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 the wake of the startling success of Tim Burton’s 1989 film Batman, DC Comics began printing Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight. This series – which sought to emulate the tones of recent classics like Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One – became the breeding ground for thought-provoking stories about the Caped Crusader. Its first five issues, written by Dennis O’Neill, penciled by Edward Hannigan, and inked by John Beatty, were the arc “Batman: Shaman” – a dissection of Bruce Wayne and Batman that is unlike anything that had come before, or perhaps since. Its first issue, Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #1, began our journey into the mind of our protagonist using symbolism and mythological imagery. The final issue of “Batman: Shaman” sees Bruce Wayne fully embracing symbolism to create a mythology of his own.
O’Neill plunges us immediately into danger. The opening scene has Bruce following a guide through a treacherous climb up a mountainside in Alaska. As if that wasn’t enough, his guide’s head soon explodes in a splatter of blood, as the criminal they were both looking for has instead found them. Bruce tangles with the killer, saving his own life at the cost of his supplies and winter coat. He’s left shivering, buffeted by the unrelenting blizzard, as his sweat turns to ice around his eyes. When he collapses in the snow, it looks like it’s the end for the young Mr. Wayne.
Of course, that’s not where the story ends. Some natives to the Alaskan area take him in and nurse him back to health, but not before Bruce’s dying mind sees a harrowing vision. In his nightmare, he’s a young boy again, looking on as a twisted hand shoots bullets through his shocked parents. His parents, made of ice in this hallucination, shatter to pieces. The shooter – a Frosty the Snowman lookalike – merrily skips away while Bruce falls to his knees, staring at the dwindling puddle of water his parents left behind.
Were it not Hannigan and Beatty drawing this sequence, maybe it would come off as kind of ridiculous. Instead, the scene is mocking and glib. The snowman’s sinister pebble grin and drooping carrot nose makes him look truly wicked. His skipping away highlights the sheer flippancy of his act of murder. And finally, the melting ice puddle speaks deeply to what drives Bruce. Unlike the bodies of his parents, this ice will eventually fade away completely. There will be no trace left of the people he loved. As he lays dying in the snow, he suddenly feels like his parents’ sacrifice was for nothing. Their deaths meant nothing, because his life meant nothing.
When Bruce begins to wake, he’s faced with a shaman in a bat mask. The shaman tells Bruce a story from his culture, the story of the Bat and the Raven. It’s a story that is meant to carry with it mystical properties of healing. And Bruce does, in fact, recover. Hannigan and Beatty completely change their style to mimic Native American art for the story. The panels look like sections carved into a totem pole. The animals in the story are shown in shapes, with exaggerated limbs and faces that sometimes look human. The panel borders are decorated with simple drawings of heads, footprints, and fish. It enhances the mythological element to these pages. You feel as though these pages would be better off painted on the back of animal skins than printed on paper. When the story is over, we get three panels side by side. The first shows the bat mask of the shaman. It opens in the next panel and reveals yet another mask beneath it in the third panel. The mask underneath is that of a human face. Similar images were used for the covers of each issue of this arc.
Again, O’Neill, Hannigan, and Beatty are trudging further in the depths of Bruce Wayne’s soul. This is a man who is always playing a role. He’s always wearing a mask. When he takes off his mask as Batman, he’s still pretending to be someone he’s not. This creative team begs the question, “who is Bruce really?”
As the story progresses, we see moments that overlap with Miller and Mazzucchelli’s Year One. Bruce finally puts on his legendary costume. But soon, he hears that there is a villain terrorizing his city. A villain that’s modeling himself after a legendary bat deity, similar to the one that led Bruce to his own path. As Batman investigates, he begins to realize that this criminal is using mythological symbols to spread fear and maintain his power. The final issue – which grapples with everything from Bruce’s plundering of the Alaskan native culture for his own fulfillment to the fine line between vigilantism and villainy – sees Batman embracing such symbolism to his own purposes.
He meets the fake-god miscreant on his own terms and overpowers him in front of his many disciples, with the help of some well-timed theatrics. Even with a look behind the scenes, Hannigan and Beatty make this encounter terrifying. Batman is barely more than a silhouette, wading through the smoke with a quiet fury in his eyes. The Dark Knight soon has the once powerful villain cowering before him, sweating and shaking in panic. It’s amazing to see Batman as such a powerful figure, but you can’t help but wonder what makes him so different from the colorfully themed crooks he’s putting down.
Batman: Shaman is so profound, complex, and skillfully put together that it feels wrong to reduce it down to a single theme. It’s about racism, power, fear, and gentrification. But the biggest theme that the series comes back to, over and over, is the idea that you can lose yourself in the roles you must play to survive. A mask can give you the power to do things you would otherwise believe are unthinkable. But when you wear a mask for long enough, it soon becomes unclear what your face really looks like.
Batman: Shaman ran through Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #1-5. These issues can be found at good comic book shops, online retailers, eBay, and digitally. It was collected in trade paperback but is long out-of-print.