Sunday, December 27, 2009

Modern Age Review: Batman and the Mad Monk #2

"Batman and the Mad Monk, Part Two"
By: Matt Wagner
Colours: Dave Stewart
Letters: Rob Leight
Synopsis: Picking up where we last left off, the mysterious Dala is gathered in front of a large number of robed cultists in a large chamber. The unfortunate girl she drugged at the end of issue one is tied up at the altar. As she screams for help, the leader of this group emerges -- the red-cloaked, mysterious, Monk. The Monk tears open the girl's throat and drinks blood from her wound, then gestures to the gathered cultists to do the same. The Monk's name is Niccolai, and Dala's internal monologue tells us that he has promised to make all the cultists one day immortal like himself -- for he is a vampire.
Meanwhile, Norman Madison has sought an audience with mobster Sal Maroni. Madison wishes to pay off his debts, but Maroni tells him that he is freed from this requirement, thanks to the Batman. Norman is becoming ever more paranoid that the Batman is in fact after him because of his dealings with the mob, and insists he pays Maroni. Maroni insists stronger and has Norman thrown out.
Batman, meanwhile, has a late-night meeting with one of his allies -- assistant district attorney Harvey Dent. Dent and Batman are trying to link Maroni to a huge misplaced shipment of heroin.
While Bruce is out playing Dark Knight Detective, his fiancee Julie Madison is staking out Wayne Manor -- convinced Bruce is hiding something from her. But the stake-out yields nothing, and Julie goes home frustrated.
The young girl whom the Monk and his minions have murdered is found dumped in an alleyway. Captain Gordon's team are on the scene, and soon so is the Batman. Batman notes that these murders are ritualistic in nature, while Gordon expresses concern at the continuing need for him and Batman to meet like this -- over the dead victim of some lunatic.
In chemical tests, Bruce discovers that the victim was drugged with a substance derived from perfumes, and tracks the source to an abandoned cosmetic factory. Sure enough, several hoods who work for the Monk are there, picking up the hearse Bruce deduced must've carried the body. As the Batman, he swoops down to attack them -- and that's the end of the issue.
My Thoughts: All by itself, this issue is fairly weak -- it's mainly designed to get us from point A to point B, and the only reason its content fills a whole issue is because of the time Wagner gives to each of his continuing plot-threads. The best bit definitely was the meeting between Batman and Harvey -- Wagner can't resist some nice foreshadowing -- even though this scene is probably the least plot-related in the issue, it's great character interaction. And I always love seeing classic, good Harvey Dent.
The Art: Wagner seems to be rushing it this issue -- the art is rougher and less polished in places than last month's, and his work always looks much worse if it's not well inked -- which several panels aren't here, indicating a hurried job.
The Story: Really nothing much happens here, except we're formally introduced to the titular Mad Monk. The rest of the issue really feels like biding time, padding things out for the sake of turning a 2-part Golden Age story into a 6-part Modern Age one, which makes it read well in a collected edition, but not so well on its own.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Return of Dime a Dozen: Golden Age Batman Review: Batman #1

In June, 1939, Superman became the first comic book character to be given his own series. In April, 1940, Batman became the second.

Batman #1 contained five stories within its covers, the first of which was "The Legend of the Batman - Who He is and How He Came to Be" which was primarily a reprint of Batman's two-page origin story from Detective Comics #33. Following this came four of the most memorable and reprinted Batman stories of all time.

"The Joker"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: Late one evening, the regularly scheduled radio broadcast (oh, radio!) is interrupted by a toneless, droning voice of a man calling himself The Joker, threatening to kill millionaire Henry Claridge and steal the Claridge diamond at midnight that very night. While the public figure it must be a hoax (the Joker is thanking Orson Welles, I figure), the police take things very seriously and set up a full cordon of men around Claridge, with no chance of anyone getting in or out. When midnight comes, Claridge becomes hysterical about still being alive -- then bursts into laughter, and dies. The police are baffled by the hideous grin Claridge continues to bear, even in death. A check of the premises reveals the Claridge diamond is also stolen, and what the police have been protecting all this time has been a glass fake. Underneath the diamond is left a Joker playing card -- the sign of a madman.
We then get our first look at the Joker. Bill Finger describes him as a man without mirth, filled with hate, and Bob Kane draws him with the hollow face of German Expressionist actor Conrad Veidt. He gloats about his brilliance to himself -- completely calm, completely monotone, which makes it all the more terrifying. He poisoned Claridge yesterday with a poison that takes twenty-four hours to take effect, and took the diamond at the same time -- announcing a crime that had already been committed. Truly he is mad, brilliant, and a showboater.
At Wayne Manor, young Dick Grayson asks his mentor, Bruce Wayne, whether they should deal with the Joker in their identities as Batman and Robin. But Wayne prefers to wait until they have a more solid lead. More people dead, more clues right??
So the next night another announcement from the Joker comes over the radio, this time declaring the death of Jay Wilde and the theft of the Ronkers Ruby (which Wilde presumably owns). Again, the cordon of police officers. Again the man dies at exactly the appointed time. Also, a strange gas suddenly appears and renders all the police paralysed. From out of a suit of armour in the corner of the room the Joker emerges. He reveals that he killed Wilde with a poisoned dart. He then taunts the dead body, and departs.
Meanwhile, the "normal" criminal underworld feels intruded upon by this new upstart. In particular, one Brute Nelson announces his opinion that the Joker is a "yeller rat". Hearing this through the criminal grapevine, Batman decides that now is the time to act.
The Joker attacks Brute Nelson in his home, but its a trap, with Nelson's gang waiting to spring. Luckily, (for the Joker?) the Batman deduced Nelson would be the Joker's target, and begins fighting the gang. However, this gives the Joker the distraction necessary to kill Nelson. He shows he's not above simply shooting an enemy, stating that the Joker venom would be a "waste" on Nelson.
The Joker proceeds to make a getaway in his car, but the Batman grabs on and begins to struggle with him inside the car. Eventually Batman pries Joker out of the vehicle as it careens off a bridge. But the Joker proves he's no slouch in a fight and kicks Batman into the river. Batman realizes he's finally met a worthy foe. So do the readers.
The next night, the Joker threatens to kill Judge Drake (interestingly, as revenge for the judge once sending him to prison). The Judge is being guarded by the chief of police -- who turns out to be the Joker in disguise. Revealed, the Joker promptly kills him with the venom.
However, the Batman has ordered his trusty aide, Robin, to follow anyone coming out of the house. The young boy follows the Joker to an abandoned house -- where he is quickly taken out by the Joker.
The Batman realizes his young partner is missing, but luckily coated Robin's boots with a special paint visible only under infrared light. Using IR goggles, Batman can follow Robin's trail. He bursts in just as the Joker is going to inject Robin with the venom. He rescues Robin, but in the fight with the Joker, the house is lit aflame. The Joker manages to spray Batman with his paralysing gas.
However, and I quote, "the Joker has not reckoned with the amazing recuperative powers of the mighty Batman" and our hero merely shakes off the gas and makes his escape with Robin.
Robin reveals that the Joker told him his next target will be the Cleopatra necklace, owned by Otto Drexel. The duo makes their way to Drexel's penthouse, where they discover the Joker's robbery already in progress. The Joker grows tired of the battle and shoots Batman point blank, crying "DIE -- BLAST YOUR -- DIE! WHY DON'T YOU DIE!"
But the Batman is wearing a bullet proof vest, and so the Joker's bullets appear to have no effect. Having wasted his bullets, the enraged Joker makes flight, but is cornered by Robin, and finally defeated by Batman.
The Joker is imprisoned at the State Penitentiary -- but vows to escape and have the last laugh.
My Thoughts: This is, at the end of the day, THE Batman story. This is where all the elements that make up what a Batman story is essentially crystallize. This is the classic, and you can feel it when you read it. Finally Bill Finger and Bob Kane have hit upon what makes a good villain for Batman. To this day, the Joker is the pre-eminent Batman villain, almost invariably following the Dark Knight into whatever media he is adapted to. The essential mix is that of the weird, the threatening, and the real all in one form. The Joker is a carnival clown mixed with the 30s gangster to create a precognition of the merciless serial killer. The Joker is a performance criminal, something never truly seen in fiction before then and only rarely seen in reality. Like Batman, he has no special powers -- simply a bizarre appearance and a relentless evil that defies explanation.
Finger gives no origin for the Joker, no reasoning for his appearance or motives -- although he does provide tantalizing clues. We know he was a criminal before he became the Joker, since he seeks revenge for a former imprisonment. He must not have always looked the way he does, otherwise he would've been known in the underworld before now. But it would be eleven years before Finger would pen an origin for The Joker -- and only then in the begotten Silver Age of DC.
Like many Golden Age characters, there is some question of who exactly created the Joker. In modern times, inker Jerry Robinson has assumed much of the credit, while at the time the books were published, artist Kane was the only creative force credited. It seems clear that Kane and Finger were the primary architects of the character, with involvement from Robinson being minimal at best. Finger was well known as a fan of expressionist horror cinema, and Kane practically admits that Finger came to Kane with the idea of basing a villain visually on German actor Conrad Veidt's appearance in the 1928 silent film The Man Who Laughs. Kane liked the idea and agreed. If Robinson did anything, it was to bring in a Joker playing card, the design of which Kane used for the villain's calling card, and perhaps suggest naming him "The Joker" after the card.
The Art: Kane and Robinson do a fine job here -- although Robinson's inks aren't nearly as good as his work in Detective #38. Kane creates a truly unique look for the Joker, and its clear he enjoys pencilling the madman. Robinson's claims that he alone created the character (similar to his claims that he created Robin) just lose credibility when you see how well Kane pencils the character, but how lazily Robinson inks him. However, while the art team's work is good, it isn't their best and not really up to how good Finger's script is.

