Baturdays: Detective Comics #52, “The Secret of the Jade Box”

In All, Books and Comics by Kyu

Publication date: June 1941
Author: Bob Kane

The title of today’s issue suggests two ideas about what form the story will take. First, it will be another uncomfortably-racist Chinatown tale (after this one). Second, it will be a MacGuffin plot. MacGuffins were defined by Alfred Hitchcock as being anything at all, as long as everybody in the story wants it, needs it, or fears it. The details of a MacGuffin are completely unimportant, so long as we buy the notion of its value, and therefore they are often very fuzzy and ill-defined. Hitchcock would often use something as vague as “spy plans” and trust that his plot would be properly pushed and pulled along.

Our story begins, then, befittingly, with the transfer of the MacGuffin, a jade box. It starts off being sold from a man named Achmed to a jade collector named Potter, who plans to sell it to a Mr. Bruce Wayne. Before he can meet with Wayne, however, he meets with death, instead.

Look out, Potter! It’s…! It’s…what the hell is that, anyway? The Elephant Man? A tentacle monster? A bipedal frog brandishing a vacuum cleaner?

Exit Potter, stage left. Oddly, though, the intruder (whatever it is) doesn’t take the jade box; perhaps it took what was inside the secret compartment Potter found in the box shortly before his death. Anyway, the butler finds the body when he shows Bruce into the office; he also inadvertently picks up the jade box. Without any clues at all, the police are, as usual, baffled:

“Yeah, no easy answers here. It’d take some real detective work to crack this case.”
“Want to go get some donuts?”

Batman goes back to Thomas, the butler, and asks him questions about the discovery of the body, in order to get him to mention the jade box–naturally, if he were to simply ask for it, Thomas would be able to deduce that Wayne and Batman were one and the same, since Bruce was the only other person who saw the box. And of course we can’t have a butler knowing Batman’s secret identity. That would just be silly.

Once he obtains the box, Batman finds the same secret compartment that Potter did (jeez, how secret can it be?), and surmises that whatever used to be inside was the killer’s true objective.

And the race for the jade box…. BEGINS!

What begins now is a period where protagonist (Batman) and antagonist (shadowy Chinese dude) are working each others’ back-trails. A group of sneering Chinese caricatures threaten Potter’s butler (or ex-butler, depending on your point of view) with a knife until he tells them that Batman took the box and went to talk to Achmed, the curio shop owner who sold Potter the jade box in the first place. Meanwhile, Batman is at Achmed’s, learning that “an Oriental” sold Achmed the jade box, and then came around looking for it soon after; when the man learned that the box had been sold, he asked and was given Potter’s name and address.

When Batman leaves, however, the two plot lines collide, quite literally.

I maintain that that is an elephant, albeit an elephant with a knife. Hey, it’s not his fault. No sane elephant would go unarmed in a district that probably sells his tusks and genitals ground up as brain powders and aphrodisiacs. Don’t jump to conclusions, Batman!

Batman’s response is that of the consummate badass: to walk out from under the awning, literally stepping into the shadow of death, whistling. Then he swings himself up from the bottom of the awning to say hello, Batman style:

Okay, so it’s not an elephant. But that’s good, because otherwise this would be animal cruelty.

As he lands, Chinese men with guns and knives start coming out of the woodwork, like angry, armed, Asian termites. You know the kind.

Batman basically kicks their asses while holding one hand behind his back, just to be sporting. At one point he’s actually singing. Eventually he gets bored, but luckily the law shows up and everybody scatters.

The GCPD, everybody. Let’s give the poor bastards a round of applause, shall we?

Over the next few days, a new protection racket springs up in Chinatown, covering “tea shops, chop suey places, laundries,” opium dens, sweatshops, 19th century railroads, and any other place you’d expect to find Asians hard at work. The racket seems to work like this:

  • Step 1: Show up at the target business with a couple of goons, a bad suit, and a perennial sneer.
  • Step 2: Offer to sell protection from “danger.”
  • Step 3: If asked, define “danger” with examples of things which, it is heavily implied, your goons will be happy to do to the target business, the business owner, and the owner’s close relations.

…now, normally, the next step would be:

  • Step 4: When the owner refuses to pay, follow through on your threats until they pay, die, or leave.

Here, however, they do something different:

  • Step 4: When the owner refuses to pay, whisper something in his ear.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he’s spitting a bee into the poor man’s ear canal. That can be very persuasive.

What is he saying? I am intensely curious. Is it further threats, too explicit for the eyes of little Batman readers? Is he using the wisdom of Confucius or Buddha to ply his case? Is he promising sexual favors, too explicit for the eyes of little Batman readers? Regardless, it appears to work; at least, the payments begin.

It does not, however, keep the threatened business owners from going to their authority figure, unofficial mayor Loo Chung. Arguing that the police cannot help them (the GCPD, folks), they suggest turning to a man who has helped them before–the Batman! Who, coincidentally, appears like the devil at the sound of his name.

