Sunday, August 10, 2014

Detective Comics #78 (August, 1943)

Oooh, boy. Prepare for patriotism and propaganda!

"The Bond Wagon"
Writer: Joseph Greene
Pencils: Jack Burnley
Inks: George Roussos
Synopsis: Dick is reading book on American History, presumably for school, and the thought strikes him that World War II is a revolutionary war for freedom in the same way as the War of Independence! Bruce totally agrees, and Dick thinks that if only modern Americans could remember the heroes of the American Revolution then they'd be inspired to buy more war bonds!
Bruce agrees again, and decides to cast for doubles of American founding patriots for a "Bond Wagon" to sell war bonds by restaging famous moments from the Revolutionary War. For some reason, he decides to do this in his Batman identity, instead of just as millionaire Bruce Wayne.
Sure enough, a bunch of patriotic Americans show up to volunteer to play George Washington, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Tom Paine, Sam Adams, and Betsy Ross and Molly Pitcher because after all "women served then just as today!" (I have to admit, as a Canadian I only recognize five of those names off hand...)
One of the applicants is a former merchant marine captain who's ship was destroyed by the German Navy. He can't get another command because he suffers from "gunshock" (PTSD to us modern folk). Batman understands and casts him as Captain John Paul Jones of the Bonhomme Richard.
Then there's Pete Arnold, a college football player accused of betraying his team and throwing the Rose Bowl Game to cover his gambling debts. Now everyone calls him "Benedict" Arnold. He tells Batman the reason the team lost was because he was sick. Batman believes him and casts him as Nathan Hale.
The Bond Wagon is a huge success and generates a great deal of sales for war bonds and war stamps. Naturally this means it attracts the attention of Nazi spies operating in America, who decide to sabotage the bond wagon to destroy American morale.
Apparently the best way to do this is take the place of the actors playing the Hessian soldiers in the reenactment of Washington crossing the Delaware. Batman was over on the Washington side of the river while Robin had been stationed with the Hessian actors in a cabin on the other side. When the Nazis burst in and replace the Hessians, they capture Robin. But the Boy Wonder puts some logs on the fireplace because it's "cold", and the Nazis inexplicably allow him to do this, making fun of how weak Americans are.
Naturally, Robin is sending smoke signals from the chimney. Batman sees them, and knows there is trouble. He crosses the river and throws gas pellets into the cabin so the Nazis can't fire on the American actors. 
The battle is joined, and of course our heroes beat up all the Nazis and arrest them. But these were simply the small fry - we still don't know who's leading the spy ring.
Next up we have the re-enactment of the Bonhomme Richard, which ends up being attacked by a Nazi submarine! Captain PTSD gets all freaked out, but Batman shakes him out of it and cures his PTSD by yelling patriotic slogans at him, because THIS COMIC IS PROPAGANDA IN CASE YOU DIDN'T NOTICE. 
Then despite the fact that it's a wooden schooner with 18th century cannons versus a modern Nazi submarine, the schooner wins -- largely because Batman and Robin sneak onboard the deck, take over the guns, and point them at the Nazis. Another victory, with the US Coast Guard NOWHERE TO BE SEEN. Gosh, they really do need those bonds!
Finally, the leader of the Nazi spy ring decides that if Pete Arnold was willing to betray his school in a football game, he'll be willing to betray his country in wartime! 
So the Nazis meet up with Arnold, and take him to meet the head of the spy ring. Robin is following Arnold and sees what's going down. But he can't find a car to drive out and warn Batman because of gas rationing (seriously, was it normal for ten-thirteen year olds to drive in the 40s?), and so Robin hops on a horse (so much more common) and we get the Midnight Ride of Boy Robin (instead of Paul Revere, yeah?)
So the Dynamic Duo head back to Nazi Spy HQ and punch all the Nazis till they fall down. They find Arnold shot in a back room, and take him to hospital. When he recovers he reveals that he didn't betray Batman, he was playing along to find out the identity of the leader and they shot him when he asked too many questions. 

After a re-enactment of the signing of the Declaration of Independance, Batman makes a speech about signing a new Declaration of Independance, independance from the slavery of "Schikelgruber" (Hitler's maternal grandmother's name), and asks "Fellow Americans - Which is it to be? Bondage, or War Bonds?" 
My Thoughts: How do you even judge this? I mean, it's really just wartime propaganda. I was surprised there wasn't a "paid for by the War Department" message at the end of it! 
We see so much of these "Buy War Bonds" propaganda pieces in old pieces of popular culture from this period, from comics covers to Bugs Bunny cartoons, that I'm often very curious as to how many people were buying bonds. These pieces always make it seem like the American public wasn't very invested in the war and needed to be woken up to the dangers of the Third Reich and really pressured into patriotic spending -- but from what I understand war bonds sold really well in the US in WWII and the campaigns were usually a huge success? Apparently over the course of the war $185 billion was raised by 85 million Americans, approximately two-thirds of the population.
For those who don't know, cuz I really didn't either, the way the bonds worked was you bought a bond at a rate of say, 0.75 of a dollar - so a $25 bond for $18.75, and then ten years after you bought it the government would pay you back for the whole amount. I think. Someone with a better knowledge of finances and/or US history can correct me.
The Art: It's Jack Burnley art, so it looks great. Makes me think that this was maybe considered a prestige story, a "pull out the stops" kind of effort. Or maybe it was just another assignment. Oddly he's paired with George Roussos instead of his brother, so the ink line is a little thicker than usual. It works in most places but in some panels with more figures and details Roussos's line overwhelms a little and obscures things - like in the "Washington Crossing the Delaware" panel. 
The Story: How do you even judge a story like this? It's pure propaganda. Aside from that, it's the kind of plot that feels natural in Captain America or Wonder Woman but doesn't work for me in Batman - fighting Nazi spies with hidden submarines and sabotage plans. I mean, I know we're in the thick of the war, but it just feels alien to Batman. Granted, ignoring the war is even weirder - the comics still haven't explained why Bruce Wayne isn't fighting overseas lol - but it still feels strange for Batman and Robin to be fighting Nazis. And as a Canadian I have to say the overwhelming American patriotism here doesn't really do anything for me. Who's Nathan Hale? Who's John Paul Jones? Also -- World War II is a modern War of Independance? Maybe for France! For America? A bit of an exaggeration.
I dunno, it's hard to criticize this thing - it's a propaganda story to stir up patriotism and sell war bonds. Whether it's good or not depends on whether it succeeds at that goal -- is evoking the Founding Fathers something that effectively gets Americans stirred up to fund foreign wars? I guess it is.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Holy Flash Forward, Batman!

I'm pleased to announce that in addition to my ongoing look at the Golden Age Batman in Bat to the Beginning, which recently started looking at the influential but problematic Batman serial, and my series of Silver Age Iron Man reviews at All Jets Ablaze!, I will be launching a new series of reviews and analyses!

Focused on the "New Look" era of Batman comics from 1964-1969, Holy Retro Reviews, Batman! will examine the wonderful Silver Age era of Batman comics when editor Julius Schwartz and artist Carmine Infantino restored the character's popularity after years of shoddy sci-fi storytelling. These energetic, stylish and modern tales eventually served as the primary inspiration for the classic 1966-1968 Batman television series starring Adam West and all of its resultant spin-offs.

It's a very cool, exciting era in Batman history and I hope you'll enjoy looking back on it with me as much as I do. So watch out for new reviews of Batman, Detective Comics, World's Finest, and The Brave and the Bold in the Silver Age, along with reviews of the Adam West show as well, at this new site. 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

BATMAN, Chapter 3 (July 30, 1943)

