Publication date: Winter 1940
Author: Bob Kane
Batman as gangster story.
I can hardly blame them for not including a title (“Public Enemy No. 1,” works fine, or “The Real Story of Jimmy McCoy”), given how busy and inventive this title page is:
What I like most about this page is its distillation of the typical gangster rise-and-fall story in three panels: from the ruthless child to the successful gangster to the corpse in the street. You could draw a big black moralizing line from one to the other: bad kid, bad man, bad end.
This is ten years after Cagney covered similar ground in The Public Enemy, two years after he did it again in Angels with Dirty Faces. The thirties had seen numerous gangster films, which often used fictional characters in place of Al Capone, and (especially in the latter half of the decade) these ran into the Hays Code, which forced studios to add strong morals to their pictures, usually along the lines of “Crime Does Not Pay.” There was no such code for comics yet (that wouldn’t come until 1954); but of course, Batman never met a moral he didn’t like, and “CDNP” has always been one of his favorites. It’ll be interesting to see just how this story reacts with the genre at the height (indeed, the tail end) of its classical period, before noir took over the crime stories (starting with The Maltese Falcon in 1941).
It’ll also be interesting to see where the entertainment comes in, given that the end of the story is not only ordained by social standards of the time, but presented in Cliff’s Notes form on the title page. Presumably there will be punching, so there’s that.
There is one thing I like about this story right off the bat: Jimmy McCoy doesn’t become a gangster because he’s a sociopath, or even because he looks up to gangsters, but because he needs the money.
Jimmy and his mother move to the slums, where Jimmy has to learn to be tough; and when Prohibition rolls around (in 1920), along with the easy money to be had by aiding bootleggers, Jimmy decides to take advantage–if only so his mother won’t have to work anymore to support them. (Gangsters always have a thing about their mothers in this period–Freud was big back then.)
Soon, however, Jimmy is up before the court, sentenced to a year and a half in juvie. His mother, upon hearing the sentence, drops dead of a heart attack. That’ll get the old Catholic guilt going. Jimmy, however, doesn’t look inward but outward:
Now that his mother is dead, he has no reason to go back to being a criminal… but he does. Like Charlie Kane, he’s going to need more than one lesson, and he’s going to get more than one lesson.
In fact, soon after he gets out, he’s got another job delivering liquor, and soon after that, he’s caught again. (I know the story is what it has to be, but they’re really making this guy out to be stupid.) This time it’s a year, and in adult prison. (No, not the kind on Cinemax.) There, he works on his networking skills, and when he gets out, he’s in full-fledged with the mob.
I like how Jimmy is always seen wearing green–as a kid, green pants, and as a gangster, that green suit. It is probably a symbol of his greed, but even as a labeling device it works well.
Soon Jimmy has started his own gang, where they call him “King of the Rackets”, and not for his tennis skills. But from then on, his fortunes begin declining. First Prohibition ends, cutting off a major revenue source, which he attempts to replace with protection rackets; then the police start cracking down on his mob, and, like Capone, he’s taken down for tax evasion.
When Jimmy gets out, though, he hasn’t changed a bit. His plan is to immediately restart his gang; and the man who’s held the power in his absence, Big Costello, knows it. So he orders a preemptive hit on “Red” McCoy.
We see Costello’s orders carried out in a really well-choreographed sequence… but the plan goes terribly wrong.
They’re so desperate to get Jimmy that they do a drive by while he’s looking nostalgically at his childhood neighborhood. Jimmy dives out of the way, but a little girl is caught in the crossfire. Her mother runs toward her, screaming, “My child! My child!” The car speeds up the street, but the prone McCoy takes careful aim and shoots out a tire. The car swerves and crashes into a lamp-post. Jimmy races away, laughing triumphantly, but he’s forgotten one thing that’s changed since he was sent away:
This is a perfect use of breaking the panel borders, not only because it gives Batman’s entrance more weight in an already action-oriented sequence, but also because it’s a metaphor for the way Batman is breaking through the genre conventions of the gangster story.
There follows a tense foot-chase:
Not only do they balance neatly against each other, but the use of perspective in these two-shots demonstrates the distance between the opponents, with the bullet-line connecting the two. This is precisely how you cover action in an intelligible way. Usually Batman is fighting or moving through a non-real space, in whatever way the plot needs in order for him to do what he does; but here, you get the sensation of a cohesive three-dimensional environment.
