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.
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.