By Will Barber – Taylor
Following on from the previous edition, in which we looked at a story which lacked good characterisation that worked against it, this time we look at a story which has good characterisation which works in the story’s favour. Taken from the gothic era of Batman comics, this edition’s story is “Sign of the Skull” (Batman 289 – 290)
Sign of the Skull is a bizarre story. As I said in the introduction, it features some great characterisation but the actual logic that holds the story together is, to put it mildly, ridiculous.
The tale centres on a chap called Cosmo “Skull” Dugger. A genius, Dugger suffers from a condition which means he can feel no joy. Dugger becomes obsessed and deranged and decides to do whatever he can until he can feel joy again.
This part of the story is very well done, with writer David V Reed giving some good backstory to Dugger and making us understand his motivation for turning to crime; to help him cure his condition and be happy. However, it is when we get deeper into the plot that things begin to unravel. It turns out Dugger steals joy from others at the moment they feel the most joy. The fact that Dugger is portrayed as a scientist undermines this idea. If he was a magician, which would stretch the credibility of the story anyway, you could get away with it. However by grounding him in science and suddenly giving him the amazing ability to steal emotions feels out of place and jarring. What’s worse it what follows.
Dugger’s draining of joy also kills the unfortunate victim stone dead. Due to Dugger’s gizmos all the victims are thought to have died from simple heart attacks and are written off. Yet, when Dr Somers calls in Batman to help her investigate she point out that the corpses have massive skulls tattooed on their heads. When Batman enquires as to why this rather obvious clue hasn’t been looked into, the senior pathologist simply says it is a result of “scarring”. What sane pathologist would think that a heart attack could cause the victim to end up having a massive skull tattooed on his head? The idea that only two people could spot these obvious clues stretches the reader’s credibility to the breaking point. It doesn’t take the world’s greatest detective to figure out what it is happening.
Yet this massive clue is later confirmed by Dugger to be an accident. He doesn’t know why the skulls appear on his victims and is as baffled as the audience. The skull tattoos, the titular “sign of the skull” is a random plot convenience that helps Batman solve the case. While Dugger’s characterisation and motives make the story stand out and seem interesting, the fact that the plot descends into such silliness wastes a perfectly good villain and story idea. If the actual sign of the skull and Dugger’s bizarre lifting of emotions from his victims were taken out it would be a much better story.
The artwork by Mike Grell and Vince Colletta follows the traditional style of the 70s and so is generally good. The characters are drawn in a realistic, if cartoonish way that epitomises 70s comics. Dugger himself, however, does at times bear too much of a resemblance to the X-Men’s Magneto, making you feel that the story is more of a battle between Batman and Professor X’s oldest adversary.
Overall, Sign of the Skull is another missed opportunity. Dugger is an interesting character, who in a better story could have been a worthy villain for the Caped Crusader. However, the ridiculousness of the story means that all the characterisations fades away into nothing and is ultimately pointless.