Friday, August 14, 2009

"The Voyage of The First Batmarine!"

Issue: Batman #86

Cover Date: September 1954

Writer: Edmond Hamilton

Penciller: Dick Sprang

Inker: Charles Paris

Synopsis: A barge making its way across the Gotham River suddenly begins to sink, becoming a serious threat due to a cargo of nitro-glycerine. Batman and Robin are quickly summoned by the Bat-Signal and go to the harbor with Commissioner Gordon. After Gordon explains the situation at hand, Batman and Robin volunteer to retrieve the nitro, as no other diver will take the risk. The Dynamic Duo are outfitted with diving suits, submerged near the wreck in the middle of the river, and begin placing the cans of nitro in rope slings to be brought up. The pair work for almost an hour, but succeed in retrieving all of the nitro. Unfortunately, Batman and Robin have stayed underwater so long that they will die of the bends if they come up now, and must spend two days gradually reducing the pressure around them before they can return safely to the surface. Fortunately for the Dynamic Duo, a nearby salvage company is able to supply them with a pocket submarine to spend those days in, complete with a bat emblem painted on the front.

While Batman outlines the plan of gradually reducing the pressure within the Batmarine until they're safe to surface, Robin worries that "Slant" Stacy and his gang of Platinum Bandits will take advantage of them being out of action. Robin's worries prove to be justified, as the Bandits are preparing to rob a plutonium shipment from the Art Jewelery Company. Batman is already one step ahead of them and directs Robin to pilot the Batmarine to a lake near the Company. Once there, they are faced with dealing with the gang without leaving the Batmarine. They solve this dilemma by launching a salvage net out of a torpedo tube at the crooks. A couple of the Bandits are caught, but the remaining members quickly regroup and take a boat out onto the lake to drop nitro on the Batmarine. The Dynamic Duo cut the engine, having figured out its sond is how they were being tracked, and the criminals soon leave. Guessing that the Bandits' next target is at the Natural History Museum, Batman and Robin don diving suits and travel a series of pipes into an aquarium in the museum. After using an octopus' ink to hide their presence, Batman opens the main valve and begins flooding the room, driving the Platinum Bandits away once again.

All throughout the story, Stacy has mentioned a full-proof plan to ensure that Batman wouldn't be able to interfere with the Bandits' operation and after two defeats, he now puts it into action. The plan begins with the hijacking of a post office helicopter, which takes the gang to the Gotham Skyscraper. Their target is the Platinum Corporation's safe, which is at the top of the skyscraper. They cut the cables to the elevators and a section of the stairs, preventing the police from reaching them, as well as Batman since he can't leave the water. The Batmarine's periscope sees the Bat-Signal flashing a police code message about the situation. Despite the threat of the bends, Batman is seen leaving the Batmarine. he makes his way to the skyscraper and climbs its walls to the roof. Upon reaching the roof, Batman frees the helicopter pilot, who takes off to get the police. When the police arrive to a mostly defeated gang, they witness Batman collapse, supposedly to the bends. When an officer attempts to revive the Caped Crusader, "Batman" is revealed to be a radio-contolled robot that Batman had been working on while confined to the Batmarine. A few days later, Batman and Robin return to the surface safely, with Robin declaring that he never wants to go underwater ever again.

Thoughts: When I first got into fifties era Batman stories several years ago, I went about the internet tracking down all of the information on the era I could find. My searches eventually led me to Two Morrows publishing, where I found out that the nineteenth issue of their fantastic magazine Alter Ego was a spotlight of the life and work of Dick Sprang. Having already seen and appreciated his work, this was a no-brainer to order. The issue was full of great reminisces, interviews, and artwork. One of the pieces of art included was the splash page to this story in black and white, from the Batman From The 30's To The 70's collection. And it completely blew me away. The Batmarine in the background, the poses of the Dynamic Duo, the underwater world...spectacular. The color version looks great as well, but I think the piece really stands out in black and white. To this day, it's my favorite piece of fifties Batman artwork.

