If you look at any old photograph of me, say from ages 6 to 10, chances are that I’m wearing a Batman t-shirt, or a Batman hat, backpack, button, etc. Those were the “peak Batman years”, both for me and pop culture in general. I vividly remember sitting in a movie theater in the summer of 1989 and having my 6-year-old mind blown by Tim Burton’s Batman.

Although Burton’s film hasn’t aged well for me (even as a kid I thought the machine guns mounted on the Batmobile were totally wrong. And having the Joker turn out to be the Waynes’ murderer? That’s just silly.), seeing my favorite superhero come to life on the silver screen was simply mesmerizing. I was obsessed, and that summer it seemed like everyone else was too: the iconic Bat-symbol was plastered on toys, t-shirts, breakfast cereal, and everything in between. It was a great time to be a Batman fan, and there were few more dedicated than me.

Me, age 8, with the 'Batman' costume. Note my awesome Batman hat.

Me, age 7, with the ‘Batman’ costume. Note my awesome Batman hat.

While I actually don’t remember the first Batman comic I read, it was probably the mini-comic that came packed with the Batman Super Powers action figure (I had all of the Super Powers figures, but Batman –along with the awesome Batmobile toy– was obviously my favorite). I do, however, remember the first Batman comic I read over and over again until the cover nearly fell off: The Untold Legend of the Batman by Len Wein, John Byrne, and Jim Aparo. Originally published as a 3 issue miniseries in 1980, this classic was reprinted to cash in on the popularity of Burton’s film. The version I had even came with an audio cassette that you could listen to while you read the comic. The tape hasn’t aged very well, but Untold Legend is still my favorite Batman comic to this day.

In those three issues, Wein, Byrne, and Aparo condense 40 years worth of Batman comics into a thrilling and surprisingly moving story: someone who knows Batman’s past is going to destroy him using Batman’s own memories. As Batman races to find out who knows his deepest secrets, he becomes more panicked until finally (spoiler alert for a 34-year-old comic) he realizes that the only person capable of outsmarting Batman is Batman himself!

'The Untold Legend of the Batman' #1 by Len Wein and John Byrne

‘The Untold Legend of the Batman’ #1 by Len Wein and John Byrne

I spent so many hours pouring over the pages of that comic, memorizing every detail about Batman, Robin, Alfred, and their enemies. It’s interesting that they chose this comic to tie into the Batman movie since much of the comic focuses on the pre-Crisis history of the character. In that regard, it did feel like some sort of arcane knowledge. For example, the story begins when Batman receives a mysterious package containing the charred remains of bat costume his father had once worn to a masquerade ball.

As a kid, I didn’t realize that that was a reference to “The First Batman” from 1956’s Detective Comics #235. Instead, the idea there was more to Batman and his history was pretty thrilling. Besides his father being the first Batman, Untold Legend explained how Bruce Wayne learned crime fighting under the tutelage of detective Harvey Harris while wearing the first Robin costume, and that Joe Chill was hired to kill the Waynes by notorious mobster Lew Moxton (that particular story was eventually adapted into the finest Batman cartoon ever: the “Chill of the Night!” episode of Batman: The Brave and the Bold).

The fact that this version of Batman’s origin was so different from the one in the movie or the comics continuity of the time is what made it so interesting to me: knowing that there was a deeper, “untold” history to the character made him seem more important. The story was more than Batman running around punching people, it was about the legend  of Batman. For me, it was just as engaging and important as Greek mythology or Arthurian legend, and just like those classic tales and characters, Batman seemed timeless.

'The Untold Legend of the Batman' #3 by Len Wein and Jim Aparo

‘The Untold Legend of the Batman’ #3 by Len Wein and Jim Aparo

The conclusion of Untold Legend is still seared into my brain: Batman confronts Bruce Wayne as the walls of the Batcave slowly close in on him. Jim Aparo’s art is perfect in this scene, capturing the confusion and fury of the character as he struggles with his own sense of guilt and loss. It’s pretty heady stuff for a kid to be reading. However, that notion that Batman’s greatest struggle was always with the weight of his memory was fascinating, and few comics ever tackled it as well as Untold Legend. That’s why, even after all these years, it’s still my favorite Batman comic: it offered a new way of thinking about the character while staying true to his history, and it’s still as potent as it was when I first read it.

Flash forward to the summer 2008, when I became a born again Bat-fan. Over the years, I had slowly lost interest in comics, especially those based on superheroes. I had even opted not to see Batman Begins. What was the point? I already knew his origin, and I doubted it would be told better. But, out of curiosity, I went to see The Dark Knight, and afterwards walked right to the nearest comic shop (I was living in New York at the time, so luckily there was one right across the street) to buy some Batman comics. Fortuitously, Grant Morrison’s ‘Batman R.I.P.’ was just starting up, and once again, I was hooked.

BatmanRIP

‘Batman’ #676 by Grant Morrison and Tony Daniel

Like Untold Legend, ‘Batman R.I.P’ explored the idea of Batman and what made him tick. It even referenced obscure stories from the ’50s and ’60s that seemingly everyone except Morrison had forgotten about. By once again having Batman confront his own “untold” past and come face-to-face to his own fractured psyche, Morrison pushed the concept of Batman into new and surprising territory. For a lapsed Bat-fan who loved thinking about the mythology of the character, Morrison’s run was a revelation and a rediscovery: it presented the rich mythology of the character I loved in a new and profound way.

What I found most interesting about the story was Morrison’s notion that all versions of the character were valid and important. There is no singular, “correct” Batman: the Adam West TV show is just as valid as The Dark Knight Trilogy or Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One. What connects all of these different stories is the simple notion of someone turning tragedy into something positive. As Alfred so eloquently explains in the much-maligned Batman and Robin, Batman is “an effort to master the chaos that sweeps our world; an attempt to control death itself.”  Underneath the iconic costume, what makes Batman interesting is the notion that someone is willing to endure unimaginable pain to help others, and that no matter how dark things get, there’s always hope. That’s the genius of the character Bill Finger and Bob Kane created 75 years ago: the story of Batman is a universal one, and that’s why it’s become a timeless legend.

About The Author

Paul R Jaissle is a philosopher, collage artist, and musician. In his free time, he enjoys reading comics (especially ones with Batman in them), listening to power pop, and watching wrestling.

One Response to The Untold Legend of a Batman Fan

  1. Scott Gregson says:

    Grant Morrisson just “gets” superheroes on such a fundamental level. It’s crazy. Sure, not every story is great. His Action Comics run starting the New 52 isn’t particularly mesmerising, but when you read RIP, or All-Star Superman, or go way back to Arkham Asylum, there’s just a weird understanding of what makes these characters true mythology, and inspirational.