The Stories That Informed ‘Batman R.I.P.’
“Criminals are a superstitious cowardly lot. So my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible …a…a…”
As if in answer, a huge image of a Caped Crusader flashed across a movie screen. Across monitors throughout space and time and other dimensions.
“It’s an omen!” each man, alien and other-dimensional imp declared. “I shall become a Batman!”
One of the attractions of Batman was, it’s often been said, the fact that a kid could actually imagine growing up to be the Caped Crusader. No one was ever going to grow up to be Superman but with an extensive training regimen (and a hefty bank account) …well, anything’s possible. Overlay that with the spirit of mainstreaming and conformity of the 1950s and you end up with a universe where there seemed to be a Batman knock-off on every corner and planet.
In 1964, editor Julius Schwartz found his arm twisted into taking over the flagging Batman titles. He immediately ditched the extended Batman family and the increasingly prevalent space alien stories for a more contemporary angle grounded in the real world. And as the years rolled on, Schwartz and company refined their approach and gradually, permanently put the Dark back in their Knight.
The revamp was so effective, in fact, that the mid-1950s/early 1960s Batman stories almost came to be regarded with revulsion, too silly and outlandish to even exist in the same universe as Schwartz’s Caped Crusader. That viewpoint crystallized in issue #2 of DC’s own Who’s Who series (1985), where the first appearance of the Earth-One Batman was cited as Detective Comics #327 (Schwartz’s first issue). [Evidently, the guy appearing in Justice League of America up to that point had been the Earth-Two version.] The events of those stories were effectively banished from the canon and left to a few brave souls (starting with Bob Rozakis in the 1970s) to reference at their peril.
Grant Morrison, throughout his current run on Batman (beginning with #655: Sept., 2006), has expressly put fans on notice that, as far as he’s concerned, those much-maligned stories still count. Those and the high camp of the 1960s TV show and the son Bruce Wayne produced during a tryst with Talia. Every Batman adventure over the past seven decades — compressed into twelve-to-fifteen years — had actually been experienced by Morrison’s Dark Knight. Is it any wonder, the writer remarked in interviews, that Batman is a little nuts these days?
On their own terms, those 1950s/early 1960s episodes aren’t nearly as awful as they’re sometimes made out to be (Mike W. Barr wrote a fine defense of many of these stories in BenBella Books’ 2008 Batman Unauthorized) but tonally one must concede that they were a vast departure from the atmosphere of either the early days of the strip or the post-1960s series. Morrison’s tack has been to look at those stories from a different angle. Key to his entire saga is a 1963 story that detractors and defenders alike concede is a genuine classic. Its name was “Robin Dies At Dawn” (Batman #156).
Mysteriously transported to an alien planet, a disoriented Batman was soon joined by Robin and then found themselves pursued by a stone giant that crushed the Boy Wonder as the sun rose on the strange planet. Falling prey to depression and paranoia, the Caped Crusader imagined that he was being watched by unseen eyes and finally lost his will to live. At which point he was awakened on Earth. At the behest of the Army, Batman had participated in a sensory deprivation experiment over the span of several days to help doctors “gauge effects on an astronaut’s nervous system.”
So it was only a dream. This is where most stories would have ended but writer Bill Finger was just getting started. In the days that followed, Batman attempted to get back into his crime-fighting routine only to by hampered time and again by flashbacks to Robin’s “death.” Acknowledging that his breakdowns were endangering the real Robin’s life, Bruce Wayne finally decided to retire his cape and cowl altogether. Yet when the Boy Wonder was kidnapped and condemned to a dawn execution, Batman rallied and escaped the grip of his psychosis.
Morrison’s take on the story in Batman #673 revealed that Batman had a bigger reason for submitting to sensory deprivation than simply contributing to space medicine. He hoped to get “a glimpse of how the Joker’s mind worked” by experiencing “hallucinations and psychotic states.” Instead, he laid himself bare to army doctor Simon Hurt–unnamed in the original story–who foresaw terrible possibilities in his test subject.