"The Mark of the Zombies"
Screenplay: Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, Harry Fraser
Producer: Rudolph C. Flothow
Director: Lambert Hillyer
Last Time: Daka has his men capture Linda Page, believing she has the radium gun. Batman and Robin bust in to rescue her, but as Batman carries Linda out the window along a telephone line, one of the hoods uses an electrical wire to spark a fire along the line, which catches up to Batman, causing Linda and him to fall off... to their inevitable deaths!
Synopsis: Robin throws a rope line, which Batman... catches... while still holding Linda.. and then swings down to ground level on... ? Honestly the way the shots are organized is kind of confusing and it feels like bad editing/movie trickery getting our characters out of this as a bit of a cheat.
Despite being shot at by Foster, our heroes make off with Linda and escape. Foster's men figure Daka won't be pleased with this failure - but Foster says he isn't afraid of any "squint-eye". Yikes. Seeds of dissent among the villains?
Daka indeed declares Foster a fool, and then asks his captive Martin Warren if he still refuses to join the League of the New Order. So he has Warren taken to his laboratory, and in a sequence full of classic 1940s Mad Scientist Gizmos (Tesla coils abound), has Warren transformed into a mindless zombie, controlled by Daka's electronic transmitter.
Meanwhile, Bruce has engaged in a classic "ad in the papers to trap the villains" gambit, and it totally works. Foster reports to Daka a classified ad featuring the radium gun listed as "found", with a time and place to pick it up. But Daka smartly realizes it's an obvious trap by the Batman. The ad has the time for pick up arranged at 10pm, but Daka needs the radium gun in order to blow up a US army supply train at 10pm. So Daka sends the boys to suprised Batman at the meeting place at 9 and take the gun in time to blow up the train (although he gives them some dynamite to use in case they fail to get the gun, because Daka is surprisingly competent.)
The meeting place is in an office in a high rise building, with Alfred playing the role of the placer of the classified ad. For some reason he's wearing a wig and fake beard, y'know, in case the crooks recognize him as Bruce Wayne's butler, I guess? Batman waits outside the window, while Robin plays look-out on street level. 
But the crooks have anticipated the use of a look-out, so one of them knocks Robin unconscious and then climbs up the fire escape to get Batman (a fun game with this serial is counting how many concussions Robin should have).
Foster shows up to meet Alfred, but is having none of the butler's stalling, calling the boys in and pulling a gun on him. Meanwhile, on the roof, the guy who knocked out Robin has a bead on Batman with his gun, but Robin has recovered and followed him to the roof. They struggle for the gun for a bit before crashing through a skylight and into the office.
Batman uses the distraction to crash through the window, and soon it's fistfight time. During the fight Alfred calls the police, then grabs a dropped gun and fires wildly into the air, causing the crooks to run away. They search for some clues and find a map of the railroad, with a circle around the bridge marked "10 pm", and Batman figures what they're up to.
So we end up with our crooks attaching a bomb to the bridge as the train's about to come in, with Batman and Robin close behind them. What happens next is predictable, but fun: a fight on the tracks, the train's a-comin', the crooks scram, Batman goes to try and defuse the bomb - telling Robin to get clear of the bridge, and then one of the escaping crooks throws a wrench at Batman's head, knocking him out just as the train gets there to run him over!!!
Next Time: Daka has pet alligators! The bad guys nab Linda again (for radium reasons, again)!
Thoughts and Review:  Chapter 3 is a bit of a step down from Chapter 2. It's perfunctory and predictable in parts. Also, I don't understand the title. I mean, yeah, Uncle Martin is turned into a zombie, but there's no "mark" on the zombies - they just all wear those little electric transmitters on their heads. 
I do like the use of the classified ads gambit - it's a cliché, but because it's a cliché in the comics it's fun to see it used in the serial. Another good detail is when Robin apologizes for screwing up by getting drawn off look-out duty, and Batman thanks him for saving his life. It really does a good job of cementing their mentor/pupil relationship, and gives him more personality and character beyond just "heroes". Alfred gets some good funny moments too, such as when he phones the police to report that he is "being murdered!"
The train tracks cliffhanger is one of the most tried and true of all cliffhangers, but it's still fun to see and they do a decent job with the fight. Hopefully however Batman gets out of it is less of a cheat than the confusing save at the start of this chapter - that being said it's cool that Robin gets to save Batman, and in fact in general the amount of stuff Robin gets to do is very cool. I think one very positive thing this serial does is have a kid Robin in the traditional costume who is very proactive and very useful - he flings himself into danger and contributes to the fights, he's not whiny or annoying or stupid. 
The weirdest thing about this chapter, at least on first viewing, is the structure. Basically it feels like two halves that meet in the middle. The first half is dealing with the aftermath of last week, with Batman rescuing Linda and Daka wanting the radium gun back. The second half is like "fuck that" with Daka wanting to blow up a train and the Dynamic Duo having to go foil that, which leads into another cliffhanger. But while it's a little weird at first, and also makes the episode feel a bit identity-less on its own, it's gonna become a pretty common structure. It's the same reason old 1960s Marvel comics feel so soap-opera esque, and lead right from one into another instead of having more contained arcs -- because you spend half the story wrapping up last week, and the second half setting up next week. So there aren't any good breaking points, it keeps the audience coming back week after week, which was the whole point of serials.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

BATMAN, Chapter 2 (July 23, 1943)

"The Bat's Cave"
Screenplay: Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, Harry Fraser
Producer: Rudolph C. Flothow
Director: Lambert Hillyer
Last Time: Daka tried to steal radium from the Gotham Foundation, but Batman and Robin show up to stop them! While fighting on the rooftop, two of Daka's thugs grab Batman and toss him off the roof!
Synopsis: Our hero's surely deadly fall is broken by landing on a window washer's platform! How convenient! He climbs back up to the roof as the cops show up. Foster and his accomplice try to beat feet, but when said accomplice stops to grab the radium gun that was dropped in the scuffle, Robin tackles him!
Foster makes it out and escapes but Batman and Robin take the other guy captive, along with the radium gun, and take him to the Bat's Cave!
"The Bat's Cave" in this, it's first major appearance, is very simple. Apparently candlelit, it features a big wooden desk for Batman, a ton of rubber bats on fishing lines flying around, a big Bat-logo on one of the cave walls, and... well, that's it. Batman sits his captive down and basically threatens to feed him to the bats, and that's enough to break him down and spill his guts.
The hoodlum says they were going to deliver the radium to "The House of the Open Door" - a "fluff joint" (which I assume is 1940s slang for a house of ill repute? Someone wanna take a stab at this?). He says he was working for a man named "Smith", describing Foster. Batman believes most of the story, although he figures "Smith" is a phoney name, then the Dynamic Duo head upstairs and leave the poor guy alone, locked in the cave.
Coming up through the secret entrance in the grandfather clock in Wayne Manor (another invention of this serial), Bruce and Dick use the radium gun to explode a vase and scare the shit out of Alfred - because fuck servants, we're rich, I guess? 
Alfred, of course, has been reading his pulp magazines and detective novels again, but is interrupted so he can drive the Batman's captive to a police station and dump him on the curb.
Some patrol boys bring him in to Captain Arnold, with a note explaining that Linda Page can identify him and charge him in connection with the "radium robbery and hospital murder" -- hospital murder? Who was murdered? Is that referring to the zombie that Daka had walk off the roof to his death for no reason last week??
Back at Dr. Daka's Secret Giant Buddha Spy Headquarters, Daka admonishes his men for losing the radium gun. Daka figures since it was left behind at the Gotham Foundation that one of the employees might have it. Of course he might have had a better idea what had happened if he hadn't ordered his remote control zombie to off himself, but I guess hindsight is 20/20 after all. Daka figures that since Martin Warren's niece worked in the office where the radium was, it's likely either she has the gun or knows who does.
So Foster calls Linda, pretending to be Warren, and tells her to meet him at The Blue Parrot (in Casablanca?)... and come alone! Linda calls Bruce to tell him what's up, but also not to come. So of course Bruce and Dick are gonna pay a visit to the Blue Parrot as well to keep an eye on Linda!
At the club, Linda is called away to the telephone booth and Bruce sends Dick to keep an eye on her. Dick goes over, sees that yep she's on the phone, and reports back to Bruce, who's all "I told you to keep an eye on her, stupid!", and when they rush over to see what's up, she's gone! Because the phone booth was rigged with gas and a trick door, so Foster has kidnapped Linda.
So Bruce and Dick use their only clue and head to the House of the Open Door, with Bruce putting on a sort've prototype Matches Malone disguise, and Dick dressing up like a "Daily Record" newspaperboy, complete with accurate outfit, t-shirt, newspapers, etc. Dick serves as a lookout in front of the building as Bruce goes in, each wearing 2-way radios to communicate with each other. Very smart.
Foster comes into the building, and Bruce shadows him upstairs, keeping note of which room he goes into. There's a trick door in the back of the room, leading to another room filled with radio equipment and hazardous chemicals (??) where some hoodlums are interrogating Linda. She doesn't tell them anything, because she doesn't know anything, but the hoods aren't buying it.
As Batman and Robin (with Batman wearing a much improved costume), the Dynamic Duo climb up to the window by throwing their grappling hook up onto a power line and then walking across the power line to the windowsill. Now, I'm no electrician, but I figure that at least sometime in there they should've been fried.
Anyways, they burst into the window as is their custom, and we get an all out brawl, which feels just as uncoordinated as the one last week, just guys throwing haymakers left and right (at one point, Batman's cape falls off, but it's back after the next cut). So of course those hazardous chemicals (acid, apparently) that are in there are spilled and so there's deadly gas spewing everywhere. Foster and the boys escape and lock Batman and Robin in the room. Robin heads out the window and across the power line, Batman following while carrying Linda.
But Foster has them spotted from the roof, and grabs some wire from another power line and swings it down to the line Batman is standing on, short-circuiting it.
Now, again, I'm no electrician, but I'm pretty sure the dangerous electrical fire wouldn't just slowly make it's way up the line behind Batman like a lit bomb fuse or something - but that's what happens here. Robin makes it down to ground level, but the electrical fire catches up to Batman just as he reaches the grappling line, and he and Linda fall off the line.... to their inevitable deaths!
Thoughts and Review: Chapter 2 of Batman is a big improvement over Chapter 1. Part of this is that it doesn't have to set up the story and characters, so the pacing is much better. Even with a shorter running time it balances story, action, and character quite nicely. But mostly I think it just has the best mix of elements. It might be my favourite chapter in the serial overall, which yes, means we're peaking quite early.
For one thing, you've got Batman and Robin being a lot more competent and awesome then they were in the last chapter. First, capturing and interrogating that guy in the Batcave - and I love Lewis Wilson's performance in this scene, a kind of gleeful meaness. Then, tailing Linda from the Blue Parrot to the House of the Open Door, and again Wilson does a great job of switching personas from Bruce to Batman to his disguise and back again. The bit with the radios and the newspaperboy lookout feels like a regular routine, like they've been doing this a while and have certain favoured maneuvers, which increases the feeling that we're seeing the comic book characters with their history, translated onto the silver screen. Scaling the building with their grappling hook, smashing through the window, fighting off thugs, carrying Linda out of there -- our heroes do a lot of fun, cool things in this chapter, things that feel like what Batman and Robin do in their comic book adventures.
Significantly, this chapter gives us our first good looks at the two additions the serial made to the Bat mythos: the Batcave, and Alfred. The Batcave is very prototype, just a simple one room affair. It seems connected to another room, a secret crime laboratory which had already been featured in the comics, but the two are definitely seperate locations rather than unified under the "cave" stylings. But what's really cool is the entrance to the Batcave is through a grandfather clock in Wayne Manor - which, once the Batcave made it's migration to the comics, is where the secret entrance would be depicted as well. In the comics they will add the detail that the door is opened by changing the time on the clock to the time Bruce's parents were killed - but oddly, other than the Bruce Timm animated series, no other Bat-adaptation would use the grandfather clock entrance - the '66 show used the Shakespeare bust and sliding poles, Burton's films had an Iron Maiden trapdoor, the Schumacher films had a hidden door in the silver closet, and the Nolan films had it activated by a trick piano.
Alfred, meanwhile, is fantastic. I mean, yeah, this isn't the super competant dry wit Alfred of the modern day, but William Austin is giving a great comic performance here. While he's much the same character as the comic book Alfred - a little bumbling, but eager to help - it somehow work's a lot better with Austin's performance. He's thin, high-strung, very upper crust -- it's a little reminescent of what Anthony Daniel's would do with C-3PO for Star Wars! Austin's performance was such a popular element of this serial that Alfred's character would be reworked to resemble Austin more, especially physically, which is why in the comics for 70 years afterwords Alfred would be thin, balding, and with a moustache!
Notes and Trivia: First appearance of the grandfather clock entrance to the Batcave

