Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

There are eight million stories in the Batman’s city. These are some of them.

Collecting the Golden Age Batman Omnibus volumes has been a joy in itself. Seriously; I now have every story for the first decade of Batman’s existence and then some. That’s fricking amazing. And from a more analytical viewpoint, it shows me how Bill Finger and his fellow Bat-scribes were fond of using some types of stories over and over. This post is about one such type, stories that center on innocent bystanders caught up in the Bat-action.

My first encounter with this trope was Alvin Schwartz’s “The Case Without a Crime” from Detective #112, reprinted in Batman #260. Papa Bruegel’s costume shop is missing $99 from the till, which means either Papa or his two trusted employees stole it. As Batman tries to figure out why someone would steal exactly $99, he realizes all three suspects are trying to put the money back in the till so the suspicions don’t tear their found family apart. Eventually, the Caped Crusader sees the light: when Bruce Wayne picked up a costume the sales clerk gave him a C-note in change instead of $1. Case closed!

The story’s arc, obviously, isn’t about catching a crook or even solving the case as much as Papa and his employees struggling to regain their trust in each other. I thought it was sweet when I read it; now that I have the omnibuses, I’ve read several more in the same vein, mostly by Bill Finger.

“The Good Samaritan Cops” from Batman #18 was one of several stories introducing readers to the branches of the Gotham City PD. The Dynamic Duo take a stint working with the Emergency Cops (first responders) on a team that includes two perpetually squabbling buddies, a proud new father, a frustrated recruit (he wants to see action, dang it, not get cats out of trees!) and their close-to-retirement sergeant. We get to see how all of them respond to the adventures that follow (yes, that rookie got to see some action. Are you surprised?).

“Destiny’s Auction” from Detective #79. Three identical steamer trunks are seized from deadbeat lodgers — a crook, a legendary actor and an aspiring actress — and auctioned off a year later. The trio buy their trunks back but get the wrong ones. Trouble ensues.

“The Search for Santa Claus” from Batman #33. Three old, broken men — a washed-up actor, an ex-con who spent 25 years in prison before he was cleared and an escapee from an asylum (his greedy nephews committed him to get his money) are looking at a miserable Christmas. Batman convinces them all to play Santa at various events, but then the nephews decide to eliminate uncle as a threat to their bottom line …

“The Marathon of Menace” from Batman #34. The Dynamic Duo test out their newest Bat-vehicles by entering them unofficially in a cross-country land/sea/air race. Competing against them: an aging racer determined to prove he’s not a has-been, a blind scientist testing out his electronic-sight technology, and a spoiled woman whose automaker father is secretly rigging the race.

“Next Stop — Danger!” in Batman #43 Crime rides the Gotham subway. So do a playwright with writer’s block, an unsuccessful actress (again), a newsboy struggling to support his sick father and a guard who’s decided his subway job is too damn boring. He’ll learn better.

“Ship of Destiny” in World’s Finest #36. An injured Bruce takes a sea cruise to recover. Also on board: a movie star whose career is on the skids, a socialite with a hidden criminal past, a millionaire terrified of thieves and of course thieves.

The stories don’t startle us with their character arcs. Tragedies get resolved, actors and writers jump-start their careers, bored guards or cops discover their careers are actually cool. But they still provide a fun change of pace from the regular run of Batventures (though I like those too). In many ways they’re like little low-budget movies about strangers caught up together by chance and getting their lives turned around — with Batman as special guest star.

#SFWApro. Covers top to bottom by J. Winslow Mortimer, Nick Cardy and Dick Sprang


  1. Le Messor

    Do they still do stories like these? They could be pretty interesting.
    I wanted to write a Batman story showing how a naive country guy comes to the city to make his career, but gets taken in by one of Batman’s villains. When Batman beats him for working for the villain, it seals his anti-Batman stance.

    Or another, where an architect takes one look around Gotham and sees that the architecture itself isn’t helping the psychology of its denizens, and that’s part of why so many people become so obsessed.

    1. I love the architecture concept. That’s beautiful.
      I don’t see that kind of thing much in Batman, though I don’t follow the books as regularly as I once did. I’ve seen other stories in the same vein over the years. “Superman’s Neighbors,” showing the Man of Steel watching over the other residents of his apartment building, and a late Silver Age GL tale that spotlights various people caught up in his battle with the Lamplighter. And Astro City makes a point of focusing on the ordinary people.

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