Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Batman 234

Batman’s famous rogues’ gallery was noticeably absent from the pages of his comics for the first year or so of the Bronze Age. The reasons for this are outlined in Batman #217 (1969); essentially, Bruce felt that he needed to focus his attention on the criminals behind the scenes, viz. the corrupt businessmen and politicians whose indiscretions and greed had profound effects on the lives of innocent people, more so than the crimes of supervillains.
In a real-world sense, though, I think it was an editorial decision. The campy Batman of the Silver Age, the offspring of avarice and the embarrassing zeitgeist of the 1960s (you heard me), needed to be put to rest forever, and by temporarily ignoring the “bad guys” associated with him, the creators gave the readers (and hopefully the public at large) an opportunity to see the character in a new light.  

It also provided an opportunity for the members of the rogues’ gallery to be reinterpreted, which was a beneficial thing, indeed.
The first of Batman’s classic foes to be introduced into the Bronze Age was Two-Face.  

Believe it or not, he had not appeared in either of Batman’s titles since 1953, which could be the reason he was chosen to be the flagship villain. (You may have noticed that he never showed up in the television series.) He had been retired because the Comics Code, enacted around that time, had forced publishers to make comic stories more innocuous (in other words, boring), and Harvey Dent’s alter-ego was one of the most terrifying and dangerous enemies the Dark Knight had ever faced. By 1971, most readers were unfamiliar with him, giving writer Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams a clean slate. 

Batman #234’s lead story, “Half an Evil,” opens with a peculiar crime: someone in a helicopter’s stealing a parade balloon. What possible use could such a thing be? Commissioner Gordon, recognizing the strangeness of it, contacts Batman, for whom the unusual is a stock in trade. As the two men discuss the crime, an officer informs Gordon that a robbery is taking place at the Nautical Museum.  

Batman rushes to the scene and swings through an open window, confronting the perpetrators. He manages to dispatch one, but the other escapes, thanks to a smokescreen. When the Dark Knight questions his captive, he discovers that the hood’s employer is Two-Face and that his partner absconded with the diary of one “Captain Bye.” 

Batman returns to his penthouse to discuss the matter with Alfred. After revisiting Two-Face’s origin for the benefit of readers, he consults his copy of the Marine Encyclopedia (of course he’d have one), learns that Bye’s ship is docked at a nearby marina, and knows he will find his foe there. He arrives to find the boat already cut free of its moorings and floating down the river. He takes out two of the criminal’s henchmen who are guarding the pier just in time to see the schooner explode and sink. 

Remembering the earlier crime, Batman consults the tide charts and determines where an object partially sunk close to the pier would surface. He makes his way there and, sure enough, the ship rises from the river, thanks to the balloon. The Dark Knight climbs aboard and finds that an unfortunate hobo in an inner tube has gotten snagged in the mast. As he climbs up to rescue him, Two-Face emerges from the cargo hold and knocks Batman out. Lashing him to the mast, the villain punctures the balloon and breaks open a hidden vault in the wall of the forecastle, unleashing a fortune in gold coins.  

As the ship begins to sink again and the madman climbs into the lifeboat to escape with the treasure, Batman reminds him of the hobo and urges him to flip his coin to determine the innocent victim’s fate, as is his wont. Two-Face initially ignores him, but his compulsion gets the better of him. The resulting coin-flip comes up on the unscarred side, evoking the “good” half of his nature. He returns to the schooner only to find that Batman, having tensed his muscles prior to being bound (an old Houdini trick), has freed himself.  

Batman then proceeds to clean Two-Face’s clock and carries him and the unconscious hobo into the lifeboat. 

This story effectively sets the stage for the direction in which writers and illustrators of the Bronze Age are going to take Batman’s villains within the framework of the Caped Crusader’s return to his dark roots. Comic books, of course, do not have to reflect the way things work in the real world (and, indeed, the Comics Code, though it had relaxed some of its standards by this point, still would not allow some things to be shown), but it’s counterintuitive, even absurd, to believe that hardened criminals are not willing to kill people in order to achieve their goals.  

