Saturday, March 9, 2013

Batman #9 (February/March 1942)

Apologies for the long drought of posts from this blog, but producing/directing an international Canada-India film co-production ends up taking a surprising large amount of a guy's time! But enough about me, let's get right to it:

This comic boasts probably one of the most famous, most successful, and most homaged covers in the history of the Batman character. It's drawn by Jack Burnley, the first artist hired directly by DC to draw Batman and Superman, outside of the Kane or Schuster Studios. He was a superior draftsman to anyone working on the strip at the time, and so he would more often be assigned to do covers, like this one, than full interior stories. So, the industry practice of having awesome artists like Patrick Spaziante, Tim Bradstreet, or Alex Ross do stunning covers while regular mortals do acceptable interior art goes back even to the very earliest years of the industry.

"The Four Fates"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: The fortune-telling swami Jaffeer, who wears a real ruby in his turban, is being interviewed live on the radio by an interesting personalities programme, when a gang of four fugitives break into his home and attack. They steal the ruby, but not before Jaffeer casts the Curse of the Four Fates upon the criminals. "Mousey" Meggs will be blasted by lightning, "Slick" Dandy will have the air choked from his lungs, "Nails" Logan will find that metal will still his beating heart, and "Brains" Brinig's downfall will be caused by water.
At first radio listeners think this might be an Orson Welles style hoax, but when the crooks shoot and kill Jaffeer, then Bruce Wayne knows its no hoax, and soon Batman and Robin are off once again. The police put out an APB on the felons, while Batman figures that they will need to cut up the ruby in order to fence it, as it's too notable otherwise. Only Fritz the Fence is capable of such a job, so the Dynamic Duo pay him a visit. Batman beats Fritz until he squeals, and so our heroes are off to confront the four felons.
We get a dramatic shoot-out and fight in the basement, before Mousey makes a break for it. Robin pursues and Mousey tries to get away by fleeing across the railroad tracks -- however he steps accidentally on the third rail and is electrocuted to death, just as the curse predicted!
The crooks manage to get away after shooting Batman -- but don't worry, it only "creases his skull". This isn't the first time this has happened to Bruce, and I find myself worrying about the brain damage he would have after this keeps happening (not to mention all those other blows to the head).
Robin reports that Mousey died just as predicted, but Batman dismisses it as a coincedence, being of rational mind. Back at their crime lab, the Duo just happen to hear on the radio that Slick has been spotted at the airport (coincedence crime-fighting FTW?). They take off in the Batplane to intercept Slick's stolen airplane. Batman descends the rope-ladder while Robin takes the controls and jumps onto Slick's plane!! After a struggle, Slick abandons the plane. Batman climbs back up into the Batplane, and the heroes follow the crash down to the ground -- where they find that Slick's parachute became tangled the wires of a telephone pole and he was hanged!! The air choked from his lungs, just as predicted!
Faced with the death of their two comrades, Nails starts wearing a bullet-proof vest everywhere, while Brains takes off for the Great American Desert (to avoid the water that will cause his downfall). Nails decides that it is not the curse, but Batman who is responsible for the deaths of his comrades, and so he lures Batman into a trap at an emergency subway construction site. Nails has rigged the doorknob to electrocute Batman when he arrives. However Batman figures out the trap when a fly happens to land on the door and dies. Busting down the door, Batman punches Nails in the chest, connecting with the vest -- Nails falls over and dies! At a hospital, the doctor tells Batman that Nails had been shot several times in a gang war years earlier, with one bullet remaining lodged near his heart. When the Batman hit him, the force from the metal vest pushed the bullet into his heart! Another prediction come to pass!
Commissioner Gordon tells Batman that Brains has been spotted in Arizona, preparing to cross the desert. The criminal thinks there's no way water can harm him there! The Batplane is off to try and save him. But Brains has forgotten to pack adequate drinking water, and dies in the desert of dehydration. Water was truly his downfall. Robin remarks on the uncanny deaths of these men, all as predicted, and all Batman can do is shrug it off as a mystery that even he cannot solve!
My Thoughts: An interesting change of pace, this story strikes me more like an EC Comics "ironic twist" kind of story, with the felons all meeting their ignoble ends. It's another good demonstration that Batman can work in almost any genre. The deaths also make the story particularly gruesome and dark, which fits Batman's urban noir crime motifs even if the unexplained and ambiguously mystical prophecies do not. It's interesting to see Batman just give up on attempting to explain it, too. His rational mind won't believe it's anything more than a coincedence, but it was clearly something more than that as well.
The Art: Some really great, evocative art from the Kane Studio team in this story. Robinson's inks are fantastic. The two best sequences are the aerial chase after Slick, and Brain's death in the desert, which is just fantastically drafted.
The Story: Finger concocts a unique and interesting tale, but it suffers from a problem that quite a lot of substandard Batman stories do -- the heroes hardly have anything to do with the story. Subtract them from the tale and it could pretty much do on it's own as an ironic story of four criminals getting their comeuppance. Other than that, it's a good, solid story.
Batman Body Count: 25 -- yes, Nails' death was accidental, but he's still dead.

