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Grumpy Old Fan | Bob Haney and the wages of continuity

by  in Comic News Comment

You may remember the story of an antisocial teen working his way into Bruce Wayne’s life, and even becoming part of his family, before dying in a Robin costume.

You might also remember this story being called “Punish Not My Evil Son,”* as told by writer Bob Haney, penciler Neal Adams, and inker Dick Giordano (note: GCD credits Adams), in The Brave and the Bold vol. 1 #83 (April-May 1969).

Like much of the Haney oeuvre, “Punish” depends on unique circumstances that otherwise might not fit well within Batman’s shared universe. Young Lance Bruner, who’s around the same age as teenager Dick Grayson, is the son of one Prof. Bruner, Thomas Wayne’s “closest friend.” When we first meet him he’s horsing around with a couple of Wayne valuables and smarting off to Alfred, so already he’s off to a bad start. However, he shows Bruce an agreement signed by both Prof. Bruner and Dr. Wayne, which provides that “if anything ever happen[s] to the professor[,] the Wayne family promises to adopt and raise Lance.” Indeed, Bruce remembers seeing baby Lance in his dad’s arms, and recalls further that the professor was “the finest man I’ve ever known … besides my own dad!” Lance has already tearfully played the orphan card, so Bruce reminds a skeptical Dick how a certain other kid came to live at Wayne Manor — and away we go.

“Punish Not” wants to make Lance a tragic figure; so in order to be redeemed, Lance must first be bad. He steals from Alfred, vandalizes a police motorcycle and “plays crinkle-fender” with Bruce’s new car. Each time, Dick covers for his ungrateful “brother.” When Dick and the other Teen Titans take Lance clubbing, he makes fun of Wonder Girl’s dancing. Indeed, while at the disco, Lance sees a local mobster and arranges to be “kidnapped.” Bruce pays the ransom, telling Dick and Alfred “I couldn’t let anything happen to him! It would be on my conscience for the rest of my life!”

However, just after Lance’s “release,” a reform-school official shows Bruce Lance’s juvenile record. Lance begs not to go back to the reformatory, and Bruce takes pity on him, thinking, “I’ve seen so many youngsters become hardened criminals for want of another chance!” Sure enough, it looks like Lance has seen the light — but when Batman and the Titans are on a case and Lance stumbles onto the Batcave, it’s time for revenge. Lance goes to Stark, the crooked businessman Batman’s been investigating (and whom Lance saw at a Wayne Foundation meeting) to offer to sell out the Dynamic Duo.

Thus, they’re lured into a trap on one of Stark’s offshore oil rigs. Hit by a pressurized-air blast Stark meant for Batman, Robin takes what’s apparently a nasty plunge off the side of the platform. Just then the Titans show up, taking care of the goons while a raging Batman pursues Stark. Stark tries to get away in a waiting boat, but Lance is there in Robin’s costume. Shocked, Stark shoots Lance, and Batman takes out Stark … too late, though, for Lance. He tells Batman that Robin’s cape “saved [Dick] from serious injury,” and they switched clothes presumably so Lance could go after Stark. Accordingly, Lance’s final change of heart came when he saw Robin “sacrifice himself…. I knew at last what real love … real respect was! It made me jealous! I had to prove I wasn’t all rotten …” Lance is buried at Wayne Manor, where Bruce notes “we’ll never forget him!”

Today’s readers probably take those never-forget sentiments with a shovelful of salt. I’m not sure Lance was remembered any longer than it took to put out the next Bat-title. Arguably too late for the 1976 Batman encyclopedia, he doesn’t even warrant an entry in the 2008 Essential Batman Encyclopedia. While the emotional justification for his story rests in Bruce’s generous spirit, “Punish Not” asks readers to believe that Thomas Wayne had a heretofore-unknown friendship that was so powerful it compelled him to agree — and not just for himself, but for his family in perpetuity — to take care of a child who wasn’t even conceived when the agreement was signed. Today’s readers might also cringe at the thought of a Batman who perhaps forgave too easily, even in light of Lance’s connection to Bruce’s father. (It is a stretch, though, when Batman seems not to notice that the dying “Robin” has Lance’s red hair, and has to take off the mask to discover the truth.)

“Punish Not” demonstrates an approach to character history that was not unusual at the time, but which today seems rather scattered. It treats Batman and Robin’s relationship as a known quantity, but it doesn’t assume the reader has been specifically following Batman comics for any length of time. In other words, while this is a story about Bruce/Batman and Dick/Robin, it’s not part of any particular macro-arc about their relationship. Lance doesn’t threaten that relationship for any longer than the story requires.

In fact, nothing Lance does will have any long-term implications — not his stay at Wayne Manor, not his getting Dick in trouble, not his reformation, not his revenge, and not his death. Sure, Bruce, Dick and the Titans can mourn Lance genuinely, but really, what lesson can they apply going forward? Not to expose a troubled teenager to the Gotham City underworld, because being involved with Batman might get him killed? Who’s going to repeat this plot a few years down the line? (I ask in late-Silver-Age terms, of course. After all, a few years later Haney gave the world the Super-Sons in World’s Finest.)