During the Silver Age, villains were frequently depicted as having limits. They didn’t necessarily want to commit evil acts; they just wanted to reap the benefits, and if a superhero chose to interfere with their plans, they’d usually try to eliminate him in some manner other than outright murder. While Two-Face does not allow Batman and the hobo to die, he would have been perfectly willing to do so had the coin’s scarred side turned up. As a result of his disfigurement, Harvey Dent is truly insane, and while there is a method to his madness (he likes things that involve duality), he has no compunction about wiping out those who oppose him.
This seminal tale has been reprinted in various places, but your best bet is probably Batman Illustrated by Neal Adams Vol. 3 (now in paperback).

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Detective Comics 425

What is the connection between Batman and Shakespeare?

Those possessing even a passing familiarity with the Bard’s oeuvre know that his plays fall into three categories: tragedy, comedy, and history. Of these, his tragedies are arguably the most recognizable, having been performed thousands of times in theaters across the globe, appearing in numerous film adaptations, and profoundly impacting pop culture. Hamlet and Macbeth are his two most well-known tragedies, and considering that they were penned by the same author, it’s remarkable just how little they have in common.

Hamlet, in some respects, paved the way for all the plays that were to come after it; despite its medieval setting, the writing has a timeless quality that transcends milieu and examines the genre of theatre itself while simultaneously probing the human mind and teasing madness from its convolutions. Hamlet’s insanity stems from his cowardice and the belief that he has no control over his own destiny. In his famous soliloquy, he considers taking his own life but ultimately balks when he realizes that what might lie on the “other side” could potentially be worse than his current situation.

Macbeth also deals with madness, but it is of a different kind. The titular character’s thirst for power (intensified by his encounter with the Witches and the urging of Lady Macbeth) compels him to murder the king of Scotland so that he can assume the throne. Once he has done it, however, he finds that the deed has wracked him with overpowering guilt. His sanity, and that of his wife, rapidly deteriorates, and things just go downhill from there.

Several years ago I saw a comic strip in Cracked (remember when it was a magazine that tried to steal some of Mad’s audience, rather than a website?) in which Hamlet visits a psychiatrist. Like much of the material in Cracked, it wasn’t very good, really, but it raised an interesting point: It’s possible that Hamlet could have benefited from this; he just needed to face up to his issues instead of running from them. He needed someone to talk to about his problems other than himself. Macbeth, on the other hand, was doomed from the moment he raised the dagger. He had no hope of redemption.

When you consider the fact that Bruce Wayne watched a thug gun down both of his parents, his story can certainly be seen as a tragedy. Some have suggested that he is, likewise, a little crazy. After all, declaring a one-man war on crime isn’t exactly something a person in his right mind would do. Thankfully, though, he understands that revenge is not the right course of action, and while it’s never far from his thoughts, at least he doesn’t have his parents’ murder thrown in his face constantly, unlike Hamlet and Macbeth, who are unable to escape the consequences of the deaths that forever altered their fates.

Could Batman have been “cured” by spending a few hours a week sorting things out while reposed on a shrink’s couch? It’s conceivable.

Getting back to Macbeth, the fact that things go bad so quickly and then just get worse and worse have led many to declare it the most tragic of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Some actors even consider it bad luck to say the title, referring to it instead as the Scottish Play or something like that. Whether or not this superstition holds any water is debatable, but theatre, like everything else, has its own little quirks, and to deny its practitioners the right to be a bit odd runs counter to the spirit of entertainment. (Will I be struck with ill fortune by the very act of typing it? I’ll keep my guard up just in case.)

One of the most famous scenes in Macbeth is the one in which Macbeth encounters the Three Witches. They make reference to the ancient pagan goddess Hecate, which is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, she is fairly obscure in the pantheon of Greek deities (although she might not have been when the play was written); second, the form that she frequently assumes is an amalgam of three women, all standing back to back. This, of course, parallels the Three Witches, but it also, in a strange way, relates to the plot of Detective Comics #425.

