Batman Banter #3

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“He quickly draws a tough silk rope from his belt and twirls it above his head”

Tough Silk Rope‘Frenchy Blake’s Jewel Gang’ in Detective Comics #28, June 1939; Writer – Bill Finger, Penciller – Bob Kane.

Though Batman wears a prominent yellow belt in his first Detective Comics’ appearance, it isn’t until this quote from his second story that Bill Finger introduces readers to a defining feature of the Bat-Man – his gadgets. Batman needs tools to compensate for his lack of superpowers. He is ‘just a man’, though a hideously over-achieving one at that.

BatgyroIn Batman’s fifth tale in Detective Comics #31 September 1939, the gadget game shifts up a notch. Fox, Finger and Kane introduce the Batgyro and the baterang (nowadays spelt batarang). BaterangThese wonderful items are significant because they are the first examples of Batman branding his gadgets. Over the 75 years to come, Bruce’s devotion to the ‘Bat-Brand’ becomes all-encompassing. It is easy to understand why: the winged shape lends itself to aerodynamic designs – the Batmobile and  the Batwing for instance. Furthermore, the wing tips are perfect for items that need to be sharp, to dig into surfaces such as the bat-shapes he affixes to the ends of ropes and grapples. And because Bruce is a man of business (and style), this branding of all his goodies seems to fit with his personality and background.

The cultural impact of Bat-Brand is huge. Batman and his Justice League friends were made for marketing: the S on Superman’s chest, Wonder Woman’s golden WW – these symbols stick in consumer’s heads. My closet is filled with Batman tees and pyjamas. I even own a Batman dress, though I don’t think Bruce would be too happy with that in his own wardrobe. Furthermore, all the gadgets Bruce uses can be turned into toys for children to buy, albeit safer versions (one would hope).

Bat-Brand and Bat-Gadgets are therefore not only part of Batman’s story but our own. It tells us the history of consumerism. My research task is to find out when the first Batman merchandise was made and marketed. This is another reason why I should like to read whole Golden Age comic books, as the advertisements contained within may reveal the first Batman toys and other merchandise.

Batman Banter #2

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Oh well, nothing else to do, might as well.

Oh WellBruce Wayne reacts to Commissioner Gordon’s invitation to visit a crime scene in Detective Comics #27, May 1939. Bruce Wayne is thus established as a bored playboy with little interest in crime from his very first appearance.

This quote enables us to research some of the literary origins of the Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne follows characters such as The Scarlet Pimpernel, created by Baroness Emma Orczy in 1909. The Pimpernel is a man dedicated to saving French noblemen from the guillotine in revolutionary France. The hero is in fact Sir Percy Blakeney, a British nobleman. Sir Percy maintains the mannerisms of a dim-witted buffoon in order to stop people guessing his true heroic identity.

The Pimpernel is cited as the first instance of a hero with an alter-ego. He certainly spawned many imitators, including Don Diego de la Vega, otherwise known as El Zorro. Zorro was created in 1919 by a pulp writer – Johnston McCulley. This nobleman’s first story, The Curse of Capistrano, was adapted into a 1920 film – The Mark of Zorro. As all Batfans know, it is The Mark of Zorro that the Wayne family go to watch on the night which ends in Thomas and Martha’s murder. Walking Home From movieHowever, it should be noted that this canonical ‘fact’ is a later innovation. In The Batman Wars Against The Dirigible of Doom (Detective Comics #33, November 1939), where the Wayne murder story first appears, no title is given to the movie. Nor is it given a title in Batman #1, Spring 1940 which repeats the story. However, both Bill Finger and Bob Kane cited Zorro as one of their inspirations in Batman.

A much more immediate cultural influence over Batman’s first apperance is The ShadowThe Shadow. The Shadow first appeared in pulps in 1930 and then became serialised on the radio during Batman’s early years. The Shadow had more than one writer, but Walter B. Gibson is most credited with its popularisation. The Shadow adopts various identities, the most famous of which is Lamont Cranston – a wealthy playboy. However, the links between Batman and The Shadow are even more explicit than the use of the millionaire meme. Detective Comics #27 lifted its plot straight from a Shadow story – Partners Of Peril – written by Theodore Tinsley.

