Saturday, January 07, 2012

GIANT PENNY WEEK, #5: Betrayed!

So, after Batman & Robin escape Joe Coyne's deathtrap by making a battery out of two pennies in saltwater and tapping out an S.O.S. into the phone wires, they search the joint and find a clue to the Penny Plunderers next target: a yacht party that had rented some of Joe's arcade machines.

Batman flies after their escape boat with the Batplane, towing Robin along on water skis. Which makes perfect sense in a world where people make batteries out of pennies and salt water. In fact, I'm not sure why Batman didn't just putting giant pennies in the water and friggin' electrocute the Penny Plunderers. Must have seemed more fun for the artist to draw Robin landing on the gang's faces with his water skis. Besides, it would be impossible for a flying craft like the Batplane to hang something like a Giant Penny out the window. Or so you'd think; more on that later.

So, since it's pretty easy to escape a man in a plane and a boy on water skis once you're on land, the Penny Plunderers go to ground at the docks. UNTIL Joe has a bright idea, as bright as a copper penny:

"No, let's not try to escape Batman; let's try to capture him. Just like I did two pages ago, when I failed to kill him because I chose to set up a death trap rather than shooting him in the head. Why? Because I'm not just an obsessive gangster; because I'm a VILLAIN, goddammit, and I'm gonna act like one! Furthermore, just to show how unafraid of Batman I am, I'm going to use MYSELF as bait. Then I'm going to assume that you two losers, who just had the snot beat out of you by a teenager on water skis, are going to be able to "bottle Batman and Robin up" by, I don't know, sneaking up behind him or something, rather than just getting your asses kicked again by a boy in swimming trunks. And in the process I'm going to lock myself, unarmed, in a room I can't get out of, and call it 'trapping Batman & Robin'; I AM A GENIUS!!!!"

Joe E. Coyne: Genius At Work.

Oh, but the room in which Joe decides to seal himself lies deep with the Warehouse of Irony, for it (highly improbably) has a payphone in it. Which of course Joe can't use, because....

The irony of this is not lost on Joe.

Face-melting irony, in fact.

Although the irony not might be lost on Joe, Joe is certainly lost on the irony.

"Betrayed"? MMmm, no, I'd say it's more like you chose something worthless and nearly useless as your "crime symbol", Joe. Appropriately enough. But nothing is ever YOUR fault, is it, Joe?

In case you might have missed it, the caption box underlines the fact that the cause of Joe's death is COMIC BOOK IRONY.

PLEASE tell me this kid grows up to become The Penny Plunderer II.

And Joe Coyne goes to the electric chair, which I really really prefer to imagine being hooked up to two giant pennies immersed in salt water. Joe's story ends here; but the Giant Penny's story goes on!!

Friday, January 06, 2012

GIANT PENNY WEEK, #4: Death Trap!

When last we left the Penny Plunderers, Joe Coyne had re-acquired one of his lost gang members, one who desperately hopes Joe doesn't realize that he ratted him out to Batman. But Joe does know. Penny for your thoughts, Joe!

Extra style points to Joe for taking the time and trouble to set up that damning fortune in the weight machine. Anyone can be evil; being a villain is about style, people!

I bet you probably don't find Joe Coyne very threatening. He has no superpowers or special weapons. He has no disturbing deformity or demented worldview. He's just a creative hood with an obsession for pennies and less fashion sense than Jimmy Olsen. But you know what? He's still a Golden Age villain:

Golden Age gangsters are happy to shoot you dead, in a darkly ironic way. We may laugh at Joe Coyne because he's no Lex Luthor or Joker, but he's a great example of the transition of villainy that occurs across the Golden Age and into the Silver Age.

Old school crime comics had a host of gangsters, who to us would seem mostly interchangeable. Usually they were not distinguished by their appearance or obsessions, but rather by their criminal rackets. They were The Guy Who Fixed Prizefights or The Guy Who Preyed on Trucking Companies; how exciting. But Batman changed all that.

As has been pointed out a zillion times, Batman was, in many ways, not particularly original. His various characteristics (detective, polymath, pugilist, acrobat, wealthy socialist, dark vigilante, etc.) had all been seen in other characters, even in combination. There were other heroes who could do all the things that Batman could do. The difference is that the focus shifted away from
what Batman could do-- because, as we know, Batman can do anything you need him to--and toward the way Batman did things. Batman was about STYLE, and that was the key to his popularity.

That, and his bottomless well of human sympathy.

