Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Origin of the Golden Age Batman


Secret Origins (1986) #6 (September 1986)
"Golden Age Batman"
Roy Thomas-Marshall Rogers/Terry Austin

Doug: Marshall Rogers drew pretty pictures.  And he left us too soon.  Today's review really has no history to it.  I never owned this book, and really didn't even know of its existence until this past December 25th when I received a copy of the DC hardcover Legends of the Dark Knight: Marshall Rogers as a gift from my wife for Christmas.  As most of you know, we've been working through the Jim Aparo book in the same series and my copy of the Alan Davis edition arrived two weeks ago.  But today we're going to delve into a fun and great-looking story that will take us back to the War years and the dawning of the career of the Dark Knight Detective.  It's interesting because it's anchored by dates, which when writing an historical piece is fine -- if you check the date of the issue's release you'll see the era of Crisis nigh, and the coming reboots will make all of this moot anyway.  NOTE:  I want to apologize here at the top for the quality of the scans. As I said, the book is new and the spine is very tight -- you'll forgive the muddy look on the edges of scans that were located on interior margins of the book.  Thanks.

Doug:  Roy Thomas starts us out with what we've known since Detective Comics #27 was published way back in 1939 -- young Bruce Wayne went to a motion picture with his parents, Thomas and Martha.  In this version of the story, it was not a Zorro film, but one starring Rudolph Valentino, and the year is set for us as 1924.  A mugger accosted the family while walking home and demanded Mrs. Wayne's necklace.  Her husband stepped forward in her defense and was shot twice at close range.  Martha Wayne began screaming for the police as the man grabbed her necklace.  She apparently had a heart attack as the thief ran away.  Bruce never got a good look at him, and slumped to the ground over the bodies of his dead parents.  Later, while in the care of his Uncle Philip, Bruce is reminded to say his nightly prayers.  Telling his uncle that he never forgets, young Bruce prays, " -- and I swear by the spirits of my parents to avenge their deaths, by spending the rest of my life warring on all criminals!  Please Dear God -- help me keep my promise!  I'll do anything --!"

Doug:  As Bruce got older and entered his high school years, we're told that while he was a fine student he made few friends.  Part of that reservation might have been a fear that his friends would be taken from him.  As he entered college, an adviser told him that he needed to live life to the fullest -- it was more than just books and knowledge.   So Bruce threw himself into athletics and the stage.  We know that he had ulterior motives in each area, but through this branching out he met a girl -- Julie Madison.  They get to know each other through their mutual love of the stage; Bruce says that while he enjoys it, it's really a sort of vocational training for his real passion and career goal -- police work in Gotham City.  Soon the two youngsters proclaim their love for each other, but must separate soon after graduation (the Class of 1939) as Julie heads off to pursue her dreams on Broadway.

Doug:  Twenty-five year old Bruce Wayne has moved into a downtown penthouse, part of his inheritance.  He overlooks the city and again pledges his war on crime.  He muses on Julie, who has sent him a letter telling that she's unhappy being apart from him.  Bruce also meditates on his desire to be a detective, something she is not crazy about.  So he thinks, there must be a way...  Suddenly, a large bat flies in through an open window.  It's an omen.  A few nights later some of the finest costume designers in the business arrive at the Plaza Hotel.  A bent over old man greets them, and commissions them to build him a costume of his own design.  The two men work through the night, and when finished are rewarded quite handsomely for their efforts.  Later that night, the Batman makes his debut!

Doug:  On patrol, the Batman has spied a man looking like he might be interested in breaking into a warehouse.  The Caped Crusader sees him as "filth", and readies his attack.  The guy is descended upon quickly and roughly.  Falling onto a giant spoon that was part of a billboard (a great homage to the days of Dick Sprang), he starts crying about a broken leg.  Batman comes closer for a look and gets whacked upside the head with a hammer handle.  Stunned, the Dark Knight falls back while our tough makes his getaway.  Fleeing across a freshly-tarred street, he's gone.  Batman pauses to look at the guy's tracks, and notices some small white particles that have stuck in the tar.  Upon inspection, he realizes it is thallium, a mineral used to make glass.  Following his instincts, Batman heads to a nearby glass factory.  Once inside, he's trapped in a net, thrown by our criminal from a catwalk.  Our baddie, however, being a member of the "stupid and cowardly lot", binds Batman and puts him in the basement, rather than deep-sixing our hero.  Bad guy's mistake.  It doesn't take long for Batman to free himself, and KO his nemesis.  Announcing himself publicly for the first time, the baddie is tied up and left on the street under a lamp post, a note from the Batman attached.

