Bat-Classics is a regular column in which How To Love Comics recommends Batman stories from yesteryear. You can find all the reading recommendations here.
In 1991, Alan Grant wrote “The Last Batman Story.” It wasn’t the last Last Batman Story story. DC is still letting people take a crack at those, though I doubt anything they’re doing today can be tied back to what was going on in this one random Grant story from 91. It wasn’t the first, either, and it wears the influence of prior Last Batman stories on its sleeve. It might be called one thing and feel like something else, neither Batman’s first nor his last ending. But it is definitely a Batman story. And with Grant, a Batman story is enough.
Grant’s “Last Batman Story” was published by DC Comics in Batman Annual #15, with pencils by Jim Fern, inks by Steve Leialoha, colors by Adrienne Roy, and letters by John Costanza. Grant was the writer of DC’s ongoing Batman series, but annuals are traditionally departures from whatever was going on month to month in the title. And in 1991, Dennis O’Neil (who also edited this issue) was behind another comic convention that tends to drive storylines off their tracks: a crossover event. A crisis in the future that Grant was forced to address. Armageddon 2001.
Armageddon 2001 had its own run, a miniseries and a sequel, that was hyped by a line-wide tie-in with most of 1991’s DC annuals. Each of the tie-ins was set in 1991, a time traveler named Waverider appearing to prevent a catastrophe that would occur in a decade (2001), sending his reality into a state of total chaos (Armageddon). So each 91 Annual had a standalone 1991 story where the title’s superhero gets to see what their life is like at the dawn of the new millennium. Or, you know, they are revealed to be the secret betrayer that kicks off the event. Quality varies from annual to annual.
In Grant’s hands, Batman’s glimpse into the future is an arch macabre murder mystery. While investigating the serial deaths of his Rogues Gallery, Batman accidentally causes the Penguin’s death– and is going to the electric chair for it! You would think a story where Batman is behind bars and Catwoman is doing all the sleuthing would be more a Detective Comics story than a Batman one, but Grant uses the jail cell as a confessional centerpiece for Bruce Wayne to explore his feelings about responsibility and justice. Those closest to him make arguments that make sense to a Gordon or a Robin, and Bruce argues back.
Jim Fern does some striking, inventive work penciling this issue. Grant and Fern work together well, with very creative blocking for all these intimate one-on-one character moments, and Grant putting a great deal into the script that utilized Fern’s ability to capture anxiety and doubt in facial expressions. Fern places lips close to each other, fills eyes with concern without giving them tears. It’s something I also find compelling about Junji Ito’s work; his ability to render fear in a face hits my stomach harder than the actual horrors. Some of Fern’s panels resemble the extreme close-ups you’d find in their peer Kyle Baker’s Why I Hate Saturn (or avant garde French films). Saturn was put out by Piranha Press, a DC imprint, which became Paradox Press in the mid-90s, and saw much work from Fern as an artist for their weird-but-true Big Books series.
Fern’s style pays clear homage to the established look of the Norm Breyfogle Batman, the artist who worked with Grant during the regular Batman run. Tall tall ears on the cowl, gray and blue suit with the oval medallion of black and yellow, gothic operatic conventions that never could quite outpace the cartoonish and comic book. Grant draws parallels in his story to Frank Miller’s epic The Dark Knight Returns, and Fern also nods at Miller’s work, setting television screen panels in front of a larger, shared backdrop and open page, coming up to the Joker’s waist. Fern’s figures, inked by Leialoha, have more heft to them than Breyfogle, but less than Miller. Between how he does action and how he portrays faces in closeup, Fern really reminds me of another of his contemporaries, Paul Gulacy. Gulacy’s She-Devil shared space with Barry Windsor Smith’s Weapon X in the Marvel Comics Presents anthology, coming out at the same time as the Grant and Breyfogle Batman run. A lot of experimenting in the early 90s with how to make comics universally acceptable but still serious, if not sophisticated.
That said, there’s definitely a scene with Killer Croc – one of the only villains left alive in 2001 – sitting at a big executive’s desk trying to fill out paperwork that is 0% Elmore Leonard, 100% Dick Tracy. 200% Snake and Bacon’s Cartoon Cabaret. I dig where Grant and Fern are making tortured cinema out of Bruce Wayne’s penance, but the fight sequence that ensues between Croc and Catwoman is just as exciting a deconstruction of what comics usually look like. A series of wrestling holds roll all over the page, no panels necessary. You can feel the creators trying out cool ideas (what annuals are for, right?), and the fun they’re having is infectious.
What makes this issue good is the difference between having to do something and getting to do something. An annual is going to have to tell a different story than the series, and one that ends with the issue. Including a line-wide tie-in means required, outside characters and circumstances that must be involved. Rather than despair, a legend sees constraint and cracks their knuckles. I love Ann Nocenti and John Romita Jr (another artist who understands the line between gothic and chunky) having a Fall of the Mutants tie-in in Daredevil means the X-team shows up in the first pages, throws the city into chaos, and then immediately flies away to leave Matt to clean up their aftermath for the rest/bulk of the issue. G Willow Wilson used Civil War II to have Kamala Khan and Miles Morales crush on each other. Armageddon 2001 saw Superman become President in Action Comics, and Guy Gardener the Green Lantern starting a cult in Keith Giffen’s Justice League. “The Last Batman Story” stands out because Grant went all out.
Actually, I have a confession, too. I wanted to write about the 91 Batman Annual because it doesn’t stand out. It’s absurd and histrionic and gratifying. What makes creators like Alan Grant legends isn’t only that they had these stories you couldn’t ignore, that they wrote the books you absolutely had to read. Grant is beloved because, yeah, he did do that, but he could also write a series for years that was a pleasure to follow. A good read monthly. You can pull anything, 1991’s Batman Annual #15, from his catalog and it is going to grab your attention and light up your imagination.