Detective Comics: the history of “Mythology”

The current story in Detective Comics, “Mythology,” has been a thrilling read since it kicked off in issue #994.  Under the pen of the inimitable Peter J. Tomasi, the arc has seen Batman investigate a murder mystery that has led him to various teachers and confidants from his past.  While it may not have been their stated intention, I couldn’t help but feel that Tomasi and artist Doug Mahnke touched on so much of the Dark Knight’s history to remind us just how big the world of Batman really is.  Gotham City is a pretty big place, but Batman’s story has taken him outside of the city limits numerous times over the decades, building a network of allies and partners that stretch across the world.

In a series of posts at Comics Now, I wrote about the various people Bruce encounters in this arc, and the particular place they each have in his history as a character.  Some characters have been part of his story from the beginning, others were introduced later yet quickly became an established part of his mythology, and still others haven’t had a connection with Batman in the comics until now.  No matter how long they’ve been a part of the story, though, each character contributes to the vast, intricate, and rich history of the Dark Knight Detective.

Leslie Thompkins

It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, but Peter J. Tomasi and Doug Mahnke’s current run has been excellent. Since the duo came on to the title as the creative team with issue 994, DC’s flagship series has had life injected into it after several years of ups and downs.

Again, this isn’t surprising given the pedigree of writer Tomasi and artist Mahnke, who have been regular collaborators for years and are some of the most reliable industry vets you’re likely to find. What really sets their current arc apart, though, is how confident and classic it feels. The pair have only been on the title for a handful of issues at this point, yet the “Mythology” story kicked off like Tomasi had been writing ‘Tec for years.

I mean, he’s no stranger to the title or the characters, so he kind of has, but… you know what I mean. This doesn’t feel like a big, flashy new start, a change to an established status quo.

No, the current arc on Detective Comics feels like the comics of yesteryear, particularly Batman stories from the 1970s. It’s telling its own, self-contained mystery, but there isn’t a sense of isolation. Batman’s current adventure feels like its part of a greater overall narrative, another piece of Batman’s long, rich history.

And that is what I appreciate about it the most: this story draws from various events in Batman’s past. It’s an old-fashioned murder mystery, which is refreshing to read, and one that delivers on the promise of exploring Batman’s past. Rather than drawing on “untold events from the Caped Crusader’s past” or revealing a heretofore unknown figure with ties to Bruce’s earlier life, Tomasi’s mystery incorporates well-established figures and characters to weave its broad tapestry. After all, the catalyst that kicks everything off is a recreation of the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, with even the most minute of details replicated in the staging.

As I said, the story feels like the globetrotting adventures of the 1970s, where Denny O’Neil and the likes of Neal Adams and Dick Giordano would depict Batman in all sorts of scenarios, and not always confined to Gotham City’s borders. Even more, these stories were as much about Bruce Wayne as they were about Batman, and the supporting cast was full of diverse characters who served a variety of different purposes. There was Lucius Fox, who Bruce confided with in the day to day workings of Wayne Enterprises, and the ever present Alfred Pennyworth, gentleman’s gentleman and long-suffering assistant and father figure.

It’s fitting, then, that Tomasi’s story recalls this era, as a prominent figure introduced by O’Neil and Giordano plays a pivotal role: Dr. Leslie Thompkins, long-time mentor and confidant to Bruce Wayne, and an unfortunate victim of the arc’s mysterious mastermind.

Leslie was introduced in Detective Comics #457 and has been a comforting presence ever since. She runs a free clinic on Park Row, the notorious “Crime Alley” where the Waynes were murdered, and services the destitute and less fortunate of the area. She loves Bruce, but doesn’t approve of his choice to be the Batman. Unlike Alfred, who is perhaps just as apprehensive but still assists with his Dark Knight crusade, Leslie has no qualms about voicing her disapproval.

To me, the most important thing about Leslie’s presence is something that is too often missing in modern Batman comics: she’s a normal person. It used to be that you would get just as much Bruce Wayne as Batman in a comic, with Bruce having a life outside of the cape and cowl. It made the world feel bigger, and the stories all the richer, because there were multiple things going on at one time, often independent of one another. Someone like Leslie Thompkins may have a connection to both Bruce and Batman, but she is somebody that can interact with either character for entirely different reasons.

