Robin, the Boy Psycho

Yeah, I just did a few hundred words on Jose Mojica Marins in an e-mail to some friends. Sorry kids, I’m movied out. So I guess I’ll talk about some comics today.

And there is the sound of a thousand computer mice clicking elsewhere.

(A thousand? Talk about hubris.)

As both of my regular readers know, I’ve been ransacking my county library system for the comics collections I haven’t been able to afford over the years, and what should crop up from my maddeningly long list of requests than the first volume of The Batman Chronicles, which promises to be “every Batman story in exact chronological order”. That’s a damn tall order, but you go, DC. You keep crankin’ em out and I’ll keep whining to my county board to keep buying them. Unless of course either the Aladdin’s Lamp or Lottery fantasies come true, in which case these sonsabitches are all going in my new mahogany-paneled personal library.

I wake myself from that particular pleasant dream to continue: I’ve had a fascination for the Golden Age stuff since I was a kid, and all we really got by way of a taste was the annual team-up of the Justice League with the aging Justice Society of Earth-2, and those were just enough to tickle a craving into existence. There was an occasional reprint as a bonus, the odd book like All in Color for a Dime, but unless you had the money to pony up for plastic-wrapped pulp, you didn’t see much in the way of Golden Age material.

More and more reprints came to the mass market when it was determined there actually was a mass market for this stuff, and that’s great. I don’t necessarily need to own it, but I do want to experience it. And I don’t need to own it because, um, it’s not that good.

Yeah, it’s really unproductive to judge a medium in its infancy by the standards of three-quarters of a century later, but they’re the only standards I’ve got. The best descriptor for most Golden Age comics is quaint. Watching creators of the period struggle with what Scott McCloud calls “the unseen art” is fascinating, the art of telling stories in a series of sequential panels. Also courtesy of the library, I’m reading Sandman by Kirby and Simon and the improvement in storytelling dynamics made in only a couple of years is dramatic.

A  flatness in the emotional contact with the story aside, the stories in Batman Chronicles 1 are interesting for what was allowed in those days, or what was lost over the years as opposed to what was eventually gained. There are, of course, the infamous shots of Batman actually using a gun, a nod to the inspiration of the Shadow, if nothing else. Those are pretty minimal, though, and the only incident outside a splash page is Batman shooting some supernatural creatures with silver bullets – a forgivable lapse, much like the modern Batman mortally wounding the evil god Darkseid by shooting him with a quantum bullet because it was necessary.

No, I’m talking about Batman’s cavalier attitude toward his secret identity. He tells two people who Bruce Wayne has decided to help, “Let me change,” and steps into the next room to put on the Batman suit; he keeps dropping little hints to criminals while he’s pummeling them that he was the man who bought a pound of sugar earlier, at their grocery store front. In one instance, he’s in France, and the people could be expected to not know Bruce Wayne, and in the second, the bad guys are going to be more concerned about their nasal septum getting kicked back into their brains than picking up clues, but jeez, Bruce!

There’s also a lot of Disney villain deaths. You know, environmental hazards. The very first Batman villain, upon getting punched by the caped crusader, falls into an acid vat. One falls onto a sword he threw at the hero. These are the sort of things the modern day Batman would go to (obviously) heroic, and athletic, lengths to avoid. The Golden Age Bats is more of the “Ha! He deserved that!” school.

The other surprise was how relatively few stories it took for Robin to show up.

Let me be clear: I hate Robin. I hate kid sidekicks in general, but Robin gets some special ire because he’s a flashpoint. I always know I can never discuss my love of comics with a person when they say something along the lines of “Batman keeping company with an underage boy, hurr hurr.” In fact, conversation usually gets shut down altogether with my usual rejoinder, “Would you be any more comfortable if he was hanging around with an underage girl?”. Which is good, because then I don’t have to get to the “THEN SHUT THE F@#K UP!” stage.

Intriguingly, I don’t mind Robin apart from Batman. Well, apart from that stupid circus-inspired costume. Then, I suppose it depends on the writer, as I’m thinking quite warmly of the Marv Wolfman New Teen Titans or anything Grant Morrison has done.

But, theoretically we’re talking The Batman Chronicles 1, and the last story I read, which is Robin’s origin story.  I had forgotten that Boss Zucco was behind the death of the parents of Dick Grayson, which ups my respect for the movies that reference him. Batman’s training of his new aide seems to go very quickly, but then, the kids is a trained aerialist. But what is most remarkable, is how much Batman and Robin are smiling once the action gets going. Bats has been pretty grim up to this point, but these two working together are displaying a hell of a lot of enamel while they’re extracting justice.

The climax of the story takes place at the top of a skyscraper under construction. Robin jumps the gun on attacking Zucco and his thugs and there’s quite a donnybrook betwixt Robin and the bad guys, and there’s at least one – and I’m going to say more likely four – guys who plunge to their doom as a result of the fight. At least one more is thrown off by Zucco after the quisling signs a confession to sabotaging the Grayson’s trapeze, which turns out to be set up by Batman, so Robin could snap a picture of Zucco himself killing the traitor. Which is another notch in Batman’s personal kill list.

After this is Batman #1, and the first appearance of the Joker, who will in time eclipse Batman’s body count and make us forget all about it.

I’d like to say we’re better than that now, and our heroes are better than that, but I know that neither is the case. I’m going to have to settle for the writers and artists being much better, and that is cause for celebration. I am still looking forward to going through the rest of this series, to track the mellowing of the characters, and discover exactly when the Joker goes from being a homicidal maniac to the Clown Prince of Crime.

I realize it sounds like I’m hating on the Golden Age comics, but that would be like hating on Walt Whitman poetry. Not all that great, but it’s the first. Quaint, charming, and… hey, according to Amazon, not all that expensive. Hmmmmmmm…

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