Hello everyone, and welcome back for yet another installment of Bat Signal, my never-ending mission to read every single issue of Detective Comics in random order, and with basically no context. And, the random number generator gods have given us another Golden Age book this week, and a fairly typical example of one, too. Which, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’ve certainly gained an appreciation for these silly old Golden Age stories, featuring Batman and Robin racing around town trying to stop a flavor of the week villain and his indistinguishable henchmen. But, this one does has a bit of a twist involved, and even if it’s a tad obvious, these stories can always use a tad more spice to them, so I’m certainly not going to complain.
The story begins by sharing the life story of a man named Paul Bodin. When he was a child he was a violin prodigy, until he realized something else that his incredibly sensitive and strong fingers could do. He could crack locks very easily. So, Bodin began a new career, one of a famous escape artist. He thrilled the world with his incredibly elaborate escapes and death-defying tricks, all relying on his amazing skill with locks. But, his life forever changed when his wife died suddenly, leading Bodin to announce his retirement so that he could focus on raising his daughter. He remained a large figure in the world of locks though, even forming a slight friendship with Batman, who once gave him a rare old German lock in exchange for some knowledge on safe-cracking. And, after imparting all of this information to us, we learn that Gotham City is currently concerned with a rash of robberies and break-ins perpetrated by a new criminal who calls himself the Human Key. And we see him show off his skill by slipping a pair of henchmen into a large vault, only to come along later and crack it to free them and their stolen goods.
Together with his two goons the Human Key pulls off all sorts of thefts, picking everything from small locks to massive vaults, and no one seems to be able to stop them. Enter Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, who are reading about the Human Key’s exploits one day while wondering if they should maybe build a new wing onto their house. This apparently is something they have to take care of right away, and Bruce and Dick end up visiting a building firm outside Gotham, only for Bruce to recognize a customer as a notorious gangster, and one of the Human Key’s goons. It turns out that this man is just pretending to be a customer to case the joint, so that he and the Key can return that evening and crack a large safe in the office.
The Human Key is able to open the safe using a small and powerful magnet. But, as soon as the safe is opened the Human Key and his men are jumped by Batman and Robin, who come leaping out of the shadows. Batman knew that the Key’s henchman was up to something, and set up this sting. The Human Key and his men attempt to flee the office, racing Batman and Robin through a series of partially built houses, until Batman confront the Human Key himself. The villain makes a snide joke about whistling a song off key, and then throws a lock at Batman’s head, stunning the hero so he can get away. And, when Batman examines the lock, he realizes that it was the one that he once gave Paul Bodin, making him realize that Bodin must be this new villain. And, what’s more, the crack about the whistle gives Batman an idea of their next crime.
So, yeah. There’s a boat known as the SS. Sea Major that apparently has a sunken safe on it containing quite a bit of money. So, the Human Key and his men are about to commandeer a ship and get to the wreckage so they can steal it. But, Batman has decided to beat them to the punch, and has donned a special Bat-themed frog-man suit. He swims through the bay until he comes across the Human Key and one of his men, while Robin fights the one stationed above. Batman fights the goon and the Key, and in the process sees the Human Key stop the man from stabbing him. But, he’s still knocked out by the villains, and brought to the surface. The Human Key explains that Batman earns a more extreme death, and locks he and Robin inside a giant vault that begins pumping in pressurized air, trying to crush them with the pressure.
But, the Human Key also tosses in a Bunsen Burner, despite the fact that the flame won’t be powerful enough. However, Batman realizes that he can jury-rig an acetelyne torch using the burner and the oxygen line in the vault, cutting his way out of the death-trap. Which points to two times the Human Key has seemingly saved them. Which is a little weird, until we learn that Bodin is actually being blackmailed into being the Human Key. The goons have kidnapped his daughter and are forcing him to commit the crimes. And while Bodin is pleading with the fiends, Batman and Robin arrive to save him, having figured it all out. But, in the struggle the men lock Bodin and his daughter in a large safe, telling Batman he’ll only give him the combination after he’s been allowed to flee. But, Batman just knocks the guys out, and begins cracking the safe himself, using the skills Bodin once taught him, essentially cracking it with his delicate teeth. And, after the safe is finally opened, Bodin and his daughter are freed. Bodin testifies against the men, and is allowed to go free.
When I was first reading this story, I was pretty unimpressed. It felt like a pretty weak attempt at setting up a mystery, since it was painfully obvious that Bodin was going to be the Human Key, unless the issue was going to attempt to pull some weak bullshit where it was actually some random other person, which wouldn’t have made any sense. But, by the end of the issue I kind of appreciating the fact that they decided to give us a twist in a different way. The mystery wasn’t who the Key was, it was why Bodin was doing it all. And, I really like the idea that one of the random thugs we’d been following was actually the big bad of the issue, actually masterminding everything and keeping a little girl hostage. It was a way to give an otherwise by the numbers Batman story something special, and it was actually a fun surprise. The whole idea of a villain who is just really good at cracking safes is a little boring, especially considering some of Batman’s other obsessive villains, but it made for a fun one-and-done villain, giving us a story that certainly was more fun than it seemed like it was going to be, which is always a welcome change.
“The Human Key” was written by Bill Finger, penciled by Jim Mooney, inked by Charles Paris, and edited by Jack Schiff, 1948.
Categories: Bat Signal