So, the rich, bored playboy-round-town has been a much-repeated feature in hero fiction. However, when researching the cultural influences over Batman’s first appearance, it is important to separate what later becomes ‘canon’ from what were the actual references made in the comics. This short research piece shows that, although Kane and Finger subsequently confirmed that Zorro was an influence, The Mark of Zorro is not mentioned in The Batman’s origin. Instead, it is the awesome power of The Shadow that made more of an impression in May 1939.

Batman Banter #1

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“THROUGH THE DARK OF A NEW YORK NIGHT…”

The Batman doesn’t know he’s in Gotham yet!

New York is the home of Batman according to Detective Comics #31, September 1939. New York will remain his home up until Detective Comics Comics #48, when the name of Gotham City is first mentioned.

#31 is co-written by Bill Finger and another famous comics writer – Gardner Fox. Fox made a huge contribution to the comics world, writing some 4,000 stories including The Sandman, The Flash and the Justice Society of America. Fox did not leave DC until 1968.

Detective_Comics_31#31 is famous for this cover featuring The Batman and his story within it – Batman Versus The Vampire – is a two-parter, concluded in #32 with Fox taking sole writing credit.

What ‘Golden Age’ actually means

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Do I need to emphasize to you that I am a fan of the Golden Age? I shouldn’t need to. After all, this office we’ve set up should provide all the proof you need of my devotion. The Golden Age is my age, the era that makes me smile the widest. With its bright colors and even brighter characters, it provides huge entertainment. And no-one has ever punched as hard as The Bat-Man.

So – having said all that, I’m going to turn it all on its head by saying:

The Golden Age is a bit rubbish.

“Woah!” you say, “What is this? What’s The Editor doing to our brain-pans here? I can’t take this confusion, man.”

Let The Editor explain; soothe your aching head. It all has to do with the true meaning of the term ‘Golden Age’, which I shall explain now.

We refer to comics in Ages. The time periods I give here are approximations and you should be aware that people disagree with the detail of exactly when they begin and end. But for our purposes that disagreement doesn’t matter too much. When people refer to the Golden Age they cite the late 1930s to end of the 1940s. The Silver Age covers 1950 to 1970 and then we get the Bronze Age from 1970-1985/6. I’ve even seen people refer to the post-85 age as the ‘Iron Age’ or even ‘The Dark Age’. What is the common theme here? Well, as time goes on, these metallic descriptions decrease in ‘preciousness’. Gold-silver-bronze-iron – the value of the material gets worse as time goes by. So, the non-comic reader would be forgiven for thinking that this means that the quality of the related comics must get worse as time goes by also.

But this is wrong. It is misleading. In fact, I would argue that in our so-called Iron Age of today or the Bronze Age of the mid-80s, the number of quality comics (in terms of story writing and art work) has never been higher. If we review Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One published in 1986 against Detective Comics #27 1939, the idea that there was anything ‘Golden’ about Kane and Finger’s Batman in comparison to Miller’s is a bit of a joke. The 1939 plot is ludicrous – Bruce Wayne just happens to get invited along to crime scenes by Commissioner Gordon, as though graceless socialites such as Wayne got to do those kind of things every day. And if the artist for Batman in 2013 – Greg Capullo –  offered up Bob Kane’s dome-headed lunk to DC editors Dan Didio and Jim Lee, I rather suspect that Mr Capullo would be asked to return to his drawing board to ‘have another go’.

So – the Golden Age overall, in terms of quality of art and writing, sucks. A more fitting description would be the Plastic Age – cheap, mass-produced, throw-away.

So – why do we refer to this age as Golden? Well, there are a host of things that set these eras apart, such as the instigation of the Comics Code, changes in art, subject matter, writers – lots of things. But one of the main features of the Golden Age was the sheer numbers of comics bought in the US. It was superhero boom-time. At a time before mass-access to the TV, comics were the main source of entertainment for children. They were cheap – just 10c – and plentiful. Here’s a few statistics:

  • By 1940, Superman comics were selling 1,250,000 per month.
  • In 1947, DC – or National Publications as it was then known – sold an average of 8,500,000 copies of its comics per month.
  • The best-selling DC line for October 2013 was Batman #24. It sold 124,584 copies, coming second in the comics league table.
  • Overall – the top 300 comics (all titles, all publishers) sold in October 2013 came to 7,760,000 copies.

