Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Where DID that Giant Penny Come From?

The Batcave is arguably the coolest superhero hangout ever created. And no matter how many times DC Comics reboots its universe, the Batcave has always remained pretty cool. I'm not following the current DC reboot that began a few years ago, but hopefully that at least hasn't changed.

One standard and essential part of the Batcave is the trophy room. The exact contents change depending on the writer and artist, but the trophies that are always there are a dinosaur, a giant playing card and a giant penny.

I suppose you could argue that Batman--who would always be focused on his current case and uninterested in anything that didn't directly further his war on crime--wouldn't be bothered with keeping a trophy room. At best, he'd keep stuff in storage in case he needed any of it later on. But in a comic book universe, it is often more important to operate under the Rule of Cool than under the rules of strict logic. The Batcave without the giant penny simply isn't the Batcave.

The origins of these trophies have probably changed over the years, but the original explanation for the penny comes from Worlds Finest Comics #30 (Sept/Oct 1947), in a story written by Bill Finger and drawn by Bob Kane.

"The Penny Plunderers" introduces us to Joe Coyne, who as a boy made only pennies selling newspapers, as a young man lost his job because he gambled at work by pitching pennies and who's first attempt at a robbery netted him only pennies and got him sent to prison.

This is Gotham City, after all--so Coyne decides the way to reverse his failures is to adopt a criminal theme. He will only commit crimes that have something to do with pennies.

And, because this is Gotham City, he finds a gang willing to go along with him and his theme initially seems profitable. Setting up shop in a company that makes penny arcade machines, he uses a booby-trapped roll of pennies to release tear gas and rob a bank. Then he and his gang plan to rob a rare and valuable penny stamp from an exhibition--an exhibition that includes a giant penny on display.

It's here that Coyne and his gang first run into the Dynamic Duo. One of the gang is captured, but Coyne and the others escaped. When the captured gang member rats out the location of the hideout,
Coyne sets a trap. The informer is killed and Batman & Robin are trapped in a room that's filling with deadly gas. But Batman makes clever use of some items on hand (including a penny, of course) to rig a devise that sends out an SOS and brings the police to save them.

The final confrontation with the gang is a fun one, including Robin water-skiing behind the Batplane to catch the bad guys. In the end, Coyne is trapped in a room, unable to call his
gang for help because he doesn't have a nickle for the pay phone. All his has on him are pennies.(Breaking open the phone's coin box doesn't occur to him. Coyne never does quite reach true Criminal Mastermind level, does he?)

This is a fun story. Kane had his faults as an artist (sometimes his anatomy was a little out of proportion), but his overall style meshed nicely with the Golden Age Batman tales. And Bill Finger could always be depended on to come up with an imaginative and fast-paced yarn.

So that is the original origin of the giant penny, which Batman kept as a memento after the case was closed. How the Dark Knight got the thing into his Batcave without anyone noticing is another story entirely--one that no one has ever tried to tell. But perhaps what happens in the Batcave sometimes needs to stay in the Batcave.

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