The Man Wit No Voice and The Pure Mood dig out and review a comic from their expansive back issue collection. It could be a pivotal story, a forgotten classic, or even a giant mistake not worth the staples binding it together. From the ’40′s to the ’00′s, come by every week as we take an in-depth look at comics history in CHRONICLES OF COMICS!
Though he may not be mentioned in conversation as frequently as Grant Morrison, Bill Finger, Frank Miller, Bob Haney or Dennis O’Neil (or even as often as Alan Grant, Frank Robbins, Chuck Dixon, or Gardner Fox) but Ty Templeton is one of the greatest and most influential Batman writers of all time. It’s almost ridiculous how perfectly Templeton understands the character, and how effortlessly he’ll come up with a story that illuminates everything we love about Batman but are unable to express, that presents new insights into Batman’s strengths and weaknesses as a character, that are staggering in the mythical, parable-like way in which they remind us of our own humanity through brief, heavily moral stories.
Yet Templeton remains a creator’s creator – beloved and treated with deity-level respect in the industry and among the hardcore fans, but never quite having the large audience his work deserves. I promise you, though – read any single one of the countless issues of BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES tie-ins he wrote over the series multiple volumes (not to mention the the ones he’d drawn, because apparently Ty Templeton is amazing at everything related to comics) and you’ll find yourself reading one the greatest Batman stories you’ve ever read. However, it’s the first one he wrote – with art by penciller Dev Madan, inks by Rick Burchett, colours by Rick Taylor and letters by Richard Starkings (who apparently begged to be on the series after being blown away by the level of quality of the earlier issues – in fact, THE BATMAN ADVENTURES even features fan letters from members of the notoriously snobby and elitist writers of THE COMICS JOURNAL!) – it’s this issue that remains the strongest one he ever wrote, and one of the greatest stories in Batman’s history.
The issue opens with three pages of a happy Bruce Wayne – and I don’t mean ‘Bruce Wayne’ the flirty and empty-headed socialite persona, I mean the son of the late Thomas and Martha – and that’s three pages more than we ever saw in the main-continuity Batman comics of the ’90s. Bruce has, shockingly, begun seeing a woman seriously – well, they’ve only gone out a handful of times in the past month, but for Bruce “that’s practically ENGAGED.” as Alfred teases. Of course, we’ve seen plenty of Batman love stories – as the old joke goes, the real secret passage to the Batcave is through Batman’s pants – but Templeton adds another layer to things; Vernoica Thomas is a single mother.
The relationship between Batman and kids is an endlessly complex one. One of the strangest things about Batman is the multiple and contradictory roles he plays in his reality and ours – in the DC Universe, he’s a dark and terrifying figure of the night, but also a hero to inspire the citizens of Gotham. He’s a violent and troubled loner who can’t bring himself to trust fellow members of the Justice League, but he’s also the proud foster parent of multiple young orphans. In our world, he’s the star of a thrilling morality play by one of our most well respected and controversial directors – and he’s also the guy that sells underwear and tooth brushes at your local Target. He’s Joel Schumaker’s ultra-camp gay icon, he’s Bruce Timm’s serial adventure hero, he’s Adam West’s pop-art prankster. There are so many different representations of Batman that practically anybody is able to make a claim on one. It’s almost overwhelming how much everybody loves Batman, and for how many different reasons.
And there’s no getting around it – little kids love Batman. As a teenager, you can call him your own for being a moody, troubled man cut off from his emotions and expressing himself through violence and fashion accessories. As an adult, you can justify his story as being a great modern myth, a story fantastical yet human, the last great tragedy of our times. But regardless of what we say, we know the real reason he’s stuck around so long is all of those lunchbox sales. I can’t think of a better example than DC/Warner Bros’s recent and successful attempt at regaining the rights to FOX’s 1966 BATMAN series. The reason for this purchase? Well, the merchandise based on Batman’s recent appearances on the big screen were barely moving in retail stores across the country. Turns out not many Mom’s were keen on going to Wal-Mart and buying t-shirts featuring a scarred psychopath for their five year olds. So, why do kids love Batman? Jonathan Lethem asked the same question in his article ‘The Only Human Superhero’, but spent most of the time focusing on why everybody loves Batman, rather than just children – and I don’t blame the guy. It’s a question I don’t think any of us have figured out. Batman should be scary – he’s inspired by an animal that most of us are afraid of, he does scary things, he’s not really nice, and the whole reason he’s a superhero is, well, pretty heavy and sad stuff – not the kind of thing a three year old is going to get excited about.
But in a beautiful and almost perversely strange way, even Batman loved Batman as a kid. A well-known element of Batman’s origin that borders on meta-fiction, Bruce and his family were watching ZORRO adventure serials the night they were horrifically gunned down. The power of this was not lost on Bruce Timm, who took the idea one step further in BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES, Bruce is a near-obsessed fan of an old television series called THE GRAY GHOST, a Shadow-esque pulp vigilante who fights crime and commies. Templeton was very aware of just what a brilliant element this adds to the Batman mythos – the idea that Bruce would cast himself as the thing that inspired him the most, the thing he found comfort in. Bruce created Batman to be the hero he always aspired to be as a child, and the one he would now need to be as an adult.
