Bat Signal

Issue 217 – “The Mental Giant of Gotham City”

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Hi there everyone, and welcome back for yet another installment of Bat Signal, my ongoing quest to read every issue of Detective Comics, in random order, and with essentially no context. We’re taking another trip into the weird world of the early Silver Age, the absolute craziest era of comics when they were just desperately throwing everything at the wall to see what would stick and help the industry from failing. Which, as we’ve seen, led to some incredibly strange stuff. Yeah, not a lot of classic supervillains, since they were deemed a little too hokey at the time, but instead we got a lot of dubious 1950’s science. Which, paired with the above image of a man with a hilariously big head, should get you excited. And, thankfully, this issue delivers on the weirdness that that cover promises.

The story begins by introducing us to Barney Barrow, a guy who grew up idolizing police officers, primarily because he has a deep hatred for criminals since one killed his brother. He decided to dedicate his life to fighting crime, and when he came of age he happily applied to become a police office. But, there was one problem. Barney Barrow is dumb as hell! The Gotham City police department refuses to allow him to join the force, and instead get him the only job he qualifies for, being a janitor at the precinct. Which, does make Barney happy. Until one day, after gawking at Batman and Robin as they come to meet with Commissioner Gordon, Barney is involved in an accident while cleaning a laboratory. Because, while moping up behind a massive x-ray machine he accidentally causes it to malfunction and blast his head with “strange radiation.” And, almost immediately, Barney’s head begins to swell to a massive size. But, it’s not tumors, it’s an increased intellect!

 

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So, Barney has now become the smartest being on the planet, and he decides to use that newfound intelligence to stamp out crime in Gotham City. But, he’s not going to be able to do it himself, so he decides to also solve Gotham City’s greatest mystery in order to get himself some soldiers. He figures out who Batman and Robin are. And, after arriving at Wayne Manor, Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson just kind of fall in line and agree to work for Barney, since he clearly has things more figured out than either of them. And, in order to keep them under his control, Barney also reveals that he has sent a letter containing their secret identities to someone who will reveal it to the public if anything happens to him. So, forced to play ball, Batman and Robin begin aiding Barney in his war against crime.

Luckily, there’s been a recent rash of bizarre crimes, since this is Gotham City after all, and Barney decides to test out his abilities solving this case. There’s a gang specifically stealing rare metals, and Barney has developed a special radar device that can specifically locate rare metals throughout Gotham. Which, doesn’t make much sense at all,  but he does locate large quantities of rare metals in three locations, two with legitimate purposes, and one that’s just a run of the mill aluminum factory. So, Barney deduces that the aluminium company is working as a fence for the metal gang, and sends Batman and Robin to rough them up. And, sure enough, Barney was right. Batman and Robin are able to capture one of the leaders of the gang. Batman then sends Robin back to the Batcave with their captive, while he continues investigating on his own. Which, was a bad choice, because as soon as Robin gets the guy back to the Batcave, Barney starts torturing him.

 

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Robin isn’t exactly down with watching this big-headed goon torture a man, so he causes an electrical failure that fries Barney’s machine, which he believes is just due to faulty wiring in the cave. But, before the machine shuts down the man was able to tell Barney where the rest of the gang will be that night, so he and Robin race off in the Batmobile. Which, just so happens to be the location that Batman has already reached, using his own deductive reasoning. He realizes that the aluminum factory was building hollow rods that could contain ingots of rarer metal, and based on the amount of hollow rods assumes they’ll be hitting the largest depository of rare metals in town. So, Batman shows up at a laboratory in Gotham just after Robin and Barney, giving him time to see that Barney is planning on electrocuting the criminals when they arrive, killing them.

So, Batman is put in the position of helping criminals, not wanting to see them fried. And, he decides to accomplish this with some arts and crafts. He makes a paper doll of himself, and places it next to a light, causing a shadow of Batman to fall over the front doors of the laboratory so that when the criminals arrive they get spooked and flee before getting killed. And, it works. Plus, Batman is able to hop onto their truck and take them down himself, arresting them and saving their lives. Which, throws Barney into a rage. He marches out and begins berating Batman for being soft, and in the process overwhelms himself and faints. Which is exactly what Batman was waiting for. Because apparently Batman has had experience with people who get enlarged heads thanks to radiation, and knows that the process is only temporary, and can be reversed. So, he just waited Barney out, and eventually the man’s head and intellect return to normal, in a process that also wipes his memory. And, after scouring the man’s apartment they’re able to find the letter that Barney wrote to himself with their identity, and destroy it. Leaving Barney Barrow a normal old doofus, completely unaware that he briefly was the smartest being on Earth.

 

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Oh yeah. That’s that sort of early Silver Age nonsense that I crave. I’ve talked about this before, but I really do find the beginning of the Silver Age to be a fascinating time for comics. The industry was practically falling apart after the boom and bust of interest during and after World War II, and they seemed desperate to try anything that would keep them afloat. And, since sci-fi was taking off largely thanks to the onset of the Atomic Age, comics companies started trying to cram as much vaguely science-related elements into their books as they could. Which, means we get a goofy little story like this one where a cop-loving dweeb is blasted in the head with radiation and becomes a super genius. I just love how little comics writers seemed to understand about radiation, just a general magical energy that can give people whatever insane powers they want instead of, you know, a lot of cancer. But, even besides the sci-fi silliness of this issue, it’s still just a lot of fun. The idea of someone finding out Batman and Robin identity and then using that information to become their supervisor is very funny, and the way that this issue then goes on to show Batman still being the World’s Greatest Detective, in spite of working with a radiation-powered super-genius is great. Plus, we get some actual detection in Detective Comics! Do you know how rare that is!? We need to be thankful for all we get.

 

“The Mental Giant of Gotham City” was written by Edmond Hamilton, penciled by Dick Sprang, inked by Charles Paris, and edited by Whitney Ellsworth, 1955.

 

 

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