Batman issue 400 was the comic that made me a fan. It was also the first comic that I bought multiple copies to read. The first issue died due to my elementary school-aged reading habits. The second copy died to my ripping out cool splash pages, the Stephen King intro, and that stunning Bill Sienkiewicz cover. Copies three to eight were given to friends to convince them that this was the greatest comic ever made. Finally, copy nine resides in a long box. If I ever get a tenth copy of Batman issue 400, I’ll CGC slab it for posterity.
As Batman Day unfurls on this fine Saturday, one has to wonder how many fans were turned onto comics because of the Caped Crusader. When I was five, I noticed that some older friends were reading comics. None of them wanted to touch the DC stuff. Superman and Batman were for babies, as they were strictly X-Men fans. At the time, I only knew of Batman from the 1960s TV show that got reran on WHAS right before the news started.
The Tim Burton movie was still three years off, so I just thought that Batman was a rich weirdo that beat up on old costumed celebrities. My five-year-old self could get behind that. But, chance dropped a copy of Batman issue 400 at my feet. That’s not a figurative statement. An older kid literally threw a copy of Batman issue 400 at my feet so I’d stop trying to read their Mutant Massacre issues. Looking back, I’m kinda glad that I hung out with jerks.
Opening Batman issue 400 for the first time, you’re given a sense of the grandiose nature of what’s to come. From the title page that hints at the final chapter to the establishing scene at Arkham Asylum. This issue was divided into 12 chapters, each illustrated by a prominent artist of the time. Many were making their DC debuts, others were veterans, and even a few were testing the waters to jump ship from Marvel to DC.
Modern viewers might have a hard time pinpointing which villains are which. This was a time before Harley Quinn or Bane. A time when Bruce Timm hadn’t redesigned the Mr. Freeze costume. An era where Killer Croc looked like a body builder with a skin condition, rather than a man-beast. This was the last days of Pre-Crisis DC, and it was glorious.
After Ra’s Al Ghul springs all of the Batman villains from Arkham and nearby Blackgate Penitentiary, he brings them to their costume and gear. Ra’s offers the villains $10 million to whoever kills Batman. The money goes to the villain or group who manage to do it first. While the villains are mulling it over, Ra’s approaches Batman with a counter offer. Basically, it was this: If you knock up my daughter and become my son-in-law, I’ll murder your enemies and turn Gotham City into a paradise. Batman issue 400 writer Doug Moench would have Alfred and Jason Todd discuss the matter a few pages later. At times, it seems like Alfred is buying into Ras’ argument.
When Batman rejects Ra’s, Ra’s has Batman’s closest allies kidnapped. If that wasn’t enough, Ra’s has the Joker take over GCPD Headquarters using a mix of nets and his Joker Copter (it was a different time, people). What followed were stunning chapters drawn by Joe Kubert, Art Adams, Steve Lightle, Bill Sienkiewicz, Steve Leialoha, Rick Leonardi and even a rare interior art appearance by Brian Bolland. This was my first comic, and I didn’t know that these artists don’t normally work on Batman. I also didn’t know that this continuity was being replaced in the next month for Legends and Year One.
But, it didn’t matter. Every comic is someone’s first comic. As a five-year-old reader, I thought this was a monthly occurrence that I was missing by watching TV instead of reading. What is really surprising, but indicative of its age is that it was so all-ages friendly. It was a physical and mental fight that challenged Batman to the core of his code. Batman issue 400 could’ve been the final Batman story, as far as I cared. It was the greatest to me.
Batman issue 400’s chapters almost feel like a video game where certain allies fought certain combos of villains to save friends. Rescue Bullock from Poison Ivy, then save Vicki Vale from Black Spider. The stakes grew, the danger mounted, and Batman felt Ra’s Al Ghul taunting him every step of the way. What’s even crazier is that Ra’s was only defeated by his daughter Talia teaming up with Batman. This was an era where Talia still had feelings for Batman and was willing to betray her father every other year for her beloved.
Finally, everything built to Batman and gang fighting Ra’s Al Ghul to the death in a Lazarus Pit under a windmill. Evoking The Old Mill and shades of Frankenstein, Batman knew this had to be their final fight. While Bats couldn’t bring himself to end Ra’s, he tricks Ra’s into ending it all via Lazarus Pit spurred destruction of the Windmill. The book ends with a vague conclusion. There’s no plan for the remaining villain round-up or exploring Ra’s’ philosophical questioning of Batman. The night was over, and it was time to go home.
I cherished this book. I didn’t know that things like this existed outside of the Batman ’60s TV show and episodes of Super Friends. I asked older kids and elementary school friends. Did you know that Batman was cool? Why didn’t anyone tell me Batman was this cool? 30 years later, I now own every Ra’s Al Ghul, Talia, and League of Assassins early appearance. Thanks to the guys at DC TV for helping those back issues to shoot up in value. You won’t believe how many first Merlyn appearances I own that have increased seven-fold in value due to Arrow.
Seeing new fans discover these characters through Dawn of Justice, Arrow or even Legends of Tomorrow fills me with hope. This format that many are quick to dismiss keeps surviving. Comics feed the mainstream, feed the next generation of artists and create the American mythology. As I thumb through my early DC issues, I notice a little bottom page block that remains true. The history and future of DC comics is to keep reading. Well, it’s the future of us all. Keep reading and keep supporting the source material.