The story opens with Batman’s thwarting an attempt on the life of lead actor Barry Johnstone during a performance of Macbeth at Gotham’s outdoor Shakespearian Festival. A killer had tried to take Johnstone out earlier, and Batman, anticipating that he or she would try again, succeeded in preventing the actor’s death a second time.

The Dark Knight pursues the killer through the surrounding woods and finds him, disguised in a ghoulish costume (as seen in the gorgeous cover image by Bernie Wrightson), climbing onto a prop horse-drawn carriage. He leaps onto the vehicle but only manages to pull his mask off before the carriage hits a pipe and throws Batman off. By the time the Caped Crusader regains consciousness, the killer is long gone, and he decides to assume the guise of Wayne and see if he can find any clues by talking to the director and cast.

Over the next few pages we discover that there are three potentially problematic things going on behind the scenes of Macbeth. (And here we have the tripartite image of Hecate as a metaphor, dear readers.) First, there is a love triangle between Johnstone, Del Sartre (the director), and Claire Foster (who plays Lady Macbeth). Second, myopic, seasoned actor Ezra Jimson (who plays the Porter) strongly dislikes Sartre’s contemporary take on the play. Third, Johnstone’s understudy Tod Dunn thinks Johnstone is a “scenery chewer” and that he should be playing the lead role.

At the following night’s performance, Dunn assumes the role of Macbeth because Johnstone had to call in sick. Even though Johnstone is not present, Batman decides to stick around because he has an “uneasy feeling.” One of the highlights of the play is, not surprisingly, the scene with the Witches, during which a small charge causes a harmless but impressive explosion in their cauldron. Remembering the theft of some nitroglycerin the night before, Batman leaps onto the stage and hurls the cauldron into the woods, where it detonates massively.

Batman asks Sartre whether he was with Johnstone during the first shooting attempt, and when Sartre replies that he was, the Dark Knight immediately fingers Jimson as the killer. Having found broken glass in the eyeholes of the mask, Batman realized that the perpetrator had poor vision, which accounted for the fact that Johnstone had been missed by both bullets. Johnstone’s absence during the performance revealed that he was not the actual target.

Jimson was actually trying to murder Sartre for “making a mockery of the theater” with his modern flourishes. He rigged the cauldron with the explosive since he had been unable to successfully shoot Sartre (the deaths of the other actors would have just been collateral damage).

Jimson, like Macbeth, found only madness when he tried to dethrone a king.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Detective Comics 437

“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.

A definite winner.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Detective Comics 415

Hanging as a form of execution has existed for centuries, and, indeed, the image of a body suspended from the gallows is virtually synonymous with death.

In his book What a Way to Go, Geoffrey Abbot (an “expert on all things macabre,” according to the dust jacket) writes, “Given a well-forested country, a large number of felons to be dispatched every year, a plentiful supply of ropes, and there was no doubt about the best method of execution to adopt—throw a rope over the branch of a tree and hang them!”

What is it, exactly, that makes hanging so universal? Abbot’s book describes, in detail, no fewer than seventy methods of putting someone to death, a great number of which are largely unknown or forgotten. Why, of all of these, has hanging survived in the public consciousness? As Abbot observes, it’s simple and cheap and can be done virtually anywhere. While elaborate gallows existed, primarily in public squares, where they were designed to attract crowds as an inexpensive form of entertainment, many hangings were conducted on the spot.

Perhaps the fact that hanging is less gruesome than many other methods of execution accounts for its staying power. While I’m sure that it’s not something that’s particularly pleasant to watch, no body parts are chopped off and no entrails spill out. In fact, in most cases there isn’t even any blood, making it a perfect spectacle for the savage-minded and squeamish alike.

A body hanging at the end of a rope is also one of the few ways we have of witnessing death firsthand. It’s a memento mori of sorts, i.e., a reminder of our own mortality. A hanged man may sway in the breeze a bit, but he’s not going anywhere for a while.

