Publication date: May 1941
Author: Bob Kane
Why does Batman contain so many stories dealing with circuses, carnivals, and the like? And Joker, after all, is a clown…
I think maybe it has something to do with the idea of play. Specifically, Batman comics seem to associate frivolity with immorality, connected through the idea of lawlessness. It argues that places associated with games, fun, and unfettered freedom (id-spaces, if you’ll allow me a little Freud) will often lead to evil acts and wrong decisions, which in Batman’s inherently moral universe will inevitably be punished, often by Batman himself. Batman is an agent of order; by virtue of wealth, cleverness, and physical prowess, he is able to keep order in a very chaotic and crime-ridden Gotham City. Interestingly, his alter-ego, Bruce Wayne, pretends to precisely the same kind of frivolity and leisure. As far as I know, Batman is the only major superhero who disguises himself as carrying some of the same underlying motivations as his enemies.
That’s the reading I think was intended on the part of the authors: Batman, a supremely ordered (and thus powerful) being, clashes with disorder (lawless criminals often within or inspired by games, play, and id-spaces). You can simplify that to super-ego versus id.
I think there’s another reading to be made here, however, one which the authors may or may not have intended. The way I see it, Batman contains within him a lot of disorder as well, both in terms of lawlessness and in terms of play. Batman breaks society’s rules on a constant basis (breaking and entering, running from or fighting the police, beating up criminals), and arguably makes immoral choices on a semi-regular basis, from his occasional use of guns to his severe interrogation methods and violent means of capture (or, in the case of the villains, destruction) of those he encounters. At the same time, Batman exults in his lawlessness, making jokes during fights, taunting his opponents, and even treating the whole thing like a game (remember those couple of times when football, metaphorical and actual, played a role?).
And then there’s the fact that his identity is split. Again, that comes from disorder, not order, and it is actually harmful to him–we’ve seen it damage two relationships so far. And arguably it is the lack of human connections that leads (or allows) Batman to function, going out night after night to catch criminals motivated by “justice” (underneath, revenge for his murdered parents). If Bruce Wayne had a few more friends and family, he might not need to be Batman. But being Batman keeps him from having those connections.
My reading, then, is that Batman is in his own way just as much a symbol of disorder as the criminals he fights, because of his law-breaking, his violent nature, his divided identity, and his enjoyment of play. It comes down to motivation. Because Batman fights for an ideal (justice) in addition to other, more selfish reasons (buried revenge, fun), he comes off better than the criminals, who act out of greed, arrogance, and fun. Neither side is normal, or lives in normal places; both are elements that society would wish to expunge if it could; and it is not much more than a coincidence that Batman’s goals happen to be positive ones. Batman, to this point in time, is the story of a flawed individual fighting other flawed individuals for reasons none of them really understand (or acknowledge). And usually a happy ending results, somehow. To go back to the Freud, we’re watching one id, barely held in some sort of check by super-ego, battle ids which are totally unrestrained.
Complicating all this is the uneasy connection it has to childhood (particularly boyhood), and how it juggles wish-fulfillment (a child wants to be Batman/Robin, who is strong and free) with overt morality (a child should not wish to be the criminals, even though they are strong and free). Freedom exists, I guess, in some places; and the comic would have children, when allowed that freedom, to make good choices, although stories vary as to what their motivation should be (self-serving interest wins out most of the time, given the perennial motto, “crime does not pay”). I just find it odd that a comic which is basically for children would give them, time and again, villains related to places normally associated with childhood joy.
Alright, that’s enough long-winded philosophizing out of me. There’s a story in here, somewhere, isn’t there?
Actually, funny story–it turns out the mystery of the carnival is how much cotton candy Dick can eat in one afternoon! Ah, good times.
See you next week!
The two actually have fun for a while, riding roller-coasters and playing the carnival games. What’s sad, though, is how they’re unable to truly relax and forget their costumed personae:
Roller-coasters, ice cream, sideshows… It’s a wonderful day at the fair. Dick even tries his hand at that bottle game:
Dick ends up throwing one perfect pitch after another, until the carny pleads with him to take a prize and go. As they leave, the man tells Bruce, “He’s a regular boy wonder!” Our heroes roll their eyes.
This is actually really nice stuff. It’s rare that Bruce and Dick actually get to bond outside of crime-fighting, and this is honestly the most personality either of them have shown in ages. Far away from the madding mobster crowds, they can relax and be themselves and have fun. Or, they could, if not for the comic’s overwhelming need to play up the dramatic irony of it all. Either way, all good things must come to an end. There is a time for all things: a time for fun, and a time for punching, and in Batman’s world, it is usually half past Fist o’clock.
After Dick has played enough, they decide to step in on Bruce’s friend, Colonel Dawes. Oddly, though, Dawes doesn’t seem to recognize Bruce, and quickly gives him the brush-off. Bruce and Dick are discussing this outside when they see Dawes across the way, scratching his left leg.
