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The Batman Archives, Vol. 1 (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of The Dark Knight Rises, July is “Batman month” here at the m0vie blog. Check back daily for comics, movies and television reviews and discussion of the Caped Crusader.

This is where it all began. The Batman Archives collect the stories originally published in the Detective Comics anthology series that introduced the Caped Crusader to the world. It’s interesting to look back at these initial adventures featuring the character, as you see artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger really figuring out how the character and his world should work. Although there’s quite a lot of generic plotting, and some bizarre Golden Age craziness, it’s fun to watch the creators establish the elements that would define the character and the world he inhabits. From the sleazy corruption of Gotham City to the supervillains to the Boy Wonder himself, these stories provide an interesting template for the evolution of the Dark Knight.

Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na…

To be fair, this collection doesn’t include every Batman story in chronological order. Indeed, as one might expect for a character as iconic and marketable as Batman, there are a whole range of DC “Archive” Editions collecting early stories with the character. The Batman Archives collect Detective Comics, the first series to feature the character and one of his two flagship books. The Dark Knight Archives, confusingly, feature his early adventures in Batman, the book launched slightly later as a quarterly title for the hero. Disregarding his appearances in team-up books, the character also has his own World’s Finest series and a later Silver Age Dynamic Duo line.

So that’s a lot of Batman related books in the “Archive” publishing line – perhaps reflecting the fact that he is at least as iconic as Superman, who anchors a similar volume of “Archive” collections. There are the softcover “Chronicle” collections that aim to collect every Batman appearance in order, but the “Archive” editions confine themselves to one book at a time. So, for example, Commissioner Gordon, Robin and Hugo Strange all first appear in The Batman Archives, while the Joker and Catwoman first appear in The Dark Knight Archives, and the Scarecrow first raises his head in The Batman in World’s Finest Archives.

Winging it at this point…

However, these are the very earliest of the stories featuring Batman. It’s interesting to see what elements were there from the beginning, and what changed. For example, Commissioner Gordon appears in the very first story. However, Batman himself doesn’t get an origin for about six issues. He’s literally just a rich guy dressing up as a bat to fight crime because… well, because he’s wealthy enough to do whatever the heck he wants.

In many ways, these early stories revel in social class. Bruce is introduced chatting casually with Commissioner Gordon, and it’s suggested that Wayne is able to do what he does purely because of his social status – he gets to hang out with Gordon and accompany him to crime scenes because he’s just that rich. Gordon gets a report of a murder while hanging out with Bruce, and tells his friend, “I’m going there now. Like to come along?” Bruce responds, “Oh well, nothing else to do, might as well.”

An acid test for Batman’s morality…

Bruce is repeatedly shown to have absolutely no respect for authority, in marked contrast to the later decision to cast him as a deputised law man. In one early tale, he’s shown oiling a police investigation. He deliberately interferes with an investigation into a gang of thieves, deflecting attention away from the criminals themselves. The leader boasts, “One good thing though, the cops think the ‘Bat-man’ is in on it. Now that means they’ll be watching for him and that leaves us free to continue our work.” This isn’t a coincidence or an inadvertent side-effect. This was Bruce’s plan all along. “This is why the ‘Bat-man’ wanted to be connected with the robberies.”

Early on, Batman seems like a bit of a masked menace who cares little about the implications of his own actions, only interested in his own amusement. (At one point, he even boasts, “I think the Batman will take a hand in this game!”) There’s a considerable amount of ego involved in these stories, which makes his indifference to human life all the more alarming. He’s not doing this for any reason (as his origin would not be established for months), but because he wantsto.

Batman flips out…

Later on, he elects to satisfy his own ego rather than cooperating with the authorities as he tackles Hugo Strange. He brags, arrogantly, “The FBI is not going to get this book till I clear the Batman’s name of suspicion of the murder of the G-man and solve the mystery of the ‘fog’!” Such characterisation is not uncommon for Golden Age heroes, who had a tendency to be a bit… rough around the edges. One adventure features Batman running from the police at a murder scene as he thinks, “Too bad Robin isn’t here! He’d enjoy this!”

These early Detective Comics stories are all pretty much focused on the upper class. It’s interesting to contrast them against the more working-class troubles that were being handled by Superman in Action Comics. Bruce’s very first case is investigating a killing of a rich man at his lavish estate. “Old Lambert has been murdered at his mansion.” The villain is very much a white-collar criminal looking to usurp control of the business, “Soon I’ll control everything!”

Cop on to yourself…

Later cases include an enquiry into the case of “two millionaires kidnapped.” When Batman and Robin investigate a case involving children, they don’t deal with any kids in orphanages, or on the streets, or even in public eduction. Instead, their investigations take them to Blake’s Private School for Boys. (I am choosing to interpret the name “John Blake” in The Dark Knight Rises as a shout-out to that early story.)

