Publication date: Fall 1940
Author: Bob Kane
The opening “crawl” here is pretty good.
Wherever criminals meet, sooner or later a deadly hush stills their talk as they speak furtively of a dread figure of night–a figure that seems to materialize out of darkness like a fantastic demon: The Batman! ..then a man will curse and whisper of another smaller figure, a sturdy, lithe figure with a dare-devil grin on his young face–Robin, the Boy Wonder! For these are the two who are the arch-foes of crime.
Our story begins, as they are wont to do, with Batman interrupting a crime in progress. In this way, the comic gets to have its cake and eat it too–due to the inversions which come of declaring oneself the “arch-foe of crime”, when the story starts with Batman foiling crime, it is both an example of a plot structure which begins with an exciting action sequence, and an example of a plot structure in which a routine is changed by the introduction of a new element.
In other words, by this point, the extraordinary (a man in a costume descending onto a rooftop and beating up numerous nameless criminal goons) has become ordinary, the default state of affairs which only becomes interesting when, after an exciting (yet, for the purposes of this column, uninteresting) battle which moves from one rooftop to the next to a fire escape and finally to the streets below, Batman confronts his final adversary… and discovers that he’s only a child!
His curiosity piqued (and his morals umbraged, I’m guessing), Batman decides to follow the little tyke and see why he was hanging out with a group of generic gangster types.
Inside, Tommy talks to his teacher, a wrinkled, sallow creature named “Pockets”, who runs a school for teaching young boys the fine art of crime. Pick-pocketing, safe-cracking, you name it. Tommy describes his run-in with the Batman, and that he only got away because he promised to go straight. He appears to have seriously considered keeping his promise, but Pockets easily talks him out of it–after all, Tommy was a star pupil, and has moved on to Big Boy Daniels’ Mob (the same mob that were punched across half the city skyline in the opening fight). As it should, this exchange feels perverse (no, not like that). Pockets isn’t just a bad guy; he’s clearly a role model, with a certain amount of influence over Tommy, and their discussion frankly resembles a parent encouraging their child not to give up. “You got brains,” says Pockets, “You can go to the top!” That “the top” most likely leads to a bad end is something only Batman realizes, watching from the skylight above. Tommy, on the other hand, decides he might as well stay in this profession.
Batman, however, is less than pleased.
Later, Robin is confused, and I paraphrase: “But… but why didn’t you just go in and start punching things?” Bruce explains that that wouldn’t have solved the childrens’ admiration of criminals, including their hero Big Boy Daniels. Instead, they have to be, and I quote, “subtle.” We shall soon see precisely what a grown man in a bat costume thinks is subtle.
As it turns out, it involves sending Dick Grayson out amongst the wild city kids to show them a thing or two. Dick picks a fight, and beats up a few boys handily, impressing them all. When they ask where he got his skills, he sends them to a gymnasium that Bruce has meanwhile rented.
As an aside, I don’t feel like quoting from it (no particular moment stands above the others) but I love how the kids talk. The spelling of their dialog is clearly meant to indicate a strong New York accent (they pronounce “learn” “loin”, for instance), and they have their own peculiar slang. My favorite example of the latter, so far, is one boy exclaiming over Bruce’s gym, “Boy, ain’t it the cats!” I’ve always enjoyed this era’s foreign, proto-modern customs and styles (portrayed vividly in Sergio Leone’s Prohibition masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in America), but since Batman usually lives in stories unconcerned with anything resembling social realism (insert links here to 90% of Baturdays), we don’t often get the period detail that helps to enrich a story like this.
Also, one of them wears a Jughead hat. Awesome.
Anyways, the de-indoctrination program gets off to a rocky start. Although Grayson is able to convince them that one should always be honest and respect fair play when it comes to sports, the boys seem unwilling to carry through those ideas to other aspects of their life, like, you know, all the stealing and mobstering.
In fact, the boys try and bring Robin over to their way of thinking, inviting him over to the crime school. It’s pretty clear from the way they talk about Pockets and Big Boy Daniels that they’re fairly innocent; indeed, it’s crucial to the whole idea of this story that the kids are essentially innocent, the victims of wrong teachings, and not themselves morally or socially damaged. That’s the only way they could be rehabilitated in all of 12 pages. The comic is engaging the actual concept of juvenile delinquency and the cycle of poverty which engenders crime in youth on a very simplistic, childlike level–and that’s okay. I’ll get back to this later, because it involves talking about the ending, but keep it in mind.
Big Boy (whose nickname is actually meant to get at some of the Peter Pan type desires that inspire these boys to hold him in such high regard and to try to follow in his shoes, end long thematic parenthetical) picks two kids to replace two he lost recently to the cops (presumably as a result of Batman’s intervention). The next night, he takes them out on their first job. Batman, hanging on a rope outside Daniels’ window, overhears him splitting his gang up, giving one assignment (and one kid) to each half–they’re going to be simultaneously robbing the Wolfe Fur warehouse and the Van Peyson apartment. Batman is Not Amused.
