Hasslein Blog: Matthew Sunrich Presents... Detective Comics #415


Hasslein Blog

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Matthew Sunrich Presents... Detective Comics #415

By Matthew Sunrich

Hanging as a form of execution has existed for centuries, and, indeed, the image of a body suspended from the gallows is virtually synonymous with death.

In his book What a Way to Go, Geoffrey Abbot (an "expert on all things macabre," according to the dust jacket) writes, "Given a well-forested country, a large number of felons to be dispatched every year, a plentiful supply of ropes, and there was no doubt about the best method of execution to adopt—throw a rope over the branch of a tree and hang them!"

What is it, exactly, that makes hanging so universal? Abbot's book describes, in detail, no fewer than seventy methods of putting someone to death, a great number of which are largely unknown or forgotten. Why, of all of these, has hanging survived in the public consciousness? As Abbot observes, it's simple and cheap and can be done virtually anywhere. While elaborate gallows existed, primarily in public squares, where they were designed to attract crowds as an inexpensive form of entertainment, many hangings were conducted on the spot.

Perhaps the fact that hanging is less gruesome than many other methods of execution accounts for its staying power. While I'm sure that it's not something that's particularly pleasant to watch, no body parts are chopped off and no entrails spill out. In fact, in most cases there isn't even any blood, making it a perfect spectacle for the savage-minded and squeamish alike.

A body hanging at the end of a rope is also one of the few ways we have of witnessing death firsthand. It's a memento mori of sorts, i.e., a reminder of our own mortality. A hanged man may sway in the breeze a bit, but he's not going anywhere for a while.

The human body is ultimately an immensely frail thing, and the transition from life to death can take place in a very brief span of time. All it takes is something as rudimentary as cutting off one's ability to breathe. A hanging victim is the epitome of helplessness. He is completely powerless to free himself from the grip of death, in this case taking the form of a length of rope.

From a semiotic perspective, it's even found its way into our diversions. One of the most popular word games around is hangman, in which players try to figure out a phrase by guessing letters to prevent a little stickman from expiring at the end of a noose. Even for a first-time player, no explanation is necessary. Anyone can see that death is imminent for a person hanging by his neck.

Naturally, hanging, as both a method of execution and/or suicide and a symbol of death and/or imminent danger, has appeared in numerous horror stories. One of the most interesting things about it is that it can be difficult or even impossible to determine whether a hanging was murder or suicide because there is little in the way of evidence to point to one or the other. It can form the framework for a good mystery.

Hanging is at the center of Ambrose Bierce's classic short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." While not a horror story per se, it effectively conveys the terror those being hanged must experience and shows how time and consciousness can be distorted when one is in the very grip of death.

The cover of Detective Comics #415 (1971), by the inimitable Neal Adams, is a striking illustration that, in some ways, is the reverse of Batman #246 (see my review for details). The question is, are we to take this image literally or figuratively? Has Batman's ghost come back to torment his murderer, or are we seeing a manifestation of the killer's guilty conscience?

As it turns out, neither.

The central character of "Challenge of the Consumer Crusader" is Tom Carson, whose negative product reviews have unnerved many business owners. Things start out with Batman succeeding in thwarting an attempt on Carson's life. It is assumed that the hit was ordered by Magna Industries, as its "microwave anti-pollution device" is slated for testing. Batman is surprised by this, considering that, as Bruce Wayne, he is acquainted with Ben Ames, Magna's president, and doesn't think he'd be capable of such a thing.

Batman confronts Ames disguised as the ghost of Carson, coated in phosphorescent paint and suspended by a wire outside his second-story window. He asks Ames a few key questions and learns that the only reason he wanted Carson killed was because Carson's operation was extorting money from him to guarantee favorable reviews. Batman knows that Carson isn't responsible; he wouldn't have pointed him toward Ames because he would've known that Batman would uncover the truth. Therefore he determines it must be someone working for Carson.

When he reaches Carson's labs, he finds Joan Wilde, the lab director, on the phone with Ames, who has informed her of Carson's (putative) death. The Dark Knight bursts in, informing her that the jig is up. She hurls the phone at him and then flees through a door into a dark room. Pursuing her, Batman, surrounded by Wilde's lackeys, is bombarded by "psychedelic lighting." One of the men lands a lucky punch, and the Caped Crusader lands on a mattress that is about to be tested. He barely avoids the heavy cylinder as it rolls across the mattress and dispatches the rest of the "commandos."

Wilde runs outside and climbs into a parked car. Batman, thinking she is planning to abscond in the automobile, gets behind the wheel of the car behind her, prepared for a chase, and is shocked when she emerges from the passenger-side door. Batman's car, hooked by its bumper to a crane, rises into the air, and it becomes clear that the car is a test vehicle and is going to be dropped. Wilde watches the car plummet and crash to the ground, but her victory is short lived, for the Dark Knight, having escaped injury thanks to his amazing reflexes and the vehicle's airbag, emerges from the smoke and apprehends her.

While interesting and well executed, "Challenger of the Consumer Crusader" is not the kind of story that's likely to make a huge impression on readers. It was nice to have a female villain for a change, but there's nothing remarkable about her. Don't get me wrong: I enjoy these sorts of stories, but I must admit that they're a dime a dozen. Batman's remarkable detective skills aren't exactly put to the test here, but at least he manages to unearth a shady racket before others can fall victim to it.

So, having examined the story we've determined that the cover is misleading. If we think about it another way, though, it actually works from a metaphorical standpoint. It's very interesting what Adams has done here. The man confronted by Batman's hanged image is clearly supposed to be Ames, and while we learn that he is not, in fact, the villain of the story, Batman's association with him ultimately leads to the Dark Knight's being hanged, albeit inside a car. Thus, Adams has conflated the essences of Ames and Wilde into one image and summarized the events of the story without actually giving anything away (and providing us with an illustration that parted a lot of readers with hard-earned quarters). 

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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