When I first began reading Batman comics, in August, 1965 (my initial issue, as I posted about around a year ago, was Detective #344), the character’s “New Look” — as developed by editor Julius Schwartz, with the help of artist Carmine Infantino and various writers — had been in place for well over a year. Nevertheless, by the time August, 1966 rolled around I had managed to achieve some familiarity with the Caped Crusader’s pre-1964 “old look” as well. This was thanks to several factors. For one thing, the animated opening credits of the Batman television series were based mostly on the older look; more significantly, the huge success of that show led to an expansion in the reprinting of older Batman material. And so, within a few months of the TV series’ January, 1966 debut, I had become the proud owner of two Signet paperbacks reprinting old Batman stories in glorious black and white, as well as an “80 Page Giant” issue of the Batman comic itself featuring tales of similar vintage in full color.
Alas, not a one of those items remains in my collection today, but I still remember them well — especially the first Batman paperback, shown at left, which provided me with my first exposure to Batman’s origin story from Batman #1. Interestingly enough, save for a few exceptions (such as the story just mentioned), all of these collections drew their material from the same relatively narrow range of the Caped Crusader’s publishing history. By 1966, that history comprised twenty-seven years of comics to select from, but the reprint collections pretty much limited themselves to material published between 1952 and 1961. Was the earlier material less available, at least in reproducible format? Or did the powers-that-be at DC deem the Forties stories to be too dated, or of lesser quality? I honestly have no idea. In any case, all of this vintage material was new to me, and whether the story I was reading had been originally published in 1940, 1955, or 1963, it was obviously very different in style from the “New Look” stories I was reading in the then-current issues of Batman and Detective.
My second Batman 80 Page Giant — the subject of this post — had, like all such reprint collections of the time, a single unifying theme. In this instance, the theme was that the stories all starred Robin, the Boy Wonder. Was that a selling point for my nine-year-old self, as he perused the four-color offerings on display in the convenience store’s spinner rack? I doubt it. I liked Robin fine, as I recall, but I don’t remember ever feeling any special sense of identification with the character when I was a kid, though that’s presumably why he was created in the first place. He was simply Batman’s partner — his not-quite-equal companion in adventuring, filling the same role (to my mind) that Artemus Gordon did for James West, or Illya Kuryakin for Napoleon Solo. His youth didn’t bother me, but it wasn’t a special source of appeal, either.
The cover copy promised “Suspense-Filled Personal Adventures!” (emphasis mine), which would seem to imply that these tales should pay somewhat more attention to the Boy Wonder’s emotional life than most other stories of the Dynamic Duo. And the first two stories in the issue did, in fact, pretty much deliver on that promise.
In “Batman, Junior” (credited both in this issue and in its original appearance in 1956’s Detective #231 only to Bob Kane, but now known to have been written by Edmond Hamilton and illustrated by Sheldon Moldoff and Charles Paris), Robin discovers an old photo of his mentor standing next to a boy in an identical Bat-costume, and concludes that Batman had a junior partner years before he ever met Robin, whom he’s neglected to ever mention before. Things get sticky as Batman brings in the now-adult Batman, Jr., an athletic young man named John Vance, to help apprehend an escaped convict, and Robin becomes convinced that he’s about to be replaced by his predecessor, whom Batman obviously prefers:
Ultimately, tears are shed before Batman reveals the actual truth — John only ever helped him on one case, involving the same criminal who just escaped prison, and Dick Grayson has no reason to worry — “after all, there’s only one Robin!” This story holds up pretty well today as a minor, but still memorable exploration of the personal bond between our two heroes.
“Robin Falls In Love” (originally published in 1957’s Batman #107, illustrated by Moldoff and Paris, and written by Batman’s co-creator Bill Finger) concerns itself with another aspect of the Boy Wonder’s emotional life, as the title indicates pretty clearly. After saving the life of a young ice skater named Vera Lovely (seriously), Robin becomes smitten with her — but it’s a pretty standard puppy love scenario, notable mainly for causing Robin to become distracted while working with Batman to apprehend Vera’s would-be killer. There’s also a modest complication caused by Vera’s press agent, who sabotages their date plans to in favor of promoting a romance between the skater and a teen movie star, Roddy Dale:
Ironically, the agent eventually realizes that a romance between his client and the dashing Boy Wonder would be an even bigger publicity bonanza than her going out with teen hearthrob Dale; but this realization comes too late, as “Verobin” appears to come to an abrupt end just as soon as the case is solved. No reason is given for the sudden breakup — none, that is, save for Robin’s declaration in the final panel that “from now on, I’m keeping my mind on criminals, not girls!” Reading this story right after “Batman, Junior”, one might conclude that Robin finds his adventurous partnership with Batman to be much more compelling than the mere attractions of a pretty girl; it’s not a story one would turn to to disprove the existence of an intentional “gay subtext” in old Batman and Robin stories, in any case.
