Here at DC Histories, we try to make sense of the continuity that perplexes, befuddles, and intimidates. We discuss what worked and what didn’t. This week, we’re talking about 1980′s The Untold Legend of the Batman.
In 1980, a three-issue miniseries telling the origin stories of Batman and most of his supporting cast was released. Titled The Untold Legend of the Batman, this miniseries was a great jumping-on point for readers who had heard of Batman and his friends but who wanted to know more about their backstory. Written by Len Wein with art by Jim Aparo and, in the first issue, John Byrne, the story was an attempt to synthesize all of the various tweaks and retcons that had been made to the Batman franchise over the years. Many of the details in this series were wiped away after the Crisis on Infinite Earths and the seminal Batman: Year One story that came shortly thereafter. Still, this series is a fascinating look at how Batman had been developed since his debut in 1939 and how he and his compatriots had been written during the course of their first 41 years.
It should be stated that if you’re not at least somewhat okay with obvious, forced exposition, this series will not be for you. The first issue is comprised entirely of Batman telling Alfred his origin story while working on an investigation. “As you know…” dialog abounds. I’m willing to grant this series the liberty to tell a story in this manner because I can’t think of another way to fit this much history into three single issues.
Everything found in these pages, no matter how strange they may seem to modern audiences, was canon in 1980. Chunks of Batman’s story remain familiar, including Bruce’s inspiration for Batman coming from a bat that flew into his study and how a random thug named Joe Chill killed Thomas and Martha Wayne. However, it used to be true that Chill had been set up by Lew Moxon, a mobster with a personal vendetta against Thomas Wayne. Bruce’s parents’ death had not been random.
Even more surprising, it was mentioned in this story that Bruce Wayne actually had a living relative named Uncle Philip who took the young boy in after his parents’ death. Whether Philip was the brother of Thomas or Martha wasn’t mentioned in the story. Philip’s housekeeper, Mrs. Chilton, helped Bruce emotionally in the coming months. Though Mrs. Chilton turned out to be Joe Chill’s mother, a grown up Bruce Wayne either didn’t know her relationship to his parents’ murderer or he chose to ignore it.
Aside from these two panels, I have never seen Uncle Philip or Mrs. Chilton referenced. Apparently, Mrs. Chilton appeared in Batman (Vol. 1) #208, an issue that, as far as I know, has never been reprinted.
Perhaps most surprising of all, it was shown that Dick Grayson hadn’t been the first Robin. Bruce Wayne himself had developed that persona when he was a teenager. He wanted to be trained on how to be a detective by the best in the business but feared rejection if it was known just who was asking for the help. Creating the Robin costume was his best solution.
Though the first issue focused solely on Batman’s origins, the second issue dealt with his closest supporting cast members. Dick Grayson’s origins were recounted and they have more or less remained the same since 1940. As before, Dick’s parents were killed by mobsters when the circus they were working for refused to pay the mobsters any protection money. In order to find justice for his parents, Dick became Robin and started assisting Batman in helping those who couldn’t help themselves.
More interestingly, Alfred Pennyworth, butler of Batman and Robin, had his early days retold. These days, Alfred is seen as a paternal figure to Bruce, having had a direct role in raising Bruce after his parents’ murder. In the past, Alfred had a whole life of his own before he found himself in Bruce’s employ. In the past, Alfred had been a concentration camp liberator for the Allies during World War II and had been the baldest Hamlet I’ve ever seen.
Only after his father, who had been the personal butler to Thomas Wayne, died did Alfred travel to America where he became butler to Bruce Wayne. This was years after Batman had first jumped on the scene.
Other characters got recaps of their backstories as well. Jack Edison, stunt driver and creator of the Batmobile, felt the need to recount his first run-in with Batman during a phone call with Robin.
Lucius Fox, whose backstory consisted mainly of him having a keen business sense and Bruce having noticed that, got half a page to describe just how he became a top executive at Wayne Foundation. It was easily the most boring story, but it was nice to see him included in the origin parade.
Other characters, like Commissioner Gordon and his daughter Barbara, got a few pages to shine too.
There was a plot that linked all of these origins together, but the main attraction here was bringing readers up to speed on just how everyone got to where they currently were in continuity.
This comic series was reprinted several times over the years. Most memorably to me, a 1989 reprint was found in stores to coincide with the release of Tim Burton’s new Batman film. This wasn’t just a reprint though. Each of these three issues came with a cassette tape. These tapes were dramatic recordings of these issues done with an entire voice cast and the occasional sound effect. I wore my copies out listening to them. They’re a bit cheesy and the opening theme song is horrendous, but the voice of Batman isn’t half bad.
If you’re at all curious about where Batman was just prior to the Batman: Year One reboot, seek this series out. It’s got some solid art and a few surprises for readers only familiar with the current continuity. The original issues are still pretty cheap. The series was collected in a single volume, but that volume is the size of a mass market paperback, in black-and-white, and with rearranged panels. Pick it up if that’s all you can find but the original issues are more worth your time.
Jeff Reid knows that his love of DC continuity began when he read this series the same summer that the Batman film presented a completely different interpretation of the same character. Hear him be nostalgic about his childhood on Twitter.