs in the audience assume it's all part of the show, and just keep clapping like idiots.
This time, Batman defeats the strong man (punch to the jaw, and then he picks him up and throws him to the ground because he's BATMAN) and the Joker takes flight. The crowd realizes what's been going on, while Batman and Robin pursue Joker to the "haunted" house. Joker decides to set up some traps for the duo.
Upon arriving, Batman finds the door locked behind them. They are confronted by a ghost, but Batman tackles it and reveals it to be a thug in a costume. But it's a distraction, and Joker runs off with Robin (first instance of the Boy Hostage?). Batman gives chase, but ends up in a darkened room confronted only by the floating head of the Joker, growing ever larger and laughing wildly in an attempt to drive Batman mad. But of course the Dark Knight deduces it is merely a film projector and speakers, destroys them and moves on. Joker tries to gas the room, but Batman uses some vials from his belt to blow a hole in the wall, where he discovers Joker trying to drop Robin down a trapdoor. A fight ensues, but Batman succeeds in throwing Joker down the trap-door, which falls far down into the city's sewage system. This time, Batman actually expects Joker to return, rather than wonder if he will.
My Thoughts: This is sort've a grand return for the Joker, although it's the first story featuring the character where he doesn't kill anybody. That being said, it also makes a subtle transition from a Joker who was an unpredictable death dealer and jem thief, to a criminal who plans big, elaborate crimes with showmanship. In the previous Joker story, he betrayed his own men, continuing a theme of the Joker being unable to "play well with others", but here he assembles a gang of ex-circus performers who follow his orders willingly. Finally, while the Joker is defeated yet again in a manner that could have killed him, the story doesn't even really try to play that angle. The question is no longer "if" the Joker will return, but "when". That being said, Joker has not spent any time in jail save for two days between his stories in Batman #1. Otherwise his stories have all ended with Batman leaving Joker for dead -- which brings up something else interesting I've been meaning to address. Batman has not actually killed anyone since adding Robin to the mix, but in these confrontations with Joker he finds himself wondering if Joker is dead after punching him into the ocean or whatever -- meaning that the Dark Knight was probably intending  to kill Joker, despite failing. So while we have a Batman who refuses to use guns (anymore) and does not kill (anymore), it's not quite the "one rule" Batman of today.
The Art: Great art in this story, especially in the final sequence at the Joker's haunted house, with the ghost and the projected Joker head. Spooky, exciting, macabre, with excellently prodigious use of shadow in the background courtesy of George Roussos -- entire rooms cloaked in black.
The Story: A pretty good Joker tale from Finger, it presages the kind of larger-than-life madcap capers the Joker will attempt in the years ahead, emphasizing the performance criminal aspect criminal over the serial killer -- a necessary step in making Joker viable as a returning villain, otherwise his actions would get so despicable as to make Batman seem a fool for letting him live (attention, modern Bat-writers!!). However, there are some hiccups -- notably the story spends two panels on introducing a dwarf in Joker's gang who never shows up again. Odd. But otherwise good.
Joker Body Count: 17

"Blackbeard's Crew and the Yacht Society"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos

Synopsis:  Okay, so there's this Yacht Society. They're a bunch of rich yacht owners who once a year go on a long cruise on one of the member's yachts. They all bring a ton of jewels and fancy shit, but they don't worry about any of it being stolen because they're out at sea -- what, are a bunch of pirates gonna show up? Everyone knows there are no pirates in the 20th century! Right?
Of course, all the members of the yacht society have their own little personal problems: There's Mr. Horn, who brings along his secretary Stanley apparently just to boss him around; the young Elaine, who can't decide which of two playboy suitors to marry; and poor Cowden, who has recently gone bankrupt and is planning suicide.
So, of course, after a few days at sea a pirate ship shows up. A fully loaded, sails unfurled, 18th century pirate ship, launching small boats and boarding the yacht. The crew thinks it must be a masquerade party, but the pirates (all dressed in period costume) begin killing the crew with swords.
