Friday, February 7, 2014
What's So Golden About... the Batman Newspaper Strip?
Batman: The Dailies 1943-44 (Kitchen Sink Press, 1990)
"The Joker's Symbol Crimes" (March 20-June 3, 1944)
Bill Finger-Bob Kane/Charles Paris
Doug: Welcome to my first Friday review of 2014! Today we're going to take a peek inside a really fun book (the first of three volumes, actually) that's been on my shelf for almost 25 years. And that's hard to swallow -- where does the time go? I've chosen the third "chapter", which ran in the spring of 1944, for our discussion today. When we get to the bottom our focus will of course be on the story and art, but we'll specifically look for those elements of Golden Age goodness, too. Strap in, Bat-fans!
Doug: We open on the walls of a new, inescapable prison set near Gotham City. For whatever reason, Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson are touring the perimeter of the facility. The warden guarantees that its most notorious inmate, the Joker, cannot break out. Just then, in the yard below, we see the Joker himself begin to make trouble by choking another inmate. The guards spring to action, but the Joker kicks them away. Ignoring his lack of a Bat-suit, Wayne launches himself off the wall and onto the Joker's back. He, too, is rebuffed effortlessly. The Joker is finally subdued, Wayne's left with some bumps and bruises, and the warden declares that the Clown Prince of Crime has gone stir crazy and will be moved to the State Prison for the Criminal Insane.
Doug: At Wayne Manor, Bruce muses over some of the trophies from his past encounters with the Joker. He thinks to himself that all of this is over -- once the Joker reaches the asylum, he'll menace no one again. Duh... Back at the prison, guards prepare their man for transport. Handcuffed and in an armored car, the Joker begins to roll, two guards in the cab of the truck. Now I'm no expert on prison protocol, but I've seen enough movies to know that a body search would be expected and appropriate for someone of the Joker's track record. Nope (of course, if they did their jobs here we wouldn't have a story, would we?). The Joker managed to smuggle a nail, a match, a cigarette stub, and an empty paper bag with him. As you might deduce, he uses the nail to pick the lock on his cuffs, the match to light the butt which then creates smoke, and the bag to blow up and POP! The guards think he's somehow smuggled a gun into the truck and has shot himself! Man -- what's so golden? Stupid prison guards? Of course they stop the truck, run to the back and throw open the doors, and Whack! Bam! Biff! off runs the Joker, free as a lark.
Doug: Back in his lair, the Joker ruminates on his next move. He knows it has to be something really big. While out walking through Gotham City in the rain ('cause we need a little noir, you know), he spies a sign advertising a lecture on "symbols of our everyday life" and has a eureka moment. Later attending the lecture, the Joker sees Professor Matthew Cleek discuss five symbols: one representing pawn shops, an hourglass, a skull and crossbones, the scales of justice, and the symbol of the Batman. The Joker interrupts the presentation to leave his own symbol -- the Joker card! Let me say that I've had a very real Conrad Veidt vibe from these panels. While Jerry Robinson isn't listed in the credits of the story, "his" Joker is fully on display here. As the Joker departs the auditorium, he throws real money to the crowd. This is a celebratory Joker -- he's "back"! And he's determined to prove that his symbol and symbol crimes will triumph over the symbol of the Batman.
Doug: The Joker's first job is a local pawn shop. He uses a gas gun to spray the proprietor with the laughing toxin. As the man falls backwards, his face already rigorous in the Joker-grin, the fiend loots his shop. Before departing, however, he tosses a calling card. One symbol, one crime -- and a challenge for the Batman. Throughout this story, we see a very different Batman from the Silver and Bronze Age (and beyond) Batman that we are used to. This Batman often relies on the police rather than beating them to the punch, he doesn't come off as omniscient, and his detective skills really pale even in comparison to his TV counterpart's. It's still a recognizable Batman, but a somewhat distant cousin to the fellow we know. After meeting with the commissioner about the pawn shop crime and deducing that it's related to symbols, Batman and Robin pay a visit to Prof. Cleek. They learn that the second symbol from his lecture was an hourglass.