Which brings us to “Batman – The Superman of Planet-X” (Batman #113: Feb., 1958), another story heretofore banished from modern Batman lore. By this point, there was already a long tradition of stories involving Batman counterparts throughout the world and even other time periods so it really should have come as no surprise that there were extraterrestrials watching Earth and emulating Batman, too. Here we’d meet Tlano, a Caucasian humanoid scientist who’d put together a garish costume of red, yellow and purple and promptly went to work fighting crime with the aid of a technology-disrupting device called the Bat-Radia. Unfortunately, a looming alien invasion was more than Tlano could handle so he teleported his namesake to his world of Zur-En-Arrh, aware that its gravity and atmospheric qualities would give Earth’s Batman the powers of Superman. With the invasion crushed, the Caped Crusader returned home. “It would be far easier to consider this a dream,” he observed, “but how can I? For in my hand, I hold the Bat-Radia,” a memento from Tlano.
Sharp-eyed readers noted graffiti reading “Zur En Arrh” in several earlier Morrison stories (#655, 664, 672) and the pay-off came at the end of #677. Standing before monitor screens filled with images of the graffiti, Batman heard Jezebel Jet say “Zur-En-Arrh,” saw the face of the stone giant that “killed” Robin and collapsed in a heap.
In Morrison’s story, Zur-En-Arrh was a dream or rather “a flashback hallucination induced by Professor Milo’s gas weapon.” [In 1957, Milo had given Batman a bat-phobia in one story (Detective #247) and stripped him of his will to live in another (Batman #112)]. Doctor Hurt capitalized on the fantasy, Batman #679 explained, by using “Zur-En-Arrh” as “a hypnotic trigger phrase that would give him the power to switch off Batman any time he wanted.” On some level, though, the Dark Knight was aware of the plot and put together a failsafe plan in which he would truly become “the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh,” a violent alternate personality without the leavening influence of Bruce Wayne. The bright red and yellow of his costume, Batman explained in #680, “demonstrate total confidence. Robin dressed this way for years and survived.”
Most of these details, we should add, were provided by another 1950s holdover, a hero-worshipping magical imp from another dimension named Bat-Mite. Obviously influenced by Superman’s own Mister Mxyzptlk, Bat-Mite differed in that he tried to help Batman — albeit with sometimes disastrous results. He was a popular character for the time, charting fourteen appearances (four opposite Mxyzptlk) in the 1950s and 1960s before being deported to comics limbo. After breaking the fourth wall a couple times (in 1978’s Detective Comics #482 and 1983’s The Brave and the Bold #200), Bat-Mite was reconceived as a hallucination seen only by a drugged-up crook (Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #38). That didn’t stop him from bugging Batman alongside Mr. Mxyzptlk on a few occasions (most recently in Superman/Batman #25 and 52).
For the story at hand, Bat-Mite materialized at the moment Batman suffered a heart attack in Batman #672, lingering in the next two issues and returning in #678-680. The imp prodded at the delirious, confused Batman, urging him to remember key details and make connections. Bat-Mite was, he claimed in #680, “the last fading echo of [Bruce Wayne’s] voice of reason.”
“Are you really an alien hyper-imp from the 5th dimension,” Batman asked. “Or just a figment of my imagination?”
Simple, the imp declared before vanishing, “Imagination is the 5th dimension.”
Believe it or not, some of the 1950s Bat-inspired heroes of the 1950s weren’t delusions.
There were Chief Man-of-the-Bats and Little Raven (a Sioux Indian and his son from 1954’s Batman #86), Wingman (who trained with the Caped Crusader in 1951’s Batman #65 before returning to an unnamed European country) and the England-based Knight and the Squire (a.k.a. the Earl of Wordenshire and his son Cyril from 1950’s Batman #62). That last duo returned in a big way in late 1954’s Detective #215, where “the Batmen of All Nations” — the Gaucho [South America], the Legionary [Italy], the Musketeer [France] and the Ranger [Australia] — came to Gotham City for a set-down with the hero who’d inspired them. This episode, in turn, inspired a 1957 story where “well-known philanthropist” John Mayhew awarded the international heroes as well as Superman, Batman and Robin with their own lavish “Club of Heroes” (World’s Finest #89).
