Batman, Batman vs. The Penguin, Batman vs. The Joker


By Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Gardner Fox, Alvin Schwartz, Edmond Hamilton, David Vern Reed, Bill Woolfolk, Dick Sprang, Sheldon Moldoff, Lew Sayre Schwartz & various (Four Square/New English Library)
ISBNs: 1688, 1692 and 1694

The Silver Age of comicbooks utterly revolutionised the medium, bringing a modicum of sophistication to the returning genre of masked mystery men. However, for quite some time the changes instigated by Julius Schwartz in Showcase #4 (October 1956) which rippled out in the last three years of the decade to affect all of National/DC Comics’ superhero characters generally passed by Batman and Robin.

Fans buying Batman, Detective Comics, World’s Finest Comics and even Justice League of America would read adventures that in look and tone were largely unchanged from the safely anodyne fantasies that had turned the Dark Knight into a mystery-solving, alien-fighting costumed Boy Scout just as the 1940s turned into the1950s.

By the end of 1963, Schwartz having – either personally or by example – revived and revitalised much of DC’s line and the entire industry with his modernization of the Superhero, was asked to work his magic with the creatively stalled and nigh-moribund Caped Crusaders.

Bringing his usual team of top-notch creators with him, the Editor stripped down the core-concept, downplaying all the ETs, outlandish villains and daft transformation tales, bringing a cool modern take to the capture of criminals whilst overseeing a streamlining rationalisation of the art style itself. The most apparent change to us kids was a yellow circle around the Bat-symbol but, far more importantly, the stories also changed. A subtle aura of genuine menace had crept back in.

At the same time, Hollywood was preparing to produce a television series based on Batman and, through the sheer karmic insanity that permeates the universe, the producers were basing their interpretation upon the addictively daft material that the publishers were turning their Editorial backs on and not the “New Look Batman” that was enthralling the readers.

The TV show premiered on January 12th 1966 and ran for 3 seasons (120 episodes in total), airing twice weekly for its first two seasons. It was a monumental, world-wide hit and sparked a wave of trendy imitation. The resulting media hysteria and fan frenzy generated an insane amount of Bat-awareness, no end of spin-offs and merchandise – including a movie – and introduced us all to the phenomenon of overkill.

“Batmania” exploded across the world and then, as almost as quickly, became toxic and vanished.

To this day, no matter how much we might squeal and foam about it, or what has occurred since in terms of comics, games or movies, to a huge portion of this planet’s population Batman is always going to be that “Zap! Biff! Pow!” costumed buffoon…

To tap into the frenzy, American book publisher Signet/New American Library – a company well-used to producing media tie-in titles such as Girl from U.N.C.L.E. or novelisations like Breakfast at Tiffany’s – released 5 paperbacks starring Batman and Robin, beginning in March 1966.

Technically, it was 4 plus a prose adaptation of the movie that was released later in the year (and the second was in fact an all-new prose novel by Winston Lyon – AKA William Woolfolk – which I’ll be covering in a later review), so in the proper fashion of the times, British counterparts quickly followed.

This terrific little trio of monochrome paperback pocket books – spearhead of National Periodical Publications’ on-going efforts to reach wider reading audiences – were published in 1966 to accompany the launch of the Batman TV show, and fully fuelled the “Camp” superhero craze which saw Masked Manhunters and costumed crazies sneak into every aspect of popular entertainment.

Each breathtaking tome contains 5 reformatted stories of the Dynamic Duo, culled from the archives and crafted by some of the greatest scripters and illustrators the industry has ever seen. Collected here in incontrovertible black-&-white are the tales from this trio of cartoon books which blew my unformed little mind in that most auspicious year for fun and fantasy escapism…

The first UK release was Batman which featured primarily crime stories rather than the baroque super-villain fare that informed and monopolised the television iteration. In the aforementioned mid-1950s, fancy-dress felons had all but vanished from view, and the new Schwartz Batman also eschewed costumed crazies … at least until the TV show made them stars in their own right.

The reformatted mini-masterpieces start with the positively eerie 1940 origin tale ‘The Legend of the Batman – Who He Is and How He Came to Be!’ by Gardner Fox, Bob Kane & Sheldon Moldoff from Batman #1 (Spring 1940). This piece was actually recycled from portions of Detective Comics #33 and 34 (1939) but still offers in 13 perfect panels what is effectively the best ever origin of the character.

The drama continued with ‘The Web of Doom’ (from Batman #90, March 1955, by Bill Finger, Moldoff & Charles Paris), in which a biologist loses a package of deadly germ phials somewhere in Gotham City. Batman and Robin have only days to track down 3 criminals who hold the key to restoring the savant’s shattered memories and retrieving the deadly parcel…

Batman #92, from June 1955, provided ‘Fan-Mail of Danger!’ (Finger, Moldoff & Paris) as letters to the gracious heroes pile up and the lads hired a secretary to handle the load. Sadly, Susie Smith’s over-eager diligence almost exposes Batman’s secret identity to a cunning counterfeiter…

There was one exception in this collection to the “no loons” rule. The Joker tale ‘The Crazy Crime Clown!’ is something extra-special from Batman #74 (December 1952/January 1953, by Alvin Schwartz, Dick Sprang & Charles Paris) and sees the exotic but strictly larcenous Harlequin of Hate apparently go bonkers.

