Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Detective Comics #63 (May, 1942)

"A Gentleman in Gotham"
Writer: Bill Finger 
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied Europe, a jewel thief named Michael Baffle is set to be executed by Nazi firing squad for his many crimes. However Baffle cheats death by bribing the men with jewels to fire only blanks and bribing the Obersturmbannf├╝hrer with even bigger jewels not to inspect the guns.

Baffle flees to America by ship, arriving in Gotham City Harbor, which is pretty explicitly made out to be analogous to New York City with the presence of the Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building. He immediately begins planning how to rob the city of its riches. Assembling a posse of crooks he decides to rob Wayne Manor!
He spots the Wayne safe and begins sanding down his fingertips to make them sensitive to the tumblers (neat!), but of course Batman and Robin come home at that moment and fight off him and his men. In the aftermath, both Batman and Baffle are truly amused by their rival and consider them a worthy adversary. 
Realizing that the Batman will recognize him if he's spotted again, Baffle shaves off his Tony Stark esque goatee and adopts a new tactic. He convinces a local paper to hire him as their society column writer and becomes a successful and well-known columnist. Then he uses his jobs writing about rich society homes as opportunities to case the places for burglaries (as if MTV's Cribs was being run by Danny Ocean). Somehow, the police never put together that houses are being robbed after being featured in  "Charles Courtley's" society page, and the scheme goes undiscovered until Bruce Wayne seemingly recognizes Courtley at a party.
Bruce changes into Batman and Courtley into Baffle (wearing a bandit mask and somehow sporting his goatee again), and they battle, but Baffle escapes by using Linda Page (also at the party) as a hostage. Batman chases after him, resulting in a car chase through Gotham. Baffle finally manages to shake Batman by throwing away the stolen jewels, and Batman goes after them to make sure they are returned to their owners rather than go after Baffle -- which is the most completely out-of-character thing Bill Finger has ever had Batman do.
Baffle decides to pack up and leave Gotham because Batman makes things too difficult (the smartest thing any crooks in this strip has ever done), after one last big coup! Meanwhile Robin realizes Courtley is Baffle when he draws a goatee on one of Courtley's pictures in the paper (as kid's are wont to do -- Bruce actually admonishes him for "marking up pictures of our leading celebrities").  
Anyways, Linda and Bruce attend a society party at "Random Castle" (?), a Scottish fortress transported brick by brick to Gotham for the rich broad who owns it. Baffle-as-Courtley shows up and claims that he is Batman and the jewels are thus safe with him -- but Linda doesn't buy it as she's been rescued by Batman many times (and you'd think would recognize Courtley, who now has a moustache, as the guy who held her hostage the other night...?) -- anyways Bruce-as-Batman shows up and fences Baffle on the grand staircase (because why not?) and Baffle escapes by jumping out a window and into a river, with both men yelling things about the "next time" they run into each other, and Batman wishing Baffle was a friend instead of an enemy.
My Thoughts: Mr. Baffle is a very transparent attempt at creating a new recurring villain, and it just reeks of desperation. It's like bad fan-fiction: we're told Baffle is a cunning rogue, a gentlemen criminal whose methods puzzle the police, Batman says he respects Baffle and enjoys facing him, etc. etc. But we never really see anything that actually justifies this. We're told Baffle is a great new character but ultimately it's all hype. The ending, where Baffle just jumps into a river and both men announce their intentions for "next time" is the most blatant sequel baiting Finger's ever done. I don't think I'm spoiling anything by revealing that Mr. Baffle never appeared again -- so despite Finger's insistences, even readers of the time responded poorly.
The Art: The art is nice and stardard Kane/Robinson quality -- but the inconsistency of Baffle's facial hair really confuses the story. He shaves it off when he becomes Courtley, but then it's all back when he starts robbing things, and then it's only a moustache in the finale. It's completely ludicrous, but I guess was done so that people wouldn't recognize Baffle when he robbed them? It's confusing and bad. There are some good action set-pieces in the story, like the chase, but the layouts are badly paced, so that the final fencing duel confrontation takes place only within four small panels on a single page -- that's the climax, guys! It's in the title page! Milk it!
The Story: What makes Baffle a gentleman? What makes him so chivalrous? What makes him a genius criminal? Every single crime he commits in Gotham is foiled by Batman, none of them are particularly clever schemes, he takes women hostage and lies and steals and cheats -- is the only reason he's a "charming rogue" is because he looks like Clark Gable and fights with a fencing foil? He's set up by the writer as a kind of friendly rival like character to Batman, but he actually comes off as something of a chump. The story is so busy telling that it ends up showing rather drably. I think I would've enjoyed it more if it wasn't trying so hard to promote Baffle as a character. But the fact is that next to the Joker, the Catwoman, and Hugo Strange -- a dude in a tux who steals things just isn't particularly exciting or interesting. Batman himself is really out of character throughout -- laughing and acting like crime-fighting is a big joke, and caring more about rescuing jewels than nabbing the bad guy. But hey, nice to see Linda Page again!

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