Bat Signal

Issue 169 – “Batman – Boss of the Big House!”

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Hi there 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 essentially no context. And boy do I have a goofy story to share with you today, folks. As we’ve learned over the years that this project has been active, you can never really trust the covers of these Golden Age comics, so we unfortunately aren’t going to see Batman negotiating a hostage scenario after a convict  got Robin in a choke-hold. But, we are going to talk about one of the most convoluted and confounding issues of Detective Comics I’ve ever had the pleasure of unraveling with you all. So, buckle up, because this is a weird one.

The issue begins with Batman and Robin hard at work in the Batcave, trying their best to find proof that a man who’s about to be executed is actually innocent. And, after quite a bit of research, Batman ends up finding a photographic alibi for the man, showing that he was occupied when the murder supposedly happened based on the length of shadows in the photo. Unfortunately, Gotham is currently being wracked with a powerful rain-storm, and it’s knocked out the phone-lines to the prison. So, with only minutes until the innocent man is to be executed, Batman and Robin hop in the Batmobile and begin speeding towards the prison to deliver the evidence. Which, becomes pretty dangerous when they encounter a suspension bridge that is being buffeted by the winds, making it impossible to pass. Luckily, Batman is a wealth of goofy knowledge this issue, and he’s able to anchor the bridge by lassoing a barge, letting them cross the bridge and enter the prison to deliver the evidence.  And, it arrives just on time. The warden takes the evidence, and postpones the execution so they can contact the governor and fix everything.

 

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However, with one mystery solved, Batman already throws himself into another. He notices how strange the warden is walking, and by the time they get to his office Batman is ready to accuse the warden of secretly going blind. And, he’s right! The warden is losing his vision rapidly, and he’s been keeping it a secret for another week until a replacement could get there. But, he’s just had a wonderful idea. Batman should be the interim warden! And, Batman accepts. He and Robin take control of this prison, and begin fulfilling all of their duties, like doing rounds and informing inmates that they’ve been paroled. However, while paroling a man named John Tolmar, something odd happens. Tolmar seems irritated that he’s being released in the morning, which makes the Dynamic Duo rather suspicious. And, that suspicion is validated when Tolmar attempts to break out of the prison that night, racing straight to the part of the prison where inmate files are kept. Batman and Robin are able to stop him, but the whole thing was rather odd.

So, the next morning they start trying to figure out what in the world Tolmar was doing. He had pulled the record of an inmate named George Howlett, who was recently executed, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason. So, Batman decides to keep an eye on Tolmar, which is when he sees the man working in a “shoe repair shop” inside the prison. And, as soon as they start paying attention they find Tolmar’s arm get caught in the machine, causing Batman to spring into action shutting the machine down before he loses his hand. He still gets pretty wounded though, so Tolmar is sent to the prison hospital. Which, still makes Batman suspicious. He’s convinced that Tolmar is up to something, and has decided that the only thing he can do to solve it is to abandon his other duties as warden, pretend to be a new inmate, and enter the prison to figure out what’s going on.

 

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So, Batman becomes “Walter Braden,” and becomes a model inmate. He gets processed by some other convicts, and enters into an aptitude test in order to determine his ideal job at the prison. And, Bruce purposefully aces his medical test, earning him a spot working in the prison hospital so he can get close to Tolmar. He starts spying on Tolmar, and notices that he seems to fidget with his bed-frame a lot. Unfortunately, the convicts who processed “Walter” noticed that he had a graze wound from a bullet in the same place that Batman did during Tolmar’s escape attempt, leading a rumor to start brewing that “Walter” is actually Batman. So, while Bruce is spying on Tolmar, a group of convicts arrive to jump him. The end up flaking before actually attacking him though, but Bruce realizes he needs to do something to throw these men off his track. And, his plan is insane.

His first step is to volunteer for a medical experiment going on in the prison that’s testing a new form of anesthetic on prisoners. The scientists are unsure exactly what the side-effects will be when given to human beings, which gives Bruce and opportunity to go insane. As soon as the ask is put around him he starts wigging out, giving himself a perfect opportunity to race to the warden’s office, dress up as Batman, give Robin his prisoner outfit, and stage a fight between “Walter” and Batman, throwing everyone off their trail. So, now people don’t think that “Walter” is Batman, and he gets to go to the hospital! And, while there he sees a guard come and take Tolmar away to meet with a death-row inmate whose last wish was to see him. This is obviously suspicious, so Bruce pulls his trap. He and Robin suit up and charge in on Tolmar, revealing his plan. See, the convict whose file Tolmar stole earlier left a series of clues to his loot hideout, and Tolmar has been purposefully travelling between the three rooms that the man lived in, where the clues are. Batman and Robin have Tolmar taken away, they hand things over to the new warden, and drive off in the Batmobile, done with this whole weird chapter of their life.

 

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This is a completely insane issue. The basic concept, “Batman and Robin are forced to become wardens of a prison,” is weird enough, but to then have Batman focus on one specific inmate, going so far as to go undercover in said prison really just takes the cake. These early issues of Detective Comics only ever featured stories that were about 13 pages in length, but it’s stories like this that show that they could cram a whole lot of nonsense into 13 pages. So much happens in this story, and so much of it feels like it’s not exactly necessary. I mean, the whole subplot about Bruce pretending to go insane so the other convicts won’t realize he’s Batman is just a wild little idea that didn’t have much to do with anything. But, the thing that seemed weirdest to me was the fact that Batman spent a shocking amount of this issue just tossing out random little factoids and science experiments like he was Encyclopedia Brown. Batman’s always a bit of a know-it-all, and these older stories often feature him tossing out absurd little bits of information, but for some reason he was on rapid-fire this issue, just churning out random ideas that really didn’t need to be in the story. It’s goofy, over-stuffed, and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. In other words, it was a late-Golden Age Detective Comics story.

 

“Batman – Boss of the Big House!” was written by someone, probably Bill Finger, penciled by “Bob Kane” and Lew Sayre Schwartz, inked by Charles Paris, and edited by Whitney Ellsworth, 1951.

 

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