He is committed to the Gotham Institute for the Insane but, naturally, there’s method in the seeming madness which Batman only discovers after he too infiltrates the worthy asylum in disguise…

Cunning criminal mastermind Mr. Blank almost takes over the underworld by destroying a new super-computer in ‘The Crime Predictor!’ (Batman #77, June/July 1953, courtesy of Edmond Hamilton, Bob, Lew Sayre Schwartz & Paris), and it took all of the ingenuity of the World’s Greatest Detective to unravel the deadly mire of duplicity and prevent his own infallibly predicted demise…

‘The Man Who Could Change Fingerprints!’ (Batman #82, March 1954 by David Vern Reed, Sprang & Paris) is another clever scheme by brilliant killers who think to outwit the Caped Crusaders, before this initial volume closes with a thrilling suspense shocker in ‘The Testing of Batman!’ (Batman #83, April 1954) by Hamilton, Sprang & Paris.

Here a scientist’s exercise research is usurped by thugs who wanted to have fun killing the enemies of crime. At least that’s what they told the captive Gotham Gangbusters…

 

Six months later a second volume was released.

Batman vs. The Penguin followed the same beguiling format but, with flamboyant arch-foes predominating on the silver screen, the emphasis had shifted. As the title clearly shows, this compilation concentrated on cases featuring the Felonious Fowl and Bird of Ill Omen, but it also harboured a secret surprise…

The all-ages action and excitement kicked off with ‘The Parasols of Plunder’ (Batman #70 April/May 1952 by Bill Woolfolk, Kane, Sayre Schwartz & Paris) and details how, after being released from prison, The Penguin gives up his obsession with birds and starts selling umbrellas. But, oh… what deadly umbrellas…

He returned to ornithology for ‘The Golden Eggs!’ in Batman #99 (April 1956, Finger, Moldoff & Paris), as whilst on the run his hobby inspired a deadly retaliatory crime wave before Batman scrambled all his plans, whilst in ‘The Penguin’s Fabulous Fowls’ the Umbrella King turns crypto-biologist, capturing mythical avian monsters and turning them loose to devastate Gotham in a sharp suspense shocker from Batman #76 (April/May 1953 by Hamilton, Kane, Sayre Schwartz & Paris)…

His last appearance was in ‘The Return of the Penguin’ (Finger, Moldoff & Paris from Batman #155 May 1963) which sees the Bird Bandit coming out of retirement to match wits with Batman again. If only the Pompous Peacock had ignored the teasing of the other crooks when they called him a “has-been”…

This tome wraps up with a classic Catwoman yarn, as the Feline Temptress puts all the contestants of Gotham City’s “Queen for a Day” gala into catatonic trances. Moreover, suspiciously still-awake competitor Selina Kyle claims complete innocence and insists some other Catwoman was responsible for creating the ‘The Sleeping Beauties of Gotham City!’ in a taut mystery by Reed, Moldoff & Stan Kaye from Batman #84 (June 1954)…

 

Batman vs. The Joker followed a month later with a full quintet of comicbook curios starring Batman’s ultimate nemesis. The madcap mayhem began with ‘The Challenge of The Joker’ (Batman #136, December 1960 by Finger, Moldoff & Paris) in which the Clown Prince of Crime determines to prove to the world that modern police science is no match for cunning and the 4 ancient elements…

Then ‘The Joker’s Winning Team!’ (Batman #86, September 1954 Woolfolk, Moldoff & Kaye) reveals how the baseball-inspired brigand assembles a squad of crime specialist pinch-hitters to ensure he never loses a match against the Gotham Gangbuster, after which the gloriously engaging saga of ‘The Joker’s Millions!’ (Detective Comics #180, February, 1952 by Reed, Sprang & Paris) discloses how the villain’s crime rival takes deathbed revenge by leaving the Harlequin of Hate too rich to commit capers.

It is a double-barrelled scheme though and makes the Joker twice a fool, as the Caped Crusaders find to their great amusement…

‘The Joker’s Journal’ (Detective #193, March 1953 from Reed, Kane, Sayre Schwartz & Paris) follows the theme after the penniless Punchinello leaves prison and starts a newspaper. Everyone in Gotham knows it was only a matter of time until the Mountebank of Mirth returns to his old tricks, and this final volume concludes in the only way possible as the eternal archenemies’ minds are swapped in a scientific accident. Soon a law-abiding Joker and baffled Robin have to hunt down ‘Batman – Clown of Crime!’: a rousing romp by Reed, Moldoff & Paris from Batman #85, August 1954.

As I’ve constantly averred, the comics tales themselves are always special but somehow when they appeared in proper books it always made those fantastic adventure dreams a little more substantial; and perhaps even real…

Batman has proven to be all things to all fans over his decades of existence and, with the character undergoing almost perpetual overhaul these days, the peerless parables of wit and bravery encapsulated here are more welcome than ever: not just as memorial to what has been but also as a reminder that once upon a time everybody could read the fabulous Tales of Gotham City…

These books are probably impossible to find today – even though entirely worth the effort – but completists can achieve miracles if they put their minds to it and frankly, whatever format or collection you happen upon, in this anniversary year, such forgotten stories of the immortal Dark(ish) Knight are part of our cultural comics heritage and must always be treasured.
© 1940, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1963, 1966 National Periodical Publications. All rights reserved.