A Brief (And Insane) History of Batman’s Newest Foe
In this week's Batman #10, Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo and Jonathan Glapion have finally revealed the mastermind behind Batman's conflict with the Court of Owls -- and to say that it's a surprise is underselling things quite a bit. But while this is certainly a new direction, the character in question has been around for quite a while as one of the weirder and more obscure pieces of the Batman mythos, and one that fits perfectly with the current direction of the series.
That's why today, ComicsAlliance is doing our part to get everyone up to speed on Batman's latest villain -- but if you haven't read the story, be careful. The following article contains Major Spoilers for the current arc of Batman! As revealed in this week's issue, the villain behind the Court of Owls is Thomas Wayne Jr., the brother Bruce Wayne never knew he had. And while that version is certainly unique to the New 52, the character of Thomas Jr. is one that dates back to 1974's World's Finest #223, in a story by Bob Haney, Dick Dillin and Vince Colletta.
I will never understand how that cover's "I don't want your bodies -- I want his!" doesn't show up on every single list of unintentionally subtext-riddled panels. To be fair, though, this issue can be difficult to track down, most likely owing to the utter kookiness of the content.
Haney was, of course, a creator who wrote some legendarily bizarre comics in his time, but even in his career, "Wipe the Blood Off My Name" might just be the strangest story he ever wrote. It's a team-up between Batman, Superman and Deadman, the disembodied spirit who had the power to possess people's bodies, and starts with the three of them trying to track down The Boomerang Killer.
As you might expect, the killer will eventually be revealed to be Thomas Jr., but I like that Haney chose to define him right from the start as using boomerangs to kill people, as a contrast to Batman's use of his trademark non-lethal Batarangs. Of course, I also like that Batman opts to wax poetic about it with Haney's typical over-the-top bombast and the phrase "two pounds of razor-edged doom!"
At the start of this story, however, Batman doesn't even know he has a brother -- let alone that he's the one responsible for all the boomerang murders -- and the fact that the victims seem to be chosen completely at random means that he's at a dead end in trying to solve the case. Fortunately, Clark Kent is assigned to cover the story for WGBS, and ends up making the drive in a newsvan, alone, with no crew. That's how TV reporters work, right? Right.
But even the World's Finest Team is stumped until the arrival of Deadman, who materializes so that he and his "Bat-Buddy can rap!"
Thanks to Deadman's ability to snoop around invisibly when he's not possessing anyone, he gives the team an edge on catching up with the killer. He slips through their fingers, but they find one of his journals, signed Thomas Willowwood:
Deadman recognizes the name and its preponderance of Ws as "the upstate funny farm," and since that's the only lead they have, they head up to check it out. Meanwhile, Superman focuses on flying around Gotham, patrolling for the Boomerang Killer, only to have him launch an attack from underground, throwing his Boomerang at a young lady from a subway station. Apparently, Thomas Jr. inherited the Wayne family's knack for preparation and their ability to disappear without a trace, because Superman can't find him.
At Willowwood Sanitarium, a cryptic old doctor tells them that "Thomas Willowwood" escaped about a year ago, that he came to the facility as a child, and that "Willowwood" is a name that he assumed because "his family name is a secret!" but refuses to divulge anything else without a court order. Clearly, he has a funny idea of how many f***s a vigilante dressed like a giant bat gives about due process (correct answer: zero), so Deadman possesses him and Batman finally gets a look at the files:
You can guess what he finds out. Haney, however, keeps it a secret for the next few pages, instead introducing a new twist to the plot, where the random boomerang murders seem to be tied to a Gotham City judge. There's also a bit in there about Batman hiding evidence of the killer's identity from Superman while they try to track him down, until Superman finally calls him out on it, and we the bombshell drops:
At this point, we get a lesson in Thomas Wayne: Who He Is and How He Came To Be, and if you though the story was weird before, this is where it goes right off the rails:
I have some severe doubts that one could determine just from walking over to a bassinet that a baby was going to grow up to be permanently and irrevocably criminally insane. Admittedly, I'm not a doctor, but I think we can all agree that Gotham City's mental health professionals don't have the best track record. Then again, as War Rocket Ajax co-host Matt Wilson pointed out, that city has seen a few hundred cases of head trauma lead directly to mass murder and obsessive-compulsive bank robbery, so you can't really fault them for playing it safe.
