Overview: Bruce Wainwright is a boy obsessed with Batman. On Halloween night, his parents are shot to death inside his own house. Lonely and without a place to call home, Bruce reaches out to a shadowy presence who promises to keep him safe.
Synopsis (spoilers ahead): A panel from a Batman comic opens the issue. A real Batman comic, inserted in the context of the story, being read by young Bruce Wainwright as he eats his cereal from a Batman bowl, wearing a Batman shirt. The scene is narrated by his great-uncle, Alton Frederick. Alfred, as the boy would call him. He considers the whole concept of the Batman slightly morbid for children, but still harmless. At first thought, at least.
That morning, Bruce’s parents – Carole and Henry – are taking him to spend some time at the zoo with his uncle Alton. The man, much older than Bruce’s parents, dotes on the boy, relishes his energy and youthfulness. The Wainwrights are not exactly the possessors of a fortune such as the Wayne’s, but they live well enough. Bruce, though, will gladly find any and every connection between his life and Batman’s. That includes calling his great-uncle Alfred and asking to be called Master Bruce, as well as having a preference for the bat house in the zoo.
Some time after, on Halloween night, Bruce and his parents go trick or treating, the boy wearing a Batman costume. They stay out late, walking through the narrow, winding roads of Boston. Alfred’s narration points out that, for Bruce, Boston was much more like Gotham than New York was. Besides, New York is also Metropolis, and that was Superman’s city. As the Wainwright family gets home, they find their door busted, the burglars still inside. Grabbed by her hair, Carole screams for Bruce to run, but the boy stands frozen in the entrance hall.
He hears a gunshot and sees blood spattering the kitchen wall. Bruce’s narration takes over for the first time. Believing criminals to be a “superstitious cowardly lot,” he stands his ground and stares at them as they leave the kitchen. He is still in the Batman costume he wore for Halloween, the full-face mask pulled up, a scared boy staring from underneath it. One of the burglars pulls his weapon and, despite protests from one of his partners, shoots Bruce.
Swaying inside the dark spaces of his mind, Bruce encounters a mirror image of himself. The other boy, engulfed in shadows, tells Bruce he is safe. Standing by the surgery table, the surgeons working on him breathe a sigh of relief. The boy had been gone for forty seconds.
Bruce wakes up on a hospital bed, a police officer sitting beside him. Officer Gordon Hoover is there to ask him some questions about the night of the crime, but the boy does not remember much. He becomes Bruce’s own Gordon, despite being Hoover and not a commissioner. Bruce asks for some comic books for his parents.
Bruce is in denial for some time, only beginning to accept that his parents are gone after finally getting to see their graves. After leaving the hospital, the boy stays in a private-care facility for a while, under the care of Dr. Lester. All he does is lay in bed, read comics and write in his journal as he tries to work through his trauma, both physical and mental. He starts nurturing a fantasy that, were Batman real, he would have stopped his parents from being killed.
After his days under private-care, Bruce is sent to a boarding school, the same one Alfred himself attended. His uncle in now in charge of taking care of both the considerable amount of money the Wainwrights left for Bruce as well as the boy himself. This is the first moment Alfred mentions being unable to take to live with him.
An outcast in Cornerstone, his new school, Bruce starts feeling lonelier as time goes by. His only contact with the outside world are his visits to the zoo with his uncle and is calls to Officer Hoover, as he tries to get updates on the investigation, even though there are none.
During one of his days at the zoo, Alfred is trying to explain to Bruce that child welfare authorities believe his lifestyle to be unsuitable for a guardian, and so he had to send him to Cornerstone. Bruce explodes with him. Screaming his hate for his uncle, the boy runs to the bat house.
Alone amongst the bats, Bruce breaks down, clutching one of his comics like a lifeline. His life is unfair, he wishes Batman had been there to prevent his parents from dying. The glass keeping the bats in their enclosure shatters, and Bruce Wainwright is caught in the middle of a rain of shards and bats flying around. The scare is enough to calm him down a little. He feels angry, and he feels something else he can’t describe.
Bruce starts seeing Dr. Lester for counseling after the incident, but he does not like him. For him, Lester “asks a lot of questions, but he doesn’t listen.” After one of his sessions, Bruce goes to sleep desperately wanting to go home. That night, the Bat comes to life.
