Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Alfred--Part I

Alfred the butler first appeared in Batman #16. Here he is:

Yep, Alfred was not always the slender figure of a man that we have grown to know and love over the years; for the first eight months of his existence in the Batman family he was portly and rather tall as well. But this was only one of the many changes made to the character over the years, as we shall see.

Batman and Robin first encounter him at the docks as he's entering America. Some criminals they are trailing attempt to steal Alfred's valise. The three of them chase the crooks off, and Alfred advises Batman that they have something in common:

Well, of course Batman and Robin think that's a pretty good joke, since Alfred won't know where to call on them. Imagine their surprise, therefore, when an hour or two later he shows up at Wayne Mansion. Not to worry, though; he hasn't discovered their secret identities yet. He explains:

Jarvis has passed on, explains Alfred, and extracted from the latter a promise that he will serve Bruce and Dick. They decide to let him stay for the night.

But the crooks who tried to steal his valise have trailed him as well. Bruce and Dick, hearing the burglar alarm, quickly change into their fighting outfits and chase after the crooks, leaving Alfred alone with the third criminal. They battle it out and Alfred gets lucky, having a shield conk the crook when he missed with a punch. And as it happens:

Alfred heads down the secret stairway, discovers the crime laboratory and the Batplane and quickly reaches the appropriate deduction that his "mawsters" are the Dynamic Duo. Meanwhile, Batman and Robin have tracked down the crooks to an abandoned theatre, but they are ambushed and tied up. Fortunately, Alfred allows the crook he subdued to escape, so that he can follow him to the hideout. He saves Batman and Robin, and the three of them combine forces to stop the crooks, whose plan was to steal the crown jewels from one of Alfred's fellow passengers on the ship.

At first, they're impressed with his detective work, but when they discover that it was mostly luck, they decide that perhaps they can risk having him around. After all, he's not all that smart and won't discover their secret identities. However:

This characterization of Alfred, as a bumbling amateur detective with a great deal of luck, applied for the first several years. However, there were signs early on that Alfred's character might develop into something different.

In Batman #18, Alfred saves Batman and Robin with some quick thinking. They have been overcome with gas by Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Alfred rescues them, lowers them out the window, then leaves the hotel that the Deevers are using as their hideout in a huff:

The next big moment in Alfred's life came in Detective #83. Sensing that he needed to slim down a bit, Alfred decided to take a vacation at a fat farm. The results were quite startling:

Reportedly, the change was instituted to make Alfred look more like the butler in the Batman movie serial that was issued right around the same time. You can see the movie Alfred about 4:05 into this video:

And in Batman #22, the newly slender Alfred got his first real cover appearance and his own backup feature:

This actually made Alfred the first DC supporting character to graduate to his own feature; Lois Lane, Girl Reporter commenced the following month in Superman.

Both features were played (at the time) for laughs. Alfred's stories followed a simple pattern. While pursuing his detective hobby, Alfred would encounter a pair of situations, one of which would arouse his suspicions. He would follow up on that one, and inevitably discover that it had a simple and innocuous explanation. But by amazing coincidence when he followed up the second situation, it would turn out to be criminal activity, and Alfred would, in some bumbling manner, capture the villains.

For example, in the debut story, Alfred is taking notes on criminal detection at the Gotham City library. He meets a practicing professor of criminology, then overhears a very suspicious conversation at the next table:

But when he follows the two men, he discovers that they are simply writers for a radio drama series coming up with a new plot idea. Chagrined, he heads off to meet his professor friend (or is it fiend):

But in his bumbling manner, Alfred manages to get hold of the nitro that the professor uses to blow up safes, and threatening the crooks with it he manages to get them to accompany him to the nearest police station.

The Alfred stories lasted until Batman #32, when they were abruptly dropped (the Lois Lane shorts also disappeared not long after). For the most part, this also was pretty much the end of the concept of Alfred as a detective, although there were a few other tales where this aspect of the character were featured. Alfred more or less faded into the background until the Silver Age, when further big changes occurred.

Much more Alfred to come!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Anarky in the USA?

One of the weirder characters in the Batman saga was introduced in Detective #608. Anarky is played as something of an anti-hero. On the one hand, he opposes injustice; on the other, his methods are extreme:

The character getting zapped there is rock star and drug pusher "Johnny Vomit". Of course, the template for JV is Johnny Rotten, the Sex Pistols' lead singer; the Sex Pistols first big hit was Anarchy in the UK.

Anarky gets his inspiration from letters to the editor of the Gotham Gazette. A woman writes about the pollution in the Gotham River, and Anarky takes things (including a chemical magnate's head) into his own hands:

The chemical magnate was found "dying" (we're not told if he actually died) along with the tape of Anarky addressing the citizens of Gotham. In the story, we are introduced to the Marcin family: Mike, his son Lonnie and "Mom". From the context it is clear that one of them will turn out to be Anarky. But get Alfred's reaction to Anarky:

A "kindred spirit"? "Someone who will find a lot of support"? Yeesh, the Alan Grant run was suffused with a lot of this moral relativism, which just plain doesn't work with Batman.

