BATMAN ON FILM, since June 1998!
BOOK REVIEW

BATMAN IN THE FIFTIES

Author: Robert Reineke
Sunday, April 29, 2007

SYNOPSIS FROM DC COMICS:
"Collecting sixteen tales originally written in the 1950s, these stories reflect the lighthearted and carefree era in which they took place. With Robin, Batwoman, Bat-Mite, and Ace the Bat-Hound by his side, the world's greatest detective faced off against a zany collection of foes that included giant fighting robots, kooky aliens and talking apes. Although the adventures may not have been deadly, they were, and still are, wildly entertaining."

In many readers’ minds, the darkest period in Batman’s history is the 1950s, which is full of light and colorful stories. Zebra Batman. Rainbow Batman. Gorilla crime bosses of Gotham City. Alien invasions. Bat-Mite. And yet, something must have worked as Batman was continually published while many superheroes of the Golden Age fell victim to cancellation. BATMAN IN THE FIFTIES is part of DC’s continuing reprint collections giving a representative view of how Batman evolved over time and is a worthwhile entry in the field purely from a historical perspective. But what are we to make of the period?

As Michael Uslan notes in his informative introduction, there were basically four types of stories in the period. Those that updated Batman to the fifties, those that expanded the Batman family, Batman and Robin fighting classic and new rogues, and those that took Batman squarely into the realm of science fiction. And the volume is divided into four sections featuring four stories from each of those categories. Uslan doesn’t really mention that there’s another way to divide the period, those stories before the Comics Code took effect around 1954, which are much more down to earth and feature a Batman much like the late 1940s, and those that took place after the Comics Code, which with the elimination of some of Batman’s classic rogues as too grotesque required Batman to go in a safer direction. Most of the stories that appear prior to the Comics Code in this volume stand up well to time.

Updating the Legend (or Building a Better Batmobile)

After over a decade of history, one World War, and the dawn of the Atomic Age, Batman was well established, but the times were changing and Batman was changing with it. “The Batmobile of 1950”, “The Secret of Batman’s Utility Belt”, “The True History of Superman and Batman” (featuring the Batmarine which is capable of converting between jet plane and submarine modes), and “The 100 Batarangs of Batman” are stories featured in the collection which emphasize Batman’s inventions and arsenal and update them for the new decade.

None of the stories are particularly deep, but they stand as solid plot driven stories emphasizing Batman’s brains in ways other than pure detective work. And there’s the subtle subtext that Batman can still have mysteries from the reader, Batarang X in particular.

Expanding the Family (Crime Bible? Lesbians? What are those?)

“Ace, the Bat-Hound”, “The Batwoman”, “The Second Boy Wonder”, and “Batman Meets Bat-Mite” are included in this volume. There’s not much wrong with the first two stories which play as standard Batman and Robin stories with an added cast member. Perhaps as a stab at the Comics Code Authority the Batwoman story, who was reportedly added as a way to defuse homosexual undertones in the feature, contains the caption “At the Gay Affair”. Nothing wrong with the basic ideas, which have been recycled over the years and Batwoman is being reimagined in 52 but there’s nothing special about the stories. Still, they must have been somewhat popular at the time as both Ace and Batwoman would become recurring features.

The second boy wonder story is more of a fakeout than anything else. Still, recent years have seen a variety of people assuming the role of Robin, even if just briefly. Lastly, in more ways than one, is Bat-Mite. I’ve never gotten the appeal since even in the 1950s it must have been obvious that he was merely a Mr. Mxyzptlk rip-off for Batman.

The Villains (Killers and torturers, not invited)

Along with Batman, after a decade of appearances it was time to flesh out the villains some. Stories here include “The Secret Life of Catwoman”, “The Man Behind the Red Hood”, “Two-Face Strikes Again”, and “The Ice Crimes of Mr. Zero”. Three of these stories are classics and one introduces Mr. Freeze who would turn into the longest lasting and most popular villain created in the 1950s. The first three are pre-Comics Code, give origins to Catwoman and The Joker, and turn Harvey Dent back into Two-Face for what was obviously a precursor for a recurring role cut short by the Comics Code. All are among the best (and most reprinted) stories of the decade.

It’s interesting to note that “The Ice Crimes of Mr. Zero” was adapted relatively faithfully by the Adam West show complete with ice cream truck as getaway vehicle for jewelry robberies and a finale with a captured Batman in the frozen lair of Mr. Freeze. And if Joel Schumacher is going to be held to task for ice skating Batman, it should be noted that Batman and Robin initially chase after Mr. Freeze on rocket powered roller skates in this story.

What’s most interesting is that all of the villains have some tragedy or tragic accident as motivating factors and it’s part of the reason that they have endured. The best villains aren’t merely challenges for the hero, they’re intriguing characters in their own right. The stories in this volume added on to the essential nature of the classic villains and I believe it’s that exact reason why Mr. Freeze was able to be reinvented in the 1990s.

Into the Realm of Science Fiction (Batman vs. Predator 50s style)

Other than the Bat-Mite stories, these are probably the most reviled stories of the period. In particular, there are three stories included that can only be described as gimmick stories. “The Batman of Tomorrow” brings a future Batman to the present to help out an injured Batman and to fool Vicki Vale. “Batman – The Superman of Planet X” takes Batman to the Planet Zur-En-Arrh (referenced by Grant Morrison as recurring graffiti) where Batman gains the powers of Superman and fights back an alien invasion. “The Interplanetary Batman” features Batman and Robin captured with a fugitive alien criminal and then engaging in a prison break on an alien world. The other story include “The Creature From the Green Lagoon” (an obvious homage to THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON and giant monster movies of the 1950s) isn’t nearly as outlandish as it ultimately turns into a Scooby Doo style mystery.

What’s perhaps interesting is that the concepts involved in these stories haven’t disappeared completely. Batman still goes up against monsters from current movies, like Predators and Aliens. A Batman from the future appeared in the “DC ONE MILLION” event. And Batman has fought plenty of aliens, on earth and off, in JLA. The difference appears to be primarily one of tone rather than concept, although I suspect that some of the really silly outings were left out of this volume. This might not be the best of the fifties, but it’s certainly not the worst of the fifties either.

A variety of writers are featured in these stories, but they’re tied together between artists Dick Sprang and Sheldon Moldoff (with Bob Kane being credited on the Catwoman story). In fact, for fans of Dick Sprang this is one of the more affordable volumes available featuring an extensive collection of his work reprinting 6 stories and several covers. Long time Batman artist Sheldon Moldoff contributes 9 stories and his somewhat rounder style isn’t as dynamic, but he remains a solid story teller and doesn’t contrast too sharply with Kane or Sprang.

On the whole, these are silly childish stories. But, they’re also well crafted silly, childish stories where Batman gets to display quick thinking and determination against a variety of opponents with an emphasis on observation, scientific gathering of evidence (some stories read like "CSI Gotham City"), and deduction. And the art is always at least professional and rises to classic status in the hands of Dick Sprang.

To be honest, I’d much rather read some of these stories than read stories about teenaged girls getting tortured to death with power tools. While these stories have drifted hopelessly far from the core mood of Batman at his best, they aren’t a total betrayal of the character.

Robert Reineke is a Civil and Environmental Engineer residing in Wisconsin. He's earned a BS and MS degrees from the University of Wisconsin and has been reading Batman comics since the 1970s. He's of the firm belief that there are plenty of Batman comics written before Frank Miller that are worthy of discussion.
Email Robert: rreinke@wi.rr.com.

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