Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Batman #16 (April/May, 1943)

Okay, so this cover. It's our first "homage" to Jack Burnley's classic cover to Batman #9 that forms the background of this blog. And by "homage" I mostly mean "swipe" -- Jerry Robinson has just taken that image, flipped it (although at least he remembered to reposition Robin's "R") and then added this menacing shadowy figure.
Secondly, the text on the cover tells us that someone in this issue is going to discover the secret identities of Batman and Robin, the implication heavily being that it's this tough thug looking guy. Which is completely false, placing this as I believe our first cover to fall under the category of "patently misleading", a type of cover that DC would become masters of during the Silver Age. Covers that imply or promise stories that are not what the issue is really about.

"The Joker Reforms"
Writer: Don Cameron
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos
Synopsis: Our story begins in the small town of Farr Corners, in the Ozark Mountains, which Bob Kane draws as one of these Old West towns that he and Bill Finger seemed convinced still existed in America anywhere west of the East Coast.
A mysterious, shadowed individual stumbles into town, finding his way to the Constable, where he produces a valise of precious jewels that were stolen in Gotham City. He wants to ensure they are returned to their proper owners, and gives his name as Ed Smith. The twist? Ed Smith is... THE JOKER!
Flashback to the night before, as Batman and Robin are swooping in to stop a robbery by the Joker and his men of a jewelry store. However the crooks get away when the Joker throws an ammonia bomb, and soon they're in a plane headed west to pick up the other stash of jewels the Joker hid during their crime spree.
However the plane's engines fail and so the gang parachutes out to avoid a horrible death. Joker figures he can still land the thing and thus claim all the stolen goods for himself. Unfortunately Joker is a better criminal than aviator and crashes in the Ozarks.
He's thrown clear of the wreck, wakes up with amnesia, finds the jewels, heads to town, and thus we're back at the beginning.
Back in Gotham, Bruce and Dick are trying to figure out the Joker's next move. Bruce thinks he has a lead with a scrap of paper he found at the scene referencing "Joe Kerswag, Farr Corners", and even though Bruce is somehow too dull to figure out the clue, they decide to head to Farr Corners anyway to investigate the lead.
Of course, the crooks who jumped off the plane are also headed to Farr Corners, where they find the town holding a celebration in honor of town hero Ed Smith, which... waitasecond, you're telling me none of the townsfolk recognize him as the Joker? A renowned federal criminal? The comic gives the rationale that they haven't seen pictures of the Joker this far out, but the townsfolk have clearly heard of Batman and the Joker, presumably through newspapers, so why do newspapers in the Ozarks not print pictures? And even if you didn't know what the Joker looked like, wouldn't a pale-white faced man with ruby red lips and green hair in a purple suit strike you as a little... odd?
Batman and Robin show up and are instantly recognized by a young boy in town who reads Batman comics -- wait, so this town gets Batman comics whose existence is confusing enough in a world where Batman is real and yet they don't get newspaper pics of the Joker? And this kid didn't recognize the Joker either? Are people in the Ozarks just really stupid?
Anyways, the constable introduces the Dynamic Duo to the town hero Ed Smith and Batman of course does a massive double take. He decides however to follow the Joker and observe him rather than immediately arrest him, in order to see what his game is.
The Joker's goons thus of course see their leader paling with the Batman and assume the worst. 
They attack, but when they shoot at Batman the Joker actually saves him! The crooks run off, and Batman and Robin continue to be baffled by the Joker's behaviour. Robin believes it must be a trick, as it'd be impossible for the Joker to have reformed, while Batman believes they must keep following him until they find out where the cache of stolen jewels is hidden.
"Ed Smith", meanwhile, has been having a series of terrible nightmares, images of hidden jewels placed in the railroad express office. He isn't sure why he's having these visions, but decides to check the office and see if there isn't more good he can do by returning more stolen goods to their owners.
The crooks spot him and assume he's going to the cache, so they follow. Batman finally figures out the "Joe Kerswag" clue and also heads to the express office. Batman and Robin manage to tie up all the crooks, but Joker gets knocked on the head and regains his "sanity".
Threatening the Dynamic Duo with two pistols, they are only saved when Robin knocks a column of boxes over onto the Joker, which end up spilling out all the crook's ill-gotten gains.
Batman reveals the obvious clue ("Joe Kerswag" = "Joker Swag") and the Clown Prince of Crime is locked up and sent to prison once again. 
