Hasslein Blog: Matthew Sunrich Presents... Detective Comics #419


Hasslein Blog

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Matthew Sunrich Presents... Detective Comics #419

By Matthew Sunrich

People are willing to go to great lengths to keep their darkest secrets.

In Charlotte Bronte's classic novel Jane Eyre, the titular character takes a job as a governess in an eerie manor, Thornfield Hall, which is made even eerier by a strange presence in the attic. It turns out to be a madwoman named Bertha Mason, the first wife of Jane's betrothed and master of Thornfield, Edward Rochester, a fact that only comes out during their wedding ceremony. The cause of Bertha's insanity is unclear, though it is explored in Jean Rhys' intertextual novel Wide Sargasso Sea (for those of you who appreciate recommendations for further reading). This is perhaps the best-known example of someone's trying to hide an undesirable family member from the eyes of the world, but we find this sort of thing in numerous stories.

In The Goonies, for instance, the Fratellis lock their disfigured brother in the basement of their hideout. In Rumiko Takahashi's manga Mermaid Forest, a girl named Towa who is believed to have died from illness but was actually cursed by mermaid's blood is imprisoned in a cage in the basement by her sister. In both of these examples, the siblings' afflictions were not inherent but were, rather, caused by external circumstances, but this is certainly not always the case. Most people find locking someone away preferable to murdering him or her, but is it really more humane? Is life always better than death?

The cover of Detective Comics #419 is arguably one of the most striking in the comic's history. Illustrated by Neal Adams, it practically begs to be read. Who would kill someone by tying a bunch of statuettes of Batman to him and throwing him into the harbor? It's a bizarre tableau, to be sure, one that demands explanation.

Our story opens with the police's discovery of just such a body. Commissioner Gordon summons Batman and fills him in on the details of the case. Batman recognizes the corpse as that of Jacky Mutell, a known smuggler. The thirteen statues that weighed him down were carved from solid gold, making things even more mysterious.

As the Dark Knight begins his investigation, we are introduced to a man-child named Paddy, whose lot in life involves being locked in a cellar, where he passes the time by carving statues of Batman, whom he admires. It seems very likely that the statues tied to Mutell were his carvings, but is he connected to the murder? Would a devotee of the Caped Crusader take a man's life?

When Batman reaches the area where Mutell lived, he finds a street fair going on. A man named Liam McCourt tells him that the festivities are being held to raise money to buy a new organ for the church. Batman immediately notices a table where golden statues in his likeness are being sold. When he asks the seller where they came from, a nearby youth offers to show Batman and leads him down an alley. Sensing an ambush, the Dark Knight forces the boy ahead of him and then commences to take out his would-be assailants. One of them knocks him out from behind, however, and they carry his limp form to the harbor.

It comes as little surprise that Batman was, in fact, faking his injury, having anticipated the blow, and dispatches the crooks, leaving one conscious for questioning. The man tells him that he and his associates are smugglers who were supposed to pick up a shipment of gold. Before he can reveal the name of his boss, a bullet silences him, which, Batman observes, could have come from anywhere. He calls the commissioner from a payphone, and the police come arrest the men and find the gold.

Posing as an inebriated partier, Batman discovers that the gold was merely a red herring and that the real crime taking place is drug dealing. He tails one of the dealers to the ring-leader's house and, bursting through the door, confronts Liam McCourt. The criminal holds his wrists out to give himself up, but as Batman approaches, a cage, triggered by a plate in the floor, falls from the ceiling.

With Batman trapped, McCourt brings Paddy out from his hiding place, explaining that the cage was designed to keep his son, whom he considers a disgrace, from being discovered. Recognizing his offspring's one talent, McCourt had him carve the statues to alert the police to the possibility of smuggling, so that they would focus their attention on that rather than on his illicit dealings. Mutell, one of his henchmen, had betrayed him and met his end in the river.

As McCourt prepares to shoot Batman, Paddy grabs him from behind and subdues him, giving the Caped Crusader the opportunity to reach through the bars and knock them both out. We can only assume that he managed to find a way out of the cage, as the story ends there.

I must admit that "Secret of the Slaying Statues" doesn't quite deliver. The artwork, by Irv Novick and Dick Giordano, is really effective, but the story could have been better. Perhaps my expectations were unreasonable, but I imagined something involving several murders in which the statues played a key part taking place over a series of weeks. I mean, it's not a bad story, per se, but it doesn't make the best use of its concept, which is really quite intriguing. I certainly would have liked to have learned more about Paddy, which would have made him a more sympathetic character.

In any event, it's a respectable-enough story, but it probably would have benefited from having more room for development than its seventeen pages. It has never been reprinted, but, if you're inclined, you can add a copy in reasonable condition to your collection for about twenty bucks. 

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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