Baturdays: Detective Comics #42, “The Case of the Prophetic Pictures”

In All, Books and Comics by Kyu

Publication date: August 1940

Author: Bob Kane

(Yay, they have titles now.)

For no particular reason I feel like documenting this format, so take a look at this page. Every first page of Batman stories (in this period, at least) takes this form: a large splash panel and two normal-sized panels in the bottom right-hand corner. Typically the splash panel features an image which suggests the story to come without actually being drawn from it. Last issue, for instance, had Batman and Robin on the school grounds, looking askance at something off-frame. This one is a bit more interesting–a grinning spectre of death painting a grim portrait of Batman. A narration box within reminds us who Batman and Robin are, and gives a little purple description of the upcoming tale–usually along the lines of “Our heroes had no idea what a gruesome mystery they were about to get themselves into,” or something like that. Starting here, this narration box always concludes with the title of this month’s story.

The panels in the bottom corner begin the story proper, although in this case they repeat what the narration box has already told us: Bruce Wayne is going to a party thrown by a Mr. Wylie for a new European artist. Which gives us a fine opportunity to see Bruce in a whole new environment:

In order to be healthy, everybody needs a daily dramatic dose of IRONY.

One of the most amusing aspects of Batman is his cover ID. In fact, I almost want to a pull a Bill and say that Bruce Wayne is Batman’s critique on his city’s high society. And after all, don’t they need critiquing? Here they are, partying the night away while their city is consumed by crime. The city’s police are in desperate need of reform, the lower classes are starving, fatherless/delinquent children are given no viable options outside of roving criminal gangs, the entire justice system has been corrupted by mobsters and graft, and this city’s mental health facilities are a joke, judging by how many crazies are running around unchecked, growing facial hair and plotting mad schemes (and considering last month’s escape). Any society which needs a Batman is fundamentally broken, and these are the only people with the power to fix it, if only they’d cut the parties and get up off their lazy asses and do something about it. Bruce Wayne is Batman’s indictment of this group’s propensity for fiddling while Rome burns down all around them.

But Batman isn’t The Wire. Eventually these issues will hopefully come into play; but for now, Bruce Wayne’s apparent indolence is merely a funny and ingenious method of hiding his true identity. Wayne must have asked himself what the exact opposite of Batman would be; and at this stage at least, Batman is defined as a man of action and drive, who cares more than anyone else. Someone with no job, who does literally nothing, who is constantly bored by everything is in fact the perfect cover. The assumption is that Bruce Wayne rolls out of bed at two in the afternoon, lazes around the house complaining with a martini in both hands, and then goes out to parties to discuss how bored he is by life. Because he’s a wealthy, lazy douchebag, Bruce Wayne is the last person anyone would ever suspect of being the Batman.

Equally banal, however, is Antal, the European artist, and we already assume something’s up there. The man plans to paint portraits of the city’s socialites, his agent/manager Mr. Bleek tells us. Before Wayne can yawn and ask what a portraiture is, the gathering is interrupted by Mikoff, the angry brother of a girl who killed herself when she became Antal’s ex-girlfriend. Antal claims innocence–“I can’t help it if women like me!” he says, in what is probably a douchey European accent–but Bruce overhears him getting yelled at by another member of the party for messing around with his wife. Seems to be quite the player.

(Digression: Bruce overhears this conversation, which takes place entirely in thought bubbles. I’m beginning to suspect that the comic is using them to indicate “off-screen” dialog, not unspoken thoughts. That would explain previous confusing uses of the bubble. Perhaps this was done so that the inker knew no characters were missing? Or perhaps the “bubbley” attribution tail of a thought bubble better indicate an unknown location of origin, as opposed to the pointed tail of a speech bubble. I shall keep an eye out.)

At any rate, Antal proves as adept at painting as he does at love, and in the coming weeks he does numerous portraits. But something seems to be wrong–a recent client, Mr. Vangild, finds his own painting has been stabbed with a knife. And the very next day he is found dead!

The pattern repeats itself. An opera star’s portrait has a dart stuck in its throat; while on stage, she is assassinated in the exact same manner, by persons unknown. A third man, a Mr. Warren, finds his own portrait with a noose around its neck, and panics. He pleads for police protection, but we all know that’s not going to work. No, this looks like a job for Batman.