My Thoughts: One of the toughest things about reading and writing about these old Batman comics can be the monotony. The stories, which are very simplistic and formulaic by nature, can become very repetitive read one after another at a rapid pace. So to get a story like this, which even if it strains credulity at times, features the characters in different situations and settings, can read like a breath of fresh air. In terms of the development of Joker's character, it's interesting that when he loses his amnesia and becomes "himself" again, it's explicitly written as the Joker regaining his "sanity", especially since the madness of the character has become such an explicitly large element of how he is written today.
The Art: One thing I haven't mentioned that much when talking about Bob Kane's art is his excessive habit of swiping. In the early days of the Batman comic he excessively swiped many panels and poses from other sources, usually pulp magazine illustrations. Once he had built up a good number of Batman and Robin poses, his swiping mostly became about swiping from himself -- using the same poses and angles over and over when depicting those two characters, almost like the comic book equivalent of a Filmation "limited animation" series from the 1970s. Usually these aren't too obtrusive -- while he may use the same pose everytime he draws Batman putting on his cape, that pose only occurs once an issue usually and ultimately it's a pretty standard pose so you don't mention the repetition.
I mention all this because in this story Kane draws a very distinctive panel of the "Good" Joker talking to Batman, Batman doing a hilarious double take, and Robin reacting. And then two pages later he REPLICATES IT EXACTLY. Yep, even with uncredited writers assistants, ghosts and other help -- Bob Kane was still incredibly lazy.
That being said, the biggest joy of the art in this story is seeing the Joker being drawn as a good guy, having innocent expressions on his face, or really just any expression other than grinning evilly. It's a unique sight that makes up a lot of the fun of the story.
The Story: I've really got to hand it to Don Cameron for really delivering a fun and unique story. "The Joker goes good", even if it's just amnesia, is very different and really brought a smile to my face as being a unique and imaginative premise. Pretty much my only issue with it is the fact that I just don't buy that everyone else treats Joker as normal. He's a dude with green hair! That's a little bizarre. 
Other than that I think this one was a lot of fun and it was just great to get a new kind of story -- even if the clue was really really obvious.

"The Grade A Crimes!"
Writer: Ruth "Bunny Lyons" Kaufman
Pencils: Jack Burnley
Inks: Ray Burnley
Synopsis:  In the early hours of the day, as the milkman makes his rounds, a daring robbery is committed - the Van Dorn jewels stolen and their servant shot. The jewels are brought back to a mysterious ringleader who conceals his identity behind a domino mask, and sends his men out again and again dressed in black robes and cowls, committing a series of "early bird" robberies in the hours of the morning when only the milkman is active.
Late one evening, millionaire Bruce Wayne and his ward Dick Grayson are leaving a high society party at the Morgon Mansion, when they hear a gunshot -- the guard shot in the back! They quickly change into Batman and Robin and begin fighting the eerie cultist looking burglars. However they manage to overpower the two and escape -- the only man on the scene once again the milkman, who didn't see anything. 
Searching the mansion for clues, they discover a white button ripped from a white shirt -- odd, since the crooks were wearing black mantles.
It's the next morning at the breakfast table when Bruce finally puts it all together - the early morning robberies, they're always the morning after a party, only jewels are stolen while other valuables are left untouched, the white button, the milkman -- obviously someone at the party is the inside man, they case the joint and perhaps lift the keys, and then the milkman is their getaway driver whom no one would ever suspect.
I for one am simply amazed that a Batman mystery was "fair play" for once and that Bruce figured out the clues at about the same time the reader would. 
The next big society party is being held by Winthrop, treasurer of the Purity Milk Co. and a renowned gem collector. Batman figures that by spying on Winthrop's party they'll discover the ringleader of the crooks, since it must be someone high up in the milk industry! Waiting around for the party to end, Batman finds Winthrop's guards have been drugged -- just in time for the milkman's arrival!
One of the cloaked burglars enters and prepares to shoot the guards for appearance's sake -- but Batman charges in to battle -- but when the crooks escape he intentionally lets them go as Robin has coated their getaway vehicle with infrared paint of the kind we've seen Batman use before to follow people. 
They follow the gang to a diary farm hideout, where of course a battle breaks out amid the cows and milking machines and so on. Batman fights the masked leader of the group, whom he deduces is Winthrop himself - Winthrop was the inside man, drugged his own guards, and of course he's the jewel collector.
