Sunday, August 12, 2012

[Comics]: Batman #8, "The Cross Country Crimes"

Publication date: December/January, 1941
Author: Bob Kane

Oh, this should be good.

As our story opens, Bruce and Dick hear a presumably city-wide radio transmission summoning Batman and Robin to Washington DC, on behalf of the head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover "G. Henry Mover", and the President (who, in 1941, was FDR). They both wish to thank our dynamic duo for their crime-fighting. It's obviously a trap, but Batman is weirdly patriotic for a vengeful vigilante who used to be hunted by the police. "Those are orders from Washington!" he exclaims. "Wow!" says Robin, in a reaction I actually find kind of adorable. Punching criminals and using a shoe phone is exciting, but kids (especially pre-Vietnam) are taught to respect and be impressed by the government--it hits a whole different place in their impressionable little brains.

So it's off to DC!

That falling banner is not regulation ticker-tape size.

This is a very fascinating story to be taking place when it does. This is the 1941 Dec/Jan issue of Batman, for those of you who skip past the headers (I know I do). There was almost certainly enough lead time in the production of the comic that it arrived on newsstands around the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, but was written before. I suspect that as we continue into 1942, we're going to start seeing a wartime Batman. For now, though, to see the Dark Knight in a ticker-tape parade with G. Henry, hailed as a national hero... it's more than a little strange. But that's a boy's adventure story for you.

In another issue, perhaps just next month, Batman and Robin would be summoned to DC under the public pretext of the parade and given a secret mission, fighting Nazis or uncovering spies or recovering those blackmail photos of FDR having a jog. But this is peacetime, and only one man qualifies as a national nightmare:

Note: Joker is standing on the panel border.

Joker did indeed miss Batman--but he hit Mover, head of the FBI, wounding him terribly. Immediately people are calling for Joker's head, and--well, I'll let this extraordinary page take it away:

Phenomenal.

Look at that page! The Joker stands astride the national police apparatus in sheer triumph and joy at mobilizing so many forces against him, like a boy who's just poured water on an anthill. And not to get bogged down in analysis, but here you have all levels of contemporary law enforcement efforts--the time-honored wanted poster, the radio-car coordination, and the interstate information sharing through the national telecommunications infrastructure--and of course The Batman in his fast, sleek, and very well-drawn Batmobile. Can a man as odd and brazen as the Joker last long against the machinations of the national police apparatus and a determined Batman?

Days later, Batman and Robin, who have apparently been driving around aimlessly hoping to stumble onto a clue, catches a major break in the case when the Joker hands them a clue. He breaks into a small radio station nearby to lure Batman in with his gloating. (Which, by the way, amusingly never mentions Robin.)

"How could he be gone? I was expecting him to just turn himself in!"

The "clue" is a Joker playing card with a state drawn on it and the words "New Jersey". Using his world-famous powers of deduction, Batman is able to determine that it means Joker's headed for New Jersey. Raise your hand if you don't see how he got there, I can explain further.

MEANWHILE or well I guess a little later, technically

"It's a good thing I decided to eavesdrop here, because up until now I had absolutely no plan and no reason to be in New Jersey."

In yet another coincidence, Batman and Robin find themselves in the same small town on the same night and decide to take in the same exact play to distract themselves from all the strenuous not-even-hunting-a-little-bit that they've been so busy with lately. In a twist that this comic has done at least six times already, somebody in the play isn't really acting!!!! oh noes

...so is the hat, like, part of the mask or something? Is it half a hat?

Robin, on the other hand, is blown the fuck away:

"Look? I was already watching the play, twerp."

Oh no! He's stealing jewelry! Also he SHOT the director of the FBI, remember that? You were right there!

The subsequent confrontation is a bunch of silliness. Rather than machine-gun Batman and Robin, the Joker goes for the much more difficult maneuver of shooting their swinging ropes, which sends Batman and Robin into the fetal position:

It's a somer-assault!

Sorry, that was terrible. Here, have some BONK:

BONK!

Joker takes Robin hostage so he can exit, stage left:

"Yeah, thanks for the advice. I never would have thought of that. Did you come up with that from your extensive experience playing the base guitar?"

Joker shoves Robin into Batman and makes his escape:

Even Batman knows that's a terrible comeback, which is why he didn't say it out loud.

Luckily he drops a clue!

Whatever could it mean?!

