Saturday, September 8, 2012

Detective Comics #57 (November, 1941)

"Twenty-Four Hours to Live!"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: Our story begins with Jasper Sneed beginning poisoned by some unseen figure, revenge for some unknown reason. The poison is slow acting, and Sneed will die in exactly twenty-four hours.
Sneed decides the best use of his last day on Earth is to totally fuck up the lives of his family, who are all greedy hangers on who hate him and are waiting for him to die so as to inherit his money. He decides to give them his money, but not in the way he expects.
He calls a meeting of these people -- his butler, his stuck-up widowed sister, her playboy son, his orphan niece who hopes to sing opera, his business partner John Harvey, and a cousin who is an undertaker. He tells them he has been poisoned, that someone in that room poisoned him, and that rather than go to the police, he is going give large gifts to all of them. He's clearly insane.
Sneed goes to the bank, and withdraws all of his money into a single suitcase, and it comes to around $1 million (roughly $14.6 million in today's money, and one thousand $1000 bills). He then buys a new car, a saw and a screwdriver. He gives the car to the undertaker, and takes him for a drive. While the car is in motion, he reveals he has sawn off the brake, the steering wheel and all the doorknobs, then jumps out and shuts his door behind him. The undertaker is trapped as the car goes right off a cliff and into the river, drowning him. Eighteen hours left!
Next, Sneed goes to some gangsters, buys some hitmen, and has them collect his business partner and bring him to an old steel mill he owns to murder him. 
Meanwhile, Sneed's niece is telling her good friend Linda Page and her boyfriend Bruce Wayne about her crazy, dying, possibly homicidal uncle. Bruce insists the man is simply mad and means no harm, but then of course ducks out to change into Batman. He meets up with Robin and they go to question John Harvey but of course he's been snatched already so they beat up his clerk until he reveals that he's been taken to the steel mill. There's a two-page fight scene which results in Harvey being rescued. 
Meanwhile, Jasper pays $60,000 to one of those "stand really still and pretend you're a statue" type street performers to paint himself like a bronze statue, be delivered to Sneed's sister who collects statues, and then murder her. But the murder attempt is thwarted when Robin shows up and beats up the street performer. Sneed's sister phones her son to warn him of the murder attempts, but it's too late -- he's playing golf with Sneed at an exclusive club that Sneed has bought him a membership to!
But what the man doesn't know is that Jasper has also bought the whole course, to insure it's empty for the murder. It's a sunrise tee-time, and Batman shows up just in time to save the nephew from the ol' exploding golf ball trick. 
By this time Batman has informed the police about Jasper Sneed's rampage. With his description all over town (wide-eyed crazy man with a bag of cash), Sneed abandons his attempt to kill his niece with an acid throat spray and returns home, where he confronts the man who poisoned him -- the BUTLER!! (Really?)
He goes to shoot him, but Batman and Robin have been lying in wait and stop Sneed! The twenty-four hours up, Jasper Sneed dies then and there. But wait! There's more! Sneed's butler unmasks himself, to reveal that he is Jasper's twin brother Richard! Turns out, they both loved the same woman, and after Jasper married her, Richard took the fall for a crime Jasper committed so she would be spared the pain. She died while he was in prison, and Richard came back disguised as Jasper's butler to plan this elaborate murder. Batman moves to apprehend Richard, but it turns out he took the poison soon after giving it to Jasper, and also dies, leaving the Dynamic Duo aghast.
My Thoughts: What the hell was this? Bill Finger takes a turn into straight up film noir nihilism, a tale with no purpose other than the maniacal mayhem of Jasper Sneed's revenge on his family members, who aren't even the ones who poisoned him. It's increasingly elaborate deaths for all, and then we discover Sneed deserved his fate, as he himself as a terrible person even before being granted the carte blanche of his death sentence. And then, before Sneed's murderer can be punished, he kills himself. Aside from saving a few lives, Batman and Robin don't really accomplish much as they are merely witnesses to this insane rampage of jealousy, revenge, madness, hate, murder and death. It's a murder mystery with the victim going around doing his own murdering. It'd be a great story if it wasn't for the plot holes of that terrible double twist ending.
The Art: The art is pretty good. The best element is the character design of Jasper Sneed, who really does come across as this totally crazy and despicable person. He's always got these lines around him like he's constantly shaking. It's really great. On the negative side, the inks in this story are really muddy -- there's plenty of blacks, but it engulfs the characters too much sometimes and the line work on the faces is occasionally too thick and it muddies the details.
The Story: You can tell that Finger was really proud of this one by the extremely cool introduction on the splash page, which describes Jasper's last moments alive in second person. But the whole damn thing collapses with the lousy double twist ending. First, the butler did it! Which, like, I mean, Sneed saw who poisoned him. If it was the butler, especially Richard in disguise as the butler, why did he calmly stick around the house and keep taking orders from Jasper? And then there's the final reveal of Richard, which happens in literally the third-to-last panel and results in just reams of exposition that we had utterly no clues to, but Batman's not shocked, his reaction is "I figured as much!" It's a total cheat that comes out of nowhere and a) doesn't really seem attached or necessary to the rest of the story and b) could've been integrated into the whole a lot better. It's a Sixth Sense style ending, a twist designed to shock and awe but that doesn't really fit or make sense upon retrospective.

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