Batman: Death of Innocents #1 (1996)
Batman: Death of Innocents #1 (December, 1996)
“Death of Innocents”
Writer – Denny O’Neil
Pencils – Joe Staton
Inks – Bill Sienkiewicz
Colors – Ian Laughlin
Letters – John Costanza
Associate Editor – Darren Vincenzo
Editor – Scott Peterson
Cover Price: $3.95
Today we’re going to be covering a very special book… one that I (for whatever reason) didn’t even realize received a domestic release… and certainly not one I ever expected to own.
I wanna take you back a handful of years… I was doing some research on various comic book PSAs for an episode of the show. Naturally, things like the New Teen Titans Drug Awareness issues, the Supergirl “Buckle-Up” stuff, that Spider-Man & Power Pack issue kept popping up in my search… but also, some more obscure stuff… Captain America fighting an asthma monster, Spider-Man teaches kids how to brush their teeth (with AIM toothpaste only!)… those odd “second-tier” PSAs… the ones that are more “silly” to we enlightened twenty-first century types.
Then, there were these DC specials… about landmines. Living in America (uhh!), landmines aren’t something I think about with any regularity. For whatever reason, this made me think that these landmine issues were only released outside of the United States. I don’t think anyone ever told me that, or even that I’d read it anywhere… I’d just, again for whatever reason, decided that was the way it was.
That said… imagine my shock when I was digging through a random cheap-o bin near the house, and came across the very issue we’re about to talk about! It’s actually a legit release… with a price-tag, bar code, indicia and everything! I’ve been holding off on actually covering it here… though, I’m not sure why. Probably something having to do with not having the time to give it a proper look. Well, lucky for me (and you, if you’re interested), this odd green tea diet I’ve been subjecting myself to has somehow resulted in improving my focus on stuff like this. Not sure how long it’ll last… but, I may as well enjoy the ride while I’m on it!
Anyhoo, without further ado… let’s check this out.
Oh! Wait, one more thing… this is a very heavy issue, I probably don’t need to put a “Reader Discretion” disclaimer, but… ya know, just in case.
Our story opens on a car-full of happy folks driving back home in order to celebrate a birthday… it’s a father, his daughter, and the daughter’s friend. Along the way, they run over a landmine… which absolutely destroys the vehicle, and ends the lives of two of the three passengers. The only survivor is one of the young girls… the daughter, Sarah. I wanna warn y’all upfront, this scene right here kind of sets the tone for everything that’s to come. This is a heavy, unpleasant, gut-punch of a story.
We shift scenes to Gotham City where Bruce Wayne is getting an earful from a Mrs. Orbley. She is the wife of the man who we just saw die, and the mother of Sarah. She’s blaming Bruce for sending her husband there in the first place… and for the fact that her daughter is now listed as “missing” somewhere in Kravia. This finger-pointing doesn’t exactly sit well with Bruce…
… and so, when he heads back home, he really starts to rattle Alfred’s cage about the situation. He’s in deep-denial mode, and even says something along the lines of “If Mrs. Orbley didn’t have a headache that day, she would’ve died too!” as if to suggest that this poor woman is somehow lucky! Alfred ain’t buyin’ a bit of it… and actually sorta-kinda throws it back at Bruce. He’s not blaming him, but he’s trying to give him a little bit of a “reality check”. Very well done scene!
Alfred then fills Bruce in on the situation in Kravia. Upheaval, rebellion… just all-around ugliness. The deal with the landmines is especially horrifying, as they’re a) made out of very little metal, so they’re difficult to locate, and b) disguised to look like common items… toys, and what-not. Bruce wonders if there’s anything he can do… to which, Alfred replies with “Duh, you’re Batman.”… followed by a full-page spread of that scene in Crime Alley. Can’t have a single Batman story without one of those! Thankfully they spare us the scattered pearls!
Bruce raises his cowl, and before we know it… he’s on a chopper headed into Kravia. His pilot warns him about how dangerous this plan is… and assures him, even with a bomb-sniffing dog (which he has), more likely than not, Batman’s about to be blown sky high. Batman appreciates the warning… but, he’s got a job to do. And so, when the time is right, he takes the dog in his arms and parachutes into the bitter cold night.
