Those 1950s DC comic books sure sounded wacky, as Superman did things from smoke a dozen cigars, snap Lois’s airhose while in space, burn Jimmy Olsen’s father’s day present, to basically dissing his girlfriend for turning black. Of course other members of the “Superman family” got into the action like Supergirl having lusty dreams after her own horse. You’d at least think Batman would get in on the wacky action and so he did! So I was puzzled on why DC didn’t bother publishing issues from that era in the volume of Showcase Presents I have in my possession. It seems, according to the back blurb and this post, that the editors dicked around so much that sales were catastrophically falling that at one point, the heads wanted to cancel the Batman titles. So in 1964, the new editor, Julius Schwartz, redesigned Batman to fit the more modern era, as the crimefighting’s duo outfits and equipment were redesigned. And instead of just wacky criminals, the perps’ actions became more grounded in reality, barring a few sci-fi elements.
Detective Comics Issue 327- “The Mystery of the Menacing Mask”
Published May 1964
Writer: John Broome
Penciler: Carmine Infantino
Inker: Joe Giella
Editor: Julius Schwartz
A neighborhood called “Gotham Village,” clearly New York City’s Greenwich Village, is under serious debate on whether or not the place should be razed and rebuilt from the ground up to suit the modernization of the city. One side declares that the neighborhood should be torn down, as it harbors many criminals, allowing them to evade the police at every turn. The other side, clearly opposed, celebrates the “picturesque” feeling of the place, as it is too important of a landmark to be demolished.
As Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson walk through Jefferson Square Park, enjoying the sights and sound of the bohemian art and culture. Bruce remarks that he would like to preserve Gotham Village by routing out the criminal element. Dick agrees, finding the neighborhood fascinating. But as they turn another corner, a young woman yells at Wayne for being on the committee to preserve it, crying about how Gotham Village should be destroyed.
At a cafe, the young lady introduces herself as Linda Greene. Her fiance, James Packer, has been arguing with her about staying in the neighborhood, Linda wanting to move uptown. For days now, Packer has been up to some strange things, disappearing in the middle of the night, not answering her calls, and even dropped a map at one point. On that map is an X with a circle, similar to the X-Men logo. Bruce and Dick begin to recall a recent case where they have seen that mark, and it’s flashback time!
A jewel thief slips into a penthouse apartment, while Batman and Robin are in pursuit. Though the duo manage to enter the flat, an vial of gas explodes, and when the fumes settled, the X mark appears on their foreheads. Whoever did this didn’t use paint or ink, but some kind of substance that disappears within a few seconds. At the Batcave’s laboratory, Batman finds that the substance contained a rare isotope of phosphorus. It’s so rare that only one place in the city has this “isotope,” at the “Rare Chemical Company” of all places. The accountant, wearing a visor, tells the two that a Frank Fenton bought the phosphorus recently.
The duo reach Fenton’s apartment, and he’s that jewel thief they were chasing earlier. They learn his trick where Fenton uses a gas to immobilize his pursuers. While Batman and Robin struggle to even lift a finger, Fenton escapes once again with the necklaces and diamonds. Now that the perp has been seen, he will have to be more cautious than usual, and will have to hide. Where else than Gotham Village? This brings us back to the present, where the two have yet to find a lead to the criminals’ hideout until… they see Linda’s fiance walking somewhere.
That night, they follow Jimmy to the X circled on the map. Packer heads inside the house at the location and suddenly disappears, until they find a hidden passageway behind a closet that leads underground. Downstairs, Fenton is given a tour of the group of tunnels that run underneath the neighborhood, complete with a movie theater, a pool room, and a “special travel bureau” for fake passports and such. The tour is quickly cut short with the arrival of the caped crusader and his sidekick kicking butt through the place.
Although the criminals’ hideout is blown, Fenton tries the same trick on the two, immobilizing them once again. The jewel thief tells his compadres that they are free to do away with the pesky crimefighters, and as they get closer and closer, it was all a ruse! Fenton’s trick didn’t work and they begin cleaning up these thug infested tunnels. One criminal shoots his gun while Batman knocks him and his colleagues down to the ground. The usually anti-gun vigilante does the uncharacteristic thing of picking it up and points it at them to get the crooks to line up in a row.
The cops soon arrive, and we all learn how the hell Fenton immobilized Batman and Robin without the use of a gas. A tiny motor is stuck inside his hair and it emitted some kind of energy that affects the motor parts of a person’s brain. The crime fighting duo prevented the effect by wearing a lead lining over their foreheads. A device that can stop people in their traps? Sigh… Why not one that knocks people out for frick’s sake?
Jimmy Packer, as it turns out, was searching for the criminals’ hideout but got captured. Reuniting him with Linda, the story ends with the two holding each other and making up. Now that the crime element has been taken out, Gotham Village won’t undergo modernization.
For my first taste of an old and complete Batman story, I wasn’t too impressed. I’m more used to the shock and awe from Marvel Comics, and here it seems more methodical, where the story remains mellow until it builds up to a solid beat down and apprehension of the suspects. However, the stories do seem interesting and are more grounded in reality, as there are no godlike powers and each foe has their own weakness. It just takes some work for Batman to catch the guy in the end, and that’s what pretty satisfying about these stories, and they keep intrigued about what happens next.