Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Gotham City grifters: the criminal as con man

In my Silver Age reread I’m now in what’s known as the New Look period of Batman that began in 1964. Sales of Batman and Detective Comics were low (I have read much debate as to whether they were, as sometimes rumored, at risk of cancellation, and think not. Couldn’t swear to it though) so DC tried a radical reboot. Not of continuity — that was a couple of decades away — but style. Julius Schwartz took over from Jack Schiff and as Mark Evanier says, we went from Sheldon Moldoff covers like this —to Carmine Infantino covers like this —Many fans associate the Batman of the late 1950s and early 1960s with bad SF, like the alien zoo story, and the Batman Family that mirrored the Superman Family.One thing I love about the era, though, was that it gave us villains who didn’t play by the rules. In a typical Batman story of the first couple of decades, the rules were pretty clear. If a villain had an MO, they followed it: Catwoman uses a cat motif, the Signalman tips Batman off with symbols and signs. If a specific crime campaign has a more targeted theme, they follow that too. When Catwoman announces a series of crimes involving black cats crossing someone’s path (Detective #122), she’s not going to switch mid-story and pull tiger-themed crimes. When Batman battles a madman like Basil “Clayface” Karlo or Two-Face, they’re genuinely insane and act out their mania.

This makes good storytelling sense, but a certain amount of criminal sense too. Ego and thrills are a big part of what drives Batman’s foes, and if they “cheat” they can’t satisfy either itch. Plus it would only work once — if the Joker announces crimes built around greeting cards (Batman #46) and doesn’t follow through, he’s never going to be able to match wits with Batman the same way. Some villains, however, just don’t care: they’re in it for the money.

The Spinner is one example. Over the course of “Web of the Spinner,” this master of spinning objects drops the usual clues — prison slang, peanut oil on his glove — which enable Batman to identify him. In this case, however, it’s a charade to lead Batman to the wrong man, who will conveniently be found dead. Thanks to Batwoman, however, the Dynamic Duo arrive early and the Rotating Rogue gets busted.

1949’s “The Man With the Fatal Hands” (World’s Finest #41) is a more interesting example. Edgar Albrek is cursed with hands transplanted after his own were injured. Alas, the donor was a murderer and Albrek’s hands have the same instincts (a familiar horror plot done best in Peter Lorré’s 1935 Mad Love). Time and again, only Batman’s intervention stops Albrek’s from killing — and killing — and killing again! Such a pity Batman won’t be around when the hands throttle Albrek’s incredibly wealthy uncle, but at least the Caped Crusader can testify it’s not Albrek’s fault, right?

Then we have 1953’s The Executioner, “The Man With the License to Kill.” A for-profit prototype of the Punisher, he guns down criminals who have a “dead or alive” reward out on them, so legally he’s untouchable (this is not how the law works in our world so don’t get ideas). In reality, this is all a set-up (though the corpses are real): the Executioner intends to bust a top hood out of jail, fake his death and then they’ll split the loot the mobster has hidden away.

Or consider Dr. Brice, “The Man Who Could Change Fingerprints” in Baman #82. Brice demonstrates that he’s not only given mobster Lew Farnum a new face but new fingerprints: the cops recognize Farnum’s body language but when they bring him in for questioning, the prints don’t match. Bad news for law enforcement, great news for any hood who can pony up the price of a new set of prints. Turns out it’s another scam — Farnum and Brice hired someone to impersonate post-plastic surgery Farnum so of course the prints weren’t right.

The villain in “The Secret Weapons of the Crimesmith” (World’s Finest #68) is another example. The Crimesmith leases his high-tech weapons to the Gotham mobs, promising them that his ultimate weapon will lead to an unstoppable crime wave. The story fits a familiar pattern of the era: two crimes on a theme, followed by a third, more spectacular crime to serve as capstone. Except this time it’s a trick: The Crimesmith’s plan is to broadcast images of an unstoppable giant robot onto Gotham City’s TVs, panicking everyone into fleeing so his allies can loot at will (Doc Savage faced a similar scheme in The Monsters).Which reminds me of a story that doesn’t exactly fit this template, but was still a favorite of mine. In “The Phantom Eye of Gotham City,” the eponymous Phantom Eye starts breaking into regular TV broadcasts with live footage of Batman and Robin in action. It soon becomes obvious to the Dynamic Duo that the films are fake, but the Phantom Eye is prepared for that reaction and prevents them exposing him.

What’s his angle? They can’t figure it out — but then, in the middle of one broadcast, Batman’s mask is torn off, revealing him to be a well-known Gotham millionaire (no, not Bruce). With his identity exposed, he and his young son will be targets for every crook in town. His only hope is to leave town ASAP. Naturally the police help by packing up all his valuable paintings and collectibles, arranging the transfer of all his money … Yep. It’s an imposter. But nobody will know until it’s too late, right?

I really enjoy these stories, though I’ve read enough of them it’s becoming easier to spot the scams. When a disembodied brain takes over the underworld in Detective Comics #210, which I read in the most recent Golden Age Omnibus, I figured out way ahead of time it was a trick. Overall, though, these grifters were a lot of fun.

#SFWApro. Covers by Moldoff, Infantino, multiple people, Moldoff, J. Winslow Mortimer, James Bama, Mortimer again.


  1. Le Messor

    Those last few remind me of plots from The Avengers; the Crimesmith fakery reminds me of a “time travel” episode (it was very obviously not time travel), and evacuating a town to let him loot is a whole other episode. Transferring all the paintings in an emergency so they could be stolen was also a plot.

    I’m now wondering if cross-inspiration was happening long before A Touch Of Brimstone led to The Hellfire Club.

    (These Batman comics came out long before The Avengers was broadcast.)

  2. Interesting thought. The Joker actually did an earlier plotline in which he cons criminals into thinking he can time-travel them away from their problems. Brian Clemens who was the primary Avengers creative force would have been the right age to read early Batmans, though I don’t know their availability in England back then.

    1. Le Messor

      Huh. That’s the exact plot of the episode I mentioned. (Also, there’s an episode called ‘The Joker‘, but it’s nothing at all to do with our favourite Gotham clown.)

      Availability in England is the only thing that stops me from saying ‘this is definitely a cross-pollination,’ but given the above, I’m even more thinking that Clemens has been reading Batman.

  3. John King

    As an Avengers fan I’ll point out that, in general, the episodes with the more fantastic plots* (some real, some fake) including “escape in time” (great guest role from Peter Bowles) were written by Philip Levine

    (Brian Clemens did write “the Joker” which is a remake of one of his earlier episodes “Don’t Look Behind you”)

    * by fantastic plots I mean killer robots, an invisible man, laser beams from Venus, a giant man-eating plant, the walking dead (with Christopher Lee), miniaturisation,…

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.