The Story:
The actual plot of this story is so simple and so archetypal in comic books that its hard to look at straight on. If not for the creation of the Joker, there would be little exciting in it. What details are interesting are the new elements Finger is adding to the standard superhero plot -- the criminal announcing his crimes ahead of time, for example. The clever methods of killing the victims. The fact that the Joker actually seems frighteningly, truly, insane; as opposed to the melodramatic cackling insanities of most other villains of the period. However, Finger's writing here has hit a top-notch form -- and his repetition of the basic formula in this story for years shows that he knew it.
Notes and Trivia: First appearance of the Joker, first use of Joker venom, Joker is placed in the State Prison.
Joker Body Count: 4

"Professor Hugo Strange and the Monsters"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inker: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: Okay, this is the story that was originally solicited to appear in Detective Comics #38, before that issue became the debut of Robin. As such, the Boy Wonder does not appear in this tale -- indeed, this is the last solo Batman story until 1969!
The tale opens with the violent escape of Professor Hugo Strange and several other prisoners from the State Prison, followed by his freeing of five mental patients from the Metropolis Insane Asylum, and Bruce Wayne learning of these events over the radio -- all in the space of four panels. Bruce concludes that something new in crime is brewing, but decides to bide his time - smoking his pipe - until Strange acts (Golden Age Bruce is much more laid back than the regularly patrolling, constantly suspicious Bruce we know and love today).
A month later, the narration tells us, a giant monster man (fifteen feet tall apparently) appears to lift up cars and throw them around, and when the police fire upon it, the bullets have no effect. The monster's size varies significantly from panel to panel, but the basic imagery shows a distinctive influence of King Kong.
At the end of its rampage, the monster jumps into the back of a truck and escapes, while Bruce decides its definitely the work of Professor Strange and that he must stop him. The monster appears again the next day, stealing more scenes from Kong, and once more escaping in a truck. Batman follows in the Batplane until the truck enters a farmhouse outside of the city. Batman acknowledges it is probably a trap, but enters anyway...
...And is instantly captured by three hulking monster men and brought to their master, Hugo Strange. Batman asks Strange to reveal his plan, "a dying man's last request", and Strange willfully does so. I'm not sure if I should take that scene straight, or if the villain revealing his plan was a tired old cliche even by this point. Either way, Strange reveals the monster men are created by a serum that accelerates growth glands, the side effect of which is decreased intelligence. He uses the monsters merely as distractions, so that he can rob banks while the police are kept busy. Strange then removes Batman's utility belt and injects him with the growth serum. Strange exposits that the serum takes eighteen hours to take effect, then has Batman knocked out.
Batman wakes up the next day with a dramatic fifteen minutes to spare until the serum takes effect, while Strange once again sends his men out with the monsters. Batman escapes his cell by mixing two explosive chemicals he keeps in his boots. He then proceeds to punch Strange out a window, off a cliff, and into the sea, pausing to wonder if "this is really the end of Professor Hugo Strange?"
He's attacked by three monster men, but deals with them all expertly (including causing two of them to kill each other) and then with five minutes to spare cooks up an antidote to the serum using Strange's lab and cures himself.
Then its time for vigilante justice as Batman swoops down upon the criminal trucks in the Batplane firing his machine gun while intoning to himself, "Much as I hate to take human life, I'm afraid THIS TIME its necessary!" The three men inside killed, the truck crashes, and the monster man inside escapes out the back. Batman ropes him up and essentially strangles him to death by hanging him by the neck from the flying Batplane. He then proceeds to find the second truck, kill all the men in it, and follow after the final monster man.
But with Batman in a plane and a fifteen foot tall monster on the loose, Finger and Kane couldn't resist one final King Kong rip-off, and so the monster man climbs the Empire State Building and is shot down by Batman, who wonders if Hugo Strange will ever resurface.
My Thoughts: Its interesting to note that the last Batman story without Robin is also the last Batman story where the Dark Knight kills anybody, and one of the last Batman stories in the original "dark, mysterioso" mode for the character. There are a few noirish tales after this one, but really this is the last really dark Batman story until Neal Adams and Dennis O'Neil revised the character in the late sixties. Seriously, though, Batman kills eight people in this story -- the Joker only killed four in his first appearance! Brian Azarello thinks its a great idea to bring back this version of Batman, and is teaming him up with Doc Strange I believe in a new mini-series -- but I think at the end of the day taking the gun away from Batman was a good call on Finger and Kane's part.
The Art: This is another really prime effort from Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson -- the art is evocative, moody, and atmospheric. There are frames of Batman and Strange in this story that are really quite well done. It's the last great hurrah of vigilante Batman before Bob slowly changed him into the square-jawed crusader of justice he would become under Dick Sprang's pencil.
The Story: This story idea is so bizarre that its no wonder its the one most associated with the Golden Age Hugo Strange as opposed to his other schemes. However, King Kong must've been on re-release at the time for filmaniac Finger to be stealing so many beats from it.
Notes and Trivia: Final time Batman kills anybody (on purpose?), final solo Batman tale until 1969.
Batman Body Count: 20 at least.

"The Cat"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: Some old broad named Mrs. Travers is having a big soiree on her yacht. She actually announces in the paper that she will be bringing her famous emerald necklace and that there will be a masquerade party. In my opinion, she deserves to be robbed, but Bruce Wayne thinks he should send Dick Grayson to guard the jewels, because he has "another job to do first!"
With his various connections, Bruce gets Dick a job as a steward on the yacht, for Robin's very first solo mission. Dick does some eavesdropping and discovers that Travers has a nephew who is always borrowing money, and a doctor who always gambles his money away and a brother who loses big on the stock market. Dick deduces that "this yacht isn't the safest place in the world for a necklace until a half a million dollars!"
Dick observes the nephew toss a note over the edge of the boat, but the wind picks it up and blows it over to Dick, somehow. The note reads "Keep your aunt away from room. Will be by then," and it is signed "The Cat". But before Dick can do anything, Mrs. Travers runs out screaming that her necklace has been stolen. Geez, Robin, Batman would've solved the entire case by now. Travers' private detective has been killed, but luckily just at that moment the coast guard arrives to save the day!
But then the "coast guard" turns out to simply be mobsters after the necklace, unaware they've been beaten to the punch. But that doesn't stop them from robbing everything else -- until Dick springs into action with a trademark Robin tackle! (Which consists of flinging himself headfirst into someone's butt for some reason). The mobsters, not being retards, start shooting at Dick with tommy guns, but he dives into the ocean and they assume him to be shot and drowned.
Somehow, Dick manages to change into his Robin suit while underwater, meanwhile the thugs are getting ready to leave just as a high-powered speedboat pulls up to the yacht. A figure jumps off the boat and lands on deck -- it's the Batman!
We then begin a two-page lesson in how to write didactic literature for children, as Batman announces that he's going to "show the kids of America just how yellow you rats are without your guns!" Instead of wondering what the hell Batman's talking about and shoot him, the crooks agree to lower their weapons and fight Robin to help Batman prove a point beyond the fourth wall.
Robin easily beats up all the crooks, and Batman turns to the reader and says "Well, kids, there's your proof! Crooks are yellow without their guns! Don't go around admiring them - rather do your best in fighting them, and all their kind!"
Thanks, Batman. This from the guy who shot down twelve people in the previous story with a machine gun.
Now that all the crooks are stopped, Robin remembers to mention the note with "The Cat"'s signature on it, as well as the upcoming masquerade ball, and the fact that the necklace is still missing. Robin concludes that it's either the nephew, the doctor, or the brother. Batman rofls because he's already figured it out despite only being onboard a few minutes.
Meanwhile, at the masquerade, Travers' nephew asks old woman Peggs why she isn't dressed up -- turns out she's too old for that sort've thing, and her ankle hurts. THEN THE BATMAN SHOWS UP! And is immediately awarded first prize in the costume contest. He then proceeds to return all the stolen property at the ball, before the fire alarm suddenly goes off and everyone bolts for the door. As everyone runs off, Batman notices that Miss Peggs as awfully nice legs for an old woman. Wow, Batman. This is a side of you I've never seen before.
The captain announces it was simply a false alarm, while Miss Peggs realizes the Batman is after her just soon enough for Robin to dive tackle her!
Then, in a classic Scooby Doo manoeuvre, the pulls off Miss Pegg's mask to reveal -- The Cat!! She protests to this treatment, resulting in the hilarious Bat-quip: "Quiet or Papa spank!" Revealed to be a beautiful young woman with dark hair, the Cat asks "Haven't you ever seen a pretty girl before?"
The Cat had hidden the necklace in the false bandage for her ankle. She tries to seduce Batman, bring him in as her partner and split the take, but while tempted, Batman rejects her offer. The two partners take The Cat back to the wharf in the speedboat, but Batman leaves the Cat unhandcuffed, and she jumps off the boat and escapes. Robin tries to stop her, but Batman "clumsily" bumps into him, and when confronted by Robin responds with "hmmm, nice night, isn't it?"
The story ends with the Batman absentmindedly daydreaming about the Cat, and a promise for a full-page picture of Batman and Robin on the next page -- instead we get an extra bonus story first!
My Thoughts: So this is the "classic first appearance of Catwoman", eh? Well, to be quite honest, it kinda sucks. The focus seems much on the "first solo Robin story" aspect, and the Cat is only introduced in the last two pages. Kane said he created the character to introduce some interesting temptation and love interest for Batman other than the standard comic book damsel in distress -- in this way, she fulfills the "femme fatale" role in a classic film noir plot. But she seems to be a last minute addition to the story -- undeveloped, an interesting cliffhanger for further use, but not at all defined here, other than having a sultry, spitfire personality.
The Art: I think there is a definite split here in the art style between this story and the two previous stories in the issue. Things are more blocky, the lines are thicker -- this is the style of Batman that would persist throughout the nineteen-forties, and I believe shows a growing influence of Jerry Robinson on the look of the strip. The key way to tell the difference is the appearance of Batman himself: the ears get shorter, his jaw becomes squarer, the areas on his costume coloured blue or black begin to slowly shift (until the sixties when the only black left will be his face and the underside of his cape).
The Story: Basically this tale has three sections: Robin's first solo mission, "The More You Know", and The Cat. The first element is really rote and feels like a Hardy Boys book or something. The lesson from Batman to the kids of America is the very first time Batman ever speaks out against guns -- but I prefer Frank Miller's "this is the weapon of the enemy. We do not use it" version, personally. And as mentioned before, The Cat seems like a last minute addition designed to pucnh up an otherwise completely forgettable tale. Yawn.
Notes and Trivia: First appearance of the Cat(woman), first Robin solo mission, originally designed to be the last story in Batman #1.

