Now all but defunct, DC’s Elseworlds imprint was a line of out of continuity stories that allowed creators to try some different and, occasionally, truly bizarre things with established characters. Beginning with 1989’s excellent Batman: Gotham by Gaslight, which is sadly missing in this collection, the line ran for the better part of a decade and a half to varying degrees of quality and success. Along with the aforementioned Gotham by Gaslight, the imprint also boasted such stories as Kingdom Come, Superman: Red Son, the Batman & Dracula trilogy, Justice Riders, and JLA: The Nail, showcasing some of the most memorable and influential stories of the past three decades.
Not surprisingly, Batman had his own fair share of Elseworlds tales printed over the years, and DC has recently begun collecting them in massive collections to court new readers to these truly strange stories. Collected here are eight of the Dark Knight’s earliest forays into the weird, twisted storytelling that could only belong in Elseworlds.
The opening story of the collection, Holy Terror, is notable for two reasons. First, while it wasn’t the first recognized Elseworlds story, it was the first to bear the logo on its cover. While Gotham by Gaslight debuted two years prior, it wasn’t until 1991 and Holy Terror that the Elseworlds brand was officially launched.
The other notable aspect of the story is the nature of its narrative. Whereas most of these non-canonical tales took a simple concept and built an otherwise straightforward story around it (“what if Superman was Batman?”; “what if Batman was a pirate?”; “what if it’s Batman… but in Victorian England? And also he fights Jack the Ripper?”), Holy Terror works as both an alternate take on Batman’s origins and a pretty interesting alternate history story as well.
Contrary to initial appearances, this actually takes place in relatively modern times in America, but there’s a twist: instead of dying of sepsis in 1658, Oliver Cromwell lived ten years longer than he did in the real world, leading the United States to become a British commonwealth nation. Instead of being a democracy, America is run by an oppressive theocratic government, with shades of the sanhedrin from the time of Christ evident in their governing.
From the comic book side of things, a young Bruce Wayne does see his parents gunned down in front of his eyes, but as opposed to being a random mugging or even a mob hit they were executed as part of a government conspiracy. This inspires Bruce to pursue a life in the clergy, while also donning a cape and cowl to become a grim avenger of the night.
Like a lot of Elseworlds stories there are some pretty decent ideas here, but you’ll find out soon enough that there’s a recurring theme of not going far enough. Holy Terror is a better written story than a lot of other tales in the line, even better than most of the other stories in this volume, though it suffers from the same issues that the lion’s share of Elseworlds books have: style over substance, a premise that isn’t explored well enough, and the restriction of having to craft a new world and tell a complete story in a limited space. There are some interesting points here and some truly creative uses of other DC characters, I just wish Alan Brennert was given more time to tell his story.
While Bruce’s transformation into the Batman is somewhat rushed and not quite satisfying in the context of the story, it’s in the second half when he starts investigating the council that it starts getting interesting. He comes across an entire sub-basement of human experiments and grotesques, including a man with super-speed named Barry Allen. After some wink-wink references to popular characters earlier in the book, it’s nice to see another well-known character be given something to do. It’s from Barry the Bruce learns the extent of the Council’s reach and their horrible experiments on the “unwanted” members of society, along with the presence of an alien dubbed “the Green Man” who served as a test subject before being killed after becoming too difficult to control.
It’s… a little on the nose.
Bruce’s realization that it wasn’t necessarily a man who killed his parents, but a corrupt system instead, gives the story a nice melancholic note to end on. I can’t say I’d chomp at the bit to read a sequel, but the idea that Bruce’s personal beliefs and convictions only strengthened his dedication to justice made the open ending feel earned.
For all of its narrative shortcomings, the illustrations from the great Norm Breyfogle and Lovern Kindzierski are fantastic throughout. The architecture is a nice mix of Gothic and Victorian, and Breyfogle’s Batman always cuts a menacing figure. Even if I only liked reading this, I genuinely loved looking at it.
Look, Elliot S! Maggin is great. Alan Weiss is great. José Luis García-López is great. Heck, Batman as a cowboy? That’s great.
This, though? This… is not great.
Bruce Wayne, Union officer and close correspondent of President Abraham Lincoln, is dispatched to the Nevada territories to insure everything is copacetic so the future state can finally join the Union.
