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David V. Reed’s Run on Batman – Where Were You On The Night Batman Was Killed? (Review/Retrospective)

23rd July is Batman Day, celebrating the character’s 75th anniversary. To celebrate, this July we’re taking a look at some new and classic Batman (and Batman related) stories. Check back daily for the latest review.

David V. Reed enjoyed a long run on Batman. While he’s probably more infamous for his rather mean-spirited attack on Batman artist and co-creator Bill Finger in the pages of The Amazing World of DC Comics only a year after Finger passed away, Reed did some interesting things with the character and world of Batman. Perhaps the most notable of these stories is the four-part Where Were You on the Night Batman Was Killed?, an ambitious four-part story offering multiple-choice takes on the death of Batman.

It could be argued that Where Were You on the Night Batman Was Killed? has been a very influential Batman story. David V. Reed’s four-part saga sets up a structure that has been emulated quite a bit over the history of the Caped Crusader. For example, Almost Got ‘Im from Batman: The Animated Series follows a similar structure, with four Batman villains boasting about almost killing Batman. And Neil Gaiman and Adam Kubert’s Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? features many different deaths for Batman.

Long live the Batman!

Long live the Batman!

There are even faint echoes of Where Were You on the Night Batman Was Killed? to be found in the pages of Grant Morrison’s extended Batman run – populated as it is with replacement Batmen, cabals of evil villains boasting about their crimes, and the almost-but-not-quite death of the Dark Knight. Published in 1977, Where Were You on the Night Batman Was Killed? is a four-parter that seems quite a bit ahead of its time, if a little clumsy in execution.

It’s a decidedly goofy concept, executed in a decidedly goofy manner, but it is also quite wry and astute and perhaps even a little prescient.

Batman drops in...

Batman drops in…

The set-up of Where Were You on the Night Batman Was Killed? is a delightfully absurd. Batman has been killed. Word is spreading quickly among the criminal underworld. However, nobody knows how Batman died, and who killed him. Naturally, criminals are lining up to take credit, as the stories grow more ridiculous and audacious. Was it a single goon with a lucky shot? Was it the Cavalier? Or was it a bigger fish?

There’s a sense that the comic sits between the camp ridiculousness of the Silver Age and the slightly more serious tone of the Bronze Age. The idea that Batman is mortal and will likely die in the line of duty is pretty heavy. The story relies on the idea that somebody has put enough thought into the whole “Batman” thing to try to figure out what happens after he dies. At the same time, it is four issues of villains getting together and bickering.

"Stop trying to look badass, Killer Moth..."

“Stop trying to look badass, Killer Moth…”

There is something quite appealing about the idea that Gotham’s criminals like to hang out with one another. Where Were You on the Night Batman Was Killed? sees the bad guys all meeting in a rather luxurious mansion to settle this murder mystery. However, this doesn’t mean they can’t have fun. The gang get to play a mock trial and keep lots of dynamite around; the Joker even poses for photos with Lex Luthor and Killer Moth. (The best detail of that panel is that the Killer Moth is the one least in the goofy spirit of the day.)

The format of Where Were You on the Night Batman Was Killed? is essentially four one-shot stories where Batman dies at the end. These stories are delivered by four villains to an assembled jury of Batman’s greatest foes… and Signalman… as part of a trial to determine what really happened. Despite the fact that the process in no way resembles a trial-by-law – what with no defence counsel and live dynamite demonstrations – the prosecution is overseen by Harvey Dent, “ex-D.A. and current underworld grandee.”

... and Signalman, too!

… and Signalman, too!

There’s something infectiously silly about this whole set up as the villains rent out a mobster’s house so they can play act as a tribunal. At one point, “Judge Ghul” decides whether or not to allow an objection by flipping a coin borrowed from Two-Face’s. “Evil wins!” he declares. “Objection overruled!” Catwoman shows up in mourning, reflecting the loss of her one true love. Lex Luthor shows in a giant flamboyant outfit, and seems to be visiting simply so he can troll Gotham’s underworld by insisting on how easy it was to kill Batman.

