Baturdays: Detective Comics #43, “The Case of the City of Terror”

In All, Books and Comics by Kyu

Publication date: September 1940

Author: Bob Kane

Oh my God, it’s become self-aware!

Yes, in this comic’s never-ending quest for dramatic irony–naturally, Batman and Robin are going to run into an adventure despite their expectations of a peaceful vacation in an unspecified new city–it has allowed that, yes, they have an unlikely amount of wacky escapades.

In fact, they’ve barely driven into town when they witness two police officers viciously beat a man for speaking out against the mayor. It appears that in the Batman universe, only two extremes exist–a lawless dystopia where police are helpless against a rising tide of criminal enterprise, or a totalitarian dictatorship where the trains run on time because the government harshly and unfairly punishes anyone who steps out of line or questions the world order. Truly a terrible choice for any citizen.

Humor aside, you can easily flip that observation around to create a near tautology, to wit: the only kinds of societies that can be present in a series of stories about Batman are those which require Batman’s unique brand of vigilantism to make up for a police force which is one way or another problematic. In other words, there are probably plenty of cities in Batman’s universe which don’t require his attention, and therefore they will never be a vacation spot for Bruce Wayne, and so I will never blog about them. It is, if you will, the bat-thropic principle.

And now, back to our story.

After Bruce and Dick watch as the police go all Rodney King on this dude, they question the other witnesses, but nobody will say anything. Bruce decides that Batman will go talk to a Mr. Carter, “the most respected man in town”, to see if he’ll talk. As soon as he gets there, however, he finds Carter about to be arrested for libel against the mayor.

“Hey! Not all of us were born with the wealth required to get a first-class education, Batman! Just because we drop the ‘g’s off our gerunds and confuse libel and slander, that don’t mean we’re stereotypical criminal thugs who–oh. Oh, wait. You’re referring to the beatin’ and abusin’ of power. No, that makes sense. Okay.”

Batman beats the cops up, and a grateful Carter reveals all. As it turns out, the mayor died, and next in succession was the president of the city council–one Harliss Greer, in the pocket of gangster “Bugs” Norton. Under Bugs’ orders, Greer fired all the honest cops and officials, replacing them with Norton’s thugs. Gambling houses have sprung up, unfair taxes have been levied out of pure greed. Dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria.

In an uncharacteristic moment, Batman checks to make sure his fists are actually necessary: “Why not call the governor,” he asks, “call for an investigating committee?”

In another context I might mock this bizarre catch-22, in which only the mayor can ask that the mayor be investigated, but Batman here gets to the heart of things. The bat-thropic principle is in play, defining Batman’s world around it. There’s a reason Batman doesn’t usually ask if there’s another way, and that’s because he’d get the same answer. I suspect pushing at this would only warp the boundaries of reality–if Batman determined that the sky had to be green until he’d go put on a mask and punch something, the sky would turn green, and all the background players who fill the city streets, waiting just off-panel for their one shining moment of fear or curiosity or populist rage, would look up at that green sky and feel a deep, religious terror.

It is, therefore, a good thing Batman doesn’t press the question. Instead, he gets right to work. He begins by sending one of his little terrorist calling cards (which we haven’t seen since the town where Batman found Robin had to be cleansed of its own criminal infestation): a bat in a box, with a note informing the criminal mastermind that his reign is soon coming to an end. Batman sends one to “Mayor” Greer, and another bat to Bugs Norton, who understands the message without needing a note.

Ever the clever terrorist, Batman’s intention is not to warn but to provoke; in this case, the two criminals put their worried heads together over the phone, revealing information about an upcoming drug shipment to an eavesdropping Robin. The two heroes intercept the truck carrying the dope and beat up the large number of criminals waiting to receive the shipment. (There’s a decent splash panel here with Batman swinging one crook around by the legs, knocking the rest down in a circle.)

