Thursday, August 22, 2013

Batman #14 (December 1942/January 1943)

"The Case Batman Failed to Solve!!!"
Writer: Don Cameron
Artist: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: A gathering of the world's greatest detectives is to be held in New York City at the behest of the great Dana Drye. Invited are "Sir John" of Scotland Yard, America's greatest "country" detective Sheriff Ezra Plunkett (who seems to live in one of those Old West towns Bill Finger seems convinced still exist west of the Appalachians), Grace Seers (a *gasp* woman!), Dr. Tsu the great Chinese (racial stereotype) detective of San Francisco, and finally of course the Batman and Robin (invitation delivered by way of Commissioner Gordon).
Batman exposits to Robin that Dana Drye is the "dean of detectives", greatest of them all and so on, and so the Dynamic Duo is greatly honoured to attend and meet all the other stereotype detectives. 
Dana Drye, a very old man, comes out to address the group to announce his retirement... and is promptly shot and killed. The detectives all rush to the window but find that the building there in is on the river, so no one could have fired the shot... it's a mystery! Rather than notify the authorities, Batman suggests they all compete to discover the murderer and meet back at midnight (rather confident of their abilities, aren't they?)
Right away they see someone running from the scene of the crime and chase after him -- they would've gotten him too, but Dr. Tsu trips them and lets the man get away so that Tsu can question him instead himself (because he's a treacherous Chinaman, you see). 
Grace approaches the Dynamic Duo and lets them in on her theory that clothes are the essential clue to solving crimes (because she's a woman, you see), and tells Batman the clue that Drye's pockets were empty, which Batman is convinced is utterly essential to solving the mystery. 
Finally, Sir John reveals he's taking Drye's body to the crime lab to be examined because science is the only way to solve a murder (thank you!), while Sheriff Anachronism explains that he believes all he has to sit and think on it because common sense is all you need for detective work (because he's a time traveler from 1888, you see).
Batman and Robin head to Drye's apartment (drawn as a house) to follow up the vital "HIS POCKETS WERE EMPTY" clue, but upon arrival end up fighting a bunch of crooks who were searching the apartment for... something. Batman tries to indicate to Robin to let them go so they can follow them back to their superiors but Robin can't take a hint because he's eight, so they all end up unconscious and Batman is left to pick up the pieces when he notices that a weapon is missing from a display shield that fell down from the wall. The crooks already got what they were looking for!
They head off to police headquarters but none of the detectives there can identify the missing weapon. Sir John rushes out of the crime lab to inform Batman that the bullet that killed Drye is perfectly smooth, with no rifling marks of any kind. Batman identifies it as an old musket ball -- but why would the killer use such an out of date weapon? 
Then Ms Seers runs into them again, informing them that she discovered that Drye's suit was made by a tailor who specializes in making suits for magicians! At that moment, some gangsters show up and start a big fight!
They capture the heroes because it's that point in the story, bringing them to their boss, the notorious Red Rip. Rip explains that Drye had a lifetime of evidence on him that he never turned over to the cops, because Drye solved crimes just for the fun of it. Rip's men were searching Drye's place for where he kept the evidence, not the missing weapon, meaning they didn't take it! 
Dr. Tsu rescues them from the crooks, and informs them that the missing weapon was Drye's antique flintlock pistol. There's a fight scene where the criminals are defeated, and then the Sheriff tells Batman that he found an odd mark on the windowsill of the window the shot was fired through.
Batman then goes to search the bottom of the river for the final piece of the puzzle, which he finds. Now he can explain everything to Robin:
"We all assumed it was murder... it was not! It was suicide! Drye knew he was to die shortly of an incurable malady, so he staged this mystery to baffle us all, hoping we'd never be able to solve it!"
Drye had set the flintlock on the windowsill, because the powder could be ignited by heat from the sun after being set long enough, then the recoil would knock the gun off the windowsill, leaving no murder weapon. The evidence of Rip's crimes was in a box attached the to gun, weighing it down. Drye used a magician's suit with secret pockets to smuggle the apparatus into the room.
Then Batman and Robin discovers Drye's diary amid his papers, which reveal that Drye had figured out that BATMAN IS REALLY BRUCE WAYNE way back in 1940 (presumably because it was obvious within a year of his first appearance!) and chosen not to reveal it to the world out of respect for Batman's wishes. 
With this in mind, Batman decides not to reveal the truth of Drye's suicide either, and so when midnight comes the world's greatest detectives all just collectively give up on solving a murder because they failed to do so by an arbitrary and somewhat ridiculously short deadline.
My Thoughts: "The Case Batman 'Failed' to Solve" is a good entry in the "Batman-as-a-detective" genre, stories which are always a good change of pace from "Batman-as-a-sentient-pair-of-fists" stories. But while I like Detective Batman, he's not very well serviced by the 13-page stories of the Golden Age, often resulting in resolutions that come out of nowhere. But at least this time the guys remembered to include clues.
The Art: Jerry Robinson's artwork in this story may, may, be the best art ever featured in a Batman comic up to this point. It's not the moodiest, it lacks the noir shadows of a Roussos inked story, and it also lacks the peculiar drama Kane brings to things, but on a purely technical level it is just gorgeous to behold compared to everything that's come before. Figures actually look somewhat three-dimensional, Batman and Robin's faces no longer appear to be cardboard cut-outs, individual faces are well defined and individualistically drawn. The draftsmanship here is just amazing, a real cut above everything we've seen so far, even the work of Jack Burnley (although it does admittedly lack Burnley's sense of drama). 
The Story: Cameron's script is a step above Finger's usual efforts in that it's almost possible to figure out the mystery on your own with the clues given (although how did Batman deduce that Drye had an incurable illness?), however it's biggest problem is that it's too busy. There are a ton of characters and subplots and clues introduced over the course of the story and it makes the whole thing feel very fractured and haphazard. It doesn't help that all of the other detectives are rather hack stereotypes (and what was the point of the Old West Sheriff character?). The entire gangster subplot is very tacked on and obviously just there to give us some action because we couldn't possibly have a Batman story without at least two fight scenes, right?? That being said, I won't knock Cameron too hard because at the end of the day this is a good story that holds up and even competence of story structure is impressive sometimes in the Golden Age of Comics.