After landing, Batman gingerly steps across the field… being led by his four-legged pal. Suddenly, the dog catches a scent… and begins walking with a purpose. Before it can locate a landmine, however… it is shot by a sniper! They’re really not pulling any punches with this one, are they?
The sniper presents itself at Batman… mocks him for being a stupid American in a cape… then gleefully warns him that the field he’s currently standing in contains well over one-hundred landmines. The sniper, certain that Batman ain’t gonna make it all that far, bids him adieu… and retires back into the woods.
Over the course of the next several pages, Batman painstakingly wanders through the minefield… it’s really very well done. Every step feels like an event… and, I say that with no sarcasm… this is a very strong scene! He finally makes it into the brush, where he climbs a tree and radios in to Oracle. He tells her of the sniper, and reveals that it had a woman’s voice. Babs does some checking and deduces that this must’ve been a Colonel Franck… in her words, a “very nasty lady”. Unfortunately, that’s all she seems to know about her.
Batman then sleeps for eight-minutes and forty-seconds (out of a planned 10 minute nap), when he’s awoken by some local guerrillas attempting to shake down some poor dude. Batman is able to make out enough of what they’re saying to know that the guerrillas are trying to track down Sarah Orbley.
Batman sits in the tree for a bit, before thinking to himself “Whatta revoltin’ development”… after which, he dives into the fray and beats everybody up. After the dust (and bodies) settle, Batman is informed that these locals might’ve seen a girl in a nearby field, some three kilometers south. Our man thanks them for the tip, and gets to headin’.
What he finds… isn’t Sarah Orbley. This is actually the body of Sarah’s friend, Mariska Kraje… and, I tell ya what, the art depicts her as being pretty grotesquely mutilated, but not overwhelmingly gory. When I opened this issue, the first thing that came to mind was how little I felt I was going to like the art. As we work our way through, however, I’m finding a real appreciation for this strange Staton-Sienkiewicz tandem!
Batman spends the next little while digging a shallow grave for Mariska’s body. He feels it’s inadequate, but… at present, it’s the best he can do. As he finishes up, he notices some tiny footprints leaving the area. He assumes they belong to Sarah… and so, he follows them.
As he tracks the tracks… he thinks that there’s nothing more important to him right now than to find this little girl. It begins to rain, somewhat obscuring his view of the path… but he’s able to persevere. Suddenly, he sees a faint light. It’s a tiny village… he chooses to ignore it.
As he trudges ever forward, Batman finds himself stood before a new set of tracks… these ain’t footprints, but big ol’ tire tracks! Realizing that poor villagers don’t ride around in military-grade vehicles, he assumes these tracks belong to the bad-guys. He follows them. An added perk to this is, so long as he walks within the tracks, he knows he won’t accidentally step on a mine!
These tracks take him right up to a gaggle of guerrillas… who are gleefully planting new landmines along the path they’d just taken. Of note, they’re pretty proud that some of these mines look like children’s toys. Pretty sneaky stuff here… pretty ruthless too, which makes it all the sweeter when Batman arrives and beats the holy hell out of ’em!
After kayoing the lot of ’em, Batman takes their guns and… just empties them into the pile of landmines, setting off each and every one before they can be buried. It’s yet another very powerful scene. I tell ya what, this ain’t your garden-variety PSA.
Our man hops into one of their vehicles, and follows the tire-trail back to the guerrillas’ headquarters… which is a massive palace of a home, which once belonged to a wealthy industrialist. Ya know, before everything sorta went to pot. Batman breaches the gate, takes out a few guards and rushes toward the house… where he sees that dude he “saved” earlier, who is happily counting a stack of cash he’d just been given by the Colonel.
Further into the estate Batman sneaks… until he finally finds the Colonel’s room. He busts in on her while she’s brushing her hair. He gives her three choices… which are sorta like 1) Die, 2) Die, 3) Talk… then Die.
Initially, Franck looks kinda freaked out… but, gets over it quickly enough. We can sorta tell here that she doesn’t have all that much to live for… “living” has just become a means to getting revenge. Batman asks why she’s committed so many atrocities against innocent children and families… to which, she reveals that her own children were taken from her by the government. They’d shot her son and daughter to “teach her a lesson” for writing an unsavory letter to a local newspaper.
