There’s a fantastic and endlessly entertaining degree of lunacy to a lot of the Golden Age comics. Today we look at them as relics, like cave paintings, the advancements that allow us to have all the nerd fun we have now. But reading them is a special kind of fun. Warren Ellis once likened it to reading the pulp magazines of the ’20s and ’30s. It’s not the most polished material, but it’s an endless barrage of imagination and energy, and even when the flaws and inconsistencies peek through, Golden Age comics at their best sometimes seem more vital than anything in the Modern Age.
World’s Best Comics is now World’s Finest Comics (and has been since the second issue), but we all know what we’re talking about here. It’s an anthology book featuring DC’s biggest heroes, which at the time we’re talking (1941) were Superman and Batman. The debut issue of the title featured an odd little Batman and Robin tale that put the Dynamic Duo on the trail of a murderous witch who’s made off with a mysterious manuscript.
If you’ve never read a Golden Age Batman story drawn by Bob Kane and written by Bill Finger, you’ll probably notice a few things are different here. For one thing, Batman is much more jaunty than he would later grow to be. He’s full of one-liners and quips even as he’s beating crooks into oblivion (witness the panel at the top of the post). For another, Batman manages his World’s Greatest Detective feats in part by being Bruce Wayne and hanging out around Commissioner Gordon’s office all the time. Yup, there’s no super secret forensic work going on here, just Millionaire Playboy Bruce Wayne dropping by the commissioner’s office and just hanging out until crime happens, and then saying something like “Crime? That sounds exciting. I’ll tag along.” No one comments that he’s there, or that he might be trampling all over the evidence. He’s just hanging out with the cops because he’s a millionaire playboy and he can do that.
In this particular story, the crime that he tags along for involves the murder of a millionaire mystery writer by someone dressed as a witch. Among the suspects: a writer who writes books about witches, a publisher who publishes books about witches and an actress playing a witch on stage. This prompts Wayne to say “The trouble is you don’t know which witch is which!” It could be argued that the entire story was written just to slip this one sentence in.
Yes, it’s all corny and odd and rushed and it doesn’t feel like the Batman stories we know now, but Bill Finger was a great writer when it came to churning up a cool, fast mystery story and making it fit in the span of just a few pages. And Bob Kane’s evocative, shadowy art, which even today helps define the look of the character he (co) created, is as noirish as ever. It’s not exactly a landmark Batman story, but “The Witch and the Manuscript of Doom” is a fun example of just how zany and cool the Golden Age can be.
“The Witch and the Manuscript of Doom” can be read in The Batman Chronicles: Volume Three.