Saturday, September 19, 2015

Superman/Batman 1942

Batman: The Dark Knight Archives Volume 4 (Collecting Batman Issues 13-16, 1942-43/Collected 2003): written by Bill Finger, Don Cameron, Jack Schiff, and Ruth Lyons Kaufman; illustrated by Bob Kane, Jerry Robinson, Jack Burnley, Ray Burnley, and George Roussos:

Batman's co-creator Bob Kane leaves most of the art chores to other people in this volume of Batman stories from 1942-1943. And the prolific Don Cameron writes the majority of the stories, with an assist from Batman co-creator Bill Finger, who was otherwise writing most of the Batman stories in Detective Comics while Cameron handled Batman in Batman.

One of the pleasant surprises here, other than Cameron, is the art of Jack Burnley. He's not as good at the comic grotesques of those stories with artist Jerry Robinson on them, but he supplies a very straightforward, cleanly rendered adventure version of Batman. 

The Batman Mythos was rapidly coming together by this point, barely three years after the Caped Crusader's first appearance. Robin is fully entrenched as Batman's sidekick, and villains such as Catwoman, the Joker, and the Penguin are already making repeat appearances. 

Standouts in this volume include the following stories:

"Here Comes Alfred" by Don Cameron, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson introduces the (initially fat) butler to the Batman saga.

"The Grade 'A' Crimes by Ruth Lyons Kaufman and Jack Burnley features a rare Golden Age story written by a woman. 

"The Boy Who Wanted To Be Robin" by Cameron and Burnley introduces the idea of a criminal training himself to be a sort of 'anti-Batman.'

"The Two Futures" by Finger and Burnley offers a grim vision of an Axis victory in WWII.

"Swastika Over the White House" by Cameron and Burnley is a rare WWII story in which Batman actually battles Nazi saboteurs.

"The Adventure of the Branded Tree" by Cameron and Burnley may be the first example of a strange sub-genre of DC superhero stories, those that are narrated by an inanimate object, in this case a roll of paper. It's also part of a fairly widespread tradition of showing superheroes reading about their own exploits in the comic book that they're appearing in. You'd be amazed how often this sort of meta-fiction shows up in comics of the 1940's.

In all, an enjoyable and surprisingly dense read. The comics of the 1940's often had crude art, but they generally offered a surprisingly generous amount of prose along with that art. They certainly weren't for the illiterate as they were so often accused of being. Recommended.

The Superman Chronicles Volume 9: (Collecting Action Comics 47-52, World's Finest 6-7, and Superman 16-17, 1942/Collected 2011): written by Jerry Siegel; illustrated by Joe Shuster, John Sikela, Fred Ray, Leo Nowak, and Ed Dobrotka:

The chronological reprinting of Superman stories from the beginning, regardless of what title the stories appeared in, continues here with an offering from several months of 1942. America has just gone to war, and while the covers reflect this -- Superman doles out punishment to Hitler on one cover, for instance -- the stories have not yet caught up to reality. 

We do get some great battles with super-villains, however, and a not-yet-omnipotent Superman.  The Man of Steel's powers are still developing four years after his first appearance. He still seems to be vulnerable to poison gas, for instance, and he still needs to push off from something to fly. 

The gems of the volume are two linked stories pitting Superman against Lex Luthor, previously a red-headed evil scientist who has now mysteriously gone bald like another early Superman foe, the Ultra-Humanite.  "Powerstone" and "When Titans Clash" see Luthor gain powers greater than Superman's from the mysterious, titular Powerstone. For once, Superman's wits and knowledge of Luthor's psychology must save the world, not his strength.

One bizarre story all but recreates the story of The Natural, as Lois Lane and Clark Kent discover a baseball prodigy while on a train ride to MLB spring training. Did Bernard Malamud read Superman comics? Annoying unpowered foes The Prankster and The Puzzler also make their first appearances. They really seem like rejects from Batman's Rogues' Gallery. 

The volume also offers a battle against a mind-controlling tyrant self-dubbed The Emperor of America and a battle against the first iteration of long-time Superman foe Metal[l]o, here a guy who's taken "super-serum" and dressed in a suit of impregnable metal, but later to become the Man with the Kryptonite Heart.

Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel keeps the ideas cracking. This Superman is a bit more Establishment than Siegel's original version, though still much less authoritative and pompous than he would become in the 1950's. And he still seems to operate in a world where he's at least partially an Urban Legend -- many criminals don't know who he is, thus leading to much fruitless gun-play and fisticuffs. 

Superman's artistic father Joe Shuster only illustrates one story here, "Man or Superman?," and parts of it seem to be traced from his previous work. Even this early in the game, Shuster was being undone by his declining eyesight. John Sikela and Leo Nowak do solid work as Shuster's ghosts. Sikela is perhaps the closest to Shuster's style of all the ghosts, though he's more polished and less pleasingly raw than Shuster. Nowak gets more of Shuster's cartooniness in his art, but even less of that raw power and dynamism. In all, recommended.

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