The premise of the story is a good one: Batman and Robin are trapped underwater while the criminal element still runs amok on the surface. How will they be able to continue to protect Gotham City? While the premise is good, several elements of the story stick out. The major one being the work arounds of the bends. Now I am not an expert on the bends, but my impression is that rising fast, no matter if you remain in water, will set off the symptoms. As such, the surfacing of the Batmarine to launch the net should have affected Batman and Robin. Even though they remained in water, the Duo's journey to the museum aquarium should have affected them as well. I liked the two ongoing mysteries, of Stacy's plan and what Batman was building, but Batman's ability to build a robot is unnecessarily suspect. If the Batmarine was presented as an already prepped bat-vehicle, I wouldn't bat an eye at Batman being able to build a robot. But the Batmarine was a normal submarine with a bat symbol painted on the front, not stocked with Batman's normal assortment of gadgets. Of course, comics have to be approached with a suspension of disbelief. Comics during the fifties were written with an eight year old audience in mind, not with the intention of being scrutinized years later. As such, I can still enjoy the story while these inconsistencies jump out at me while reading.

Considering my comments about the splash page, you can probably tell how I feel about the art. As usual, it's great work from Sprang, especially in the underwater scenes. The diving suits and Batmarine are well drawn, along with the various sea creatures. Sprang could have just drawn the underwater landscapes, but instead he puts at least one fish in almost all of the underwater panels, further adding to the undersea feel. Stacy's character design is great, with his head literally slanted at an angle. I had half a thought that he might be an homage to the villains in Dick Tracy's rogues gallery. Sprang's art also provides a bit of hilarity at the end, in the facial expression of the police officer who discovers the Batman robot.

In the Alter Ego I mentioned, there was an anecdote from Sprang noting that he would have liked to see the Batmarine worked into more stories. I agree, as it's a Bat-Vehicle that had a lot of potential for more voyages during the fifties.

This story was later retitled "The Underseas Batman!" and has been reprinted in Batman Annual #2, Batman From The 30's To The 70's HC, and DC Comics Classics Library: Batman - The Annuals Volume 1 HC.


David said...

Re: "the bends." They may get a pass in the scene where the sub surfaces to fire the net, because you'll remember they asked that the sub be capable of adjustable interior pressure. I'm no scientist, but to me that implies that so long as they stay in the sub and the sub's atmospheric pressure is at the correct setting, it doesn't matter what the pressure is outside the sub. If true, there's no particular reason for them to be underwater at all; in the sub should be good enough.

There's no getting around the aquarium scene, however, even with the "explanation" that the fish tanks are located "in the basement" of the museum. Also if you look at the way they got in, there's really no obvious way for the Duo to get back out again.

As for the robot, at the very least it's unlikely Batman could build one -- in a submarine, with no special tools -- so lifelike it would pass for a human being. Indeed, there's no obvious reason he'd even TRY to make it resemble him, not only dressing it in a bat-costume but even -- somehow -- giving it a flesh-like face. Any robot that could climb walls and kick butt would have been good enough, and as far as that goes an inhuman-looking one might have been more psychologically imposing. Why go to all that trouble to freak out random Gothamites who are left to think Batman is doomed? There's only two possible reasons: 1, the sheer hubris of making sure he gets credit for the capture or 2, a need to show off.

Who can blame him for being a bit puffed up, though? No other man in the world can climb that wall and catch those guys, but a robot Batman built in a couple hours, in a submarine, with no decent tools, can do it just fine. What a man.

That said, I agree it's one of the all-time great Batman stories and Exhibit A whenever I want to show someone how great Dick Sprang was.

Chris said...

I agree with everything you've said here. I do recall the comment about the gradual decreasing of the pressure inside the submarine cabin, so that would get a pass. You make a good point about the perfectly humanoid shape of the robot, beyond the fact that Batman built the robot in the first place. I guess I've seen too many covers with Batman robots because that didn't even register. I'm also going to factor in the Bat-Ego when doing my reviews from now on because there's so much that it can potentially explain away. "The 10,000 Secrets of Batman" is probably the best at showcasing Dick Sprang's storytelling ability, but for the sheer brilliance of his art, I agree that this one is the perfect choice. After all, the splash page is my favorite piece of Silver Age Batman art.