"The Joker Returns"
Writer:
Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: So apparently it's been less than two days since the Joker was arrested and put in jail to await trial. Which allows for barely enough time for the previous two stories -- but then I suspect the Hugo Strange one is meant to take place before Detective #38.
Angry that anyone would lock up one as smart as him, the Joker escapes by mixing chemicals stored in two false teeth he has been wearing -- the combination yields an explosion in the prison wall and soon the Joker is free again. News breaks over the radio, and is heard by Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson.
Meanwhile, the Joker makes it to his hideout -- a laboratory hidden in an abandoned crypt in an old cemetery. He's soon up to his regular tricks, as he threatens to kill Police Chief Chalmers at ten o'clock.
The police form a cordon to protect their chief -- but when was the last time that worked? Oh, right - never. The chief receives a telephone call, from the Joker no less, and then dies of Joker venom poisoning. Turns out the Joker had planted a poisoned dart in the receiver, and when he yelled into the phone the vibrations shot the dart into the Chief. That doesn't sound physically possible to me, but if I was a ten-year old American kid in the spring of 1940 I'd probably think that was pretty clever.
Soon the Joker is on a roll, stealing paintings and jewels and leaving a trail of smiling death in his wake. The Batman decides to go into action.
The Joker is going to steal the Cleopatra necklace from the city's museum. He emerges from the casket of a mummy and applies the Joker gas to the police guard -- but then Batman appears! The two battle for a few panels but the Joker manages to deal a glancing blow with a mace that is drawn curiously like an axe. Anyways, the Joker gets away, while the police back-up finds the Batman unconscious.
Eager to arrest the notorious vigilante, the lead officer makes a move to remove Batman's mask -- but the Batman suddenly regains consciousness, attacks the police, and makes a clean getaway.
Meanwhile, a reformist politician (which in forties-speak means disingenuous rabble rouser) named Edgar Martin makes speeches to the effect that the police are incompetent in being unable to catch the Joker, and that the public should take the law into its own hands. So, of course, the Joker marks him for death -- this time killing his victim from poison-tipped playing cards, all while Martin is being guarded by the police. Hmm, maybe they are incompetent.
Commissioner Gordon is certainly worried. He's afraid he's going to lose his job if the Joker isn't captured soon. Good thing his friend Bruce Wayne has an idea. Bruce suggests Gordon place publicity for the Fire Ruby in the newspapers, having noticed that most of the Joker's crimes revolve around gems. Gordon agrees -- unaware that this ploy is going to become a standard Bill Finger writing trope to draw a villain into the open. *Ahem*
The Joker is unable to resist, of course, despite suspecting it all to be a trap. He shows up, but is soon surrounded by police. He shoots his way out, but is followed by Robin. However, he pulls an awesome manoeuvre and punches Robin off the side of a building, leaving him literally hanging from a flagpole (is it just me, or are there more flagpoles on the sides of buildings in comics than in real life? They never seem to have any flags on them either). Joker doesn't hear Robin hit the ground, so he makes it to ground level to check around -- but is ambushed by the Batman. He aims for Batman's head, knowing he wears a bulletproof vest under his suit, but Robin jumps off his flagpole perch and takes Joker out.
Joker pulls a knife on the Batman, but our hero dodges, and the Joker actually stabs himself in the chest. Then we are treated to perhaps Bill Finger's greatest Joker moment -- for the Joker, accidentally killing himself appears to be the greatest punchline of all, as he begins to laugh maniacally, screaming "HA! HA! HA! The Joker is going to die! HA! HA! The laugh is on the Joker! HA! HA! Laugh, clown, laugh! HA! HA! HA! Ha-ha-ha-ha..."
Batman declares the Joker dead, while Robin notices the fiend is still smiling. "Yes," replies Batman, "and when the flesh is gone the grinning skull will still carry the sign of the Joker -- into eternity!"
As the police arrive, the two crime-fighters dash off, while an ambulance is called for the dead maniac.
But what's this? The doctor finds the Joker is not dead! And what more -- he is going to live!!!
We are then treated to "Robin's Code" for young boys (Readiness, Obedience, Brotherhood, Industriousness, Patriotism) and the full-page splash of Batman and Robin promised at the end of the Cat story.
My Thoughts: Okay, so it's my belief this story was originally meant for a later issue, and bumped up to this one at the last minute. For one thing, having both the first and "last" Joker stories in the same issue seems like a waste of the character. For another, the Batman and Robin splash page was promised at the end of the Cat story, but appears after this one. And finally, the art in this story seems very rushed, suggesting it was not given enough time for completion.
The Joker was originally meant to die at the end of this story, having killed himself it would allow Batman to be innocent of murder but at the same time not leave an unconscionable serial killer always on the loose, which Finger felt would make Batman look ineffectual over time. It is for this reason that the Joker is constantly linked with death imagery in the story -- the crypt, the mummy, narration comparing him to a Phantom, etc -- he's a dead man walking.
But editor Whitney Ellsworth decided the character was too good to lose -- after all, the Joker was the first foe in Batman comics who had really been worthy of the title character.
It was a good call -- as the Joker has gone on to be Batman's most popular foe, reinterpreted and brought back from the dead countless of times by countless comics writers and artists over seventy years of publishing, as well as appearing in multiple television series, cartoons, movies, and video games.
The Art: As mentioned earlier, the art in this story appears hastily done, from missing backgrounds to the final "Joker's alive!" panel (which, by the way, established for the first time that the Joker's skin was white all over, and it wasn't just make-up). The best panel in the story is one of the guards in the museum on patrol, with a use of black and white contrast that resembles the later work of Frank Miller.
The Story: The writing, on the other hand, is excellent, feeling like a real part two to the earlier story. The Joker's murders continue to be creative and eerie, and the ending is a disturbing classic that would be echoed in Miller's death for the Joker in The Dark Knight Returns. Christopher Nolan stated he based his Joker on these first two stories -- one can only imagine what the reaction would've been if Heath Ledger had stabbed himself and died at the end of The Dark Knight. Meanwhile, I liked the return of Commissioner Gordon, as well as the continuing subplot of Batman on the run from the police. All around a good effort from Bill Finger.
Notes and Trivia: The first escape of the Joker from prison, the first "death" of the Joker, and the first "resurrection" of the Joker.
Joker Body Count: 15

Monday, September 14, 2009

HOLY LACK OF UPDATES, BATMAN!

Hey, sorry about that, anyone-who-might-actually-read-this-blog. Life suddenly up and dumped on my lap like it tends to do sometimes, and I'm trying to find a legitimate way to balance this blog with university and filming and all this damned reading I'm supposed to be doing. I got distracted from Golden Age comics (I promise there'll be some stuff other than Batman eventually, btw) by reading Grant Morrison/Jack Kirby/New Gods stuff (Final Crisis is awesome -- linear narratives are for pussies!) -- maybe I'll even review some of it here someday.

Anyhow, I'll make up for it with the absolutely massive Batman #1 review coming up, in which I will wax nostalgic for a 64 page comic with five stories that cost a dime, starred the Dark Knight and the Boy Wonder, and introduced two villains who are still with us to this very day (though I wonder what Kane and Finger would think of Dini's Catwoman, or *gasp* Morrison's Joker?)

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A Humourous Aside

I was reading through the ads and letters pages in some back issues lately (what? It's like a free time machine!) and found a letter and response that, in light of films like The Dark Knight and Watchmen versus, say, X-Men Origins: Wolverine or The Incredible Hulk, made me chuckle.

