Bizarro Back Issues: Batman Against The Great Gotham City Christmas Tree Racket (1945)
When you read as many Christmas comics as I have --- and folks, I have read plenty --- you start to get the idea that you know what you're in for. There are a few basic plots that tend to be recycled over and over again when the holidays roll in, and when a story announces right up front that it's going to be making a pretty pointed reference to, say, A Christmas Carol, there are things you expect. There's a rich old man, four spirits, all that good stuff.
What you don't expect is that the story will instead involve zero spirits, a rich child, and a gang of thugs attempting to corner the Gotham City Christmas Tree market by setting a bunch of people on fire. And yet, here we are with 1945's "A Christmas Peril," where that is exactly what happens.
Written by Don Cameron with art by Jerry Robinson, the story first appeared in the pages of Batman #27, and stands as one of the Caped Crusader's earliest Christmas-themed adventures. To be honest, though, that didn't happen as much as you might expect, although after reading this story, it's easy to see why. There's not a whole lot you can do once you've got Batman saying something as amazing as, "Hogging the Christmas tree market through terrorism isn't respectable!"
It's not even his first point!
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Our story opens on Christmas Eve in Gotham City, with Bruce Wayne and his youthful ward Dick Grayson out shopping for a Christmas tree. That in itself is a little hard to swallow from a modern perspective since I can barely wait until after Thanksgiving to put my tree up, but I think it's also fair to say that Batman and Robin probably have a little more going on in their lives than I do, and fighting criime is the sort of thing that would keep them from putting up a tree until the last minute.
But putting things off has created a problem: When they go to buy a tree, they find that the price has been jacked up from the usual two bucks to a staggering $7.98 --- which, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is $105.44 in today's money. Bruce, temporarily forgetting that he is a literal millionaire and that he can probably afford to drop eight bucks to buy a tree from a dude who has stayed open on Christmas Eve, refuses and goes to another lot to find a better price.
What he finds instead is, of course, attempted murder and arson.
After giving the would-be arsonists a sound thrashing, Batman and Robin learn that this particular lot was attacked for the simple reason that they won't jack up their prices and give the majority of the profits to a mobster called Happy Hoggsby.
At this point, if you're like me, you might be wondering just when we were going to get to anything resembling A Christmas Carol. It starts here, sort of, when it's revealed that Hoggsby is terrorizing the Christmas tree market on the orders of one Scranton Loring --- Teen Millionaire!
Scranton has inherited a fortune from his uncle Caleb --- who, according to Batman, was known as "Old Scrooge" --- and has taken over the corporate empire with ruthless efficiency. He's utterly focused on wringing every last dime to add to his personal fortune, and when he explains his plan to corner the Christmas tree market, his other uncle and newly minted guardian, Timothy, is downright horrified.
It should also be noted that Timothy has a kind heart and a long white beard and is dressed as Santa Claus for the duration of the story, but you would not believe how little that actually matters.
What does matter, though, is that Batman and Robin have traced the tree racket back to Scranton, making an appearance and allowing the young plutocrat to be one of the few people to call Batman stupid to his face and not immediately have to seek out a dentist while carrying a pocketful of his own teeth.
Instead, they hand out a quick thrashing to Scranton's butlers, Eggers and Gulliver, and then drag the kid himself out the window for a quick tour of the city.
To be fair, they do actually make an attempt at following the old Christmas-Past, Christmas-Present Christmas-Yet-To-Come pattern, but only the kind of vague, barely-there way that you really have to stretch to make it work. Their first visit, for instance, is a trip to the tree lot that Hoggsby's thugs burned down an hour ago, and the second is to the "unheated tenement" home of the tree sellers, who have a sob story so intense that Batman's own tale of murdered parents sees like a nursery rhyme:
After that, it's off to the hospital, where a florist who was roughed up by Hoggsby's men is in critical condition and about to die on Christmas as his young wife waits outside the operating room.
That's pretty much the point where Scranton breaks and decides that maybe having people beaten into comas and then setting their businesses on fire was not entirely a good thing, and decides that maybe he should use his fortune to do something nice instead. But alas, it's not that easy.
See, whlie the plan to jack up the price of Christmas trees was all Scranton, the hiring and direction of the thugs came from Gulliver and Eggers, who wanted to goose the Loring fortune one last time before they killed Scranton and made off with it for their real boss, Hoggsby. With Scranton off being Scrooged by Batman and Robin, Uncle Timothy starts to suspect they're the real masterminds behind it all --- probably because they keep standing ten feet away muttering about how they need to kill everyone.
Sure enough, Timothy ends up tied up and menaced with a pistol, and the only way to save Christmas is through punching.
Amazingly, the story is not over yet, even though everything that needs to be punched has been punched and that's usually when Batman gets to go home for the night. Instead, much like the members of Megaforce, Scranton Loring wants to prove that his change of heart requires deeds, not words. So, taking inspiration from Uncle Timothy's costume, he decides to make up for his misdeeds by buying out the stock of a local toy store, strapping the whole shebang to the Bat-Plane and dropping it down the chimneys of Gotham's poor unfortunates in a pretty fantastic ending.
We never do find out if that florist died, though.