Thursday, March 28, 2013

Detective Comics #64 (June, 1942)

The Joker Walks the Last Mile”
Writer: Bill Finger 
Pencils: Bob Kane 
Inks: Jerry Robinson 
Synopsis: Last we saw the Joker he was in police custody, but at the start of this tale he is lying low in his hideout with his gang, a rare lapse of continuity from Bill Finger. While his men consider sitting around all day listening to Joe DiMaggio play baseball the ideal life, the Joker is unsatisfied. He can't spend his ill-gotten gains, he can't go out in the street except in heavy disguise, he can't live any kind of life or enjoy his criminal successes! Then the Joker comes up with a daring new plan: if he cannot live, then he must die! Only through death will he be free!
The next day, the Joker arrives at Police Headquarters and surrenders himself, allowing himself to be arrested and promising a full confession. The dynamite news flies through Gotham, even interrupting a radio broadcast of “The True Adventures of Batman!” (Kane and Finger subtly hinting to DC brass that Batman should get his own radio show like Superman? He never would, unfortunately). Gotham citizens come by the jail to view the curious sight of the Joker in his cell, including Bruce and Dick – who are sure the Joker must be up to something.
The Joker's confession session is a never-ending laundry list of crimes, including references to past issues as well as never seen crimes (robbing the National Bank of Denver?). The result is a speedy trial ending in the only possible verdict for a thief and murderer of forty-three people – death! The Joker is soon led down the last mile to the electric chair, where he is electrocuted to death in a dramatic display worthy of Frank Miller!
But soon after, the Joker's gang breaks into the prison morgue! Knocking out the guards they steal the Joker's corpse and take it away. They have only fifteen minutes to inject the dead body with a special serum prepared by the fiend himself! They proceed, and the serum brings the dead Joker back to life!! 
The Joker has now cheated death and paid his debt to society. To celebrate, he decides to do some window shopping for a new watch. But the storeowner assumes Joker is there to case the joint, and calls the police. They assume it's a copycat, but call in Batman and Robin anyway. Batman apprehends Joker and brings him to the police, but the Joker points out that as he has already been penalized for his crimes, he cannot be convicted for them again, and so is set free (deciding generously not to charge Batman with assault!)
Bruce and Dick camp outside the Joker's hotel for days in disguise, watching for any hint of criminal activity. But Joker easily spots them and makes no move, except for a manipulation of the blinking hotel sign, which he uses to send Morse code messages to his gang. With everything quiet, Bruce takes Dick to an ice show, and who should turn up in their box but the Joker! But before the performance can start, the ethyl dioxide pipes under the ice designed to help it keep frozen explode, allowing a gang of thieves to being a hold-up of the patrons. Even the Joker finds himself robbed by the gang! The crooks try to get away across the ice, so of course Batman and Robin pursue on ice skates. A two page ice-skating fight scene later, and the crooks get away! 
Batman and Robin next see the Joker at the arena exit speaking with their insurance people to get compensation for his stolen wallet and watch. In a hilarious scene, Joker compliments Batman and Robin on their fine performance fighting the crooks, and invites them to visit him at his hotel sometime! Batman realizes he recognizes some of the crooks from the hold-up as standard members of the Joker's gang, and that the Joker must be mixed up in this somehow. So he decides to break into Joker's apartment, because I guess search warrants and probable cause don't matter when you're only an honorary policeman.
When they show up on the hotel fire escape, Joker is waiting for them, and they follow him in through the window -- where two police officers are waiting to arrest the Dynamic Duo for breaking and entering! (But didn't the Joker invite them in, implicitly? -- Also, you can call police to your home to prevent crimes pre-emptively? Pretty sure it doesn't work like that) Stuck in the hilarious situation of being a wanted criminal, Batman asks all the parties for a minute to explain himself, and Joker pulls out his watch to time him. The same watch he claimed was stolen!
Realizing he's been caught, Joker jumps out the window and commandeers a Jeep, insisting that the Joker's needs are far more important than the Army's! Batman and Robin make chase in the Batmobile, then when the Joker's escape trail passes close to Wayne Manor, Batman splits off and hops into the Batplane, as the Jeep's all-terrain abilities give it an advantage over the Batmobile. From there, the two heroes co-ordinate their pursuit over the radio (keep in mind ten-year-old Robin is driving the Batmobile) and eventually their maneuvers drive the Joker's Jeep off a cliff!
Joker himself jumps off and grabs some covenient telephone wires, but his precarious hanging position is threatened when Robin comes after him, and so he falls into the ocean -- with Batman and Robin giving the customary "is he really dead this time?" dialogue. Except that we immediately get an answer with the Joker back at his hideout and his goons basically confirming that everything's back to normal -- and we're also explicitly told Joker will show up in the next issue of Batman!

~~~~
My Thoughts: Another fantastic Joker story that is probably most significant for the trial of the Joker and his subsequent death sentence and escape. The character interactions between Batman and the Joker during the period where he is a free man are delightful -- Batman utterly baffled and frustrated and Joker practically exploding with glee. The story is a major shift in the tone and development of Joker tales -- the old homicidal Joker of old is dead, and a new stage in the character's criminal career begins, with the reborn Joker being much more of a prankster character, interested in the game of wits with Batman as opposed to being concerned with violent acts of terror. 
The Art: Great artwork in this tale, especially regarding the death of the Joker. When he first suggests the idea the smoke from his cigarette forms a death's head, and the panel of the Joker's execution is surpremely rendered in dark shadows. Good action scenes and really fantastic character work with the Joker especially. 
