Publication date: Winter 1940
Author: Bob Kane
I have occasionally ridden the coattails of Superdickery, a site which uses ridiculous old comic book covers to demonstrate that, often, Superman was a huge dick. This doesn’t happen as often with Batman, at least so far, but this title page would definitely be one of those times:
The sight of Batman sadistically gathering up criminals and weighing them on the scales of Justice is, well, pretty cool, but also a rather sinister portrayal of our hero.
The opening to this story, however, isn’t nearly as interesting. It offers an action sequence we’ve definitely seen before: a group of thugs are beating up an innocent man, Batman and Robin enter the fray, the beaten thugs retreat to a getaway car which sprays machine gun rounds at them as it peels out. The only difference this time, in fact, is along the same lines as that title page:
I don’t really have anything to say about this, other than exclamation points at such a bizarre image. Although the question of why Batman and guns are anathema arises. Future writers will connect Batman’s anti-gun notions to the fact that his parents will killed with a gun; but no such connection exists at this early stage of the game. So why?
One idea is that it ties into the morality of the work–obviously we’ve had a lot of stories involving crime, and influencing children away from it. It’s possible that the authors don’t wish to glorify gun violence. But if that’s true, they don’t do a very good job of it. Guns are used frequently as expedient plot devices–not to mention the two other times that Batman has used guns (here, when he slaughtered the giant monsters, and here, when he killed a vampire/werewolf/whatever).
Another possibility is that it’s okay for Batman to use guns when he’s overmatched by his opponent. After all, in the previous instances I cited, he was fighting a giant monster and a supernatural being (of annoyingly indeterminate type). But here… it’s just a machine gun. He’s faced machine guns before. And (glancing ahead) there’s no plot reason why he had to shoot at the retreating car.
Ultimately I’m left with no coherent explanation. I guess this instance is just a bizarre mis-step. Maybe they had a guest writer, who didn’t know what he was doing, and didn’t realize Batman usually doesn’t use guns.
Whatever. Moving on.
When the crooks are gone, Batman recognizes the man whose life he’s saved: Tim Bannon, who coaches the Panthers (“the professional football team”, adds Batman in a fit of awkward exposition). Bannon explains that the Panthers are about to play the Lions, a team owned by Stacy the Gambler. Forced to live up to his nickname (man, friends can be so cruel sometimes), Stacy has placed a large bet on his own team to win, and is now trying one dirty trick after another to ruin the Panthers’ chances. After a casual conversation, they’re interrupted by the police, finally getting around to investigating the scene of a big dramatic fist-and-gun-fight.
Meanwhile, in the lair of some truly ugly criminals…
Stacy explains that an informant working for him at the police department has spotted Bruce Wayne hanging around the Commissioner’s office (crime detection method #3). Maybe, Stacy says, this ‘playboy’ business is just an act.
The narration box underneath that panel goes for some “Oh no what will happen NOW” blatant dramatism. It’s the verbal equivalent of that video with the prairie dog. Suffice it to say, things just got real.
I love this panel. Partly it’s the violet and yellow lounging ensemble. Partly it’s Bruce’s shifty-eyes. You can tell he’s thinking, This could be a trap. I will speak gibberish just in case. “What? Who? I am confused. Chocolate? My name is Bruce.”
The mysterious voice on the phone gives Bruce an address to be at tomorrow night at ten, and hangs up. This is either:
a) A brilliant plan to get Bruce to reveal himself. If Batman shows up at that address, the most likely explanation is that they are one and the same.
b) A bizarre 1940s form of prank call, involving calling up strangers on the pretense that they are superheroes and asking for help.
c) A convoluted mugging scheme.
(There are no other possibilities.)
Either way, the appropriate response is not to dress up as Batman and go over there.
Also note that (I believe) this marks the first time the comics have called it “Gotham City.” As a cityscape, it’s a nice introduction. From now on this is no longer New York; it’s a fantastic amalgam of cities, the ur-city. An idea which is in keeping with the rise of noir imagery lately in this comic.
