New, Revised Review
By Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Gardner Fox, Sheldon Moldoff, Jerry Robinson, George Roussos & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0445-7 & 978-1-4012-0790-8
For anyone who’s read more than a few of these posts, my tastes should be fairly apparent, but in case you’re in any doubt, here’s a flat-out confession: I’m that shabby, crazy old geezer muttering at the bus stop about how things were better before, and all new things are crap and not the same and…
You get the picture. Now, ignore all that. It’s true but not relevant.
Batman Chronicles is one of many formats re-presenting the earliest Batman stories. The series does so in original, chronological order, foregoing glossy and expensive high-definition paper and reproduction techniques in favour of newsprint-like paper, and the same flat, bright-yet-muted colour palette which graced the originals.
There’s no fuss, fiddle or Foreword, and the book steams straight into the meat of the matter with Volume 1 re-presenting the stunning covers and all Dark Knight material from Detective Comics #27 through #38, (which introduced Robin, The Boy Wonder), and then the landmark Batman #1 covering May 1939-April 1940.
Detective Comics #27 introduced “The Bat-Man” and playboy/dilettante criminologist in ‘The Case of the Chemical Syndicate’ by Bob Kane & collaborator Bill Finger, wherein a cabal of sinister industrialists were successively murdered until an eerie human bat intruded on Police Commissioner Gordon’s stalled investigation and ruthlessly dealt with the hidden killer.
Issue #28 saw the fugitive vigilante return to crush ‘Frenchy Blake’s Jewel Gang’ before encountering his very first psychopathic killer. ‘The Batman Meets Doctor Death’ was a deadly duel of wits with deranged, greedy General Practitioner Karl Hellfern and his assorted instruments of murder…
Confident of their new character’s potential, Kane & Finger revived the mad medic for the very next instalment and ‘The Return of Doctor Death’, before Gardner Fox scripted a 2-part shocker which introduced the first bat-plane, Bruce’s girlfriend Julie Madison and undead horror The Monk for an expansive spooky saga ‘Batman Versus The Vampire’. The gripping yarn then concluded in an epic chase across Eastern Europe and a spectacular climax in a monster-filled castle in issue #32.
Detective Comics #33 featured ‘The Batman Wars Against the Dirigible of Doom’: a blockbusting disaster thriller which just casually slipped in the secret origin of the Gotham Guardian, as prelude to the air-pirate action, after which Euro-trash dastard Duc D’Orterre found his uncanny science and unsavoury appetites no match for the mighty Batman in ‘Peril in Paris’.
Scripter Bill Finger returned in issue #35, pitting the Cowled Crusader against crazed cultists murdering everyone who had seen their sacred jewel in ‘The Case of the Ruby Idol’, although the many deaths were caused by a far more prosaic villainy, after which grotesque criminal genius ‘Professor Hugo Strange’ (inked by new kid Jerry Robinson) debuted with his murderous man-made fog and lightning machine in #36, and all-pervasive ‘The Spies’ ultimately proved no match for the vengeful masked Manhunter in #37.
Detective Comics #38 (April 1940) changed the landscape of comicbooks forever with the introduction of ‘Robin, The Boy Wonder’: child trapeze artist Dick Grayson whose parents were murdered before his eyes and who joined Batman in a lifelong quest for justice, by bringing to justice mobster Boss Zucco…
After the Flying Grayson’s killers were captured, Batman #1 (Spring 1940) opened proceedings with a recycled origin culled from portions of Detective Comics #33 and 34. ‘The Legend of the Batman – Who He Is and How He Came to Be!’ by Fox, Kane & Moldoff offered in two perfect pages what is still the best ever origin of the character, after which ‘The Joker’ (Finger, Kane & Robinson – who produced all the remaining tales in this astonishing premiere issue) introduced the greatest villain in DC’s entire rogues’ gallery via a stunning tale of extortion and wilful wanton murder.
‘Professor Hugo Strange and the Monsters’ followed as the old adversary returned with laboratory-grown hyperthyroid horrors to rampage through the terrified city, and ‘The Cat’ – who later added the suffix ‘Woman’ to her name to avoid any possible doubt or confusion – plied her felonious trade of jewel theft aboard the wrong cruise-liner and fell foul for the first time of the dashing Dynamic Duo.
The initial issue and the first Chronicles edition ended with the ‘The Joker Returns’ as the sinister clown broke jail and resumed his terrifying campaign of murder for fun and profit before “dying” in mortal combat with the Gotham Guardian.