From Batman #437:
...What prompted this letter, however, was a number of articles in the Comic Buyer's Guide on the forthcoming Batman movie. My congratulations to you and to Warner Brothers! Superb! Batman looks eminently formidable and Bruce Wayne has never looked so debonair. Jack Nicholson's Joker is chilling and the Batmobile is awesome. This is going to be a blockbuster! I've seen the previews, and the characters appear true to their comics form. It seems you have better luck transferring your characters to the movies than your major competitor. What's the trick?
Thanks for great comics and movies.
Mike Kuker
Redding, CA

No trick, just ingredients. You start with a solid, definable character and he sort of takes over, no matter what the medium.


Yep. DC > Marvel. Warner Bros > 20th Century Fox.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Modern Age Batman Review: Batman and the Mad Monk #1

Golly, that cover seems familiar doesn't it? Could it be? Yes! It's Detective Comics #31! Matt Wagner is back to retell the tale of Batman's encounter with the vampire known as The Monk within the settings of Modern Age continuity. This six-part series is a follow-up to his Batman and the Monster Men series and is also the second half of the overall "Dark Moon Rising" storyline.

"Batman and the Mad Monk, Part One"
By: Matt Wagner
Colours: Dave Stewart
Letters: Rob Leigh
Synopsis: In a Gotham City jewelery store, Batman has his second run in with the Cat-Woman. He first encountered her on the Roman's rooftop, and thought she might have been another costumed hero. But now she's stealing jewels, revealing herself to be merely a thief with a flare for the dramatic. Batman is disturbed by this growing trend of costumed criminals, first her and then the Red Hood, and wonders if he is somehow responsible for inspiring them. The Cat scratches him on the chest and makes off with the jewels. As the Batman wonders if he might want to start wearing body armour under his costume, he realizes he's been drugged.
Meanwhile, Julie Madison, girlfriend of Bruce Wayne, has been left waiting for him again. Finally, Alfred shows up, only to explain that Bruce won't be able to make it tonight. Furious, Julie storms home.
On the rooftop of Police Headquarters, Captain Gordon activates the Bat-beeper he was given to signal the caped crusader, worrying if maybe this time he won't recieve the signal. He's shook out of his revery by the arrival of three crooked cops, most likely sent by Commissioner Grogan to beat some sense into Gordon. A fight breaks out, but is cut short by the arrival of the Batman, who makes quick work of the dirty cops and makes it clear that the roof is off-limits to all but Gordon. Gordon informs Batman that he called him because he needs to show him something in the morgue.
Julie arrives home to find all the lights turned out, and her father alone in his office, terrified of being seen. He had owed money to the gangster Sal Maroni, and though the debt was absolved, he believes that the Batman is after him and will kill him for his crime.
In the morgue of Gotham Central, Gordon shows the Batman a corpse found in the Gotham River. It has a gash in its throat, chewing marks in its trachea, and is completely devoid of blood. Batman thinks its the work of marine life, with the blood having been siphoned out of the body in its journey down the river. Until Gordon produces a second body, identical wound, also drained of blood, found in the basement of a condemned building. Oh. Snap.
We end the issue in a Gotham night club called the "3rd Avenue Nite Club." Omg. Anyways, this young, slutty, blonde broad is in the bar complaining about how dull her life is every since she ran away from home and came to Metropolis. This talk interests the foreign-accented Dala, who looks to be a smokin' hot goth chick in a black corset and leather pants. Dala offers the girl a sniff of her special perfume, knocking the girl out, who then gets placed into a car by a bunch of guys in red robes that Dala refers to as "the Brotherhood", which is apparently lead by someone named Niccolai. Just your average alt-scene date-rape, right? Right?
My Thoughts: To be honest, instead of launching me into a new and exciting series, this issue feels a lot like its wrapping up details from Batman and the Monster Men. The opening with Catwoman is a fun bit, bringing us in line with where we are in Bat-continuity, but the story doesn't really come to the party until the last four pages. And the big cliffhanger ending that should get us excited for the next issue is fairly weak. I do, however, agree with the decision to introduce Dala early, as a lead-in to meeting the Monk, and keeping the Monk himself a mystery. In the original story we met Dala much later in the story, and she seemed a rather pointless addition.
The Art: Wagner continues to give us great artwork, again especially in his depiction of Batman, who gets some awesome panels in this issue. Dala looks fantastic too. Basically everything else looks much as it did in Monster Men.
The Story: As noted above, this issue is really about bringing new readers up to speed from the last series, tying up loose ends, and then slowly bringing us into the new dangers presented in this story. Unfortunately, we bounce back and forth too many times and ultimately this feels like it should've been the first half of a first issue rather than an entire issue. It's a perfect example of just how little story there is in a modern comic book, because the creator knows most people are going to read it in the trade paperback straight through and it'll be fine in that format as the first chapter of a larger story. But on it's own its unsatisfying and I don't know if it would get someone to continue to buy this series if they picked it up.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Golden Age Batman Review: Detective Comics #38

At the end of last month's story, we were promised Batman facing off against hideous Man Monsters. On the cover of this month's issue we are introduced to "the Sensational character find of 1940: ROBIN - the Boy Wonder"! Well, then. Okay.

Convince me.

"Introducing Robin, the Boy Wonder"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis:
In a small town outside the big city, at the Haly Circus, the Flying Graysons are a family team of acrobats comprised of father John, mother Mary, and son Richard. One day, young Dick overhears a group of gangsters pushing Mr. Haly to pay them protection money against "accidents", which he refuses to do. The next night, Bruce Wayne is in the audience of onlookers as the Flying Graysons perform their act. The finale of the show is the two parents performing the death-defying Triple Spin. The trick comes off fine, until the ropes snap and both acrobats plummet to their death, right in front of their son. The gangsters revist Haly, and this time he agrees to pay them.
Young Dick deduces what has happened and decides to go to the police. He is stopped however, by the Batman, who tells Dick to come with him. The young boy gets in the costumed vigilante's car and they drive off (oh, the Golden Age!). Batman explains that Boss Zucco runs all the crime in town and controls the police. If Dick were to go to them he'd be killed. Batman offers to hide Dick in his home and to assist him in his war on crime, since he empathizes with Dick's plight, given that his own parents were killed by criminals.
Dick is eager to fight crime, but the Batman warns him that it is a perilous lifestlye. Dick replies that he is not afraid, and so the Batman has him swear an oath to fight crime and corruption and never swerve from the path of righteousness.
The Batman begins training Dick, realizing that the young boy's acrobatic training makes him more agile and adept than even himself in many aspects. After many months, he adopts a costumed identity as Robin, the Boy Wonder, an identity modeled as a modern-day Robin Hood.
Dick begins to press Bruce as to when they can make their move against Zucco. Bruce replies that they are ready to return to the small town and tighten the noose around Zucco. Bruce sets Dick up in the guise of a newspaper boy, and almost immediately Dick discovers that even a cut of his money from that goes to Zucco. Dick follows Zucco's enforcers to the gangster's home, and learns many of his plans. Over the next several days the Batman busts up Zucco's protection rackets and gambling operations with much glee. He sends Zucco and his men a note (by carrier bat, no less) saying that he knows Zucco is trying to squeeze money out of a local construction company and that the Batman will be waiting for him there.
Zucco and his men go to the unfinished skyscraper to cause an "accident" to convince the company to pay up, and are ambushed by Robin, who dispatches several of the men with his acrobatics and slingshot skills. Then the Batman shows up. He manages to beat a confession out of one of Zucco's men, Blade, that Zucco paid him to put acid on the ropes at the circus. Zucco murders his lieutenant but Robin gets it on camera and this, combined with the written confession, puts Zucco behind bars.
Afterwards, Bruce asks Dick if he wants to return to circus life now that Zucco is dealt with, but Dick replies that he wants to continue fighting crime as Robin alongside the Batman.
My Thoughts: What can I say? This is an all-time classic story. It's been repeated and retold many, many times - in the "Batman: Year 3" storyline from Batman #436-439, in Legends of the Dark Knight #100, in the Batman: Dark Victory series, in cartoons such as Batman: The Animated Series and The Batman, and in film in Batman Forever. It's most recent retelling has been in the much lambasted All-Star Batman & Robin series from Frank Miller and Jim Lee. And the many critics who have hated that series may be surprised to find, upon reading Detective Comics #38, that it is one of the more accurate retellings of the tale. For example, in the original tale it is the Batman who first confronts young Dick, taking him in his car back to his lair, training him to become his partner, and only later revealing himself as Bruce Wayne. In fact, there is never any mentioning of Bruce Wayne legally adopting Dick as his ward, rather the young boy merely chooses to stay with Wayne. These details are retained in Frank Miller's version. In later adaptations, Dick is sent to a Gotham orphanage after the murders, and adopted by Bruce (or alternatively immediately taken in by Bruce as part of a witness protection program, thanks to Bruce's friendship with police Commissioner Gordon). Only later does Dick discover Bruce is Batman and only with much reluctance from Batman does he join his crusade as Robin. These elements were added to improve realism and help ease the reader into the idea of the Batman allowing a ten-year-old boy to join his crusade. Because Miller retains the idea that it is Batman who recruits Robin, it keeps the Dark Knight in line with Miller's interpretation of him as a borderline-insane fanatic willing to do anything to further his goals - an interpretation that became very popular with writers in the late 90s.
Another detail from the original story that Miller retained was the Robin's identity is inspired by Robin Hood. Miller explains this by saying that Dick's father watched the old Errol Flynn version with him as a kid, which links Dick to Bruce in that Bruce's crime-fighting inspiration was the Tyrone Power Zorro film of the same era. Later retellings mostly associated the Robin identity with the flying bird, linking the Robin to the Bat as animal identities. This made reasons why Dick would adopt the name harder to explain -- with the Schumacher film conjuring up an elaborate back-story for the nickname and the Jeph Loeb version explaining that his mother always felt he was "bobbin' along", which is a pretty corny explanation for a superhero name.
As for why Robin was brought into the strip in the first place, the impetus seemed to come from writer Bill Finger. He found it frustrating getting development out of the Batman character when he had nobody to talk to. In order to get the hero's thought processes out, he wanted him to have a foil -- specifically, a Watson to his Sherlock Holmes. Bob Kane agreed, and came up with the idea of making him a young boy, so that the mainly young readers of the comic would have a character to identity with. And indeed it's a fantastic idea, as young boys might thrill to the adventures of the dark, crusading hero -- but then to be able to imagine themselves fighting alongside him? Fantastic! And it certainly proved successful, as the sales of Batman comics doubled within a year, and soon many other heroes gained kid sidekicks, such as Captain America and Bucky.
Jerry Robinson, the inker, also claims that Robin was his creation (similar to claims about the Joker). He ascribes Finger's Watson reasoning to himself (which makes little sense since Robinson wasn't even vaguely responsible for the writing of the strip). He also claims he came up with the name Robin (Jerry Robinson, right?) and designed the costume based on N.C. Wyeth's illustrations for The Adventures of Robin Hood. Now, maybe Robinson came up with the name, but the idea that he designed the costume is a laugh when you look at Robinson's solo artistic skill minus Kane's linework (the cover of Detective Comics #60, for example) or look at Wyeth's artwork, in which Robin Hood's look in no way resembles the Boy Wonder's. Frankly, as the only living member of the Golden Age Batman team, Robinson has it in his power to claim anything he wants - something he must of learned from Bob Kane, who claimed sole authorship of all Batman comics for the first thirty years of the character's existence.
The Art: Okay, so the art here is really great. I'm tempted to say it's the best art in the Batman feature so far. In fact I will say so. Kane and Robinson really put a ton of effort into this issue, with intricate line-work, shadows, and just a really gritty, urban, feel. Boss Zucco feels like something out of the Fleischer Studios (oh, a Fleischer Studios Batman would've been awesome, eh? Oh, man...) and the whole atmosphere is just lower to the ground and really helps the feel of the strip. Meanwhile, all the characters are given a lot more character and dimension here, like the puffs of smoke coming off from Zucco's face at all times. The depictions of Batman and Robin are purely fantastic and really just sell both characters. I'm phenomenally impressed.
The Story: Unlike the Batman, Robin debuts in an origin story. Bill Finger knew he would have to really sell the idea of a joking, smiling adolescent partner for his dark, driven avenger to make it work. To link Robin with Batman he makes young Dick also a victim of crime, which helps us believe the Batman would take such a youth under his wing. He makes Dick a circus acrobat in order to give a backing for why such a young boy would be able to keep pace with the highly-trained Batman. He specifies that Dick trains with Bruce for many months before going out, and still has Bruce scold Dick for being too impetuous in battle. Another great touch is to get the Batman fighting the world of true organized crime, with its hands in the pockets of the police and government. This sort've urban, avenging storytelling is perfect for Batman, a much better fit than jewel thieves or other small-time crooks. It's a classic story that's remained virtually untouched in its basic outlines for sixty-nine years. But what happened to that Monster Men story we were promised?
Notes and Trivia: First appearance of Dick Grayson - AKA Robin, the Boy Wonder; first and final Golden Age appearance of Boss Zucco; first battle on an unfinished skyscraper
Robin Body Count: 1!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Modern Age Batman Review: Batman and the Monster Men #6