The human body is ultimately an immensely frail thing, and the transition from life to death can take place in a very brief span of time. All it takes is something as rudimentary as cutting off one’s ability to breathe. A hanging victim is the epitome of helplessness. He is completely powerless to free himself from the grip of death, in this case taking the form of a length of rope.

From a semiotic perspective, it’s even found its way into our diversions. One of the most popular word games around is hangman, in which players try to figure out a phrase by guessing letters to prevent a little stickman from expiring at the end of a noose. Even for a first-time player, no explanation is necessary. Anyone can see that death is imminent for a person hanging by his neck.

Naturally, hanging, as both a method of execution and/or suicide and a symbol of death and/or imminent danger, has appeared in numerous horror stories. One of the most interesting things about it is that it can be difficult or even impossible to determine whether a hanging was murder or suicide because there is little in the way of evidence to point to one or the other. It can form the framework for a good mystery.

Hanging is at the center of Ambrose Bierce’s classic short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” While not a horror story per se, it effectively conveys the terror those being hanged must experience and shows how time and consciousness can be distorted when one is in the very grip of death.

The cover of Detective Comics #415 (1971), by the inimitable Neal Adams, is a striking illustration that, in some ways, is the reverse of Batman #246 (see my review for details). The question is, are we to take this image literally or figuratively? Has Batman’s ghost come back to torment his murderer, or are we seeing a manifestation of the killer’s guilty conscience?

As it turns out, neither.

The central character of “Challenge of the Consumer Crusader” is Tom Carson, whose negative product reviews have unnerved many business owners. Things start out with Batman succeeding in thwarting an attempt on Carson’s life. It is assumed that the hit was ordered by Magna Industries, as its “microwave anti-pollution device” is slated for testing. Batman is surprised by this, considering that, as Bruce Wayne, he is acquainted with Ben Ames, Magna’s president, and doesn’t think he’d be capable of such a thing.

Batman confronts Ames disguised as the ghost of Carson, coated in phosphorescent paint and suspended by a wire outside his second-story window. He asks Ames a few key questions and learns that the only reason he wanted Carson killed was because Carson’s operation was extorting money from him to guarantee favorable reviews. Batman knows that Carson isn’t responsible; he wouldn’t have pointed him toward Ames because he would’ve known that Batman would uncover the truth. Therefore he determines it must be someone working for Carson.

When he reaches Carson’s labs, he finds Joan Wilde, the lab director, on the phone with Ames, who has informed her of Carson’s (putative) death. The Dark Knight bursts in, informing her that the jig is up. She hurls the phone at him and then flees through a door into a dark room. Pursuing her, Batman, surrounded by Wilde’s lackeys, is bombarded by “psychedelic lighting.” One of the men lands a lucky punch, and the Caped Crusader lands on a mattress that is about to be tested. He barely avoids the heavy cylinder as it rolls across the mattress and dispatches the rest of the “commandos.”

Wilde runs outside and climbs into a parked car. Batman, thinking she is planning to abscond in the automobile, gets behind the wheel of the car behind her, prepared for a chase, and is shocked when she emerges from the passenger-side door. Batman’s car, hooked by its bumper to a crane, rises into the air, and it becomes clear that the car is a test vehicle and is going to be dropped. Wilde watches the car plummet and crash to the ground, but her victory is short lived, for the Dark Knight, having escaped injury thanks to his amazing reflexes and the vehicle’s airbag, emerges from the smoke and apprehends her.

While interesting and well executed, “Challenger of the Consumer Crusader” is not the kind of story that’s likely to make a huge impression on readers. It was nice to have a female villain for a change, but there’s nothing remarkable about her. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy these sorts of stories, but I must admit that they’re a dime a dozen. Batman’s remarkable detective skills aren’t exactly put to the test here, but at least he manages to unearth a shady racket before others can fall victim to it.

