By Spencer Irwin and Michael DeLaney
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Spencer: When I was a kid, if you’d asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d have answered “Batman.” Growing up on the Adam West series, I didn’t recognize the tragedy that fuels the character — I only saw the potential for adventure. As someone who was bullied a lot as a kid, I think I was especially attracted to the justice of Batman, the idea that the good guys always won and that the villains always got what was coming to them. For many — both children and adults — comics can serve as an oasis or an escape, but at times they also just serve to highlight, to painfully drive home how unfair the real world actually is. That juxtaposition lies at the heart of Batman: Creature of the Night.
Creature of the Night is the spiritual sequel to one of my all-time favorite comics, Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen’s Superman: Secret Identity. While Secret Identity was a story about growing up (and growing old), about love and sacrifice and family, Busiek and artist John Paul Leon focus Creature of the Night on justice, on what it means to look up to a hero and what it means to be let down by a hero as well. Just like Secret Identity, Creature of the Night ostensibly takes place in “our” real world, a reality where Batman and Superman are simply comic book heroes. Set in 1968, Creature of the Night stars eight-year-old Bruce Wainwright, a Batman-obsessed youngster who suddenly faces the most Batman-esque of traumas: his beloved parents are murdered before his eyes by criminals.
Bruce doesn’t suddenly devote himself to ridding Boston of crime, but his experiences with comic books have led him to believe that there will be some sort of justice. Instead, though, his parents’ case lies completely cold for a year. Unlike his comic book counterpart, this Bruce doesn’t have the comfort of an Alfred, instead having to go live at a boy’s boarding school. Bruce’s beloved “Uncle Alfred” — real name Alton Frederick Jepson — would have loved to have taken him in, but says that he was “unable” to. It’s implied several times throughout the issue that this is because Alton is gay (he mentions being single and his “lifestyle” as reasons for not being allowed to raise Bruce, he mentions his home in Bay Village — a historic gay district in Boston — as being a place he wouldn’t take Bruce). This is an injustice in-and-of itself, but Bruce is too young to see it that way. He just thinks Alton has abandoned him.
Bruce and Alton both provide narration for the issue — both seemingly as part of their journals — and those dual perspectives are essential. Alton provides a mostly factual account that’s vital for understanding the narrative, but clearly doesn’t fully understand what’s going on in Bruce’s head. Bruce doesn’t understand everything that’s happened to him, but his narration allows readers to see the ways it’s affected him emotionally, and the ways he’s been forced to hide what he’s going through from everyone around him. He feels isolated and without a home, let down by everyone who’s supposed to care for him. Who else does he have but Batman?
Bruce is smart enough to know that Batman isn’t real, but in a world this unfair, he can’t help but to wish he was anyway.
Both in-universe and out, Batman has always been a form of childish wish fulfillment — only an eight-year-old boy could think that he alone could bring an end to crime. Although Creature of the Night‘s Bruce manages to get in some of the same globetrotting training as his comic-counterpart, he’s never going to be able to mold himself into Batman. That doesn’t stop him from having the same desire as Bruce Wayne, though — a desire to make the world a better place, to stop others from having to face the same evil’s he’s faced, and to find justice for his parents. Bruce Wainwright can’t become Batman, so he does the next best thing: he creates one of his own.
Leon’s art slowly shifts throughout the issue leading up to this point, starting as something bright and period appropriate (his backgrounds remind me of 101 Dalmations) and slowly leaning into David Mazzucchelli-esque noir elements before giving over entirely to the darkness in this spread. Bruce’s Batman is a rogue supernatural element — we don’t know how and why it exists, other than as an answer to Bruce’s prayers. If Batman makes the world a fairer place, then Bruce somehow had to make a Batman of his own in order to get his life back on track.
Unlike Bruce’s, Alton’s narration seems to be written after the end of the story, and implies that Bruce’s creation leads to a tragic end. For the moment, Batman has only done good — bringing down entire gangs and finally bringing the Wainwrights’ killers to justice — but he’s also being controlled (to some extent) by a nine-year-old boy with a morality based off comic books. The difference between our world and Batman’s has already been the primary source of conflict in this story, and I have a feeling it’s only going to get worse as the series continues — a “fair” world might not look the same to a child as it would to an adult. I’m eager to see where these differences in perspective lead.
How about you, Michael? Do you think Bruce’s story can possibly lead anywhere good? What do you think this series has to say so far about our own relationships with Batman as a character and an institution?