Their leader is Blackbeard, of course, whose plan is to hold the rich people for ransom. A communications officer on the yacht manages to get out a plaintive distress call before being killed by a pirate. Authorities on land dismiss the call as nonsense, but Batman and Robin intercept the message as well and decide to take the Batplane out to take a look. 
They get out to sea and find the pirate ship (it's somewhat conspicuous) and it is here that the Batplane hits the water and transforms into the Batboat! Batman and Robin climb aboard the pirate ship and begin battling the rogues, but are overpowered and captured. Blackbeard is smarmy and condescending, but Batman doesn't believe he is the real Blackbeard and taunts him. Robin is thrown off the plank, but Batman jumps in after him and rescues him after fighting and stabbing a shark. 
The pirates see the blood in the water and assume Batman and Robin are dead, but in fact it is the shark's blood from Batman shanking it, and soon the Dynamic Duo are up in the hold of the ship, rescuing the prisoners. But Batman needs help, and asks the Yacht Society for their assistance. One of Elaine's suitors, Henry, volunteers while the other dismisses the idea as too dangerous. Crowden also volunteers, having nothing to lose, while Mr. Horn calls the whole group crazy for trusting the masked criminal Batman. Which, of course, is the moment when Stanley the secretary has finally had enough and stands up to Horn, telling him to shut up or get a smack in the face.
With his team assembled, Batman and Robin move to take the ship, with an unprecedented FIVE-PAGE fight scene finale. The Dynamic Duo get some swords, but Batman reminds Robin to only use the flat of the sword as "we never kill with weapons of any kind". 
After defeating "Blackbeard" in a duel, Batman removes his fake beard and hat Scooby-Doo style to reveal a gangster named Thatch, who Batman tells us is a descendant of the real Blackbeard. Thatch planned the scheme a year ago, buying the ship and teaching all his men how to duel. The plan was that no one would suspect the gangsters of being the pirates. Robin remarks that this is a pretty elaborately dramatic plan, but Batman reveals Thatch was also an actor before he became a gangster (okay??). 
Meanwhile, Elaine chooses Henry because of his bravery, Crowden gains the courage to face his troubles instead of run away from them, and Horn was so impressed with Stanley's outburst he gives him a promotion!
My Thoughts: Well, clearly Finger and Kane were looking to stretch their legs a little bit and try out Batman in various genre pieces by this point. This pirate outing is a little bizarre and hackneyed, but ultimately a lot of fun. While I don't ordinarily like seeing Batman in stories like this, I can certainly understand the need to keep things fresh and try new things. There are also some notable firsts in this story, the most significant of which is Batman's statement about killing. As noted on this blog, Batman killed quite frequently in his early stories, but ceased these actions almost immediately after bringing Robin aboard. As early as Batman #1, he began speaking out against using guns, saying that gun users were cowards. But this is the first declarative statement from Batman about lethal methods, clarifying that the Dynamic Duo does not kill with weapons of any kind. No killing, no guns. Got it?
The Art: Another strong effort from the Kane Studio. Dramatic battle scenes, and an excellent use of light and shadow.
The Story: Okay, so here's the weak point. For one thing, it's got characters in the story literally laughing about the idea of pirates in the 20th century right before they show up, like Finger's saying "yes, I know this idea is ridiculous but who cares?", but then Finger still feels the need to justify and explain everything as making sense within Batman's world, which is where things fall apart. All of the exposition about Thatch, his gang, his backstory is delivered in three panels right at the end of the story. The only clue that Batman uses to come to his conclusion is that "Blackbeard" address him by name earlier. This is weak storytelling. Also weak is the contrivances to get Batman and Robin involved, namely intercepting a distress call that the police ignore. Bruce Wayne is a millionaire! He could've just as easily been a member of the Yacht Society and been involved that way. As is, the entire story is an excuse to see Batman and Robin fight pirates, which makes for a fun comic, but a bad story.