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

BATMAN, Chapter 1 (July 16, 1943)

The theatrical serial is an extinct, almost forgotten form of film entertainment, but one with an unmistakable influence on the past seventy years of pop culture media.
Serials were, in some respects, more like the predecessors of television than short films. Divided into multiple chapters of two reels in length (with an introductory three reel chapter), a serial would tell a continous story across it's chapters but each "episode" would also have it's own story, almost invariably ending with a "cliffhanger" in which the heroes were left to almost certainly die, only to miraculously escape in the opening minutes of the next chapter.
Formulaic to a fault, and often very low-budgeted, serial chapters were shown once a week at a theatre, often as part of a Saturday matinee. Sometimes considered mere children's fare, many serials adapted pulp magazine characters and were also popular with adults. While they aren't very sophisticated in their storytelling style from today's perspective, they are nonetheless an intrinsic influence on filmmakers like George Lucas, with both Star Wars and Indiana Jones having their precedents in movie serials. And of course today's weekly episodic television, with its serialized storytelling, owes a debt to its simplistic forebears.
By 1943 only three movie studios were producing serials - Universal Studios, Columbia Pictures and Republic Pictures, the latter of which produced serials exclusively and was generally considered the best of the three. Columbia serials were often made to be "cost effective", while Universal serials were often more lavish and approaching feature film quality, such as its famous 1936 Flash Gordan adaptation, and Republic serials being the most exciting and expensive. 
Many serials of the golden age were adaptations from other media, often comic strips and pulp magazine characters like Dick Tracy and The Shadow. Captain Marvel became the first comic book superhero to get a live action serial in 1941 from Republic, and it featured some amazing special effects. The rights to Captain Marvel's biggest rival, Superman, were tied up with Paramount Pictures, who were producing the famous animated shorts at this time and considered a live-action Superman impractical. So it was in April of 1942 that Columbia announced it would be adapting Batman to the big screen in a fifteen-part serial.

"The Electrical Brain"
Screenplay: Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, Harry Fraser
Producer: Rudolph C. Flothow
Director: Lambert Hillyer 
Synopsis:  A somber, sonorous narrator introduces us to our setting in Gotham City, and outside it Wayne Manor, and deep beneath it - The Bat's Cave, secret underground headquarters of Batman and Robin. Their origins and motivations are left unexplained, but it's clear they are heroes, and that they are patriots - "they represent American youth who love their country, and are glad to fight for it". Did I mention it was 1943?
Our story proper begins with Batman and Robin pulling up to a streetside policebox in their 1939 Cadillac convertible (no Batmobile, that would cost money). Batman picks the lock and puts a call through to Captain Arnold of the GCPD, alerting him of a little "package" being left for him.
The implication is that Arnold has been suffering with the Batman for some time, and has a kind've easy antagonism with him (a far cry from the deputized Batman of the comics, but not so far off from the vigilante Batman of the 39-41 era).
The crooks Batman is dropping off are the "last of the Collins gang", but they warn him that "Dr. Daka" will make him regret his actions, the first mention of this name. The Dynamic Duo drive off (with Robin driving!) before the cops arrive so that Bruce can make a date with Linda Page.
 Linda is depicted as working at the vague "Gotham City Foundation". She seems more like a secretary than a nurse, but she still works for an MD, Dr. Borden. Bruce and Dick show up and Bruce makes a big show about what lazy good-for-nothing playboy he is, and Dick later suggests that he's perhaps laying it on a little thick. They discuss plans for heading to the prison to pick up Linda's uncle, Martin Warren, who is being released. In private, Dick asks why Bruce doesn't just tell Linda that he's the Batman, and Bruce's reasoning is that a) she might worry, and b) that their special assignment from Uncle Sam requires secret identities. So Batman and Robin don't work with the police, but they are working as G-Men? (Bruce's cover for not having been drafted is that he's a 4-F -  hey at least that's better than a Section 8!)
So they go to pick up Warren, but a bunch of his old cellmate buddies have shown up to pick him up (read: kidnap him) first, led by a guy named Foster who has the best "stereotypical 1940s gangster" voice ever. Bruce and Linda arrive just as the crooks are driving out with Warren, so Bruce orders Alfred to turn around their 1939 Cadillac convertible that's exactly like Batman's and follow that car! (Apparently putting the top up is enough to change "Bruce Wayne's car" into "Batman's car")
They give chase at great speed, but the bad guys pull far enough ahead to get out of sight and "make the change" - the license plate rotates to a different one, and an aerosol spray repaints their black sedan white! They turn around and pass Bruce and the gang, who are perplexed at having lost sight of their pursuit.
We then cut to Gotham City's "Little Tokyo", a ghost town now that a "wise government had rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs" and oh man, here we go. I'll take a bit later on to unpack that statement, but suffice for now to say that this serial is unabashedly patriotic to the point of jingoism, as well as decidedly racist, and these elements can make it difficult viewing for some folks here in 2014. It never gets quite as mean-spirited again as here, but it does remain (as Tumblr would put it) problematic.
Anyways, the only business left open in Little Tokyo is a "Cave of Horrors", basically a carnival haunted house railcar ride with the spooky monsters replaced by wax Japanese soldiers torturing wax Americans. Foster's gang of crooks get Martin Warren into a car, getting out halfway through by a weird display of a caveman looking guy about to club another caveperson (said caveman is clearly an oiled up living dude working as a human statue sentry - hope he gets paid well because he just stands there motionless and we spend almost the entire serial waiting for that other shoe to drop).
There's a pretty obvious door in the cave wall at this display, Foster opens it by opening a panel and flashing his Super Secret Spy Decoder Ring TM, and soon they are in a Very Oriental Hideout, complete with a Giant statue of Buddha. Warren is here greeted by our villain, Dr. Tito Daka of "The League of the New Order" - a Japanese national, prince (?) and spy played by J. Carrol Naish (a definitely caucasian actor in relatively good "Asian" make-up using an odd accent and wearing a kind of black Colonel Sanders suit - an odd mix of elements). What kind of Japanese name is "Tito Daka" anyway?
The League is a group of "dishonored" American businessmen and scientists and so on who's criminal pasts make it impossible for them to work in their society and thus have joined Daka. There's Fletcher, a rougher Howard Hughes/Cary Grant looking kinda guy who was an architect and engineer who built shoddy buildings. There's also Marshall, Preston and Wallace. Daka wants Warren, an industrialist, to join to round out the group. Anyways, the whole thing is a Japanese fifth column spy ring designed to "liberate the enslaved peoples of America". Hopefully they start by liberating all the Japanese-Americans in the internment camps.
Too soon?