Doug:  Back at the penthouse, Bruce phones New York (man, DC just drives me crazy with real cities/fake cities.  The Marvel Universe is so much more manageable) and catches Julie on her way out the door.  He says he wants to talk, and has something to ask her.  She is on her way to a rehearsal, and so asks him to call back the next night -- at 3:00 am!  Bruce decides to kill the time by calling on a friend of his Uncle Philip -- Commissioner James Gordon.  Meeting Gordon, Wayne goes through some pleasantries.  I'd have thought Bruce was going to try to get some inside information on the Gotham City crime scene, but he actually was hoping to get familiar enough with the commissioner to get a recommendation to the NYCPD.  That would be the "tell"; the "ask" was for Julie to marry him.  So as I read this the first time, I'm thinking "who is this Julie Madison?", as I couldn't remember her.  I checked out the comicbookdb, which Karen and I use for our cover shots.  You can look for yourself -- to this point she'd only had nine prior appearances, five of those in the Golden Age.  Anyway, Gordon gets a call that David Lambert, "the Chemical King", has been killed.  He asks Wayne if he'd like to tag along to see a murder investigation.


Doug:  Once at Lambert's home, Gordon interrogates John Lambert, the son.  With his fingerprints on the knife that killed his dad, Gordon asks John Lambert to explain.  Apparently the youth had come home, found his father face down with the knife in his back, removed the blade, and rolled his father over.  David Lambert's dying word was "contracts".  Lambert tells Gordon that his father had three business partners, and one of them -- Steven Crane -- calls right at that time to report that Lambert had told him of a threat; Crane got the same threat.  Asking for protection from the police, Gordon tells him not to move.  Bruce Wayne takes the opportunity to slip out, only to reemerge as the Batman.  As he arrives at Crane's home, shots ring out.  Two thugs climb a rope made of bedsheets to the roof of the home.  Batman attacks them, and it goes much better than during his maiden voyage only nights before.  After defeating the henchmen, Batman lands on the ground and scoops up a rolled up paper that had been dropped during the fracas.  At that moment the police arrive, and of course you know how this is going to go.

Doug:  Or so you thought.  The Batman gives them the slip, as Gordon orders his men to get to the homes of Paul Rogers and Alfred Stryker, Crane's other two partners.  But Batman, in a red roadster, has beaten them to it.  Rogers arrived at the home of Stryker moments before, and was greeted by his manservant (any chance you get to use the term "manservant", take it) Jennings.  Welcoming Rogers into the home, Jennings wallops the visitor with a blackjack and ties him up.  Carried to a laboratory in the house, Jennings places Rogers in a chair inside a large glass dome.  In effect, it's a gas chamber!  As Jennings gets set to introduce the toxin, Batman breaks through the skylight, grabs a vice from a nearby table, and hurls it through the glass enclosure.  Jennings pulls a pistol from his back pocket, but the Dark Knight is upon him instantly.  Roy Thomas' script does a nice job of evolving the Batman right before our eyes.  As Batman and Jennings scuffle, Stryker comes down the steps to the lab.  Rogers implores his partner to free him from his bounds, but is instead greeted with a drawn knife!  Cripes -- this story is dangerous to be in!  Batman grabs Stryker's arm and jerks the knife out of his grip.

