“If I have to have a past, then I prefer it to be multiple choice.”
—Alan Moore The Killing Joke
“Because even when they aren’t talking about me, they are.”
—Neil Gaiman Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?
In the last three of “To Be Continued…” we have explored many chapters of The Batman’s history and many versions of the Dark Knight Detective from the dark, gunslinging vigilante to the campy pop-art experiment to the brilliant, but emotional crusader with the chilling smile to the grotesque gargoyle of the future. If DC has taught us anything with Zero Hour, “The New 52” and any series with the word “Crisis” in the title, it’s that the “real” version of Batman depends greatly on the zeitgeist and who happens to be writing him at the time.
It took over a decade for the re-darkened Batman from the early 1970s (a reaction to the farcical Batman TV show and the comics it inspired) to become a profitable force again. Once this happened, fueled by the successes of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and the new movies and TV shows that it helped inspire, a certain security in the Bat franchise was felt once again and a certain affection for the previous versions of this classic character began to kindle. Beyond Batman alone, DC Universe history had many versions of most of its flagship characters. The question soon became, which version of each character was the real one. Beginning in 1985’s cross-company revision, the answer slowly became “all of them”.
Especially in the case of the Batman, this became a very tall order. How could the gunslinging, villain-slaying Batman of 1939 be the same character as the happy go-lucky colorful Batusi dancing detective of the groovy 1966 show? How could that Bat, in turn, grow into the cynical and brutal Bruce Wayne of The Dark Knight Returns (especially when Crisis eliminated the possibility of parallel Earths)? It turns out that most all of these things still happened, just not in the way we think.
The four part story Batman: Year Two (1987), written by Mike W. Barr and featured in Detective Comics #575-578 answered one bold and puzzling question from the past. If Batman has developed a hatred of guns and killing ever since Joe Chill murdered his parents with a gun, how can we have images of a young Batman with a gun? The answer? It’s Joe Chill’s gun Batman is holding.
During the events of Batman: Year Two, the Dark Knight is forced to team up with a threatened underworld to oppose a vigilante, a swashbuckling vigilante known as “The Reaper”, who (like the Batman of 1939) leaves very few of his adversaries alive. The catch? Batman has to work with a partner designated by the mob, one Joe Chill. In response, Batman straps on a shoulder holster (which creates the fitting illusion that his chest symbol has a slash through it) and wields the gun that killed his parents until the moment of truth when he plans to use it against Joe Chill himself. Lucky for Bruce Wayne, that moment never arrives and the gun soon leaves the modern continuity.
Other hints of this amalgamation were coming to pass elsewhere in Batman’s mythos. The non-canonical The Dark Knight Returns strongly hinted that Jason Todd was dead. 1988’s Batman: A Death in the Family made this a reality (thanks to a narrow dial-in vote by Batman fans). In Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke (also 1988), the Joker shot Barbara “Batgirl” Gordon through the spine. The canonical comics to follow showed Barbara (now “Oracle”) as paralyzed from the waist down.
While Crisis on Infinite Earths was intended to clean up the continuity confusion DC had built for generations, many loose ends were still dangling. Thus the company wide crossover called Zero Hour was launched in 1994 to finish the job. Appropriately subtitled “A Crisis in Time”, Zero Hour was well aware of (and even poked fun at) the daunting challenge writer Dan Jurgens had ahead of him, bringing past and future versions of Hawkman, Green Lantern and Batgirl together at the same time. Nowhere was this better exemplified than the cover of Superman: The Man of Steel #37 which featured twenty different “Batmen” from comics, TV and movies and from every age of the character, all surrounding a confused Clark Kent, unsure of which Bruce is his own. Tellingly, the campy TV Batman of the 1960s is standing right next to the serious, animated Batman of the 1990s, illustrating the vast differences in the character.
The recent Dark Knight Trilogy has been another experiment in amalgamation with various stories (from Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams’ Saga of Ra’s Al Ghul to the aforementioned Year Two and beyond) all mined for content. The 2008 animated DVD tie-in to the movies entitled Batman: Gotham Knight takes its cues from the comicbook series Legends of the Dark Knight in its depiction of many conflicting interpretations of what Batman really is, from the friendly to the demonic.
Even as the Batman of the comics settled into a consistent, but evolving mood, allowing for a long history of canonical evolution, Batman in other media played with the dark and the friendly knight. The Cartoon Network series Batman: The Brave and the Bold ran from 2008 through 2011 and featured a more playful detective with a dry humor and a none-too-chilling smile. This new mood was complimented by his voice actor, comedian Diedrich Bader known for The Drew Carey Show as well as a Snickers commercial in which he plays an injured football player who is convinced that he is, in fact, the Batman. While an initial glance at the series indicated a sardonic and funny Batman, episodes delved deeper into the history of the Dark Knight and created an accessible, if not purely canonical overview of this now amalgamated character.
With The New 52, DC’s company-wide reboot, writers and editors got to pick and choose what aspects of the Dark Knight were still canon. That, of course, is as subject to change as it has always been. After all, doesn’t it take an amalgamated, composite Batman to sustain almost 75 years of Batman adventures? Even though now deemed non-canonical, are the comics in which Batman shoots his victims or the stories in which the Joker’s worst crime is painting Wayne Manor without permission any less worthy of reading than, say, Vengeance of Bane or Knightfall? Particularly if all of the above are fun to read in their own rights?
While Batman started out as a pulpy, trendy character in comics, much as the film version of Ra’s Al Ghul indicated in 2005’s Batman Begins, the character became something else entirely: A Legend. And Legends are rarely told the same way twice.
Here’s to the next 75 years of retellings.
Next week, To Be Continued… is back with more comicbook greatness. What’s next? Watch this space for more and find out for yourself, true believers!