Remember back in December when I said that Detective # 450 was probably the first comic book I ever owned? Well, I lied. Not a deliberate fib to conceal the real truth that my first comic was actually an issue of Little Lulu but because I picked the wrong one to start writing about.
Y'see, at the tail end of last year I started thinking about my favorite superheroes and why I like them. This inspired me to dig out my old comic collection to try and pinpoint the very first titles that my parents bought for me. Now keep in mind, I would have gotten these back when I was only about four years old, so it definitely predates the whole self-aware, allowance-allocation phase of my existence.
Unfortunately a few of those impressionable early issues have vanished, probably because they disintegrated after years of reading and re-reading them. Regardless, I did my best to salvage and then inventory what I had left. This, in turn, helped me to remember several key books that had long since vanished into oblivion.
By the time I was done, I had a rough list of about twenty individual comics. I then went about cataloging each book's release date which eventually inspired this "Comic Book Confidential" series. That's all well and good, but for some inexplicable reason, when it came time to write about my very first comic book, I inexplicably started with the wrong issue. Detective #450 was originally published in August of 1975. The book I'm about to talk about was published a full year earlier, in August of 1974.
I'm speaking, of course, of Batman # 257.
Sadly, this was one of those books that fell victim to childhood attrition, forcing me to re-acquire it last year while on vaycay in Salem, Massachusetts. Even though I paid a helluva lot more then the original cover price, it was worth every penny.
This was a actually a really cool run of issues. From # 254 all the way up to # 262, the good folks at DC gave fans a twenty-page original story plus eighty bonus pages of classic reprints. All of this for the low, low price of fifty or sixty beans.
The really great thing about these prototypical trade paperbacks is that they were compiled with a specific "theme" in mind. For example, this one was billed as "Tales of Comedy and Tragedy". And let me tell ya folks, they ain't whistlin' dixie. One story might be incredible frivolous, bordering on stupid and the next would be positively gut-wrenching. For an impressionable l'il shaver such as myself, it made for some pretty schizophrenic reading.
They don't make 'em like this anymore, kiddies.
This issue kicks off with what the cover describes as a "Penguin thriller". Now, if that sounds like an oxymoron, I'm actually kinda with you. In fact, up until recently I always thought that the Penguin was a useless one-percenter with a fetish for pelicans and a chronic case of gout. But then I started playing Batman: Arkham City recently and realized that, in the right hands, any villain can be bad-ass, even someone as supremely lame as the Penguin.
The story begins with King Peeble (?) IV, the "twelve year old ruler of the kingdom of Swawak" arriving at Hudson University for a visit. Ace college student and arrested-development superhero Dick Grayson is assigned to the unenviable task of taking this unctuous brat on a walkabout. Looking like a pastier version of Hadji from Jonny Quest, this twerp quickly tells Dick to go pound sand right in the middle of his tour.
"Who cares? I want to see 'malt shops' where the 'cats and chicks hang out' - just like in the American films! I am interested in 'Sock Hops' and 'Beach Blanket Bingo'!"
Just as Dick is about to break the awkward news that Annette Funicello is dead, a flock of seagulls (?) decides to reference a different American movie by going all Hitchcockian on the crowd. While Dick switches into his Robin-flavored Underoos, a helicopter suddenly appears from out of nowhere and snatches up the pint-size royal pain in the ass. Fortunately, the Teen Wonder manages to capture and interrogate one of the kidnappers.
"Yeah, I'll tell ya, why not?" says the crook.
I guess with all that rampant individualism in the Late Sixties, it was hard to find loyal hired goons back then. Almost immediately this mook starts squawking like a boiled canary.
"A lard-legged dude named Forster Aptenodytes payed us to put the snatch on the snot."
Welp, I suppose it's a better gig then putting snot in the snatch. Ewwwwwww.
Armed with this convenient tidbit of info, Dick Grayson races back in the Batcave in his camper van / shaggin' wagon. After a quick chin-wag, Robin's "guardian and mentor" recognizes "Forster Aptenodytes" as the scientific name "Aptenodytes Fosteri": the Emperor Penguin!