More than that, she is not a superhero or crimefighter, nor does she have any aspirations to become one. She is a humble doctor, and whether Batman exists or not she would continue to be a doctor. She’s important in the same way a Vicki Vale or a Jim Gordon or a Lucius Fox is important: they’re everyday people from all walks of life who represent the types of people Batman fights for. Even Harvey Dent plays a similar role on both sides of the fence, starting out as a friend of Bruce Wayne and ending up as a villain of the Batman.

For Gotham isn’t just a city full of masked vigilantes and costumed lunatics; it’s a city of people like you and me. People who have jobs and lives. People whose presence makes Gotham feel like a bigger place, an actual city that has actual people that are actually worth saving. By including a person like Leslie Thompkins in their story, Tomasi and Mahnke have ensured that theirs is not an isolated, claustrophobic tale. No, it’s one that feels like it’s part of now eighty years worth of stories, with a timeless quality that isn’t often evident in modern comics storytelling.

Kyodai Ken

Without question, Batman has one of the strongest supporting casts in all of comics.  Whether friend or foe, there are dozens of characters that have name recognition even for the most casual of fans.  You’d be hard pressed to find somebody who doesn’t at least know names like Alfred Pennyworth, Dick Grayson, and Harvey Dent, for instance.  His is a group of allies and enemies that is hardly rivaled by any other character in fiction.

Since Batman has had such a strong presence in media outside of comics as well, it’s only fitting that some original characters would make their way into different adaptations.  What’s surprising, though, is the amount of memorable characters from various Batman television and film projects that haven’t made their way to the comic page.  It’s not without precedent, after all, as Alfred was originally developed for a motion picture serial, much like Superman’s pal Jimmy Olsen made his debut on a radio program.  And we all know that both Harley Quinn and Renee Montoya we’re introduced in Batman: The Animated Series before finding life in comics canon.

Characters like Alexander Knox, Gossip Gerty, and Summer Gleeson were all created specifically for film and television, and I’m waiting for the day that DC decides to publish a Gotham Gazette ongoing featuring those three alongside Vicki Vale and Jack Ryder.  The fact that these characters, even if they’re fairly minor supporting roles, have never made their way over to comics is kind of astonishing.  Even someone like Rachel Dawes– a major character in one of the most successful film franchises of all time– would have surely made some sort of appearance by now.  But no, nothing.

Then again, the nature of those characters would make it difficult to translate to the comics page.  Rachel especially, since in the films she was so tied to Bruce’s past that it would require quite a bit of retconning to fir her into the mainstream comics narrative.  Otherwise, so many changes would need to be made that you might as well just create an entirely new character.  As far as Knox, Gleeson, and Gerty go, they could easily be bit players in cameo roles, but it’s understandable why nobody as bothered yet.

There is one character that probably should have made his way to the comics by now, though, and that is Kyodai Ken.

At long last, in the current Detective Comics arc “Mythology,” Peter Tomasi has finally brought Kyodai into comics continuity.  Given his role in Bruce’s past, he’s the perfect choice to broaden and deepen a time in Batman’s history that is still relatively fertile ground for storytelling.

To this point, Kyodai Ken had only appeared in Batman: The Animated Series and a handful of related comics.  He debuted in the episode Night of the Ninja and came back in Day of the Samurai, two of the stronger episodes of the series, and is unique among the Dark Knight’s rogues gallery: he’s that rare antagonist who is an adversary of Bruce Wayne, not Batman.

Bruce met Kyodai when he went to train with Yoru-sensei.  Kyodai was one of the sensei’s top students, besting even Bruce, until he was exiled from the dojo for trying to steal some sacred weapons.  The pair would face off again, years later, until Kyodai’s apparent demise in a volcanic explosion.

I mean, if you’re going to go, go out in the coolest way possible.

While this history has yet to be explored by Tomasi, the seeds have been planted.  Bruce and Kyodai cross paths in Detective Comics #996, when Bruce heads to North Korea’s Pektu-San Mountains to ensure his old Sensei is safe.  Unfortunately, disaster has already struck, leaving Kyodai the lone survivor of an attempt on Sensei’s life.  Sensei was kept safe, thankfully, but given his fatigue, Kyodai is bested by Batman quite easily.  Even if this is the first time Bruce and Kyodai have ever met (that detail is left ambiguous), the shame a prized pupil like Kyodai would feel at being beaten by both a “lesser pupil” like Batman and a creature that only attacked because of Batman would certainly sow seeds of bitterness.

