Publication date: July 1940
Author: Bob Kane
This month’s issue gets off to a ripping start. A crazed killer escapes from a mental asylum; the superintendent of a private school is found strangled to the death; and a young boy is kidnapped from the dormitory of that same school. Newspaper headlines blare: is there a connection? At any rate, the police are mystified, as usual. Somebody needs to step in and help. Correction: two somebodies. In silly costumes. Yes.
The plan? Robin will go undercover at the private school in order to flush out the kidnapper. Bruce takes him there to convince the headmaster to take him on as a pupil (again, nobody bats an eye that Bruce has “adopted” an orphan out of the blue). While there, they run into incensed Professor Greer, furious that he’s being fired for failing a student.
We meet two other teachers–Graves, the kindly art teacher, and Hodges, a stand-offish history instructor–before Bruce leaves his ward at the school to investigate alone. Robin asks around, and finds out that the kidnapped kid had a diary which the police haven’t been able to find. He sneaks around the school in costume that very night, looking for the missing journal.
He finds it in the kid’s room. On his desk. In a pile of other books. Man, the police in this town suck.
Anyways, the diary’s final entry details the missing child’s sighting of a masked man wandering the halls. Who should be right next to Robin as he looks up but a masked man! Oh no! A fight ensues; the masked man steals the journal, breaks a chair over Robin’s head and escapes.
While Batman advises Robin over the “portable phone” to check out the principal’s office, the masked man burns the diary.
The next night, however, as Robin is preparing to break into the principal’s office, he runs into the escaped lunatic, trying to murder a janitor. He subdues the man with some Judo and then runs off. The next day the school is all abuzz, convinced that all is explained and the case is over. Nobody seems to care about the missing kid except Robin and Mr. Hodges, the history teacher. Robin returns to his earlier plan of breaking into the office…
But this time he finds the principal dead on the ground. When the body is discovered, Greer is the obvious suspect–after all, they were seen arguing, and Greer did in fact make a ridiculous threat over his getting fired. The police are sure they’ve got their man:
The police aren’t totally off-base–they even tie in the kidnapped student, who it turns out was the one Greer got fired over. But Greer continues to claim his innocence.
Next, we get this panel:
Really? No, Detective Comics, you don’t get to do that this time. Unlike the previous issue, where we spent a significant amount of time setting up various suspects and giving them motives, this story is just going through the motions. The escaped maniac has already been captured; he can’t be the masked man (because that man has yet to actually be unmasked). The same goes for the principal; he’s dead and therefore can’t be the masked man either. The art teacher is apparently only a suspect because he’s “eccentric”, which is probably 1940s code for “he’s artistic, therefore gay, therefore weird, therefore murderer.” The history teacher we know literally nothing about; if he were the killer there’d be no way to tell. And Greer is the obvious red herring, especially because the dimwitted police think he did it.
There are no good suspects here, because the groundwork hasn’t been laid. There are several people who obviously can’t be the killer; there are several people who we simply don’t know enough about to say one way or the other. A good mystery should give the audience the clues they need in order to guess the solution, and this issue simply doesn’t.
At any rate, Batman doesn’t seem convinced the police have their man. (I wouldn’t be either, with these cops, just on general principles.) He decides to wait outside the school grounds that night, and tells Robin to be on alert. Smart move, because while patrolling the dark halls of the school, Robin sees the masked man go into a classroom, and then enter a secret tunnel behind the blackboard. (You watch, there will no goddamn explanation for this. Did he build it? Was it there? What kind of school has secret passageways? …okay, an awesome school. But that’s beside the point.)
Actually, Robin tries to explain it a couple of panels later as an “old deserted tunnel abandoned when the school was built”, which doesn’t make any sense, but don’t be too hard on him, he’s only a child.
The masked man finds his way into an old house in the woods near the school, where we learn that he’s part of a counterfeiting ring. The principal was helping them, but got cold feet and had to be killed; and the student was kidnapped in order to silence him. (See? There’s no way we could have known any of this shit.) Bizarrely, they’ve kept the kid tied up until this very moment, only now deciding to kill him, after days of holding him captive.
Anyway, Robin breaks in, and Batman isn’t far behind. As you can guess, punching ensues. The masked man tries to run away; Robin wangs him in the head with a pellet from his sling. They unmask him to reveal…
The art teacher! …cause art skills help you counterfeit, is I guess the argument here? Anyway, Batman redundantly explains what we already knew about the counterfeiters using the school as a cover, and why the principal died and all that. Our story concludes with Bruce complimenting Dick on his good work on the case.
Holy mother of god, this was a boring issue. They never did anything interesting with the school, they put all their work into red herrings and none into foreshadowing the actual solution to the mystery, and Batman and Robin never even really did anything interesting, besides telephoning each other with their groins.
To be fair, the Batman quarterly had started up by this point in 1940 (there was an ad for it in the Clayface issue of Detective Comics), and perhaps the creators were starting to feel the pressure of coming up with so many new Batman plots. Regardless, I think the worst problem with this issue is how generic it is. There’s none of the weirdness that makes the best Batman stories great, or even much campy humor, and really, anybody could have investigated this crime. The best Batman stories make use of what makes him unique–his fighting skills, his gadgets, etc. Perhaps this issue simply suffered from being Robin-centric, as well. Hopefully the next issue will be better.
Tune in next week for Detective Comics #42 as Baturdays continues.