Monday, January 23, 2012

Detective Comics #47 (January 1941)

"Money Can't Buy Happiness"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos
Synopsis: Batman busts up a robbery, then returns home, with Finger elaborating on the trap door in the abandoned barn that leads to an underground tunnel that comes up in Wayne Manor. This takes about three pages, so I guess the initial story must've come up short? 
The next morning Bruce leaves to meet with his banker, Hank Midas (har har). Midas' son, Roger, walks in and asks his dad if they are going to the football game, but Midas is too busy and refuses. Roger walks out upset but Midas explains to Bruce "business before pleasure, after all." Bruce agrees, but thinks to himself that he would never let his business interfere with his relationship with his son, which is an interesting attitude for Bruce to have. It says something about the kind of father Thomas Wayne must have been, and it also says something about Bruce's habit of drafting youth into his war on crime.
Bruce decides to spy on the Midas family as Batman, I guess just because the lack of a father-son relationship bothers him? It seems a little odd for Batman, a bit of a flimsy rationalization for why he's witness to the following events: Turns out Mama Midas is a bitch too, daughter Diane has a thing for Johnny Brown, a clerk in Midas' company, but mother believes he is too lower-class for Diane. 
As Bruce, he journeys into nightclubs to follow Roger, who has a serious gambling problem on one hand, but a serious musical talent on the other. Bruce questions Roger about why he hasn't pursued this talent, but of course Midas would never approve of his son as an orchestra leader.
Soon thereafter, Diana Midas is married to a defunct European Count, the marriage having been arranged by her parents, the Count marrying her largely for the money. 

Bruce reflects that these parents have done a swell job screwing up their children's lives, and essentially wishes he had an excuse to intervene as Batman. Which is kind've weird.
As the months pass, Roger's gambling debts lead him into bad company (implied to be loansharks and gangsters). One night as they are exiting a club the Batman confronts them and demands they let Roger go. They jump into their car and speed away, frightened by the Batman so much they don't look where they're going and hit a newspaperboy. The kid is dead, but Roger can't bear the thought of his dad finding out about the accident, and demands the crooks keep driving. So now Roger Midas is party to a hit and run, and if you think about it -- it's entirely Batman's fault. A Batman who was just recently waiting to have a reason to intervene and has now manufactured an event to allow him to do so. Yikes. And who says it wasn't until the Modern Age that comics started having morally ambigous heroes.
So of course the crooks demand blackmail payments from Midas so they won't leak the story to the press. Midas, concerned more with his image than morality, is prepared to pay, at which point THE BATMAN enters dramatically through the window. Batman, being a paragon of justice, advises Midas to take his punishment and bear the brunt of being slammed in the press. Nevermind that this whole situation wouldn't exist if it wasn't for Batman, it's still a good moral lesson about not giving into crooks. But Midas doesn't listen, and Batman accuses him of believing his money can solve all his problems when it can't. Which is a pretty hypocritical thing to say when you're waging a war on crime funded solely by your massive inheritance.
Meanwhile, Robin is spying on Diane and the Count -- because apparently both members of the Dynamic Duo have decided to devote themselves to butting in on other people's business this month. Anyways, Diane has decided to tell Count Alexis she doesn't love him and that's she's going to divorce him and leave him penniless (you go girl!). But since "European Count" is synonymous in early forties American English for "dastardly fiend", Alexis is immediately planning to "do as I did with my first wife!" Yeesh, Mama Midas sure can pick 'em, can't she?
So Robin follows Alexis and listens in as he hires two goons to steal the Midas family jewelry for him, splitting the take 50/50.
Robin meets back up with Batman, and we find out that the heist is planned to occur two hours before Midas is going to meet to pay the blackmailers. Batman and Robin make short work of the Count and his goons (one page fight) with Batman indulging in the groan-worthy "Looks like the Count is down for the Count!" Of course, the Midas parents walk in, and Batman explains that Alexis was going to steal all their shit. Midas thanks Batman, but still refuses to take Batman's advice about the blackmailers. Of course, it's not like Batman is really going to give him much of a choice.
Batman and Robin stow away on the roof of Midas' car, and then wait until the blackmailers arrive to meet with Midas and Roger, before bursting through the door, chasing the blackmailers out the window, up a fire escape, down another fire escape, into a car, and then crashing that car while of course not killing anybody. It's a great three-page fight scene. Oh, and during the commotion one of the blackmailers shot Roger. Sorry, I got swept up in the Bat-action. 
Roger will bleed to death if something isn't done soon, so Midas takes him to his doctor (implied to be an expensive private doctor who is on Midas' payroll). The doctor operates, but tells Midas that his son's recovery is in the hands of a greater power, now. Batman takes the opportunity to gloat and tell Midas that all his money can't save his son now -- which is both hypocritical and somewhat untrue, given that Midas' money did hire a doctor who could arrive and operate on Roger immediately and well enough that there is some hope of recovery.
Anyways, Roger pulls through, and mans up and admits culpability in running over the newspaperboy. Who isn't dead, I guess, since it's mentioned that Roger uses his money to pay for the boy's operation as well as his future college education. Since, y'know, you can't solve all your problems with money? Oh, wait.
Sometime later, Hank Midas puts off a meeting with Bruce to go to a football game with his son, while Mrs. Midas admonishes Diane for being late to a date with Johnny Brown. Everything's worked out, because the parents have learned to be friends with their kids. Isn't that a great lesson, we think as Bruce stares accusingly at us through the fourth wall.
My Thoughts: Oh, jeez. I have really mixed feelings about this comic. I actually tend to like "message comics" more than most, for example I loved "Crime School for Boys" from Batman #3. But years of devotion to Steve Ditko and "Mr. A" comics has taught me: there are good message comics and bad message comics (and not much in between), and they can come from the same creators in the same series.
"Money Can't Buy Happiness" is all over the map, but it's main problem is that what it claims the moral to be isn't actually what the moral is, which is actually a pretty common problem when superhero comics get preachy. A writer decides to make a point, but then can't create a superhero plot out of that without creating contrived circumstances. So in this case, we have a comic that's trying to say that "money can't buy happiness", but in fact the real problem is "these parents are huuuuuge dicks". At the end of the day, Midas' money is why he's able to afford to take his son to football games, and get him a job as an orchestra leader, and is why Diane even meets Johnny Brown, and it's what saves Roger's life and enables him to make restitution to the kid who's run over. 