The next three tales — “Robin’s New Boss” (from Batman #137; by Finger, Moldoff, and Paris), “Robin, the Super Boy Wonder” (from Batman #150; scripted by Finger, illustrated by Jim Mooney), and “The Boy Wonder Confesses!” (Batman #81; scripted by David Vern, illustrated by Moldoff and Stan Kaye) — don’t really plumb the depths (or even the shallows) of Dick Grayson’s psyche, but simply put him at the center of their respective plots. In the first, Robin appears to dump Batman in favor of a new crimefighting partner, a masked hero calling himself Mr. Marvel — but it’s all a ruse to keep Batman safe from the new guy, who is actually a space alien. In the second, Robin temporarily suffers memory loss and gains super-strength when struck by lightning. (One must remember that, in old comic books, massive electric shock is a marvelous thing, and rarely deadly unless inflicted by villains.) In the third, Robin publicly outs himself as Dick Grayson, and Batman as Bruce Wayne — but it’s all an elaborate con designed by the Dynamic Duo to prove once and for all that Bruce and Dick can’t be Batman and Robin! All three are decent enough yarns, but none of them quite live up to the cover’s “Personal Adventures” billing.
Once done with that trio, however, we arrive at last at the highlight of the collection, a full reprint of Batman #156 — comprised of a Robin-starring prologue tale, “The Secret of the Ant-Man”, followed by the two-part “Robin Dies At Dawn”. The latter story not only meets (and surpasses) the criterion of a “Personal Adventure” (though in fact more for Batman himself than for Robin), but is almost universally acknowledged as a major classic in Batman’s history, appearing in virtually everyone’s list of the best Batman stories of all time. (Yes, I did say “almost universally”. I’m looking at you, Fred Hembeck.) That’s an especially significant achievement, considering that the era it appeared in — the last few years prior to the advent of the “New Look”, when then-editor Jack Schiff was routinely sending the Dynamic Duo into outer space, or having them mix it up with aliens, is probably the least-beloved in the Caped Crusader’s 75-year history.
(Indeed, one thing I’d forgotten about this story before re-reading and researching it in preparation for this post, and which I found rather startling on my re-discovery, is how late it came in the Jack Schiff era of Batman. Batman #156 was published in April, 1963, which means that when I read it in reprint in August, 1966, it was only a little more than three years old. Not that it was especially unusual for DC’s 80 Page Giants to reprint stories of relatively recent vintage — as an example, the April, 1966 Flash giant I posted about a few months ago included material originally released in 1960 and 1961. But the back-cover of the Signet Batman paperback had described its contents as featuring stories “dating back to the early 1950’s” — and as far as I knew, all of the Batman tales being reprinted in 1966 were that old. My assumption could be seen as a testament to how visually consistent most of the pre-“New Look” Batman material was, from the 1940s right up until the last days, in 1964 — and how dramatically different the “New Look” itself was. It would never have occurred to me in 1966 that I might have actually been able to pick up “Robin Dies At Dawn” when it originally appeared, had I been a slightly more precocious five year old — because it was just so obvious that that story was old.)
Before letting us get to the really good stuff, though, Batman #185 (like Batman #156 before it) presents us with Robin’s solo adventure involving “The Secret of the Ant-Man”. No, it’s not an early inter-company crossover featuring Hank Pym, even though Marvel’s size-changing superhero had already been appearing in his own feature for some ten months when this story was first published. This Ant-Man, apparently a brand-new costumed crimefighter, first surfaces while Batman is “away on a top secret mission”, leading Robin to suspect that he may actually be Batman in disguise:
As it turns out, however, the Ant-Man is in fact a supposedly-murdered mobster named Jumbo (har!) Carson, who’s been accidentally exposed to a shrinking formula, and now plans to use his newfound abilities to commit crimes. Fortunately, with the aid of the formula’s inventor Robin is able to foil Carson’s plans and bring him to justice; but this eight-pager ends with Robin still wondering just where Batman has gotten off to, and why he was so secretive about where he was going.
