Hasslein Blog: Longbox Legerdemain: Detective Comics #427


Hasslein Blog

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Longbox Legerdemain: Detective Comics #427

By Matthew Sunrich

"Together we've taught all the vendors of violence a bitter lesson."

Let's take a minute to discuss everyone's favorite topic: automatonophobia.

For those of you unfamiliar with term, it refers to the fear of "anything that falsely represents a sentient being," in the words of whoever wrote the article on Wikipedia. This includes dolls, mannequins, androids/gynoids, statues, puppets, scarecrows, or any other sort of effigy.

It's evidently a very common thing, and we've seen the idea played around with in countless books, films, television programs, and, of course, amusement- and theme-park rides.

When I was a kid, Six Flags over Georgia was a frequent familial diversion, and back then one of the attractions was a walk-through haunted house. All of the monsters were animatronic, and even though my young mind was fully aware of this, they always made me nervous, and I gave them wide berth. Later on, the park opened a ballyhooed "dark ride" called "Monster Plantation" (eventually renamed "Monster Mansion" for obvious reasons), in which you were propelled through the eponymous structure in little boats, and even though the creatures therein were decidedly cartoonish, they still filled me with dread.

Even though I found these sorts of rides frightening, I partook of every one I came across when we visited a fair or a new vacation destination. Though not a ride, one thing that sticks out in my mind was a shooting gallery in an arcade in Pigeon Forge, TN, featuring a seated Frankenstein's Monster that stood up and advanced toward you if you hit the target and a werewolf that would similarly emerge from behind a brick wall. (I have to mention the Ripley's Believe It or Not! Museum in nearby Gatlinburg, which was, in many respects, just as unsettling as a haunted house. I say "was" because the entire block on which it was situated caught fire at some point; they rebuilt it, but, having lost all of its irreplaceable artifacts and exhibits, it just wasn't the same.)

By the time R. L. Stine's Goosebumps series came along, I had passed the age of its intended demographic, but I was aware of several titles that involved a killer ventriloquist dummy.

An episode of The X-Files, "Chinga," written by Stephen King, centers around a series of deaths caused by an evil doll.

Who can forget that messed-up scene with the clown doll in Poltergeist? (Of course, it also taps into another increasingly common fear, coulrophobia, i.e., fear of clowns, so you get two scares for the price of one there.)

And then, of course, there's Child's Play (the first one, anyway), which I remember causing quite a stir upon its release.

There's just something undeniably creepy about something that looks or behaves like a person yet isn't one.

The lead story in Detective Comics #427 (1972), "A Small Case of Murder," written by Frank Robbins and illustrated by the resplendent Bronze-Age team of Irv Novick and Dick Giordano, is not recommended reading for automatonophobes, unless they also happen to be masochists.

As the story opens, Commissioner Gordon is investigating the murder of Randall Barnes, co-owner of a toy company. He took a bullet through the heart, and the only clue is the sinister-looking doll found nearby, which is, uncanny as it appears, holding the smoking gun.

Barnes' partner, a man referred to simply as Gaynor, had returned to the office to retrieve a set of toy plans when he heard a mechanical voice from Barnes' office, followed by a gunshot. Gaynor explains that the voice was exactly like the ones made by the company's dolls. Batman and the commissioner are understandably incredulous, but when Gaynor presses the button on the back of the doll to play the voice, it points the gun at Gordon and fires, exclaiming, "I warned you, Barnes! Now die!"

Gordon dodges the bullet, and Gaynor insists that he didn't expect it to behave in such a manner, but Gordon asks him how the killer, who must have activated the doll, could have absconded from the thirtieth floor without a fire escape. Batman looks out the open office window and sees a sees a cleaning rig one floor below and concludes that Gaynor's story could be the truth.

Just then, a man named Adam Cornelius, president of The League to Outlaw Violence, appears. He claims to have an appointment with Barnes and is shocked to hear of his murder. As Cornelius leaves, Gaynor apprises Batman and Gordon that the doll has disappeared. Leaning out the window again, Batman finds a trail of suction-cup prints on the side of the building, leading down to the street. He tells the others that the doll is a sophisticated automaton, capable of returning to whoever is guiding it via remote control.

Gaynor remarks that a doll of that sort would not have been a challenge for the company's brilliant engineers and recalls that Anton Gralnik, who had until recently worked for them, had sworn revenge when he was terminated for selling trade secrets to the competition. Batman goes to Gralnik's workshop and finds him slumped over his desk, shot through the heart just like Barnes. When a voice emerges from the gloom, Batman finds the doll sitting on a shelf, aiming its pistol at him.

It is at this point that we learn that the voice is that of the doll's mysterious controller, who is watching everything through cameras in the toy's eyes. The pistol goes off, aimed at Batman's chest, and the Dark Knight collapses.

The job done, the doll exits the building and makes its way back to the controller's office. It is perhaps not surprising that the madman behind the doll's actions turns out to be Cornelius. He gloats about his successes for a moment before, to his astonishment, Batman burst in. The Caped Crusader explains that, having recognized Cornelius' modus operandi, he had placed a metal statue under his shirt to deflect the bullet.

Believing that Barnes' and Gaynor's toys encouraged violence in children, Cornelius had decided to teach them an ironic lesson. A complicit Gralnik had built the killer doll for him, and Cornelius had used it to kill the engineer to protect his secret.

But Batman, as usual, figured everything out.

Caught, Cornelius fumbles to escape and accidentally activates the doll, and it shoots him. Hoist with his own petard, as they say.

It seems like everything has wrapped up neatly until Batman notes that the doll's "pre-recorded" voice spoke Cornelius' name rather than Barnes' before firing.

Creepy, right?

This issue's selling point was certainly Michael Kaluta's cover, which splendidly captures the story's stunning climax. At this point in the Bronze Age, as I've mentioned before, Batman's stories tended to incorporate elements of horror, and, for many, a killer doll fits the bill. The fact that readers are expected to believe that a toymaker could design such a complex automaton is just good old fashioned comic-book logic, not unlike the idea that a guy wearing a mask to impersonate someone else isn't going to arouse any suspicion.

That's gotta be some mask.

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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