By the way, Bruce actually has to explain the implications of the two facts coexisting:
1. Dawes has a false leg.
2. Today, Dawes scratched his leg.
You can almost see the gears struggling to turn in Dick’s little head. To be fair, he is hopped up on candy and fun. (This is why Bruce’s house is dedicated to cold austerity, and contains no cookies.) I know this is a children’s comic, but jeez, there’s no need to hit us over the head with it.
The other, larger, why-didn’t-you-mention-this-earlier clue is, Bruce recognizes the guy Dawes is hanging out with as small-time crook “Mouse” Docker. Looks like the fun is over.
The boys head back to the car, put on their costumes, and I guess just sit in the car and wait for nightfall? (Seriously.) Seems like they could have at least gone on the roller-coaster some more. Oh well. Anyway, once night falls, they follow “Dawes” around, and eventually into a wax museum, where Scooby Doo-like hijinks ensue:
After evading the dotty old caretaker (who wanders around talking to his wax statues), B&R find their way to a door leading to a back room (the expositorium, obviously), where a group of men are having a little get-together to tell each other the details of their evil schemes:
It’s not just the carnival revenue that they’ve stolen; they’ve created illegal income sources as well, from slot machines to sanctioned pick-pocketing. Before the crooks can discuss their Social Security and PINs, however, Robin accidentally jostles a wax figurine, sending it crashing to the ground. The gangsters rush out, bringing a fight with them:
One thing that’s always bothered me about these comics is how Batman and Robin’s fighting prowess vacillates depending on the plot, and usually is directly related to how close the current page is to the end of the issue. This is still early on, so our heroes don’t have a chance, even though there are only four or five guys and we’ve seen them take on dozens without breaking a sweat.
Once subdued, our heroes get tied up and tossed into another room. There, they find the real Colonel Dawes in a drugged sleep. Even though Batman has gotten out of this exact kind of scrape many times before in many different ways, today he is apparently completely foiled. Must be some knot.
Of course, the deranged, giggling wax museum curator uses his absurdly long stabbin’ knife to cut them free, because he believes them to be part of his “little family” of wax figures, despite the whole “moving and talking” thing.
Next, the dynamic duo decides to split up. Batman grabs the sleeping Dawes and sets out to get him to a doctor; he assigns Robin the task of taking down the gang. Hilariously, Robin fails instantly:
Robin runs out of the museum and into a fun-house, with the gangsters in hot pursuit. Inside, the Boy Wonder uses the various rooms, layouts and surfaces to kick their asses with ease. It’s interesting in conception but the execution isn’t really worth throwing up here.
I like how Robin is just like, “Welp, I guess my work here is done. Even though they’re not apprehended or anything.” I prefer to think he knocked off early to go on the roller-coaster again.
Meanwhile, Batman is having some fun of his own:
Batman hitches a ride on… a ride, over to some more thugs, launching himself at them fist first. He starts throwing punches left and right, taking out Fake Dawes without even looking in his direction. The leader of the gang, Mindy, however, is able to keep him back with a few bullets. Then Mindy tries to make his escape:
What is he actually planning to do here? It’s not the roller coaster is going to take him anywhere other than right back where he started. Batman should just make his way to the entrance there and wait for the guy to come back around.
But that would be boring and not dangerous, and well, he’s Batman, so he has to do it in the most ridiculous way possible–using the Ferris Wheel to get up to one section of the track, from which he’ll jump to another one below.
Batman’s leap is successful, and there ensues a fist-fight aboard the speeding roller coaster cars. Including the worst banter to date, hands down:
Mindy: “Here’s where you get yours, Batman!”
Batman: “You mean, you get yours!”
I do like how Bruce punches him so hard that Mindy’s about to fly out of the cars, and Batman grabs him and saves him (telling him, “Can’t even let death take you away from me,” which makes me wonder what this guy did to Batman that was so bad, because usually Batman is content to let his villains fall off of cliffs and things); and then they wait until the cars get back to their starting platform, and then, safely, he punches Mindy out of the cars. With the obligatory pun, of course:
The ringleader vanquished, it’s time for Bruce and Dick to go home.
“Only violence can bring us joy now.”
“Only violence, yes.”
A bit of a quick wrap-up, don’t you think? We never even met Colonel Dawes. I was hoping he’d have some gritty stories from the first World War. Maybe the time he pawned his false leg and spent the money on a German hooker, or something. Something fun for the kids.
Speaking of fun, I’m not sure if this issue stands up to the overall reading I came up with at the beginning there (you remember, it was the group of large paragraphs that you skipped). Batman and Robin kinda seem to have fun beating up the thugs; but they’re taking all the frivolous carnival stuff (rides, fun house, games of skill) and turning them to a serious purpose. And the carnival itself isn’t evil; it’s more like a place where, due to the lack of rules, a criminal element is able to take over. The idea that both fun and seriousness can be had in a place like this sits uneasy with me, given how strongly present the notion of their superhero selves were when they were just trying to relax and enjoy themselves.
Maybe it’s saying that we get the fun we deserve. Our heroes get a little bit. The criminals get a punch in the face. Makes sense.
Tune in next time as Baturdays continues!