19 April 2009

“Robin, who was supposed to be at Andover,...”

Today's weekly Robin starts with an extract from a short story titled "The Joker's Greatest Triumph":

With a swift movement, The Joker crashed the armored car into the side of the Terminal Building!


"Great Scott!" Fredric said to himself. "Batman is stunned! He's helpless!"

"You foiled my plans Batman," The Joker said, "but before the police get here, I'm going to lift that mask of yours and find out who you really are! HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!"

Fredric watched, horror-stricken. "Great Scott! The Joker has unmasked Batman! Now he knows that Batman is really Bruce Wayne!"

At this moment Robin, who was supposed to be at Andover, many miles away, landed the Batplane on the airstrip and came racing toward the wrecked armored car! But The Joker, alerted, grasped a cable lowered by a hovering helicopter and was quickly lifted skyward! Robin paused at the armored car and put the mask back on Batman's face!

"Hello Robin!" Fredric called. "I thought you were at Andover!"

"I was but I got a sudden feeling Batman needed me so I flew here in the Batplane," Robin said. "How've you been?"

"Fine," Fredric said. "But we left the Batplane in the garage, back at the Bat-Cave. I don't understand."

"We have two of everything," Robin explained. "Although it's not generally known."
That may read like fanfiction, down to the casual disregard for commas (especially around nouns of direct address). It may read like something Penrod would write, albeit with shorter sentences. But in fact it's the early work of a postmodernist master!

"The Joker's Greatest Triumph" appeared in Come Back, Dr. Caligari, the first short-story collection from Donald Barthelme, subject of a laudatory new biography. Barthelme's second wife recalled that he wrote it in the "spring of 1961" and then struggled to sell it to a magazine. However, the title and some details are lifted from Batman, #148, which had a date of June 1962.
Barthelme's story finally saw print in his book in 1964, coincidentally the year of the "New Look" Batman. That was of course before the Batman TV show, the big Hollywood movies, or the rise of fanfiction as a hobby of thousands. Barthelme played in the Batman sandbox shortly after Roy Lichtenstein started adapting comic-book panels into his fine art, when such appropriation was so novel and brazen that it had to be originality rather than the opposite.

What should we make of Fredric, the faceless observer who's nonetheless privy to Bruce Wayne's secret identity and liquor cabinet? (Barthelme was a lifelong drinker.) He's the biggest new element in the story, such as it is. Is he a "Mary Sue"? No, Fredric's not interesting enough to be wish-fulfillment for the author. But I note that Barthelme wrote this tale when his younger brother Frederick was still in his teens.

[ADDENDUM: The original comics story titled "The Joker's Greatest Triumph!" appears in the Batman in the Sixties collection.]


mysteryfan said...

Oh, wow! I love Donald Barthelme.

The Great Hug is a favorite, always liked The Phantom of the Opera's Friend and Cortez and Montezuma but Oh My! HA HA HA indeed.

Love this! Good job, Robin!

Todd Mason said...

Fredric was a reference to Fredric Brown, the writer primarily but not exclusively of crime fiction and fantastic fiction, who loved to write arch joke-story vignettes when not digging into longer work. Barthelme probably dug this fellow-traveler...

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for that pointer. Is there evidence that Barthelme's and Brown's paths crossed at some point?

Todd Mason said...

I have no direct evidence of a meeting, but Brown's fiction was very visibly in print (and being adapted for film and television) in the early '60s...his story "Arena" was the source for a STAR TREK episode a few years later. I suspect that a Barthelme amused enough to pick up that issue of BATMAN had at very least read some of Brown's fiction in PLAYBOY...

Gerard Jones said...

If it were "Frederick" or even "Frederic" I could believe we were in the realm of coincidence, but "Fredric" is such an unusual enough spelling that I have to think Barthelme was aware that readers would see it as a reference to his fellow writer. In my own casual poking around, though, I've found no reason why he would be thinking about Brown or want to use him in this role.

J. L. Bell said...

There was, of course, another Fredric writing about comics and particularly about Batman and Robin: Dr. Wertham. But the beauty of writing or interpreting fiction is that a detail doesn't have to mean one thing, or anything.