After a few more fight scene pages, Batman and Robin deliver the thieves to Commissioner Gordon, revealing that Winthrop had gambled with his company's money, and had to resort to thievery, in addition to wanting more jewels for his own collection.
My Thoughts: Sometimes all you really want is a standard story, well told -- or told well above the average level of quality. "Grade A Crimes" features no supervillain, introduces no new elements, it simply does a standard Batman robbery/mystery plot, but does it with style, panache and very well plotted storytelling. I enjoyed reading it -- on paper it's nothing special, but here it's all in the execution.
The Art: The Burnley Bros. deliver gorgeous artwork in this story. Go and get yourself a reprint of it somehow and see this stuff. It's looks like an episode of the hallowed Animated Series, it's dark and stylish and just lovely to look at. The touch of dressing up the crooks in cultist looking outfits adds a delicious extra element of macabre mysterioso that is perfect for Batman and feels like it's been missing from the strip for a while. It just instantly makes it cooler than just more gangsters in three-piece suits. 
The Story: This story is written by Ruth Kaufman, and usually when a new writer appears I try to do some research to find out who they were. But all I can find out about Ruth is the somewhat self-evident info that she was one of the very first female comics writers. Apparently she wrote a couple more scripts for DC that appeared in their other books around this same time, and that was that. I have no idea what happened to her. 
Which is a damn shame, because this is a really, really well written story for a rookie writer. It's solid and confident, it understands the characters and the world of the strip, it remembers that Batman is a detective and remembers his methodologies from past stories. It gives us a mystery with clues that we can figure out along with the Batman, and it's exciting and interesting. It's a standard kind of story, but it's done well, with excellent art and very competent plotting, and that puts it a cut above.

"The Adventures of the Branded Tree"
Writer: Don Cameron
Pencils: Jack Burnley
Inks: Ray Burnley
Synopsis: Scotty and Olaf are two highly exaggerated racial stereotypes working as lumberjacks in the "north woods" when they come across a tree with the image of a dagger cut into it. Oh well, there's choppin' to be done, so they get to it -- which of course is when a bunch of Gotham City gangsters who are looking for just that tree happen across them!
Olaf eats a bullet, but Scotty is saved by the timely intervention of Batman and Robin -- lucky for him Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson were taking a fishing trip in these very same woods! The Dynamic Duo drive off the Gotham gangsters, saving Scotty -- but they still have no idea why they wanted that dagger tree.
However, an exaggerated French stereotype lumberjack informs Batman that the tree is now heading down river on its way to the mill, and there's no way to find it out of all the thousands of logs in the river.
So, of course, the gangsters beat up a bunch of employees at the mill, rendering them unable to work and creating job openings that the gangsters themselves take, because somehow this is the easiest way to get into the mill to look for the log. 
Batman and Robin arrive in town and question the local police, leading them to the suspicious happenings at the mill. The ensuing fight that breaks out of course ends up with Batman and Robin unconscious on the conveyor belt headed for the buzzsaw!
Batman manages to wake up in time to see Robin heading for some sawing, and saves the Boy Wonder by throwing logs into the saw to jam it! 
However by this time the crooks have found the log with the dagger cut in it, and retrieved from it a small cylinder. Seeing that the tide of the battle is turning, the gang leader Bull Beaton stuffs the cylinder within a large roll of newly made paper and retreats.
Two days later Bruce and Dick are back in Gotham and just happen to be walking past a printing plant as paper from that mill just happens to be getting delivered and of course the gangsters just happen to be there at that exact moment to get their cylinder.
So we get our third fight scene of the story, this time in a printing press (lots of "stop the presses" puns) and finally the Dynamic Duo are victorious and retrieve the cylinder -- which holds industrial diamonds stolen weeks ago and hidden by Beaton and his gang in the tree. Well, those diamonds are of course badly needed for the war effort and so these crooks are branded traitors (a capital crime), and tied up for the police.
My Thoughts: It's hard to get this across in the synopsis but the gimmick of this story is that it's being narrated by the paper you're reading it on, and is supposedly the story of how it was made -- tree, cut down to a log, sent to a mill, pulped into paper, printed into a Batman comic. As such it's an educational story as well as a Batman adventure -- although the idea that Batman exists in the same world as his comic is one that keeps cropping up and gives me a headache each time.
