The Untold, Retold, Ignored, and then Retconned Legend of the Batman

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.

But anyway:

 

 

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.

Jesus.

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

 

 

…to Nerd

 

 

…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.

73 thoughts on “The Untold, Retold, Ignored, and then Retconned Legend of the Batman

  1. I recall having a very small paperback version of this as a kid. Must have been about ’86 or 87. I don’t recall the details but I know I didn’t have a tape to go with it. It may have been a hand me down or something… Huh, I really hate having a crappy memory. Was there ever a tiny paperback collection of this sans tape?

  2. MarcusSparchs: Yes, there was a black and white paperback of this in the early 80s – I owned it (and it’s still probably somewhere in that black hole I call my library). Your memory’s fine.

  3. I have the miniature books with cassette tapes, just as you Chris.

  4. I was half-expecting the culprit to be Superman. Because, y’know, that guy can be a real dick to his friends sometimes.

  5. I first read this in the paperback when I was 10 or 11. Still one of my all-time favorite Batman comics.

    Chris, you have to post the two main pages of Robin’s origin, where Batman shows up behind Dick Grayson at the circus, drives off with him in the Batmobile and makes him swear an oath by candlelight. Two of the rockin’est Aparo pages ever.

  6. Isn’t he Magog?

    Anyway, I had this too! With the tapes. I can vividly remember the sound of Batman saying to never point a gun at him.

  7. @LurkerWithout:

    That’s the Calender Man in his Wednesday (Odin) Outfit.

  8. I’m always delighted anytime anyone uses the word “gunsel.”

    Also — is that the Aparo effect coming out of Afred’s and Joe Chill’s eyes?

  9. I have the B&W paperback collection of this (no cassette tape, alas), and I have to admit it’s all sorts of awesome. I think it’s even better than Batman: Year One.

  10. Follow that Bird-
    Holy crap does that bring back memories. My dad got so tired of hearing that soundtrack, he popped it out of the van’s tape deck and chucked it out the window.
    Then again I suppose you can only hear the Grouch Anthem or Easy Going Day so many times before insanity sets in.

  11. My God, I got digest-sized versions of these issues by sending in box tops from “Batman: the cereal.” Haven’t read them in ages – thanks, Chris!

  12. Seems like that scene where Batman confronts Joe Chill is more or less lifted word for word (not word for word, but it plays out exactly the same) in an old Bob Kane story where he first learns of his parent’s killers, unmasking and all. That panel is pretty much exactly the same.

    Also, apparently “gunsel” actually means homosexual lover, not a synonym for gunman… At least it used to mean that.

    I make it my business to spout useless trivia whenever possible.

  13. FROM an old Bob Kane story, I mean.

    Don’t want people thinking I’m claiming Bob Kane stole ideas from Len Wein or something.

  14. Lord, that cover for issue two brings back some memories.

    Batman’s so damned WWE!

    He’s got his frickin’ own Jumbotron in the Batcave just so he can flash his own damned logo any time he feels like it.

  15. How badass of a librarian is Barbara Gordon? So badass that she shelves books backwards.

  16. Oh wow. I actually REMEMBER this one from some point! And here I was sure that Zero Hour was my first exposure to the DCU.

  17. Chris, my man, you have outdone yourself. It is literally as though you are digging through my own most memorable bat-stories of childhood. I, too, had the digest versions of this you got with Batman cereal box tops.

    Unfortunately, at the time my bat-reading was so sporadic that I stopped the Robin-kills-diplomat story one issue before the car battery clobberin’.

    Also, I only had the second issue with poor Tommy. Until you wrote about it, I thought his first appearance must have been 8 or 10 issues previous. I had no idea the same stunt was pulled in back to back issues.

    You aren’t also a huge fan of a single issue entitled “You Should’ve Seen Him” are you? The cover had a mostly shadow enshrouded Batman holding a girl against a HUGE yellow moon in a red sky? God, I love that issue. I loved it so much I got my aunt to paint it for me in oils on canvas. Have you heard of that one?