And, as I pointed out above, using Batman to make a point about how money can't solve all your problems is a huge load of shit. At this point in the mythos, Bruce's parents' money pays for everything. The idea of a Wayne Enterprises, or that Bruce does any work at all, is far far away -- at this point his civillian identity is a layabout playboy and all of the money is going into fighting crime. So yeah, Bruce has a ton of money he hasn't earned and he's using it to solve everyone's problems. All of the problems in this issue? Solved, thanks to Bruce's money.
And then of course there's the bending-over-backwards to even get Batman involved, since "meddling in people's family relations" is hardly "warring on all criminals", and this narrative tomfoolery essentially turns Batman into a morally questionable figure, which is not what you want to do with your hero in a message comic. If your story has a moral message, you want your hero embodying the essence of good in your moral.
However, there's a lot to like in this story, which I'll get to in a bit.
The Art: The Kane Studio art team does their usual good job, having hit a nice stride that is producing some consistently good work, if not exactly as stylish as it can be at its heights. The best work in this story is the action scenes, which flow with a motion and excitement that has come along way since Kane's somewhat stiff offerings of a few years ago. 
The Story: Okay, so there's some good and some bad here. Most of the bad comes from the slapdash moralizing throughout, which I already went over. Some of the bad comes from the pacing (those first three pages literally have nothing to do with the rest of the story, despite doing a nice job of elaborating on the whole barn/secret tunnel thing that Finger is developing). 
So what works? Well, if you realize the message is "parents shouldn't be dicks" instead of the money thing, there's a lot to like here. I especially like the kids themselves. The way Roger slowly spirals down into gambling debt and then blackmail is really well done, and believable for a talented kid starved of attention. And I like Diane's chutzpah as she leaves the Count, who wants only her money, for her true love. I also like that Finger is trying to make scripts that mean something, that teach something to not only kids but (as is clear in this case) the parents who might be reading these comics with their kids. It also makes the stories more fun to read and write about from a critical perspective than another "Batman breaks up smuggling ring" kind've tale.
Notes and Trivia: There's an abandoned barn where the Batplane is kept with an underground tunnel that goes to Wayne Manor! 

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