The Art: Good stuff from the Burnleys -- not as good as the previous tale but still high quality. As the story consists mostly of fight scenes what makes all the difference here is the way Burnley takes advantages of the three setpieces the characters are dropped into -- forest, mill, printing press. It's well rendered, dramatic and exciting.
The Story: There's nothing too-too bad with this story, aside from it's heavy reliance on coincedence, but ultimately it's just some fight scenes in some neat locations tied together with a simple gimmick and capped with a rather non sequitorous ending -- why was such a big mystery made of what was in the cylinder? It was stuff the crooks stole, okay, anyone could've guess that! Frankly, while it's well done, it's also highly forgettable.

"Here Comes Alfred!"
Writer: Don Cameron
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos
Synopsis: A passenger liner pulls into Gotham pier after a dangerous wartime Atlantic crossing, and two gentlemen disembark. One is a mysterious fellow named Gaston LeDuc, the other a loquacious, heavyset Englishman with a thick posh accent who fancies himself an amatuer detective.
However, the new arrivals are being watched by a gang of (Mexican?) criminals led by Manuel Stiletti - who are themselves being watched by the Batman and Robin! The crooks attack the Englishman, as they are apparently after his valise. Batman and Robin rescue the gentleman, who offers to assist them in their cases as an amateur criminologist in return -- our heroes brush off the offer and retreat into the night.
But later that evening, at Wayne Manor, Bruce and Dick get a surprise when the doorbell rings and its none other than their English friend! Has he somehow discerned their secret identities? Is he a better detective than they thought?
Nope! He's Alfred the butler, arrived from England to serve "Mawster Bruce"! He had meant to be here two years ago, but because of the war he had to wait a year for a ship from England and then the one he did take took a very circuitous route, and then it was torpedoed and so was the next one and so on so that he didn't arrive until now. But of course, Bruce is still rather confused as he never sent for a butler and hadn't had one for years! Well, turns out that Alfred is the son of Jarvis -- who was Bruce's father's butler! Jarvis had wanted Alfred to carry on their family's service to the Waynes and succeed him as butler but Alfred wanted to be an actor in a music hall and so disappointed his father by staying in England and becoming an actor. 
However, on Jarvis' death Alfred promised to return to America and take up the call of duty as the Wayne family butler, but has been delayed getting there on account of the war.
Well, this puts Bruce and Dick in quite a pickle -- what if he discovers their secret identity? Bruce can't think of any reason to send him away however, and so Alfred begins his duties.
But Manuel's gang has followed Alfred to Wayne Manor, and begin prowling around the house, tripping a burglar alarm that wakes up Bruce and Dick but which Alfred somehow doesn't notice. What he does notice is an old newspaper lying around about the "Duke of Dorian" fleeing the Nazi invasion of his country, and Alfred recognizes the Duke as "Gaston LeDuc", the man from the boat!
The crooks burst in and once again demand Alfred's valise, threatening to kill him. The butler gives it over to them and they begin cutting the labels off the valise, but Batman and Robin burst in, having intentionally delayed themselves so as not to get the crooks wise to the fact that they are the residents of the house. The crooks take off with the Dynamic Duo in hot pursuit, leaving Alfred alone.
Which of course prompts Alfred to check in on "Mawster Bruce" and "Mawster Dick", only to discover they aren't in the house! That's when a crook whom Batman and Robin simply left unconscious in the house (quite sloppy!) wakes up and attacks Alfred! Alfred knocks him into a wall, knocking him out again but also jarring a concealed trigger, opening up a secret passage!
Alfred follows the passage to a hidden criminological laboratory, and then through another tunnel to an underground hangar containing the Batplane! And thus Alfred comes to the obvious conclusion! Yes, the scary looking shadowy dude on the cover who discovers the secret identity of Batman and Robin is ALFRED!
Meanwhile, the Dynamic Duo has pursued Manuel and his gang to an abandoned theatre, and since we've reached that point in the story, they're captured and tied up -- hung from the catwalks high above the stage, but left alive because Manuel thinks its better to do "all our killing at once" because he's a really stupid criminal.
Turns out they needed the labels on the valise to learn the identity and address of their intended victim (huh?) who is of course Gaston LeDuc aka the Duke of Dorian!
Meanwhile Alfred has followed the crook left behind at Wayne Manor to the theatre, where he finds and rescues Batman and Robin. The crooks break into the Duke's hotel where they proceed to steal the crown jewels of his country -- which he had brought to America to establish credit for his government-in-exile.
