Publication date: Summer 1940
Author: Bob Kane
Are you excited for a heavy-handed moral parable? I’m excited for a heavy-handed moral parable. To facilitate the morals, I will be replacing all characters with animals.
We begin as the rich Crow says goodnight to his museum custodian, Lamb. Lamb is short, middle-aged, bespectacled, a timid reader of mystery stories. Currently he’s reading “The Crime Master.”
Once Lamb has finished his book, he decides to go home. Making his way through the creepy museum (everything’s creepy after hours), Lamb slips on a rug, falls down some stairs, and hits his head. Before sinking into unconsciousness, three things impress themselves upon his dazed brain:
He wakes up, seemingly okay, and goes home.
The next night, he leaves once more near the midnight hour. When the clock strikes twelve, he undergoes a psychological transformation, or at least we are led to understand this from the way his expression changes; his glasses are tossed aside; his posture straightens.
Wolf then immediately murders the first person he sees. And it is Lamb who wakes up the next morning, with the spiritual equivalent of a hang-over–he remembers being Wolf vaguely, interpreting it as a terrible nightmare. Yet night after night, when the clock strikes twelve, Lamb’s transformation is triggered, and Wolf roams the streets, eventually becoming the leader of a gang of thieves–a “master criminal.”
What we have here is more interesting in conception than execution, although before I dissect, let me point out that I really do like the imagery of this lonely sequence. Both sides of this ill man seem to be caught, whether in the museum or out of it, in a vast plain, lit as if by a spotlight, long shadows stretching out beyond them, as if trapped under the merciless gaze of a divine judge. (See the panel above or the panel right below:)
And I always respect publications which are strong enough to keep their main characters off-screen to start with. We get three full pages of Lamb and Wolf before the Bat and the Bird enter our story, and that’s pretty cool.
That said, it’s the underlying ideas that interest me here, particularly in view of the places I know Batman is going. What we have here is obviously a Jekyll and Hyde story, with a few crucial differences. Where Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel is about a man who is punished for his hypocrisy (Dr. Jekyll creates Hyde in the first place in order to fulfill his baser desires in secret, only to find that they are no longer under his control), this parable of the Lamb and the Wolf has no moral component at all (although I’ll detail a possible exception in a moment).
Adam Lamb didn’t mix up a potion. He didn’t intend this transformation. It just happened. He slipped and fell, and now he’s a criminal. Unlike Jekyll, Lamb is a character to be pitied. This story is vital to the Batman universe, because it’s one of the dominant narratives that come up time and time again. Most of the recurring villains in Batman’s rogues gallery are basically variations on this theme–their criminal impulses are the result of a crippling mental illness, usually brought on by a sudden traumatic event they had nothing to do with.
This is because, of course, they’re all dark mirrors of Batman himself, who is also driven by a sudden traumatic event to do things most people would consider crazy.
The central question of the entire Batman canon (as it relates to Batman versus most of his villains) is whether or not the villains are immoral, and Batman moral. Most of us would, on the face of it, consider the villains to be evil, and Batman to be good; and at this stage, this is what the comics believe. The movement of Batman media as a whole (over decades) is toward questioning that idea. Adam Lamb is one of the earliest and clearest explications of this problem: yes, Wolf is a criminal and a murderer; but he is such by accident, and he is also Lamb, and perhaps neither of them deserve to be punched. Society needs them to be punched; society needs Batman to punch them; but whether this is right and true and moral, or just something that happens, is very much up in the air.
Now, I mentioned there was an exception to Lamb’s innocence. He did do one thing which could be viewed as problematic by the comic, but I don’t agree with that view:
It’s clearly suggested that Lamb becomes a criminal because of his fantasies. In this reading, Lamb should be punished for a sin of thought–of desiring to be a criminal, and glorifying that role, even if he never acts on it. In that sense, the parable becomes, “Look what happens, children, when you identify with the criminals instead of with Batman and Robin.”
