Today is Batman Day, a fake holiday invented for the sole purpose of helping market merchandise branded with the Dark Knight. Not that Bruce Wayne needs the help. The worst thing about Batman Day is that it's happening on the wrong date. It should be on June 26, not September 26.
There's one strain of thought that says Bruce Wayne became Batman on the night his parents died, not the first time he put on the cape and cowl. It's a rather vicious psychological interpretation, but one that gets at just how traumatic it must've been for a little boy to watch his parents die in front of him. For decades, the exact date of the Waynes' murders wasn't mentioned. The story that revealed that date in one of the best Batman stories ever and its legacy is a great example of why DC Comics' periodic reboots suck.
Batman Special #1 was an odd comic, an unheralded standalone written by Mike Barr and drawn by Michael Golden that introduced a sort of evil Batman. The issue's lone story, The Player on the Other Side, revolves around the Gotham arrival of the Wrath, an assassin who specialises in killing law enforcement officers. The Wrath's next target is Commissioner Gordon and his reasons for wanting Gotham's top cop dead are very personal.
The very existence of Batman Special #1 was unconventional. Batman had already had annuals, miniseries and 80-page giants by that point in his publishing history. But a Special? Not ever. What arguably made the comic stand out was its premise and its dedication to structurally building out a character that was a polar opposite to the Dark Knight.
The Player on the Other Side is clearly an attempt to elevate the craft in superhero comics. By the late 1960s, a new class of comics professional was working in superhero periodicals. Often college-educated, they were the first generation of comics fans to enter the medium they'd loved as kids. They soaked up the literature, TV and movies of their times and tried to squeeze what they'd absorbed back into cape-and-cowl stories. You can see that aspiration and self-awareness flowing through this story, in the way it uses an in-media-res structure, parallel narratives, and melodramatic misdirection.
Barr and company constantly have Batman and Wrath show up in places where the other should be, using the pointy-eared silhouette to mislead readers as to which character is entering or talking.
It's a trick that wouldn't work in a movie or TV show since the different voices of two actors would give them away. But you can't hear the people talking in comics which makes the silhouette gimmick work perfectly here.
In decades past, it wasn't common practice for superhero comics to reference their own publishing history. Working against unforgiving deadlines and production schedules, writers, artists and editors ground out self-contained stories with little thought about what came before and what would come after. No matter what, a new issue had to hit the printers by a certain date. So, aside from its storytelling tricks, the page above is unique because it references another pivotal Batman story.
Printed in Detective Comics #457, There's No Hope In Crime Alley established the fact that Batman visits the spot where his parents died every year on the day of their death. That 1976 story by Denny O'Neil and Dick Giordano introduced the character of Leslie Tompkins, a woman who comforted Bruce at the crime scene. She'd go on to essentially become his surrogate mother, in much the same way that Wayne family butler Alfred Pennyworth became Bruce Wayne's surrogate father. That character-centric linkage and the other little revelations in The Player on the Other Side" sketch out a fuller understanding of Batman's psyche: the casual mention that Bruce Wayne visits his parents' graves every week...
keeping Alfred in the dark as to what he does on the 26th (of June) every year...
and the grim acknowledgement of his own mortality at the end of the story.
All of those beats frame Batman as a character enmeshed in dying. Even the death of the Wrath at the end of Batman Special #1 -- a common exit for many villain-of-the-month characters during the so-called Bronze Age of comics -- serves that purpose. The Wrath wasn't important enough to keep around; he was essentially a tool to look at the construction of Batman as a concept, from inside and outside the fiction.
These kinds of considerations would become more prevalent as time went on. The self-awareness seen in The Player on the Other Side grew into full-bloom and certain events come to be understood as foundational to the Batman mythos, like the Wayne family going to see Zorro on June 26th or Jim Gordon being the officer who comes to the scene of the murder of Bruce's parents. Around the time of the 1989 Batman movie, there was a sense that dozens of Batman tales from the character's history were coalescing into a canon. DC put out fancy collections of older stories like The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told and loads of interviews and articles talked about the way that different creators had impacted the character since 1939. Batman Special #1 came out in 1984, two years before Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns steered the character towards a much bleaker direction. The Batman of the pre- era was friendlier and more fallible. Tortured, yes, but not so much as the interpretations that would follow. That lighter sensibility, combined with its throwaway villain, The Player on the Other Side wasn't really enshrined into the Bat-canon.
So it was a surprise when another Batman/Wrath storyline happened in 2008, finding a perfect way to pick up where the older one left off.