The Story: Finger really does great work here. Aside from his mild continuity hiccup at the start, Finger crafts a great story that in many ways allows him to have his cake and eat it too. The Joker is fully punished for his previous crimes, and yet allowed to live to vex Batman again and again. Joker's character here is fantastic -- his glee upon deciding to die, his boastful confessions, his complete lack of fear going to the chair, his gloating over Batman, it's all great stuff. The section wherein Joker threatens to charge Batman with various crimes is really fun and clever, and maybe could have been expanded more. It's just fun seeing Joker act out of character, as it were. I think it's interesting that though this story has a typical "Joker falls into the sea for a possible death" ending, Finger doesn't even try to pretend: we know Joker is just fine and coming back. It's now an inevitability, which means that we're probably going to lose the explanations of how Joker survived/escaped etc. pretty soon.
Notes and Trivia: Joker is convicted and sentenced to death for his myriad crimes, is executed, cheats death, and is once again on the lam. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Detective Comics #63 (May, 1942)

"A Gentleman in Gotham"
Writer: Bill Finger 
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied Europe, a jewel thief named Michael Baffle is set to be executed by Nazi firing squad for his many crimes. However Baffle cheats death by bribing the men with jewels to fire only blanks and bribing the Obersturmbannf├╝hrer with even bigger jewels not to inspect the guns.

Baffle flees to America by ship, arriving in Gotham City Harbor, which is pretty explicitly made out to be analogous to New York City with the presence of the Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building. He immediately begins planning how to rob the city of its riches. Assembling a posse of crooks he decides to rob Wayne Manor!
He spots the Wayne safe and begins sanding down his fingertips to make them sensitive to the tumblers (neat!), but of course Batman and Robin come home at that moment and fight off him and his men. In the aftermath, both Batman and Baffle are truly amused by their rival and consider them a worthy adversary. 
Realizing that the Batman will recognize him if he's spotted again, Baffle shaves off his Tony Stark esque goatee and adopts a new tactic. He convinces a local paper to hire him as their society column writer and becomes a successful and well-known columnist. Then he uses his jobs writing about rich society homes as opportunities to case the places for burglaries (as if MTV's Cribs was being run by Danny Ocean). Somehow, the police never put together that houses are being robbed after being featured in  "Charles Courtley's" society page, and the scheme goes undiscovered until Bruce Wayne seemingly recognizes Courtley at a party.
Bruce changes into Batman and Courtley into Baffle (wearing a bandit mask and somehow sporting his goatee again), and they battle, but Baffle escapes by using Linda Page (also at the party) as a hostage. Batman chases after him, resulting in a car chase through Gotham. Baffle finally manages to shake Batman by throwing away the stolen jewels, and Batman goes after them to make sure they are returned to their owners rather than go after Baffle -- which is the most completely out-of-character thing Bill Finger has ever had Batman do.
Baffle decides to pack up and leave Gotham because Batman makes things too difficult (the smartest thing any crooks in this strip has ever done), after one last big coup! Meanwhile Robin realizes Courtley is Baffle when he draws a goatee on one of Courtley's pictures in the paper (as kid's are wont to do -- Bruce actually admonishes him for "marking up pictures of our leading celebrities").  
Anyways, Linda and Bruce attend a society party at "Random Castle" (?), a Scottish fortress transported brick by brick to Gotham for the rich broad who owns it. Baffle-as-Courtley shows up and claims that he is Batman and the jewels are thus safe with him -- but Linda doesn't buy it as she's been rescued by Batman many times (and you'd think would recognize Courtley, who now has a moustache, as the guy who held her hostage the other night...?) -- anyways Bruce-as-Batman shows up and fences Baffle on the grand staircase (because why not?) and Baffle escapes by jumping out a window and into a river, with both men yelling things about the "next time" they run into each other, and Batman wishing Baffle was a friend instead of an enemy.
~~~~
My Thoughts: Mr. Baffle is a very transparent attempt at creating a new recurring villain, and it just reeks of desperation. It's like bad fan-fiction: we're told Baffle is a cunning rogue, a gentlemen criminal whose methods puzzle the police, Batman says he respects Baffle and enjoys facing him, etc. etc. But we never really see anything that actually justifies this. We're told Baffle is a great new character but ultimately it's all hype. The ending, where Baffle just jumps into a river and both men announce their intentions for "next time" is the most blatant sequel baiting Finger's ever done. I don't think I'm spoiling anything by revealing that Mr. Baffle never appeared again -- so despite Finger's insistences, even readers of the time responded poorly.
The Art: The art is nice and stardard Kane/Robinson quality -- but the inconsistency of Baffle's facial hair really confuses the story. He shaves it off when he becomes Courtley, but then it's all back when he starts robbing things, and then it's only a moustache in the finale. It's completely ludicrous, but I guess was done so that people wouldn't recognize Baffle when he robbed them? It's confusing and bad. There are some good action set-pieces in the story, like the chase, but the layouts are badly paced, so that the final fencing duel confrontation takes place only within four small panels on a single page -- that's the climax, guys! It's in the title page! Milk it!
The Story: What makes Baffle a gentleman? What makes him so chivalrous? What makes him a genius criminal? Every single crime he commits in Gotham is foiled by Batman, none of them are particularly clever schemes, he takes women hostage and lies and steals and cheats -- is the only reason he's a "charming rogue" is because he looks like Clark Gable and fights with a fencing foil? He's set up by the writer as a kind of friendly rival like character to Batman, but he actually comes off as something of a chump. The story is so busy telling that it ends up showing rather drably. I think I would've enjoyed it more if it wasn't trying so hard to promote Baffle as a character. But the fact is that next to the Joker, the Catwoman, and Hugo Strange -- a dude in a tux who steals things just isn't particularly exciting or interesting. Batman himself is really out of character throughout -- laughing and acting like crime-fighting is a big joke, and caring more about rescuing jewels than nabbing the bad guy. But hey, nice to see Linda Page again!

