By: Ginger De Los Rios
“In Elseworlds, heroes are taken from their usual settings and put into strange times and places — some that have existed, and others that can’t, couldn’t or shouldn’t exist. The result is stories that make characters who are as familiar as yesterday seem as fresh as tomorrow.”
I have been hooked on the Batman Elseworlds graphic novels since the nineties. They employ everything I love– fresh yet memorable origin stories, and exciting historical eras, settings and characters. Over the years I’ve amassed a small collection of them, but I have missed the ones made after 2000. Detective #27, first published in 2003, is filled to the brim with all those features, perhaps even to a fault, but more on that later. Batman enthusiasts will immediately get the fun of the title. It was in that month and year that Batman made his formidable comic book presence known in Detective Comics issue #27 and he has been going strong ever since.
This retelling of Bruce Wayne’s origins revolves around the famous Pinkerton National Detective Agency, which was founded in 1850 by lawman Alan Pinkerton. These very real and effective groups of crime busters were the forerunners to the modern-day ‘Private Eyes.’ Now you know where the symbol came from.
At the height of its power the Pinkerton Agency was the largest in the world, boasting more detectives and members than the United States Army. Pinkerton is a major character in the first act of the story. He spearheads a team known as the Secret Society of Detectives and they make it a life-long mission to battle the Knights of the Golden Circle.
The KGC, as I call them, is bent on restoring the Confederacy by any means and have hatched a fanatical plot that garners support from some of the world’s top scientists and doctors. It is a mystery that starts from just before the Abraham Lincoln assassination, and unravels for 75 years. Since 1865 the KGC predicted and threatened to wreak their havoc on a Northern City in the year 1939.
Bruce Wayne’s destiny as we know it is altered at the pivotal moment he decides to become a creature of the night. The set up is perfect; he’s alone in his study, trying to come up with a sinister symbol for his vigilantism. There is a chime of the doorbell. The famous bat at the window is distracted and slams into it, killing itself. “Stupid bird.” Bruce mutters and leaves the scene. This was very craftily done.
So begins Bruce’s foray into the world of the Secret Society of Detectives. He discovers that they have surreptitiously been involved in his life from the moment his parents were murdered. And it turns out Detective #28, aka, his faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth, was the one who orchestrated his whole life course. Alfred made sure he had all the necessary training and disciplines. Alfred is extremely integral to this story. He is not just there to serve ‘Master Bruce’ and make droll and witty asides. He is a true mentor, confidant, and father figure to him–even when Bruce is very suspicious of Alfred’s motives and accuses of him being a double agent.
The plot is tremendously elaborate, at least for the first two acts. I actually struggled with how much to give away after taking 10 pages of notes for this graphic novel! It’s not that it’s an intensely long read, but that’s just how I write and get my thoughts together. I like to be thorough and do my necessary research. However the point is for you, the fans, to pick up this novel and read it for yourselves! Trust me–read you will. There is an abundance of ‘talking’ going on and dialogue bubbles to make your head spin. But as far as the plot goes, I’ll say this much, the main villains have a nefarious scheme and have created a very deadly airborne fear toxin.
This criminal conspiracy all leads up to an exciting, sad, and near mind-blowing (at least for me) climatic ending for Bruce Wayne. Or is it just a beginning? The situations he encounters challenge him in every way possible, giving him a chance to use his newly honed skills of detection, criminology and combat.
I won’t skimp out on this review without a few highlights. Bruce goes to work prowling around Gotham in a classy trench coat and fedora. He is known only as ‘Detective #27.’ I like the idea of Bruce Wayne as the hero this time. It reminds me of the great Batman the Animated Series. BTAS is the greatest filmed version of Batman I have ever seen. The Bruce Wayne character in that was no wallflower or rich, bored dilettante. He was very involved and sometimes had to do things Batman would without the costume.
While investigating the KGC, Bruce runs into a little scamp with a paperboy hat and two tiny curls on his forehead named Robbin, who works for a street gang called ‘Robbin’s Hoods.’ He finds they are working for the KGC and decides not to turn them in. Their loyalties later change once he earns Robbin’s trust and the newly minted ‘Boy Commandos’ become Bruce’s eyes and ears on the mean streets. There are other worries for Gotham. Police Commissioner Gordon (mentioned but not seen) is up in arms over a mysterious cat burglar.
