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.

Advertisements

Batman Archives: Volume One (Or, The Kinda-Dark Knight)

I was very excited when I looked at “the shelf” and saw that the first Batman appeared only two trades in.  He has always been my favorite superhero (if that is in fact the proper term for him. I acknowledge that “antihero” may be more appropriate) and he is by far the character I know the most about. That’s not saying much, but still. My interest was piqued by what I already knew.

I grew up on a steady dose of Batman. I watched the 90’s animated series. I’ve seen all the movies. I’ve even started watching the original 60’s tv show (which I’m starting to believe more and more is the greatest show ever made). I’ve spent many a day walking around with “Na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na BATMAN” stuck in my head (and if you think for one second I didn’t just sing that in my head to make sure I included the right number of “na’s”, you’re sorely mistaken).  I know the basic backstory and lore, but I’m fuzzy on a lot of the details.  I liked what I already knew, and was excited to learn more about this illustrious character.

Luckily,  Mistah J is himself a huge Batman fan, and so his shelves are generously peppered with various Batman story lines, ripe for the picking.  A part of me wanted to just pick out all the Batman comics and read them at once, foregoing the other character’s stories.  I decided against this though, knowing that I would miss out on the full experience of reading about all of the characters and their intersecting worlds, and thus be robbed of a full understanding of the multiverse in which these characters reside.

Still, I’m allowed to have my favorites, and I was all too happy to pick this trade off of the shelf and put it on my “to read” pile.

Beginning with the Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27, this collection chronicles the first adventures of the caped crusader, before he was even known as such.  I had exceedingly high hopes for this collection.  Here were the first stories about Batman, setting the tone for many series to come and creating the base character from whom countless writers would draw upon.

I’m happy to say the trade did not disappoint, though my enjoyment of these comics was for fairly surprising reasons.

The series opens with Bruce Wayne and Commissioner Gordon sitting around smoking (it still throws me when I these comics supposedly for children and see characters smoking constantly.  Different times, my friend), and chatting about nothing much in particular.  Gordon receives a call that there’s been a murder, and invites Bruce Wayne to tag along, to which Wayne responds: “Oh well. Nothing else to do, might as well.”

…What?!

Gee Gordon, sure, let’s invite the civilian to an active crime scene, why not?  There’s no way that could possibly be a bad idea.

I can’t help but wonder if Bill Finger had a particular disdain for law enforcement and so chose to portray them in a truly idiotic light.  This has become a common trope within superhero tales: the bumbling, incompetent police force as a foil to the ultimately successful hero working outside the law.  I just assumed this was something that slowly developed over time.  Nope, there it is on page one of Detective Comics #27.  With cops like this, no wonder the city needs Batman.

I must admit, I found the early Batman stories more compelling than Superman’s.  There was a greater sense of action and adventure within them. It felt like more familiar territory.  Each issue had a who-dunnit theme (this is Detective Comics, after all) and I found the stories quite exciting.  Bob Kane’s artwork created a real sense of action and suspense.  I can already see how his style may could have influenced many artists to come.

That being said, the comics are far from perfect.  I know Batman as a dark, brooding man of few words, yet within these pages he’s often making wisecracks as he battles criminals.  Don’t get me wrong, some of these were flat-out funny, but they didn’t fit the image of the character I grew up with.  The Batman I know is the strong, silent type, depicted in various shades of black and grey, with an ominous, almost sinister overtone.  In the early issues we see Batman not only cracking jokes but even smiling. Where is the brooding antihero we’ve all come to know and love (for reasons I’m sure a psychologist would love to explore)?  I’m interested to see when the switch was made to a darker character.

Despite Batman’s penchant for joking in the early years, the comics still had quite a few moments of brutality that were rather shocking, especially considering these stories were meant for children.  At one point we see, quite graphically, a man’s head split open with a machete.

 getPart

I wasn’t expecting this in these early issues, and it makes me wonder if children in the late 30’s were simply less sheltered from violent images, and if it was deemed acceptable for children to see these because they were just cartoons.  We all grew up with plenty of violence in kid’s programming, but it was generally of a more cartoonish nature.  This is outright violent.  I’m curious to see how the depiction of violence progresses through the years, whether it is reeled in at any point or simply becomes more artistic in nature, following Batman’s transition into a darker, more callous character.

What made these violent scenes stand out was the fact that they were interlaced with other far more light-hearted moments.  At one point Robin gets the jump on a criminal, and the crook exclaims, “I’m being attacked by an elf!”

getPart

This tongue-in-cheek humor greatly amused me, not only because I found it funny but because it shows that Kane and Finger acknowledged the comical appearance of Robin’s costume enough to comment on it. (There’s always the possibility that they were simply commenting on Robin’s height, since as a boy he should be at least somewhat shorter than everyone else. That seems like a much more mundane interpretation though, so I’m choosing to believe it was a comment on his overall appearance).  Robin’s brightly colored costume has always stood in stark contrast to Batman’s all-black wardrobe, a feature that always baffled me.  I suppose it was a way to highlight Robin’s youth and differentiate him from the older, darker persona of the Batman.  Nevertheless, the fact that the creators acknowledge the silliness of the costume, however slightly, made me smile, and makes me appreciate their creativity even more.

