Bat Signal

Issue 398 – “The Poison-Pen Puzzle”

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Hi there everyone and welcome back to another installment of Bat Signal, my ongoing quest to read random issues of Detective Comics with no context or reason. And I have a real weird story for you all this week. Let me tell you right off the bat, the bluster on that cover is very unearned. Not much happens to the Legend of Batman in this comics, it’s a fairly boilerplate mystery, but it’s also very, very strange. Because we honestly have more Bruce Wayne than Batman in this comic, which is something that I’m very interested in. But at the same time, this comic is full of some fascinatingly weird dialogue. Note quite as insane as what Stan Lee thought humans sounded like in the early 70’s, but damn close. Things are going to get real weird in this issue folks, so buckle up and let’s get going.

The issue starts off with Bruce Wayne flying in a commercial airplane, headed to Los Angeles. We learn that he’s traveling to California in order to have Wayne Enterprises buy a film production company. Because Wayne Enterprises does anything and everything. Anyway, Bruce is feeling petulant and when he hears some of the flight attendants gossiping about a famous person aboard, he starts to get worried that they’re going to come bother him. Which raises the question of why he’s on a commercial flight, but whatever. But much to Bruce’s surprise, the flight attendants aren’t interested in him, they’re interested in the woman sitting next to him. Her name is Maxine Melanie, and she’s apparently just written some sleazy tell-all book about Hollywood that everyone’s obsessed with. It’s evidently a novel, but is very clearly dishing dirt on several famous celebrities, and the public is eating the gossip up. Which really bugs Bruce. Especially when he overhears them say that her novel was just optioned by a film studio to be adapted into a movie, and he begins to worry that it may be the studio that he’s about to buy. Bruce then turns into the worst person on Earth, and just starts a random fight with a stranger on a plane, and ends up confirming that the studio he’s about to buy is indeed working with this woman’s sleazy book.

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Hey guys, I think Bruce Wayne is kind of a dick. Anyway, Bruce lands and immediately storms into the board room of the production studio and starts yelling at them for producing this woman’s movie. He straight up tells them that if they make this movie the merger is off. The board members try to talk some sense into Bruce, telling him how profitable this book will be, and he concedes that he’ll read it before shutting down this deal. Unfortunately the advance copy that the studio has appears to be missing. But Bruce just decides to go to a bookstore and buy his own copy, since it just got released that day.

So Bruce heads out into Los Angeles and comes across a bookstore that’s selling the book. He comes into the store, and finds that it’s a madhouse, because Maxine Melanie is there signing people’s books. It’s apparently so popular that people are having to bring their own pens, because all of Maxine’s have died. So Bruce buys the book and strolls over to the signing to try and talk to Maxine. But while he’s waiting in line he sees an old woman push her way to the front of the line, and request Maxine sign her book. Maxine does, but in the middle of signing the book she suddenly shrieks and falls to the ground dead. The people who were surrounding Maxine instantly start freaking out, and stampede around. But Bruce keeps a cool head, and goes after the old woman. Who promptly does a judo toss and throws Bruce across the room. The old lady then escapes, and Bruce is left humiliated on the ground, waiting for the police to arrive. They check over Melanie’s body and find that she was poisoned by a hidden needle in the pen the old woman gave her.

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Well that’s mysterious. And the plot thickens when Bruce realizes that the book the old woman had was an advanced copy, which he assumes was the missing one from the studio. So Bruce storms back to the studio and finds that things have become even more complicated. Because a famous actress whose secrets were spilled in Maxine’s book has just confessed to the crime. Loren Melburn is an important older actress, and one of the studios biggest stars, which really panics the board members further. But they’re also a little worried about other potential suspects. Because Melburn’s husband Dorian Spence also had some secrets exposed in the novel. As did their neighbor Rod Drake. So that all complicates things. Especially when one of the board members come in and announces that Dorian Spence just also admitted to the crime. So Bruce does the only thing he can do, puts on the Batman costume and goes to boss around the local police. He tells them to release both Melburn and Spence, saying that he’ll be able to solve the crime all on his own. And they do that for some reason.

Next Batman heads to the mansion that Melburn and Spence live in and just strolls on in. Both Melburn and Spence seem inconsolable, and don’t seem overly interested in talking to Batman. Melburn insists that he was the one to do it, even though she doesn’t know anything about the pen, and seems to just be repeating what she heard on the news. Batman then considers Spence being the culprit, and tries to attack the old man. The man does manage to toss Batman around like the old lady in the bookstore, but after a bit of grappling Batman still isn’t convinced. So he awkwardly leaves the mansion, and heads over to Rod Drake’s house. And as luck would have it, Drake is waiting for him in the shadows, and he begins telling Batman what he knows. He says that the previous night he heard Melburn and Spence talking about killing Maxine with a poison pen. Which seems a little on the nose. And while Batman is considering this information Drake lunges at Batman with a crowbar. He’s stopped however by Spence, who turns out to have not been the man Batman dealt with inside. The two Spence’s grapple, and Batman is eventually able to help subdue the Spence with the crowbar, who turns out to be Drake in disguise. They then make Drake spill the beans, and we learn that he framed Spence and Melburn because he’d tried to sell Maxine dirt on them in exchange for casting him in the movie. And when she bailed on that plan he flew into a rage and killed her, planning on screwing over Melburn and Spence in the process. But he didn’t count on Batman randomly showing up at the exact same time as Bruce Wayne. What a coincidence!

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This is a very strange issue, but I more or less enjoyed myself reading it. I find it hilarious that Wayne Enterprises just buys any company they want, and are apparently moving into film production. I’m also a big fan of a Batman plot that’s mostly Bruce Wayne. I know that’s kind of sacrilegious, but I would really love to read more stories that featured Bruce Wayne trying to solve the crime without the cape and cowl. He doesn’t get very far in this one without having to bust out the costume, but it’s still an interesting look. The flaw of the issue is probably the fact that it’s dialogue is very shoddily written, and the fact that things get a little complicated by the end. I’m not really sure how Rod Drake convinced Melburn that he was actually her husband, and it honestly would have made more sense if they had revealed that she’d been in on it to frame her husband. But whatever, we got to see Bruce Wayne get beat up by and old lady and then have two of the same man fight each other, which is always fun.

“The Poison-Pen Puzzle” was written by Frank Robbins, penciled by Bob Brown, inked by Joe Giella, and lettered by John Costanza, 1970.

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