So, having examined the story we’ve determined that the cover is misleading. If we think about it another way, though, it actually works from a metaphorical standpoint. It’s very interesting what Adams has done here. The man confronted by Batman’s hanged image is clearly supposed to be Ames, and while we learn that he is not, in fact, the villain of the story, Batman’s association with him ultimately leads to the Dark Knight’s being hanged, albeit inside a car. Thus, Adams has conflated the essences of Ames and Wilde into one image and summarized the events of the story without actually giving anything away (and providing us with an illustration that parted a lot of readers with hard-earned quarters).

Monday, July 8, 2013

Detective Comics 414

As a former resident of the Outer Banks, I can tell you that lighthouses are major tourist attractions.

Prior to moving there, I had no idea that this was a thing, and once I discovered how popular they were, I was, frankly, bemused. I don’t find them particularly interesting (in the same way that I don’t find silos interesting), but, as with so many other things, I am clearly in the minority.

The one aspect about them that I do find intriguing is the prospect of hauntings. That’s the kind of thing that gets my attention every time. Ghosts, like people, are apt to take up residence just about anywhere. While houses and castles are generally the first things to come to mind when we think about haunted places, lighthouses are apparently just as likely to house restless spirits.

According to Ray Jones, author of Haunted Lighthouses: Phantom Keepers, Ghostly Shipwrecks, and Sinister Calls from the Deep, “Life, death, and drama have always swirled in and around lighthouses, and these things make a lasting impression on places and structures.”

It’s certainly true that lighthouses are common fixtures in Gothic literature. After all, outside of the dilapidated castle or the crumbling graveyard, there are few tableaux more evocative than the seashore draped in the shadows of night. As the breakers crash against the rocks, you can almost imagine a young maiden, diaphanous nightgown billowing in the wind, on a precipice high above the waves, contemplating her own mortality, having fallen victim to forbidden love (or something).

The lighthouse itself is an ideal setting for a Gothic tale. Lighthouse keepers are, by their very nature, recluses. They live Spartan lives and tend to be eccentric, fastidious, and irascible. Spending so much time alone can have a profound effect on the brain, as everyone knows. A preference for isolation just isn’t normal. The lighthouse keeper grows old within his tower as the implacable waves wash the years away; his joints swell with the strain of repetitive tasks, his weary eyes retreat deep into their dark sockets, his features are eroded by the salty air.

The kind of dedication necessary for the proper execution of the job is exactly the sort of thing that can provide the spark for a haunting; we have seen in numerous ghost stories that phantoms are frequently “anchored” to places because of some uncompleted task. It is not a stretch to say that a lighthouse keeper would refuse to leave his post, even after death, because the seafaring vessels will never stop needing him to guide them safely to shore.    

Jones goes on to remark, “It is probably safe to say that every lighthouse in America is now considered historic and that every last one of them is also haunted.”

I sincerely hope he’s right.

Detective Comics #414 (1971), at this point in its run firmly established as an anthology title, opens with “Legend of the Key Hook Lighthouse.” In the prologue we are told the tragic tale of a young lighthouse keeper who failed to do his duty because he and his lover were in the throes of passion. When he discovers that his negligence caused a ship to crash into the rocks, he shoots his paramour and then turns the revolver on himself.

Forty years later, in Florida, Batman, having followed a shady courier all the way from Gotham, is on the verge of capturing a small group of thugs planning to sell a load of guns to General Ruizo, a would-be-South-American dictator. Leaping from the shadows, the Dark Knight dispatches two of the men and then advises the courier, known as Artie, to give himself up.

The only female in the group, Loosy, who clearly has feelings for Artie, implores Batman not to call the authorities. She offers to take him to the rendezvous point where the transaction is slated to take place. He agrees, and they climb into a docked boat and head through choppy waters toward a distant lighthouse. During the journey, Loosy explains that she was once a singer and that Artie was her manager. As the years passed, however, she lost her voice, her looks, and her career. After she had lost everything, she realized that she was in love with Artie, but though he once wished to marry her, he no longer cares.