WORLD'S GREATEST DETECTIVE, bitches!
We then switch back to the Penguin's hideout where he's chiding King Weenus not to touch his "private pet", I.E. a fully-grown Emperor Penguin who seems to have a diaperless run of the place. We soon learn that ol' Pengy is trying to ransom the little shit back to the Prime Minister of Swawak in exchange for dictatorial powers over the country. Seems legit.
There's also an absolutely bangin' servant girl drifting around in the background who apparently likes to cosplay as Barbara Eden in I Dream of Genie. Man, this book sure wears it's influences on its sleeve. Anyway, this thinly-veiled chick (pun not intended) offers a big clue to her identity when she intervenes on behalf of the boy and whispers to him:
"Do not worry! I've had experience dealing with evil!" Hmmmmmmm...
Fast forward two days later and our heroes are about to storm the back door of a castle.
"You're sure the King is being held in his own Palace?" the Teen Titan wonders out aloud.
"I'll give you big odds he is," the Dark Knight returns. "Remember...the Penguin's...particularly fond of Edgar Alan Poe's Purloined Letter, the story about a missing paper that's where the hero least expects it - right in plain sight! Also, the castle is called 'Lu Dlom' in the native language - meaning approximately 'Roost of Wings'."
En route to the summit we get yet another prime dollop of foreshadowing when Batman and Robin pass by an eagle's nest with three ropes dangling nearby.
"I don't know what that means," Batman says, "But it gives me a chill!" Testify, brotha.
At the apex of the battlements we get six glorious panels that act as a pleasant contrast to the past three awesome-yet-relentlessly-dark Chris Nolan Batman flicks:
Meanwhile, inside the palace, King Weeble makes the mistake of bellyachin' about the cold during the Penguin's all-you-can-hork seafood buffet. Monsieur Cobblepot earns a few brownie points with the reader by coming up with the following vicious verbal smack-down:
"Silence, motor-mouth! We like the cold! Whine again and I'll feed you to the eels!"
While the "anonymous" servant girl demands that the pint-sized monarch be given a blanket, Batman watches intently from the wings:
"Her movements - fluid as quicksilver...unmistakably graceful - and the voice...like sun-warmed honey! It's her!"
Before the Penguin has a chance to perforate the mystery girl, the Batman and Robin swoop in and relieve the villain of his trademark pointy umbrella. After making short work of the remaining henchmen, our heroes make the mistake of underestimating Penguin's unconventional pet, who knocks them both out with a perfidious peck from his poisonous poker. Oh well, at least they weren't taken out by something really embarrassing. Like Calendar Man, for example.
Just before they're both hauled off, the servant girl rushes in to comfort the unconscious Dark Knight.
"Darling! Darling!" she says, vainly trying to rouse him.
"You're fond of him, eh?" the Penguin cackles. "Excellent! You'll join him at the Eagle's Nest. You'll all three swing, suffer...and scream!"
Our dauntless heroes wake up to find themselves suspended from the very same ropes we saw earlier in the story. Naturally this turns out to be a classic, irrationally-complicated deathtrap.
"What's the Penguin's program?" Robin asks plaintively.
"Observe the nest below - the infant eagles," the servant girl says. "Their mother will return..."
"And she'll think we're threatening her little ones! She'll claw us to ribbons!" Batman quickly concludes.
And that's when the big secret is revealed: the servant girl is actually Talia al Ghul, daughter of Batman's legendary nemesis Ra's al Ghul. In a shameful (but still welcome) script convenience, Talia admits that she was posing as a servant to "learn the state of Swawak's treasure". So, not only is this chick smokin' hawt, she's also honest to a fault. Honestly, I have no idea what Batman's problem is. If I was him, I'd hit that quicker then a super-villain with a glass jaw.
