BATMAN ON FILM, since June 1998!

THE DARK KNIGHT ARCHIVES, Vol. 5

Author: Robert Reineke
Thursday, January 4, 2007

SYNOPSIS FROM DC COMICS:
"The Golden Age of the World's Greatest Detective returns for a fifth volume! Reprinting the Dynamic Duo's adventures from BATMAN issues #17-20 (1943), this volume features the first stories illustrated by legendary Batman artist Dick Sprang as well as an introduction by comics historian Michelle Nolan."

"You're right Alfred! Can't spend my time brooding! Got to keep right on playing my role!" -- The Batman, 1943

By 1943, most of the elements that are representative of the Golden Age Batman until the Comics Code Authority hit were firmly in place. Batman and Robin were a team, Commissioner Gordon and Alfred were part of the supporting cast, a colorful and bizarre rogue's gallery had been established, the Batmobile and Batplane were frequently part of the story, Batman was formally recognized by the police, one of Batman's trophies plays a part in one story, etc.

There were to be some minor tweaks, Batman would shortly move to the Batcave and Alfred would slim down, but aside from topical references most stories in this volume would be well at home in the Batman comics for the next decade.

The great cover of this archive really is representative of the contents. Taken from BATMAN #20, you have Batman and Robin literally bursting through the page in the Batmobile, with 4 bullet holes in it, in hot pursuit. Moody atmosphere of the early years has been replaced by action and adventure. And the art is taking a turn for the better as this volume, including the cover, marks the arrival of the great Dick Sprang to the main Batman titles. And he'll be a fixture until the early 1960s.

The other notable change is that in addition to The Joker, The Penguin, and regular gangsters, WWII black marketers are a recurring villain in this volume. WWII was certainly too important to ignore, after all. Frequently, the dupes of a crime spree will be talked into donating their money to the war effort after it's saved from the clutches of criminals. But, even with WWII being a part of the story, you'll find none of the blatantly racist material from the serial of the same era.

This volume collects BATMAN #s 17 - 20 including sixteen stories.

The stories in the volume are a bit of a mixed bag. Tweedledee and Tweedledum have to be right at the bottom of Batman villains. They're neither funny, dangerous, or especially clever. Most normal gangsters in these stories are at least as clever and come off as more dangerous. The only thing they have going for them is the twins gimmick, but that's already old hat by this outing.

There is a story set in Atlantis and it isn't much better as Batman and straight up fantasy is always a tricky mix. Other than the stories written Bill Finger, there's a sense of formula about these stories.

Still, even at their worst, these stories are fast paced, full of action and escapes. They're not boring. You get none of the same weariness of slogging through something like "City of Crime" waiting for something significant to happen.

And there are some definite gems. "The Crime Surgeon!" is thematically linked with Two-Face as there is both good and evil embodied in one person. Perhaps not the most complex idea, but an idea that's a cut above the standard for the time. Doc. Thorne plans a series of crimes in this story, but also pulls a bullet out of Robin. And when he finally violates his Hippocratic oath, ironic justice arrives swiftly. The themes of this story, along with the name Thorne, survived this story and were loosely reworked into the BTAS episode "Paging the Crime Doctor".

Likewise, "Bruce Wayne Loses the Guardianship of Dick Grayson!" has elements that raise it beyond the standard Batman vs. villain angle. Bruce Wayne's own cover act proves to be a detriment to what he really wants. The breakup of the guardianship of Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson is filled with genuine emotion. And Bill Finger holds off on revealing the uncle as a bad guy as long as possible.

After that, the story proceeds at a breakneck pace to the end. A deathtrap and Robin and Alfred to the rescue, complete with Alfred borrowing one of Penguin's umbrellas from trophy storage, which provides a nice surprise at the end.

The art has also taken a big step forward by 1943. Obviously the addition of Dick Sprang helps, but the Bob Kane / Jerry Robinson team was producing much better material than the crude work of 1939. And DC's reproduction value has come a long ways over the years. The art in BATMAN ARCHIVES #3, covering the same period, is often muddy, while the reproduction in the current volume is sharp and clear.

Obviously this material is more of historic value than appealing to the reader wanting an adult, modern experience. So, in that case, buyer beware. But, for those with an interest in Batman's history and who don't mind action packed stories aimed at the younger reader, you'll find a lot of interest in this volume.

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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