Friday, August 31, 2012

World's Finest Comics #3 (Fall 1941)

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

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

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Detective Comics #56 (October 1941)

"The Stone Idol"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos
Synopsis: So Bruce and Dick are on vacation and driving across America, when they stop in a ghost town called Ghost Gulch City. The town used to mine silver but the vein ran out and all that's left are a few people with nowhere else to go. The town is at the base of a mountain range, and on top of one of the mountains sits a two thousand year old stone idol carved by Native Americans. 
In the town, an old bum named Mad Mack rants and raves about the day that the Stone Idol will come to life and destroy the town, while Bruce and Dick check into an inn while a thunderstorm rages outside. The storm causes a truck making it's way through the mountain path to crash, another bolt dislodges the stone idol and sends it crashing down the mountain to sit near the town. 
The next morning, people from the town gather round the idol, frightened. The mayor is not afraid, after all it's just a hunk of stone, but Mad Mack believes the mayor has reason to be afraid. A blinding flash of light occurs and then the Stone Idol is alive, and tells the townfolk that unless they leave forever, they will all be destroyed. Another flash and the Idol is back to normal.
The mayor refuses to budge, insisting that it must be some kind of trick and that the townfolk should fight for their homes, but the majority of them are superstitious and fearful, making to leave. Just then, the Idol arrives with several odd white men in neanderthal costumes whom it claims are it's servants. They begin ransacking the town.
So Batman and Robin appear, naturally, and beat up all the "servants". After another flash of light, the servants are gone and the Idol is once again simply a stone statue. The Batman and Robin also disappear, with Bruce wondering what the truth behind the Stone Idol is. The townsfolk turn against the mayor, Mad Mack working them into a fury where they are willing to sacrifice the man to the Idol. They go to push him off a cliff but Batman swings out and saves him. Fighting the townsfolk alongside the mayor, Batman attacks the stone statue to find it is, in fact, made of stone. Batman knocks over the statue to find it's covering up a large chasm into the mountain.
Heading down, Batman finds he's in the silver mine. Batman and Robin fight a bunch of goons and then the Idol himself. The fights start bringing down the mine, but Batman and Robin survive the cave-in. Mad Mack, however, is buried under a ton of rubble. Batman convinces him to exposit the explanation to the story with his dying breath. Basically, there's still silver in the mine, and Mad Mack found it, but after the mine ran out the first time it was bequeathed to the town. So if Mack was to mine the silver, he'd have to share with the whole town. Luckily, the truck that crashed at the start of the story was carrying a travelling circus in trouble with the law. Mack decided to paint the strong man up to look like the Idol. Then they used a camera's powder flash to switch out the stone idol with the strong man, while the other circus members dressed as the servants. Mack dies, the mayor thanks the Dynamic Duo, who drive off hoping that superstition is over in that town.
My Thoughts: So, for the most part, I don't care for this. I don't like "travelling Batman" stories in general, and the whole stone idol, ghost mining town, etc. stuff just feels so much like some old cliché western story and not suited to these characters at all. Still, I do like that the Stone Idol isn't real, and that the Mayor stands up to fear and superstition alongside rational Batman.
The Art: Art's okay, Kane does some good caricature with the townsfolk, and there's a lot of dynamic layouts, and Roussos does his usual good stuff with the background shadows and things, but I can't say there's anything special going on here.
The Story: I understand that Finger wants to change things up every once in a while, but this just isn't a Batman story. And I hate the way everything gets exposited in like two panels at the end. It's okay, but at the end of the day it's very predictable the way it all wraps up. Not that I would've preferred the Idol be real, I like for Batman to stand for rationality given that he's a detective, but ultimately the only thing that makes this a Batman story is that Batman's in it.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Detective Comics #55 (September, 1941)

And once again, a cover whose artwork actually represents the story inside! A rare enough occurrence at this point that I have to keep noting when it happens. Another note is that the interior "Batman" title logo has changed. In addition to shorter ears on Batman himself, reflecting the current drawing style, the "with Robin the Boy Wonder" byline has changed to a different, more modern, font and "the Boy Wonder" has been dropped.