Warren explains that in fact he was falsely accused (because he's a good guy) - although the details of his crime and imprisonment aren't elaborated on. Warren refuses because he's "an American first and always!", so Daka reveals his method of dealing with those who won't join him willingly - he uses a electronic transmitter/receiver wired into the spinal column, turning the wearer into a "zombie" who only obeys the commands Daka gives by microphone. "Bob", Warren's former partner, has been turned into "Number Twelve".
Warren continues to refuse, and thus is taken down into Daka's electronic laboratory. Daka cannot turn Warren into a zombie just yet because he has information Daka needs. So he just pumps him full of truth serum. Daka needs to know where the Gotham City Foundation keeps its store of radium, and Warren knows because he endowed the Foundation (presumably in his pre-convict days). Warren tells him where to find it (Dr. Borden's office) and so Daka sends the goon squad out to retrieve it.
He arms the men with a "radium gun", a miniature "atom smasher". It's a ray gun, for all intents and purposes, and Daka needs more radium so he can build a larger one so that Japan can use it to destroy America. At this point my head is spinning at this plot of the dastardly Japanese creating an all powerful atomic weapon to defeat the US, because they're the villains and that's what villains do and...
Daka gives Foster the gun and sends them on their way to use it to blast the safe and get the radium. Foster and some other crook are sent with a zombie, because Daka can watch them using the headpiece that controls the zombie.
Meanwhile, at the Foundation, Linda is freaking out about her uncle while Bruce tries to play it cool. Linda is not impressed. Bruce and Dick take off to leave Linda to her work just as the goon squad shows up. Bruce recognizes them, and has Alfred pull the car into an alley so they can change into Batman and Robin. The goons grab Linda and Borden, incapacitating them, then use the radium gun on the safe. Batman and Robin climb up the side of the building using a fire escape, then swing down the building and crash through the window using a grappling hook. The crooks dump the stolen radium down the laundry chute, where it's picked up by a waiting van. 
The crooks make a run up the stairs to the roof for some reason, and the Dynamic Duo pursues. An extremely unchoreographed scuffle breaks out that features some cool use of the radium gun, but also makes our heroes look pretty uncoordinated. Police sirens spur the van to take off, leaving Foster and the others stranded. Batman knocks Foster out, and the zombie has Batman dangling over the edge, but Daka instructs the zombie to "leave the roof" for some reason (?) which the zombie interprets as just walking straight off it to its death!
Robin is knocked out, and Foster and the other guy toss a dazed Batman off the edge of the building to his inevitable death!!!
Next Time: Daka captures Linda because she maybe has the radium gun?!!!
Thoughts and Review: The 1943 Batman serial is often considered a footnote in the 75 year history of the Dark Knight. If it's mentioned, it's usually a short bit that almost invariably goes like this: "first live-action Batman, wartime serial, very cheap, bad costumes, no Batmobile, first Batcave and Alfred, incredibly racist." And while, yes, all those things are true, the serial is far more important than that and deserves some more in depth consideration.
Frankly, if it were not for the serial, it is highly doubtful that Batman would be as popular today as he is. But how is that possible when only a very small handful of Batfans have even heard of the serial, much less sat through the entirety of it multiple times as I have? 
Well, for one thing the serial propelled Batman into a medium other than comics, proving he could work in live action and setting the stage for his complete domination of modern pop culture. But the real chain of events here requires us to look forward to the early sixties, when the Batman comics under the editorship of Jack Schiff were on the verge of cancellation, or so the story goes. The comics were handed off to Julie Schwartz in 1964 who instituted the "New Look" Batman, which nowadays would be considered a relaunch. But it might not have been enough if not for the phenomenal, massive success of the 1966 Adam West television series. And that series exists almost solely due to the 1943 serial.
In 1965 the serial was re-released in an edited form as An Evening with Batman and Robin, designed to be shown at college campuses and watched ironically, like how we enjoy The Room or Rocky Horror Picture Show today. This print found its way to the Playboy Club, were it was shown regularly and was very popular with the patrons, who laughed at its inate corniness. An ABC executive was there one night and figured a campy, parodic take on Batman, a pop art update of the serial, could be a smash TV show. And he was right. While it took characters and stories from the New Look Batman comics, the show was in many ways more a skewering of the serial, with the campy costumes, overly serious narrator, and of course the cliffhangers and death traps. 
The success of the Batman TV show led to a backlash in comics fandom, leading Denny O'Neil to bring back the "dark and serious" Batman of the early (pre-serial) comics. Frank Miller's defining work, The Dark Knight Returns, is almost entirely designed as a rebuttal of the TV show, and remains to this day the most popular Batman comic, influencing everything that came after, up to and including the Christopher Nolan films. The feature film series itself came from Michael Uslan's desire to produce a Batman movie that would wipe memory of the TV show from public consciousness. And of course recently we've seen the pendulum swing back, with the 60s show referenced in the Brave and the Bold cartoon and resurrected by DC in a new comic series. 
So, to recap, no serial - no TV show - no Frank Miller comics and Tim Burton movies as a reaction to the TV show - thus no explosion of Batman popularity in the 80s and 90s leading to the Chris Nolan series and Batman's current superstar status.
So yeah, the 1943 serial? Kind of a big deal in Batman's development as a pop culture icon.
But is it any good? Well... kinda. I mean, I love this thing, and I often have a hard time discerning if I love it ironically or whole-heartedly. Frank Miller once said the serial was his favourite live-action Batman because it was so low tech - Batman was just a dude in a costume straight wrecking dudes - and I can see that appeal. It also has that whole 1940s film noir gangster flavour modern Batman stuff pines for more naturally, because duh. And it's the only live-action Batman where Robin is actually played by a kid - Douglas Croft was only 13 during filming and it's frankly awesome to see this kid who just leaps into danger and takes down armed thugs. I think the main reason you can't do kid Robin these days in live action has less to do with the perceived "lameness" of Robin and more to do wth the fact that everyone would freak out about the child endangerment and potential for kids in the audience to "try it at home".
Yeah, the costumes are ill-fitting and look cheap, but there's a charm to them in their attempt to bring the designs and art of Jerry Robinson to three-dimensional life (and they are also far superior to the costumes in the second serial - oy!) Batman's cowl is often accused of having "devil horns" for ears, and my reaction? How cool is that?! My only complaint is that it seems the filmmakers had two cape/cowl sets - a light blue and a dark blue one - and the light blue one shows up nearly white in black and white and looks awful. Luckily the filmmakers seemed to notice that and discarded it in favour of the dark one a few chapters in, but for a little while they're used interchangeably and I just hate the lighter one.
The acting is actually pretty good. Lewis Wilson plays Bruce Wayne/Batman, and I find him pretty cool. He's looks great in the role, and plays both roles convincingly. I love the slothfulness of his Bruce and the dynamite glee of his Batman -- his Dark Knight is serious about his job, but also takes pleasure in it, and that's fun. I've heard people complain that he's trying to cover up a Boston accent, but frankly Gotham's an east coast city analogous to New York so I don't mind it - Christian Bale plays Batman trying to cover up being Welsh after all! Fun Fact: Lewis Wilson is the father of Micheal G. Wilson, the guy who's been producing the James Bond movies since 1979.
Douglas Croft may be my favourite live-action Robin. Granted, that's a list of like, four dudes, but still. His youthful exuberance and hutzpah is so fun and genuine, and he's also got a great wry attitude as well. It's a huge tragedy that he died at the age of 37. 
The most notable other great performance in the serial is from William Austin as Alfred, but I'll talk more about that in the next chapter when Alfred's role becomes more prominent. Suffice to say for now, the character was invented for the serial first as comic relief, as writing of the serial began in late 1942, continuing to April of '43. Alfred was introduced in the comics first as DC and Bob Kane were invited to consult on the creative process, and later Alfred's rotund comics appearance would be changed to match the thinner William Austin - who to this day is the model of what Alfred looks like.
The serial's director, Lambert Hillyer, acquits himself well - nothing is overly inspired here but it's also not bad. Hillyer's most interesting credit aside from this one is directing 1935's Dracula's Daughter, which some call the first lesbian vampire movie.
Honestly the biggest dark spot on the serial, this chapter in particular, isn't it's low production values or bad writing - it's the blatant malicious racism. I mean, the film gets a dubious notoriety in that it's one of the few Hollywood productions that even acknowledged the internment of Japanese Americans (the other was a truly odious Three Stooges short where our "heroes" kill some escapees from an internment camp). This internment was ostensibly based in security concerns - Imperial Japanese sympathizers sabotaging the war effort and so on - but really it was based in pure racism. And as was common for wartime serials, Daka's status as an enemy alien means there's a lot of hate thrown his way, but because he's Japanese, and thus not a white European like Nazis are in films of this type, the hate has often more to do with the colour of his skin than the actions of his government. Certainly, the serial lets us know what side it's on, loudly and plainly.
However there is a weird "plot hole" in the serial's depiction of internment, however, in that it was an entirely West Coast phenomenon, as the security justification for the camps didn't make as much sense applied on the East Coast, and Gotham has always been depicted as an East Coast city. So that's.... weird?
The other weird effect of the serial's wartime patriotism is the odd status of Batman and Robin. Apparently it was the censor board that demanded they be made into G-men, as they felt vigilantism was inappropriate to be depicted heroically. Except the Batman and Robin of the comics were no longer vigilantes, so that's just weird. 
Almost as weird as the absence of Gordon, or the Batmobile and Bat-signal. Yet it's clear that the writers of the serial had some familiarity with their source material, given the presence of Linda Page - who even by this point was slipping away from the comics. It's odd and interesting what the serial gives and takes from the comic. I mean, the Bat Cave and Alfred are huge additions, but to not have Gordon? The serial is also often criticized for not using any of Batman's illustrious rogues gallery, but that's not surprising. None of the Dick Tracy serials did. However, it's a lesser known fact that the villain and storyline are clearly based to some degree on Detective Comics #55, with German fifth columnist Dr. Deker replaced with Japanese fifth columnist Dr. Daka. 
All in all, it's a more faithful translation from the comics than the Captain America serial, and largely has a real feeling of seeing the Golden Age Batman and Robin translated onto the screen. 
In short, for all its faults, its a hoot and I love it!
Notes and Trivia: First appearance of the Batcave, first appearance of skinny Alfred, first live-action Batman and Robin, first appearance of Dr. Daka and Captain Arnold,

