My review of DC’s recent Batman meets the Mad Monk series got me thinking about the number of “early Batman” trade paperbacks out there and, given the popularity of the character, we’ve decided to launch a Wednesday Batman Review. Over the next month, five “early Batman” books, unreviewed by us in the past, will receive consideration here.
The reviews start today with the actual Year One: The Batman Chronicles, Volume 1 collects every first year Batman story, from Detective Comics #27-38 to Batman #1, 1939-1940.
Title: The Batman Chronicles, Volume 1
Writing: Bill Finger, Gardner Fox.
Art: Bob Kane et al.
First published in 2004, this represents the first volume of an affordable series which promises to publish every Batman story in chronological order.
For no given reason, a wealthy socialite hunts criminals as a grim, masked avenger. After the death of his parents, wealthy Bruce Wayne prepares himself mentally and physically to become a grim, masked avenger, wanted by police but the bane of criminals in Manhatten Gotham City.
He later takes on a young partner, and they discover that the criminals are turning ugly. Literally.
It’s great to see the development of the character and his world. Intially, “the Bat-man” has no backstory; that comes in Detective #33. He has a customized car, usually red (but black in one case), but no true Batmobile. The bat-gyro/bat-plane appears, however. Wayne has a lab, but no Bat-cave. His costume he keeps in an old trunk. And it is Wayne, not the Batman, who has a friendship with Commissioner Gordon. He works out of New York City, which has carried the nickname Gotham City. Hugo Strange, not the Joker, is the first recurring villain, though he has had little staying power. The vampiristic/lycanthropic Mad Monk is Batman’s first real supervillain. The first truly memorably villains, the Joker and the Catwoman (called “the Cat” in her premiere appearance) arrive soon after Batman has acquired his sidekick.
Robin actually makes sense in the context of the comic’s world, and his origin story, though simple Golden Age fare, captures the Batman/Robin relationship in a way that Miller’s All-Star Batman and Robin does not. The Joker begins as a genuinely sinister figure, in this volume’s best story.
It’s good to see Batman gradually winning over the people he protects and becoming more of a role model. The direct address to the readers about the cowardice of criminals in “the Cat,” even for a Golden Age comic, seems forced and distracting. They’ve placed it in a particularly unconvincing spot, since Batman will let the chief villain go in this story.
Originality: 5/6. Batman had obvious antecedents, including the Shadow and Superman, but Kane and Finger have created something decidedly different here.
Some stories borrow liberally from Hollywood horror movies. The Joker has been modeled on The Man who Laughs, a giant ape menaces Batman in Paris, and another character meets his doom plummeting from the top of the Empire State Building. Strange’s monsters wear Frankenstein boots.
Artwork: 5/6. Obviously, some scenes were rushed, and internal swipes abound. However, Kane and the others had a real sense of their fictional world, and few comics from the era experimented so much with angles (Will Eisner’s The Spirit would not begin publication until the summer of 1940).
Hugo Strange’s Concentrated Lightning Machine, however, ranks among the most ridiculous-looking contraptions in comic book history, while the appearance of Commissioner Gordon varies from issue to issue.
Story: 4/6. I must here consider the writing, rather than any one story. Some of the expected Golden Age sloppiness and silliness is present, but the Batman compares favorably to most comics of the era. The character has a definite, grim personality. The stories are often better-plotted than the other kiddie-fare of the day. There are also surpring twists. In an era where racist depictions of certain groups were standard (and Detective Comics was no stranger to these), “The Case of the Ruby Idols” reveals that the fanatical easterners are fake, actors playing a part in an elaborate scam, and the stereotypical Sinister Oriental is a Caucasian in disguise. The unofficial “Mayor of Chinatown,” meanwhile, assists Batman.
Characterization: 4/6. Batman himself experiences something like character development over these early issues.
Emotional Response: 5/6.
Flow 4/6. This varies. Obviously, a lot of the plotting was done very quickly. Across the issues, there is continuity, though Wayne’s fiancée appears and reappears as needed.
Overall: 5/6 This is a Golden Age collection every fan of the character should own, and also good for those with an interest in pop-culture and comic-book history. I only wish DC had included some commentary or historical perspective.
In total, The Batman Chronicles #1 receive a score of 32/42.
Tune in next week, same battime, same baturl, for Batman: Year One.