"The Brain Burglar"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos
Synopsis: Professor Jon Henry has developed a machine that when applied to a human, forces him to tell the truth. He plans on selling it to police forces for interrogations. But Henry is kidnapped by Doctor Deker, a fifth columnist working in secret for the Fatherland (obviously Nazi Germany). Deker's men beat up Henry and then use the Brain Machine on him to force him into revealing how it operates, as well as spilling the beans about Henry's "atom destroyer" and another mysterious invention that will aparently give Deker the ability to control "entire armies." Isn't that just called being a General? Deker gets all his agents together, and asks if they are willing to submit to a myterious operation. Of course they are, they're all loyal agents willing to die for das Vaterland! More prominent scientists go missing, from all areas of industry, kidnapped by Deker and becoming his pawns thanks to the Brain Machine.
Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne is on a date with Linda Page. She's taken him to her uncle's aviation plant, where they're making bombers for the army. Linda's ulterior motive is attempting to inspire Bruce to do more with his life than just be a playboy. But as they are there, the workers suddenly go mad and start attacking Bruce. Linda runs off with her uncle, and after being knocked behind some boxes, Bruce turns into Batman. The maddened workers are attacking the bomber, trying to destroy it and the factory. Batman takes them down in a two-page fight scene, before turning back into Bruce and pretending to have been unconscious the entire time. Once again, Linda admonishes Bruce for sleeping out the whole affair while the Batman rescued her and her uncle. Agents report back to Deker that the airplane factory operation was a success, apparently the German word for success is "foiled by Batman". Deker notes that next time they will increase the power of the machine and the men shall become more vicious. 
Bruce discusses the case with Dick and notes that the men who went mad at the factory are permanently insane and have been sent to an asylum. Bruce feels this is connected with the disappearing inventors, despite there basically being nothing to suggest such a connection. Bruce has read a newspaper story of a scientist named Mason who has invented a new gunpowder formula. He believes Mason may require the Batman's protection.
Where "protection" means Batman hitting Mason over the head and taking his place using a clever disguise. When the agents arrive to kidnap Mason, it is of course Bruce in disguise. He's brought to a private hospital at the edge of town, where all the other kidnapped scientists are being kept. Deker subjects "Mason" to the Brain Machine, but under it's power Bruce still manages to keep up the deception that he is Mason, developer of the gunpowder. 
It doesn't matter much as Robin bursts in at that moment, having tailed Batman, and so Mason whips off his disguise to reveal the Batman in full costume (just how does he do that?) and he promptly beats up Deker and puts him under the Brain Machine. This results in three panels of heay exposition from Deker where he reveals his true intentions, and that the third invention he stole from Henry was a method of beaming instructions into a man's mind via radio beams after a special sliver of metal has been placed in his head at the base of his brain, essentially radio mind control. Before Batman took down Deker, he had already given orders to his agents to attack a factory developing a new, stronger formula of steel. Also, there's a dirigible arrive later tonight to deliver more agents from the Fatherland.
So, this is a job for Batman and Robin, who take off in the Batplane and arrive swiftly at the steel mill. They fight the workers in a two-page fight sequence that includes the suspect event of Batman punching a mind-controlled worker over a railing and into a vat of molten steel, which would obviously kill him. After rounding up the agents here, they take off in the Batplane after the dirigible. Batman drops sleeping gas on the Nazi agents, they they set the plane on automatic and swing through the dirigible's front windows, punching out Nazis, and inevitably coming to battle on the surface of the zeppelin itself, because we are in full-scale Saturday afternoon serial mode, folks. Batman punches all the Nazi's to their deaths and a stray pullet hits one of they hydrogen tanks. Batman and Robin make it back to the Batplane just in time to fly away from the massive explosion.
Finally, Robin asks how Batman managed to thwart the Brain Machine. Simple, he wore a rubber lined wig as part of his disguise so that the electrical waves the machine operated on couldn't penetrate to his mind. Victory is in the preparation, after all.
My Thoughts: This story is an interesting artifact of the period when World War II was rocking almost every country in the world except the United States. So tales like this, where foreign agents work secretly against America, played upon the fears of readers, but don't explicitly mention the Nazis or the war. The overall jist of this story, an evil fifth columnist using a mind control machine to attack Linda Page's uncle and other American resources to support an Axis power, is basically the plot of the 1943 serial, with German Dr. Deker transformed into Japanese Dr. Daka. 
The Art: The layouts are pretty spectacular, especially the delightfully dramatic and over-the-top finale with the Zeppelin, but there's a lot of corners being cut here all over the place. All the scientists look exactly the same, Batman is occasionally missing his cape, the inks are all over the place in quality. High ambitions in this tale, but the execution feels rushed.
The Story: Finger does a pretty good job with this kind of tale, even if the idea of Linda having an industrialist family member attacked feels a lot like the latest issue of Batman. But there's a lot of oddness that doesn't stand up to scrutiny. First off, the fifth columnists' plan of operating on all his agents to subject them to radio controlled madness seems kinda unnecessary, after all, they're already doing his bidding and he still has to go to the trouble of arranging them jobs in the factories they want destroyed. Secondly, there's the bit where Batman kills a dude. Now, all he does is punch him off a catwalk, but it's straight into molten silver and it's hard to pretend Batman didn't know what was there. Now, one could say that it was an foreign enemy agent, but it's not a time of war and why should that be special? Then there's the Nazis Batman punches off the top of the zeppelin. The zeppelin's explosion kills a bunch more, but technically a Nazi caused that himself. Still, it's a little weird given that the Batman does not kill. Period.
Batman Body Count: Around 23.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Batman #6 (August/September 1941)

With issue no. 6, Batman transitions from a quarterly publication to a bimonthly, being published six times a year rather than four. This is a testament to the continued and rising popularity of the Batman character, now appearing a total of twenty-two times a year, in the monthly Detective Comics, quarterly World's Finest and now bimonthly self-titled series.

