Monday, December 22, 2008

"The Winged Bat-People"

Issue: Batman #116

Cover Date: June 1958

Writer: Bill Finger

Penciller: Sheldon Moldoff

Inker: Charles Paris

Cover Artist: Sheldon Moldoff

Synopsis: The planes of Gotham's weather bureau are unable to analyze the eye of a hurrican due to too much turbulence, but luckily, the city has a crime fighter with a plane tough enough to get the job done. When Batman activates the Bat-Plane's reserve jets to battle the fierce winds, he and Robin are surprisingly transported to another dimension. They barely have time to realize what has happened when they are captured by Romanesque soldiers, the leader of which mentioning that they were warned of an attack by "the Bat-People". Batman and Robin are taken before the soldiers' Queen for sentencing, where we find out that the Queen's minister Arko had warned of the Bat-People attack. While the Queen sees Batman and Robin as proof that rumors of Arko being a traitor were false, his thought balloon reveals that his report was a false one. Before Batman and Robin can be taken to the dungeons, the castle is attacked by the aforementioned Bat-People.

The Bat-People are taken down by Batman's batarang, his left hook, and the Bat-Plane's engine. Batman gains the Queen's trust and proposes they, along with Robin and Arko, journey to the Bat-People's territory. Arko declines, saying he has state business, so the soldier who had captured the Dynamic Duo goes in his place. While flying over the chasm that seperates the two territories in the Bat-Plane, they are attacked by a flaming net courtesy of the Bat-People, confirming that Arko was a traitor. They return to find that Arko has taken over the palace, but he and his allies are no match for Batman and Robin. Upon capture, Arko reveals that the Bat-People are on their way to launch a full scale attack. Batman is unafraid of the attack, having deduced that the chasm seperating the two territories contained a coal vein; a coal vein that is now producing updrafts of hot air due to the flaming net. Batman and Robin set the vein aflame using the jets from their Bat-Plane, producing an explosion that propels them back to their dimension.

Thoughts: One of the notable aspects of Batman in the fifties is the amount of story output. While Detective Comics always contained one Batman story, the number of stories in the Batman title changed throughout it's publication. There were usually four stories during the forties, three during the fifties, and two during the early sixties. By the time Batmania hit in '66, Batman was down to the single, full length story of a standard comic book. While the fifties tales were only 8 to 12 pages, it's amazing how much story was packed into each, especially compared to the current trend of decompression. While some stories could have used a few more pages, most of them were able to tell a solid, interesting story in the space given. And with 36 Batman stories being published each year by 1954 (not counting World's Finest), who can complain about a clunker here and there?

"The Winged Bat-People" is undoubtably a late fifties story, with its use of strange creatures and alternate dimensions. With what we know now of the DC universe, I like to think of this dimension as one of the infinite earths prior to the Crisis, where Batman is instead a race of Bat-People. There were several touches to this story that made me chuckle, one of them being that the Bat-Plane was able to break the sound barrier "at a speed ten times greater than was ever thought possible" and travel to alternate dimensions. I actually wish this concept had become the Professor Carter Nichols of the late fifties, with Batman and Robin using the Bat-Plane to travel to other alternate dimensions. The ending of the story is patricularly great, with Dick mentioning to Bruce that the Queen likely thinks they're dead. When Bruce says it is for the best and Dick inquires why, Bruce responds that if she still thought Batman was alive, the Queen would pine for him and never marry the soldier who was infatuated with her. There you have it: Bruce Wayne isn't the mask, Batman is. (And to Bill Finger's credit, the Queen-Soldier romance wasn't random; there are two panels in the story that do imply it).

There are fun moments and good action in this story, but as always, there are also a few questions. Can four normal soldiers haul the Bat-Plane across a desert? Where is the catapult on the Bat-Plane that allows Batman to leap over the castle walls during the coup? How bad a ruler is the Queen if her palace minister can stage a coup in an afternoon? And if said minister can stage a coup in an afternoon, why would he tell his enemies to launch a full-scale attack on the castle? And how does the palace minister communicate with these winged creatures anyhow? While it does raise a lot of questions and is an example of a fifties story suffering a bit from the low page count, it is still worth seeking out for a zany Batman yarn.

This story has been reprinted in Eighty Page Giant #12.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Batman: The Black Casebook TPB Confirmed

Back in October, I blogged about a rumor that DC would be releasing a trade paperback collecting the fifties stories that inspired Grant Morrison's current run on Batman. DC Comics recently unveiled their list of collected editions coming out in May and June of 2009 and underneath June was this solicitation:

Batman: The Black Casebook TP
Writers: France Herron, Edmond Hamilton, Bill Finger
Artists: Dick Sprang, Charles Paris, Sheldon Moldoff, Stan Kaye
Collects: Stories from Batman #113, 134, 156, and 162, Detective Comics #215, 235, and 267, and World's Finest Comics #89.
$17.99 US 144 pages

That's right, more fifties reprints are on the way! As the stories tie-in to Morrison's run, here are my guesses on which stories will be collected:

Batman #113: "Batman -- The Superman of Planet X!"
Batman #134: "Batman's Secret Enemy"
Batman #156: "Robin Dies At Dawn!"
Batman #162: "The Batman Creature!"
Detective Comics #215: "The Batmen of All Nations"
Detective Comics #235: "The First Batman"
Detective Comics #267: "Batman Meets Bat-Mite"
World's Finest Comics #89: "The Club of Heroes!"

