There’s a certain journey you want to make growing up reading comics. If you’re introduced to them as a kid then the things you enjoyed most were the best stories in the entire world, sublime in construction and execution and evoking feelings nothing else could match, the pinnacle of the form. Ideally as you grow older you realize that a lot of what you have attached to those stories – without necessarily disparaging them – is largely about those comics being from long before you had any chance to be desensitized. Even as generations of creators and editors and belligerent fans have steered the Big Two superhero ship on the premise that what they grew up with WAS the best and most important work of all time and that those stories are the template everything after has to follow, hopefully as a maturing adult you grow to be able to appreciate nostalgia while still recognizing it for what it is and knowing its proper place. To be able to pick up an old Batman comic you liked as a kid and enjoy it for what it is without having to tell yourself it was the most important comic of all time.
Which makes it particularly striking and more than a little gratifying when you pick up said old Batman comic in that mindset and partway through realize that oh jeez, wait, maybe this actually IS super-important and no one noticed?
To say I ‘grew up with’ The Brave and the Bold #200 is a bit odd given it predates me more than a decade, but it’s true: it’s one of the earliest comics my dad supplied me with as a kid once I started taking an interest. The gimmick’s an excellent one, a (nonexistent) classic Batman villain somehow hopping from his Golden Age Earth-2 form after a fight with his rival turned catastrophic in 1955 to possess his modern 1983 counterpart on Earth-1, pitting him against a just barely pre-Miller Caped Crusader. Mike Barr’s well known as a Batman writer who while keeping up with the times kept one foot in the characters’ swashbuckling, toyetic roots, while Dave Gibbons was a few years from, well, that thing Dave Gibbons did, making them uniquely suited to a story bridging generations of superhero storytelling. And it’s the last issue of the Batman team-up book concluding with Batman teaming up with Batman! Mixed with a tinge of horror, a perfect entryway for a kid to both Batman and some of the bigger ideas underpinning DC as a whole.
(Well, I say it was perfect, but as a kid there were aspects I couldn’t quite wrap my head around. Even though it was explicitly laid out, I don’t know that I completely understood the two-Earths idea, or at least that the two Batmen weren’t the same age the same way the villain was? Because I thought the young Earth-1 Batman was an adult Dick Grayson having taken up his mentor’s role. Even though he’s called Bruce! I guess I just assumed he had also occupied the man’s civilian identity as well, and there would be a few extra layers to the ‘Batman keeps adopting mini-me’s discussion.)
At first blush coming back to it as an adult it’s nothing more or less than the romp I recalled. A loving homage to Batman’s past, and a rock-solid contemporary adventure, bridged skillfully. Gibbons does a perfect Dick Sprang, and the shift from elaborate robberies of buildings adorned with elaborate props signaled by clues sent in to the police in the 1950s to bombings and citywide riots in the 1980s has exactly the dissonance intended. And centering the climaxes of both stories around iterations of an inescapable deathtrap? Chef kiss.
Until it hit me: was this a gimmick that had ever actually been done at all prior to 1983?
Earth-1 and Earth-2 as presences in each others’ lives was a standing DC Comics tradition from 1961 to 1986, mainly focused around the annual JLA/JSA team-ups in the former’s book. But there was never any stylistic or tonal differentiation – one Earth simply had older heroes than the other. Even when the Supermen of each team finally met several crossovers in the elder had yet to display the graying hair and altered s-shield later meant to distinguish him, rendering them identical counterparts. The notion of framing them as fundamentally different types of worlds down to how their stories work was, to my knowledge, unprecedented. The closest equivalent would be Alan Moore and Garry Leach’s revolutionary revival of Marvelman/Miracleman in Warrior the previous year, but the ‘flashbacks’ to its leads’ earlier adventures were not only mostly reused prior material (when Moore actually returned to those years in subsequent issues, the style was altered to match his sensibilities) but were framed as a subjective dreamworld without the claim to truth of the main tale, as opposed to a fully functioning alternative reality operating by its own rules.