"Murder on Parole"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos
Synopsis: Batman and Robin are patrolling the waterfront, when they happen upon the scene of a gangland execution. The Dynamic Duo burst onto the gangsters and narrowly manage to rescue the man they were trying to execute, a crook named Miller, who has a bullet in him but manages to recount his lengthy backstory to Batman anyway.
Chick Miller was three years into a five year sentence at the State Penitentiary, going stir crazy, His cellmate, Slink, says he can arrange for Miller to see the parole board, as he's paid big money by the mob to arrange such things. Soon enough, Miller is in front of the board, who vote to release him. Free and clear, Miller is immediately set upon by the mob, who demand that he help them on a job to crack the "National Bank" in exchange for arranging his parole. The big shot in charge of the mob is actually one of the parole board members, which is how he arranges this! Miller refuses on principle, and since he knows too much, his death is ordered. 
Which brings us up to speed. Miller of course passes out before he can reveal the identity of the top man -- Batman even comments himself on how much of a cliché this is -- and the Duo bring him to a hospital.
Batman concludes that the mob will certainly try to kill Miller in the hospital, and intercepts a plot to do just that. After running off the crooks, the Batman must also fight and escape from the police guarding Miller. Now Batman goes on the offensive. He flies the Batplane to the State Prison, beats up a bunch of perimeter guards and a prisoner, then creates a disguise to look exactly like the incapacitated prisoner, who is Slink's cellmate of course!
PrisonerBatman plays the "stir-crazy" act and Slink sets him up with the parole board, and is freed. In his crook persona, he is recruited to help rob a silks warehouse on the waterfront and in the process, gets a good look at the Boss, whom he has instructed Robin to keep a tail on.
Upon reaching the waterfront, Batman pulls off his disguise and confronts the crooks. Literally. One moment he's in a hat and coat and has the face of "Marty Loden" and then he pulls it all off and he's in full cape and cowl Batsuit underneath! Amazing. A fight scene in the warehouse ends with Batman pushed out a window into the water and presumed dead (crooks are stupid) and the Boss taking Robin hostage. 
But at that moment (gotta love dramatic coincedence!) Slink busts into the Boss' office. He's broken out from prison, having gone stir crazy himself and sick of waiting for the day when the Boss might bail him out. The cops have followed him straight there, and a gun battle between the two sides breaks out. Batman, of course, is not dead, and when the crooks take the Boy Wonder hostage, the cops allow a cease fire on the crooks and on Batman in order to let him go in and retrieve the boy. Batman goes in, and with Robin's help, kicks ass. He grapples one on one with the Boss, who ends up tumbling into an open elevator shaft (?) and falling to his death. 
All the men paroled by the crooked board are sent back to jail, save Miller, whose use as an informant meant he earned his parole. Bruce tells Dick that there is no better moral lesson than a criminal who realizes the error of his ways.
My Thoughts: I love seeing these stories where Bill Finger shows corruption in Gotham City. It's such an essential element to what makes Batman work, and unfortunately it was (and continues) to be a real problem in the major cities of the world. It's so open here and in other Finger Batman tales, which seems surprising given the era these comics were released. But the Golden Age was very much a strange breed of the story telling simplicity of the Silver Age but the violence and dark themes of the Bronze and Modern Age. Another detail I like is that the Parole Boss is brought down by his own accomplices, showing a moral that criminal organizations will always fall because they have no standard of trust to be based on, without outright stopping and lecturing that moral.
The Art: Decent enough artwork from the Kane Studio. Roussos' background blacks are fantastic as always, but Robinson's character inks are a little thick and smudged, particularly on the faces, which Kane draws with expressive lines all over them that sometimes become blurred messes in Robinson's inks.
The Story: It's a story based on a lot of coincedences and weirdly jarring transitions. Batman happens upon Miller, who passes out just before he can reveal the crime ring. The idea of guarding Miller til he can wake up is totally abandoned in favour of suddenly infiltrating the crime ring. Batman merely knocks out the crook he replaces, but still impersonates him for a good long length of time -- what happened to him? Ultimately the big mystery of the Parole Boss' identity is moot -- we see his face but never learn his name and he falls to his death rather than be arrested. Slink appears out of nowhere with the trailing cops in the third act. It's rather sloppy construction, a story that actually would've been suited to a longer length than the standard thirteen pages of the Batman feature. It's good stuff from Finger, but the seams show quite a bit.

"The Clock Maker"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos
Synopsis: Bruce Wayne heads to a stockholders' meeting of the Hobbs Clock Company, shares of which he inherited from his father. The Hobbs Company is housed in a tall building with a clock built into the upper levels. After the meeting, the rich stockholders find themselves bored and desiring amusement. One of them is a collector of old clocks and looking to find a good place to get some. He is recommended to Elias Brock's clock store. The old clockmaker is impeccable, despite a reputation as an eccentric. A description of his eccentricities results in a suggestion that they all go down to see him. 
At the shop, Brock appears as a strange old man who refers to the old clocks as his only friends. He becomes angered by the bored rich men, who spend their days "killing time". Brock takes the phrase literally, and accuses the men of murder.  Upset, the men quickly make their leave.
A day later, Bruce receives a phone call from Keating, one of the stockholders, saying he's seen men prowling about his house and is afraid for his life. Batman and Robin rush over to the Keating home, where they fight off his attackers just in time. Keating is sent for medical attention, while the escaping thugs report back to a shadowy master, who decides he must be more subtle in his next attempt.
Two nights later, Keating sits reading while the clock strikes midnight, but the clock strikes thirteen times and on the thirteenth stroke releases a gas that kills Keating dead. Commissioner Gordon shows up the next day at noon to examine the crime scene (and why is it that the Police Commissioner of Gotham City is always examining crime scenes himself?) and of course his playboy friend Bruce Wayne is accompanying him. Bruce notices that the clock strikes thirteen at noon, but he is the only one.
Brock the Clock Maker is revealed as the killer of Keating, and sends another trick clock to Henry Decker, another Hobbs stockholder, who is killed by a poison dart shot by the clock on the thirteenth stroke of midnight. This time at the crime scene, again at noon, Bruce points out the thirteen strokes to Gordon and points out that the murderer must've known Decker's habits to know precisely where he'd sit at midnight to position the clock and the dart. 
The next clock is for Bruce Wayne, but since he knows what's up, he smacks it out of Dick's hands and out a window before it straight up explodes. That night, Batman journeys to the Hobbs company and confirms that Keating and Decker where both stockholders (weren't you at a meeting a few nights ago, Bruce? Why do you need the paperwork to confirm?)
Batman calls another stockholder Selby to warn him (somehow knowing he's the next target?) and arrives at Brock's shop to catch Atkins (another stockholder) instructing Brock to make a clock to kill Selby. Brock attacks Batman with a scythe, but knocked out in onoe punch. Some heavy exposition explains that essentially Atkins would have controlling interest in the Hobbs Company after the murders and was using Brock, who is essentially totally insane. Atkins pulls a gun and shoots Brock, and then ties up Batman. But Brock is unharmed! A pocket watch in his breast pocket protected him. He kills Atkins with the scythe and then suddenly decides to rig the giant Hobbs Clock Tower to explode at the strike of thirteen.