Reaching the lighthouse, they pull the boat ashore just as Ruizo’s craft comes into view. Onboard, the general reveals that he never had any intention of paying for the guns and is planning to kill the gangsters instead. When they reach the island, Loosy tells them that she put the crates containing the weapons in the lighthouse to protect them from the oncoming storm. Ruizo waits outside, holding Loosy at gunpoint, while the crew enters the dark edifice. Of course, Batman is waiting inside and, using his virtually unmatched fighting prowess, makes short work of them.

Unfortunately, Ruizo hears gunshots and realizes that his men have been ambushed. He shoots Loosy in the arm and absconds to his boat. Unwilling to let him go after Arnie, Loosy claws her way across the sand and into the surf and ties a rope around the vessel’s propeller. As Ruizo recognizes that his escape has been thwarted, Batman appears. Before the Dark Knight can apprehend the general, however, a huge wave washes over the deck, slamming his head against the railing.

Ruizo draws a sword and prepares to finish Batman off, but before he can do so a blinding light envelops him, and, as a spectral voice emanating from the sea fills his ears, his clothes burst into flame. He jumps overboard to put out the fire and is swallowed by the churning waters of the deep. Batman carries Loosy to shore and goes back into the lighthouse to see who lit the beacon. The Dark Knight discovers that the dust covering the floor surrounding it has not been disturbed, and, therefore, that there can only be one explanation, strange though it may be.

He thanks the restless spirit of the lighthouse keeper, knowing that he has been redeemed and is now at peace.  

Irv Novick and Dick Giordano deliver in a big way here. Loosy’s character is particularly well designed, injecting her with the sympathetic aspect that makes the story work. She describes herself as a “hag,” but Batman tells her that she is beautiful, a remark that certainly also reveals that he has come to respect her during their brief encounter. The pacing is excellent, and the action sequences are laid out very effectively. This era of Batman will always be my favorite because the stories possess something indefinable that gives them substance that has never been replicated.

This story has not yet been reprinted but is definitely worth seeking out.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Detective Comics 398

Neal Adams gives us another compelling, if misleading, image for the cover of Detective Comics #398 (1970).

A “poison pen” letter is simply a vitriolic missive designed to upset or “call out” the recipient, but there is something poetic about the phrase that imbues it with the connotation of something darker. Sometimes word choice can make all the difference. The title of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Purloined Letter,” for example, has an undeniably sinister ring to it. “Purloined” simply means “stolen,” but Poe’s decision to use the former word rather than the latter gives the title a more mysterious feel, perhaps because “purloined” is a less-frequently used word (at least in modern terms).

If the meaning of a word is unknown to a reader, it’s easy enough for him or her to consult the dictionary (especially in 2013 when a computer or a phone with Internet access is seldom out of reach), but in the mid-nineteenth century it wasn’t quite so simple, and many readers probably wouldn’t have bothered with it anyway (there were more important things to worry about; say, staving off cholera). Poe is well-known for his turgid language, but despite this it seems likely that he didn’t select “purloined” over “stolen” without careful consideration. After all, the effectiveness of a title is often all a potential reader has to go on.

The alliteration in the title of Batman’s story in this issue is also effective in creating a kind of poetic quality that is both eerie and strangely beautiful.

The premise of “The Poison Pen Puzzle” is not an unfamiliar one. Someone has written a “fictional” book based on the lives of some of Hollywood’s elite. In the literary world, this is known as a roman a clef (The Devil Wears Prada and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas being prime examples). The names have been replaced, but the facts are unchanged. Truth, at times, is more interesting than fiction, and presenting truth in the guise of fiction is even better. It has, at times, gotten authors in trouble (in at least one case a libel suit was filed), but some stories beg to be told.

Bruce Wayne, on his way to Hollywood via airplane, winds up sitting next to Maxine Melanie, bestselling author of The In People of Out City, the scandalous book in question. Wayne is on his way to a meeting with Seven-Star Pics, a film studio with which Wayne Enterprises is slated to merge. Wayne has a low opinion of Melanie’s book and is shocked when he discovers that it’s been optioned for a movie by the very studio he’s planning to work with. When he arrives at the meeting, he angrily declares that the book is trash and threatens to renege on the merger if they don’t drop it.