    Anyway, great stuff as always and let’s stop having so many childhood memories in common. Its kind of spooky.

  18. I had the digest version when I was a child as well. I remember thinking that it was the coolest and only Batman story I would ever need because it told you everything.

    Then, when picking up and reading another Batman comic a couple years later, I learned what continuity meant the hard way.

  19. Two Questions:

    1) This isn’t really a question, but DAMN! Aparo just loved to draw Batman pimp-handing evil. Oh sure, he spent 20 years studying martial arts under the world’s greatest masters, but nothing is quite as satisfying as just going all Cagney on someone. As a subset of this non question: JLGL also kicks ass!

    2) Since there have been other questions about the villain line-up, who is that bald guy on the far left? Right above what looks like (but I know isn’t) the Rip Taylor-Mad Hatter. He’s not Mr. Freeze or Hugo Strange, they’re both down below. Did Batman use to fight Spider Jerusalem?

  20. @ Bubblegum Tate:

    Is “You Should’ve Seen Him” the issue that starts with the bridge jumper? I remember that being a great issue, along with the great cover you mentioned (by Todd McFarlane, no less!). I got that issue (#423) in a three-pack along with #425 and #426 (Die Hard in the Junkyard!)…Good times!

    My Untold Legend experience came from the black and white digest of the early 80′s. It’s one of my earliest–and fondest–comic book memories.

  21. I read your website religiously but this made me write in. I had this comic with the tapes (and still do) and listened to them constantly as a kid. I haven’t read them in years and this is a great trip down memory lane. Weird thing is that in the Face to Face storyline Batman fights a vision of his father dressed like the “original Batman” of this story. Now maybe I shouldn’t ask this but in continuity now was his father this Batman and if not how did he see that vision?

  22. I remember having this and being blown away! But hey! Is that Libra’s head shown next to Batman’s thigh in the ‘villain montage?’

  23. I too had the lil’ B&W paperback version of this. I may STILL have it, but it may be buried in a box somewhere.

    Good times. Every time I dipped my toes back into the Bat-verse, I had to struggle to reconscile whatever version of Bat’s origin was en vogue at the time with this gem. I still think this holds up pretty good, retcon and continuity be damned!

  24. @ Joe Patrick

    That’s the one! The first cop saw Batman deal with the jumper, the second cop saw him deal with the hostage situation and the last saw him deal with two orphans. Awesome story, awesome cover and 2/3 of it was total Batman bad-assery.

    Remember when Batman was human enough to shed a tear at the story of two orphaned children? I’m tired of ass hat Batman, any chance Batman RIP will get rid of the guy with the crap attitude we’ve been dealing with since No Man’s Land?

  25. Had I read this when I was a kid, I’d probably have thought the best villain image in that giant splash was Catwoman in the lower-left there, even though (or maybe because) her legs are, like, 2/3rds of her entire body.

    This whole thing also sounds kind of like a DC version of “The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck,” but with more on-panel gunsel bitch slapping.

  26. @Bubblegum: We can only hope!

    @Anthony: If I remember correctly, Thomas Wayne’s stint as the “first” Batman was just him dressing in the bat costume for a Halloween party. Wayne was kidnapped by Lew Moxon’s gang to remove some bullets from their boss and he fought them off while still wearing the costume. I think we’ve seen a version of this story (at least the “Thomas Wayne in a bat suit at a party” part) in current continuity.

  27. Is there anyone better at drawing the “Batman appears as only a head and a cape, advancing from the shadows on some perp to pimp-slap him” image than Aparo?

  28. I think the bald guy on the far left above R’as is actually Clayface III, just weirdly colored.

    The guy who looks a bit like Libra is the Spook, I think.

  29. Yep, had the black and white paperback, and one of the reprints…but never the tape. Where’s the MP3?

    A retconned, revamped Harvey Harris was seen in an annual somewhere, Detective Comics maybe. Good story.

  30. Yeah, definitely that’s Clayface III in the upper left, by the Ra’s who looks like Rip Torn in Beastmaster, but the guy by Batman’s right fist is still stumping me. The guy I thought was Rip Taylor (who apparently did not play the Mad Hatter on the TV show) is also confusing me. No doubt they’re both someone famous and I’m just two character redesigns behind.

