Hasslein Blog: Matthew Sunrich Presents... Detective Comics 414


Hasslein Blog

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Matthew Sunrich Presents... Detective Comics 414

By Matthew Sunrich

As a former resident of the Outer Banks, I can tell you that lighthouses are major tourist attractions.

Prior to moving there, I had no idea that this was a thing, and once I discovered how popular they were, I was, frankly, bemused. I don't find them particularly interesting (in the same way that I don't find silos interesting), but, as with so many other things, I am clearly in the minority.

The one aspect about them that I do find intriguing is the prospect of hauntings. That's the kind of thing that gets my attention every time. Ghosts, like people, are apt to take up residence just about anywhere. While houses and castles are generally the first things to come to mind when we think about haunted places, lighthouses are apparently just as likely to house restless spirits.

According to Ray Jones, author of Haunted Lighthouses: Phantom Keepers, Ghostly Shipwrecks, and Sinister Calls from the Deep, "Life, death, and drama have always swirled in and around lighthouses, and these things make a lasting impression on places and structures."

It's certainly true that lighthouses are common fixtures in Gothic literature. After all, outside of the dilapidated castle or the crumbling graveyard, there are few tableaux more evocative than the seashore draped in the shadows of night. As the breakers crash against the rocks, you can almost imagine a young maiden, diaphanous nightgown billowing in the wind, on a precipice high above the waves, contemplating her own mortality, having fallen victim to forbidden love (or something).

The lighthouse itself is an ideal setting for a Gothic tale. Lighthouse keepers are, by their very nature, recluses. They live Spartan lives and tend to be eccentric, fastidious, and irascible. Spending so much time alone can have a profound effect on the brain, as everyone knows. A preference for isolation just isn't normal. The lighthouse keeper grows old within his tower as the implacable waves wash the years away; his joints swell with the strain of repetitive tasks, his weary eyes retreat deep into their dark sockets, his features are eroded by the salty air.

The kind of dedication necessary for the proper execution of the job is exactly the sort of thing that can provide the spark for a haunting; we have seen in numerous ghost stories that phantoms are frequently "anchored" to places because of some uncompleted task. It is not a stretch to say that a lighthouse keeper would refuse to leave his post, even after death, because the seafaring vessels will never stop needing him to guide them safely to shore.

Jones goes on to remark, "It is probably safe to say that every lighthouse in America is now considered historic and that every last one of them is also haunted."

I sincerely hope he's right.

Detective Comics #414 (1971), at this point in its run firmly established as an anthology title, opens with "Legend of the Key Hook Lighthouse." In the prologue we are told the tragic tale of a young lighthouse keeper who failed to do his duty because he and his lover were in the throes of passion. When he discovers that his negligence caused a ship to crash into the rocks, he shoots his paramour and then turns the revolver on himself.

Forty years later, in Florida, Batman, having followed a shady courier all the way from Gotham, is on the verge of capturing a small group of thugs planning to sell a load of guns to General Ruizo, a would-be-South-American dictator. Leaping from the shadows, the Dark Knight dispatches two of the men and then advises the courier, known as Artie, to give himself up.

The only female in the group, Loosy, who clearly has feelings for Artie, implores Batman not to call the authorities. She offers to take him to the rendezvous point where the transaction is slated to take place. He agrees, and they climb into a docked boat and head through choppy waters toward a distant lighthouse. During the journey, Loosy explains that she was once a singer and that Artie was her manager. As the years passed, however, she lost her voice, her looks, and her career. After she had lost everything, she realized that she was in love with Artie, but though he once wished to marry her, he no longer cares.

Reaching the lighthouse, they pull the boat ashore just as Ruizo's craft comes into view. Onboard, the general reveals that he never had any intention of paying for the guns and is planning to kill the gangsters instead. When they reach the island, Loosy tells them that she put the crates containing the weapons in the lighthouse to protect them from the oncoming storm. Ruizo waits outside, holding Loosy at gunpoint, while the crew enters the dark edifice. Of course, Batman is waiting inside and, using his virtually unmatched fighting prowess, makes short work of them.

Unfortunately, Ruizo hears gunshots and realizes that his men have been ambushed. He shoots Loosy in the arm and absconds to his boat. Unwilling to let him go after Arnie, Loosy claws her way across the sand and into the surf and ties a rope around the vessel's propeller. As Ruizo recognizes that his escape has been thwarted, Batman appears. Before the Dark Knight can apprehend the general, however, a huge wave washes over the deck, slamming his head against the railing.

Ruizo draws a sword and prepares to finish Batman off, but before he can do so a blinding light envelops him, and, as a spectral voice emanating from the sea fills his ears, his clothes burst into flame. He jumps overboard to put out the fire and is swallowed by the churning waters of the deep. Batman carries Loosy to shore and goes back into the lighthouse to see who lit the beacon. The Dark Knight discovers that the dust covering the floor surrounding it has not been disturbed, and, therefore, that there can only be one explanation, strange though it may be.

He thanks the restless spirit of the lighthouse keeper, knowing that he has been redeemed and is now at peace.

Irv Novick and Dick Giordano deliver in a big way here. Loosy's character is particularly well designed, injecting her with the sympathetic aspect that makes the story work. She describes herself as a "hag," but Batman tells her that she is beautiful, a remark that certainly also reveals that he has come to respect her during their brief encounter. The pacing is excellent, and the action sequences are laid out very effectively. This era of Batman will always be my favorite because the stories possess something indefinable that gives them substance that has never been replicated.

This story has not yet been reprinted but is definitely worth seeking out.

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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