Monday, September 19, 2016

Detective Comics #328 (June, 1964)

"Gotham Gang Line-Up!"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Sheldon Moldoff
Inks: Joe Giella
Synopsis: Commissioner Gordon phones the Batcave on the new Hotline phone (who wired that thing anyway? Did Bruce Wayne hafta kill a phone company employee?) but the Dynamic Duo is off having an adventure in World's Finest so his tape recorder answering machine gets the call! I think this is meant to seem pretty high end and modern, since while commercial answering machines first became available in 1949, they were hella expensive and didn't really find mass use until the mid 80s.
Anyways, Alfred listens to the message, which explains that the "Tri-State Gang" (literally just a combine of the biggest mobs in three adjoining states) is meeting somewhere in Gotham and Batman should investigate. Y'know, because the GCPD has other shit to do than look into a major organized crime meet.

Anyways, since the masters are away, Alfred figures he'll get some of the legwork done in advance by looking into their one lead on the Tri-State Gang, a guy named Paul Pardee. Alfred goes to Pardee's suburban home on a motorcycle and tails him as he leaves...
Batman and Robin get home and find a "left to follow a mobster, back soon" note from Alfred and get worried. They take the new Batmobile to Pardee's home, and then track Alfred's motorcycle using the infrared trail that it left behind which is illuminated by the Batmobile's headlights (an old-school Bat-Family trick dating back to the Golden Age!)
It leads to the "Old Gotham Prison" which has been "deserted for years". See, this is what happens when you leave old buildings like that lying around, they turn into criminal hideouts...
With the Dynamic Duo deducing that Alfred is a prisoner inside, they attempt to sneak inside, but the prison is wired with cameras being watched live by the members of the Tri-State Gang inside, who have indeed captured Alfred. Thanks to various traps set by the gangsters on the entrances, the Dynamic Duo are easily (perhaps too easily) captured, and then lined up in the prisoner line up in a panel which provides the inspiration for the Carmine Infantino cover of this issue. Which, in typical Silver Age DC fashion, has very little to do with the story at all and is mostly there for its "wtf" quality that intrigues you to buy the issue. 
As is, it's merely a setting as the criminals argue which of them should have the privilege of killing Batman and Robin. Ultimately the "chairman" of their group solicits each of them to plead their case of why they deserve it most, and so each of the gangsters describe a past foiled crime in turn (including one that involves a foiled attempt to rob jewelry used in the filming of the 1963 Elizabeth Taylor Cleopatra movie, which is hilarious). Ultimately one guy wins because it was his brother who got the jailtime, so that makes it personal.
Amazingly, Batman gets to learn their ultimate scheme because he plays the "condemned man gets a last request" and the gangsters tell them they plan to steal secret buried pirate treasure that's on the outskirts of Colonial Gotham, that they learned about from an "authentic" map, but they have to do it tonight because a new building foundation is being started there tomorrow!
At which point if I was Batman I'd ask him which Nigerian prince sent the map, but since the World's Greatest Detective takes this seriously, I guess I should too. Meanwhile, Alfred's locked up in one of the cells, and hears that once the criminals will return, Batman and Robin will be executed -- while the Dynamic Duo overhear the same thing about Alfred.
The Caped Crusaders decide they need to escape, so Batman breaks out of their handcuffs because he's "mastered all of Houdini's famous handcuff escapes!" and its as simple as that. Then he unravels his wool socks to make a lasso, throws it across the hall and hooks it on a radiator, and trips the guard! They grab his keys and escape.

Meanwhile a guard comes to take Alfred to his end, but Alfred gets the drop on him and escape. Both parties reach the other's cells to see it empty and assume that they've arrived too late. 
  They both make it to their vehicles to head to Colonial City to stop the criminals, who are already using construction equipment to dig for the buried treasure. The Batmobile arrives first, as the Dynamic Duo races to the scene. Alfred pulls up in his motorcycle but spots the crooks about to drop a boulder on the heroes from a steam shovel -- he races over on his motorcycle to push them out of the way, and...
Alfred is crushed to death by the boulder.