Monday, March 25, 2013

Batman #10 (April/May, 1942)

A nicely rendered and memorable cover from Jerry Robinson. 

"The Isle That Time Forgot"
Writer: Joseph Greene
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis:  Dick Grayson awakes to Bruce Wayne spanking him ten consecutive times, even though he's done nothing wrong, because it's his tenth birthday (least I assume that it's his tenth because that's the number of time Bruce hits him, but it's also possible to interpret the scene as Dick is just turning 8, which means he's been a 7-year-old crime fighter so far! Jesus!). Cuz that's not weird. Then he let Dick have a piece of his own birthday cake (which has fourteen candles?), a cake topped by a model Batplane (where did Bruce get that?). Dick says he wishes he had a real Batplane... and GUESS WHAT? Bruce has made him his OWN small Batplane, exactly like the main one, only smaller (which means they now have two Batplanes sitting along with the Batmobile in the old barn linked to Wayne Manor with the underground tunnel). Ah, the privileges of the 1%! Dick wants to take it for a test run right away, and Bruce agrees. And this is strange, right? I'm not alone in thinking this first page is just bizarre?
Anyways, they're off flying and they run into a hurricane. It just straight up pops out of nowhere I guess and they get stuck right in the middle of it. They make it out fine, and Robin spots an island. Batman decides to set down on it (keep in mind the plane isn't damaged or out of gas or anything), and Robin thinks he's spotted a dinosaur. Batman tells him not to "get gay", then spots a good-looking couple being threatened by a bunch of cavemen looking types. So naturally he decides to set down the plane and help them.
While trekking through the jungle, the Dynamic Duo are spotted and knocked out by the cavemen. When they awake, they find that they are captives alongside the attractive couple -- captives of a mad scientist named Moloff who wants no trespassers on his island, which he sees as the scientific find of the century! Batman and Robin break free of their bonds and start fighting the cavemen, but then Moloff tells everyone to run and suddenly Batman and Robin are left fighting a Tyrannosaurus rex! (Which looks more like an inaccurate depiction of an Allosaurus maximus, but I doubt Bob Kane had a lot of paleontology).
Batman ends up strangling the Allosaurus to death with his Batrope (described as 'silken', yet also 'strong as steel cable'), and Robin remarks that "now we've fought everything!" 
The girl faints in Batman's arms, gracious for having been saved, at which point her companion clubs Batman and Robin on the head and accuses them of butting into "other people's affairs" and "crabbing my act"! He and some goons he promises money too leave Batman to die in the jungle, although they complain that the "Big Guy" isn't going to like this.
Unconscious Batman wakes up to find himself attacked by a boa constrictor, which is luckily shot in the head by an unknown aide before it can kill the Dark Knight. Following a trail of footprints, Batman heads off to solve the mystery. Meanwhile, Robin is thrown in a kind of glass zoo/cage building, while the woman begs with the other guy not to be a murderer. He insists that Robin will be all right, and that this island is a fortune in buried treasure for both of them. The reader begins to wonder if this story will ever stop being coy and start making some kind of sense.
So Robin gets attacked by a sabretooth tiger. He climbs a tree and uses his radio to call Batman for help. Batman rushes to the rescue, and runs into Moloff, who denies being the one who saved Batman from the boa constrictor. He pulls a gun on Batman, who simply punches him and runs on after Robin. There's some suspense as Batman is chased after, but he eventually crashes through the glass windows and tackles the sabretooth tiger, only to find that it's tusks are fake! He pulls one out and uses it to stab the tiger to death! Yeesh, Batman.
Batman and Robin are stumped as to what's going on, but before they can figure things out they come across Moloff once again holding the handsome couple hostage with a gun. The Dynamic Duo jump in and a fight starts, and once again the handsome guy tries to take out Batman, but hitting him with a stone club seems to do nothing! During the fight, Robin uncovers a movie camera, and when he wonders what it's doing there, someone yells that he's ruining the shot!
Yes, turns out that it's all been a movie, directed by "Big" Guy Markham. Guy tells Batman they were already shooting when the Batplane landed and he decided to take advantage of the situation. Figuring the heroes would never consent to be in the film, he decided to have the actors improvise and stage scenes around them. The leading man got jealous, as this was supposed to be his break-out role, and this is why he kept trying to kill Batman. The dinosaur was a mechanical construct controlled from within by a man. A crack marksman killed the boa and would've killed the tiger if it had gotten out of control. 
The director believes his "third-rate melodrama" is now an epic, and Batman and Robin fly back to the mainland looking forward to seeing it upon release.
~~~~
My Thoughts: Oh, man. So this is another in the "Batman and Robin NOT in Gotham City" genre that I generally dislike, and this time it's by Joseph Greene, writing his second Bat-script. And man it just doesn't work on so many levels. I don't like these kinds of stories, I just don't think Batman and Robin work well in them, but I admit they can be good if the change of scenery is well justified. This, on the other hand, is a story that works only through trickery. It's writing down to the audience. And sure, the audience is between eight and ten years old, but that doesn't make it okay in my eyes. Also, the whole damn thing is weird -- and also the first comic I've seen that falls into the "let's make Batman and Robin look gay by pulling panels out of context" genre of modern internet foolery.
The Art: It's all right. The Batplanes, the storm, the dinosaur, the tiger, they're all quite well done. Ultimately, too much happens too quickly in this story for the art team to really strut their stuff with the action bits. But what they do get, they do a good job of, like the boa constrictor scenes and Batman racing to rescue Robin. So in many ways the art is pulling the weight here. We're seeing Batman and Robin do cool things we don't normally see them do.
The Story: Yeesh! Not a lick of this makes sense. I kept waiting for Robin to wake up and it was all a dream. First Bruce gives Dick an airplane for his tenth birthday, which may be the height of Bruce's reckless child endangerment so far. Then they get lost in a hurricane, land on an island, fight dinosaurs and dudes with confusing motivation, and then it was all a movie? I think Joseph Greene either has no idea how movies are made, or decided his readers didn't and that it didn't matter. I get that special effects were a more mysterious and magical thing back then (no DVD commentaries and features to ruin it all) -- but a life-size mechanical dinosaur? Is that how people thought King Kong was done? And who is putting up the insurance for a picture that's really shooting on an uncharted island, with real dangerous animals? What director would just decide to start throwing dangerous animals at Batman and Robin and filming it? Why are the Dynamic Duo okay with this?? These people are crazy! This story thinks its being clever by keeping it all a muddled mystery til the end, but the explanation is just so lazy and nonsensical that it renders the whole story somewhat stupid.
Notes and Trivia: Robin has his own Batplane, identical to the first, but smaller.

"Report Card Blues"
Writer: Joseph Greene
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: Little Tommy Trent plays hooky from school a lot and his grades are failing. His parents are angry with him, and tomorrow is report card day. His dad says that if Tommy doesn't get a good report card he won't be allowed to play after school anymore. Tommy just knows it's going to be awful, so he decides to run away from home, and sneaks off at night.

Meanwhile, in the City, some gangsters are setting a bomb at a storefront in order to scare the owner into paying protection. Batman and Robin happen upon them, and successfully beat up the crooks, but they forget about the bomb, which goes off. In the confusion, the three bandits make off in a bakery truck. 
Batman tells the police to put an alarm out for the truck, which the crooks end up hearing on the radio. They put on butcher's uniforms and change the sign on the truck from Baker to Butcher, but they realize as they approach a carstop that they still match the description of three guys in a truck. But, seeing little Tommy Trent trying to hitch along the highway, they pick up the boy and use him to throw off the police. The gangsters talking makes Tommy realize they are, in fact, gangsters, and the crooks realize the kid could be a potential witness. They throw him into the back of the truck and decide to take him back to the boss for further instructions. But Tommy is smart, and drops a trail of breadrolls out a hole in the back of the truck so that... someone... can follow them. The truck arrives at a Florist's, and the lead crook reports to their boss, the flower-loving gangster named L. Milo. 
Batman and Robin pick up the trail of breadrolls and follow it. At the Florist's, Milo instructs the men to kill the boy, but before they can do anything, the Dynamic Duo burst on the scene. There's a brief fight, before Milo manages to grab ahold of Robin and point a gun at him, telling Batman to stand down or Robin dies (Why he doesn't just shoot both of them is beyond me). Now captured, Batman and Robin sit tied up with little Tommy Trent, who relates his runaway story to his idol, the Dark Knight. 
Milo announces that as it is the first of the month, they must settle accounts with those who haven't paid their protection money, and as they are now wanted by the police, they must work quickly. He splits the group into three, so as to hit all three businesses simultaneously, and takes Tommy with himself as a hostage, leaving Batman and Robin tied up alone in the flower shop with a guard. Batman manages to escape by pushing a fern plant in front of a steam vent, the heat causing the buds to ripen and explode in the guard's face, allowing the momentary distraction needed to strike! Ah, the things one learns in an encyclopedia! They find Milo's records book and figure out which businesses he is hitting and split up. 
Robin heads to a barber shop and defeats the crooks there using a combination of barber shop props and bad puns. Batman promptly does the same at a penny arcade. There's a funny moment when he knocks a crook into a fortune machine which spits out a card reading "A tall dark man will enter your life and cause you much trouble."
They then arrive at the final location, a department store, but the crooks know the Duo is coming and outnumber them. Trying to help, Tommy grabs a bow and arrow off a shelf in sporting goods, ties his hankerchief around it, lights it on fire with a match, then shoots the arrow into the ceiling, setting off the automatic sprinklers (somehow managing to do all this without anyone noticing!) The sprinklers provide the distraction needed for the heroes to get the upper hand in the fight, especially when the Fire Department shows up to provide back-up!
Batman returns Tommy to his home, where he promises to be a good student and never play hooky again. Having only been gone during the night, he goes to school in the morning with his parents none the wiser that he was gone, promising to study hard and get good grades. (None of which will change that this term's report card is still gonna suck!)

