Hasslein Blog: Matthew Sunrich Presents... Detective Comics #412


Hasslein Blog

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Matthew Sunrich Presents... Detective Comics #412

Detective Comics #412
By Matthew Sunrich

In my recent post about Detective Comics #408, I discussed how the Gothic elements found in Batman's earliest Golden-Age stories had resurfaced at the beginning of the Bronze Age. This idea is again exemplified in the chilling pages of Detective Comics #412, where two knights, one medieval and one modern, do battle in "Legacy of Hate."

Bruce receives a telegram from Lord Elwood Wayne, a distant relative who is on his deathbed. He requests Bruce's presence at Waynemoor Castle in Northern England so that he can bequeath his inheritance, along with those of his other remaining relatives, in person rather than by way of a will. Bruce meets up with these other relatives on a rainy station platform: Wilhemina Wayne, from South Africa, Rev. Emelyn Wayne, a missionary in Asia, and Jeremy Wayne, from Australia.

A hearse shows up to take them to the castle, which, along with the rainfall, effectively sets the mood for the story. The driver is appropriately ghoulish, wearing a sinister expression and looking not unlike the Crypt Keeper or some other horror-comic "host." As they approach the castle, he suggests that Waynemoor is haunted and, further, that the impending death of Lord Elwood is likely to awaken the vengeful ghost of the castle's first lord, Harold, who died under mysterious circumstances and was never properly put to rest.

They are welcomed by Asquith, the direct descendant of Lord Harold's retainer, who leads them to Elwood's room, where he is being attended by his doctor. Barely clinging to life, Elwood tells them that they are each entitled to an equal share of the estate and that if any of them dies, the survivors will divide that share. Further, if they all die, the estate will go to his doctor. We've all seen this kind of set-up before, and we know, at least to some extent, what to expect.

Or do we?

Everyone retires except for Bruce and Wilhemina, who decide to have a drink. As Bruce decants the libations, Mina spots a frightening figure outside. Clad in chain mail and a knight's helm, the phantom crusader is the very image of Lord Harold. Bruce dissembles, insisting that he saw nothing, and takes Mina to her room. After taking the time to calm her, he dons his costume to explore the castle as Batman.

As he walks the battlements, he hears Mina scream. Swinging through her window on his Batrope, he encounters the "ghost" they saw earlier. When he smacks Batman in the face with his gauntleted hand, it's clear that he is no specter. Batman ripostes with a punch to the gut, which is, unfortunately, absorbed by the knight's breastplate, and then his foe butts him in the torso with his helmet and escapes.

Mina, never having heard of Batman, is almost as unsettled by his appearance as she was by the knight's. He explains that he wants to help her, and she gratefully accepts. They notice a battleax imbedded in the headboard of her bed, and Batman, having verified that "Harold," as he expected, is not a ghost, tries to determine who might be inside the armor and why he or she would want Mina dead. The obvious conclusion is that it's one of the other beneficiaries, wishing to claim her share of the estate. He begins to mentally run through the list of suspects but is interrupted by sounds of struggle in Jeremy's room.

The brawny Australian explains that "Harold" attempted to murder him, but that Batman's arrival scared him off. The Dark Knight returns to his room to make his bed appear slept in when he hears another scream from Mina. Bursting through her window, he finds her in front of the door; she claims that someone was trying to get in. Unbolting the door, Batman discovers muddy footprints leading inside and back out.

Following the trail to the moor, he gets stuck in the mire as the knight gallops out of the mists on a steed and thrusts his lance into Batman's chest. Believing his pursuer dead, "Harold" turns to leave, exclaiming, "Now—my vengeance truly begins." Batman recovers from the blow, having used a tree branch to shield himself from the lance's point, and, now realizing who the knight really is, heads for the armory.

As Batman enters the chamber, the knight swings a morning star at him, but the Caped Crusader seizes him and throws him to the floor, knocking his helmet off. The mad eyes of Asquith regard him as the voice of the Lord Harold vibrates his vocal chords. He leads Batman to a hidden crypt, where Harold was entombed, and the Dark Knight beholds the words of the murdered lord, written on the wall, naming his killer: his jealous brother. Asquith claims that Harold's soul can never rest as long as any of his brother's descendants live. As he laments his failure to wipe out the remaining Waynes, Asquith is throttled by Harold's spirit and dies.

The next day Batman learns that Asquith perished at the exact moment that the life left Lord Elwood's body.

We hear a lot about curses and inherited evil and stuff like that, about how the soul of an ancestor can use his or her descendants to seek justice, and it's certainly an interesting concept. It is well established in fiction that the primary reason behind hauntings is restless spirits, those who were murdered or otherwise died in unpleasant circumstances. There is often some sort of unresolved issue that must be addressed before the spirit can be freed, and this is certainly the case in Detective Comics #412.
Do our actions really have that kind of power? Murderers always believe that they've gotten away with it, but have they really?

People commonly use murder as a means to get others out of their way because they cannot see any other option. In Greek mythology, we find that killing someone is the only way to truly remove him or her from the picture; whenever someone chickens out and doesn't see it through, the victim always comes back to fulfill the dreaded prophecy.

But we also find that those who are wrongfully murdered refuse to keep quiet about it. In Shakespeare's Hamlet, for instance, the King's ghost tells Hamlet that Claudius murdered him and demands vengeance. In "Legacy of Hate," the restless spirit takes a more active role, possessing the body of Asquith (if we can accept such an explanation), believing he can trust no one else to avenge him. It is unclear at the end of the story whether or not the curse is broken, leaving Batman to ponder the true nature of the "haunting."

Neal Adams provided an irresistible cover for this issue, appropriating the story's splash page and giving it even greater dramatic flair. The art, by Bob Brown and Dick Giordano, makes good use of both the castle's interior and exterior to frame the story and create a sense of unsettling wonder by blurring the lines between history and modern day.

As the plot summary can attest, writer Frank Robbins gave us another winner with this one. I'm sorry to say that it has not been reprinted at this point.

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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