Notes and Trivia: First appearance of the Batboat, first use of the phrase "Dynamic Duo", Batman explains his "no guns, no kill" policy, first time Batman fights a shark.

"Public Enemy No. 1"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos
Synopsis: Ever seen the movie Scarface? The original, with Paul Muni? Or The Public Enemy, with James Cagney? Great. Picture that, now with Batman. That's what we're getting here, essentially. 
We are told the life story of Jimmy McCoy, who dropped out of school and became a rum-running hoodlum in order to support his mother after his father died when he was young. Eventually Jimmy was arrested and sentenced to a year in Juvenile, his mother died of a heart attack from the shock of finding out her son was a criminal, but Jimmy blamed "the law" for her death. When released, he reoffended, was sentenced to prison, and there he fell in with hardened career criminals. He got out, and became a racketeer, working his way up to become "king of the rackets", the biggest mobster in town. Eventually he was brought down for income tax evasion (gee, this is sounding familiar?) and sentenced to ten years. Now it's 1941, and he's getting out. 
Of course in the time he's been imprisoned, another mob boss has taken over the city. Big Costello knows that McCoy will come out gunning for him, trying to be the big shot he used to be, and orders a pre-emptive hit. 
Hanging around in his old neighbourhood, McCoy is the target of a drive-by that gets a small girl killed. McCoy fires back, taking out the wheels of the car and killling all inside. And THAT'S when Batman shows up. He's been following McCoy to ensure he goes straight. I've always liked that Batman invests himself in the rehabilitation of criminals, but if he's been following McCoy the whole time why did he not rescue that girl?? Anyways, Batman chases McCoy across town, but ends up taking a bullet to the shoulder. The Dark Knight vows to get McCoy if its the last thing he does. 
McCoy starts up a new gang, and it's at this point that we learn that McCoy is ultra-superstitious, always carrying around a lucky rabbit's foot and so on. Soon the city is split asunder by a gang way between McCoy and Costello, each attacking each other's territories for control of the protection racket.
After going undercover, Robin discovers that McCoy is going to hit the Penguin Club, a Costello establishment. Batman and Robin try to intervene, but the whole thing explodes in gunfire. After a really top notch two page fight scene, the cops arrive and the Dynamic Duo hightails it out've there. The Penguin Club is a wreck, Costello is arrested, but McCoy escapes. Upon hearing that Costello is being held at the courthouse, McCoy makes his way there to have his revenge, despite having lost his lucky rabbit foot (and running across a black cat and a dozen other unlucky things).
Batman and Robin head that way to try and prevent a showdown, but arrive too late. Costello gets out of the courthouse just as McCoy arrives, and in the middle of a torrential downpour they have a shootout, and both are killed, McCoy's body falling down the stairs and slumping down into the gutter. 
In the denouement, Bruce Wayne TURNS RIGHT TO THE READER and tells them that CRIME DOES NOT PAY. Get it? Get it??
My Thoughts: So one thing to keep in mind about this story is Al Capone. Jimmy McCoy is basically a fictionalized Al Capone. Capone had been sentenced to eleven years in prison in 1932 for tax evasion, just like Jimmy McCoy, and had been released in 1939. There were fears that he would resume his criminal reign like Jimmy does here. Instead, Capone's mental state had deteriorated in his imprisonment and he came out babbling like a twelve year old.
Of course, many would've preferred Capone go out in a hail of bullets, so you have the thinly fictionalized movies like Scarface and Public Enemy, which both clearly inspired this comic. Finger adds the touch of having McCoy die where he "began" -- in the gutter.

The Art: The art is FANTASTIC! Especially the inking! Robinson and Roussos really deliver and elevate this story, giving it a dark, epic, film noir feel -- perfectly suited to the Warner Bros. crime dramas it seeks to emulate. This is the kind've art that gives Frank Miller boners. It's great. There's a lot of fantastic, impressionistic panels, superb cartooning, excellent use of shadows, as well as three-dimensional perspective, and background detailing. One of the best looking Batman stories so far by this team -- full kudos to Roussos' inking, as well as Robinson and Kane.