With Hugo Strange's Monster Men closing in on Sal Maroni and Norman Madison under threat of execution from the same, we approach the thrilling climax of Matt Wagner's six-part series.

"Batman and the Monster Men, Part Six"
By: Matt Wagner
Colours: Dave Stewart
Letters: Rob Leigh
Synopsis: Maroni's execution of Norman is interrupted when one of his thugs is thrown through the window. And they're on the third floor. Three of the Monster Men easily climb over the outside wall and begin butchering Maroni's men, to the amusement of Hugo Strange. But Strange gets more than he bargains for when BATMAN smashes through the front gates in his proto-Batmobile. He deploys a steel net which traps the first Monster Man, and then proceeds on foot into the estate where the other two are already smashing up the place.
With one of the monsters trapped, the mobsters utterly rip through it with gunfire. This Monster was once Sanjay's brother, Rajan. Strange's assistant kills the mobsters who have murdered his brother, but is himself shot by one of Maroni's men.
Maroni knows there's an escape helicopter on the roof, and heads there with his lieutenants, leaving Madison to be killed by the creatures. Batman surveys the damage caused, as the interior of the estate is a bloody massacre. He takes down the second and third Monster Men with steel cable and mountaineering equipment, and heads for Maroni's location on the roof.
Along the way he runs into Norman, and tells him to get out of the house and to safety, referring to him by name. The paranoid and guilty-conscienced Madison is terrified by the caped crusader.
Maroni and his men are trapped on their way to the helicopter by the fourth and most developed Monster Man. Good thing Batman is there, as he jumps on the beast and injects it with a tranquilizer. Unfortunately, it only makes the Monster groggy, leaving Batman to finish the job by luring it into charging at the helicopter -- causing both to fall off the roof and collapse in a massive explosion. Batman confronts Maroni and threatens him until he agrees to absolve Norman Madison's debts.
The next morning, Julie Madison wakes up in Wayne Manor, and Bruce tells her that he's lent her father the money he needs to pay off his debts. Meanwhile, Hugo Strange managed to escape and has now become a television personality and psychological expert on the Batman, appearing on numerous talk shows. With no solid evidence, Bruce cannot go after Strange. Maroni and Falcone also escape unscathed. Bruce reflects that other than his relationship with Julie, he would feel that he had lost this conflict.
Meanwhile, Norman sees Strange's psychological report about Batman on TV, in which Strange classifies the Dark Knight as insane and relentless. Norman believes the Batman knew about his mob dealings, and his paranoid mind now has made him terrified that the Batman is going to come after him.
My Thoughts: Matt Wagner achieved a very special accomplishment with this series, turning an entertaining Golden Age Batman story into a fantastic exploration of the Dark Knight's early days. Other than the involvement of Hugo Strange and his Monster Men, however, this series is vastly different from the original story, which saves it from feelling like a simple rehashing. The numerous subplots, character examinations, and vast difference in exact plot events make this an entertaining and original effot on its own.
The Art: Wagner gives a great climax to this story, with several spectacular panels. The image of the proto-Batmobile smashing through the gates of the Roman's estate is memorable, as is the two-page spread of the bloody carnage inside the estate. The image of Batman threatening Maroni against a flaming background is also unforgettable. Great stuff. One thing I can say is that Matt Wagner draws a damned good Batman.
The Story: Wagner wraps up his threads really well here, managing to get all the main players in one location for an exciting, explosive finish. He impressively allows Batman to stop the Monster Men without outright murder, and gives all the characters good moments. He leaves Hugo Strange in a perfect place for another writer to pick up the character and run with it (namely Doug Moench's "Prey" arc in Legends of the Dark Knight) and of course leaves Norman Madison in an intriguing place that makes the reader wanted to pick up Wagner's sequel series, Batman and the Mad Monk.

Golden Age Batman Review: Detective Comics #37

"The Spies"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson

Synopsis: While driving in the country the Batman gets lost and pulls in at an old house to ask directions. Can you imagine that ever happening to modern-day Batman? Anyways, he hears screams from inside the house and goes to investigate. A gang of men are torturing a man named Joey because he was selling information about the dealings of a man named Turg. Batman beats up the gang and rescues Joey, but is rewarded for his trouble with a sock on the head. When he awakes the other men are dead.
Bruce Wayne looks in the phone book for a man named Turg (!) and finds three. The other two are respectable and the third runs a grocery store in a bad neighbourhood. The Batman pays them a visit and discovers it is a front for Turg and his men. He bursts in on them and the fight begins. Batman pulls a fast one by turning off the lights, rendering the crooks blind. Luckily, Batman has a pair of infrared goggles that enable him to see in the dark...LIKE A BAT! This is surprisingly high-tech for a 1940 Batman story -- especially since such devices were only five years old at that point. And German....
*Ahem* Anyways, Batman hands their asses to them on a platter, and then peaces. The crooks believe Joey led him there and they stab him to death and then leave to blow up a ship at the docks. However, Batman however was merely hiding, and from Joey's dying breathes he learns the crooks are foreign spies who are going to destroy a foreign shipping vessel, making it look the US commited the crime, drawing them into an international crisis (y'know, WWII).
So its off to the docks for Batman, and after a lot of fighting, ins and outs and close-calls, he manages to stop the spies and save the ship. Exciting stuff. Earlier, Batman got a phone number from dying Joey, which he tracks to a man named Count Grutt, a distinguished foreign dignitary. Turns out Count Grutt is actually Turg and therefore actually the leader if the spy ring! The Count (who's totally NOT from Germany or anything) attacks Batman with a sword but ends up getting stabbed and killed by Batman with his own sword.
And that's the end of that chapter, apparently. Batman kills a distinguished foreign personage with no real consequences. That's the Golden Age for you.
In the last panel Finger and Kane give us a special preview of next month's story -- Batman versus a group of hideous Monster Men!! Looks exciting! I'm sure it will make Detective Comics #38 a keeper! ;)
My Thoughts: Okay, so clearly the thing here is that WWII had already been going on in Europe for some time, and the Nazi scourge and it's frankly anti-Semite attitudes (to put it lightly) was weighting heavily on the minds of the largely Jewish comic-book industry. However, editorial edicts of the time meant that since America was not involved in the War, writers couldn't actually get their characters involved or mention the conflict. So Superman fought fictional Europeans in fictional European countries, and Batman smashes a totally not-German spy ring seeking to get America into a totally not-WWII international crisis. Although, why the Germans would want to get America in the War is beyond me.
The Art: After a pretty spectacular debut last issue, the Bob Kane/Jerry Robinson team gets sorta lazy this time around and really don't offer anything memorable. The sequence in the dark with Batman wearing the IR goggles isn't as well done as it could be, and the art in general looks like the strip's appearance a few months ago. One note is this is the last time Kane will draw Batman with tall, pointy, ears, as next month he'll begin shortening them and gradually moving Batman to what will become his standard 1940s appearance.
The Story: Besides Bill Finger bringing Batman into a political mileau that he has previously not been a part of, the story here is pretty standard of the kind of spy stories that were popping up in other comic books across the line. Batman's never really worked well in political stories, whether it's here in WWII or in the late eighties fighting Iran and the KGBeast. Maybe it's because we think of Batman as being a very local, Gotham-based hero as opposed to a more national-level character.
Batman Body Count: 12 at the least

