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thehefner ([personal profile] thehefner) wrote in [community profile] scans_daily2010-11-18 02:05 pm

The Lives and Times of Batman's Moriarty: Professor Hugo Strange

He predates the Joker at Batman's first arch-nemesis, and he invented fear toxin before the Scarecrow ever came along.

He exploits Batman's secret identity in ways Ra's al Ghul never dared, attacking Batman in ways that Hush and Dr. Hurt would later try to less success. He even pulled a Kingpin-style tear-down on Bruce exactly one month before Daredevil: Born Again was released, and had already beaten Kraven in the plot to kill his enemy and usurp his identity.

He's made only a handful of appearances, two of which are considered among the greatest Batman stories of all time. By all accounts, he should be Batman's greatest enemy, and yet he resides in obscurity.

He's the Most Interesting Man in the World Professor Hugo Strange. That name, I realize, evokes one of two reactions. 1.) "Who?" or 2.) "Oh, yeah, that guy. What about 'im?"

Now, while I personally love the classic Bat-Rogues dearly--while I still consider the Joker to be the greatest and Two-Face to be my favorite--I've become increasingly intrigued by ol' Hugo in all his iterations. Particularly his original appearance, where--it became apparent to me--that Bob Kane and Bill Finger created Hugo to be the Moriarty to Batman's Holmes. A true Napoleon of Crime for the Depression Era.

So who was this first attempt at an arch-villain for Batman, and what set him apart from any of the other forgettable enemies from the pre-Joker era? Why did the Joker almost instantly usurp his place at Bat-Rogue #1? And what did he have that led him to be resurrected as a major threat a whole thirty-seven years later?

Let's find out together, as we explore the many lives of this mysterious(ly enduring) foe who can plague Batman like no other single villain can even today.

These stories, each edited to 1/3rd per issue, are from Detective Comics #36, #46, and Batman #1.

Due to poor timing, Batman is falsely accused of murder, giving us (I believe) one of the first times we see Batman actually being targeted by police. It's a happy accent that works out in the villain's favor, the identity of whom Bruce quickly deduces:

Thus we're introduced to Professor Hugo Strange as if he's always been there, an arch-villain who has caused trouble for Batman on numerous occasions. If you didn't know any better, chances are you wouldn't guess that this was his very first appearance!

It could have made him seem like an unearned menace, like so many ready-made "ultimate villains" we see today thanks to artless writers and editors. Instead, we get the one-two punch of Bruce's description (whipping up an image of Hugo before we even see him, much like Dr. Loomis did for Michael Myers) and the grand reveal of Hugo himself on the very next page.

Who is he? What are his origins? What are his deeper motivations? Who cares?! This guy is just a classic evil criminal mastermind, and that's all we need to know! I think it works, in a strictly Golden Age way. We know right away that this guy is pure evil, with the brains to back it up,

Just like when the Joker himself is introduced a mere two months later (in a very similar fashion), we know that this is a guy of pure evil, with the brains to back it up.

Plus, in true Batman Villain fashion, he has an odd deformity: his "deformed brain," which presumably is reflected in his misshapen skull. If phrenology were real, then Hugo Strange's very cranium, it would seem, is shaped for evil: all evil, all the time, even when he's chillin' in front of a fireplace.

He's just so pleased with his own evilness that he can't even finish his thought without breaking into maniacal laughter! He even tries a second time, but no, it's just too, too brilliantly devious! The devious plan in question? Using the manufactured fog to confound police while his men commit crimes!


Okay, so in terms of dastardly master plans, this isn't that high up on the scale. But it's ambitious and daring enough to elude the FBI on top of the Gotham cops, so hey, credit where it's due. Of course, as we know, Batman > everyone else in actual law enforcement.

I like to imagine the next panel is Hugo going, "... OW! Bleeding! Ow, god! God! Oh, so much blood! Why did I do that? Underlings! Bring Hugo Strange some towels!"

Hugo's words are not an idle threat, as he actually succeeds in capturing Batman, whereupon he quickly starts ratcheting up evil points by going for a whip:

If there's one major physical difference between Hugo Strange of the Golden Age and today, it's how bloody huge he was.