Later, in Ohio, Joker meets up with a couple of thieves he used to know; they've got a target in mind, and Joker's the man with the plan. The target: a bus to a jeweler's convention, guarded by cops, but containing a million dollars worth of jewelry. (I think they may be exaggerating, though, as that's about 14.5 million in today's dollars...)

"I don't always smoke cigars..."

"...but when I do, I prefer cigars laced with Joker brand nerve toxin. Stay smiling, my friends."

More ridiculousness is in the offing. How do you take down a bus? Run it off the road with a truck? Use automatic weaponry?

"I'll get you this time, Roadrunner!"

Hilariously, the conversation on the bus right now is about how, at night, bus drivers just follow the white line, paying no attention to obstacles, other cars, cliffs, etc. Really! Also the driver was probably texting or something. You know how dangerous that is.

That's not really a joke, but who's going to tell him that? Not me.

Also, if I were the Joker, I would also be surprised and annoyed that Batman was able to narrow my location down from "Ohio" to "this exact highway at this exact time". And I would also Joker gas Robin in the face, but that's just because I'm a bad person.

BONK--wait. Uh... HISS? I don't really have a "poison gas" sound. I'll come back to this.

That's twice now Joker's refused to kill Robin when he had the chance. Obviously the writer's hands were tied--you can't exactly sell this to a kid if they murder Robin in cold blood--but it does seem strange. I think eventually the solution to this is the whole "I don't want to kill you, you complete me" thing. But for now we haven't really established that.

Anyway, Batman and the Joker have a pretty boring fight on a mountain monorail car (that they pretty much just teleported to between panels). Joker escapes again easily, and drops another clue. This time he's going to Kansas! Yawn.

What do you think is on Batman's road trip mixtape? "I Am the Night"? Smooth jazz? Or just this on endless repeat?

So it's become clear that this story is pretty terrible. It's another one of those Joker episodic stories they've done before and which I can't be bothered to link to right now. I much prefer the ones where he plots and executes a complicated Xanatos Gambit, or even just holds the city in the grip of terror. Against a national backdrop, the Joker's crimes seem petty--stealing jewels, crashing buses--and although we've gotten a few lovely haunting panels like the one above, we're really missing the sense of anger and frustration that should be driving Batman's quest toward a more personalized vendetta against the arch-nemesis who just won't die. It doesn't help that Batman's mostly just been driving around, waiting for Joker or the radio to tell him where to go next. Speaking of which:

I'm not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your grammar work there, Narrator.

Unfortunately, all Batman and Robin find there is an electrified Joker dummy, which, although painful, will make a splendidly baroque addition to the decorations in the Batcave. Oh, and the last clue, Delaware.

Must there, Batman? Maybe Joker's just a dick.

Luckily Batman is able to figure out the puzzle, using SCIENCE! Allow me to demonstrate:

New Jersey
        Ohio
        Kansas
      dEleware
        Rhode Island

An acrostic? You may have murdered people before, Joker, but now you've gone too far.

Also, the writer clearly came up with this plot point before realizing that there are no US states that start with J or E, and just had to fudge it.

To make things worse, Batman gets Joker with Joker's own stupid trick (remember "Rekoj"?):

"WHAT! You aren't housekeeping!"

It's actually pretty sad that the Joker didn't see through this, especially given that Batman's idea of laying a trap was to put an ad in the paper saying "I, Namtab, will be at this hotel on this date with a big ass diamond, come and steal it from me". You know, like people normally do when traveling. Something something Joker's arrogance? I dunno, I'm rapidly losing interest.

BONK! Ahaha! All is forgiven.

I have no idea how they got up there, and neither does the narrator. But the art is pretty.

From there, Joker leaps onto the roof of a passing car, with Batman close behind. One cross-traffic tackle and it's all over.

Ivory skin, long limbs, graceful movements--as the combat raged, they knew him as one of their own. This night, the Goose Lord would feed.

I don't actually know why they're honking. "Look Batman! You're punching the Joker!" Either that or these guys are blocking traffic, which, come on, it's Rhode Island. Wait ten minutes and you'll be in the next state anyway.

Anyway, Batman sends Joker to Alcatraz, dragging him all the way there by the scruff of his neck like a kitten that's done wrong. Joker is completely unfazed. "There's no jail made that can hold The Joker!" Sheesh, if he's going to be in stories this boring, let him stay there.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

[Comics]: Batman #8, "The Superstition Murders"

Publication date: December/January 1941
Author: Bob Kane

We've explored many facets of Batman so far; but have we touched on the Dawkins side of Batman, the skeptical man of science who laughs in the face of the supernatural? Given how many times he's fought giant monsters, werewolves, and dragons, however, maybe it makes sense that Batman hasn't yet formed more sense than the Scooby Gang. Let's see if these "Superstition Murders" can invoke comicdom's most famous, richest scientist.