Michael: Spencer, I’m not sure what I expected coming into Batman: Creature of the Night 1. Judging by its page count I had assumed that it was an extra-sized one-shot, but the lack of firm conclusion and preview for issue 2’s “Boy Wonder” chapter clearly said otherwise. To answer Spencer’s question, it doesn’t seem like the tale that Kurt Busiek and John Paul Leon are telling us is heading in a pleasant direction. Alton’s narration ends Batman: Creature of the Night 1 on an ominous note, but then again it kind of begins the same way.
“A harmless fantasy. Or at least, that’s what I’d have told you back then.” Busiek is setting us up for tragedy from the very beginning of this story. After the Wainwrights get murdered within the first few pages, you might think that this was the tragedy in question: a little boy losing his parents and his obsession with Batman in the face of coping with his parents’ death. In hindsight it seems like the tragedy that Alton alludes to is yet to come; likely caused by Bruce’s terrifying bat creature.
There’s a nature/nurture factor to a lot of superhero tales: did personal tragedy forge them into the hero they become or were they wired to be that way all along? By establishing Bruce Wainwright’s story in a world where Batman is a comic book hero, we assume that he is in “our world.” Once it becomes clear that Bruce’s bat creature is not just a figment of his dreams, but is in fact sweeping the streets for justice, we realize that this is not our world at all. Does Bruce create his bat creature out of necessity or was it there all along? I get the sense that there is a larger plan at work to make Bruce Wainwright a Batman figure, but we’ll just have to wait and see on that part.
What is clear is that the bat creature doesn’t appear in some form or another until Bruce gets shot. As he’s coming out of his coma he hears the doctors’ voices, but before that there is another voice telling Bruce his is “SAFE.” Letterer Todd Klein provides this disembodied speech balloons that scratches its way out of the ether — one we will later discover is the voice of the bat creature. The creature’s speech balloons stay disembodied throughout, as it doesn’t actually seem like it has a mouth to speak from. Is Bruce the creature? Is it merely his proxy protector?
Depending on which iteration we’re talking about, Bruce Wainwright gets something that Bruce Wayne (typically) never gets: justice for his parents’ murders. Not only that, but Bruce Wainwright solves the mystery himself — something 8-year-old Bruce Wayne could only dream of. Of the many iterations of Batman’s origin, Batman: Creature of the Night’s is similar to Tim Burton’s Batman with a little bit of Batman Begins sprinkled in. It’s Batman Begins because the killer gets caught and prosecuted, Batman because both Jack Napier and Donald Bradagh both deliver a chilling, memorable line to the Bruces after killing their parents.
Again, the way that Bruce Wainwright’s Batman-based version of criminal justice bleeds into his “reality” is very curious. Bruce holds on to that “Little Trooper” line and because of Bradagh’s acting roots, turns it into “trouper.” This kind of crime-solving wordplay is just the way that Batman would solve one of the Riddler’s puzzles, especially on Batman ‘66. I don’t want to say that the events of this book are all in Bruce’s head because they’re not — as evidenced by Alton’s narration — but there is this dreamlike wish-fulfillment quality to Bruce’s reality, as if he has a greater influence on it than just willing a demonic bat creature to life.
The success of the story of Batman: Creature of the Night 1 is probably due to the fact that most of its readers find it so relatable. I’d say that the majority of Retcon Punch’s writers and readers have a very personal relationship with Batman, as Spencer mentioned. This can be applied to any pop culture icon but really, Batman is the most popular superhero, period. Everyone has their favorite version of Batman, their favorite Batman movie, their favorite Batman writer etc. I don’t think I could even begin to count how many times I’ve laid out the criticism “But Batman wouldn’t do that!” Bruce Wainwright’s relationship with Batman is so personal that his subconscious blends the memory of his parents with the comic book images of the Waynes.
Our relationship with our heroes and stories ultimately is a piece of our larger worldview. What’s interesting is that the Batman that Bruce Wainwright creates is a dark avenger, when in 1968 he’d be mostly reading and watching campier tales of the Caped Crusader. Then again, his parents are dead and he feels that his uncle has abandoned him, so maybe it’s not all that surprising that he crafts this creature that serves as protector and guardian that just wants him to be “SAFE.”
I’m interested to see where Busiek and Leon take Batman: Creature of the Night, especially since it’s clearly headed for another tragedy. I’m hoping that “Boy Wonder” explores some of the pitfalls of our hero worship and idolization. And that Alton finds a nice man to settle down with, of course.
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Books like this are why every new book DC announces is its own hell. It is always one of two things. Either ‘What if evil is actually good?’ (Nightwing: The New Order, White Knight) or ‘Let’s just recycle another classic’ (this, the upcoming Superman: Year One).
Maybe… Maybe in a different context, this book would be justifiable. When DC did something other than poison their characters with toxic nostalgia bait. When DC had a soul. When DC cared about… anything.
