‘It has happened before’, DC seem to decry with their publication of the anthology graphic novel, The Strange Deaths of Batman. The collection appearing in the wake of 2008’s Batman RIP and Final Crisis (where Bruce Wayne’s Batman faced perhaps a lasting death), commemorates the moments in Batman’s publication history where, ruse or not, the character faced death during his crime-fighting adventures. The Strange Deaths of Batman collect stories appearing across five decades, from the 1960’s through to the 2000’s, all featuring the theme of the Batman’s death. Creative talents the likes of Gardner Fox and Carmine Infantino, Cary Bates, Bobby Haney, Gerry Conway, Jim Aparo, Chuck Dixon, Sal Buscema and Greg Land write and illustrate these stories of death and rebirth. What emerges from this collection is a vivid depiction of Batman’s death as a recurring genre in the publication history of the character and an implied argument for why the Batman and Robin mythos, recently expanded beyond Bruce Wayne, may continue to exclude the character who first devised these superhero alter egos.
Although the writers themselves could in no way have conspired in it, there is an inherent logic to the trade paperback collection. The Batman’s deaths become ever more real. Editor Bob Joy shows a collector’s eye when he diligently produces a collection that reads more like a single book than an anthology. Beginning with the Gardner Fox written, Carmine Infantino illustrated ‘The Strange Death of Batman’ (1966), and ending with the Chuck Dixon written, Greg Land and Patricia Mulvihill illustrated ‘Modern Romance’ (2001), Joy’s creativity can be found in his fluent depiction of the Batman canon. Rarely with a book of this kind do the individual stories present themselves and a cohesive whole. The ease of reading The Strange Deaths of Batman is testament to Joy’s keen and correct eye for collecting the proper stories, to produce the correct effect.
The opening and closing pieces, ‘The Strange Death of Batman’ and ‘Modern Romance’ provide fitting bookends to the collection. Unexpectedly, given the nature and number of changes in comicbook storytelling over the intervening years, the Fox/ Infantino offering remains vital and easily readable. In it a nine-page Batman short feature in which Batman and Robin face off against ‘the Bouncer’ a human rubber ball, provides a staging area for a broader-ranging second chapter wherein Fox tells the tale of his own distrust of the story and offers his own ‘imaginary’ conclusion. But thankfully, Fox lets readers know with a wink, this was not the script he mailed off. Thankfully Batman never died, thankfully the Batman from Earth-2 never needed to replace him.
‘The Strange Death of Batman’ sets the tone for the rest of the collection. From the point where this opening tale ends, a downward slide into fictional realism begins. In the Fox tale, Batman’s death is nothing more than the ruminations of the writer’s imagination. In ‘Robin’s Revenge’, the tale of Batman’s death once again proves imaginary. But in the Bobby Haney written, Jim Aparo illustrated ‘The Corpse That Wouldn’t Die’, Batman confronts an actual near-death after his electrocution. Lecturing conveniently nearby, Ray Palmer’s The Atom, steps in to save Batman’s life by reenacting the plot from Isaac Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage; shrinking down to the size of a blood corpuscle, Palmer physically massages Batman’s brain. The stories continue in this vein. Batman’s death increasingly climbs out from the ‘imaginary’ (a pre-Crisis word to denote ‘non-continuity’) into the ‘real’ history of the character. By the penultimate tale, ‘The Prison’, Batman experiences an actual micro-death, losing cardiac sinus rhythm for minutes before being revived.
Paradoxically, The Strange Deaths of Batman is in almost no way about the stories themselves. Batman dies, but in an ‘imaginary’ tale, or experiences brain-death, or uses his own death as a ruse, or dies but just briefly; all these stories illustrate the basic failure writers and editors to confront the Batman’s in-continuity death. This collection is a meditation on a DC failure of sorts, the failure to remove Bruce Wayne from dominating the Mantle of the Bat. For decades, the question of succession would never be raised. Even Frank Miller’s seminal The Dark Knight Returns would do nothing more than underline the indomitable spirit of Bruce Wayne as have sole rights to claim the identity of Batman. But could Batman be something entirely else? Could Batman be superhero lineage like Lee Falks’ Phantom or Gardner Fox’s Flash; a secret identity that passes from one generation to the nest? With The Strange Deaths of Batman DC seem to be making a plea for the kind of trust they earned from readers with their Death in the Family storyline that saw Robin Jason Todd murdered at the hands of the Joker. Jason Todd remained dead. Perhaps DC are making a similar plea to once again earn readers’ trust after this most recent rejuvenation of the Batman mythos.