At least, I’m pretty sure that’s what his mission is. Along the way, Bruce gets involved in a saloon brawl and something like twelve other Wild West cliches, and despite moving along at a surprisingly brisk pace there really isn’t a lot of substance. I say surprising because in addition to being pretty loose and aimless, this story is long, clocking in at around 70 pages.
While the story itself isn’t memorable, there are a few things worth noting here. Not all of them are necessarily good, but they are worth mentioning. Bruce (who has a mustache and soul patch out of costume that disappears whenever he dons his cowl and reappears when he unmasks without any explanation whatsoever) is actually a pretty fun character here, carefree in and out of costume, bringing to mind a swashbuckling character played by Errol Flynn rather than the usual dark, grim inspirations of the Shadow and other pulp crime heroes. He teams up with a young Native American boy named Redbird, an analogue of Robin and not the last questionable racial representation the creative team makes, along with Wild Bill Hickock and Mark Twain.
I am not kidding.
Surprisingly, Clemens’ inclusion is probably the best part of the story. Considering the fact that I rolled my eyes so hard I had to stop reading for a few moments after he was introduced, that’s no mean feat. There’s a stretch where Batman’s exploits are reported in papers that’s actually pretty fun, briefly giving the story a silent movie type feel that is welcome in the otherwise dull proceedings.
Otherwise this just feels like Maggin and Weiss couldn’t decide which story they wanted to tell, so they just threw in every Wild West trope they could think of, checked off the boxes and called it a day. The plot is so unfocused that I’d completely forgotten about Lincoln’s involvement until the end, there are two or three separate climaxes and therefore just as many endings, and the villains are almost non-existent until the story needs a cavalry charge.
Like Holy Terror before it, this is a pretty good looking book for the most part, with some silly but interesting character designs and a decent eye for action. It’s not always as clear as it could be, with a few pages that lack details, direction, or both, yet there are other times that the colors especially look remarkably beautiful.
Had this been an “imaginary story” from the Silver Age it would have been a perfectly acceptable twenty page romp through the Wild West. As it is, this is a sad misfire from a truly great creative team, one in which even a few moments of true brilliance can’t salvage an otherwise sloppy story.
I’ve owned this since probably 1997-’98, when I started really getting into comics. Since I own it, I’m positive I’ve read it. Even though I’ve read it once before, I don’t remember a single thing other than “it’s in the future” and “Robin is blonde.”
After reading it, I kind of wish I’d remained ignorant.
Think of the most generic sci-fi tropes you can: weird illnesses; a team of scrappy youngsters; hostile aliens that enslave humanity. That’s pretty much Robin 3000 in a nutshell, but for some reason Batman characters are tacked onto it. I’m not familiar with either Byron Preiss or Steven Ringgenberg beyond this, and frankly it doesn’t make me want to go hunt down either of their work. The writing is boilerplate science-fiction, but even then it’s so loosely written with so few stakes that there’s really nothing to get invested in here.
I suppose that’s why Robin is in the title, to at least give some sort of sense of familiarity, but name recognition doesn’t make much of a difference. Most of the characters are non-entities that don’t make any sort of impact, and that includes the title character, and the few attempts at story arcs and development fall flat. This is a book where the Batman of the 30th century dies in the first ten pages, and all Robin does is pretty much shrug it off and move on with his day.
There are a few funny moments that land, more thanks to P. Craig Russell’s designs than anything else, so the book is good for a few chuckles.
There’s also one development that actual got pretty interesting, only to never be mentioned again.
Getting stuck thousand of years in the past? That’s horrifying. Instead, we get a story about a boring blonde kid and his android duplicate with passing references to the Wayne family.
It’s forgettable, boring, and akin to a fever dream. In fact, even though I’ve read it twice (apparently) I’m still not entirely positive I didn’t just make it up.
If Robin 3000 was forgettable, this is memorable for all the wrong reasons.
See, it’s a sort of medieval high-fantasy with magic, prophecies, and strange creatures. The Joker is a sorcerer, looking more like Gwynplaine than ever:
Yet besides his genuinely terrifying look, courtesy of Kelley Jones, everything else in this story is just relentlessly goofy. I don’t like to just list things off with accompanying pictures as part of a review, but, well…
-Batman is a literal bat-man, born from parents who have imbued him with magical powers.