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Detective Comics #77 (July, 1943)

"The Crime Clinic"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane

Inks: George Roussos
Synopsis: Brilliant, fashionable, rich person's surgeon Matthew Thorne leads a double life - he secretly operates a "crime clinic" where instead of examining patients and prescribing medication he examines criminal plans and prescribes methods for carrying them out! Of course, "secretly" is a relative word, since he gets the word out about his services through advertising to the crooks - and also insists he take their fingerprints on file to ensure they aren't cops, which... just... I mean, that's where I'd just walk out if I was a Gotham gangster -- but no one thinks to ask "How do I know you're not a cop, Doc?"
Anyways, Thorne gets a 25% cut of the loot as a consulting fee, and a 50% operating fee if he has to come out on the job himself (where he wears full surgical gear for reasons that kinda make sense, but are mostly because he's a Classic Batman Theme Villain).  
However, on one particular evening when the doctor is operating on a rubber warehouse (rubber being a valued commodity during wartime), the operation is spotted by the Batman and Robin! And so we get a standard pun and props filled fight scene in the rubber warehouse, which apparently contains only manufactured rubber toys instead of any kind of valuable base rubber. While the crooks get the drop on the heroes, Thorne refuses to allow them to kill the Dynamic Duo, because as a Doctor he is sworn to "do no harm" after all. The Doctor escapes, but not before Batman manages to place a "tiny, low power, short wave transmitter" that they can trace with the Batmobile's "direction finder" -- which I believe makes this the first use of a "Bat-tracer", unless I am mistaken.
They follow the Crime Doctor to Matthew Thorne's office and thus realize his true identity. Bursting into his office, we get a fight filled with medical props, including a cool panel where Batman grapples with Thorne behind an x-ray screen. Then Thorne pulls a gun on Batman, because he's decided now that he'll kill if he's forced to. 
But it doesn't come to that, because one of Thorne's legitimate patients bursts into the room with acute appendicitis! He has to be operated on now! So Thorne enlists the help of Batman in an impromtu surgery, saving the man's life! 
After the patient has left, Batman questions the exhausted Thorne -- why does a brilliant surgeon turn to crime? And, if a criminal, why bother to save a man's life instead of using the opportunity to escape? Thorne explains that while he is a doctor and dedicated to saving men, he can't help but enjoy acting criminally. It's a compulsion, he cannot help himself. In light of this admission of madness, Batman declares Thorne his strangest foe!
Then Thorne throws ether in Robin's face and ties up the heroes with rubber hoses. Thorne tells Batman he can't help how he acts, and gives the clue that he's off to look for the Philosopher's Stone. Batman uses the Doc's discarded cigarette and ether bottle to make a flame to heat up the rubber hoses and thus cause them to expand and allow him and Robin to escape.

Batman explains that the Philosopher's Stone was an old myth of a substance that could turn base metals into gold, and so Thorne must be going after a physics professor who has a formula with which Thorne believes he can use an atom smasher to change the atomic order of objects to make gold!
So Thorne steals the formula and heads off to the Great Eastington Atom Smasher, with Batman and Robin hot on his heels. Now, for translation from nineteen-fortiesese, an atom smasher is a particle accelerator, and Finger is probably referencing the cyclotrons and calutrons that were being built to produce materials for the Manhatten Project, not that Finger would know that or what they were for beyond a vague knowledge of the basics of popular understanding of atomic science.
Kane and Roussos also demonstrate that they have no idea what an atom smasher looks like, or else didn't care, drawing it as a comically large metal balloon-like structure protruding out the top of a small little box-like building, with some stairs and ladders nonsensically going up the side to the top (why would anyone need to go up there?)
Once inside the building, we can see that the visual inspiration is the Crockcroft-Walton generators used in nuclear disintegration, but we don't spend much time inside as soon the characters are chasing on those ladders going up the outside of the building to the top, and it's clear that the whole purpose of this was to enable the characters to battle dramatically in a high place.
Thorne announces his intention to commit his first murder and kill the Batman, but Batman punches him off the top of the atom smasher and Thorne falls into the convenient river just below the drop. Showing more foresight than he ever has before in this situation, Batman dives into the river to ensure Thorne's capture and so the Crime Doctor is arrested (but is promised a return in Batman #18!)
My Thoughts: The Crime Doctor is a Batman villain who has lasted through to the modern day, but still never managed to become anything more than a footnote character. His lasting claim to notoriety happened when he was retconned into being the brother of the much newer but more popular gangster character Rupert Thorne. 
In modern interpretations Matthew Thorne is usually depicted one of two ways - either as a psychotic mudererous surgeon, the medical serial killer gruesomely doing away with his patients; or as a "crime doctor" in the more common sense of the term, which is a corrupt doctor who works for criminals to patch them up from wounds since they obviously cannot go to hospitals. It is in this second sense that he is usually connected to his mobster brother Rupert.
However Finger chooses neither of these, and in terms of actions he makes the Crime Doctor fairly standard -- what makes the story special is the way Thorne is depicted in terms of characterization. The Crime Doctor feels like a true member of the Rogues Gallery not just because he's a "theme" villain, but because of the unique focus Finger gives on his psychology. This focus is what has defined, and continues to define, the best of Batman's villains.
The Art: So the way things normally work is Kane does some flat, undefined pencils and then Roussos or Robinson comes in and give definition and texture to Kane's characters with inks and copious shadows. In this case, I feel like Roussos almost goes overboard. There are some really great dramatic panels and great noir-esque "lighting" but it really does go too far in some panels where Roussos has just drown the characters in ink to the point where I feel like he's just covering up Kane's flat art more than trying on purpose to be dramatic. That being said, several of the panels are very dynamic and cool looking, even if the design of the atom smasher building for the climax does look patently ridiculous.
The Story: In all honesty, the story in this issue is perfunctory. The whole idea of the Crime Doctor as a consulting criminal devising plots for lesser gangsters for a fee is one that has already been used with The Joker and The Penguin in the past and even goes back to Professor Moriarty. The plot with the Atom Smasher comes out of nowhere and doesn't seem motivated at all with what Thorne had been doing. No, what makes this issue golden is that none of this matters -- the jewel of the story is the centre section where Thorne's psychology is examined. The idea that he is compelled, that he can't help himself, that he simply feels good committing crimes, that it excites him, but that otherwise he's a moral, brilliant surgeon. Only even that goes down the drain -- we actually see Thorne's psychological unravelling over the course of the story, the way that his criminal impulses corrupt him: At the start of the tale he refuses to kill, midway through he'll kill if he needs to, and by the end he's blatantly murderous. It's a great series of subtle character details that give Thorne an arc, and show that Finger really put some effort into the characterization and psychology of his villains above and beyond the norm for Golden Age storytelling. The last time he was this good, however, was probably the Two-Face two-parter.
Notes and Trivia: First appearance of Matthew Thorne, the Crime Doctor and first appearance of Bat-tracers. 

