Bat Signal

Issue 168 – “The Man Behind the Red Hood!”

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I’ve covered some very diverse and fun issues of Detective Comics during this project. I’ve hit almost every one of the classic villains, and have samples from very disparate eras of the comic, and every decade. But we haven’t hit a really famous issue yet. I haven’t even really landed in any events. That Poison Ivy one I did was kind of tangentially related to the No Man’s Land story, but other than that things have just been pretty normal on here. Nothing too crazy, and no issues that have been famous or even infamous. I mean, I haven’t even hit that silly one where Batman wears a different colored costume every day. But look what we have here! This is a super famous issue, introducing the idea of the Red Hood, and giving an origin story for a special guest villain. I kind of assume if you’re familiar with Batman, you know where this issue goes, but what the hell, let’s pretend you don’t and not give the twist away until the end. So let’s get to it!

The issue starts off with Commissioner Gordon calling Batman and Robin to the Gotham State University. But it’s not to report a crime, it turns out it’s to get Batman a job. The University is starting a new criminology program, and they want Batman to be a guest lecturer. Which is a spectacular idea. I’m on record as a huge fan of Batman as the World’s Greatest Detective, and I love the concept of Batman being a professor, teaching the students of State University all about crime, and wasting their parent’s tuition money. So professor Batman starts teaching the kids the ropes of crime-fighting, letting them know all the ins and outs of solving crimes. Which isn’t exactly what criminology is, but whatever. And a couple weeks later as the course begins to wind down, Professor Batman proposes a final test. Solve the only crime he was unable to solve. The mystery of the Red Hood!

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So basically, ten years ago there was a sudden crime-wave in Gotham perpetrated by a mysterious criminal who called himself the Red Hood. He wore a tuxedo and a shiny red mask that was devoid of features, and didn’t even have eye holes. He always seemed to  be one step ahead of Batman, left no clues, and managed to escape every crime. And it all culminated in a foiled robbery of a playing card factory, when he escaped by jumping into some sort of chemical vat from the factor next-door. Batman tried to dredge the river, but was confident that no one could have survived the chemical, even though it drained out into the river. And yet, no body was every recovered. But the Red Hood never returned, so the case has gone cold. Which seems like a pretty damned impossible final exam Professor Batman!

But the kids aren’t really that daunted, and dive into the investigation, even going so far as to announce to the local paper that they’ve reopened the Red Hood cases. Which is never a good idea when dealing with mysterious criminals, because it obviously inspires the Red Hood to return. And his first stop is to rob the college’s payroll. And thus, the second Red Hood crimewave begins. Batman and Robin show up to save the day, but the Red Hood is able to stay one step ahead of them, and leads them on a crazy chase through the university. And it ends when Batman corners the Red Hood in some sort of creepy basement room with a poison gas furnace or something. And the Red Hood’s gone. But he couldn’t have survived in the poison gas line, so Batman’s out of ideas again. That is until he notices that a hat was dropped in the chase, and there just so happens to be a hair in it! However Robin ruins that lead when they get to the Batcave and he gets a lamp too close to the hair, causing it to burn. But Batman saves the day with this crazy idea.

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Yep, Robin’s weird fiber un-burner has turned the hair green. Well, that’s just nonsense, so they ignore that MASSIVE clue, and just keep pondering. Which is helped by those students, who have figured some stuff out. The students put together a replica of the Red Hood’s mask, and discovered that he was probably using two-way glass for the eyes of the mask, and that he probably fit a gas-mask into the hood, which explained how he survived both the original chemical fall, and the escape in the poison furnace. So with these clue’s figured out, Batman is ready to take on the Red Hood when he shows up again. And wouldn’t you know, he does just that later that night, when he shows up at the University to steal some sort of Mayan idol that they have. But after another foot-race through the University, they’re able to catch the Hood! And he’s a janitor! Wait, what?

Yeah, they found some groundskeeper during the race, but he claims he was just an innocent bystander. Which seems to hold up, since he isn’t wearing any of the Hood’s outfit. So they ignore that, and Batman sets up a new trap for the Red Hood, with some fancy trophy getting displayed at the University. And of course, the Red Hood shows up again, and Batman swiftly stops him. But this time, with no other excuses, Batman removes the Hood and is shocked to find that same stupid groundskeeper. What the hell? Well, it turns out the groundskeeper found the real Red Hood after that first payroll robbery, and managed to subdue him. But instead of turning the Red Hood in, he just took the costume and started a half-assed crime spree. So who’s the real Red Hood? Well they go to the shed that the groundskeeper stuck him in, and we see that the Red Hood is the…Joker! Yep! The Red Hood has been the Joker all along, and we get a truncated version of the Joker’s origin story, where he claims to have been a lab worker who decided to steal a million dollar before retiring, and devised the Red Hood persona. But when he tried to steal from the playing card factory, and Batman stopped him, he dove into the chemicals, and turned into the Joker. So, there we go. The Red Hood, and the Joker, have been stopped, and Professor Batman’s course evaluation is probably pretty great.

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What a fun issue. I’ve talked before about the fact that I’ve really cooled on the Joker as a character over the years, and one of the reasons for that is the whole “no identity” thing. When I was a teenager that was one of his most endearing qualities. The idea that he could be anyone, and no one. That he was this force of nature. Chaos. There had been several different backgrounds for the Joker, most pretty similar to this one, but they all tended to be a little different, implying that none of them may actually be accurate. And while that seemed really cool when I was younger, it’s something that’s really made me not like the character as much. I love Two-Face, and one of the main reasons for that love is the way his past interacts with Batman, and Bruce Wayne’s. Two-Face has an identity, and it can be used for dramatic effect. Joker’s just a boogeyman, with very little depth. But it was interesting to finally read his first origin story. It’s pretty similar to the one presented in the Killing Joke, but that story didn’t feature Batman as a professor, and instead has a lot of implied rape, so I’m definitely going to favor this one. And it was actually a lot of fun. I just love issues from this era, and seeing Batman and Robin running around a college campus while trying to stop and old foe and put on a decent class was pretty great. The twist of the Joker at the end was actually very well done, and I feel like it was probably pretty damned shocking back in 1951. Just a good effort all around.

“The Man Behind the Red Hood! “was written by Bill Finger and drawn by Lew Schwartz and Win Mortimer, 1951.

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