Modern Age Batman Review: Batman and the Monster Men #5

Well, this cover is very spooky, atmospheric and evocative -- but it doesn't fit this series at all. Fits the follow-up, Batman and the Mad Monk, far better. Anyways, we're coming into the endgame of this great title.

"Batman and the Monster Men, Part Five"
By: Matt Wagner
Colours: Dave Stewart
Letters: Rob Leigh
Synopsis: We begin in the office of police Commissioner Edward Grogan, who has called in Captain James Gordon on suspicion of working with the vigilante Batman. Gordon denies everything, but Grogan makes his displeasure known. Unknown to Grogan, in his pocket Gordon carries a beeper which he uses to contact the Batman. He uses it after the meeting.
Batman has been investigating the lab of Hugo Strange, which has been destroyed in a fire the scientist has used to cover his trail. He meets Gordon on the rooftops of police headquarters, where the signal is strongest, and reveals to Gordon the existence of the Monster Men. This revelation stuns Gordon, who begins to question the sanity of the caped crusader.
In the pack of a freight truck, Hugo Strange and his assistant Sanjay complete the genetic manipulations of the last Monster Man. This one used the DNA of Batman as a base for the manipulations, and therefore is much less deformed than the previous subjects. It is revealed the original subject for this manipulation was Rajan, Sanjay's brother, who apparently suffered from some kind of debilitating illness, prompting Sanjay to bring him to Strange and work with the scientist.
Meanwhile, Julie discovers her father Norman Madison in the midst of an emotional breakdown. The drunk Norman reveals to her that he owes money to the mob and that they threatened Julie's life if he couldn't pay up. Hysterical, he orders her to go into hiding, while he insists on delivering the money he owes to mobster Sal Maroni personally, necessitating that Maroni's men take him to Carmine Falcone's country estate where Maroni is staying.
Julie goes to Bruce to tell him about her father. He has Alfred drug her and place her in the guest bedroom so that he can be free to follow Hugo Strange. Strange is going to storm Falcone's estate with his Monster Men and kill Maroni, so that the last evidence linking him to criminal activity will be destroyed.
Batman has deduced this plan, and for the purpose of storming the estate has built himself an armoured, high-powered, tank-like vehicle. Alfred jokes that he should've added winged tail-fins to make it a "bat-mobile" and is disturbed when Batman begins to consider it.
Norman is brought to Maroni, who is angry at his presumptious nature and pretentious attitude. As the two discuss their grievances, shots are heard outside, and Maroni assumes Madison has led the cops there, and pulls a gun on him.
My Thoughts: This issue is fairly weak, as it's only real pupose is to link the last installment with next month's explosive climax. There are no real incidents here to make this story stand-out, except for the introduction of the prototype of what will become the Batmobile. Wagner's design for it is perfect, looking like a mix of the Tumbler from Batman Begins, the vehicle from the Tim Burton Batman films, and the 40s comic book design, but in a more basic, tank-like form.
The Art: Wagner's art is still strong in this issue, but again the only thing really worth commenting on is the prototype Batmobile design. Other than that the work remains strongly character-based, including a fantastic double-take from Gordon when Batman explains the nature of Hugo Strange's Monster Men to him. Another note is that it's very, very weird to see Hugo Strange in a baseball cap.
The Story: Again, it's connect-the-dots month this issue, probably the worst case of that feeling in this particular series. Oddly enough, Norman Madison's transformation from principled businessman to paranoid hysteria seems rather sudden, brought on by a single, rather standard, threat from the mob and one good drinking session. I'm not sure if this is poor writing on Wagner's part, or just supposed to imply that Madison was really never that together in the first place.
Notes and Trivia: Batman gains his first prototype Batmobile.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Golden Age Batman Review: Detective Comics #36

On the cover, Batman battles the Mongols from last issue. Inside, he battles his first truly memorable (and long lasting) opponent.

"Professor Hugo Strange"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: On routine patrol, the Batman sees a man pushed out of a moving car and shot. He listens to the dying man's last words, "strange fog", but is chased by the police who arrive on the scene and assume the Batman was responsible.
Back at Wayne Manor, Bruce deduces that the man was not talking of a strange fog, but rather of a fog caused by a man named Strange, Professor Hugo Strange! If you want to know how he deduced it, it was basically as I just described. Apparently, Bruce already knows of Professor Strange as a "scientist, philosopher, criminal... and greatest organizer of crime in the world", to which he adds "little is known of him". Okaaay. Also, Bruce took a notebook off the dying man, which includes a list of locations and names him as an agent of the FBI. Bruce vows to clear Batman's name of the FBI agent's murder and solve the mystery of the fog.
Meanwhile, Professor Hugo Strange is ruminating evilly in his evil high chair in front of his evil fireplace when one of his minions reports on the death of the G-Man. Strange is worried about about the interference of the Batman, and decides to step up the timetable and begin tonight.
The next night the whole city is blanketed in a fog "such as one would find only in England", which results in numerous robberies taking place and the police being unable to pursue the criminals due to the thick fog.
At home, Bruce hears a radio report about the robberies, whose locations match those on the list, as well as a side story about the kidnapping of a prominent electrical engineer. Bruce begins to put the pieces together....
Strange's gang make a move to rob the Sterling Silver Company, but the night watchman turns out to be The Batman in disguise! The Batman explodes into a whirling dervish and pretty much destroys the gang before making a getaway. With the news of Batman's interference, Strange decides that he must concentrate on keeping the Batman out of his schemes, and decides to cut up his hand with glass to accentuate the point.
When Batman shows up to the next plae on the list, he is forced into a trap and cornered by several men. The next two pages are an epic battle as the Batman tries to take on all the men at once, but is finally overpowered.
At Strange's lair he ties Batman up and whips him with a lash he had hanging on the wall. Okay, Doc.... whatever floats your boat. The Batman escapes by flexing his muscles and snapping the bands holding him (hawt?) and then gassing his enemies with a pellet from his utility belt. However, Strange is crafty enough to avoid the gas and gets Batman in a chokehold. But Batman is stronger and socks Strange out and ties him up.
With the villain dealt with the Batman discovers the giant machine powering the artificial fog, and the kidnapped scientist who created it. The machine creates artificial lightning that causes condensation in the air, generating the fog. The two of them turn off the machine and save the city. The Batman is praised by the media and people of the city, while Hugo Strange is imprisoned at the State Penitentiary, vowing escape and vengeace.
My Thoughts: Wow! Now, that was a story! This is probably the first really spectacular, memorable, cohesive Batman story. Gardner Fox tried to reach great heights with his Monk and Dirigible stories but fell short due to bad plotting. Finger here keeps things down to earth while still creating a large scale, impressive foe for Batman to face and a devilishly clever criminal scheme for him to destroy. Professor Hugo Strange is the first Batman villain to really catch on -- he'll appear in two more Golden Age stories before being retired however, before being revived by Steve Engelhart in the Bronze Age, and becoming a popular alternative Modern Age Batman villain. In this tale, he is less of the quirky psychiatrist/geneticist he'll be in those stories and is basically presented as a modern age Professor Moriarty, which at this point was a great villain characterization for the Holmesian Batman.
The Art: Big news this issue is the arrival of inker Jerry Robinson. With this addition the basic Golden Age team of Kane/Finger/Robinson is formed and it is this team that will create and shape the most enduring Batman stories of the era. Robinson's inks provide a kind of gritty, sketchy, tactile quality to the art, and really gives Kane's art a boost into a great kind of pulp-art quality. It's a huge improvement over even Sheldon Moldoff's inks and makes the art almost a joy to look at rather than a chore. Another stand-out feature this issue is Kane's character design for Hugo Strange, with his bald, misshapen head, round spectacles and bad-guy goatee, I think that this unique design became part of why people remembered Hugo Strange over other Golden Age villains. There are some great panels in this issue, including a really cool one of Batman's silouhette in the fog.
The Story: Finger manages a great feat here, which is giving Batman a powerful and effective villain while avoiding plot holes and nonsensical plotting. His story is much better written and clearly stated than past efforts, and only contains two small holes -- the first of which is that if the fog prevents the cops from following crooks, would it not also stop the crooks from escaping? The other is that Batman vows to clear his name of the G-Man's murder, which he never does. On top of everything, there are subtle changes to the characterization of Batman in this story. The city begins to regard him as a legendary fighter of crime, rather than a weird creature of the night --- also, Batman's silent, grim-faced determination has been subtly replaced with a more jocular, devil-may-care attitude, as Batman mocks the criminals he fights and jokers with them -- a precursor of the "bad puns" that would characterize the Silver Age Batman. End decision: great story, great issue.
Notes and Trivia: First appearance of Professor Hugo Strange, beginning of the Finger/Kane/Robinson team,

Modern Age Batman Review: Batman and the Monster Men #4

Last time we saw Batman, he had been captured by Dr. Hugo Strange and placed in a dungeon-like cage, left to face the three hideous Monster Men that the mad scientist has created. And so, 71 pages into this story, we reach a point the original Golden Age version achieved in five.

