Special review: "Batman's Great Mystery"

The following review is, at least technically, doubly off-topic for the
Silver Age Comics Review list, since it not only is not a review of a comic book,
but the item being reviewed dates back to the Golden Age of comics (and
superheroes) rather than the Silver Age Nonetheless, I recently had the chance to
appreciate this item and thought a review might be of interest here.
Specifically, I'm reviewing "Batman's Great Mystery," a serial storyline which was
broadcast on the ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN radio show from Feb. 3 through Feb. 17,
1948. The voice of Superman/Clark Kent is provided by Bud Collyer, while
Batman/Bruce Wayne is played by Gary Merrill (later a movie and TV actor) and Ronald
Liss played Robin/Dick Grayson. I heard the episode on a CD recording, part
of a package published by Radio Spirits Inc. and titled MASKED MARVELS in
addition to the 11-episode Superman serial, the package includes episodes of
radio's Shadow, Lone Ranger, Green Lama (that's Lama, not Lantern) Green Hornet,
and the Scarlet Cloak (who?)

Like many fans, I was aware that Superman and Batman first teamed up on
Supes' 1940's radio show years before they joined forces in the comics (in SUPERMAN
#76, 1952, and then in the ongoing WORLD'S FINEST team-up series starting in
'54). However, I had never until now actually heard any of the SUPERMAN radio
episodes in which Batman and Robin appear (is "appear" the right word for a
purely audio medium)? This is not Batman's first guest star stint on the
radio show (in which, it is reported, Batman and Robin searched for a missing
Superman for weeks in order to give Bud Collyer some time off. Here, the roles
are reversed, as Superman helps search for a missing Batman.

In Chapter 1, Clark Kent gets a frantic call for help from Dick Grayson, whom
Clark knows is secretly Robin, "friend" of the famous Batman". (There's
something very peculiar about this, but I'll get to that later.) It seems that
Bruce Wayne disappeared one night from his stately mansion, after having a
mysterious conference with a "Mr. Jones" and then warning Dick Grayson that if he,
Bruce/Batman, does not return within a week, "You may never see me again!"
It's now been twelve days. Is Batman gone forever? Dick and Clark search the
Wayne home for clues, and finally find a wire recording (early precursor of
tape recording). of Bruce's interview with "Mr. Jones," who insists that Bruce
accompany him on a vital errand. Bruce Wayne at first refused, but then "Jones"
revealed that he knew Bruce's secret identity as Batman, and if Bruce did not
cooperate with "Jones'" plans, he would reveal the secret to the world!

Though they now know why Bruce left so suddenly, Dick Grayson and Clark Kent
are no closer to finding where Batman is now. Until, that is, they get a call
from Police Inspector Henderson. Batman has issued a public announcement
that he will appear in full view of all-- at a mass political meeting.
(Interestingly, there is no mention in the show of Gotham City or of Commissioner
Gordon. On Earth-Radio-Superman, it seems, Superman and Batman both operate in
Metropolis.) Clark and Dick attend the meeting and see Batman appear on stage to
issue a ringing denunciation of the then-pending Marshall Plan for financial
aid to war-scarred Europe. America should keep its resources for itself and
let Europe stew in its own juice, Batman says. Both Clark and Dick are utterly
shocked, because they know that Bruce Wayne actually supported the Marshall
Plan, and in fact, regarded opposition to it as being "selfish, bigoted and
un-American". It is as if Batman suddenly came out in public and endorsed the Ku
Klux Klan.

(Histories of the SUPERMAN radio show note that, in addition to being
entertainment for the kiddies, it carred a distinct political mesage. Often cited is
a storyline, from around this same late 40's time period, in which Superman
endorsed racial equality and battled the Ku Klux Klan, identifed by name rather
than in some fictionalized verison such as "Sons of the Serpent". The KKK
storyline even used authentic Klan jargon and slogans, obtained from an
informant in the group, for its bad guys. Now I'm certainly not going to object to Su
perman taking on the Klan. But the politics here in this "Batman's Mystery"
story are a little more disturbing. You can certainly argue, especially in
historical hindsight, that opposition to Marshall Plan foreign aid was
short-sighted. But to insist-- over and over again, as this show does-- that *only*
evil "un-American" bigots could possibly question the aid program-- to take a
current political issue of the time and cast it in stark comic-book Good Guy vs.
Bad Guy terms-- was a bit over the top. You could almost call it
"un-American" itself.)

Anyway, Dick Grayson and Clark Kent confront Batman after the speech,
suggesting that he is only making such a loathsome speech under pressure from "Jones"
who knows his secret identity, and offering their help in extricating himself
from the trap. But Batman insists he has truly changed his political views,
and when Dick Grayson tries to talk to Batman alone, Batman calls Dick a
"brat" and hits him, injuring him.