I was quite surprised to see how much of Batman’s backstory was established in these early issues.  Not only do we learn about how Bruce Wayne was orphaned as a child and dedicated his life to fighting crime, but we also see the introduction of Robin (the boy wonder!), aka Dick Grayson, and learn his origin story as well.  Both stories were essentially identical to the ones I had grown up with, proving that not much has changed about their histories since they first appeared.  Details may have been added, a few facts altered here and there, but the basic shell of who they are has remained unchanged.

These early Batman stories were greatly entertaining to say the least. I admit a personal bias; Batman was always my favorite DC character growing up, so I’m more inclined to enjoy learning about his early years in print.  Even so, I think I would have enjoyed these stories even if I hadn’t heard of Batman before.  As with the Superman stories, there was a certain nostalgia associated with reading the early stories for these characters. Catching the first time certain trademark items or phrases make an appearance was especially exciting.  This collection gripped me from the first page and made me dying to read more.  Having to wait an entire month between printings, isn’t that exactly the sort of reaction you want from your reader?  These stories were compelling, action-packed, and an all-around good time. It’s no wonder Batman gained the massive following that he did.

Reading these early stories has only further piqued my interest in the character of Batman, and makes me eager to continue reading about the caped crusader’s various exploits.

Lastly: You may question the noticeable absence of any commentary on the Joker’s first appearance in the Batman comics, which appeared in this collection.  I am saving that for a second, separate entry, as I feel it deserves to be a blog post in its own right.  Not to mention I have plenty to say on the matter.  As they say in the comics:

To be continued…

-Jess

The Superman Chronicles: Volume One (Part Two )

I reread my original post about this trade, and couldn’t help but feel like there was a lot I left out. I woke up this morning still pondering those first few issues.  Is it because I know the sheer magnitude of their impact on entire generations of readers?  Possibly.  It’s difficult to view the original works on their own without factoring in the multitude of stories that we know would develop from them.  It’s difficult to imaging being a child in the 1930’s picking up an issue of Action Comics for the first time and reading about the Amazing Superman and all of his incredible feats of strength.  We take superheroes for granted today, but for that generation it was an entirely new experience.  It’s no wonder that the comics gained popularity so quickly. What kid wouldn’t want to be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound and fight bad guys in the name of justice?  Sure, there were always everyday heroes to look up to (ie: policemen), but they probably seemed rather boring in comparison.  Superman fought for justice in much the same way, but he did it with style and panache.  Not to mention even in the earliest comics Superman goes busting through walls like the Kool-Aid man.  What little kid didn’t have at least a small destructive streak in them?

I know, this is supposed to be a blog about comics, not some historical dissertation, but I it seems one can’t read these comics without at least acknowledging the environment in which they were written.  Superman debuted in 1938.  Less than a year later WWII would begin in Europe.  Were the comics a form of escapism, meant to depict a world in which justice was meted out to criminals and good always triumphed, as a balance to the global turmoil erupting at that time?  Or am I overthinking things, and these were just simple stories meant to entertain children without any overarching theme or message?

Looking beyond the historical influences and focusing more on the comics themselves, it’s incredible to me how much of Superman’s lore was created so early.  Reading about his exploits in the first few issues surprised me.  There were no superhuman villains attempting to destroy the world.  These were your average, workaday thugs and criminals committing crimes that could have been ripped from newspaper headlines of the day.  An entire issue was even devoted to Superman  fighting for stricter traffic laws and meting out justice to wreckless drivers.  This is a far cry from the nail-biting excitement now common for The Man of Steel.  It’s justice on a much more relatable scale, to be sure.  Still, as a 21st century reader it felt incomplete.

Towards the end of the first collection we see the introduction of the first real villain in the series, a man who has given himself the name Ultra and claims to be behind many of the criminal enterprises Superman has put a stop to.  Superman is captured and Ultra attempts to kill him.  Superman survives easily and causes Ultra’s escape-plan to crash to the ground. When he searches the rubble, however, he finds no trace of Ultra.

I must admit, this was perhaps my favorite part of the entire trade.  Here we have Superman finally facing off against a super-villain (or a facsimile of one), surviving the encounter but with the potential for future meetings to come.  This issue felt much more action-packed and fast-paced than some of the others, and was the first issue where I was really excited to read more.  Perhaps this was also because it left the story line open to be continued in later issues.  All issues prior to this had been self-contained.  I found myself looking forward to Ultra’s next appearance (I hope I’m not waiting in vain) and how Superman would handle him.

Overall these first issues may seem a tad pedestrian compared to more modern story arcs, but they cannot be overlooked for their importance to the story as a whole.  Numerous writers and artists have picked up the mantle and added their own take to this character, developing him and creating a richer, more fully realized universe.  For this reason I’m extremely glad I read this trade, and was able to peer into the past and see where this iconic character got his start.

I’m anxious to read more and see how the story develops, but I have a feeling these original stories will be playing out in my imagination for some time to come.

-Jess

The Superman Chronicles: Volume One; And, an introduction of sorts

I sit at my computer tonight, staring at the blank page in front of me, wondering what I’ve gotten myself into.