-Joker attacks “the Wild” in giant airships, straight out of your favorite Final Fantasy game.
-Kelley Jones, who has a very… specific style, just lets loose and makes things so gory and over-the-top in its violence that it’s kind of hilarious.
-And Joker’s lair is totally Dr. Wily’s castle. Totally.
As weird and silly as it is, this was a surprisingly quick read for a story that runs close to a hundred pages. Doug Moench (who is great) has very little fat on his script, and it really flies by. There isn’t anything overtly shoe-horned in to tie in to Batman lore (it took me forever to realize the villager named Jaymes was a Jim Gordon analogue), and as much as I’m not a huge fan of Jones’ style there’s a stretch of monochrome images that are incredibly striking.
It’s a really inventive use of the medium that came as a breath of fresh air, and it made perfect sense with the narrative.
Overall, I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t really like it either. The fantasy elements just feel weird with these characters, the visuals are an acquired taste, and the story itself didn’t really seem to be about anything. It’s just kind of there.
I think I need to lie down for a bit.
A Scientific Romance of Harry Houdini, the Ectoplasmic Man and that Shadowy Avenger, the Bat Man.
Going in to this one, I thought it was going to be a gimmick, a one-trick pony, a single joke stretched to the breaking point. Consider my surprise when, before I got even a third of the way through, I discovered it’s far and away the best story in the book.
The plot itself is fairly basic: children keep disappearing across Gotham, and both Batman and Harry Houdini investigate, only to cross paths and uncover an even more sinister conspiracy. What makes it work is the great interplay between the title characters, thanks to the solid script from the great Howard Chaykin and John Francis Moore.
While it is a little strange to see Batman as the “muscle” and another character serve as the brains in a partnership, the easy chemistry between Bruce and Houdini is surprisingly natural and really fun. Where most of these Elseworlds stories struggle to capture the feeling of their respective time periods, this plays like an old Arthur Conan Doyle mystery, perfectly embodying the time and place that it’s set.
In addition to the great storytelling, it also feels like a natural successor to Gotham by Gaslight. Beyond the remarkable similarities in Batman’s costume, the Bruce Wayne depicted here could have easily been the same one that was in the first tale in the line. It may be unofficial and a tenuous grab, but it certainly fills a void that others couldn’t.
Mark Chiarello’s gorgeous, haunting artwork is fantastic as well, falling somewhere between watercolors and oil paintings. It’s moody and creepy when it needs to be, but never dull, blurry, or confusing. As great as it is to read, it’s just as great to see.
Despite a strong start and great pace, the story becomes a run of the mill vampire tale toward the end, so the finale is a bit of a letdown, and there are a few uses of (historically accurate) ethnic slurs that are pretty uncomfortable. It’s fitting for the time and place, and the writers aren’t sympathetic toward such epithets, but it’s a bit jarring to read nonetheless.
I wouldn’t say the entire volume is worth buying for this one story, but it’s a bright spot in otherwise grim surroundings. Of everything collected here, this is what I want to see more of, and that’s one of the best things you can say about a story.
Or, “What if Bruce Wayne was Victor Frankenstein?”
Based loosely (though not as loosely as a lot of interpretations) on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Castle of the Bat explores the obsessive side of Bruce Wayne’s personality as it casts him in the role of the titular doctor. There are actually some pretty interesting themes here, and Bruce’s devotion to science based on his father’s last words add a layer of guilt to Bruce’s motivations that I wasn’t expecting.
That’s not to say the entire thing is great, though. The death of the Waynes by a highway robber is an interesting idea, but it’s poorly fleshed out and almost shoe-horned into the final conflict. The narrative threads don’t really tie together, and other than the main idea of re-animating a corpse, none of the subplots are particularly interesting.
It’s when writer Jack Harris chooses to focus on Bruce and his scientific discoveries that the story is at its best, but even then it never really rises above B-movie goofiness. Still, like I said, there are some decent ideas here: Bruce is a pretty interesting figure, less the driven hero and more an obsessed madman, which fits with the Frankenstein allusions; Alfred is cast in the “Igor” role, complete with requisite hunchback, which is hilariously on the nose and still absolutely appropriate; and, while not an “idea,” Bo Hampton’s pencils look great throughout.