Doug: Stryker admits to the plot:  years ago, the four partners had signed contracts whereby Stryker would pay each man a designated sum of money over the years until a point where Stryker would own the entire company.  However, falling short of cash, and with the contracts known to none but the partners, Stryker began to have his partners killed.  Now found out, Stryker twists away from the Batman and falls over a rail and into... a vat of acid.  Because every lab in a Batman story has one, sort of like Reed Richards keeps a vat of water in his (don't believe me? - click here, too).  After the dust has settled, Wayne finds himself back at Gordon's for a debriefing.  The Commissioner agrees with Wayne that this Batman fellow might be useful after all; Wayne states that he might be able to cut through some red tape that might otherwise hamper the police.  Bruce scoots off just before 3:00 am to make his phone call to Julie.

Doug:  The phone in Julie's apartment rings, and she staggers out of the bedroom to answer it.  She tells Bruce that her rehearsal had gotten cancelled, but she tried to wait up for his call.  He says that he is coming to New York the next week for a visit, and to ask her something.  She sprightfully says that he needs to ask something that she can say "yes" to.  He does tell her that he is no longer interested in being a policeman, in front of or behind a desk.  He suggests that he might just become a playboy.  As they hang up, each declaring their love for each other, Bruce thinks that he will be much more effective in his war on crime... as the Batman. 


Doug:  This was one of those Roy Thomas-scripted tales that took well over the normal 20 minutes to read.  At 23 pages in length, it was a bit wordy, not boring, with enough plot twists and scene changes to keep it rolling along.  You'll notice that the creators kept a couple of now-important elements out of this origin story.  First, there is no training with Eastern mystics and martial artists.  Second, this is a Batman sans the sidearm that he carried very early on in the 1930's.  The art is simply stellar.  The Rogers/Austin team just pulls out all the stops, making this story have a real Golden Age feel to it; the costuming of the characters in the story is spot-on for the WWII period.  Terry Austin's linework evokes Vinnie Colletta -- sort of soft, feathery even.  It's really nice.  And these two can certainly draw a beautiful lady; of course they are best known for their Bronze Age Bat-girlfriend Silver St. Cloud; this Julie Madison is every bit as gorgeous (and in the 4th panel above, we see Marshall Rogers teasing us with a sexy see-through look he'd use a few years later when drawing Shalla Bal in the revived Silver Surfer mag).  Austin puts so much effort into these pages, that the times when your eye sees zipatone, it's actually the inking.  Outstandingly crafted.  And who draws the Batman's cape better?  No one.  Great stuff!

BONUS:  Because I care, and I do, here's a look at the first appearance of Julie Madison from Detective Comics #31 (September 1939).  She first shows up in only the fifth appearance of the Batman, and is billed as his fiance.

15 comments:

Edo Bosnar said...

I first saw and read this a few years ago on another blog (possibly Diversions of the Groovy Kind - there's probably better scans there as well).
It really is solidly written and enjoyable - and the art is absolutely fantastic. You're right, it definitely has this sort of Golden Age look, while still looking very fresh.
I never followed the Secret Origins title back in the 1980s, which I now kind of regret - it seems like I missed out on a lot of great stories.

dbutler16 said...

I read this in a Batman TPB (maybe it was The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told) and I thought it was very good. The art has a Golden Age look to it, and it's a nice take on Batman's origin from Roy Thomas.

Matt Celis said...

I never cared for revisions and expansions of
already-told stories but at least Roy Thomas takes pains to keep everything more or less intact from the original, which is more than I can say about the new versions of so many other heroes' origin stories.

Karen said...

Great review partner (as usual). Rogers and Austin drew a fantastic Batman. I really feel like Terry Austin is the unsung hero in a lot of art teams -I always felt like John Byrne looked his best when inked by Austin.

Mike said...

Good stuff Doug. As one of the resident Batfans around these parts, I had to chime in and give you kudos. I love that last panel on the Secret Origins story. Really cool.

And I always liked the pompous care-free golden age Bruce Wayne with a pipe. That would definitely through me off. "But Bruce Wayne can't be Batman .. sure he's a tall and fit billionaire with enough time on his hands to train and develop incredible cars and weapons, but for crying out loud he smokes!! There's no way he's the Batman."

Doug said...

Thanks, Karen!