Saturday, March 22, 2014

World's Finest Comics #10 (Summer, 1943)

An interesting cover here, with the different characters featured drawn by different artists rather than one unified penciller. Superman is by Fred Ray the Boy Commandos by Joe Simon, Green Arrow and the Star Spangled Kid are by Hal Sherman, and Batman and Robin are by an artist we will be seeing a lot more of in the future... the legendary Dick Sprang!
Sprang's art has yet to appear in this feature, for a variety of reasons, but once it does it's gonna change the whole ballgame.

"The Man With the Camera Eyes"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Jerry Robinson
Inks: George Roussos
Synopsis: Oliver Hunt is a man with a photographic memory (an eidetiker, which is something that probably doesn't exist). He works a vaudeville routine called "The Man with the Camera Eyes" where audience members pick a letter from the phone book and Hunt recites it all from memory (although how would they know his accuracy?)
Bruce and Dick are at the show, and Dick thinks the whole thing must be a fake. Bruce, however, vouches for Hunt's legitimacy, as he's been famous for his memory since he was a boy. Hunt instantly memorizes anything he reads, and scientists verified his abilities. Bruce claims Hunt left college with "every possible kind of degree", which shows a) a vast misunderstanding of how long it takes to get a degree, fantastic memory or no and b) the common misunderstanding of memorization of facts as being intelligence - just because Hunt can memorize a book doesn't necessarily means he can understand it. Either way, it does beg the question as to what the man is doing in a vaudeville show when he should be able to make a better living doing, like, anything else.
And it just so happens that the gangster Dude Fay (which is just might be the gayest name for a gangster possible in the 1940s) has realized this as well, and offers Hunt a job working for him. Hunt himself wishes to devote himself to psychological research, but can't afford it with the money from his vaudeville shows (again, if he has all of the degrees why can't he work for a university?). 
Anyways, Hunt is confused as to what use he'd be to criminals when his only skill is remembering things, but it turns out that Fay has hit on the brilliant idea of the value of intellectual property theft fifty-six years before Sean Parker ever did. 
So Fay's gang creates distractions and heists that allow Hunt to do things like get into the record rooms of music publishers and memorize the sheets for hit songs before they are recorded, then sell them to rival publishers. And there's no way to prove any theft because the "loot" is all in Hunt's mind. Soon the gang is "stealing" prosecutor's records and book manuscripts, making a killing selling them to the competitions. 
So of course one day Bruce and Dick happen to see the "Man with the Camera Eyes" coming out of a publisher's office and Bruce realizes that the connection in the recent rash of crimes is that what was stolen was ideas and then they see Hunt get into a car with Dude Fay's men and so on the next page we find Batman and Robin have swung into action and followed Dude's men to their hideout at a... carpenter's workshop? Huh. Guess all the good hideouts were taken. 
Anyways, fight scene time, but a page and a half later the crooks have gotten away, however the Dynamic Duo knows the name of their next target - a patent attorney named Arthur Medwick.
Sure enough the gang is at the patent office with Hunt memorizing blueprints for patents currently under review. Batman and Robin swoop in and try to reason with Hunt about how what he's doing is wrong and that stealing ideas violates individual rights and is the same if not worse than stealing property but Hunt takes them about as seriously as the average user of PirateBay. So Batman punches Hunt in the face and the heroes take him captive in the Batplane. Does anyone reading along not see where this is going?
So Hunt Vulcan Neck Pinches the Dynamic Duo (because he read an anatomy book once) then lands the Batplane and memorizes it's every detail of design (he read an aeronautics book once).
Returning to his criminal cohorts, Hunt gives them the plans to build their own Batplane, explaining that he did not kill the heroes because despite all the intellectual property theft he's still firmly against violence. Once the plane is built, the crooks are off to steal dress designs from Henri Longvieux (props to Finger for the faux-French name there).
What Hunt doesn't know is that Dude has made one alteration to the Batplane's design -- the addition of mounted machine guns to blast the real Batplane out of the sky when it comes after them. The crooks intentionally set off the burglar alarm to draw Batman and Robin into the trap, and soon the two Batplanes are engaged in an epic dogfight over Gotham!
In a somewhat confusing panel layout, the OG Batplane realises a smokescreen but the Faux-Batplane scores a few hits. Batman dives intentionally to trick the crooks into thinking they've finished them off, then pulls up and follows them to their next target.

It's a government weather station and Dude wants Hunt to memorize government weather reports so he can sell them to enemy U-boat commanders. Hunt refuses to participate in treason, and runs off when the Batman and Robin burst in and start pun-fighting the villains. They try to escape but Hunt has cut the feed line and set fire to the gas. Dude shoots Hunt and leaves him in the plane to die, but Batman rescues him just as it explodes.
Hunt believes he can never make up for his crimes against his country, but Batman offers him a chance at redemption by joining Military Intelligence! Yes, apparently a masked vigilante's word is good enough reference for Uncle Sam, and soon Hunt is helping the war effort stealing Nazi secrets!
My Thoughts: Pretty clearly this another story from Bill Finger's Fact Files - which is to say that Finger probably read an article somewhere about photographic memory and figured it would make a unique ability for a villain. Finger was right, and the idea of stealing intellectual property rather than just jewels or money gives the story a unique flavour that is quite refereshing. Of course, while popular science and pop culture love discussing photographic memories and the possession of one is often an attribute of brilliant fictional detectives on TV, actual science posesses very minimal evidence that such a thing even exists.
The Art: Decent stuff from Robinson and Roussos this ish, with good facial caricatures on the various characters, but the standout sequence in terms of penmanship is the one-page dogfight between the Batplanes, which is gloriously dark and moody and atmospheric -- unfortunately it's just a chore to read because the panel layouts are hard to follow -- any time you're reading a Golden Age comic and the panels have to be numbered and feature arrows to guide you, the penciller has just flat-out failed at his job.
The Story: Despite some leaps of logic and some plot contrivances, I quite liked this one. I liked Hunt's attempt to straddle morality by agreeing to steal IP (since that's not really stealing, right Internet?) but refusing to do violence, murder or treason. It's great because the idea that intellectual property theft isn't a real crime and doesn't hurt anyone is one that has continued to this day and spread quite a bit, there are so many people who believe it's their right to steal from artists and creators because, after all, they're rich enough already right? However Hunt finds out that corruption is absolute - he can't just "sort've" be evil, once you've corrupted some principles you've corrupted them all, theft is theft and you can't just ignore the consequences of it. The redemption ending is predictable but still well done, and I liked it better than Hunt just simply dying to save Batman.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

My Interview on Unleash the Fanboy

So, I know I haven't posted since January and I feel pretty guilty about that. Maybe I was upset that Bill Finger didn't get his Google Doodle, maybe I'm hard at work on a screenplay, maybe I proposed to my girlfriend of five years and am now GETTING MARRIED (holycrap whatthefuck am I an adult now??) -- but still, I feel guilty about not updating, especially when there's a lot of cool Golden Age Batstuff coming down the pipes and double especially when geek news site features me for an interview in their "Geek Godfathers of the Internet" series and I don't even mention it here!

So, um, I'm mentioning it here!

Follow the link to learn more about your trusted custodian of Golden Age Batman lore, and follow UnleashTheFanboy for the latest in geek news and opinion!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Let's Give Batman's Creator a Google Doodle for His Birthday!

But not Bob Kane. Fuck that guy.

February 8th is Bill Finger's birthday, and it's about damn time he got some modicum of recognition.

