Batman: The Golden Age volume 1

By Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Gardner Fox, Whitney Ellsworth, Sheldon Moldoff, Jerry Robinson, George Roussos & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-6333-1 (TPB/Digital edition)
Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Vintage Comic book Perfection… 10/10

Next year marks Batman’s 85th Anniversary and we’ll be covering many old and new books about the Dark Knight over the year. However, why not pre-load the noir wonderment with this perfect compilation of how it all began. It’s not too big – like an Omnibus edition – or too small – like a measly pamphlet comic book – and would therefore make an ideal gift for the fan in your life (and we all know I mean you, right…)?

Batman: The Golden Age re-presents the Gotham Guardian’s earliest exploits in original chronological order, forgoing 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. There’s no fuss, fiddle or Foreword, and the book steams straight into the meat of the matter with the accumulated first year and a half of material featuring the masked mystery-man, plus all those stunning covers spanning Detective Comics #27-45, Batman #1-3 and the Dynamic Duo’s story from New York World’s Fair Comics 1940. That cumulatively covers every groundbreaking escapade from May 1939 to November 1940.

As Eny Fule Kno, Detective #27 featured the Darknight Detective’s debut in the ‘Case of the Chemical Syndicate!’ by Bob Kane and as yet still anonymous close collaborator/co-originator Bill Finger.

A spartan, understated yarn introduced dilettante playboy criminologist Bruce Wayne, drawn into a straightforward crime-caper as a cabal of industrialists are successively murdered. The killings stop when an eerie figure dubbed “The Bat-Man” intrudes on Police Commissioner Gordon’s stalled investigation to ruthlessly expose and deal with the hidden killer.

The following issue saw the fugitive vigilante return to crush ‘Frenchy Blake’s Jewel Gang’ before encountering his very first psychopathic killer and returning villain in Detective Comics #29. Gardner Fox scripted these next few adventures beginning with ‘The Batman Meets Doctor Death’, in a deadly duel of wits with deranged, greedy general practitioner Karl Hellfern and his assorted instruments of murder: the most destructive and diabolical of which was sinister Asiatic manservant Jabah…

This is my cue to remind all interested parties that these stories were created in far less tolerant times with numerous narrative shortcuts and institutionalised social certainties expressed in all media that most today will find offensive. If that’s a deal-breaker, please pass on this book… and most literature, pop songs and films created before the 1960s…

Confident of their new villain’s potential, Kane, Fox and inker Sheldon Mayer encored the mad medic for the next instalment and ‘The Return of Doctor Death’, before Fox & Finger co-scripted a 2-part shocker debuting the first bat-plane, Bruce’s girlfriend Julie Madison and undead horror The Monk in an expansive, globe-girdling spooky saga. ‘Batman Versus the Vampire’ concluded the tale with an epic chase across Eastern Europe and a spectacular climax in a monster-filled castle in issue #32.

Detective #33 featured Fox & Kane’s ‘The Batman Wars Against the Dirigible of Doom’: a blockbusting disaster thriller which just casually slips in the secret origin of the grim avenger, as mere prelude to intoxicating air-pirate action, before Euro-trash dastard Duc D’Orterre finds his uncanny science and unsavoury appetites no match for the mighty Batman in ‘Peril in Paris’.

Bill Finger returned as lead scripter 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 are actually caused by a far more prosaic villain. Inked by new kid Jerry Robinson, grotesque criminal genius ‘Professor Hugo Strange’ debuted with his murderous man-made fog and lightning machine in #36, after which all-pervasive enemy agents ‘The Spies’ prove no match for the vengeful Masked Manhunter in DC #37.

Detective Comics #38 (April 1940) changed the landscape of comic books forever with the introduction of ‘Robin, The Boy Wonder’: child trapeze artist Dick Grayson – whose parents are murdered before his eyes – thereafter joins Batman in a lifelong quest by bringing to justice mobster mad dog 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 delivers in two perfect pages what is still the best ever origin of the character, after which ‘The Joker’ (Finger, Kane & Robinson – who also produced all the remaining tales in this astonishing premiere issue) launches the greatest villain in DC’s pantheon via a stunning tale of extortion and wilful wanton murder.

‘Professor Hugo Strange and the Monsters’ follows as an old adversary returns, unleashing laboratory-grown hyperthyroid horrors to rampage through the terrified city whilst ‘The Cat’ – who later added the suffix ‘Woman’ to her name to avoid any possible doubt or confusion – plies her felonious trade of jewel thief aboard the wrong cruise-liner and falls foul for the first time of the dashing Dynamic Duo.

The initial issue ends with the ‘The Joker Returns’ as the sinister clown breaks jail to resume his terrifying campaign of murder for fun and profit before “dying” in mortal combat with the Gotham Guardians.

Following a superb pin-up (originally the back cover of that premier issue) of the Dynamic Duo by Kane, tense suspense and all-out action continues in Detective #39 and Finger, Kane & Robinson’s ‘The Horde of the Green Dragon’ – “oriental” Tong killers in Chinatown – after which ‘Beware of Clayface!’ sees the Dynamic Duo solving a string of murders on a film set which almost sees Julie Madison 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 a quartet of comics classics from Batman #2 (Summer 1940). It begins with ‘Joker Meets Cat-Woman’ (Finger, Kane, Robinson & new find George Roussos) wherein svelte thief, homicidal jester and a crime syndicate all tussle for the same treasure. with our Caped Crusaders caught in the middle.

‘Wolf, the Crime Master’ then offers a fascinating take on the classic Jekyll & Hyde tragedy after which an insidious and ingenious mystery ensues in ‘The Case of the Clubfoot Murderers’, before Batman and Robin confront uncanny savages and ruthless showbiz promoters in poignant monster story ‘The Case of the Missing Link’.

‘Batman and Robin Visit the New York World’s Fair’ comes from the second New York World’s Fair Comics. Finger, Kane & Roussos followed the vacationing Dynamic Duo as they track down a maniac mastermind with a metal-dissolving ray, after which Detective Comics #42 again finds our heroes ending another murderous 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 unparalleled hit, Batman stories never rested on their laurels. The creators always sought to expand their parameters, as with Detective #44’s nightmarish fantasy of giants and goblins in ‘The Land Behind the Light!’. Then, Batman #3 (Fall 1940) has 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…

A grisly scheme unfolds next as innocent citizens are 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!!’ registers Robin infiltrating a gang who have a cruel and cunning recruitment plan for dead-end kids…

‘The Batman vs. the Cat-Woman’ lastly reveals the larcenous lady in well over her head when she steals for – and from – the wrong people…

The issue also offered a worthy Special Feature as ‘The Batman Says’ presents an illustrated prose Law & Order pep-talk crafted by Whitney Ellsworth and illustrated by Robinson.

The all-out action concludes here with a magnificent and horrific Joker jape from Detective Comics #45 as ‘The Case of the Laughing Death’ displays the Harlequin of Hate undertaking a campaign of macabre murder against everyone who has ever defied or offended him…

With full Creator Biographies and comic covers by Kane, Robinson & Roussos plus all the other general action ones by Fred Guardineer & Creig Flessel (crafted before the superheroes took over the front page forever), this is a stunning monument to exuberance and raw talent. 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 remains captivatingly accessible.

These primal 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 hero, Batman and Robin did what we ordinary mortals wanted to do. They taught bad people the lessons they 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. More than anything else, this book serves to perfectly recapture the mood and impact of a revolutionary masked avenger and, of course, delights my heavily concealed inner child no end.
© 1939, 1940, 2016 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.