“For these purposes, we have pooled our resources and purchased an automobile called a ‘Delorean.’ The way we see it, if you are going to build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?”

Okay, so he’s just triggering a historical flashback, but you have to admit, A) Batman in ancient China would be awesome, and B) you know they went there at some point anyway.

According to this dude, Ghengis Khan didn’t just rule because he was a ruthless bad-ass with a giant, well-trained army; he also possessed the One Ring, forged by Sauron in the fires of Mount Doom. (I’m paraphrasing.) Not only did the ring turn him invisible, but, when passed down along his lineage, from eldest son to eldest son, the ring also convinced people to give that Khan descendant monetary tribute for no good reason. But then, bravely, one little hobbit managed to destroy the ring–or so it seemed. Now, a new Khan is in town, and he possesses the ring; and so his minions gather tribute in the form of protection money. Hard to tell whether this is literal magic, or just gullible people believing the whispers. Either way, these guys are up to no good, clearly making trouble in their neighborhood. But one little fight with Batman should send them packing to Bel-Air.

Anyway, Batman promises the committee that he will do whatever it is in his power to stop Kool Khan and the gang, and contented, they take their leave.

“I know I don’t have the same relationship with you that I did with Mayor Wong, but perhaps we can bury the hatchet? Ooo, sorry. Word choice.”

Batman holds up the jade box. He has literally come here to say, “This thing comes from Asia. So do you. Surely you know something about it.”

But I can’t fault him too bad, because not only does the ‘Mayor’ know of the box, he also knows what was in it:

Batman: *gasp* “I should have known! No good can come of facial hair that pointy!”

I’d like to point out that this is an excellent twist, at least in terms of narrative expediency. Sure, Batman could have eventually gotten to the bottom of this using detective work, but it’s so much faster to have the villain reveal himself mid-plot.

Batman stands up in surprise only to find that he’s falling in surprise–falling down through a trap door and a tunnel beneath. (Was Chinatown built on some kind of medieval labyrinth or something? I mean jeez, everybody’s got a secret stone fortress underground. You’d think that’d violate the zoning codes or something.)

Look out, Batman! It’s a…. shadow. A scary shadow!

A desperate fight ensues. The beast actually takes two of Batman’s punches to the head before giving up, which makes it exactly twice as manly as every criminal in Gotham.

Things Batman has hit so far today: Chinese people, Chinese people with knives, dog

Batman’s victory, however, does not go unobserved, and at the ringing of a gong, a bunch of goons are summoned, including a Mongol with a whip. And I know what you’re thinking–Batman fighting a mentally challenged guy? Okay, so maybe I was the only one thinking that. The point is, we’re both wrong. This is a dude from Mongolia, who may or may not have been summoned here from the past via time-traveling Delorean and/or a magic ring.

…wow. Um. It might actually have been less offensive for him to fight a mentally challenged person.

This took a sudden turn, somewhere. ‘Mayor’ (and current Lord of the Ring) Loo Chung enters, gun drawn–

Yes, shoot Batman. That has certainly never been tried before.

–and Robin follows, to save Batman by distracting the ‘Mayor’ in a manner only slightly less offensive than simply shouting out the word “chink” over and over again. Namely, dressing up like and pretending to be a Chinese deity using a costume he probably stole from a kid outside on the street. Yes, exactly like that one Simpsons episode:

This is so wrong on so many levels.

It appears that crime-fighting skills are not the only thing Batman has taught his ward. Racism, of course, passes from one generation to the next by teaching and by example (and probably via comics, too).

Batman takes out Chung easily with the whip, and then talks to an old man he finds chained up in the dungeon. The man turns out to be former ‘Mayor’ Wong’s father; Wong owned the ring, and was a descendant of Khan, but never used it. Upon his death and Chung’s ascension to the seat of unofficial power, he came into possession of the ring, and planned to totally be a dick about it, too. So Wong Sr. hid it in the jade box, which Chung himself sold to Achmed before realizing its contents. And now you know… the rest of the story.

Being pure of heart, Batman will of course be able to destroy the ring without being corrupted. And the nice part is that the whole thing will take about twenty minutes. It’s easy to get to Mount Doom when you have a Batplane! So I guess it’s a happy ending all around.

(Except of course for all the dead Chinese people.)

By the way, if you were wondering whether or not both Wong and Chung being Khans meant that they were related, or that the ‘Mayor’-ship was hereditary, check this out. Apparently Khan was such a player that today there are roughly 16 million people living with his Y chromosome. Based on this, I assume that the next time we see Batman, he’ll be breaking up a counterfeit ring ring.

“Man,” he’ll say, “why does all the crime happen in this district?”

To which they’ll respond, “Forget it, Batman. It’s Chinatown.”

Tune in next time as Baturdays continues!