All of this played into Morrison’s Agatha Christie-styled three-parter in Batman #667-669, wherein the Club of Heroes — minus Superman but plus Wingman, Man-of-Bats and Little Raven [“Its Raven Red, remember?”] — were invited to an island retreat by the long-unseen John Mayhew, portentously revealed here to have once directed a film called “The Black Glove.” In various states of decline, the heroes ended up getting picked off by an unseen killer and–Spoiler Warning–discovered that Wingman was a traitor in their midst. Wingman’s impersonation of Dark Ranger during the third chapter paralleled the first “Batmen of Many Nations” story, incidentally, wherein the Legionary was replaced by a killer.
This wasn’t, incidentally, the first revival of the international Batmen. Infinity, Inc. #34 (Jan., 1987) had reestablished the characters — plus Wingman — as 1950s forerunners of the Global Guardians who’d never met Batman in DC’s retconned history. Indeed, Roy Thomas even featured the young Earl of Wordenshire as the first Squire in an All-Star Squadron sequence set in 1942 (Young All-Stars #22-23, 25-27: 1989). Meanwhile, a graying Cyril Sheldrake — the now-second Squire — was reintroduced in the present as an influential member of British intelligence who served as liaison with the super-hero community (1988’s New Teen Titans #44). All of this has since been informally excised by Morrison, starting in JLA #27 (which cast Cyril as the new Knight) and continuing in JLA: Classified #1-3 (where a girl named Beryl Hutchinson debuted as the third Squire and the Club of Heroes once again counted Batman as a member).
Bruce Wayne himself took a go at alternate versions of Batman, developing case-specific outfits (decades before Tony Stark thought of it) that were the subject of 1950’s “Strange Costumes of Batman” (Detective #165). A sampling of the costumes can be glimpsed in Batman #657.
The surprise twist of the “Strange Costumes” story had been its revelation that one of those outfits was specially padded to allow the smaller Robin to impersonate Batman himself in an emergency. Initially, only circumstances like exposure to strange gases from space allowed Dick Grayson to experience crime-fighting in an adult body, as when he took the alter-ego of Owlman in 1957’s Batman #107. But eventually the young man grew up for real and stood in for the Dark Knight on multiple occasions, sometimes temporarily, as when Batman was gravely wounded during a battle with Rupert Thorne and his cronies (1982’s Batman #354) and sometimes for more extended periods, notably the period when Bruce Wayne — recovering from his dealings with Bane and Azrael — left his cape and cowl in Dick’s capable hands (1994’s Robin #0, 11-13, and others).
Before Dick grew into the part, it was Alfred who was called upon to masquerade as Batman. He went so far as to borrow Master Bruce’s costume early on (1944’s Batman #22) and Batman expressly asked his butler to impersonate him on multiple occasions thereafter (Batman #55, 87, 94, 117, 120). A freak accident in the Batcave even endowed Alfred with super-strength, invulnerability and near-flight in 1959, prompting him to become the costumed hero known as the Eagle before his powers wore off (Batman #127). Or perhaps simply went dormant, which might explain how he not only survived being crushed to death by a boulder in 1964 (Detective #328) but was reborn as the psionic super-freak known as the Outsider who terrorized Batman and Robin with his intimate knowledge of their secrets before being restored to normal in 1966 (Detective #334, 336, 340, 349, 356). The Outsider personality reasserted itself a handful of times through 1985 (DC Comics Presents #84) only to be banished from continuity–at least until 2007’s Nightwing Annual #2 reaffirmed that Alfred’s days as a criminal mastermind had still happened.
[Batman #677 included Morrison’s deftly off-handed explanation that actor-turned-butler Alfred Pennyworth — whose surname was acquired in 1969’s Batman #216 — went by the stage name of Alfred Beagle, a surname first used back in 1945’s Detective Comics #96].