The Story: As great as this story is, it has its faults too. The biggest one is that Batman is barely involved. He's more or less a witness to McCoy's story, his involvement doesn't affect the outcome. Then there's the fact that this is just a comic book version of a bunch of movies that are a fictionalized version of a new story. In other words, Finger is riffing on guys who were already riffing on reality. There's nothing new. Granted, these are the days before people could just see those movies over and over again, and there's some timeliness in that Capone himself had recently been released, but this isn't even the first time Batman's fought a Capone pastiche. Finally, there's the moralizing -- for the most part the story is one of the better "moral driven" Batman stories, but the fact is that in the second last panel Bruce Wayne directly addresses the reader and delivers the crime does not pay moral, which is really hokey and has been done before in other Batman stories!  However, there's plenty that works too -- I like that Finger shows us McCoy's entire rise to crime, and gives it realistic motivations, like poverty. It shows that one can start down a dark path from an understandable beginning, that good motivations aren't enough. It's an effective lesson for kids, and gives McCoy an interesting character -- a kid trying to be a big shot, as Batman says at the end. McCoy has a complete and dynamic character arc, giving the story a truly epic scope and feel. So despite its flaws, this is a good 'un.

"Victory for the Dynamic Duo!"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos
Synopsis: The Dynamic Duo come across a man being beaten up by a gang of thugs outside a Sport Shop. They fight the mob for a bit, but then a car drives by spitting machine gun fire. Batman shoves the target behind some (bullet-proof?) trash cans, and then picks up a gun that another thug dropped and takes aim at the attacking vehicle. He then fires and hits the machine gunner in the hand, causing him to drop the machine gun as they drive away. In the same panel there's an editor's note explaining that the Batman "never carries or kills with a gun!" So Whitney Ellsworth and Bill Finger seem oddly cross purposes here. Anyway, turns out they rescued Tim Bannon, coach of the Gotham City Panthers football team. Oh, by the way, these stories are set in Gotham City now! Yes, we were still established as in New York as late as the previous story in this issue, but now we've invented Gotham as Batman's fictional locale. 
Anyways, Bannon was attacked because his team is set to play the Lions, a team owned by "Stacy the Gambler", who has bet a ton of money on his own team, and is of course a dangerous gangster. Then the police show up, and the crimefighters beat a hasty exit.
So we cut to Stacy's hideout. And it turns out Stacy the Gambler is the smartest Batman villain yet. Upon hearing that Batman rescued Bannon, Stacy decides that Batman must be killed before they can try doing anything else. At which point he announces that he knows how to get the Batman -- because he knows who the Batman is!
Follow me now through Stacy's brilliant train of thought -- rich playboy Bruce Wayne is always seen hanging around police headquarters with "friend" Commisioner Gordon, and what is he doing there? Perhaps the "bored playboy" routine is just an act and he really uses all that money to fight crime?
Brilliant, Stacy. Simply, brilliant. What the hell is billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne doing hanging around old Gordon at police headquarters? Finger has never bothered to explain why Wayne and Gordon are even friends. I figured that Gordon must've known or been friends with Thomas Wayne somehow, maybe. With the age difference and difference in interests, a natural friendship between Wayne and Gordon doesn't make much sense.
Anyways, Stacy's figured the same thing and deduced that Wayne is Batman. And that they should kill him. Good for you. I'm sure it will go swimmingly. 
So Stacy concocts a plan. He phones Bruce Wayne, claiming to be someone under threat of death and telling Bruce he knows he's the Batman. He gives an address and a time and tells Bruce to hurry. Dick smells something fishy but Bruce thinks the only way to find out how they figured out he was Batman is to play along.
