A Tribute to the of
Elliot S! Maggin's novelization of Mark Waid and Alex Ross' Kingdom Come has a little inside joke on the bottom of page 113 of the hardback edition that seems relevant to the subject of this review. Superman has entered the nightclub where the fringe superheroes are congregating. The group includes young, aimless punks as well as washed-up and burned out older costumed figures. Superman has gone into this den of iniquity to recruit them for the newly reformed Justice League. You get the picture. A seedy joint somewhat reminiscent of the bar scene from the first Star Wars film. Anyway, the inside joke: "A bartender with a glowing fringe of hair along the back of his head and a t-shirt that said EARTH PRIME SUCKS – whatever that meant – leaned across the bar to a patron in what looked to be a French military coat circa the Napoleonic era." Earth Prime, as many of you know, is the real world, or the world which you and I inhabit, at least as far as the DC multiverse was concerned. I'm not completely certain when Earth Prime was first coined, but one of the slicker things that the DC writers would do on occasion was to weave a glimpse of Earth Prime into their stories. We've seen that once here at the Silver Age Sage when The Flash, in issue #179, spent some time with none other than editor Julius Schwartz in his New York office. The issue in the spotlight this time around has another Earth Prime appearance, but I'll let you discover the details as you explore this review of Detective Comics #347 from January of 1966; on sale 11/25/65. The title of the story is something of a stunner: "The Strange Death of Batman!" Carmine Infantino, who issues bold warnings to the reader on both the cover and splash pages, provides the cover and interior pencil art ably. (Cover inks fall to Murphy Anderson; Joe Giella expertly handles the interiors.) On the former it's "Warning! Do not reveal the surprise ending of this story to your friends! They'll want the same kick out of it that you did!" (Did you also catch that exorbitant 7 cent price on the copy of the Gotham City Press Robin is clutching?) On the latter: "Warning! Do not peek at the last few pages of this off-beat story! For full enjoyment, start at the beginning and read on to its surprise conclusion!" Now that's a lot to live up to. Let's see if it's hype or if Gardner Fox delivers.
The opening panels of the story take place in downtown Gotham City, where a jewel messenger carrying an attaché case cuffed to his wrist is walking toward the House of Winsley while some other citizens on the street are gawking skyward at a falling object. The messenger studiously sticks to his duty of delivering the cargo of uncut diamonds and completely ignores what is going on around him. He will soon regret his dedication to duty.
As the falling object grows closer it becomes clear that it's a costumed man, doubled up like a ball. His skin-tight suit of brown covers every inch of his body and as he hurtles faster it appears that he is surely doomed, but just before impact he uncoils and lands on his feet, which propel him toward the jewel messenger. With one arm he knocks the man senseless and with the other scoops him up. The weird figure then rebounds with the messenger in his grip, up, up to the roof of a nearby building. He pauses there to cut the chain on the handcuffs, relieving the messenger of his case and then hits the roof of the building hard with his boots, causing him to arc upward gracefully, making his escape. I'll turn it over to Gardner Fox now: "Such is the startling appearance of The Bouncer! And from then on begins a series of fabulous crimes that cry a challenge to Batman and Robin as they make their nightly patrol of Gotham City…"
The famed dynamic duo soon spot The Bouncer as he follows his unique method of travel, bouncing along like the ball he resembles. Since they cannot readily apprehend him, they bide their time until one rainy evening late in the autumn when they encounter him again near the docks. Batman leaps into the path of The Bouncer and lands a mighty blow that sends the villain flying with great force toward a building wall. Unfortunately, this move works to the thief's advantage and he uses the force to launch himself directly into Robin. He then quickly ricochets off other nearby walls at a high velocity until he caroms directly into Batman. Then with one more precisely gauged bounce on yet another wall, The Bouncer is on a safe trajectory away from our heroes, leaving them battered and a little befuddled.
Segue to the Batcave where Batman and Robin discuss the encounter with The Bouncer. Bruce asks his young protégé what he knows about elasticity. Dick has obviously done his homework as evidenced by his reply: "Well, elasticity is that property of an object which enables it to resist deforming forces and to regain its original shape after those forces are removed! That explains why a rubber ball bounces. Odd as it may seem, a steel ball has more bounce than a rubber ball on a surface hard enough for it to "lose" its round shape! My guess is The Bouncer has discovered a means of using his costume to pull his amazing bouncing ball tricks!"
We now do another fade to a year ago where a young metallurgist is experimenting with an interesting alloy of rubber, steel and chrome that he's dubbed "Elastalloy." To his great delight, the material demonstrates uncharted bouncing properties and he later weaves it into a suit that fit him like a second skin. This suit also has the property of protecting him from shock, allowing him to bounce great distances or from great heights without harm.