After Brock leaves, Robin rescues Batman they're off. Robin thinks they have plenty of time, but Batman (somehow?) knows that Brock is going to rig the clock to go off at ten instead of midnight. An epic fight ensues, with Batman struggling to prevent the strike of the bell that'll set off the explosion and the Dynamic Duo fighting the Clock Maker on the hands of the giant clock itself. Robin knocks the Clock Maker off balance and he falls to his death. The Dynamic Duo has saved the day, and Batman and Robin remark that in the end they felt sorry for Brock, who was right in hating people who waste time, but was too fanatical in his methods. Which is a hilarious comment for Batman to make.
My Thoughts: The Clock Maker is a definite attempt at a classic Batman rogue, complete with obsessive gimmick, crazed motivation, etc. but he falls to his death at the end of the story, an odd ending for what was intended as a continuing villain (not that it ever stopped the Joker or Hugo Strange). Ultimately however, there's something just not compelling about the Clock Maker, despite the dramatic climax of this story.
The Art: Kane does great action layouts in this story, and the final battle on the clock face is absolutely classic and iconic, and will be reused as a setting for climatic Batman fights in several later stories. Roussos does really fantastic background inks as well. Unfortunately Robinson's character inks really aren't up to par, with minimal detail on characters in some scenes revealing the full flatness of Kane's pencils. 
The Story: While the tale of the Clock Maker is full of Finger's standard tropes, none of them really click this time out. The Stock Holder murders for control of the company is lifted all the way from the original Batman story in Detective #27, the Clock Maker's midnight murders feel like an old Joker plot, but the way the pieces stitch together are full of holes. How did Batman know the final attack would be at ten instead of midnight like all the others? How did he know who the next victim would be? Did Robin straight up kill the Clock Maker? 
Robin Body Count: 2! 

"The Secret of the Iron Jungle"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos
Synopsis: On one of his nightly patrols, Batman comes across a man being tossed out of a window. Batman saves the man, who explains that he is the New York representative of the Page Oil Company, and that a bunch of crooks are trying to muscle in. The next morning Bruce Wayne visits his girl Linda Page to find out what's going on. She confesses that her dad's company is in trouble. They're expecting a big gusher at their Texas oil fields, and Thomas Page's partner, Graham Masters, is trying to push Page out of the company before the gusher hits.
Bruce decides to head down to Texas with Dick and see what's going on. Bruce arrives at Page's offices right as Graham Masters is choking the man to death! Bruce fights and beats up Masters, who leaves. Page explains to Bruce that Masters says that if he doesn't sell out by midnight he's a dead man. 
Bruce leaves Page's offices suddenly wearing a white suit for no reason and is attacked by a brute named Chuck and some other strong arm men in Page's employ. He, of course, beats them all up. The white suit he's suddenly in (and that Finger even points out in the narration) has no significance.
But meanwhile, Masters has kidnapped Page. He shoots him, non-fatally, and then tells his men to tie him up to the top of one of the old abandoned oil derricks in the Iron Jungle (a collection of old, abandoned oil derricks) until he agrees to sell, and to kill him if he doesn't.
Linda Page shows up in her car at that moment, which Masters and Chuck hijack to drive Page to the Iron Jungle. Batman and Robin pursue in a Page Oil truck, and Batman manages to jump from the truck to the car, grab Linda, and then jump back to the truck from the car with Linda. The crooks shoot at the truck, and it explodes of course, but luckily our heroes had jumped out in the nick of time. There's an electrical storm, and the Dynamic Duo race to get to the top of the oil Derrick that Page is being held on. A bunch of well done fight sequences result in Chuck and the other henchmen being killed by Masters to sacrifice them for time, while Batman grabs Page and they fall off the derrick, Masters following them, but the spongy, oil soaked ground breaks the fall.
The rain is going to ruin the nitro charge soon, so Batman rushes to blow the charge himself and save the Page Oil Company. Masters makes a last ditch attempt to shoot Page but is stopped by Robin, who turns the gun back at Masters as he fires, killing himself. Batman blows the charge and the company is saved.
With the adventure over, Bruce offers to drive Linda back to Gotham, but Linda declares Bruce a lazy bore who wasn't even man enough to help her father, declaring her love for the Batman. Bruce drives back wishing he could tell Linda the truth, while Dick complains about all this romance.
My Thoughts: So, on the one hand, good on Finger for actually developing Linda Page through her family and background and showing that Bruce is willing to go to Texas to help this man who is her father. It makes Linda a more developed character by far than Julie Madison, who was only ever really a prop for the stories in which she appeared. On the other hand, the story ends with Linda questioning Bruce's manhood and features a lot of questionable actions, such as Robin forcing a villain into suicide. 
The Art: Pretty good art throughout, particularly in the climatic action scenes, with some good panel lay-out and excellent inks from Roussos. Robinson's work here is better than the previous two stories, but ultimately I'm giving top marks to Kane and Roussos.
The Story: This script is sloppy as fuck. In broad strokes, it's good and it's certainly dramatic and exciting. But Masters keeps trying to kill Page despite the fact that he needs Page to agree to sell the company to him, and what was up with the white suit bit, and Masters' plan involves a ton of unecessary violence and then Robin basically murders him. Holy prepubescent vigilante justice, Batman! Masters comes off as unhinged and overviolent and the whole story kind've feels really intense for a nineteen-forties' comic. In some places that's good, and in others it sorta interrupts the flow of the tale.
Notes and Trivia: First appearance of Linda Page's father.
Robin Body Count: 3?

