Written by Bill Finger, Edmond Hamilton, David Vern Reed, and France Herron
Penciled by Dick Sprang, Sheldon Moldoff, and Lew Sayre Schwartz
Inked by Stan Kaye and Charles Paris
264 pages, color
Published by DC Comics
There’s something disarmingly charming about the general silliness of Batman comics from the 1960s. I’ve often joked that some of the comics from that time period are clearly pointing towards illegal drugs in the water coolers, but the fact of the matter is that for whatever reason, no one seemed to be taking themselves too seriously. In many ways, the culmination of this is in the early Batman Annuals, reprinting each year some of the stranger, and crazier stories from earlier times.
Reading this hardcover reprint of the first three Batman Annuals, one gets the distinct impression that Bill Finger, Edmond Hamilton, David Vern Reed, and France Herron didn’t so much come up with stories as they did a single story hook, and then formed an entire plot around them. In theory that’s not a bad idea, but here we end up with hooks like, "What if Batman and Robin were Indians?" and "What if Batman had a glow-in-the-dark outfit?" In other words, they’re fairly ridiculous. The end result is that you often get strange contortions of what could only loosely be called logic to see just how they’re going to get onto a jungle island (still wearing their masks and briefs, with Robin’s suddenly leopard-print), or hanging out with an Indian tribe that (surprise surprise) also has a Batman and Robin who need our heroes’s help.
Are you starting to see how generally preposterous these stories are? There’s no nervous looking over the shoulder, though, no apologies issued within the stories themselves to the reader. The various writers here keep their eyes locked on the conclusion and take it as seriously as one can. (Of course, some stories are so silly it’s hard to take it too seriously.) That said, some stories will stand out a bit more for modern audiences; we’ve got the first appearances of villains like Firefly and the Mad Hatter, and for readers of Grant Morrison’s "Batman R.I.P." storyline, included in the Batman Annual #2 was the introduction of the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh.
Despite the general strange tone of the book, there are two stories in particular that I found myself getting into. The first was, "The New Crimes of Two-Face!" where an actor playing Harvey Dent in a play about Two-Face ends up getting a similar injury and starts a crime spree of his own. It’s a strange, sad little story where the main character isn’t evil, but rather confused and losing his grip on reality. With so many of the bad guys in these stories the typical evil crime boss or super-villain, this story stood out for having a more sympathetic foe. The other story was, "The Gorilla Crime Boss of Gotham City," which I will freely admit was completely over the top. But there’s something so awesome about a crime boss having his brain transplanted into a huge gorilla, and then deciding he needs to swap his brain into Batman’s body (and put Batman’s brain into the gorilla) that I was sucked in. Ridiculous? Well, yes… or rather, ridiculously awesome.
Dick Sprang, Sheldon Moldoff, and Lew Sayre Schwartz provide the pencils for these stories, and working off of the "Bob Kane style" the trio provide just what you’d expect from this era of Batman. Incredibly clean lines and iconic looks for Batman and Robin, there’s nothing out of the ordinary, but also nothing bad. Considering that these stories were culled from issues of Batman and Detective Comics from over the years, it’s almost shocking how uniform a look is presented when pulled together into a single volume.
Part of the short-lived DC Comics Classics Library, The Batman Annuals: Volume One was an entertaining book, although it really is best read in small doses; a little goes a long way. There’s a second volume out there as well, and based on the fun of this first one I’ll pick it up one of these days. If you’re looking for a lot of small doses of silly, it’s hard to go wrong with this collection. Just don’t expect anything too deep… or perhaps, deep at all.