Wednesday, June 26, 2013

There Is No Hope in Crime Alley, Hour 24

Batman is unpredictable. No one can anticipate or foreknow his movements, actions or location at any one time...except right now, this very minute. At 10:48 PM GST (Gotham Standard Time), on today, June 26, you will find the Batman at one particular, specific location: in Gotham City's Crime Alley. The criminal among you however should be advised that now is not a good time to ambush the Dark Knight, or lay in wait on the rooftops with your high-powered sniper rifle. Even tho' he's got something else on his mind at this exact moment, Batman ain't never not paying attention to his surroundings. And attacking him on this day, at this time, at this place, here in Crime Alley? That'll earn you an extra-rough Bat-whupping.

But why here and now? Tonight we'll walk in the bat-soled steps of Bruce Wayne and find out, as I've been telling you all night long (and also last year, altho' an internet problem on 6/26/12 kept me from wrapping up that series as I'm doing tonight), that there is no hope in Crime Alley. there? So, let's begin our journey. Say, where's a good place to start, Batman?:

Panel from the Batman newspaper comic strip (November 27, 1989), art by Marshall Rogers

Once upon a time Crime Alley was known as Park Row, in a more glorious golden age of Gotham City, but like the much of the rest of this metropolis, it crumbled into a low-rent, lawless alley that deserves its nickname the same way Green Arrow deserves the nickname of "Emerald Jerk."

Panel from Detective Comics #801 (February 2005), script and layouts by David Lapham, pencils by Ramon Bachs, inks by Nathan Massengill, colors by Jason Wright, letters by Jared K. Fletcher

If you've been paying any attention at all today (and you oughta have!), you know that Crime Alley is the place where young Bruce Wayne saw his parents gunned down in cold blood right before him.

Panels from Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #139 (March 2001), script by Doug Moench, pencils by Paul Gulacy, inks by Jimmy Palmiotti, colors by James Sinclair, color separations by Digital Chameleon, letters: by Kurt Hathaway

Each year on the anniversary of this night, Batman has left two roses on the site in Crime Alley where Thomas and Martha Wayne died.

Page from Batman: Death and the Maidens #1 (October 2003), script by Greg Rucka, pencils and inks by Klaus Janson, colors by Steve Buccellato, letters by Clem Robins

(Although the writers, or maybe replacement Batman Dick Grayson, haven't always gotten that detail 100% correct.)

Panels from Batman #700 (August 2010), script by Grant Morrison, pencils by Frank Quitely, inks by Scott Kolins, colors by Alex Sinclair and Tony Avina, letters by Jared K. Fletcher

The death of Bruce's parents in Crime Alley is a cinematic and iconic scene. In comics it stands behind probably only the departure of the rocket of doomed Krypton and the realization that the man who shot Uncle Ben is the burglar Spider-Man let escape earlier. Joe Chill's demand for the pearls worn by Martha Wayne is present in the original 1939 origin story, and Frank Miller's Dark Knight treatment of the scattering beads as a symbol of Bruce's shattering world has been repeated and imitated by many, many artists. It's so ingrained into our comics cultural memory that this completely unrelated non-Batman comic panel from a Crimson Avenger story sparks an immediate response of seeming recognition:

Panel from the Crimson Avenger story "The Mystery of the Mounted Marauders" in Detective Comics #77 (July 1943), script and pencils by Jack Lehti, inks and letters by Charles Paris

But where does "Crime Alley" come from? Let's flash back to Detective #457, set twenty-one years to the day after the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne (and say, have Batman and Superman ever discussed the unlikely coincidence that their mothers have the same first name?). It's one of the finest Batman stories of comics' Bronze Age, and it introduces a major supporting character to the Batman mythos at the same time it fills in more of the origin of the Caped Crusader. The story has a title you'll be familiar with:

Splash page from Detective Comics #457 (March 1976), script by Denny O'Neil, pencils and inks by Dick Giordano

The story begins as dusk falls over Gotham City on the evening guessed it!...June 26. At this point in his career, the Batman has not even confided in faithful retainer and my personal favorite Alfred the significance of this date. Of course, at this point in the Batman canon, it hadn't yet been retconned that Alfred was with the Wayne family since before the murder: he had only arrived to serve Bruce after Bruce and Dick Grayson had become Batman and Robin. Wow, keeping track of your Batman retcons can be confusing!

