There is something oddly compelling about Batman on horseback. This man who fashions himself a creature of the night, seen perched on Gotham’s gothic gargoyles….on horseback? I’d go out on a limb and say that 1986’s Dark Knight Returns was not the first time the character was horse back, but it was for me and probably for many other fans. Despite initial contrasts there is a lot of the lone outlaw western hero in Batman already, Zorro is a western hero figure that is directly tied to Batman’s mythology. As a society Americans have a cyclical love of the western and those dusty, romantic stories were quite in vogue in the early to mid-90’s. Hollywood was pumping westerns out and some of them were the biggest movies of their respective year and remain well thought of. It’s during this western renaissance (of 1992!) that DC Comics publishes a western Batman story in their Elseworlds line, Batman: the Blue, the Grey, and the Bat. There’s even a horseback Batman on the cover!
THE QUICK PLOT: Union Col. Bruce Wayne is dispatched by President Lincoln himself on a mission that if unsuccessful will doom the Northern war effort. Can this “berserk young officer” thwart a plot to steal a fortune in gold and save his country in the process?
Speaking of covers I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to talk about this one in particular. The material is card stock with a kind of quilting effect that is supposed to replicate rough old timey paper with a faux yellowing around the very edges of the cover and along the spine. The center cover image is a pin up action shot of our western Batman astride his inky steed, PISTOL and whip in hand. The title ‘Batman’ and the subtitle are given an embossed wild-west typeset flair, with writer (Elliot S! Maggin), artist (Alan Weiss), and inker (Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez) all credited on the cover. It is a handsome issue continuing the premium presentation that Elseworlds fans were accustomed to at this point, yet I feel this cover is a standout attempt to present readers with a more complete, even tactile, connection to the story.
GOING ALL IN FROM HERE ON WITH STORY SPOILERS. I MEAN IT. ALL OF IT. EVERY LITTLE DETAIL…..
We open with two pages of heavy text blocks (omniscient narrator) bringing the reader into the story; the Confederacy’s superior leadership has countered the Unions resource surplus but the discovery of an unimaginable vein of gold in the Nevada territories gives President Lincoln hope to end the war and quickly repair his divided country. The west is fraught with a multitude of obstacles and dangers…that are listed in one large text box accompanying a peeping tom panel of Lincoln looking pensive. There are (of course) plains Indians, Mexicans and Barbary Pirates “to the North” all this and the “disreputable miner” Henry T.P. Comstock who found the gold to begin with. Due to the aforementioned war, Lincoln has no troops to send to protect the Unions interests, and the Confederacy has agents among all the disparate groups in an attempt to secure the wealth for their own agendas. He does have “Lieutenant-Colonel Bruce Wayne of the 13th Massachusetts Cavalry”…now directly after this caption box there is another: “….about how Abraham Lincoln sent a Bat-Man…” which together led me to believe that Lincoln both knows about Batman and that it’s Bruce in the cowl (which he does). Yet when Batman shows up to the White House, President Lincoln basically threatens to fight him in this first panel he speaks to Batman in and the next panel Batman tells him “that’s not why you summoned me!”. Lincoln fills Batman in on the stolen gold, and comments on his “masquerade”. Bruce tells the president that he asked him to keep things undercover (haha), and “besides—a bat flew in my window the night your messenger arrived”. Here we have our first and only real touchstone to the Batman origin story and it is wrapped up in whimsy and played as a joke almost, the entire persona of Batman comes across as a spur of the moment decision in response to the President’s call. Lincoln tells Batman there are engaged troops somewhere in the area but they are unavailable to him, he will have access to “Agents: H, A, and R” leave at once.
Next we have Bruce leaving on what amounts to public transportation in the old west, a shared carriage. We’re also introduced quickly, to never seen him again afterwards, Alfred. Bruce introduces himself (and the readers) to his traveling companions the pretty young blond Margaret Barensaver and her older stern prudish ‘aunt’ Miss Mary Louise Pilchard. There is also in later panels a man in the carriage with the three but he is never named, spoken too or speaks. On the journey west, clique character development abounds as Miss Pilchard is near hysterics over an Indian boy trailing the carriage with a spare horse. Yes here come the wholly predictable Indian Robin, as RED BIRD, pretty well telegraphed with the Agent R reference a few pages earlier. Bruce seems completely prepared for all of this with dialog that plays his part but he’s not prepared for Robert Arnold Armstrong (who?) and his group of “Strong-arm Boys”. This is a small army that rides up out of nowhere. Their leader Armstrong is in grey but I don’t believe he is a Confederate more that they are some western outlaw gang. Bruce in his dashing bright blue Union uniform springs into action climbing onto the top of the carriage, firing a few shots and then promptly falling off.
