Ask Chris #266: The Strange Story Of Harold, Batman’s Resident Mechanic
Q: Tell us more about Harold, the person with the hunchback who used to live in the Batcave and build new Batmobiles. -- @beeftony1
A: (Heavy sigh.)
All right, look. I've been writing this column for over five years now, and in that time, I've written a lot about Batman. I've gone deep into the patterns that have emerged over the past 75 years to form the core of a fantastic character, the relationships with the other characters in his extended family, and how changing attitudes towards superheroes have shaped how he was portrayed in comics and elsewhere. I've even talked about obscure and forgotten elements of his history that are interesting just for how bizarre they are, like the time Alfred died and became a super-powered crime boss.
But there are some things that even the most dedicated Batmanologists try to avoid talking about. And now, it looks like I can't dodge this one any longer, so fine. Let's talk about Harold, who used to live in the Batcave and build new Batmobiles.
The thing about Harold is that he's one of those weird pieces of comics that set out to answer a question and made things a whole lot more complicated in the process. The question itself, however, is a natural, to the point where it's probably one of the most quotable lines in the character's history: Where does he get those wonderful toys?
Batman has, after all, always relied on gadgets and technology to make up for his lack of super-powers. It's an intrinsic part of the character and has been from the very beginning --- even stories that take a low-tech, street level approach to Batman, putting the emphasis on wits and fists rather than Shark-Repellant Bat-Spray, still tend to have something that fits the bill, even if it's just the smoke bombs and Batarangs that show up in Year One. It's part and parcel of Batman's iconography, and not just because he doesn't look right without the utility belt. It's a reminder of the preparation that gives him the edge, this physically present reminder that Batman always has an answer for the problems in front of him.
The problem, of course, is that Batman's most recognizable piece of equipment isn't the Batarang or the grappling hook or the smoke bombs. It's the rocket-powered bulletproof car. That's not exactly the kind of thing you can make on your own, and once you realize that --- and once you realize that there are also airplanes and helicopters and jetpacks down there in the cave along with it --- it's hard not to wonder how they got there.
I'm not sure that's something that really needs to be explained, but unlike a lot of other elements in comics that get exhaustive origin stories, it definitely invites the question. It's one of those things that starts nagging at you if you think about it for more than a few minutes because of the sheer logistics involved in manufacturing an unlimited supply of razor-sharp metal bats in your basement.
I've written before about how Bruce Wayne being a billionaire is less of a character trait and more of a plot convenience to explain how someone can spend so much of their time punching out the Riddler while not having to worry about a day job, but really, that's just half of the story. All that stuff has to come from somewhere, right?
The simplest explanation, of course, is that it's Batman building it all himself.
It's an idea that I like a lot, mainly because it's the simplest explanation, but also because it's nice to imagine Batman working on that stuff in what passes for his spare time to blow off steam. I mean, obviously it's going to have something to do with fighting crime, but it's a lot easier to imagine him going down to the Batcave and tinkering with his rocket car to get his mind off things than it is to picture him taking up gardening, you know? Plus, it gives him something to do while he's having conversations with Alfred and Robin down in the Batcave, which again underlines the idea that he's always preparing, even when he's engaging in his non-punching hobbies.
There's another added bonus, too, in that it underlines the idea of Batman as a genius whose over-the-top brilliance goes beyond just criminology and into other fields. That's something that we've seen recently, going back to Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's Batman and Robin, with the Flying Batmobile that Damian finishes building, and even more recently in Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's run, where Bruce was so dedicated to his mission that he was trying to build a weird cloning machine that would allow him to make a new Batman after his death.
But it's also an explanation that invites a whole other set of questions, namely how does he have the time? If Batman fights crime all night, and then sleeps all day, and then has to run a company even as a figurehead, then how does he fit Batmobile maintenance and Batarang sharpening into that schedule? Even if he's got someone dusting the Manor and preparing all of his meals for him, that's still a whole lot to do --- and that's assuming that he's ony fighting one arch-criminal at a time.
This, incidentally, was one of the reasons that Lucius Fox was introduced, to explain why Bruce Wayne didn't really have to worry about running the company, or how being dosed with fear gas or whatever affected the stocks.