Volume 2 featured more masterpieces from the dawn of comic-book time, re-presenting Detective Comics #39 through to #45, a story from New York World’s Fair Comics 1940, and Batman #2-3, covering May to November 1940 in original publishing order. Following a superb pin-up of the Dynamic Duo by Kane, the tense suspense and all-out action opens with The Horde of the Green Dragon” – oriental Tong killers in Chinatown – from Detective #39 by Finger, Kane & Robinson, before ‘Beware of Clayface!’ found the Dynamic Duo solving a string of murders on a film set which almost saw Julie Madison become the latest victim of a monstrous movie maniac…
Batman and Robin solved the baffling mystery of a kidnapped boy in Detective #41’s ‘A Master Murderer’ before enjoying their second solo outing in four comics classics from Batman #2 (Summer 1940).
It all began with ‘Joker Meets Cat-Woman’ (by Finger, Kane, Robinson & extremely impressive new find George Roussos) wherein svelte thief, homicidal jester and a crime syndicate all tussled for the same treasure with the Caped Crusaders caught in the middle.
‘Wolf, the Crime Master’ was a fascinating take on the classic Jekyll and Hyde tragedy after which an insidious and ingenious murder-mystery ensued in ‘The Case of the Clubfoot Murderers’ before Batman and Robin faced uncanny savages and ruthless showbiz promoters in a poignant monster story ‘The Case of the Missing Link’.
‘Batman and Robin Visit the New York World’s Fair’ from New York World’s Fair Comics which vintage wonderment – by Finger, Kane & Roussos – then followed the vacationing Dynamic Duo as they tracked down a maniac mastermind with a metal-dissolving ray, after which Detective Comics #42 again found the heroes ending another murder maniac’s rampage in ‘The Case of the Prophetic Pictures!’ before clashing with a corrupt mayor in #43’s ‘The Case of the City of Terror!’
An unparallelled hit, the stories perforce expanded their parameters in #44 with the dreamy fantasy of giants and goblins ‘The Land Behind the Light!’, after which Batman #3 (Fall 1940) saw Finger, Kane, Robinson & Roussos rise to even greater heights, beginning with ‘The Strange Case of the Diabolical Puppet Master’: an eerie episode of uncanny mesmerism and infamous espionage…
Next up was a grisly scheme wherein innocent citizens were mysteriously transformed into specimens of horror and artworks destroyed by the spiteful commands of ‘The Ugliest Man in the World’ before ‘The Crime School For Boys!!’ saw Robin infiltrate a gang who had a cruel and cunning recruitment plan for dead-end kids…
‘The Batman vs. The Cat-Woman’ found the larcenous burglar in well over her head when she stole for – and from – the wrong people, and the issue also included a magical Special Feature as ‘The Batman Says’ presented an illustrated prose Law & Order pep-talk crafted by Whitney Ellsworth and Robinson.
This second terrific tome then concludes with a magnificent and horrific Joker jape from Detective Comics #45 with ‘The Case of the Laughing Death’ wherein the Harlequin of Hate devised a campaign of macabre murder against everyone who had defied or offended him…
Bob Kane, Jerry 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 writers like Finger and Fox refined and defined the meta-structure of the costumed crime-fighter. Where the Man of Steel was as much Social Force and wish fulfilment as hero, Batman and Robin did what we ordinary mortals wanted to do. They taught bad people the lesson they deserved.
These are tales of elemental power and joyful exuberance, brimming with deep mood and addictive action. Comic book heroics simply don’t come any better.
The history of the American comicbook industry in almost every major aspect stems from the raw, vital and still powerfully compelling tales of twin icons published by DC/National Comics: Superman and Batman. It’s only fair and fitting that both those characters are still going strong and that their earliest adventures can be relived in chronological order in a variety of formats from relatively economical newsprint paperbacks to stunning, deluxe hardcover commemorative Archive editions.
One final thing: I’m still that guy in paragraph one, right? I’ve read these stories many, many times, in every format imaginable, and I’d like to thank whoever decided that they should also be available in as close a facsimile to the originals as we can get these days.
More than anything else, this serves to perfectly recapture the mood and impact of that revolutionary masked avenger and, of course, delights my heavily concealed inner child no end.
© 1939, 1940, 2005 DC Comics and © 1940, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.