"Batman and the Monster Men, Part 4"
By: Matt Wagner
Colours: Dave Stewart
Letters: Rob Leigh
Synopsis: Fearless and determined, Batman bravely confronts the three monsters he is faced with, while Hugo Strange evaluates his performance in admiration. While the Batman fights his way past enemies more powerful and fierce than anything his has ever faced, Strange is amazed by his prowess and abilities. During the fight, the monsters tear off his utility belt and accidentally set off the gas pellets contained therein. The Monsters will succumb slowly due to their large size, but Batman is in serious trouble unless he can get to the respirator in the belt.
Meawhile, Norman Madison has driven himself into a drunken depression, worrying about the safety of his daughter, who was threatened by the gangsters he owes money to last issue. She announces she's going out with some girlfriends, because Bruce is once again busy for the night, and Norman reiterates his mistrust of Wayne. He is becoming anxious and paranoid.
Back in Strange's lair, Batman improvises a method of escape. He uses a pair handcuffs to attach a length of chain to the sewer grate in the floor, and wraps the chain around the neck of one of the monsters. As it charges him, it rips the grating from the floor, enabling Batman to escape through the sewer system. Strange is frankly astounded by this and expresses a desire to use the Batman's DNA in his next experiment. (Which brings up an interesting nature vs. nurture debate, as Batman's physical prowess and skills were mostly learned during a long sabbatical from Gotham City studying in the East, so would the DNA of Batman contain any trace of his determination or skill? One of the primary tenents of the Batman legend is that it is the death of Bruce's parents that shaped him into the man he is -- seemingly a definite statement for nurture over nature)
Anyways, as Batman escapes he reflects on the fact that these Monster Men are phenomenally different from anything he has encountered and indeed anything he ever thought he would encounter. Strange, meanwhile, has accquired Batman's belt, gadgets and cape in the aftermath of the fight, and becomes enthralled with accquiring the secrets of this individual. There's an amusing moment when he puts on Batman's cape and begins running around the room.
The next day, Bruce is awakened by Julie, who's become worried about him. She discovers the massive injuries and wounds he is recovering from due to last night's fight, and he claims they are from a polo injury. She says he should see a doctor and he flips out on her. He apologizes and explains that since he's been largely alone since he was a child, he doesn't know how to be worried over. Julie accepts his apology and leaves, while Bruce wonders about his future with Julie now that the "war" has taken such a bizarre turn.
Strange, meanwhile, is trying to create a serum using Batman's DNA, when he is interrupted by Sal Maroni's thugs. They abuse his assistant, Sanjay, and destroy Strange's latest test subjects. When Strange protests, reminding them he's paid his debts, they tell him that while they can't prove he stole his last payment from them, they suspect it. They inform him that Maroni is out of town for the time being, and that they have their eyes on him. Strange announces to Sanjay that it is perhaps time they cancelled their business association with Maroni, unaware they are being bugged by the Batman.
My Thoughts: This was a fantastic issue and a great improvement over last month's paint-by-numbers installment. There were so many great touches, dramatic moments, and just overall good comics work here. In this part we really begin to see Wagner's themes coming out and turning this fairly enjoyable Golden Age retelling and "Year One" follow-up into something more substantial and memorable.
The Art: Great stuff in this issue. From Batman's fight with the Monster Men, to Strange running around in a cape, to Julie and Bruce's morning conversation, and a great series of panels of Batman emerging from the sewers, the art here is moody and evocative and really just fantastic Batman artwork. Batman should always look this good. Better than last issue. The only real nitpick I have is that the exact size of the Monster Men in relation to normal people appears to change from panel to panel.
The Story: Wagner's writing really shines in this issue, just exceptionally so. I love his Hugo Strange, and the way it perfectly reconciles and connects the Golden, Bronze, and Modern Age depictions of Strange from writers as diverse as Bill Finger, Steve Engelhart, and Doug Moench. A great touch in this issue is that Wagner makes the three Monster Men unique individuals, numbered from the earliest created to the latest, with #1 being the stupidest and least human looking and #3 the most refined and intelligent so far, reflecting Strange becoming more skillful with his genetic manipulations on each attempt. Other great things in this issue include Wanger's very, very "Year One" accurate characterization of Batman/Bruce Wayne, Julie's growing concern over Bruce, Bruce beginning to become less optimistic about the possibility of the war ending with the emergence of a kind of problem/opponent he never dreamt of before, and Norman Madison's descent into increased paranoia. Great, great, issue.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Golden Age Batman Review: Detective Comics #35

The Batman battles the Duc D'Orterre on the cover, but he won't appear in this month's story (or ever again), because Gardner Fox is out and original Batman co-creator is back in with a far more down to earth story.

"The Case of the Ruby Idol"
Writer:
Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Sheldon Moldoff
Synopsis: While Bruce Wayne is visiting Commissioner Gordon (not seen since #28), a man named Weldon drops in. Weldon is a collector of curios and recently bought a ruby Hindu idol from a man named Sheldon Lenox. However, the idol is that of the (fictional) Hindu god of destruction, Kila, and Weldon receives several notes threatening his death and the death of Lenox.
Gordon decides that this needs investigating and heads off to see Lenox. Bruce decides to come along, because he might "write a story about it" (?). However, when they arrive, a car full of turban and loincloth wearing "Hindus". They shoot out Gordon's tire, preventing a pursuit. Then they stab Lenox and toss his body into the water before escaping. The police search the river for Lenox's body and fail to find it.
Meanwhile, a couple of hoods (Joe and Mike!) decide to rob the idol from Weldon, and it also attracts the attention of an oriental named Sin Fang. Both groups decide to make their move when Weldon asks the police to stop guarding the idol. Bruce figures that whoever wants the idol will make a play for it now, and heads out as Batman.
When he arrives he stops the two hoods easily, but is taken out by the suddenly arriving gang of Hindus. They swipe the idol and escape. At that moment a bunch of guards/police officers of the kind we were told two pages ago weren't protecting the idol burst in and try to arrest Batman for stealing it (despite the fact that he clearly doesn't have it). He beats them up and escapes out the window.
The Hindus are escaping, so the Batman gets in his high-powered roadster (now a dark blue one-seater sports car) and follows them to Chinatown where they sell the idol to the maliciously named Sin Fang, a dealer in curios. Hrmm.... To find out more about Sin Fang, Batman pays a visit to Wong, the "unofficial mayor of Chinatown. Wong is a good and honorable man and trusts Batman because he recognizes Batman is a hero. He dutifully informs the Batman that Sin Fang is in reality a fence for stolen goods.
When the Batman visits Sin Fang, the oriental appears to be surprised that the ruby idol was stolen, and offers to return it to Batman. It is, of course, a trap and our hero is attacked by giant Mongol guards. Of course, the Batman promptly dispacthes them, stabbing one through the heart with a sword. Sin Fang apologizes and explains that they thought the Batman was an intruder, given his masked face. He then gases the room with mustard gas. Luckily, Batman has a gas pellet on his belt that neutralizes the effects when mixed. Sin Fang apologizes for the bad plumbing in the house and then drops Batman down a trap door to his death!
Luckily, Batman grabs a hanging pipe and swings back up out of the trap door. Sin Fang thinks Batman is dead and gloats to himself that he can keep the Ruby Idol all to himself. He then removes make-up and other costuming accoutrements to reveal himself as... Sheldon Lenox!! Batman bursts in on him and explains that he figured out who Sin Fang was earlier.
Batman explains it thusly, "You needed money and made a deal with Sin Fang to cut up the ruby. You made use of the destruction legend it was supposed to have and wrote those notes. You hired those fake Hindus. Staged your death and then ahd the ruby stolen!" Lenox reveals he quarelled with Sin Fang over the money and killed him, assuming his identity because he could speak Chinese.
Lenox pulls a gun and the Batman throws the idol at him, knocking him out a high window to his death.
My Thoughts: With the return of Bill Finger we get a return to the gritter, more pulp-like Batman, with stories that seem like they could've come from The Shadow and the pen of Walter Gibson. This story is the first in a series Finger did in Detective Comics about Batman dealing with crime in Chinatown, with the assistance of Mayor Wong (and who says the Golden Age lacked continuity?). However, this particular story suffers from some pretty big plot holes, pointing to a somewhat rushed composition. If Lenox just wanted to sell the idol for money, why the elaborate plot? He already had sold it to Weldon at the start of the story. If he killed Sin Fang, who can he know sell the idol to so it can be cut up? It just doesn't hold up to examination. However, at least it explains the extremely ethnically inaccurate portrayal of the Hindus.
The Art: It's frankly amazing seeing Bob Kane's art here compared to a scant eight issues ago. His Batman character looks much different and the entire style and composition is far more dynamic and bold. The overall style is very pulp and very entertaining. In many ways Kane's art saves the reader from thinking about the holes in Finger's story by carrying the action in an exciting and fluid way.
The Story: As noted above, Finger brought Batman back down to earth with smaller, more realistic stories, but with an entertaining pulp sensibility. However, Finger's story has a bad plot hole and feels rushed. It's not as completely baffling as Gardner Fox's piece last month, but it could still use improvement. Also, Finger needs to find a way to make his Batman stories feel more unique and less like rip-offs of the Shadow if he wants the feature to continue successfully.
Notes and Trivia: Batman's car is now a dark blue roadster. First appearance of Wong, unofficial mayor of Chinatown. First time Batman battles oriental crime.
Batman Body Count: At least 11 by this point.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Modern Age Batman Review: Batman and the Monster Men #3

