Batman at 75: Hot off the press… The Freshly Minted Batman #1 REVIEWED!

Joker alone Batman 1 1940

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On Comic Book Day, a Jokerside exclusive! After a soaring debut in the pages of Detective Comics #27 the comical Caped Crusader and his still inexplicable Boy Wonder have won their own spin-off title. In a packed first edition they take on three rogues across four rip-roaring tales – but do they, and the comic itself, have the Bat-durability to make it solo?

IN THIS FIRST ISSUE, BILL FINGER AND BOB KANE WISELY KICK OFF BY REPEATING THE AVENGING HERO’S ORIGIN STORY AS REVEALED IN DETECTIVE COMICS #33 A FEW MONTHS AGO: THE LEGEND OF THE BATMAN AND HOW HE CAME TO BE! This two-page summary concisely shows how Batman was borne of the tragedy of random crime, honing himself in science and physical feats to become, thanks to the timely arrival of a bat through the window, the “Avenger of evil, the Batman”.

Four Tales, Four Colour

In the four stories that follow, the Dynamic Duo battle three enemies each with a hook as outlandish as the last, with plots ranging from a jewel heist framed as an Agatha Christie-style mystery to homicidal clown mania. First and foremost is the debut of that deadly clown, a grim jester known only as the Joker whose statement of intent is immediately made clear when he makes a sinister ‘return’ before the book is even done. On the way to that rematch Batman and the Boy Wonder meet a debutante lady jewel thief you could only hope to find in a Caped Crusader comic, the Cat; which animal will prove to be the predator? And in between there’s just about time to thwart one returning rogue, surely a criminal set for arch-villain status. Professor Hugo Strange escapes and soon brings a band of mutant monsters to town. Strong stuff true believers!

A Strange Tale

A story of curious repugnancy

First, let’s deal with that returning villain. Professor Hugo Strange is a rather morally repugnant scientific genius as this tale shows, but he’s obviously able to bring the worst out in others as well. That’s less a reference to the wondrous monster potion he develops in this tale, and more to the fact he pushes Batman to extraordinary measures with very little effort. While it’s strange to see the glabrous fiend make his escape in blue prison garb early on, it does thrusts us right into a story of curious repugnancy. With five inmates broken out of the city’s unnamed asylum (a location it seems certain will have a further role to play in Batman’s adventures…) and Frankensteinish monsters soon stomping through Lower Manhattan it’s clear that Prof Strange has got straight back to work….

Bob Kane’s effective panels spend a considerable time spelling out the havoc that Strange’s 15 foot monsters wreak on our hero’s city. Although, it also highlights how limited the setting of a four-colour New York can be. Familiarity and realism can go so far, but perhaps one day Batman will find a new roost that suits the otherworldliness of these yarns better…

Behold the Dark Knight’s Batplane!

For the time being, our hero may be in peak physically condition but seems content to sit puffing on his pipe until the city is threatened and beyond… That said, when he does act it’s an impressive masterstroke. There may not be a Robin in this tale, but we do get to behold the Dark Knight’s Batplane! Perhaps he was just waiting for it to refuel… A marked improvement on the Batgyro seen in Detective Comics last year, it’s a quick and effective way to trace Strange’s hideout… Until our gleefully unconcerned hero is promptly caught. His caped adventures look over when Strange plays a masterstroke of his own: administering a monster fluid that will soon turn the Dark Knight into a juggernaut drone as susceptible and dumb as the felons harassing his city.

This debut comic needs to hit the ground running and it brings the high-level plots and new toys for the Caped Crusader to do that. Finger even manages to tap back into Batman’s well earned scientific prowess as he stems the effect of the fluid with mere seconds remaining. He then quickly dispenses with Strange, although he’s quick to suspect that the fiend’s survived his date with the sea. Every hero needs his evil scientific nemesis after all. I’m sure that Strange survived and will live to become a fearsome opponent of the Dark Knight should this comic book be given the chance to continue…

The book’s controversial highpoint

After Batman’s let some of Strange’s monstrous creations kill each other (out of annoyance), it’s Batman’s endgame that proves the book’s controversial highpoint.

Easily regaining his Batplane, Batman promptly hooks one of the monsters in a noose, hangs him before cutting him loose from the air and slaying another atop a city tower – much like the giant Ape in last decade’s King Kong. Although Batman dwells on his narrow choice, it seems a strange fit. Surely there’s another way, particularly when he has the advantage of his Batplane and especially showing how cultured he is with cultures as he masterfully and quickly engineered an antidote for himself. I can only hope that this is an important turning point in the Caped Crusader’s adventures, as it’s likely that the powers that be need to take a cold, hard look at this key and popular character committing outright homicide.

