Author: Bob Kane
And we're back! After a long hiatus, Batman Completion will resume its weekly schedule, starting with the last few issues of 1941 and moving on to 1942.
This post is dedicated to Paul. Sorry it took so long, Paul!
Before we begin the story proper, please note that this is the cover of the whole issue:
oh dear god it's become self-aware
The horror, I feel, cannot be understated. And on that note, let's read a children's story about murderous, murderous gangsters! Woo!
Man, if Fox News was unhappy about Obama's other Czars, just wait 'til they hear about this.
Usually, you'll agree, once Batman catches the bad guys, they either die, confess, or at least seem a bit put out. Big Mike, on the other hand, is not only okay with going to prison, but happy! Even what I can only assume are two neck holes as the result of a life-long smoking habit don't get him down:
"Everything's--" *cough, wheeze* "--comin' up Russo!"
He gets twenty years in the state pen, and tells the judge with a sneer, "I been needin' a vacation anyway!" What's got him so... is equanimitous a word? Fuck it, it is now. Well, maybe this is a clue:
Is this a prison or a Hollywood premiere?
The warden spells it out--ironically, in an attempt to give his own version of the "Put your trust in the Lord" speech. "Russo," he says, "you were a big shot once--but that was outside these walls--now you're inside." What the warden fails to realize is that Big Mike is a celebrity, now in a building full of admirers. Russo strides through the prison like he owns the place, saying "long time no see" to all his old chums. He even gets mandatory prison sex on his terms! At least I think that's what they're talking about here:
Try not to think about this too hard.
But Big Mike isn't just planning on getting by; no, Russo's in it to win it. And with the entire prison population at his beck and call, that's not too hard to arrange. Russo's men on the outside kidnap the Warden on his way home, and with the help of a little makeup, and samples of the warden's speech patterns (from his appearances in newsreels and radio programs, naturally), they're able to come up with an imposter Warden--
"A clever makeup job--but he's a head taller than me, moron."
And the imposter Warden arrives at the island prison with plenty of imposter guards, in a wonderfully moody panel which makes excellent use of color and negative space:
Oh, right, I need a joke here. So two Batmans walk into a bar... Batmen? Crap, I'm almost out of spa--
I really like how neatly the plan unfolds. A fake driver gets them a fake Warden gets them fake guards into the prison. The fake guards take the real guards alive, and Russo gives the real guards the old "carrot and stick" speech. The carrot: "play ball with me and you'll be eatin' outa gold plates!" And the stick?
As he threatened the guards, Big Mike remembered his tragic backstory: as a child he made a face, and it stuck that way. Now only crime could fill the hole in his heart...
So far this is legitimately pretty excellent--a really interesting premise, colorful characters, really nice art, Batman already six steps behind, and the promise of our hero's difficult assault on a prison-turned-island fortress. Also there are a number of wonderful little touches--I love how, when Russo is freed by his men, the first thing he does is change into some comfortable shoes, after the painful prison standard issues.
Anyway, Russo gets the guards, but he isn't done recruiting. He decides to keep most of the prisoners in line and unaware, so his secret takeover remains secret for now; but he does free the worst of the worst, the condemned men on "Murderer's Row". So begins one of my favorite parts of any Batman comic, the Epic Crime Spree! Sometimes this is just told in normal panels, the comic equivalent of a montage, but sometimes, as it is here, we get something special, more expressionistic than Batman normally gets. Take a look:
It's like a beautiful dream! A beautiful, carcinogenic dream.
And the best part? After each crime, Russo's boys flee by motor boats back to prison--the last place the Coast Guard expects them to go.
But enough about the plot! As the issue finally brings Batman in, it continues the surprisingly well-developed themes. Specifically, what we're exploring here is the philosophical concept of reality--how it relates to image, and how you tell the difference.
We've already seen several conflicts along these lines. There are two different competing images of Russo; is he the defeated criminal, out of sight and out of mind, like every crook at the end of a Batman story? Or is he a celebrity, triumphantly arriving in a place he can control? Russo has in a certain sense imposed his will on reality, turning the very site of his imprisonment into the seat of a criminal empire.
Then there are the two Wardens Higgins. They look the same; act the same; talk the same; and the false Warden even carries on the normal prison business for most of the inmates. In fact, their main difference appears to be that the real Warden (as seen in a newsreel) believes in capital punishment, while the fake one (under Russo's orders) lets the condemned men go free. Is that a difference in kind, or only in degree?
And don't forget the guards--once Russo imposes his standard gang conditions on them (work for me and earn riches, reject me and earn death), are they any different from their imposters? How do we differentiate between reality and pretense? The next page begins to answer that question.