Of the four stories featured, they are fairly generic superhero stories. Catwoman is planning a big heist by infiltrating high society. The Riddler is stealing money. Lex Luthor has a convoluted plan to kill Superman. The Joker is just causing chaos. None of these are particularly interesting on their own merits. Indeed, they probably wouldn’t be too notable if they didn’t end in the death of Batman. However, in the framework of four competing versions of Batman’s death, they are all rather interesting.

The Riddler's ambitions go up in smoke...

The Riddler’s ambitions go up in smoke…

The first story is the only story that allows for any real ambiguity. Catwoman tells the story of how she killed Batman, in what seems like a rather heavy influence on Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? Here, Catwoman claims to have retired, only for Batman to stumble back into her life by chance. “Some time ago, I dropped from sight, took a new name and completely changed my life and everything about me,” she tells the assembled villains. It’s all a front, of course, but it is an uncanny similarity.

She claims to have drowned Batman by kicking him off a floating wooden cage and into the cold depths of a Gotham River. (Of course, Batman has been quite heavily pummelled before this point.) Her story is immediately undermined when Two-Face presents his counter-evidence. It turns out that the cage she claimed to have floated away on… cannot float. Instead, with twice the density of water, it sinks. As a result, she could not have kicked Batman off it; therefore, she could not have killed Batman.

It'll be the death of him...

It’ll be the death of him…

However, Catwoman protests. “You framed me!” she yells. “It’s not the same cage!” The story does not allow for internal monologues or thought bubbles, so we never find out if Catwoman is telling the truth as she knows it, and if Two-Face did indeed set her up. The first of the four chapters of Where Were You on the Night Batman Was Killed? allows for some small sense of ambiguity, inviting us to wonder how much of Catwoman’s case is true from her perspective, and how much is simply made up as a self-serving lie.

It’s a shame that the remaining three chapters of Where Were You on the Night Batman Was Killed? cannot maintain that ambiguity. That said, Reed does shake things up slightly. Two-Face uses a practical demonstration of how dynamite works in order to demonstrate that Edward Nigma is lying to steal the credit. Superman shows up to reveal that Lex Luthor is telling the truth as he knows it, but that he doesn’t know the whole story. And Batman shows up to vouch for the Joker’s version of events.

Super bats!

Super bats!

It does feel like Where Were You on the Night Batman Was Killed? never capitalises on the promise of the central premise. For a story about rumour and confusion and gossip, it seems like the story sets quite a lot in stone. It might have been more interesting to play up the mystery and ambiguity around the disappearance of the Batman and the accounts provided to the court, rather than explaining everything in a matter-of-fact manner.

Still, Reed does get to have a bit of fun with the characters. Each of the four chapters offers a little insight into the character at the core of the story. For example, Catwoman seems to imagine Batman with a tender and flirtatious edge to him. After he discovers her new life, she is worried that he will expose her to the authorities. Batman seems a little wounded by the suggestion. “You think I’m that vindictive?” Indeed, Catwoman’s story takes on some retroactive irony when one considers that she’s using the end of Titanic.

Her heart will go on...

Her heart will go on…

Similarly, the Riddler’s final confrontation says a lot about his character and perspective. In particular, Nigma seems very vindictive. He waits until Batman is incapacitated before delivering the killing blow, setting up dynamite that will blow a trapped Batman into pieces. As Batman watches the flame grow, the Riddler taunts, “Now, Batman — tell me again how you beat me!” In a revelation that says more about the Riddler than Batman, Nigma imagines Batman’s last words, “You win… Riddler…”

Perhaps the most insightful portrayal of a baddie in Where Were You on the Night Batman Was Killed? is the guest appearance of long-time Superman foe Lex Luthor, still in his “sinister sultan of science!” phase. Wearing a pretty snazzy outfit, Luthor seems to show up simply so he can mock the Gotham City baddies for having a lame adversary. Recalling how Batman ran away from him scared, he pauses his story to ask, “You can’t believe the Batman ran away! But he did!”

Curse of the Catwoman...

