Batman Special #1: “The Player on the Other Side”
Written by Mike W. Barr
Illustrated by Michael Golden
Inked by Mike DeCarlo
Colored by Adrienne Roy
As part of their “Gotham’s Finest” sale on comics featuring Jim Gordon, Comixology has marked down quite a few notable issues that are worthy of attention. There’s Year One, which I’ll go ahead and assume everybody has at least read if not owns, and Officer Down, but the issue that caught my eye was just digitized last Tuesday: 1984’s Batman Special #1.
I’ve long been intrigued by the premise of this issue, but could never track a copy down. For a buck or even two, though, it’s worth checking out, so let’s get into it.
The idea behind this story is pretty interesting: on the same night, at the exact same time as the Wayne murders, another child’s parents are killed as well. Instead of law-abiding citizens being killed by a mugger, though, this child’s parents are criminals who are shot by a police officer. Angry at the justice system, and this one officer in particular, this child vows to have his revenge.
That police officer? A young James Gordon.
There’s quite a bit to go on there, and at the very least the different layers of the concept are fascinating. For starters, the idea of an anti-Batman has a lot of storytelling potential. The Wrath grows up and becomes the perfect human specimen, just like Bruce Wayne, but instead of being driven to prevent the very thing that motivates him from happening to anyone ever again, he is driven by anger and only wants to take out one target.
What makes Batman’s rogues gallery so great is that many of his best villains exaggerate different aspects of his personality to an extreme degree: the Riddler is calculating and intelligent, Two-Face attempts to balance conflicting identities, the Joker has fallen on the wrong side of the fine line separating obsession and insanity, and the Scarecrow preys on fears. The Wrath, however, is just as calm, intelligent, and even sane as Batman, but instead of seeking to help others he’s focused on the wrongs down to him. He is what Bruce would become if he gave into his anger.
Also worth mentioning is that the Wrath’s true identity is never revealed. It’s nice to be in the thick of the mystery right along with Batman, finding things out as he goes along, and it’s also another inversion of Batman’s origin. For quite some time, the mugger who killed Thomas and Martha Wayne was a nameless thug. Though it’s generally accepted that Joe Chill is the man who committed the crime, there was a time when he didn’t have a name. For the Wrath, it’s not the assailant who is nameless, but the victim, which intentional or not is another interesting twist explored in this story.
As far as a plot goes, it’s fairly boiler-plate stuff. An unknown assailant makes an attempt on Commissioner Gordon’s life and Batman springs into action to try and track down the would-be murderer. As I said above, other than a few asides where the villain consorts with his lover, the daughter of a deceased crime boss, we aren’t given many insights into his life. All we know is that Gordon killed his parents, and now he wants to kill Gordon.
Mike Barr’s script is good, for the most part. The guy is a legend in the industry, and while he does spin a good yarn and keeps the suspense level high the whole issue, there is some clunky expository dialogue and a few cheesy quips. When we’re introduced to Grayle, Wrath’s lover, she flat-out tells him about her dead father and the promises Wrath made to her. You know, stuff he already knows that she’s telling him for our benefit. It’s not ridiculously terrible, but it is distracting.
My biggest problem, though, is Alfred being unaware of the significance of the date June 26th. It’s unclear when in Batman’s career this story takes place, and I know there have been points when Alfred wasn’t aware that Bruce is Batman (this didn’t last long, and was waaaay back in the early Forties at the latest, but it happened), but he’s been his butler his entire life. Alfred knows when the Waynes were murdered; there’s no way around that. It’s a fairly significant plot hole that kind of took me out of the issue.
There are some great moments that summarize Batman’s mission and drive, though, so it’s not a total loss.
The title is taken from an essay by Thomas Henry Huxley, though it is misattributed to Aldous Huxley. I’m not sure if Barr was intentional or not in this mistake, but it does serve as a nice little character tic for Bruce. I mean, even the smartest man in the world can be wrong every now and then, right?
The art from Michael Golden, Mike DeCarlo, and Adrienne Roy is quite excellent, as you can see. This is the kind of Batman that I prefer, more lithe and toned as opposed to mountains of muscles, and he moves and acts like a man with that build. There’s a fight at the end of the issue that is absolutely great, with both men matching each other in skill and brutality.
As far as the Wrath’s character design goes, well…
It’s pretty silly. The silhouette is no doubt supposed to mimic Batman’s, but that huge W on his mask is just goofy, and the bright colors don’t do him many favors.
As a character, though, he’s an interesting contrast to Batman, and while this issue might not be in the top tier of Batman stories, it’s still an incredibly intriguing concept that, save for a few hiccups, is presented well. For a buck or two it’s well worth a read.
- This iteration of the Wrath is never seen again, but his “successor” does appear in an arc beginning in 2008’s Batman Confidential #13. This Wrath, whose real name is Eliot Caldwell, claimed to be the protege of the original Wrath and seeks to carry on his mentor’s legacy.
- A character with a similar costume, also called Wrath, was in an episode of The Batman. This version, other than the name and look, shares little in common with the villain who debuted here. Instead, a pair of brothers whose parents were thieves who were caught and convicted the same night the Waynes were killed push for criminals’ rights, holding the belief that villains have a justifiable reason to commit the acts they do. This was actually how I was introduced to the character, for the record.
Overall: An interesting bit of Bat-lore, the idea of an anti-Batman may have been done many other times, but as a one-off this serves as a pretty solid examination of what would happen had Bruce decided to go a different route with his anger. It’s well worth checking out if you just want a single, quick read that doesn’t carry the weight of an event tie-in or an ongoing story arc.