Once all that's out in the open, the World's Finest Plus Deadman are finally able to track Thomas Jr. to his hideout, a forge where he's making his razor-boomerangs. As it turns out, he's being used as a weapon by another villain, a sinister businessman who's blackmailing a judge who ruined his business by threatening to keep on murdering random Gothamites by proxy until his judgment is overturned.
In the fight that follows, the walls of the forge come down, and while they initially think Thomas Jr. is dead, the lack of a body leads them to assume that he escaped to roam as a deranged madman. But what actually happens is the single most insane thing about this story:
Rather than Batman searching for his only surviving family member and trying to get him the care that he needs, the story ends with Thomas Wayne Jr. getting possessed by Deadman and becoming his permanent host body. Which Batman doesn't mind at all. Because, you know, they're buddies.
That's how the story ends, and unsurprisingly, it is never mentioned again. The next time we see Deadman, he's in his usual intangible form, and Thomas Wayne Jr. doesn't even merit an entry in Michael Fleisher's otherwise exhaustive Original Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes: Batman when it comes out two years later -- though it might've just barely missed the cutoff date. It's almost a shame, too. As unbelievably bizarre as it was to set up, the new status quo for Deadman is a pretty interesting idea, especially if it was used in stories where Deadman had to balance using his powers to float around and possess other people against the chance that Thomas Jr. would immediately go on some kind of boomerang murder spree as soon as he vacated the premise. But for obvious reasons, that never happened, and like a lot of Haney's more eccentric tales, it was unofficially retconned into a story that took place on "Earth-Haney," until Crisis on Infinite Earths showed up in 1986 and wiped it out for good.
UPDATE: A few alert readers have pointed out that my library isn't quite as comprehensive as I thought. Thomas Wayne Jr. does in fact make one more appearance a few months later, in World's Finest #227:
As you might expect, that story involves Thomas Jr.'s death, thus setting everything back the way it was, with Deadman bodiless and Batman spending the next 36 years not mentioning his long-lost brother.
Except that Thomas Wayne Jr.'s story doesn't quite end there.
25 years later, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely produced JLA: Earth 2 and brought back another, far more well regarded chunk of the Multiverse: the Justice League's evil alternate universe counterparts, the Crime Syndicate:
One of the twists Morrison and Quitely included for the modern version was the addition of a few new secret identities for the Crime Syndicate members. Ultraman is still Clark Kent, but Wonder Woman's counterpart, for example, wasn't an Amazon princess, she was that world's Lois Lane. And in a setup that leads directly to Snyder's current take on the character, Owlman was Thomas Wayne Jr., who survived a mugging that killed his mother and brother:
It's worth noting that Owlman's signature weapons in Earth 2 were his "razorangs," a nice throwback to Haney's original story that kept the purpose of echoing Batman's equipment.
As for Willowwood, it was spotted in 2010's Batman #702, in the "Missing Chapter" follow-up to Grant Morrison and Tony Daniel's "Batman R.I.P." -- another story with a villain who claimed to be a long-lost member of the Wayne Family. Here, it was referred to as "Willowood Asylum" in a single panel, accompanied by a caption about "family secrets."
Now, it's all coming together: A long lost brother driven mad and confined to Willowwood, an owl-themed villain "from the other side of the mirror," and a pretty logical step for Thomas Wayne Jr. No matter how illogical his origins may be.
Check out David Uzumeri's rundown of Snyder's version of Thomas Wayne Jr. here at ComicsAlliance!