By Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson, George Roussos & various (DC Comics)
Batman: The Golden Age volume is another paperback-format feast (there’s also a weightier, pricier but more capacious hardback Omnibus available) re-presenting the Dark Knight’s earliest exploits.
Set out in original publishing release order, it forgoes glossy, high-definition paper and reproduction techniques in favour of a newsprint-adjacent feel and the same flat, bright-yet-muted colour palette which graced the originals. Those necessary details dealt with, what you really need to know is that this is a collection of Batman tales that see the character grow into the major player who would inspire so many and develop the resilience to survive the stifling cultural vicissitudes the coming decades would inflict upon him and his partner, Robin.
With the majority of material crafted by Bill Finger and illustrated by Bob Kane, there’s no fuss, fiddle or Foreword, and the book steams straight into the meat of the matter, representing the astounding cape-&-cowl classics and iconic covers from Detective Comics #46-56, Batman#4-7 and the Dynamic Duo’s stories from World’s Best Comics #1 and World’s Finest Comics #2-3; cumulatively covering all the groundbreaking escapades from December 1940 to November 1941
Plunging right in to the perilous procedures, Detective Comics #46 (inked by Kane and regular embellishers Jerry Robinson & George Roussos) features the return of Batman’s most formidable scientific adversary as the heroes must counteract the awesome effects of ‘Professor Strange’s Fear Dust’ after which issue #47 delivers drama on a more human scale in ‘Money Can’t Buy Happiness’.
This action-packed homily of parental expectation and the folly of greed leads into Batman #4 (Winter 1941) which features ‘The Joker’s Crime Circus’ and the piratical plunderings of ‘Blackbeard’s Crew and the Yacht Society’. Then ‘Public Enemy No.1’ tells a gangster fable in the manner of Jimmy Cagney’s movie Angels With Dirty Faces, and ‘Victory For the Dynamic Duo’ involves the pair in the treacherous world of sports gambling.
Detective Comics #48 finds them defending America’s bullion reserves in ‘The Secret Cavern’, and they face an old foe when ‘Clayface Walks Again’ (Detective Comics #49, March 1941), as the deranged horror actor resumes his passion for murder and re-attempts to kill Bruce Wayne’s old girlfriend Julie.
Detective Comics #50 pits Batman and Robin against acrobatic burglars in ‘The Case of the Three Devils’, leading neatly into Batman #5 (Spring 1941). Once again, the Joker plays lead villain in ‘The Riddle of the Missing Card’ before the heroes prove their versatility by solving a quixotic crime in Fairy Land via ‘The Book of Enchantment’.
‘The Case of the Honest Crook’ follows: one of the key stories of Batman’s early canon. When a mugger steals only $6 from a victim, leaving much more behind, his trail leads to a vicious gang who almost beat Robin to death. The vengeance-crazed Dark Knight goes on a rampage of terrible violence that still resonates in the character to this day.
The last story from Batman #5 ‘Crime does Not Pay’ once again deals with kids going bad and the potential for redemption, after which World’s Best Comics#1 (Spring 1941 – destined to become World’s Finest Comics with its second issue) offers an eerie murder mystery concerning ‘The Witch and the Manuscript of Doom’…
With most stories still coming from unsung genius Finger and the art chores shared out between Kane, Robinson & Roussos, the team got a new top contributor as Fred Ray signed on to produce the fantastic World’s Finest covers.
‘The Case of the Mystery Carnival’, ‘The Secret of the Jade Box’ and ‘Viola Vane’ (Detective#51, 52 and 53 respectively) are mood-soaked crimebusting set-pieces featuring fairly run-of-the mill thugs, which serve as perfect palate-cleansers for ‘The Man Who Couldn’t Remember!’ from WF#2: a powerful character play and a baffling mystery that still packs a punch today.
‘Hook Morgan and his Harbor Pirates’ finds the Dynamic Duo cleaning up the docks whilst the four tales from Batman #6 (‘Murder on Parole’, ‘The Clock Maker’, ‘The Secret of the Iron Jungle’ and ‘Suicide Beat’) offer a broad range of yarns encompassing a prison-set human interest fables to the hunt for a crazed maniac to racket busting and back to the human side of being a cop.
Detective #54 went back to basics with spectacular mad scientist thriller ‘The Brain Burglar’ after which a visit to a ghost town results in an eerie romp ‘The Stone Idol’ (Detective#55) before World’s Finest#3 launches a classic villain with the first appearance of one of Batman’s greatest foes in ‘The Riddle of the Human Scarecrow’.
The volume ends with four grand tales from Batman#7. ‘Wanted: Practical Jokers’ again stars the psychotic Clown Prince of Crime, whilst ‘The Trouble Trap’ finds our heroes crushing a Spiritualist racket before heading for Lumberjack country to clear up ‘The North Woods Mystery’.
The last story is something of a landmark case, as well as being a powerful and emotional melodrama. ‘The People Vs. The Batman’ finds Bruce Wayne framed for murder and the Dynamic Duo finally sworn in as official police operatives. They would not be vigilantes again until the grim and gritty 1980’s…
Kane, Robinson and their compatriots created an iconography which carried the Batman feature well beyond its allotted life-span until later creators could re-invigorate it. They added a new dimension to children’s reading… and their work is still captivatingly accessible.
Moreover, these early stories set the standard for comic superheroes. Whatever you like now, you owe it to these stories. Superman gave us the idea, but inspired and inspirational writers like Bill Finger refined and defined the meta-structure of the costumed crime-fighter.
Where the Man of Steel was as much Social Force and juvenile wish-fulfilment as hero, Batman and Robin did what we ordinary mortals wanted to do most: teach bad people the lessons they richly deserved…
These are tales of elemental power and joyful exuberance, brimming with deep mood and addictive action. Comicbook heroics simply don’t come any better.
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