In the next day's paper, there's a letter complaining about a bank building being constructed on city-owned land, "when what's needed are houses for the homeless living there." A couple of homeless Vietnam vets are there to protest, and Bruce comments:

You know, it's a shame there wasn't some millionaire philanthropist handy to buy the land and construct the low-rent housing. Later that evening, Anarky breaks into the construction site and begins destroying property, aided by the homeless vets:

"Legs" popped up in several stories around this time. Anarky escapes but Batman is hot on his tail as he enters the Gotham Insurance Company building. It appears that Mike Marcin (the father) is Anarky, but:

And later, we get some moral relativism from Batman and Commissioner Gordon:

It goes on for another couple more panels like that. BTW, this was in the era after Jason Todd's death and before Tim Drake became the third Robin, which explains the musing about whether Lonnie could be another Robin.

Anarky returned in Detective #620. Tim has started his training, and is trying to find out who's stealing millions with a computer. He gets a big clue here:

Tim tracks the activity down to Gotham's Juvenile Hall, where he confronts Lonnie. Once again, we get the sob sister routine:

And here:

Despite the name, Anarky sounds significantly more like a cardboard communist:

Anarky has reappeared a dozen or more times in the 20 years since his debut. He had a pair of miniseries in 1997 and 1999; I read one of them but found it boring and overly philosophical. According to the DC Comics Encyclopedia, in a later story it was revealed that Lonnie was adopted by the Marcins and is actually the illegitimate son of the Joker.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Some Golden Age Continuity Examples

Over at the always awesome Comic Treadmill, H has another one of his terrific posts on the Prop Stars, the giant props that featured in many Batman stories. But note this part:

Finally, today’s entry closes with two more circles, a Giant Prop Roulette Wheel and Ball, making 8 circular Giant Props this entry. I had already uncovered a flashback panel to this story in Batman 76 (May 1953). Who knew it was referencing an actual story from six years earlier? That kind of continuity just wasn’t done in the Golden Age. Color me impressed.

Actually, I've discovered that the Golden Age frequently had bits of continuity in flashback sequences. Maybe, back in the 1960s and 1970s we didn't know it because there were no resources like the Grand Comics Database, and so we assumed that it was made up by the writers. But that does not appear to be generally the case.

For starters, let's consider the famed story, The Secret Life of the Catwoman, from Batman #62. In that tale, Catwoman is knocked unconscious by a blow to the head. When she regains her senses, she has lost all memory of her years as the Catwoman, but recovered her memory of what came before, when she was an airline stewardess known as Selena Kyle. Batman and Robin confront her with evidence of her criminal past here:

Nine Lives Has the Catwoman comes from Batman #35. Oddly, though, the action shown is not duplicated in the original; in fact, it's Batman who uses the whip to prevent Catwoman from shooting him:

The Duped Domestics is from Batman #22, while The Claws of the Catwoman first saw publication in Batman #42, and The Lady Rogues in Batman #45.

My personal favorite example of continuity comes from Detective #220's The Second Batman and Robin Team. Medieval scientist Roger Bacon makes a startling discovery:

Reading from left to right, Peril in Greece from Batman #38, It Happened in Rome from Batman #24, and Batman and the Vikings from Batman #52.

In Detective #145, Robin/Dick Grayson loses his memory. Hoping to trigger his recovery, Bruce takes him to a movie showing some of Batman's greatest adventures:

The Fowls of Fate popped up in Batman #48 and features a similar sequence to that shown above:

The Underworld Surgeon appeared in Detective #131 and did indeed feature Robin rescuing Batman from a similar predicament.

Those are all the ones I can think of off the top of my head, but here's the one that H mentioned in his post. In Batman #76, the Caped Crusader wants to join the Danger Club, and has to tell of three occasions in the past when he faced danger. Here's the first:

As noted by H, that peril first occurred in Batman #44:

Here's the second danger that Batman mentioned having faced:

This refers to The 1001 Trophies of Batman, from Detective #158.

And the third danger:

Batman first encountered The White Whale in Batman #9.

Any others that you can remember? I suspect that these types of flashbacks would be most common in stories featuring returning criminals and (as in Detective #145 above) amnesia stories.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Harvey Bullock

One of the long-lasting characters in the modern Batman era deserves his own post.

"Lt." (later Sgt.) Bullock first appeared in Detective #441:

But after that July 1974 appearance, Bullock appears to have laid low, not popping up in a Batman story again until nine years later, in Batman #361 (July 1983). What happened? Well, there was a brief period in there where Archie Goodwin was editing Detective (issues 437-443, exactly corresponding to the Goodwin-Simonsen Manhunter run as the backup feature). I suspect that Schwartz consigned Bullock to the dustbin when he resumed editing Tec with #444.

