Debriefing #25: ‘Batman Chronicles Vol. 1’

chronicles1-cover

Batman Chronicles Vol. 1
Writer: Bill Finger
Artist: Bob Kane

James: With a character as popular and long-lasting as Batman, I think modern audiences are quick to take elements of the character for granted. Batman is such an iconic, legendary character that it’s easy to assume that he emerged as a fully-formed character. The truth, as we see from going back to the first appearance of the Bat, is a bit different. However, there are still a lot of recognizable elements here. My question to you is what do you make of the similarities and differences? Was it cool to see Batman still in incubation or did you find these early stores a crude shadow of what is to come?

Edgar: Ooh, an exceptionally well posed question, James. Reading this very first volume of the very first Batman stories ever I was reminded of sorts of another character’s origins I have great love for, James Bond. It’s like watching Dr. No (1962) for the very first time. I knew Bond, or at least I thought I knew everything about him and then I discover the first film and reveals a different side but also strong hints at what the character would become. Obviously what you and me did for this week’s discussion is for the pretty serious fans. I doubt casual fans will feel the need to delve so deeply into the past and read these issues. Yes, Batman (sometimes written as Bat-Man!) are different but there are some iconic moments that will resonate in the books, months, years and decades to come. Reading comics from the 1930s and 1940s requires one to be ready for something wholly different from what Snyder, Miller and co. have given us since then. All in all, it was a really fun experience. Were there some warts here and there? Yes and I’m sure we’ll get into them, but as a Batman fan I felt it was important to learn about where the character came from. I’m glad I did overall. What were your impression James?

J: I though this was a delightful read. I think I have a soft spot for the earlier eras of superhero comics. There’s something so melodramatic about them that I find them really fun. Obviously, there’s a lot of that corniness that we’ll see the ‘60s show Batman heighten up to a comedic effect. Batman making jokes as he beats up thugs, text monologues telling us what we’re already seeing, it’s of a very different time but if feels so sincere to me that I really enjoy it. It’s also curious to see that Batman in this early stage has some stark differences from our modern take. I think the first one I want to tackle is Batman straight up killing some of these thugs, maybe not directly, but still feeling no sort of remorse for seeing criminals die. What did you think of that?

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E: Oh, he absolutely has no qualms whatsoever when some of these punks are wasted. He openly admits that many of them got what they deserved. Knowing Batman as we do today, as a crime fighter vigilante who abides by a very particular code by which he may not kill the villains (even though many end up dying anyways), we’re faced with a very stark contrast in these early books. It was surprising to say the least. I remember in one of the issues, perhaps the second or third in which he basically threatens to kills some robbers and it isn’t difficult to believe that he just might do so. It’s a little hard to swallow but only because of what we are accustomed to today. Back then Bob Kane and company probably weren’t sure where they would take the character. It’s one of the fascinating nuggets we get to discover in this volume. I’m glad Batman eventually stops killing people willingly, but it’s extremely interesting to see this side of him. I’d like to know what your thoughts are on the same subject matter as well as your impressions on the visual depiction of Batman in this initial batch of stories.

J: While I obviously think the Batman with a code makes for a better character, I thought it was fun to see this early Batman be so extreme. His first act as Batman is to throw a thief off a two story roof which is pretty hardcore, something you’d probably associate more with The Punisher. In terms of visual depictions, It’s cool to see how he encapsulates basically everything you’d expect. Obviously, Batman has gone through many costumes but from issue one he’s got the cape and cowl along with the bat symbol. So at least in terms of iconicity, he enters the world fully formed. I also got to say, I dig the larger ears, at least for this style of drawing. I just feels a bit more striking and eery. Even this early in the game we also get some Bat gadgets so I’m curious about your thoughts on those?

E: This is where the stories are a bit hit or miss for me. First and foremost, I loved the Batgyro and the Batplane which essentially resemble humungous bats. Their shapes even fool passerbyes below and have them shriek in terror as they believe a gigantic bat hovers above them. I liked that touch, both visually and how on the nose the design was and how the citizens, who have no idea who Bat-Man is, are terrified of them. On the flip side, the Batbelt tools he uses are sparse. He makes great use of the silken rope (light but sturdy) and a TON of gas pellets. Every time he’s caught in a corner he tosses one of those contraptions. Armed thugs ready to shoot? Gas pellet. Oversized monsters? Gas pellets. Werewolves? Gas pellets. Where do you stand?

