Thursday, December 27, 2012

Comic Book Confidential: Fabulous First Issue!

Excelsior, True Believers!

I'd like to say that my reading career got started with Shakespeare and Chaucer, but the first things I remember reading were comic books.  They were completely fascinating to me

And let me tell ya, even at a ripe young age of four, I had some pretty damned good taste.  As far as I know, Detective # 450 was the very first comic book I ever owned:

Granted, my copy isn't nearly in as a good a shape as this one.  The cover is hanging on for dear life, there's ball point pen marks tracing some of the lettering and many of the pages are dog-eared.  But considering that it's close to forty years old now, it's in remarkably good shape.

The book itself is fantastic.  Mercifully, it was written long after Batman had veered away from being jokey, prime-time zeitgeist fodder and back into The World's Greatest Detective.  The story kicks off in style with our hero grilling a sweaty, overweight mob boss named Harcourt about the assassination of a United States Senator.  During this scene we get one of the book's coolest lines:

Harcourt: "Y-you can't do this!  The Supreme Court says I have to be told of my rights first!"
Batman:  "True, the police can't interrogate you without counsel...that's one reason I'm not a policeman!"

Absolutely bad-ass.

The story proceeds with what appears to be a flashback.  Harcourt is seen hiring a master assassin named Jeremy Wormwood to procure Batman's cape and cowl, presumably just for bragging rights.

Tipped off by a clever riddle ("Where Beowulf and young Babe Ruth stand side-by-side with John Wilkes Booth, Batman will find a plot uncouth"), the Dark Knight swings his way sans Batmobile to Father Knickerbocker's Wax Museum.  Once there, he's lured into a steel re-enforced room with a 10,000 watt wax-and-flesh-melting bulb mounted in the ceiling overhead.  Via intercom, Wormwood orders Batman to surrender his cape and cowl.  Faced with what appears to be certain death, the Caped Crusader is forced to comply. 

Wormwood returns the prize to Harcourt, who makes the assassin undergo an ultraviolet ID scan to prove that he isn't the Batman in disguise.  As Harcourt pours a drink for the both of them, he manages to coax Wormwood into confessing his role in the Senator's murder.  After the retainer turns his back for a second, the cape and cowl suddenly springs to life.  After a brief but vicious fracas, the killer is soundly defeated.

After the Caped Crusader pummels Wormwood into submission, we get another great exchange:

Wormwood: I surrender.
Batman: We've already established that.  

Before the Caped Crusader vanishes from sight, Commissioner Gordon asks him if he could have escaped from Wormwood's "Death Trap" if he had to.

"That assassin's 'escape proof' masterpiece?  Actually, while all the molten wax in that room was soft, it was also heavy enough to fill the hand portion of my glove, which I could have knotted securely to make a kind of throwing hammer!  No matter what material the heat bulb was made out of, it certainly couldn't withstand both a battering and that extreme heat for long!"

Of course he would have escaped!  He's the goddamned Batman!
As if the story isn't awesome enough, the accompanying art was provided by the truly amazing Walter Simonson, who'd graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design just two years prior.  Walt would go on to provide some memorable art for both DC and Marvel throughout the Seventies and Eighties.  In fact, if not for Simonson's work on The Mighty Thor, I probably would never have given that character a second glance.

In addition to showing Batman as an "Avenging Creature of the Night" who's capable of three-dimensional thinking, "The Cape & Cowl Death Trap" also showcases his penchant for disguise.  Without a great deal of effort he's able to pass himself off as a dewy-looking, morbidly-obese mob boss.  Even though Batman isn't depicted as a black-clad, psychologically-damaged maniac with a bad case of adenoids, he's still more subtly bad-ass then any of his cinematic incarnations.  I'm still waiting patiently for this incarnation of Batman to come to the big screen.

In addition to "The Cape & Cowl Death Trap", Detective # 450 features a Robin solo story called "The Parking Lot Bandit".  What's kinda cool about this tale is that it features Dick Grayson as a Frosh at Hudson University trying to unravel the mystery of a serial purse-snatcher who uses the victim's stolen ID and keys to rob their homes.  The surprisingly sophisticated mystery plot by Bob Rozakis actually gives young readers an opportunity to play amateur sleuths.   Add in some tremendous art by Al Milgrom and a very young inker named Terry Austin and you've got a Robin story that isn't just filler.  

I'm a realist when it comes to stuff like this.  Even though I was technically in possession of this comic when I was only four years old, I can't be sure exactly when I read it and digested exactly what was going on.  But I'm also confident that kids can be pretty sharp and I eventually came to absorb this remarkable piece of pop art, even if it was by osmosis.

At the very least, I can say in all confidence that I'm not a Batman bandwagon jumper.  Apparently I've been a fan of his since I was four years old.

EPIC PANEL  This panel, from page eight of the comic, could very well be my all-time favorite image of THE BATMAN...

ROBIN THE BOY FAIL-URE Comics just haven't been the same since it became frowned upon to routinely pimp-slap your ward...

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