Baturdays: Detective Comics #39, [untitled]

In All, Books and Comics by Kyu

Publication date: May 1940

Author: Bob Kane

A change has taken place. Batman is now “The Sensational Adventures of Batman with Robin, the Boy Wonder.”

But the stories are much the same. This one begins with the abduction of two millionaires off the street, and the incidental murder of a chauffeur via hatchet to the forehead. The next day, Dick shows Bruce the article in the paper.

Uh-oh. Looks like it’s time for “Batman: Uncomfortably Racist Edition.”

The ad in the paper Dick mentions is set in Chinese-looking type, and reads: “Batman. A friend needs your help. Come at once!” Bruce decides this is a message from Wong, unofficial mayor of Chinatown, who helped Batman a few cases back. He tells Dick to stay at home, and it is Batman who goes calling on his old friend.


“Mayor” Wong quickly briefs Batman on the existence of a new criminal gang known as the Green Dragon who have been selling opium to the residents of Chinatown. He tells Batman to come back tomorrow night for information about the Green Dragon’s residence and leadership–but unbeknownst to both Chinese caricature and racist superhero, somebody is watching. Specifically, this guy:


The next night, Batman prepares to go back to Wong, but first he has to put off Dick. (I swear, I’m not trying to do this.) He tells Dick to stay home unless he’s not back in a few hours, and heads out. In Chinatown, however, things go quickly awry. Wong is dead, victim of a hatchet to the back of the skull, and Batman narrowly avoids the same fate. Finally the comic reveals what it calls “the dreaded Chinese hatchet men!”


Anyway, Batman fights the two villains, eventually grappling one out the window, down the roof, and finally off the ledge entirely. The two freefall through space, Batman’s fall thankfully being stopped by… the body of the other guy. Ouch. Batman’s alive, but unconscious.

Enter junior. Robin, curious to see what’s up, goes to Wong’s office. (You might say he’s come to the Wong place. Ahaha.) Robin sees the same clue Batman did earlier–before he died, Wong, managed to scratch “pier 3” on his desk–but unlike Batman, Robin isn’t waylaid by slant-eyed yellow-faces (ugh) and so heads to the pier immediately.

The surviving minion in the office regains consciousness after Robin leaves, and, also seeing no Batman, assumes the hero was captured. He heads to the headquarters of the Green Dragon gang. Which happens to be a schooner on Pier 3.

I’d like to point out a couple of things here about Robin’s costume. Batman’s costume is black, gray, and blue; his ears and cape evoke the shape of a bat, especially in the air. The mask covers most of his face. His identity is protected, his costume is strange and frightening, and his color scheme means he is often camouflaged at night, crucial to the way he detects and fights crime.

Robin’s costume is green, red, and yellow, evoking Robin Hood and, well, a circus performer. His mask only covers his eyes, which is much less secure. (Especially when you consider that Robin often goes undercover, as he did in his origin story, sans makeup, whereas Batman usually wears a Holmesian disguise.) The colors are bright, especially his giant flapping yellow cape, which leads directly to Chinese murderers easily spotting him in the middle of the night. Basically, I don’t think you could design a worse vigilante costume without the addition of wearable neon signage.

Also, those short-shorts are way too short for a child to be wearing, especially at midnight on the docks. But that’s neither here nor there.

Robin is taken to the lair of the Green Dragon, where he awakens to find the kidnapped millionaires and the leader of the gang, who sits on a giant ornate throne. The gang leader disses Robin’s costume for being “peculiar” and “very different”, which I assume is polite 1940s language for “You are disturbingly fashionable for a small boy,” and then threatens to torture the kid for information about the Batman. Robin refuses bravely.

No effective crime lord is this amused by anything. Clearly he’s getting high on his own supply.

First the leader suggests a sword fight. They give Robin a sword and set him an opponent…

Robin woke up in a cold sweat. As he rolled over and tried to go back to sleep, two questions haunted him. What could the dream have meant? And why was he so aroused?

Dick’s wood is quickly cut down to size by the real one (I swear, it’s not my fault!), but he’s able to defeat his opponent by pulling out his sling and firing a steel pellet at the dude’s forehead.

At this point, showing up at a rare moment (ie., before he is actually needed), Batman re-enters the fray, armed with one-liners (“Good evening, friend. But then again, IS IT?” …okay, so maybe his brains are still rattled from the fall).

Can I just say that, racism aside, the idea of rendering the speech of the Chinese gang members as bubble-less floating single Chinese characters is really, really cool?

Anyway, Batman uses that mighty swing to kick a Chinaman in the face, as you do. The leader of the Green Dragon shouts that he’s only one man, they can take him!, thereby violating rule 46 of the Evil Overlord list. As his men rush to attack the Batman, our hero uses his great strength to topple the throne room’s giant green idol, smashing it down on the gang members, resulting in a horrible pile of twisted broken bodies. Then he turns his attention back to the leader.