The overall picture is that we buy far less comics today than we did in the Golden Age. And yet the comics to choose from are greater, the stories more varied, and the art on the pages is outstanding. We are blessed with a host of independent publishers who are raising the bar in terms of comic diversity. Hurrah! But we’re not purchasing as many in terms of comics made and published by people in the US.

Why is this? Certainly, in terms of a percentage of your income, comics are more expensive today. But we, especially children, have far more things to spend our money on. TV socked it to the Golden Age more than other commodity. Kids now had heroes visiting them at home, men and women who moved and came with sound and image, such as The Lone Ranger. Even more deadly to the comic book was animation – the cartoon that had been the feature before movies but now played out across TV sets.

So – the Golden Age is so because it glistened with gold of circulation numbers, of an American youth whose main preoccupation was reading Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel (or Shazam! as he is known today). ‘Golden’ is a fair term to use for my enjoyment of them, but it isn’t fair to the creators of today who work hard, sometimes for no pay at all when they self-publish across the internet. And this gets to me. It makes me sad because there are stories out there that deserve recognition but aren’t getting the numbers.

My final comment is: BUY COMIC BOOKS. Don’t just read people’s reviews or sites such as mine; I’m not writing this blog as a substitute for you spending a few dollars or pounds on this stuff. It is easy to substitute unnecessary expenditure elsewhere to buy comics you like. Such as, I don’t buy fashion magazines anymore – they cost £4.00 a pop and merely seek to tell me that I must be a size zero and six-foot tall in order to enjoy any kind of quality of life. I’m not saying that Wonder Woman’s physique is any less attainable, but at least she punches hard; a talent that I am pretty sure I can aspire to.

Buy comics. Keep comics alive. Let’s recognize the potential of our time. Let us make our age The Platinum Age.

Notes and further reading

I am not the only person to take these Age criteria to task. People who research comic books create their own terms, descriptions and criteria to lend usefulness and some truth to the things they study. A good example of this is to be found in The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture by Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith.

The Lady Begins:

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I am staring at a woman, a very excited woman. She has a flush on her cheeks like she’s just had her first kiss. This wasn’t some quick peck on the lips either. Her hair’s a mess and the bow in her blouse is just the decent-but-sexy side of undone. Yes sir, someone gave her a real good time tonight. Whoever the fellow was damn well shook her up good, dragged her down a peg-or-two. Oh – I can tell her type alright. She’s well bred – has those high cheekbones that make looking down on normal people a cinch, though I’d say she’s a little down on her luck. I can see the sleeves fraying on her gabardine wool suit. I’m guessing she had it made when she was somebody, when she had the cash to pay for tailors who know how to accentuate what is there and hide what isn’t.

Yes sir, there’s some class in her, no doubt about that. But her refinement won’t last long, not if the wild look in her eyes is anything to go by. She’s in for it now. She’s scared, excited, confused; asking questions that I can’t answer right now. And I’m telling her that it’s no good – I don’t understand what happened tonight either. Maybe it’s this city, I say. It’s changing, going crazy. But more likely it’s her that’s the problem. She goes looking for trouble and she always find it. She is trouble – I am trouble: We – the two of us, my reflection and I – are trouble personified.

‘The usual, Lady?’

It is Lou, the barkeep. At least, that’s what I call him. He also answers to Mike, Steve, Sam, Wilmore, Hugo and Crud. That’s the ones I’ve heard in here so far. I tear my eyes away from the mirrored wall behind his wooden counter and say,

‘No Lou. No cloudy lemonade tonight. Give me bourbon. Straight up.’

He looks at me funny. To be fair to Lou, it’s hard for him to do anything else. His left eye kind of does its own thing and his little pencil moustache reminds me of that shouty little German I keep reading about in the Gotham Times.

‘Okey. If you’re sure,’ Lou replies.

‘Oh, I’m always sure Lou. I’m never anything but sure, which is what makes this night so goddamn scary.’

