Monday, November 30, 2009

Building a Better Criminal

One of the frequent plot themes in the Golden Age Batman was the concept of improving the common crook. There are at least a half-dozen stories that fit this pattern. Here's one from World's Finest #51.

Boston Burns is about to be released from prison for the second time. Deciding that perhaps he will be reformed by seeing the latest criminology methods, Batman takes Boston on a tour:

But, as we can see from the splash, he is inspired in the opposite direction:

But word gets out about the school, and Commissioner Gordon assigns Batman to the case. Wearing a disguise as a hoodlum, he gets accepted to the school. Unfortunately, an explosion caused by a careless instructor results in his disguise being revealed, and so a manhunt begins on the island where the crime school is located, with the crooks tracking the Caped Crusader. But he manages to keep on the run, tricking the criminals with various shenanigans:

Eventually he manages to signal a passing plane, and the Coast Guard arrives to mop up the villains. We get the inevitable gag ending:

Similar "Building a Better Criminal" stories include The Masterminds of Crime, from Batman #70, Crime School for Boys from Batman #3, and the Olympic Games of Crime from Batman #82.

Why did these stories largely disappear from Batman in the Silver Age? I suspect the obvious culprit: the Comics Code Authority. One of the requirements of the CCA was that crime never be portrayed as glamorous or deserving of emulation.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Detective #177

I mentioned in discussing the Robin story from Star Spangled #88 that there were other tales where Robin obsessed a little bit over Batman having sent an innocent man to the electric chair. Detective #177's The Robberies in the Batcave is another good example.

As Batman works to solve another case, he sends Robin to find the Batcave's centrifuge, but it's missing from its place. Robin remembers:

At first they assume that it's simply been misplaced, but then Robin notices that the electron microscope used in that same case is also missing. Later, they face some crooks who get away using Batman and Robin's Pontoon Boots which enable them to walk across water. Realizing that somebody has stolen items from the Batcave, they do an inventory of their equipment:

They decide to monitor the entrance to the Batcave. We get another one of those panels where Bruce and Dick are sharing a bedroom:

LOL! Yeah, I don't think they'll be sleeping right through that alarm! But the next day, they discover more missing items from the Batcave:

Batman tries shadowing Peel. But aside from visiting a cold storage facility, he does nothing suspicious and comes nowhere near the Batcave. Meanwhile Robin patrols the home front, until he gets tired and takes a nap. Sure enough, the thief chooses that moment to steal another item.

The next night, Bruce awakens to discover Dick missing. He goes down to the Batcave, where he discovers:

He realizes that Robin's sleep-walking and doing this under the control of his subconscious mind. The memory of Robin's fear that their detective work may have led to the execution of innocent men provides the reason. But then Batman notices something:

Batman confronts Peel, who confesses:

Wanting to break the news to Robin gently, Batman decides that they should review all their old death-penalty cases. Sure enough, after going carefully through them all, the Boy Wonder is convinced that each man was guilty of the crime for which he was executed. Only then does Batman let Robin know who was really behind the robberies in the Batcave.

Comments: I love psychological stories like this, and of course it also has the terrific Sprang/Paris combination on the art. GCD tentatively credits the script to Bill Finger. There were a lot of stories in the '40s and '50s where Batman expressed satisfaction at sending crooks to their ultimate execution.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Riddler and Cluemaster

This series, running from Detective Comics #705-707, is a lot of fun. Two of the Riddler's molls are holding hostages at the courthouse. Is the Riddler about to appear in court? No, it appears they are after someone else:

Meanwhile, the Riddler himself makes an escape from the hospital. But what does he want with the Cluemaster, who is described by virtually everybody in the story as a low-budget Riddler? Well, we find out at the end of the first issue:

So the Riddler sends Batman off on a chase around the city after his clues. Brown thinks that this means he'll get to ride shotgun in the Batmobile, but:

When they get to the first location, the Cluemaster tries a little bluff, refusing to get back into the trunk. But Batman calls him and:

Heheh, the Cluemaster definitely comes off quite the worse in this adventure. However, before feeling too sorry for him, remember that while he's riding in the trunk he talks to the Riddler, offering to help him out.

