Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Detective Comics #79 (September, 1943)

"Destiny's Auction"
Writer: Don Cameron
Artist: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: Judy O'Casson is an aspiring young actress who hopes to break into broadway. She visits a gypsy fortune teller named Madame Calagra who tells her that her name shall be written large for all to see and she will move from humble lodgings to a great palace. Judy thinks this means she's gonna get her big break, but actually it means she's behind on her rent and getting evicted. The landlady won't even let her into the room to get her trunk until she pays what's owed! That's cold.
Tremaine Wentworth is an over-the-hill character actor who visits Madame Calagra and is told that he will take on a new role in which his past will be overshadowed. So Tremaine walks home thinking he's gonna have a big comeback, glad he hung on to his trunk full of momentos of his stardom days, and gets hit by a car and wakes up in hospital without any memory of who he was. Truly, Madame Calagra is from the douchey ironic school of fortune telling.
Diamond Pete Ransome is a diamond thief (don't say?) who visits Calagra and is told that strong fighters will follow him and help him enter a heavily guarded place. Ransome figures this means his hoods will help him break into a jewelry shop and steal some diamonds. The goons are still shook up because they had to kill a night watchman on their last job and haven't even been able to fence the diamonds from it yet because they're too hot, so they're stored in Ransome's hidden trunk. But Ransome's confident because, after all, he got a fortune told by a gypsy
Anyways, turns out the strong fighters who follow him are actually Batman and Robin, and after they beat up him and his mean they help him enter a heavily guarded place, which is to say - jail! So now we've got three people, and three trunks. We can all see where this is going, yeah?
A whole year passes, and Ransome's getting released from prison. Bruce and Dick decide to check up on him and follow him from the prison to see if he leads them to the still missing diamonds from the earlier heist. Ransome drives back to his old digs, but of course his trunk is gone, after being unclaimed for a year it's been turned over to be offered up for public auction!
As it turns out, Judy has just returned to Gotham with the money to buy her trunk back from that landlady - but the landlady has also turned the unclaimed trunk over for auction!
And golly, what a coincedence, but Tremaine Wentworth has undergone an insulin shock treatment that's restored his memory! And he's also got a trunk he needs to get that's up for auction!
Well, I think we can see where this is going. 
Judy shows up first and wins the auction on the first trunk, with Wentworth getting the second and Pete the third. Of course, they all get the wrong trunks. Batman and Robin have been following Pete and bust in for a quick fight before it turns out they have Wentworth's trunk full of old costumes and disguises.
Things get hilarious when the Dynamic Duo realizes they have no grounds for arresting or harassing Pete - technically, they're breaking and entering, and Pete purchased the trunk and its contents legally! So they have to leave him alone!
But they figure if Pete has Wentworth's trunk, maybe he has the one with the stolen diamonds. So they hightail it to his place, but all Wentworth got in his trunk was the typescript of a hitherto unknown play by a master playwright - which is cool, but not stolen blood diamonds, y'know? They realize the real trunk therefore MUST be with Judy, and head off to get her - but they've been unknowingly eavesdropped upon by Pete and his goons who've used Wentworth's old stuff to disguise themselves.
Pete makes it to Judy first, but just as he's about to straight up just throw her out a window to her death Batman spots her in time and swoops down on a bat-line and rescues her. Hot damn! Wentworth recognizes the disguises and Batman puts two and two together and we get our climatic fight scene. 
Turns out the famous dead playwright wrote his greatest play just for Judy, but could never find anyone to produce it (maybe it's not so great then?) and then died. She carried the script around to everyone in town but no one would bite (maybe it's... not so great then?) So Batman offers to get BRUCE WAYNE to put up the dough!
The play opens with Judy starring and Wentworth in a supporting role! It's a hit, she becomes a star and Wentworth's career is reignited! And with Pete in jail, about to get the electric chair for murder, it looks like all those old gypsy prophecies came true after all!
Curious, Bruce and Dick visit the fortuneteller, who tells them all she sees is a swirling mist and a bony finger pointed in warning -- for they are the hand of fate! 
They are understandably freaked out by this.
Thoughts and Review: So this is another entry into what I've started thinking of as the "literary" genre of Golden Age Batman. These stories try to be about "real" people, try to present a cast of various characters all pulled into the "drama", try to talk about social issues or perhaps just be a bit more sophisticated in their storytelling. They try to be more complex and clever than the standard bank-robbers-with-a-gimmick plot. They're cool - sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. Sometimes thirteen pages is too little to try to write in a "novelistic" manner, sometimes they're too few to drag a weak plot across.
But they always seem like they're trying to hard. Like a writer trying to prove he's better than the series he's writing for. 
I don't know where I stand on this one. I love the art, but the story's a big bag of meh.
The Art: It's all Jerry Robinson, so of course it's gorgeous. I mean, I love this guy's unique blend of cartooning, realism, light, shadow, detail, grit, grime and bravura. The thin line work isn't always very well reproduced in modern reprints, but it's still some really fantastic stuff. I've compared it to the work of George Freeman on Captain Canuck before, and that's still what it reminds me of, except of course that here's Robinson doing it forty years earlier. The art saves this story. It's great.
The Story: The story itself, thinks too highly of itself and is based entirely on one forced dramatic contrivance after another. It's all coincedences and happenstance masquerading as plot. Of course, it also suffers the number one problem of these "literary" stories. Without fail, they're always based around some new random characters we've never met, investing them with character development and pathos and all that, and we're never going to meet them again. Batman and Robin become observers and guest stars in their own feature. They can never get character development, they must remain static, two-dimensional, cardboard cutouts to facillitate more stories. 
It's not that I don't like the writing or I don't appreciate these kinds of stories, but I've seen Bill Finger write better and I know better is possible - if maybe not on the kind of demanding schedule Batman demanded of approximately forty-five stories per year. Granted, I think Batman appears in just as many if not far more comics at once nowadays - but I also feel quantity over quality wins the day now, just as it did then.

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