Lou pretends to comprehend my meaning and shuffles off. He’s an age getting me my drink and I know why. He’s gone to call Danny-Boy. Lou wouldn’t dare do that to anyone else in this bar – go call their wife or mother or girlfriend to come and get them when they’re getting scary. That service is reserved for me on account of my femininity. I should be offended by this but I’m not. Truth is, I want to see Daniel because I have something on my mind – a six foot-two, 240 pound-something in fact.

The drink is poured into my glass. The drink is then poured down my neck. It stings ‘like a bitch’ as these guys round here would say. But I wouldn’t say that – I’m too well-brought up for such nastiness. And anyway in my experience it’s never the bitches you have to watch out for. It’s the guys who do all the stinging in this city.

I am trying to think of a male equivalent of bitch when I hear the door open. I turn to see the lolloping stride of my bodyguard and Man-Friday, Daniel ‘Danny-Boy’ Danaher. Whenever Danny walks it always seems to threaten to become a cantor. It’s like he’s part racehorse or something. This analogy would suit if he wasn’t built like a bloody great ox. He’s got a big bull nose from being punched in the face too many times. On his head is a mop of strawberry-blond hair. It doesn’t look real – I tried to tug it off once thinking it was a toupee. His eyes are big and black and moist just like a cow’s, and he is ox-wide and ox-strong. But still, big as my Danny-Boy is, he comes nowhere near the brute I ran into tonight.

‘Lady, are you drinking alcohol? Why, that’s not like you!’

His Irish phrasing (which is a damn fraud as he came over when he was six months old) is not going to placate me this evening. ‘No – no it’s not like me, is it Daniel? But then again, I’m not sure what “like me” is anymore, so let’s not argue about it and instead – Lou! Pour Daniel and I another one, would you, dearest heart?’

Lou pours our drinks, flashing Danny a look which I think translates as ‘take her home bud’. Danny doesn’t listen and instead says –

‘Well, come out with it, woman! What is it that mussed you up so?’

I stare ahead and click my tongue against the roof of my mouth. It feels bone dry and this whisky is doing nothing to wet my whistle, as we say in jolly old England. I speak –

‘It was a vampire.’

‘A what now?’ Daniel says, shifting forward as far as he can on his stool.

‘A vampire, Danny; a Nosferatu; a Prince of Darkness; a Count Dracula, perhaps the Count Dracula – I can’t say for sure.’

Danny puts his hand to his mouth and wipes his fingers down his cheeks. They leave white track marks in the russet-red. ‘Relate to your Danny-Boy exactly what happened now, will ya? Because I think my asking for the conclusion to your night has missed out some of the crucial plot-points, and I’ll be buggered if I’m going to let you get away with offering just that as way of explanation.’

So I tell him my story – me talking, him listening, his eyes screwing up tighter with each sentence:

I’d set off that tonight to carry on with a case that had landed in my office the day before. It was my typical fare – a worried wife, husband leaving the house at all funny hours, not like him, sure he was having an affair, blah-de-blah-de-blah. She was a nice lady though – Mrs Stryker; she wouldn’t take no for an answer when she gave me one hundred bucks up front. So I promised her she’d have the answer by the end of the week. And boy, I sure have made good on that promise.

All I’d made out about Mr Stryker so far was that he was in the chemicals business and that he liked to bawl out little waitresses when they forgot to bring his extra bread roll. Also that he looked like a giant baby – no hair, pudgy and fond of dressing in powder-blue. All-in-all, he didn’t seem like much of a catch, but Mrs Stryker seemed adamant that she wanted him round – ‘I’m sure he’s sneaking out the house at night when I’m asleep,’ she’d said. True enough, sitting in my Packard outside his pretentious little mansion, the creep showed his face outside at one o’clock. I started Abigail’s engine up and set off after him.

Styker didn’t head towards a dancing girl’s apartment. Instead I tailed him to the place he owned – the Apex Chemical Company. I knew something was wrong straightaway – who sneaks out after midnight to go to work? In my short experience so far, Stryker reeked of mob involvement. So, thinking there’d be a bigger case involved and the promise of my rent paid for the next three months, I pulled Abigail into where she wouldn’t be seen and headed round the building to look for a way in.