Doug: The next crime is the theft of a jewel-encrusted clock claimed to have belonged to Marie Antoinette. The Joker shows up in disguise, smoking like a chimney right in the gallery, and pulls the heist after subjecting the other patrons to knock-out gas. He uses a pistol to break the glass over the clock, but doesn't have time to lift it out before the Dynamic Duo arrive. Robin's a wee bit headstrong and pays for his enthusiasm with that same gun upside his noggin. Batman of course tends to his young partner, while the Joker makes tracks. After a few moments the Dark Knight gives chase, and into the "clock room". What follows is one of those really cool Dick Sprang-esque images, as the Batman and the Joker duke it out on the face of a giant clock. Awesome!
Doug: Robin is able to eventually save the Batman's bacon, but not before another nifty sequence involving a bell tower and some dynamite. In all this, the Joker of course is able to get away. So it's back to Prof. Cleek's to consult the symbol list -- because you know, you couldn't just take a shot of it on your Bat-cellphone in these days! Next on the list is the skull & crossbones, symbol of piracy. Batman deduces that this must have something to do with a precious cargo arriving on a ship, but is dumbfounded to find that his research turns up no information on any shipping logs of commodities of which the Joker would be interested. Wondering if he's missed something, the Batman queries the police for assistance. Still no dice. Just then, an officer enters the commissioner's office and relates that they have a pigeon willing to talk about the Joker. He tells those assembled that some trigger men are meeting the Joker at an apartment, and gives the address.
Doug: Of course by the time Batman and Robin arrive the Joker is nowhere to be found. They interview the landlady, but she doesn't know anything. They do find a fingerprint, but what is more compelling is what the landlady says she heard "Mr. Daniels" say: "When the queen leaves the gold room and the blinker starts shooting, we leave the dinkie mob." Batman, Robin, and Gordon are all stumped. Stumped, until Batman consults his dictionary of American slang. What he finds is the break they need: Translated, the quote means that when the movie queen leaves the wardrobe department containing expensive gowns, and the camera starts shooting, we leave the mob of extras. The Joker and his men have gained employment as extras in a movie, and the starlet is playing an Roman queen but wearing $50K of real jewels. The setting, you ask? On a ship -- bingo on the skull & crossbones!
Doug: Of course Batman and Robin are able to again foil the Joker's plans, and even have to use a working prop of an old airplane to do it. There are some great images of fisticuffing in this climactic scene, but again -- the Joker gets away! So it's back to Cleek. On his numbered diagram, it is the symbol of the Batman that is next. As has been his modus operandi, the Joker has attempted to steal or steal from what the symbols represent. But how will he steal what the Batman represents? Cut to police headquarters, where the Batman was already scheduled to present a display of his collection of official police badges. A photographer shows up from View magazine, wanting some shots. Of course you know who it is -- the Joker again! He pulls a gun on those assembled, and his henchmen -- also dressed as photographers -- move to take down the display. But that Batman... thinking ahead, the frame of the display case had been wired with electricity! So as the goons get a shocking experience, the Joker turns his pistol on our heroes. As the issue comes to a head, a GCPD officer bursts through the door and fires a single shot, taking the gun right out of the Joker's hand. Thinking quickly, the maniac pulls a bomb from his coat and hurls it. Gordon screams like a sissy, but Batman catches it and recognizes it as a phony right away. Tossing it aside, Batman trails his nemesis. The Joker, still packing heat, goes into the line-up room. Batman and Robin follow, and douse the lights. Batman is able to tap out morse code on Robin's wrist -- talking would have of course betrayed their location in the room -- and when Robin throws the main lights the Joker is stunned. A couple of solid socks to the jaw later, and our villain is on ice. Case closed!
Doug: So, what was so Golden about this 1940s newspaper strip? A few things stand out to me. First, the use of kid sidekicks is one of the things that would rankle Frederic Wertham and provide ammo for his arguments about the depravity of American comic books. Putting adolescents in the line of fire (literally) ain't cool, according to F.W. Secondly, there's quite a bit of gunplay throughout -- with Robin around, not so good. I'd also add here that the Joker was pretty violent in a manual way in this story. I don't really recall seeing him so ready to fight in stories from later eras. Third, and I love this aspect -- many of the characters in this story would have been right at home in a Chester Gould Dick Tracy strip. The art is outstanding. It seems to me that the credits were well-researched in the book, but there's no mention of Shelly Moldoff, Sprang, Robinson, or anyone other than Bob Kane on the pencils here. If that is indeed the case, then he really did a bang-up job. And lastly, the notion that super-baddies, particularly at DC Comics, used themes to pattern their crimes is on center stage. DC would mine that for decades! If you've never seen this series of trades, it might be worth a look sometime.