Reading Batman in the Fifties reminds me of how much I enjoy reprints of the Batman of that era. And that it’s a minority opinion, or so has always been my impression. Most fan commentary on the era I read is usually negative.
Why? This era is associated with lots of SF — Batman battles aliens, Batman and Robin are trapped on an alien world, Batman undergoes some weird transformation — and it’s not usually very good SF. It’s also associated with a string of extra bat-characters including Batwoman, Bat-Mite, Batgirl (an unrelated predecessor to Barbara Gordon) and Bat-Hound. But I find quite a lot to like about the decade nonetheless.
The book itself has some snark in the introduction about oooh, how silly the comics were back then (in contrast to the highly sophisticated work churned out since), but it’s a good, representative collection nonetheless. We have the big villains (Joker, Catwoman, Two-Face and Mr. Zero, who became more famous later as Mr. Freeze), some SF, some “Batman Family” stories and some “How Batman does it” stories (more on that in a minute). The Batman Meets Alien stories are certainly poorer than I thought as a kid, but overall it’s a fun TPB (as with most old comics YMMV).
Now, as to what I like about the fifties: along with the SF, the era also did a number of things quite well:
•Straight mysteries. These were the old school “here’s the crime, meet the suspects and the clues, now spot the villain.” One of the seeming SF stories, “Creature From the Green Lagoon” is an example—the story of a seeming real monster attacking a monster movie turns out to be a mystery. The monster’s a fake, so who’s behind it and why?
•How Batman does it. These are stories that explore the Batman’s weapons, skills and training. In this TPB, for instance, we have “The 100 Batarangs of Batman.” The Dynamic Duo learn a crook has a plan to use batarangs for crime. Trying to anticipate him, they reflect on how Batman learned to throw a boomerang, and the different specialty batarangs (magnetic, for example, to pick up a piece of evidence) they’ve deployed over the years)
•Batwoman. Kathy Kane, a circus acrobat who idolized Batman as an acrobat just like her—only heroic—inherits a fortune, moves to Gotham City and goes into action as a female Batman. Despite having girly gimmicks such as a powder puff that functions as a smoke bomb or a hair net that expands to catch crooks, she was, overall, a good character, and usually portrayed as competent (though Bats frequently comes off sexist in the way he treats her).
•Scam villains. This is something I haven’t seen much (if at all) in other Bat-eras, and it does add a little variation to the usual costumed crooks. The battle against the Spinner (below), for example, unfolds conventionally — the criminal commits spinning-themed crimes, Batman picks up clues — but it turns out the clues are deliberately planted to lead Bats to the wrong man.
In “The Phantom Eye of Gotham City,” a mysterious broadcaster breaking in on TV broadcasts with crime footage is setting in play a scheme to rip off one of Gotham City’s wealthiest citizens. “The Man Who Can Change Fingerprints” offers that service to the underworld, but it’s a con. And the Wrecker, who’s “League Against Batman” is supposedly engaged in a vendetta — destroy Batman statues and placques, kill a writer who wrote a Batman’s Greatest Cases book — is actually the writer disguised, plotting to fake his own death before he can be busted for tax fraud.
By contrast I’ve found the “New Look” Batman of the 1960s kind of bland (Commander Benson explains its appeal for him and other fans here). Still, I can’t say I’d want the fifties style, or any Bat-style, to endure forever; change keeps them interesting. And there’s no shortage of fifties material I haven’t read yet.
(Covers by Sheldon Moldoff, all rights to current holder. Source is the invaluable Mike’s DC Comics Index).