You can’t tell quite from looking at it (because I omitted a panel), but McCoy hopped onto the fence, and turned around, straddling it long enough to fire back at Batman from the higher vantage point. Then, with a laugh, he’s gone. I’m getting to like this guy’s style.
Batman mutters angrily to himself (wait, don’t we have Robin to listen to exposition? Isn’t that the whole point of Robin? What gives?) about how he was only following McCoy to see if he was going straight or not. Knowing for sure now, Batman vows he’ll get McCoy, if it’s the last thing he ever does. SPOILER: It won’t be.
McCoy doesn’t waste any time. That night, he gathers some of his old cronies, and some new ones who aren’t too happy with Big Costello. Through a combination of cajoling and intimidation, he gets them all to agree to be in his new mob. They even light his smoke, in the grand “youse the boss now” tradition of thugs everywhere. He won’t let them light three on a match, however.
Flush with goons, thugs, toadies, henchmen, and gunsels*, McCoy gets to work, claiming ownership of Costello’s protection rackets, and slapping around any shopkeeps who say different. The result? Gang war.
Bruce learns of the gang war through the newspapers (crime detection method #4), and, although nobody knows who the upstart gangster is, Wayne bets it’s McCoy. Because (altogether now) He’s Read the Script.
Actually, it’s Robin, undercover and ready to tail the gangsters. (I like how McCoy’s treatment of the kid shows how far he’s come from his innocent origins.) Robin follows them into their house and, not able to hear their conversation, actually reads their lips through a keyhole, which is something I thought only happened in Nancy Drew novels.
While Dick is telling Bruce about McCoy’s impending visit to the Penguin Club, the club owner is telling Big Costello the same thing. And the stage is set for a three-way confrontation…
Again, I really like the composition here, and the use of perspective. And the shadows. The sharp parallel lines give a sensation of plot-lines passing each other, of intersecting fates.
And then, well, those fates don’t intersect so much as they get all snarled up like yarn that the cat’s been at:
Never ones not to jump right into a fray, battle, or brouhaha, Batman and Robin leap in and start punching.
While the gangsters and heroes duke it out, Jimmy McCoy takes the opportunity to shoot as many of Big Costello’s men as possible. Atta-boy, Jimmy!
Meanwhile, Batman and Robin have discovered that they’re in a restaurant, and begin fighting in appropriately gimmicky ways.
It gets sillier and sillier. Batman and Robin start throwing dishes, Robin El Kabongs a dude in the face with a big bass fiddle, and, yes, this happens:
The fun ends when the police arrive, and McCoy and our heroes flee.
The club owner squeals to the cops, and soon both Big Costello and Jimmy McCoy (currently fleeing the scene with his men and a shoulder wound) are wanted. The news goes out over the radio, and McCoy’s men abandon him. He continues on foot, raging, heading towards the courthouse where he’s sure Costello, the architect of his misery, will be waiting. It begins to rain.
As McCoy draws near the courthouse, it becomes apparent that the three threads of fate, separated by the police, have now come together again. McCoy is heading there to kill Costello; Batman, having guessed this (he’s found time to Read more Script) is racing after him; and Costello and his men are just now exiting the courthouse.
Batman gets there in time to watch Jimmy cough out his last, and then fall, dead, down the steps, rolling down…
Actually, they feel the need to repeat the moral (“Crime Does Not Pay”) about six times.
Bruce gets it wrong, here–Jimmy didn’t idolize gangsters, or even desire their luxuries. In fact, the comic glossed over his extravagances, if indeed he had any. He was seduced by easy money, and hardened by a life in poverty and then in the harsh prison system, until there was nothing else he wanted or knew but crime. It was never about things, just power, which for Jimmy only came from violence, because he grew up in a world where he had no power and violence was the only answer.
I think the comic as a whole gets it wrong, too. This story is all fall and no rise. Jimmy has the kind of charisma that makes the classic gangster character so appealing, but we’re never allowed to excite in that world–only watch, tense, as it all comes crashing down.
*I always liked the word gunsel, something I picked up in the movie of The Maltese Falcon. I always assumed it referred to an armed goon–sounds like it, doesn’t it? With just a hint of fantasy, ala Stephen King’s gunslingers. I was surprised to find that it actually means–well, check the link.
Next time: Baturdays continues with the last Batman story of 1940.