If Bruce and Kyodai do not have a history together, it’s certainly a change from the source, but one that would allow for some great storytelling.  Revisiting the time when Bruce traveled the world to build his skill-set and learn various martial arts techniques is always fascinating, and having a foil like Kyodai in place would add another layer of drama to this time in Batman’s history.  It’s not like “Batman versus all of the ninjas” isn’t a proven recipe for success or anything.

Plus, who knows?  Maybe this will open the door for more non-comics characters to appear and I can finally get me some Knox and Gerty stories.

Thaddeus Brown

In 1971, Jack Kirby kicked off his ambitious Fourth World Saga at DC Comics.  The cosmic epic featured brand new characters whose adventures stretched from Earth to the far reaches of space, with the war between the peace-loving inhabitants of New Genesis and the oppressive hordes of Apokolips raging ever on.

April of that same year saw the introduction of Mister Miracle in his self-titled series. Scott Free, the series’ protagonist, would be revealed to be the son of Highfather of New Genesis, who bartered a deal with Darkseid of Apokolips to call for an armistice in their never-ending war. The terms? Highfather and Darkseid would exchange their sons, with Darkseid’s progeny Orion being raised on peaceful New Genesis while Scott suffered under the hellish tutelage of Darkseid and the “nursemaid” Granny Goodness.

Eventually, Scott developed a propensity for escaping any trap, making his way out of the “Terror Orphanage” he called home time and again before ultimately making his way to Earth. It was here that Scott met Thaddeus Brown, the original Mister Miracle, known far and wide as one of the world’s greatest escape artists.

Brown took Free under his wing, teaching him about his routines and introducing him to his assistant Oberon. Unfortunately, Brown was a target of a local Intergang cell, and he met his untimely end at the hands of a sniper. Scott Free donned Brown’s costume and exacted revenge on the thugs that killed his mentor, then proceeded to take up the mantle of Mister Miracle to become the world’s greatest escape artist himself. After he was laid to rest, Brown has never been seen in the pages of a comic since, save for in dialogue and the occasional flashback.

That is, until now, when Peter Tomasi and Doug Mahnke brought him back in the pages of Detective Comics.

Thanks to the machinations of an unseen force, Bruce Wayne has been travelling the world in the “Mythology” arc, tracking down notable figures from his past who helped shape him into the World’s Greatest Detective. Beginning with the untimely death of Leslie Thompkins, Batman has crossed paths with Henri Ducard, who taught him to be a detective; Yoru-sensei (and his pupil Kyodai Ken) who trained Bruce in various martial arts; and eventually Thaddeus Brown, fully decked out in that classic Mister Miracle costume.

While there may not be explicit precedent that Bruce studied under Brown, it makes perfect sense: Bruce wants to be the best, so he wants to learn from the best. If Thaddeus Brown was indeed the world’s greatest escape artist, why wouldn’t Bruce Wayne seek out his counsel? It’s a retcon that works, because like Bruce’s time studying under various martial arts masters, there’s plenty of room in his globetrotting to fit in even a short tenure with a master like Brown.

It’s not just a good change to his backstory, either; Bruce and Thaddeus’ brief adventure together makes for some mighty fine comics. Detective Comics #996 ends with Bruce encountering Brown, only for the pair to be swallowed up by some sort of mysterious deathtrap. Issue 997 is where the real meat of the story can be found, as the duo find themselves underwater, strapped to chairs and surrounded by hungry sharks. What follows is a thrilling escape, with Batman and Brown both using their wits and skills to escape from the threefold death trap. It’s one of the most exhilarating single issues that I’m sure to read this year, and it’s only February.

While their time together is brief, and quite a bit of it takes place underwater, Tomasi writes Bruce and Thaddeus like they’ve known each other for years. Even if this is a new fold in the history of Batman, it’s believable thanks to their easy chemistry together and the logical reasons as to why they’d know each other. Their time together is cut short relatively quickly, but more because Bruce doesn’t want any harm to come to his former teacher than any sort of stubborn refusal. Hopefully we can see the duo team up again in the future, or explore their history together as student and teacher.