A story in Batman #77 (June-July, 1953) had taken another angle on surrogate Batmen, speculating on what a Gotham City Police Department now heavily dependent on the Caped Crusader might do if he were suddenly killed. As revealed here, Commissioner Gordon had personally selected five men — police officers Dave Fells and Sam Olson, Army Intelligence man Philip Gray, FBI agent Ted Blakely, and star athlete Harry Vincent [no relation to the Shadow’s operative] — to be part of a hush-hush group called the Secret Star whose members could be called on to replace Batman in an emergency.
Morrison offered his own spin on the concept in Batman #674, although in his version the replacement Batmen had all been cops chosen by the military. In this account, three of the four alternates wound up going off the deep end, one of them shooting the Joker in the face (#655), another turning into a brute jacked up on drugs used by baddies Hugo Strange and Bane (#664-665) and a third who believed he’d sold his soul to the devil (#666, 672-674). Notably, Morrison’s version emphasized that Commissioner Gordon knew none of this by tying it into an unrelated story wherein he’d been demoted to patrolman and temporarily replaced by Chief Inspector Vane (1947’s Detective Comics #121 (March, 1947). Indeed, the third alternate Batman actually demanded to see Commissioner Vane at the start of #672.
“There was one night I met three…versions of myself,” Bruce Wayne recalled in #665. “A killer Batman with a gun, a bestial Batman on strength-enhancing drugs. … The third sold his soul to the Devil and destroyed Gotham. I was sure they were hallucinations, cautionary tales, visions of what I might have become in other lives.”
Incidents like this, he explained, were dutifully recorded in “the Black Casebook. … Vampires, flying saucers, time travel… All the things we’d seen that didn’t fit and couldn’t be explained went into the Black Casebook.” Many of the strangest stories of the 1950s, it was suggested, had been grounded less in reality than in overexposure to toxins like the Scarecrow’s fear gas and the aforementioned Professor Milo’s chemicals. Things like those referenced at the start of Batman #678: The Dynamic Duo’s battle with “the Rainbow Creature” (1960’s Batman #134) and Batman and Batwoman’s alien encounters in the book-length “Prisoners of Three Worlds” (Batman #153).
A year and a half before his run on Batman began, Morrison actually referenced such stories in JLA: Classified #1 (Jan., 2005). Called upon to intervene in a bizarre situation involving entities like the Nebula Man, Gorilla Grodd and the Infant Universe of Qwewq, the Dark Knight ventured into a part of the Batcave that few even knew existed. “I’m opening the Sci-Fi Closet, Alfred. Don’t tell my friends in the G.C.P.D. about this. Robin and the others can watch Gotham for me tonight. I have a feeling things are about to get strange.”
Beyond the sci-fi era, Morrison also saw fit to reference some of the creations of Frank Robbins, who was a prolific contributor to Julie Schwartz’s post-Robin transition of the early 1970s but is often neglected in favor of the more renowned Denny O’Neil. Specifically, Morrison stories in Batman #655, 657 and 675 featured wanna-be Batman Kirk Langstrom (replete in Neal Adams-style cape) and his Man-Bat formula (Detective Comics #400, 402, 407), the Spook (Detective #434-435 and Batman #252) and the Nine-Eyed Man (from Morrison’s Ten-Eyed Men cult in 52 #30 and based on the Robbins villain called the Ten-Eyed Man from Batman #226 and 231).
The post-Robin era also saw the first examples of stories that cast aspersions on the character of Thomas and Martha Wayne. Intimations of gangland ties (1981’s Brave and the Bold #184), serial killings (2006’s Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #201-203), drug abuse (2006’s Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #204-206) and infidelity (2002/2006’s Batman: Gotham Knights #33-34, 72) all proved false and were precursors to the allegations in Batman #677 that Tom had been a drug abuser who murdered his wife and faked his own death. Some stories — like the Waynes’ involvement in occult rituals (1971’s Brave and the Bold #99) and their institutionalized son Thomas, Jr. (1974’s World’s Finest #223, 227) offspring — got swept under the carpet altogether. That didn’t stop Morrison, in JLA: Earth 2 (2000), from utilizing Thomas Wayne, Jr. as the true identity of this alternate Earth’s Owlman.
