Hasslein Blog: Matthew Sunrich Presents...Detective Comics #403


Hasslein Blog

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Matthew Sunrich Presents...Detective Comics #403

Detective Comics #403

By Matthew Sunrich

In the landmark Batman #217 (December 1969), the issue that is recognized as having ushered in the Dark Knight's Bronze Age, Bruce Wayne outlines his new strategies for dealing with crime, as well as his initiative for protecting the victims, who are all too often left out in the cold even when cases are successfully closed. The former is the bailiwick of Batman, while the latter is that of Bruce. Even though they are two sides of the same coin, the Caped Crusader and his civilian alter ego are distinct personas, and it is this duality that allows one to operate during the daylight hours and the other at night, thus doubling his effectiveness. (The question of when he's supposed to sleep is addressed later on.)

The "special assistance" initiative, sponsored by the Wayne Foundation, is dubbed V. I. P. (Victims, Inc. Program). It often serves a dual purpose, as the victims who come seeking Wayne's help are also unwittingly apprising Batman of the injustices they've suffered. I'm sure that Bruce considered this when he established the program. After all, even though the Masked Man-hunter is usually several steps ahead of the criminals in Gotham (and elsewhere), he still appreciates the fact that getting the "inside scoop" from the horse's mouths saves him a lot of footwork and the necessity of relying on his network of informants.

As Detective Comics #403, "You Die by Mourning," opens, a woman identifying herself as Mrs. Randall appeals to Bruce concerning the death of her husband, Laird. When he remarks that he was unaware of the incident, she tells him that his death hasn't occurred yet, but it will soon. As she reaches into her purse to pull out a handkerchief, a pistol tumbles out onto the desktop. Startled, she turns and flees from the office, leaving a perplexed Bruce in her wake.

That evening, Batman visits the home of the only Laird Randall in the phonebook and, peering through the window, finds the mysterious woman he encountered earlier (whose name, we discover, is Angie) looking happy as she gets ready for a costume party. Her husband, still very much alive, has dressed himself as the "Ghost of Dracula" (whatever that means), and despite the incident in Bruce's office, things seem all right. We learn that they are headed to a party at a "haunted house," having been invited by an unknown host. A horse-drawn carriage arrives to whisk them to the soiree, and even though Angie is initially unsettled, the couple soon begins to appreciate the romantic ride.

Things turn sour when a car tears out of the woods and pursues the carriage. The coachman takes this opportunity to leap from the vehicle, as men in the car begin firing on it. Batman, who has been "stowing away" on the carriage's underbelly, tosses a smoke grenade at the car, impairing the driver's vision, causing him to crash into a tree. Batman climbs onto the horse's back to calm the animal, bringing the carriage to a halt. The coachman, unnerved by the Dark Knight's appearance, rushes back to the carriage, explaining to the Randalls that he panicked when the car began chasing them and promises to get them to the party. At this point, Batman rules Angie out as a suspect, since she had just as much to lose as her husband.

Batman interrogates the men in the wrecked car and finds that they don't know the name of their employer, as they received the down payment for the hit in the mail. They were supposed to receive the rest of the money at the "haunted house" because, as Batman deduces, the Randalls were never supposed to arrive. Knocking out the gunmen, he rushes to catch the coach, realizing that Laird and Angie are in terrible danger.

When the carriage pulls up to the house, the couple remarks that it appears abandoned, and the driver tells them that they are, in fact, the only "guests" and that he is the host. He leads them inside the crumbling building at gunpoint and reveals himself as Van Paxton, the crooked owner of a rival paving firm. He had previously tried to strong-arm Laird into dropping out of the bidding for a lucrative contract, but the latter had refused. As he fires his pistol, a woman appears seemingly out of nowhere and dives in front of the bullet.

It turns out that woman is Audrey, Angie's twin sister and unhappy wife of Paxton. Batman shows up and subdues Paxton, revealing that he realized there had to be a twin since Angie was clearly unaware of her husband's impending murder. It was Audrey who had appealed to V. I. P., posing as Laird's "widow," because even though she hadn't spoken to Angie in years (due to her husband's mob connections) she couldn't bear the thought of Laird's being killed. His plans foiled, Paxton attempts to escape but falls through the rotten floorboards and is strangled by his scarf.

The case is solved, but Batman is left feeling dejected, as he failed to prevent Audrey's death.

Artistically, Detective #403 is a good representation of the change, still in its incipient stages, from the Silver Age to the Bronze. Bob Brown and Frank Giacoia do an adequate job in telling the story, and you can tell that they've taken a cue from Neal Adams and Dick Giordano in trying to give the art an updated look. DC had a "house style" during the Silver Age, based largely on Carmine Infantino and Curt Swan's styles, and when someone is accustomed to drawing this way it can be a tough pattern to break. (Recall that Marvel's management wanted everyone to draw like Jack Kirby during the same time. No offense to Kirby, but, thankfully, this likewise changed as it became clear that the 1970s was going to be a decade of "moving forward" for comics.)

The cover of this issue, brilliantly rendered by Adams (does this guy have an aptitude for composition, or what?), succeeds in summarizing its contents without giving away any of the plot. There is a very clear suggestion of malice on the part of the deceased woman's spirit, which is, of course, in contrast to the story, but it encapsulates, at least on a metaphorical level, the anguish that Batman experiences at not having been able to save Audrey's life.

The impetus behind the Dark Knight's actions has always been the pursuit of justice, and when it is not done it puts him right back in the alley with his parents' bullet-riddled corpses: helpless, alone, tears streaming down his young face. He knows what it's like to be a victim, and he doesn't want anyone else to have to go through that.

This issue has only been reprinted once, in Showcase Presents: Batman volume 5, which is unfortunate because the story, by Frank Robbins, is very solid and, unlike many comic stories, leaves the reader with something to think about. I really wish DC would publish a monthly reprint title of Batman's Bronze Age (like Marvel used to do with Spider-Man in Marvel Tales), but, unfortunately, the historically low sales of reprint books coupled with the proliferation of trade paperbacks, the preferred reprint vehicle, makes this unlikely.

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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