Comic Book Review: Batman Archives Volume 1

Comic Book Review: Batman Archives Volume 1 written by Bill Finger & Gardner Fox, art by Bob Kane & Sheldon Moldoff

Batman was the second full-fledged superhero published by National Periodicals, soon to be better known as DC.  The kernel of the idea was proposed by artist Bob Kane, and fleshed out by writer Bill Finger, with a first appearance in Detective Comics #37.  As the Shadow was to Doc Savage, so Batman was to Superman, a skilled man operating in the shadows, rather than a superhuman operating in the light of day.  But both, of course, dedicated to justice in their own ways.

Batman Archives Volume 1

This “Archives” edition is a hardbound full-cover reprint of the Batman stories from Detective Comics #37-50.  I believe this was the first of this collector’s bait format, thus the “introductory price.”

We open, of course, with “The Case of the Criminal Syndicate.”  Police Commissioner Gordon is chilling with his young socialite friend Bruce Wayne, talking about rumors of a mysterious “Bat-Man.”  Gordon is informed of a murder among the wealthy citizens of the city, and Bruce tags along as he hasn’t got anything better to do.  Chemical syndicate head Lambert is dead, and the most likely suspect is his son.

The son claims he didn’t do it, and to lend credence to this claim, a call comes from Crane, one of Lambert’s three partners, explaining that both of them had threats made against their lives.  Bruce Wayne becomes bored and goes home.  Crane is murdered too, but before the murderer escapes with a certain paper, a mysterious Bat-Man appears, beats up the murderer and his partner and takes the paper.

From this, Batman is able to figure out which of the two remaining partners is the mastermind.  He saves the fourth partner, and punches the villain into a tank of acid.  Commissioner Gordon explains the plot to Bruce, who finds it all highly unlikely.  But in the last panel, we learn that Bruce Wayne himself is in fact the Batman!  What a twist!

The hyphen was quickly dropped, but Batman’s habit of killing opponents in the heat of battle took a bit longer to disappear.   The art is kind of crude, and the plot borrowed heavily from a Shadow pulp story, but the creators were on to something new in comics, and rapidly improved.  (Plus Bob Kane started having assistants to keep up with the work.)

#29 brings us “The Batman Meets Doctor Death.”  The title opponent is Batman’s first opponent with a catchy nom de guerre (his actual name is the pretty nifty Dr. Karl Hellfern), his first mad scientist enemy, and his first recurring enemy.  In the following issue, Doctor Death also becomes Batman’s first hideously disfigured villian, as his face is burnt off.  These two stories have unfortunate ethnic stereotypes as Doctor Death’s henchmen, and Gardner Fox’s lack of research into authentic ethnic background information is obvious.

Batman is also pretty careless with his secret identity of Bruce Wayne in this story; if Doctor Death had been just a little sneakier Batman’s double life would have been over only a few months after his debut.  There’s a cameo by the man who will become the Crime Doctor much, much later on, Bruce Wayne’s personal physician, who wonders how the lazy upper-class twit managed to shoot himself with no powder burn.

#31-32, “Batman Versus the Vampire” introduces Batman’s first full-fledged supervillain, the Monk, who wears a distinctive costume (red monk’s robes and a red hood with a skull & crossbones sigil), and as a vampire/werewolf has supernatural powers.  He and his sidekick (lover?) Dala kidnap Bruce Wayne’s fiancee Julie Madison (also appearing for the first time) for reasons never fully explained, and after much action and scary stuff, Batman puts silver bullets through their hearts.

This story also makes it clear that Batman operates in New York City, which was changed to Gotham City later for ease of fictionalization.

#33, “The Batman Wars Against the Dirigible of Doom” is most notable for finally getting around to telling us why Bruce Wayne runs around in a bat costume fighting crime.  This simple two-page origin would eventually be vastly expanded upon and become an important part of the mythos.

#34, “Peril in Paris” has Bruce Wayne run into a man without a face.  Who is not the villain of the story.  That’s the fellow who stole his face.  It’s still not back by the end of the story (and the flowers with women’s heads are not explained either), but this faceless fellow and his beautiful sister are the first people Batman reveals his true identity to.  And then are never seen again.

#36, “Professor Hugo Strange” introduces the title character, another mad scientist, who takes part of his inspiration from Professor Moriarty, but is also large and muscular, able to give Batman a good tussle even without his fog machine, monster men and other gimmicks.

#38 “Introducing Robin, the Boy Wonder” does just what it says.  Circus acrobat Dick Grayson loses his parents to criminals, and is taken in by Batman, who gives the lad a costume and training to become a crimefighter.  (He also reveals his identity to Dick off-camera.)  Thanks to this, Robin gets the quick closure that Batman never did by tracking down and convicting his parents’ killer.

Robin was the first superhero’s boy sidekick in comic books, and soon the market was flooded with them.  He lightened up the Batman character and gave the Caped Crusader someone to have dialogue with rather than think out loud to himself.

Also about this time, Batman got his own solo comic book series, but that’s another volume.

#40, “Beware of Clayface!” introduces the first villain to wear that name, crazed horror actor Basil Karlo (a riff on Basil Karloff, who was a swell guy in real life.)  Julie Madison begins her career as a movie actress.  In #49, the Basil Karlo Clayface returns (and then would not be seen again for decades) and Julie decides to break her engagement to Bruce for his fecklessness.  (Little realizing it’s only a cover for his activities as Batman.)

#44, “The Land Beyond the Light!” is the first full-on fantasy story for Batman, as the Dynamic Duo is transported to another dimension and interfere in a war between giants and little people.  It’s all Dick Grayson’s dream in the end, but soon such stories would become a regular thing.