Friday, December 12, 2008

"City Without Guns"

Issue: Detective Comics #196

Cover Date: June 1953

Writer: Bill Finger

Penciller: Dick Sprang

Inker: Charles Paris

Cover Artist: Winslow Mortimer

Synopsis: The story opens with gang boss Frank Lumardi escaping from the Gotham police via a speedboat. One month later, Bruce and Dick arrive in London, with Bruce hoping to study the crime fighting methods of Scotland Yard. Meeting up with Inspector Deggers, Bruce learns of Scotland Yard's no gun policy and sees that on a wall of crime fighter portraits, Batman and Robin's has been ripped from its frame. Deggers is unwilling to divulge any information concerning the portrait and soon departs when an alarm sounds in Leicester Square. Batman and Robin are quick to follow Deggers, discovering that the alarm was sounded due to the theft of an apparently important briefcase. The thieves turn out to be a gang led by Lumardi, who escape when Batman has to prevent a bus struck by a stray bullet from crashing.

Batman and Robin meet up with Deggers, who informs them that the stolen briefcase contained 8,000 pounds (roughly $20,000). While mulling over what to do next without a Batcave, the Dynamic Duo run into Chester Gleek, England's #1 Batman and Robin fan. Lightly dismissing him at first, Chester insists he shows them his laboratory, which turns out to be exactly like the Batcave. After Robin reads a crime file on Lumardi, Chester leads Batman and Robin (passing a portrait of the Duo) to his garage, which houses a replica of the Batmobile. Using their knowledge of Lumardi's love of horse racing, Batman and Robin track down his gang, but the imitation Batmobile is no match for gunfire. Borrowing a horse, the Duo duke it out with the gang at a wax museum, but lose them due to the Pickwick Bicycle Club riding by.

Batman and Robin return to Scotland Yard to confer with Deggers. The defacing of a statue of Isis appears to indicate Lumardi's next crime, but Batman cannot deduce what it might mean. Then Deggers makes a comment about the upper part of the Thames river being referred to as Isis and Batman is able to draw a connection. That night, Lumardi's gang breaks into a Captain Percy's ship on the Thames, which holds an old treasure chest. Batman and Robin were prepared for the gang, subduing all of them except for Lumardi. After a battle with Lumardi in the Oxford belltower, Lumardi stops cold as three riflemen aim in his direction. The trio turns out to be a campus drill team, with Lumardi ironically being apprehended by guns in a city without them. But what of the portrait of Batman and Robin missing from Scotland Yard? It turns out the portrait was originally donated by Chester Gleek, then stolen by him when he saw it hanging beside such "inferior" detectives such as Sherlock Holmes.

Thoughts: If there was one thing Batman did a lot of in the forties and fifties, it was travel. Whether it was traveling through time thanks to Professor Carter Nichols, around the world, or into outer space, Batman and Robin fought injustice wherever (and whenever) it may be. In fact, there were two giant issues published chronicling the Dynamic Duo's travels. The first, Eighty Page Giant #12 from July of 1965, focused on Batman and Robin's travels to strange worlds. The second, Batman #223 from July/August of 1970, focused on adventures spanning the globe. Both contain a number of fun, fifties Batman cases that take Batman out of his normal environment of Gotham City.

"City Without Guns" is one such story, taking Batman across the pond to merry old England. The background mystery of Batman and Robin's missing portrait is a nice supplement to the Lumardi case. Chester Gleek is a fun, fanboy character, although I have to wonder how he was able to replicate a loose version of the Batcave, including the crime file (I fully admit that a previously published story involving the Batcave, a la "The Batman Dime Museum" from 1955, might clear that up). Lumardi being foiled by the drill club in the end was a clever bit on Bill Finger's part. Dick Sprang, as always, provides classic Batman artwork. My favorite panel in the story is that of Batman after Lumardi sets the bells in the bell tower off; the "Bongs" of different sizes and colors surrounding Batman were quite effective. The only flaw in an otherwise classic fifties story is Bruce Wayne possessing a letter of introduction from Commissioner Gordon for Deggers. It wouldn't take much detective work to connect the newly arrived Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson to Batman and Robin swinging around London.

*Special thanks to David Morefield for the blog's awesome new banner.

This story has been reprinted in Batman #223, a 64 page giant issue.