Editor’s Note: This story was originally published at The Untold Legend of the Batman # 1 – 3 as a limited series from July to September of 1980. It can be found in the collected Tales of the Batman: Len Wein and Legends of the Dark Knight: Jim Aparo Vol. 3 which are both available in print and digitally. The story was also widely published in a black and white digest form which is still pretty easy to find on Amazon used.
Overview: Batman remembers his origins as a mysterious new villain seems to know all his secrets and threatens to destroy him.
Synopsis (spoilers ahead): Batman receives a package containing the bat costume originally worn by his father which had been stolen from the Batcave and destroyed. Batman proceeds to recount his orgins, with his father Thomas Wayne kidnapped from a costume party by mobster Lew Moxon. Thomas fights off the mobsters and Moxon is sent to jail, vowing revenge on his release. Bruce’s parents are murdered in the street shortly thereafter in front of him by street thug Joe Chill. Bruce goes to live with his Uncle Philip and after swearing an oath over his parents grave, begins to train for his war on crime. Bruce is trained by Gotham Police Detective Harvey Harris and after graduating from college learns that he cannot fulfill his vow as a police officer. A chance encounter with a bat flying into his study inspires him to become Batman. Batman eventually tracks down Joe Chill, who is murdered by his own thugs after mistakenly telling them of his roll in Batman’s creation. Batman later learns of Moxon’s roll in the murders and Moxon meets a similar fate to Chill, running away from Batman, wearing his father’s bat costume, and is hit by a speeding car.
Batman tears through the Gotham underworld looking for who is responsible, encountering Dick Grayson’s college age Robin, Commissioner Gordon, and others, during which each character recounts their early years and their first encounter with Batman. The trail eventually leads to Wayne Manor, which had been vacant for years, with Batman being caught in a trap as the walls of the entrance to the Batcave close in on him. The villain is revealed to be Bruce Wayne himself suffering from some sort of temporary mental illness following a warehouse explosion that the story mentions several times which Batman had survived prior to the start of this story. Batman snaps to his senses by Robin wearing his father’s bat costume and escapes the deathtrap. The story ends then ends quickly, with Batman again standing on a rooftop looking over the city.
Analysis: When I was growing up in the 80s and 90s, one of the highlights of every month of the school year was the monthly flyer from Scholastic offering books for sale. The offerings were more promotions for movies and TV shows then anything else, but I was typically allowed to buy one book a month, with my parents happy that my siblings and I were at least reading something. One month, a book caught my eye. I pestered my folks for it immediately and after an eternity of what was probably just a couple of weeks, a book arrived for me at school. That was the first time I read “The Untold Legend of the Batman.” It was collected in black and white in a digest form and I read it constantly. It was my first real introduction into any sort of origin for Batman and his world. I knew that Batman’s parents had been murdered thanks to the 1989 movie, but that was pretty much the extent of my knowledge into my favorite characters backstory. As I got older, I gravitated to the work of Frank Miller and embraced the more “mature” takes on Batman’s beginnings and I don’t think that I have read this story in over 20 years. With the recent passing of its writer, Len Wein, it seemed like a good time to dig out this story.
The story was originally published in 1980 as three separate issues. All three were written by Len Wein, with John Bryne and Jim Aparo handling the art duties. The second and third issue had Jim Aparo handling the art duties solo. The story is structured into three parts with the first issue being a flashback dealing with Batman’s origin. The second and third parts of the story have Batman running around trying to solve the mystery and as various characters enter the story, such as Robin and Commissioner Gordon, the story flashes back to their beginnings before continuing until the story is resolved.
From a story perspective, this is a very light and uncomplicated read and its very much typical of other Batman books from the 70s and 80s. I personally enjoyed how the story reads as sort of a greatest hits album for the Silver Age Batman universe, with Wein pulling from Batman’s earlier stories to put together a full and complete history of Batman and his world. Its almost a cliff notes for the silver age version of Batman. It almost reminds me a little of Batman: Hush where the plot is secondary to the various characters that pop in and out of it. There are a lot of fun little nods to the continuity of the time, like a signed photo from Barbara Gordon to her father referencing that version of Batgirl going on to become a Congresswoman.
Its interesting to go back and read this book through the lens of knowing what came after. What never really occurred to me is that most of what we think about in terms of Batman’s origin has only been around since the 80s. The Silver Age Batman’s parents weren’t killed in a random street mugging, but were executed by a hitman on orders from a vengeful mobster. Bruce wasn’t raised by Alfred. He was raised by his Uncle Philip’s housekeeper, Mrs. Chilton, who is the secret the mother of Joe Chill. He didn’t travel the globe to learn the skills he would use in his mission. He was taught by Gotham Police Detective Harvey Harris while wearing the original Robin costume. There are so many elements of the Batman legend that fans in general hold as sacred, when really they are fairly recent additions to the mythos.
Its also interesting to see how some of these more forgotten elements continue to pop up in more modern Bat media. The bat costume that is used so heavily in this story shows up in Grant Morrison’s epic Batman run. Bruce Wayne living and operating out of a penthouse apartment is used in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Uncle Philip is back in continuity as of Scott Snyder’s Zero Year story. The first issue of this story was a heavy influence on the excellent “Chill of the Night!” episode of Batman: The Brave and the Bold.
From an art perspective, it wouldn’t be an early 80s Batman classic if Jim Aparo wasn’t somehow involved. John Bryne handles the first issue with Aparo either finishing the layouts or at the very least inking over Bryne and his influence is clear in that first issue before Aparo tackles the art in the two closing issues. Both artists adhere closely to the Neil Adams developed DC house style that was mandated at the time and the book feels consistent between issues. In later years, such as during the Knightfall storyline of the 90s, Aparo’s figures seemed overly stiff and his anatomy seemed off to me. This book serves as a reminder as why Aparo worked on Batman for as long as he did. Aparo was a natural storyteller and his work is on full display here. Also, as a child of the 80s, I can’t help but enjoy the overall aesthetic of this book, with elements like the blue caped, long eared, yellow oval Batman and the open canopied blue and black Batmobile that was a feature of the Super Powers 1984 toy line.
Final Thoughts: This book is an interesting look back at where Batman and his world were at around the 40-year mark. It’s a story that still very much holds up today as a piece of history for Bat fans to enjoy. I’d also recommend this as a book to give a younger reader to introduce them to the mythos. Give it a read.