Hasslein Blog: Longbox Legerdemain: Detective Comics #401


Hasslein Blog

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Longbox Legerdemain: Detective Comics #401

By Matthew Sunrich

In 1924, Collier's magazine published a dazzling piece of short fiction by Richard Connell, a story that would go on to become one of the most famous in the history of literature. Connell later enjoyed a successful career as a novelist and screenwriter, but he will always be best remembered for the story, which would influence and inspire numerous other stories, films, and television episodes. This story was "The Most Dangerous Game."

I first encountered it in ninth-grade English, but I was already familiar with the plot. As a child, I had spent untold hours watching reruns of 1960s sitcoms, and one of my favorites was Gilligan's Island. I can't remember the details, but there was an episode in which a big-game hunter somehow wound up on the island and decided to hunt Gilligan (this seems pretty messed up, and I honestly cannot recall how it all came about). In any event, it stuck with me, and I immediately thought of Gilligan's bizarre plight as we read the story in class.

"The Most Dangerous Game" is one of those stories with which almost everyone is familiar because it is frequently a part of school curricula, alongside "The Monkey's Paw" and "The Cask of Amontillado." All three have been borrowed from and parodied ad nauseum, but Connell's yarn is arguably the most poignant of these because while it is an unlikely tale, it is a plausible one.

The idea of man hunting man is certainly intriguing, and the story made a lot of sense in the historical context in which it was written. Big-game hunting was very much in vogue in the early twentieth century (remember Teddy Roosevelt); of course, only the rich could afford it, so it was regarded as an elitist pursuit. As it was beyond the means of the bulk of the population, it had a mysterious appeal, one that conjured images of dense, steamy jungles and astonishing adventures. It was, moreover, a way to measure just how much testosterone flowed through a man's veins, which is neither here nor there, as far as I'm concerned.

It's not hard to see how hunting can become an addiction, and, like a drug, the same dosages—or in this case types of prey—just don't do the trick anymore after a while. Man is far more cunning than a lion or a rhinoceros (at least in theory), and it stands to reason, I suppose, that hunting one could be appealing for the hunter seeking the ultimate challenge. The hunter, of course, has to make every attempt to mentally remove the humanity of his prey in order to see it as a target rather than a person, unless we assume that he is just a complete sociopath, which is also a distinct possibility. Connell's choice of the story's title is particularly apt because of the multiple meanings of the word "game," which in this instance can refer to both wild animals and a battle of wits.

Detective Comics #401 appropriates aspects of "The Most Dangerous Game" in an adventure called "Target for Tonight." This is not the first story in comics to be influenced by Connell's tale. Remember that one of Spider-Man's earliest foes was Kraven the Hunter, who made his first appearance in Amazing Spider-Man #15 in 1964 (six years before this story). A Russian big-game hunter, he believed that defeating Spider-Man would prove that he was the greatest hunter in the world. The difference, of course, is that Kraven prefers to use his bare hands rather than weapons (this is probably related to the Comics Code restrictions of the time, quite honestly). Additionally, Kraven became a recurring villain in the pages of Spidey's books, whereas the hunter in this story does not wear a costume, lacks a stereotypical "comic book" name, and only makes a single appearance.

The story begins with Batman's dropping by Commissioner Gordon's office and discovering an envelope that had been delivered through the open window by a falcon. Inside he finds a picture of his face in the center of a target with a message declaring that someone called "The Stalker" has chosen the Dark Knight as his latest prey. Suddenly, a bullet explodes through the window and rips right through the center of the target. Batman realizes that the shot was meant to be a warning, that the bullet could have killed him had the unseen marksman wished it to.

Returning to his penthouse to do some thinking as Bruce Wayne, he sees a television interview with a man named Carleton Yager, a big-game hunter and member of the Safari Club. Bruce is startled to find that Yager has a falcon on his arm and that among the impressive collection of trophy heads on his wall, there is one empty plaque reserved for what he describes as "the most dangerous challenge." The program is jarringly interrupted as the screen is shattered by an arrow. The attached missive reveals that the hunter knows that Bruce and Batman are one and the same and that the hunter has studied his "habits, camouflages, and techniques for survival," as he does with all of the game he hunts. Bruce's suspicions about the hunter's identity are confirmed, as the note is signed "Carleton Yager."

Batman decides that a proactive approach is best and begins by visiting Yager's suite at the Safari Club. He finds it deserted, unsurprisingly, but ventures in with caution. He is not at all surprised to find a plate bearing his name on the empty plaque but is caught off guard by a crossbow bolt, which, fortunately, only pierces his cape. A recording of Yager's voice greets him then, telling Batman that he will be waiting for him on New Urbia Island.

The island is question is the site of a vast new housing project, and Batman recognizes that Yager chose it because the incomplete construction bears a resemblance to the jungles the hunter frequents. The Dark Knight assumes that Yager will take the highest vantage point and makes every attempt at eluding him. In the process, however, he plays right into the hunter's hands and winds up ensnared in a net suspended several feet off the ground. Batman admits defeat, cursing himself for being so foolish, but Yager refuses to kill such an easy target, preferring to allow the Masked Manhunter to free himself and to wait for him in the darkness.

As Yager expected, Batman escapes from the net fairly easily and makes his way into the shadowy skeleton of the surrounding construction. Hearing muffled cries coming from the building's underground garage, he finds Alfred, bound and gagged with a target on his chest.

Batman feigns walking away but after a few steps turns and executes a superhuman vault over the ramp sloping into the garage. He knocks the man down and punches him a few times before tearing off the mask on the man's face to reveal Yager's astonished visage. The hunter manages to kick Batman off of him and attempts to replicate the Dark Knight's leap but misses by inches and falls into the pit of sharpened construction rods that he had intended for Batman.

The real Alfred shows up at this point, explaining that he would have arrived earlier to help had he not gotten stuck in the mud surrounding the site. Batman had, in fact, realized that the other "Alfred" was a fake when he noticed that his shoes were clean. Being Batman, he had deduced that the ramp contained a trap and had acted accordingly.

Frank Robbins and Bob Brown, writer and illustrator respectively, spin an effective yarn here, giving an interesting twist to Connell's story. The most jarring aspect of the story is that Yager figured out Batman's identity. This is a big deal (as, up to that point, no one I can think of other than Bruce's detective mentor in a story I remember reading from the 1940s or 1950s ever managed to work it out), and we are never told how Yager managed to do it. We are, of course, dealing with, a fifteen-page story here, so there wasn't a lot of room to expound on details such as these. It was just something that was necessary to make the story work.

Ra's Al Ghul, who debuts in Batman #232 about a year after this story was published, is the first major villain to work out the Dark Knight's identity, and it is a major aspect of his character. That Yager's determination of the fact is never explored is—let's face it—pretty cheap

Like many issues of Detective published around this time, its only fault is the difficulty it seems to have in finding its footing. Remember that 1970 was the beginning of the Bronze Age, and while there isn't really anything recognizable as "camp" in the story, there is still a lingering sense of the Silver Age clinging to the edges of the panels. This would quickly fade in the ensuing months, particularly as Neal Adams' influence became more defined (he did draw the cover of this issue), and Batman was able to rise like a phoenix from the ashes of an era that almost put an end to him. 

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.

Labels: , , , ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home