If “Smell of Brimstone, Stench of Death!” can claim to have pioneered this simple but profound trick (and searching my own memory and asking around, no earlier examples seem to have emerged), how much can it claim to have prefigured? Not even counting stuff as broad as using Ben-Day dots in flashbacks, the likes of 1963, Supreme, and The Age of the Sentry are constructed entirely around building the dichotomy between eras into the book structurally. The Multiversity’s portrayal of the worlds of DC’s alternate dimensions contrasting them through different art and storytelling styles not only traces back here conceptually, but directly in-universe as the first time two Earths were shown as having more to their names than their own unique costumes. Would The Wrong Earth, Tom Peyer and Jamal Igle’s current fan-favorite for Ahoy Comics showing the campy and brutal counterparts of a costumed adventurer swapping settings, exist at all without Barr and Gibbons? Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse introduced into multi-million dollar movies ‘standard’ takes on superheroes working alongside versions of themselves operating by funny animal cartoon physics as a matter of course for the genre. Heck, just while writing this article I’ve been going though Sholly Fisch, Dario Brizuela, and Scott Jeralds’s Scooby-Doo Team-Up! (it was all free on ComiXology awhile back, and it turns out it’s a hoot!) and seen them working with both the Superfriends-era Robin and the Teen Titans GO! Robin, with the differences chalked up to “well, kids behave differently around their friends than they do with grown-ups”. It’s an ingrained enough means of presentation with clear enough connotations that kids right now are trusted to grasp it in the same way as I was asked to, without even the alt-Earth explanation.
And there’s one more book besides that comes to mind in a big way as drawing some influence from this. But to get into that, we need to talk about the villain of the piece.
Who else could be a threat sizable enough to conclude one of Batman’s most longstanding comics than the prince of darkness himself? Or at least a reasonable facsimile* in the form of Nicholas Lucien, the arch-fiend best known as the plutonic plunderer, the modern Mephistopheles, the hadean highwayman, Brimstone! A delightful little gimmick villain invention for a gimmick story; the devil is simultaneously primal enough a figure to be played as a serious threat, while at the same time the iconography surrounding him is popular and defanged enough for him to function perfectly well in the era of themed getaway cars and a Robin still rocking the pixie boots with pride. Regardless of whether this was indeed a direct influence, it’s no surprise that the second The Wrong Earth miniseries went with a Satan-figure of its own in Devil Man – it seems like a perfect fit.
But the closer you look, the more something seems off about Nicholas Lucien.
The concept alone comes undone if you think about it: the Comics Code of Authority permitting a Lucifer-themed supervillain the year after its inception? Hell, letting the panel above through, all shadows and gleeful malice creeping off the page? Even the little details don’t quite add up: he’s the only being on Earths 1 and 2 to be the same age on both worlds. His underlings mock him to his face. His life-altering injury is the product of furiously interrupting Batman and Robin’s standard final-panel joint laughter at a pun relating to his defeat, trying to overturn the narrative force sweeping him away with a sudden burst of violence and cast down into the abyss of his own mind for his hubris. Something as simple as ending one of his sentences with a period is pregnant with meaning – a rarity for decades in comics due to the likelihood of periods being washed away by printing errors, it stands out here in a story of excitable exclamations as unnatural, a quiet savagery. Yet in a seemingly well-suited 1983 as he’s blackened his heart even further to meet the horrors of the time, he still leaves that world’s greatest detective baffled.
“The rioting…the destruction…and the man behind it doesn’t even want money — or notoriety! I’ve never met an enemy who’s come as close to my definition of pure evil.”
He doesn’t operate on the same terms as a ‘realistic’ 1980s villain, because while too unnerving to entirely be justified in a classic Batman adventure, he’s still too much the pop arch-criminal to quite make sense down the line. Of course he ends the story trapped within himself once more, because there is nowhere on any Earth the devil belongs. One might even call him…
Am I seriously claiming Grant Morrison’s Batman opus can directly trace its roots back to this incidental retro pastiche comic largely lost to time? Well, it’s a story spanning Batman’s publishing history and the wildly differencing interpretations contained therein where his ultimate challenge is the devil, a king of crime rooted in said history whose very presence deforms the world around him, who learns the hard way that there are two forces he can never defeat: Time and The Batman. You tell me!
Regardless of whether Morrison was taking notes or they came to the idea on their lonesome, it’s a fascinating artifact ahead of its time, a loving but seemingly throwaway adventure story spinning notions that would grow into some of the most acclaimed books of generations to come. Maybe it even reveals a bit of truth to that idea of the comics we grew up with as having the importance we believed, in their own ways: throwaway or not, tomorrow’s creators came up on them alongside us. Learning from them, inspired by them, seizing on the unexpected hints of wheat among the chaff. And ultimately from those innocuous influences building a legacy spanning more Earths than one.
* As opposed to the OTHER Batman vs. the Devil story of The Brave and the Bold, a team-up with Sgt. Rock by Bob Haney and Jim Aparo where they battle the actual devil, who is also Hitler.