Publication date: Spring 1941
Author: unknown. But almost certainly not Bob Kane, right?
A few words on World’s Best Comics before we get to the story proper. World’s Best, which became World’s Finest Comics as of its second issue, was an attempt by DC to cash in on the success of its two most popular superheroes, Batman and Superman. Like today’s television networks, they attempted to build new hits by placing the established characters alongside new and lesser-known comics within the same roughly 60-page quarterly issue.
My favorite thing about this is that, apparently wanting to make sure you read cover to cover and not just the Batman and Superman stories, DC staggered them, such that each issue of World’s Best/Finest Comics ran like this:
-a bunch of random crap
I can just imagine a child in the grocery store or on the street corner, reading the Superman story, turning the next page, and finding… “Red White and Blue”, a series about three soldiers. Huh? Oh no, it’s time to go, and I still haven’t read Batman! Guess I’ll pony up the fifteen cents.
And now for our story, which is titled… “The Witch and the Manuscript of Doom”? Really? Not, “The Manuscript and the Witch of Doom”? It’s the book that’s supposed to be scary?
The witch kills the author with her staff (is it a magic staff? no) and steals the book. The man’s butler catches her in the act, and a struggle ensues. But soon the witch has soon knocked him out (with a magic spell? no) and run off into the night.
When the butler awakens, he drags himself to the phone, calls the police and reports the death of Erik Dorne. As luck would have it, this news finds its way quickly to Bruce Wayne:
The surly Commissioner is intrigued, however, when he learns that that victim was Erik Dorne, the famous mystery writer. Bruce, of course, decides to tag along to the crime scene. There, they read the “one clue” left behind: a piece of the manuscript which reads:
“This story is about a witch–a witch that lives. This is a true story. It is the story of”
It’s the barest of clues, but it does suggest the rather lurid possibility that the witch of the story came to life and killed its creator. The fact that it did so with a bump on the head, however (a magic bump? no) would seem to indicate less supernatural origins.
Helpfully, a suspect immediately presents himself:
And it looks like we’ve settled into full-on mystery mode, as another suspect enters to exclaim over the body:
Two suspects and we haven’t even gotten to the body? A missing manuscript, a murderous witch, it all adds up to a tricky case. A case for–The Commish.
Commissioner Jim “The Commish” Gordon’s first move is to confront everybody who ever knew the deceased who also, coincidentally, look like a witch.
Leaving her, for some reason, Gordon heads over to talk to Jane Ware, the dead man’s estranged wife. And surprise, surprise:
The widowed Ware isn’t really a witch (maybe), she’s just wearing make-up for a part that she’s rehearsing. Gordon informs her that her husband has died; her immediate reaction is “then I’m free!”
Wayne and Gordon leave, trying to wrap their heads around the case. Gordon theorizes that Jane has no alibi; she could have slipped out during intermission with her make-up on, killed Dorne, and returned to the stage, with none the wiser. She also could have teleported there and back instantly using her witchy powers. It’s all so confusing.
Here’s my issue: we, the audience, know what the killer’s motive is, because the witch grabbed the book and said “This is what I want!”, and so the theory that the witch wanted to protect his or her identity sounds good.
However, Gordon and Wayne don’t know that. It’s only a theory. It’s entirely possible, from their perspective, that the manuscript was stolen in order to throw the cops off the track, and that any number of the motives presented here were the reason for the crime: Dorne’s profligacy with the family money, his reluctance to divorce his wife, professional rivalry between two authors… And yet, these ideas have been totally disregarded because OMG WITCHES!
Bruce tells Grayson to go get a sample of Jane’s wig, to see if it matches the hair he found at the crime scene. If the hairs match, it is totally convincing, and totally inadmissible in a court of law. The same goes for the manuscript Batman hopes to find when he searches Dorne’s aunt’s house tonight. Great job, guys! Way to screw up the case!
The two missions are a contrast in tone. Robin’s foray into Jane’s dressing room ends with him acrobating and fighting his way through a stage full of actors and crew members, as his discovery as a thief is compounded again and again. Batman, on the other hand:
Batman tosses the vase of flowers at one of the nephews and beats up the other before leaving empty-handed, politely tipping his metaphorical hat on the way out to the old lady.
At least Robin got away with the hairs. A quick comparison is made:
Regardless, Bruce has a plan, and it’s actually a pretty good one, with one caveat:
The flaw in Bruce’s plan, of course, is that he’s only dialing one person. No matter how sure he is, it would be better to leak the information to all of the suspects, and then see which one showed up in a witch costume.
I can’t quibble too much, however; it looks like Bruce was correct.
Naturally, Batman and Robin lie in wait, and they catch the witch and unmask her and the story is over. Right? Of course not! But there’s no real way to continue it, unless something ridiculously stupid happens to–
The witch bops Robin over the head with her stick and makes a getaway in her car. (By the way, can’t they trace the car? Has Batman ever looked up a license plate?) And Batman and Robin can’t catch up to her, because they forgot to bring the Batmobile. What, did they take the bus to the stake-out? Jesus.
The cavalcade of incompetence just keeps coming, as our clumsy heroes near the storm-swept country house the witch has fled to:
The fall knocks them unconscious, and when they awaken, they are greeted by the bizarre solution to the mystery:
Wait, what? This is a story about witches, damn it! Communism is just a red herring! My world has been turned upside down. But I guess that answers my question about the title–the so-called witch isn’t scary at all, while this “subversive literature” represents a terrifying threat to the American way of life, I suppose.
The shadowy (to us) figure explains that Dorne was blackmailing him with the manuscript, threatening to expose his identity as a publisher of subversive literature if he didn’t pay up. So, in his customary disguise as a witch, he took matters (and the manuscript) into his own hands.
After the guy on the left there discards his cigarette a little too close to Batman’s bound hands, our heroes manage to burn their way free, and then it’s just a hop, skip, and a punch to subduing the subversives. (I’m skipping over a totally uninteresting fight, in which absolutely nobody uses magic powers.)
Then, it’s time for the ceremonial unmasking! Even though Batman knows precisely who it is already, because he called them and only them earlier. Oh, sorry, am I undercutting the drama?
Later, Bruce and Dick sit around smugly telling each other how easily they solved the mystery, once they realized that only Dorne’s publisher could know what was in his manuscript, and that the hairs from Jane’s wig didn’t match the ones from the crime scene.
Meanwhile, in his office, the Commish smiled grimly. He knew that somehow, somewhere, the mystery had been solved. Thanks to him. And his hard-nosed questions. And his hard-boiled attitude. And his really quite dashing hat, its soft, comfortable material notwithstanding. Bored, he made a rule, broke it, and, satisfied, took an early lunch.
Tune in after Killtoberfest when Baturdays resumes!