Next up in what Batman actually calls their “fright campaign” (told you he was a terrorist), the slot machines all over town. This part offers a study in contrasts:

There’s “PSA Batman”, using his awesomeness to spout blatant morals like “kids, don’t gamble”. The comic does a fair amount of this, but it’s only occasionally annoying. They pretty clearly think that the kids reading in 1940 looked up to Robin and wanted to be like him, and I can’t really disagree with that given that I wrote half an essay arguing that fact. Still, I’m not sure how effective these things were. (Not to mention Robin does plenty of dangerous shit that kids shouldn’t be emulating…)

Contrast that well-meaning, moralist Batman with Mr. Crazy Terrorist Batman:

Now, I know everything’s better with axes (especially cops), but this is still pretty ridiculous. The point I’ve been trying to make is that if he weren’t fighting criminals, Batman’s methods would be totally unacceptable. Extreme times may call for extreme measures, but I’m wondering if Crazy Terrorist Batman actually ends up defeating PSA Batman’s attempts. After all, once you’ve deliberately tried to use Batman’s status as the Coolest of Cool, showing him in the very next panel getting all Jack Torrance on somebody else’s property (even a criminal’s) has gotta be counter-productive. Either Batman’s moral admonishments lose all authority, or, perhaps worse, his bad behavior becomes just as emulated as his good behavior. I could continue to follow this tangent down into the rabbit hole, where psychological studies of the effects of media violence on child audiences dwell and statistical grues lie in wait to devour unsuspecting college-educated post-modern bullshitters, but that would mean I’d take too long to get around to fun story stuff like this:

“I have changed my name. I have shaved my mustache. I have become a police officer in an American town. The world knows me now as Officer Adolf Hutchinson. And still, this indignity is visited upon me! I will have vengeance, Bat-Jew! Die Hunde werden Ihre Knochen essen!”

A few dozen cops abducted off the streets (where the hell is Batman hiding all the bodies?) and the town starts to get over its fear of Greer and Norton’s totalitarian regime. Batman’s next step is to print leaflets and spread the word: a town meeting! Bring your guns! That night, he rouses the rabble, and effects a small revolution. The people take the dirty cops by surprise, and the criminal enterprise is essentially finished.

Batman and Robin have their eyes set on the big fish at the top of the heap, however. Robin takes Greer:

Wow, that attack was nuclear! …get it? Fat Man and Little Boy? Alright, alright, I’ll stop it with the WWII jokes already.

Meanwhile, Batman goes after Norton, and finds that he, too, is about to flee his failed little political experiment. Batman defeats one of Norton’s thugs with what is probably the best pun in Batman history so far:

What really sells this, besides the excellent composition (and not to get tangential within a caption, but have you noticed Batman is ALWAYS framed by the moon?), is the “AAWK.”

Then: “And now, Norton,” Batman growls menacingly, “let’s see if you can REALLY take it.”

Spoiler alert: Norton can’t. He goes down in two punches, and Batman declares his terrorist campaign a success. Of course, he won, so I suppose he’s earned the right to call it a revolution instead. He was fighting for freedom! He’s a freedom-puncher: punching freedom in the face wherever he can.

The town celebrates its victory, closes the plot holes (the abducted thugs were down in Carter’s cellar, you see! and also alive I guess), and sees our heroes off. As they drive into the distance, even Dick Grayson realizes that, as Robin, his life is also ruled by the bat-thropic principle:

“I’m just saying, maybe I should drive the car for a while.”

Meanwhile, back at the town, the grateful citizens have “erected an everlasting tribute” to our heroes:

They were clearly crafted by the town’s best sculptor, a blind man. Who had one rusty spoon to work with. And more than one sclerosis.

I hereby dedicate this blog entry to Spoony McShakes, a simple artist with a simple dream, who had a love for Batman equal to my own. I just hope my giant, misshapen tribute of a blog lives up to the majesty of his statues.

Tune in next week for Detective Comics #44 as Baturdays continues.