Bat Signal

Issue 88 – “The Merchants of Misery”

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Greetings everyone, and welcome back to another installment of Bat Signal, my ongoing quest to read every issue of Detective Comics, in random order, and with basically no context between issues. And we have a surprisingly fun issue to talk about today, folks. Pulling issues from this early in Batman’s history can often be kind of a crap-shoot. The Golden Age is obviously very important in setting up the tropes and foundational characters that would go on to create the comics industry as we know it today, but a lot of the actual stories from the Golden Age aren’t exactly that great. They were still figuring things out. But today we get a legitimately fun Batman story featuring some really spectacular Dick Sprang art. It’s pulpy, it’s weird, and it’s fun. What more could you ask for? Besides Batman and Robin getting really tiny and punching a guy in the nose. Sadly, the cover does not deliver on that promise. But it’s still great!

The issue begins by establishing that there’s a new predatory loan operation running in Gotham City, preying on poor people just trying to scrape by, and that often ends in murder. And the latest man to fall for this trap is a mild-mannered nightwatchman named George Simpson. He’s barely providing for his wife and young daughter, and when his daughter becomes ill enough to warrant an extended hospital stay he decides he needs to do something to find money. He makes it clear to some friends that he’s in desperate need for some quick cash, and a weasely stranger approaches him on the street, saying that he works for a kind man who gives money to people down on their luck. So, George goes to meet with the man, who is called Big-Hearted John, and who is a laughable caricature of a man. Big-Hearted John has George sign some paperwork, and gives him the money he needs to pay for his daughter’s procedure. But, as soon as George is out of the office, Big-Hearted John and his cronies start laughing about how badly they’re about the screw that guy over.

 

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Things then quickly start to fall apart for George Simpson. He’s able to pay off his daughter’s hospital bills, but as soon as that’s taken care of Big-Hearted John’s goons start coming around, taking every cent he has in repayment. It reaches the point that they’ve taken literally everything George owns, leaving him in a position where the goons begin threatening to hurt him and his family. They rough him up a bit in front of his wife and daughter, and promise to come get him that night at the construction field where he works if he can’t get them the rest of their money. And, that night, they arrive and jump George, beating the hell out of him. However, that beating draws the attention of Batman and Robin, who just happened to have been passing by.

The Dynamic Duo leap into action, and make quick work of Big-Hearted John’s goons. They beat the men up, joking all the while, and then prepare to call the police and have them arrested. But, George stops them. He explains his whole situation to them, and says that if they’re arrested it’ll just give him more grief. So, Batman and Robin let the crooks go, and promise to help George bring down Big-Hearted John. And, to do so, they do one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen Batman do. Bruce and Dick create new identities for themselves, rent an apartment, and get jobs working on the docks, just so they seem like realistic poor people. They then approach Big-Hearted John for a loan, which he obviously gives them. Bruce and Dick then spend weeks living as these fake people, getting harassed by Big-Hearted John’s men, and getting fleeced for the earnings they make from their real jobs. And, it all comes to a head when Big-Hearted John’s goons arrive at the docks, and try to rough Bruce up. But, instead of getting his ass kicked, Bruce fights back.

 

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It may seem like that course of action doesn’t really fit in with the elaborate character that Bruce has created, but he has a reason. He and Robin have established that Big-Hearted John and his men are running a predatory loan agency, but there’s technically nothing illegal about that. Bruce needs to confirm that they would resort to murder. So, he beats up the goons enough to piss them off, so that that night they’ll come to try and murder Bruce and Dick’s characters. And, when the men arrive and start firing machine guns into the apartment they rented, Batman and Robin swoop down and catch them in the act. The Dynamic Duo and the goons have a brutal fight on the fire escape outside Bruce and Dick’s apartment, and in the process Batman is thrown off of the escape, collapsing onto the street below. It knocks Batman out, and when Robin goes to help him, he too is knocked out by the goons.

Batman and Robin are then taken to Big-Hearted John’s hideout, where he’s not too pleased to see them. He immediately realizes that they must have been put on his trail by George Simpson, and decides that Simpson needs to be rubbed out. So, he has Batman and Robin placed inside of a giant safe where they’ll presumably suffocate, and he and his men head out to kill George Simpson. And, inside the safe, Batman starts thinking fast, and ends up making an improvised bomb that he uses the destroy the safe’s lock, freeing them, and also knocking them both unconscious. When Batman and Robin awake, they dash off to save George Simpson, and find him at the under-construction skyscraper that he guards at night, where Big-Hearted John and his men are preparing to hang him. Batman and Robin then throw themselves at the villains, and in the surprise of seeing the Dynamic Duo alive, Big-Hearted John loses his balance and falls off the skyscraper, to his death. The goons are then arrested, the loan operation is ended, Batman returns George’s money, and Batman and Robin head off to fight crime another day.

 

 

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This issue was a total and complete delight. And, I think the main thing that I loved about the issue was how different it was from most other stories I’ve read from this era of comics. Most Golden Age Batman stories that I’ve covered have revolved around Batman and Robin tracking down some one-shot gangster villain, being one step behind them the entire time, and then having a set-piece in the vast wilderness outside Gotham City. But, this one was a little different. Batman and Robin don’t even show up for a bulk of the story, instead following George Simpson for quite a while. We get a fun little crime comic that Batman and Robin just happen to show up into. They set aside their lives, create fully-realized fake lives, all to help some random guy they meet one night. Because they’re heroes, god damn it! And, instead of being about some random thug who found a cursed ring or something, it’s about a shitty dude who operates a predatory loan operation. People like Big-Hearted John still operate today, and are thriving on a massive scale. It’s a very human and realistic story, and I kind of appreciated that. It also helps that this is some of my favorite Dick Spring art I’ve ever seen. I’ve always been a fan of Sprang and his designs, but something about his work on this issue really pops for me. No one looks like real humans. They’re all weirdly exaggerated, looking like a bunch of caricatures. And, while they may not work all the time, I think it really complimented this down-to-Earth story.

 

 

“The Merchants of Miser” was written by Joseph Greene and penciled, inked, and lettered by Dick Sprang, 1944.

 

 

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