Friday, March 27, 2015

Detective Comics #27: A page-by-page analysis

I think it’s important for pop culture to remember and respect its roots. So much of what was produced in the time of our grandparents, great grandparents, etc., deserves to be re-read every once in a while. I recently watched the two Batman serials from the 1940s and I’m currently watching the complete 1960s-era Batman TV show and I’m noticing that a lot of what worked back then – at its basic core – still works today. It’s fascinating to read and watch old movies, TV shows and comics because of their timeliness and because they’re dated. They’re called “classics” for a reason (well, some of them are anyway).  Anyway, I thought it would be fun to start a new feature here on the blog where I go back and “analyze” some of these famous artifacts and what better place to start than with Detective Comics #27?

The Cover



This is certainly a dynamic cover and it’s really not any different from what you might see today, as far as basic composition goes. There’s a true sense of motion here as it’s clear that Batman is swinging in from somewhere and about to land somewhere. The image of a mysterious masked man carrying another man by the head in one arm while holding a rope with the other arm is pretty powerful. If you had no idea what the situation was, you’d probably assume this “Batman” guy has super strength to be able to do that.

You also add the element of the two goons along the bottom (one of whom is holding a gun) and there’s an sense of justice here. They don’t look too happy that Batman has one of their brethren in a headlock. Notice that the goon with the gun isn’t actually taking aim at Batman, but rather holding it upwards as if startled or in a surrendering position of some sort. The guy on the left is just stoic (out of shock of what he’s seeing, I assume).

The setting on a rooftop also gives implies danger, action and an impressive feat. They seem to be really high up and Batman is just swinging like Tarzan. That’s not something you see every day.
I’ve found the background color of yellow to be a strong choice. They could have went with sky blue, but then it would be obvious that this scene takes place during the day and superheroes (especially Batman) lose their edge in unfettered sunlight. The bright colors certainly don’t imply that this is happening around midnight, but the yellow is a “hot” color and contrasts well with the blue/black of Batman’s costume and the red Detective Comics banner.

I have always found it both curious and funny that Batman is carrying the man by his head. Why not with his arm under his armpit or throwing the man over his shoulder? I’d imagine being held in a headlock while swinging through the air would be extremely painful on your neck and throat. Perhaps Bob Kane has explained this, but I’d assume he drew it this way probably because he had no frame of reference at the time. Today, action and adventure comics, movies and TV shows are all around us. We’ve seen this type of situation more times than we can count, but back in 1939 it was a new sight to behold.

I also like the subtle detail of the man dropping his hat. It was probably intended to enhance the severity of the situation since back then everyone wore hats everywhere at all times. To lose your hat back then would be like losing your cell phone today.

Page 1

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Top panel: Notice that the splash banner refers to Batman as “The Bat-Man,” even though his name was hyphen-free on the cover. In fact, he’s referred to as such throughout this issue and the next few comics. The hyphen wouldn’t be dropped altogether for a while.

Panel 1: It always cracks me up whenever I read Golden Age comics or watch movies from this era: everyone is constantly smoking! I’d be curious to see when smoking was phased out of comics. Anyway, it’s fitting that our first panel contains Bruce Wayne and Commissioner Gordon. Both have retained more or less the same look since then, though the pencil mustache looks pretty silly by today’s standards.

Panel 3: Why does Commissioner Gordon invite a civilian to tag along with him to a murder scene?! Bruce’s nonchalant response is hysterical, though! Such an indifferent attitude to such a traumatic event. Though it goes to show the timelessness of human nature as Bruce sounds like a teenager today. He’s essentially saying “Yeah, I guess. Whatever.”

Panel 5: Notice Bruce is still puffing on his pipe and will continue to do so until the end of Page 2.

Panel 6: For a grisly murder scene, there isn’t any blood or carnage.

Page 2

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Something I notice when reading Golden and Silver Age comics is that they tended to use a lot of captions and word balloons for exposition. Look at Page 2 as a whole and you’ll see that nearly half its composition is made up of balloons. Not that this is a bad thing. In fact, it works quite well here since the name of the magazine is Detective Comics which implies there’s going to be mystery. Mysteries work best with the right amount of exposition used properly and I’d say that’s the case here.

After only two pages we’ve seen: a wrongly-accused man, an unknown assailant, implication of a conspiracy or industrial espionage, and another heinous crime that creates for even more suspense and terror. This is a good way to establish a crime story.