The question does remain as to how Brown survived an assassin’s bullet all those years ago, of course. But then, as the world’s greatest escape artist, if he can escape the jaws of a ravenous shark, who’s to say he can’t escape the icy grip of death itself?

Hugo Strange

There are several members of Batman’s rogues gallery that are almost as famous as the Caped Crusader himself. You’d be hard pressed to find somebody who doesn’t recognize names like “the Joker” and “Catwoman,” and villains like Poison Ivy, the Penguin, the Riddler, and the Scarecrow have been pop culture staples for decades. Even relatively newer creations like Bane and Harley Quinn– characters who were introduced after Batman celebrated his half-centennial anniversary– are widely recognized by the larger public.

There’s one villain who predates them all, though, debuting in the pages of Detective Comics before even the Joker. That is one Professor Hugo Strange, the first of Batman’s recurring villains when the was still largely taking on the likes of gangsters and thugs.

With such a long history with the Dark Knight, it’s fitting that Peter Tomasi and Doug Mahnke would utilize Strange in their “Mythology” arc in Detective Comics. After all, if they’re going to have Batman interact with various characters throughout his history, why not go back to the very beginning?

It’s stran– kind of funny, though, that Strange is so wrapped up in Batman’s history, considering he was absent for a large portion of it. Aside from a handful of appearances early in Batman’s career, Strange did not appear in comics again for the better part of four decades. The duo first cross paths when Strange uses his scientific prowess to generate a dense fog from “concentrated lightning” (comics are the best), which he uses to aid in… robbing banks.

Hey, he’s gotta pay the bills somehow.

The more well known of Strange’s early stories is from Batman #1, where he unleashes a horde of “monster men” upon Gotham. It’s at the end of this adventure that Strange is presumed dead, not to be seen in a comic again until the absolutely incredible “Strange Apparitions” story arc.

And friends, everything you’re heard about this arc is accurate: it is one of the best Batman stories of all time. It reintroduces both Strange and Deadshot into comics continuity, contains the classic stories “The Laughing Fish” and “Sign of the Joker,” and introduced characters like Rupert Thorne and Silver St. Cloud. It’s full of action, drama, and romance, and contained career-best work from legends like Marshall Rogers, Steve Englehart, Len Wein, and Walt Simonson.

And boy, is Hugo Strange an absolute delight during the whole thing. Obsessed with the Batman, Strange decides that he will auction off the Dark Knight’s secret identity to the highest bidder. Before he can do so, though, Strange is apparently killed by some of Rupert Thorne’s men, and his maybe-maybe-not ghost spends the rest of the arc haunting Thorne. It’s great.

Strange was reintroduced into continuity again in the Legends of the Dark Knight story “Prey,” where he takes his examination of Batman’s psyche to obsessive lengths, which includes dressing up in a Batman costume and just being an all-around wacko. Since then, he has popped up here and there to be a thorn in Batman’s side, disguising his own psychosis with a veneer of legitimacy. Most recently, Strange was the driving force behind the “Night of the Monster Men” crossover, which saw a group of giant, monstrous creatures attack Gotham City.

In “Mythology,” Batman confronts Strange in his laboratory, believing Strange to be behind the creation of the bizarre monster that has been attacking people from Bruce’s past. It’s a brief encounter, but a no less memorable one, as Strange is once again decked out in his own Batman costume while he conducts his experiments. It’s a bizarre visual by design, belying Strange’s perceived sense of intellectual and psychological superiority and revealing him as the madman that he is.

Plus Batman backhands him something fierce, which is always delightful.


Even with his brief appearance in Detective Comics #998, Hugo Strange’s presence continues to present some unique storytelling opportunities. He’s a character that began as a typical mad scientist, only to eventually be revealed to be just as psychologically unhinged as the patients he deigns to help. With roots in the earliest days of Batman, Strange is the perfect type of character to include in an exploration of the Dark Knight’s history.

And full disclosure: this was mostly just an excuse to talk about the greatness of “Strange Apparitions,” because seriously, that arc is the best.