"The White Whale"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: So, an old-fashioned whaling ship pulls into habour at Gotham City. Yes, a whaling ship, despite it being 1942, no one needing whaling oil, a war on (making Atlantic seas perilous), and the fact that the last whaling vessel left New Bedford in 1927. Anyways, the crew is mutineering against the eye-patched captain, who wants to continue hunting the "White Whale" (oh, jeez...). The Whale has sunk three ships so far (wood and steel alike!), so the insurance company puts a $10,000 bounty on its head. So our one-eyed Captain Burley comes in doing his best Quint impression 33 years early and declares that he'll handle the white whale!
Of course, Bruce Wayne is on the board of the insurance company, and decides that Burley is suspicious and bears investigation. Disguised as a seaman named "Jack Tar", he wanders around the dock before being knocked out with a blackjack and tossed aboard Burley's ship. Dick sneaks onboard after him, and the antique vessel is off on the high seas in search of the whale.

Burley has shanghaied his crew, as otherwise no one would sail with him. No dissension is tolerated. Bruce decides Batman must intervene and save the men, so he fakes the death of Jack Tar by throwing a dummy (where did he get that??) overboard. Soon Batman and Robin are onboard, fighting Captain Burley -- but the rescue is cut short when a whale is spotted!
Burley forces Batman and Robin onto one of the harpoon boats to go after the beast, which is of course ludicrously huge even for a sperm whale -- and oddly yellow-coloured.
Batman being Batman, he harpoons the beast, jumps onto its back, and drives the harpoon into the whale, killing it! Soon the crew begins the hard task of goring the whale to accquire its oil (oil that there is no market for at all...). Burley's mistreatment of the crew once again spurs Batman to fight him, and of course the Dark Knight comes out the victor after a brutal two-page duel. Once that's over with, the ship is immediately rammed by the White Whale, of course!

The crew decides to throw Burley, Batman and Robin into a lifeboat in an attempt to distract the whale(?) so they may escape. As the leviathan comes up alongside them, a porthole opens in its side and a machine gun fires on the boat! The trio is picked up and placed inside the whale, which turns out to be a submarine!
The commander of the submarine is Radbey, the head of the insurance company, who had sunk the other ships as part of an insurance scam with their captains (??)! Batman claims to have already figured out the whale was a submarine because it could "stay under water for a very long time!" Sure, Bruce. 
The submarine hits... something?... and begins filling with water and sinking. Radbey and Burley argue over the only(?) diving suit and shoot each other. Batman and Robin escape the wreck by shooting themselves out the torpedo tubes! They are picked up by the Coast Guard, who it turns out were the ones that shot the "whale".
My Thoughts: Oh, jeez. Like, I know that I just praised the ability to put Batman in alternate genres and how this is a great facet of his character but holy crap was this story a mess. It's like that episode of Family Guy where they go after Daggermouth who turns out to be an elaborate talking fish robot -- only played completely straight.
I can see that it's another "Bill Finger just went to the second-run movie theatre to get a story idea" script too, but what starts as a nonsense Moby Dick rip-off just becomes more and more ludicrous as it goes.
The Art: Thanks to Robinson and Kane, the story isn't a total loss. I have a feeling like a large portion of the art is ripped off Rockwell Kent's Moby Dick illustrations but at least the big epic art and exciting layouts save this story from being entirely awful. You almost can get dragged along by the art enough to ignore the nonsensical story. Almost.
The Story: Yyyyeah. So first up, we have 1830s style whaling in 1940s Gotham. Then there's this idea that the insurance company would conspire with insurance fraudsters to destroy their boats -- which is silly, since the company would lose more money than they would be gaining from the Captains (otherwise it wouldn't be worth it to the Captains), and the method they decide to use is building an elaborate mechanical whale submarine! To quote Family Guy, "The longer we stand here, the more people are going to question how a fisherman with no engineering background was able to build a sophisticated talking fish robot." The cost would've been enormous -- and then they're going to give another $10,000 away to someone to destroy it! The whole plot makes no sense from top to bottom, including the deus ex machina ending where our heroes (who do essentially nothing other than kill a whale) are rescued by the Coast Guard. Face, meet palm.