Thanks to some incredible acrobatics, Robin manages to swing up to a higher ledge. Suspecting that his whole "execution by eagle" scheme probably wasn't very practical after all, the Penguin grabs an M-16 (!) from a nearby guard and prepares to go all Charles Whitman on our heroes.
But then King Peabo Bryson's testicles finally drop and he attacks the Penguin just as the monacled creep is about to get a bead. And how does he do that you may ask? Does he punch him in his pointy nose? Kick him in the shins? Punt him in the cubes? Nope, he BITES THE PENGUIN ON THE F#@&ING FLIPPER.
He then hops up on the ledge and threatens to huck himself over if Cobblepot makes one false move. This results in an immediate stalemate since, without the kid's signature, the Penguin's power play is kaput.
Meanwhile Robin uses a well-placed rock to the thyroid to stun poor momma eagle. After seeing this panel for the first time ever as a four year old kid, I distinctly remember fighting the irrational desire to form PETA.
Then things go completely Batshit™ nuts. Somehow our heroes manage to climb the ropes and get back up over the parapet. In all the excitement, King Peabody falls off the wall but manages to get a grip on a "slim gap in the stones". Then Batman starts doing what he does best: kicking Herculean amounts of ass. Just look at this panel. LOOK AT IT!!!
Finally it comes down to a mano-a-mano melee between Batman and the Penguin. Do I even need to show you how that plays out? Yes, because it's a whole lungful of awesome.
The final four panels are kinda bittersweet. In a classic scene that's been replayed many times in their troubled relationship, Talia goes to speak to Batman but he totally blows her off:
"You came to Swawak to commit a crime! You didn't...and you helped us prevent greater crimes. Maybe... just maybe you've earned your freedom. Leave, Talia! Because if I turn around and you're still here, I'll have to make a decision that could ruin me! For both of our sakes, go! Please!"
Whoa, heavy, man.
Then things get even more pimp. King Pebbles offers the Dynamic Duo "rubies...diamonds...anything!" (translation: loose womens) but Batman turns him down in style:
"No, your young majesty...any reward would be either too much...or not enough!"
Leaving Robin to ponder: 'Hey, one of those diamonds would probably pay for my books this semester, you jerkstore!'
Writer Dennis O'Neil's appropriately melancholy text in the final panel serves as the perfect capper for this tale of "Comedy and Tragedy":
I loved this story. It taught me several important things, namely:
(1) Comic book characters can age. Robin's in university here, which is kinda neat from a continuity point of view. Hmmmmm, I wonder if he takes all of his dirty laundry back to Alfred every weekend?
(2) The Penguin was cool enough to warrant me asking for his Mego action figure. Unfortunately a large part of me still thinks that he's kind of a sad f#@k.
(3) Don't underestimate a homicidal Emperor Penguin.
(4) In a related point, sometimes it's okay to kill an animal when it's trying to rip your face off.
(5) Comic book -- punctuation...is not -- always entirely...accurate.
(5) ME LIKES GURLZ. I mean, c'mon, look at this babe:
To this day, the Irv Novick / Dick Giordano image of Batman is still iconic to me. Yes, I understand why movie Batman is always dressed head-to-toe in black. Real-life bats are black, all-black is bad-ass, colors photograph light...blah, blah, blah. But once, just once, I wanna see a cinematic Batman in a dark blue cape, cowl, boots and gloves, with dark gray body armor and a dark yellow belt and chest insignia.
Frankly, Hollywood would be stupid not to pursue this. Chris Nolan's Batman was so dark, they really need to lighten things up a bit. Not Batman & Robin or Batman the Movie light. I'm talking about tapping directly into an aspect of the character that hasn't been covered very much. And by "very much" I mean not at all.
I'm telling you right now: get Benedict Cumberbatch into weight training, stick him in a dark blue and gray Batsuit and start filming The World's Greatest Detective right the eff now.
Call me, Hollywood. I can help you make this happen...
EPIC COSTUME C'mon, guys, try it. Just once for me...
FEATHERED FAIL-URE "The Penguin has chosen an older, heavier female, as he often does, to guarantee a mating..."