The Hidden S in Phone Booth

The Hidden S reviews: Batman Annuals Vol. 2

Batman is probably the most formidable character in comics today. So formidable he has recently bested even Superman in hand-to-hand combat (with some considerable assistance from devices like kryptonite boxing clubs but a win is a win right?).

Despite his present day state as the Heavyweight champ of the DC Universe, Batman's history is full of weird moments; especially the goofy storylines of the 50's. These goofy storylines (and more) are in all of their glory in the The Batman Annuals Vol. 2.

Among the stories here? "The Merman Batman" a 1958 WTF tale of Batman and Robin chasing crooks in the wharf district of Gotham City. In the ensuing battle Batman is apparently killed by electrocution (one of the first of Batman's many "deaths"). A couple of days later Batman shows up in a fish tank and tells Robin that, believe it or not, he can breathe underwater and can't breathe oxygen. This ends up with Batman fighting the criminals at the wharf with a goldfish bowl over his head. Obviously, Batman regains his ability to breathe just as mysteriously as he gained the ability to breathe underwater.

Another odd tale from roughly this period of time is the "Zebra Batman" story where a supervillain called Zebra-Man, who was a scientific genius with machinery that helped envelope his body with energy which gave him low level superpowers. In the course of Batman engaging Zebra-Man, Batman becames "infected" by the Zebra-Man's machine which caused him to turn into a human with zebra stripes and powers that seemed to be kind of radioactive. Unlike the Zebra-Man, Batman had little control over his powers and initially Batman desperately pleaded with Robin to "finish the job I couldn't do," presumably meaning not only subduing the Zebra-Man but continuing his crusade against crime. Naturally, this was not the end of Batman and he figured a way to highjack Zebra-Man's controls to help rid himself of his unwanted superhuman powers.

"Rip Van Batman" is a particularly interesting story in this vein as it imagines a future scenario for Dick Grayson and Gotham without Batman around. Batman is on the hunt for a fairly generic hoodlum named Al Hackett who has greenhouses filled with exotic plants. While tracking him to and then into his residence Batman is overcome by some of the gasses in his greenhouse and is rendered unconcious. Batman awakes, thinking he has been out for a few hours but when he attempts to revive himself by splashing water on his face he glimpses himself in the mirror and sees an aged, bearded Batman. He realizes that he has been asleep for decades and of course has aged in the process.

Making his way to Gotham City, he marvels at the futuristic landscape populated by towering landscapes and flying cars. Most importantly, Batman sees that Dick Grayson has taken up the mantle of "Batman" and is fighting crime with a "new" Robin. Batman/Bruce Wayne attempts to convince Dick Grayson/Batman that he is Bruce Wayne but he is not taken seriously. Other unfortunate changes include Wayne Manor/The Bat Cave in ruins and Commissioner Gordon long retired. Eventually, all of this sorts itself out and the "old" Batman helps out the "new" Batman and Robin escaped from the clutches of jewel thieves. Shortly after this triumph and vindication, Batman awakens in the "real" world with Robin trying to revive him. His experiences were only a vivid dream caused by the plants discharges.

The stories from this period are often bizarre and it is easy enough to conjure up a Mad Men style work ethic on the part of DC's creators whose already vivid imaginations were likely tweeked by three martini lunches and considerable nicotine buzz. What then is a Bat-fan or even comic fan to make of them?

These stories are among the first to hint at many of the things Elseworld titles toy with even today: the future of Batman/Gotham city (all of the Dark Knight/Miller stuff), the future of Robin, (ditto) and the idea of Batman transforming into something more than human (see Batman: Red Rain as well as some of the Man-Bat stories from the 70's). The other legacy of these stories is possibly less appealing for some younger Dark Knight fans; namely the 60's Adam West Batman series which was clearly influenced by the art, tone and content of these 50's era stories which had a kind of make it up as you go feel (Bat Shark repellent anyone?).

Mainly, however, this kind of collection is evidence of the rich and weird history of the Dark Knight. A history that makes his mythology the most interesting and complicated of any major superhero.