Gotham City, 2 AM:
A solitary figure stood watch over the city. From his perch high on the spire of the Gotham Cathedral, the Batman could hear the sounds of the city’s slow recovery. Even after some five months, work was still proceeding around the clock; mixed crews of city employees, U.S. Army reservists, and citizen volunteers slowly cleared his beloved city of the entangling plant growth that plagued Gotham. Three weeks ago, they had cleared most of the inner sections of the city. Now, with spring’s early arrival, the greenery was creeping back toward the city’s heart.
The Batman recalled the rampage of the creature called Swamp Thing by the press, a being he once called friend but who was now little more than a rogue force of nature. The Swamp Thing had attacked the city in October after his girlfriend Abby Cable was arrested and brought there for trial on a false charge. But just as he finally relented and had begun decaying the plant growth himself, he was attacked by an unknown party who shot a beam at him, apparently destroying the swamp creature. (*) Because of that, the greenery remained and continued growing just as aggressively as it had before, creating an infrastructure problem for the city ever since that had been very difficult to remove.
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Home Free,” Swamp Thing v2 #51 (August, 1986), “Natural Consequences,” Swamp Thing v2 #52 (September, 1986), and “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” Swamp Thing #53 (October, 1986).]
He had not joined in the clean-up efforts. It was not just his usual desire to remain apart from the crowds that had motivated this: he had other responsibilities. Just days before the Swamp Thing incident and only two months after the recent global Crisis that rocked the world and devastated his city, one of his most implacable foes unleashed a horde of madmen upon the city when he all but destroyed the infamous Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane, as well as the State Prison. The former inmates, many of them foes of Gotham’s guardian, scattered in all directions. Some of the most dangerous ones had joined Ra’s al Ghul in his unsuccessful plot for power. Others had gone their own ways, to further their own little schemes. Most of them, such as all of the Ra’s al Ghul group, had thankfully been put back in custody, being held in institutions up and down the East Coast while both prison and Arkham were being rebuilt. (*) However, some of the most dangerous of his enemies, such as Killer Moth, Dagger, and the Joker, had escaped custody shortly after their recapture with the others.
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Resurrection Night,” Batman #400 (October, 1986).]
The Batman was not directly active in the capture of the ones who had decided not to join Ra’s al Ghul, however. He’d worked behind the scenes to assemble, and at times direct, the team tracking down many of the escapees. But it was not his hand that delivered them back into custody. His attentions laid elsewhere still.
For now he sat upon a ledge, a momentary respite from the crusade he waged to keep the people of his city safe. Already tonight, he had captured two of the demented escapees, and he had received word that another was brought down by one of his allies. Despite their strange names and silly-seeming costumes, Kite-Man, the Cluemaster, and the Calendar Man were dangerous criminals. Now, they were simply three more guests of the state.
His reverie was interrupted by a soft beep. He reached for the radio transceiver on his belt and listened.
“Gotham River Pier? Dock 38? I’ve got it, Alfred. I’ll see you in a few hours.”
Replacing the unit on the belt around his waist, the Batman rose to his feet and swung a line out across the gulf to another building. Then, with only the faintest rustle of cloth, he was gone.
Contrary to the image portrayed in movies, Gotham’s docks were not a quiet place at night. Many of the warehouses and cargo transfer facilities operated twenty-four hours a day, and always in the background was the sound of water rushing around wooden pilings and cast-concrete supports. It took little effort for the Batman to drop unheard behind his oldest friend.
“Good morning, Jim. It’s a little early for you, isn’t it?”
Police Commissioner James W. Gordon turned at the low voice. “Late, actually. We moved into the new Police Headquarters today, and I had to catch up on my manpower reviews. As if they matter these days.”
“Don’t worry; it will be settling down soon,” reassured the Dark Knight.
“I’m still keeping extra men on duty until we have all the high-profile ones back in custody.” The gray-haired Commissioner struck a match and lit his pipe. “You and your team can’t be expected to catch all of them, after all.”
“They’re doing what they can. Your men have nabbed their share of the escapees, though. Good men, with a good leader.” Indeed, the GCPD had been responsible for recapturing most of the non-costumed criminals who had escaped during the jailbreak last October. Batman paused, sniffing the air. “You’re working too much, Jim. You haven’t even had time to pick up your brand.”
“No, Calhoun’s was out. This was a gift from Bullock.” Gordon took the pipe from his mouth and stared at the bowl. “Surprised me, actually. I think he’s finally getting over my taking the job back.”
“We all learn to adjust.” Even I do, thought the Batman, recalling the last few months.
Reading his thoughts, Gordon commented, “I imagine even you had some adjusting to do, hm? You dropped out of sight for a while there.”
“I had some things to take care of. Batwoman did a good job of filling in, though.”
This brought a flush of pride to the veteran officer’s face. “She did, at that. Not at your level of efficiency, but her group cleaned up a lot of the costumed troublemakers who were left out on the streets after the prison break.”
What would you think, mused Batman, if you knew that she had done that because I had lost faith in my ability to handle the problems?
Batman’s thoughts flashed back to the months following the defeat of the Anti-Monitor. In October, the Batman and his allies had just recaptured the group of Gotham’s worst super-villains after Ra’s al Ghul had engineered the mass prison break, but most were still on the loose, both of the costumed and non-costumed variety. Then the Swamp Thing attacked Gotham and left the city plagued with aggressively expanding plants, leaving the city with two major problems on its hands.
