Blind Justice: How The Writer Of Batman ’89 Provided The Template Of The Modern Batman Event
There’s a funny thing about superhero movies: Structurally speaking, they’re fundamentally different from superhero comics, just by the very nature of how they’re presented to the public. Or at least, they used to be. Until fairly recently, the appeal of comics had always been in the continuity, the ongoing sagas that built on each other and were designed to run indefinitely as a long-form narrative. The movies — even when they were designed to kickstart a run of sequels — were always meant to be self-contained stories.
That’s flipped around the other way over the past ten years or so, with comics often looking to provide low-continuity, self-contained stories to readers picking up paperbacks and hardcovers even as the movies build billion-dollar franchises by creating a shared universe that stretches across multiple forms of media. It’s no surprise, then, that if you really want to see where that trend got its start, you can trace it back to Batman ’89 and the influence that came to the comics when screenwriter Sam Hamm was tapped to craft a story for Detective Comics #600 and provided the blueprint for the modern Batman event in the process.
The story was called “Blind Justice,” written by Hamm with art by Denys Cowan and Dick Giordano, and in terms of how it influenced later Batman stories, it’s easily one of the most underrated comics of the character’s history. It’s certainly not where the idea of the modern event comic begins — that happened all the way back in 1966 with Fantastic Four and the Galactus Trilogy — and to be honest, it’s not even really the start of event comics for Batman himself.
In the wake of the phenomenal success of Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns — both of which, it should be noted, were absolutely steeped in continuity, whether it was tearing down the old one or laying the foundation for something new — DC Comics was constantly looking for the next story that could work like those, tapping into a new market of Batman fans that they hadn’t even considered before. That might seem weird when you consider how much of a force paperbacks and hardcovers are today in both marketing and story structure, but before Dark Knight Returns, it was something that they hadn’t even considered, to the point where Warner Bros. had to start an entirely new division, Warner Books, in order to get DKR into bookstores. And with the entirely new, entirely overwhelming audience that came from the staggering success of Tim Burton’s film, the push to get more self-contained stories into the hands of readers led to a change in how those stories were told in the comics. After all, they needed the stories before they could bind ’em up into books.
The results ranged from being pretty dismal (Batman: The Cult) to ridiculously awesome (Ten Nights of the Beast), but the one that really nailed the feeling that they were going for in order to give something to the people who came to Batman through the movie was, for a pretty unsurprising reason, Batman: Blind Justice.
Which is particularly ironic, when you consider that it wasn’t actually collected until 2005, and only then because it was the first appearance of Henri Ducard and DC was really committed to putting out merchandise that kept the surprise twist of Liam Neeson’s actual Batman Begins role intact (spoiler: Neeson was introduced as Ducard but turned out to be Ra’s al Ghul).
I think part of that might have been because of how bizarrely “Blind Justice” was serialized. It’s a three-parter that starts in Detective Comics #598 and hits its climax in #600, and while #598 and #600 are 80-page giants, #599 isn’t. You’d think that might be ameliorated somewhat by the story being divided into seven chapters that could be easily reprinted as one 160-page volume, but that really just raises the question of why they didn’t just spread things out a little more evenly. Was it pressure from retailers to not drive away readers with two (or three) giant-sized $2.95 issues in a row that led them to slip a normal-sized 75-cent issue in the middle? And if that was the problem, why not spread things out a little more evenly over a longer run? Was Alan Grant, John Wagner and Eduardo Baretto’s “Private Viewing” in ‘Tec #597 so important that it couldn’t have been bumped back a few months to give “Blind Justice” another issue?
Maybe the idea was to give readers the shortest possible story so that it could run while Batman ’89 was in theaters, making the most out of an audience whose attention span tended to max out at two hours rather than the years most comics readers were willing to stick with a character, and they just ended up with slightly too much story for two issues.
Either way, the structure of the story hinted at what would eventually become the dominant form of storytelling, the endless cycle of long-form “events” that we have now. It’s long, broken down into shorter parts, billed as a Very Big Deal and, perhaps most tellingly, was completely overshadowed by another major event just a few years later that caused it to become almost completely forgotten.
More than that, though, it’s the content that sets “Blind Justice” apart. It’s obviously meant to stand on its own; there’s nothing that ties it into what was going on in the other Batman books at the time, and as far as I know, it hasn’t really been mentioned since either. Even more importantly, outside of being about a foot taller and way more buff than Michael Keaton, the Batman of “Blind Justice” might as well be the Batman of the movie.
Part of that is to be expected purely as a result of Hamm being the writer of both stories, but a lot of it is how they’re presented. This is a story that opens with Batman being beat up, dealing with the physical and psychological effects of his life of extremely violent crime-fighting and the emotional trauma that drives him, and throwing light on some elements of Batman’s origin that hadn’t been covered in the movie — like Ducard — all of which were elements that would appeal to the audience that gravitated towards the “darker” take of the film and its penchant for underscoring Batman’s humanity by having him get the crap kicked out of him on a fairly regular basis.
As for what actually happens in the story, that’s the real reason why it provides the template. It’s the evolution of the pre-fab villain that started with Ten Nights of the Beast, but with a visual and story structure that would come back and, for better or worse, pretty much define Batman comics of the ’90s, and it all plays out like a movie.
“Blind Justice”t starts with a new villain who shows up and starts committing a string of gruesome murders. And if you’re familiar with some of the other major Batman stories, he might look a little familiar.
His name is Bonecrusher, and during his fight with Batman, the Dark Knight ends up being injured and taken out of action. Fortunately for him, there’s a backup plan in the form of a new character, a blonde sidekick who knows Batman’s secret and is willing to step into the role to fill in while Bruce Wayne recovers.
In other words, it’s Knightfall in miniature, which is why no one ever talks about it.
Which is exactly the kind of cinematic story that DC was banking on to bring in new readers and keep them around for the next thrilling adventure of Batman. It had the strange sci-fi elements that moviegoers would’ve seen from the high-tech Batmobile and the blimps full of Smilex gas; disposable characters like Roy Kane, the aforementioned blonde, to give things a poignancy; and a villain who was never designed to have a second appearance. Bonecrusher isn’t there to become an enduring comic book character like the Riddler or even Ra’s al-Ghul, he’s there to set up a single conflict and illustrate a certain point about Batman, and then be conveniently disposed of, never to be seen again.
In other words, it’s less of a superhero story influenced by action movies than an action movie that has a few slight superhero elements, and that just happens to take the form of a comic book.
Which, really, is exactly what Batman ’89 is, too, along with the wave of event comics that were meant to give readers a self-contained story with the illusion of world-shaking effects while actually functioning as self-contained introductions that could lure readers into keeping up with the ongoing cycle of comic book storytelling that was already in place.
And if nothing else, it got new readers used to all those terrible puns.