Ask Chris #316: To Kill A Legend
Q: Would you like to write a miniseries about the Batman from the end of "To Kill A Legend?" -- @TByrne75
A: Hm. Hmmmmmm. You know, as much time as I've spent thinking about Batman, this is one thing I've never actually considered.
When you get right down to it, the real question here is whether I think that particular take on Batman is strong enough on his own to carry a story, and on the surface, that seems like a pretty easy one to answer. There are enough alternate versions of Batman floating around that it's pretty clear that you can do almost anything with that character, from recasting him as a grumpy old man to just straight up making him a vampire. But the thing about "To Kill a Legend" that stands out, the thing that really defines that take on the character, is that he doesn't have any of the things that define the Batman we already know... except Batman himself.
If you're not familiar with it, "To Kill a Legend" was Alan Brennert and Dick Giordano's lead story in Detective Comics #500, and it's easily one of the top 10 Batman stories ever told --- maybe even top five, depending on how I'm feeling about Zero Year that day.
Brennert, incidentally, had something of a habit of just showing up and dropping the best comic you've ever read and then going back to his main career as a novelist and television screenwriter. I mean, Giordano was no slouch either, with a long and storied career that involved another top 10 candidate, "There Is No Hope In Crime Alley," but Brennert had a quality to quantity ratio that very few other people have ever been able to match. All told, he only ever wrote 11 stories for DC in the span of 20 years (plus another four at Marvel), but in that relatively short run, he managed to not only launch the Elseworlds imprint with Batman: Holy Terror, but also to write three of my favorite stories of the '80s, including "The Autobiography of Bruce Wayne," the massively influential story about Earth-2 Batman's marriage to Catwoman and "For Auld Lang Syne," a brilliant treatise on continuity and heroism from Christmas With The Superheroes #2 that always makes me tear up a little.
And then there was "To Kill a Legend."
Like "Auld Lang Syne," it's a story that uses the particular weirdness of superhero comics to tell an incredibly moving story.
So here's the high concept: As you may have heard, Batman was motivated to spend his life fighting crime when his parents were murdered by a mugger. And as you may have also heard, the world in which he lives --- or at least the world in which he lived in 1981 --- was one of an infinite number of Earths within the boundless multiverse. It makes sense, then, that there would be a world out there where time was lagging a little bit behind Earth One, where the Wayne murders hadn't happened yet.
That's where we start, with the Phantom Stranger showing up and taking Batman and Robin to another Earth on the eve of the murders, and giving Batman a choice: Let history play out the same way it did on his own Earth, with all that entails, or stop the murders and save the Waynes, literally preventing the tragedy he'd spent his entire life reacting to, but also potentially robbing that world of its greatest hero and all the good he would've done.
It's a great dilemma. We know as readers that every world should have a Batman, especially the ones like this one that don't have any other superheroes, and we've seen in every story the good that he can accomplish. We've long since come to terms with the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne as part of an origin story, a motivating tragedy that's there to set the stage for everything that comes after. On the balance, if you're looking at it with cold, actuarial precision, Batman has saved the world enough times to make up for the deaths of his parents a thousand times over.
But here's what makes it genuinely great. While Brennert teases the idea of a decision to be made by framing the story with Robin as our point-of-view character, there's never really a choice for Batman. His decision is made from the moment the Phantom Stranger gives him the opportunity.
Obviously, this is something personal for Batman. It's an opportunity to save his parents, to face down Joe Chill in the way that he's always wished he could've as a child, and to literally save himself in the process. But that's only part of why he does what he does.
At the end of the day, there's no weighing consequences for Batman. There's no actuary tables about lives saved versus lives lost, no reflection on the good that he's done, no consideration of what positive outcomes could come from letting these murders happen when he has the chance to stop them. The only thing in play are the simple facts at the core of his existence: Batman stops people from suffering the way he did. Batman fights crime.
There's a personal investment in this particular crime, yes, but at the end of the day, all that really matters is that if he doesn't act, two people will be gunned down in front of their child. And if that's the situation, there is no choice to be made.
So Batman intervenes, backhands the living heck out of the mugger, and saves the Waynes. And then, before he can speak to them, before he can do anything else, he vanishes back to his own world in a swirl of mist, leaving this alternate reality permanently changed.
We never really find out what happens to that world's version of Bruce Wayne, but we do know one very important thing about him. Instead of seeing his parents being gunned down in an alley, instead of having that experience that showed him that crime was random and cruel, and could happen to anyone, he's a Bruce Wayne who saw his parents saved --- and not only that, he saw them saved by a man dressed as a bat, a weird figure of the night.
And so we get one more page of the story.
And that's the real brilliance of this story. Batman's act of rescuing his parents isn't a failure. It can't be a failure, because saving someone's life is never a failure. It's always a net positive, so instead of robbing this world of its Batman, it instead inspires Bruce Wayne to fulfill his destiny in a different way.
There's a lot to be fascinated by in that. I've written before about how the genius of Dick Grayson's evolution from Robin to Nightwing and beyond is that it shows us that Batman works. Dick, for all his motivating tragedy, grows up with happiness and friendship in a way that Bruce Wayne struggles with. But what happens when Batman isn't a constant presence? What happens when Batman is only an idea, fully formed, that comes to you at your darkest moment and shows you the way to save yourself?
I love that idea, because it comes so close to capturing what Batman means to us here in the real world. He's a presence in our lives, and even though he's not a tangible one, the impact that he can have and the way that he --- that all superheroes, that all stories --- can inspire us and change us is something that's very, very real. And the idea that one of those decisions can be to make ourselves into what Grant Morrison recently referred to as "those beautiful, unstoppable ideas" is incredible. Simply put, "To Kill a Legend" is the story that tells us that if Batman wasn't real, we would have to create him.
As a single story, it's beautiful. But as an ongoing character, there's another weird quirk about the story and the universe that it creates: There aren't any literary heroes. There isn't even the idea of literary heroes.
I think it was Chris Roberson that I was talking to a few years ago who said that this is the one flaw in an otherwise perfect story. While it's easy to believe in a world without Batman or Superman, it's impossible for us to believe in a world where we can't even imagine them. It's easy to see what Brennert and Giordano are going for here, creating a world where it would be impossible for Bruce Wayne to imagine becoming something bigger than himself, but extrapolating that to a world that never had Hercules, or King Arthur, or Robin Hood --- a world that never even had Zorro! --- makes it really difficult to conceive of ourselves.
Incidentally, sharp-eyed readers may have caught that on the epilogue page, Bruce does have a copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, but there's a way around that. Like the regular DC Universe, Sherlock Holmes in this one wasn't fictional, he was a historical figure whose exploits were popularized by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's publication of Watson's case notes.
Point being, a world that doesn't dream of heroes shapes its characters in a way that it's almost impossible to imagine. As much as I love the idea of this world's Bruce Wayne as the first person who has to reckon with the idea, how do you approach a character who doesn't have the frame of reference for his own actions that we do as readers? How do you translate that idea of inspiration when he's getting it thirdhand?
So in the end, as much as I love this story as a single, darn near perfect comic book unto itself, as much as I can respect the metaphor of a world without heroes that gets one through the inspirational power of the very idea of Batman, I don't think it's something that I'd want to see revisited on its own. But then, I don't think it needs to be either.
Ask Chris art by Erica Henderson. If you’ve got a question you’d like to see Chris tackle in a future column, just send it to @theisb on Twitter with the hashtag #AskChris.