Curse of the Catwoman…

“What is all this about Superman?” Ra’s Al Ghul has to remind him this isn’t about Superman at one point, only for Lex Luthor to insist that everything is about Superman. See, Luthor only killed Batman as part of his plan to kill Superman. He actually trapped Superman inside Batman’s body, “a vulnerable body — not the Kryptonian one beyond my ability to destroy — but a body that would be the vehicle of my revenge!” Luthor shows up just to boast that killing Batman was something he did as an afterthought.

Proving that he’s not just a master criminal, but also a smug ham, his testimony exists simply to grind everybody’s gears. “So the Batman’s death — accomplished first by erasing his mind and consciousness — then by killing his body — was only an incidental side-issue of your victory over Superman?” Two-Face asks, in an accurate summary of Luthor’s testimony. Lex agrees, dismissing it as “a waste product!”

Batman iz a wimp, LOL!

Well, at least he got dressed up to tell Gotham’s villains how crap they are…

When the villains dismiss his version of events, Lex throws a temper tantrum and storms out of the temporarily rented mobster mansion of doom. “I’d rather face Superman than spend another minute among you!” he protests, making it clear that he’s throwing the toys out of the pram. Reed has a great deal of fun with Luthor’s pride, even having Superman show up to publicly humiliate Luthor in front of all his supervillain buddies. Although Superman claims he’ll arrest him later, that seems like the real punishment.

It eventually turns out that the Joker did murder a guy in a bat suit, but it wasn’t Batman. It was, instead, a guy dressed up in a costume play-acting at being Batman. Discussing the situation with Gordon, Batman reflects that he studied the guy’s notes and journals. “He apparently worried a lot about the Batman being in constant jeopardy… He feared somebody would do me in eventually… and when that happened, he planned to take my place and carry on my work!”

"I want to take his face... off!"

“I want to take his face… off!”

It’s a nice piece of foreshadowing that seems to point forwards towards Grant Morrison’s extended run on Batman, which is full of various potential and imitation Batmen that include a police officer who gets beaten to a bloody pulp by the Joker at the very start of the run. Given that Morrison drew on a lot of classic Batman stories in crafting his run, it would not be surprising to discover that Where Were You on the Night Batman Was Killed? had been a major inspiration.

It is worth noting that the supposed goofiness of Where Were You on the Night Batman Was Killed? does hide some pretty terrifying finer details. Although a necessary plot point to spur the plot on, the Joker kills a man he presumes to be Batman… and then dissolves his face so that nobody will ever know. In one of the creepier smaller details, Lex claims that he wants to beat Superman-as-Batman to death with his own hands… wearing “pain-inducing gloves.” Because he’s just that malicious.

"Who says I have an unhealthy obsession with Superman?"

“Who says I have an unhealthy obsession with Superman?”

These are the sorts of weird contrasts that you got in the seventies, as Batman comics moved away from the camp and absurdity of the sixties towards the seriousness of the eighties. It’s a jarring juxtaposition. On the one hand, villains are posing for photos with one another and holding mock trials to claim credit for defeating Batman… on the other hand, Lex Luthor plots to straight-up torture a guy and the Joker burns the face off a dead body. It captures a weird moment in Batman comics quite well.

Where Were You on the Night Batman Was Killed? might not live up to the potential of its premise. It might feel a little clumsy in places – seeming like four one-shot stories stitched together and slotted into a framework that required a little more creativity. At the same time, it’s a delightfully playful and endearing set-up that seems to foreshadow a whole host of classic Batman stories.

2 Responses

  1. To my 13-year-old self, these were great comics! Now, as a much older adult, they still hit my “nostalgia spot”, and I just can’t be unbiased and objective about them. I still like going back and re-reading David V. Reed’s Batman run in the 70s, even as I peruse the Englehart/Rogers stories and lovingly gaze upon the O’Neil/Adams classics.

    • It’s amazing that the original versions of O’Neil/Adams are not readily available. I understand Adams’ desire to clean up his work, but there should be archival copies available somewhere.

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