Still, this is a story where Bruce Wayne re-animates his dead father, only to have him turn into a literal bat-man.
And when I say a bat-man, I mean a literal bat-man:
For its narrative flaws, I actually enjoyed this more in retrospect than I thought I would. It isn’t great, but it’s fairly enjoyable, and a much faster read than anticipated.
This one is pretty self-explanatory: Batman becomes a Green Lantern. As a concept, it mostly delivers, but it never really rises to the heights that it could and doesn’t really do an awful lot with its central idea.
Batman’s origin is pretty much the same, save for one detail: lying defeated in his study, Bruce begs his father for some sort of sign as to the direction he should take his crusade. Instead of being visited by a bat, the ghostly form of Abin Sur appears instead.
Yes, Bruce Wayne was the closest man to the dying Green Lantern of Sector 2814, and being a man of great will he is chosen as his successor.
Similar to Castle of the Bat, there’s a lot here about Bruce’s obsessions and what happens when power goes unchecked, and the latter provides the majority of conflict in the narrative.
I mean, sure, he mouths off to the Guardians of the Universe, but who amongst us hasn’t wanted to do that from time to time? There are those who would, and then there are liars.
It’s rather fascinating seeing Bruce go down a different path as a hero, this time aided by the most powerful weapon in the universe rather than being a self-made man. As such, his relationships with familiar characters are much more strained (he and Gordon are hardly friendly, for one), and there’s a precursor to the similar conflict Bruce had in the recent Darkseid War story: when he can easily stop all crime, should he?
It’s when Barr starts throwing in a bunch of familiar heroes and villains that things get messy, and more than that the climax is pretty silly.
Jerry Bingham’s pencils look fantastic throughout, there’s no question, but those costumes aren’t doing anyone any favors.
Flawed as it is, there was great potential here, and it’s strange that there wasn’t ever a follow-up. I can’t say I loved Batman’s tenure as a Green Lantern, but I wouldn’t have minded reading more adventures about it.
Oof, this is… not good.
If In Darkest Knight had great potential and just missed the mark, Dark Allegiances is such a misfire that… you know, I can’t think of any applicable metaphors right now. It just doesn’t work. At all.
I mean, this is a story that promises to be about Batman fighting both the Ku Klux Klan and Hitler, with a pretty sweet takedown of the former opening the story. It’s an interesting start, made all the better by some moody artwork from Howard Chaykin.
Just look at Batman’s design:
That is intense, and it’s such a shame that the normally great Chaykin just fumbles the delivery so badly.
The problem is that even though this takes place during World War II, there really isn’t a consistent sense of time and place. Where a story like The Devil’s Workshop felt like a period piece, with a great use of setting and slang that was appropriate to the time, Dark Allegiances almost feels like a farce or parody with its broad humor and lack of focus. The problem is, I don’t think Chaykin was in on the joke.
The plot, as it is, is incredibly muddled and unclear: it begins promisingly, but then focuses more on Bruce’s relationship with a Hollywood starlet and a conspiracy to… sell arms to the Nazis, I guess? It really doesn’t flow very well, which is sad because Chaykin wrote the best story in this collection, too. Maybe if it wasn’t at the end of the collection it would have read better; as it is it’s a pretty disappointing finish to an already uneven trade.
As tough as it was to read, it wasn’t bad to look at. There are some questionable design choices, especially with some of the female characters, but anything to do with Batman’s look is pretty solid, and the Batmobile is sweet:
Plus, we get to see Adolf Hitler in his casual wear:
So that’s… that’s something, alright.
Bonus Content: Nothing whatsoever.
Value: For just over twenty bucks, this is a lot of material, but with only a few stories worth reading I’d say get it used or at a pretty sizable discount.
Overall: It’s hard to fault these for at least trying to do something different, and there are some good ideas here. With only two or three genuinely good stories, though, it’s difficult to recommend the trade as anything more than a curiosity except for the most hardcore of collectors. What’s good is really good, but what’s bad is pretty bad; there’s very little middle ground. Even so, there are some great creative teams putting their own spins on the Dark Knight, and there should always be room allotted for creative takes on these characters.