A few years ago I wrote a series of Obsolete Comic Reviews for a website that has since itself become obsolete. The good news is that nothing is truly ever lost on the Al Gore Superhighway. Below is the recovered review; hope it pleases!
Batman 291-294: Where Where You The Night The Batman Died?
The miniseries within an ongoing comic book series has been a comic book mainstay ever since publishers learned that invested readers were more likely to purchase subsequent issues. Having enjoyed tremendous popularity for so long, Batman has been a character that has seen many stories in many formats, including many variations on the miniseries within the series theme. Sometimes these story arcs were designed to bring a new creative team on board for a short time to let them explore that particular comic book universe without a long-term commitment (such as Jim Lee’s run on the Hush storyline in Batman); sometimes the story arc introduces a new key character into the mythos (such as Jim Starlin’s Ten Nights of the Beast), and sometimes the story is just too good to tell in a single issue.
It can be argued that the very first Batman miniseries within a series came in 1977, with the “Where Were You The Night The Batman Died?” storyarc, which ran from issue #291 (September, 1977) to #294 (December, 1977). The premise was straightforward: the Batman was missing, and feared dead, and the entire Gotham City criminal element claimed that they were responsible. Having had enough of the claims from those clearly improbable to be the slayer of the Dark Knight, Gotham’s underworld gathers for a trial by jury to determine whose story story was false and who was really responsible.
Just a cautionary note: there are going to be spoilers throughout this article. However, these comics are now 40 years old, and if you haven’t read it before, it’s unlikely you were waiting for just the right time to pull out your back issues and spend some quality time with Batman. Consider this fair warning, regardless.
Each issue, a major villain pled his or her case to the court that he or she was responsible for the death of the Batman. The first three villains to present their case were Catwoman, the Riddler, and Lex Luthor. (Why Luthor was included rather than some other Bat-villain may have been influenced by the Superman movie hype that was just ramping up.) Upon the conclusion of their testimony, the prosecutor, Two-Face, finds a falsehood in each villain’s story and debunks their claim. Finally, the Joker takes the stand, and his outlandish tale of easily besting the Batman in hand-to-hand combat, upon which he accidentally killed him, and, as a joke, poured acid over the Dark Knight’s face and fingerprints to prevent identification of the body, turns out to be truthful. But there are more surprises yet, as the Joker is mistaken: the body was not the Batman’s, and somebody at the trial is not who he seems.
“Where Were You The Night The Batman Died?” was written by David Levine, who used one of his pseudonyms, “David V. Reed,” with pencils by John Calnan and inks by Tex Blaisdell. Levine had recently returned to writing Batman, as he was a ghost writer for Bob Kane in the 1950’s (co-creating Deadshot along the way, and credited as the writer of some of the best stories of the era, including “The Joker’s Utility Belt”). The story is well-crafted – a genuine mystery – and riveting to the end. There are some very cute storytelling techniques in play, such as showing the Joker in the last panel of each of the three issues leading up to his testimony (the third issue shows only his chilling laughter), foreshadowing what is to come. As for the art, the pencils are quite serviceable, though not spectacular, perhaps owing more to the quality of paper than the actual artwork.
This miniseries featured cameos from virtually everyone in the Dark Knight’s rogues gallery active in the 1970s. The Mad Hatter, the Spook, Poison Ivy, the Scarecrow, Signalman, and Mr. Freeze filled the six-person jury. As already mentioned, Two-Face served as prosecutor, and the ancient Rās al Ghul sat as judge. In addition to the defendants (Catwoman, the Riddler, Lex Luthor, and the Joker), there were several cameos, some for only a single panel, which included the Cavalier, Killer Moth, the Cluemaster, Captain Stingaree, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and even the Getaway Genius. Two notable villains missing from this villainous assemblage were Deadshot and the Penguin, the former perhaps because he was booked for a run in Detective Comics #474 (December, 1977) by Marshal Rogers and Steve Englehart, and the latter because he had just had a run-in with the Dark Knight in issue #287 (March, 1977), and was serving his time. (An interesting cameo is that of Sean Connery, complete with beard, cap, and diamond-tipped staff. Is it homage to the actor’s iconic status in the 1970s? Or was it meant to be someone else, akin to the Julius Schwartz or Stan Lee cameos that would show up in certain comics?)
The bottom line is this: the DC Universe has rebooted and retrofitted itself many times since these issues were published, yet these stories can be slotted into whichever retcon the Batman mythos is subjected, as nothing that is presented is truly out of cannon (excepting, perhaps, the purple power-suited Lex Luthor). This is the mark of a classic story, and one which needs to be on any Batman fan’s “must read” list.