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Untold Legend of the Batman #1

This is where “my” Batman comes from.  Sure, I’d been familiar with the character and his supporting cast before, but this 1980 miniseries (one of the earliest such series’ DC published) is where I learned all the nuances of Batman’s backstory.  Today this sort of thing would come in the form of a self-important reboot or retcon from a set of creators looking to “leave their mark” on the character before their revisions get swept under the rug by another set of superstars a few years hence; this was just the opposite, a distillation of the most important or interesting elements from previous decades showing a newcomer the many layers of the legend without disrupting the goings-on in the regular titles.  The story in these pages cemented in my mind who these characters should be; I’m out of touch with what is being published now, but I wonder how much of it has been carried over to the combat-boot clad militia leading guerrilla fighter that’s been wearing the costume these days.

The story opens with a mysterious package being sent to Bruce Wayne containing the shredded remants of the costume worn by the first Batman– Thomas Wayne.  In flashback we see the night from decades past where Doctor Wayne attends a costume party dressed as a giant bat.  Mobsters crash the place looking for a physician to help wounded crime boss Lew Moxon.  The senior Wayne turns the tables on the crooks and hands them over to a young police Lieutenant named James Gordon.  Moxon is soon back on the streets, however, and vows revenge.

A few months pass, and Doctor Wayne and his wife are gunned down while walking home from a movie (this comic predates Dark Knight Returns, so we are spared the now-cliched image of that string of pearls falling to the ground).  Young Bruce falls into a series of caring hands who help him through the trauma he has experienced.  We briefly meet Leslie Thompkins (who by god had better still be part of canon), but a little more time is spent with a caregiver named Mrs. Chilton and the profound positive impact she had on Bruce’s character.  In the panels above, see Alfred reflect on her terrible secret which he keeps from his employer as he wonders how Bruce might have turned out without the love of the caring people that filled his life in the wake of his parents’ murder.  Alfred might get the answer to his questions if he picked up a recent issue of Batman.

Young Bruce is still restless and driven, though, and makes the graveside vow to wage war on criminals.  The youth trains and studies, and seeks out not a series of ninja experts around the world, but a single mentor: Harvey Harris, the world’s greatest detective.  Hoping to still preserve his anonymity when he approaches the detective, Bruce fashions a red and green costume with a yellow cape to disguise himself.  Harris christens his new pupil “Robin” and spends the next few years teaching him everything he knows about fighting and crime detection and, presumably, death-trap escaping.  A brief, aborted detour towards a career as a police officer comes before Bruce’ study is crashed by the bat which gives him his inspiration, and his vigilante career is underway.

Flash forward a few years and Batman and Robin are on the trail of a crime ring operating behind the front of a trucking company which smuggles wanted criminals across state lines.  Jim Gordon shows Batman a picture of the leader of the organization, a small time crook named Joe Chill.  Batman recognizes the face of his parents’ murderer and sets out to bring him to justice, but can’t find the evidence needed to shut down his operation.  As a last resort, he confronts Chill and unmasks himself.  A frightened Chill, knowing just how much he has earned the Batman’s wrath, runs to his criminal cohorts for help only to meet his end in a scene of Ditkoesque poetic justice.

Batman marks the case closed, until a couple years later when he discovers a film reel from the costume party which started the ball rolling, along with a journal entry implicating Lew Moxon in hiring Joe Chill to kill the Waynes and leave Bruce alive to testify that it was a random crime.  Batman brings Moxon in, but the criminal has a case of head-trauma induced partial amnesia; Batman has no evidence to bring him to justice and the criminal remembers no crime to confess to.  Again clutching at straws, Bruce dons his father’s Bat costume and confront Moxon, whose memory is restored by the vision.  Moxon flees in terror and meets his own grisly end.  Batman again marks the case closed, until today when that tattered costume arrives in the mail, apparently sent by someone who knows all of Batman’s secrets.

Len Wein writes the series, John Byrne draws the first issue before handing off the rest to Jim Aparo.  The following issues provide the origins of Robin, the Joker, Two face, Batgirl; we see the history of Jim Gordon and meet the racecar driver whose life Batman once saved and who now spends his spare time building Batmobiles.  Most interesting is the story of Alfred, son of the Wayne family’s old manservant who comes to Bruce Wayne’s employ after a failed career in the theatre, and who is shocked one night when his master comes home in the middle of the night gravely wounded and wearing a Batman costume.  As for the identity of Batman’s tormenter: well, the biggest clue is the head injury the crimefighter sustained in a warehouse explosion they keep referring to throughout the series.  Turns out there’s only one person who really knows all of Batman’s secrets.

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6 Responses to “Way Back Machine”

  • Tony says:

    The Untold Legends was one of my first exposures to Batman’s history. It was out of continuity when I read it, but I have some affection for it.

    But … Thomas Wayne as the original Batman, the capture of Joe Chill, Bruce Wayne as the first Robin, the addition of Lew Moxon — were attempts by previous generations of creators to “leave their mark” on the character.

    I personally think they were bad retcons, and Batman’s better off not carrying that continuity.

    And it’s cyclical. The Grant Morrison-led Bat-books are emphasizing Batman’s support network, rather than his aloneness.

  • Craig says:

    I view the stuff you mention as layers added, rather than retcons made; none of it changed the substance of what was written before. Of course, the guy who grew up with Batman fighting aliens in his Bat-gyro in broad daylight thinks we’re both nuts, I realize.

  • Tony says:

    The guy who grew up with the 50s Batman once wrote an article about how the Untold Legends version was too “grown up” and “gritty.” It’s on mimeograph paper, but it’s out there somewhere.

    I really hate it when creators try to shoehorn in “significant” pieces of a character’s backstory. Take Hush, for example. The sooner that gets retconned out, the better.

    And I think Lew Moxon and Joe Chill are just bad for the character. His origin works better as a random, unsolvable act of crime.

  • Craig says:

    I’ll concede that Byrne does the same thing in his “Spider-Man: Chapter One” mini. He gives the Burglar a reason for following Spider-Man back to May and Ben Parker’s house, thus sucking all the dramatic irony out of Ditko’s twist ending (I’m guessing here, but I think that part feels like it came from Sturdy Steve). One of my least favorite books ever.

  • Craig says:

    I was about to question if “Lonely Place of Dying” was already out of continuity, then I realized it was published two decades ago. I am old.

  • Dara says:

    Speaking of the definitive Batman of Tony’s time, this sounds right up your alley:

    Written by ALAN GRANT
    Art and cover by NORM BREYFOGLE
    Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle revisit a pair of villains closely associated with their original run on The Caped Crusader: The Ventriloquist and Scarface! Released on a technicality one year after being arrested, this bizarre duo is determined to reclaim their status in the upper echelon of Batman’s Rogues Gallery. This “lost tale” of the era spins directly out of DETECTIVE COMICS #613, reprinted in this issue!
    ONE-SHOT • On sale AUGUST 17 • 56 pg, FC, $4.99 US • RATED T


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