Ghastly Old Fan | Better dead than Red
There is a fundamental tension between the horror and superhero genres. Clearly the two aren’t incompatible, but in the stories which blend them, often one genre will dominate. At the risk of gross oversimplification, there’s no guarantee of a horror story having a happy ending; whereas superhero stories are generally about saving the day. Put another way, superheroes generally stop monsters.
Such was the case with 1991′s graphic novel Batman & Dracula: Red Rain, in which the Lord of Vampires comes to Gotham City. Red Rain was written by longtime Bat-scribe Doug Moench, boasted the distinctively eerie pencils of Kelley Jones, and polished off its sinister, downbeat mood through Malcolm Jones III’s inks, Les Dorscheid’s colors, and Todd Klein’s letters. SPOILERS FOLLOW … but is not much of a spoiler to note that Batman defeats Dracula, because a) that is what Batman does, and b) Tomb of Dracula notwithstanding, that is how Drac usually winds up. Furthermore, Red Rain was far from the Darknight Detective’s only run-in with more malevolent creatures of the night, because he’d been fighting vampires and werewolves as far back as 1939′s Detective Comics #30.
No, what makes Red Rain and its two sequels different is their overwhelming sense of doom. Red Rain is a superhero horror story which eventually turns Batman’s world inside-out more than any traditional deconstruction ever could.
* * *
Red Rain’s Batman trappings are fairly familiar. It’s an anything-goes Elseworlds, but it’s not an Elseworlds where (for example) Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed by vampires, Gotham is a Romanian castle, and/or the world is dominated by dark magic. By all indications, this Batman is pretty much the same one from the regular monthly comics, and may in fact be more skeptical about the true nature of his foe than “our” Batman would be about such things. This approach reinforces the sense that the story will play by “superhero” rules. Paradoxically, though, because the name Dracula carries such weight, it hints that Batman and his allies don’t quite get how hard their task will be.
The plot is straightforward. Dracula plans a “harvest of Gotham,” so his onetime disciple Tanya recruits Batman. Tanya has weaned herself off human blood by creating a synthetic substitute, but she still has all the traditional vampire powers, and appears first to Bruce Wayne as a dreamlike apparition. Of course, Tanya is really making more substantive visits to Bruce’s bedroom, with predictable results. In his final confrontation with Dracula, Batman has the strength and abilities of a vampire, but the fight still takes a terrible toll. Although Dracula’s body has been immolated, while impaled on a giant spike of dead oak, Batman has lost a tremendous amount of blood; and Alfred discovers his master motionless on the forest floor. Later, Alfred explains that there was “no spark of life” within Batman — but the reanimated hero clarifies that he is dead. More specifically, “Bruce Wayne may be gone … but the Batman will go on … forever.” In Red Rain’s last panel, he flashes his fangs for emphasis.
While the image of a vampire Batman is shocking, it’s not unique to Red Rain. “Our” Batman was transformed into a vampire in and around September 1982′s Batman #351, and was cured with Robin’s help. Again, though, that was the regular series. Red Rain is free to leave Batman in a vastly different place than where it found him. In order to destroy Dracula’s hordes, Batman and Tanya lure them into the Batcave, where they’re exposed to sunlight when Batman blows up Wayne Manor. Similarly, whatever “normal” part of Batman which is expressed through Bruce is likewise obliterated by the end of Red Rain.
This becomes a critical element of the second book, 1994′s Bloodstorm.* In it we see that Batman is no longer satisfied by Tanya’s blood substitute (Tanya herself having died for good in Red Rain), and he’s struggling with the need to feed even as he relishes eliminating Gotham’s underworld. Meanwhile, the still-human Joker gathers his own vampiric gang; and Alfred and Commissioner Gordon wonder when they’ll have to destroy their undead friend.
