I was born the year before the first Tim Burton Batman film hit theaters. When I was a toddler, I was Batman for at least three separate Halloweens. If I didn’t have access to a Halloween costume, I’d pretend to be Batman by tying a towel around my neck and running around the yard doing my very best karate chops while my great-grandmother watched with an absurd amount of pride. Basically, Batman has been A Big Deal my entire life. He was around for nearly 50 years before I came along, and god willing, he’ll still be punching villains and saving the day well after I’m gone.
This hardcover collection features classic stories, illustrations, and essays from creators and fans who have contributed to the legacy of Batman over the last eighty years. It both acts as a celebration of the character and as a distinct timeline of his evolution over eight decades.
One of the most interesting choices in the assembly of this collection is that it’s not confined to the Batman stories from early Detective Comics. The first several issues collected here include some of the other features from the series, including the first appearance of Martian Manhunter and an early Crimson Avenger adventure. While it’s a surprise to see non-Batman stories in this collection, these effectively frame the Batman stories by showing us what kinds of tales people were into at the time. For example, the first appearance of Robin is followed in this collection by a story featuring the introduction of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon’s teen war comic characters, the Boy Commandos.
Each inclusion is effectively a time capsule, giving readers a look at the changing trends in comics history. It shows us the stories and characters that influenced some of Batman’s changes in direction, but also how Batman stories influenced the industry as a whole. While it may at first seem like kind of an odd choice to include so many of these non-Batman features in a celebration of Batman, it’s actually a nice touch that lends some context to the history of the Caped Crusader.
Honestly, all of the stories here are excellent, with many of them featuring the first appearances from some of Batman’s greatest enemies, as well as some incredible yarns from creators like Neal Adams and Dennis O’Neil. However, a few of these selections are just stone cold classics and deserve special mention.
One of them in particular, Alan Brennert and Dick Giordano’s “To Kill A Legend,” has long been one of my all-time favorite Batman stories (maybe my absolute favorite). In this one, the Phantom Stranger offers Batman and Robin the opportunity to travel to an alternate Earth and thwart the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents. It plays out in a way that is so different from what you would expect, but it’s one of the most hopeful stories from the Dark Knight’s canon.
In addition to some of the widely-known classics, there are a few selections that are less obvious, like science fiction legend Harlan Ellison’s quirky tale, “The Night of Thanks, But No Thanks!” In this story, Batman is constantly being told he’s not needed, or he’s looking for trouble where it doesn’t exist. It’s a really funny story that shows a more bored Dark Knight than we are used to. I’m honestly surprised I haven’t read it before, so I’m very grateful for its inclusion here.
The most recent stories in the collection are two short tales from a true modern classic, 2014’s Detective Comics #27. This landmark issue celebrated the 75th anniversary of Detective with an all-star roster of comic book talent, each offering beautiful one-and-done takes on the Batman and his world. In particular, Brad Meltzer’s short story, “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate,” (named after the very first Batman story) offers a look into the hero’s mind as he explains why he does what he does. This excellent tale is further elevated by some gorgeous artwork from Bryan Hitch. Meanwhile, in Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy’s “Twenty-Seven,” we a look at the far-reaching legacy of the character. This is one story that has a wild concept and, in a way, fulfills Grant Morrison’s promise that “Batman and Robin will never die!”
…You guys, Batman’s just so cool. And this collection isn’t about to let you forget it.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the inclusion of Greg Rucka’s 2000 story, “The Honored Dead.” Featuring moody artwork by Shawn Martinbrough, this may be one of the all-time best spotlights for Commissioner Gordon. It’s good to see Batman’s supporting cast given their proper due in this collection, as well.
Another really nice touch in this collection is the inclusion of the first few scripted pages of Batman: Mortality, an unfinished and unproduced Batman miniseries from 2012 that would have come from the team of Paul Levitz and Denys Cowan. Not only does this collection act as a record of Batman’s adventures throughout the years, but it doubles as a look into what could have been. It’s literally more than a complete history of Detective Comics.
Tying all of this together at the end of the book is an incredible essay from author Neil Gaiman, explaining the evolution of Batman from Hero of Gotham to Capital D Dark Knight in the most interesting way: by charting it against his own experience growing up with the character as a fact of life. In this essay, Neil Gaiman, comic book phenom and all-around genius, is all of us. We each find Batman in our own ways, but there’s a Batman for every stage of our life.
This book reminds us of the importance of Batman. For that reason, this collection is invaluable for any reader who has ever tied a towel around their neck and felt just a little bit stronger.
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