Book Review: The Black Bat #1: Brand of the Black Bat & Murder Calls the Black Bat

Book Review: The Black Bat #1: Brand of the Black Bat & Murder Calls the Black Bat by Norman Daniels (writing as G. Wayman Jones)

Tony Quinn was a handsome, wealthy and highly competent district attorney until the day of Oliver Snate’s trial.  This time he had proof of the gangster’s illegal activities, actual recordings of Snate openly talking about his crimes.  But Snate had a plan to destroy the evidence.  Out-of-town criminals infiltrated the courtroom, and when the recordings were brought out of their protective cover, the thugs caused a riot.  One of them hurled a bottle of vitriol on the recordings, incidentally also hitting D.A. Quinn, who had moved to protect the evidence.

The Black Bat #1

The acid hit Tony’s face, horribly scarring him, and more importantly, rendering him blind!  With the key evidence destroyed and a less effective prosecutor filling in, Snate’s slick lawyer was able to get the case dismissed.  Without his sight, Mr. Quinn thought his career was over, and the medical experts told him there was nothing they could do.  Tony became a hermit, aided only by his manservant “Silk” Kirby, a former conman who’d reformed to help Tony against an earlier assassination attempt.

Then a mysterious woman arrived, who told Tony that if he secretly went to a certain town in Illinois, there was one doctor that could cure his blindness.  After a period of recovery, not only could Tony Quinn see again, but he now possessed the ability to see in the dark!  Remembering how Snate had mocked him as “blind as a bat”, Tony decided to conceal his new abilities, and operate as the mysterious vigilante, the Black Bat.

In one of those interesting coincidences comic book history is littered with, the Black Bat first appeared in Black Book Detective about the same month that Batman first appeared in Detective Comics.  And it very much was a coincidence–the pulp character was called “the Tiger” in the original draft, from the striped facial scars.  But the publisher of Black Book Detective wanted him to be the lead character in that magazine, so he was rewritten into a darker mode, drawing on much the same cultural influences that Bob Kane and Bill Finger used to create Batman.

The two very similar characters brought about mutual threats of lawsuit–but the companies settled on an agreement that Batman would appear in comics only, while the Black Bat would stick to prose.  We’ll get back to that later.

Back in the story, Oliver Snate has graduated to making armored cars vanish on a regular basis.  He’s smart, but not that smart, so the Black Bat suspects a criminal mastermind at work.  The Black Bat begins his plan by interfering with a bank robbery.  A ex-boxer named Jack “Butch” O’Leary and the mystery girl, Carol Baldwin, get caught up in this and join the Black Bat’s team.  The Black Bat also makes an enemy of Detective Sergeant McGrath, an honest policeman who wants to arrest the vigilante for breaking the law.  McGrath catches on to the connection between the Black Bat and Tony Quinn quickly, but is never able to prove they’re the same person.  (Police Commissioner Warner also suspects, but is much less motivated to catch the Bat.)

It turns out that Carol’s father was a police officer who’d been blinded by Oliver Snate in a different way some years before.  Dying, he convinced Dr. Harrington, a brilliant surgeon living in obscurity for reasons never discussed, to transplant his intact corneas and other vital bits into Tony Quinn’s eyes.  (Dr. Harrington is declared dead offstage at the beginning of the second story, so we never follow up on him.)  Carol and Tony are strongly affectionate towards each other, though they both know romance is out of the question.

Now that all the pieces are in place, it’s time to run Snate to earth, and expose the true villain behind him.

Our heroes are pretty cold-blooded about killing; Tony and Silk don’t hesitate to shoot criminals even before they become vigilantes, and the team racks up quite a body count by the end.  Perhaps the most brutal moment is when the Black Bat straight up murders a parked getaway driver so that bank robbers will be forced to use a car he’s gimmicked to record their voices.

The Black Bat’s double life is a recurring problem; he must often cut investigations short and hurry home so that poor, blind Tony Quinn can be seen to still be blind and most certainly not running around in a hood and cape.

Carol’s backstory has her be an effective solo operator until she joins the team, at which point she never takes initiative any more, just doing whatever the Black Bat assigns.  Yes, she does get into peril a lot and need to be saved, but Silk and Butch are about equally peril-prone.

In the second story, several elite jewelry emporiums discover that large portions of their stock have turned counterfeit, seemingly overnight.  One owner is apparently driven to suicide, while another consults Tony Quinn (who used to be his lawyer before being elected district attorney) before apparently driving off a cliff in an exploding automobile.  When a hitman shows up to kill Tony, he realizes that the crooks behind this bizarre series of events must think he knows more about what’s going on than he really does.  Time to become the Black Bat!

Freed of having to do a lot of set-up, this story is more of an action-mystery with plenty of suspects.  There’s a nasty torture scene, though the cover switches Silk with Carol for the equivalent peril.   The bad guys’ major weak point turns out to be that the field leader of the thieves is obviously planning to betray his boss just as soon as he has the loot.  There’s some ethnic stereotyping.

One neat bit that comes up is that Tony’s scars make the Black Bat not be a master of disguise.  He can disguise himself a bit, but he’s no man of a thousand faces, leaving that to the clever Silk.