When one of the board members asks Wayne if he’s actually read the book rather than just basing his opinion on hearsay, Wayne admits that he hasn’t and asks if a copy is available. They offer to let him read the publisher’s advance copy but find that it is missing. Wayne tells them that he will just drop by the local bookstore and pick one up. It just so happens that Melanie is signing books at the store. As Wayne looks on, an old woman breaks in line to ask for an autograph and gives Melanie her pen.

Suddenly, Melanie screams in pain and collapses, dropping the book. Wayne retrieves the volume and tries to return it to the old woman, but she grabs his hand and flips him onto the ground and then disappears. A doctor who happens to be in the store examines Melanie’s body and finds that she is dead. Wayne suggests that he look at her index finger, and he discovers a pin-prick. The pen that the old woman gave her had a tiny needle tipped with poison hidden near the nib. Wayne takes the dropped book and finds that it is an advance copy, assuming it’s the one the film company was sent. He returns to the Seven-Star offices and is told that a stenographer had taken their copy, effectively deepening the mystery.

The board is distressed upon Wayne’s arrival, not because of Melanie’s death but because Loren Melburn, one of their top actresses, has confessed to the murder. She, her husband Dorian Spence, and one Rod Drake (both of the men are also actors) were all characters in Melanie’s novel and are thus all suspects. Wayne realizes that Melburn couldn’t have been the old woman from the bookstore in disguise because she wouldn’t have possessed such great strength. As he runs the facts through his mind, another member of the board enters the room and reports that Spence has also confessed to the murder.

Wayne dons his Batman gear and heads to the police station, where Melburn and Spence are being held. Batman suggests that one is probably covering for the other, since a spouse cannot be forced to testify against his or her partner. He asks that they be released, as he is now on the case. Visiting them at their home, the Dark Knight attempts to return the advance copy of Melanie’s book to Melburn. She insists that she wouldn’t even touch it much less read it, and the fact that she doesn’t assault him when he tries to hand it to her absolves her as far as Batman is concerned. Spence, on the other hand, attacks him, flipping him as the “old woman” in the bookstore did. The Caped Crusader subdues him, pushing him into the unlit fireplace, and Spence demands that he leave before he kills him, just like he did Melanie.

Batman heads for Drake’s estate, which is right next door. Drake appears, his features hidden by a shadowy topiary, declaring his innocence. He apprises the Dark Knight of the fact that he overheard the couple having a heated exchange the night before the murder, during which Spence stated that Melanie deserved to be “stabbed with her own poison pen.” As Batman considers this, Drake steps from the darkness, but it is the image of Spence that is bathed in light.

He comes at Batman with a fireplace poker, but a hand reaches out to seize his arm. Suddenly there are two Spences. Batman strikes the one with the poker, and his mask falls off, revealing the face of Drake. He confesses that he fed Melanie information about Melburn and Spence in exchange for a promise of the lead in the movie version of The In People of Out City. He murdered her, in the guise of the old woman, because she had broken her word and cast another actor. The advance copy of the book he had given her to autograph was his only payment and her ultimate undoing.

The fact the “poison pen” in this story is an actual pen with, well, poison on it is an interesting twist, if a fairly obvious one. I can’t say that I was sorry to see Melanie bite the dust; her holier-than-thou attitude and insistence that her book was not a pile of crap while on the plane was rather annoying. And do we really need to pollute the cultural atmosphere with more celebrity gossip? Drake’s motive for offing her was kind of weak, if you ask me, even though I have read murder mysteries with weaker ones. How is doing her in going to fix anything? It reminds me of how some people sue for slander or libel. If they win, is the money going to change anything? Is it going to somehow un-print or un-speak the offending words? It’s a strange world.

Find this issue, if you’re so inclined, reprinted in Showcase Presents: Batman volume 5.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Detective Comics 410

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.

You can find this story reprinted in several places, but your best bet is Batman Illustrated by Neal Adams volume 2 (now in paperback).