With the arrival of The Dark Knight, the second Christopher Nolan-helmed Batman movie, Albert asked me to take a look at a past Batman comic. But of course, this site being what it is, I knew he didn’t have in mind Knightfall or A Lonely Place of Dying. Oh no. I got to look into the distant past of the Bat-franchise. And it’s a scary, scary place.
While the Adam West Batman series tends to get a lot of the blame for giving the character a campy reputation, Batman was already having rather bizarre adventures well before the show’s premiere in 1966. Case in point: the abomination which we’re about to endure here, which was published in 1961. And I can say without a hint of irony that the Adam West series made a hell of a lot more sense than this story.
For reasons that completely boggle my puny human brain, Superman writers were having success around the same time introducing the concept of a “Superbaby” into the occasional issue. I’m not certain why a superpowered being’s antics as a toddler were so popular with the readership, but then again, even Rob Liefeld still has fans, so there’s no accounting for taste.
Inspired by Superbaby, the Batman writers gave the idea of a Bat-Baby a try in the pages of Batman #147, with a cover date of May 1961. And one of the things I discovered about these older Silver Age comics is that while the story on the cover is indeed inside of it, there’s also other minutia that gets pushed in there, too. Basically, the whole issue is kind of a miniature Batman anthology book.
And while the other two stories, “The Plants of Plunder” and “Secret of Mystery Island” are pretty demented in their own right (the former actually features alien plants robbing jewelry stores), both stories pale in comparison to the utter horror and sheer WTF-ness that is “Batman Becomes Bat-Baby”.
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The story opens with a full-page spread. For some reason, it was standard policy in the Silver Age to feature a full-page spread at the start of each story, which would depict some scene from later in the book. And while you can certainly wonder why they wasted an entire page on something we’ll see happen later on anyway, this spread is particularly pointless, because it’s almost identical to the cover of the issue.
The only difference is the narration text: “Imagine Batman as a four year-old!” Happy with his parents, just a few years before they’re brutally gunned down? Sure!
“Imagine Batman the size of a child -- and having to overcome this handicap in order to go on fighting crime!” Tonight, on a very special Lifetime Original Movie...
“Yes -- this is exactly what occurs”—but the names have been changed to protect the innocent—”when gangland takes revenge upon its great enemy, and laughs mockingly when Batman Becomes Bat-Baby!” You know, a four year old technically is no longer a “baby”. But I suppose the title “Batman Becomes Bat-Preschooler!” doesn’t have quite the same dramatic effect.
The real action begins with Batman and Robin spying on a group of criminals entering their warehouse hideout. These crooks, just like every other crook seen in comics of the era, are all wearing stylish tweed jackets and fedoras, almost like they work directly for Al Capone. Seriously, guys, it’s not the 1920s anymore—you can at least try to be discreet in your criminal activities.
Batman and Robin have an expository conversation, letting readers know they got an anonymous tip about this warehouse, and these are the same criminals who robbed a jewelry store a few nights ago. They go inside to confront the crooks, and discover they’re being aided by a rogue scientist named... are you ready? “Garth!”
Ah, yes, the most fearsome criminal in Batman’s Rogues Gallery: the vile Garth! In all seriousness, I think “Steve” would have been a more threatening name. And I’m aware there are superheroes named Garth, but that’s certainly not the name they use to strike terror into the heart of Evil. I think I’d be more intimidated by Dana Carvey than this guy.
Batman and Robin quickly punch out the nearest thugs and Batman advances on Garth! However, the rogue scientist activates a device, which looks like a giant desk lamp.
Batman’s reaction? “What--? An eerie ray of light -- bathing me!” Not that I should move out of this eerie ray of light or anything, what with the rogue scientist firing it at me!
(By the way, how exactly does one become a “rogue scientist”? Do scientists have a big union I don’t know about, with membership dues and patent rights on world-dominating inventions?)
Much to Robin’s shock, Batman starts to shrink. The crooks set off smoke bombs to make their escape, and when the smoke clears... Batman has become a small child. Gasp! Bet you didn’t see that coming. What with the cover of the issue, and the introductory text, and everything.
But here’s the real stupidity of all this. Garth has essentially invented a device that reverses the aging process. And yet he’s hanging around with jewelry thieves. He could patent his device, sell the patent for billions of dollars, and basically be remembered for all eternity as the guy who gave human beings virtual immortality. I know I made fun of the guy’s name and all, but I think “Garth” would quickly become the most popular boy’s name for centuries to come if he actually released this invention to the world. But no, instead he has to waste it by helping crooks get revenge on Batman.
Batman’s costume is now sagging all over him, and he can no longer walk. Robin has to carry him back to the Batmobile, leading to this gem of a line from Batman: “Robin-- I never thought there’d be a time when you’d have to carry me in your arms like a baby!”
“...But I’ve always dreamed about it!”
The newspaper “Gotham Gazette” receives photos of the de-aged Batman, courtesy of a hidden camera that Garth apparently had at the scene. The editor of the paper sits at his desk, examining the photos. He laments, “Much as I hate to do it, I must print these photos! The public has a right to the truth!” Yes, I can see he’s truly agonizing over this decision.
The news hits town, and people are distraught that Batman’s crime fighting days are over. But personally, I’d be looking at this photo and going, “Geez, when did the Gotham Gazette turn into the Weekly World News? Next, we’ll be reading about alien plants that rob jewelry stores!”
The evil Garth and the other crooks celebrate their victory. They realize that instead of destroying Batman, they’ve succeeded in making him a laughing stock. Of course, no one in the previous panel was actually laughing at Batman’s situation. So what was the point of sending photos in to the local paper?
Over at stately Wayne Manor, Alfred gives the young Bruce some phone books to sit on at the dinner table. And frankly, with the way this is drawn, Bruce looks like a baby doll with the arms extended out. It’s more than a little creepy.
“Sigh! If only I could get my arms to bendat the elbow!”
Of course, things start to get into much crazier territory in the next panel. Bruce trains in the Batcave, discovering that despite his youthful appearance, not only does he retain his mental faculties, but also the full strength of an adult. Let me get this straight: Garth’s magic machine not only makes people younger, it also lets them keep their adult strength?! So, not only is Batman not less of a threat, he’s now actually a harder target to hit?
Forgiving the fact that it makes no damn sense whatsoever that a child could have the muscle strength of a 30 year old man, Garth had to have known about this side effect, right? I mean, it’s his invention. He must have known Batman would still be just as strong and smart, even as a toddler. So, what the hell was the point of making him into a little boy again? Oh, right: To creep out the audience.
And oh my, does this ever. In the last panel of the page, Bruce decides he’s going to continue fighting crime until they can get their hands on Garth’s machine (which I shall henceforth be calling the Youthenizer). He declares, “So gangland is now calling me a baby! Well, I’ll dress like a baby, and prove to them that I’m still a crime-fighter -- as Bat-Baby!” Folks, you know how Rock Biter’s kid from Neverending Story II was creepy? This is only slightly less disturbing.
Bat-Baby is decked out in tiny little upsetting shorts, like he’s a Japanese boy from Prince of Space or Invasion of the Neptune Men. He’s got on a bat-logo t-shirt under overalls, and he’s made himself a tiny cape and cowl, and did I mention the hideous shorts? To make matters worse, the artist saw fit to outline his lips in this panel, which only makes things that much scarier.
I think I’m gonna be sick.