In one story that especially focuses on the idea of class – with a pretty standard “money can’t buy you love” moral – Mrs. Midas refuses to allow her daughter to marry below her social station. “I will not have my daughter going out with a mere clerk in her father’s bank!” she declares. “Your father will hear of this! After all, you must think of your social position, my dear!” (Ms. Midas’ daughter, Diane, winds up marrying “a defunct European Count”instead, at her parents’ insistence.)

Bat-pile!

I think that it’s fair to argue that Batman – as much as he was anchored in American pulp heroes like the Shadow – was  a very European kind of superhero. While I am not a huge fan of Kane’s art style or storytelling, the artist and his studio had a fantastic gift for atmosphere, giving these stories a rich, pulpy feel evoking noir cinema. (The look had, after all, been inspired by The Bat Whispers and the series owed a debt to German expressionism.) Shadows played a large role in the visual feel of Kane’s pulpy hero, and it wasn’t uncommon for the heroes to venture out into “a thick fog such as one would find only in England.”

Many of Bruce’s early adventures see the millionaire gallivanting abroad, visiting Paris or other exotic locales to confront the supervillain of the issue. Early on, Kane and Finger even pit the Caped Crusader against a vampire, in one of the more exciting of these early stories. Wrecking the schemes of the very American gangster Boss Zucco, Batman even inserts a bit of continental flare into his farewells – “au revoir!” and “adieu!”within pages of one another.

Oh, snap!

There’s a decidedly gothic and European feel to the stories, even the ones consciously told within an American setting. It’s hard to get more American than a movie studio in the forties, but Batman only visits the set to get caught up in the decidedly gothic horror that the studio is remaking – named “Dreadcastle” and providing Batman with an excuse to chase Boris Karlo through an atmospheric castle. The set itself and the film are almost immaterial, save to provide a motivation for the villain – the key thing seems to be allowing Batman to run around a decidedly European backdrop. Another adventure sees Robin dreaming of a non-copyright-infringing take on Gulliver’s Travels. Here there be giants!

While Batman did tangle with gangsters and did have adventures within the very American cityscape, it does feel like Kane and Finger were very eager to get Batman outside of that framework. While Superman was a hero for twentieth century America, a champion of the working class in the streets of the major cities, Batman felt like something else. One adventure opens, “The Batman, having lost his way on a lonely by-road, stops before a lone house to ask directions.”This does conjure the image of Bruce Wayne just driving around the state in his Batman outfit, looking for trouble. Of course, it’s just set-up to allow Batman to have an adventure in the woods, but it doesn’t stand out quite as far as it should.

A little on the nose, eh?

There’s even a decidedly colonial bent to some of the hero’s adventures, including one story featuring the ruby sculpture of “the ancient Hindu-Idol Kila”, with newspaper headlines like “Noted explorer is murdered by Hindus.” There’s a hint of the infamous “yellow peril” to be felt in these pages as Bruce faces a Chinese villain named “Sin Fang.” (Who is ultimately revealed to be a white guy in disguise.)

In another famous example, the character was introduced carrying a gun (with the holster prominently displayed on some covers) and somewhat indifferent to the loss of human life – two key aspects that would radically change in the months and years to follow. In the very first story, we watch Bruce as he “sends the burly criminal flying through space”, with subsequent panels indicating the “space” is synonymous with “off the roof.” In an oft-quoted example, a thug is killed in a confrontation, prompting Batman to boast, “A fitting end for his kind.”

“They should call him Bruce Vain!”

In fact, early on, Bruce almost seems sorry that he hasn’t killed Dr. Death yet. Snapping the neck of the latest henchman, Bruce laments, “First Jabah, now you… and yet Doctor Death lives on!” Robin even gets in on the act early on during his first adventure, “kicking the gunman off the girder into space!” Robin, the Boy Murderer! They were truly different times, I suppose.

This is a very early iteration of Batman, one rough around the edges. He warns a crook dangling from a window, “Keep quiet and listen- I want a complete written confession from you about those jewel robberies, or else I’ll cut this rope.” I don’t think he was messing around. Later on, a bunch of goons refuse to betray their employer to Batman. “He’d kill us!” they protest. Batman responds, “Tell me! Or I’ll kill you!”They tell him. At another point, admittedly slightly less sinister, he swaps places with a goon and lets the villain Kruger disintegrate and kill another man.

Bruce’s early Batarang prototypes didn’t quite catch on…

Of course, this early version of Batman was the very definition of hardcore. He would mess you up if you got in his way. He was fond of sending “messages” to crooks. At one point, he sends Zucco a box containing a bat. Later on, sensing that live flying rodents aren’t getting his point across, he throws a dead bat through a window. “The sign of the Batman!” a thug observes. Well, either that or The Flash has really changed his M.O.

Early stories seem preoccupied with Batman as a force for “vengeance.” Indeed, it’s a little hard to argue that he’s really that much of a hero. He’s not killing the Mad Monk to make the world safer, but because the Monk crossed him. Later on with the Duc, we’re warned that, “A vengeful Batman seeks retribution…” It feels like the character has a long way to evolve before becoming the icon that we’d know and love.