Now, to see if Batman really is Bruce Wayne, the men advance, ready to pull off the cowl…
Turns out, it was a trap… for THEM! (The gangster them.) Anyway, Batman and Robin punch their way out. Then Stacy continues to prove that his superpower is not thinking like every other Batman villain–he orders his men to follow Batman and Robin home.
Our heroes lead the criminals to a barn near the Wayne home, and then disappear. Stacy asks the men he’s had posted around Wayne’s house if Batman came through here, and they tell him nobody has. And yet…
The surprised criminals leave Wayne alone, only to stand outside his window creepily watching him read a book. Perhaps they were wrong about him?
While Batman leads the (very tired) gangsters on another merry chase across the grounds, the narrator explains how he got back inside the house without anyone seeing him. You see, there’s actually a trapdoor in the barn, leading to a secret passageway which comes out in the house. Once there, he threw off his costume, donned the robe, and answered the door in full playboy regalia. But how did Batman and Bruce Wayne manage to be in two places at once?
…No. This isn’t Spider-Man, for god’s sake.
Actually, this is the exact same scheme used in “The Adventure of the Empty House”, the Sherlock Holmes story wherein he is resurrected after his literary demise. I encourage you to go read it.
Anyway, while Batman put on his costume and ran back out of the house, Robin moved the sleeves of the dummy, making it look like Bruce was reading in his armchair.
The next night, the gang scratches their collective heads. With no more Batman suspects, they can only go ahead with their original plan–sabotage the Panthers and hope it all comes out alright. SPOILER: It won’t.
The next night, Batman and Robin go around to the quarters of the Panther’s star quarterback, to make sure Stacy hasn’t intimidated him into throwing the game. (I’m beginning to think Wayne has a bet of his own down.)
Instead, they find the quarterback gone, and his roommate stabbed to death. Robin concludes that the man has been kidnapped. Now, if you had to guess, what would you say their next action should be?
a) Inform the police that a murder has taken place.
b) Find Stacy’s gang, punch him in the face for killing the roommate, and rescued the kidnapped player.
c) Figure out some way to win the game anyway.
If you guessed c), you’re wrong. I asked what they SHOULD do. C) is what they actually do.
The next day, at the game, Bruce heads out onto the field, disguised as Stockton, the quarterback. Stacy, in the stands, is shocked. Poor guy. Nothing seems to work out for him, does it?
Anyway, he immediately goes back to his gang’s hideout, to ask why they let Stockton go–when he sees that the player is right there, still tied up. Stacy is confused and, I’m sure, a bit depressed. It can’t help when Robin, who trailed him from the stadium, bursts in through the skylight. Naturally a fight ensues, and poor Stacy’s miserable week is concluded in the worst possible way:
Robin frees Stockton, who is shocked to hear that Batman is standing in for him in the game. “I’ll bet he’s fumbling every play!” he cries. He races over to the stadium; Robin stays behind to take any thugs who’re still breathing to jail.
Meanwhile, Batman is doing terribly, of course.
Bizarrely, they let the quarterback do the extra kick. Although who knows what crazy rules they had back when the helmets were leather. Probably it was legal back then to use utility belts, but only during passing plays.
Stockton arrives at the stadium to cheers–for his doppelganger. During half-time, he and Bruce switch out, and Bruce and Dick take their rightful place–in the stands, taking in the rest of the game.
You heard it here first, kids! Guns are awesome, cheating is great if you do it better than the other team, and rich guys always come in first. Who ever said comics didn’t teach you things?
Well, that’s it for 1940, the first full year of Batman. We had some ups, some downs, but on the whole it was a year for narrative experimentation; for growth on the part of the artists toward a noir sensibility; and for some exciting stories. I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to 1941.
Next time: Baturdays starts a whole new year of Batman comics.