  31. Chris, you could just make the jump to calling this site, “Chris’s Invincible Bat-Blog” (the-ibb.com) and I would be perfectly happy.

  32. I, too, had the black-and-white digest version of this story. My sister and I read it about 1,000 times. I still have that copy, and still enjoy the (albeit dated) tour of Batman’s world.

    Some parts just stick with me, like the part you showcased of Batman slapping the crap out of that hoodlum.

    I also like Robin’s introspection on being a vigilante: “I realized that I had given up my chance for a normal life so other people could live theirs.” The story is full of so many cool moments like that.

    And yes, Batman having Dick Grayson swear to uphold truth and justice by candlelight is a great scene.

    Someone asked for a villain rundown from that terrific drawing of Batman and Robin battling in front of a huge picture of their rogue’s gallery.

    Well, as far as I can tell, we have…
    The Joker
    The Penguin
    Catwoman
    Poison Ivy
    Mr. Freeze
    Spook
    Riddler
    A couple of Clayfaces
    Mad Hatter
    Hugo Strange
    Calendar Man
    Gentleman Ghost
    Signalman
    Two-Face
    Scarecrow
    Killer Moth
    Tweedledum and Tweedledee
    Crazy Quilt
    Ras-al-Ghul

    Three I can’t identify:

    The dude rockin’ the epic fu manchu

    The guy who looks like Ghost Rider (Is that Electrocutioner? Or Maxie Zeus?)

    The Bald Guy on the far left in the middle, wearing Captain Cold’s glasses.

    Another fun picture is where Batman is trying to figure out which of their enemies is trying to destroy him, and in frustration he tosses a handful of photos onto a table, each one depicting a different enemy. “You want a clue, Alfred? Here…TAKE YOUR PICK!”

    I gotta know…why no love for Cat-Man, Clue Master, Killer Croc, Deadshot, and the Getaway Genius? They must be pretty pissed that Signalman and Crazy Quilt got to be in that rad picture and they didn’t!

  33. I’m pretty sure that the Fu Manchu guy is, as I said in the post, Dr. Tzin-Tzin, but I couldn’t find a good picture online to verify that. The Ghost Rider guy stumped me too, but I think it’s meant to be (an oddly colored) Dr. Phosphorous.

  34. This was my first real exposure to comics, and still one of my favorites. The art is especially amazing in black and white.

    I’ve always kind of felt like this was Batman’s “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tommorrow?”, a solid run-through of the entire mythos that was also a great exploration of the character himself.

  35. I think I had the digest-sized versions of #2 and 3… or maybe the audio version, minus the tapes… I don’t quite remember.

    But it was awesome, and I can definitely see Morrison pulling stuff from here.

  36. I think the bald guy on the left might be Dr. Death.

    Also Killer Croc had not yet been created when this story was published – that’s why he’s not in the montage.

  37. The bald guy is Mirror Man. No, I’ve never read a story with him either. I know him from Michael Fleisher’s (recently reprinted) Batman Encyclopedia, that I checked out from the library and constantly renewed over an entire summer when I was twelve…

  38. Anybody remember the issue where Dr. Tzin-Tzin tried to steal a baseball stadium by levitating it with his mind? That issue cries out for the Chris Sims’ treatment. (The guy in the picture is definitely Tzin-Tzin, not Sensei, who hadn’t really become part of Batman’s mythos at that point.)

    The Mad Hatter has had two different appearances in his history–at the time this picture was drawn, he was in his Rip Taylor phase.

    I guess the little bald dude could be Mirror Man: I have no image of that guy in my mind, but the guy doesn’t look like any other Batman villain I can think of who isn’t in that picture somewhere else.

  39. Wassa Melvin?

    I thought it had something to do with a frontward wedgie…but the world NEEDS a name for the classic bend-and-shove prank that Bats and Robin are playing on Joker, and if that word is MELVIN, then so be it.

