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!