Panel 7: Bruce’s continued indifference to the situation is still pretty funny. Since we know he’s really Batman we know he’s bluffing, but wouldn’t Commissioner Gordon consider him to be a sociopath? After all, what kind of person comes to a murder scene only to leave a few minutes later apparently out of boredom? LOL

Page 3

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I only took three pages for Batman to appear – and what a way to debut! He immediately beats the goons into submission and retrieves the stolen contract. Of course, it begs a few questions:
  • How did Batman know the exact address the criminals would be at?
  • How did Batman get there so quickly?
  • Didn’t he ride with Commissioner Gordon to the murder scene? Did he just leave him behind?
  • What happened to the criminals? Batman didn’t tie them up, he just knocked them down. Did the police arrest them?
Panel 2: Notice the redundancy of the caption describing the scene and ending with “It is the ‘Bat-Man!’” with the two goons exclaiming “The Bat-Man!” directly underneath the caption. Also notice that the narration captions continue to refer to him as The “Bat-Man” in quotes repeatedly throughout this issue. Maybe quotes meant something different back then, but reading it today it sounds like the comic itself is either mocking the Bat-Man’s name or that it’s not entirely sure that Batman is Batman.

Panel 9: Neither Bruce Wayne nor Batman is known for having a sense of humor and certainly not smiling, so it’s rather odd to see so much as a smirk from him. In fact, it seems to come across a bit creepy considering the context since the reader at the time would have no idea who this character was. It seems to be an implication that Batman is sadistic or perhaps a criminal himself who’s just going after the competition. Fortunately, this will be explained by the end of the story.

Panel 10: A lot of people consider this the first appearance of the Batmobile, but since it’s just an ordinary car I don’t know how that can be the case. The name “Batmobile” was not used until nearly two years later in Detective Comics #48 (February 1941).

Page 4

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The plot continues to thicken! This page has a little bit of everything: the story advances, there’s a death trap, and Batman comes to the rescue. Though I can’t help but wonder why he went into the gas chamber with Rogers – putting himself in danger – when he could have just shattered it from the outside to begin with (perhaps so the glass wouldn’t hit Rogers?). The 1940s Batman serials both featured elaborate mad scientist-like death traps like this and the 1960s TV show was lousy with them. Unrealistic to be sure, but they make for great action scenes.

Notice that Pages 3 and 4 have much less exposition and much more action. Page 4 is almost entirely action, though every panel still includes the obligatory omniscient narration caption to explain everything.

Page 5

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More or less a repeat of Page 4, though it’s much more fun to see Batman beat up the bad guy than save someone from an overly-elaborate death trap. Also, what was the point of Jennings leaving on Page 4 only to return on Page 5? Villains absolutely cannot be in the same room when one of their death contraptions is about to kill the hero (perhaps they exit for legal reasons, so as to have an alibi?).

For some reason the artwork on this page looks a little more amateurish and cartoony than on the previous pages. Everything looks very stiff and disproportional.

The explanation as to why Stryker had the other men killed seems to make sense. It’s actually a fairly plausible white collar murder conspiracy. As is the case with most conspiracies of this nature, it’s all about money and power. Sure, I’ll buy it.

Page 6

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Our story ends with Batman “accidentally” killing the main villain by punching him and knocking him into a tank of acid. This would be a trope used throughout Batman’s early days (we all know that’s how The Joker came to be). I like that it’s depicted so that the reader can’t be sure if Batman purposely intended for Stryker to fall to his death in the acid tank or if it was just an unfortunate accident due to the circumstances.

Panel 5: Batman shows no remorse for what just happened, which would seem to imply that was his plan all along. Then again, he’s not celebrating or taking pride in Stryker’s death, either.

Panel 8: Commissioner Gordon finally states the obvious: that Bruce is disinterested in everything. That shows his ruse is working.

Panels 9 & 10: I wonder how many readers, when reading this for the first time in 1939, were surprised to find out that Bruce Wayne was Batman all along. If you read it carefully, it’s pretty well implied that the two are the same person since Bruce Wayne is at the scene of the original murder and then Batman appears at the next murder scene immediately.

Conclusion

For a Golden Age comic, this was a fun read. The artwork isn’t half bad and the script is a little convoluted, but otherwise it works as a Batman story. It’s only six pages long, but there’s quite a lot happening in such a small amount of space. There’s no reason this crime caper couldn’t be re-hashed and expanded. In fact, DC did exactly that in 1991’s Detective Comics #627 in which this story was retold and updated for the present day.

Overall, I have to say this is a fitting debut for Batman.

1 comment:

  1. They also updated it in 1969 for 'Tec #387, the 30th anniversary issue (which was reprinted in 'Tec #627), and I think there might've been another version of "The Case of the Chemical Syndicate" done for the 75th anniversary as well.

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