Now Bruce and Red Bird meet up, shake hands and it’s obvious they know one another. Red Bird has a domino mask of sorts that is explained as war paint he’s wearing until he’s avenged the murder of his parents. Robin’s dialog is written in a very stereotypical way where parts of the English speech, most often pronouns, are dropped in that Hollywood Native American speech pattern that is vaguely racist. We’re also introduced to Agent- A here is a bit of clever fake out, Agent A is Batman’s midnight stallion Apocalypse! (Bruce is pretty excited to see his horse) Yes friends Agent- A is not Alfred (elbow elbow- got ya) its Batman’s horse named Apocalypse. They ride back to where Armstrong and his gang have the carriage half of them run at the sight of a now fully costumed Batman because “it’s a seven foot Bat on a horse a-comin at us”. He shoots guns out of hands, whips goons, and Apocalypse smashes through groups of bandits. He then chases down the now run-a-way carriage, and wouldn’t you know he saves it stopping to tell the worried Margaret Barensaver that “the Cavalry officer is not hurt badly” – clever subterfuge there Batman! – and then he rides off leaving them in the middle of nowhere. I’ll take a moment here to talk about the custom Bat inspired harness and bridal bits that Apocalypse sports. It seems that maybe Bruce has had this in mind for longer than just since the President’s call.
Back now in Virginia City we have Margaret and Bruce strolling along talking about their earlier adventure and we get an interesting bit of dialog. Bruce, playing on their new familiarity, insists she call him simply ‘Bruce’ and she responds: “Colonel Bruce then. And I’m Peggy.” but this is the same woman who introduced HERSELF earlier as Margaret? Is there an old timey wild west name shortening that takes Margaret to Peggy?? Bruce doesn’t seem to notice the name shift and enters the local paper to meet Sam Clemens. Yupp. Bruce wants his help to recruit a regiment for the Union to help ensure Northern interests in the territory, Clemens laughs him off explaining the people here are here for gold and silver not politics, they leave to the bar. Bruce enters the bar full of pomp calling on volunteers “to learn to be a man”, a bar fight breaks out over politics. Then Margaret/Peggy breaks into the now full room saloon fight with a group of picketing women led by her angry ‘aunt’ Miss Pilchard! They are representatives of the women temperance council. Miss Pilchard calls upon Margaret who smashes one of the fighting men with her picket sign! This book suddenly becomes a Mel Brooks comedy a few pages after its first action scene. We rotate back to Bruce who is squared off with another cowboy who reveals himself to be Agent H- James Butler Hickok, real life American folk hero, gunfighter and lawman- Wild Bill Hickok. Hickok and Bruce meet up with Red Bird and they take Bruce to meet his reserve force that they call the Dark Knights. Yes, they’re escaped slaves from the local area that work quietly however they can. Bruce uses his authority to grant field promotions (?) to free any man who serves under his command. The group retires to a nearby cave (another connection, however loose, to the origin) to plan their strategy and outline their various enemies which is done by some lengthy Bat monologue. Batman then calls out an eavesdropping Clemens, again calling on his newspaper for help. What follows are four pages of newspaper type clippings reporting on Batman and his allies’ war on crime and corruption. These cover roughly the top ¾ of the page with a single panel of Armstrong reacting and growing more angry and desperate to finish the do-gooders off.
Bruce and Clements are talking about recent events at a party, Clemens has apparently been watching Miss Barensaver dance with everyone there including the mayor whom Bruce cuts in on. They dance, flirt and she talks about her past. Bruce calls her a “flower among the sage brush” and then Mr. Hickok cuts in as Bruce meets Red Bird outside for some intel. The following is a weird turn where the unnamed fourth carriage passenger is revealed as a “Frenchie lawyer” – yes it says that, Red Bird calls him that the first time the character is recognized as a plot figure. Margaret tells Bruce about his travel arrangements to San Francisco and something about mineral export. Bruce reacts and then has her watched and she goes to the now important French lawyer! Red Bird is only able to catch scraps of their conversation “Colonel Wayne” “secret shipment” and “Batman”. When confronted she tells Bruce she knows Lucien’s plan: “they’re to smuggle the Strong-arm gang loot and 6 months of mining on Captain Drakes ship from San Francisco”. She then kisses him and hops onto a covered wagon that says women’s temperance caravan on the white canopy.
Bruce splits up his main team sending Hickok and Clemens on to the train reputed to be carrying the stolen gold to San Francisco while the Batman and Red Bird attack some local Indians for answers. On the train about as soon as Hickok and Clemens split up, Clemens is ambushed by the French lawyer Lucien and another French Guy in a blue uniform. Batman and Red Bird beat up all the Indians and then arrest them even though Batman tells Red Bird they’re just being used by Armstrong as a diversion. Page turn and Lucien has Clemens tied up and we get a full page villain monologue. In fact when Lucien starts the other French officer says “we should not reveal such things” which is countered by “what harm”. The gold is already on its way to…. MEXICO (!) and everything else has been a ruse! (Now you can die) then the door is kicked in by Hickok who shoots both the French men, the office dead Lucien wounded to interrogate as to Armstrong’s location. They then jump off the train find horses, and then meet up with Batman and Red Bird where they reveal the gold was in the caravan they all watched roll out of town, the women’s temperance movement. It really is that fast in the book as well. Batman tells his team to gather the Dark Knights and meet him where the Strong-arm gang are held up.