~~~~
My Thoughts: I can really see what Greene's going for here, the wish-fulfillment fantasy of a regular kid sharing adventures with Batman -- but isn't that what Robin is for? The idea of Batman interacting with normal kids on adventures is going to be used over and over, but I can't recall ever seeing it done particularly well ("I've Got Batman in my Basement", anyone?) 
The Art: Good, standard stuff from Kane & Co. Tommy Trent looks like something out of Dell Comics, like a poverty-stricken ginger version of Richie Rich. The gangsters also get some good designs, and the fight scenes in the barber shop and penny arcade are lots of fun.
The Story: Greene's script isn't as bad as the last story, but it does have a few issues. The biggest of which is that ultimately Tommy doesn't really learn anything in his adventure that actually applies to solving his issue. I get that Greene is trying to show a regular kid that the reader would relate to and impart the message that it's important to stay in school -- but Tommy running away from home means he gets to hang out with the Batman! He never could've done that if he'd stayed home! Meanwhile, he's still gonna get a rotten report card (changing your ways on the last day of term doesn't solve that) so his dad is still gonna ground him. Oh well, can't expect all your Golden Age comics to have good scripts, I guess.

"The Princess of Plunder"
Writer: Jack Schiff
Artist: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: Popular socialite Marguerite Tone is known for throwing elaborate parties with gimmicks and games for the guests. On this particular evening, she gives all the guests a card with a rare item on it, for the game is to be a scavenger hunt! However, none of the guests know that Marguerite Tone is actually the Catwoman! Donning her cat's head mask, cape and skintight black dress, she gives her gang of crooks scavenger hunt cards as well, and sets them upon Gotham to steal items from the wealthy!
When the crooks are questioned as to why they are in these homes, they are able to use the scavenger hunt as cover, pretending to be Marguerite's guests! When Batman and Robin come across a pair of the burglars on their patrol, they give the same cover story. Batman phones Marguerite to check the story, it all seems legit, except Batman recognizes her voice as that of Catwoman's (which begs the question of why noone recognizes his voice as that of Bruce Wayne's, especially people who know both men well, like Commissioner Gordon...)

