Baturdays: Detective Comics #44, “The Land Behind the Light”

In All, Books and Comics by Kyu

Publication date: October 1940

Author: Bob Kane

Batman branches out once again.

We start with Dick Grayson, sitting alone at home, reading a book, waiting for Batman to return. It’s after midnight, and he’s very tired.

He perks up when Batman comes home, however. Batman declares he’s pursued their current case to the doorway of one Dr. Marko (or Marco, they spell it both ways for some reason), who may or may not be a “madman.”

In costume, Batman and Robin make their way through an eerie, foggy night, finally arriving at a run-down house on Bleak Street (number 13, of course).

These Gothic trappings are preparing us for another baroque tale of the sort we’ve had several times before… But the comic takes a sudden left turn when, inside the house, they are greeted by a bearded, disheveled man–Dr. Marko, I presume.

Worst. Detective. Ever.

Surprisingly, this method of investigation actually works. The mad Dr. Marko (doesn’t that sound like a good name for a pro wrestler?) starts ranting to them about how he’s discovered the 4th dimension. He even shows them into his lab:

Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in the crime genre anymore.

Dr. Marko’s response to Batman’s skepticism is to scoff and walk right into the “veil of light”, disappearing from the room. It only takes a few moments for Batman’s curiosity to get the better of him.

Worst. Decision. Ever.

Clearly Batman has never heard of a disintegrator. Hasn’t seen Poltergeist, either. Don’t do it, Batman!

Okay, that’s awesome. I’m going to go ahead and spoil the ending here, if you haven’t already figured it out: Robin has fallen asleep in his chair reading a book, and this is all his dream. I was considering writing about how strange it was for a Batman comic to branch off into science fiction and fantasy, and how that’s still true regardless of context–content is content–but they’ve proven me wrong. Context is entirely what this is about. This particular boy’s adventure is dreamed up by a boy himself, and the way the story swims between genres–from Gothic to science fiction to fantasy–is reflective of that mental state. In that context, the quoted panel above speaks volumes about how the creators view literature in general and comics in particular. By framing the “veil of light” between dimensions (and stories/genres) as the gutter between comics panels, they’re telling us that the medium itself is a “curtain into another world”; that the eye is drawn across the page and into an adventure. This entire story will be a romp through Robin’s imagination, showing how comics can provide both entertainment and escape from everyday life.

On the other side of the Looking Glass, Batman and Robin, those legendary figures, are woefully undersized compared to both the trees and an arriving giant, who declares that, as “small ones,” they are trespassing on the king’s property and must be imprisoned. Without heed to their protests, he carries them into a city of giants and deposits them in a dungeon.

Batman and Robin, however, are well used to fighting tall odds, and are still equipped for that challenge. Using the rope-tied-to-batarang trick Batman came up with way back in the Mad Monk storyline, they’re able to climb up to a window and squeeze between the bars. They make their way down a giant series of steps to two doors. Unsure which to take, they decide to split up–but before they can go anywhere, they’re ambushed by a cat!

I was going to say this is reminiscent of Richard Matheson’s brilliant novel “The Shrinking Man,” but as it turns out that was published in 1956. Maybe Matheson was a Batman fan.

Awesome things Batman does in this issue #1: wrestle the proportional equivalent of a tiger.

All of their jail-breaking and wrestling is for naught, however, for the same giant that found them before (a hunter named “Gorl”) finds them, and takes them to the king.

This place seems to be mixed up with ideas of “medieval” times; the king is the standard Henry VIII-ish fat slob reclining before a ceaseless feast, amused by his jester, who has one of those sticks with his own face on it. (What the hell were those for?) Gorl and the king reveal that they’re going to war on the “small ones” tomorrow, and grow concerned that, as slightly larger than the usual small ones, Batman and Robin represent a new and dangerous race. A death sentence is pronounced, and nearly as quickly escaped, the dynamic duo using every tool available to their tiny bodies–spraying pepper in the king’s eyes, using a spoon as a springboard, and even getting in a few solid kicks, although I doubt those are very effective.

Robin, being the star, gets a chance to really recreate David and Goliath, firing a stinging pellet at one of the giants. Then the two of them execute the classic Hoth maneuver:

One giant topples, but more are coming; Batman and Robin grab silverware to use as weapons if need be, take hold of an umbrella, and jump out the window, floating gently to the ground floor of the king’s castle. But the story isn’t over here. Robin is immediately grabbed by a giant bird and carried off! And as one bizarre coincidence deserves another, Batman is able to follow by stealing a giant’s giant toy plane (“it even has controls and works by gasoline!”)

Batman knifes the bird, and catches Robin in the plane as he falls. (Aka, awesome things Batman does #2 and 3.) But the whiplash-inducing plot turns just keep on coming. This about sums it up:

“Look! A log floating in the river! And it looks hungry!”

Batman throws the fork at the reptile, spearing it (#4) and driving it away. They follow the river downstream until they find the other society in this world, a town full of small people–Munchkins, essentially, half as tall as Batman or shorter. Dr. Marko is living here, too. The “small ones” bemoan their fate, soon to be demolished by the evil giants. Batman has a plan, however.

The next day the giants approach. You can tell the small people have prepared because they’re all wearing adorable little soldier uniforms.

Note the commander reading the comics as he gives his orders.

The cannons don’t really work. But Batman’s plan of putting stinging insects inside bags and dropping them out of tiny planes flying over the giants works perfectly. I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence.

The little people rejoice, but a moment too soon! One giant is left–the evil Gorl–he comes after Robin–there’s no escape–!

…until, that is, Bruce Wayne shakes Robin out of his sleep. Turns out, of course, Robin has fallen asleep reading “Giants and Dwarfs in Myth and Fable” (what, no Gulliver’s Travels?). This entire bizarre fantasy story has been the result of his reading habits (and, I assume, late night snacking). Sure, it was still just kind of a standard series of adventures–Little Nemo in Slumberland, this isn’t–but it still speaks to the creators’ gentle love for these kinds of stories.

Potent stuff, indeed.

Tune in next week as Baturdays continues for the first of four stories in Batman #1, the very first issue of the Caped Crusader’s first standalone comic and the introduction of someone very special…