(Hopefully this is good--the opening crawl says the story will show "how the Batman and Robin were forced to call upon the last ounce of their strength and reasoning powers to unravel the mystery", and if I know my Batman opening crawls, there's no way they would exaggerate something like that!)

We open with a bizarre and tragic scene:

"Actually... it's... your grammar... that's killing me... uggghhh..."

What purple-suited voodoo master could this be? And why is he or she killing Commissioner Gordon? And where is Batman when you need him?

"Yes sir, that was the best rehearsal! Why, it almost looked real! Great work, Jim. ...Jim?"

A classic fake-out (they lied to us through narration!), to be sure. Even 70 years ago it was probably pretty hoary. But it's the panel compositions that interest me--the cut from a close-framed two-shot (which only shows us what's happening on-stage) to the wide shot that gives us visual and narrative context is striking, particularly in the way it minimizes the playwright and producer in the bottom corner. There might well be a thematic statement there--look at the big picture, and you'll see that this comic's larger than life conflicts are simply artifice. Or as Shakespeare said it:

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players: 
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts... 

Our resident man of many parts, Bruce Wayne, is invited to a party promoting the upcoming play. As the play apparently deals with superstition, the party is themed around breaking them. But first, introductions! We're back in Agatha Christie's domain, where a social function at the beginning of the story serves to introduce key players and, more importantly, the lines of conflict between them. When murder strikes, it is along these lines that a supposedly tight-knit group will break--except for one conflict, which shall motivate the killing. Play along at home! Our cast tonight:

Jack Lemmon as "The Producer"

The Producer, who is appronymically (it's a word, shut up) called Banks, greets Bruce and introduces him to the lead actor (playing the villain, and, by the by, providing the capital):

Clark Gable as "The Actor"

On lead actor Fred Brooks' arm (much to Banks' dismay) is the leading lady:

introducing Blurry Dots as "The Ingenue"

AKA Miss Francine, who despite working in an image-centric field is wearing a green dress against a green background. More intelligent is Johnny Glim, who wears bright colors but stands only in front of the darkest shadows:

with Owen Wilson as "The Playwright"

Glim, like most writers, appears rather desperate for recognition, validation, and a refill on his drink.

As the party gets underway we meet our final two guests:

"Ha! Ha! Go fuck yourself, Bruce."

Obviously they are Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker as the photographer, here to document all the superstition breaking, and Elisha Cook, Jr., as the old man here to warn you damn fool teenagers what'll happen if you don't stop poking that giant ant with your newfangled electronics you gonna get et I tell you what

The full list of party gags:

-Fred walks under a ladder
-Glim lights three cigarettes on one match
-The photographer decides to break a mirror:

"I'll take Things That Sound Even Creepier in a Southern Accent for $400, Alex."

-A random black cat wanders in from outside (seriously) and crosses Miss Francine's path
-Banks opens an umbrella indoors (which Bruce doesn't like, for obvious reasons)

The narration informs us that "Later--as the party grows wilder, a game of Yahtzee breaks out!" No, actually, there's a scream. Fred is dead! Killed by a ladder! The very same ladder that he walked under! The very same ladder-walking-under that the old man warned about! The very same old man who--hold on, I think we hit peak revelation about four or five breathless statements ago. The point is, Fred's dead, baby. Fred's dead.

The police are called, and the death is declared an accident; but several people are more suspicious, including the cranky old man, Bruce, and the photographer, who develops his pictures and finds evidence that Fred was poisoned. Because he (the photographer) is an unethical dickbag (a bag in which one carries dicks), he attempts to use this photo (physical evidence of a crime) to blackmail the killer (via the totally safe process of meeting him in a darkened room and saying, "Here is my evidence, would you like to buy it--for a price?"). "Blackmail!", a tiny little narration box helpfully overexplains.

MEANWHILE

"Normally that's a job for a janitor, but it's kind of a slow night."

Batman finds Fred's glass outside on the ground, and finds that it smells like burnt almonds--prussic acid, or as you or I would say, cyanide. One question remains, however--how did the ladder get the poison into Fred's drink?! While Batman is pondering this, he gets tackled from behind.

Batman can defeat anyone, given time to prepare. But he also needs to be standing up.