Next it's back to Gotham City where the caped crime busters are continuing to search out The Bouncer, armed with some special new gear designed to thwart his abilities. They soon come upon him as he breaks into a building through the skylight to steal precious gems. Batman and Robin enter and Batman lets fly with a weighted net that envelops the criminal, who bounds toward the ceiling, but not before the Gotham Goliath throws a control switch that electrifies the net. Just in time The Bouncer angles by the chandelier and manages to deposit the net on it. Freed of the net, the bouncing bandit departs with the loot and warns our heroes that the next time they meet he'll get them. The encounter wasn't a complete waste, though, as Robin has used a spectroscopic camera to help analyze the material in The Bouncer's suit.
The next several days find Batman and Robin in concerted study in the catacombs of the Batcave, learning about the suit and working on methods to defeat it. Batman states that they must strain the suit beyond its elastic limit to where it won't be able to return to its original shape and size.
Later, the Batmobile is again patrolling the streets of Gotham City in search of The Bouncer. Another vehicle follows, containing a newspaperman that Batman has authorized to follow and document their effort. The local media has been criticizing Batman's inability to bring The Bouncer to justice, you see. Soon their quarry appears and the game is afoot.
The Bouncer unfolds himself from his rubber ball crouch and lands lightly on his feet, revealing a pistol as Batman and Robin, on opposite sides, begin to circle the felon. The Bouncer cautions Robin not to attack him from behind, or he'll fire the weapon pointed at his partner. Batman tells him that this is between the two of them and does a mental countdown. In the next moment, the Dark Knight springs toward The Bouncer as he simultaneously throws the pistol into the wall, intending to bounce the Elastalloy gun off the surface of the wall and discharging it at Batman, killing him in true Bouncer style. To the villain's dismay, however, the gun crumples against the bricks and falls harmlessly to the ground. Meanwhile a mighty gauntleted fist lands on the jaw of The Bouncer and he's down for the count.
The cameraman rushes forward to ask what happened and Batman and Robin explain how they used a modification of the principle of induction heating to eliminate the properties of the Elastalloy. Robin elaborates: "Batman varied that process by developing a special beam that quick-freezes an object situated between two electrodes we wore under our costumes! We circled about as the cold beam traveled between our electrodes and through The Bouncer! When Batman counted down the time needed to rob his uniform and gun of their elasticity, WHAMMO, it was all over!"
The next panel contains a patented Carmine Infantino text box with hands on it that states the story isn't really over and inviting us to the next chapter where the story's author is waiting.
Sure enough, on the first page of Chapter Two, we're spirited into the study of the one and only Gardner Fox! I'll duplicate the text here since it will probably be difficult to read from the scans of original and finished art; I certainly wouldn't want to take anything away from the master storyteller:
"My fingers fall from the typewriter keys, I stretch and let the creative tension ooze away. My name is Gardner Fox—one of the writers of the Batman stories…"
"That winds up another Batman yarn! I just hope the readers go for The Bouncer and Batman's way of overcoming him!"
"In a little while I'll double-check my script and mail it—but right now, as I sometimes do when I complete a yarn—I'm going into my "What if" room…"
"What is a "What if" room? It's where I relax after finishing a story and play a mental game with myself! I stretch out on my couch and begin asking myself questions about the story just completed…"
"Hmmm…What if things hadn't gone quite the way I conveniently made them happen?"
"I'm sure you all have wondered from time to time, "What if" things had gone differently? What if I hadn't taken that trip? Or—What if I'd never met such and such a person? I play this game here in my "What if" room. Now concerning the story I just finished…"
"Remember now this is only a game, an exercise of the imagination! The story of The Bouncer ended with his defeat—but—what if—The Bouncer knew what Batman and Robin were up to? How would that have affected the outcome of the story?"
"Come back with me now in my imagination to that critical moment when The Bouncer found himself between Batman and Robin, waiting for their freezer-beam to destroy the elasticity of the Elastalloy uniform…"
The thoughts of The Bouncer are made evident to us and he notes that his heartbeat is slowing down. "I am one of those medical curiosities who possesses a triple heart! Thus I can always hear it beating…" An editor's note explains that this condition has been reported in various medical books and journals. The Bouncer knows from his own research that his heart only slows down when it's very cold, so he realizes he must act quickly and he flings his weapon as before, but this time it's before the methods of the Dynamic Duo can take affect, so the elastalloy gun still maintains its properties and fulfills its awful purpose. It discharges against the wall, killing the World's Greatest Detective in front of the horrified Robin. The Bouncer vaults away, telling Robin he's next when they meet again.
