RETRO REVIEW: Detective Comics #241 (March 1957)

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Or – “The Lacuna Between Golden And Silver Ages…”

In my mind, the beginning of the Silver Age of Comics is marked by Showcase #4, the first appearance of Barry Allen, in late 1956.  (Some people mark it with the first appearance of J’onn J’onzz in 1955 or Captain Comet in 1951.)  But as with any of the nebulous ages of comics, true Silver Age story-telling didn’t kick in all at once, allowing certain characters to keep up their late-Golden Age antics for many years.  This is one of the most fondly-remembered issues of that weird negative zone of comics (by fans AND by Bat-Mite) but the real reason that we’re covering it is that my seven-year-old keeps asking, “When are you going to write about that story where Batman has the cool rainbow suit?”

Guess there’s no time like the present, unless you’re one of the future people…

DETECTIVE COMICS #241
Writer: Edmond Hamilton
Penciler: Sheldon Moldoff (credited as Bob Kane)
Inker: Stan Kaye
Colorist: Uncredited
Letterer: Uncredited
Editor: Whitney Ellsworth
Publisher: DC Comics
Cover Price: 10 Cents
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $400

Previously, in Detective Comics:  The story is one that we all know:  Young Bruce Wayne, orphaned by a random gunman, devotes his life to stopping crime so that other kids don’t have to watch their mother’s pearls bouncing in the gutters of Crime Alley.  After another criminal kills the Flying Graysons acrobatic team, he adopts their orphaned son to act as his kid sidekick, and inadvertently rewrites the rules of superherodom.  Incidentally, if you like your Dark Knight’s all gritty and wracked with guilt, this may be a new experience for you, as 1950′s Batman is a two-fisted avenger in broad daylight, with honorary police status…  This issue starts with young Richard Grayson taking some air in the streets of Gotham City…

Say what you will about old-school comics storytelling, but that is an incredibly elegant series of panels there, with a heroic turn for Robin, the driving force of the storyline and the complication/Macguffin all generated out of whole cloth in the space of six panels.  Interestingly, when doing the Hero Histories of the Legion of Super-Heroes, I spent hours and hours cursing DC’s production staff for the logo/title page headers that they used, but when I started trimming this one, I couldn’t bring myself to cut them off.  They’re a charming relic of bygone days, but they’re kinda cool.  Not long after Master Grayson’s public injury, the citizenry is baffled by a striking change in modus operandi by a certain Caped Crusader…

The Batman appears soon after in an all-blue variant costume (predating the 1989 toy-line by half a lifetime), and saves the city from a runaway truck full of explosives, causing the populace (and especially the newspapermen of the city) to wonder what’s going on.  Since the criminals that nearly ran down the little girl stole a mobile TV camera, Batman begins appearing anywhere that draws TV news crews to try and draw out the thieves.  And, it becomes clear, the villains are likewise looking for the Dynamic Duo!

Knowing that he’s being targeted, the Dark Knight decides to one-up the criminals, and gets literal with his next costume choice…

Note that this “Why do you think I wear a target on my chest?” moment is about three decades before Frank Miller’s magnum opus, and works exactly the same.  The criminals (you can tell they’re criminals by their hats and the way they don’t take their cigarettes out of their mouths when they talk) have finally rigged up their stolen EFP camera for their sinister plot, leading to a fateful confrontation at the “Moneys Of The World” exhibition at the Gotham Art Museum…

Sooo…  They were showing off real, uncirculated money?  ONE MILLION DOLLARS worth?  And their security wasn’t even good enough to see a camera full of nerve gas?  Man, Commissioner Gordon is slipping.  Of course, the mystery of what exactly Batman has going on with his wacky costumes is still unresolved, as the Bat refuses to explain to the press why he’s been making his various tonsorial adjustments.  Of course, once safely home in the Batcave, he is able to explain to a curious Alfred what has been going on…

He’s been protecting their secret identities by disguising Robin’s injury with a little misdirection, the first trick he learned from his mentor, Penn-Man.  It’s actually a pretty ingenious strategy, given that Robin and Dick Grayson are the same age, size and build, and he wears only a domino mask to protect his identity.  I believe that the story as told on ‘Batman: The Brave & The Bold’ a couple of seasons ago was markedly different, involving a bear that spit chromatic energy, as I recall.  I kinda like this one better, though…  Being as this is an old-school DC book, the rest of the issue is taken up by all sorts of material, including a two-page prose piece about real police officers fighting racketeers, and an adventure of Roy Raymond, whose ‘TV Detective’ gig fits the title of the book…

We also get treated to one of the earliest adventure of J’onn J’onnz in his pre-JLA days, having made his debut in ‘Tec #225 a couple years before…

Interestingly, this tale is all about John Jones, human detective, as he tries to bring in a firebug with a particular hatred for people with the last name “Jones.”  Since our Martian Manhunter has that same name, and a weakness for fire, it’s difficult for him.  Most intriguing to me is the fact that his alien form is only shown as an “invisible” outline when John can’t suss out the mystery in a suit and tie…

I’d be interested in doing some more research into these earliest J.J. adventures, wherein he’s not particularly a superhero at all, but more of a detective with a gimmick (possibly even a gimmick lifted from the TV show ‘My Favorite Martian.”)  Detective Comics #241 is one of those odd in-between books, with all the earmarks of a Golden Age book (anthology format, non-superhero stories, actual book-learnin’ here and there) while also fitting part of the Silver Age mold with it’s superhero emphasis and perplexing cover mystery, earning a very strong 3 out of 5 stars overall.  It’s easy to dismiss all 50′s comics as the doldrums from which the Silver Age sprung, but this one is both memorable and clever in it’s execution…

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Faithful Spoilerite Question Of The Day:  What’s wrong with a smiling, square-jawed Batman as a paragon of virtue?  Is it just that he’s not all bad-@$$ and tormented?