Hasslein Blog: Matthew Sunrich Presents... Detective Comics #408


Hasslein Blog

Friday, May 3, 2013

Matthew Sunrich Presents... Detective Comics #408

Detective Comics #408

By Matthew Sunrich

Batman has a relationship with the Gothic that goes all the way back to Detective Comics #29 (1939).

Around that time, seminal horror films such as Frankenstein (and its sequels), Dracula, and the various adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe's short stories (The Black Cat) and poetry (The Raven), all of which have strong Gothic elements, were immensely popular at the box office. Horror as a distinct genre did not yet exist (the work of its practitioners at the time, which included such writers as H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and August Derleth, was lumped into the category of "weird fiction"), but audiences clearly responded enthusiastically to its tropes. Terror is a powerful emotion, and filmmakers lined their pockets again and again by enticing moviegoers with the dark romances of nineteenth-century literature.

Horace Walpole's novella The Castle of Otranto (1764) singlehandedly laid the groundwork for Gothic fiction (mystery, the supernatural, dark secrets, curses, svelte females in nightgowns), and authors have used its motifs in various ways ever since. The one thing that almost all Gothic stories share, however, is the building, be it manse, castle, or office block. The evil needs somewhere to set up shop, after all. In many stories, the building itself is a character (Shirley Jackson's 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House being an excellent example), although the source of its sentience may be obscure. These things don't always have to be explained, and it's actually often more effective if they're not.

It makes perfect sense that comic-book writers would recognize the value of the Gothic, as well.

As I've mentioned before, Batman was originally designed to be the antithesis of Superman. His early adventures pitted him against vampires, madmen, zombies, and other characters we associate with horror. Many of his cases took him away from Gotham City (even though "Gotham" is an alternate name for New York City, I'm sure the creators' decision to use this name was no accident) to shadowy locations and cobwebby castles filled with hidden passageways, spooky statuary, and chandeliers dripping with the paraffin of blood-red candles. Like the winged mammal from which he took his name, Batman mostly stayed out of sight during the daylight hours. Unfortunately, this didn't last long, and by the early 1940s his "dark avenger of the night" persona was scrapped. Thankfully, he regained it in 1970.

Several of Batman's Bronze-Age stories take place in creepy residences, but Detective Comics #408, "The House That Haunted Batman," puts an interesting spin on the concept. Writers Len Wein and Marv Wolfman immediately draw the reader into the story by "talking" directly to him, via the captions, as if he were the main character. This technique had been used in comics before, notably in Stan Lee and Bill Everett's "Zombie" in Menace #5 (1953), and there are probably instances of it in earlier superhero comics, but, regardless of its originality or lack thereof, it elicits a visceral response from the reader because rather than just reading about Batman, he has become Batman.

As in Batman #246 (see previous article), Robin has been kidnapped by an unknown party from Hudson University and is being used as bait for the Dark Knight. The story opens with Batman's arrival at a "dusty old mansion" on the outskirts of Gotham City. What makes it particularly strange is that it wasn't there last week. How the hell does a huge house just appear out of nowhere? You can be certain that the situation is only going to get weirder.

Soon after entering, Batman finds his ward standing alone in a darkened corridor. The Boy Wonder collapses, and when the Caped Crusader catches him, Robin immediately decomposes into sand, which runs through Batman's fingers. Before he can deal with this, Batman is compelled to rush up the stairs to locate the source of a piercing scream. It turns out to be a phonograph recording, but as he lifts the needle someone fires on him. Pursuing the assailant, Batman finds Robin holding the gun.

Falling backwards to avoid the bullets, the Dark Knight slips into a hidden chamber and complete darkness. When he lights a match, he beholds a bizarre scene: his own body in a coffin, surrounded by his friends and allies (Superman, Commissioner Gordon, Robin, et al.), who take turns proclaiming how Batman was a worthless, fraudulent crime fighter, which greatly upsets him. His match goes out, and when he manages to light another, he finds the deathly tableau gone and the walls closing in on him.

At this juncture, the visions he has been experiencing fade away, and he finds himself trapped in a glass tube. Robin is likewise encapsulated nearby. On a monitor in front of them, Batman recognizes the face of Dr. Tzin-Tzin, the master illusionist, a villain he originally faced in Detective Comics #354 (1966). This is noteworthy because prior to this point in the Bronze Age, Batman had never encountered an established supervillain (though it's arguable whether one previous appearance constitutes establishment). All of his foes were one-off criminals that met their ends at a given issue's conclusion. The Joker, Two-Face, Catwoman, and the other members of his rogues' gallery would not show up until later. (Tzin-Tzin appears again in Batman #s 284 and 285, but we'll examine those issues in a future article, I'm sure.)

In any event, Batman manages to escape and takes out the illusionist's goons. Disgusted with whole situation and accepting the fact that none of his schemes have succeeded, Tzin-Tzin descends into the chamber, intending to take the Dark Knight out the old-fashioned way: with a bullet. Before he can fire his gun, however, Robin subdues him from behind. The reunited partners restrain their foe and take him to the Batmobile, but he distracts them with one final illusion and gets away. Then, without warning, the mysterious house bursts into flame.

In Batman's earliest Bronze-Age adventures, ghosts were, by all appearances, real, but as time went on the writers changed their minds about this and decided that the supernatural elements in the stories should be explained away in some fashion, perhaps to make things more believable (as if a man battling criminals in a bat suit is plausible). In the case of this story, Batman's bizarre visions are illusions created by Tzin-Tzin, which is reasonable enough, although I personally have no problem with the idea of actual ghosts. I'm reminded of the fiction of American author Henry James (which was itself Gothic); some of his stories, such as The Turn of the Screw, feature spectres, but literary critics have suggested that they are either metaphorical or illusory. (Whatever, says I.)

In any event, the "source" of the visions isn't really important. What matters is that they are, by nature, Gothic. The house is labyrinthine, and the pervasive darkness operates as a disorienting, almost tangible, presence. The unsettling image of Batman's corpse lying in a coffin and his subsequent "entombment" (Poe's "The Premature Burial" comes to mind) are, arguably, about as Gothic as it gets. At one point, a suit of armor is even used as a shield (bear in mind that Walpole's inspiration for Otranto was Medieval Romance).

Neal Adams' art in this issue is, of course, dynamic. That almost goes without saying.

Want this story? (The correct answer is "yes," incidentally.) You can find it reprinted in Batman Illustrated by Neal Adams volume 2 (now in paperback) and Detective Comics #477. The first one is your best bet, really.

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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