At the back there was a low, windowless structure with a light shining out of its roof. Being a woman burdened by the curse of never knowing when to quit, I scrambled up a fire exit ladder set into its side and scuttled across its roof. The light came from an open skylight. I peered through it and saw a laboratory much lower down, set into the basement. There was a platform set high up above a huge, coverless tank marked ‘DANGER: ACID’.  To me, it looked like an accident waiting to happen but that didn’t stop me lowering myself from the skylight onto the walkway. I ran down the steps to the lab below, but before I could get out of the lab to spy on Styker, I heard voices coming my way so I scrambled to hide. And that’s when it really got interesting.

A doughy-looking guy called Jennings came in, rough-housing some poor dolt in an orange suit called Rogers. Rogers was in trouble, big trouble – the kind that ends up with your entrails being served up as next day’s hot dogs. Jennings dragged Rogers across the floor to a gas chamber set up at the far end of the room. My head was racing and my heart was jumping out of my chest. I had to think fast. How was I going to save him?

I soon got the answer to my question – a six foot-two answer, colored black and gray from head to toe. It swooped down from the same skylight I’d dropped in by, as though hanging over my head like a goddamn ghoul was written into its constitutional rights. It stretched out its arms and I saw it had enormous wings attached. I swear that it swallowed up the whole night. I couldn’t really take in what I was seeing, but it looked like a giant bat, with pointy ears set down low on its bald-domed head and blank-white slits for eyes. It was only when I watched it straddle Jennings and smash his stupid-goon face left-right, left-right with actual blue-gloved fists that I realized the thing was half-man, half-bat. A Bat-man, so to speak.

By the time Jennings resembled a road accident, my friend Stryker turned up all mock-horrified at what had happened. I didn’t fall for that and neither did The Bat-Man. The Bat kept out of sight until Stryker revealed his true colors by attempting to force Rogers into having an acid bath. The Bat-Man leapt out and knocked the knife straight out of Stryker’s pudgy fingers. He started to speak in a voice that could knock the marrow clean out your bones. Turned out that not only could The Bat talk, but he was a clever Bat too – he had the case all figured out. Stryker had murdered two former business partners and Rogers was next. All this so that Stryker wouldn’t have to pay any money to be sole owner of his company, lousy cheapskate.

So, there I was, on my belly under a table, trying not to be seen and also trying not feel bad because a vampire pipped me to my own case when things got really stupid and really nasty. Anyone with half a brain could have seen that The Bat-Man wasn’t to be messed with, but still Stryker had to give it a go. The baby-man struggled free, reached for a gun, aimed, and just as his fat fingers pulled the trigger, got punched square in the kisser by The Bat. The supernatural force of this blow coupled with the gun shot sent Stryker stumbling back, right over the sides of the platform, and he tumbled into the vat of acid, screaming.

 

I pause in my storytelling now. Danny’s hand hasn’t left his face the whole way through. I think he’s held onto it just in case his jaw fell off.

‘And that’s not even the worst part’, I say.

‘Lord forgive us – there’s worse part to come?’ Danny mutters.

‘The worst part is that I enjoyed it, Daniel. I loved every last murderous minute of it. When The Bat-Man punched I punched along with him. When he flew through the air I wanted to go along for the ride. And when he let a man die, I did nothing to stop it. Instead, I savored the entertainment right from The Bat-Man grabbing the knife down to breathing in the fumes from Stryker’s burning body. And it was lovely. Tonight, The Bat-Man taught me that terror is beautiful.’

I knock back what was left in my glass. No matter how much I drink, I can still taste chemicals.

‘Did he say anything else?’ asks Danny quietly.

‘Who?’ I replied.

‘The Bat-Man. Did he say anything more?’

I stare into the mirror opposite. I am back to staring at a monster – a woman with bats for eyes and ball of violence for a heart. Something has happened to me tonight, to Gotham, to the whole world. Nothing is ever going to be the same again. Oh – the Bat-Man had said something more, alright. He had uttered a vengeful, remorseless spell that is going to bewitch the whole world. I can sense it.

So, I turn to Danny and repeat his spell, word-for-word:

‘The Bat-Man said, “A fitting ending for his kind.”’

 

Now read “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” from Detective Comics #27, May 1939. Writer: Bill Finger. Pencils and inks: Bob Kane.