Flying over the streets of Boston is a clawed, shadowy figure shaped like a bat. He is hunting down crimes in progress, slashing throats and legs and torsos, going for the arteries and soft body parts of the perpetrators. Bruce is seeing it all happen as if he were the creature himself. As he looks at the window of a car, big red eyes stare back at him.
Bruce wakes up believing it was not a dream. He wants to reach out to someone but is not sure how, so he goes visit his parents’ grave, the only ones he would trust with the tale. Kneeling beside their tombstone, Bruce imagines what their reactions would be: a ruffled hair, a laugh.
During summer, Cornerstone takes the students on a trip to France and Arizona. The children joining it are those whose parents are either dead or too busy, Bruce figures. The unwanted kids learning how to dance, and ride, and dress properly, and be polite.
Upon his return, Alfred tries to open up a little more to the boy. He visits him at school, takes him more often to the zoo and, once, takes him to the theater. Bruce never goes to his house, only sees him “with other people around”.
Craving for home, Bruce starts sneaking out of school and taking the night train to Boston just to walk the streets of his city. The next time he sees the Bat, he is not asleep. He is asleep though when he dreams of his parents taking the shape of Martha and Thomas Wayne. In his dream, the Waynes tell him that he is forgetting his parents’ real faces, now seeing them as the Waynes because the killer was still at loose. Guilt-ridden, Bruce promises himself he will do something to make it right.
The following morning he pays a visit to Officer Gordon Hoover at the precinct. The investigation is still open, but on a standstill for lack of leads. On his way out, Bruce overhears a conversation between two officers who are mocking some suspects for spinning the tale of a winged monster with glowing eyes who is running around ripping people up.
That is the confirmation the boy needs. That night, he concentrates on reaching out to the shadow. This time he is not only a spectator, he feels like he is the Bat. They go around questioning people about the murder on Beacon Hill on the night of Halloween. The Bat threatens to come back if the suspects do not go the police to tell them what they know. Tied up and scared senseless, four men are delivered to the steps of the Boston Police.
As more people stream into the precinct to either confess their crimes or deliver evidence to others. Three men claim the same man was involved in the murder of the Wainwrights, an actor. Meanwhile, a shadow with red eyes watches them from the window.
The information comes to Bruce’s mind while he is in his dormitory, reading. He is not sure why, but suddenly he knows the burglar was an actor. Later on, he is attending a Social Studies lecture when the name of the actor comes to him. Donnie Bradagh, and the police is still searching for the man.
As Donnie is packing to flee the city, the Bat comes swooping into his kitchen. The creature lashes at him until Bradagh is out of his house, falling on the sidewalk, bleeding from gashes all over his body.
Bruce gets a phone call from Officer Gordon Hoover. They finally have a suspect and face-recognition is the next step. Bradagh is a failed actor, proven to be involved in four other robberies. Bruce does not recognize the man from the night of the crime though, he recognizes him from what he saw through the eyes of the Bat.
The case is closed, but closure does not come to Bruce. He aches with a feeling he is not sure about how to describe, feels like he needs to talk to someone about it. He calls his uncle, but he cannot meet the boy. He has no one to talk to, but he has to let his feelings out. He climbs out of his window and goes to the roof of the building.
It is windy, and cold, leaves flying around him. They start to change and take a particular shape, the shape of a bat. In front of Bruce stands the Bat creature, all shadow and darkness, red eyes glowing, claws poised and intimidating. Bigger than a man, the Bat creature leans over Bruce, sheltering the boy, telling him he is safe.
Bruce realizes that the creature is a product of his own desire to have someone like Batman, to make “things like they’re supposed to be. Make things fair.” With Batman by his side, he is not alone anymore.
That year, Bruce gets a police-brand radio for Christmas.
Analysis: The death of the Waynes and how it impacted a young boy enough to make him become Batman is the most well-known origin story ever to come out of comic books. What Kurt Busiek brings here, though, is more than that. In 78 years of Batman, never has Bruce’s trauma being so thoroughly explored. Bruce becoming Batman is not a light switch being turned off, it is a slow fire that no one realized was there until it was too late to extinguish it.