"Suicide Beat"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos
Synopsis: A hired gun of mobster Fancy Dan's shoots a beat cop named Grogan. He's the third cop to die on the same corner, which has been nicknamed "Suicide Beat" by the police. An experienced cop named Kelly, a typical Irish policeman, is assigned to the beat, and promptly shot as well. Kelly's son Jimmy, a rookie cop himself, demands to know why Fancy Dan isn't being arrested since he keeps brazenly murdering cops. Turns out that Fancy Dan runs the whole neighbourhood under the protection of the ward's corrupt Alderman!

Jimmy insists on being given the post, despite everyone knowing he's a goner. Bruce Wayne hears all about this during one of his many inexplicable visits to Commissioner Gordon, who explains that Alderman Skigg remains in power because he maintains a public front as a compassionate man of the people -- giving money to the poor, donating food at Christmas, finding men jobs, etc. so the people of the Ward support him and keep voting for him.
On Jimmy's first day on the beat, he gets an orange thrown at his head, and chases the kid that did it into a bar, where he is threatened by Fancy Dan and his men. Later that night, Jimmy rescues a little girl in the neighbourhood from nearly being run over by a drunk driver. Batman and Robin pop out of nowhere, commandeer a car, and chase after the drunk driver. The driver shoots at Batman, who leaps out of the car and punches him in the face. They turn him over to Jimmy to be arrested.
But Alderman Skigg makes an appearance at the trial as a character witness and appeals to the judge, who is a personal friend, and the man is released. He is, of course, one of Fancy Dan's men. Dan proposes shooting Jimmy, but Skigg insists he back down, as the shooting of so many cops in the same place in a row might bring down the Governor. Dan agrees to simply rough the cop up a bit to teach him a lesson.
When they attack Jimmy, Batman and Robin again jump out and join the fight. They've clearly been shadowing Jimmy for his protection. The three of them run off the crooks successfully, who drop something in the scuffle. A note from Skigg which declares his intent to bet $5,000 on a man named Mafey. Batman correctly deduces this is the Milk Fund Fight, a charity event in which Mafey will fight Jorgan the Champ, with the proceeds going to pay for milk for the schoolchildren of the ward. Jimmy concludes that Skigg must've paid off Jorgan to throw the fight and that the whole thing is rigged in Mafey's favour.
So what does Batman do? He incapacitates the champ and fights in his place, of course. With boxing gloves and trunks, but still wearing his cowl, and totally trading off the Batman persona for popularity with the crowd. And he, of course, kicks all sort's of ass. As he's declared the winner, Robin cuts the power to the arena so Batman can get away through the crowd safely. But Fancy Dan and his goons have robbed the gate receipts! Those were for the children!!
Batman goes after Dan, but ends up getting captured and left to die in a burning building. Robin and Jimmy Kelly have no idea where it is, but the father of the little girl Jimmy saved gives Dan up! They show up, beat up Dan's men, but the building is a tenement building and not only must Batman be saved from the blaze, but some woman's poor baby as well (of course)! Jimmy rushes in, declaring "Somebody hold this Robin kid back, this is my job!"
Jimmy gets to the top of the neighbouring building and Batman meets him at the roof of the flaming building, having of course escaped the ropes he was tied in no problem and in fact already has the kid, because he's the GODDAMN BATMAN. Then Batman, no joke, tosses the kid to Jimmy, who actually manages to catch him!
Jimmy arrests Skigg, as he can prove he rigged the fight and allowed Dan to steal the receipts, while Batman congratulates Jimmy before driving off with Robin. Jimmy becomes a respected and beloved cop on his beat.
My Thoughts: This is definitely the best story in this issue, and one of my all time favourites so far. It's a Bill Finger morality play, but it's morals and the way it tells them are fantastic. I love that Finger just goes for it with the corrupt Alderman. And he's believably portrayed too. He presents himself as this compassionate guy doing it all for the children and in reality he's getting all his power from protecting this gangster. He's the perfect villain, like something in a Steve Ditko story, a guy trying to get all the benefits of being good and being evil at the same time. And Jimmy is just this earnest rookie cop who believes in the system and doesn't understand why his dad was allowed to die. I love that Batman understands that Jimmy needs to be the hero of the story and is mostly here just to make sure he doesn't get killed. I love that when Batman is a hero in the story, it ain't no thang, because he's freakin' Batman. I love that Finger repeats the football bit from Batman #4 but this time it's boxing so that Batman can beat a dude up. I love that the bit about the little girl actually comes back to be significant and adds the theme of the neighbourhood in fact redeeming itself and coming to support the police and law and order instead of the criminals.
The Art: Standard Kane studio, pretty on par with the current fairly good quality we've been enjoying. Which sounds like faint praise, but all the other stories in this issue have had something off about their artwork from one corner or another, whereas in this story all the artists are producing their work competently. The layouts aren't as great as "Iron Jungle" or "Clock Maker", but Robinson's finally putting in some good work here, and of course Roussos is providing plenty of atmosphere.
The Story: Man, Finger really does a great job here. There's actually story structure and themes and it all comes together in the end, rather than just being a series of events. The characters all ring true, and he manages to get across all his usual pet themes without any didactic lecturing. Also, how great is it that Finger is writing about a corrupt Alderman in a children's comic? I mean, straight up, it's a city councilman who works with the mob. Again, the Golden Age is this odd period where the comics were for kids, but they weren't censored. This is the kind of story that Batman should be in -- urban crime and corruption, where Batman is the moral hero who must work outside the law to uphold true justice. This is a great story.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Detective Comics #54 (August 1941)