Shortly after, as he struggled to maneuver through the thick foliage while on the trail of the slippery Black Mask — one of the remaining escapees — it had struck him. All of the losses, the defeats, the tragedies of the Crisis and its aftermath suddenly overwhelmed him. He had broken off the pursuit and returned home. Casting his cape and cowl over the main computer console in the Batcave, he had gone up to his study, the same place where he had first been inspired to don the guise of a bat in his crusade against crime. There, he sat slumped in a chair before the fireplace.
Six hours later, he had not moved. His ever-faithful friend and manservant, Alfred Pennyworth, arose before dawn to begin his daily routine. He found the master of Wayne Manor staring at an empty fireplace.
“Master Bruce? Are you all right, sir?” he asked cautiously.
“No, Alfred, I don’t think I am. Here I am, a man in my thirties, the president of no less than four major corporations, majority stockholder in at least a dozen others, and what do I do with my time? I run around, looking for nut-cases to fight with. And what does it all add up to in the end? Not a damned thing!“
“Is that what you truly think of your mission in life, sir? As an empty pursuit, with no lasting effect?”
Bruce rose from his chair, walked over to the French doors leading to the terrace, and gazed out over the distant lights of Gotham. “Take a good, hard look out there, Alfred! More than half of all those freaks that I put behind bars over the last fifteen years are back out on the street! The city that I’ve spent my whole adult life protecting is overrun with kudzu and willow trees! Dick is missing, Batgirl is lost in grief over Supergirl’s death, Jason is off trying to find Natalia, and a dozen or more good men and women have died because some cosmic freak was wiping whole realities off the celestial map!” He turned back to face his oldest, most trusted friend. “And here I am, running around in a cape and cowl, trying to bag the bad guys again.” His shoulders slumped, all energy gone.
“Master Wayne — Bruce, if I may, I think you are expecting too much and letting yourself be blinded to the real work you have done.” Alfred Pennyworth reached for a high-powered pair of bird-watching binoculars on a shelf and stepped over to the windows. He held them up, scanning the city. “I look out there, and I see people at work clearing the vines from schools and fire stations. I’ve driven down there and seen people of all stations working together. Two days ago, I read the news story about three teenage boys bringing the Tweed brothers into their local police station after their recent escape from custody.” He lowered the binoculars and turned back to the man he served for so long. “I hardly think most cities could count on such resilience from their citizenry, sir. But if those people have had a hero, a shining example of what one man can, indeed, do, I daresay that they will think nothing of making such an extra effort.”
Bruce Wayne sat for a moment, considering his butler’s words. “All right, then. It isn’t hopeless. However, it’s time for Bruce Wayne to pull his share of the load and let Batman take the back seat for a while.”
The weeks that followed were busy ones for Bruce Wayne. As the city’s leading industrialist, he spearheaded the task force for the city’s restoration. Within the first week, the ragtag groups of volunteers that were clearing the rampant growth were organized and given the tools and support that they needed for the job. All Wayne Industries divisions offered leave with full pay plus incentives for workers who helped in the effort. The Wayne Foundation organized temporary shelters for those who had lost their homes and helped families recover from attacks of marauding escapees.
Meanwhile, the Batman made arrangements for the capture of the escaped criminals and inmates. Via phone and video link, he pulled together the team known only to a certain few as the Secret Six. (*) The team had served a couple of purposes. It maintained a super-hero presence in Gotham while he was occupied. It put Batgirl, who had now adopted the name Batwoman as her own, in a position of leadership, thus giving her back her confidence and her sense of self-worth. And lastly, the Six had done a good job of rounding up several of the at-large costumed villains. Almost half a year after the Crisis, the team was temporarily disbanded, but should the need ever arose again they would join together.
[(*) Editor’s note: See Showcase: The Secret Six: Wanted.]
Dick Grayson had disappeared during the Crisis, leading Bruce to fear the worst about his original partner. Thankfully, Wonder Girl had thought to send word through the Justice League of America that Nightwing had gone to the planet Tamaran with the Princess Koriand’r. Word had it that Dick had returned without the woman he loved. He had not come back to Gotham, however.
Jason had searched futilely for the woman he had come to regard as a second mother. Natalia Knight had been severely injured at the beginning of the Crisis, and the new Robin had tried to get her away from danger by putting her in a hot-air balloon. She had apparently gotten out of the danger zone, but no trace of the balloon had been found. Heartbroken, the boy had returned to Wayne Manor. They spoke of her on occasion, but for now Jason Todd seemed determined to make the identity of Robin his own. Now, on Bruce’s advice, he joined the Titans as one of its newest members. (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See The New Titans: Fragments.]
Bruce Wayne had himself operated as Batman only as the leader of the Outsiders, a team that he himself had founded, and their cases often took them to places other than Gotham itself.
It was ironic, though. Not long before the prison break and Swamp Thing rampage in October, the Batman had used his authority as leader to disband the team, guessing correctly that they would decide to remain together even without their leader. He knew they no longer needed him. It was a way for them to move on, to grow, and it had worked out fine. They had even briefly relocated to Los Angeles. But after the troubles in Gotham, the tables had turned. Now he needed them, and like true friends, the Outsiders had taken him back and had even abandoned their plans to live on the West Coast.
Between his work with the Wayne Foundation, the Outsiders, and occasionally the JLA, he’d kept himself so busy as to avoid the criminal problems of Gotham, leaving them in the hands of the Gotham Police Department and the Secret Six for almost five months. But now the Batman was back.