In the midst of this contentious chat, Franck reveals that Sarah is still alive… but, won’t be for long. She promises Batman, however, that once she is dead… out of respect, the Colonel will be certain to send whatever’s left of her body to the American Embassy.
Batman asks for clarification… and, ho boy, does he get it! Ya see, Sarah was found by a poor couple… and now, all three are out with one of the Colonel’s “Murder Squads” for… uh, “solving”. The Colonel then points her pistol at our man. Batman has heard enough, and so he back-hands the broad into unconsciousness before she can squeeze off a shot.
Before long, Batman has caught up with the Murder Squad, who have presented the poor couple (and Sarah) with two choices. They can either 1) Die here, or 2) Die in the minefield. They choose the minefield, because at least that way, they have a chance of survival (or so they think).
As the trio walks into the minefield, one of the guerrillas asks what’ll happen in the event that they actually survive the mines. Another guerrilla laughs, and says they’ll just shoot them then. Well, not so fast, kemosabes… because Batman’s here, and he’s heard enough of your crap. He shouts toward Sarah and Company to stop walking, as he beats compliance out of the Murder Squad.
The couple and Sarah make their way out of the field, guided by one of the baddies. As they exit the field, Sarah drops her yo-yo.
With Sarah saved, Batman reads the riot act at the Murder Squad… tells them to warn the Colonel that if he catches even the slightest whiff of her acting out of step, he’ll be back and rain down whatever Bat-vengeance he can upon her and her’s. Batman offers to take the old couple to the American Embassy, but they’ve already got somewhere to hide out for awhile. Hopefully, it’s a more secure place than wherever they were hiding before all this.
Batman and Sarah bid the old couple thanks and farewell. Our man tells the tot that everything’s going to be okay, and that he’ll take her back to see her mother. All Sarah seems to be worried about is that she dropped her yo-yo. Batman smiles, and tells her he’ll get her a car-load of yo-yos once they get home. He hoists her up, and they run toward the rendezvous point.
Batman radios for the chopper to return… and expresses that it isn’t often he feels quite this good. He saved Sarah… and soon she’ll be reunited with her mother. While he wasn’t responsible for what happened to her father, at least he was able to do something for the grieving family. Meanwhile, Sarah’s chasing a butterfly…
… when something from out of the corner of her eye catches her attention. It’s a yo-yo!
Only… it’s not.
And… that’s the end.
Um… I… didn’t see that coming. I probably should have, considering the subject matter… but, holy cow, those last two pages were probably the most powerful gut-punch I’ve gotten from a comic book in quite some time… perhaps, ever! I never thought they were going to end it that way. Wow.
This is one that’ll stick with you… I, I’m really kind of speechless here. So often when we look at “Public Service Announcement” comics, they’re pretty much written in a way where the stories presented could easily fit into any Saturday Morning cartoon show… ya know what I mean? Not really controversial… certainly not to the point of depicting atrocities like these… they’re usually “safe”, easy to digest… and, utterly unmemorable. In fact, if you remember them at all, it’s usually because you’re mocking them.
This, however… defies all of that. This story features the kind of things you want to forget… but, likely won’t be able to. This is a powerful, ruthless story… that grabs you by the throat and forces you to bear witness to the gruesome depravity that… actually exists in the world. I’m not talkin’ the “DC Universe” either, but the very world we’re all living in and sharing at this moment.
It’s stories like this that conjure up so many unpleasant thoughts… cementing the “reality” of so much of the bad in the world. I mean, consider this, at this very moment as I’m typing out this sentence… and at the very moment you’re reading it, there are people in the worst pain of their lives. There are children being abused. It’s all out there… and, if you allow yourself to think about all of it… it’s rather maddening.
I feel like O’Neil treated this subject with great respect… he even gave the Colonel a tragic backstory, perhaps to illustrate how ruthless and vengeance-minded someone could be when they have absolutely nothing more to lose. It makes you think… are she and Batman really all that much different? Well, yes… they are, Batman has a “line” he won’t cross… but, I hope you understand what I’m saying. This story, and the Colonel’s specifically, illustrates the different “paths” a victim might take. She and Batman have similar “origins”, but chose very different destinations.