Batman's come to the former Park Row, Crime Alley, to seek out a woman named Leslie Thompkins. And he ain't takin' "Gosh, I dunno, Batsy!" for an answer!

Remember what I said about trying to hunt down or attack Batman on the night of June 26 in Crime Alley? That's just yet another dumbass thing to do in the DC Universe, buddy!

Yes, there are far more polite moments to try and assassinate a superhero than on the anniversary of his parents' death. (Which is also why you shouldn't attack Superman on the anniversary of that day Krypton went ka-plooie.) A flashback shows us the reason why Batman's so concerned about Leslie Thompkins: she is the woman who first came to his aid that night 21 years ago. (Later we'll see another important member of Batman's supporting cast who first met Bruce that fateful night.)

In this, her first appearance, Leslie looks older and has a more spinster appearance than she will later, and her background (an inner city doctor) isn't part of this story, but the moment is still powerful and poignant...

...and it's a wonderful story that gives the Batman the humanity that makes him such a rich character, and adds to his cast of influences who made him what he is today: not merely Thomas and Martha's love and (added later to the canon) Alfred's care and raising of Bruce, but Leslie's compassion, a vital part of the best sides of both Bruce and Batman. And I love the ending of this story, too.

This story has been deftly adapted into an episode of Batman: The Animated Series as well. You'll likely be able to find the whole episode online somewhere, but here's a short and beautiful excerpt, my favorite part of the episode.

from Batman: The Animated Series "Appointment in Crime Alley" (September 17, 1992), script by Gerry Conway, directed by Boyd Kirkland

Leslie Thompkins remains a vital part of the Batman mythos and supporting cast, and is later written to be a clinic doctor who helps the poor who live in the area surrounding Crime Alley, working out of a clinic funded by Batman. She's one of the very few persons outside the crimefighters in the Batman Family who knows that's Bruce under the pointy-eared cowl. Written well...and she hasn't always been...she puts a human face on the Batman's tragedy and gives him a perspective or compassion and care to strive for.

Panels from Batman: Full Circle graphic novel (May 1991), script by Mike W. Barr, pencils by Alan Davis, inks by Mark Farmer, colors by Tom Ziuko, letters by Todd Klein

She reminds him that he's fighting not just to avenge his parents and to wipe out crime, but to save those "on the ground" in Gotham City. If Alfred is Bruce's new father, Leslie is his new mother.

Panels from Batman: Madness one-shot (1994), script by Jeph Loeb, pencils and inks by Tim Sale, colors by Gregory Wright with Android Images Enhancements, letters by Todd Klein

Because it was part of neither the Batman series proper or a Batman Annual (although it could have been), 1984's Batman Special introduces a new element to the mythos of Crime Alley and June 26th: that Bruce Wayne is not the only young son who lost his parents by gun that very night, nor was he the only costumed figure that arose from the events. In a complete reversal of fortune, a young boy witnesses his criminal parents shot to death by a police office on the night of the 26th, and he vows to avenge their deaths by becoming a costumed villain: The Wrath. It's a wonderful story that hasn't been reprinted often (you'll find it in the collection Batman in the Eighties), and I highly recommend checking it out.

Panels from Batman Special #1 (June 1984), script by Mike W. Barr, pencils by Michael Golden, inks by Mike DeCarlo, colors by Adrienne Roy, letters by Todd Klein

Within the Batman universe this story takes place four years after "There Is No Hope in Crime Alley," but it appears Bruce still hasn't confided in Alfred the secret of June 26th's significance. C'mon, up! More trust falls in therapy for you, I think.