The heroes go nuts, beat up the crooks, use a bulldozer to push them into the pit they were digging and wait for the cops to show up. Then Batman picks up Alfred's lifeless body and they go home. As Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, they arrange his funeral. Bruce wishes for the world to never forget Alfred's sacrifice, so he starts The Alfred Foundation, a charitable organization housed in a skyscraper in downtown Gotham, that will "contribute to the betterment of all mankind".And then someone arrives at the door of Wayne Manor. Who could it be? Why it's Dick Grayson's completely unknown-to-this-point Aunt Harriet Cooper! Yes, when she heard Alfred was dead she rushed straight over to come take care of Bruce and Dick and watch over their health and pamper them and treat them as little boys! And she doesn't know their secret identities! This will cause some complications!! Woooaaaah!
Thoughts and Analysis: Wow. It's a bit hard for modern comics readers I think to really appreciate how utterly shocking this issue must have been for readers in 1964. For one thing, comics will still firmly under the grip of the Comics Code Authority, and were still firmly aimed at an age range of about 8-12 year olds. So for a major character like Alfred, who'd been around for 21 years at this point, which considering Batman had been around for 25 basically means forever, to be killed off, firmly and definitively with no goofy Silver Age workaround in the last two panels, well, it must have been a huge shock. I mean it's just there, Alfred is dead. And the other part of "characters didn't die all the time back then" was the collolary that characters didn't come back to life if they'd been killed. For anyone reading this book in 1964, Alfred was dead. It's not even a ploy to boost sales -- they don't even mention or tease or hype it on the cover at all! And trust me, hyping teases on the cover was the Silver Age's whole deal.
So why did this happen? Well the scuttlebutt I always heard was that Julie Schwartz had Alfred killed because here in 1964, ten years after the accusations were first made, DC was still worried about the insinuations that Batman and Robin were in a pedophilac gay relationship. Now, back in 1956 DC had introduced Batwoman and Bat-Girl as chaste romantic interests for the boys to combat these rumours, but Schwartz had ditched them alongside Bat-Mite, Bat-Hound and all the other silly stuff with the New Look relaunch.

So the idea was that if Bruce and Dick were being looked after by a maternal caretaker instead of a male servant, then y'know, clearly they can't be gay because they've got Dick's Aunt living with them and cleaning up after them! 

Personally, I don't buy it. I have a different theory about why Aunt Harriet was introduced. Let's see, she doesn't know their secret identities, meaning they have to sneak around getting in and out of the house, and she overmothers them to a comedic extent. Hmmm, what other comic book character, perhaps someone in a really popular series from a competitor, does that sound like?? 
The Art: I get that the division between Carmine Infantino and Sheldon Moldoff on these comics was a contractual arrangement (Sheldon Moldoffn working for Bob Kane gets Batman and every second Detective Comics issue) but it does feel odd that with Infantino being the leading artistic force on the New Look and this being such a significant issue, that it's Moldoff on art duties. That said, Moldoff continues to improve his game, developing more and more as he stretches his muscles beyond the awful carboard Bob Kane impersonation he's been doing for years. There are some really effective and dramatic close-ups in the issue, which helps with the emotional nature of the story.
The Story: So, while it's a significant story, I can't really say it was a good one? In an age where Marvel Comics is starting to do full issue stories that really give plots and characters room to develop and breath, maybe Schwartz should have considered nixing the Elongated Man story in this issue for once, because 15 pages makes this story rushed and run on coincedence and happenstance. I mean, I could talk about the fact that the criminal plotline is complete nonsense, and how Alfred's death is a super sudden left turn. That in itself could be argued as a plus or minus, shock value versus significance, but then we spend like four panels on our heroes' reaction to it before BAM Aunt Harriet shows up and things get wacky! Somewhere in there Bruce establishes a charitable foundation, which is actually the third major status quo change in this comic, and actually the longest lasting -- Bruce Wayne becomes a philanthropist and has something to actually do in his life. He runs a charity hoping to help society in his civillian life as much as he helps it as Batman. Puts his money where his mouth is. It's a big shift in how his character is portrayed and it's a sidenote in the whirlwind ending of this book, which is structured as just a standard adventure for a long time and then BAM! twist ending. It kind of works, kind of doesn't -- but overall I just feel like maybe it could have had more impact if DC was copying things like story structure from Marvel rather than character types. Oh, and one last thing...
IF DICK HAS HAD A MATERNAL AUNT THIS ENTIRE TIME, WHY THE HELL DID HE BECOME BRUCE WAYNE'S WARD AFTER HIS PARENTS DIED?? Wouldn't that have only happened if there was no one to take care of him? His parents were travelling circus acrobats and he's had an Aunt this whole time? Who we've never seen, but knows he lives with a millionaire in Gotham City?? Wouldn't she have gotten custody of him then?? It makes NO SENSE and makes me UPSET.
Notes and Trivia: Death of Alfred, establishment of the Alfred Foundation charity organization, first appearance of Aunt Harriet Cooper

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