I will admit, though it feels kinda wrong to even go down this path… I was a bit trepidatious when I saw Denny O’Neil’s name attached to this… fearing it was going to be full of soapbox lectures and strawman villains. Thankfully it was not.
Another thing I wanna admit… when I saw the odd tandem of Joe Staton and Bill Sienkiewicz were going to be providing the art, my first thought was “How in the world is that going to work?”… well, after a few pages of “warming up” to their blended style, I gotta say… I thought they worked very well together, and absolutely suited the tone of this story. Really wonderful work. Wonderful work all around.
Overall… this isn’t so much a comic book as it is an experience, and it’s an experience I highly recommend. An oddity and a novelty to be sure, but wow… what a powerful message… and double-wow, what a heart-stopping ending. Grab this if you find it.
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0 thoughts on “Batman: Death of Innocents #1 (1996)”
Gotta admit, lately I've been thinking Denny O'Neil's Batman really is the best Batman. Smart and strong, but all too human. Relatively low tech. Has to work hard for every victory. Sometimes loses anyway.
"I seldom feel this good." Heartbreaking. (I keep wondering if Batman had already relayed a message to the mother that he'd rescued her daughter and was bringing her home.)
I'm with you on the art. Staton is underrated as an storyteller and Sienkiewicz is a great inker if he doesn't get too heavy-handed. I can see traces of other Batman artists — Trevor Von Eeden, Michael Golden, Bernie Wrightston, Denys Cowan — but definitely a unique pairing.
Oh, and I caught the 1980s James Brown reference, but I'm wondering how many of your readers just thought you were making a visceral political statement.
Excellent points! O'Neil definitely seemed to emphasize the "Man" part of BatMAN… such a wild departure from the infallible "Bat-God" we seem to get more often than not these days!
This story is still so "fresh" to me, I didn't even consider the possibility that Batman may have already relayed a "thumbs up" message to Mrs. Orbley… that *definitely* ratchets up the tragedy and sobering reality of this story! I gotta say, those two pages were not telegraphed in the slightest… and, holy cow, what a knock-out they were! I was not prepared for it at all!
I'm very happy to hear that my James Brown nod didn't go unnoticed! I was hoping someone would pick up on it!
Wow, that was a lot "heavier" than I thought it would be, even after your warning. That was a PSA to the Nth degree.
I really dug the art. It worked well for the story. The heavy inks really brought home the horror and despair of landmines and there legacy.
Totally! I know I've said it a bunch of times already, but… this was an actual "gut-punch"… I literally stared at those two final pages for over a minute trying to process what I'd just read. I was so very unprepared for such a brutal (and sadly, realistic) ending!
Thanks for this, Chris. I had read this at the time, and honestly forgot that it was a PSA until now.
It was my pleasure to share it! Such a wildly unpredictable piece of Bat-History!
Wow that ending. Not sure how I feel about it. On the one hand what really turned me off to current Batman stories is gratuitous loss of life. Batman #48 being a prime example. Maybe it was just Tom King's run come to think of it. On the other hand, if it's essential to the story which in this book it sort of was then that's different. I feel like having the girl survive may not have gotten the point across. I feel like if this story came out today this ending wouldn't be as impactful since killing civilians for the sake of killing seems to be the rule rather than the exception these days which I think is totally unnecessary. Knowing that, I tried to get my mind around how shocking this ending must have been to readers at the time. If that makes sense.
I might not be quite as jaded on the concept of death in Batman books… I've only been able to stomach like a half-dozen issues from the Tom King run… and, come to think of it, I'm pretty sure Joshua Williamson (FLASH) actually wrote at least three or four of those! These days it's certainly more common for the creatively-bereft to rely on shock-storytelling… needless and numerous deaths, resurrections, unmaskings… because, well… they don't have any actual ideas (talent or passion, either!)
I agree, the death of young Sarah here really drove home the point of this story… her death is "needless" in the sense that it should've never happened due to "real world events", but it certainly isn't meaningless (like so many of contempo-comics deaths are).
I was hoping to dig through some of the comics press during the time in which this issue came out to see how folks reacted/received this… unfortunately, 1996 was kind of my "year off" from comics… and, even after a couple of decades of filling in that hole, my resources and reference material isn't "all there" quite yet!