"Prescription for Happiness!"
Writer: Don Cameron
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: Doc Chalmers is a pharmacist on Gotham's Lower East Side who is basically the nicest guy ever. He gives candy to children, free medication to poor people, offers kind words to the beat cop who comes in for foot powder, tries to keep the fat balding guy's self-esteem up, refuses to give steroids to the down-on-his-luck prize-fighter who just needs to believe in himself, gives advice to the young doctor trying to build his practice, etc. etc.
One day a woman comes to his shop wanting prussic acid (hydrogen cyanide) so she can kill herself. Chalmers takes her to his young doctor friend for help with her "hysteria". Meanwhile, across the street a gangster named "Pills" Mattson is conducting a robbery.
Batman and Robin show up to fight him and his gang but during the brawl "Pills" is banged on the head and an explosion knocks dust into Batman's eyes, allowing the crooks to get away (no, really).
"Pills" is something of a hypochondriac and demands they stop at a pharmacy so he can get some aspirin for his head, and of course they end up at Doc Chalmer's. They end up taking Chalmers, the young doctor, and the girl hostage and decide to use the place as their new base. But then BATMAN shows up there as well, to get his eyes cleaned out! In a tense moment, Chalmers helps the Batman while he cannot dare reveal that he's got gangsters and a hostage situation going on in the back! The Dynamic Duo leaves, Robin eating some liquorice and making the odd remark that he hasn't had candy like this since he was a kid -- Dick, you're eight years old!
Anyways, the crooks use the druggist's as a base of operations, getting their messages out to their men in pill bottles, which the men have to steal from the people they are normally prescribed to in a uselessly convoluted scheme. This series of bizarre crimes in the Lower East Side make Batman realize they are operating out of Chalmer's shop, and he goes in to investigate alone -- and is promptly chloroformed and tied up for his troubles.
Dick realizes Bruce has been gone too long, and decides to investigate by getting a job at the store as a soda fountain boy. He manages to smuggle some tubes of toothpaste to Batman in the back, and the Dark Knight manages to cut through his bonds with the jagged edge of the toothpaste tube!
A fight breaks out, but the whole neighbourhood hears it and soon enough Batman and Robin are being assisted by the prize-fighter, the beat cop, etc. and all the crooks are defeated. The beat cop gets a promotion to a car so no more foot pain, the prize-fighter gets his self-confidence back, the doctor gets a new nurse and girlfriend in the person of the troubled young girl, and the crooks go to jail.
Unfortunately Doc Chalmer's shop was smashed up good in the fight and he doesn't have enough money to cover the damages. But with the encouragement of the Batman, the neighbourhood bands together to help not only cover the damages but actually improve the shop so it's better than ever (even though Bruce Wayne could probably have paid for it all himself without much trouble).
My Thoughts: Another street-level, man-of-the-people, average-joe morality play type story of the kind that Bill Finger is a big fan of telling. It comes off well even if Chalmers is a little too saintly to be believeable and most of the story relies on a whole ton of coincedences. I find it amusing how revered the local druggist is here, with a pill or a tonic for every problem, since I've been playing Red Dead Redemption lately, where medical science is not nearly as well thought of. 
The Art: Robinson's inks do a lot of good here, but you can tell this is Kane's work. Batman and Robin are back to their 2D selves, Chalmers looks like every old man Kane has ever drawn, etc. None of this is bad, and Robinson's inks keep the quality pretty high, with good detailing in the panels, but it's a noticeable step down from the previous story.
The Story: Another Don Cameron script! It's a pretty standard story, the most notable thing being the bizarre choice of focus for a comic book (what ten year old cares about his local pharmacist?) and the story's rather coincedence driven nature. That being said, Cameron keeps things admirably focused and on track, with the story developing fairly naturally and moving from A to B in a way that, while predictable, at least makes sense.