Now, remember that deal I mentioned a few paragraphs ago?  Eventually, the publisher of Black Bat wanted to adapt some of the magazine stories to comic book form.  But they couldn’t use the name “Black Bat,” so he was changed to the Owl.  Oops, by the time the art was finished, someone had started publishing another superhero named “the Owl.”  So the script was quickly changed by Raymond Thayer to call the main character “the Mask.”  “The Mask Strikes” from Exciting Comics #1 is the first half of “Brand of the Black Bat” with a few names changed, and the hero wearing a noticeably bird-themed hood.  Very compact art that gets a lot done in a few pages.

The Black Bat’s origin went on to inspire comic book characters Dr. Mid-Nite and Two-Face.  Batman-related character Cassandra Cain took up the name Black Bat for a few issues before a reboot made her vanish (the latest version of her is now called “Orphan”), and the Tony Quinn Black Bat finally got to appear in comics in a series from Dynamite.

Recommended for pulp fans, and fans of two-fisted vigilantes who don’t pull punches when dealing with criminals.

 

Comic Strip Review: Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy Volume 14: 1951-1953

Comic Strip Review: Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy Volume 14: 1951-1953 by Chester Gould

Another of the fine IDW reprints which are trying to cover the entire Chester Gould run of Dick Tracy, moving into the early 1950s.  As mentioned in the Max Allan Collins introduction, the stories shifted focus a bit.  Dick Tracy is a full time father now, and those concerns take up some of his time.  As well, forensic science was beginning to catch up with the comic strips, so more of that was included as part of the action.

Dick Tracy Volume 18 1951-1953

The volume begins with Crewy Lou’s flight from justice, which is complicated by the fact that she’s accidentally abducted Bonny Braids, Dick and Tess’ infant daughter who started the whole plotline when Crewy Lou photographed her.  They go deep into the mountains, and the desperate woman finally abandons the baby in the smashed-up car.  It’s late fall, and the temperatures are dropping…Bonny Braids is turning blue…would Chester Gould really go ahead and kill the baby?

With his family reunited, Tracy then finds himself the subject of investigation–evidence has gone missing from the police station, evidence Dick was the last to touch.  It didn’t help that Dick Tracy had just built a fine new house and had a brand new car on a cop’s salary.  The main villain this time is “Spinner” ReCord, an electronic entertainment and record store owner.  He was especially cold-blooded, crating himself up with a corpse for hours on a train.  But not, as it happened, quite cold-blooded enough as he is eventually caught due to his body heat.

The supplemental article in this issue talks a bit about how this sequence was modified for comic book publication a few years later when the Comics Code was in force.  A girl’s arms were crudely erased to avoid showing bondage, and a particularly brutal beating was replaced with a text panel that skips over that.

This is followed by one of the most striking Dick Tracy sequences, as Junior Tracy falls in love for the first time (and is now established as a teenager.)  Model Jones is a lovely young woman of decent character, but saddled with drunkard parents and a juvenile delinquent brother.  Gould’s point here is that neglecting your children for alcohol will destroy the family.  Model is killed by her brother (mostly accidentally) and he and their parents mourn the wasted lives as he is sent to prison.

Junior mourns as well, but the world moves on with the initially kind of silly Tonsils story.  Tonsils is a young man with a loud clear voice and a strange way of moving his hands when he “sings.”  He has a poor memory for lyrics, and can’t carry a tune in a bucket, but his manager Dude thinks Tonsils is the next sensation.  Dude wants to quit the rackets, but still has a racketeer’s way of doing things, using a gun to coerce people into giving Tonsils a shot.

Surprise!  Tonsils is exactly the sort of giftedly bad novelty singer the American public wants, and he becomes locally famous.  Unfortunately, Dude’s old racketeer buddies decide that he should not have left the rackets, killing him and nearly killing Tonsils.  This unbalances the lad, and he winds up getting himself on the run from the law due to his mistaken belief that he’s been betrayed.

At this point, Tonsils is picked up by a far more dangerous villain, Mr. Crime.  From his hidden lair beneath a barracuda-infested swimming pool, Mr. Crime is the current leader of the rackets.  He coerces Tonsils into making an assassination attempt on Dick Tracy, and then starts moving against the detective himself.  Mr. Crime is ably assisted by Newsuit Nan, a fashion plate biochemist who has a fascination with blood.

With Mr. Crime and his gang out of the way, there’s a power vacuum in the underworld, which gambler Odds Zon plans to fill.  He tries a combination of torture and bribery to get Dick Tracy off the case, but it obviously doesn’t work.  Things get more complicated when the Plenty family takes in his daughter Susie, who becomes known as Little Wings due to her hair looking like a pair of angel wings.  And this angel glows in the dark!  Uh-oh.

This volume holds off on the truly grotesque looking villains; the most odd appearance is Tonsils’ habit of squinting one eye and bugging out the other.  The Model Jones story is the most “real” seeming due to its down to earth nature.  There is of course considerable violence, and some torture.

This isn’t the most famous period of Gould’s work, but it’s good solid adventure strip territory.  The end piece talks (in addition to the bowdlerization of the comic books) about what Mr. Gould was up to in real life in those years, and the strip’s effects in real life.

Recommended to fans of classic newspaper comics.

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