According to the Super DC Calendar from 1976, yesterday was the anniversary of the tragic but formative murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne. That put the Dark Knight Detective on my mind, so I decided to review a Batman and Black Canary team-up. Was that the smoothest introductory segue? Perhaps not, but whatever.
The Brave and the Bold #141: "Pay--Or Die!" is written by Bob Haney with pencils and inks by Jim Aparo. With Aparo on art, you know the characters will look absolutely terrific. With Haney on the script, you know there's going to be some kind of implausible third-act leap in logic that demands more suspension of disbelief than usual. The cover depicts the story's villain, the Clown Prince of Crime himself, the Joker, as well as a dramatic threat to Bruce Wayne's butler, Alfred.
In addition to calling Black Canary the Blonde Bombshell and "the Mistress of the Sonic Scream", the title page shows her lying death-like in a coffin, nearly covered in bundles of cash as Batman crashes through a window and swoops down to confront his greatest adversary. Note that the Joker calls Black Canary Batman's girlfriend. Note also the opening lines to the song "Mack the Knife" in Haney's introduction.
The story begins with the owner of Farber Hardware store in Gotham City closing up shop after a day of slow sales. As Farber laments the state of his finances, a sudden explosion kills him. Later, the head of Leggett Industries is having similar worries about his business when a nearly identical explosion kills him. The explosions were identical, but contained enough to kill only those specific men. The police are baffled, and Commissioner Gordon wonders if the deaths were suicides to collect on insurance policies.
Batman doesn't think so. After digging through some financial records, he deduces that the victims were paying off a loan shark, and when they failed to pay, they were murdered.
Ahh, you can practically tell how excited Bob Haney got when he learned the term vig and said, "I'm going to put that in my next Brave and Bold script. Yeah, I'm going to put it in there a lot!"
So Batman heads out into the underworld and beats up or terrifies everyone he can find to dig up information on the loan shark connected to Farber and Leggett. What he comes up with and tells Gordon is that the shark's name is Longreen.
But elsewhere in the city, Dinah Lance is greeted enthusiastically by a famous fashion guru named Antonio. Dinah, it seems, as designed a dress for his latest fashion show.
Hmm? Dinah has given up her career as a florist for fashion design; maybe I need to change this blog to Fashion and Fishnets. That seems appropriately Haney-ish.
As Antonio begins his show, a stranger wearing a hat and beard pushes Dinah to the ground, and a second later, Antonio explodes in the same manner as Farber and Leggett. Unsure whether the man who pushed her meant to save her, she figures he knew about the explosion and chases him through the back of the studio.
Wow... stymied by mannequins. That's embarrassing.
Black Canary chases him to the roof, but he manages to get to the ground safely. Batman arrives and similarly pursues him, but the mystery man escapes from Batman whilst making a brutal pun about "assault and battery." Then the mysterious villain escapes... laughing as he does so.
Batman and Black Canary return to the studio and question Antonio's poor seamstress/assistant. In her broken, Eastern European-accented English, she confesses that Antonio used a loan shark whom she calls Mr. Long Grin. The phonetic coincidence alarms Batman and he realizes that the killer must be the Joker, who saved Black Canary because of a connection they had back in her earliest days with the Justice League of America.
The Bat and the Canary go to Wayne Manor, where Batman lays out his plan. Bruce Wayne can't approach the Joker/Longreen about borrowing money, not without arousing too much suspicion. But Wayne's butler, Alfred Pennyworth could do it. They plant the tip amongst Batman's underworld network that Alfred needs money, and before long he gets a call from Longreen arranging a meeting.
Alfred is picked up by a taxi. Batman and Black Canary follow, but they're tricked and led around town by the wrong taxi. Alfred, meanwhile, is taken alone and helpless to the Joker's secret hideout at a funeral home.
After explaining the rules of their arrangement, the Joker pours Alfred a glass of wine and eyes him carefully as Alfred drinks it.
When Alfred returns to Batman and Black Canary, he confesses that he does not know where the Joker's hideout was. He can't remember any sounds he heard coming from outside the funeral home that would point Batman in the direction of his nemesis. Batman is furious about Alfred's failure to get them the clue they need. Black Canary tries to redirect Batman's focus on Alfred's safety, and Batman shows her the scan that reveals no explosives or hidden bombs on Alfred's person.
A week passes with no word until the Joker finally calls Alfred demanding his money. Batman tells Alfred to say he will pay, hoping that they can catch the Joker during the drop-off.
Alfred puts fifty-thousand dollars of Bruce Wayne's money on the underside of a sewer manhole cover. Black Canary stakes out the drop-off site, and notices a funeral procession driving over the manhole. When the hearse drives over, Black Canary hears laughter coming from the car, and then springs into action.
Of course, she gets captured. Black Canary always gets knocked unconscious and captured since her Golden Age stories in Flash Comics.
Later, the Joker wants more money from Alfred and threatens to kill Black Canary if Batman tries to stop him. Batman shouts at Alfred that he must remember what he heard and saw when he was with the Joker... and now Alfred remembers that he heard far-off mechanical laughter and that he drank wine with the Joker.
This timely intelligence informs Batman that the wine was laced with some kind of chemical compound that would explode at a certain time, and that the Joker's funeral home hideout is next to a burger joint with a big clown mascot. Gee, you wouldn't have thought of that earlier, Batman? Classic Bob Haney.
At the Joker's hideout, Alfred bursts through a window and grabs the Joker, threatening to blow them both up if he doesn't surrender. The Joker's goons start to run, but Black Canary nails them with her sonic scream. Wait, what was she waiting for? Classic Bob Haney.
Then the Joker struggles and pulls off an Alfred mask, revealing that the man holding him was actually Batman. Then the real Alfred comes in and Batman says they'll both explode if the Joker doesn't give him a blood transfusion to cure him of the chemical explosives in his system.
The issue ends with Alfred having the Joker's blood in his veins and that makes him susceptible to horrible puns.
Wait, why did Batman have to dress as Alfred and fake the threat when the real Alfred was there and capable of doing the same thing? And why didn't Black Canary get up and knock out Joker and the others with her scream earlier? Why wasn't she tied up and gagged or incapacitated? The answer to all of these questions is: classic Bob Haney.
Jim Aparo's art is gorgeous throughout the story. I started reading Batman comics in the late '80s and early '90s, and his models for Batman, Gordon, and the Joker are the versions of the characters I think of when I close my eyes and picture them. Aparo's work is as iconic and merchandisable for my generation as the stock art culled from the talents of Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, Praise Be His Name.