His slate of foes, over time, naturally evolved in that direction as well. The emphasis shifted from scheme to theme. This was very liberating for the writers; once they had villains who were intrinsically engaging due to the style, they could focus on coming up with interesting, even outlandish, schemes for them to perpetrate. The combination was much more potent than the the old "Manny the Mafioso" gangster stories, and, to this day, colorful villains tend to squeeze out other, more mundane criminal threats.

[Oh, and for That Guy who's about to object that Dick Tracy and his villains Did It First: EHHNNKH! Sorry, wrong answer. If you'll check the debut dates of Tracy's villains, you'll notice that prior to Batman's debut in 1939, Tracy's foes are mooks like "the Smuggler", "the Squealer", "the Tramp", "the Stabber", and "Larceny Lou". With the possible exception of "The Blank", it wasn't until the 1940s that Tracy villains really went wacky.]

That's Batman's "sympathetic face", by the way.

Any way, Joe's basic tale is a classic gangster story of kid who makes the wrong choices. But his perception of a theme to his failure, his obsession with turning this theme to his advantage, the predictably his mania creates and the fact that his mania proves his ironic undoing: these are style markings of the supervillains to come. As is his use of thematic weapons to capture Batman and Robin when they show up:

Really. Supervillain or not, you have to respect someone who can beat the crap out of Batman and Robin with nothing but some pennies. In just two panels.

Then, in another moment of budding supervillainy, Joe, having knocked out Batman & Robin with nothing but a bunch of pennies, cobbles together a death trap with ordinarily household items.

One of those pennies should actually be colored GREY not ORANGE. It'll be important in a minute. Oh, and note the spices.

Batman, not to be outdone, spanks MacGyver's mama by getting out of trap using the two cents that Joe couldn't stop himself from tossing them in order to be an ironic asshole, some blotting paper, and salt water. Really, this is either the most awesomely absurd or absurdly awesome death-trap escape from anything, ever (you choose):

Thank goodness they store their condiments with the unused arcade machines. And that everyone in comic books knows Morse Code!

I tried to come with some reason while Batman would do this rather than just, say, pick the lock on the door. Only possibility: this means of escape was the optimum intersection of "awesome" and "ironic".

Thursday, January 05, 2012

GIANT PENNY WEEK, #3: Attack of the Giant Penny!

When last we left "the Case of the Penny Plunderers", Joe Coyne had pretensions of remaking himself as a "villain" rather than a mere crook by hewing to a lunatic "crime symbol". Using the power of free association that allows them to divine the schemes of the madmen they fight, Batman and Robin have not only figured out, just by reading the paper, that there
is a "Penny Plunderer", but they've divined his next target.

The One-Penny Black, by the way, is a real thing. Golden Age writers like Bill Finger used to hang out in illicit trivia dens in Chinatown, lying on divans, soaking in all sorts of bizarre useless data that they might later incorporate into some plot point. You kids, with your internet, you know nothing of sacrifice.

The first appearance of the Giant Penny. And the much less famous Giant Stamp Tongs.

Rather than alert the police (because, you know, where's the fun in that?), they just lurk around in the shadows, until Coyne and his gang show up, whereupon there's lot of Patented Punning & Punching. And Batman showboating by means of functional giant props.

Just once I'd like to see one of those props turn out to be paper mache, so I could see Batman go crashing through it to a faceplant on the hard, cold floor, while the photographers from Picture News go to town. But I'm sure that's against the Gotham City Civil Code on Giant Props.

But sometimes the gods punish hubris immediately and Batman pays for his showboating with...

a roll of pennies to the forehead.

Hm. What's the word I'm looking for? Oh, yes:


Batman's humiliation is deliciously augmented by the fact that Robin--and a roomful of Gothamites--are watching as Batman gets pwned by a Grade Z hoodlum with some pennies and falls off a giant stamp to the hard, cold floor. Where's Vicki Vale when you need her?

Before there were blogs, there were the Gotham tabloids.

The bad guys do the logical thing, which in Gotham means "escape via the rooftops after climbing up the giant postage stamp and out the skylight." Because, you know, the rooftops are the perfect way to flee from Batman. But one of them doesn't make it, and Batman, tries desperately to salvage his self-image by intimidating a skinny gunsel. Boy, I sure hope a member of Coyne's gang isn't eavesdropping from the skylight and kidnaps the squealer....!

Uh-oh. This won't end well...

P.S. Oh, I almost forgot....!

This is what the Giant Penny does:

Small wonder that the Giant Penny is the standard by which all other Giant Props are measured. But what's it feel like to get hit by a Giant Penny? Well, we'll be discussing that later.

