Humankind has probably always had a fascination with the bizarre.
Of course, determining what is bizarre and what isn’t can be problematic. For example, some cultures (or even subcultures) believe that “decorating” the human body in various ways (lip discs, piercings, tattoos) is beautiful, whereas others consider this sort of thing tantamount to mutilation. It’s all related to cultural conditioning. No one is “right” or “wrong.” It is arguably this diversity of perception that makes humanity so interesting. It doesn’t change the fact, however, that encountering something beyond our narrow sphere of experience can trigger unwarranted judgment.
Robert Ripley made a fortune by traveling the world, finding “oddities” that he could feature in his Believe It Or Not! newspaper cartoons. (Readership is estimated to have been around eighty million.) Some of these features dealt with peculiar rituals performed by people living on the fringes of civilization, but many of them concerned deformities and “freaks of nature.” Ripley’s empire has gone on to encompass numerous books, television programs (who can forget Jack Palance’s breathy utterances echoing against stone walls as he guided viewers through a “haunted” castle or ossuary?), and popular museums.
Let’s face it: There are a zillion things that can go wrong with the human body. It’s actually remarkable that more people aren’t born with something terribly wrong with them. Many afflictions aren’t immediately obvious, but some are, and it is these sorts of afflictions that can, through no fault of their own, cause problems for the afflicted. There is something in the human mind that “knows” what a human body is supposed to look like (whether this is innate or conditioned is debatable), and when one deviates from this standard, we are often repulsed. Revulsion, however, often realigns itself into morbid fascination. And where there is fascination, there is often money to be made.
It wasn’t until the 1600s that a “freak of nature” was put on public display. Two of them, in fact: conjoined twins Lazarus and Joannes Baptista Colloredo. The latter’s torso was attached to the former’s, and though Joannes was capable of movement, he typically remained still, did not speak, and kept his eyes closed at all times. Lazarus orchestrated his own exhibitions all over Europe, making his living in this way.
A century later, Tsar Peter the Great displayed a collection of “human oddities.” P. T. Barnum’s famous nineteenth-century sideshows featured “freaks,” as well (he is, thankfully, reported to have paid them exceedingly well). Probably the most famous “freak” of all, Joseph Merrick, better known as the “Elephant Man,” unable to perform any other job due to his grotesque and debilitating condition, found livelihood during his short life by allowing himself to be exhibited for paying audiences.
In this way, attractions featuring people with unusual deformities and conditions became an integral part of traveling circuses. Tod Browning’s decision to cast actual sideshow performers (including Prince Randian, a man born without limbs) in his 1932 film Freaks resulted in major controversy, ruining his career and being largely forgotten until it was resurrected as a midnight movie in later decades. (In spite of this, it was selected for inclusion in the United States National Film Registry in 1994.)
Although they’re still around today, freak shows are far less popular than they once were. (Although much of TLC’s programming has arguably filled the gap.) Due to their longstanding affiliation, however, we will probably always associate circuses with sideshows and the archetypes that we connect with them, such as the “fat lady,” the “human skeleton,” and the “strong man.”
Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to Detective Comics #410 (1971) and its lead story, “A Vow from the Grave.”
Things open up in an undisclosed location, where Batman is pursuing Kano Wiggins, a convicted murderer who has escaped from prison. A furious storm rages as the Dark Knight follows him across dangerous terrain and onto a rope bridge, which Wiggins cuts upon reaching the far side. Batman’s reflexes prevent him from falling, but when he reaches solid ground the criminal draws a knife. The Caped Crusader’s superior fighting prowess overpowers Wiggins, but a huge fist, seemingly appearing out of nowhere, smashes into the back of his skull, allowing the killer to escape.
When he comes to, he finds a muscular man, the owner of the fist that knocked him out, towering over him. The man tries to attack him again, but Batman leaps onto his shoulders and subdues him with the sleeper-hold. Three people emerge from the bushes, amazed that “Goliath” has been defeated. Former members of a carnival sideshow, human skeleton Charley Bones, fat lady Maud, and mute, seal-limbed Flipper have, along with Goliath, been squatting in an abandoned house since the show went out of business. Accepting Charley’s explanation that Goliath meant no harm, Batman heads into the woods, attempting to pick up the killer’s trail.
He winds up at the house Charley described and, upon entering, is shocked to find Charley hanged from the ceiling. Goliath attempts to comfort Maud, but she won’t have any of it, declaring that she loved Charley. Wiggins is, of course, blamed, and Batman heads outside at the sound of a van cranking up. Thankfully, the engine doesn’t work, and Batman knocks Wiggins out and ties him up. As he carries the killer’s unconscious body back into the house, he informs Maud, now alone, that Wiggins is not responsible for Charley’s murder.
When he asks about Goliath and Flippy’s whereabouts, Maud remarks that she isn’t sure. Suddenly, Goliath hurls a heavy beam toward them from above. Batman explains that he knew Wiggins wasn’t the killer because the only person tall enough to have cut the rope that was used to hang Charley was Goliath. Climbing the ladder to the belfry, the Dark Knight finds Goliath holding Flippy by his shirt, preparing to drop him from the tower. He tells Batman that he must leap from the tower or he’ll drop Flippy. Batman agrees but secretly ties his Batrope to a beam before doing so.
Goliath tells Flippy that he doesn’t want to kill him but that he must because he witnessed the strong man’s murdering Charley. He needed to get him out of the way, he says, so that he could have Maud for himself. The Caped Crusader swings down to catch Flippy as Goliath releases him. Back on the ground floor, Goliath makes a move on Maud but she parries his advances. Batman appears, much to the strong man’s shock, but receives a powerful kick from Wiggins as he walks past his prone form. Goliath seizes him from behind and tries to break his neck, but Maud bites Goliath on the arm, allowing Batman to land a crushing blow.
Denny O’Neil, Neal Adams, and Dick Giordano deliver a compelling story here. Adams’ dynamic layouts and expressive characters, as usual, dazzle the reader and give the story gravitas. In the hands of another artist, it might have seemed somewhat silly. The sylvan setting is typical of Batman’s stories of the period, and the architecture of the abandoned building is right in line with the Gothic leitmotif, as well.
In Mail-Order Mysteries: Real Stuff from Old Comic Book Ads (which I highly recommend, by the way), Kirk Demarais showcases a book called Very Special People, which was sold through comic-book advertisements during the 1970s. He remarks that it’s a “stimulating” book, “until you matured enough to feel guilty for seeking this type of entertainment.” I’m not here to argue whether freak shows are humiliating or empowering, but I certainly think they provide fertile ground for some great stories.