A few months ago, I found Detective Comics #567 in the back issue section of my local comic shop for the bargain price of $3. “Special! An off-beat bat-tale by award-winning author HARLAN ELLISON!” screamed the cover.
Aside from being the most litigious man on the planet, Ellison is a writer of some repute. He’s also the author of famed Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever” and his work was the inspiration for The Terminator (more or less). I have his short story collections Strange Wine, Gentleman Junkie, and Deadly Streets in a box somewhere, and, despite backhanded endorsements from Dorothy Parker, they’re mostly unread.
I understand Detective Comics #567 came out 26 years ago, but aside from being scripted by a well-known sci-fi writer, it also carries another notable distinction: it’s the absolute worst Batman story I’ve ever read. And I’ve read a lot.
Don’t get me wrong, the premise is genius: Batman spends a frustrated evening thinking he’s stumbled onto various crimes-in-progress only to discover the people of Gotham are more decent than he gives them credit for. The dialogue, however:
Why’s Batman giving the hardworking switchboard operator at Gotham PD such a massive amount of ’80s ‘tude? Because he can’t get no respect! Take this mishap:
That’s the entire story. Stuff like a would-be break-in turning out to be an innocent couple trying to get into their locked car, over and over and over again. Titled “The Night of Thanks, But No Thanks!” Ellison posits the idea that Batman is an easily-fooled shlub living a thankless life of inept crimefighting.
It’s plausible Batman could mistake a harmless non-crime for the real thing, but it feels like, I dunno, maybe he’d do a little more detective work before jumping to conclusions the way he does so thoroughly and repeatedly in Ellison’s story. And it seems unlikely he’d be such a self-pitying whiner when things don’t go his way.
But Ellison doesn’t stop there. He takes great pains to make it appear that the citizens of Gotham actually have a better handle on what’s happening in their city than Batman does:
If he’s that shitty at his job, you wonder why he doesn’t just retire after the events of “The Night of Thanks, But No Thanks.”
I mentioned in an earlier post that Damian Wayne needs to be scripted in a certain way in order to be believable, and I cited Battle for the Cowl as an example of his characterization being so completely off that it makes Damian seem like a parallel-universe version of himself:
Similarly, Detective Comics #567 is filled with moments that will have you shaking your head in disbelief. Like the phrases “puke-for-brains” or “jeez” emerging from Batman’s mouth :
Or whatever the hell this is:
Or Batman expressing his desire for one moment of peace:
Or this segment, which is both ludicrous and predictable, since it follows a half-dozen nearly-identical story beats:
There’s a reason my Ellison collection is mostly unread, and that’s because his narration tends to be saturated in the pseudo-street-level wannabe-hipness that’s present in everything Batman thinks or speaks in “The Night of Thanks, But No Thanks!”
The character is grating because he bears little resemblance to the hero readers have grown accustomed to.
It’s almost like Ellison’s never read a Batman story before, which seems impossible. According to the Comic Book Database (and numerous other sources) Ellison’s first “published writing” was a letter to the editor in Real Fact Comics #6 in 1946, when the future author was 12 years old. He’d been reading comics for four decades by the time Detective Comics #567 came out, which makes “The Night of Thanks, But No Thanks!” that much more jaw-dropping in its awfulness.
Three years later screenwriter Sam Hamm, of the 1989′s Tim Burton-directed Batman movie, would do scripting duties on the “Blind Justice” miniseries in Detective Comics that functioned as a strong supporting argument for why non-comic scribes should stay away from the medium completely. Seriously – “Blind Justice” contains numerous scenes in which a grown man passionately argues that maybe Batman’s problems could be solved with the power of friendship. It’s as painful to read as it is to describe.
On the other hand, if the idea of an old woman beating her would-be mugger into submission before telling off Batman is appealing to you…
…by all means, hunt down Detective Comics #567.