After the first two stories in The Strange Deaths of Batman, discussed yesterday, the volume’s Robin content falls off precipitously. There’s a tale by Gerry Conway from World’s Finest, #269, which shows his fondness for suspension bridges but not his usual ability to build logical plots. Dick Grayson is injured by a mad bomber because Superman apparently forgets which one of them is superfast and invulnerable.
Near the end of the book is an image of Tim Drake consumed with glee because Batman is marrying Catwoman. This turns out to be Catwoman’s dream—it surely isn’t Tim’s.
In between comes a legendary example of comic-book storytelling, originally published in The Brave and the Bold, #115. After the Caped Crusader is fatally wounded, the Atom shrinks to cellular size, enters Batman’s brain, and steers his body by kicking the appropriate neurons. Only Bob Haney could have come up with this approach to crime-fighting.
The heart of the collection is titled “Where Were You on the Night Batman Was Killed?”—a four-issue series from 1977 written by David V. Reed and illustrated by John Calnan and Tex Blaisdell. The premise of this tale is that the Gotham underworld is buzzing with rumors that Batman is dead. A coterie of villains gathers to conduct an inquest and determine who can claim the honor of killing him.
In successive issues Catwoman, the Riddler, Lex Luthor, and the Joker each explains how she or he killed Batman. Former prosecutor Harvey Dent as Two-Face dissects their stories through a combination of Encyclopedia Brown-style trivia (wood from the Brazilian pepper tree doesn’t float!) and outlandish plot revelations (that was actually Superman pretending to be Batman!).
I don’t think it will spoil anything if I reveal that at the end of these four installments it turns out Batman isn’t dead after all.
I found Calnan’s art distracting. His drawings show extreme foreshortening, especially hands and faces thrust out at the readers, and the pointy ears on Batman’s cowl are unusually thick. (Rather like bats’ ears, to be fair.) Calnan was primarily a commercial artist, and he also worked on the Catholic comic book Treasure Chest. According to a Comic Book Artist interview with letterer John Workman, DC’s editors worried that Calnan “just didn’t have that spark” for superhero stories, and he left the genre.
“Where Were You on the Night Batman Was Killed?” kept readers uncertain if Batman was really dead for a whole four issues. Stories in earlier decades had to wrap up everything within a couple of dozen pages. Nowadays, the pace of superhero comic-book storytelling is quite different:
- Four issues is a short time for a comic-book company to explore a major change to its universe. Major arcs seem to be taking six to twelve issues.
- Within each of those issues a lot less happens because of “decompressed storytelling.”
- Nonetheless, the stories have the same rhythm of early defeats, reversals, and mysteries solved only at the last minute, just at a slower tempo. This means that the frustrations and stumbles that the Dynamic Duo suffered in pages 3-10 of their early stories are now stretched out over two or three issues in the middle of an arc, leaving some readers frustrated as well.
- At the same time, marketing and the internet mean that fans can see the covers of upcoming stories months in advance, taking back some of that suspense.