Panels of Future Past: Batman 511 (September 1994)
So, Batman 511 was… interesting. I picked up this issue from a 50 cent long-box at the flea market along with a metal Avengers lunchbox and a 6-inch poseable R2-D2 figure, so I didn’t know much of what I was getting into. Can you really blame me? I guess I should have remembered that DC comics allowed its story-lines to get a little wonky from time to time after that famous Crisis on Infinite Earths storyline, which was known more for the “let’s all cry because Supergirl is dead” cover (issue 7) than for the otherwise ungainly story contained within.
I had no idea that Batman 511 was part of a multi-series arc called Zero Hour (yes, I know, “Zero Hour” is written right there above the title, but a lot of comic book covers are decorated with catchy phrases, and that doesn’t exactly mean that I should take note of them, right?!) when I got it. I bought it because the cover looked interesting. Turns out the book itself was interesting for the exact same reason the cover was. And interesting is the only word I can really use to describe this issue. It’s not particularly well-written, or well-realized. It’s also not a particularly profound or revolutionary story, or one that – even if I had been an avid Batman reader in 1994 when it came out – would have me waiting with baited breath for other parts of Zero Hour series. No, it was simply interesting – barely.
The cover captures in the entire hook of this particular issue: there are two Batgirls. Somehow, even if it’s through some kind of osmosis, most Batman fans and comic book fans in general know what the most significant even in Barbara Gordon’s life is, even if they actually haven’t read “The Killing Joke,” the graphic novel where that event occurred. Everyone (to use that term lightly) knows all that about that scene where Barbara was at home with her father, Commissioner Gordon, when she answered a knock on the door and was found herself face to face with the Joker. Not a moment passed before the Joker shot her at point-blank range and kidnapped the Commissioner. The damage to her spine would paralyze her and she’d become the Oracle form that point on, never to wear the cowl of Batgirl again. Everyone say it altogether now: As Oracle, she’d help to solve crimes form behind a computer. Is Oracle’s origin story really as much a part of the public consciousness as Superman’s origin? Maybe.
So there is Barbara on the cover of Batman 511, in a wheelchair, with Batman and Robin standing next to her, and they are confronted with a fully-suited Batgirl. (Also Nightwing is on the cover too, along with a Tyrannosaurus Rex) The perplexed look on all three of their faces as they gaze at her is really the hook of this issue. There is no scene quite like that in the issue, where they are all together, but it is a striking image, and perfect for a cover. It’s why I bought it.
The issue starts with the Joker causing mischief when he’s stopped by- Batgirl. This is strange to him, and its also strange to Batman and Robin who spot her as the are coming after the Joker themselves. There shouldn’t be a Batgirl. She’s not the only thing that’s amiss: the cops have orders to shoot the three vigilante’s onsite. Harvey Dent (who is not Two-Face) is the Commissioner, and Jim Gordon might be dead. This story is all too familiar to anyone who’s watched the classic Star Trek episode ‘Mirror Mirror,” or even better, that kind-of-crappy-kind-of-brilliant episode of The Next Generation called “Parallels.” In that episode, all the possible realities that could happen actually do happen and suddenly these different realities start to bleed into one another in the same reality and… well, that’s exactly like this issue.
The highlight for me in this issue is that Batman seems really impatient with this new Batgirl. He drags her around by the wrist a lot, and scolds her just for trying to explain how it is that she sees the world, and eventually he gets wise to just let the girl go off and do whatever so that he can see if any of what she’s been saying is really true. He’s pretty smart: the first thing he does is call Oracle. The fact that she responds to him – the fact that she is still around – is his first clue that these realities are starting to bleed together.
The issue ends with an incidental encounter with the Joker at the Police Department. Joker brings Gordon’s corpse with him to kidnap Harvey. When Batman drops in, the realities change, and Gordon is alive as he should be and suddenly Harvey is Two-Face once again. The scene was not helped by an error in the writing, where Batman suddenly shouts “No, Batgirl! Don’t try it!” even though no version of her is even in the scene.At least I don’t think she is. The artwork isn’t very clear in this scene either. A story that’s potentially confusing as it is is never helped by errors like this.
The issue starts to close with Oracle sobbing and whining (yes even with word bubbles I can tell when a someone is whining) about seeing herself as a fully ambient person again, and then finally ends with Batman heading to Metropolis to talk to Superman about all this. Maybe they’ll compare notes. Hopefully they have access to a television and some Star Trek reruns.