Dunking on the Dark Knight for being an emotionally constipated stick in the mud is practically a national pastime. I include myself in that, because seriously, have you seen the guy? But that’s not entirely fair. In the 80-plus years since his debut, Batman has gone through many creative teams, each of which had a different concept of how Batman should be. Some incarnations are better adjusted than others, especially when it comes to how Batman treats his ever-growing number of sidekicks/adopted children. In honor of Father’s Day, I’m taking a look back at a story from Batman #20, which shows off the Caped Crusader’s softer side.
Published in 1944, this story has the unwieldy title of “Bruce Wayne Loses the Guardianship of Dick Grayson!” I wonder what the plot could be?
Somehow, Batman’s first move is not to investigate the holy heck out of these people. It’s not his second, third, or fourth move either. In fact, we never see him do any detective work of any sort in this issue. Instead we get this subplot about a gangster named Fatso Foley who has it out for Batman because reasons. But we’ll get into that later.
As you may imagine, Dick is disinclined to go live with these weirdos, so George and Clara drag ’em to court. Cue the dramatic testimony.
“He only made me eat rats one time!”
Also, if modern Batman tried to show that much emotion, he’d probably break out in a rash.
Despite this outpouring of emotion, the judge is not impressed with Bruce’s playboy reputation and awards custody to the Graysons. It’s genuinely upsetting. Here’s this kid who was traumatized by the loss of his parents and found a new purpose with people who genuinely care about him, but now he’s yanked out of a weird but loving home into another unstable situation.
Batman isn’t handling it well, either. He almost gets clobbered by some mooks before Robin, having snuck out of his new home, comes to his rescue. Speaking of Dick’s new home, all is not well at the Grayson household.
You’d think this is leading up to a reveal that George and Clara are impostors, but apparently not: as far as we’re ever told, they are Dick’s actual aunt and uncle. They’re just horrible people. But in that case, why is Clara wearing an old lady wig and glasses? Would her red hair mark her as a wanton vamp ill-suited for motherhood?
George offers to sell Dick back to Bruce Wayne for a million dollars. When Bruce “calls” his “friend” Batman about this, George contacts Fatso Foley to come and kill Batman for him. How George got his address is never explained. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Gotham has a villain directory so that all the bad guys can find each other at a moment’s notice.
Fortunately, George drunk-dials Wayne Manor to brag about Batman’s imminent demise. This allows Alfred to alert Robin so they can go on a rescue mission.
Check out Alfred with the sick burn there.
The judge gives custody back to Bruce, because even a flighty playboy seems like a good parent compared to the guy who tried to ransom his own nephew. Bruce then literally boots George from the courthouse, never (?) to be seen again. That seems legal!
Yes, this was pretty silly, and Batman’s failure to investigate the Graysons at all is pretty bad. But I can’t help liking the story anyway. It’s a rare early glimpse into the personal lives of the Bat family, and probably the most emotional I have ever seen Batman in any medium, ever.
This isn’t the only time Batman was a good papa to his bird brood, though you could be forgiven for not knowing that. Examples of him being terrible have more internet staying power—we’ve all seen that panel of Bats smacking Robin while screaming about his dead parents, haven’t we?—and obviously allowances have to be made for the fact that he’s basically running a child army, but that’s comics for you.
My point is, Batman isn’t always the heartless son of a bat that certain writers like to portray him as. When Dick went away to college in Batman #217, Bruce had the Bat version of a midlife crisis, closed up Wayne Manor and the Batcave, and moved into a Gotham penthouse. But I think the comics based on Batman: The Animated Series are the most adept at acknowledging he is a father and exploring how he handles that (and ripping my heart out in the process). I can recommend Batman: Gotham Adventures #22, where Batman finds Dick’s teddy bear just to make him feel better, and #44, where he agonizes over his decision to leave an injured Nightwing’s side, even though it was the only way to save lives.
As for Batman #20, it may not hold up so well, but the Dark Knight’s fatherly devotion to his first son makes it worth a look.