After this cat-woman boldly crashes a gala, Bruce cleverly figures out her identity and finds himself immediately smitten with the alluring Selina Kyle and her gorgeous legs. She also knows more than meets the eye about Alfred and his involvement with the SSD. Our illustrious Detective #27 decides he needs a ‘secret identity.’ He takes on the role of carefree ‘playboy millionaire’ Bruce Wayne so he can maneuver more effectively around Gotham’s city and its elite circles. Gotcha! No Batman here!
But are you getting a mental picture? Detective #27 freely re-imagines some of our favorite character origins. Even if an actual character never appears, there are sly hints and nods all over the place, not just to people, but places and memorable objects and quotes. If you’re one who is bursting to know the genesis of “Did you ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?” look no further.
Detective #27 gives us a cool, yet odd cameo appearance by Superman! He makes his appearance at the New York’s World Fair and basically just grins happily at the masses. He has no dialogue.
Bruce watches him carefully from the crowd of excited spectators. “That fellow should be pitied. Not costumed and paraded before these gawkers like some Tod Browning Freak of nature.” I’ll give you brownie points if you can guess what that reference means. And when you do, watch it. It’s extremely classic and awesome!
Superman is seen later in the story, still posing and smiling in the exact spot, this time while shaking President Franklin Roosevelt’s hand. Amazingly, he doesn’t realize there’s a dangerous and epic battle ensuing above him between Bruce and…I’m not telling. In this Elseworld, Superman seems to be the people’s paper-doll hero; purely an American icon and beacon of hope for a world ravaged by a senseless war, and after a decade of loose morals and wild abandon, a world plunged into Great Depression. Yet the irony is, for all his powers and popularity, he has nothing to do with saving or protecting anyone in this story. He just stands there and waves and the people practically worship him–kind of like the American Flag. The true heroes of this story are the detectives and Bruce Wayne.
Detective #27 is a perfect Graphic Novel for a history buff. The story by Michael Uslan is engaging and full of many intriguing twists. I did feel that the whole Confederate plot was not fully realized. There seemed to be no true rhyme and reason why the South had to ‘rise again’ because by then all the true confederates were dead and gone. But you have to assume the KGC had clandestinely grown in power and prestige and they wanted that no matter who took the lead in the Country’s affairs. They also had to bide time for their poison to be effective. Waiting nearly a century and pumping time, energy and resources toward something that may not have even worked is taking a huge gamble. But that’s the fun of these secret societies!
The novel is chock full of colorful, historical figures from the Civil War era, the Victorian era, and on into the thirties. Look out for Lincoln, Pinkerton, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde??!!, Sigmund Freud and the Sultan of Swat, Babe Ruth among many others. They even supply readers with a full-page of ‘Footnotes to history’ at the back that includes brief summaries of the people and events involved. Trust me there are many, and they fly at you with rapid fire pace. It comes off strong, and forces the reader to stop and think about them and their contribution to history before they can continue to enjoy the rest. This may throw you off track from the real story. I particularly had that problem with Acts 1 & 2. But that is a minor quibble.
Peter Snejbjerg’s art is both quirky, and densely shadowed and sinister where it needs to be. He designs the characters as wide-eyed and innocent, chisel-jawed and firm-mouthed, pouty and seductive. He uses all the hallmark facial traits and body types you would see if you watched a movie or read a comic book from that era. The coloring also has that nostalgic brown-tint modern-day viewers have become accustomed to seeing. In this case it is effective, but sometimes all the sepia toned wash can just be very patronizing. It’s as if the director or artist doesn’t trust that his audience is smart enough to realize his story is set in another time period. Of course we are. Brown and sepia tone equals the thirties and forties. Duh! And the world was also surely black and white and gray until the 50’s, right? ;D
But again, those are just my thoughts and they don’t add or take away from the great Detective #27.
Overall Grade: 9/10
(That’s Latin…in case you didn’t know.)