We begin with some really terrible cover art from Bob Kane. For one thing, it's a rip off of Detective Comics #33, and for another it's really, really poorly drawn. This is the cover art of your flagship book, DC. And you're paying Kane a lot of money, for the time. Make sure he puts more than five minutes worth of effort in.

"Hook Morgan and his Harbor Pirates"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos
Synopsis:  So, remember back in Batman #4 when Bill Finger made a big deal about how there are no pirates in the modern world, and to even expect such a thing is preposterous, and then based an entire story about an elaborate scheme of a bunch of gangsters to pretend to be old-timey pirates? And it was all kinda silly because there totally are modern-day pirates, because its still semi-profitable to steal things from boats? Well, now Finger's gonna do a story about those modern day pirates, too. So at the Gotham harbour, some pirates show up and steal some bales of silk from an offloading boat and put it onto their launch. Some shots fired draws a police boat, which loses the pirate launch mysteriously. It seems to have suddenly vanished. 
The next day Dick Grayson is reading about it in the paper, and suggests to Bruce that they do something about it, but Bruce says nuts to that in favour of going on a date with Linda Page. I'm sure Dick'll understand when he's older. Linda takes Bruce shopping, but Linda is upset to discover she can't get a rare and exclusive cloth that she ordered imported because it was stolen from the harbour by pirates! As they head home, Bruce notices the very cloth Linda wanted on sale in a totally different store. So, since they inconvenienced his girlfriend, now Batman will take down the harbour pirates!
That night, he shakes down the store owner for information, learning that he bought the stolen cloth from a company with a warehouse on the east pier. After Batman departs, the store owner phones and wares the owner of the warehouse, Mr. Conroy, who of course is in business with Hook Morgan and his gang of pirates! Hook is well named, with a large meathook instead of a right hand. 
So Batman shows up and starts asking questions, and for his troubles is immediately attacked by a bunch of thugs. Hook knocks him upside the head with his hook, and the dazed Batman is thrown into a refrigerated meat locker and locked inside with his hands tied. So of course he bashes his head against a hanging light bulb until it hits the wall and breaks, then uses the shards to cut his binds, and uses an acid vial from the utility belt to eat through the lock. 
He shakes down Conroy for information on the next attack -- Morgan is going after a liner called the Dolphin. Batman contacts Robin on their compact wireless radios and gets him to meet at the river with the Batplane. Hook and his men attack the Dolphin, coming up alongside in a longboat and pretending to be survivors of a submarine attack. Hook slashes the captain's face and the men begin raiding the boat, but the Batplane shows up and the Dynamic Duo fight the man.
Hook and some of his men manage to escape, so the heroes give chase in the Batplane, which they transform into the Batboat to navigate the troublesome waters. But the pirate boat disappears when it gets near the shore! Batman figures out they're using a secret hidden panel in a brick wall on the harbour to gain access to a chamber to hide the boat. Surprising the pirates, there's another fight! Batman goes one-on-one with Hook, who slashes at him a few times. Robin doesn't even bother to help, believing the Dark Knight would be angry if he interfered. I'm not sure if you're the best sidekick ever or the worst, Boy Wonder.
After a few close calls, Batman wins the fight, they inform the police of the harbour pirates secret hideout and the story ends.
My Thoughts: Another pretty good "Batman vs crooks" story, certainly better than the pirate story from Batman #4. That story, while fun, suffered from a lot of credibility straining plotting in order to justify the old timey pirates, while "Hook Morgan and his Harbor Pirates" gets over all of that by simply realising that.. y'know... maritime crime is still a thing. So we get all the fun maritime action but still keeping it in the urban crime mileau that suits Batman best. And it's a surprisingly violent story as well, with several people getting slashed by Hook, with blood and everything. It's always surprising reading these Golden Age comics, which are written for the child audience of Silver Age comics, but are pre-Comics Code so they can be just as violent as modern comics. 
The Art: Another great job from the Kane team, with plenty of great dramatic Batman poses, dynamic fight sequences, and Roussos does a fantastic job with the black, inky backgrounds that the characters practically sink into. Robinson and Roussos really are a fantastic inking team that greatly enhance Kane's pencils and layouts.
The Story: Other than Finger realizing that pirates are real, there's really not much to say about this story, other than the odd element that Bruce just flat out does not care about these harbor crimes until they inconvenience his girlfriend. It's a bit of characterization that seems bizarre when you're used to reading modern Batman comics. The story is a standard, serviceable Batman tale. 