(Besides that lingering mystery, little that happens in “The Secret of the Ant-Man” actually carries over into “Robin Dies At Dawn”, which is probably why this “prologue” to that much better-known story hasn’t been reprinted nearly as often. It’s still nice to have it in this Robin-centered collection, however.)
And now, the main event. The story opens with an echo of Robin’s question, “Where is Batman?” And as we’re immediately shown, Batman himself doesn’t know. We see the Caped Crusader “swept along by swirling lights through vast reaches of space”, ultimately to be deposited on a strange, alien planet, with no memory of how he came there. He’s completely alone, and his utility belt, with his Batarangs and Batrope, is missing:
Moments later, Batman is attacked by the tentacle-like tendrils of a bizarre plant. In desperation, he calls to Robin for help — and, somehow, the Boy Wonder is suddenly there, rushing to his rescue. “Robin — how did you get here?” Batman asks. “No time to talk now!” his young partner replies. “More plants are coming!” Our heroes flee the menacing flora, but no sooner have they put that danger behind them than they come upon a huge stone statue — which, wouldn’t you know it, promptly comes to life and begins pursuing them. The Dynamic Duo uses an overhanging branch to cross a deep chasm, hoping that the giant will follow them and lose its footing on the ledge, which is weaker on the far side:
The mourning Batman stumbles on across the alien waste, but the fight has gone out of him, and when an alien beast leaps to attack him…
The entire experience on the alien planet has been a simulation. Batman is actually in a “test chamber”, and Robin isn’t dead — he’s waiting just outside, having finally been clued in to Batman’s whereabouts via a note the Caped Crusader left with Commissioner Gordon to give to Robin after a couple of days:
(Interestingly, the details of what this “test” has actually involved are left unspecified. Has Batman simply been undergoing sensory deprivation? Or has he actually been subjected to hallucinogens? We’re never told for sure.)
The next day, Batman relates his experience to the unnamed doctor, who explains that it’s not surprising that he experiencde hallucinations. “When a man is isolated too long, the mind plays strange tricks… In your case, you imagined that you were indirectly guilty of Robin’s death… Your constant concern about the boy’s safety came to the surface in your hallucinations!”
Chapter 2 returns us to the streets of Gotham, and things seem to be back to normal for our pair of heroes and their crusade against crime. But when they attempt to apprehend a group of thieves called the Gorilla Gang on a rooftop, a nearby construction crane alters in Batman’s vision, becoming the stone giant of his hallucination:
Later that night, at home in Wayne Manor, Bruce has nightmares about the alien tentacle-plant, causing further worry. Still, Bruce insists on going out on patrol as Batman again the following night. But when he and Robin once again encounter the Gorilla Gang, and the gang tries to run Batman down in a car:
Robin manages to reach into the car and wrench the steering wheel from the driver so that the vehicle misses Batman, but the gang escapes — and soon afterwards, Batman realizes that as long as he’s susceptible to these episodes, he’s endangering Robin’s life. There’s only one thing to do:
The next evening, Robin goes out to meet the inventor of the shrinking formula from the prologue story, to review their testimony for the Ant-Man’s upcoming trial, and is captured by the Gorilla Gang. Commissioner Gordon contacts Batman — or, rather, Bruce — to tell him that the gang is promising to send Robin “out of this world for good” — at dawn! Of course, Bruce has no choice but to suit up and head out to try to rescue his ward, despite his self-doubts. Racing against the clock, Batman (with the aid of Ace, the Bat-Hound) manages to track the Gorilla Gang to their hideout, though with scant moments to spare:
As a nine-year-old, I found the ending of this story completely satisfying. As a 59-year-old, I feel… well, pretty much the same, actually. I realize that, by today’s more sophisticated standards, it’s perhaps a little too pat that one strong “shock” immediately and completely returns Batman to normal, with no lingering after-effects. Still… just look at that last panel, with the Caped Crusader striding confidently into the dawning day, smiling, his best friends flanking him on either side. Of course he’s going to be OK.
