Sunday, February 12, 2012

April 1940: Batman #1

 Cover by Bob Kane

'The Legend of the Batman' (by Bill Finger and Bob Kane): This is a reprint of the earlier origin story from Detective Comics #33, with no new information to add.

'Batman, with Robin the Boy Wonder' (by Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson): The Joker makes his first appearance here, and let's just say it's a hell of a debut. Make no mistake, he is instantly the best villain in comics thus far. In his first story his goal is to steal a whole lot of different priceless gems, but it's not this cliched plot that makes him great. First, he looks incredible. The artist (whether that was Kane or Robinson I'm unsure about) gives him a sinister, insane visual that has lasted up to the present day. Second, he is utterly murderous, and the way he kills people is inventive and unpredictable. I especially love the poison he uses that gives the victim a hideous death grin. It's easy to gloss over it when reading modern day comics, because I've seen it used so many times before, but seeing it in its original form and proper historical context just brings home what a macabre and creepy idea it is. Thirdly, he gives Batman a real fight, beating the hell out of him and throwing him off a bridge. Golden Age heroes don't often lose like this, Batman especially, so this elevates the Joker straight away. Sure, Batman comes back and belts the Joker senseless, but it's hard to forget his initial victory.

'Batman' (by Bill Finger and Bob Kane): Hugo Strange returns, and this time he has created a group of hulking monsters out of inmates from a mental asylum. This is another story that's heavy on creepy atmosphere. Batman is at his most ruthless here. At one point he fires on some of Strange's thugs from the Batplane with a mini-gun. Later he drops a noose around the neck of one of the monsters, flies it into the air and lets it hang until it chokes to death. Not to mention that he manipulates two of the monsters into killing each other, and punches Hugo Strange out of a window into the ocean. It must be something to do with Robin not being in the story; without his boy sidekick, Batman is backsliding into his old ways (to be honest, he's the worst he's ever been). This is a cracking story, though.

'Strictly Publicity' (by Guy Monroe): A radio star is found dead, and a detective proves that it was suicide despite there not being a gun present. It doesn't get much more straightforward than this.

'Batman, with Robin the Boy Wonder' (by Bill Finger and Bob Kane): This story is something of a showcase for Robin. The story begins with him on a cruise ship, making a solo investigation of the theft of a priceless diamond. While this is going on, some pirates show up to rob the passengers, but Robin rounds them up with Batman's help. There's a frankly bizarre scene where Batman has Robin beat up four thugs by himself, then turns to the reader and addresses them in a pure fourth-wall-breaking moment: "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!" It's very jarring.

Back on the cruise ship, the diamond theft turns out to be the work of the Cat, better known to modern-day readers as Catwoman, making her first appearance. She has no costume here, preferring instead to disguise herself as an old lady. She does the predictable seductress routine once captured, but what's different here is that Batman is actually tempted by her, enough so that he allows her to escape. He even spoils Robin's attempt to recapture her, then proclaims innocence when called on it. Then a panel later he's waxing lyrical about her eyes. It's quite surreal to see Batman like this, but it gives his character some much-needed depth.

'Two Aces' (by George Shute): In this prose story, an American ace pilot fights then befriends a German ace in World War I. In the present day the same American pilot is attacked while flying an experimental plane, and after he shoots down the enemy he sees that it was his old friend. This is quite well told, and the sadness of the whole situation is portrayed nicely.

'Batman, with Robin the Boy Wonder' (by Bill Finger and Bob Kane): The creators must have known they were onto a good thing, because the Joker returns here already. The only problem is that it's basically the same story as above. It's pretty good, but the law of diminishing returns has set in.  Apparently the Joker was supposed to die at the end, but the story was redrawn so that he survived.  Good call!

The final panel of this story is a doozy. It's a promo for "Robin's Regulars", which I assume will be a fan club of some sort. Just take a look at Robin's code: "Readiness, Obedience, Brotherhood, Industriousness, Nationalism". That's right folks, Robin the Boy Wonder advocates Nationalism! It's the American Way!

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