Suspecting that something is up, Bruce accepts an invitation to Marguerite's next party, a costume party where the guests must show up as their favourite character. So naturally, Bruce goes as Batman. Perhaps not a great idea for secret identity reasons, but a worse one is that he and Robin drive there in the Batmobile! Batman leaves Robin in the car and heads into the party.
Marguerite of course has had the audacity of dressing as Catwoman, but Bruce finds that he's not alone as Batman! There's a whole wack of Dark Knight cosplayers, one of whom mistakes Bruce for someone named Duke and tells him to meet up with Catwoman upstairs. So Batman finds himself standing with three other Batmen being given orders by the Catwoman! The plot is that the Batmen will be able to enter any building without suspicion (since Batman is an honorary police officer), and if there's any problems they can once again use the costume party as cover. But that's when the real Duke shows up, and they realize that one of them is the real Batman. Batman uses the identity confusion to his advantage in the ensuing two-page fight scene and is eventually assisted by Robin. However, Catwoman points out to Batman that she has not in fact committed a crime and that he cannot prove anything. Foiled, Batman lets her go. (Couldn't he arrest her for her previous crimes, knowing that she's Catwoman now?)
Marguerite's next scheme is to recommend new serving staff to her high society friends, who are unaware their new employees are in fact Catwoman's thugs, who of course use their new positions to rob their employers. Unfortunately, one of them is spotted and recognized by Bruce Wayne at a dinner party, giving the whole scheme away. He follows the crook down to the servant's quarters and confronts him as Batman. A two-page fight scene later and he's beaten the next target Catwoman and the gang intend to attack out of him.
Batman and Robin intend to stop the Princess of Plunder, but after a two-page fight scene Catwoman once again gets away. But Robin spots a clue, which leads the Dynamic Duo to a lost-and-found agency. Catwoman, unable to fence the highly unique items she has stolen, is instead selling them back to the rightful owners through a lost-and-found. There's a fight, during which one of the crooks tries to kill Catwoman for getting them into this mess. Batman saves her, Robin rounds up the crooks, and Catwoman embraces Batman in a kiss. 
Catwoman gets away, but the cops arrest everyone else. Once again Robin accuses Batman of letting Catwoman get away, while Bruce muses about what could be if only they weren't on opposite sides of the law. 
~~~~

My Thoughts: This story is significant in that it is the first Batman tale created without any involvement from the character's two creators, Kane and Finger. Jack Schiff's second script is another Bat-classic, demonstrating a firm grasp of the characters, and story-telling style. Catwoman's character once again goes through some evolution -- this time given a real name. It's unclear whether Schiff intended Marguerite Tone to really be Catwoman's true name, but it is implied in the story that it is a recently created alias for the purpose of this series of crimes, as Bruce has never met Marguerite before this story despite both travelling in the same social circles, and the fact that at the end of this story Catwoman's scheme is outed and she gets away and seemingly abandons this identity. Still, it's an interesting development and continuation of a character who hasn't been seen in the book for some time now -- Schiff brings Catwoman back from near oblivion and makes her relevant to the book again.
The Art:  Jerry Robinson pulls a fine solo job here. His greatest contribution is a refinement of Catwoman's costume design -- now a tight black dress with a dark purple cape, and even the silly cat's head mask is drawn much better, giving the character a sleeker, more evil appearance that works in her favour. Perhaps the only major issue in Robinson's work is his Batman and Robin faces, both of which appear somewhat sloppy and off-model throughout. However, it in large part indistinguishable from his work with Kane, which I suppose proves how significant his contributions to the look of the strip have been.
The Story: Schiff once again writes a tale that feels like a classic Batman story, with no bumps or hiccups in the narrative. He also writes the first truly good Catwoman story -- with no major changes from the Kane/Finger conception of the character, yet she finally seems a competent and worthwhile antagonist. Schiff makes her smart and capable, and also gives her a gang of henchmen where previously she had been an independant operator. He retains the mutual attraction between Batman and Catwoman, and the now standard ending of Batman letting Catwoman go, a questionably immoral decision influenced by their forbidden romance. Yet this story feels so much better than the previous attempts at the character that it's like discovering her again for the first time.

"The Sheriff of Ghost Town"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: Two tired travellers stumble upon an old ghost town somewhere in the American west. They are Cactus Joe, an old prospector, and a young boy named Joe Jeffers, son of his dead partner. Cactus Joe believes there's still gold to be found here, and decides to settle down to make some money to send the boy to school. Sometime later, a couple drives through and stops as they are out of gas. Their farm had failed, but Cactus Joe encourages them to homestead in the town and make another go of being farmer. Soon enough the town attracts a doctor (who arrives in a horsedrawn carriage?), a carpenter, a barber, a schoolteacher, etc. and becomes a flourishing small town (with the appearance of a Hollywood backlot version of a Wild West town, and everyone dressing in that style...) which names Cactus Joe its mayor and names itself Sunshine City!
So, this being a comic book, five crooks ride into town seeing easy pickings. And yes, I said ride -- horses, cowboy hats, everything like out of a western for some reason. They attack the town, they steal gold, they murder townsfolk and they burn the schoolhouse to the ground. Cactus Joe is at a loss for what to do (call the state police or the federal authorities, maybe?) but young Joe Jeffers suggests putting out a call to Batman to help them (of course! A quasi-legal vigilante from a city thousands of miles away!) The kid rides (on horseback, of course) to "State City" to ask a newspaper publisher to print their story in the hopes that it gets Batman's attention. The story is picked up by radio stations and broadcast coast to coast. Noone at any point apparently thinks to send police or help themselves or anything, of course. 
Batman and Robin hear the story on the radio, and decide to leave Gotham to help. Travelling by Batplane, they actually come across the young boy being set upon by the crooks (all on horseback!)
So of course Batman dives out of the plane and knocks a dude off a horse and drives the criminals off, saving the boy. Riding triumphantly into town, Mayor Cactus Joe nominates Batman for sheriff of the town -- and the crooks promptly counter-nominate their leader, Frogel, and oh man this is stupid. Like, episode of the Adam West show stupid. How could either of these guys actually be nominated -- one's a crook and the other has no legal identity? Anyways, there's a mild subplot of Batman on the campaign trail with Frogel attempting to sabotage it, but it lasts a page and Batman becomes sheriff. He of course makes Robin his deputy, and for a time all is quiet and peaceful in Sunshine City. Newspapers ring out that Batman has ended crime in the small town, which is impressive considering he couldn't manage it in Gotham.
Now the news comes that the neighbouring town of Gila Gulch is going to lend Sunshine City money to pay for electric lights and other 20th century conveniences. For some reason they decide to bring the money in a stagecoach, and the whole town agrees to dress in pioneer clothes like it was "frontier days", despite the fact that this whole country has been doing that since the start of the story. So of course the gang of crooks plans to rob the stagecoach.
Batman assigns Robin to escort the stagecoach while he... jerks off, I guess? It gets attacked by the bandits who steal the money, kill Cactus Tom, and take Robin hostage. Because Robin sucks. The kid at least leaves a trail for Batman to follow, so the Dark Sheriff rallies a posse of old-timers in cowboy cosplay to help him take down the gang because "one ounce of fighting spirit is worth a ton of muscle!"
A two-page fight scene later and the gang is defeated and Robin freed. And while of course Batman and Robin don't kill anyone, the cowboy cosplayers do indeed shoot a bunch of dudes with six shooters. Batman tracks Frogel to his hideout, and even though Frogel shoots right at him, it somehow doesn't matter and Batman beats him up and takes him to jail. The town erects a statue of Cactus Tom, and Batman reflects that the pioneer spirit is all anyone needs and then no one can rob you of happiness, before the Dynamic Duo fly back to Gotham in the Batplane.
~~~~
My Thoughts: Usually when Bill Finger does these "Batman in another genre" stories, there is some justification for what happens. Nope, not this time. Finger apparently thinks that a) all people in the Midwest dress like they're in a Western B-movie and b) that apparently there is still no law and order in the Wild West. It's a dumb story and not only that but the central gimmick of Batman in a Western is also one we've seen before, in World's Finest #4 just four months ago, which also did a poor job of justifying things and was also a bad story. Well, I suppose I will just have to get used to recycled ideas and scripts as I continue on through this review series.
The Art: I suspect there must have been some kind of miscommunication with the art team on this story. The dialogue seems to imply that no one starts doing the Western get-up and such until the final bit of the story, when everyone dresses up for the town's celebration. But everyone looks like the 1860s all the way through, which just seems bizarre. 
The Story: It's just bad writing. Finger takes forever setting up this frontier town whose whole gimmick strains belief, then we're led to believe that no one else can help these folks except Batman. The "Batman is elected sheriff" plot is dumb, and seems like it's just there to use the silver star iconography and justify the title of the story. And the whole story can be summarized as "every B-western movie clich├ę, this time with Batman". This is the only Finger/Kane story in this issue and it stinks, which maybe demonstrates that the strip indeed needs new blood.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Detective Comics #62 (April, 1942)

Another great cover, actually depicting this month's story, which of course is another Joker tale. I love the way the balloons obscure the book's title, and the way that the DC Publications logo seems to be printed on one of them. And of course I would be remiss not to mention that this is the Joker's very first cover appearance.

"Laugh, Town, Laugh"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: Nationally beloved comedian Happy Hanson is dead, and his will is bizarre to say the least. His lawyer gathers together the nation's favourite comedians to tell them that each has been given a clue to Hanson's wealth, which will be rewarded at the end of the month to the man who tells the funniest joke, who will then be given all the clues.
Meanwhile, the Joker sits in jail. He plans to escape using only a deck of playing cards. He scrapes the pips from the cards and grinds them into cellulose fibre, then jams the cell door keyhole with it. When a guard comes to release Joker for his prison haircut, he finds the keyhole jammed, and decides to cut through. According to the Joker, when heated cellulose becomes nitro-cellulose, a powerful explosive, and thus BOOM! the Joker is free again. (There is about three to four things wrong with this escape plan, not the least of which being that you need to add nitric acid to cellulose to get nitro-cellulose, and then heat it to explode, but to a child reading in 1942 it probably seemed clever)
News of the Joker's escape reaches Gotham, but the Joker is concerned with another bit of news: Hanson's death. He's upset that he wasn't invited to the contest of the country's comedians, and decides to invite himself!
The next night, Bruce and Dick are summoned by the Bat-signal to police headquarters, where Gordon takes them to the home of Freddie Banter, one of the comedians. He has been hanged with a pair of suspenders! Found at the scene, a Joker card inscribed "Q: Why does a fireman wear red suspenders? A: To hang this fool up! -- As you can see, I have entered the contest with my own jokes! A new variation on the old! Ha! Ha! Ha! I have also stolen Freddie Banter's clue. I shall take the others, too! Ha! Ha! Ha!" Joker is killing people according to his variations on old jokes and stealing the clues. Batman admits he doesn't appreciate the Joker's deadly sense of humor and Gordon puts him on the case to bring the Joker in. Comedian Ted Allenby is run over the next day. "Why did the chicken cross the road? This poor cluck didn't!"