However, “Punish Not” does show the freedom — if that’s the word for it — that Haney had on B&B (and later with the Super-Sons). Today, “Punish Not” might well be an extended story arc,** possibly buttressed by another flashback arc establishing Prof. Bruner’s relationship with the Waynes, and readers would be counting the issues until Lance met his fate. (Even then, the door might be open for him to return. If Wonder Woman’s teenaged pal Vanessa Kapatelis could be transformed into a new Silver Swan, a revamped Lance Bruner could be a new Killer Moth, or something.) Instead, Haney and Adams told Lance’s story in one issue, with the Teen Titans guest-starring to boot. If B&B #83 was your only Batman comic for the spring of 1969, it might well have satisfied you. It teased big changes but pulled back, because Haney and company were more invested in the characters than affecting the status quo.

Last week’s flap over Green Lantern John Stewart is more evidence that those priorities have shifted. If it’s true that DC higher-ups wanted to kill John, they may well have thought they couldn’t do any more with John and therefore had no other option. Although that’s speculation based in conjecture, if proven true, it suggests a failure of imagination. Ever since John’s military background was emphasized over his architecture career, he’s been more of a tormented soldier than a thoughtful builder. (Graeme McMillan and Jeff Lester had a great discussion along those lines, and I defer to them on the extended discussion of how recent DC history generally goes back to the Jenette Kahn days.)

Therefore, it’s especially shortsighted to kill John — or any character — just because his current portrayal isn’t working. “Revitalization through architecture” might not sound like the best strategy for connecting with DC’s target readership, but if it fails you still have a live character. Otherwise, eventually you end up devoting at least six issues to “John Stewart Rebirth,” and everybody just gets more cynical.

I realize it’s not exactly fair to compare the DC of 1969 with the DC of 2013, particularly when you compare a random Bob Haney story with a plot that  might never see print. Although “Punish Not My Evil Son” hits the reset button pretty hard, DC was already moving to update its shared universe. Before the end of 1969, DC would change Batman’s status quo in a few very meaningful ways, first by moving Dick to college and Bruce and Alfred downtown, and then through the work of Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams. John Stewart himself was a product of further early-‘70s shakeups (and also O’Neil and Adams, of course). If Lance Bruner had come along a few years later, or been part of a more influential creative team, he could certainly have influenced Bat-history.***

Regardless, the juxtaposition of tragic Lance and almost-tragic John highlights the differences in authorial intent. “Punish Not” redeems an unlikeable delinquent to show both that Batman has a big heart and Troubled Teens Are Worth It. Conversely, the notion that a Green Lantern might be better off dead says more about DC’s editorial proclivities**** than John’s own potential.

Still, re-reading “Punish Not My Evil Son,” I was amazed at first that Lance wasn’t even a footnote in Bat-history. Even though he probably didn’t survive the continuity cleanups of Crisis On Infinite Earths, Zero Hour or Infinite Crisis, to say nothing of the New-52 relaunch, there was still plenty of time for him to be worked into the larger mythology. However, the more I thought about that, albeit in a sort of lol Bob Haney kind of way, the more I realized Haney probably didn’t care what the rest of the Bat-books did, or didn’t do, with Lance. Haney had told his story and Lance had served his purpose. By contrast, I as a fan was expecting Lance to do more. If every story is a world-building block, however incremental, then surely the tale of Bruce Wayne’s red-headed bad seed deserves a spot on the list of Bat-milestones. Since continuity is the devil, though, this may sound obvious — but “Punish Not” tells me that sometimes a story can just be a story, for its own sake and none other.

Compare that with the John Stewart rumors (or, for that matter, its “Nightwing dies in Infinite Crisis” antecedent), which are easy to believe in today’s plot-fueled, event-driven corporate superhero culture. If John isn’t working anymore, send him out in a blaze of glory. If Nightwing’s death will help Batman’s character development, so be it. Sometimes you get a character death which is actually integral to that character’s narrative purpose, like the one Grant Morrison apparently planned from the beginning of his Batman run for Damian Wayne. Too often, though, character deaths start from “because we can” and don’t stray much farther.

Anyway, I don’t mean for this post to be all about capricious killings in superhero comics. I’m just fascinated by the different ways we consider these stories to be important. History has judged “Punish Not My Evil Son” to be unimportant in terms of the larger Batman mythology, but it’s still a valuable artifact of DC’s transition from one storytelling style to another. There’s Bob Haney trying to pull some relevance out of a Batman/Teen Titans team-up (including the aforementioned “troubled teen” trope), plus Neal Adams and Dick Giordano showing glimpses of the work which would redefine DC for decades, and a story which flirted with huge consequences but had to let ‘em all go. By no means am I holding up “Punish Not My Evil Son” as a model for what corporately-run superhero comics should be — but it’s a good opportunity to start a discussion.

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* [Sadly, the title cannot have been inspired by the 1976 Kansas song “Carry On Wayward Son,” although it fits neatly within the latter’s meter.]

** [On the other hand, there’s the example of the Justice Leaguer Tomorrow Woman, introduced and killed by Grant Morrison and Howard Porter in 1997’s JLA #5; as well as a few consequence-testing one-shots and miniseries outside the main titles. JLA: Superpower gave the world Mark Antaeus, who appeared nowhere else, and Green Lantern: Dragon Lord revealed the secret history of a power battery which landed in feudal Japan.]

*** [He might have anyway, even subconsciously — Jason Todd was originally a redhead, and of course Damian didn’t originally have the best attitude.]

**** [“Editorial proclivities” may also include, as Graeme and Jeff describe, being a) willing to let a writer walk over killing off a character, and b) reversing the decision to kill that character after a few hours of Internet rampage.]