His Batmobile also scores a “must try harder”…

Although, admittedly, Batman’s more anti-heroic characteristics would be somewhat tempered over the course of the collection. The story goes that parents worried about their kids following this sociopath with a bat fetish, for Bruce grows considerably gentler over the course of the stories here. At one point, he even stops to warn kids away from gambling. “Robin doesn’t. So why should you?” However, there’s never any moment quite as significant as his comments about guns in Batman #4. The changes are more subtle.

That said, Bruce was already facing what a later foe would term “a better class of criminal.” While never really dealt with, Kane and Finger suggest that Gotham is a corrupt city, albeit perhaps not to the same degree it would later become. When Dick Grayson vows to go to the cops about the murder of his parents, Bruce warns him off. “This whole town is run by Boss Zucco.”That doesn’t explain why Robin doesn’t go after Bruce has toppled Zucco.

On the prowl… for vengeance… er, I mean justice!

He is already facing supervillains. Dr. Death is the first recurring foe to appear, very much in the style of a gothic movie monster. He employs two separate and distinctly foreign individuals as servants – “Jabah” and “the Cossack Mikhail.” He resides in a gothic mansion and is brutally disfigured after his first encounter with Bruce. As far as supervillains go, he’s not one of the more memorable of Bruce’s foes – explaining why he hasn’t endured as well as other Golden Age baddies like the Joker or the Catwoman. Poisons are his gimmick, lending him a sort of a gothic and mystical, almost apothecarian, air.

Hugo Strange is an upgrade from Doctor Death – presented as something of an all-round master criminal, he’s apparently a “scientist, philosopher and a criminal genius.” We’re assured that he’s “undoubtedly the greatest organiser of crime in the world.” He would pop up a few times in the Golden Age, before apparently falling to his death here. (Steve Engelhart and Marshall Rogers would later revive him for their own Detective Comics run.) Although it is interesting that his “final” appearance here sees the bad guy using fear gas, a plot device that would become more tightly associated with a certain other Batman villain.

“Ha, take that, Spider-Man!”

Another interesting presence in these early stories is Julie Madison, Bruce’s Golden Age girlfriend. The Character has been resurrected and revived a number of times, but she lacks the staying power of other iconic superhero girlfriends like Lois Lane or Iris West or Carol Ferris, despite being engaged to Bruce. This is primarily because Julie is just sorta there. She’s already Bruce’s fiancée, but we meet her for the first time while Bruce is parading as Batman.

Julie seems to show up occasionally, but only when the plot needs somebody for Batman to rescue. She’s an actress, but has no discernible identity in her own right. She has no personality, and we don’t spend any time with her outside those moments where Batman needs to rescue her. Her presence is so understated that Bruce doesn’t seem the least bit shaken by her decision to break up with him. “I understand!” he tells her. “It’s all right!”And we know that Bruce isn’t a guy who copes with loss especially well.

Creature of the knight…

While it’s interesting to see the character and his world develop here, the stories are mostly fairly generic, relying on convenient plot devices and tried-and-tested clichés to resolve themselves. Batman is over reliant on flexing his muscles to escape traps and throwing gas pellets to confuse opponents. It is nice that Kane and Finger even try a couple of mysteries, with one story pausing mid-stream for the reader to identify their favourite suspect.

The Batman Archives aren’t the best stories from DC’s Golden Age. I’d recommend The Spirit Archives to anybody looking to enjoy this sort of classic comic book storytelling. The plots are a little too generic and awkward, the resolutions a little too convenient. However, they do offer an interesting glimpse at the evolution of an American icon, and are well worth a browse from anybody with an interest in the roots of the Caped Crusader.

4 Responses

  1. I was really unimpressed with these early stories. In fact, I honestly kind of hate them. They are entirely too generic and boring for their own good. Bill Finger ‘ writing or Bob Kane’s artwork could be acceptable had the other done a better job, but alas, no such luck. These things honestly scared me away from older comics for the longest time, luckily Marvel’s 60s stuff was there to pick me right back up.

    • There’s a repetitiveness to it all. There’s a reason that I haven’t been eager to go back and review all the archives like I did with the Spirit.

      Sixties Marvel is great, but I do have a bit of a goofy fondness for Jack Cole’s Plastic Man and for sixties Green Lantern and Flash, even if they don’t compare to Lee/Ditko Spider-Man or Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four.

      • Would you ever review any of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics? If you’re not really caught up on the franchise, a man by the name of Mark Pellegrini has a blog named TMNT Entity where he has reviewed nearly every turtle comic ever published. I would love a review because I believe you are the best film/comic critic ever born. The series has been released in the five volumes of TMNT: The Ultimate Colection along with the Tales of the TMNT vol. 1 trade paperback.

      • Thanks! I am very flattered, but I’m really just a guy with a blog. I have to admit that I know very little about the comic-book turtles, save that they are more of an overt parody of superhero conventions than the multimedia empire that they spawned. (And they are created by the same accident that created Daredevil!) I have a host of issues I bought from a comiXology sale, but they are in my reading queue, which seems to grow all the time.

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