Predictably, at one of the locations, Batman and the Cluemaster come upon some hoodlums burying a body. Batman fights them while Brown runs and hides, much to the annoyance of the Riddler, who insists that he go back. And when he does, Batman is unconscious and the hoods are about to shoot him:

But the hoods realize they can shoot Brown in the head and not set off the explosives, so he wades into them, fighting for his life. One of the thugs smacks him over the head with a shovel, but at that moment Robin arrives and Batman regains consciousness and they quickly subdue the crooks. They decide to pull a switch, with Robin transporting the Cluemaster to the locations the Riddler insists on (there's a GPS in the explosive vest, so he can check). They put a vocal modulator on Robin so his voice deepens a bit and sounds more like Batman. But the next clue stumps the Boy Wonder and Oracle (who's assisting from her computers):

Fortunately the Cluemaster is able to assist once they've narrowed it down to a hotel suite (putting on the Ritz). This results in a significant promotion for Brown:

Eventually they work out the clues and discover that the Riddler is planning to steal a scorecard from a 1919 game between the Chicago "Black Sox" (i.e., the famed team that threw the World Series) and the Gotham Knights. The part that makes the scorecard valuable is that it was kept by Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who was appointed Major League Baseball's Commissioner in the wake of the scandal. However, I confess to being a little disappointed when Oracle reveals that the scorecard is expected to sell for $50,000. Say what? This is a 1997 story; 50 grand is peanuts for a master criminal like the Riddler. Batman warns Robin not to be too close to Brown if things get tight on time:

Sure enough, the Cluemaster senses he's in trouble and tries to grab the wheel, resulting in the car flipping over. Fortunately Batman hits the Riddler's cellphone with a Batarang before he can dial the number that will explode the vest, and in the end the Riddler and the Cluemaster are headed back to prison.

Comments: I enjoyed this tale with the obvious exception of the value of the item in question. The story had a light, humorous touch which worked perfectly and the art (Nolan and Roach) complemented that well.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Star Spangled #88

This is one of several psychological dramas involving Robin and the death penalty. Dick Grayson learns that one of his schoolmates is angry at Batman because his father is about to be executed based on work by the Caped Crusader. But the boy knows his dad couldn't have committed murder:

But when Dick confronts Batman about this, he gets rebuffed oddly enough to raise his suspicions:

Dick goes down to the Batcave and reviews the case, where he learns that Brent (the father of his classmate), Denton (the murder victim) and another man named Walsh were partners in an air freight business. Brent and Denton often quarreled about finances and one day Denton was found dead in the office, with Brent standing over him in a daze with a golf club (the murder weapon) in his hand.

Robin naturally suspects the remaining member of the partnership, Walsh. But it appears that he did not gain financially by the death of one partner and the pending execution of another:

However, it's obvious from the company Walsh is keeping that he's got some sort of racket going on. Robin pokes around and discovers that he's smuggling wanted gangsters out of the area. He's captured by some of the crooks and brought in to face Walsh again, who admits that's why he killed one partner and framed the other. He wanted to make sure that they didn't catch on to his other activities. Meanwhile, Robin is shocked to learn the time:

Robin gets free and basically disables the crooks, including Walsh, although Batman and the cops also arrive just in time to apply the finishing touches. Batman had realized all along that Brent didn't really commit the murder, and so the whole conviction and execution was staged. Brent's son, Jimmy, and Dick weren't told because they had to act naturally or Walsh would realize it was all a plot to make him reveal the motive behind the murder/frame-up.

The ending is pretty typical of these tales:

Incidentally, that rather gripping scene on the cover (which is reproduced on the splash page as well) never occurs in the book; it's apparently a bit of artistic license. My guess is that it's an homage/swipe of this famous Airboy cover from about a year and a half earlier:

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Detective #79: Destiny's Auction

One of my favorite Batman stories of all time comes from Detective #79. Three separate people see Madame Calagra, a fortune teller, who correctly predicts all of their immediate futures. She sees Judy O'Casson, an aspiring actress, moving from her current humble lodgings to a great palace. But when Judy returns to her shabby boarding house, she finds that she's been locked out, and the landlady won't let her have the trunk of belongings unless she pays the back rent.

Madame Calagra's next customer is Tremaine Wentworth, a former actor whom she predicts will be cast in a new role.

But as Wentworth heads home, he's hit by a car, and thus his new role is that of an amnesiac.

The third person seeking her advice is mobster Diamond Pete Ransome, who is pleased to learn that strong men will follow him on his next job. But of course, the strong men are Batman and Robin, who put Pete in jail. Will the cops find Pete's trunk, which contains evidence that would convict him of murder?