Originally published in Batman Confidential #13-16, Wrath Child doesn't use any contrived devices to bring the dead nameless villain back to life. Using the same tricks that Barr, Golden and their partners did, the story by Tony Bedard, Rags Morales and others does something fiendishly clever to return to the concept of an evil, cop-killer Batman.
One of the narrative pivots that makes Wrath Child work is the fact that, as of the end of Batman Special #1, Batman doesn't know what Jim Gordon did on June 26th and Batman never finds out the nom-de-guerre of his opposite number, either.
Wrath Child calls back to The Player on the Other Side and builds on it in ways that smartly mine the Batman mythos, just like the original Wrath tale.
Leslie Tompkins is once again a central figure in Wrath Child and the use of Batman's surrogate mother highlights the change of sensibility that informed latter-day approaches to Batman. In Batman Special #1, she's the pacifist voice wishing for an end to Batman's violence, while recognising its necessity. The Wrath Child stories strike a compromise between Leslie Tompkins' original saintly social worker iteration -- modelled on Dorothy Day -- and the Leslie Tompkins re-imagined as more of an activist doctor after the tonality of the Bat-mythos went darker in the mid-80s.
The same goes for the Batman/Gordon relationship, which was something like a nephew/uncle one before, but morphed into something chillier as years went on.
The trust that was implicit between the two men was no longer something to be taken for granted.
In addition to the return of Gordon and Tompkins, the second Wrath-centric story brings in Nightwing -- the identity that Dick Grayson adopted after he stopped being Batman's junior partner.
References to Bat-lore have been a key part of Wrath stories. Bedard and Morales have lots of fun with that fact. For example, the slap in the top panel above is a sly reference to a 1965 panel that became an infamous internet meme.
That meme makes a dark joke about Batman's parents, which connects to Wrath Child's key theme of family. The grim solitude of his masked alter ego makes Bruce Wayne the most likely person to have a family accrue around him, yet it's one of the most endearing parts of the character's mythos.
Wrath Child's big twist is the flip side of that element, a revelation that the Wrath had his own Boy Wonder, a doppelganger Robin he trained as a police-hating killer. It deconstructs the concept of the kid sidekick, extrapolating what it would look like if the worst parts of that trope wound up being true.
Batman's adoption of Dick Grayson is generally understood to have redeemed the orphaned boy from a darker existence. So, of course, similar action of the Wrath's would doom a kid to an even worse vocation.
I'm not sure whose call it was -- writer or editor -- to get Rags Morales on the art for Wrath Child but it was an inspired decision. Morales' sinewy linework may as well be a descendant of Golden's draftsmanship. Both of them draw elongated faces and forms, rich with expression and body language. Like Golden, Morales' draftsmanship come off as creamy and smooth, with a sense of sinuous liquid energy that moves across the page. He doesn't play with perspective or camera angles as much as Golden but he knows how to draw your eye across the page in his own way.
There was another Wrath story in 2013, two years after DC Comics reset its continuity in 2011. On its own, the most recent take on the bad-Batman concept is a fine story.
But it's also a prime example of how comics events that wipe timelines clean and rewrite history can cripple one of superhero fiction's best traits: the ability to talk back across decades past.
The 2013 Wrath story -- written by John Layman and drawn by Jason Fabok -- does have some allusions to the earlier iterations of the character. The new Wrath is presented as more of a doppelganger to Bruce Wayne and the Elliott Caldwell civilian identity that Layman gives him is a reference back to the real name of the second Wrath.
This man is still a cop-killer but one who wants to destroy the entire Gotham City Police Department. He's got a sidekick, too, and -- as alluded to in the second Wrath story -- isn't very kind to them.
The uncharacteristic warmth found in the Barr/Golden and Bedard/Morales stories -- shown in the concern that Batman, Gordon, Tompkins and Nightwing show for each other -- isn't present in the Layman/Fabok version. Their version of the story ends in a burlier showdown, with military-grade vehicles bringing down buildings and Batman and Wrath both wearing giant suits of power armour.
If anything, you can read the upscaling as a metaphor for how Batman has become an industry unto himself. All three of these stories can be used as examples of how the execution of Batman -- and what his opposite number would look like -- has evolved over the years. That's probably a total coincidence. One of the reasons that the Batman brand won't ever die is the fact that it makes too much money. It's the whole reason Batman Day exists for a character the entire world already knows. But, while he won't die, the Batman will change. In addition to showing the inevitably of that constant re-invention, The Wrath stories show the value of holding on to the best parts of the Batmen that came before.