Getting into the character of Batman must seem like a tall order these days, for one, where does one start? Do you go for the animated series or for the video games or worse yet do you even dare to go near the comics, with it’s near seventy-five year history and dense continuity. While the initiated would recommend various stories that range from The Long Halloween to The Killing Joke, if I was asked by a newbie to the character, I would recommend “The Beginning and My Probable End” to them to read.
The story on the surface seems deceptively simple, a fact backed up by Batman Historian Les Daniels who when commenting on the tale said this: “In the revised version after so many years, providing continuity to a younger generation of collaborators who have a new twist on the legacy of Bruce Wayne`s tragedy”
Superficially I would agree with Daniels' point however I think the story greatly encapsulates as well as address many of the reasons why Batman has been enduring character. This is in addition to it being more than just a modern retelling of the story but also a story that proves why comics are a great medium.
The latter point made being particularly evident with the first few panels in which the writer Mike W. Barr shows how Crime Alley went from being a place in which the rich went to, to a place which rotted with time as well a place in which only hoodlums occupy. In the course of just four panels Barr and artist Alan Davis greatly create a picture of a sub section of Gotham that allows the reader to fill the space between the panels as well as being a great short explanation and showcase of Crime Ally.
This is continued with the first appearance of Batman which is built up nicely in two ways, firstly through two criminals who worry about Batman as opposed to the police and then when he appears which is presented in a really nice simple and minimalist way. This being in his first on panel appearance you see a shot of him jumping and you see a slight glimpse of his cape and boot. Then in his next panel appearance we see him kicking down a door with force with him shouting Leslie. This gives rise to a quite splash page of him holding Robin and him simply saying helping with the title of the story and Leslie Thompkins in view.
From here, there is a two pronged narrative, the first in which we see Jason trying to recover from a fatal injury he received while fighting the Mad Hatter with Batman. The other which is Batman and Leslie`s conversation which explores why Batman became the way he did in the first place as well questioning his existence and the effect it not only has on him but also Jason Todd who is the current Robin.
I first have to praise the art of the story which is beyond incredible. Davis` style greatly falls between somewhat cartoony and powerfully raw and real. The best example of this is with his drawings of Batman, which on the one hand are abstract that give the character a sense of larger than life emphasis.
But at the same time, we see some pages where Batman has full and raw emotion and these look so real so much so that the mystique of Batman is lost and we see just a grown man in a bat costume. His art at the same time is incredibly cinematic; one sequence which really stood out was the night in which a young Bruce Wayne goes back to the site where his parents died as well as their grave and gets a gun, the way these are drawn they all look like they could be story boards for a film, they have such cinematic flair and denseness that makes them pleasing and exciting to look at.
Davis also has to be complemented for drawing one of the finest Batman covers of all time. While it does have eerie resemblance to a cover which would depict Jason Todd`s death a year later, the way Batman is drawn here is creepy and thematically important. It does not show his face or his symbol, which sub-textually is trying to represent his crisis in the story he feels in the dark not only about Jason`s survival but also about his purpose the good he is doing as Batman and the cover evokes all these points really well.
As for the writing from Mike W. Barr, I do find it incredible in exactly how much he fits into this twenty page story and it does not come across as daunting or dense. Simply he takes skeleton of the Batman origin and adds to it in new and interesting ways. For example, he fills in gaps in Bruce Wayne`s development before he goes around the world and trains himself in various ways.
From what is posited here, it seems Bruce Wayne always knew what his end goal would be and it is really fascinating seeing him establish almost a duel identity early on before he puts on the Batman costume for the first time. In addition to this, in his writing Barr also hits on certain questions that Batman fans have about him. One of these is who the real identity Batman or Bruce Wayne, this story puts forward from the Caped Crusader himself that Batman is. In addition, it hits on the dynamic between Robin and our hero and almost in this case gives it a justification. And it’s quite sad and tragic to see that Batman sees what he is doing for Jason is atoning for the mistakes he made in his youth.
Finally it’s actually interesting that Barr writes an origin story of Batman and Alfred is nowhere to be found or is addressed. Instead he puts the focus on Leslie Thompkins who in my opinion is an underused character in the cannon of Batman`s supporting cast. In the story she provides the voice of reason as well as the main reminder of Bruce`s past. Her mini arc is acknowledging that Batman does make a difference and that fundamentally he has the same intent as her which is helping people.
Overall, “My Beginning and My Probable End” is a great Batman story that I would wholeheartedly recommend. This is because it is a story that works on several different levels, it works for the newbie because it tells them fundamentally explains why Batman is a great character and hits on several different key points of his universe. This is in tandem with providing an origin story that does not feel like standard fare. In addition the art by Alan Davis is outstanding, by being cinematic, abstract while also balancing being raw when the story demands it. This is an underrated story one and all should read.
Detective Comics #574:
Reviewed by Sartaj Singh