Hello everyone, and welcome back to yet another installment of Bat Signal, my ongoing quest to read every single issue of Detective Comics, in random order, and with basically no context. After a rather spotty month full of accidental weeks off, this project should be back to being the well-oiled machine it has been. And, to get things back on track the random number generator gods have given us an extremely weird little issue to talk about today. It’s got a strange pop-art aesthetic, a classically comic book misunderstanding of radioactivity, and a whole lot of running around the mean streets of Gotham City looking for some incredibly forgettable one-use villains. In other words, it’s a typical issue of Detective Comics. So, let’s get back into the swing of things and figure out what’s wrong with Batman’s mask.
The issue begins in a neighborhood of Gotham City known as Gotham Village. It’s a hip, little enclave full of hipsters, artists, and apparently criminals. And that strange dichotomy has garnered a lot of attention in Gotham City, leading to a battle for the future of the Village. One side wants to raze the Village, getting rid of everyone who lives there, and the other side, led by a man named Roland Meacham, wants to preserve the little enclave. And, Meacham has an ally in Bruce Wayne. Bruce and Dick believe the Village can be saved, and are walking around the street, taking in the sights, when they’re accosted by a young woman named Linda Greene. She starts yelling at Bruce, saying that he shouldn’t be trying to save the Village. Bruce and Dick are pretty confused by this, so they ask Linda to explain her hatred for the Village, and them. She explains that she’s lived in the Village for ages, and has been trying to convince her fiance, Jimmy Packer, to move out of the neighborhood, because of all the crime, but has started to worry that the reason he refuses is that he’s become a criminal himself. She then shows Bruce and Dick a map she found on Jimmy with a red X on it. And this causes quite a reaction to Bruce and Dick.
The story then hops back a few days to a case that the Dynamic Duo were on, hunting down a jewel thief. They were hot on his trail, until Batman races ahead of Robin and went into an apartment that the thief vanished into. And, when that happened, a small explosion was triggered, knocking Batman out. Robin came to his aid, but when Batman woke up Robin noticed something a strange. A glowing X had appeared on Batman’s cowl, right on the forehead. And, as Robin was noticing it, Batman spotted as similar X appearing on Robin’s head. The X’s quickly faded away, but Batman and Robin returned to the Batcave to examine what happened. And, after some tests, they find that they’ve been marked with a strange isotope of phosphorus. Which is lucky for them, because that isotope happens to be so rare that there’s only one chemist in town the thief could have gotten it from. They head to that chemist and find that the only person who has bought this isotope is a man named Frank Fenton.
Batman and Robin then track Fenton down, and find him inside his apartment, playing with all the jewels that he’d stolen the night before. They’re both pretty shocked by this criminal’s brazenness, but when they march into the apartment to stop him, they find themselves unable to control their limbs. Batman and Robin become paralyzed, forced to stand there and watch as Fenton laughs at them, and struts out of the apartment, with the jewels, promising that if Batman and Robin every find him again he’ll just paralyze them again and get off Scott free. Once he’s out of the building though, Batman and Robin regain control of their bodies. They then head back to the Batcave, and start figuring out what the hell happened. Batman eventually discovers a way to get around Fenton’s strange power, and before they explain exactly what that is to us, they start talking about how they’re going to find Fenton again. Apparently a bunch of criminals have been seen hiding out in Gotham Village, so the two head to the Village, out of disguise, to investigate. Which brings us back to the beginning of the issue.
As Bruce and Dick sit there with Linda she notices her fiancee walking past, and points him out to the two men. They then excuse themselves, slip into their costumes, and follow Jimmy, seeing if he leads them to this mysterious hideout. And, he does! They follow Jimmy into an abandoned apartment, and watch him access a hidden entrance in the back of a wardrobe. The Dynamic Duo then slip into the same entrance, and we’re taken to an entire underground city run by criminals. Fenton is inside the massive hideout, talking to the man who runs the place and who goes by Smiler. The underground city has rooms to sleep, shops, a movie theater, and even a travel agency, and Fenton is able to get some serious respect there by claiming he’s beaten Batman and Robin, and has a plan to defeat them every time he sees them.
And, just as it happens, he has an opportunity to prove that, because Batman and Robin come crashing into the room. The criminals all prepare to kill the Dynamic Duo, until Fenton tells them it’s no trouble. He approaches the two crime-fighters, and they both become paralyzed again. Fenton starts laughing at them as Smiler and the rest of the criminals mock them. But, after a couple moments of sizing the situation up, the two spring into action, and start beating everyone up, just as a flurry of police officers come storming into the hidden city. All of the criminals are arrested, and it’s revealed that Smiler is actually Roland Meacham, the man trying to save Gotham Village. And, with that established, we learn how Batman and Robin bested Fenton. Apparently the key to his “ability” was that he had a small device on his person that emitted a form of energy that reacted with the radioactive isotope marked on their heads, causing the motor functions in their brains to malfunction. So, the Dynamic Duo wore lead screens on their heads, blocking the power of the device, and letting them take down Fenton. Oh, and we also learn that Linda’s fiancee wasn’t a criminal, he was just some weirdo who was looking into stopping the criminals of Gotham Village because he hated crime. But the Fenton stuff is the most important.
This was kind of a perfect issue to get back into the swing of things, because it’s kind of a quintessential middle of the road issue of Detective Comics. It’s fine. Nothing too special about it, but nothing too objectionable either. There’s a decent little mystery, a mildly compelling villain, and some fun action. We get to see Batman and Robin do a lot of sleuthing as Bruce and Dick, which I’m always a fan of. I’m also completely in love with the idea of there being an insanely complex hideout under the streets of Gotham City, full of criminals who have created their weird little society. It’s a great idea, and it’s a shame that it only pops up for like, a third of a story. Fenton’s whole little scheme doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and the idea that Batman and Robin strap some lead to their foreheads to combat the radioactivity already blasted into their brains is kind of hilarious in a medically naive sort of way, but overall it ends up being the kind of story that was serviceable in the moment, but will probably fade from my memory in a matter of days.
“The Mystery of the Menacing Mask!” was written by John Broome, penciled by Carmine Infantino, inked by Joe Giella, and lettered by Gaspar Saladino, 1964.
Categories: Bat Signal