In the ever-evolving landscape of comics, there are simply some things that should not have happened. In Retcon This, we examine some of the more questionable aspects of our beloved characters’ sordid histories.
War Drums, War Games, and War Crimes are some of my favorite Batman stories ever. For the uninitiated, the meat of this story takes place in War Games, wherein Spoiler – aka Stephanie Brown aka Robin IV – attempts to unify the gangs of Gotham under a single boss, as per a secret contingency plan she finds in Batman’s computer files. Y’see, Stephanie wanted to prove herself, and felt this was the way to do it. Apparently, Bruce’s idea was that by putting a single boss in charge of all organized crime in Gotham, he could keep track of everything better and insure a reduction in collateral damage due to warring factions brawling throughout the city. There’s just one problem; Bruce’s plan was to have Matches Malone be the man in charge, and poor Steph never realized just who Matches was (if you’re in the same boat, it’s an alter ego Bruce has used in the past to infiltrate the criminal circles). Matches was the one man that all of the gangs respected, the one man none of the bosses had a grudge against. Without Matches, the plan would never work. You’d just have a bunch of mob bosses and their enforcers all gathered in one place with no common interests and… well, I think you see where this is going.
So the most massive gang war ever rages across all of Gotham and Bruce and his extended family do everything they can to quell it. Long story slightly shorter, Stephanie sets out to try to rectify the shitstorm she’s caused and gets herself messed up big time by Black Mask for her troubles. Batman comes to her rescue, of course, and brings him to the only place she’ll be safe – the clinic of Dr. Leslie Thompkins, Bruce’s surrogate mother figure. Unfortunately, Stephanie doesn’t make it, and becomes the second Robin to die on Bruce’s watch.
Here’s where War Crimes picked up, as Bruce investigates Stephanie’s death and comes to a horrific realization. As it turns out, Leslie could have saved Stephanie, but let her die in the hope of convincing Bruce if not to stop his war, then at least to stop dragging children into it. This was one of the single most tragic moments in modern comics. Bruce’s betrayal at the hands of one of the people who had raised him was terrible to behold; his reaction equally as heart breaking.
But then it hit me… what a fantastic new villainess. Someone who cares so much for innocent life that she’ll sacrifice one to save the lot. This was a villain in the stroke of Ra’s Al Ghul or Poison Ivy. Someone whose motives were good even if their heads were buried entirely up their assholes. Fantastic! What a thrill! Such pathos! How can Bruce fight an enemy who’s only trying to save him?
Well, the answer is, he can’t. Only editorial could defeat this new villain, and they did just that. After the continuity cluster-eff that was Infinite Crisis, no one really knew what HAD and HADN’T happened, for sure. Bruce’s parents had once again been murdered by Joe Chill, a plotline the original Crisis had undone. So where were we at now with Leslie? It wasn’t certain. And then lo and behold, Spoiler re-emerges. Surely it’s someone new in the costume, right? No. No it isn’t. And it’s not even the result of the massive Prime-punch, either. No. It’s one of those subtle retcons, where you just establish something new – you see, Stephanie never died. Leslie faked her death to try to teach Bruce a lesson. And the two went to hide in Africa and do mission work. Or something like that. WHO CARES!?!?!?
DC invalidated one of the boldest moves they’d ever made with a weakass back-paddling story that now serves no purpose. Leslie’s stunt failed. And that’s what made the gesture so tragic in the first place; it could never succeed. Bruce will always be Bruce. The idea that his surrogate mother allowed an innocent girl to die for NOTHING is what made War Crimes so powerful. Instead, we’re left with the impotent story of a Leslie Thmopkins who tries to prove a point by attempting to pull the wool over the eyes of the world’s greatest detective.
Leslie’s story is a footnote in the greater tapestry of the Dark Knight’s life; this is not a story element you can build an entire retcon around. But then, there’s the rub. The fact that this is a smaller part of the greater whole means it can easily be undone as part of a larger Crisis-style retcon and addressed after the fact in a story that gives it its due. And with Bruce MIA and Martian Manhunter dead, you can believe this most recent Crisis will prove to be anything but final.
The change doesn’t have to be hamhanded, either. After the next editorial-induced shakeup, introduce a new villainess: Triage. You set her up as a character who sacrifices a few to save the many. You have Robin make some quip about Star Trek. And finally, you have Bruce unmask her, only to be faced by Leslie Thompkins, driven mad by her own guilt, having spiralled out of control into a psychosis where she has applied her own twisted logic to Bruce’s cause. Believing that she’s helping people, she’ll provide a truly emotional challenge for Bruce, and in flashbacks throughout the story, the writers can reintroduce into continuity the death of Stephanie Brown at the hands of Dr. Thompkins; and the subsequent exile of the good doctor. Another complex rogue, another tragic tale, and another crisis – averted.