Bizarro Back Issues: ‘Dastardly Events Aboard The Hellship!’ (1978)
Bob Haney and Jim Aparo were the single greatest creative team that has ever worked on Batman, and if anyone says differently, they are wrong and dumb and I hate them forever.
That might be a bit of an extreme reaction, but I stand by it. With over 20 years on the character, Aparo is pretty unassailable as one of the definitive Batman artists, and while Haney's storytelling style might not be for everyone, you have to respect just how much he was able to cram into a single issue. Like, for instance, "Dastardly Events Aboard The Hellship," which features a kidnapped heiress, a boat with a miniature Gotham City and a miniature Old West town inside of it, a fight with an octopus, a fake circus, and Gorilla Surgeons. Also Wonder Woman is in there. It is 17 pages long. It might be the craziest comic book I have ever read.I realize that I say that a lot and that I employ hyperbole in the same way that other writers employ the comma, but seriously, this one has to be at least in the top five, if only for Haney's commitment to the title. Not only is it an acronym that spells out D.E.A.T.H., but two of those letters stand for "Dastardly" and "Hellship," two words that do not actually appear in the rest of the story.
Said Dastardly Events (and said Hellship) appear in the pages of Brave and the Bold #140, a Batman/Wonder Woman team up that opens with the scene pictured above. The villain of the piece is one Dimitrios, the Golden Greek, seen here as a sinister ringmaster who whips at our heroes and instructs Wonder Woman to "purr like a tigress," a page that I heard William Moulton Marston once said went a little over the top with the bondage imagery. It's worth noting at this point that Dimitrios is not actually a ringmaster and that this scene is not actually happening in a circus -- it's happening on his boat, which of course has a circus tent (complete with ringmaster costume and lion-taming whip) inside it.
Clearly, Bob Haney has some explaining to do.
And explain he does, using one of his favorite narrative techniques: flashing back in Batman's "whirling brain" to "only a few days before" this bit of madness to set it all up. As it turns out, the whole thing gets started when Batman meets with Mr. Belmont, a local industrialist who sadly does not battle Dracula with a whip and a stopwatch. Instead, he has a proposal for the Batman:
I realize that many readers prefer the grim vigilante of the modern era, but I firmly believe that things would be a lot more entertaining if we could go back to the version of Batman where he was a world-traveling adventurer that would meet up with old men who rocked shades indoors if they offered to donate a stack of money to his favorite charity. Incidentally, Batman's favorite charity just happens to be the Wayne Foundation. Specifically "Batarangs for Billionaires."
Anyway, Dimitrios is described as "the world's richest man," and unlike the one-percenters who came by their fortunes honestly by having their parents murdered in an alley, he got his through industrial espionage. His latest exploit: Kidnapping Belmont's daughter, Esmeralda, and absconding with both the girl and an experimental prototype solar cell. He offers the ten mil to get Batman to rescue his daughter. He needn't have bothered, though -- if there's evil somewhere that needs punching, that's pretty much all it takes to get Batman involved.
Batman gets a friend of his in the Coast Guard to fly him out to sea so he can check out Dimitrios's ship, the Argosy -- which I love, as it implies that Batman does not own an airplane. This is actually a recurring theme in Haney and Aparo's work -- in one issue of BATB, he and Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter, fly somewhere on a commercial airline. Seriously, they're just sitting there in coach between a bunch of tourists in full costume, including a bright yellow belt full of smoke bombs, shuriken and probably a handheld laser. I love these comics so much, you guys.
The Caped Crusader's not the only one on the case, though: In New York, Crisis Bureau Agent Morgan Tracy hints loudly to one Diana Prince that they need to apprehend Dimitrios in order to break the back of an international crime syndicate. Diana gets the hint, and sure enough, Wonder Woman soon takes off in her invisible plane on a mission to drag Dimitrios back to the states by hook, crook or magic lasso.