"Swastika Over the White House!"
Writer: Don Cameron
Pencils: Jack Burnley
Inks: Ray Burnley
Synopsis: Young Fred Hopper is trying to get a job as a newsreel cameraman at the Gotham City newsreel company. The chief, Mr. McCoy, will only give him a job if he can get footage of the reclusive millionaire J. Peerless Morton. The other cameramen at the company take a liking to Fred and help him get the footage, and so he gets the job. The successful company's next assignment is taking footage of war production factories, footage which of course will be properly censored by the war department before appearing in newsreels.
But what the others don't know is that young Fred Hopper is in actuality young Fritz Hoffner, a Nazi spy taking his orders from a spy ring led by Count Felix (of course the German nobility had been abolished in 1919) and operating out of an antique store (they have a swastika shaped chandelier!) Anyways, this whole thing was a set-up so that Fritz could take photos of the US war production unhampered -- he will have a secret spy camera within his main camera and the footage it takes won't be censored.
However Count Felix is no fool -- he also realizes that Batman and Robin must be dealt with, and so when the Dynamic Duo happens to arrive the next day at the newsreel company to do some footage for the war bond campaign the Count springs a drive-by shooting on them! It is, of course, unsuccessful, but even though our heroes capture the Nazi would-be assassins, they refuse to talk.
Suspicious, Batman decides to begin shadowing the newsreel men, while Fritz begins to bring the first of his espionage footage to his superiors. They decide to attack the factory, but Batman decides to patrol it the same night, and so the Nazis engage in battle with the Dynamic Duo who realize that "Fred" is a spy.
The Nazis bind the Duo and stick them in a car loaded with explosives and send them to crash into the gasoline tanks, but in typical serial cliff-hanger fashion even though it appears that the car does explode, Batman and Robin in fact get out just in the nick of time by using the cigarette lighter to cut their bonds. 
They follow Hoffner to the antique shop, and beat up all the Nazis (even using the swastika chandelier for the old "spin and kick" routine). Using maps and records found in the hideout tey are also able to arrest scores of other spies throughout the country.
My Thoughts: We're almost a year into full-fledged involvement in WWII for the US, but aside from some patriotic covers we've seen very little war-related storytelling in Batman. This is in fact the first story to involve Nazis as villains since the US entered the war. In some ways this is a good thing -- Batman fights crime in Gotham City, not ideological socio-political conflicts on a global scale, but given how easily the Nazis become comic book villains (see contemporary issues of Wonder Woman for example) it's still somewhat surprising that the book has been as restrained as it has been to this point. Although I still wonder why Bruce isn't serving overseas (other than the fact that it would be difficult to fight crime in Gotham otherwise, but why hasn't he been drafted?). 
The Art: Jack Burnley delivers some really great stuff here, almost attempting photorealism, or as close to it as you can get while still having to be consistent to the cartooning style of Bob Kane. The inks by his brother Ray are absolute fantastic, lending great noiresque shadowy blacks to everyone's faces. Just about everything in the story looks dynamite except Batman and Robin themselves, oddly enough, who retain their Bob Kane style two-dimensionality. That being said, the Burnley art is good enough on the whole that it's always a treat.
The Story:  It's a pretty standard "heroes defeat Nazi spy ring" story from Cameron, but the newsreel cameraman angle feels new and adds interest. Most of the schemes make sense and the action setpieces are fairly exciting. The title is a little misleading though -- I mean yes "swastikas over the White House" is the eventual Nazi game plan but it's not a good indication of what's actually going on in this story.