In Batman #361, Commissioner Gordon mentions to Batman that he's been pressured to add an "assistant" by Mayor Hill. But he's stunned when his new aide walks through the door:

As you can probably gather from that opening "belch", Bullock is portrayed as something of a slob, a definitely uncouth character. In many ways, he seems patterned on Oscar Madison from the Odd Couple, although that would change. Another inspiration would be Fat Ollie Weeks, a recurring character in Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels, who also was clearly the template for Detective Bunz in the Hill Street Blues TV series.

Initially, it is safe to say that Bullock and the Batman did not have a friendly relationship. At this point in the Batman series, Gordon and Batman had become pretty good friends, with Batman often referring to the Commish as "Jim". Since Bullock was portrayed in an adversarial relationship with Gordon, it's not surprising that Batman would be dismissive:

And yes, he was portrayed as a bumbling idiot:

Bullock had initially planned to testify in a case against Gordon, but after receiving an apparent threat from Batman, he admits that he might have been wrong about the Commissioner not making enough of an effort to capture a criminal who was also an old friend.

In Batman #364, Bullock pulls a little prank that nearly has disastrous consequences:

But he repents:

In his next appearance, we learn that Harvey may be a pig, but he's not a rat:

And that pretty much sets the stage for the character. Bullock has mostly been seen as a slob, a klutz, and a good cop, in roughly that order, although he's also been willing to bend the rules a little bit:

Which may be why Batman and Harvey eventually became friendlier over the years.

In later years we learned Bullock's big secret; he's a old-time film buff.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Batman's Travels Through Time

This is one of those topics that I'll have to complete in stages, as the topic is so vast. According to the Grand Comics Database, Professor Carter Nichols, who came up with the concept of time travel in the Batman canon, appeared in 31 stories prior to 1964 (when he disappeared like much of the Batman family).

When he first appeared it was apparent that his "method" of sending someone through time involved nothing more than hypnosis. From Batman #24's It Happened in Rome:

And a few panels later, alarmed that Bruce has not returned, Dick asks to be sent back to rescue him. We see the technique for the first time:

Now the concept of people being hypnotized into the past is a bit silly, but let's remember that John Carter of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars novels used to travel to Mars by doing little more than wishing himself across space. However, it certainly appears that the editors, writers and artists recognized this weakness, and while the hypnotism was never quite discarded, they did surround Professor Nichols with scientific-looking equipment that we could imagine was really doing the heavy lifting.

That initial story featured Ancient Rome and included a sequence with Batman in a chariot race (probably inspired by Ben-Hur; the book came out in 1880 and was one of the best-selling books of all time). The next appearance was in Batman #27's All for One, One for All and clearly was an homage to The Three Musketeers by Dumas. The Dynamic Duo went back to King Arthur's Court in Batman #36.

Heh, looks like he's got time-travel rays shooting out of his eyes there.

One interesting aspect of the early time travel stories are all the "doubles" for characters from Batman's then present-day adventures. For example, in It Happened in Rome, Batman meets the Jester, who strongly resembles the Joker, although in a twist the Jester befriends Batman and saves his life on one occasion. While in Batman's King Arthur story:

In fact, that tale continues the long-running motif of Batman "accidentally" letting the Catwoman get away.

Another common theme had Bruce and Dick traveling to the past to solve some mystery clouding the reputation of someone in the present. For example, in Batman #52's Batman and the Vikings, Bruce is startled to find a stone carving of a man bearing a distinct resemblance to him. Even more surprising is the inscription:

Although the man in the carving is no ancestor of Bruce's, he feels compelled to learn the full story. In the end, he finds that the part of the inscription that was cut off tells a different story:

This theme was used over and over again in the Carter Nichols stories. In Batman #93, an archaeologist finds his reputation ruined when he locates a stone carving showing a T-Rex chasing some cavemen. Since dinosaurs died out well before the first caveman it appears that he's been taken in by a fraud. But Bruce and Dick go back in time and discover that the T-Rex had been frozen in some ice, and only came to life briefly when a fire melted the block. They found the rest of the carving which showed the dino in the cube. I talked about that story over at Silver Age Comics.
In Batman #89 the Dynamic Duo travel back in time and clear Commissioner Gordon's great-grandfather:

And in Batman #99 Batman is confronted by a reporter with an old newspaper that alleges he used guns one time in the old West, but it turns out to be a gent with a similar name:

In a twist, Batman and Robin brought sci-fi writer Jules Verne forward into the present in the Return of Mr Future from Batman #98. A crook has stolen Verne's greatest invention, a sonic gun. Verne has thought of a way to defeat the weapon and must help Batman design and create it, defeating the criminals. Afterwards, they show him some of his predictions that came true:

Cute story. One of my favorite Batman stories of all time is the Second and Batman and Robin Team from Detective #220. In that story, medieval scientist Roger Bacon discovers Professor Nichols secret and sends two young men who look remarkably like Bruce and Dick forward in time:

In Batman #67, Robin travels forward in time to help the Batman of 3051, whose junior partner has broken a leg:

Although this is not a Carter Nichols story, that panorama is so beautiful that I couldn't resist including it in this post.

Much more Batman time travel to come!

Update: Also, check out Bill Jourdain's column on Professor Nichols from last year.