DC Histories: The Untold Legend of the Batman

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.

The Untold Legend of the Batman #1 Cover (1980)

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.

From The Untold Legend of the Batman #1 (1980)

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.

From The Untold Legend of the Batman #1 (1980)

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.

From The Untold Legend of the Batman #1 (1980)

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.

From The Untold Legend of the Batman #1 (1980)

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.

From The Untold Legend of the Batman #2 (1980)

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.

From The Untold Legend of the Batman #3 (1980)

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.

From The Untold Legend of the Batman #3 (1980)

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.

Comments

  1. aside from Jimski’s column on Monday this is the feature i look forward to the most each week. That’s really saying something for a Marvel Zombie like myself. keep it up

  2. Ha! I totally had this with the tape that came with it – I wonder if its still around somewhere…

  3. Jeff, thanks for a great article – a wonderful reminder of a very entertaining, well-crafted and informative mini-series.

  4. This was the first comic I remember reading, and it made a lasting impression on me. The final confrontation Batman has in the Batcave at the end legitimately creeped me out as a kid. Oh, and Jim Aparo’s art is stellar, as are the Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez covers: those guys defined how Batman should look in my eyes. Think I’ll go dig up my dogeared copies of this and take a trip down memory lane…

  5. Mickey (@GeeksOfChrist) says:

    My mom sent the box tops of the Batman 89 movie cereal and I got little versions of this in the mail. The comics were, sizewise, in between a normal comic and a He-Man comic.

    But man-o-man, did I read those a lot. Probably 30 times.

    Byrne’s art is excellent. The story is…well, not really a story. Mostly just exposition, as you said.
    I had forgotten all about the radioplay. My library had the tapes.

  6. Yowzers, that Byrne art in that splash above is gorgeous and Aparo’s stuff looks typically fantastic. Also, the “bouncing bathtub” that Jim mentions above was surely a silver age story at some point right? “Quickly Robin, if we don’t subdue this bucking bath, then everyone in Gotham is doomed!”

  7. I’ve got 1 of these issues. I really loved it, I thought initially it was kind of an “elseworlds” type thing. Finding out where the inspiration for his costume came from was an absolute highlight.

  8. Is this the inspiration for the Earth One Alfred’s background?

  9. HOlee crap, that theme song is awful. I got smaller versions of these in a send away with box tops of the Batman cereal too, I had no idea there were dramatic re-enactments. I know what I’m going to (try to, at least) listen to on my way home tonight.

  10. That theme song is epic. I used to listen to the crap outta that tape when I was a kid. I didn’t even know there was a comic to go along with it until I was about 18. Blew my mind.

  11. It’s a truly great mini-series. It floored me when I read it a few years ago. Fans of Morrison’s RIP (and by extension Snyder’s recent Wayne family retreads) should check it out, because “Untold Legend” was really the first (and perhaps best?) MAJOR psychological examination of Bruce Wayne. Can’t recommend it highly enough.

  12. How ironic – I just reread this series a few days ago as I was “summer cleaning.” As dated as this is, I can’t let go of it. It was a great story, had great art, and it was a *&%^# to acquire. I wasn’t there when it debuted, but when I learned about it, I also found out that it was incredibly hard to find. It was also super-expensive, as at the time, anything Byrne had a hand in cost an arm and a leg.

  13. I had this (still have it sitting on a shelf over my shoulder actually) in a little digest/paperback novel format that I’m pretty sure I bought at a supermarket. No cassette tape, and the art is black and white, but it’s a well dog earned copy that was my first introduction to a grittier Batman after watching so many reruns of the Adam West show.