With no neck to speak of, his wonky skull gives way to a massive frame that towers above his lanky legs, like Mark McGwire by way of Conan O'Brien. The guy actually had a body to match his brain, both of which were monstrous and distorted. Plus, he has actual madmen powers. For Hugo Strange, insanity is strength!

Of course, Batman dismantles the fog machine and saves the day, and while most of his Golden Age enemies either died or discretely vanished in jail (never to be seen again), Hugo's story ends on a far more ominously leading note:

As far as I can tell, Hugo was the first villain who, while behind bars in the last panel, swore to return and to get even with Batman. This leads me to conclude that, from this very first appearance, Hugo Strange was meant to be Batman's arch nemesis, primed for his glorious return in Batman #1 two months later! Positively no one could come along to usurp Strange's place as Batman's arch n--

... ooo. From his very first outing, the Joker made Hugo Strange look like Finger/Kane's dry run at arch villainy.

But even as he was overshadowed in status within the very same issue, Hugo's second criminal outing proved to be his most infamous with The Monster Men, starting with the most hardcore Golden Age prison break ever:

The Monster Men go on a horrible and senseless rampage, terrorizing the populace and causing deadly train derailments while a mysterious red truck bombs police cars. Batman follows the truck to the Monster Men's hideout:

So Hugo's plan is essentially the same--create chaos while his men rob the city blind--except this time he's mutating the mentally ill to wreak havoc and kill dozens of people. So seriously, Hugo's really stepped up his game from "criminal mastermind" to "full-blown EVIL criminal mastermind."

Two Monster Men attack Batman, but he manages to turn them on each other and fight to the death, thus giving him space to perform a miracle of Bat-Science.

At this point, it's important to note that Hugo was the nemesis of a Batman who didn't screw around when it came to criminals. It's one thing to let your enemy topple to the death, but as we all know, Golden Age Batman was hardcore:

And once he finished gunning down a truck of henchmen, Batman lassoed a Monster Man, presumably to have him sedated and taken someplace to be cured, right? ... Right?"

I spent a good couple minutes trying to find an appropriately appalled emoticon, and failed. Really, after that, it's not even shocking when Batman battles the final Monster Man King Kong-style (in keeping with Finger and Kane's pattern of cinematic homages/ripoffs):


Unfortunately, while Hugo might defy death, he couldn't defeat the fact that he'd instantly been made irrelevant. The Joker (and Catwoman, who was also introduced in the very same issue) signaled a shift toward costumed and grotesque villains over the old pulp standbys of mad scientists and criminal masterminds. Hugo was now the finest example of an obsolete lot, so it was time to kill him off.

His final Golden Age outing begins what with seems to be a routine bank robbery:

That's right: Hugo Strange invented a fear toxin before the Scarecrow ever appeared, and long before the Scarecrow himself ever even used toxins!

Damn, what a beating, eh? It's not often we see Batman receive a beat-down worthy of Denny Colt! And since Strange is extra evil, he's throws in a final kick for good measure.

So Strange has stepped up his game even more: once again, the method is terror as a distraction, but now his ultimate goal is actual genuine no-shit World Domination.

Scarecrow was never this ambitious, but then again, he was never as capable of an underworld leader as Hugo. That's one thing that's been lost in all subsequent versions of Hugo Strange: he was a charismatic leader of criminals to the point where they were less his henchmen and more his own personal army. That's Grade-A Classic Villain material, there.

Lest anyone doubted that Strange was meant to be Batman's Moriarty, this climactic cliff battle directly evokes "The Final Problem." There's just something about two enemies, who'd always been locked in a battle of wits, reduced to trying to kill one another with their bare hands. I still can't decide if it's wrong, or if it's somehow perfectly appropriate.

While we'd already seen Hugo seemingly fall to his death in the previous story, this time it's handled without any of the "I get a feeling he'll be back!" sentiments. As evidenced by the fact that he vanished from comics for thirty-seven years, it's a fair bet to speculate that this death was intended to be permanent.

Thankfully, Steve Englehart came up with a way to not just resurrect this notable but one-note villain, but to up his threat levels while also deepening his complexity. Indeed, as of this post, we've only scratched the surface of the great character that Hugo Strange has become.

If you're interested in these reading these stories in their entirety, they can be found reprinted in volumes of Batman Archives and, more affordably, Batman Chronicles.