Overview: In Batman #135, Batman chases proto-Joker Darwin Halliday throughout the multiverse while running into some unexpected surprises.
Synopsis (spoilers ahead): Batman #135 begins in the subterranean world of Arkham beneath this Elseworlds Gotham City, as Batman climbs up from the ground and wraps the bloody stump where his right hand once was. He stumbles out, searching for Red Mask, also known as Darwin Halliday and this universe’s Joker.
On the streets of Gotham, Halliday’s plan B (Batman stopped plan A in Batman #134) is in full motion. “Leatherwings” carrying gas fly around the city, infecting citizens with multiversal poison. Jewel and Selina Kyle, both wearing gas masks, fight the Man-Bat-sized Leatherwings.
Below, Batman cauterizes his wound. Meanwhile, Darwin and this world’s Punchline use the multiversal energy created by the poisoned citizens to power up a machine that will transform Darwin into a true Joker like his multiversal counterparts.
At Athena Tower, a building owned by Halliday, this world’s Alfred Pennyworth tries to contact his wife, Dr. Leslie Thompkins, to no avail. While the wealthy socialize safely indoors, Alfred attacks the guards keeping them in, steals a gun, and plans to head outside, so he can save as many Gotham citizens as possible, including his wife.
Darwin prepares to use his machine, which now has enough power to send him directly to the moment when Joker was created instead of just inside of the mind of one of his multiversal counterparts. Darwin uses the machine, transporting to the moment when Joker first took off his Red Hood mask in The Killing Joke. Instead of a cackling Joker, Darwin sees himself reflected back. Suddenly, Darwin is propelled back to his own Gotham unchanged.
Batman fights his way through Darwin’s Arkham guards while Catwoman and Jewel continue to battle Leatherwings up above. Firefly joins the battle, called to aid by Selina. While they barely hold on, Alfred opens the doors to Athena Tower, letting the citizens below rush to safety.
Back at Halliday’s headquarters, Darwin gets word that the machine is ready to use again. He prepares himself, letting it be known that while he’s admired and loved in this world, he wants to tap into his full potential as a Joker beyond love and hate, someone who is the epitome of obsession.
Darwin gets back in the machine, transporting once more to that puddle in the rain. He tells Joker that he wants to break the way Joker breaks, and Joker fires back that maybe it was Darwin who broke the Joker with his “needs.” Just then, three Jokers walk away from the puddle in the rainstorm (which is a nice reference to Three Jokers by Geoff Johns and Jason Fabok).
Darwin unhooks himself from the machine, shocked and appalled at what just happened. He tells Punchline that he can’t become the Joker. He merely creates them. Just then, Batman enters, knocking out Punchline. Batman realizes he could help the would-be henchgirl to Joker, but he’s just as obsessed as Darwin is. The two battle, but Darwin is now empowered with multiversal energy, making him lightning-quick.
When Batman tells Darwin that he’s crossed worlds to stop him, Halliday responds that his job is to make Jokers with Batman, that if it weren’t for Batman, there would be no Joker. When Halliday tries to dig that verbal knife in, Batman tells him that he’s learned from this world that one without Batman is still full of monsters.
Alfred, Jewel, and Selina enter the room, tying up Punchline. Darwin runs through his machine and enters the multiverse. Batman coaxes information from Punchline by treating her with kindness and uses that information to learn how to track Darwin.
Batman has a moment with this world’s Alfred. Alfred tells Batman that he can’t do it alone, to which Bruce asks his Elseworld’s father figure to join him, saying that he needs guidance away from the dark. Alfred can’t leave this world. Here, he has a purpose and a city to save, and he can team up with Jewel to save it.
Selina then approaches Batman, asking him why he didn’t ask her to join him. Batman tells her that he has a Selina but that he can’t end his crusade until injustice and crime end. Before Batman can prepare to enter the multiverse safely, Selina kicks him, disappointed with his answer. Batman flies through the multiversal without his safety belt, using only a tracker to find Darwin as Batman #135 continues.
First, Batman lands in the world of Batman ‘89. Joker has been revived, and Batman meets with his Michael Keaton counterpart. Before the two can talk much, Batman is then thrust into another dimension, this one of the famous Batman: Red Rain storyline where Batman and Joker become vampires. A revived vampire Joker and Batman tangle, but then once more, Batman is thrust through a series of dimensions, touching upon the Arkhamverse games, Batman: The Animated Series, Silver Age Batman, and Batman Beyond. In the Beyond universe, Batman meets with an elder Bruce Wayne who gives him a holt disc that will send him back to his universe when the time is right. It’s also in this universe where Batman has fully realized that Darwin is resurrecting Jokers throughout universes where Batman has been freed of his arch-enemy, locking them once more in an eternal battle. Before the two can confer much longer, a revived Joker Beyond breaks into the Batcave, and Batman is once more thrust into the multiverse.