So late the next night, Batman and Robin arrive at the prescribed address, only to find Stacy and his gang waiting for them. So of course there's a two page fight scene, a pretty damn awesome one in fact, but the Dynamic Duo is outnumbered! Batman orders a hasty retreat, but the gangsters follow them all the way back to the abandoned barn near Wayne Manor. Of course when they arrive there is no one there. 
Stacy meets up with some men he has stationed to watch Wayne Manor (damn, he's smart!), who report that they have not seen anyone leave or enter the home. Just then, Bruce Wayne emerges from the front door, asking the hoodlums to please leave his property. Convinced it must be some kind've trick, the gang watches Bruce as he walks back inside, following to watch him through the living room window, where he sits and reads a book.
And at that moment, Batman appears in the yard behind the gangsters. The Dark Knight gives chase, and the gangsters follow. It is at this point that Finger stops the narrative to explain Batman's tricks: First, that Robin and he escaped through the underground tunnel that connects the abandoned barn to Wayne Manor (first seen last issue), then the Wayne the crooks see reading in the living room is in fact Robin operating a Bruce Wayne dummy (a ploy last seen in Detective Comics #42). I like how clever this defense of the secret identity is. It relies on devices we've already seen Batman use, so it is consistent and believeable, unlike some later Silver Age takes on the topic.

But of course there's one last loose end, which Batman ties up himself when he dumps some expository dialogue on the crooks explaining that Batman knew of the call the crooks made to Bruce Wayne because he just happened to be spying on them at that moment, and acted accordingly! (Facepalm. Okay, so it's not all that clever).
The gangsters give up trying to chase after Batman, and return to resume their plot to ruin the big game between the Panthers and the Lions. The morning of the game, Batman and Robin pay a visit to the apartment of Stockton, the Panthers' star quarterback, to ensure Stacy hasn't tried anything. Of course, Stockton has been kidnapped. Which is when Batman gets the craziest idea ever. He sends Robin to rescue Stockton, but there's just no way he'll make the big game in time. So using his mastery of disguise, Batman makes his face over to look like Stockton so he can take his place in the game. 
Robin follows Stacy from the stadium to his hideout, and there a two-page fight scene ends in the rescue of Stockton and the death of Stacy, killed in crossfire with one of his own men (a crossfire Robin totally causes, btw -- kind've straddling that "no kill" line if you ask me). Robin informs Stockton that Batman has taken his place -- Stockton exclaims that they must get back soon, since Batman is probably failing horribly.
Of course nothing could be further from the truth. The Dark Knight is practically winning the game single-handedly, while remarking that he hasn't done this "since my college days!" (Yet another of several recent mentions that Bruce Wayne did indeed attend college). In fact, Batman is playing better than the real Stockton! At the half, Batman and Stockton switch back, but luckily Stockton "plays like a man inspired" and proceeds to win the game! Hooray!
My Thoughts: Okay, so this story was awesome. And goofy. And awesomely goofy. I definitely enjoyed it. I'm finding as I get older that I'm able to enjoy these kinds of old-school, lighter, "fun" Batman stories far more. For a while I was definitely a "dark and gritty Batman only" kinda guy, but reading these old Golden Age stories and watching Batman: The Brave and the Bold has made me realize that Batman can be fun as well. And it's a blast to read.
The Art: Spectacular art! Not quite as good as the previous story in this issue, but still top-notch from this creative team. Enjoyed it all the way through.
The Story: There are basically two threads in this story, and they're both great. The first is Stacy's deduction that Bruce Wayne is Batman, and the resulting game of cat and mouse. This feels really clever, and is executed is a very exciting manner that genuinely kept me wondering how Bruce was going to get out of it. Making Stacy smart was a really great move on Finger's part, and added extra spice to an otherwise silly story about rigging a football game. Which of course is the second thread in this story, which is hilariously awesome mainly for the climax of Batman kicking ass on the field compared to professional footballers. Amazing. Another hidden talent of the Batman!
Notes and Trivia: First time the location of these adventures is described as "Gotham City"!

Overall, Batman #4 is probably the best issue since #1.