Rating: 4/5 – A Villain that’s More than a Riddler Knock Off.
by ComicSpectrum senior reviewer Shawn Hoklas.
In Detective Comics number 351, we’re introduced to the Cluemaster. My knowledge of the character’s early appearances is limited, but after reading his impressive introduction and conclusion in the weekly Batman Eternal series, I thought I’d seek out his first appearance and see why Snyder and other Batman Eternal writers were inspired to use him. At first glance, Cluemaster could be compared to the Riddler, but instead of using riddles at the scene of the crime, he uses clues. Arthur Brown, in at least more modern comics has actually taken a step back in his already diminished popularity while his daughter Stephanie Brown has become much more popular as the teenage sidekick Spoiler. Although it may be a while before we see Cluemaster in the New 52 again based on his final scene in Batman Eternal, you can see some of the character’s motivations for his actions play out here in his first appearance from way back in 1966.
Since we’re back in 1966, the story opens with Aunt Harriet stumbling upon a secret entrance into the Batcave, which leads her into an investigation of her own to determine whether or not she’s really living with the famous Gotham heroes. This story will run alongside the main one for the majority of this issue, and although the ending and the way Bruce and Dick deceive Harriet into believing they’re not really Batman and Robin comes off as campy, it was still an entertaining subplot and will remind readers of how close Harriet was to the dynamic duo back then. We’re then thrust into the main action where we meet Cluemaster for the very first time. In his all orange costume with blue pellets attached, he steps in front of a speeding Batmobile and uses one of those pellets to flash-blind Batman and Robin. After escaping while the heroes get their sight back, he leaves his first clue and earns himself his name. Moments later we see his motivations which you can connect to his later, and New 52 appearances. In a four panel grid of exposition the Cluemaster explains that all of Batman’s villains have a “psychological handicap” that prevents them from succeeding simply because they know he’s “the” Batman. They’re psyched out by Batman’s perfect record of defeating his villains. This shows a depth to the character that’s more than just revenge, or the crime of the week.
So what does Cluemaster want to do? He wants to learn who the Batman really is, exposing him as a simple man in order to have the psychological advantage to bring him down. It’s actually a clever and creative premise by writer Gardner Fox, and although the story eventually makes the Cluemaster seem less intelligent as the story goes along, the seeds are there for a unique villain that’s inspired to beat the Batman in different ways. Carmine Infantino’s design for the character is classic, and future appearances of the character maintains most of the original designs. In the back up story we get another Fox and Infantino tale starring the Elongated Man. Ralph Dibny comes to realize that his old costume which he intended to donate to the Flash Museum has been stolen. As he tracks the crook down, he comes to find that the crook is using it in creative yet goofy ways. He’s using the stretchable material to snap himself in and away from rooftops and high story windows. It’s a wonder how he never breaks any bones, but “stretching” my sense of belief helped me enjoy the fun yet short story.
I was impressed with the origin and fist appearance of the Cluemaster. It’s easy to compare him to the Riddler, but even back in 1966 he was motivated for different reasons. He was strong willed, and didn’t believe in the aura of the Batman. I’m not sure how later appearances with this character play out and if they explore this angle further, but I intend to find out. Early appearances of this character can still be found for cheap as he doesn’t even get a “1st appearance” mention in the Overstreet Price Guide. These older issues of Detective are a fun read and definitely explore a lighter side of Batman that will compare more closely with the 1960s TV show, but in no way is that a bad thing.
Reviewed by: Shawn Hoklas
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