Batman hops through the New Adventures of Batman and Robin, Kingdom Come, Injustice, and the world of the 60s TV show. Connected to each Bruce Wayne, Batman meets with all of them briefly, realizing that the resurrected Jokers are worse and more sadistic than ever. In the 60s universe, an Adam West Batman hands him a utility belt.
Batman leaps once more, landing in the world of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Batman tussles with an older version of himself before he can tell his otherworld self that he’s here to help. This older Batman gives Bruce a new hand and a new uniform.
Batman leaps once more, finding Darwin in some destroyed Gotham City where a Joker shark swims around at the end of the multiverse. The shark eats these remnants of Gotham, symbolizing Darwin being consumed by his thoughts of the Joker. Darwin sends Joker “fish” at Batman. Bruce battles against them, digging into his utility belt given to him by his 60s counterpart only to find shark repellant, which saves the day.
After defeating the shark, Batman then confronts Darwin. He tells Darwin his realization. Without Batman, Joker would always be evil. There would always be a sad, pathetic man committed to the act of destruction and obsession, just without the gimmicky outfit. Batman knocks Darwin out and then uses that holt disc to send Halliday back to his own universe.
Alone at last, Batman is at the end of the multiverse. He realizes that these last few years, he has been slipping. A light illuminates the darkness, and Robin (Tim Drake) arrives. Batman and Robin hug, and Bruce thanks Tim for rescuing him once more.
Analysis: Batman #135 is both an effective and beautiful conclusion to the “Bat-Man of Gotham” arc, as well as a fantastic celebration of all things Batman for his 900th issue. It’s also a zany multiversal trip that takes a few reads to grasp fully, but at its core, the message is simple. Batman is a symbol of hope, justice, and a never-ending battle against crime. While Joker is the antithesis, a polar opposite figure of obsession, he doesn’t exist because Batman exists. Without the Caped Crusader, Joker would always exist in some other form, and the world of Gotham City would still be full of monsters.
Writer Chip Zdarsky and the artists of Batman #135, Mike Hawthorne, Jorge Jimenez, and Mikel Janin, deliver a thesis statement that shows Batman as a self-sacrificing hero who can never settle down and be happy because of his obsessive war on crime. However, he has the potential to change the world, and in this issue, literally set Darwin Halliday’s universe right by inspiring a new generation of heroes. With his training and inspiration from the Robins, Batman, in turn, can be saved and rescued from the darkness by those motivated by his good deeds. It’s no coincidence that the Robin chosen to save Batman at the end of this issue was Tim Drake. Tim was the one who helped bring Batman back to the light after Jason Todd’s death, and in this issue, his saving of Batman is more than just multiversal displacement. It’s thinly veiled symbolism for Tim once more saving Batman from the brink.
In recent issues, we’ve seen Batman grapple with his more violent other self, the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh. This also comes on the heels, still, of Batman dealing with the loss of Alfred and the wedding that never was with Catwoman. It would seem that finally, these years later, from those landmark moments, the creative team of Batman is ending that chapter and ushering back a hero who sacrifices to inspire and heal others.
Apart from the overt metaphor, Batman #135 is an issue rife with references. The creative team found a way to weave in so many beloved generations of “Batmen” without it feeling ham-fisted or shoe-horned. There’s a reference for just about any Batman fan here, one that serves as a reminder of how and why they fell in love with the character. It’s truly a refreshing celebration for the 900th issue, and it’s one that inspires hope and a bright future instead of more grim-dark musings about vengeance.
If there is one thing to knock Batman #135 for, it’s the art. Three artists pencil this issue, and it shows, especially Janin’s. Each one has an exemplary style and tone unique from the others, but when transitions happen, it’s super noticeable. The transitions aren’t handled in a way that fits into the story narratively speaking, either. That said, it’s a minor gripe in an otherwise spectacular issue.
Editor’s Note: DC Comics provided TBU with a copy of this comic for review purposes. You can find this comic and help support TBU in the process by purchasing this issue digitally on Comixology through Amazon or a physical copy of the title through Things From Another World.
Batman #135 is the Batman issue #900 celebration we didn’t know we needed. It’s beautiful, fun, and such a joy to read.