SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for “Batman Annual” #1, on sale now.
The first “Batman Annual” of DC Comics’ “Rebirth” initiative offers up a quintet of mostly Christmas-themed stories just in time for the holiday season, but it’s Tom King and David Finch’s leadoff tale that features perhaps the one member of the Bat-family that few, if anyone, thought would ever get a rebirth. The aptly-titled “Good Boy” heralds the reintroduction of one of the most beloved and neglected – in more ways than one – cast members in the Bat mythos: none other than Ace, the Bat-hound.
King’s story doesn’t just re-establish Ace as Gotham’s alpha dog, though; it’s a redefinition of the character. And make no mistake — Ace most definitely is a character in King’s script, one who impacts Bruce Wayne and Alfred as much as any of Batman’s bipedal sidekicks. And like any other character dynamic, the interaction of the three serves to fine-tune the characters of Bruce and Alfred, as well. As Ace is redefined, though, perhaps the most surprising element of his retooling is the first thing readers learn about him.
Ace First Belonged To, And Was Named By, The Joker
This revelation is one of those why-didn’t-anyone-ever-think-of-that moments that at first seems shocking, before its brilliance sinks in. The very fact that Ace survived at all with The Joker as his sadistic owner is a testament to his fortitude; the costumed hound is first seen sinking his teeth into an unfortunate victim dressed up as Batman, in The Joker’s twisted wish-fulfillment version of a dog-fighting operation.
Weeks later, Ace is found abandoned by the real Batman and Jim Gordon, having cannibalized his fellow canine fighters for survival. The other dogs had been adorned in similar deck-of-cards fashion as a King, Queen, and Jack; fitting monikers from the crazed mind who named himself after the most notorious playing card of all, and even more fitting that it was Ace who came out on top.
From Tragic Lives Are Heroes Born
Ace’s own tragic beginnings echo those of the Bat-family’s most prominent members. The birth of Batman began the moment young Bruce witnessed the violent murder of his parents in a random street crime. His first sidekick Dick Grayson likewise saw his parents die in an accident born from sabotage. His second, Jason Todd, was also orphaned and had taken to a life on the streets.
All of them, though, rose above the tragedies that shaped their lives, or at least constructively used them as a focal point. Like he did for Bruce as a boy, Alfred nurtures Ace as he helps him transition from a life forged by violence to one comforted with kindness. While Bruce trained Dick and Jason in the ways of crimefighting, it was Alfred who was there offering band-aids, consolation and ice cream, playing a role every bit as important as Bruce’s. In the end, Batman and two Robins all became heroes, as does Ace when Bruce provides his new companion a brand-new mask for Christmas and officially christens him the Bat-hound.
Alfred’s A Hero, Too
Alfred’s role as nurturer, though, like Batman’s role as a hero, is a never-ending one. Having filled the parental void as best he could for the devastated young Bruce, Alfred over the years has also taken on the role of a pseudo-sidekick, albeit largely from the relative comfort of the Batcave. In this story, however, he also demonstrates what he’s truly been all along: a hero in his own right, and not just for giving Ace a chance by springing him from the dog pound, nor for his successful efforts in rehabilitating a dog thought unadoptable, even initially by Bruce himself.
No, Alfred proves himself to be a hero to Bruce, although Bruce fails to outwardly recognize this. After weeks of restoring Ace’s trust in humans and quietly providing Bruce, and Batman, a companion to lie at his side, Bruce is oblivious to the enormity of the Christmas morning gift Alfred has given him: a loving and devoted friend. Just as Batman has always needed a Robin to keep him from spiraling into darkness, Alfred recognizes that Batman, and Bruce, needs an Ace to lighten him up.
Lighten him up he does, as the man beneath the cowl of Gotham’s feared and legendary Dark Knight finds himself cooing and baby-talking with his new pal as the story concludes. It’s rare that Batman, or even Bruce, is welcomingly seen behaving out-of-character, but if a Christmas story can’t even make that happen, then a Christmas story featuring a dog given a second chance at life certainly does.
He’s Trained To Sit, But Will He Stay?
Ace had been reintroduced once before, 25 years ago in “Batman” #462, but had quietly faded into the background years later and was all but forgotten by the time DC had instituted their “New 52” relaunch. In fact, new Bat-hound Titus had been introduced into continuity and seemingly pushed Ace solely into the realm of comic book trivia.
Despite the story being only eight pages, King and Finch have expounded a fair amount of effort in giving the new pooch a clever and believable origin. By entrenching him into the lives of Bruce and Alfred, the creative team indicates that there are further plans for the Bat-family’s newest member. “Rebirth” has collectively demonstrated its willingness to take Batman out of his comfort zone, as seen by way of his coordinating a Bat-team in “Detective Comics,” and Scott Snyder and John Romita Jr. taking him on a cross-country trip, in broad daylight no less, over in “All-Star Batman.” The broad expansion of Batman’s environment makes the idea of a four-legged sidekick perhaps more sensible now than at any time in modern continuity.
Plus, we need to see that inevitable epic Ace/Krypto sniff-off.
A Public Service Message On Behalf Of Our Furry Friends
While The Joker’s involvement in Ace’s background sidestepped the real-life issue of illegal dog-fighting rings, there is a clear parallel established in King’s story regarding the presumed fate of their unfortunate victims. Ace’s blood-encrusted muzzle seen early on, the unwillingness of Gotham’s animal shelter to adopt him out, and even Bruce’s own skepticism regarding the poor dog’s ability to be rehabbed all play into common fears and doubts relating to adopted abused animals.
Ace’s successful turnaround, though, also mirrors real-life, and often under-reported, success stories in making surviving victims of dog-fighting operations suitable for adoption. King’s happy, Christmastime fable might seem a little too sugary as a work of fiction, but as an allegory to actual documented events, it sends a message of hope on behalf of our friends with no voice, and a compelling plea to those who would help them: every dog deserves a home.
In eight pages, King and Finch provide an uplifting message, reintroduces a forgotten character, and shows why another is a true hero all within the backdrop often regarded as the most wonderful time of the year. It bears reminding, then, that “Batman Annual” #1 actually contains thirty more pages of content.
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