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Member Since: Sat May 17, 2008
Subj: Golden Age Batman: Trailblazer for a Kinder, Gentler Type of Superhero
Posted: Mon Apr 01, 2013 at 10:04:50 am EDT (Viewed 1441 times)

Some of you will recall that a year ago today I took a critical look at the first reported adventure of the costumed show-off known as "Superman." What I found wasn't pretty. (Here's a link.) This special day of the year seems the perfect occasion to post a sequel: My careful look at a story published about a year later, featuring the debut of a much nicer person who called himself "The Bat-Man!"

For anyone who hasn't heard of this obscure bit of fiction: "The Case of the Chemical Syndicate" was written by Bill Finger, drawn by Bob Kane, and published in Detective Comics #27, cover-dated May, 1939. It was a mere six pages in length, but got its hero off to a rousing start!

Let's take a closer look at what sort of first impression he must have made at the time on fans who had been shell-shocked by the Superman debut of the previous year. Here's the plot:

In a city which no one bothers to identify, Police Commissioner Gordon and another fellow, identified as "his young socialite friend, Bruce Wayne," are having a quiet evening of friendly conversation in the former's home. Gordon indicates that things are rather slow in police work at the moment, except for some odd rumors about a "Bat-Man." (Gordon uses the quotation marks around that alias, as does the header of the story in the first panel.)

The phone rings. Lambert, "the Chemical King," has just been stabbed to death in his own home. His son's fingerprints are on the knife. Gordon heads over to the Lambert residence to supervise the investigation, and Bruce Wayne tags along on the grounds that he has nothing better to do at the moment.

Young Mr. Lambert tells a simple story: He entered the room. His father was already on the floor with a knife stuck in his body. Someone went out the window just as the son entered. The wall safe was wide open. The son frantically took the knife out of his father, and old Mr. Lambert just managed to gasp out something about a "contract" before dying.

That would account for the fingerprints. Gordon's questions and subsequent behavior strongly suggest he doesn't believe the son did it -- and to be fair, by 1939 it would have to be a very stupid cold-blooded murderer who failed to remove his own prints from the murder weapon before he himself picked up the phone to summon the police to the scene of the crime! (There's no mention of anyone else having made that call -- so I assume the son did.)

A killer who had seen a few mystery movies, and/or read a few detective stories in the pulps, would probably have enough sense to wear gloves -- or at the very least to wipe the murder weapon clean if he didn't take it with him. But a grieving relative of the deceased might not have thoughts of forensic evidence weighing heavily on his mind right away.

The son says that his father's three former business partners were Steven Crane, Paul Rogers, and Alfred Stryker. Right on cue, a phone call comes from Mr. Steven Crane. He tells the Commissioner that he's just received an anonymous death threat, and that he knows Lambert received a similar threat yesterday!

The Commissioner says that "we" (he and several uniformed cops, presumably) will be right over. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne indicates he's going to get out of their hair now; nothing he can do here!

Cut to Crane's house. Someone shoots him dead. The killer grabs a paper from a safe and exits through a window (do you see a trend forming?) and then climbs a rope up to the rooftop, where a confederate is waiting for him. Then they see "Bat-Man" has just arrived on the roof, and there's a fracas.

Both thugs have guns, but a fat lot of good it does them. One thug is knocked unconscious with a single punch and the other is last seen "flying through space." (What kind of shape he was in after he landed is never made clear.) Somewhere along the line, The Bat-Man also managed to confiscate the mysterious paper which had been removed from Crane's safe a minute earlier.

The police arrive just in time to see Batman silhouetted against a full moon on the roof of Crane's house. Someone in the car (probably Gordon) yells: "It's the Bat-Man! Get him!" -- but then we get no follow-up on how much effort (if any) is actually made in that direction. (Except in the sense that Bat-Man clearly was not apprehended moments later. How did he get away? And while hunting for him, did the cops ever find those two thugs he'd been grappling with? The answer to both is: "Beats me!" Although ballistics tests and nitrate tests might help them realize that one of those thugs had, in fact, killed Crane.)

The butler tells Gordon his master has just been killed. Gordon, who is not an utter moron, realizes that being a member of that old four-way partnership is starting to look like a very unhealthy thing to have on your resumé, and he'd better check up on the others! He says he'll visit Rogers next.

Why doesn't Gordon make some frantic phone calls to warn both Rogers and Stryker, as quickly as humanly possible, that their lives may be in jeopardy? Beats me! For that matter, a Police Commisioner surely could arrange for radio patrol cars in those precincts to race over and park in front of both men's homes until he can get there himself (presumably he's starting from a lot further away?). That might scare off a murderer hoping to make a clean sweep as he races from one victim's house to the next . . . but Gordon evidently doesn't think of making any calls along those lines, either. (Hey, I said he wasn't a moron-but I didn't say he was a genius!)