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J: I’m glad you mentioned the gas pellets because I thought it was hilariously overused. It seemed like his situation to get out of everything anytime the writers got Batman into a corner. I was just imagining this spoof in my head where Batman is just running around willy nilly throwing gas pellets. It’s cool to see him have the toys, but those gas pellets show up way too much. I was a bit bummed that with the batgyro and batplane we see Batman driving a red car around. I mean really? A red car? Talk about conspicuous, especially given how often he’s tailing criminals.

E: Okay, about the red car. Call me crazy but I didn’t mind it. A Batplane is quite ostentatious compared to a red car. I understand that the colour is conspicuous and therefore isn’t conducive and many covert operations, which does defeat the purpose. That said, I kept thinking to myself that it kind of made sense that Batman would drive around in a regular car precisely in order to avoid being seen too easily by the enemy. Also, in fairness, he changes it to a dark blue Roadster later on, so there! One thing I noticed reading the very first few issues is how little Batman speaks, as if the writers aren’t sure what sort of hero or antihero they have on their hands. Batman seems awfully terse to me in the first couple issues. Is that something that struck you in any way?

J: Yes, I feel like even within the same story that Batman swings between hardcore anti-hero and a beloved hero and it makes for some tonally strange issues. For instance, one story has the cops chasing Batman in the opening calling him a menace and by the end the people of Gotham are cheering and calling him a hero like he’s Superman or someone of that ilk. I think even by the end of this they aren’t sure what Batman is and a lot of the stories suffer because of that. This is a Batman rough around the edges. However, that being said, there’s two things that still stick with the character to this day which is Bruce Wayne as Batman’s secret identity and Wayne’s status as the a wealthy orphan. What did you think of this early version of Wayne?

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E: I’m not sure what to think exactly of this early version of Wayne to be honest. The writers Bill Finger and Gardner Fox use him so sparingly and to uneven effect . In the very first issue we meet him and Gordon chatting away. Gordon is called to a scene of a crime and just invites Bruce to tag along. What the hell is going on? On a couple of occasions Bruce pretends to believe that the Batman rumours are preposterous and so on and so forth. I don’t know, I don’t feel there was a lot of meat to Bruce Wayne in this volume. He has a fiancé and various other random decisions by the writers sort of made the character more inconsistent than anything else. The decision to reveal Bruce’s backstory was interesting if dealt with extremely quickly. In fact, after you share some of your own thoughts on this Bruce Wayne, I’d like to know what you thought of the extremely economical storytelling employed.

J: Yes, there’s not a lot to Bruce yet, but I liked that the small taste we get of him still gives us some character. Bruce acts like he’s this aloof, disinterested millionaire that has too much time on his hands so of course he’s going to hang out with the cops and get bored and wander off. I liked that eccentricity to his character, even if it was rather minor. As for the origin story, I think it’s short, sweet and to the point. Sure, we don’t get a lot of meat, but it gives us the trauma and motivation for the character and for this era of comics, I don’t think anyone was expecting much more than that. Honestly, it was kinda refreshing given how we basically live in an era where we’re constantly rebooting and retelling origin stories. We’ve talked a lot about the Bat so far, I’d like to shift gears a bit and talk about the baddies, we get a couple of big ones, but also some one-shot villains. What did you make of this early set of villains?

E: The rogues gallery here is a hodge podge of thugs and megalomaniacs that run the full spectrum of antagonists Batman has faced throughout his career. Sometimes they’re utterly forgettable thieves, other times completely wacko psychopaths. Doctor Death anyone? The one thing we can say is that this era of Batman comics is always quite colourful in their characterizations. The motivations of these villains are pretty thin but the stories themselves are so short that it doesn’t seem to really matter. Antagonists like the Monk and Duc D’Orterre don’t really need more than a cool costume, some nifty powers and the barebones motivations of a desire to do evil. There are some awkward racial stereotypes here and there (like the Indian heavy used by Doctor Death) but overall they were cool. James?

J: Yes, the basic street thugs lacked personality, but the bolder characters were quite interesting but they certainly felt of their time and not always in the best way. We also get two of Batman’s foes that have stood the test of time. The first is actually Hugo Strange, which has evolved a bit. Here he’s a mad criminal mastermind and I thought he was decent enough. My minor exposure to Hugo Strange hasn’t made much of an impression. I’ve always placed him in the lower tier of Batman’s regular rogues. The other is the one, the only, The Joker. What did you think of these early appearances of Batman’s most famous foe?

