Friday, December 23, 2011
Stories like "How to Be the Batman!"
This a great Batman story from Detective Comics #190 from 1952.
I don't have a copy of Detective Comics #190. I wish I did. "How to Be the Batman" was reprinted in the Giant Batman Annual #1 in 1961 along with a bunch of other Batman stories that appeared in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
I don't have the Giant Batman Annual #1 either. I have a 1999 replica edition.
The first Batman annual is a lot of fun. It's labeled "1,001 Secrets of Batman and Robin." So there's a story about the origin of the Bat-Cave and one about the secrets of the Bat-Signal and another about where all those silly costumes come from.
But "How to Be the Batman" is the best of the lot. It was probably originally intended as a way to tell the origin story once again, to bring new readers up to date, but in the context of a story where it made sense to go over it again so that longtine readers wouldn't go "Not this again!"
Batman and Robin are on the trail of a criminal psychologist. He has a gang and he uses psychology in the course of each robbery, trying to outwit the police and the Dynamic Duo. During one encounter, Batman suddenly can't remember anything. He has amnesia!
This prompts Robin to tell the origin of Batman to Batman, hoping that will make him remember. It doesn't work. Robin has to retrain Bruce Wayne, telling him the secrets of the Bat-Cave, teaching him how to throw a punch and how to swing on a line above the city, and all that super-hero stuff.
The best thing about the story is Batman - stricken with amnesia - as he reacts to all this crazy stuff that Robin is telling him. Robin takes him to the Bat-cave and says:
See, the Batplane that you designed! And beyond it is our laboratory!
To which Batman responds:
It's all new to me! Are you sure I'm this - what did you call him - Batman?
Then Robin shows him the trophy room, you know, with the giant penny and the dinosaur robot? And Batman, quite logically, asks:
They're weird, but they don't mean anything to me. What am I, anyway - a museum collector, or what?
When Robin shows him the interior of Bruce Wayne's manor - stately, elegant and, quite frankly, a little ostentatious - amnesiac Batman says:
It doesn't make sense! If I'm a millionaire, why am I secretly a detective?
Of course, it all works out in the end. Before he got amnesia, Batman had made a few notes after studying blood samples from an amnesiac night watchman who had earlier been a victim of the gang. Robin and Batman take a chance on mixing up a cure from the notes.
But what I really love about the story is Batman's reaction to his own origin when he comes at it from a more objective perspective. It really doesn't make any sense to him. He seems more like a character from the real world who's been thrown into a comic-book world, someone who's not yet been inextricably trapped into automatically accepting a bunch of comic book hoohah that really doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
There's a metaphysical component that I find irresistible. Amnesiac Batman never quite says, "This is just silly," but he just about gets there. You can almost hear a little contempt in his exasperating questions.
I found one source that says Bill Finger wrote this. (It frequently gets an "author unknown" label, however.) I really have no idea if this story has the trademarks of a Bill Finger story ot not, but Finger had been with Batman from the very beginning and I can easily see Finger (or whoever) using amnesiac Batman to make some meta-comments on super-heroing and super-hero comics.
Comics are frequently silly. And I think the writer of "How to Be the Batman" very possibly knew exactly what he was writing here. But he knew if he tried to write something as obvious as some of the stuff that Grant Morrison can write rather brazenly in today's comics, he knew it wouldn't fly.
And in the way it's presented, it's a much better story anyway.
And that's one more reason we love Detective Comics: Subtle meta-commmentary on the comics in stories from 1952.