Meanwhile, Batman is now in his own car. (A bright red car, very subtle -- and yet I must admit that it looks more "normal" from a distance than some crazy custom-made "Batmobile" would, for instance. This can be important when the cops haven't yet decided you're an ally. If a cop see a plain red car a block away, why take any special notice of it?) Anyway, Batman reads the mysterious paper and takes off for what the narrative caption coyly calls "an unknown destination."

Now we cut to Paul Rogers, and right away we learn that Gordon is going to be a day late and a dollar short when he shows up at the Rogers residence. (Which he might have realized a lot sooner if he had bothered to phone ahead, but hey, I'll stop beating that dead horse now!)

After hearing a radio bulletin about the death of his old partner Lambert, Rogers has rushed over to the private lab of his old partner Stryker to talk things over. A big fellow named Jennings (apparently Stryker's lab assistant) lets Rogers in, then saps him into unconsciousness. When Rogers revives, he's been bound hand and foot and Jennings brags about a plan to kill him in a small gas chamber (it seems to be a glass cylinder which comes down to seal you in). This chamber is commonly used for killing guinea pigs and such in chemical experimentation.

Jennings has to leave the room to go turn on the gas. The Bat-Man arrives in the nick of time, saves Rogers's life, and then easily subdues Jennings as the later returns to check on his handiwork. (Please note that at this moment we know nothing of Jennings's motives. Strictly speaking, we don't even know yet if he was any sort of accessory in the murders of Lambert and Crane!)

Now we get our first look at the fourth partner, Alfred Stryker. He comes to investigate the commotion, sees Rogers standing and Jennings sprawled on the floor, and quite naturally asks what happened. Rogers tells him that Jennings tried to commit murder -- so Stryker quickly pulls out a knife and says he'll finish the job -- and The Bat-Man, evidently unseen by Stryker at first, suddenly appears behind him and does something painful to Stryker's wrist which makes him drop the knife.

Bat-Man then sums it all up for Rogers. The four men used to be partners in the Apex Chemical Corporation. Stryker wanted to own the whole thing, but couldn't afford to pay full value for it in one transaction, so he arranged to buy out the other three on the installment plan-large payments each year for many years. He apparently got greedy and decided that if all three men died suddenly, he could keep control of the company without needing to keep paying all that lovely money for the privilege. But of course he didn't want his signed contracts with them to be examined by probate courts after their deaths, or else he would've had to keep paying the same money to their estates. So he needed to make the documentary evidence of his financial obligations just disappear.

Rogers confims that the whole arrangement had been kept secret so that no one but the four partners knew exactly what was going on! He doesn't explain why anyone had felt the need to be so secretive about it in the first place. Is there something scandalous about one businessman buying another's shares in a chemical company on the installment plan?

Just as Bat-Man and Rogers are wrapping up this analysis, Stryker (still conscious and on his feet) makes one last desperate bid for victory by pulling out a gun from under his jacket. Batman hits the man just as the gun goes off (the bullet misses everybody), and Stryker is knocked back through a safety railing and falls into a vat of acid below. (The same one in which he had intended to dispose of Rogers's corpse, as he said a page earlier.)

I gather that Stryker dies quickly in the acid. Bat-Man seems to think so; he just says: "A fitting ending for his kind." (But nobody ever says, in so many words, that Stryker is dead.)

In the last few panels of the story, we see Gordon has been explaining the case to young Bruce Wayne, who seems to feel all this talk about Bat-Man's accomplishment can qualify as a "lovely fairy tale." Then we learn that Bruce is secretly The Bat-Man. (Which explains why the heck he's in this story at all! Until now, his only visible purpose in life had been to make bored noises in a few scenes!)

Granted, there are some peculiar aspects of the case which are left unresolved. For instance, Bat-Man's reconstruction never addresses this point: Why on earth did at least two intended victims out of three receive anonymous death threats before Stryker's hired thugs ever showed up to kill them? If I were planning to murder people for profit, I wouldn't go around warning them beforehand! They might bring in the cops; they might hire bodyguards; they might leave town in a hurry and hide somewhere I didn't know about; they might even transfer valuable items (such as secret contracts with yours truly) from their own homes to safety-deposit boxes in large banks for greater security . . . why make things harder for myself?

But that's just me -- I have the terrible disadvantage of being sane and sober. I guess that makes it hard for me to understand the thought processes of a man such as Alfred Stryker. Perhaps The Bat-Man suffers from the same handicap, and thus doesn't claim to know exactly what twisted thinking prompted those gratuitous threats?

Anyway! Now that we've examined this first case, let's compare it to Superman's first case, and see how these two costumed vigilantes compare with one another!

Superman, as you will recall, came across in his debut as:

1) A Fascist (since he was stronger than anyone else, and bulletproof to boot, he seemed to feel he could just do whatever he wanted, and that he was entitled to threaten to kill anyone who didn't cooperate with his agenda, and to ignore any of that nonsense about "due process" and "civil rights" and other inconvenient technicalities!)

2) A Hypocrite (since his words said the rule of law should always be respected, but his actions said that this principle didn't apply to himself!)