Batman goes to the home of comedian Denny Jackson (a Jack Benny type) that night to try and protect him, but his butler reports that he has gone to a music shop to buy a violin. At the shop, the Joker ties up Jackson and creates an elaborate trap involving a metronome stricking a glass tube of TNT that will soon shatter and explode. But Batman and Robin arrive to save the day. Joker escapes with Jackson's clue, but Batman and Robin disarm the metronome bomb and save the man's life. "Why is playing a piccolo like a prize-fight? Ha ha - I've decided to but all the blows together and make one mighty blast! Ha ha!"
The police form a cordon of guards to protect Claude S. Tilley (based on W.C. Fields), because that's worked so well in the past. Outside Tilley's home, a man on stilts walks by the cops holding some helium balloons. He lets some go and they float into the window and start leaking gas -- laughing gas! The man is the Joker of course and he steps in through the window past the helpless police and kills Tilly. "Why are certain comedians like balloons? You're full of gas! Ha ha!" And at the same time, Batman and Robin are protecting Buster Parks (Buster Keaton), but the Joker's gang busts in with knockout gas to immbolize the duo and kidnap the man. Our heroes race after them, chasing them to the pier.
But there's no way over to the Joker without alerting the look-out men... until Batman grabs some inflatable raft-shoes from the Batmobile and the pair walk across the water to the boat! This time the Joker has Parks suspended over the side of the boat with fishing wire, drowning. "What did the telephone operator say to the fisherman when he asked for a date? This line is busy!" The Dynamic Duo burst onto the boat and start fighting. Robin rescues Parks but the Joker captures Batman. Robin needs to give Parks artificial respiration or he'll die, but if he doesn't act now, the Joker will make off with Batman! The Harlequin of Hate enjoys the boy's "mental torture" and leaves while Robin saves Parks.

Joker now has all the clues, which read together are "Ask for checked package for M. Winner at Hotel Grand". The Joker is gleeful in his victory and introduces Batman to his latest death trap: Two doors, one leads to safety, the other to death and the Batman must choose! But suddenly, the Joker wonders why he goes to these immense lengths. Why not unmask Batman while he's captured and then kill him?? But Joker then changes his mind again! That would be too easy, unworthy of his great intelligence! He likes the battle of wits, the chase! So he leaves Batman to the death trap again, telling him the clue to safety is in the room.
Batman finds behind one door, a tiger, and another, death from hurled knives! And the room is filling up with poison gass, so he must choose fast. Batman notices that the knives door has flies swarming around it, so he choose it! The released knives break against Batman's chest -- they were made of sugar!
Batman escapes and joins up with Robin, they must now defeat the Joker at the Hotel Grand! Joker is already there and opens up the mysterious package, which is filled with a fortune in pearls. But the pearls are dead and lustreless, and Joker concludes they are valueless and he went through all this for nothing! Batman and Robin show up and Batman just plain beats Joker into submission. The Dark Knight then explains that pearls loose their lustre when they've been out of contact with a human body for a long period of time, and that in fact the pearls are quite valuable. "This time the laugh is on you!"
And so the Joker is returned to prison... but for how long??
~~~~
My Thoughts: What's really noticeable about the story is how crazy Joker is. It's really a very modern concept of the character, and by modern I guess I mean Bronze Age of Comics era. Joker here is unpredictable, egotistical, and obsessed more with the continuing game of fighting Batman rather than bringing it to any kind of conclusion. Denny O'Neil must have read this story among other Golden Age Joker tales when he "reinvented" Joker for "Joker's Five-Way Revenge" in Batman #251 in 1973, because this Joker is identical to that later one. He's a complete psychopath. This story really feels like Bill Finger, who has always had a good lock on Joker's character, has completely nailed and perfected the character.
The Art: Really great, dynamic stuff here from Robinson and Kane. The fight scenes are great and the staging pretty good too, but what's noticeable here is an evolution to how the Joker is being drawn that gives him a more streamlined appearance and just seems better than how he was drawn before, much like the writing. What's important is that the art is polished, clear and enjoyable to look at in a way that is really improving as these stories go. The sequence where Joker considers unmasking Batman and then changes his mind is fantastic!
The Story: So the last two Joker stories were pretty forgettable robbery schemes and seemingly intended to tone down the character. So this story is just awesome in comparison. It's the single best and most important Joker story since Batman #1's two, in my opinion. Joker is crazy, his goals are related to his ego, his crimes are insane and unique and fatal, and his interaction with Batman really sells that these two are arch-enemies. I also really like that Joker's murder-jokes aren't really funny, except in the bizzare fashion of their connection to the murders -- you can see how a deranged mind like Joker's would be amused, but it's not like the reader is chuckling along, which is good in my opinion. The only weak point is Joker's improbable escape -- can a writer be clever and dumb at the same time? Other great moments include Finger's use of the bat-signal introduced last issue, Joker reaching for Batman's cowl and sudden change of mind, and some of the insane OTT elements, like the air-raft-shoes and Joker's deathtrap. A classic story. 
Joker's Body Count: 43 

Saturday, March 16, 2013

World's Finest Comics #5 (Spring 1942)

So yes, we're definitely into wartime DC mode here. This cover is actually fairly innocuous in its patriotism, but just you wait -- it's gonna get a whole lot worse in issues to come.

"Crime Takes a Holiday"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: Gangster "Brains" Kelly arranges a meeting with fellow mob bosses "Dude" Davis and "Big John" Waller. He has a clever plan -- starting at midnight the next day, there shall be no more crime in Gotham City! And so, no more hold-ups, robberies, and all the crooks in town start following the letter of the law! Police can go home early, and Bruce and Dick are left with nothing to do. Dick suggests retiring, but Bruce points out that there is still plenty of crime in other cities and perhaps they could move there. Because the Batman has sworn on a War on Crime, not just crime in Gotham.
And Bruce is right, in Detroit, Chicago and St. Louis crime continues, but in Gotham all the crooks retreat behind their respectable fronts and become profitable businessmen! Rather than celebrate this great victory, however, Bruce is suspicious and decides to disguise himself and start committing his own crimes to get to the bottom of things! 

So Bruce busts in through the window of Big John's gambling house and sticks the place up! He allows himself to be captured and introduces himself as the Gold Coast Kid. Big John is impressed and offers the Kid a place in the gang. Despite the crime holiday in Gotham City, Big John is planning a job to rob the Curtis Silk Warehouse in Philadelphia. Bruce contacts Dick via wireless radio and tells him to alert the police.
Bruce wonders how the gang plans on pulling the job in Philly without being recognized, and discovers the plot on arrival. Big John's gang wear disguises to appear like the local Quaker City Mob. They commit the crime and hightail it across state lines back to Gotham, with the local mob taking the heat. 
However, after breaking into the warehouse, they are met by Robin and the local police! A two-page fight scene ends with Big John escaping and making it back to Gotham, but he's followed by the Dynamic Duo. Another two page fight scene ends with the Duo cornered by tommy guns. One of the gangsters asks why don't they just kill the heroes there and then, but the boss reminds him that there is no crime in Gotham City!
Instead, Batman and Robin are tied up and locked in the back of a truck which is then pushed off the pier and into the harbour! However, the river is shallow at that point, and the truck lands with it's nose on the bottom and the doors sticking out the top. Batman and Robin balance some boxes to climb to the top and then a saw from Batman's utility belt to cut through the lock and escape. Gotta love that utility belt. And of course the near-death experience has reinvigorated the Dark Knight -- now he has a plan!
Over the coming days, the Hooded Gunmen gang from St. Louis starts robbing the front businesses of crime in Gotham City, as revenge for framing the Gunmen in St Louis. The gangsters are furious, of course, and so the holiday is called off as they track the Gunmen to their hide-out in a fruit market. But of course, the Gunment were actually Batman and Robin in disguise, luring the crooks into a trap! After a fight with some food, the crooks are rounded up and arrested by the police, who suggest that perhaps Batman is the one who deserves a holiday!