"The Case of the Lucky Law-Breakers!"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: The last time we saw Batman's arch-nemesis The Joker was two months ago in Batman #8, where he had been locked up in Alcatraz. No one had ever escaped Alcatraz Prison succesfully (although 2 men who escaped in 1937 went missing and were only presumed drowned) -- and officially no one ever would, and no one would ever successfully swim to shore until 1962. So of course the Joker manages it in four panels, with the ol' swimming-with-a-duck-on-your-head-as-scuba-gear act that Sean Connery uses at the start of Goldfinger. He then promptly robs a bank and makes off with $10,000.
Meanwhile, Bruce and Dick are at a theatre showing a special "March of Crime" newsreel presentation documenting the history of Batman's war with the Joker. It covers the events of Batman #1, 7, and 8, ending with the Joker's incarceration. Sort've a smart way to get readers up to speed, I guess (or take up a page). 

After the show, the theatre managers hold a contest for a lucky audience member to win $10,000 and the winners happen to be two recently released ex-cons. Bruce considers this suspicious, at which point a cop yells out the news that the Joker has escaped.
Robin wants to go after the Joker, but Batman decides to investigate the theatre owners first. Good hunch, since they run into the Joker there! Despite a valiant effort, the Joker escapes. A week later, he sends a card to the police which is printed in the newspaper, in which he threatens to rob the Midtown Bank.
Using a wind-up exploding clown toy (no shit!) the Joker blasts a hole in the bank's wall and makes off with the cash. But Batman and Robin pursue atop a pair of motorcycles! So let's add "letting a ten-year-old ride a motorcycle" to Batman's list of child endangerment gaffes, shall we? But their valiant pursuit is in vain, as the Joker gets away... again.
The next day, Bruce is reading the paper, which recounts that the Joker made off with $20,000 from the bank, while Dick listens to the radio, which reports a recently released convict winning $20,000 in a lottery contest. Bruce slowly.... slowly... begins piecing things together...
Over the following days, Joker steals $30,000 -- a ex-con wins $30,000 in a raffle, Joker steals $5,000 -- an ex-con wins $5,000 in the lottery, and may I point out that this may be among the most successful crime sprees (moneywise) that the Joker has ever had? He's stolen $65,000 so far -- $900,000 in today's money! 
Finally Batman tells Commissioner Gordon the Joker's (obvious) racket. They come up with a plan to capture the Joker that involves placing a fake article in the paper, because that's the only plan they ever come up with. It reports the Joker found dead in the river, and asks for a witness to come to the morgue to identify the body. The Joker decides it would suit him to be thought dead, and arrives in disguise to identify the body himself. Which of course was Gordon and Batman's plan all along! 
The Joker tries to escape, and so Batman and Robin give chase, but the crafty villain knocks them out with sleeping gas. They awaken at a construction site near the railroad tracks where Joker plans to raid an armored truck while it's stopped at the crossing. He places the bound Dynamic Duo in a pit and then places a heavy slab over the pit to suffocate them to death. But Batman manages to escape by lifting the slab just enough to wedge a pencil between the slab and the ground, and then rolling it off. "A simple engineering trick!" he declares. Your educational moment of the day, care of Bill Finger.
Batman and Robin surprise the Joker and his men, and a two-page fight scene ensues. During the struggle, Batman uppercuts the Joker in front of a passing train. The Duo waits for the locomotive to pass, but once it has, there is no sign of the Joker's body. Is he dead or still at large? Only time will tell.

My Thoughts: So the Joker managed to stay cooped up for all of one single issue before Finger brought him back. It's a tale that, I think, signals "phase 2" of the Joker's story, after everything built to an immense climax in Batman #8. The story itself bears this out by recapping everything up to that point before beginning. So now we have, maybe, a Joker who is a bit more tamed, a bit more adapted to becoming a continuing running villain. A bit more lowkey. Which is fine, I suppose, since Finger knew he would have to keep using the character.
The Art: The art is pretty much standard for the Kane/Robinson team. Serviceable but not spectacular, except for the excellent title page of Joker on a throne of jewels.
The Story: So, I get that the Joker needs to be toned down in order to keep going. We can't keep escalating from the scale of "The Cross-Country Crimes!". But there's nothing in this story that is particularly Joker-esque, other than the retention of the character's trademark egotism. Otherwise it's just a robbery/laundering scheme which, while clever, is only about money. Far cry from writing your name in crimes across America. I guess after a stay in federal prison, a criminal mastermind wants an easy payday. And the story is only really about the "lucky law-breakers" plot for the first half, after which it reverts to a typical "Batman after the Joker" chase scenario. Also, we're back to a "is he dead, or isn't he?" ending, which feels like a step back, despite keeping the character in play. However, Finger had already ended a Penguin story with the villain simply getting away at the end, so the "death" cop-out feels old hat.
Notes and Trivia: Joker breaks out of Alcatraz, on the lamb again.
Joker Body Count: 40.


Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson are delivering toys to an orphanage for Christmas, because OF COURSE that's what Bruce Wayne does on Christmas. They overhear the orphans taunting a boy who believes in Santa Claus. The mean, disillusioned tots also taunt the kid for believing his dad will come back to get him. Bruce inquires about the child's father, who it turns out is spending life in prison for murder.
The kid gives Bruce a letter to give to Santa, asking for his dad back and revealing his name is Tim Cratchit (oh boy, here we go). So off Batman goes to the State Prison, to visit Cratchit's dad, Bob (yeesh!), who claims he was framed (of course). The story begins a year earlier, the day before Christmas.
Tim wanted a scooter for Christmas, but Bob can't afford one because he's unemployed (Mother Mary is dead.) So he decides to steal one, rationalizing that he'll pay for it when he's got a job (which shows a poor understanding of both how retail and the law works). When he busts into the store, he spots a burglar who has killed the watchman and is working on the safe. The burglar knocks Bob out and then frames him for the crime. The cops trace the gun to the burglar, Hal Fink (oy), but Fink claims Bob stole his gun. They believe Fink, Bob gets life for murder. So, as usual, the GCPD fail.
Batman knows Hal Fink as a big shot crook, so he and Robin are off to take him down on the murder rap. But one of the prison guards is in Fink's employ, and tips the crook off. Batman and Robin arrive at Fink's building -- a crooked street corner Santa clangs his bell loudly to warn of the Dark Knight's approach. A two-page fight scene with Fink's thugs ensues, with the Dynamic Duo getting knocked out at the end.
Fink and his men stick them in a water tower, where they will either freeze or drown, as there is no way to swim out. Batman swims down and uses his cape to clog the incoming water pipe, so the building's water use drains the tower. This allows them to escape as Batman can stand on the bottom and Robin can stand on his shoulders and escape out the top, then help Batman up.

They catch up to Fink, who is once again warned by Santa, but a well thrown snowball by Batman knocks Fink out, and they take him back to police headquarters. Gordon attempts to interrogate Fink to get him to confess to the murder, when Batman comes up with a cunning plan. They have a guy come in during the interrogation in a night watchman's uniform, painted all white and claiming to be a ghost of Christmas Past -- Gordon claims he can't see or hear him when Fink cries out. Fink breaks down and confesses.
Batman then confronts the crooked Santa, telling him he'll be redeemed if he goes to the Orphanage on Christmas and pretend to be the real Santa. So Timmy's dad shows up in company of Santa Claus, proving all the mean orphans wrong, and Christmas is saved. The kid even says "God bless us, every one" because Finger is either lazy or thinks we didn't get it yet.
However in the aftermath Robin is sad because, well, he's ten and it's Christmas and he didn't get any kind of holiday and he knows Santa isn't real anyhow. Batman expresses that this is the sad life of the crimebuster and to suck it up.
JK, he takes him to Commissioner Gordon's house where they meet the Commish (and Linda Page, for... some... reason???) and have a real Christmas, with Batman saying that Santa will always be real so long as we believe in Christmas, and that each Christmas every child's father is transformed into the image of St. Nick when they put the presents under the tree (??). Then the cast of this comic wish us Merry Christmas!
My Thoughts: Well, I guess a Christmas themed story was inevitable given enough time. A February/March comic would have been on sale in December, so it was timely despite appearances. But did it have to be such a "Batman Christmas Carol" theme?? I guess that's just as inevitable. I suppose you can call me Ebenezer Scrooge.
The Art: It's art. It's Kane and Robinson. We know the drill. It's pretty good. Well, until the final cast close-up panel where all the characters look hideous -- Gordon is a mass of fatty wrinkles, and Linda Page looks like some kind of skeletal Marlene Dietriech.
The Story: So, I mean, it's a Christmas story. It's sappy and ridiculous, but that's what Christmas stories are supposed to be. So I can't really criticize it. It does its job. What I will criticize is Linda Page being invited to Gordon's Christmas Party with the Dynamic Duo. Linda is Bruce Wayne's girlfriend, and a nurse. She's not a friend of Gordon's or of Batman's. So why did Gordon invite her? Did he invite Bruce, who is his friend? Maybe she was Bruce's plus one who showed despite Bruce not showing? That'd be weird. Either way, it's kind've a secret identity blowing moment, right?
Oh, I guess it's just supposed to be fun and I'm not supposed to think about it? Just like I'm not supposed to consider the existential dilemma of the cast turning to me and addressing me directly with a Merry Christmas? My line is "Bah, Humbug?" Okay. Merry Christmas? In February/March?
Notes and Trivia: First Batman Christmas story.

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