I admit I don't go into a lot of detail on this in my reviews. In my coverage of Detective Comics #27, I tried to be as fair and unbiased as possible as to who created what in regards to Batman, but the fact of the matter is this: Bob Kane was hired by National Publications to create a hero to go with Superman. Bob came up with the name "Bat-Man", inspired by the silent film "The Bat", he decided to give him no powers to contrast with Superman, and he gave him this stiff Bat-wing cape inspired by the art of Leonardo da Vinci. And then he ripped off a lot of stuff from Zorro (foppish secret identity mostly) and a lot of stuff from The Shadow (the plot of "Case of the Criminal Syndicate" is basically plagiarized from "Partners of Peril" and Kane swiped a lot of the art too). Kane's original look for Batman was a domino mask, red tights and those stiff Bat wings.
Bill Finger, the writer of that and the lion's share of Batman stories thereafter, came up with the cape, the cowl, the colour scheme, whiting out his eyes to make him more mysterious, the name Bruce Wayne, Comissioner Gordon, Gotham City, Robin, the Joker, and most importantly the origin story.
Each time I review an issue I give proper credit to it's writer (usually Finger), and it's artists (usually Kane and Robinson) and when I give Kane credit for pencils I should say that's with a pretty big asterisk, because after he hired Robinson and Roussos as inkers most of what Kane did was rough layouts, although he always penciled Batman and Robin himself he often left out backgrounds and sometimes whole characters, to be finished by his assistants. 
Now, none of this is particularly out of the ordinary for the time period these comics were created, but what is bullshit is that on every single comic I've reviewed on this site, all the original issues said for credit was "by Bob Kane", and that's all they ever said until around 1964.
And to this day, every single Batman comic, movie, TV show, or video game has had a "Batman created by Bob Kane" credit on it.
Because Kane was essentially an evil genius. Kane, you see, was hired by DC directly, and then Kane hired out to Finger and Robinson and the others. So as far as DC knew for a very long time, Kane was doing it all. And even after the deceit came to light, Kane had an ironclad contract with DC that granted him credit in perpetuity on all the Batman comics. Even today, DC is legally unable to credit Bill Finger in his proper role as co-creator of the character, although at least on reprints of old comics they are able to credit him and the many other tireless creators who worked "with" and "for" Bob Kane on those issues where they were never originally credited.
And to almost the very end Kane denied Bill or any of his assistants and ghosts did anything, always claiming he was the sole creator of almost thirty years of Batman comics. Finally, after Bill had died and soon before Kane died, he said that he might consider letting Bill put his name on it. On Kane's tombstone, he does in fact share credit for Batman -- with God, for divine inspiration.
So join the petition to give Bill Finger a Google Doodle on his birthday and celebrate the man without whom we would NOT have the Batman we enjoy today. It's Batman's 75th anniversary after all.
Write to

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Batman #17 (June/July, 1943)

"The Batman's Biographer"
Writer: Don Cameron
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks:  Jerry Robinson and George Roussos
Synopsis: B. Boswell Browne is a little old man who is nonetheless very popular with the children of Gotham City as he is a veritable font of knowledge about Batman and Robin!
Bruce and Dick overhear him entertaining some children in the park with tales of the Dynamic Duo, and Browne ends up inviting the two to his home where he has assembled a collection of facts and artifacts about Batman, in hopes of one day writing a definitive biography of the hero. However Browne feels he can never properly complete the book unless he actually meets and talks to Batman and Robin. Bruce and Dick feel like this could happen sooner than the old man thinks, *wink* *wink*!
Meanwhile, Batman and Robin have been tracking a criminal called "The Conjurer", who uses tricks and illusions to distract potential witnesses while he commits robberies. However Batman sees through their tricks and so the Conjurer and his gang are forced to abandon their loot. 
The Conjurer realizes he must find a way to outsmart the Batman, and having heard of Browne he decides to press him into his service -- knowing so much about the Batman he must know of a way to defeat him.
Pretending to be a reporter for the "Evening News", the Conjurer milks Browne's knowledge of Batman's cases for ideas on how to outwit and capture the Dynamic Duo. At his next robbery, the Conjurer manages to outwit Batman into targeting the wrong building and then as they escape the crooks delay Batman and Robin with nets made of chicken wire!
However Batman recognizes this as an old tactic of the Penguin's and realizes the Conjurer has been doing some research. Our heroes decide to pay a visit to their "biographer", who realizes his has accidentally aided a criminal against his idols and falls into a deep attack of guilt.
After Batman and Robin leave, the Conjurer returns and now threatens to kill Browne unless he continues to help the criminals. Browne doesn't want to betray his heroes, but at the end of the day he's just a regular old man who doesn't want to die. 
Browne helps the Conjurer develop an ingenious plot to steal a collection of art treasures from an auction (a plot so ingenious that it requires the comic to stop and post a diagram for the readers to understand it!) Browne's contribution to the plan is the idea to put an unlocked parked car with the engine running right by the villains' getaway that Batman and Robin will commandeer to chase after them, but rig the engine with a bomb.
However, when the crooks make their actual getaway, Browne himself gets in the rigged car, and uses it to run the crooks' getaway trucks off the road so that Batman and Robin can catch up and arrest them. Browne keeps driving the car until it's far enough away to not hurt anyone, intending to sacrifice his life heroically to make up for his past misdeeds, but Batman rescues him from the car just before it explodes.
Days later, Browne finishes his biography of Batman, which Batman himself writes the preface for -- and everyone lives happily ever after. (Except the Conjurer presumably)
My Thoughts: A decent enough little story that is definitely in the "stories about other people featuring Batman" genre. It reminds me of the story about the druggist from Batman #14 in that it's also about crooks taking advantage of a kind hearted old man.
The Art: The full Kane Studio team of Kane/Robinson/Roussos is on this one and as such the art looks very polished. There are the usual bevy of swiped poses of course but nothing to complain about.
The Story: In a more modern context it may be interesting to compare the fictional character of "Batman's Biographer" with his real world biographers of Bill Finger and Bob Kane, but there really is no subtext or metaphor in the story to allow for any such metatextual analysis. What is fun is the number of accurate continuity references the Browne character makes to actual past Batman adventures. That kind of attention to detail is always appreciated, particularly in a Golden Age comic.

"The Penguin Goes A-Hunting!"
Writer: Don Cameron
Pencils: Jack Burnley
Inks: Ray Burnley
Synopsis: The last time we saw the Penguin, Batman had finally captured him and he had been sentenced to death for double homicide. As this story opens we suddenly learn that Penguin escaped from prison a month ago, in some awkward expositional dialogue as Bruce and Dick attend a lecture from prison Warden Keyes on criminology. As it so happens, the Penguin's immense ego and vanity persuades him to attend the same lecture!
Keyes describes Joker, Scarecrow, and Catwoman as topping the city's most wanted list, causing Penguin to become incensed and ask what the warden thinks of him, who replies that he feels the Penguin has no imagination and is a one-trick gimmick who relies too much on his umbrellas.
However the Penguin is recognized by some police officers in the audience who move to arrest him, but the crafty crook beats a hasty escape and manages to make it out alive, but with his dignity bruised. He decides to rob a sports equipment store and begin using some new techniques to replace his umbrellas to prove he's not a one-trick criminal.
And so the next day, almost a million dollars in bills and bonds are stolen out of various windows in the Gotham financial district by the Penguin using a fishing rod out the window of his penthouse hideout! 
In the Penguin's next crime, he robs a mansion full of rich folk by shooting a gas pellet into the living room using a big game rifle! When the Dynamic Duo attempt to track the fiend down, his men overpower and capture them, and they awake tied up in the Penguin's penthouse.
The Penguin proceeds to unleash a pair of vicious trained hunting dogs on the two crimefighters and then leave to go rob a hunters convention rather than wait two minutes to make sure the dogs kill them.
Batman manages to stop the dogs' vicious behaviour by appealing to the innate bond between all dogs and men by using a gentle persuasive voice to break through the Penguin's abuse of the animals. 
The Penguin arrives at the hunting convention riding trained show jumping horses allowing them to break in and out quickly despite obstacles and traffic jams. However Batman and Robin show up, take out two of Penguin's men (leaving them for the police) and follow Penguin himself down the streets of Gotham in a horse chase with the abused dogs now chasing Penguin and leading the Dynamic Duo! 
They end up cornering Penguin at an outdoor cafe, where Batman knocks over all the open table umbrellas, trapping the fiendish criminal. Thus, after abandoning umbrellas, the Penguin is done in by them!
As the Penguin is arrested and sent back to prison, it is revealed that the Batman told the warden to badmouth the crook in his lectures, in order to goad the Penguin into overreaching himself, as the Dark Knight knows his enemy's greatest weakness is his vanity!
My Thoughts: This is a fantastic Penguin story by Don Cameron, an amazing examination of the villain's character considering the age of this comic. Nowadays the Penguin is often reduced to being a joke Batman villains, mocked for his cheap and corny gimmicks, so it's incredible to see a comic addressing this mockery head on in 1943, in the character's sixth story!
And unlike a modern comic which might, upon deciding the Penguin is corny and needs reinventing, this issue doesn't completely throw the character under the bus or misunderstand him. Instead, it turns out to be a near-perfect analysis of his character and what makes him tick! Fantastic.
The Art: The Burnley bros really deliver here, with smooth clean linework, excellent blacks and shading, fluid action, and good expression. It's fun to see the Penguin in alternate costumes (fisherman, big game hunter, English gentleman, etc) but perhaps the coolest visual of all is Batman and Robin riding horses through Gotham traffic -- although maybe that's just because of my fanboy brain associating it with The Dark Knight Returns.
The Story:  Really topnotch writing from Don Cameron, in managing to balance telling an action packed and typically wacky Golden Age superhero story with a simple premise -- Penguin trades his umbrella gimmick in for a sports equipment gimmick - and yet still have something new and unique to say about this character, keep things true to the established personalities and yet also comment on the Penguin and his place as a member of Batman's Rogues Gallery. (And hey, I'd be incensed too if I was ranked below the Scarecrow -- dude's only appeared in two stories!)