I’ve always fancied superhero lore. What kid didn’t grow up watching old Batman cartoons, or tie a towel around their neck and pretend to fly around their living room? We’ve all seen the shows, the movies. Even those who aren’t diehard fans know the basics about the characters.  It’s a part of our culture. The stories always fascinated me, but comics, the original stories from which all of this other media sprung, eluded me. How do you just walk into a comic shop, pick up a random issue, and start reading?  These characters have literally decades of back-stories tied to them.  It seemed overwhelming to me, and so I stayed away.

Many years later…

I began dating a certain handsome comic enthusiast, henceforth to be referred to as “Mistah J” (His name starts with J and he has a certain penchant for the Joker, in case you’re wondering.  Maniacal laugh pack sold separately.)

Now Mistah J has a lot of comics. And I do mean a LOT. Like 8-10 thousand, not to mention a massive collection of DC trades, all organized chronologically.  He is very passionate about this collection, and is always adding to it.  One day I made a joke that I was going to read every single trade on his bookcase so that I would finally have the full picture of these characters, and would be able to have lengthy discussions with him.  He said that would be awesome, but probably didn’t take me too seriously.

Oh, if only he knew.

Once I get an idea in my head, it festers there until I act on it. It wasn’t long before I was repeatedly saying I was going to read “the shelf” (which is, in fact, four shelves, and ever-growing) on an almost daily basis.

Well, the time finally came to act. Which brings me back to my computer, wondering where on earth to begin.

I suppose the beginning is a pretty logical choice.

The first trade on Mistah J’s shelf is, fittingly, a collection of the very first superhero comics ever written, the original Action Comics Superman.

I admit, Superman is one of the few comics characters I already knew a bit about.  Still, I felt a rush of anticipation as I opened the book and began reading.  After all, this was where it all started, where a superhero comic was put on paper for the first time.

After reading the entire trade, I am slightly perplexed yet anxious to read more.

This was not the Superman I was expecting. Superman fights for justice and stands for all that is good in the world.  I grew up imagining him as the “beacon of light for all humanity”.  The Superman I found within these pages, while righteous and just, was also violent and at times a tad vindictive.  Since when does Superman threaten people’s lives, or hurl them across a mountain, presumably to their deaths?  Maybe I’m focusing too much on my memories of the cartoon series from my childhood, but this version of Superman, at least as far as his personality is concerned, felt less “super” and far more “fallible human”.

Another aspect I found odd was the rather mundane collection of “crimes” Superman fought.  When I picture Superman I imagine super villains, epic fight scenes, life and death scenarios.  Those were surprisingly lacking within the pages of these comics.  Instead we see Superman bringing down the leader of a torturous chain gang, bond scam artists, and unionized taxi thugs. It was like asking Superman to rescue a kitten from a tree – sure, he’s doing something good, but for someone of his strength and power it’s not exactly nail-biting.

I fully admit that my knowledge of how the character developed over these past 70+ years gives me a certain bias.  Even so, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the stories.  The criminals in these early stories may be your average everyday crooks, but that surely had its appeal to a 1930’s audience, especially one unaware of what the character would become over time.  I felt a certain nostalgia just from knowing that these were the first Superman stories ever written, that everything we know about the lore and mythos surrounding the character stemmed from these original stories.  For that alone they serve a vital purpose.

As an aside, I have to step back and examine the way women are portrayed in these comics. I was warned ahead of time that the stories and depictions could represent now-defunct ideals, but as a woman I was eager to see just what exactly that would mean.  In this comic, the only woman worth mentioning (and indeed, one of the only women ever mentioned period) is Lois Lane. Lois is portrayed as a deceptive, often unnecessarily cruel career-woman, who turns into a lovestruck teenager around Superman. This duality doesn’t really make sense to me, but then again Lois isn’t the star of the show here.  She serves two purposes in the comic: to scorn Clark Kent’s cowardice and validate Superman’s heroic acts.  Beyond this she really doesn’t have a role. Luckily, I didn’t really expect her to.  This is the 1930’s we’re talking about, after all. I’m lucky the comic even depicts a woman in the workforce. Where’s Wonder Woman when you need her?

Overall I enjoyed the comics in this collection, and I recognize the significance they have on the overall story.  We learn the basics of Superman’s backstory, what powers he possesses, and which he doesn’t yet.  (Apparently flying comes later?? All the comic says is that he can leap “1/8th of a mile”.  Exactly 1/8th. They say that repeatedly. Where in the hell did they come up with that exact distance?? But I digress.)   A lot of this is old hat by now, but it’s importance and relevance can’t be overstated.  Without these stories the Superman we know today wouldn’t exist. That alone makes them worth while.

A bonus is that I now have a few useless bits of trivia to pull out at parties. Example: Name the very first criminal Superman apprehends in Action Comics.

Answer: Bea Carroll. Yeah that’s right, the first criminal Superman caught, the precursor to all other criminals and villains he would fight over the years, was a woman.

Sure, I’m grasping at straws trying to make that significant in any way. It’s still pretty cool though.

-Jess