Friday, August 10, 2012

World's Finest Comics #2 (Summer 1941)

The title has been changed from World's Best Comics, after DC received a cease and desist letter from Better Publications, which had a series called Best Comics. The early days of comicbook publishing were very cutthroat, with a lot of back and forth litigation.

"The Man Who Couldn't Remember"
Writer: Bill Finger
Artist: Bob Kane
Synopsis: Gotham has been engulfed in a gang war for two months. With innocent citizens being gunned down in the crossfire, the governor himself appoints a new special prosecutor, William Kendrick, to clean up Gotham City, ousting the previous D.A., Graves, who of course was corrupt and in the pocket of Big Tim Bannon, political boss of the city.
The leaders of the East and West side mobs, run by Trig Cooler and Mitch Mason respectively, make death threats against Kendrick. These threats are countered by the support of citizens' groups such as the one led by wealthy businessman Ambrose Taylor, which support Kendrick. Kendrick himself attacks the racketeers with a vengeance, wriring down every face and connection in his little black book. At a lunch with Bruce Wayne, Wayne points out that Kendrick seems to have signed his own death warrant by mentioning the existence of the little black book publicly, but Kendrick isn't swayed. He invites Bruce to dinner at his place, mentioning that it's the servants night off and he'll be all alone.
A waiter at the restaurant reports up to Bannon and Graves, who agree that it seems like the perfect opportunity to get rid of Kendrick. So do the mobs. But Kendrick also invites Taylor up to his place that night to speak about the citizens' committee and its support. Bruce decides that Kendrick might be in danger and instead of attending as himself, goes out into the night as the Batman. 
Arriving at Kendrick's apartment, Batman recognizes Bannon's car parked in front. Heading up the fire escape he bursts into Kendrick's room to discover a batch of gangsters standing over a shot Kendrick and Taylor. Batman attacks, but the gangsters get away. Taylor is alive, the bullet having merely creased his scalp. Kendrick is not soon for this world however, his last words to Batman are "home... black book... devil's dungeon..." Batman spots Graves' face at the window, but the ex-DA is away before Batman can pursue. Grabbing Taylor's body and leaving, Batman wonders about the presence of Bannon and Graves, wonders who shot Kendrick, and knows that he'll only get an answer when Taylor wakes up, as he is the only surviving witness. 
Batman brings Taylor to Linda Page, society girl turned nurse and current love interest of Bruce Wayne. Linda manages to get Taylor conscious, but the wound has given him amnesia, he has no memory of who shot who in Kendrick's apartment. Aggravated that his one witness has amnesia, Batman turns to trying to solve the riddle of Kendrick's last words. He thinks he has the answer, but isn't sure whether Graves overheard them at the window.
He did. Reporting to Bannon and Trig Cooler, the mobsters determine that whatever "devil's dungeon" means, the black book is somewhere in Kendrick's house and that they have to get it before Batman does. Cooler also vows to finish off Taylor. 
Batman and Robin take off for Kendrick's in the Batmobile. Batman decides to take Taylor along in case he regains his memory, and Linda insists on coming too to look after Taylor. But Bannon and his men are right on their tail. Bannon knows a short cut, and gets ahead, setting up a trap by barricading a tight corner with their cars so as to crash the Batmobile. With no way to slow down or stop in time, Batman decides to ram straight through the barricade. Since the Batmobile is reinforced steel and has a giant battering ram at the front, it smashes through the mobsters' cars undamaged, while they are left as nothing more than scrap metal.
The group makes to Kendrick's and Batman soon locates the famous painting Devil's Dungeon, behind which is of course hidden the black book. Bannon and his men arrive, and split up to find the book. Robin goes after one group, while Batman goes after the other. Losing their way in the large, dark house, the gangsters are attacked by Batman, who sees them easily using his infrared goggles. Rounding up Bannon and Graves, Batman goes to assist Linda, who has been discovered by a third group of mobsters. Batman and Robin attack, but not before Taylor is pistol whipped in the head. His memory returning, Taylor announces that in fact HE KILLED KENDRICK! Producing a gun from his jacket, Taylor sturggles with Batman, who punches him off a second floor balcony railing.
Bannon and Cooler reveal that Taylor was, in fact, the real leader of the West Side mob, Mitch Mason was only his lieutenant. Kendrick had discovered this, with the evidence in the black book. Taylor shot Kendrick, then Cooler's men shot Taylor as he was from the rival mob. Cooler was working with Bannon for political protection. The mobsters couldn't squeal on Taylor or he could've revealed a lot about them in plea bargaining. Batman and Robin call the police to come and arrest everybody, heading home with Linda. Batman feels the fool for having the murderer in his custody the whole time and never suspecting it, asking Robin to remind him of this case if he ever becomes too overconfident of himself.