I find that I can’t (or, at least, don’t want to) discuss “Robin Dies At Dawn” without also discussing its long and notable afterlife. As much as almost any other story in Batman’s history — and more than any other story from its particular era — this story has had an ongoing impact well beyond its frequent reprintings.
Take, for example, “Batman Dies At Dawn!” from The All-New Batman: The Brave and the Bold #13 (January, 2012). In this animation-inspired tale, writer Sholly Fisch and artists Rick Burchett and Dan Davis turn the 1963 classic’s premise upside-down, as the Phantom Stranger assembles all the Robins from throughout time to save a dying Batman’s life. The story’s plot doesn’t really have all that much to do with the earlier work by Finger, Moldoff, and Paris, to be honest, but the clear homage paid by its title is further underscored by the image below, in which the Stranger’s cradling of Batman’s body unmistakably evokes the iconic cover of Batman #156:
More recently, and more substantially, there’s “We All Die At Dawn”, from Grayson #5 (February, 2015), in which writers Tim Seeley and Tom King, working with artist Mikel Janin, plop the adult Dick Grayson (now a “super-spy”) in the midst of a Middle Eastern desert, and task him and his companions with saving a newborn baby by walking to the nearest town, 200 miles away. As he walks with the baby, Dick tells his charge a story which will be very familiar to readers of “Robin Dies At Dawn” (or even just its summary in this blog post):
(It’s odd, of course, that Dick recounts the tale as if it’s from his own memory, rather than as his having heard it from Batman when the latter described his hallucinations. On the other hand, this is a story set in DC’s “New 52” continuity, so the “truth” is anyone’s guess.)
But, of course, the most significant use of “Robin Dies At Dawn” in a later Batman storyline is that found in the work of writer Grant Morrison — more specifically, his “Batman R.I.P.” story arc from Batman #676-681, published in 2008.
As has often been noted, during his seven-year stint working with the character, Morrison took the radical approach that every story in Batman’s long history had — or at least could have — happened. In doing so, he wasn’t breaking any established “rules” of DC’s post-Crisis on Infinite Earths continuity, the main setting for DC’s comics at that time. The truth was that any story published prior to 1985-86’s Crisis might still be in continuity, assuming it hadn’t been made obsolete by the changes which that event brought about. In other words, you could assume that a story was still canon, unless you were told or shown that it wasn’t. It’s just that most fans of the time (and perhaps many creators, as well) weren’t especially interested in those old “silly” Batman tales of the Fifties and early Sixties remaining canon. As far as such fans were concerned, Batman’s continuity probably started around 1970, with the work of Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams — or, if it went any further back, it surely didn’t extend beyond 1964 and the “New Look”. Ace the Bat-Hound? Bat-Mite? The Club of Heroes? The Batman of Zur-En-Ahrr? Surely they never existed.
Except, as far as Grant Morrison was concerned, they did. His concept of the Batman mythos was vast enough to contain the multitudes of aliens, outer space voyages, time travel escapades, and bizarre scientific experiments which virtually all the other Batman scripters of the last several decades had assiduously avoided. At least one whole book has been written about Morrison’s Batman opus, so I won’t attempt here either to catalog all of his references and allusions to earlier tales, or to offer a full-bodied critique of the entire work. Suffice it to say for now that for this grizzled old fan, it works, and it works beautifully.
As I’ve indicated, there are references to a lot of old stories in Morrison’s Batman epic — but “Robin Dies At Dawn” stands at the center of the key “Batman R.I.P.” arc. Morrison’s conceit is to take the old story’s unnamed Army doctor and turn him into the main villain of the piece — Doctor Simon Hurt — a mysterious figure who seems to be connected to Bruce Wayne’s own family, and who has associations with devil worship as well as mad science. And Morrison reveals other secrets as well, beyond Hurt’s scheming; as the below scene (illustrated by Tony Daniel, and incorporating whole panels’ worth of Bill Finger’s original dialogue) makes clear, Batman had other reasons for getting involved with the doctor’s experiments beyond a desire to make a contribution to “space medicine”:
To my mind, “Batman R.I.P.” provides a brilliant example of how individual comics stories can resonate over multiple decades, inspiring and informing the work of later creators, all contributing to a mammoth edifice of Story that is, somehow, at the end of it all, substantially greater than the sum of its parts.
At least, that’s my Story. And I’m stickin’ to it.