Harlan Ellison is my favorite writer, it is true. Mostly known for his Science Fiction short stories, he also occasionally dips his pen into the world of comics. Detective Comics #567 is one of the few things I have ever purchased via eBay – probably about ten years ago. In 1986, it sold for 75 cents. In 2001, I bid ten dollars for it. I was completely gone in obsessive Harlan Ellison completist, collecting frenzy, sifting through used book stores and buying whatever was to be had. My favorite writer and my favorite comic book character? I could not resist.
As much an unthinking ritual as breathing… the nightly patrol. Times beyond counting, he has been as he is tonight: watching.
Flipping through the issue, it is clear to see that there are no super villains, no real over-arching plot, but rather a night in the life of Batman. Batman on patrol.
Colan and Smith do a smooth job creating Gotham city at night – from deserted alleys to highrises, even a sequence in what looks to be Gotham’s stand-in for Central Park: stretches of unkempt grass and dark, tulgey woods. Great to see Batman in his element: flying about, swooping, lurking.
The story, however… well, I should have known Harlan would not be content with telling a typical Batman story. He is, above all else, a smart-ass. The story veers, beginning with the first page, as Batman lands in the midst of an armed robbery, only to find that the store owner already has a gun shoved in the would-be assailant’s face and says simply, “Good to see you. Mind calling 911 while I keep puke-for-brains here busy?”
Next, we meet a young man about to inflict some ultra-violence on an old, graying, helpless lady. Again, Batman appears on the scene, only to witness the woman beating the man senselessly with her purse. “Y’want food stamps, greaseball? I’ll give ya foodstamps! Howzabout a mouthful of bloody chiclets?!”
As the evening progresses, Batman is one-upped by the Gotham City police, nearly ruins an undercover drug bust, and misinterprets the actions of several innocent Gothamites who at first glance seem to be engaged in some wrong-doing. This is the story of Batman getting in the way. This is an exercise in emasculation.
However, it does make an interesting point. It has always occurred to me to wonder, how exactly does Batman know the immediate score when he suddenly intervenes in any given situation? For every clear-cut moment of a hoodlum pointing a gun at some innocent, there must be at least a dozen such moments in which it would be impossible to tell exactly what’s going on, who’s doing what to whom, who the ‘bad guy’ is.
I noted that this is a problem which Christopher Nolan neatly eschews in his films. In both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, there has not once been a sequence in which Batman randomly intervenes in a situation. His presence is always purposeful, intentional. Even Tim Burton only had a moment like this once, at the very beginning of his 1989 film, and even then – I could not help but note – he does not intervene until after the punks mug the wayward family, beat the father, abscond with their wallet. I guess he had to be really sure.
There’s also the sense that in the film world, the necessities of two-hour-plus plots mean that Batman must be constantly acting and reacting according to the actions of the villain. There’s not much time to just hang out. In the world of comics, however, we often have sequences like this, Batman on his nightly patrol, interrupting muggings, rapings, safe-crackings, gang wars, vandalizing, you name it. If there’s shit going down anywhere in Gotham, Batman is seemingly on the case.
So it is nice to see a thoughtful counterpoint in this issue. But a part of me can’t help but suspect that Harlan Ellison was just being a smartass.
At the end of his night, Batman spies a large, grotesque of man, plodding along through the night, wild-eyed, unshaven, sneering. When the brute carelessly tosses his candy-car wrapper on the ground, Batman emerges from the shadows.
“There’s an ordinance against littering, tiny!”
“Huh? Oh, Batman! What’d you say..? Litter? Oh, yeah… the wrapper! You’re absolutely right, sir! I should be ashamed of myself! And I’m the one who is forever inveighing against the careless masses who turn our streets into garbage pits! We all belong to the city, Gotham is our living room… Good citizenship ever needs reinforcing! Thank goodness you’re always with us, Batman! For the moments when carelessness dominates our actions! Good night, sir; and have a quiet evening.”
There are nine and sixty ways of constructing a Batman story, and every single one of them is right.