18 April 2010

Dig This Now

I had drafted a weekly Robin posting continuing my thoughts on the 1980s symbolic distancing of Batman and Robin, but then I read the lead story in World’s Finest Comics, #195, and it was all I could think about.

As you see, this magazine shows Superman and Batman forcing Robin and Jimmy Olson to dig their own graves. Furthermore, Batman is threatening to shoot the young men with a machine gun. This image is so incongruous that Dr. Wagner has written:

The best thing about the covers to WF was they were all lies. They would show you Superman running down Batman in steamroller and then in the story NOTHING like that would happen. . . . I don't even know what really happens in this comic, but I bet that this particular scene never takes place!
And yet it does. This is actually one of the more accurate comic-book covers of its period. The only non-verbal detail missing from the scene inside is the machine gun; there Batman carries a pistol with a silencer.

Indeed, I wonder if DC Comics came up with this arresting image first, then assigned Bob Haney to write a story around it. Because the story sure doesn’t make sense on its own.

The narrative begins in the previous issue of World’s Finest. Superman has infiltrated a mafia gang by posing as a bald man named Scarns. The boss, with the unstereotypical name of Lukaz, requires Scarns to prove his loyalty by killing one of the underworld’s enemies—lazy playboy millionaire Bruce Wayne! Actually, in 1970, when this magazine appeared, DC had made Bruce Wayne a socially conscious, activist millionaire, so that murder might have made a little sense. The two crimefighters concoct a way to make Scarns appear to kill Wayne in a horse-riding accident, which in no way now brings on thoughts of Christopher Reeve’s paralyzing injury.

Lukaz then shows Scarns that he’s keeping evidence of that murder to ensure his new underling’s loyalty. Superman sets out to retrieve that evidence in order to…protect a fake identity from being accused of a fake murder. Even with X-ray vision, he can’t find the hidden material, so he and Batman capture the mafia boss and—
  • Take Lukaz to jail for attempting to instigate the murder of Bruce Wayne?
  • Scare Lukaz until he divulges his secrets?
  • Stash Lukaz in Superman’s Fortress of Solitude while Batman disguises himself as the boss and infiltrates the gang that Superman’s already infiltrated?
Naturally, Haney’s plot follows the third path.

But that riding accident has given Bruce Wayne a very unusual brain injury. He starts to believe that he actually is the mafia boss he’s disguised as. Yet he also remembers that Scarns is Superman. Lukaz-Batman exposes Scarns-Superman to green kryptonite, rendering him so weak that the only way Superman can save himself is to—
  • yank Batman’s disguise off, thus endangering them both but shocking the rest of the gang?
  • call his superdog Krypto to his rescue?
  • use ventriloquism to make it sound as if Krypto is hovering outside the window, causing the whole gang to rush out, even though the kryptonite would work just as well against the dog?
Once again, we go through door number three.

Superman then acts as if the kryptonite has produced a very unusual brain injury: he pretends to have lost his memory. The mafia boss, who’s still the amnesiac Batman, tells Superman that he’s Scarns and has been fortunate enough to develop superpowers. (Don’t you love when that happens to you?)

Superman fakes being able to crush a crystal of kryptonite, which should tell any mob boss—let alone one who’s actually the world’s finest detective—that something fishy is happening. But instead Boss-Batman remains convinced that Superman now actually believes he’s a mob underling with superpowers.

To recap: Superman thinks that Batman thinks that Superman thinks that Superman’s an underling in the mob that Batman thinks he’s leading. Boss-Batman secretly knows that his underling is actually Superman while Scarns-Superman secretly knows that his boss is actually Batman—but Batman doesn’t know that.

Batman then has Superman (pretending to be Scarns pretending to be Superman) summon Robin and Jimmy to Metropolis and orders them to dig their own graves. This seems fair since World’s Finest, #141, a mere six years before, showed Robin and Jimmy faking their own deaths to fool their adult pals. That tale (written by Edmond Hamilton) involved intelligent, mind-controlling gemstones that simply wanted to return to their home planet and used the young men to raise funds for them. But I digress.

Having completed his grave, Robin tells the man he thinks is Lukaz:
Let Batman know…I died thinking of him! He taught me to live bravely…and to face death the same way! I love him as I loved my own father!
This expression of filial love snaps Batman out of his amnesia. He pulls off his Lukaz mask and puts back on his Batman mask.

But it’s too late! The real Lukaz suddenly appears with real underlings holding real machine guns. He explains that up in the Fortress of Solitude, one of Superman’s robot servants became loyal to him after falling and suffering a very unusual processing injury.

Lukaz then—
  • realizes that having a superpowered, completely loyal robotic servant means he doesn’t need human underlings?
  • recognizes that shooting Batman, Robin, and Jimmy Olson would mean there would be nothing left to stop Superman from grabbing the whole gang?
  • accepts Superman’s offer to kill Jimmy and Robin with his heat vision?
I don’t want to spoil the entire story for you, so I’ll let you figure out that last one on your own. I’ll just say the dénouement involves wax dummies, picking a lock with superbreath, and a lucite box containing charred organs labeled:
Hearts of Robin and Jimmy Olson Killed by Alonzo Scarns
Because that’s the only way Superman can think to make Lukaz think that Superman still thinks he’s Scarns.

No comments: