Rusty and his Pals was the first series Bob Kane did for DC. It serializes the adventures of a young blond boy, Rusty, and his friends Tubby and Specs, but by the end of it’s first storyline it has laid the basis that the Batman series will be built from. It ran from New Adventure Comics 26 (May 38) – Adventure Comics 52 (July 40).
Rusty and his Pals appear to be about 9 or 10 years old as this begins. After reading a book about pirates, the three boys build a raft, and sail out to find some and have adventures. Remarkably, they do run into a masted schooner with a crew all dressed as pirates, but these are performers, and the ship is used for entertainment. They bring the boys aboard, and continue sailing to England, unaware that the ship is also transporting opium to Chen Fu.
On board, the boys meet Steve Carter, and American man who will look more and more like Bruce Wayne as the series progresses, and also effectively become the action hero of the strip.
In occasional panels you get a taste of how Kane would draw Batman. The shot of a man smoking opium, in issue 30, is the first of these, and really stands out, barely matching the art on the rest of the page.
One of Chen Fu’s operatives, Long Sin, leads an attack on the ship, and Rusty, Steve and the the rest flee, making it to a tropical island run by counterfeiter Ichabod Slade. He has a giant, sword-wielding assistant, Omar, and a beautiful female accomplice, the Duchess.
A storm forces Long Sin and his men to abandon the pirate ship, but the lifeboat is overloaded, and Long Sin has his own men thrown into the ocean to ensure his survival.
Rusty, Steve et al escape from Slade thanks to the Duchess, who has fallen for Steve and regrets her evil ways. Long Sin and his forces arrive on the island for a big climactic battle, which also sees a volcanic eruption devastate the island, just as our heroes manage to fly away.
They finally arrive in England, where Chen Fu has Rusty kidnapped, seeking vengeance on Steve. Steve rescues the boy, bringing him to safety by hiding out in an opium den. With the aid of a gun-toting Scotland Yard inspector they have a big shoot out with Chen Fu’s men, Fu is captured, and Steve and the Duchess, now using her real name, Diane, plan to get married. The boys feel they would be in the way, and head off in search of new adventures.
The art on this series improves dramatically as the run progresses. The early chapters show an impressive attention to details, but the details overload the panels, the art is not in a strong balance. Kane gets much better with this over time. Steve starts off with a poorly proportioned body and some really awkward stances, but moves like Batman by the end. The villains look extremely cartoony, but the stylization works well.
The Duchess bears more than a passing resemblance to Catwoman, both physically, and character-wise, the bad girl with a crush on the hero. The Scotland Yard inspector is short and fat, wearing a deerstalker, much the way Alfred would appear when introduced. The boys appear much older by the end of this era, fully teenagers, and Rusty goes into fights alongside Steve with much the same camaraderie as Robin would with Batman.
The second (and last) serial begins in issue 46 by “re-introducing” the boys. I put that in quotations because they were poorly introduced when the series began, taking a few issues before we learned their names. And even so, the intro blurbs tell us little. Rusty is courageous, Specs is bookish and Tubby eats a lot.
The story picks up as the boys wander an English moor, get lost in a storm and find a huge old house. Bob Kane does some of his best art on the run with the house. There is a long hallway, with a hammer-beamed ceiling, and some other great, moody interiors. I would love to say these were the basis of Wayne Manor, but Kane never drew it to look this good.
There is a paranoid old man in the house, and his rude bodyguard, but the bodyguard gets killed by “natives” and the old man has a heart attack, and they seek out his nephew Angus McHeather (which means his father’s name was Heather, which is weird). They follow a trail that leads them deep below the house, and learn about the old man’s past in a travelling carnival that went broke in Malay (current Malaysia, though that’s probably obvious). The man and three others killed a tribe of Malay and stole their bejewelled idol, which the old man in turn stole from the other three.
So now Rusty and his pals join Angus on a journey to Malay, where they face not only angry natives seeking vengeance, but also the other three men, determined to find the treasure.
The serial is pretty good, though Angus is a poor substitute for Steve Carter, though he does save the boys in the end, using ventriloquism to make the natives think their killer gorilla, and later the idol itself, it talking.
After all is resolved, the boys journey home in the last two panels of issue 52. They arrive back home just in time for a Fourth of July celebration, and the parents are so relieved to have them back that they do not seem stressed about the fact that the boys look years older than they did when they left, or that Rusty’s hair changed colour from blond to the more logical red.
The series ends here, but knowing these boys, I have little doubt that when the US entered World War II they would have lied about their ages and entered the forces.