The masked man (who, if the colorist can be trusted, is obviously the only man we've seen wearing a green suit, Johnny Glim) takes the glass from Batman and runs off into the night. Batman is about to give chase, but is distracted by yet another mysterious figure, this time in a brown suit. This time it is the Batman who does the tackling! Take that, you... who are you again?

Recalling his life-long dream of being an actor, Batman gets a little too helpful. "So you're saying you don't like this guy, right? Want me to snap his neck for you? I can do it, too. One hand. Want to see?"

(Paul Mett is the post-retirement stage name of Peter O'Toole. It's not working out for him.)

Batman pulls the old "whoever has the missing evidence on their person is clearly the killer! Turn out your pockets, bitches!" trick, straight from every chamber-room mystery ever. It's useful because it's egalitarian, with the detective's inherent biases toward or away from a particular suspect replaced by cold, hard logic. Unless you do what Batman does here and say, "And I'm starting my search with Mett, here!" Objecting to being singled-out, as well he should, Mett pulls a gun, as well he shouldn't. Glim tackles the out of work actor, and Batman goes through his pockets for loose change--I mean, evidence.

"Thanks for that cold reminder of our mortality, Captain Pretentious."

The police show up, only to explain to Batman that they just let Mett out of "the hoosegow" (best word for prison EVER), where he was being kept for drunkenness. Considering he just pulled a gun on Batman, they probably should have given the man a little longer to sober up.

At any rate, the rest of them are searched, and no glass shows up, which is unsurprising, as the killer either ran off, or, more likely, dropped the glass in a nearby bush when everybody was looking at Mett. My pet theory is still that Glim did it. Look at him, staring with narrowed eyes at Batman. Those are the perfect golden curls of a killer.

Batman's next theory, now that the evidence is gone, is motive. He points the finger at Banks, but the path to confession is sticky and slow; not only does Banks not crack under the pressure of Batman's oddly soft questioning ("It seems to me that you are the one to profit most by his--er--death"), but the producer falls back on an old chestnut, the one that goes, "I have nothing against murder per se, but if I had committed the crime, don't you think I would have done so a bit more cleverly?" It's like a HumbleBrag, only with the false humility replaced by a real admission of immorality. (It also ignores that "secretly poison a man, then make sure a ladder falls on him" is already pretty clever.) Only one tack of investigation remains. Take it away, Mr. Cook!

"He called us ignorant! What a rude old man you are!"

Dammit! Still no evidence of how Batman feels about superstitions. I keep waiting for him to punch the old guy right in his dumb old face, and it keeps not happening. Ah well. At any rate, with no evidence and no good suspects, Batman is forced to fall back on his other line of investigation, make Robin do random things and hope one of them sticks.

"You'll have to work fast to prevent more murders!"
"No, you will. I'm going clubbing. Don't wait up."

As Robin gets to the photographer's house, he hears voices inside arguing. It seems the photographer handed over the photo, but not the negative. Come on, man. That's like, blackmail 101. Anyway, the situation resolves itself about how you'd expect:

These are really the worst dramatic crime scenes ever. First a ladder, now a mirror? John Doe would be ashamed.

Before Robin can do more than remark on the dramatic irony of it all, he's attacked by the masked figure in the green suit, who is so totally Glim, I am still calling that. During the fight Robin exclaims, "Big strong man wouldn't kill a little boy--or would he?" Kid, if you're relying on criminals having a sense of fair play to save you, you're just asking for this to happen to you:

BONK

This entire fight is made of child-abuse hilarity, what with the killer throwing steel pitchforks at the tyke, threatening to tear him apart... and then there's this:

Nothing I could say here could possibly make this funnier.

"How did he get away again?"
"He... uh... had super-strength. There was no stopping him."
"Uh-huh. So why do you smell like corn?"
"Oh hey, look, a clue! That I found!"

The clue doesn't mean anything yet, but it gives Batman a chance to run down the list of suspects again. According to him, the killer is:

-definitely not Glim, who saved Batman's life by tackling Mett
-Maybe that old man who keeps yelling about superstitions, might be something there
-Still probably Banks, who has the most to gain

Obviously I don't know who the killer is yet, but I'm guessing it's not Banks, which means Batman's deduction skills have to suffer in order to keep the mystery going for us readers. Not really an elegant solution.

And they say the death of journalism is a bad thing.