That's not the shadow of Batman on the wall behind Alfred, that's the shadow of the Wrath, whose horned costume resembles the Dark Knight's in silhouette. Mike W. Barr has Bruce reflect on this mirror image, a character he calls "the player on the other side," in homage to one of the great, highly psychological late Ellery Queen mystery novels.

Alfred's not the only one taken in momentarily by the familiar's Leslie Thompkins, targeted by the Wrath as well! Zoinks!

Leslie, like Alfred, is held prisoner by the Wrath, who demands that Batman bring him...Commissioner Gordon? Well, yes...because that beat cop who shot the Wrath's parents was...a young Jim Gordon! I shall now pause for a moment to let some chills run up your spine and then back down again.

All's well in the end, of course, except if you're the Wrath, because he's shot dead. JUSTICE IS SERVED! Batman and Leslie get to recite their little litany about Crime Alley and all is well...or is it?!?

Well yes, it is, at least until the sequel to the Wrath saga brings Wrath II Electric Boogaloo into conflict with Batman in Batman Conflictential Confidential #14. There's a new Wrath in town, baby, with the same old agenda...a death-target on Jim Gordon!

Panels from Batman Confidential #14 (April 2008), script by Tony Bedard, pencils by Rags Morales, inks by Mark Farmer, colors by Allen Passalaqua, letters by Travis Lanham

For some reason, thjis story's described as also taking place on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the particular June 26 (unless Wrath II is speaking generally). In trying to carbon-date this story by testing the flecks of bat-guano on its pages, pay no attention the 2008 cover date of this ish. Batman Confidential is a flashback book. Dick's in his disco Nightwing outfit in this story, so it definitely takes place not too long after the events in Batman Special #1. Let's call it and arbitrary...ehhhhhhh...twenty-six years. So...One Year Later™! Anyway, Batman is mildly interested to possibly find out a little of what the Wrath might know, maybe, about June 26th, if it's not too inconvenient:

Even Dick "I'm sleeping with an alien supermodel!" Grayson is caught up in the tangled web of events.

Batman immediately phones Commissioner Gordon ahead to make a specific appointment so Jim will know when he's going to drop in and...naw, that's not the way Batman works at all, baby!

Gordon, of course, shot down the original Wrath's parents when they resisted arrest on that June 26 twenty-five twenty-six years ago, but as that also puts him in the area of Crime Alley that night, we see another one of those "everything is connected and synchronicity rules the DC Universe" coincidences: not only did Leslie Thompkins first meet the young, freshly-orphaned Bruce Wayne that night, but so did young police officer Jim Gordon. Man, that is a coincidence. Personally, for this one I blame Mopee.

Yes, as we've seen, the place of Crime Alley is vitally important and ever-memorable in Bruce's life, as is the date. His obsession with that moment even extends to the time: 10:48 PM, which is memorialized as the time to which you turn the hands of the Wayne Manor grandfather clock to gain entrance to the Batcave.

Panels from Detective Comics #575 (June 1987), script by Mike W. Barr, pencils by Alan Davis, inks by Paul Neary, colors by Adrienne Roy, letters by Richard Starkings

Which means, surely, that Bruce must never have any dinner parties that run past ten-thirty in the evening. "POP!" "Say, what's that, Wayne? Your grandfather clock has popped open?" "Um...don't pay any attention to it...Alfred's just bringing out some more port." It also means that you can crack into Bruce Wayne's online bank account because apparently all his passwords are 1048. World's greatest detective my fuzzy butt.

Panels from Batman and Robin (2011 series) #1 (November 2011), script by Peter J. Tomasi, pencils by Patrick Gleason, inks by Mick Gray, colors by John Kalisz, letters by Pat Brosseau

Yes, Batman is a man of tradition, but you can't argue that he never changes his mind. One of the loveliest little moments of the New 52 (come to think of it, one of the few) is when Bruce determines that he'll no longer make June 26th the night he honors his parents with flowers on the spot they died. I love this page, and I hope writers remember it. Of course it will probably turn out that Bruce's parents got married on...June 26th.