Also quickly jettisoned from continuity had been Mike W. Barr’s landmark Batman: Son of the Demon graphic novel, specifically because of its revelation that Talia conceived Batman’s son. In the end, the Dark Knight was led to believe that his lover had miscarried but the story’s conclusion revealed that she actually gave birth to a son and gave him up for adoption. Though unrecognized in the official canon, the story eventually inspired two different characters in alternate futures — Tallant (from Batman: Brotherhood of the Bat and Batman: League of Batman #1-2) and Ibn al Xu’ffassch (seen in Kingdom Come #2-4 and The Kingdom: Son of the Bat #1 among others).
Morrison was the first to restore the character — named Damian here — to mainstream continuity (although the details in Batman #656 don’t quite match Barr’s original story). Amusingly, the sequence where Talia dropped her young son in Batman’s lap and left recalls yet another obscure Batman story, one in which Bruce’s cousin unexpectedly dumped her baby at Wayne Manor when she was called away on an emergency. You may be surprised to learn that “Batman, Babysitter” (1955’s Batman #93) has never been reprinted.
Fans of the Batman Beyond animated series — set in a near-future Gotham City with a new young Batman — will catch Morrison’s nod to its continuity in Batman #666’s flash-forward involving Damian as the new Batman. Here, as in “Beyond,” Commissioner Gordon was now Barbara rather than her father James.
There are also winks at another vilified chapter in Batman’s history: the 1966-1968 TV show. Time was when this campy classic–which had the audacity to play the Caped Crusader for laughs–was referred to with the same degree of loathing reserved for anti-comics crusader Frederic Wertham, so horrible was its perceived effect on the public’s opinion of comic book heroes. From a distance of forty years that have brought forth a whole lot of darker, more serious movies and TV shows, the program is much easier to appreciate on its own terms. Compared to the over-the-top situations, bad dialogue and sexism of Frank Miller’s high-camp All-Star Batman & Robin, Adam West and company look positively benign.
Aside from Batman’s reference to Bat-Mite as “old chum” (#679) and the appearance of a bust in Wayne Manor that suggests the one that accessed the Bat-Poles (#658), Morrison also set a fight scene in Batman #656 against the backdrop of a colorful Pop Art exhibition, complete with canvases of oversized sound effects. The same issue included a single-panel flashback featuring Bruce’s Aunt Agatha (1955’s Batman #89) but the character here had a plumpness more reminiscent of Dick’s Aunt Harriet, introduced in the comics when Julius Schwartz came aboard (Detective #328) but popularized in the TV show. Likewise, Batman’s red hotline (seen in #680) evokes memories of the TV show despite first appearing a couple years earlier (Batman #164).
It’s not just the one-off and/or vaguely embarrassing stories that have occasionally been purged from Batman continuity. The landmark story in which Batman located Joe Chill, the man who killed his parents, was actually jettisoned from the canon in 1994 (Detective Comics #678 and 0). The theory, curiously, was that if Batman had actually captured his parents’ killer, he’d have achieved closure and retired immediately. The banishment lasted a bit more than a decade before the event was restored to Batman’s backstory in 2005’s Infinite Crisis #6.
Even that key story (published in 1948’s Batman #47) had engaged in a bit of revisionism, though. In the first published Batman origin (1939’s Detective #33), Thomas and Martha Wayne had both been shot to death. The second account softened the blow slightly by sparing Martha a bullet wound but instead having her “weak heart” give out. And so it remained until 1971’s Batman #232 when Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams restored the original details. One has to admire how effortlessly Morrison consolidated the conflicting versions when he reexamined the Joe Chill story in Batman #673: “Martha’s wound might not have been fatal if the ambulance had got there in time,” he wrote. “ But her heart was weak and she died of blood loss.”