Things that are weird about this story, an exhaustive list:

1) people care what the old dude thinks
2) for some reason, their theater is also a barn, what the hell

Anyway, our heroes' next step is to bring Banks up for questioning on the basis of absolutely nothing. Banks holds up remarkably well, even though he's being bad-cop/worse-cop'd by Batman and the friggin' Police Commissioner:

"How do you know it's not a triple-bluff, and I'm only pretending to be the killer pretending to be innocent by pretending to be the killer? Or did I just BLOW YOUR MIND???"

The killer has removed all the evidence, which leaves Batman spiraling in an epistemological nosedive. How does Batman know that Batman's not the real killer? Can anything truly be known or not known? Can the number of licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop be determined without destroying the universe?

Well, as long as there's nothing to be done, might as well go see the play. After all, the show must go on...

Ah, don't worry, Bruce is just saying that because he knows that, as Batman, he'll put to stop to any violence long before--

Well, shit.

I had to skip over a couple things for that joke. The first is, you can really tell the killer cares more about the theme than the murders, because the way he kills her is:

1. Dip a prop cat's claws in poison
2. Let Francine take the prop cat and act with it, as usual
3. Shoot a blow-dart at the cat from off-stage
4. The surprised cat claws at Francine
5. Francine is poisoned and dies

and not

1. Dip the blow-dart in poison
2. Shoot a blow-dart at Francine
3. Francine is poisoned and dies

It's not like anybody believes the superstitions are actually killing people. The killer is obviously--well, that's the other thing. I don't know who to point the finger at anymore--or who is who--because the colorist picked this scene as the place to fuck me.

In the three panels showing the cast and crew arriving at the theater (I posted one of them above), we see three figures in green suits. Take a look at them side-by-side here:


The left looks like the old stagehand; the middle like some thug we've never seen before; and the right-hand picture looks like Glim, only his blonde hair is white. Either Glim is a shape-shifting alien, the artist decided to give us three green-suited suspects at the last minute, or the colorist is deliberately trying to make me cry.

At any rate, the new murder has everybody backstage in a tizzy, including Gordon, who starts throwing accusations left and right, only to be shot down by silly little things like logic and lack of evidence. Meanwhile, Bruce tips his hand by going for the laziest bait-and-sting operation ever:

WHY IS YOUR HAIR WHITE okay, okay, I got it, he dyed it off-panel for no good reason. That's canon now. It's okay, guys, I fixed it. It makes sense. Shut up it DOES if I SAY it does

Bruce wanders around backstage later that night, only to have the masked figure try to kill him with a big metal thing that's suspended over the stage because, pick your favorite answer:

-they can't afford real sandbags
-they don't know what a sandbag is
-the director wanted a way to tell auditioning actors they didn't get the part (*nods at the stagehand* "Looks like we're moving in a different--" SPLAT "--direction. NEXT!")

The masked figure is using this because, I guess he ran out of superstitions or something? What else is he going to do, kill Wayne by throwing a poison pinch of salt over the man's shoulder?

So Robin tackles Bruce out of the way, stopping to do a little of their vaudeville patter to pretend they don't know each other ("You saved my life! Don't run away!" "I'll have to chat another day!") before he chases after the killer. His fighting skills may have improved but his quips ("And here are some knuckles I don't need at the moment!") have not. Then Batman shows up, and the comic mercifully cuts to the chase by cutting out the chase and going directly to this:

Oh, Batman. People who live in vermin-houses shouldn't throw... damn, I think I screwed up the metaphor. The point is, Batman, you have missed every single opportunity in this story to make theater puns. For shame.

Anyway, after a tense but bizarre battle of implements (hot poker versus shovel), Batman just fucking punches him and pulls off the mask. Did I win?!

Yes. I win.

And now, whilst Batman and Glim reveal all the details we already knew (he wanted to shut down the play, he saved Batman to keep himself above suspicion, etc), let us reflect on how terrible this particular story was. It failed from a costume standpoint (what kind of villain wears his normal clothes, plus a mask?), an action standpoint, a dramatic standpoint (no social drama at all!), a thematic standpoint, a mystery standpoint...

I can't even really blame the colorist on that last one (why should I, Glim dyed his hair yellow again after the play but before coming back for Wayne, OF COURSE HE DID SHUT UP), since the mystery hinged on the details of Glim's contract, none of which we knew (or even knew that Batman knew). It's a poor mystery that the reader can't solve merely because key information has been withheld from them.

Hell, we didn't even get any good murders. Take us home, denouement panel.

Theater wordplay? Too little, too late, Batman.

Sorry I'm coming back from hiatus with such a terrible story. Still, we'll always have the memories:

bwahahaha

Ah, good times. Good times.