If I had to boil down this entire story into one panel, this would be that panel. What makes this issue work (at least so far) is that unlike previous heavy-handed morality tales (and then there’s this), Batman isn’t talking directly to the kids reading the comic; and although the story is clearly still aimed at influencing them, we can still connect emotionally to it because of Batman’s fervent desire to help the kids in the story. As I said earlier, the fact that we’ll almost certainly get a happy ending here (and a relatively easy victory, compared to the complexities of the real world issue) is okay, and it’s okay because Batman himself is operating out of optimism, instead of 4th-wall-breaking stridency. In other words, it still isn’t subtle, but at least this time it’s a story in addition to being a message, which makes the simplicity of the problem and its solution at worst naive.
Anyway, the very next panel is this bit of awesomeness:
It shouldn’t work. This cramped, busy panel, with its dialog bubbles backwards from comic convention (the eye tends here to start with the narration and then descend down and to the left, when the actual order is the narration and then strictly left to right with the rest), the somewhat silly Batman line, the odd bits of blue coloring in the black… None of it manages to torpedo the sheer bloody kick-assery of Batman’s shadow sliding up the warehouse wall until it towers over the criminals, Batman getting their attention with a growl of contempt. In the next 7 decades Batman will do this over and over again, and it never stops being cool.
Finally, we get a fight with some thematic resonance. After revealing himself, Batman towers above the criminals, reinforcing the notion of his superiority; then he dives to the ground, tackling all of them. Grabbing a ladder, he does this:
For once, his mocking has an actual point–and an actual audience, since the recently promoted criminal-kid-in-training is watching this happen. Batman isn’t just being sarcastic about the success of the career criminal; he’s demonstrating it visually. The ladder forces all three men into similar positions, all facing away from us, exposing them for the interchangeable cogs that they are within the criminal system. Instead of the vertical motion of climbing a ladder (towards greater social and economic success), all that awaits them is a horizontal trip to the end of the line–jail, death, or a collision with Batman’s fists. That last Batman demonstrates by punching all three trapped men unconscious.
Batman has essentially scared this kid straight, first by symbolically exposing the lives of career criminals as painful, empty, and trapped, and then by physically demonstrating the same principles by beating them silly. As it turns out, “you don’t want to be on the wrong end of my justice” is a very effective inspiration.
Batman’s next step is to do exactly the same thing over at the Van Peyson apartment:
The disastrous results of the robberies are very disconcerting to the remaining members of Big Boy Daniels’ gang. Daniels is convinced somebody ratted them out to Batman, who is only too happy to inflame his suspicions.
Daniels’ immediate move is to go over to the crime school and murder Pockets (in front of the children, too). A moment later, Batman bursts in through the skylight. You know, they leave it ambiguous, but it looks suspiciously like Batman not only let that murder happen, but engineered it. And this is the role model these kids should be looking up to?
Daniels’ hoods hold Batman at gunpoint, but the vigilante is unfazed. He strongly implies that Daniels is chickenshit, nothing without his boys or his guns, etc. Daniels again rises to the bait, and promptly gets his ass kicked, the student criminals looking on in amazement. Big Boy decides this “mano a mano” crap is more trouble than it’s worth, so he pulls his gun out again and trains it on Bats.
The kids’ react with protest and derision. In their eyes, once Daniels agreed to the rules, to break them was “yellow” and unfair. With a little encouragement from Dick, the boys turn on the mobsters, easily taking them out.
Afterwards, Batman makes sure his lesson has hit home–criminals are a cowardly, underhanded lot. The kids all agree to go straight from now on, and it just occurred to me that I totally missed my chance to misinterpret this issue as an anti-homosexuality piece. Damn.
This is really the first Batman story that gets moralizing more or less correct. The theme is demonstrated by the story (and the action, no less), not simply told to us. Batman actually cares about helping these kids, and does so in a way in keeping with both Wayne (using his wealth to fund gyms to keep kids active and out of trouble) and Batman (scaring kids straight with his terrifying fists). Even if the problem portrayed here is abstracted to the point of metaphor from what actually happens to bring kids on the street to commit crimes, the solution at least makes sense and actually feels earned within the parameters of the story.
And I personally like the idea that Batman puts forth here in the last panel. This story is actually less about talking to kids and more about talking to adults about what they can do to improve their communities–by talking to kids, showing them the difference between right and wrong, appealing to their good natures, demonstrating the negative consequences of crime, giving them healthy activities to do after school, and manipulating any would-be Fagins into catching a bullet.
Tune in next time as Baturdays continues!