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

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