The purpose of Superman: Secret Identity, the predecessor to Creature of the Night, was to explore the real meaning of Clark Kent: alien, outcast, heart-of-gold. It has its dark moments, but there is light shining through it. This is the story of Batman though. If there is anything seeping through, it is the darkness that lives inside this boy, a darkness masterfully illustrated by John Paul Leon.
There could not be a better fit for this book. More painting than drawing, Leon’s heavy blacks and fluid brushstrokes give us a feeling of the darkness in Bruce Wainworth’s heart as no other style would achieve. Busiek’s writing is a psychological drama, but Leon’s art adds a layer of physical horror. The creature is not only intimidating, as usual with Batman. The creature is something out of a nightmare.
We watch this kid get trapped in his own loneliness and a lack of a place to call home. His parents are killed inside his house, making the extent of his trauma even worse than the original Wayne murder. We watch while his uncle has no idea how to handle the situation, watch Bruce as he gets locked inside himself. What his mind conjures is a thing of shadows, a monster to scare away all the other monsters. A true gargoyle, standing on the walls of a church to protect the spirits inside.
Playing in the background and setting the mood for the scenes like a well-composed score is Todd Klein’s letters. To praise his work is almost redundant, as he is the one person who got more Eisners in history, but Klein never ceases to overdo himself. Not only are the fonts he developed for the narration of Alfred and Bruce an expression of the characters in themselves, but his layouts are as much part of the storytelling as the illustration and the words written.
Take this panel. The narration box positioned at the bottom makes us read the dialogue before, giving rhythm to the reading. The stage here is Boston, the equivalent of Gotham for this Bruce. Busiek justifies his choice in the story and Leon reinforces it by showing how the architecture of the city resembles the typical image of Gotham, but what really sold me on this choice was realizing Busiek is from Boston.
Batman has the map of Gotham embedded in his brain. He knows every dark alley, every turn and every corner. He is born and raised a Gothamite. Busiek’s knowledge of his own town is essential to Batman’s knowledge of his Gotham. The only issue with this is that the reader does not necessarily know Boston as well as Busiek does. Enters uncle Alfred and the meaning of him living in Bay Village.
Alfred’s lifestyle not being suitable for a legal guardian got me curious. He obviously likes Bruce, so there had to be a really strong reason for him not taking the boy in. At some point, he mentions his home in Bay Village. The way it was put made it clear this had implications, but those were not immediately clear to a person living on the other side of the globe. Bay Village, as it turns out, was traditionally the neighborhood where the actors working in the Theater District of Boston lived. Knowing this unlocks many others hints at his profession left throughout the book, but there is still the issue of him only meeting the boy in public places where he is sure people are watching. His lifestyle might, in fact, be not only of an actor, but there is a chance that this Alfred might be queer. Considering this is the 60’s, that alone would be enough to make him unsuitable in the eyes of the law, and constantly unsure of how to deal with a young boy left on his charge. If this turns out to be true, Kurt Busiek is deserving of a standing ovation. If it indeed happens, this is a chance to cast a light on the long shadows of Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent hanging on the Batman mythos.
With Bruce’s childhood rarely ever being explored, Creature of the Night reminds me of another character whose childhood is indeed thoroughly explored in the comics. A scene in Dark Victory, by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, shows Alfred standing behind a hurting, lonely boy who just lost his home and his family as he reminisces about another boy who was once in the same situation. At that moment, Alfred promises Dick he will never be alone, a gesture he never got to give Bruce when he was a child. The lonely childhood of Bruce Wayne was, up to this points, a ghostly presence in Batman history, always there but never fully seen. With Creature of the Night, Kurt Busiek and John Paul Leon are giving us the missing link. With this book, we are back to the foundation stones of Batman: the child who saw his parents get killed and dealt with the trauma by developing a dark, avenging persona. The Batman is the way he found to make sense of the world around him. His way to make things fair.
Final Thoughts: Busiek strips the most traditional comic hero origin story to its very essence, leaving us with a Bruce that is a lonely, traumatized little boy, and a Batman that is a frightening shadow of the night and a product of Bruce’s psyche. Such bareness of soul serves to remind us that, despite the current tendency of making him an all-knowing, larger-than-life character, Batman in deep down a product of a broken spirit trying desperately to heal. And that is what makes him so fascinating.