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Frantic as a cardiograph scratching out the lines, Day 155: Detective Comics #34

Every day this year, I will be examining the first pages of random comics. This month I will be doing theme weeks, with each week devoted to comics from one decade. This week’s decade(s): the 1930s/1940s! Today’s page is from Detective Comics #34, which was published by DC and is cover dated December 1939. This scan is from The Batman Chronicles volume 1, which DC published in 2005. Enjoy!

Really, Bruce?

According to our fine friends in the DC Historical Department, this comic was written by Gardner Fox, penciled by Bob Kane, and inked by Kane and Sheldon Moldoff. I know Kane was known for using “ghost-artists” who would not get credited, but as this is fairly early in Batman’s career, I don’t know if he was doing that yet. We have only what DC tells us!

Much like yesterday’s entry, this page shows us the semi-splash at the top of the page, except this one has no connection to the story – it’s just a nice drawing of Batman. However, Fox does let us know what’s going on, and it’s interesting that this is an example of two nascent things in comics – a story connecting back to a previous story, in this case Batman’s battle against the red-cloaked vampire monk in issues #31 and 32 (a dazzling two-parter!), because we learn that Batman has rescued his fiancée from said Monk; and a story that takes place “out of order” – issue #33 had Batman back in Manhattan, fighting a crazed blimp pilot, yet in this issue, he’s back in Paris, and the Monk story has just occurred. I’m not sure why they did it this way, but it’s interesting.

Anyway, nattily-dressed Bruce Wayne is leaving his hotel when he sees someone who looks like an old friend of his. It turns out that it’s not Jed, but a man without a face, who brushes off his concerns. Bruce leaves us with the enigmatic line “I’d like to look into this, but …” BUT what, Bruce? You need to buy more tobacco for your pipe? You need to buy another fancy hat? You need to visit some Paris prostitutes before marriage to Julie sucks all the fun out of your sex life? WHAAAAAATTTTT?!?!?!? In the next panel, a blonde lady looks at a piece of paper that bears the mark of the “Duc Dorterre, master of the Apaches.” She flees in terror, trying to catch a cab. Oh, it’s a motherfucking mystery, you can be sure!

In order to get the story going, Fox has to rely on some very weird logic. Bruce Wayne sees a man from the back, wearing a hat and a green coat with the collar turned up, and he thinks it looks like a friend of his? Then, the man has no face? Wha-huh? And then Bruce Wayne, the world’s greatest detective, says, “That’s mighty queer. A man without a face” but does nothing about it? No, Bruce, that’s not “mighty queer.” THAT’S MOTHERFUCKING INSANE!!!!! Yet Bruce doesn’t feel he needs to check it out because he’s late for a revue at the Folies Bergère starring Joséphine Baker. Then, apparently some French duke is the master of Apaches? Man, Fox better explain that one! (For the record, he doesn’t. The woman mentions the Apaches on the next page, and then they’re never mentioned again.)

Kane does a nice job laying out the page, though. Bruce is in the forefront of Panel 1, establishing his importance, and Kane does a good job with the mysterious dude in the background. In Panel 2, he naturally puts the faceless man facing the audience, so we can share Bruce’s surprise at his appearance. Bruce is once again in the forefront of Panel 3, and the faceless man has moved from the right (in the first panel) to the left, signifying his movement through the misc-en-scene. He also leads our eye from Bruce to the man to Panel 4, where we find the blonde woman. She, of course, flees left to right in Panel 5, taking us onward to the next page. The panels fit together very nicely and give us a good flow – you’ll note in Panel 4, the piece of paper is at the same level as the faceless man in Panel 3, so our eyes fall on it immediately when we reach Panel 4. As always with these reprints, I don’t know how closely the coloring matches the original, but whoever colored this originally (Bob Le Rose and Daniel Vozzo “reconstructed” it) made sure to use plenty of red, green, and blue, which isn’t a bad thing. Again, the limitations of the color palette at this time meant that these colors would predominate, but the choices are still interesting.

Considering that this is the story in which Batman talks to flowers with human heads in their centers (I believe they’re called the stigma), a faceless man doesn’t seem to “queer” at all. These early Batman stories do retain their charm and even their mythic power, after all, and Fox and other writers didn’t have a lot of room for niceties, which is why they read a bit oddly today. But as we’ve seen, they still manage to do some nice things with the medium, things that people today haven’t improved upon!

Next: KIRBY!!!!! But, yeah, not the famous stuff. Sorry, suckers! Astonishingly, there is still no Kirby in the archives. That’s going to change this month!

10 Comments

That page is indeed full of wtf. “That looks like old…” with so little seen is strange in best of cases and considering that he is in a hotel in another country? Then the exchange “I have no face. Sorry.” “Well, that’s mighty peculiar.”
But the movement of the story in panels 3-5 is indeed good.

I googled “Jed Farnol”, to see if we ever got to see him in a story. Nah.

I’m sure Jed Farnol will be appearing in a Morrison story anytime now.

I haven’t read the story, but I’m guessing these Apaches weren’t Native Americans: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apache_(gang)

Rusty: Dang, check out Gardner Fox, being all contemporary and shit! That’s pretty cool.

That is mighty queer…

This page is nothing short of amazing.

Those Apaches get a mention in a couple of early Agatha Christie novels, by the way.

And some people can recognise others with amazing, almost unbelievable skill. There’s a story told in a Walt Disney biography by a guy who would occasionally fill-in in the Mickey Mouse costume at big public events in the early 60s when the regular guy wasn’t available. Walt Disney could tell it wasn’t the regular guy the first time he saw him at some function in California, even though no part of the guy was visible inside the costume (which includes a full-head mask, etc). Months later, at the World’s Fair in New York, Disney recognised this new guy on sight, even though he was again completely hidden *inside the Mouse suit*. Disney had not known the fill-in guy was going to be involved, yet walked up to him and said “Hi, Dave!” (or whatever his name was. Bruce. Jed. Whatever.)

It’s strange, I really don’t like Silver Age DC superhero books with some rare exceptions, but by and large I love the Golden Age DC books and this story is a prime example why. I’m not sure why exactly. The Silver Age stuff is way more polished but bland and sterile, while this is raw and crude as hell but so awesome. I also think that Silver Age DC tries to hard to sell the pseudoscience as plausible and the Golden Age stuff doesn’t even insult your intelligence by bothering to pretend anything resembling real science is at play. It gives the stuff more of an intellectual honesty and air of respect for the reader, even though the stories are actually more outlandish.

@ T.

Agreed. Although I have real fondness for Silver Age DC, the Golden Age material is stronger for many of the characters. Superman 1.0 was more exciting than he would ever be again. Wonder Woman was more coherent in her original incarnation.

The most telling contrast is Hawkman. That first Gardner Fox/Joe Kubert story was terrific, but there wasn’t a sustainable story-telling engine. The underlying sci-fi concept was just too silly to hold up issue after issue. The Golden Age version is precisely the opposite. From a technical standpoint, it was crude to the point of amateurishness and, yet, the core concept was amazing.

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