Tuesday, August 11, 2009

"The 10,000 Secrets of Batman!"

Issue: Detective Comics #229

Cover Date: March 1956

Writer: Unknown

Penciller: Dick Sprang

Inker: Charles Paris

Cover Artist: Win Mortimer

Synopsis: This case from Batman's crime-file opens with Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson watching a television program entitled "Man-To-Man." At its end, host Waller mentions that next week's show will take place in none other than the Bat-Cave. Bruce mentions that he could not turn such an offer down as Batman, since the sight of his crime fighting equipment would do quite a bit to make criminals think twice about committing a crime. The next week, Batman takes the television crew to the Bat-Cave in a sealed truck to prevent its location from being discovered. The broadcast begins in the Dynamic Duo's trophy room and later moves to the section housing all of their crime-files. Suddenly, a cable from one of the crew's cameras accidently triggers an old trophy, in the form of the Mechanical Mobster. Batman and Robin quickly shut the robot off, providing the show with an exciting conclusion. While Batman is taking the television crew back to their studio, Robin takes down fake granite put up to disguise the real rock of the Bat-Cave. While doing so, he makes a grim discovery that he reveals to Batman upon his return: the microfilm file containing a copy of their entire crime-file is missing! Quickly deducing that the robot being turned on was a diversion, the pair drive off to the television studio to confront the four member crew.

Batman and Robin catch three of the four crew members before they're about to leave and search the premises. When the Duo come up empty handed, they learn that their technician Varnor went home complaining of a headache. Batman and Robin arrive at Varnor's home to find him dazed, having been knocked out and impersonated. After consulting their crime-file for criminals matching Varnor's description, Batman and Robin determine that Mart Mathers is their most likely suspect. Batman goes off to confront Mathers, while Robin informs Commissioner Gordon of the situation. Batman finds Mathers, but is unable to prove he had anything to do with the robbery, though the $10,000 he finds makes it pretty obvious he did. Batman has a plan though, and imitating one of Mather's criminal friends, is able to convince him to seek more money for the job. Batman is able to stowaway in Mather's car and finds the criminal's hideout to be an abandoned organ factory. The gang is run by a man named Creeden, who lets Mathers into his group while gloating about possesing Batman's secrets. Using a pipe organ as a distraction, Batman grabs the box containing the microfilm rolls, but is forced to hide in a boiler to escape gunfire.

Creeden closes the boiler, trapping Batman inside. He also reveals that he has the microfilm rolls on him and that the box originally containing them is just that, a box. Thinking Batman has no chance of getting out, the crooks leave to implement their heist. Unable to contact Robin with his belt radio, Batman uses his ingenuity to snap the boiler's outside safety valve through concentrated heat by burning the microfilm box. Slipping his silken cord through the hole he created, Batman is able to open the boiler and call for Robin. Upon reaching the Bat-Cave, Batman tells Robin their only lead: the criminals' operation requires the use of a rubber boat. After running through crime-file their crime file for locations that can be reached by water, the Dynamic Duo are able to narrow it down to an underground resovoir underneath a jewel firm. due to the small size of the entrance requiring a foldable rubber boat. Batman and Robin turn out to have deduced correctly and sneak up to the crooks' raft through the use of skin diving suits. As gunshots will cause the rubber boat to sink, Batman and Robin quickly subdue the gang and return their microfilm file to the Bat-Cave.

Thoughts: This story has pretty much everything you could want from a Silver Age Batman story. You have action with the robot in the beginning, mystery with the identity of who stole the microfilm file, danger in Batman being trapped in the boiler, Batman using brains over brawn to get out of the situation in the boiler, and gadgets in the Dynamic Duo's crime-file (which is a state-of-the-art for the time card sorting machine). It's one of the most perfect examples of what a Batman story is all about, which is fitting considering it was reprinted in Batman Annual #1, which is an excellent introduction to this era's Batman. Part of what makes the story so great is the set up. Today's Batman would never permit a camera crew into the Bat-Cave, but the Batman of 1956 would; this a story that could only happen in the Silver Age. The scenes where Batman and Robin use the crime-file are nice ways of spotlighting their detective skills, as the have to quickly come with factors that can narrow down their possibilites more and more. I really appreciate how, in an opportunity where the writer could have made Batman and Robin's identities part of the crime-file, he doesn't and instead specifies the crime-file as a collection of top secret law enforcement information. My only issue with the story is Batman's ability to replicate the voice of a criminal who happens to be a friend of Mathers; the line in the story almost reads as if it is the writer speaking directly to the reader. Other than that quibble, the story is pitch perfect, and it's a pity the writer is unknown.

While re-reading this story, I was struck by exactly how brilliant of a storyteller Dick Sprang was. The second panel of the third page shows Robin running towards the robot and the reader, while the page's sixth panel shows the Batmobile driving away from the reader. The fifth panel of the fourth page is a great close up of Batman and Robin's determined faces, while still showing Varnor clutching his head in the background between their heads. Thr fourth panel of page five is a fantastic nighttime panel, complete with a dynamic image of Batman exiting the Batmobile. The fifth panel of the same page is slanted, taken aback just as Commissioner Gordon is within it. The abandoned organ factory is as large and haunting as it should be. Dick Sprang's trademark circular panels are prominent throughout the entire story. Everything about the artwork, even the cards being sorted, is dynamic. I haven't read his entire body of work, but I can't think of a story with artwork more brilliant than what Dick Sprang contributed to this one.

While nothing is ever truly perfect, this story is about as close to perfection as a Silver Age Batman story can get.

This story was later retitled "Batman's Electronic Crime-File!" and has been reprinted in Batman Annual #1, Giant Batman Annual #1 Replica Edition (1999), and DC Comics Classics Library: Batman - The Annuals Vol. 1 HC.


Pat said...

This story is also a particular favorite of mine, and the nighttime panel you mention is one of the most original scenes ever.

BTW, the card sorter was a very early relational database. Those machines were still in use in the early 1970s; in my computer science course in 1973 we used one.

Jeff said...

Beautiful cover on this one.

Chris said...

All of Win's covers were great, but this one definitely tops the list. Excellent in both composition and storytelling.