Baturdays: Batman #5, “The Case of the Honest Crook”

In All, Books and Comics by Kyu

Publication date: Spring 1941
Author: Bob Kane


Another morality play? Batman continues to be obsessed with the idea of the “good criminal” and the question of what drives people to crime–ignoring those reasons, however, when punching needs to be done.

As usual, our story today begins with Batman interrupting a crime in progress–only this crime isn’t usual at all…

Batman looks in wonder at his hand. “My fist… isn’t punching… My God… I’ve been infected with… mercy!”

The shop-keeper explains that the crook only held him up for 6 dollars ($98 today), and then the thief explains that he was just trying to get medicine for his sick wife… He breaks down crying. Batman slaps away his tears with the back of his mighty hand, and then asks for the thief’s tale of woe.

And boy, is it woeful. Let me count the ways…

The thief (Joe Sands) was working in a garage two years ago, engaged to be married but a couple hundred bucks short of a new life. He gets offered the money by a pair of gangsters to hide a hot car for the night. At first he’s prepared to take it–but his fiancee will hear none of it. So when the gangsters return, Joe declines his reward.

That is the best suit ever. Look at it.

The gangsters don’t rest easy, however–a man who can’t be bought is a man who can’t be trusted. So they frame him for drunk driving–dazing him with a blow to the head, pouring liquor all over him, and setting him in a car on its way to a crash. The judge throws the book at him (apparently screaming “I was framed, I tell you! I was framed!” as a couple of bailiffs hold you back is not an effective legal argument), and he ends up in jail for two years.

When he gets out, Joe vows revenge against the gangster who framed him, but once again his wife backs him down. Instead, they get married, but it’s a poor existence: with his prison record, Joe can’t hold a job.

“But Doc, I can’t afford those!”
“Then in my expert medical opinion, you’re screwed, son.”

The medicine costs six dollars, which is six more than Joe has; and so, desperate, he turned to theft. His story told, the young man is forgiven by Batman and the man Joe robbed. In fact, Batman gives him some money to tide him over. (This seems like a much easier solution to crime for Bruce Wayne than all the costumes and violence.) It’s hard to tell what’s interested Batman in the boy’s case: the tragedy of it all, or the fact that Joe’s gangster pals sound a lot like mobsters from Smiley Sike’s gang. His next destination is telling:

Smiley: “Batman! How ya doin’? You never write any more. Sit down, sit down. Can I get you a drink?”
Batman: “…Smiley, this isn’t actually a social call. I was being sarcastic.”
Smiley: “Aww.”

Batman sits down nonchalantly and asks about the Joe Sands frame-job. Equally nonchalantly, Smiley tells his men to muss Batman up a bit for asking questions. Then Batman wins the “Least Chalants” contest by winning a fight without getting out of his chair:

He is calmly inquiring about TEA. Awesome.

After Batman leaves triumphant (and oh so casual), Matty Link walks in:

Yes, that is the same suit he was wearing two years ago. Tell the truth: if you owned it, would you ever wear anything else? I would sleep, die, and be buried in it.

When Matty leaves, Smiley decides he’s yet another loose end that needs to be tied off before Batman can get his hands on it and unravel the whole rotten mess. Exit Matty Link, stage left.

The next night, Bruce and Dick split up the work, with Bruce going to see if Commissioner Gordon knows anything about Matty’s killing, and Robin heading to Matty’s apartment to see if he left any evidence behind about the Joe Sands frame-job. Unfortunately for Robin, he’s not the only one with that idea…

A rare silent panel speaks volumes here, using the static form of comics to freeze the reader’s perception of time and draw out the tension endlessly; the eye looks again and again from the gun to the child’s head, but it never falls… Literally, because the next panel is a cutaway back to Bruce. Batman should do this more often–the constant dialog and narration end up killing a lot of the atmosphere that the drawings establish.

Meanwhile, Bruce grows increasingly nervous. Robin should have been back by now. His fears get the better of him, and he speeds off in the Batmobile (newly reconstructed after the last one was tossed off a cliff by the Joker). Arriving at the address, he hesitates to open the door… and upon doing so, knows why he feared it. Robin lays clubbed on the floor, his head bloody, not moving. Batman kneels with his adopted son in his arms and weeps. But not for long.

If you didn’t just start sweating at the thought of Angry Batman seeking vengeance for his dead partner, congratulations, you are either a robot, Chuck Norris, or a robot Chuck Norris.

But wait! He stirs! Robin isn’t dead! Quick! To the doctor!

Angry Batman has no time for doctorly dithering.

The doctor then reconsiders his position regarding operations on superhero sidekicks dumped on his doorstep at three in the morning. Batman leaves Robin in his capable hands, and decides to go get some preemptive vengeance in case the operation doesn’t go well. He shows up at Smiley’s place. Smiley no longer lives up to his nickname.

Angry Batman cannot be stopped. Angry Batman will find you, and he will punch you just by looking at you.

Batman bursts in through the door, shrugs off a few more bullet wounds as if they were “flea bites”, and tears through a roomful of bad guys as if they were children and he were, well, regular Batman. We’re told (even as he gets shot again) that he long ago discarded his bullet-proof armor because it restricted his movement; no, his armor today is sheer, awesome rage.


The thugs taken care of, Batman advances on Smiley like a goddamn unkillable zombie:

Aim for the head, Smiley! It’s the only way to kill the ghoul!

Batman beats Smiley half to death, and then demands a confession to planning the Joe Sands frame-job. That finished, he takes the confession and, dragging Smiley behind him, storms into the police station to drop off crook and evidence (handing them over while saying essentially, “Here. Here you fucking go.”)

Don’t mess with Angry Batman. He will cut you up.

His mission/vengeance complete, Batman returns to the doctor to find that Robin will pull through.

Operating for the second time that night, the doc finds out that Batman’s definition of “sissy” is “somebody who faints with only three bullets in them”, a definition that the rest of the human race wishes it could aspire to fulfill.

Later, when Batman wakes up, the doctor declares that he didn’t check to see Batman’s secret identity: “It’s better that way,” he says, knowing full well that had he done so, Angry Batman would have ripped his head off and used it as a basketball.

And now, there’s just enough time left for a denouement:

Robin stares vacuously at the wall. After a moment he begins to drool.

So it turns out I was right, although not in the way I had originally intended. This was a morality play, alright, but not about the notion of the “honest crook”–after all, even Joe’s story had him succumbing to temptation, with only his wife convincing him not to go down a path of crime.

No, the moral of the story is most definitely “Don’t make Batman angry,” and the story consisted of a series of awesome, wildly entertaining object lessons to that effect.

Tune in next week as Baturdays continues!