So last week, I mentioned that the current storyline in Grant Morrison’s Batman had elements that reminded me of another one of my childhood favorites, and since I’ve been on a roll lately with revisiting my earliest memories of the character, I figured I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about this one.
Ladies and gentlemen… The Untold Legend of the Batman:
Originally published in 1980, Untold Legend is a lot like the following year’s Secrets of the Legion of Super-Heroes: A mini-series that centered around a problem that could only be dealt with by the characters standing around thinking about their origins for three issues and occasionally punching somebody. With the Legion, it was a shocking tale of baby-daddies and secret identitites, but with Batman, things were a little more serious: Someone was destroying every aspect of the Dark Knight’s career, starting by stealing Thomas Wayne’s “original” Batman costume from the Batcave, setting it on fire and shipping it back to Bruce, and then moving on to carbombs and other assorted deathtraps.
Which brings me to an interesting point: Being 1980, this was the life story of Pre-Crisis Batman, and to say the least, it was a little complicated. There’s stuff in here about Batman being taken in and raised by the kindly Mrs. Chilton (who unbeknownst even to herself, was the mother of Joe Chill, the gunsel who shot Bruce’s parents), the story of how Bruce Wayne was actually the first Robin… there’s even shots of Alfred liberating concentration camps during World War 2. It’s forty years of crazy-ass Golden and Silver-Age storytelling, and this thing hits the high points in three issues.
Suck it, decompression. Suck it hard.
Another interesting–well, for me anyway–fact about this series is that I never actually had the comics until now. For a while, I thought I had the recently reprinted paperback version, but since I had it in color, I knew I was just confusing that with an MMPB of the X-Men fighting Arcade that was my first real taste of Marvel. No, as it turns out, I had the MPI Audio Edition, which came with a dramatized cassette tape version of the story, complete with sound effects and music.
Needless to say, that thing kicked ass.
I listened to it all the time–alternating, if memory serves, between that and the soundtrack to Follow That Bird–and I can still hear the narrator’s rumbling “Deep within the bowels of the city, a solitary dark-clad figure sits nestled in the shadows…”
Now that I’m older, I realize that “nestle” is never a verb that should appear in a sentence about Batman, but at the time, it was pretty rad. And, you know, if anyone happens to have a digital copy that I could obtain through completely legal means, I’d appreciate a heads-up.
Written by Len Wein and an artistic clusterfuck of John Byrne and Jim Aparo, the first issue opens up with the aforementioned Costume Incident that introduces the premise:
Also, right there on page three, there’s a mention of Batman suffering a head injury in a warehouse explosion. Older Chris would recognize this as a clue, but Young Chris–in a move that would set the trend for all comics reading thereafter–pretty much just skipped over it to get to the fighting.
Sadly, the first issue’s pretty dry (outside of, you know, that whole “brutal murder of the parents” thing), instead focusing more on recapping the intricacies of Batman’s origin. There are a couple of nice bits, though, like when he talks about how he took the identity of Robin–in a costume that he describes as “a little bit fanciful“–to learn from master detective Harvey Harris.
As a sidenote, “detective skills” apparently include Steamboat Jumping…
…and High Stakes Clock Repair:
Also of note: the first appearance of the dreaded Bat-Melvin:
That was always one of my favorite pieces of art when I was growing up, with that dynamic action in the foreground and all the villains half-shaded behind them. Out of all the villains, though, my favorite in this piece was the Gentleman Ghost, because even a six year-old can tell that a floating monocle and top-hat are just badass. Or at least, badass enough to distract me from the fact that he’s right next to what I think is a Dr. Tzin-Tzin that’s the same color as Robin’s cape.
Anyway, it all builds up to Batman’s climactic confrontation with his parents’ murderer in another panel that just stuck with me all these years:
It’s such a great image, right down to Joe Chill’s tiny, almost imperceptible “no.” It’s barely there, and I’m pretty sure that there’s no way I noticed it on my first read back when I was a kid, but like the tiny “snap” of Gwen Stacy’s neck, it’s an important part of the scene. That’s a guy who’s absolutely terrified, not just because he’s dealing with Batman, but because he realizes in that moment that he’s dealing with a Batman who is more angry at him than anyone else in the world. It’s pretty awesome.
Of course, such knowledge is also a curse, and when Chill makes his escape into the next room and tells his henchmen that he killed Batman’s parents and now he’s out for revenge, they’re so mad at him for creating the Batman that they kill him on the spot.
This, of course, would be Young Chris’s first exposure to “poetic justice.”
And that, with the exception of an eye-rolling final panel–is pretty much the first issue. The second one’s more of the same, but it does have the distinction of having a cover by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez that prompted my first use of the word “kickass”:
How do we know Batman is awesome? Because that’s how he gets into his car.
And the interior’s even better. With one of his few mementos of his father–aside from a gigantic house and a vast personal fortune–in ruins, Batman hits the streets to get some information, and then totally loses his shit:
(Click to Aparo-Size It)
Jim Aparo, ladies and gentlemen. That man could draw a backhand like nobody’s business.
The third issue’s where it really picks up, though. After getting the origin stories for Batman, Robin and Alfred, this one shifts its focus to more ancillary members of B. Wayne’s running crew, although I have to admit that it’s a little weird that we get the secret origin of Jack Edison (the guy who builds the Batmobiles) before we get Jim Gordon. Seriously, Len Wein: Prioritize a bit.
Eventually, it even gets around to Batgirl, who manages to go from Nerd Hot…
…in the span of one page. To be fair to the Aparo, though, Babs actually does rock Princess Leia’s cimmaron rolls in her first appearance, so chalk one up for accuracy.
Anyway, Batman eventually figures out who’s behind all the hijinx and heads out to the old Batcave at Wayne Manor–the story taking place during the time when the Batcave was below Wayne Tower in Midtown Gotham–to deal with it. And just who could know all of Batman’s secrets and be using them against him so effectively? Who else?
That’s right: The head injury that was mentioned back on page three of the first issue has caused Batman to go completely insane and attempt to bump off his alter ego.
As to why Batman has a Crushing Wall Trap™ installed in his own basement, that’s never really addressed, but it doesn’t really matter in the end. Robin shows up dressed as Thomas Wayne and shocks Batman out of his temporary dementia, everything works out okay, and we all learn a valuable lesson:
The only man awesome enough to destroy the Batman… is the Batman himself.
And that’s real.
A tip of the cowl to Dr. K for tonight’s post title.