Well, today is Batman Day (yes, there is such a thing) and the fact that all of Comicdom is celebrating the Dark Knight’s 75th Anniversary (he doesn’t look a day over thirty) got me thinking about my history with Bruce Wayne. I’ve loved Batman since I was a kid. One of my primal memories is being six or seven years old, sprawled out on the living room floor with crayons and a stack of drawing paper, trying to replicate a Dick Sprang Batman cover line for line. In many ways, that square-jawed, slightly goofy (okay, more than slightly) version of Bats is the one I cherish more than any other. I also remember the fangasms I had when, in the seventh grade, Batman came to television: it may have been campy to the grown-ups, but to naive, overweight, just-turned-twelve year old me this was serious stuff: comic books come to glorious life in a way they never had before.
So, yes, JMD the fan has a long-standing, deep connection to Bats but I honestly didn’t think JMD the writer had much of a history with the character—after all, I’ve never written a Batman solo series—until I took a look back at my career and discovered that I've written more Batman tales than I ever realized. Many more. And it started with, of all things, a coloring book.
“The Mystery of the Million Dollar Joke” is probably the first superhero story I was paid to write. And, yes, there’s a genuine kid-friendly story in there, waiting for you to bring it to life with your Crayolas. Paul Levitz offered me the gig when I was first starting out at DC and I stayed up all night, hunched over the typewriter (remember those?), banging out the script. If memory serves, I was paid a few hundred dollars for my efforts—which was just fine in 1979—and I still have a copy of the book tucked away on a shelf in my office.
The first comic book superhero story (y’know, the ones with the colors already provided) of mine that ever saw print was also a Batman adventure, in Detective Comics #489. “Creatures of the Night”—also edited by Mr. Levitz—had Batman hunting vampires, mainly because most of my work in those days was for the DC horror anthologies and vampire stories were my stock-in-trade. I don’t remember much about the script beyond the fact that it was illustrated by a Batman artist I admired, Irv Novick, who had nice things to say about it when I encountered him in Paul’s office one day. Those kind words meant the world to a newbie writer.
My first full-length superhero story was also edited by Paul and also featured Batman: Brave and the Bold #164, “The Mystery of the Mobile Museum,” teamed Bats and Hawkman (a character whose solo feature I wrote for a short time in World’s Finest) and the story was hardly classic. What was classic was the artwork, by the great Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez. He took my script and raised it up to another level entirely.
I didn’t encounter Batman again for another seven years, when he joined the ranks of the Giffen-DeMatteis Justice League—but he was an integral part of that series throughout its five year run. Of course our Batman was a little different from the grim ‘n’ gritty avenger that the brilliant Frank Miller unleashed on the world the year before JLI debuted. Our Bats had a sense of humor—incredibly understated, true, but it was there—and, though he’d deny it to his dying day, he enjoyed the idiotic escapades of Beetle, Booster and the rest of our quirky, and wonderfully obnoxious, cast.
In 1993, I came at the Bat sideways, via the Superman mythos, for an Elseworlds story called Speeding Bullets (art by the hugely-talented Eduardo Barretto). SB posited a universe where the rocket from Krypton was found not by the Kansas Kents but by the Gotham Waynes. The baby was christened Bruce and, after being traumatized by his parents‘ murder, the boy grew up to be a flying, super-powered—and extremely angry—Batman. And, if Kal-El was Batman, how could Lex Luthor not be the Joker?
A few years later—tied to the release of the third Batman movie, Batman Forever—came Batman/Two Face: Crime and Punishment: a serious exploration of Harvey Dent’s split personality (building on a wonderful story written, a year or two previously, by Andy Helfer) and that was followed, in 1994, by a four-issue Legends of the Dark Knight arc, brilliantly brought to life by Joe Staton, that may be my absolute favorite of all the superhero stories I’ve written. “Going Sane” featured a Joker who believes that he’s killed Batman. With his mortal enemy gone he has no reason left to live—and his mind snaps. Now, if we snap we go crazy—but if the Joker snaps...he goes sane. What came next was a tender love story—a tragedy, really—about a gentle man who doesn’t know he was once a homicidal maniac with a permanent grin on his face. At least he doesn’t until Batman returns to Gotham and all hell breaks loose. The story also focused on Bruce Wayne’s relationship with the doctor who brought him back from the brink of death and, I hope, revealed a Batman whose greatest weapon was his compassion.
The next year, the amazing Mark Bagley and I had the pleasure of teaming up Batman with my old pal Peter Parker in Marvel’s Spider-Man/Batman: Disordered Minds. This was followed, two years later, by DC’S Batman/Spider-Man: New Age Dawning (beautifully illustrated by Graham Nolan). To say that it was a kick teaming up two of my all-time favorite characters—and doing it for both Marvel and DC—may be the Geek Understatement of the Century.
I didn’t return to Gotham until 2002, when I scripted another Legends of the Dark Knight arc—a Robin-centric tale, with art by the terrific Trevor Von Eden, called “Grimm”—and wrote my first Batman graphic novel, Absolution (with rich, painted art by Brian Ashmore): a gritty story of justice and redemption that found Batman traveling to India in search of a holy woman...who just might be the terrorist Bruce Wayne has been hunting for over a decade.
Around the same time, Bats appeared in an issue of Justice League that I wrote, during Grant Morrison’s run, along with the 2003 Justice League/Spectre mini-series Soul War. More recently, Batman guest-starred in an issue of Phantom Stranger and, this year, Keith Giffen and I launched Justice League 3000—which imagines a future Batman very different from the one we all know. This is a Bruce Wayne who wasn't traumatized by the death of his parents—in fact he can't remember their murder at all—and that lack of a motivating tragedy has altered him in fundamental ways.
I’ve also had the pleasure of writing Batman in animated form—first with multiple episodes of Justice League Unlimited and then with seven episodes of Batman: The Brave and the Bold. I’m genuinely honored to have been a part of both those classic shows, but I got a special kick out of writing for B & B because it was so reminiscent of the square-jawed, over-the-top Batman I adored as a kid.
I’ve got a couple more Batman-related projects in the pipeline, but I can’t say anything about them till they’re officially announced. “Comic books?” you ask. “Animation?” I’d love to tell you, but I’ve been sworn to secrecy. All I can say is that my dance with the Dark Knight isn’t over yet—and I hope we keep dancing for years to come.
Happy Birthday, Bruce—and many more!
©copyright 2014 J.M. DeMatteis
Batman and his pals ©copyright 2014 DC Entertainment