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E: I was very happy to learn that the smiley face of death was in fact the Joker’s original calling card. Last week we watched Tim Burton’s Batman which featured that eerie form of death and I didn’t really know if that had originated in the film or from the books. It was neat to discover that the Joker’s been doing that from the very start. He also looks really, really cool in this volume. They find their visual identity very early and stuck with it. Even future artists changed very little from what he looks like here. The one thing I couldn’t help but chuckle at was that he does almost the exact same thing in the two issues where he appears, that is, announcing via radio that so and so will perish at the stroke of midnight or ten o’clock or what have you. You’d think he’d try something else the second time around. He also seemed solely intent on stealing jewels, which differs greatly from his future excursions. How did you find the original Joker?

J: I was surprised how much of him is here from the beginning even down to his method of killing as you talked about. He seems a lot more gun crazy than our modern Joker, although our modern version certainly is not beneath shooting someone. He also didn’t quite have the same relationship with Batman. This Joker want’s Batman out of the way for good. It wasn’t quite the perverse symbiotic relationship we have today. It is funny how uncreative his plan is and that he’s basically a petty criminal when you get down to it, so he’s not quite the full anarchist we’ve come to know and love. And speaking of his look, what did you think of the art in general from these early issues?

E: Again, it becomes a matter of preparing oneself for a different era of comic book storytelling. The first couple issues, while not ugly by any means, are certainly more plain in terms of detail and colour patterns. Buildings and walls are of a single colour, as are the random backgrounds behind speaking characters. Even the Batman looks a little different. It looks as though they buff him up as the issues move along which I found quite interesting. Once the artists find their footing things start looking a little more sophisticated, especially at the nighttime scenes (shadow effects in particular look very convincing). All in all, I can’t say I was blown away but there’s something about this old timey comic book art that gives the reader enough info while inviting enough to the imagination as well. Was the art in this volume to your liking?

chronicles1-art

J: I really like the looks of these Golden/Silver age comics. I think one thing that draws me to them is the solid color backgrounds. Instead of trying to be consistent with the background, they’re constantly shifting colors and I like something about it. There’s a pop art feel to it, almost like Warhol’s work, although it’s certainly not on that masterful level of pop art. It feels less restrained to trying to keep continuity, which is funny because there’s at least one car scene I can think of where somehow characters end up on opposite sides of the car in the next frame. It’s nothing that’s going to inspire awe or knock your socks off but it has a fun color pallet and I dug that. In general, the actual figures and action were passable. Nothing to get excited about.

E: I liked how the action was depicted actually. Maybe it’s because I enjoy a lot of older movies too, older action movies, but there was something about having a rather simply drawn panel with Batman swinging like an acrobat from his silk cord and his feet landing on the face of a thug that I like. The movements are pretty simple but effective. In today’s comics we get an insane amount of detail sometimes, so much so that I literally have to stop reading and look at everything in the panel in order to fully comprehend what the characters are doing, especially in a fight, be it hand to hand or with firearms. It’s looks great but it’s also too complicated. Not everything needs to look like a freaking realistic painting! On the topic of action, some issues deal with some pretty fantastical elements, like werewolves, people without faces, giant monsters. Batman gets pretty sci-fi at times. What did you think of that?

J: I actually like a dash of supernatural from time to time in my Batman stories. I liked the idea of Batman chasing after a group of werewolves that are led by a vampire, it felt like it fit the iconicity of his character. The giant monsters, that one I didn’t dig as much, in part because they felt kinda stupid and dumb and seeing Batman beat up on them wasn’t satisfying. I think the writer ever recognizes this because Batman talks about how he feels sad about killing them, especially because they’re victims of Hugo Strange. The guy without a face, well it was such a cool idea, but I felt like they didn’t do much with it. Of course, later down the line I think we see The Question as a throwback to that idea for a character so it’s another seed of the Batman lore. What were your thoughts?

E: A little hit or miss, much like yourself. I also didn’t care for the giants. They simply didn’t inspire much imagination. The werewolves are vampires were way out there, as was the faceless man. Not so much so that it pulled me out of the story however. We’ve seen and read about some pretty crazy villains like Mr. Freeze and Clayface so a man without a face can easily fit into the Batman universe. I can’t say I’m surprised the writers thought of using vampirism as a threat early on. I imagine that thought it would be cool to have that juxtaposed against a hero who dresses up as a huge bat. Anything else you want to tackle?

J: I think we’ve hit on the full range of what I thought about while reading these comics. It was a fun read, but it certainly lacks the meat and dramatics of a lot of the modern Batman comics. It can be a bit crude and rough at times, but there’s still some fun to be had. I would have to say this is probably a read more for the hardcore Batman fans.You’ll appreciate it for its historical value, but the actual stories are nothing to write home about.

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