“Who wears the Deathmask conquers all…all but the final conqueror.”
Whether real or imagined, the berserker is one of the most fascinating concepts in the history of warfare.
The idea of a seemingly unstoppable warrior of unbridled ferocity, cutting a swath of destruction through an opposing army is undeniably bizarre. He fights like a man possessed, pays no mind to the myriad blades penetrating his flesh, is impervious to fatigue. Those who encounter him and live to tell the tale insist that he must be something other than human.
The word “berserk” derives from a Norse word meaning “to change form.” According to some accounts, berserkers wore wolf or bear pelts rather than armor. They have also been described in some literature as resembling trolls. It isn’t hard to imagine the terror that beholding such a thing would induce. The berserker completely sacrifices his humanity for the battle. If war is the representation of humankind at its most savage, he is the living embodiment of that savagery.
Many historians have attempted to determine the mechanism of the berserker. The most common explanation for the behavior is drugs, which is certainly reasonable. In modern times, we have, after all, witnessed people “freaking out” under the influence of psychotropic substances. And after quaffing a few tankards of ale, some men believe they’re invincible.
Whether or not the warrior has a say in becoming a berserker is unclear. There are, of course, those who believe in a cause so strongly that they would be honored to assume the mantle, but it’s just as likely that many berserkers had the decision made for them, having been selected for their size, mettle, or some other factor.
It is understood that he will most likely not survive, and if he does he won’t be the same man afterwards. Many soldiers, having experienced the horrors of war, suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder, but the berserker would probably be incapable of functioning on any level. Rather than burning out in a blaze of glory with the mutilated bodies of a hundred foes in his wake, he would become a burden on his tribe. Death would, therefore, be preferable.
“Deathmask,” in Detective Comics #437, explores the consequences of an ancient artifact’s falling into the wrong hands, awakening a centuries-old “curse” that robbed men of both their humanity and their lives.
It’s opening night of a new exhibit at the Gotham Museum. The Mask of Matuchima, a priceless art treasure discovered during a recent expedition in Central America, depicts the face of the Xochipecs’ god of death and is drawing a lot of attention. The opening has attracted Gotham’s best and brightest, including Bruce Wayne, who, in his Batman garb, thwarts an attempt by a group of thieves to steal the mask.
Moments before the unveiling, a heated argument breaks out between chief archaeologist Austin Spires and executive assistant Judd Thaxton, both of whom were candidates for the position of museum director, which was given (unfairly in their estimation) to Marcus Wingate. The two part ways just before a scream erupts from the nearby exhibit hall. Rushing into the chamber, Wayne, accompanied by Commissioner Gordon and a several others, discovers Lord Matuchima (or someone dressed in his mask and robe) standing over a body that is assumed to be Wingate’s.
After the “resurrected god” knocks an officer out with his bludgeon, Wayne leaps out an open window to again assume the guise of the Dark Knight. When he returns (crashing through a window, of course), Matuchima, having made short work of several men, turns his sights on Batman, and an intense fight ensues. The terrifying figure’s strength is far beyond that of the foes to which Batman is accustomed, and in the end he is forced to submit, allowing Matuchima to escape.
It turns out that Matuchima’s initial victim was one of the thieves, who had managed to escape Batman’s notice earlier, rather than Wingate. One of Gordon’s officers reports that the grotesque assailant escaped into the park and that they had discovered the body of Wingate there. Rather than dying at the hands of Matuchima, he had succumbed to heart failure. Upon inspection, Batman notices a peculiar scratch on the side of the corpse’s neck, but no one else seems to think anything of it.
The two chief suspects are Thaxton and Spires, both of whom disappeared during the incident. Batman instructs Gordon to look for Thaxton while he heads to Spire’s apartment. When he arrives, he finds Spires being strangled by Matuchima. The Caped Crusader engages Matuchima, permitting Spires to flee, but his foe knocks him off the roof with a powerful kick. He grabs an awning on the way down, but by the time he gets back to the apartment Matuchima is gone.
Going through Spires’ papers and notes, Batman discovers that the mask was believed to be a gift from the death god, providing its wearer with incredible power and guaranteed victory in battle. The fact that the Xochipecs experimented with narcotics gives the Dark Knight the final clue to the puzzle. He returns to the museum, where Gordon is waiting for him, having received a call from the distressed Spires about another disturbance there. Gordon reports that Thaxton is nowhere to be found, which comes as no surprise to Batman.
They find Spires, gun in hand, being assaulted by Matuchima. Spires fires on him several times before he finally collapses. The mask falls off as he hits the floor, revealing the face of Thaxton. The archaeologist tries to play innocent, but the Dark Knight, having pieced everything together, knows the truth. By appealing to their egos, Spires tricked Wingate and Thaxton into wearing the mask, which contains a tiny spur laced with the narcotic that induces the berserker state (as evidenced by the scratch on Wingate’s neck). He knew that the wearer’s heart eventually bursts from the strain, which was an effective way of eliminating both of them so that he could take the job of museum director.
Deciding that he has no other recourse, Spires attempts to abscond with the mask but loses his balance and plummets to his death, shattering the artifact in the process.
Like his predecessor Sherlock Holmes, Batman recognizes the significance of clues ignored by others. He is always one step ahead, anticipating a criminal’s next move, which has saved his life and the lives of others too many times to count. While he is unable to prevent the deaths of Wingate and Thaxton, he is able to prevent the mask from causing further chaos.
It is worth noting that Gordon recognizes the recent change in Wayne’s personality while at the museum and expresses his distaste for it in a thought balloon. This is one of the earliest references to Wayne’s assuming the “effete snob” persona (his own words) designed to keep people from suspecting that he’s Batman. I’m sure that it pains him to act in such a manner, but the Dark Knight’s war on crime is his number-one priority, and he cannot allow anything to endanger it.
This story, penned by Archie Goodwin, represents the very best of what Bronze-Age Batman has to offer (it’s no mistake that it was included in The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told). It’s remarkable how much action and mystery can be packed into a mere twelve pages. The dialogue is sharp and mellifluous, the setting engaging, the pacing impeccable. Goodwin grabs readers from the first page and doesn’t let go until the end.
Goodwin’s fantastic story is superbly realized by the artwork of Jim Aparo, best known as the artist of The Brave and the Bold (Batman team-ups). Aparo is right up there with Neal Adams, Irv Novick, and Dick Giordano in the pantheon of great Bronze-Age Batman artists. The pages virtually crackle with his storytelling wizardry. Working within a relatively short page count, which might have been a considerable liability for other artists, brought out the best of his abilities.