Batman Newspaper Strip - Story 2
January 10 - March 18, 1944 (Phantom of the Theater)
Not entirely sure as I look at the first days of this new story if this is a direct lift of the Clayface story from the comics or that certain elements were lifted. I read somewhere that these strips did sometimes borrow from the comics whether as they didn't have material ready or as a means to introduce folks to the comics. In any event, let's get into it.
The story opens with Bruce and Dick seeing Rita Rollins' return to the stage after breaking both her ankles the year before. They get a pre-show outside the theater as show producer Claude Towne is attacked by former partner John Corliss. Corliss spent a year in jail after robbing Towne. He runs off when Bruce intervenes. The show itself goes off well until a mysterious figure starts dropping rotting vegetables and fruits on the performers. One assumes this is Corliss, but we don't know at this point as Batman and Robin intervene and quickly find themselves being bombarded by heavy stage equipment.
Batman and Robin manage to avoid the falling debris and even stop a large grating from falling on the audience members. They pursue the mysterious attacker into the tunnels beneath the theater and then into the sewers itself that lead to the subway tunnels where they lose him.
The two return to the back of the theater where the owner/producer is talking with Rita and her understudy Carol. Carol leaves them to discuss the case and Batman suggests she could be a suspect, but the Towne dismisses the idea. Carol though soon meets Corliss, but he tells her how he was in the back of the theater watching the whole thing and then promising to keep her secret. Is it possible it's Carol? Meanwhile, Batman investigates the theater watchman as a possible suspect, but finds him behind the stage unconscious.
The watchman comes around and speaks of how if Corliss was involved with the theater, the watchman would still be working as an actor. He once stared in works dealing with creepy people who snuck about like "The Hunchback". It certainly paints him as the potential mysterious chaos agent, but Batman wants to speak with Carol. When they get to her place, they find her talking with Corliss who is incensed and determined to settle the situation once and for all. He storms off with the two following him to Rita's penthouse apartment where he sneaks into her room as she sleeps.
He is startled by Rita's maid who screams, alerting Batman. Corliss makes his escape via a wire extending from Rita's penthouse to a building across the street. The problem is the wire snaps and Corliss falls into a group of trees in the park below. He manages to survive and get away. Batman finds that Corliss had poisoned Rita's water by her bedside. Towne has the show continue the next night and Bruce sends Alfred to the show to keep an eye on things from the audience while he and Robin sneak inside. But Corliss is also hiding in the shadows.
Rita and the girls make their way to the stage and while they perform, Batman hears voices from Rita's dressing room. He interrupts Corliss advancing on Rita. (Record scratch - she's on stage?). But she's not. Turns out that Rita had a devastating injury a year before that kept her out of the limelight, effectively killing her career. Towne saw the talent in Mary and trained her to take Rita's place. But the two looked somewhat alike, so with a wig and some makeup, the show went on with Rita. Corliss felt this was wrong, which is why he was threatening Rita. But the mystery is not over as Ben, the watchman, throws a switch and the room goes dark. Corliss manages to slip away.
Meanwhile, it turns out the entire theater was thrown into darkness and the audience is starting to panic. The mysterious figure is planning to release tear gas to cause a stampede when he is spotted by Alfred. The faithful butler tries to leap across the balconies and fails, but grabs onto a chandelier and swings across to the fall into the figure, knocking open the gas.
It is at this point, I should point out that the Windsor Star, the Canadian newspaper I was getting the strips from stopped publishing it midweek with no apparent explanation that I could find in the paper. I liked using this version as each strip had its own title, something I could not find in any other paper of the time that is available for viewing. Picking up midweek, I will be using another Canadian newspaper, The Kingston Whig Standard.
This disjointed week ends with Batman coming to Alfred rescue after Alfred fails to tackle the figure, sending him over the balcony. Batman and Alfred stand at gunpoint by the figure with Robin swinging to their rescue.
Batman catches up with Corliss backstage, who is now with Carol. The police arrive, but Batman also checks the lighting area and still sees Ben, the watchman, is just turning the lights back on. He says he has a story to tell. While the police think they have their man in Corliss, Batman is not entirely convinced.
It's funny, this was a story that felt like it should have ended at various points, and then it takes a curious turn. Batman proves that it wasn't Corliss or Ben who were the mysterious figure. Instead, he tells of Towne sabotaging his own show because he framed Corliss for a robbery he didn't commit while being blackmailed by Rita into allowing Carol to pose as her to keep her star lit. Rita admits her own guilt which prompts Towne to grab Carol and threaten to kill her.
Towne quickly ditches Carol and races to the roof. He loses his footing and falls, but Batman catches him. Rita is let go after turning evidence. As Dick points out, her only crime was that she was selfish. Bruce, Dick and Alfred attend the opening night of a Corliss produced show with Carol headlining. And Alfred is all caught up in the romance of the two as they plan to marry the next day.
Overall, I'm thinking I like the newspaper strips over the comics. The comics are still limited by a certain number of pages per story regardless of which comic its featured in. Here, we have this story that has many twists and turns and plays out over two months. The comics have yet to learn this. And what's next? We're looking at the next Sunday strip, Citizens!