This cannot justifiably be compared to White Knight, which is a complete and utter failure on every level. Nothing can match the way White Knight systematically fails at every turn, the way it degrades everything ti touches and cheapens the discourse it pretends to champion. White Knight is the ultimate false friend, pretending to be on your side just to whisper poisons in your ear, twist your understanding with subtle lies so that you don’t even realise you’re in the wrong. Like how Louise Mensch and similar conservative journalists who want to tell you how Trump has already been defeated, that impeachment is already secretly happening and that you don’t need to fight any more.
But the fact that this isn’t White Knight doesn’t in any way justify DC’s shameless regurgitation of everything they’ve done before instead of following the same principles that created the original books.
Jurassic Park is a masterpiece, but the last thing I want is Spielberg to return and film Jurassic World 2, even if it would likely be a better movie than what we are going to get. The fact that Spielberg has evolved into a new niche and creates masterpieces like Bridge of Spies instead is how things should go. It isn’t that Bridge of Spies in a better movie than Jurassic Park (comparing them would be stupid). Just that Spielberg has grown to find a new perspective, and now focuses primarily on adult dramas. And this is how it should go. Creators should have the chance to move on, to evolve and find new stories to tell, instead of going back and doing it all over again. There has to be something else that Busiek can do instead of just repeating what he did before.
And there has to be something more that we can expect from comics than recycling of the same classic stories. A constant circle where there is no creativity left. Where the things that made us fall in love with these characters are gone, to be replaced with an assembly line of nostalgia.
I saw an interesting discussion recently, about the pop culture impact of DC heroes, especially worldwide, and how much DC have lost. How all around the world, no matter where you were, you’d be able to find a store that was selling a Batman shirt. But now, those same stores are filling up with Iron Man merchandise instead. That young kids first exposure to superheroes isn’t DC’s characters, but Marvel’s. That Marvel movie and Superhero movie were becoming synonymous terms, even when describing movies not made by Marvel. A scary possibility was raised. That DC’s heroes were at risk of going in the direction of the Lone Ranger, or Dick Tracy.
Now, this is primarily to do with the movies, and Marvel’s success v DC’s failures. But it is all one ecosystem. Marvel’s comics line has been working hard on creating a modern, 21st century vision, one that reflects today’s society. And they are doing it to support the greater Marvel machine. Captain Marvel is getting a movie, with the expectation of a Ms Marvel movie right behind. Black Panther looks like it will be using the newly introduced Wakandan Collective Memory from Coates’ run. Miles Morales is about to get his own (animated) movie. There’s a reason that Chris Hemsworth looks a lot like the Unworthy Thor is Ragnarok, and it isn’t just because he was getting annoyed with the wig. And that’s ignoring other mediums, where these characters are popping up everywhere. Animation? Video Games? You’ll see Miles Morales, Kamala Kahn and a host of other modern Marvel aspects. And DC isn’t doing this. The idea that Superman and Batman could go the way of Dick Tracy sounds seemingly impossible, until all of a sudden it doesn’t.
Superman: Secret Identity only works is Superman means something. But that’s not the most important part. The important part is that I want Superman to mean something. I want Batman to mean something. And I don’t want the reason they mean something to be because they’ve just joined the Avengers, because Disney has purchased every IP they can (I do not like this rumours about Disney and Fox)
There has to be more to DC than Rebirth
There has to be more to DC than constantly milking every classic they have.
There has to be something more. Something new.
Hey Matt. Can you make me understand why you dislike this book. I would love to hear your analysis in a simple language.
The problem is that this never works.
The problem is that lightning never strikes twice.
The problem is that every time that DC, that anyone has tried to make a sequel to a classic, it fails to be anything more than a footnote at best. Kingdom Come is a classic, the Kingdom is not. Dark Knight Returns is a classic, the others aren’t. The Long Halloween is a classic, Dark Victory isn’t. Gotham by Gaslight is a classic, Master of the Future isn’t. Watchmen is a classic, Before Watchmen was a disaster that didn’t even release all its books.
The problem is that the books that really work are original. Books like Kingdom Come, Dark Knight Returns, Long Halloween, Gotham by Gaslight, Watchmen, the Killing Joke, Secret Identity, Red Son and All Star Superman are all classics because they came up with a fresh, original vision. They weren’t just repeats of what came before. Some of these books have aged badly. Killing Joke has rightly gotten a lot of criticism and I think Kingdom Come has serious problems. But the originality, the fresh vision to reinterpret the DC Universe in a way that no one has before and give something completely different is a big reason why they go down as classics.