"Batman and the Monster Men, Part 3"
By: Matt Wagner
Colours: Dave Stewart
Letters:
Rob Leigh
Synopsis: Batman investigates the aftermath of the mobster poker game that was interrupted at the end of last month's issue by one of Hugo Strange's Monster Men. The scene is a massacre, with blood and body parts everywhere. The Batman is horrified and baffled at the cause.
Strange, meanwhile, pays off his debts to mobster Sal Maroni, money Strange got from his raid on the poker game. Maroni is suspicious as to how Strange could've gotten the money so quickly, but the scientist brushes off his questions. After the police attention brought down by the attack on the poker game, Maroni's boss Carmine Falcone orders Maroni to hide out at Falcone's out-of-town estate for the foreseeable future.
Later that evening, Maroni is paid a nighttime visit by the Batman, who tries to find out why someone might've attacked Maroni's men. The two piece together that it was for the money, and that the likely culprit was Hugo Strange. Bruce does some research on Strange with the computer in his subterreanean hide out and discovers Strange was raised in an orphanage in a bad neighbourhood of Gotham, became a professor at Gotham University, but was fired due to the bad attention his unusual genetic engineering theories were getting.
The next day, Norman Madison is visited by Maroni's goons, who remind him of the money he owes, and indirectly threatnen his daughter, Julie. She's out on a date with Bruce, but he's cold and distant, and despite her efforts to cheer him up, he cuts the evening short and leaves.
Batman tracks Strange to a dockside warehouse and sneaks in. He discovers Strange's test subjects, awaiting transformation, and is momentarily stunned by the attack of Strange himself. The scientist is impressed with the Batman's physical prowess, and manages to stun him with the assistance of a drugged blowdart from his assistant, Sanjay.
The two drag the Batman over to the cages containing the Monster Men, leaving the Batman alone with the three hulking, brutish creatures...
My Thoughts: A pretty solid issue, as we finally get a meeting between our protagonist and antagonist, and draw the various storylines closer to intertwining. We end on a great cliffhanger for the first encounter of "Batman and the Monster Men", and the entire "hero investigates villain's lair, is captured and left to die" is a great Golden Age beat that is handled in a fashion here that is both entertaining and believable, without feeling old hat. A neat touch is the very, very, very beginning of Hugo Strange's obsession with Batman, which will become a key component of his later characterization.
The Art: Wagner's art continues to be efficient and evocative this issue. His Batman in particular is just fantastic, with at least three supreme, memorable images within the issue. On the other hand, his characters occasionally wander "off-model" and there's a jarring disconnect between the small, proportionate eyes he draws for medium "shots" and the rather large bug eyes he draws in close-ups.
The Story: This is a serviceable issue with a fairly standard A to B story. We need to get Batman and Strange to confront each other, we need to get Batman in there with the Monster Men. It's fairly routine, and while it's well-achieved, there's nothing really special to note here.

Golden Age Batman Review: Detective Comics #34

This month's cover is the last Detective Comics cover to feature a character other than Batman until #854 in 2009. (DC nerds can correct me on this if I'm wrong). And even then, Batman's still got a logo above the title. Also, this is the last Bat-tale written by Gardner Fox before the return of original scribe Bill Finger next issue, for reasons that will soon become apparent.

"Peril in Paris"
Writer: Gardner Fox
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Sheldon Moldoff
Synopsis: According to Fox, Bruce has just seen his fiancée Julie off from Paris after rescuing her from the Monk, meaning #34's story takes place before #33 (while the cover depicting #34's story will appear on #35 -- scheduling errors are a bitch, huh?) Anyways, Bruce is still wandering the streets of Paris, when he spots a man who resembles an old friend of his. However, he is mistaken when he finds it is in fact a MAN WITH NO FACE. So, in what way did he resemble Bruce's old friend?? Somehow, the FACELESS Man can talk and see, and apologizes to Bruce for startling him.
Meanwhile, a blonde woman in a hotel has been marked for death by the leader of the Apaches, the Duc D' Orterre. (The Apaches were a French gang in the 30s, not to be confused with the Native American tribe). The woman flees her room and jumps into a taxi also carrying Bruce Wayne! She gets a dagger thrown at her and the two of them flee back to the hotel (what?) where it turns out that the FACELESS Man is the woman's brother, Charles Maire. Turns out the Duc D' Orterre is after his sister, Karel, after she turned down his advances at a masked ball. As a retaliation, he burned Charles' face off with a ray.
Bruce regrets he cannot help them as himself, but he changes into Batman and announces he will stop the Duc - essentially revealing his secret identity to them.
The Batman drops into an open sewer and is promptly captured by the Apaches. The Duc places him on an elaborate death-trap called the Wheel of Chance -- the Batman is strapped to a big wheel and will either be flung off the wheel by inertia and killed, or driven mad by its unceasing spinning. Through sheer strength the Batman breaks through the straps but is flung through an open trap door into the Duc's garden!! (???)
The garden is full of flowers. Flowers with human, female faces. I'll repeat that one more time - human, female faces. The Batman wonders if he is going mad and frankly so am I. The Duc's men capture Charles and Karel, and Charles is strapped to the wheel. One of the flowers asks Batman to save them (?!?!) and tells the Batman how to escape the Garden.
The Batman rescues Charles from the wheel, who tells him that the Duc has escaped in a car with Karel. The Batman follows in his Batplane (again, still drawn as a Bat-gyro) and quickly overtakes them. The Batman leaps onto the moving car, beats up the Duc, this somehow incapacitates the driver and it careens off the road and crashes while the Batman leaps onto the Batplane's rope ladder and escapes.
Later, Charles and Karel thank the Batman despite the fact that we never saw the Batman rescue Karel from the car (she must've jumped out sometime during the struggle with the Duc but this was never stated or shown). Despite their gratitude, they express their wish to know the Batman's secret identity, but he declines. Even though he pretty much gave it away earlier. FLASHBACK: "As myself, I cannot help you", says Bruce Wayne, exiting the room. The Batman enters and offers his assistance. Face. Palm.
My Thoughts: What the fuck, Gardner Fox?? No, what. the. fuck? What is this story? What were you on this month? Where does this come from? The faceless man was weird enough, but where the hell did the human-faced flowers that can talk (and beg Batman to rescue them, but he never does) come from?? The first time I read this story I really had no idea what to make of it. This may possibly be the most bizarre Golden Age Bat-story of all time. Definitely Black Casebook material -- I wonder what Grant Morrison ever made of this one, if he ever read it? No, but seriously -- What the fuck?
The Art: Well, the art is certainly memorable, I guess. Kane's faceless man isn't on par with Chester Gould or Steve Ditko, but it's still a goddamn faceless man. The Duc D' Orterre looks unique, with a thin head, devil's peak hair, weird eyebrows, etc. The human/flowers are just bizarre and disturbing and... WHAT THE FUCK??
The Story
: I cannot repeat this enough times: what the fuck, Gardner Fox? Where is this coming from? This story is like the ultimate hodgepodge of all the weaknesses of the last five Gardner Fox stories -- a plot that runs all over the place with no real sense of direction, massive leaps of logic and numerous plot holes, unexplained weirdness, bad villain characterization, forgotten plot points and just pure what-the-fuckery. Seriously, it's like a Golden Age Grant Morrison story without the pretension, good writing, or sense. I just don't even know what to make of it. If it wasn't for the seriously weird human-faced flowers I would chalk it up as just a failed, badly written pulp pastiche and leave the faceless man as just a "don't think too hard" Golden Age quirk. But SERIOUSLY, Gardner Fox -- flowers with female, human faces, begging to be rescued (but who never get rescued). WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT???
Notes and Trivia: Last Batman story by Garnder Fox before the return of Bill Finger. Obviously someone realized that Fox's stories, while imaginative, where just poorly written and plain old too weird for Batman. When Finger returned, he would restore Batman to his more urban based settings, but retain Fox's innovations of larger-than-life villains.
Batman Body Count: At least 9 by this point