"Bargains in Banditry!"
Writer: Don Cameron
Pencils: Jack Burnley
Inks: Ray Burnley
Synopsis: It's a Penguin story, and this time the old buzzard has a doozy of a plan. He's offering "bargains in crime" -- he's selling criminal plots. Come to him, pay him a fee upfront and he develops a fool-proof plan for bankrobbing, kidnapping, etc. and gives it to you, collecting a percentage of profits after the fact as well. It's a brilliant scheme, in fact it's the smartest thing Penguin has done so far and one of the smartest things any Batman villain has done to this point. Penguin sells a bankrobbing plan to Hairless Harry and Torchy Blaze, and soon his business is picking up quite well.
The bank robbery goes just as planned, but when Harry and Torchy arrive at their hideout they find Penguin waiting for them -- he wants his cut. And this is when Penguin's brilliant scheme goes stupid because he shoots both men with an umbrella gun and takes the entire loot. Penguin thinks this is smart but how is he gonna keep this scam going once it gets out he's murdering his customers and stealing from them?
Anyways Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson are going to the bank to buy a few more thousands of dollars worth of war bonds but when they arrive they find it's the bank that was robbed. The next day the murder of the two gangsters is in the paper and Bruce pieces together what happened. They head to Grand Boulevard in the Batplane, "where the big jewelry stores are located", and where Batman is sure some of Penguin's dupes are sure to strike.
Sure enough, Slippery Elmer and his gang are looting a jewelry store and while they immediately surrender, Batman and Robin beat them up anyways -- confirming my longheld belief that Batman is in crime-fighting more for the physical violence than the values of justice. Elmer gets away, but the Dynamic Duo follow him in the Batplane to his hideout -- where Penguin is waiting to kill him!! Batman and Robin show up but Penguin catches them all in a chickenwire net and escapes!
The next day, Bruce and Dick have freed themselves and delivered Elmer to the police off-panel, when Bruce decides that the best way to draw Penguin out is to start a rival crime planning company. And so, dressed in his best "Nick-Fury-on-an-off-day" cosplay, Bruce sets up shop as "Bad News" Brewster and begins selling plans to crooks. Dick thinks he's gone nuts until it's obvious that all the plans lead the crooks straight into police traps -- which, again, how do you keep the business going once word of that gets out?
Anyways, Penguin challenges Brewster and gives an address to meet him at. Batman and Robin show up... and are instantly trapped in a giant umbrella that realizes crazy knock-out gas (it's seriously like something right out of the 60s TV show, amazing). Turns out Penguin figured things out because "Bad News" sounds like "Batman"... wait, what?
Penguin ties the two up seperately and starts throwing darts at Batman's head but Robin manages to break loose and take penguin down with one of his own umbrellas. FINALLY the Dynamic Duo capture the Penguin and bring him to jail, where he is promptly sentenced to death for the murders of those two crooks earlier in the story. The End. Wait... what?
My Thoughts:  I really enjoyed this story because for once the plot of the criminal was something pretty intelligent and made sense and wasn't just about gimmicks. Batman's counterplot was pretty clever too. Of course Penguin gets too greedy and this is his undoing, but that element of the tale actually seemed like a lost opportunity, for reasons I'll get to in a minute. Also, this is the first Penguin tale to end with Batman actually capturing the crook, as he's always escaped at the end of previous stories, but the sudden announcement of his death sentence seemed very extreme -- granted, all it really means is that if no one uses the Penguin after this then at least Batman finally caught the guy and brought him to justice, while if they want to use him again then it's easy to just right him as escaping (Spoiler alert: Penguin totally appears agan!)
The Art:  Not quite up to the usual Burnley standard, but still really good. It basically just looks like A-game Bob Kane, which is what it's supposed to look like anyway, but I must admit I don't think Burnley draws the characters created by Kane as well as everyone else. Which is to say that his "normal" people look fantastic but his Penguin lacks something (Kane draws a really good Penguin) and his Dynamic Duo always come off as cheap copies. I can't put my finger on it. It's not bad, in fact technically speaking it's probably much better than Kane, but it lacks something somehow.
The Story: Cheers to Don Cameron for coming up with something unique for Penguin to do that still feels totally in keeping with his character -- in fact this kind of "brains over brawn, third party crime" stuff feels very much like the Modern Age version of the character, or at least it would if the Modern Age version was ever done right. However I wish Cameron would have realized that crooks would have turned against Penguin themselves once they realized what he was up to -- a story where Batman and Robin actually teamed up with disenfranchised crooks to take down the cheating Penguin would have been really cool. Alas, instead we got a tale whose climax is essentially right on the money for the kind of thing Adam West and co. would parody twenty years later -- ridiculous, but kind've awesome at the same time.
Notes and Trivia:  Penguin jailed for the first time, sentenced to death. 
Penguin Body Count: 5

No comments:

Post a Comment