The Christopher Nolan movies, of course, would use Fox and the Applied Sciences division of Wayne Enterprises as their own answer, and again, I kind of like that. The idea of Bruce Wayne using his family company to produce non-lethal equipment specifically for fighting crime is a very solid one, although again, it comes with its own complications. Unless you're going to pull a Batman Incorporated and reveal that Wayne is the money behind Batman, then it becomes even more difficult to believe that nobody would notice that they were building rocket cars and bat-shaped gas grenades, and that they wouldn't start putting things together once they noticed they were missing.
As always, Batman: The Animated Series had a pretty good explanation that shows up in "The Mechanic."
If you don't remember it, it was an episode that focused on Earl Cooper, the mechanic whose entire job was building and maintaining the Batmobile. It's very much a setup lifted from The Shadow, in that he was an automobile designer whose life Batman saved, who was then so grateful that he went to work for him, presumably as part of an off-the-books employee paid in cash from the a vast family fortune.
It's a very interesting setup, playing on the idea that Batman may have started his crime-fighting career as a solo act, but that it quickly became something much larger, and affected a lot of people. If you take Earl's existence to its logical conclusion, then it's easy to believe that Batman would've saved enough people that he could have an entire support system of specialists --- mechanics, tailors, a small army of boomerang experts --- providing him with all the equipment that he uses. There have even been a handful of smaller stories to that effect.
Point being, there are three pretty satisfying explanations. They're not without their problems, sure, but they're also not mutually exclusive, and having them in play can help round off those sharp-edges to make the whole thing seem a little more believable.
But in 1990, the comics decided to go in a different direction, and we got... Harold.
The basic idea behind Harold was that he was mute and suffered from Kyphosis, but had an incredible talent for machines --- all machines, from rocket cars to handheld hologram projectors. He briefly fell in with the Penguin, but when Batman rescued him and realized that he didn't have anywhere to go, he ended up bringing him back to the Batcave and putting his talents to good use building crime-fighiting equipment.
It is, to say the least, a pretty sketchy idea.
At best, even in the context of Batman taking in orphans like Dick Grayson and creating an extended family for them, it still seems exploitative. A lot of that comes from how it played out, in that Harold had no "real life" outside of the mission, and rarely --- if ever --- actually left the cave once he moved in. Even if you're willing to give Batman the benefit of the doubt, keeping someone in the depths of his basement whose sole job was to build things for him to throw at the mentally ill is not a good look. I have a friend who doesn't even like that Batman's closest relationship is with a domestic servant; there's no way I can sell him on Harold.
If the question is "Who keeps the Batmobile running," then, "Oh, there's a little man who lives in the Batcave and all he does is build things and he doesn't talk and he never, ever leaves" is the weirdest possible answer to that question. Forget about trying to navigate around the existence of a paper trail that would connect Batman to the empty warehouses of WayneTech's Smoke Bomb Development division, how about trying to untangle that mess?
And the thing is, for a character that was a member of the Batman family for a solid decade, Harold was very rarely explained to the reader. The majority of his appearances in Batman and Detective look a lot like this:
He's just there, hanging out in the background or slightly off-panel with a wrench and a soldering iron, and more often than not, he's never mentioned by the other characters. Imagine going into that not already knowing who he was, and trying to figure it out. Like, that's Robin, that's Alfred, we know who they are, but also there's this other guy there and he's just polishing the car like Biff at the end of Back to the Future? What is going on?
There were stories where Harold took a starring role, but they were few, far between, and ultimately inconsequential, and it makes sense that they would be. The people showing up to read Batman are mostly going to be interested in reading about Batman, even if they have a lot of questions about the dude in the background working on sharpening the grappling hooks. It's just not his name on the cover, you know?
Eventually, Harold became one of the few characters to ever be written out of the story twice. The first came during No Man's Land, when the earthquake that tore up Gotham City also cracked open the caves underneath Wayne Manor and led him to walk out into the sunlight for the first time since 1990, take a look at the wrecked city in the distance, and decide that his talent for fixing things was needed there more than it was in Batman's anti-crime basement.
But that, it seems, was not quite enough to put a definitive end to the Harold Era, so in 2003, one of the big changes that came from "Hush" was that Super-Doctor Tommy Elliot managed to cure his Kyphosis, give him the ability to speak, and then murder him to death, all in the span of a single page.
And that, as they say, was that. Nowadays, I'm pretty sure Alfred makes everything. The guy has a lot of skills.
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