Thursday, April 12, 2012

Detective Comics #52 (June 1941)

Oh, my, god. Guys! Take a look! The cover of the comic actually has something to do with the story inside! What a novel idea! That's right, Batman's fighting Oriental stereotypes again in part three of Bill Finger's continuing Gotham Chinatown saga!

 "The Secret of the Jade Box" 
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos
Synopsis: Our story begins as a rich collector of curios named Mr. Potter buys an exquisite jade box from an Arab named Achmed. Potter takes the box home and begins examining it when he notices that there is a false bottom to the box, at which point a mysterious shadowed figure comes out of nowhere and up and kills him.

Of course Potter had been scheduled to meet with Bruce Wayne that afternoon, and so Wayne and Potter's butler discover the man's corpse, alongside the empty jade box. The police investigate, but can't figure out anything, given that the man had no enemies and nothing was stolen. However, returning to Wayne Manor, Bruce tells Dick Grayson that he believes the police have overlooked the most important clue of all.
Returning to the crime scene as Batman, the Dark Knight retrieves the jade box and discovers the empty false bottom, reasoning that what the murderer was locking for had been hidden inside. Batman goes to investigate Achmend's curio shop. Meanwhile, a gang of Orientals are being ordered by their master to also go to the curio shop and tie up any loose ends. Batman discovers that the murderer got Potter's name and address from Achmed, and that the murderer had in fact sold the box to Achmed in the first place. Leaving the shop, the Dark Knight is immediately attacked by Oriental assassins, narrowly escaping them and the police.
Over the next few weeks, a growing number of businesses fall prey to a protection racket run by some Chinese gangsters back by some mysterious power. Upset, the business owners appeal to Loo Chung, the unofficial mayor of Chinatown and successor to Wong (killed by hatchetmen in Detective #39). They ask Chung to appeal to the Batman for help, as he has always helped them in the past. At that moment, Batman happens to arrive to consult Chung about the jade box, but asks about the protection racket and what he can do to help. Hilariously, the protection racket turns out to be the direct descendants of Genghis Khan, who in Bill Finger's Chinese history, was nothing more than a racketeer writ large, demanding tribute from villages in exchange for "protection". In this version of events, each of Khan's descendants claimed legitimacy because of an elaborate golden ring.
Batman promises to assist with the investigation, at which point the businessmen leave. Batman then asks Chung about the jade box and its contents. Chung reveals that in fact the box contained the fabled ring of Khan, which Chung now wears on his hand, because Chung is heading up the protection rackets! Bwa ha ha ha ha! He drops Batman down a trapdoor into a dungeon (of course), where the Dark Knight must fight off wild dogs and murderous Mongol guards!
But it looks like the end for Batman when he is cornered by Chung and a gun, until of course Robin comes out of nowhere and saves his ass. Batman then defeats Chung and rescues an old man chained up in the dungeon. This is Wong's father. It turns out Wong was the Khan descendant, but had refused the ring's power being an honourable man. When Chung took over, he coveted the ring, so Wong's father had it placed in the jade box and sold, to get rid of it, which started the whole mess. Batman takes the ring, and vows to destroy it, which he claims will enable the Chinese to "walk free again as all men should".

My Thoughts: Okay, so this is a pretty standard Batman-as-the-Shadow kind've tale, very reminescent to the early, pre-Robin Finger/Kane pieces to which it is, in fact, a sequel. It feels like it has everything -- murder mystery, gangsters, cackling villain with trapdoor dungeon, et cetera. It also has a plot that simultaneously is respectful and totally dismissive of the Asian peoples. I've always liked that in Finger's Chinatown stories there are good, honest Orientals alongside the villainous ones, and that Batman is smart and respectful enough to know the difference. He never talks down to his Chinese allies, but treats them as fellow American citizens, which they are.  But in this story, its Finger's narrative that comes across as condescending. The entirety of Genghis Khan's rule and his successors is reduced to being a bunch of Chinese gangsters, and Batman's destruction of Khan's ring an act of heroism enabling the freedom of all the Chinese peoples. Yes, because what the Chinese of 1941 needed was an American to free them from fear of Mongol rule. 
The Art: The usual good quality from the Kane studio. Quite a number of the poses and faces seem swiped from earlier Batman/Chinatown stories, but that's to be expected when dealing with Bob Kane's pencils.
The Story: I must say, I always admire Bill Finger's continuity in his stories, when he uses it. This is the third connected story dealing with Batman in Gotham's Chinatown, after Detective #35 and #39. It's been quite a while since those stories, though, which makes it feel like a throwback story rather than something new. It's very much in the vein of those older tales, right down to the fact that it's mostly a Batman story with a very light Robin presence. It's derivative, both of earlier Batman stories as well as The Shadow, but its entertaining enough to enjoy on its own merits.
Notes and Trivia: Third in the Gotham Chinatown series.

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