Batman then surrenders to Armstrong, telling him he’s been cheated by the French. Armstrong doesn’t believe him and ties him up with a cannon pointed at his chest. Red Bird climbs up from nowhere and cuts his feet free as the cannon fires Batman’s able to swing his body up. They then shoot everyone. We get a few pages of the inevitable battle between the Dark Knights and the Strong-arm gang. In the fight Red Bird recognizes a ribbon on a scalp that is on Armstrong’s bridle as belonging to his murdered mother. This reveals Armstrong as the killer of Red Bird’s parents, the reason he wears the war paint. Red flips, tackling Armstrong off his horse. There is a short ground tussle and then Red Bird stabs Armstrong in the heart screaming the final word of his murder monolog: “savage”. There’s almost a page of him recounting his parents murder story in greater detail. The Strong-arm gang is routed leaving all of our main characters alive. Batman and Red Bird head south chasing the women’s wagon train and the gold.
We get a page of the dynamic duo riding through westerny scenes with Batman’s letter entries saying westerny things about the trail and dust, the land and whatnot. Margaret and Auntie are gloating about their smart plan as Batman sends Red Bird to find the Union forces in the area. Red Bird gives Batman a bow that Batman talks a lot about never using a weapon like this before and then sneaks up and uses it to catch fire and BLOW UP wagons in the wagon train! The Mexicans protecting the wagon train assume (out loud) that its Indians and they don’t want to deal so they “skedaddle”. Batman then get the drop on gun toting Margaret and Auntie who are both now more villainous of dress. They then reveal their final (? Hopefully) trick and it’s in the form of their real guard: a platoon of French cavalry soldiers! Batman calls for Apocalypse and takes off away from them in a hard gallop. Apocalypse is shot in the head while they are making they’re escape, this is explicitly shown in a ¾ page panel. Batman really flips out here: “those sons of whores…killed…my…HORSE” all this is said while he is shooting French soldiers, to death. He empties his guns, the French Lancers hesitate, and Red Bird again out of nowhere with a new horse and good news that he thinks he has backup. Batman and Red are riding across the west being chased by French cavalry soldiers from Mexico, and Red is shot from his horse. Batman stays by his side despite Red’s protestations, and then literally the cavalry show up and mop up the mess while Batman and Red Bird watch.
Batman meets the commanding officer who knows it’s Bruce in the suit because he was his training officer, and then gives Bruce whatever he wants. All he asks for is that Red Bird is attended too. The women are arrested Batman repeats the flower/ sage brush line revealing himself to Margaret. She threatens to tell so he laughs and says no-one will believe you. The final panel is the end of his letter to the President recommending making the Nevada territories an actual state and Batman on a dark horse riding into the sunset.
Final splash page of Lincoln reading Batman’s letter and Batman’s “P.S.“ regarding Lincolns personal security which plays on the confusing scene of their meeting at the beginning of the book and also the real life assassination of Lincoln.
MY VERDICT: This was very tough for me. In short I found it to be pretty bad.
This story goes on way too long which is saying something when the titular character is so ill defined. Honestly I fell asleep twice reading this story. The story hiccup at the beginning, that exchange between Lincoln and Batman where Lincoln treats him as an enemy and then in the next panel ‘remembers’ he sent for this man, this type of hiccup happens too much in this story. Things are too coincidental. Red Bird travels tremendous distances and comes out of nowhere to do things too much. Too often it seems there are panels missing and that we’ve lost needed action, panels, or story to those damned gutters again. This story is violent in a non-Batman way- it’s all gun violence. Batman shoots people and calls them whore-sons while doing it!
The references and depictions of characters that are not white American, are uncomfortable if not out-right racist. When telling a friend about the “Dark Knights” he exclaimed immediately “that’s so racist!” the more I think about it, I feel it really is terribly racist. In this instance the adjective ‘dark’ is only referring to their skin color because there is no in story historical context for Batman or the misnomer “Dark Knight”.
The art is really the saving grace here but there’s nothing being reinvented. We just have pretty clean solid storytelling with full backgrounds and plenty of action. I’m not familiar with Alan Weiss’ work and would honestly be very interested to see just the pencils for this story. The draftsmanship is there, the storytelling is solid and in crowd or crowded scenes the facial/ character differentiation is plentiful. Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez’s inks are crisp and clean bringing definition to the art especially with textures and the old time west clothing.
This story is Batman in the slimmest of margins tonally, but it’s a decent cowboy story.