Hi there everyone, and welcome back for yet another installment of Bat Signal, my never-ending quest to read every issue of Detective Comics ever published, in random order, and with no real context. And, we have a very apropos comic to talk about this week, at least in terms of the title of this series, because we’re talking about everyone’s favorite villain, Signalman! And, if you’re reading this and wondering, “who in the hell is Signalman?” you’re not alone! Because I definitely had no idea who he was, or why he was suddenly appearing in a Batman comic for the first time in what was apparently 15 years. The issue takes greats pains to tell us Signalman hasn’t been in a comic for 15 years, but makes no attempt to tell us why he’s back, and after having read the issue, I definitely don’t have an answer for that last question. Let’s do this thing!
The issue begins with a violent train crash, as two locomotives barrel into each other, both derailing. No one seems overly hurt by this however, as demonstrated by several people climbing out of the wreckage and just seeming more bothered than anything else. But, if they had any question of how this happened, they’re instantly removed when they see a man in a garish costume gleefully running away from the scene of the crime, clutching a massive diamond known as the Heart of Allah. And, like us all, they instantly recognize his guy as Signalman, and realize that he’s apparently done something to the signal-switches that run the train line. Sure! This news obviously gets sent to the police pretty quickly, who in turn turn on the Bat Signal in order to pull Bruce Wayne away from a baseball game he was watching. Batman arrives at police headquarters where Commissioner Gordon is waiting for him, also complaining that they had to miss the baseball game, and filling Batman in on what happened, and the identification of Signalman.
And, as Batman impressively wracks his memory to recall Signalman, they get word that he’s just been spotted robbing the stadium where the aformentioned baseball game is being held. So, Batman races off to the stadium, where we find Signalman robbing the offices inside, holding everyone hostage with a knock-out gas gun. And, as the villain begins strutting out of the stadium, he comes face to face with Batman. Signalman tries to get the drop on Batman by throwing a bag full of money at his head, but that doesn’t seem to do anything, so he just runs away. But, luckily for him, he somehow gained control to the signals operating the scoreboard, and ends up having it display a message that there’s a fire in the stadium. That causes all the people in the stadium to promptly lose their minds, becoming a massive crowd of flailing humanity, which Batman has to calm down, giving Signalman a chance to flee.
The next night we cut over to Police Headquarters, where some sort of ceremony is being held inside of their gymnasium for a boys club. They’re giving out a very expensive and fancy trophy, and as they’re about to give it to the recipient, Signalman comes swooping out of the rafters to steal it. But, for some reason Batman is there waiting for him, and the two immediately start fighting each other, utilizing all manner of old-timey exercise equipment. But, when he senses thing are going bad for him, Signalman ends up firing off some modified signal flare, which rains fire down on all of the random people here for the ceremony. So, once again Batman is forced to stop fighting in order to calm people down, but this time Signalman is able to land a sucker-punch that knocks Batman unconscious. He then grabs the Dark Knight and flees. The police chase after them, seeing that Signalman took an elevator down to the street and follow him. But, it turns out that Signalman has messed with the wiring of the elevator, and has actually headed to the roof, where he’s currently strapping Batman into the Bat Signal.
Signalman has placed Batman into the Bat Signal, figuring that when Commissioner Gordon arrives to set off the Signal in hopes of getting Batman’s attention, it will in fact incinerate Batman. Signalman hen happily leaves Batman behind, dropping a hint about a spade, and leaves Batman to his doom. But, the World’s Greatest Detective springs into action, and begins working his way out of his confines, hoping to get out of the Signal before Gordon arrives. And, as Batman’s working, the Commissioner does indeed show up, and is just about to turn on the Signal when Batman finally breaks free, leaping out of the glass of the Signal, shattering it and scaring the bajesus out of Gordon. Batman apologizes for the fright, but immediately runs off again, because he’s figured out where the Signalman’s next heist is going to be.
We then cut to a local Gotham cemetery where the Signalman is happily leaving the crypt of a wealthy Gotham socialite, holding quite a few jewels that the man had apparently been buried with. But, as he starts to drive away in a strangely old-fashioned car, Batman comes leaping from the sky to stop him. Because Batman has realized that Signalman is committing crimes based on the four suits of playing cards, for some reason. And, it barely even tracks. The Heart of Allah, a baseball Diamond, the boy’s Club, and now robbing a cemetery with a Spade. It barely makes sense, especially when you think about the fact that the Heart of Allah was also a diamond, but the real puzzle is how Batman went from “spade” to this specific cemetery. But, we don’t get any real answer, because as Batman is explaining himself and punching the Signalman, they suddenly begin to veer off the road. Batman spots an upcoming cliff, and leaps out of the car, leaving the Signalman to soar off the cliff, and plummet to his fiery doom. Bye, Signalman!
This issue is very odd, but kinda fun. It’s a very old-fashioned issue, especially for the mid-seventies, really falling into that classic Golden Age formula that I’ve come to adore. And, that sort of nostalgia is seemingly enhanced by the fact that they’re pulling an incredibly obscure villain out of the past to battle Batman. The only problem is, Signalman really reeks of being a one-and-done gimmick villain that Bill Finger probably came up with in his gimmick notebook, featured in one issue, and then faded into the obscurity of history. Because, there’s really nothing there. I don’t even get what his gimmick is. He finds various signals, which even encompasses all the various meaning of that word? I guess. And his costume is just kind of hectic and strange. He’s just a weird guy, and it’s kind of hilarious to see him come roaring out of obscurity, pulling off an insane series of heists that for some goddamn reason link up vaguely with the suits of playing cards, and then falls off a cliff to die. I would love to read about why this issue exists, if Len Wein had some weird fond memories of the issue Signalman appeared in, or if this was some sort of dare to bring back a character no one had ever heard of? Who knows, but it makes for a decent, if not a tad forgettable, little issue.
“Signalman Steals the Spotlight!” was written by Len Wein, penciled by Ernie Chan, inked by Vince Colletta, and edited by Julius Schwartz and E Nelson Bridwell, 1976.
Categories: Bat Signal
Ernie Chan and Vince Colletta illustrated some great comics, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc. This post shows more of the same. Chan’s pencils were always enhanced by Vinnie’s illustrative inking.
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I completely agree. The plotting’s a tad goofy, but the art is great. Batman’s look in this era is my favorite.