With the success of the film The Dark Knight, it's time for me to revisit the comic book that made me a lifelong Batman fan: Batman #237 (1971). Admittedly, I first saw (and liked) Batman when the old Adam West Batman program was originally on TV, when I was a very small child. However, it was the main story in this comic book that kept me interested in Batman. I first read it when I was 8 years old, and it scared the hell out of me. I loved it. If not for this comic, I probably never would have become a lifelong Batman fan, and I never would have gone on to explore the super-hero genre. So, just for fun, imagine you're an 8-year-old kid whose only exposure to Batman has been through a campy ol' TV show, and take a look at this tale:
The setting is in Rutland, Vermont, long known for its annual Halloween parades, and a favorite setting of superhero comic book writers during the 1970s. (Rutland during Halloween was used as a setting for not only Batman comics, but Avengers, Freedom Fighters, Justice League, Thor, and other comics).
(NOTE: The panels posted here are from the reprinted version that appears in Batman Illustrated, Volume 3, rather than my old comic book, which has long since fallen apart. For anyone who goes looking for the reprint volumes: Please note that, given a chance, artist Neal Adams has a tendency to pull a "George Lucas" and redo old artwork that he doesn't like. So, the artwork that appears in the Batman Illustrated books isn't exactly how it appears in the original comics. Regardless, GET these volumes, if you can. The artwork and stories contained in them still represent some of the best Batman stories ever done!)
The story opens far from the Halloween festivities. A still figure leans against a lone tree. The figure appears to be none other than Batman. There's a stake driven through his heart.
The scene shifts to the town Halloween parade, which is being watched by Dick Grayson and some of his college buddies. Attending the parade was apparently Dick's idea, to "get away from ye olde college grind" -- but his buddies are giving him kind of a hard time about it.
“I still don’t see why you dragged us up here, Dick!” says one guy, “To see a bunch of dum-dums goof around dressed as super-heroes?”
(Note: Hey, this parade is NOTHING compared to Comic-Con -- right, folks?)
While Alan, one of the guys from Dick’s group (an art student who’s a little dazed from cramming for exams), goes on and on about how cool the floats are, the others spot three hoodlums beating up a party-goer at the end of the street. Dick leads the charge to rescue the poor guy, and the fight very quickly escalates into a full-blown brawl. However, the opposition are using blackjacks and very quickly subdue Dick’s friends -- including Dick, thanks to Alan stumbling into him. Still, the hoodlums scram, leaving behind the guy they were beating up, who happens to be dressed in a Robin costume.
In the confusion, Alan disappears, to the worriment of the others. Dick volunteers to go track Alan down. He hurries away into the trees, but, really, he has no intention of looking for Alan. He’s more interested in finding out more about the hoodlums: “I don’t for a second believe the blackjack crew were casual rip-off artists -- No, they worked like pros!” He changes to his Robin costume and keeps moving through the trees, “to scout the scene.”
Eventually, Robin encounters the tree from the beginning of the story.
Robin gets a good look at the figure and sees the stake through his heart: “Oh, dear Lord … h-he’s dead!” Closer inspection reveals, though, that it’s NOT Batman; it's a poor, murdered party-goer in a cheap Batman suit.
As Robin tries to scan the ground for footprints, a huge, dark shadow looms over him.
Robin leaps up to avoid the blade, but he slips and falls backward down a ravine. He gets knocked unconscious and lands face-down in a stream bed. Lucky for him, someone spots him.
Batman hauls Robin (who regains consciousness but is a bit beat-up) from the stream and carries him to the “sprawling old mansion” of a local named Tom Fagan. They meet up with a Doctor Gruener, who is helping Batman track down an old Nazi war criminal named Colonel Kurt Schloss, a.k.a. The Butcher.
While Doctor Gruener patches up Robin, he explains that as a young man, he was an inmate of a Nazi concentration camp run by Schloss. Turns out he recently saw Schloss at a costume shop (buying a pirate costume) and found out he was attending the Rutland Halloween bash, so he alerted the authorities. Batman got involved when he found out that other ex-Nazis were also after Schloss, due to Schloss stealing gold from the Nazi party prior to disappearing.
Problem is, somehow the Nazis have found out that Batman is looking for Schloss AND for them; so they’re targeting anyone dressed as Batman or Robin. Batman just wants to catch all of these ex-Nazis and make them stand trial before they manage to kill each other off and take more innocent people with them.
After ordering Robin to rest due to his injuries, Batman and Doctor Gruener meet up with host Tom Fagan (a real guy, by the way -- look it up) and mix with the party-goers to see if they can find Schloss.
Meanwhile, outside the mansion, Dick’s pal Alan is still wandering around and thinking about floats.
As Alan runs off, screaming about skeletons and bodies, Batman catches him and tells him to take him to the body. Batman determines that the dead man had indeed been slain by the Reaper, and he orders Alan to hide somewhere and not to call the police.
Batman runs up the stairs and, sure enough, finds a bunch of Nazis hiding upstairs in Tom Fagan’s house. Unseen by Batman, a man in pirate garb leaves the party and walks out to the driveway, while Batman is busy beating up the Nazis.
Schloss is dead, and the burning car draws a bit of a crowd, including Robin, who steps outside the mansion to join Batman.
“Batman … you okay?” he asks.
“Oh, sure!” Batman replies. “Just swell … Great! Three men slain …”
“Anyway,” Robin continues, “The case is closed …”
“Don’t be stupid, kid,” Batman interrupts. “Sure, the Nazi’s booby-trapped Schloss … but they had no reason to murder the man dressed as me … nor their own companion! They didn’t even know their pal was dead!”
Batman is determined to find and stop the Reaper, and has to do so alone … because he’s figured out WHO the Reaper is. A quick scan of the party remnants reveals no evidence of the Reaper, so Batman backtracks toward the stream, the “site of his first killing …”
Sure enough, the Reaper is there.
Surprise, surprise, the Reaper turns out to be Doctor Gruener, who targeted Schloss out of revenge. Batman tries to stop Gruener, but Gruener first attacks and then runs from him.
Meanwhile, Alan has caught up with the rest of his buddies at the local dam.
Gruener slams into Alan and knocks him down. Alan’s lucky that he doesn’t fall off the dam, but his necklace gets caught on the handle of Gruener’s scythe and snaps off. Then Gruener threatens Alan ...
Story by Denny O’Neil, art by Neal Adams and Dick Giordano (“from an idea by Berni Wrightson with an assist from Harlan Ellison”).