And it is the missing ingredient that every attempt at a sequel has. Trying to serve up the same thing again lacks the magic you had the last time. And because of that, Secret Identity but with Batman (or Year One but with Superman) is quite simply missing the magic ingredient. Instead, you just have another footnote at the bottom of another article’s wikipedia page.
Even worse, DC could have used this space to make something original. If DC was committed to publishing a prestige comic, they could do it properly. They could understand that when they want to find a book like Superman: Secret Identity or Year One or whatever classic you wish to name, that means finding a fresh and new direction*, not just recycling the idea with a new coat of paint. This is a space that could have been used for something that really could have lived up to the prestige legacies that DC are looking to replicate. Instead, the only book that comes close is the utterly abhorrent White Knight. A disgusting failure.
We could have had a real, legitimate attempt at a new classic. Instead we have this
And this lack or originality, this blatant regurgitation of classics, is even worse in the greater DC context. Because DC is in a bad place at the moment. A really bad place. Too many of DC’s books are, at best, poisoned by the need to recycle and recycle past storylines, to smother creativity and kill any sense of newness. Instead, everything is just a repeat of someone else’s storylines. Which makes it even worse that the one place where creativity should rein free, the prestige space, is falling for the same trap.
As Michael said, ‘I’d say that the majority of Retcon Punch’s writers and readers have a very personal relationship with Batman’. But the problem with this sort of recycling is it hurts that relationship. Chokes it out. If DC’s stories aren’t allowed to grow and be creative, the soul of the characters die. I can only have a relationship with Batman if Batman actually compels me, and nothing is less compelling that the regular release of reheated leftovers of previous stories. Creature of the Night is how the magic dies. How superheroes cease to matter.
And to think, DC could have asked Busiek or another writer to write something that was just as original and revolutionary as Secret Identity instead
I hope that makes sense
*Worth noting here that DC’s response to the success of Moore was to import British writers and letting them loose, giving creators like Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman the chance to create their own, new directions on nobody characters. Instead of just retreading Swamp Thing or Watchmen, they wrote new classics like Doom Patrol, Animal Man and Sandman
I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on the failings of this issue, specifically.
You’ve described the failings of a lot of other books – Honestly, did you even read this? Your logic seems to be, “DC is bad, so this is bad.” I read it and I liked it. I thought it was an effective horror story about a kid losing control of grief he never adequately dealt with.
And you describe it as a sequel, but it’s not a literal sequel to… well, anything that I can find.
(And Jurassic Park was better than Bridge of Spies. Duh.)
Yeah, I think that’s why Drew asks for Matt’s take on the issue itself. Batman: Creature of the Night was solicited as a spiritual successor to Busiek’s Superman Secret Identity, so I assume that’s what Matt is cuing off of. It is frustrating to publish a piece about an issue of a comic book series, only to have someone criticize what they think it’s about based on previews, solicitations, or whatever scuttlebutt surrounds the publisher (or, like, some interview or something). I’m always steering our writers back to a what’s-on-the-page analysis — I know we’re not perfect, but it’s something we aspire to — and that just doesn’t appear to be the way Matt wants to engage with this one. He can be an insightful guy, well-read and very active around here, but I do find these kinds of comments tiring.
Desptie not being a ‘sequel’ sequel, you can’t ignore that, in every way, this exists to act as a follow up to Secret Identity. More specifically, a repeat of the premise, but with Batman. There is no way to seperate this book from the fact that it is ‘Secret Identity with Batman’. Hell, I think I’ve even heard DC mention that they want to do a third story wich is ‘Secret Identity with Wonder Woman’. There is no way to ignore that aspect, and that’s what I’ve been criticising.
I will happily admit that this is cultural criticism. That’s why a big part of my discussion usign Spielberg as an example of a creator’s career trajectory and discussions about the evolution of the cultural landscape.
Usually, I go by what’s on the page. When I discuss how White Knight betrays the issues it pretends to be about by preaching distorted to the point of deceptive depictions or how its use of the Joker is danger in the ways in white washes and vindicates a character that, like Don Draper, Walter White and Rick Sanchez are too often valourised by particular audiences in stories that are critical about them (think about how WHite Knight takes the most iconic abusive relationships in comics, that has been abusive since Harley’s earliest days in the cartoon, and says it was never abusive, just neglectful. Then think about how we are in a cultural period, post-Weinstein, where we are actually having to confront and admit that, as a culture, we have caused great harm by collectively erasing/rewriting those stories, and therefore let predators loose to cause harm), I have used the page.
When I discuss how Doomsday Clock fatally misunderstands Watchmen and therefore creates a story that both fails as a follow up on Watchmen and depicts a world that incoherently answers its own premise (What happens after Watchmen?), I have used the page.