"Rogue's Pageant"
Writer: Don Cameron
Pencils: Jack Burnley
Inks: Ray Burnley
Synopsis: Alfred has insisted that Bruce and Dick take a vacation, and forbids them from bringing their Batman and Robin outfits -- this has Bruce and Dick incensed, but they still promise Alfred.
After hopping in the car, Bruce and Dick both reveal to each other they've been wearing extra suits under their clothes, because after all the whole point of this "vacation" is actually to do some crimefighting in Santo Pablo, "one of the oldest cities in the Southwest."
Flashback time: On a previous night, the Dynamic Duo foiled a bank robbery by "Ducky" Mallard's gang. However, the gang managed to escape and it's only by interrogating a stool pigeon that Batman and Robin learn they are headed for Santo Pablo, hence the vacation!
Arriving in the town, they discover it is celebrating the occasion of its 300th birthday!
The townsfolk are all dressed up in period costumes and the museum is displaying gold nuggets from the finds that made the town's fortune in the early days. So of course the gold is stolen.
With all the commotion in town it would have been easy for the crooks to escape, but Bruce is convinced they are still in Santo Pablo, and so the two take a look around the next day. At the city bank, the festivities continue with a reinactment of an old fashioned bank robbery. However, when the "actors" playing the crooks show up, it turns out they're real crooks and they rob the bank, escaping easily because the cops think it's all part of the show!
By this point Batman has determined the crooks are indeed Ducky Mallard's crew and also decided that the natural egotism of the criminal means that they won't leave early with their swag but instead stick around until that evening - the height of the festivities! With this in mind, Batman hatches a plan with the Santo Pable Police Department.
That evening is the big parade (an evening parade?) with everyone dressed up as "Indians", Spanish conquistadors, pioneers, etc. and Batman and Robin hiding in a belltower observing everything.
At this moment Ducky's gang sets off a series of dynamite explosions in several buildings around the parade area, in order to cause a panic big enough to distract everyone from their robberies. Because as Die Hard movies have taught us, acts of terrorism are always the best cover to larceny.
What the crooks didn't count on, however, is that the police department is wise to their plan and surrounding them dressed in parade costumes! Using special flashlight Bat-signals Batman has given them, they signal for the heroes in the trouble spots, and a quick fight scene later the crooks are in jail and the town is giving Batman and Robin their own spot in the parade!
When they return to Wayne Manor, Bruce and Dick think they have Alfred fooled, but news travels fast and the butler has already read of their exploits in the newspaper (which isn't surprising considering that would be a two-day trip with no breaks by car). Alfred simply demands that they take him with them the next time they leave on a crime-fighting trip!
My Thoughts: This is yet another "Batman and Robin go somewhere, not Gotham" type story, and like so many of them it focuses on a town with a "pioneer" theme. I don't really like these stories, I don't see the appeal of putting Batman in these small towns that are always drawn like Wild West movie backlot sets regardless of where they are supposed to be or how modern.
The most uncomfortable aspect of this story for a modern reader is the glorification and nostalgic view of America's genocidal past. The town's parades paints pioneers and conquistadors alike as romantic heroes, and while a lot of time is also given to the "Indians", they are equally painted with a romanticized view that ignores the crimes done to their people.
Granted, none of this comes across as malicious in the comic, it's very much "of the time", it's just a little cringe inducing from a modern standpoint.
The Art: Another Burnley Bros. story here, but the art's only just okay. Nothing stands out about it, indeed it's all very generic. The "Indians" of Santo Pablo are drawn like Iroquois warriors instead of a more Southwestern tribe like the Kumeyaay. The town itself looks exceptionally generic and blocky, instead of appearing with interesting local architecture like one might find in San Diego or Los Angeles. Honestly it all renders the story itself kind've forgettable and almost negates the point of taking Batman and Robin to a different locale.
The Story:  It's a real yawner, too. There are crooks, they're stealing stuff. They dress up to fool us, we dress up to fool them. They're caught. The end. What should have made this generic plot special is the unique setting, but it really ends up adding nothing at all. You could plop anybody into this story and it'd have the same exact feel.

"The Adventure of the Vitamin Vandals!"
Writer: Joe Greene
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: Jenny Jones is a fishing vessel off the California coast on the hunt for soupfin sharks, also known as school sharks, because their livers are rich in vitamin A and is thus in desperate need by the United States Army for supply to soldiers fighting overseas (and this is entirely true). The sharks bring in $1,500 a ton (about $19,600 today) so this is good fishing -- but there's a problem.
A gang of crooks called the Phantom Raiders have been attacking fishing boats. When the fog rises up they appear out of nowhere, not having boarded the ships or stowed aboard. But regardless of where they come from the result is the same - the sharks are stolen and the sailors left with nothing, and the Raiders gone as mysteriously as they arrived.
Luckily, Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson are in the area, vacationing at Malibu Beach! (Wait, weren't they just on vacation? In, like, the same area?
Anyways, they hear about the mysteries Raiders and decide the best plan of action is to join the crew of the Jenny as seamen! Meanwhile, the fish brokers are now offering $2,000 a ton for soupfin sharks because of the shortage!
After some decent hard shark-catching labour for Bruce and Dick, the Raiders appear again - with Batman noticing that a crewman named Lefty seemed to signal something with his lantern before they did. 
A customary fight with the crooks leads Batman to discover a rope ladder leading up into the clouds. Climbing it reveals -- a blimp! That's how the Raiders get in and out unseen! However a fight on the blimp results in the Dynamic Duo being thrown out of the blimp and falling a fatal distance into the water of the Pacific, where they of course survive because this is a comic book.
So having fallen into the Pacific there is only one possible outcome now, which if of course that Batman fights a shark. He stabs it with a knife until it's dead, as is his standard method for dealing with sharks.
Rescued by a passing patrol ship thanks to a portable Bat-signal, the Duo beat the Jenny to port, where they follow Lefty to the crooks' hideout - a large abandoned warehouse by the docks (y'know, like every other comic book hood).
Turns out the blimp docks in the warehouse and the roof opens up every night when the fog lifts. Batman and Robin stow away on the blimp and then spring into action when it attacks the Jenny... AGAIN (seriously, the same ship every time?) This time fish broker Gibbons is onboard to ensure a safe haul, but the Raiders attack anyway.
So of course Batman tackles Gibbons, who is of course behind the Raiders. The deal was to steal the fish and cause a crisis to drive prices up, then sell the fish to the government himself without having to pay back any of the fishermen. Pure fraud and war profiteering at its finest. 
With the case closed, Bruce and Dick return to their lazy beach vacation.
My Thoughts: "Adventure of the Vitamin Vandals" is kind've a lousy title for this story when something like "Case of the Phantom Raiders" would be so much more evocative. Other than that this is a much better example of "travelling Batman" than the previous story, and I am kinda perplexed that they put two stories of Batman going to the West Coast and fighting bad guys right next to each other in the same issue, especially when one is so lame and the other at least has cool blimp and shark stuff in it.
The Art: Decent work from Kane and Robinson. Nothing too special, but the shadows are really moody and the stuff with the blimp and the shark looks cool and the crooks are appropriately shady looking.
The Story: This story falls into the category of those inspired by the writer reading some odd fact somewhere. Bill Finger came up with a lot of his tales by basing them around little bits of trivia, but it's Joe Greene delivering this story. It is in fact true that soupfin sharks were harvasted for their vitamin A rich livers during WWII for supply to the US Army -- in fact the sharks were overhunted and today remain a vulnerable species. 
The gag with the blimp is actually really clever because until that point it really is a total mystery as to how the Phantom Raiders operate, but once the blimp is introduced it seems so plausible. And of course there's the eternal cool factors of blimps. The ideal Golden Age Batman story for me features blimps, fights with sharks, an urban noir setting and shady crooks -- this story hits at least 3/4.
Number of Times Batman Has Fought a Shark: 2