Soon the world knows of the death of Batman and a grieving Robin vows justice. He is quickly surrounded by the friends of Batman, the assembled Justice League of America, who pledge to bring in The Bouncer, but Robin insists he be allowed first crack at the task and soon the Boy Wonder is burning the midnight oil in the Batcave, devising his new plan of attack now that he has the luxury of an actual sample of the Elastalloy in the form of the murder weapon. He decides that in the next encounter with The Bouncer he will try a different tactic. Rather than trying to induce an elastic limit, he'll attempt elastic fatigue by bombarding the Elastalloy with light and intense sound, stressing the material until it is useless. Thus prepared, he gets into the Batmobile and begins his search for the killer. The Bouncer arrives on the scene and the freshly equipped Batmobile erupts in the carefully calibrated lights and sound. The desired affect is achieved and the now useless uniform of The Bouncer literally cracks as Robin lands a heartfelt knockout blow.
It is with bitter sweetness that the Boy Wonder returns to the Batcave after turning The Bouncer over to the authorities and he wonders aloud what life without Batman will be like when a voice behind him says that life with Batman can still go on. Incredulously, Robin turns to see Batman! Upon removing his cowl, Bruce Wayne explains that he is the Bruce Wayne of Earth-Two and since his understudy, the Robin of Earth-Two is now an adult, he's come, partly at his Robin's urging, to fill in for the slain Batman of Earth-One. The Earth-Two Robin will fill in for Batman and as an added bonus, Alfred, who apparently is dead on Earth-One (See Detective Comics #328, 06/64), has tagged along.
The final text panel from Gardner Fox wraps things up for the story: "You understand that none of this "What if" story actually happened! It was merely an exercise of the imagination! The real Batman of Earth-One is still alive! One final note—if you'd like to see more of these "What if" stories, please write to the editor and tell him so!"
A short Elongated Man story with "The Man Who Hated Money!" backs up this tale, but I think I've already made this review lengthy enough. Maybe next time, Ralph.
I continue to be in complete awe of not only the prodigious quantity, but also the high quality of Gardner Fox's body of work. You wonder just how someone can be so gifted. I have a theory, though. As something of a lifelong incessant reader myself, I rather suspect that Gardner did a lot of reading and research on many different topics and that he had an innate curiosity. In other words, I suspect that he constantly fed grist to the mill. Awhile back someone shared this quote with me from comic book writer Warren Ellis and it made me wonder if the same or something similar couldn't have come from Mr. Fox: I still get asked with appalling regularity "where my ideas come from." Here's the deal. I flood my poor ageing head with information. Any information. Lots of it. And I let it all slosh around in the back of my brain, in the part normal people use for remembering bills, thinking about sex and making appointments to wash the dishes. Eventually, you get a critical mass of information. Datum 1 plugs into Datum 3, which connects to Datum 3, and Data 4 and 5 stick to it and you've got a chain reaction. A bunch of stuff knits together and lights up and you've got what's called "an idea".
Regardless of where Gardner Fox's ideas came from, I can only say that we're all the richer for them and I question whether or not the Silver Age could have come to full fruition without him. Even though The Bouncer could have been inspired partly by Bouncing Boy of the Legion of Superheroes, whose origin can be read in Adventure Comics #301 the October 1962 issue, this was a pretty bold introduction of a new and gifted nemesis to take on the Masked Manhunter. I particularly enjoyed the scientific principles and explanation of same that helped the reader better understand his abilities. Once again, you could learn something from these great old magazines.
I do believe that at long last the dry spell is broken and I've found a decent Batman tale in the Silver Age. I liked the twists in Chapter Two such as the appearance by Gardner, obviously, the brief guest shot of the Justice League of America, the visit from the Batman of Earth Two and the overall notion of the "what if" story that was likely the basis for the imaginary stories and later, Elseworlds. A huge bonus is that for once the campiness was missing, too. What a difference the right author makes and Carmine Infantino's work was a good complement, even though he's not my favorite Batman artist. I really wasn't expecting a story of this caliber, particularly with the "Batman Killed" hook. I mean, who really expects to see a major character bumped off and how often have we seen it before? Luckily, that's not the tired premise that was found here and it is with great pleasure I give this story a solid 9 on the 10-point scale.
My personal hotline isn't a red telephone that lights up and has a strange ring, but is a nice, modern e-mail address: email@example.com. Feel free to drop me a line with whatever is on your mind pertaining to this review, past reviews, ideas for future reviews or feedback of any kind. Don't' forget to come back in a couple of weeks for the next journey into the past.
Long live the Silver Age!
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