When I’ve discussed the failings of Metal, or Nigtwing: the New Order, or any of DC’s mainline books, I have used the page. Hell, I’ve even praised Deathstroke repeatedly as an example of DC doing good work (every other book that I initially praised… went very wrong fast. Though I will admit that from what I’ve seen with Seeley’s Green Lanterns, that book seems to have undergone a very massive improvement).
But here, I am goign for a cultural criticism. And that’s fine.
Would it be unfair to criticise Doctor Strange as a movie because it is yet another Marvel movie with a white protagonist, a generally journeyman directorship, and generic world ending stakes as the climax? Yeah. But it is not unfair to target Doctor Strange in a criticism of the MCU as a whole, by discussing how after 8 years, 13 movies and 7 previous franchises, that Marvel was creating yet another samey white adult protagonist. And it is perfectly legitmate to criticise Doctor Strange for what it means in the greater MCU (to make this point clear, the criticism of Doctor Strange is so true, it is a big reason why Marvel pivoted hard against this in 2017. Smaller, more initimate stakes in GOTG v2 and Spiderman. Marvel let Gunn go full auteur in GOTG v2, while a younger Spiderman created a protagonist that stood out from the rest (even if he is still whote), while Thor Ragnarok had a specific, indigenous viewpoint from a Maori auteur director and a massive subversion of world ending stakes in Thor Ragnarok. Meanwhile, they made their biggest cultural impact with the Black Panther trailer, which is also a complete rejection of every criticism above).
And that’s what I’m doing here. Creature of the Night is representative of major issues that DC (and Marvel. Let’s not forget that Marvel have just announced they are following Planet Hulk II with World War Hulk II) has struggled with for a long time. It is also representative of major issues that DC has been struggling with since they torpedoed their line with Rebirth. And together, its existence is an almost perfect representation of everything wrong with DC at the moment. Missing the misogyny, the white supremacy and the fundamental character issues, but a fantastic representation of other major issues.
This space could have been used for a book that carried the creative, original spirit of books like Secret Identity, Red Son etc. Books that psuhed the boundaries by finding spaces no one had ever found before. And yet, in a DC publishing line suffocating with toxic levels of nostalgia, they just recycle Secret Identity with Batman.
It is more tiring writing these comments. I much prefer writing comments on good, rich stories (my original plan tonight was to write about the latest episode of Batman: The Enemy Within, which is amazing). But I also want to use my voice to help write what I hope are insightful takes. And when DC is so atrocious at the moment, it is hard to. It is hard to have a positive take when so many stories are built on racist, sexist foundations. Or when so many stories wreck these wonderful characters in a race to go backwards. Especially after it was not so long ago things were different.
And when a comic like this comes along, such a perfect representation of so much wrong with the way DC currently works, it is hard not to despair. This feels like the worst case scenario for me as a fan. That DC has given up on changing. On evolving. On being modern. It is 2017, and DC want to be part of 2017. They want it to be 15 years ago, 20 years ago, 25 years ago. THey want to be sentenced to the past, forgotten.
I always knew I was going to return to DC. Yes, I got the shock of my life when my most anticipated comic, that I was so excited about, turned into one of the worst comics I ever read and a signalled an era defined by the worst comics have to offer. But I knew that eventually, something would change. That they’d fix themselves. But when this was announced, when this was released, that thinking changed. I saw how this placed in the greater context of DC, and wondered ‘Will I go back?’ Or have DC crippled themselves too much – crippled themselves in an era where culture has been rapidly changing under our feat with shocking speed AND Marvel, more than ever, are currently an existential threat to many aspects of DC that were once seen as inviolable – that they will never catch up.
I hold out hope, because DC is a property that has meant so much to me. But I can afford to lose it. There are many other stories important to me. Maybe DC won’t catch up. Maybe we won’t reunite. Maybe, as a culture, as sad as it is, it is coming to the time where DC will go the way of Dick Tracy, the Lone Ranger, the Shadow. Mayb eit is time that Captain America takes Superman’s place.
With this book, especially considering it is a book about our relationship with DC’s characters, there is no insight I can give that feels more useful than to look at what it means in the context of the greater DC machine and say, this may be the end.
That is I look at my relationship with Batman, I may be looking at its ending. I still care, but there is a nonzero chance that by the time DC sorts itself out, I won’t care. It won’t matter that they are good, because I’ll have other things instead.
In this book about our relationship with Batman, I am left with a question. How many people are going to have a relationship with Batman?
I also like it when the comments really dissect the issue. I love publisher critiques, but there are other blogs for that.