By Alice W. Castle
The first time the legend of the Batman, of who he is and how he came to be, was told it was in the spring of 1940. Presented as a two page tale by Bob Kane and Bill Finger that opened Batman #1, the origin stripped back the cowl of the caped crusader to explore the trauma that drives his war on crime and gave context to the masked vigilante’s prior adventures in Detective Comics.
Two gunshots ringing out in an alley, the clattering of pearls on the sidewalk, a solemn vigil by candlelight and an adolescent crusade to perfect his mind and body in every way before a bat crashes through the window of his father’s study. It is, fundamentally, the same origin that still defines the character to this day.
That two page tale would, in time, be expanded upon to include such details as Bruce encountering Joe Chill later in life and Chill’s subsequent murder at the hands of his gang after confessing that he created Batman (in Batman #47), how Thomas Wayne was targeted by Joe Chill on the orders of Lew Moxon after Thomas’s testimony landed Moxon in jail for ten years (Detective Comics #235), how Bruce was raised after his parents’ death by one Mrs. Chilton who, unbeknownst to Bruce, was Joe Chill’s mother (Batman #208) and how Leslie Thompkins comforted a young Bruce, fresh from his parents’ death, and was spurred to dedicate her life to the betterment of Crime Alley (in Detective Comics #457).
These elements, and more, would eventually be collated in a single telling in “The Untold Legend Of The Batman” by Len Wein, John Byrne and Jim Aparo — and subsequently scrapped in favour of Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s now iconic telling of the story in “Batman: Year One.”
All except for one.
When she was introduced by Dennis O’Neill and Dick Giordano in Detective Comics #457, Leslie Thompkins was the quintessential kindly, older woman Prim and proper, she makes her way through the darkened alleyways of Crime Alley, clutching her purse full of funds raised for the children of Crime Alley before she is beset by purse snatchers. The attempted robbery is foiled by the Dark Knight, who watches over Leslie on this specific night each year to thank her for the kindness she showed to a young boy who lost his parents in that very alley.
O’Neill and Giordano’s tale of Leslie and Bruce is bittersweet and is distant. Two characters who found one another in a moment of tragedy to drift apart later in life. Leslie doesn’t even know that the masked man who patrols the dark corners of the alley on that night each year is that same boy who lost his parents. His gratitude is remarked on only through his actions, never the meaning behind them.
In the wake of Miller and Mazzuchelli’s reimagining of Batman’s origin in “Year One”, in the very same month that their story wrapped up in Batman #407; Mike W. Barr, along with Alan Davis and Paul Neary; established a new, younger and much more intense Leslie in Batman’s life in Detective Comics #574.
In a story titled “My Beginning… And My Probable End,” Batman brings a mortally wounded Robin (being Jason Todd, for those curious) to the Thomas Wayne Memorial Clinic on Crime Alley to beg Leslie for help saving his life. The difference eleven years makes transforms Leslie from a kindly, old lady clearly into her 60s to a taught, baseball bat-swinging woman in her late 40s/early 50s. Another key change the issue brings is that Leslie not only knows that Bruce Wayne is Batman… but that she has known the entire time. This is something Barr would elaborate on in the following story arc, “Year Two,” but for the sake of this issue it is implemented as the core conflict of the issue.
Jason Todd’s life hangs in the balance, punctured by the bullet wounds caused by the Mad Hatter in the previous issue, and it is Jason (and Bruce’s) only hope that Leslie can save him. Spoiler alert: she does, but while they are in surgery, Bruce dozes off and in his nightmares revisits the night he lost his parents.
What I love about how Barr, Davis and Neary present this is that the actual inciting moment of the Waynes’ deaths is presented entirely from Bruce’s first person perspective. The frame of the panels is always through Bruce’s eyes, looking up at the devastation happening before him. It’s a brutal accompaniment to the wider origin story that had just been told over in “Batman” by Miller and Mazzuchelli.
Of course, it is but one piece of the puzzle and as Leslie interrupts the nightmare with the news that Jason is stable, the real gem of this issue comes into focus. Barr, Davis and Neary position the rest of the issue as a conversation between Bruce and Leslie, a reminiscence and a confessional as both share their perspectives of the tragic, entwined lives they have both led.
