Hasslein Blog: Matthew Sunrich Presents: Detective Comics #397


Hasslein Blog

Friday, April 12, 2013

Matthew Sunrich Presents: Detective Comics #397

Detective Comics #397
By Matthew Sunrich

During the Bronze Age, many of DC's comics split their page counts between two or more characters. This was particularly true in the case (no pun intended) of Detective Comics. It made sense in a way, though, because Detective was originally an anthology about various sleuthing types rather than a Batman title (just as Action Comics was not originally exclusively a Superman book). I don't understand why DC didn't just do away with Detective as a title when it rebooted its entire line in 2011, since it's been just a Batman book pretty much since the late '80s, but whatever.

The cover of Detective #397 clearly states that it features both Batman and Batgirl, so it should come as no surprise that almost a third of the book features no Batman whatsoever. Quite honestly, I almost never bother reading the non-Batman stories, as they focus on characters that don't interest me and are frequently executed by second- or third-tier creative teams; I can't help but think of these stories as filler. I mean, there may be Elongated Man fans out there, but I've never encountered one.

The reason I mention this is that many of the Batman stories of this period were short, typically fifteen pages or so. Modern comics, which are usually twenty-two pages, tend to have fewer captions and fewer panels per page because of the trend for stories to be spread out over several issues. In Bronze-Age stories, writers had less to work with, so they put in a lot of exposition to allow the stories to take place over several days. In other words, the immediacy that we associate with many modern comics didn't exist because the stories would be over too quickly, leaving readers dissatisfied. The stories had to be broken up into chunks in order to keep the pace under control, with the gutters (space between panels) serving as literary speed bumps.

Maggie Thompson of Comics Buyer's Guide (may its soul rest in peace) refers to these types of comics as "done in one," though I don't know whether or not she came up with the term. The idea is that a story is self-contained; it does not continue in the next issue. It exists within a bubble of sorts. Everything is resolved at the end. While references to the story may appear in future issues, it essentially stands on its own. There are, of course, a few exceptions to this standard, but they are just that, exceptions.

Despite what the cover of Detective #397 (illustrated by perennial favorite Neal Adams) might lead you to believe, the Batman story within, "Paint a Picture of Peril" (by Denny O'Neil, Adams, and Dick Giordano), is not about a man's desire for a ghost but, rather, explores the potential for a jilted lover to go completely off the deep end.

Our story opens the evening before Gotham's annual Marine Festival charity event. Four men in wetsuits emerge from the harbor, intent on stealing a painting from the art exhibit. Batman shows up and takes one of the men out before another threatens to kill the hapless guard they had knocked out earlier. Having the Caped Crusader at a disadvantage, two of the men shoot him with harpoons, and he plunges into the water. Their mission accomplished, the frogmen dive back into the harbor and disappear.

As he often does, Batman was pretending to be more injured than he actually was, although he caught the point of one of the spears in the bicep, making it impossible for him to pursue the men. He does find, however, that the painting that was stolen was the least valuable in the collection, the image of a mermaid.

When he returns to the penthouse in his Bruce Wayne guise, he finds that the cleaning lady has left the television on, and, as he tends to his wound, he halfway listens to a documentary about the mysterious Orson Payne, whose opera-singer fiancée disappeared, the heartbreak of which compelled him to become a recluse. When the cleaning lady returns, she switches the set off, disgusted.

While underwater, Batman noticed that the nearby seaweed was glowing, indicating that a nuclear sub had been nearby. His arm healed well enough to investigate, he returns to the harbor with an undersea craft and follows the trail of radiation left in the sub's wake. It leads him to Payne's luxurious castle. Looking in the window, he finds the eccentric recluse talking to an array of artworks, all of which appear to be modeled after the same woman.

The Caped Crusader makes his presence known, and Payne, clearly insane, admits that he collects paintings and sculptures that resemble Caterina Valence, his lost love. He explains that he has to steal the artworks because the owners refuse to sell them. He takes a crossbow down from the wall and fires a bolt at Batman and then flees. Hidden from the Dark Knight's view, Payne pulls a level that releases a trapdoor, and Batman falls into a pit. The madman then pulls another lever, which lowers a two-ton block of stone over the cavity, intending to drop it into the hole.

Thinking quickly, Batman escapes and finds that Payne, in his desperation, has gone completely mad. An apparition of Caterina appears, and he follows it off a high balcony. Batman manages to save him just in time and has him taken away to the state mental hospital.

The next morning, the cleaning lady finds Bruce watching a news report about Payne's capture and turns the television off. A thought striking him, he asks her if she was once an opera singer, and she tells him that she was but gave it up because she was in a toxic relationship with, you guessed it, our art-loving madman.

The setup of this story works really well. Any time a crime is committed in which a thief purloins an object of ostensibly insignificant worth always works well because it makes the reader question the nature of the concept of value. Why are gold and jewels, for example, so valuable? Because they're shiny and rare. People like them, and they show status, which many find appealing. The mermaid painting, along with the other artworks, is priceless to Payne because he is fixated on an ideal that escaped him, that he drove away. He ascribes value to the images of Caterina to fill the void in his soul. Outside of the original owners, few people would find the pieces worthwhile. It's something to consider.

It goes without saying that the art in this issue is fantastic. Adams, ever the versatile artist, masterfully captures both the menace of Payne and the quotidian interactions between Bruce and his cleaning lady. There has been a lot of discussion over whose inks worked best with Adams' pencils, but I'll forever be in the camp that prefers Giordano (no offense to Tom Palmer).

Like all of the issues of Batman and Detective that Adams illustrated during the Bronze Age, an original of this issue, especially in reasonable grade, will require a second mortgage, but, thankfully it can be found reprinted in Batman Illustrated by Neal Adams volume two (now in paperback) and the phonebook-sized yet economical Showcase Presents: Batman volume five.

Matt Sunrich, a great fan of the Bronze Age of comic books, maintains two blogs: The Other Other Castle, about Bronze-Age sword and sorcery, and Forging the Dark Knight, concerning Bronze-Age Batman.

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