Monday, December 18, 2017


If it's not too presumptuous, I'd like to dedicate this post to the memory of Len Wein.

Writer: Len Wein
Artists: John Byrne & Jim Aparo (issue 1) & Jim Aparo (issues 2-3)
Colorist: Glynis Wein | Letterers: John Costanza (issue 1) & Jim Aparo (issues 2-3)
Editor: Paul Levitz

As discussed briefly when I unboxed TALES OF THE BATMAN: LEN WEIN about three years ago (!!), I owned THE UNTOLD LEGEND OF THE BATMAN as a child, in the form of a black-and-white, paperback novel-sized reprint which collected all three issues, edited together into a single story. I don't recall how many times I read it, but it must have been more than once, because the story is still crystal clear in my head even after all these years. Though it helps that many of the key moments this tale covers via flashback are perennial Batman classics, nearly all of them appearing in some form or another in THE GREATEST BATMAN STORIES EVER TOLD, which I also had as a youngster (and which I know for a fact that I read, re-read, and read again many times over until it was on the verge of falling apart).

UNTOLD LEGEND presents itself as a mystery story in three issues, but the mystery itself is really merely a vehicle for Len Wein, at the time the writer of the monthly BATMAN series, to tie together and codify numerous bits and pieces of the Batman's past which had been trickled out over the character's then-forty year history.

(Also, being a Marvel kid, and knowing that the Marvel Universe was less than twenty years old when I was born in late 1978, it's kind of crazy for me to realize that Batman and Superman were already forty at this point! Spider-Man didn't have his fortieth anniversary until after I finished college!)

The story begins when Batman receives, in the mail, the mangled remains of the costume his father wore as the "original" Batman, along with a note from some mysterious party threatening a long-term plot to destroy him. The Darknight Detective then sets out into a relentless search for his mystery foe. Along the way he reminisces about several of the key moments in his life and career, visits with Alfred, Robin, and Commissioner Gordon, and eventually makes his way to Wayne Manor, where it's revealed that the man out to get him is... himself! Thanks to a recent explosion in the pages of Wein's contemporaneous BATMAN issues, our hero has become schizophrenic and, as Bruce Wayne, blames Batman for robbing him of a normal life. Of course he snaps out of it in the end (with Robin's help), returns to his old self, and that's that.

As I said, the mystery isn't the main draw here. It's window dressing and, though it would've been nice to see it as a bit more than that, it's understandable that with a ton of history to cover and only three issues in which to do it, Wein gives it relatively short shrift. Indeed, it's kind of remarkable he bothered with such a premise in the first place. This series could have easily been a simple "sourcebook" or a few issues of Batman and Robin sitting around the Batcave, reminiscing.

And with regards to Batman's history, it's nice to see so many of the major points presented here. We get the flashback to Thomas Wayne as the original Batman, noted above (it was a costume he wore to a party where he was forced into action clobbering some gangsters), we see the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne and we meet young Bruce's guardian, Uncle Philip, and Mrs. Chilton, the woman who raised him. Remember, this is pre-CRISIS Batman we're talking about. It wasn't until Frank Miller came along with BATMAN: YEAR ONE that we got the version of the story the world knows today, with Bruce as a true orphan, raised by the family butler, Alfred with help from Leslie Tompkins.

We also see Bruce as the original Robin, wearing the costume which would eventually become Dick Grayson's, as he studied and trained under Gotham's greatest detective, Harvey Harris. We're told that in college, Bruce majored in Criminology with a minor in Psychology. It's fascinating to realize that in the pre-CRISIS continuity, Bruce never traveled the world, learning from martial arts masters and other exotic teachers. He did pretty much all his training in or around Gotham City!

Moving along, we see Bruce take up the mantle of Batman, eventually avenge himself on his parents' killer, Joe Chill (who, as it turns out, is Mrs. Chilton's son), and finally learn that Chill was actually working for a gangster named Lew Moxon when he killed the Waynes. Batman's vengeance on Moxon is seen here as well, closing out his flashbacks in the first issue.