I don’t happen to like that, because I think fantasies are clearly harmless (people aren’t actually in danger of hitting their heads and suddenly becoming whomever they’ve wished to be), and because the comics themselves encourage kids to put themselves into the stories.
I also think it’s an open question as to whether Lamb is actually at fault here, or if the hapless accident that turned him into Wolf merely took Lamb’s criminal fantasies as a springboard, coincidentally.
All of my questions will hopefully be resolved when Batman and Robin, the moral actors of this comic’s universe, enter the picture. So back to our story.
One night, the Bat and the Bird observe the Wolf’s gang of Dogs raiding a warehouse, and stop to do some late night fisticuffs. In the ensuing fight, Wolf sneaks up behind the Bird, whacks him on the head with his cane, and throws the unconscious boy in the path of an oncoming truck. The Bat leaps into action, rolling both of them out of harm’s way, and then curses the fleeing criminals. He does manage to catch a glimpse of an oddly dented fender, though. When Bird comes to, the two heroes vow to focus their efforts on stopping this new gang.
Meanwhile, Lamb still doesn’t even know what’s going on. He finds the Crime Master’s suit in his closet, and resolves to wait until the owner shows up…. which he does, at the midnight hour, although Lamb is no longer around to see it.
The next day Wayne visits the Crow’s museum, even meeting Lamb and hearing about his obsession with the book titled “The Crime Master.” But Lamb’s docility is the perfect disguise.
That night, however, the Bat and the Bird spot the dented car from the warehouse job, and trail it to another theft. Seeing a watchman about to be injured, they launch into the group, dealing blow after blow–until the Bat is shot by one of Wolf’s goons and falls into the nearby water. The Bird goes berserk at the sight.
(The comics do this every so often–one of our heroes appears doomed, and the other goes on a kill-crazy rampage, tears streaming from their eyes. They do it rarely enough that I find it pretty moving. It’s obvious they care a lot about each other. Some would say too much. Especially those gentlemen who end up on the receiving end of that vengeful fury.)
As the Bird takes the gang apart with his bare hands (okay, gloved hands), Wolf eggs them on. “Get him!” he screams. “Get him, or–”
“Or what, Wolf?” says a voice.
But the Bat stumbles, and the gang realizes he’s human, and wounded, and therefore ripe for the murdering. Before they can advance, though, the Bat throws down a smoke bomb, and he and the Bird ninja their way out of there, and by ninja I mean “limp gingerly.”
After an agonizing operation, the Bird finds the bullet and removes it. The Bat promises to rest, but the next day finds him puzzling over a curious coincidence–it seems that all of Wolf’s crimes correspond to similar events in the book, “The Crime Master.” That in turn reminds him of Lamb, and he realizes that both men could very well be the same person! And the next crime in the book is murder. Clearly the target will be Lamb’s boss and owner of the museum, Crow.
Meanwhile, Crow and Lamb are working past midnight in the museum… and when the clock strikes, and Lamb switches over to Wolf, Crow is horrified. Wolf picks up a scalpel and advances on his alter ego’s boss–only to be stopped just in time by the Bat and the Bird! But Wolf seems to be having a queer reaction to the logo on the Bat’s chest. Dazed, he remembers another bat, one he saw just before hitting his head in the beginning of the story…
Having been punched, Wolf/Lamb tumbles down the same stairs again. Predictably, this second knock to the head makes him regain his sanity, and everyone lives happily ever–
Dying, Lamb tells them the story of his transformation before expiring. Everyone feels kinda bad about the whole thing.
So we see that the comic has embraced the most depressing interpretation: Lamb did not deserve to be punished for his actions as Wolf–but he was. What a cruel universe this is.
Moral of the story: Be careful walking down stairs, because you might end up a thief, a murderer, and then dead.
Tune in next week for the third of four stories in Batman #2 as Baturdays continues.