  40. Regarding the “mystery villains”…

    ) Clayface III is the one in the uppermost left (the Marshall Rogers melts-you-with-a-touch one)
    ) Clayface II (the shape-shifting one) is at the bottom
    ) Dr. Phosphorus, Dr. Tzin-Tzin, Mirror Man, and The Spook are definitely there. Mirror Man only appeared a handful of times…he had x-ray specs and was like Mirror Master Lite.
    ) It’s actually The Mad Hatter II. According to Mad Hatter I (the one voiced by Roddy McDowall in BTAS), the red-headed, mustached one stole his name, so Ol’ MH had to reclaim it back by murdering the imposter off-panel. The whole sordid mess is told in Detective #510.

  41. Wow. This was my first exposure to comics, and for years after, I believed that Alfred only came around after Dick.

    I, too, had the boxtops version, and practically memorized it until it was destroyed in a flood. Thank you for the trip down memory lane!

  42. I like how Alfred skimps out on full-sized plates by stacking bat’s sandwiches.

  43. I too got these three comics — in a slightly smaller than normal size — from an order form on the back of a cereal box. No audio tape though.

    Another important Batman comic I had as a kid was a Detective Comics annual that involved Bruce Wayne teaming up with an old man to solve a mystery and fight the KKK. The old man dies and Batman, years later, haunts a man in a graveyard. The cool thing about it wasn’t the story so much, but the last dozen or more pages which had profiles of all Batman villains by different artists. That thing was gold to me as a kid. Like the Batman comics equivalent of the Rosetta Stone or something. Through it I could tell all the different Clayfaces apart!

  44. Thank God this was pre-crisis and we can all pretend that Batman shedding a tear incident was wiped from existence.

  45. Dear God! In Pre-Crisis Earth-1, Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed by….

    Jack Kirby!

    (I don’t think Perry White has that much hair.)

  46. I had this, with the audio tape. It seems I’m not alone in my experience: reading this when I was eight, it was the first exposure I had to the “real” Batman. It was the foundational experience for the entirety of my comics love in years since. I still have it, buried somewhere. Now, I must go find it.

    And a cassette player. That too.

  47. Wow. This was my first exposure to comics, and for years after, I believed that Alfred only came around after Dick.

    Funniest sentence ever, or funniest sentence ever?

  48. @Joe

    Thanks for the clarification! Its been a loooooong time since I read this one.

  49. See, Miller? Bats’ origin doesn’t need that damned “iconic” pearl-dropping-from-a-necklace shit.

  50. Man, it’s funny that this was a ton of people’s first exposure to comics/batman, because it was for me too. I had the audio version too and I remember being blown away by the sheer craziness going on (though I never got to hear the rest of the story until now!).

  51. It was also my first exposure to Batman and superhero comics, but I never read Part Three so I’ve only just found out how it ended. Great story.

  52. “Hammett’s publisher at the time refused to allow any rude or profane terminology in his publication. Hammett slipped in “gunsel” – a street term for a young, gay man – as a joke. Since it is used throughout the book to refer to the character of Wilmer – a gun-toting thug – most people erroneously assumed that is what it meant and it stuck.”

  53. I bow now. I bow to the awesomeness that Aparo was able to conjure on the page. Aparo’s Batman is not just a Batman, it is THE Batman.

  54. I love how Batman backhands the thug so hard he appears to smack Kirby dots out of him.

  55. Man, I had these comics as miniature reprints that I think I got from some Batman cereal offer or some such. Good times.

  56. I have all 3 untold legend of the batman audio tapes along with the comic books. Once I get the tapes on to my computer digitally I can send you the files or links to them. Contact me.

  57. My first first experience with this storyline was also through the comics sold with the audio cassettes and I can’t tell you how many times I listened to them. Cool stuff, not quite as awesome as those old Batman LP’s with the Neal Adams cover art, but still.

  58. Does anyone know where to get all 3 cassette tapes of the untold legend of the batman especially the second book & cassette tape, I can’t find where to go looking for it. Anyone please let me know asap.

    Cheers,
    Craig Irons