Clark Kent decides that the only way to solve this mystery is to learn the
true identity of the pseudonymous "Mr. Jones", and to this end he arranges to
have the wire recording of "Mr. Jones'" voice (editing out the parts referring
to Batman and his secret) broadcast all over Metropolis and nationwide, hoping
that someone will recognize the vaguely familar voice of "Jones". (While
working on this project, Clark confers with Perry White-- who at this point is not
the current editor of the Daily Planet, but Mayor of Metropolis! Apparently
Perry getting elected mayor was an earlier storyline in the radio show.)
Meanwhile, the recuperating Dick Grayson is deligted to get a phone call from
Batman, indicating that his strange actions have all been part of a secret plan,
and that he, Batman, wants Robin to assist him by meeting him at a hotel room
in a bad part of town. Dick joyously rushes off in his Robin guise, but when
he gets to the room, Batman is not there-- but a couple of thugs are. Robin
has been lured into a trap. He is knocked unconscious, and shortly does find
himself reunited with Batman-- the *real* Batman, for the "Batman" who made the
"bigoted" speeches and hit Robin was a clever and skilled impostor. Now
Batman and Robin are both prisoners of the mysterious "Mr. Jones", who is keeping
them alive for his own purposes while his fake Batman goes about
propagandizing for isolatinoism.

While Batman and Robin make several unsuccessful attempts to escape, Clark
Kent continues his efforts to find someone who recognizes the recorded voice of
"Mr. Jones". He also assumes his Superman guise briefly when he learns that
Batman has shown up at a Metropolis bank to withdraw all his vast wealth.
(Normally it's Bruce Wayne who is the rich half of the double identity, but in
Radioland, it seems Batman has a fortune in the bank *as Batman*, and is able to
show up, mask and all, and collect it! Though, of course, it is really the
Batman impostor, and he has Batman's secret deposit codes because "Jones"
forced the real Batman to reveal it by threatening Robin's life. Alas, Superman
arrives just too late to catch "Batman".)

Finally, Clark locates a man-- a crusty old farmer-- who recognizes the voice
of "Jones". It seems that "Jones" is really a local rabble-rouser who once
made an unsuccessful pitch for the farmer to join his isolationist group.
There is a lot of business about the farmer insisting on a guaranteed reward
before he will reveal what he knows, and then Superman whisking the farmer back to
his cluttered house to find the discarded letter that shows "Jones'" real name
and the address of his group. It takes two or three episodes for Superman to
finally find the needed info. In the meantime, Batman and Robin have gotten
loose from their bonds and, though unarmed, have managed to bluff "Jones" and
his goons into believng that they have a gun and will shoot anyone who comes
after them. "Jones" however has a clever idea-- he no longer needs them alive,
so he will burn the farmhouse down around them! Or maybe not so clever,
when "Jones" asks his confederate, the fake Batman, if he brought the satchel of
Batman's money with him out of the farmhouse. "What? I thought *you* brought
it!" Thinking all their ill-gotten gains are about to go up in smoke, the
evil duo rush back into the farmhouse to recover the loot, only to be caught by a
collapsing roof. Superman arrives on the scene just in time to save the real
Batman and Robin from a flaming doom, but it is too late for the two chief
bad guys.

As Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson relax and compare notes at the
Wayne home afterwards, Dick comments ruefully that it looks like he and Bruce
will have to go out and get regular jobs to finance their crime-fighting, since
all their money is burned up. Not so, Clark reassures him; actually, one of
the other gang members brought the satchel of stolen loot out of the burning
house, and "Jones" and the impostor died for nothing. The episode ends with a
bit of humorous byplay between Clark, Bruce and Dick which indicates the
really peculiar thing I referred to at the start of the review. Apparently, in
Radioland, though Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne each know the other's secret
identity, Dick Grayson *does not* know that Clark Kent is Superman! This was not made
clear in the episode till now, but I guess he's too young and callow to be
trusted with this secret (well, considering that he couldn't tell a guy in a
fake Batman costume was an impostor, maybe this Dick *isn't* too quick on the
uptake.) But then...why would Batman tell Robin to appeal for help, in an
extreme crisis, to Clark Kent, who as far as Robin knows is nothing more than an
obscure, mild-mannered newspaper reporter?

Another peculiarity-- Bruce Wayne/Batman seems quite unperturbed about the
fact that the late unlamented "Jones' found out his secret identity. OK, Jones
is dead now, but how does Batman know he didn't leave the secret to somebody
else? Or that there might be a clue out there somewhere that "Jones" found and
someone else could also find?

I said that was the end of the episode, but it's not quite-- in a lead-in to
the next storyline, Clark Kent returns to the Daily Planet and receives an
urgent message from an old buddy, a tough private eye with the curiously feminine
nickname of "Candy". This call, we are told, will lead Clark and his mighty
alter ego directly into their next exciting adventure, known as "The Kingdom
Under the Sea"! (Sounds like a good spot for a guest appearance by Aquaman,
but AFAIK Batman was the only other DC hero to turn up on the radio show.
Anyway, Aquaman talking under water would probably be really hard to understand on
the radio. So, since I don't have a recording of that episode, I will bring
this review to a close...