Moving forward, other characters begin to reminisce as well when Batman crosses their paths. Robin recalls his origin (complete with the fact that he was named a ward of Bruce Wayne the very day after his parents were killed) and his revenge on the man who killed his parents, Boss Zucco. Alfred's history as a fighter in World War II is touched upon as well, along with the bizarre pre-CRISIS origin that saw him leave a successful acting career because his father asked him, on his deathbed, to keep the family tradition of domestic service alive. Thus, Alfred showed up one day, unannounced, at Wayne Manor, moved in against the objections of Bruce and Dick, and soon learned their secret.

This is the point where I need to pause. Initially it seemed as if this series was an opportunity for Wein to take the major Batman moments of the past, hammer them into a satisfying whole, and perhaps excise a bit of the Silver Age silliness to bring them in line with the seventies "Darknight Detective" Batman. (Mind you, I have nothing against Silver Age silliness; I just find it odd that at this point, when Batman had become a much more serious character, some of this odd stuff was still being upheld.) The artwork, at least, hews in this direction. Byrne and Aparo draw Batman in his Neal Adams-inspired prime, billowing cape, tall ears, and all, even when flashing back to stories which were originally illustrated in the jolly style of Dick Sprang.

But for whatever reason, despite a chance to update some of the more questionable older stuff into a modern sensibility, Wein keeps much of it as-was -- and as a result, a lot of it is really at odds with the dark, brooding artwork!

Anyway -- we get recaps of the Joker's and Two-Face's origins before the Batmobile explodes to close out issue 2 -- thus setting up a couple pages in issue 3 for Robin to phone up Jack Edison, "the country's greatest stunt-driver" to have him build a new Batmobile for the Dynamic Duo. Meanwhile, Batman visits with Commissioner Gordon and we learn their history together, beginning with mistrust on Gordon's part and eventually evolving into a valued partnership for both. I'm actually not certain how much of this already existed and how much was pure Wein. I know that Gordon simply appeared, fully formed, in the early Batman stories, but I don't know if this history was ever fleshed out prior to UNTOLD LEGEND.

At any rate, Gordon also spends some time reminiscing about his daughter, Barbara, and her role as Batgirl, and soon after, Batman -- now as Bruce Wayne -- stops by his office at the Wayne Foundation Building for a chat with Lucius Fox -- an original Wein creation from the pages of BATMAN who had become a regular member of the supporting cast around this time. A few pages later, our hero heads for Wayne Manor where the story comes to its end as described above.

I like UNTOLD LEGEND for the most part. It's nice to have all this Batman history in one place, at least -- and the artwork is positively beautiful throughout. I believe John Byrne was slated to pencil all three installments, but he's said that the plot for issue 2 was delayed numerous times and he eventually had to drop out of the project due to his deadlines at Marvel. (UNTOLD LEGEND #1 is cover dated July of 1980, the same month Byrne drew CAPTAIN AMERICA 247, X-MEN 135, and a fill-in on AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 206!)

But, that said, I can't help thinking this series could've been much more. CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS was barely a twinkle in anyone's eye at this point, so this could have been DC's chance to really solidify a backstory for one of their flagship characters, tying previously disparate events together, updating bits that were a little hokey by the standards of 1980, and in general assembling a "soft reboot" for the character. UNTOLD LEGEND could've been BATMAN: YEAR ONE before BATMAN: YEAR ONE was BATMAN: YEAR ONE. But instead, while enjoyable on its own merits, it's really just a retelling, rather than a reconfiguring, of Batman's long history.


  1. When DC Comics adapted SUPERFRIENDS, it was revealed Wendy was Harvey Harris' niece.

    1. Thanks, angmc43! I always love when I post something DC and you show up with trivia like this. In fact, you may have a lot more to say around here beginning in a couple weeks, if you take my meaning...