Batman actually uses the Giant Penny against Coyne's gang, NOT vice versa. Then it's not seen again until it shows up three years later in the original Hall of Trophies story ("The Thousand and One Trophies of Batman", Detective #158, Apr 1950).

How did Batman get his gloves on the Giant Penny? Most readers think grateful citizens just up and give Batman trophies after he saves their asses (or gets them publicity by getting pwned on the front page of Picture News). Or they think that Batman pockets trophies from crime scenes when the police aren't looking. But that's silly. Clearly, Alfred spends most of his day on Ebay on Bruce's behalf, buying up relevant giant props from previous cases. And thanks to the Gotham City Civil Code on Giant Props, the expense is actually tax-deductible.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

GIANT PENNY WEEK, #2: Meet Joe Coyne!

The Case of the Penny Plunderers begins with the origin of our antagonist, Joe Coyne.

"Penniless"? "Coyne"? "Business in pennies"? Hm; I think I'm sensing a theme here...

"A measly two cents? What can I buy with that?" In 1947? Probably a new suit. In fact, sell 2.75 more newspapers, Joe, and that'll be enough for you to buy an automatic washing machine, a year's supply of gasoline, carpeting for the living room, a vacuum instead of a plastic broom, not to mention a forty-inch television set.

Actually, according to the on-line inflation calculator, Joe cannot, in fact, buy much with 2 cents, since in 1947 it was only worth the equivalent of 19 cents currently. But Joe could still buy almost ten times as much we could, so no sympathy for him here; heck, we can't even buy a stamp for 19 cents.

Yes, Joe; other guys have 'big bills' and you have only pennies, as you stand there in the Gotham night under a streetlight. Of course, some other guys with big bills have to stand in the Gotham night under a streetlight and watch their parents lie there dead in pools of their own blood. Beware of envy, Joe. Well, perhaps, as you say, it will be different when you grow up.

Or maybe not. Writer Bill Finger, with astonishing efficiency, let's us know that Joe got his chance, and he blew it. It's not just that he got a good job and got fired. He wasted it on, well, penny-ante gambling. But the key is: Joe didn't stop when he got caught once. Because Joe is a weak fool.

See? I told you.

Joe is weak and turns to crime. And he's clearly a fool for not casing the joint better. Joe, you shoulda spent some of those pennies on some crime comics and you'd know that already. Oh, and speaking of weak fools... who's your tailor, Joe?

But the Gotham penitentiary has its usual salutatory effect and Joe sees the error of his ways.

Stop whining, Joe; at least you got a nicer outfit out of the deal.

Um... Joe? Brooding's not healthy. You just said "I hate pennies", which is crazy talk, and you keep shouting "COPPERS!" and "PENNIES!", kind of like Mr Crocker from
Fairly Odd Parents. Now you're just making irrational, baseless connections in a paranoid attempt to displace your own failures and follies onto some sort of external conspiracy. Kind of like Umberto Eco. And you're doing that thing with your hands that people do right before they become comic book villains. Turn back, it's not too late, Joe, it's not too late!

This really needs in some museum somewhere. Or in every museum, everywhere.

Uh-oh; it
is too late. You're making absurdist vows, are talking about having a 'crime symbol', and have degenerated to the point where you can only portrayed by John Astin or Raul Julia. And since both of them are dead, that's ... a bad sign.

Yep, Joe's definitely turned what I call "the Mad Hatter's Corner", the point at which, after a series of questionable decisions of increasing dubious morality, a character gets that one final chance to suck it up and be a normal person but instead says, "What the heck, I'm a Gothamite, I'm just gonna choose to round that corner into Crazytown and set up shop there!" Vowing to avenge your parents' death by fighting crime doesn't seem quite so crazy when compared to vowing to base on your crimes on pennies.

So... Joe embarks on a life of crime based on... pennies. Which is sure to turn out so much better than his previous life of crime. You know... the one ruined by pennies.

Well... at least Joe's dressed for Crazytown.

Let's see: penny arcade machines (heck, ANY pinball machine), bank tellers with no plexiglass barriers, no coin counting machine. It's seeming less and less likely that Joe Coyne will be in the next
Batman film trilogy.

But how many opportunities for penny-related crimes can there be? I mean, even in Gotham?

Guys, guys; use bubble wrap!!!

Piggy banks. Of course Gotham has a millionaire with a "priceless collection" of something bizarre that relates to the villain's 'crime symbol' that he's willing to ransom back for a fortune. Because that's the kind of place Gotham is. At least piggy banks are more likely than Estruscan snoods.