My Thoughts: This is a pretty great Batman tale with a lot of unique elements. The mob war and it's resulting political effects in Gotham is a perfect backdrop for a Batman story, and really ups the stakes. We have a lot of elements here that are going to pop up again and again in later stories: a crusading DA trying to clean up the city, a corrupt DA working with the mob, warring mobsters, a single boss who has political protection, etc. Probably the most notable thing here is that Batman doesn't have the answer to the central murder mystery, he's just as shocked as the reader when it's revealed as Taylor. It's a rare moment of failure for the Golden Age Batman.
The Art: This is all Bob Kane here, including inks, for the first time since Detective Comics #29, and it actually looks pretty great. It looks like a lot like George Roussos inkjob, in fact, and shows that perhaps Kane had learned a lot from the young artists in his employ. It's dark, moody and noirish, and the Batman looks great in it. Also worth mentioning is the attention paid to giving all the civillian characters unique and distinctive faces, which helps a lot towards recognizing who's who as the tale goes on.
The Story: It's a really good story from Finger, and certainly a tale suited to Batman and his world. Perhaps the only complaint I may have is that from a murder mystery standpoint it doesn't really play fair, as there aren't a lot of clues towards Taylor's identity, besides Cooler mentioning his specific desire to finish Taylor off. But that's really immaterial. What's effective is the crime drama elements and the twist ending of Batman's failure. 

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Detective Comics #53 (July 1941)

Sorry for the long absence, readers. Don't really have an excuse. But here's some Batman related posts about the two Tim Burton movies from my other blog!
And say, wasn't The Dark Knight Rises fantastic? I've been quoting Tom Hardy's Bane nonstop. Anyways, back to 1941 for another issue of Detective Comics!

"Viola Vane"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos
Synopsis: Bruce Wayne is having a debate with his society friend, Jim Daly, who argues that Gotham City is a cold and heartless place where it's every man for himself. Bruce disagrees and wishes he had some way to prove it.
That evening, on patrol at the waterfront, Batman rescues a young woman from suicide. Calming her, he discovers her to be Viola Vane, a girl from a small town who came to Gotham to be an actress. But all she could be is the understudy to the star. She's ashamed, largely because she sent letters to her parents claiming she had become a big star, and now they're coming for a visit and she's going to be caught in the lie. Batman promises to help her, providing she doesn't attempt to kill herself again. She agrees. Batman sees it as a perfect opportunity to prove the city has a heart.
Batman goes from nightspot to nightspot, telling the city's rich and powerful of Viola Vane and convincing them to go along with his plan. In the process, Bruce Wayne gets volunteered to be Viola's escort about town. Having convinced the entire city more or less to go along with his charade to make it seem like the girl really is a star for the duration of her parents visit, Batman even bullies the city's radio and newspapers into playing along, including the Gotham desk of the Daily Star (the paper Clark Kent works for in Metropolis), which the Batman calls a "dirty, yellow scandal rag."
Bruce takes Viola out to a beauty parlour, which gives her a free make-over. He takes her to a hotel, where the penthouse suite has been cleared. She has new clothes, and jewelry, and all thanks to the Batman. Viola cries in happiness at the city's generosity.
Her parents arrive, and Bruce takes them out to see all of Gotham's hotspots and nightclubs.
Meanwhile, he's left Robin the duty of guarding Viola's penthouse suite, given that it's filled with valuable furs and jewels on loan from the city's shops. So of course a bunch of crooks attack and attempt to steal it. They knock Robin over the head with a gun and when he comes to, the furs and jewels have been stolen. 
Realizing that calling the police would result in bad publicity for Viola and prehaps ruin the deception, Batman and Robin take off after the crooks themselves. Based on Robin's description, Batman determines the ringleader to be "Toothy Hare". The Dynamic Duo bust up a saloon filled with disreputable characters and break some bones to get some information on Toothy's whereabouts. One crook agrees to talk, because even he agrees that stealing from Viola was a dirty stunt. He directs Batman to "The Shacks", crooked rowhouses by the waterfront that serve as a hideout for criminals.
After a three page fight scene, Robin has punched Toothy toothless and the Dynamic Duo have recovered the jewels. But there's another problem. Viola's parents want to see her act in the play, the one where she's really only an understudy! So of course the Batman convinces the real star to step down in favour of Viola. She's game, it'll let her go to Hollywood to do a movie. 
So Bruce escorts Viola's parents to the show, where of course she's fantastic and gets tons of applause. Her parents go home happy, and Jim Daly admits to Bruce Wayne that Gotham City does have a heart after all.
My Thoughts: So Bill Finger does Readers' Digest? I suppose it fits in as another one of his "comics as morality plays" stories, but it does seem like a bit of an odd thing for Batman to get involved with. That being said, I like the notion of Bruce Wayne defending the heart of the city of Gotham, of believing in the essential decency of its people. Ultimately I don't know if the idea of everyone lying to cover for the lies of this girl is a particularly good example of "decency" or morality, but ultimately it's vindicated when the girl proves to be a good actress.
The Art: Pretty good stuff from the Kane studio. I especially like the sequence where Batman saves Viola from drowning herself, as well as the attack on the rowhouses. The action scenes are getting to be quite dynamic in these stories, with the art improving upon each issue. Roussos' use of blacks and shadows is quite dramatic and effective.
The Story: The main tale of Viola is pretty predictable, the city coming together to support the girl and then of course she gets to go onstage and be great. Probably the one neat angle is the one newspaperman who refuses to let his coverage be bullied by the Batman, but then gives in to blackmail because apparently Batman's got all kinds of dirt on him. Convenient that the one guy who doesn't want to compromise his own integrity in favour of lying for the girl turns out to be crooked, eh? Also, the action stuff with the gangsters is pretty obviously tacked on for the sake of maintaining some typical Batman stuff, which kinda proves how ill-suited this piece is for the Dark Knight. That being said, it's always cool to see Finger trying different things, even if they don't work.