Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Detective Comics #67 (September, 1942)

Here we have the first cover appearance of The Penguin, advertising this issue's featured story, which is in no way a follow-up to last month's nail-biting Two-Face cliffhanger.

And yes, it is perfectly reasonable to be upset about a bizarre publishing decision from seventy years ago.

"Crime's Early Bird"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: Chinese showman Sing Hi Lo (oh, Jesus) has a troupe of "educated" performing birds. The parrot can do sums, the jackdaws can manipulate fine objects, etc. So of course the Penguin attacks the theatre, steals the birds, and despite an attempt by Batman and Robin the crooks make off with the... birds. Sing complains that the Dynamic Duo let the "lobbers" escape, because what's the 1940s without offensive ethnic caricatures?
The Penguin, in the hilarious obvious guise of "Mr. Waddle", opens up a pet shop in a fashionable neighbourhood. He sells the parrot to a jewel collector named Mr. Gemly (c'mon, seriously?) along with some special parrot food and when Gemly is opening his safe at home the parrot overhears the combination and begins repeating it (as parrots do). The food ends up getting the parrot sick and "Mr. Waddle" is called in to look at the bird. The parrot squawks out the combination, and once he's heard it Penguin gasses the whole room, killing Gemly and the bird! Then he uses a homing pigeon to take the bag of swag back to the lair. Because the gas was designed to imitate the effects of psittacosis (parrot fever), the deaths of Gemly and the bird aren't even pinned on him!
Bruce reads about the murder/robbery in the paper and instantly suspects Penguin. The next day he and Dick follow the crook around town (seriously, he's a wanted criminal, how is he not being arrested on sight? He's pretty damn distinctive looking). They follow him into a jewelry shop, but he doesn't steal anything. Turns out he released some jackdaws surreptiously into the store, which steal all the gems, returning them to the Penguin!
Batman and Robin burst in on Penguin's lair and beat up the crooks, but the main bird makes off riding an ostrich! Batman and Robin recover the goods from a pelican's beak (this is seriously getting to some Flintstones level insanity) and Batman very loudly drops clues about Bruce Wayne's jewel collection as the crooks run off. Because it's a trap, see.
When Penguin steals Wayne's jewels (we don't actually see this happen), Batman and Robin follow his homing pigeons in the Batplane back to his penthouse apartment! The box of loot is full of bats when Penguin opens it, but when the heroes try to take advantage of the situation the Penguin gasses them with sneeze powder and ties them up, leaving an actual penguin to stand guard (!!) while he "finishes up" an "experiment in the laboratory". And Batman manages to escape by getting the penguin to fetch him The Penguin's cigarette lighter to burn through the ropes!!
To avoid iminent capture, Penguin flings himself out of a window, and of course Batman and Robin chase after, surviving even when Penguin cuts their line! They end up fighting in a belltower, with the flying bats Batman brought disorienting the Penguin. However, with a whistle he calls in his trained fighting eagles, and while the Dynamic Duo are battling them, he escapes and runs off. The End. Because I guess we ran out of pages?
My Thoughts: This is, more or less, THE Penguin story. I mean, it absolutely establishes the formula for all future lazy Penguin stories. It's the character's fourth appearance, but this is the default. Pet shop lair, crazy collection of trained crime birds, jewel thievery, this is classic Penguin here.
On the other hand, it's also classic Batman. I mean, this thing reads like the Adam West show done straight. The goofy names and aliases, the goofier crimes, traps and escapes. I mean this is, absolutely, a "default Batman comic" -- it's what you imagine when you think of an "average Batman adventure". With seventy years of hindsight that ends up making it kind've an average, almost dull, and kind've ridiculous comic to read. But that hindsight also means that this thing should be regarded as brilliant in the way it totally sets the mold for basically every Penguin/Batman story to come until the character finally lost his way in the Post-Crisis world where aside from a few good turns here and there it seems no one knows what to do with him.

It also represents an unfortunate turning point in Batman villains that the Joker is also going through in stories from this time -- now that these villains are established and constantly recurring, the focus has fallen far more on their gimmicks and patterns rather than anything interesting about their characters and how they relate to Batman and his world. It's gonna get pretty repetitive from here on out, until the Bronze Age renaissance way off in 1969.
The Art: I have mentioned this before, but I love the way Bob Kane draws Penguin. I think it's best design for the character, because it merges Penguin caricature and deformity with the idea and notion that he considers himself a dapper gentleman criminal. The way the nose is always held up high, etc. Most of the fights and action here are well done too, but in large part also suffer from Kane's stiff cardboard layouts and his tendency to cram too many figures into way too small panels.
The Story: As stated earlier, Finger has hit upon a gimmick for the Penguin that will last a long time -- using crazy birds to commit crazier crimes. That image of Penguin riding an ostrich, for example, we'll be seeing iterations of that for years to come. I like the notion of Penguin being a clever crook, however, interested in heists and interested in jewels. It's not a personal battle like with the Joker -- Penguin sees Batman and Robin as nuisances. He's just not clever enough to shoot them with he has a chance (like many comic book villains). Some of the incidents and escapes are a little bit contrived and ridiculous and the character names had me rolling my eyes, but it's a comic book for kids from 1942. I don't expect sophistication, and I'll take this over the stupidity of stories like "The North Pole Crimes" any day. My only complaint is really the ending, where Batman chases Penguin, then he gets away, he chases him again, he gets away again, and then it ends. Why not continue the chase? Oh, cuz we're on page 13. While it makes Penguin a neat villain in a way because so far Batman's never caught him, it's also starting to get repetitive and undermine Batman as a hero, similar to the repetitive "is he dead this time?" endings of many Joker stories.
Notes and Trivia: First time Penguin uses trained birds to commit crimes, first Penguin cover appearance
Penguin Body Count: 3

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