Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Death-Knell for a Traitor!

Wow! How often are the plans of a superhero thrown off because government bureaucracy is too efficient?

That, surprisingly, is what happens to Batman in Batman #248 (April 1973). A former navy officer named Friss is being released after spending 30 years in the slammer. Batman has a hunch that Friss might be in trouble the moment he steps out of the prison into supposed freedom. And he's right--but the Dark Knight gets there late because the prison had released Friss a little early!

Batman isn't quite able to save Friss from being kidnapped, though he does bag a thug and get enough information to confirm some suspicions.

When he gets back to the Batcave, we get the background information. Friss was an intelligence officer aboard an aircraft carrier early in World War II. He sold out to the Japanese, getting a diamond in exchange for giving his ship's position. But he's caught and still on board when the Japanese attack. The carrier is severely damaged, but survived. Friss goes to jail, but the diamond goes missing. It might be at the bottom of the sea. Or it might still be around.

A villain named Colonel Sulphur--a spymaster who can extend a knife-blade from one of his fingers-now has Friss and is probably after the diamond. (This, by the way, is Sulphur's second appearance. He'll fade into comic book limbo after this.)

Playing another hunch, Batman figures the diamond is aboard the carrier--now retired and docked at
the Gotham Navy Yard. If so, Sulphur and Friss will be heading there as well. He's right, of course.

The action on the carrier involves a fight with Sulphur, followed by an encounter with a now-insane Friss., The traitor has recovered the diamond but now believes himself to be back in World War II. Batman goes along with this and soon Friss is convinced he's once again in the midst of a Japanese air attack. He leaps off the deck and plunges to this death.

Running only 13 pages (the rest of the issue is a Robin story), "Death-Knell for a Traitor!" moves along economically and provides all the exposition we need quickly. Friss's back-story is interesting and unique, while the deck of a retired aircraft carrier is a fun place for the climatic fight. As a villain, Colonel Sulphur doesn't rate a spot in Batman's regular Rogue's Gallery, but he's strong enough to carry along a short story like this one.

This is all enhanced by Mike Kaluta's awesome cover and Bob Brown's strong interior art.

I really enjoy stories like this--simple enough to be told effectively in just a few pages, but well-constructed and interesting enough to entertain. It was written by Denny O'Neil, who understood Batman better than pretty much any other writer who approached the character. This time, Batman doesn't get to do any amazing detective work--he pretty much just follows up a couple of hunches. But they are hunches backed by his experience and training, so this works in the context of this story. Aside from that, we have Batman's skill as a hand-to-hand combatant and his ability to think quickly under pressure.

He does get scary and threatening with the thug he captures at the beginning of the tale, but that was the appropriate thing to do in that circumstance. What made the Batman stories from the 1970s so good was that O'Neil and other writers remembered that Batman was more than just Scary Guy. He is a well-rounded detective and hero who can think his way through a case. Of course, he's thrown for a loop when the federal government actually does something right, but who wouldn't be?

I really miss that Batman.

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