And thanks to Edo for a possible head's up to better scans. I stretched the book a bit, but that thing was tight! Unlike my three Marvel Firsts: the 1970's, which all lay open now!

Agreed on the impact of Terry Austin, but you know what? I don't think of him in the same way I would the inks of Joe Sinnott or Bill Sienkeiwicz, both of whom really leave their respective marks. Austin seems subtley improving/enhancing if you understand what I mean.

Doug

Doug said...

Thanks, Mike, for the kind words.

I'd be curious to know why Roy Thomas left out the gun.

Similarly to your comment about the pipe, early on Reed Richards also was seen with a pipe!

Doug

William said...

Nice review Doug. I too received the Legends of the Dark Knight: Marshall Rogers HC for Christmas. I read this story and I liked it quite a bit. The art is truly fantastic which, let's face it, is the main reason to own this volume. The story is a decent retelling of Batman's original origin. There are a couple of things I found a bit questionable however.

First is the fact that Roy Thomas chose to have Martha Wayne die of a heart attack instead of being shot by the mugger, (like in every other version of the story). I don't know why he changed that, but it seems strange that a woman as young as she appeared to be, with no known history of heart disease, (as far as we're told anyway) would have a fatal heart attack, even in an extreme situation like that. It also makes the thief a little less responsible for her death, which I don't like either. Seeing both his father AND his mother brutally and mercilessly gunned down was the whole reason Bruce became Batman in the first place. So, in making her death partly by natural causes, it waters down young Bruce's motivation a little, IMO.

I also thought it was odd that at the end of the story Bruce tell's Julie that he's decided to just become a "Playboy". Huh? Who the heck calls themselves a Playboy? (And considers it a career option to boot?) Also, isn't a Playboy a wealthy man who plays the field and dates several different women? So, why in the world would you tell your 'fiance' that instead of a Police Officer, you'll just become a Playboy? Dumb move Bruce.

Doug said...

William --

I'm glad you made the latter comment. That was a head-scratcher for me as well!

Doug

Anonymous said...

I'm in the same boat as Edo...I didn't pay much attention to Secret Origins when it first came out, but I think I might have to look for some back issues. I suppose most of the origins have been superseded, but that wouldn't lessen enjoyment of the stories at all.

Mike W.

Anonymous said...

When Batman's origin was first depicted in Detective #33 (1939), Joe Chill shot both Thomas and Martha Wayne. When the origin was retold in flashback in Batman #47 (1948), Mrs. Wayne had a heart attack from the shock. I don't know the reason for the retcon, but it was done long before Roy Thomas or Secret Origins. And I think the mugger could still be considered responsible for her death, since the mugging caused the heart attack. But it would be more plausible if there had been some foreshadowing, explaining that she had a weak heart in the first place.

Inkstained Wretch said...

I bought this one off the newsstands back in the day. I'm pretty sure this is the only time that Roy Thomas wrote a solo Batman story. He did appear in All-Star Squadron a few times though.

It's a nice take on the origin that hits all of the familiar points without getting excessively grim n' gritty and without whitewashing it either. Thomas had a excellent feel for the era.

One quibble: Not sure why he dropped the Zorro movie bit from the tale. Douglas Fairbanks Sr. did two films as the Mexican Robin Hood in the 1920s. They could easily have been incorporated into the tale.

Hoosier X said...

Nice write-up on the batman origin.

But what about the Halo tale!!!

Doug said...

The Halo half of the book wasn't included in the Marshall Rogers volume. Shoot, I don't even know who Halo is!

Doug

Brian Hague said...

Halo was a member of Batman's team of Outsiders. She was cheerful and pleasant. She was also stricken with amnesia. Batman investigated her past and found she was a ruthless young girl named Violet Harper who had run away from home to embark on a life of crime. Violet was killed by an assassin and her body was possessed by an extra-dimensional being called an Aurikle which had also "run away from home." This explained the change in her personality and the emergence of her powers.

It should also be noted that this issue of Secret Origins was not Roy Thomas' only work with Batman as he wrote the title for a short time upon arriving at DC. Gene Colan did the art.

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