Determined to discover what’s going on, Batman drives over to Warren’s hotel room and scales the side of the building (“like a huge bat”) with the help of suction pads. He breaks in, only to find Warren’s body–hanged, just like in the painting. Unluckily, the police happen to be checking in on Warren at the same time. We all know what happens next:

Wait, that cop on the right isn’t jumping to conclusions. Somebody give that man a promotion, for God’s sake.

Batman beats all the cops up (seriously) and gets away, mocking them the entire time. (“Humpty Dumpty had nothing on you boys!”) Which, let’s face it, he’s earned the right to do at this point.

“Seriously, Commissioner, buy a painting already, they’re really good.”

It looks like we’ve got another mystery on our hands, gang, complete with two suspects. Who’s murdering people to try and ruin Antal? Is it suspect 1, the vengeful brother of the dead ex? Suspect 2, the rich jealous husband? Suspect 3, Antal’s agent, whom he apparently fired off-screen? The Commission is dubious, and frankly, so am I. Three murders is a long way to go just to get back at a guy.

Four, if you account the attempt on Wylie. He also rushes into the office, arm in a sling, and says that he was shot at, the day after his painting turned up with bullet holes. The police swear to give Wylie a protective detail, but no sooner have they done so than yet another potential victim turns up. A Mr. Travers says that his portrait was pierced by an arrow, which he’s brought along for some obscure reason. He refuses his own police protection, however, deciding to hide from the murderer on his friend’s yacht. Under most circumstances I’d say he’s a smart man–the cops are useless at best–but we’ll see where his strategy gets him.

Batman seems to agree; he sends Robin to watch over Travers on the yacht while he (Batman) investigates some bank statements. I assume that has to do with this case and isn’t code for “I’m gonna stay in, watch the ball game, maybe check on my stocks.”

Robin dutifully takes a boat (the Bat-Boat?) to the yacht, and climbs aboard just on time to see Travers about to play the victim to a would-be William Tell. A pellet from Robin’s sling actually hits the arrow in mid-air (awesome), but draws the killer’s ire.

BONK! ahahahahaha

Also, ugh. Maybe the killer’s angry because Antal recommended some weird European skin cream and this was the result.

In the ensuing fight, Robin is nearly shot himself, and although he manages to chase the killer away, he ends up in the ocean. Nice going, kid.

Batman, on the other hand, had a successful night, and declares that he knows who the killer is. But he’s not telling. Nuts.

“Sorry, I’d explain more, but I’m already in character. Why don’t you make yourself useful and get me a martini for the road, kid?”

Wayne has his portrait painted by Antal, claiming he doesn’t believe in the curse, and that he’s simply incredibly vain. The next day his portrait is riddled with bullets, and Dick asks what his plan is. Simple: “Why nothing! I’m going to sit in this chair and wait for the murderer!” Has Batman lost his mind? Has he become so enamored of his dickish exterior that he’s going to let himself be killed? That night…

Oh shit!

And that marks the end of this blog.

No, wait! A mysterious figure has entered the room. Who could it be? I’m going to need some identification–

Fuck. Yes.

Batman beats the crap out of the killer, and then reveals the trick–the Bruce Wayne who got shot was merely a dummy worn by Robin (which kind of begs the question, what if the killer hadn’t shot him in the head?).

Finally we have our third unmasking scene in three issues–looks like they’ve really fallen in love with the murder mystery format–and the killer is…

Mr. Wylie?!

Turns out, Batman explains, that Mr. Wylie was in debt up to his eyeballs. He’d bought a bunch of Antal’s paintings while in Europe, but they weren’t worth much. The murders were meant to make Antal’s work notorious and thus priceless.

But wait, you say. That makes no goddamn sense. Murdering anyone who buys a painting is pretty much the best way to prevent anyone from buying any more. That’s why the prevailing suspects all had motives to ruin Antal, not make him rich as hell. Well, the comic has an excellent answer for this, which it will tell you just as soon as–LOOK OVER THERE!

Don’t do it!

Aw, shit, he did it.

Man, what a tragedy. A pillar of the community, brought down by his own greed and desperation. He had everything, and lost it all. Sad, really.

“Much better this way”? Damn, Batman, that’s cold.

Hey, look at that. Batman’s pulled off a huge coup. Not only did he solve the mystery and get rid of the killer, but he’s also solidified his alter-ego’s total innocence–after all, they can’t be the same person if one saved the other. This all worked out very well for our caped crusader. And he even got a sweet painting out of it.

Tune in next week for Detective Comics #43 as Baturdays continues.