The new act begins with a movie shoot (by "World Studios", presumably a play on Universal) of a bank robbery scene, and I do mean shoot:
Notice how the actual robber's shoe breaks through the panel border as he breaks the movie's fourth wall.
Before the cops realize what's happened, spectator Bruce Wayne (you may have heard of him) recognizes that the crook was firing real bullets. The "bogus movie truck", as the narration terms it, pulls away as the robber hops on, with a quickly-changed Batman following. (Is it bogus, though? Does the answer change depending on whether or not there's film in the camera?)
In the ensuing chase, Batman catches sight of the robber's face, and recognizes him as Trigger Sherman, who should be on Death Row. Batman tells Commissioner Gordon he surmises that Russo is behind all this somehow, and a skeptical Gordon takes Batman on a guided tour of North Island Prison, where the assumed reality and the actual reality have temporarily aligned:
Fanfiction idea: Batman struggles with unpopularity while attending a high school for criminals. Teen Batman in... "Prison High"
Gordon and Batman visit Trigger Sherman, nicely behind bars where he should be, and then check on Mike Russo. While they trade sarcastic pleasantries (of the "Oh no, my good sir, the pleasure is all mine, I'm sure, sneer sneer" variety), Batman is again the only one to notice the false note--or rather, the only true note:
"The guards simply didn't notice. Neither did I... I mean, seriously, how often do you really look at a man's shoes?"
Now, having noticed this tiny discrepancy, Batman could act overtly here--beat the truth out of Trigger Sherman, for instance, or ask Gordon to have Russo transfered to another prison. Instead, he fights illusion with illusion.
"I like my soap hard, with lots of grit in it! Nothin' cleans yer deep places like a wet wad of sandpaper!"
Following the second most important rule of prison, "Killer" beats somebody up on the first day. The fact that he chooses a guard for this is probably what gets the attention of one of Russo's men. They recruit "Killer"--in actuality, of course, Bruce Wayne under a lot of makeup--and plan on pulling a warehouse job that very night. But how does he get a message over the wall to Robin? By writing it on a baseball, of course.
Only Batman could casually insert "step 4, hit a home run on demand" into his complicated crime-fighting plan. He's just so damn American!
At the warehouse, however, Wayne's secret is literally brought to light:
"Uh... no, I, uh... I just got that face meltin' disease! You know, the one that melts your face?"
Batman and Robin fight valiantly, but the plot requires them to lose, so they get outnumbered just because. (In my opinion, they did not meet the minimum number of puns in order to win.) I don't mind, though, because this is always a fun plot development:
Batman, behind bars? How delightfully absurd!
Russo details his plan for Batman: oddly enough, the caped crusader will be executed precisely according to current state law, in the prison's gas chamber. For those of us who don't know how it works, a gas chamber was literally a small room where the condemned prisoner was strapped to a chair. Underneath the chair was a pan of water; a lever would release several chemical tablets, which would dissolve into poison gas when it hit the water. Russo intends to follow this procedure to the letter--although he'll put in one tablet instead of three, giving Batman a "lingering death".
In fact, Batman even gets a darkly comic last meal:
Robin you coward! (Also, what the hell is he serving? Dog food?)
In his infinite kindness--and increasing convergence with the reality of the post he's assumed--Russo even lets Batman have his last words with Robin. (No, no conjugal visit.) Our hero's final speech, however, isn't dramatic, defiant, or even noble. Here they are, they last words of the Batman:
"I wish I had a Burpo Seltzer Tablet!"
Batman claims that his stomach is bothering him after his last meal, and Big Mike lets Robin get Batman some tablets. Batman all but hits Robin over the head with his plan, and finally the dumb kid gets it. They lock Robin into a cell, but he's able to escape with the help of a magnet constructed from the wireless set in his belt. But can he get to the gas chamber in time to save Batman? IS THIS THE END OF MY BLOG?!
Hah! "Breathless minutes." Good one, Narrator.
Anonymous Thug there is right to doubt his senses. As soon as they pull Batman out of the gas chamber, he comes back to life. In a flurry of fists, he and Robin punch right through to reality:
"Take that, Plato's Parable of the Cave!"
Batman takes out Russo...
...and Robin tricks the rest of the goons by threatening to drop the "cyanide tablets" into a bucket of water and kill them all. Time for a denouement panel!
Batman has the final word, here: even if you can't tell what's real or isn't based on your senses, you can still think (and punch) your way to an empirical truth. Dress up all you want, but in the end, life and death and pain will always out. Truly, these are deep, meaningful ideas about the nature of the universe.
This Issue Brought To You By Burpo Seltzer Tablets
"Burpo: It's Not Cyanide!"™