3) Incredibly Gullible! (You'd think a man who wants a career as an investigative reporter would realize that a prisoner already locked up on a murder charge may not the most reliable source of information about who actually committed the murder -- but that possibility never even occurred to Clark Kent! He took everything the man said at face value, and went running off to torture a "confession" out of the woman whom the prisoner had accused! "Evidence? I don't need no stinkin' evidence!")

Bat-Man, in contrast, in his first reported case, shows no interest in torturing confessions out of anyone. Instead, his approach to unraveling a murder case is based on such methods as "studying available evidence and then thinking about what sort of motives are indicated, and not using brute force on anybody you didn't catch in the act of committing a violent crime." (Superman, of course, has no interest in anything so boring as "logic" and "self-restraint.")

Nor does The Bat-Man seem inclined to appoint himself judge, jury, and executioner. Two murderous men (a thug on Crane's roof and later Jennings in Stryker's lab) are each subdued by nonlethal means and left for the police to worry about. One man was last seeing "flying through space," but we don't know where he landed or what damage he suffered; he may have gotten off very lightly! Given that this thug was carrying a gun which he had just finished using to murder Steven Crane, I think Batman showed considerable self-restraint in merely using his gloved hands to execute a judo throw or some such thing.

Only one criminal in this story seems to have died after a clash with Batman, and that was Stryker, who really brought it upon himself. When Batman first snuck up on the man, he settled for simply forcing Stryker to drop the knife he was brandishing. The Bat-Man showed no interest whatsoever in gratuitously causing any further injury to the mastermind of the entire scheme -- but when Stryker went for a gun a minute later, Bat-Man instinctively punched him in self-defense, and what happened after that was an unforeseen accident! (Please note that Paul Rogers was a witness to the whole thing, and made a full statement to the police, and therefore Commissioner Gordon doesn't say one word about any criminal charges being pressed against Bat-Man in connection with any of that night's activities.)

In fact, you can make a darn good case that Stryker would have survived to stand trial if Bat-Man hadn't been so easygoing and soft-hearted!

He hurt the man's wrist just enough to disarm him, and then assumed there was no need to get any rougher. Clearly, he simply didn't see Stryker as a serious threat at that point. If he had knocked the man out cold, or tied him up, or both, and had searched him for concealed weapons for good measure, then Stryker never would've seen an opportunity to go for a gun when he thought Bat-Man was distracted, and Stryker never would have staggered back through the railing and into the acid vat after Batman defended himself! I guess the message is: "This is what comes of being too generous and optimistic in the way you handle vicious criminals!" (Perhaps Bat-Man will overcome those flaws in his own character, someday?)

So in Bat-Man, we have a man who does his best to respect the concept of law and order, and tries to subdue violent criminals by non-lethal means whenever possible. He shows no interest in appointing himself judge, jury, and executioner; he greatly prefers to simply make citizen's arrests and then leave it for the conventional police to take over from there (once they arrive).

He doesn't carry a gun; he doesn't have bulletproof skin; he risks death or crippling injury each time he goes out in costume to try to make the world a better place. (Unlike Superman, who in his own debut seemed cheerfully aware that he was impervious to anything anyone was likely to throw at him, and thus didn't need any "courage" at all, since he was in no danger in the first place!)

Unlike Superman, Bat-Man doesn't seem to be the type to make lofty speeches about civic duty and fair trials and all that-but his actions scream his commitment to such ideals, instead of taking it upon himself to short-circuit the system at the drop of a hat!

And, of course, Bat-Man shows no signs of being dangerously gullible. Instead of jumping to any conclusions about Lambert's guilt or innocence in the first five minutes, he preferred to check out every possibility before openly committing himself to any theory of the case. It's called "detective work"-first you find real evidence, then you deduce who did what to whom, and why! (And if you go somewhere to follow up a promising lead, and find you've just caught a few criminals red-handed as they commit or attempt another murder, that's just frosting on the cake!)

So in 1938 Superman debuted as "the brutal thug who will gleefully torture a 'confession' out of you if he arbitrarily decides you 'must be' guilty of something, since he's too stupid to find any other way to investigate a crime, and he figures the normal rules don't apply to him anyway!" -- and Bat-Man came across in his 1939 debut as "the staunch defender of civil rights who won't do you any harm unless he sees you committing some violent crimes -- and even then, he'll use only as much force as necessary for the purpose of subduing you until the regular criminal justice system can take over and give you a fair trial!"

It's a darn good thing that Bat-Man came along shortly after Superman did, in order to provide a much lighter influence than the unmitigated darkness of the Last Son of Krypton's personality. Otherwise, we wouldn't see some of DC's other superheroes occasionally showing specks of rationality, compassion, humility, and a respect for law and order! They would all be following the vicious influence of the proto-superhero, the Man of Steel, instead! But they are (sometimes) saved by having Bat-Man available as an "alternate role model of good behavior!"

Quoth Our Raven -- Beast Boy finally works up the nerve to ask Raven for a date, with odd results. [Set in the TV show's continuity, this is a humorous narrative poem loosely modeled on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven."]
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