The common thread that ties all three together is that they have each lost a trunk which contains something valuable to them. A year later, Judy returns to the big city, Tremaine recovers his memory and Diamond Pete gets out of jail. They each try to recover their trunk, but find it has been placed up for auction.

Judy gets to the auction house first and bids on a trunk that looks like hers. Tremaine arrives shortly after and bids on the second trunk, while Diamond Pete arrives late and gets the last trunk. But, as you can probably guess, none of them end up purchasing his or her own trunk, but one of the others.

Pete discovers that his trunk contains the belongings of Tremaine Wentworth (as do Batman and Robin). The Dynamic Duo dash over to Wentworth's and help him open his trunk. It's a bunch of dresses and a manuscript for a play. It's an undiscovered work by a famous playwright named Claude Renner, and will surely be worth a fortune to Judy, whose name is found inside the trunk.

But this time the crooks, who wear disguises they found in Wentworth's trunk, beat Batman and Robin to the girl's hotel:

Batman saves the young lady, and when Diamond Pete tries to slip by, Wentworth recognizes his old disguises and Batman and Robin are able to capture the crooks. Judy explains that she was given the play by the famous writer shortly before he died, with instructions to only sell it to a producer who promises to cast her in the leading role. As it happens, Batman knows a possible "angel":

So Judy and Wentworth star in the play, which is a smash hit. And Diamond Pete gets the chair, as he deserves. At the end, Bruce and Dick decide to pay a visit themselves to the fortune teller:

A very tight little story by Don Cameron (according to the GCD) and gorgeous art by Jerry Robinson, who really gets the mood right. While Dick Sprang is my favorite Batman artist overall, I must confess that I prefer Robinson's image of the Caped Crusader as a lithe, gymnast-type.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Great Unknown Batman Stories #1: Marathon of Menace

Batman #34 opened with Marathon of Menace, one of my favorite Batman stories of all time. The story begins in the past, when Marty Steele was a young man with a thirst for speed. He set records on land, air and sea, but now time has passed him by, and his doctors inform him that his heart will not take the strain. But Steele is still obsessed by racing and so he decides to sponsor a cross-country race.

The story features the experiences of three particular racers: Roy Damon, a blind scientist who hopes to test out his radar devices that can make it possible for him to race despite his handicap; "John Doe", a mystery man; and Glenda West, the spoiled heiress and niece of a major manufacturer of motors. Her uncle sees the promotional possibilities of having Glenda win the race, and contracts with some criminals to sabotage the other entrants.

Batman and Robin have decided to race along, but not for the purse or the glory, but to test out their abilities and equipment. We learn that there are three main legs of the race: From Gotham City to the Black Hills of South Dakota, then to the Grand Canyon and then to San Francisco, and contestants may use each form of transportation (car, boat, plane) only for one leg.

We get a little useful geography lesson here from Batman:

Both Damon and Doe have had boat problems due to the sabotage, and Glenda makes it to the first checkpoint:

But as she arrives, she spots the men monkeying with the other planes, and so they decide they have to eliminate her. Fortunately Batman and Robin arrive in the nick of time and save Glenda. But in the battle, John Doe's plane is shot and starts to leak fuel.

As Doe is flying through the Grand Canyon, Batman and Robin are riding in the Batboat below. Doe radios them for help due to his empty tank, and Robin makes a terrific rope-climb with a stunning backdrop:

Meanwhile Glenda and Roy are driving towards the finish line. A crook shoots out Roy's tire and Glenda stops to help:

And we learn how admirable Glenda is a bit later as Roy heads off with enthusiastic thanks. In fact, she did not have a spare tire, and is sacrificing her chance at victory.

John Doe wins the race, although he finishes slightly behind Batman (who was not officially an entrant). And Doe reveals himself to be Marty Steele, the man who sponsored the race:

Steele awards the prize to Roy Damon, who will use it to help other blind people. Glenda has learned to help others, and so everybody's happy, except possibly for Uncle George.

Comments: A wonderful story by Bill Finger with terrific art by Dick Sprang. Finger loved these types of stories where Batman and Robin are not necessarily the focus of the story, but characters who push the story along in parts. One of my other favorites is a very similar story from Detective #79 called Destiny's Auction. I should probably cover that story next.