With "Interlude on Earth-Two," Alan Brennert was the first DC Comics writer to asked the questions, "If you go to a world where an alternate version of yourself got older, married, had a full life, and died... wouldn't that be kinda upsetting? Not just for you, but the people who knew and loved your alternate self?"
They're questions that no DC writer had considered by 1982, and Brennert answered them by throwing in an additional question: "What if that alternate Earth's Hugo Strange didn't escape unscathed from his final Golden Age adventure?"
This is one of the finest comics by Alan Brennert, who wrote only about nine DC stories over twenty years, including the wonderful Batman classic, To Kill A Legend.
It is a testament to his abilities that I've had an insanely hard time editing these scans, so while scans_daily shall receive a butchered edition of this post, you readers here shall get the expanded version which does better justice to the story. At least, until such time as DC reprints it someday (probably in a theoretical fourth or fifth volume of DC Showcase Presents the Brave and the Bold).
Changing into their costumes as Starman (JSA member and wielder of the cosmic rod) and Robin (the grown-up ex-Boy Wonder), the heroes investigate the storm, but are attacked and struck down by a thunderbolt, and a mysterious force snatches Starman's rod.
Cue evil laughter.
Looking for answers and allies, Batman heads to the JSA headquarters, where he's mistaken as a villain by Robin, who attacks. Realizing his first mistake, Robin is shocked, thinking that he must be seeing a ghost.
Robin catches Batman up to speed, recounting how Hugo was thought to have died in his fall off the cliffs (as recounted in the third and final Golden Age Hugo Strange story). As there was no Strange Apparitions storyline in Earth-Two, this was the first time anybody had heard of Hugo in twenty years.
... Catwoman had a plane? I'm trying and failing to find any info about this. Google, you have failed me!
Batman manages to down the plane, but nearly dies in the process until he's saved by Robin.
... Who? The Spinner? Come on, I know the Silver Age was crack, but that couldn't possibly have been a real villain oh dear god it was. In fact, he even recently showed up on Batman: The Brave and the Bold, because that show is hardcore in its geekery.
Batman-1 and Robin-2 end up getting a helping hand by Batwoman. Now, here's where things get a bit sketchy, continuity-wise. Apparently, there never was an Earth-Two Batwoman. The Kathy Kane Batwoman was still in Earth-One, but had recently been murdered by the Bronze Tiger from the League of Assassins. A crass and ignominious end for Kathy, supposedly killed off because she was a relic of a goofier past that editors at DC wanted forgotten.
But at this point, Batman remembers Batwoman all too well. So this mistake on Brennert's part still pays off for emotional power when Batman-1 meets Batwoman-2:
Hoping that this Earth-Two version is similar enough to the one he made, Batman manages to pry open the trunk and extract boxes to construct Whirly Bats, which will come in very handy just as long as they survive!
These panels are a perfect example of Brennert's skills. In four pages, he mixes explosive action with a poignant character moment tied up with the story's theme of having to let go of the past. Indeed, it's more true than Dick wants to know, as it's revealed that the Batmobile he destroyed wasn't a copy at all,
To make matters sadder, it actually DOES turn out to be the real Batmobile, which leads Batman to deduce the location of Hugo's hideout: the Batcave!
That last panel is an indication of one subplot I've had to edit out entirely: Kathy's own conflicted emotions for a man she loved and lost long ago. For her, this adventure is about living out "old times," but Batman-1's presence brings the scene to soap-opera levels of conflict. I feel like that's the weakest part of this story, tipping over from honest character emotion into melodrama.
Vowing to "cripple" them "as Gotham crippled me," Hugo unleashes the robot dinosaur! Epic robot dinosaur battle in the Batcave! But thanks to a strong mixture of teamwork, one of Penguin's flamethrower umbrellas (I love you, Ozzie), and a loose stalagmite, they fell the Robo Rex.
Everyone congratulates themselves, feeling ready for anything else that Hugo might throw at them! Anything... except...
... Man. For me, there's something so moving about that page, much like the destruction of the Batmobile. Comics are a visual medium, and it's always better to err on the side of show versus tell. But Brennert knows how to use narration just enough, in just the right ways, to actively enhance the scene's power. He runs the risk of walloping you over the head with the poignancy, but instead, he pulls it off with grace and beauty.
Really, it's a perfect end for Hugo. This is a character who has still, to this date, been giving no humanizing aspects, no origin, no real motivation. He's either gleefully evil or insanely obsessed, but the fact that he's an effective villain makes it work. He can get away with his character being defined as nothing more than Batman's arch-nemesis. As such, I find this this entire scene is a powerful, fitting, and moving death for the character.
Additionally, it makes a poignantly tragic statement about the relationship of villains to their heroes, a point which Alan Moore would make four years later with the Comedian and Moloch in Watchmen #2. It's just one example of how Brennert was a writer ahead of his time, appreciated mainly by other writers and a handful of hardcore Bat-fans.
With Hugo dying unmourned but at least not alone, it's time for the Earth-Two heroes to say goodbye.
I don't think the cosmic rod works that way, but whatever, Ted.
What makes this ending so great is how Bruce, Kathy, and Dick each find a measure of peace that they didn't have at the story's start. They have confronted their pasts, and are ready to move on.
Even today, it's extremely rare for comics to explore issues of loss and healing. Everyone focuses on anger, vengeance, and ANGST ANGST ANGST. So rarely do we see mourning, longing, or healing, since most writers are more keen on getting on to the next big action sequence. Brennert treats his characters as real people with real feelings, and while Marvel did it first, the way they deal with these problems and move on is much more in keeping with the DCU. And he did it all in nineteen pages.
As I said before, Alan Brennert only wrote nine stories for DC Comics over about twenty years. His career there rivals only Alan Moore's for most prolific body of work over a very limited tenure, and if there were any justice, fans would be clamoring for DC to publish a Complete DC Comics Stories of Alan Brennert collection. Doing this past makes me want to write about them all in a Brennert Master Post. Perhaps I will, once I've tracked down the last three I have yet to read.