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Yo, ho, ho and a Battle of Bats…
A review by Louise Freeman Davis

A fearsome Mask hid his features, to conceal his Family Name,
A Lineage of English Nobility, a heritage of considerable Fame,
Yet he fled from his landed Manor, and a Life that was Lazy and Fat,
Took up the Cutlass and Wheel-Lock, and donned the Mask of the Bat.

The year was 1994 and the theme for DC's Annuals was Elseworlds, wherein "Heroes are taken from their usual settings and put into strange times and places- some that have existed or might have existed, and others that can't, couldn't or shouldn't exist." One of the best of the series was Detective Annual #7, written by Chuck Dixon. Though the story itself bore no title, you can mention "Leatherwing the Pirate" to any of the thousands of Bat-fans who enjoyed it and they'll instantly know what you mean.

In this tale, DC's Dark Knight is a swashbuckler known as Leatherwing, masked captain of the Flying Fox who sails the seven seas as a "servant of the English Crown," vanquishing less scrupulous pirates and rescuing damsels in distress. This version of Batman, perhaps even more so than his modern-day counterpart, is more "Knight" than "Dark." He does differ from the "real" Batman in that he is willing to kill, a necessary evil given this historical setting. Nonetheless, Leatherwing is clearly less willing to kill than any of his contemporaries. Even as he conquers an enemy vessel, he calls out to the opposing captain to "Tell your men to lay down arms. I've no wish to spill more blood than I must." Rather than slaying his foes, he sets them adrift within reach of a neutral port, and even a defeated captain must admit, "You are most generous in victory, se–or." Leatherwing is, at heart, a hero in the guise of a pirate, much as Batman is a hero in the guise of a bat. And that premise makes for a thoroughly enjoyable tale, from start to finish.

Batman's supporting cast and rogue gallery seem as equally at home in the pirate garb as he does. Alfred is "Alfredo," Leatherwing's faithful servant and navigator. Robin is a young street urchin and thief, who idealizes the good Captain and stows away on his ship, in the hopes of serving him as "Robin Redblade." And the principle villain is, most naturally, the Joker, a pirate nicknamed "The Laughing Man," sadistic even by that era's standards. Catwoman is known to this world as Felina, "Capitana" of the Catspaw, who manages to hold her own against the traitorous men of her crew with the aid of a sizable whip. She and the Joker form a sinister alliance after her crew mutinies and she offers him their share of the loot "if blood-stained gold is not to your distaste." "M'lady," responds the Joker. "What other sort of gold is worth having?"

The plot of the comic is relatively simple and straightforward, and that's part of the story's charm. Joker and Catwoman hatch a plot to dispose of Leatherwing and discover his secret harbor (known as Bat's Cay) and its fabled treasure trove. Leatherwing, with the help of his feisty new ally, Robin, foils their plan and True Love and True Heroism triumph in the end. This is one Elseworlds that doesn't require online annotations, a boxed set of trading cards or a $90 slipcovered companion volume to get the full effect. Entirely self-contained, it can be enjoyed equally well by long-time fans or eight-year-olds picking up their first comic. The book packed full of action, to be sure, from swordfights to sea battles to a dramatic rescue of Felina from a pack of frenzied sharks, but overall it's the characterization of the protagonists that make this book memorable.

Take, for example, the scene where young Robin finally meets his hero. The young stowaway overhears and attacks a pair of mutineers and, though he puts up a good fight, he's eventually cornered on an upper deck, as the two sailors approach him. "So it ends," he declares, drawing his sword and knife in preparation for one last stand. "But if it ends, I gladly die in defense of Captain Leatherwing!" His two attackers instantly turn tail and flee, and Robin brandishes his weapons in triumph, unaware that a glowering Leatherwing has stepped up behind him. Young Robin instantly pledges his loyalty and begs to serve on the Flying Fox. "Perhaps," muses Leatherwing, covering his mouth as if to hide a smile. "When we've fattened you up. I'll not have a crewman weighing less than a shiprat." Later, Leatherwing defends his decision to a suspicious Alfredo, saying "the boy's a game lad. He may have saved my life and this ship. There's no deceit in him."

Only later in the book does Robin Redblade learn Leatherwing's true motivations. Leatherwing reveals to him the location of his hidden treasure, which he intends to use to regain his ancestral home. "My family and the land they've held since the time of William was taken from me. My legacy. My birthright. Stolen. And my parents put to the sword. And since I was a boy of your years I've vowed to win it back." Robin, more awe-struck than ever, vows to fight by his side, and Leatherwing replies, "Stout lad. This all must seem so bloody glorious to you. But it is work most foul. Most dark. I assure you, Robin, there is no glory in what I do." This is truly a Batman very much like our own.

Ironically, the advertising slogan DC choose for its Elseworlds Annuals was "Where familiar faces are no longer familiar." But what made the Leatherwing tale work so beautifully was that the faces were familiar; the characters were entirely recognizable as the Batman and Robin icons that have endured for so long. Only their costumes and the setting were unfamiliar, but that is what made the romp through the comic refreshing and pure fun. If anything, Leatherwing was more familiar to certain longtime Bat-fans than, for instance, the Batman who fired Dick Grayson as Robin, or who so grossly misjudged Jason Todd's fitness as a crimefighting partner, or who passed over Nightwing in favor of Jean-Paul Valley when selecting a new Batman. This Annual was written for sheer enjoyment, and provided a glimpse into a true "Kingdom of Wonder" long before Hypertime was a gleam in anyone's eye. But, as Leatherwing said to Robin (p. 43) "Wonder has no limit." More self-contained stories such as this, exciting without being overly violent, accessible to new readers while still refreshing to old, with heroes who haven't forgotten their hearts, are needed if the comics industry is going to attract and retain the readership it needs to survive. And those comics need to be written within the regular titles, not just in one-shots such as these.

But if Chuck Dixon ever wants to make a return voyage to Leatherwing's timeline, please sign me on as one of the crew.

So they sailed the Seas as one, All under one Silk Banner,
And where they went the Wicked feared and the Barbarous learned Manners.

Today's comic creators, I think, could learn a lot from Leatherwing the Pirate.

All characters are ™ DC Comics
This column is © 1999 by Louise Freeman Davis.
All artwork is © 1999 by their respective artists.