09 May 2010

“I’ll Bring Your Killer In, Batman”

Back in November I reviewed Batman: The Black Casebook, a collection of weird-ass Batman stories from the 1950s and ’60s that DC Comics published in conjunction with writer Grant Morrison’s recent riffs on that tradition.

In the same vein, DC published the collection titled The Strange Deaths of Batman to coincide with the apparent demise of Bruce Wayne in both Batman and Final Crisis. These tales depict Batman’s apparent demise from 1966 through 2001. Of course, the flagship character always survived—in some fashion.

For example, the first story shows Batman and Robin subduing a villain, and the next page shows writer Gardner Fox pondering a hypothetical: What if, instead, that villain had actually killed Batman? It’s reassuring to know that premise is imaginary because otherwise the first criminal to get the better of the Caped Crusader would have the superpower of bouncing.

The remaining stories use other storytelling mechanisms to show Batman being dead without really being dead: an explicitly imaginary story, a dream sequence, escape from being buried alive, coma with medical rescue, and so on. And there are other, contemporaneous stories that show Batman dying in Saga of the Super-Sons (Bruce Wayne was only faking!) and Justice Society, vol. 2 (okay, that Batman really did die—but he was in a whole ’nother universe so it doesn’t count).

What makes the Strange Deaths collection suitable for the weekly Robin is that the first two stories address the question many fans would naturally ask after Batman’s death: What does this mean for the Boy Wonder? Both tales show Batman’s adult colleagues gathering to mourn him, and then Dick Grayson vows revenge.

In the first tale, Robin needs only a few panels to track down the villain and subdue him. (Take that, Bouncer!) Then Gardner Fox springs a new surprise on us: the older Batman of Earth-Two moves to this hypothetical Earth-One at the urging of his grown-up partner.

Thus, back in 1966 young fans didn’t have to worry about even a hypothetical young Robin being without a mentor. As in so much series fiction, this tale shows the status quo threatened, even apparently destroyed, but then we’re back to essentially the same situation at the end.

The second story, from three years later and by much younger writer Cary Bates, takes more time and space to explore the same question.

After a villain (the Automator!) apparently disintegrates Batman, Dick Grayson takes on a whole new identity—a blond college student in a Nehru jacket named Rick Danner. Years pass. Robin starts fighting crime in a new uniform with pants and long sleeves, signaling his adulthood. Superman’s temples grow gray. Metropolis gets moving sidewalks. It must be at least 1982.

Now called “the Man of Wonder,” Robin tracks down the Automator, plus an accomplice who’s used superpowered gloves to blind Superman. Robin subdues both those criminals—only to discover that the gloved accomplice is Bruce Wayne with amnesia!

The final panel shows Robin contemplating life with a Batman who can’t remember and a Superman who can’t see—kind of like very elderly parents. Needless to say, we never see a follow-up to this less reassuring tale.

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