Stealing the jewels and kidnapping the Duke, they return to the theatre -- where they fall right into the trap of Batman and Robin! The crooks rounded up, Alfred returns the jewels to the Duke, revealing his identity and purpose to the Dynamic Duo. 
Back at Wayne Manor, Alfred explains how he solved the case to Bruce and Dick, and they realize he learned all the information by accident, and thus isn't a master detective after all. Dick is just through declaring him "not very bright" when he enters the room with their capes and cowls in his arms, pressed and ready since the Bat-Signal is calling them to police headquarters! 
Alfred reveals he discovered their identities the night before (but doesn't mention how) and so Batman and Robin are off again into the night, but now they have Alfred at home taking care of them!
My Thoughts: So this is clearly a very significat story in the Batman canon, perhaps the most significant since the introduction of the Penguin or Batman joining the police force. Today, Alfred is considered such an essential element of the Batman mythos, even more so than Commissioner Gordon or Robin, that it's bizarre to realize that the character had been around for four years before Alfred was introduced!
Of course, then there's the odd fact that when you're reading these early Batman stories, you don't really miss him. Part of that is the length of these stories mean there really isn't time for character development and interaction, just plot, so the things that Alfred contributes to stories today don't really factor in -- much the same reason that Gordon has barely appeared in the past four years of stories. 
However, it is strange that millionaire Bruce Wayne hasn't had anyone working for him at Wayne Manor this whole time -- granted, Golden Age Wayne Manor is drawn much smaller and more modestly than it's mammoth Modern Age counterpart. But that doesn't really explain why, after four years without him, the creators decided to add a butler character.
It's even weirder because the Alfred that appears in this story is nothing like our modern conception of the character. He's overweight, clean-shaven, and most significantly something of a bumbling fool who considers himsef an amateur detective. He arrives from overseas and then accidentally discovers Batman's identity. He's basically the exact opposite of the supremely cool, tough Alfred of today who has served as Bruce's conscience and father figure since his parents died. Indeed, even the way Alfred is worked into the story is somewhat awkward -- the whole backstory that he's carrying on his father's legacy but couldn't make it until now because of the war and so on. 
The explanation for this seemingly strange comedic addition is quite simple, however. The Batman movie serial. Although it's premiere was still several months away, production had begun on the first live-action Hollywood adaptation of Batman into a theatrical serial from Columbia Pictures, and it's screenwriters had decided that a rich guy should have a butler and that the butler could be a great source of comic relief in the serial. Thus, Alfred. 
Bob Kane had been invited to serve as a creative consultant on the serial in LA and decided that the character should be brought into the comics ahead of time to familiarize readers with the character. However, lead times on comic books are actually quite long, and so in order to get Alfred in the comics before the serial, they had to produce the stories before an actor had even been cast.
Once the serial debuted (with William Austin as Alfred),  the character was altered to resemble the actor (more on that when we get there!) resulting in the thin, moustached Alfred we know today!
So until then we will have this bizarre proto-Alfred, who is significantly different than how we're used to thinking of him.
The Art: Since we're introducing a significant new character, Bob Kane is on pencils, and while Jerry and George do a decent job cleaning him up, there are a few panels in here that really look quite bad -- characters drawn very far away and small in the panel and thus lacking detail, becoming vague smudges. Alfred's a decently designed character, drawn fat and goofy looking to match his bumbling personality. It's decent stuff, a little below par.
The Story: So aside from doing some creative gymnastics to justify Alfred's existence and inclusion, Don Cameron also has to provide some kind of action story for Batman and Robin to fight some criminals. And so we get a really weak story about this foreign politician and crown jewels that is mostly interesting solely in how it ties into the real-life war. Of course "Duke of Dorian" makes no sense - a Dorian is an ethnicity in Greece, which was conquered by the Nazis and had a government-in-exile, but there's no Duke. 
Anyways, what I don't get is why they need labels off Alfred's valise to find the Duke. For a while I thought they were after Alfred because they got him and the Duke mixed up at the pier, or maybe Alfred's bags where switched with the Dukes, but there's nothing in the story that indicates that. Maybe I'm just unaware as to how 1940s US bag-tagging works? Seems odd that the name and address of someone else on the same boat as me gets tagged on my bag? 
Oh well, here comes Alfred!
Notes and Trivia: First appearance of Alfred!

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