In the 1948 story, the Dark Knight revealed himself to Joe Chill as the son of the couple he’d killed years ago and the terrified crook blurted out to his cronies that he’d unwittingly created Batman. Flipping out, the thugs gunned Chill down before realizing that they ought to have asked him who Batman was first. Mike W. Barr’s own rewrite of the Chill story (“Batman: Year Two” in 1987’s Detective Comics #575-578) had added another wrinkle with its revelation that Bruce Wayne had held onto the gun that killed his parents and intended to murder their killer with it. Instead, Chill was struck down by the Reaper before Batman had the chance. In Morrison’s hallucinatory variation (#673), Batman did retain the gun but handed it to Joe Chill with the clear belief that the terrified killer, it’s implied, would commit suicide. [Morrison also retained Barr’s detail that Chill had a son and suggested that young Bruce was spared because he reminded the killer of his own child.]
The sequel to Batman #47’s milestone was famous in its own right. Detective Comics #235 (1956) had Bruce Wayne tumble onto the fact that his father had been marked for death by gangster Lew Moxon not long before his murder and it quickly became apparent that Joe Chill’s “random” killings had actually been a paid hit. The central hook of the story was that Thomas Wayne had originally earned Moxon’s ire while at a costume party and dressed as a bat-man. In a bit of poetic justice, Bruce decided to haul Moxon in while wearing the costume of “the first Batman” and wound up scaring the man so badly that he ran into traffic and was killed.
The story later figured into Len Wein’s fine Untold Legend of the Batman mini-series of 1980, where Batman found himself stalked by a mysterious attacker who knew all of his secrets. With good reason. The assailant was Batman himself, who’d been sabotaging himself ever since a blow to the head a few weeks earlier. In the climax, Bruce was snapped out of his dementia when Dick Grayson confronted him while wearing Thomas Wayne’s old costume.
Ed Brubaker revisited the story after a fashion in several stories published throughout 2001 and 2002, notably Batman #595’s recreation of the costume party sequence. Here, though, Thomas Wayne was dressed not as a bat-man but as mythical crime-buster Zorro. In Morrison’s story, the details seem to have been restored to the original template. When Doctor Hurt invaded the Batcave in Batman #678, he dressed himself in Tom Wayne’s old Bat-costume (thus fueling fan speculation that this man was Batman’s father).
From father to son. That’s how Alfred imagined the chain of progression when he tried his hand at fiction in 1960. Claiming to be trying out a new typewriter, the butler posited a near future where Bruce Wayne had married Kathy (Batwoman) Kane and retired his costumed identity in deference to Dick Grayson. As Batman II, Dick was joined by Bruce Wayne, Jr. as the new Robin and an entire series soon spilled from Alfred’s nimble fingers, recorded in Batman #131, 135, 145, 159 and 163. [Alfred’s affection for a “self-conscious hard-boiled style” of prose was referenced by Bruce Wayne in Batman #673 and implied earlier in #655.]
“The Second Batman and Robin Team” was later revived to good effect by John Byrne, initially in his Batman/Captain America one-shot (1996) and later in Superman & Batman: Generations #2 (2000), Superman & Batman: Generations II #2 (2001) and even 2005’s Doom Patrol #14. Meantime, Grant Morrison offered his own spin on the concept in JLA #8 and 9 (1997), using it as the basis for an elaborate dream reality that the Key had cast Batman into. Fretting as the new Batman and Robin (Tim Drake and Bruce, Jr.) headed into action, Bruce Wayne was reassured by his wife Selina. “As long as Gotham needs them,” she declared, “Batman and Robin can never die.”
On his deathbed in 1958, Silas Wayne (whose portrait can be seen in Batman #680) told his great-nephew Bruce that he could “die proudly knowing that a Wayne is actually the greatest hero of our time” (Batman #120). But if the Wayne line dies with Bruce Wayne, the Batman legacy may be eternal. Whether a Batman without Bruce in the equation is a good thing, we’ll leave for others to judge. Still, from Thomas Wayne to Dick Grayson to Alfred to the Batmen of All Nations to Bat-Mite to the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh to Man-Bat to Damian and Batman Beyond, there’s no shortage of people who’ve worn or will wear the mantle of the bat. As far as Grant Morrison is concerned, at least according to the first
page of “Batman R.I.P.” (Batman #676), “Batman and Robin will never die!”