~~~~
My Thoughts: A neat and interesting idea, and a different kind of story for Batman and Robin. Overall not much to say about it, except that I think it's important to note that when crime seems to be over in Gotham, Batman has two reactions: pack up and move to a new city, and then that something must be wrong. He doesn't even consider retiring. There's no moment of celebration. I like that. Batman's mission is a War on Crime, all Crime, he just happens to be based in Gotham City. The fact that he goes off to commit a crime in the absence of any speaks so much to his obsession. 
The Art: Pretty good, throughout. Good actions scenes, good layouts, use of shadows, faces, etc. Standard good quality from Kane/Robinson. I like it when the fight scenes get creative and use props, like in the gym and the fruit market.
The Story: Ultimately the problem with this story is that once Bruce figures out the secret behind crime's holiday, the story is really just spinning its wheels for page-count -- fight scene in a warehouse, followed immediately by fight scene in a gym, followed by a capture, an escape, topped off with a fight scene in a fruit market. It's just some action filler til we get to the foregone conclusion. Still the idea is good, and so is the execution for the most part, and it's an enjoyable read.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Detective Comics #61 (March, 1942)

Holy crap, it's cover art that actually advertises and depicts the story INSIDE the comic! What a freakin' concept! What an (obvious) innovation! Gee, that only took us thirty-four issues, eh boys? I mean, it's just the title page of the interior story repurposed, but still!

