12 October 2009

BATMAN ALWAYS WINS: Six Pages

How many Batman stories are there, anyway? I'd be tempted to count, if I could quit my job and get paid handsomely by some eccentric billionaire to do nothing but count Batman stories.

There's at least 690 stories in Batman's eponymous title alone. Of course, some issues had more than one story; others are part of a larger story arc. Detective Comics adds another 858 to the pile. Batman Family, Legends of the Dark Knight, Shadow of the Bat, an endless array of miniseries, one-shots, Elseworlds, guest appearances...like I said, full-time job. And that's just in comics; there's several TV series and movies to consider as well, plus video games, prose adventures, and so on and so on and so on...

Considering the almost unimaginable volume of Batman stories over the past seventy years, it's pretty astonishing to consider it all began with just six pages. Detective Comics #27, cover-dated May 1939, boasted a Batman cover, but only a single six-page interior story devoted to the Caped Crusader. The rest of its 64 pages were filled out by an odd assortment of gag strips, action strips, prose pulp adventures, and some actual detecting here and there too.

So, six pages. Six pages with which to introduce a character who would continue to be published non-stop for the next seventy years. Six pages to spawn a pop culture phenomenon--movies, music videos featuring androgynous pop stars, pillowcases. Six pages that are a landmark in our cultural history.

They're six good pages, scripted by Bill Finger and drawn by Bob Kane. Today Kane is always credited as Batman's sole creator; if Kane created Batman, then Finger brought him to life. It was Finger who became Kane's initial and most influential co-conspirator in building up what we know today as the Batman "mythos," though I'm sure some hate that word. (At least I didn't call it "canon.") "Young socialite" Bruce Wayne and Commissioner Gordon both premiere in this first story, along with the Bat-Man (dash included); it would take several more issues for other bits of Bat-iconography to appear, such as the Batarang and bat-themed methods of motorized conveyance. (In this original adventure, Batman drives a nondescript red car, like he's just borrowing wheels from a particularly boring friend until his pimped-out superhero ride is ready.)

This first story, "The Case of the Chemical Syndicate," reads to today's eyes like warmed-over second-hand crime fiction, something one of the minor Law & Order shows might whip up for a non-sweeps episode. There's four guys and someone dies, and they're in some chemical business together, and one of them wants the whole money for themselves. Or something.

Who cares, really, when the top of the first page gives us our first look at this Bat-Man, framed in silhouette, promising mystery and intrigue and darkness?

The rest is a dull moan, except when this Bat-Man shows up again, and punctuates the proceedings with the physical violence that even in comics' dawning days was already the visceral payoff to whatever convoluted story had to be serviced to get the reader to the good stuff

As a casual fan at best of golden age comics, a few things surprised me. First, the silence. As in, there is some.

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I always imagine golden age stories as heavy with text, whether it's dialogue balloons or looming captions that compress the images in each panel down into tiny tableaus. Even in this initial story, Kane and Finger are already experimenting with moments of pure action, minus any text whatsoever; over the first year of Batman in Detective, they'd push this envelope even further to create moments of surprising and quiet mood.

It's also jarring just how unconnected the sequential art is in this story as compared to any modern comics. It may be the influence that film storytelling has slowly gained over comics storytelling that compels creators today to develop more cohesive scenes that spread out over pages, instead of moving a story forward at a more compressed pace; creators today also have far more space to spread out than these six pages, so they decompress, leading to 22 page issues that read more like a chapter in a book than a filling installment of story. In "Syndicate," the panels are less frames from a film than snapshots of a series of scenes, with stray moments of true "sequence," where you can somewhat follow action from one panel to the next.

You probably already know that at this point in his career, Bat-Man had no trouble with criminals meeting their "fitting end" in the course of his pursuit. He'd change that tune quickly, and he'd meet Dick Grayson, and he'd start looking out for the Bat-signal and settle pretty quickly into a Batman (no dash this time) we recognize as the same one we read about today.

In these first SIX PAGES (sorry, I just can't get over it, so so much from so so little), the Bat-Man is still rough around his edges, and raw. Yet even here, the darkness draws in, and this "mysterious and adventurous figure" already begins to fascinate.

Next time: My favorite Batman, by Englehart and Rogers.

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