Batman: The Dark Knight Archives-Volume One

This is less of a brand new entry and more of a continuation of the Batman Archives: Volume One entry from last week.  This trade collects the first four issues of the Batman comic, while the previously mentioned trade collects his earliest appearances in Detective Comics.  These comics were being released simultaneously, hence my earlier review of the Joker’s second appearance in Detective Comics, as I read it before his first appearance, which was in Batman.

Thoroughly confused yet?  Good, me too.

This collection of the early Batman comics sees a continuation of many of the same themes found in Detective Comics.  Many of the storylines are rather straightforward, with Batman and Robin fighting and subsequently defeating a rather average criminal.  Still, despite the continuation of mostly self-contained stories, there is plenty to discuss within this trade.

This collection showcases the first appearances of two of Batman’s most notorious adversaries, the Joker and Catwoman (in these issues more commonly referred to as simply “The Cat”).  The first point I have to address is this:

wpid-20150908_134612.jpgHow is it even remotely possible I’ve never seen an image of Catwoman’s original mask?!

Look at that thing.  I can’t even begin to fathom why or how someone would choose to wear that, but I love its absurdity.  It’s even more entertaining given the fact that she doesn’t wear any other sort of costume.  It’s just that insane mask and her everyday clothes.

Crazy cat head aside, I was impressed to see that Catwoman’s character is already pretty well established from her first appearance.  Not only is she a jewel thief from the start, but the seed is sown for her tumultuous relationship with Batman within her first few appearances:

wpid-20150908_135852.jpgThese three panels so perfectly sum up Batman and Catwoman’s relationship, I can hardly believe they’re from one of the original stories.  This back and forth between the characters was established much earlier than even I would have anticipated, and I must admit I’m intrigued to see how their little game of cat and mouse (pardon the horrible pun) plays out.

Along with Catwoman, these early issues feature a number of appearances from the Joker, including his very first.  As discussed here, the Joker was highly entertaining to read about, even in these earliest issues.  While Catwoman was not yet fully realized as a character (indeed, the character of Selena Kyle doesn’t even exist, as Catwoman has yet to be given a name), the Joker was a force to be reckoned with from the start.  Not only are the stories he appears in thrilling, they’re different.  No longer is there a band of mindless thugs running around just waiting for Batman to catch them.  Here we have the Joker plotting and setting traps, traps which Batman falls for all too easily.  There is a certain uniqueness to the Joker’s style of crime that makes his character far more appealing than any other villain at this point.  I cannot overstate this: it’s no wonder he became such a popular character.  He was a brilliantly crafted character from the start, and no doubt left countless readers wanting more.

These comics stroked a smaller yet more personal interest of mine as well.  Throughout the stories I found various allusions, and sometimes outright references, to various film and literary figures.  From the obvious Robin/Robin Hood comparison to the King Kong styled battle between Batman and a monster atop a skyscraper, the writers were clearly not shy about borrowing from various forms of media for inspiration.  My favorite reference came when a museum curator fell and hit his head, taking on an alternate personality a la Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  Every time one of these allusions popped up, I received a little jolt of excitement.  Not only is it fun to read about now, but it must have been even more entertaining for children who were no doubt at least partially familiar with these stories to see them appear in their Batman comics.  The writers undoubtedly knew the appeal this would have, and used it to their advantage – exceedingly well, I must add.

That being said, there are still certain points within these stories that cause me to shake my head or raise an eyebrow in question:

wpid-20150907_095418.jpgYes, that does in fact say “Quiet or papa spank!”

No, Batman.  Just…NO.

Not only does this appear in the comic, but the woman Batman is addressing is none other than Catwoman herself!  I grew up with the Catwoman who likely would have scratched to hell any man who dared speak to her like that, even Batman.  Yet here she is, without so much as a scathing retort.

I know, I know.  Different times and all that.  Still, this was considered perfectly acceptable to put in children’s comics in the 40’s?!  Then again, with the amount of death and violence that appears in these early issues, a little exertion of male dominance probably didn’t bother anyone.

The lackadaisical approach to violence gave me pause on more than one occasion.  Numerous characters die, be it through shooting, stabbing, poisoning, or falling to their deaths.  The majority are criminals, but there are a fair share of innocents who die as well, many of whom it seems Batman could have saved.  Perhaps this was to create a more realistic world for the heroes to dwell in – give the heroes’ world credibility and their triumphs will be that much more impressive.  Or perhaps children were simply not as guarded then as they are now.  Even Batman stoops to the criminals’ level sometimes, drawing a gun and shooting an escaping mobster:

wpid-20150908_190730.jpgStill, note the “editor’s note” in the bottom corner of the panel, clearly informing readers that “The Batman never carries or kills with a gun.”  Although interrupting the flow of the story, it’s for a noble purpose and makes some of the more violent scenes at least a little more palatable.

Despite the incessant violence, I was surprised to see how many stories ended with Batman delivering a moral or lesson directly to the reader:

wpid-20150907_094512.jpgIt’s a bit more “After-School Special” than I would have expected from Batman, but at least it’s drawing a clear line between hero and villain.

Despite all of the murder and violence, these comics are not without their funny and, truth be told, absurdist elements as well.  Perhaps the oddest example of this is when Batman literally pies a criminal in the face:

wpid-20150908_190414.jpg

This humor always feels a bit unexpected when compared to the action and violence, but I suppose it’s a way to lighten the overall mood.  Nevertheless, seeing the dark knight cracking jokes is something it’s going to take time getting used to.

These early issues, coupled with those from the previous trade, have already impacted my vision of the Batman character.  By reading these trades I feel as though I’m getting an entirely different type of origin story, and I am truly excited to see how the character evolves over the ensuing decades.

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