New 52 Batman: more hopeful, more optimistic about the future. And more capable of making a light joke. Who'da thunk it?

Yep! 10:48 and everybody in the Batman creative team knows it, and nobody ever kinda gets it wrong by drawing it at, say, 9:46...

Panels from Nightwing (2011 series) #0 (November 2012), co-plot by Tom DeFalco, co-plot and dialogue by Kyle Higgins, pencils by Eddy Barrows, inks by Eber Ferreira, colors by Rod Reis, letters by Carlos M. Mangual


Anyman, Crime Alley, folks. Crime Alley. Don't take your date to the movies there, and the restaurant service is rotten. But it's as important a place in contemporary pop literature as the Atlantis, Emerald City, Mayberry, and Hill Valley, California. With respect, tonight at 10:48 please observe a moment of silence in memory of Thomas and Martha Wayne, but always remember: there is hope in Crime Alley.

Page from Batman Collected (2001), edited by Chip Kidd

Tomorrow night, I hope: I'll follow up with a few of the more bizarre (and non-Elseworlds!) portrayals of Crime Alley. Remember when Plastic Man was Joe Chill? And that time Bruce's parents died in November and it was Clark Kent's fault? And how there was a Crisis on Earth-[REDACTED] and it didn't even require a crossover event and was finished at the end of one comic book? Yeah, me either, so I'd better start researching that, plus why Dick Grayson always gets the final word this week. Tomorrow!


Keith Rutledge said...

Great post. Thanks for writing it!

JohnJ said...

Interesting to look at all those artists but it strikes me that Neal Adams apparently never had the chance to draw that scene. I wonder if he was unable to draw the version that Giordano did. Saying that though makes me think I should check over Batman:Odyssey just to see if Neal worked it in there.
Very informative, as usual. Thanks.

Bully said...

Thanks, Keith! And JohnJ, Neal Adams did draw the scene in Crime Alley in Odyssey, and as wacky and way-out as that story is, the art is gorgeous. I didn't have a chance to use that panel this year, but there's a June 26 next year!

Blam said...

Well done, Bully.

"There Is No Hope in Crime Alley" — letters by Ben Oda or I'll eat my cowl — absolutely fascinated little 4-year-old Blam. (Yeah, I was an early reader, thanks to Mom, Dr. Seuss, and comics.) Batman losing it like that was so unnerving, his kiss on Leslie Thompkins' forehead was so sweet, the mythology of it all was so palpable. And that last-panel smile as he slept got me, too, although even then I grumbled to myself about how wearing the costume by a window in Bruce Wayne's penthouse was a stupid, secret-identity-blowing thing to do. I loved seeing Leslie Thompkins turn up younger, a part of Batman's double life, post-Crisis, but the singular gravitas of that original story just can't be beat.

Did you scan these pages in from The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told? I recall the full-bleed between-the-borders color there but not in the original.

Blam said...

PS: I've been pretty bad about doing so in general, but I did submit Oda's name to the GCD on the original and a couple of reprints of this story.

Bully said...

Did you scan these pages in from The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told? I recall the full-bleed between-the-borders color there but not in the original.

Yes, that's right! It was brighter than my comic book copy.

Blam said...

I liked the modern coloring done by the likes of Tom Ziuko and, on this story (I checked), Julia Lacquement for DC's original Greatest Stories volumes — ditto Marvel's Masterworks. The coloring wasn't fussy like today's over-rendered messes, just more sensitive and varied. Of course there's a lot to be said for preserving the original as faithfully as possible, and if you're reproducing the original pages exactly, with pulpy-looking newsprint verisimilitude, that's great; crisp white pages like in these early hardcovers, however, call for an appropriately nuanced touch, as we learned from the Great Mando/Flexographic Debacle of 1985ish.