10 Little Kittens

Yes, in case it’s missed, the Cat is a very pretty jewel thief

Robin’s previous absence is more than made up for in the derring-do of a tale aboard the high seas where he comes across the Cat. A change of pace, where any number of red herrings are thrown overboard as Finger relates the mystery of Mrs Travers’ missing necklace in the astutely named The Cat! Unfolding as part-comedy of errors, part Agatha Christie mystery Robin takes the lead to begin with…

It nice to see Finger and Kane play around with time and structure in a strip that takes us into literally unchartered waters: The Boy Wonder solo detective. True to form, the opening panels set up a number of likely suspects aboard a luxury yacht, all with motives to steal a precious jewel as good as the last. Fortunately a freak gust of wind is on hand to secure young Grayson a piece of paper that confirms his suspicions almost immediately as the jewel disappears. Could it be Ms Travers’ financially unstable nephew Denny, her wasteful brother Roger or even the profligate Dr Wallace? Well, despite the classic set-up things take a more familiar Batman turn when a gang of crooks turn up to seize the jewel for themselves – only to find they’ve been gazumped! Could the theft just be a diversion after all?

Masquerade balls are the perfect environment for Bruce Wayne and his young ward

The gang’s advent brings some familiar fisticuffs and thanks to a dip overboard, the donning of the familiar Robin outfit. Perversely, it’s the gang’s escape, laden with ‘other’ jewellery from the wealthy passengers, that brings Batman into the picture with a valuable lesson on how “yellow” the city rats are without their guns. And what great timing! After apprehending the gang, thanks to Batman’s launch, they arrive on the yacht perfectly attired for a masquerade party. Much as this knocks some sympathy for the recently robbed passengers aboard the yacht, it highlights such balls as the perfect environment for Bruce Wayne and his young ward, even in their crime-fighting guises.

A far too simple a trick uncovers the Cat’s disguise, but when unmasked “quiet or papa spank” is all Batman can, strangely, mutter. Yes, in case it’s missed, the Cat is a very pretty jewel thief indeed. A refreshing change after homicidal jesters and mad scientists and there’s no doubt Batman’s rather taken by her. When ravishing and collected brunette escapes, seemingly with Batman barely raising a finger, and much to his young ward’s annoyance, it may not be that the Caped Crusader’s been swayed by her “lovely eyes” or even her offer to become a “King and Queen of crime”… But it certainly looks like this is the start of a beautiful relationship…

The Laughing Fish

Joker trouble

He may as well be called the Ironicist or the Wryisist

So to the book’s main event, top and tailed with a villain who promises much, although certainly not one of the “superstitious, cowardly lot” that led the Dark Knight to assume the mantle of the Bat in his war on crime.

In contrast to the pains made to explain our hero in this book, little is given away about this villain’s origins, beyond oblique references to a previous jail term that may or may not be true. This may prove a strength for an enigmatic rogue who could reasonably have any number of origins. That said, he’s not as mirthful as he appears. In fact, this rogue may as well be called the Ironicist or Wryisist with his poor line in jokes. His chief feature is death, inexplicably announcing a crime on radio before staging it and planting a grim calling card grin on his victims.

That said, first appearing morose and alone in his shadowy lair that’s “not too far away”, with the glimpse of what must be a Batman cowl bust in the foreground, you can only imagine how this Clown at Midnight could pan out in future stories, even with his “toneless voice”. Here he’s left alone to praise the audacious brilliance of his schemes and bemoan the fact that he can never disclose how he carried them off to the city’s ineffective police force.

Before we even see him, there’s a sense that this master criminal’s MO is quite different; to turn gags into fatal reality – something the early allusion to Orson Welle’s War of the World controversy articulates well.

Heavy homicidal impulses

However, once encountered, any nuance or interest that could be explored in this jester is forsaken in favour of assassination and his heavy homicidal impulses. It seems that this clown needs to stir himself into, as Finger terms it, that “smile without mirth”. You might wonder what could be done with a rogue whose grin was rictus or even some kind of surgical grafting to endlessly mock his victims. Still, that will have to wait… First the criminal must escape a Batman who’s strangely disinterested in this serial killer until the “moment is ripe”; even as his ward encourages Batman to “take a shot” the superhero typically chain-tokes on a pipe – surely a slight disadvantage to his athletic crime fighting career.

Toe-stepping from clown shoes

It turns out that this moment comes with the kind of toe-stepping you may be expect from clown shoes. The Joker’s effective heists muscle in on the territory of the city’s hoods as much as Batman’s brand of justice, showing every gimmicky master criminal that rising to the top of this city means more than just eliminating the Caped Crusader. This balance of crime, tipped on the scales by Batman, is fascinating and deserves further exploration.

However, as Batman says he may have just met foe who can give him a “good fight”. At one point he nearly meets more than that, with the slender jester a surprisingly adept and resilient fighter. The match doesn’t end there either. With most of his victim’s faces left chemically altered to grin like their murderer, Joker’s clearly a scientist of some skill (his constant injections have given him immunity to his Joker venom like any good scientist) and a master crime strategist… So it’s all the more surprising that the purple-clad harlequin doesn’t pique the Caped Crusader’s interest more.