That’s the perfect and beautiful thing about the opening to THE BATMAN ADVENTURES #33 – Templeton has Batman take a child to a movie about Batman. Bruce, Veronica and her son Justin have all gone to a GRAY GHOST festival screening at a repertory cinema, and you Bruce is positively delighted by Justin’s excitement for the crime-fighting hero. It may sound sentimental or a little bit strange, but it isn’t – Bruce takes a child to a movie about (ostensibly) Batman, because he needs to show children that Batman is there for them. He needs to show them what Batman is in Gotham for.
Of course, that’s the cruel genius of Ty Templeton – through this brief and beautiful look into a moment of happiness for Bruce Wayne, there’s also unbearable tension. Any dedicated Batman reader – and arguably, anybody remotely familiar with superheroes as a concept – knows that any sort of happiness will only serve as contrast for horror to follow. Of course, this is continually used as a shallow and derogatory plot device that treats it’s readers without respect – but Templeton is a far more talented writer. It’s a familiar scene – exiting the movie theatre, a young and happy couple walk in joy, as their small boy reenacts the exciting adventures he’s just seen on screen when a criminal brandishes a gun and demands all of their belongings. The line between deep emotion and sentimental ploy is a frustratingly thin one, but this is where Templeton and Madan take a potentially patronizing idea and turn it into something spectacular; Bruce’s reaction.
Really, this is the moment Batman has been waiting for. This is the entire reason Bruce Wayne is Batman – so that no child will lose his parents at the hands of a desperate and selfish criminal. But Templeton is aware of the real reason Batman exists; fear. In a dark alley outside of a movie theatre with a criminal pointing a gun at a child, this is how Bruce reacts – with fear. It may just be the most terrifying scene in Batman’s history because of how honest it is – Bruce has no gadgets, no outlandish costume, no ancient Buddhist teachings. Once again, he’s a powerless child, and Templeton reinforce that by cutting between an image of a devastated and terrified Bruce Wayne, and an extreme close-up of the criminal’s weapon – a wide-eyed and shaky Bruce Wayne handing all of his possessions over to the image of a gun is possibly the strongest symbolic moment I’ve ever seen in a Batman comic.
The criminal happily flees after obtaining Bruce’s multiple gold-rated credit cards, and thankfully, no one is hurt. But once again, Templeton shows a highly intelligent and deep understand of who Bruce is. As sickening as it may sound, the fact that no one is hurt almost makes it harder for him – Bruce only really understands pain, and it’s fitting that, without even so much of a pat on the back he runs away from a traumatized Veronica and Justin, escaping into his fantasy world of superheroics and violence, a world where he understands the rules and knows how to win. After all, how can Bruce Wayne live in a world where Veronica and he are spared when his parents weren’t?
After defeating the mugger and regaining he and Veronica’s possessions, Batman pays a visit to Justin to give back to him his lucky hat that the criminal also made off with. Batman remains in shadows, offering only oblique and mysterious utterances while the boy talks to him – and the reader is almost shocked to see Justin hardly bat an eye. But, of course, Justin isn’t afraid of Batman – kids love Batman. After the scenes of brutality that preceded it, it’s almost darkly comic to see Batman be taken down a peg by a little boy. But of course, it’s a reminder to us and Batman why he took Justin to THE GRAY GHOST festival in the first place – he doesn’t want children to be afraid of Batman. A lot of people want the Dark Knight to be a grim figure of the night, a mysterious urban legend that keeps Gotham safe, but I don’t think that’s right – I think it’s important to remember that Bruce Wayne devoted himself to the image of the bat because “criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot.” Criminals – not people. Many of us want to see Batman as the cynical and dark mirror to Superman, but Batman is just as much of a humanist, if not more so – Batman believes in the good in people. That’s why Batman can’t kill the Joker (with sincere apologies to Grant Morrison) or use weapons that don’t look like toys or scare kids. That isn’t why he’s doing this.
When Batman returns home, it’s once again alone to his cave. Veronica won’t speak to him after he so carelessly left them alone at such a tragic time, and of course, revealing his dual life as Batman is out of the question. In an issue filled with beautiful and memorable character-defining moments, Templeton closes the story with his best one. As Bruce prepares for another night out as Batman, you can almost see the life he may be imagining – a life with Veronica, a life with Justin. Alfred can see the pain in Bruce’s eyes, and offers some noble advice – you just can’t with them all. Some days, you have to accept that everything went wrong, and you just have to muster up everything you’ve got and pray that tomorrow will be a little bit better.
“I don’t see it that way, Alfred. After all, everybody got their belongings back…the bad guy went to jail…
and nobody got hurt.”
As long as Batman can end his day with this – that nobody got hurt, that another little boy gets to grow up with his mother – he’ll never stop being Batman, and we’ll never stop loving him.