Fatty? Now that’s just uncalled for.

Finally, after a full two pages of gleefully beating up foreigners, Batman remembers that there’s a child somewhere around here, and wonders if he might be in trouble.

Turns out he’s fine, though. Robin’s having a grand old time punching dirty immigrants in their dirty immigrant faces. Batman’s face shines with father-figurely pride.

Then he gets around to untying the millionaires, who explain the cleverness behind the Green Dragon’s plan: “Yes, he said the police would probably hunt for white gangsters and never suspect a Chinese kidnapping, very smart.” You might think that sounds silly, but remember where you are. This is a town whose police were foiled by fog because they’re just so damned lazy. They probably got through the white suspects, got tired, took a donut break and then forgot what they were doing.

Batman explains that, unlike the police, he’s racist enough to figure it all out:

Okay, Batman. We get it. They’re from China. Calm down.

Dramatic irony aside… I don’t think we’ve seen Bruce’s fiance since he rescued her from werewolves, which raises a few questions:

  1. Has she fully recovered from being hypnotized, kidnapped, and nearly eaten?
  2. Is she aware that Bruce has “adopted” a ten year old boy?
  3. What will this mean for their relationship?
  4. Werewolves?!

Whatever. All’s well that ends well: all of Chinatown reveres the Batman as the one who saved them from the grip of opium addiction, and Wong is… still dead. It’s okay, though, at least a lot of Chinese gang members were successfully beaten or smooshed.

Thus ends this week’s episode of “Batman: Uncomfortably Racist Edition”. Next week: “Only an Italian could have committed this knife-murder!” (Actually, our real issue features the introduction of Clayface!)

Tune in next week for Detective Comics #40 as Baturdays continues.

Bat-Bonus thoughts!

So we can all agree that today’s Batman story was pretty racist.

On the other hand, I read a little bit of The Spirit the other day.

The Spirit, of course, is the strange little comic by (comics master and possible inventor of the graphic novel) Will Eisner. It began in 1940, the same year I’m on with Batman now… And it’s given me an interesting perspective on Batman as a comic and a product of its time.

What interests me about these Golden Age Batman stories are, as you may have noticed, the deviations from the norm. I sift each issue, looking for gold dust or even the occasional nugget, and sometimes there’s a lot, and sometimes I come up almost entirely empty. Either way, most of each issue is the “dirt”–I have nothing against it, it’s often necessary, those just aren’t the bits that usually interest me. They’re the workmanlike parts, the shoring up that allows moments of brilliance, humor, or just strangeness to shine through.

The Spirit is almost entirely strangeness, and now I regret my gold/dirt metaphor, because it’s more like cake. The Spirit is almost too much cake. Cake is great. But I can’t eat cake day in and day out.

Metaphors aside, The Spirit is a really weird comic, with its own internal logic, bizarre compositions (the weirdest being the sudden pull outs to a bird’s eye view for no apparent reason), actions that flow across panel lines, very fast stories (Detective Comics stories are around 12 pages these days, The Spirit is only seven) that rely on chunks of exposition thrown out very rapidly like tangled balls of noir-colored yarn, a bizarre hero who lives in the tomb where he was once accidentally buried…

Basically The Spirit is a proto-Sin City: noir fever dreams all blended up with artistic experimentation and breakneck plotlines. Frank Miller was a natural choice for the film adaptation (which is very, very bad, but also very, very pretty–watch it with the sound off). Anything in The Spirit which is normal or in any way conventional is basically a forced concession to Eisner’s editors, who wanted a straight superhero comic to compete with Batman and Superman and the like, and who probably drank themselves to sleep each night over this pile of craziness.

The Spirit is good, if you can roll with it–sometimes cake is good, too. But I need to read it in small doses.

Anyway, this is a rambling, roundabout way to say I probably gave Batman too much credit for its oddness–and at the same time, short shrift for its racism, as in today’s post. In all honesty, the slant-eyed, hatchet-tossing exoticism of the Chinese villains in this issue is much less of a problem for me than the “sidekick” in The Spirit:

While I think it’s laudable for a comic in 1940 to actually use a black character as a good guy, even as a sidekick, the “Negro” caricature here, both in appearance and vernacular, is just disgusting. That character’s name is Ebony Ivory; he’s a cab driver that the Spirit essentially ordered into service. He’s portrayed as cowardly, bumbling, and foolish. It bothered me a lot when I was reading the comic. There are a lot of things about The Spirit that maybe improve on Batman–certainly it’s generally a visual marvel, especially in its use of color, and the narrative and characters have a wonderfully goofy illogic to them at times. But Batman isn’t nearly as bad when it comes to this issue.

Does that excuse the racism in Batman? Of course not. But this shows Batman certainly wasn’t the worst of its time period, not by a long shot.