Friday, January 15, 2016

Batman The War Years: 1939-1945, Edited by Roy Thomas

This stunning companion volume to Superman The War Years: 1938-1945 is equally satisfying to buffs of vintage comic books and antiquated super heroics.  Once again, comics historian Roy Thomas provides a thoughtful and provocative introduction, as well as overviews of each section, sharing historical context and insight into various editorial decisions taken at the time.

Batman The War Years: 1939-1945 shares the same powerful design (this is one beautiful book), and also contains about 20 original comics, covers and newspaper stories.  While much of this material has been reprinted elsewhere and more authoritatively, this volume provides an excellent overview of this period in Batman’s life.  It is also a delicious look at the world of comics during the War years -- if you are interested in the world of 1940s heroics, look no further.

While Superman could not obviously join the war effort because of his superpowers (how could writers, even in the realm of comics, maintain a fraction of plausibility when Superman could end the war in moments?), Batman and Robin were excluded by virtue of their secret identities.  Beneath the cowl and mask, Batman and Robin were mere mortals – their efficacy as crusaders would be lost.  Additionally, as masked vigilantes working largely at night, they were invaluable to the home front, tracking down spies, saboteurs and Fifth Columnists.  (One wonders what Robin discussed with his friends during recess…)

When not battling Nazis and “Japs,” Batman and Robin had more recherché adventures, such as preventing Atlantis from allying with the Nazis or appearing before the U.S. Senate to provide hardened criminals a chance to work on the war effort.  (Even the Joker contributed his own brand of twisted genius against the Axis Menace; your ideology is uniquely twisted if the Joker finds it objectionable.)  I must confess that I was delighted by the selection of stories, and charmed by the fearless storytelling.

Several writers and artists contributed to these tales, including Batman creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson, Dick Sprang, George Roussos, Don Cameron and Jack and Ray Burnley.  And the stories and art have not been altered to appease our Politically Correct times, so if you like your vintage entertainment unadulterated, look no further.

Finally, a brief word on the Batman to be found in this volume.  Few figures loom larger on the pop cultural landscape than Batman.  But it’s important to remember that Batman, like Superman before him, are not fictional constructs created – and closely held – by an individual author.  Rather, these are corporate entities, fashioned to morph and change over time to remain culturally relevant.  There has been much hoo-haw over the years about which depiction of Batman is the truest or most correct, but such an idea is silly and pointless.  The Batman of the War Years is already dramatically different from the earlier Batman of the late 1930s, who will also be different from the Batman of the 1960s, and the 1980s.  There is no correct representation of Batman, as Batman is, more correctly, a representation of his times.

The Batman in this book is a smiling, scout master Batman who was friendly, capable and accessible.  If you are looking for the psychotic bully that is popular today, look elsewhere.  Despite a world war, global catastrophe and real challenges here on the home front, the America of the 1940s was a much more optimistic place than the America of 2016.  There’s a reason it’s called The Greatest Generation, and that optimism and can-do attitude in the face of extraordinary adversity may well be the reason.  Perhaps it’s time we got Bat to basics…

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