Well, Joe should be okay; it's extremely unlikely that he's going to draw Batman and Robin's attention with these kinds of low-rent, low-risk heists. Unless Bruce and Dick are bored (since they have nothing to do other than fight all the crime in an enormous city, maintain the Batcave, and do all their millionaire philanthropist stuff) and are just sitting around trolling the newspaper for weird crap they can stick their noses into.

Oh, dear. This won't end well...

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

GIANT PENNY WEEK, #1: Case of the Penny Plunderer!

We are familiar with the Giant Penny because of its prominence in the Batcave. For many decades, the Giant Penny has been constantly visible in the main area of the Batcave as one of its essential pieces of recognizable decor (along with the Robot Dinosaur and the Giant Joker Card). Indeed, the Giant Penny and its buddies are the icons by which artists let us know that we are in the Batcave. Rather than, say, the JLA Secret Sanctuary or the *snort* "Arrowcave". One wonders what trophies might be used to easily distinguish the Arrrowcave; probably a giant wooden nickel. But that's a discussion for another time.

Nowadays, we wouldn't hardly know the Batcave without the Giant Penny. But originally, the Giant Penny (along with its fellow Batman trophies) was housed in a separate, locked vaulted area within the Batcave: the Hall of Trophies. The Hall of Trophies wasn't introduced until 1950...three years after the Giant Penny first reared its head (um, so to speak) in this story:

Remember you have Bill Finger to thank for the Giant Penny. Meanwhile, do not look closely at the questionable perspective that is causing the bullets to hit the giant penny instead of Batman and Robin. I blame the artist; some guy named "Bob", apparently.

But do spend time reading that lovely Preface Box. So philosophic, so loaded with .... thoughts. I really miss Preface Boxes; they used to set the tone, they let you settle in as reader to hear the tale. They were like a warm cup of cocoa as you sit down at the fire to hear someone tell a ghost story. Through the Golden, Silver, and Bronze Ages, Preface Boxes were to comic books what the
Invocation of the Muses was to ancient epic poetry. Since we've lost them, comics have changed from being a slow descent in a hot tub to a sudden jump into a chilly stream; oh, sure, you warm up once you start swimming your way through it, but it's not the same experience at all.

In the gentleman days of yore, the Preface Box was a warm hug before a long conversation over a candlelit dinner. Nowadays, it's not uncommon to put the title and authorial credits for a comic book story at the END of it, which is the literary equivalent of tossing someone your name and number only after rockin' it in the back of his van in the discotheque parking lot.

And the "Penny Plunderer" Preface Box is lavish enough not only to set up the mystery of why someone would be daft enough to focus their criminal career on pennies (unlike normal people, who never think about pennies at all, let alone think about pennies while shooting at Batman) but to set up its bizarre antagonist with such poetic elan, in a haiku titled "We Handle Pennies All the Time and Never Give Them Another Thought":
But, it was not so
with Joe Coyne. He thought about

pennies all the time.

Wow; Joe Coyne, elegantly wrapped up in 17 syllable, much like... like a roll of pennies. Don't you wish your current comic book writers took that kind of interest in their craft?
Before we delve into the story proper, what kind of haiku can you compose to honor antagonist Joe Coyne, writer Bill Finger, the Giant Penny, or the late lamented Preface Box?

Monday, January 02, 2012

GIANT PENNY WEEK, #0: Better than Sauerkraut!

There's an old New Year's tradition where I'm from of putting a penny on every window sill on new year's day to earn fortune. Or keep the devil away. Or instead of sauerkraut. Something like that.

So I'm going to observe that tradition this year with YOU and the most famous penny of all: The Giant Penny in the Batcave!

As we have discussed before (in what is apparently a seminal article, since every time I do research on the Batcave, the internet keeps taking me back to it), the Giant Penny comes from a very obscure, early Batman & Robin story (World's Finest Comics #30, 1947; reprinted in the 100-page giant comic Batman #256, 1974; and again in the marvelous trade paperback anthology Secrets of the Batcave, 2007) with an old-school, one-shot foe: Joe Coyne, the Penny Plunderer.

We've admired Joe's inspiration and his poetic prowess, but we've never really read his story together and what better time than Giant Penny Week?

What do you think, Joe?

Um...Ooooo-kay, Joe. I'll take that as a "yes".

So get your vinegar, lemon juice, and a pinch of salt together, and get ready for ...

Giant Penny Week.

Enter at your peril!