Bruce has had many a male mentor figures in his life from the stalwart Alfred and guiding hand of Jim Gordon to the lost-to-time Uncle Phillip to those that would train him, like Henri Ducard and Kirigi. The legend of the Batman has positioned a great many surrogate father figures in his life, each of whom he has outgrown or were otherwise unsuited to assume the mantle vacated by the esteemed Thomas Wayne.
The legend of the Batman rarely posits a surrogate mother figure for Bruce and it is my belief that this issue illustrates why other writers have rarely picked up on this theme. Leslie confronts Bruce on his life as the caped crusader in a way Alfred never would. Despite what he may protest, Alfred has always diligently supported the crusade of a young boy torn apart by grief as he turned himself into a one-man war on crime.
By contrast, all Leslie ever wanted to offer was peace and comfort and a new life in which he could process his pain and grief. It’s clear that Bruce could not accept such matronly grace for it is only now, after their time separated and with the respite that comes from distance, that Bruce can admit just how lonely his youth was.
It’s here that Barr, Davis and Neary explore the lost years of Bruce’s life, of his dedicated study and elaborate theatrical adventures at university that allowed him to become a top student while remaining an aloof rich kid paying his way to a degree. The way he applied himself in just the right way without drawing attention to his studies. It brings a bittersweet undertones to those Bob Kane and Bill Finger panels of Bruce perfecting his mind and body in young adulthood.
The rift between Leslie and Bruce is clearest here as she notes that he never mentioned just how much effort he put into distancing himself from others when writing her and Bruce admits that he doesn’t even know if he was lonely or if he minded all that much.
The real tragedy of this issue is seeing a mother figure watch the boy she loved grow up to be a man unrecognizable to her. Leslie lashes out at Bruce for putting his life in danger, for taking kids as young as he was out into the streets to wage war on crime and, well, she’s right, of course. And the worst part is that Bruce knows she’s right, but also that she’s, in many ways, not much different from him. Leslie is someone who dedicates her every waking moment to providing medical treatment to the city at its lowest, bringing compassion to a place that eats all goodness in a person.
They’re both the same, in many ways, and that’s what makes Leslie such a marked difference to Alfred. Alfred provided what support he could to young master Bruce, but in the end all he could do was patch him up, sew his cowl back together and send him on his way. For he only saw the pain of Bruce’s crusade from without. Leslie only saw a better future for Bruce, one without this pain, and now she believes she failed him as she sees the man he has grown into: driven to the point obsession waging a war on crime that will never truly end.
But is she not also the same? A band-aid on a festering wound, bringing what comfort she can to a city that is eating itself apart all at the expense of her own lived life? In her owns words: she only does this because she has to. A sentiment Bruce shares.
Leslie Thompkins never quite became a fixture in the legend of the Batman that this issue makes me wish she had. Largely circling around events like No Man’s Land and War Games, her clinic became a background element to Gotham and eventually Leslie became something of a mentor to Stephanie Brown before being reimagined in both the New 52 and Rebirth.
What was lost to time, though, was that brief, bittersweet moment where Leslie was Bruce’s foster mother and really tried to provide a warm, new life for him. She failed, of course, and that speaks to a deeper tragedy in and of itself, but for a very brief moment, she was important to legend of the Batman. Now, she’s a footnote on the Batman mythos.
And maybe that’s the tragedy of what was lost: would there even be a legend of the Batman if he had found a new motherly love, a new home in the wake of his parents’ death? I think there would, and I think we could have had a much warmer, compassionate Batman than we often get and it would have been because of Leslie Thompkins.
Detective Comics #154
Writer: Mike W. Barr
Penciller: Alan Davis
Inker: Paul Neary
Coloured by Adrienne Roy
Letterer: Richard Starkings
Alice W. Castle is a writer and critic most often seen writing for websites like Multiversity, as well as for her Patreon subscribers – you can pledge here! You can find her on Twitter here!
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