"The Three Racketeers"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis:  We start with three crooks at a table smoking and playing cards. There's a balding guy, a tough guy with a cigar, and a brainiac type. They establish themselves as all being smart guys with neat rackets that were all ruined by the Batman. 
The balding guy, Crafty, came up with an idea to run fake police radio calls to call cops away from businesses his organization was looking to rob. Meanwhile, he organized his gang's movements using the same radio system, broadcast on shortwave from a moving laundry truck. The gang makes off like bandits, until the Batmobile catches up with them on a job. They get lucky and escape, but Crafty comes home to find his apartment ransacked -- which Batman found because it was listed in the phone book! I guess Crafty isn't so Crafty after all. However, it appears that Batman failed to find the code book Crafty's been using to direct his men, so he calms down. After he leaves, Batman and Robin emerge from behind the curtain -- having baited Crafty with this ploy to reveal the code book's hiding place. So at the next crime, the Dynamic Duo are able to follow the radio to the crook's next job, and they beat them up. The End.
The brainiac describes his tale as a tragedy. He was a professor who managed to create a drug that makes men lazy. Yes, that's right, lazy. He uses it on the chairman of a stock exchange board, causing him to be too lazy to work and thus paralyzing the board. He then appears to the board and ransoms them for the antidote. When he leaves, however, he is followed and ambushed by the Batman! The professor suspects that maybe someone on the board is Batman, perhaps that Bruce Wayne fellow (the bored playboy act comes on so strong, y'know?) But that doesn't matter to this story, as the professor hits Batman with the lazy drug, making him TOO LAZY TO FIGHT CRIME!! And so the professor continues to the next company and the next ransom. However, he gets his shoes shined by a young boy who happens to be Robin in disguise! Robin follows the prof back to his hideout, and attacks him (meaning that the prof has also seen Robin without a mask -- seriously, the guy basically knows Batman's identity). Robin slips Batman the antidote, the two beat up the prof and pow! The end.
The final guy, the big shot with the cigar, had a smart racket too. He had his boys steal tanks from the army -- three small, one-man types. The MPs suspect fifth columnists, never dreaming its the work of gangsters. Using large, fast trucks to transport them, the gang goes from bank to bank and raid them using the tanks! But they didn't count on the Dynamic Duo in the Batplane! Robin tosses Molotov cocktails at them from above!! The gangsters seem licked, until they remember they have tommy guns and use them to shoot down the Batplane! It crashes in the Atlantic, but our heroes make it out okay of course. Robin even remarks that it's a "good thing we have a spare, improved Batplane at home!" Ah, the luxuries of the 1% -- a spare Batplane! Anyways, they take off on motorcycles after the trucks, catch up to the crooks, tear gas their lair, and beat the crap out of them. The end. 
Turns out our three storytelling crooks have been waiting to get processed into their cells at the State Prison. A guard appears to tell them to get moving, then turns to the reader and remarks that all three were very smart, yet outsmarted by the Batman -- so what does that tell you?
~~~~
My Thoughts: What's mostly neat about this story is the structure -- all three segments are narrated in first person by the crooks, so we really see Batman from their perspective -- the way he seems to figure out their schemes out of nowhere, the way he descends like a tornado and is utterly brutal in his application of his fist to your face. It very much reads as a Golden Age prototype of that beloved Batman Animated episode "Almost Got 'Im". It's a neat experiment and a nice change of pace and narrative style.

The Art: Standard quality from Kane & Co. The Batplane action is particularly well done. The various chase sequences throughout allow for a kind of dynamism lacking in the standard "punch-the-bad-guys" fight scenes.
The Story: Okay, so the concept is cool and the execution is interesting, but let's not kid ourselves. These are three story ideas Finger couldn't flesh out to full length, so he found a way to cram 'em together. This is made really obvious by the fact that there's no real punchline to this idea. In "Almost Got 'Im", the fun was in seeing the villains interact while they told their stories, and there was still a larger story going on in the frame narrative. Here, what you'd expect based on the title is that after sharing their failures, that these three guys would team up against Batman. Hell, in a longer story, a modern story, it'd be a freakin' given. But instead we end on yet another Finger moral about how "crime doesn't pay", but since these guys did great til Batman showed up, it's more like "crime doesn't pay if you live in a city where a bored rich guy plays dress up vigilante and has tons of toys and gadgets." Because TWO Batplanes, everyone!
Notes and Trivia: The Professor basically figures out Batman's identity, but doesn't care. The Batplane is destroyed, but there's a new and improved one on its way!

Monday, March 11, 2013

Detective Comics #60 (February, 1942)

And here's what Jerry Robinson art looks like without Bob Kane, just in case you thought (or heard) Robinson was doing all the work. Batman's all right I guess, but just what is that haircut, Robin?

The Case of the Costume-Clad Killers”
Writer: Jack Schiff
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: So in literally no time at all, the Joker is back again. His scheme this time? Dressing his goons up in official uniforms so as to sneak past guards unawares – crooks in military outfits raid a US armory, crooks in police uniforms rob a bank, firefighters start fires and then steal valuables under the cover of “doing their job”, etc.
Bruce and Dick, hearing of this in the newspapers as is their lazy-ass custom, agree its a brilliant scheme, and Bruce has already concluded that it can only be the work of the Joker. Suddenly, a bright searchlight on the roof of police headquarters beams into the night sky, projecting the image of giant bat onto a black cloud! It's the first appearance of the Bat-signal, and the duo quickly realize they are wanted by Commissioner Gordon.
They rush into Gordon's office, where the Commish confirms its the Joker, having received a mocking playing card inscribed with a clue to the Harlequin of Hate's next crime. Batman correctly deduces the clue (after admitting he doesn't get the Joker's “cryptic sense of humour”) as meaning that he's going to strike the Post Office a block away from Police Headquarters, with his men dressed as postmen. After a two-page fight scene followed by a chase in the Batmobile, the Joker escapes.
The uniformed robberies continue, with railroad hold-ups and even elevator operator purse snatchings! Unless Batman can predict where the Joker is going to strike next, there's almost no way to catch him. So, of course, he lays a trap for the Joker by placing a fake article in the newspaper. Aka, Batman's sole non-fist-related method of crimefighting.
The Joker buys the bait, that the great Brody Diamond is going to be sold aboard Gerald Brody's yacht. So, continuing the theme, he dresses his gang up in Coast Guard outfits and pull up alongside the yacht in a patrol boat. But Batman and Robin are waiting for him! However a two-page fight scene sees the Joker gain the upperhand, tossing Robin overboard to drown, and then hanging Batman over the water by a rope set to slowly burn by a candle (yeesh).
Robin comes to underwater and makes it onto the Joker's patrol boat, following the gang to their hideout. Batman eventually falls into the drink as well, but awakes upon the splash of water and escapes his bonds by cutting the rope on the boat's propeller blades. Back on shore, he concludes that the Joker must be operating out of Charlie's Costumes for Hire, based on a clue one of the henchmen gave earlier.
Batman bursts in on the gang, and Robin has already infiltrated the shop by pretending to be a dummy wearing a... Little... Red... Riding... Hood outfit? Oh man, yep, there's Dick Grayson in a dress, curled hair and a bonnet. How come I've never seen these panels mocked online before? Yikes. Anyways, a two-page fight scene sees our heroes come out on top, with the Joker comically knocking himself out when he tries to throw a boomerang at Batman (yeesh). Batman quips that there's only one uniform the Joker has yet to wear – a convict's uniform, and so the Harlequin of Hate ends up back in jail. But for how long???
~~~~
My Thoughts: This issue sees the debut of Jack Schiff as a Batman writer. His premiere story is a little formulaic (almost remarkably so!), but Schiff is an important figure in the Batman mythos, as he will eventually take over from Whitney Ellsworth as Editor of the Batman comics in the 1950s, shepherding the character after the rise of the Comics Code Authority, after the end of the Golden Age and through the start of the Silver Age. Although his tenure as editor was marked by a decline in story quality, and a rise in sci-fi fantasy silliness in the books, the fact of the matter was that he was editor for almost ten years on the series, and cannot be easily dismissed.
In this story we see that he, like Joseph Greene last month, hews carefully to the Bill Finger trends and standards, yet he manages to introduce some new elements that refine the formula and end up lasting for decades – like the Bat-signal, which makes its first appearance here, as a very visible symbol of the police department's new partnership with the Batman, as well as a dramatic and clever way for Gordon to get in touch with a man whose identity is unknown to him.
The Art: Good artwork here from Kane and Robinson, particularly a few character close-ups such as one of the Joker reading the paper and one of Batman spying the criminals through a pair of binoculars. Also the opening splash page depicting the Joker in a Napoleonic uniform is fantastic, if a bit misleading as to what sort of “costumes” the “costume-clad killers” are using. If there's something to be said against this issue, it's that many of the panels are very small, as if Schiff wrote more action that could be comfortably fit into the page-count – as a result, the art is sometimes claustrophobic feeling and muddled.
The Story: A rogue's gallery villain commits a spree of daring crimes. The Bat-signal summons the Dynamic Duo to police headquarters. Commissioner Gordon informs our heroes just which dastardly fiend we're dealing with. The Caped Crusaders attempt to defeat the villains, but are placed in a seemingly inescapable death-trap. They, of course, escape and finally confront the villain in one last fist fight before hauling him off to jail while making a joke. What does that sound like? The story not only of this issue, but also almost every Batman story from here on out – but far more significantly, it is the exact formula of every episode of the 1966-68 ABC Batman television series starring Adam West, which for all its problems was a major factor in cementing Batman's place in mainstream popular culture. So while Schiff's story is formulaic and close to the Bill Finger mold, it's his exact application of the formula that sets a brand new standard in Bat-storytelling, although I doubt that was apparent to anyone at the time. But it certainly explains how Schiff became a rising star in comics writing (and furthers my point that his contributions cannot just be disregarded).
As for the story itself, it's very similar to “The Case of the Lucky Law-Breakers” in Batman #9, as its another story about Joker figuring out a clever way for his gang to commit robberies. At least Schiff remembers to keep the gimmick up the whole way through. But the title is a little disingenuous. The criminals are more “Uniform-clad” than “costume-clad”, and they only kill one bank guard in the course of a robbery – the Joker doesn't even kill anyone at all! “Case of the Uniformed Robberies”, more like.
Notes and Trivia: First appearance of the Bat-signal, perfection of the Batman “story formula”

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. 
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Fish_out_of_Water_%28Family_Guy%29
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.

"Christmas"

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.