Rather than just showing up and announcing that they're the Justice League and anybody who wants to get through the day without a significant number of broken bones should clear on out the back, they decide a little stealth is in order. Sort of. It turns out that Wonder Woman's idea of "stealth" is using her lasso like a helicopter blade to create a waterspout using it to cover her entrance, because apparently no one will notice when a giant tornado shows up off the port bow and launches a woman dressed in an American flag swimsuit through an open window. Even crazier? She's right.
Batman, in true Haney fashion, opts for a more James Bondian route, SCUBA diving his way into the ship, swimming his way through a water intake...
...and directly into a tank full of sharks, killer whales and octopi. Because where else is Batman going to swim?
Now, dedicated readers will already be aware that punching out a whale is just another Tuesday for the Batman, but Wonder Woman shows up and saves him the trouble. She shatters the aquarium with her Amazon strength and she and Batman chat a bit about how they both want to bring down Dimitrios "amidst the thrashing, snapping death-throes of stranded giants."
Now, the fact that Wonder Woman just coincidentally shows up in the same room as Batman is itself one of the most unbelievable things about the story (at this point, anyway), because the Hellship is huge. How huge? So huge that on its lower decks, there are detailed replicas of New York, Gotham City, Metropolis, a circus and an Old West Town...
... that are all fully populated by robots, for absolutely no reason. Seriously, I cannot stress enough that this is not relevant to the plot at all. It is never really explained why Dimitrios has a Dodge City sound stage on his boat, and it doesn't affect the story. I honestly wonder if Aparo was just like "eh, I'm going to draw the Old West in this panel" and Haney shrugged it off with a rewrite.
While Batman and Wonder Woman are running around the various cities in the middle of a boat, something that does not surprise them one bit, this story is about to get awesome:
Oh hell yes: The Simian Squad. See, in addition to his fake towns and robots, Dimitrios has used his international espionage money to breed an army of intelligent gorillas that do his bidding. And in this case, the bidding is to beat Batman to a pulp with blackjacks:
It's not his best moment. But to be fair, he is outnumbered and probably disoriented from being in a replica of Gotham City that is also on a boat. We all have our off days.
Wonder Woman ends up getting gassed by Dimitrios, and when they wake up, we're back in the ersatz circus, with our heroes manacled. Dimitrios takes the opportunity to gloat a bit, flashing the solar cell that Batman was trying to get four plot twists ago, giving Batman the opportunity to straight up eat it out of his hand.
I love that Wonder Woman's reaction to this is: "Batman! No?!!" She's as confused as we are.
Batman runs off with the cell safely (?) tucked away in his bat-gut, but finds a prisoner who reveals that the chip he swallowed was actually a fake, and so was Mr. Belmont's story -- he invented the cell, not Belmont, and the kidnapping was just a ruse designed to get Batman to unknowingly steal the chip. Apparently, this plot was not complex enough already.
Batman ends up getting captured and knocked out yet again, and at this point, things somehow manage to get even weirder:
That is what is happening.
While I'm trying to figure out why Dimitrios has a surgeon costume (complete with gloves!) sized for an ape, the scientist is caught up with wondering why Batman doesn't just confess that it's a fake. The reason, of course, is that this is all part of Batman's plan. See, as the World's Greatest detective, he has deduced that the sight of him about to be stabbed in the gut by a gorilla is the only thing that can motivate Wonder Woman to flip right the hell out.
Which is exactly what she does, snapping her chains with one mighty "KHA-CHNNGA!" and cold throwing an ape at Dimitrios to knock him out:
There are still a few more plot twists to get through (Esmeralda was duping Dimitrios the entire time), but that gorilla toss pretty much wraps it up for the bad guys. Batman and Wonder Woman win and bring down both Dimitrios and Belmont, and then Batman decides that he has a new favorite charity:
I will say this right now: If we are reading DC comics that don't have the Thomas Wayne Memorial Surgical Hospital For Gorillas, then what are we even doing with our lives?