A master crime strategist

And what of the joker’s MO? A classic ruse to begin with, an illusion that foxes the police and leaves the criminal reflecting on his own brilliance. If there’s a weak link in the criminal’s own delusion it’s not exploited until he’s nearly beaten off Batman and his ward here. The second of his heist-murders sees the Joker at his creepiest yet; methodically hiding in a suit of armour and taking his victim with a combination of cunning and chemicals. It’s not long into his victory that he changes back to his apparently trademark uniform of purple coat, teddy boy tie and matching hat – a strange garb that I can’t see lasting beyond this decade even on a clown.

He’s clearly able to adapt and diversify and when the hoods are dragged in, it’s actually the Batman’s appearance and bad guy battling that allows the Joker to mark his kill and escape. Again, the grinning fiend has no jokes to tell, leaving all the fine lines to an uncharacteristically clumsy Batman. The Knight’s whimsy seems quite at odds to a vigilante cautiously arriving to combat two sets of criminals, as does the Joker’s quick resignation at using a gun to kill his target. There is an irony in the Joker’s assassination here – as he quips with a pointed “something you can understand, lead!” – but it shows an easy resort to the unshowy for a villain who leaves a calling card. Is death really more important than theatricality for this enigma?

Theatricality is all

You can only wonder the power that may have come from building those playing cards through a few stories. After all, to become a key nemesis for the Batman, you must become more than a man. Theatricality is all. Except when it comes to cars…There’s no Jokermobile here.

And when caught by a still punning Batman, this rogue deals only in real punch lines. Clearly a foe of pure violence, in the bridge top tussle that quickly loses the Joker’s car, the clown has the physical upper hand. Without even the use of a gimmick, like a acid-spraying flower in his lapel as you may expect – a swift upper cut and kick to the hero’s head sees the Dark Knight almost finished. Clearly these equals will meet again… But not before the Joker plays some more chilling cards.

On his next appearance this clown prince of crime takes on the guise of a police officer to make his kill. An iconic scene, although even in a parade of honour, you doubt this could last long in spite of his ambiguity. With a clearly attached moustache and eyebrows, is the face paint the skin pink or snow white? The crime leads Robin to the Joker’s hideout where he could leave the most promising debutant calling card of all time: finishing the Boy Wonder off! But no, this book isn’t ready for a death in the family quite yet as Batman saves the day, regaining the upper hand in physical combat.

 “You’ve played your last”

There are two parts to the Joker’s demise in this story. One is the rather unchivalrous, but necessary, two versus one approach the Dynamic Duo take, the other that the Joker’s clear criminal ability and effective one-joke pony, is out of alignment with his obsession and inability to (realise he can’t) kill Batman. Captured with a pun, “you’ve played your last”, we don’t have to wait long for the harlequin of hate to return.

At least when he does, we know that Batman has stirred from his apathy and is determined that the Joker is “too clever and too deadly to be free”. He clearly belongs in some kind of asylum, but would it perhaps have been safer if this rogue had fallen from the heights to the city streets below..?

Returning Jokes

The pale-face Pagliacci wins once again

Upon his return, thanks to an explosive escape of his own creation, the Joker looks to make good on his promise that he’ll have the “last laugh”. Still obsessed with his own intellect and the impudence of anyone who dared jail him, the rogue makes straight for a rather well pitched laboratory under a graveyard. He’s soon up to his old tricks, announcing crimes before ingeniously carrying them out. But this time there is a greater and more welcome aspect to his villainy: revenge. It’s wise to continue the story in the same book.  He first targets Chief of Police Chalmers along with political reformers who dare speak against him. It’s another stab at the Cleopatra Necklace that leads to a further confrontation with Batman which the pale-face Pagliacci wins once again. It’s a gripping encounter in the Drake Museum which reminds us of one thing: both the Joker and Batman are fugitives from the law; Batman’s only escape is to knock two coppers flying while the jester is long gone.

Most noticeable about the Joker’s foiling here is that it’s an extended re-run of his first capture. With the Joker knowingly walking into a trap, Finger and Kane make the most of a battle between the forces of good and evil. There’s an extended fight scene in square panels of punches and blocks far above the city.  The Joker, or course, can’t help shouting death wishes on batman throughout.  But it all builds to one outcome, when the grim jester is stabbed in the chest with his own knife. At last we see the grim humour at the heart of this villain as he peals into fits of laughter shouting: “The laugh is on the Joker”.

When a doctor later checks the corpse to find that the clown still lives he may be very surprised… but we aren’t. To paraphrase one of Batman’s last lines, it isn’t just a grinning skull that will take the Joker into eternity.

If Batman #1 proves anything, it’s that the hero needs a the right rogues gallery to remain in print, and given the addition of the Cat and the Joker here it seems that he’s in just the right purple gloves.  A Moriarty and an Irene Adler in one volume: things are looking good for the Dark Detective.

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