#50 ends this volume with “The Case of the Three Devils.”  Three circus acrobats have turned to crime using devil costumes and their ability to pull off outrageous physical stunts.  They give Batman and Robin quite a chase before the Caped Crusaders can finally corner them.  Batman’s superior use of terrain gives him the victory.

Again, lots of exciting action portrayed in a new way for 1939-40.  Some plots are overly simplistic, while others become nonsensical if you think about them too carefully, but the writing gets much better as it goes along.   There’s also an illuminating foreword by comics scholar Rick Marschall.

This is a must have for the serious Batman collector; other Batman fans should check it out at the library to see the early development of the classic characters.

Magazine Review: Phantom Detective #2: Dealers in Death | The Yacht Club Murders

Magazine Review: Phantom Detective #2: Dealers in Death | The Yacht Club Murders edited by Anthony Tollin.

The Phantom Detective was wealthy playboy Richard Curtis Van Loan, who became bored with his civilian life after serving in World War One.   His friend, publisher Frank Havens, suggested he put his brains and assortment of interesting talents to work solving a mysterious crime just to see if he could.  Van Loan did, and enjoyed it so much he decided to dedicate his life to fighting crime  as a “phantom.”  A master of disguise, he identified himself with a platinum mask-shaped jewel set with diamonds, a signal known to police forces world-wide.

The Phantom Detective #2

The Phantom Detective was actually the longest-running of the pulp hero magazines, lasting from 1933 (appearing a month before Doc Savage) to 1953, though both Doc and The Shadow had more issues.  Inside the stories, Van Loan was just “The Phantom.”  The character was kind of generic as pulp heroes go, almost all of them were wealthy masters of disguise with good fighting skills and a variety of useful talents.  He didn’t really have a gimmick that made him stand out, but the stories always had gimmicks that caught reader interest, so the magazine was a consistent seller.

The two main stories in this issue are both attributed to house name “Robert Wallace”, which took over from house name “G. Wayman Jones” when the series turned more hard-boiled from the earlier, more adventure-focused issues.

“Dealers in Death” is from 1936 and primarily written by Norman Daniels, though the text article indicates it got a substantial rewrite from an unnamed writer.   A daring penthouse jewel robbery that ends in murder happens the same night  a crime reporter employed by Frank Havens is assassinated in the Clarion newspaper offices.  The story introduces ace reporter Steve Huston of the Clarion as the murdered reporter’s protege and a recurring supporting character.   But more importantly, it is the first appearance of the red light atop the newspaper building that Mr. Havens has lit whenever he or the police need the services of the Phantom.  This “Phantom signal” inspired the later Bat-Signal of the comics.

The most interesting character in the story as a character is Kate Wilde, the second-in command of the criminal gang.  As the leader’s identity is part of the mystery, she does most of the on-screen skulduggery and contrasts her own love-sickness for the leader with her bodyguard’s devotion to herself.  She’s competent and a good actress.   It’s an unusually good performance for a secondary female character in the genre at the time.

The cover is for this story, but somewhat misleading–while there is a knifed corpse, and a note with the body, the note is not attached to the body by the knife.  The climax of the story is the Phantom infiltrating the criminals’ hideout in the Everglades.

“The Yacht Club Murders” from 1939 was written by Charles Greenberg, and largely takes place in and near the yacht club of the title.  The ten owners of the club have been offered a large sum of money for land the club owns, a sum which could save one of the men from financial ruin with just his share.   But another member blocks the sale with his mysterious control over several of the other shareholders.  He’s assaulted by the ruined man, and just as things are getting calmed down, the ruined man is murdered by a shot through the window.

The Phantom is coincidentally on hand, and his investigation soon reveals that the murder was part of a criminal conspiracy led by the mysterious Bat, who wears a dark cowl, and a ribbed cape that looks like a bat’s wings.  By this point in the series, Van Loan is going steady with Frank Havens’ lovely daughter Muriel.  Knowing that the Phantom is somehow connected to Mr. Havens, the Bat kidnaps Muriel in an attempt to get the detective to back off.  Like many masked heroes in the comics, Richard Curtis Van Loan never bothered to inform his girlfriend of his secret identity.  This got her kidnapped and threatened a lot without knowing why.  (This finally came back to bite the Phantom in the 2006 “continuation” The Phantom’s Phantom, when a bitter Muriel leaves Van Loan over his long deception.)

There’s an article by pulp scholar Will Murray about how the Phantom Detective influenced the Batman comics, including the possibility that the Bat from the later story, which would have been fresh in memory when Batman was created, inspired some costume details.  Editors Mort Weisinger and Jack Schiff both worked on The Phantom Detective before coming to DC Comics, and Mort became editor of Batman just about the time the Bat-Signal was introduced.  Hmm….

To round out the issue, we have a story from the comic book version of Richard Curtis Van Loan published by Nedor Comics, “The Case of the Complex Corpse.”  Illustrated by Edmond Good (later artistic director of Tupperware), the story concerns a rest home that’s been murdering its wealthy patients.  It’s a quick story with little mystery, but allows the Phantom to show off his disguise skills and quick-change abilities.  Also, it shows some criminal stupidity.  If one of your patients tells a visitor that he fears being murdered by a “freak accident”, you probably should hold off on murdering him for a while to throw off suspicion.

Both the main stories are notable for the absolute ruthlessness of their criminal masterminds towards their subordinates, murdering them en masse to save money and avoid being fingered.  There’s also a bit of outdated ethnic stereotyping in the first story that may be uncomfortable for some readers.

While Batman fans are the ones most likely to want this issue, these are pretty good pulp stories in their own right and worth taking a look at.

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