Because I have never shared my friend Sean's passion for collecting comic books, I was surprised when he called me to tell me of his latest find. It was a copy of Detective Comics #38, not exactly in pristine condition, although one of Bob Kane and Bill Finger's original entries in the legend of Bruce Wayne, the Dark Knight of Gotham. Sean told me when I went over to his apartment, he found it in the basement of a secondhand bookstore in Williamsburg.
"But I thought you already had all the issues Kane and Finger wrote themselves." My puzzlement as to why Sean thought I would care about his new (old) comic book must have been quite obvious in my voice.
"Yes, I do. I already have all of them." Sean smiled mysteriously. "But this one is special."
I could tell he wanted my curiosity. "All right, Sean, I'll bite. Tell me, why is this one special? What's different about Issue #38?"
"It's not Issue #38 that's special; it's this particular copy." He handed me the other copy of Detective Comics #38, the one he bought years ago and had long kept in his collection. "Look how they're different."
I examined the two comic books alongside one another. Both were dated April, 1940. Both of course carried the same "Detective Comics" title, and both were enumerated No. 38. Each cost ten cents. But whereas the copy Sean already had announced "the Sensational Character Find of 1940," which as it turned out was a reference to Robin, famously introduced in this issue, the copy Sean found in Brooklyn carried no such promise, and inside there was no mention of Robin. Indeed, it was a different story altogether.
The story in this copy (the "Williamsburg Copy," one might call it) telescopes twenty-five years into the future, when a middle-aged Bruce Wayne has begun considering retirement. He has been so successful in his crusade against crime, by this time Gotham has become about as safe as Singapore. Rather than rejoicing in his own triumph, however, in recent months Wayne has grown depressed with the state of affairs. The Joker, Catwoman, Two-Face, the Penguin, Poison Ivy—they are all gone, dead or in prison. And only now in his loneliness does Wayne come to understand he needs them as much as they need him, their lives having defined his and his life theirs. Without criminals haunting the streets of Gotham City, Batman seems no more than the superfluous vestige of a bygone era, an era any decent citizen of Gotham would prefer to forget. And then one night, he hears about himself on the radio.
At first he thinks it must be the Cognac. With the tips of his fingers, he feels drops of condensation gliding down the outside of the glass onto the mahogany armrest. No coaster. Alfred would not be pleased. The amber liquid is starting to grow warm as the ice melts, and it is beginning to taste watered down on his tongue. He has been ending his evenings with these solitary nightcaps more and more often lately. And the Cognac is going to his head a little; he can feel it.
And that is why he thinks it must be the Cognac when he hears about his own exploits on the 9:30 news. "Batman was spotted earlier tonight turning onto the highway off Seventh Avenue," the newsman intones in his cigarette-stained voice with a vague undercurrent of boredom. "Witnesses say the Caped Crusader had just stopped a robbery in progress at Katz's Jewelry store on the corner across the street from Wayne Tower. The robber was then picked up by the police. In other news, in Washington tonight..."
It is a heartbeat or so before Bruce Wayne consciously registers the creeping unease in his mind. It must be the Cognac, he thinks. Why was he drinking Cognac anyway? He doesn't even like it. It has always reminded him of the cough medicine his father gave him when he was an infirm boy.
"Alfred," he calls, but without enough air in his diaphragm and more quietly than he had intended. He takes a breath and tries again, "Alfred!" this time rather too loudly and impatiently.
"Yes, Master Bruce?" His butler appears in the doorway, looking exactly the same as he always does in his impeccable tuxedo. Except older, perhaps. The tracks around his mouth and across his forehead cast deeper shadows than ever. And those eyes behind the silver-rimmed glasses betray more weariness than usual, Bruce thinks. "Can I get you anything, sir?"
"Alfred," Bruce frowns. "Was I out earlier this evening?"
"No sir, not since you came back from golf. Is everything all right?" Bruce knows that Alfred, who is very old himself now, worries for him. But it is at moments like this, when the younger man, who ought to have the better memory, relies on the older one, that Alfred displays his superhuman ability not to betray his feelings.
So someone is impersonating him, Bruce thinks. Apparently doing the work he himself has grown too bored to do, too enervated even, work that in any case has grown embarrassingly small-time.
But now the thought that another Batman roams the streets of Gotham invigorates him, preoccupies him. He begins to devote all the ingenuity and skill he once directed against the Joker to his newly discovered double. He deliberately allows crimes—few and far between as they are now—to go forward unimpeded, just to see whether his malevolent twin (because surely he is malevolent) will intervene. At times he does intervene, and Bruce tries to catch him; at other times he does not, and Bruce watches the thief or robber disappear into the night.
This has to be the work of some new criminal mastermind, Bruce thinks, some trap laid by a new and dastardly personality unlike any of his old adversaries, because this doppelganger act is beyond the evil imagination and nihilism of even the Joker.
Bruce's fixation on the Other Batman grows to an obsession. He begins seeing him in places where he could not possibly be—among the guests at his birthday party, for example, the twin-spiked black mask and cape amidst the tuxedos and ball gowns, charging his champagne glass with the rest when Bruce makes his toast, although no one but Bruce seems to notice him. When Bruce approaches the phantom, it recedes into the shadows with as much stealth as Bruce himself could have managed while his guests stop him to shake his hand.
Finally, after months of effort, he catches up with his double at the museum, where the Other Batman has just apprehended a pair of art thieves intent on stealing Velazquez's Las Meninas, which has recently been brought over from Europe. Bruce confronts him. "Who are you?" he demands.
"I'm you, obviously," the Other answers.
"Take off your mask," he demands. The Other complies without protest. To Bruce's amazement—and perhaps even horror—the face underneath the mask is one he recognizes all too well, the same Wayne features he inherited from his late father and of which he is always so proud. It is as though Bruce is looking through a mirror, darkly. "How can this be?" he asks the apparition of himself.
"I told you; I am you."
"It can't be." Bruce throws himself at his Other, pushing him violently to the ground, destroying an eighteenth century Dante chair in the process. With his left hand Bruce grasps his enemy's throat and squeezes hard, and with his right he begins striking the face with those features identical to his own, bashing in the cheekbones and breaking the nose and bruising the eyes until they are unrecognizable. To his surprise, the Other does not resist. The art thieves, bound to a pillar in the middle of the room, beg him to stop, but he ignores them. He stops only when his arms have grown weary and his fists are covered in blood.
The final panel in the Williamsburg Copy of Detective Comics #38 shows Batman's newspaper obituary.
For a good hour or so Sean and I debated what the story might have meant, whether the double represented death, a death wish, conscience, a protest against the idea of introduction of Robin, or the elemental horror of reflection itself. Then we turned to whether the obituary at the end indicated the dead double was taken as the real Batman, that in killing his double Batman had killed himself, or whether Batman was already dead from the start although he didn't realize it.
"The remarkable thing is," Sean added when the discussion came to a lull, "I haven't been able to find another copy of #38 like this. I've inquired at every comic bookstore in New York I can find and called every other collector I know who also has #38, and every other copy of #38, it seems, depicts what it's supposed to depict—the first appearance of Robin. No other copy of #38, at least none I am aware of, depicts this alternate storyline of Batman's death by doppelganger. It appears, as well as I can ascertain, that this alternate copy of Issue #38 is unique."
Perhaps Bob Kane and Bill Finger produced this alternate version of #38 as a joke, albeit one with profound significance. Or perhaps Kane and Finger were never responsible for this Bizarro comic book, and instead its singular appearance in Brooklyn represents the piecemeal disintegration of our world as it collides with the imagination of its own doppelganger.