Bloodstorm postulates that Batman’s salvation is personified by — surprise! — Selina Kyle, who in this version of events was never Catwoman, but who (naturally) is transformed into a were-cat by one of Gotham’s new monsters. In fact, none of the usual sanctified defenses (e.g., crosses and holy water) repel the vampire Batman. With Selina to take his mind off dietary concerns, Batman hasn’t tasted human blood, and his heart remains pure. Unfortunately, Selina ends up taking a wooden crossbow bolt the Joker meant for Batman, and her death drops Batman over the edge. In his fury he snaps the Joker’s neck, drinks the villain’s blood, and stakes the madman before he too can become a vampire. Batman then returns to his crypt and leaves Alfred a note: “[d]o not fail me when I need you most.” Alfred and Gordon each drive stakes into Batman, ostensibly giving him eternal peace ….
… but we know better, because 1999′s Crimson Mist** finds Gotham once again overrun with horrific interpretations of Batman’s rogues’ gallery. With Killer Croc, the Riddler, Poison Ivy, the Scarecrow, and Two-Face wreaking havoc, and Alfred plagued by nightmares, the Waynes’ ex-butler wrenches the stake from Batman’s body. Alfred had figured that because Batman’s only victim was the Joker, he hadn’t gone over completely to the dark side; but the red-eyed Batman explains angrily that the stake was the only thing keeping Batman’s heart from pumping the Joker’s evil blood. Even so, Batman sets some boundaries, only slaughtering the super-criminals and the inmates of Arkham Asylum.
Appropriately enough, Crimson Mist’s climax finds everyone in the ruins of the Batcave, where once again Gordon, Alfred, and their involuntary allies Two-Face and Killer Croc try to blow a big enough skylight in the cavern’s ceiling. However, the fight with Croc leaves Batman too weakened to take on Two-Face, who’s turned on Gordon. To save Gordon’s life, Alfred volunteers his own blood to replenish Batman’s strength. It all ends up with Gordon and Batman locked in a deadly struggle, Batman simultaneously offering Gordon a chance to rule at his side and indicating how horrible that fate would be. “Kill me now … or help me exterminate the human race!” the vampire cries. Gordon sets off the explosives — but they’re only powerful enough to crush the Commissioner under a massive boulder. Finally, having killed (or contributed to the death of) pretty much everyone around him, including all Gotham’s other superhuman evildoers, Batman walks into the sunlight, disintegrating as he goes, embracing “the unknown fate of nothingness.”
* * *
Therefore, it’s fair to describe the “Vampire Batman” trilogy as one of many alternate realities where everyone dies. Certainly Moench, Jones, et al., aren’t afraid of taking “what if Batman were a vampire?” to an extremely bloody and tragic conclusion. Furthermore, it’s clear that the vampire Batman was thisclose to putting a whole new set of supernatural tricks in his formidable arsenal. Red Rain ends with Batman physically changed but morally intact (pretty much); and if the Joker hadn’t killed the Cat-Woman, the trilogy (had there even been a third book) might have been vastly different.
It’s just as clear, though, that Moench and Jones wanted Vampire Batman to be, well, vastly different from the regular version — and, in the end, pretty repulsive to boot. I’m pretty sure Bruce Wayne only appears unmasked in Red Rain, and for much of Crimson Mist Batman is hardly human, slaughtering criminals as a literal bat-creature. Indeed, as Bruce goes, so go the “superhero rules” by which Red Rain initially seems to play. The true horror of Red Rain is the realization that it was never a superhero story — that Bruce/Batman, for all his intellect and planning, has been drawn inevitably and irrevocably into the waking nightmare of the undead.
Of course, between Red Rain and Bloodstorm, Moench would go on to write Bruce out of the regular Bat-books for a while, replacing the wheelchair-bound billionaire with a hyper-violent apprentice. Still, Vampire Batman is not really the kind of cautionary “be careful what you wish for” tale that “Knightquest” and “KnightsEnd” were. For one thing, the work of Jones and the inkers and colorists is simply too visceral to put a “cool” sheen on all the carnage. These books succeed admirably at being scary, and at depicting a Bat-world gone beyond all sense of sanity. The Joker’s style recalls the classic silent film London After Midnight, and the question mark stitched across the Riddler’s face prefigures Colin Farrell’s Bullseye makeup. It’s an aesthetic few other artists could match, and it sells the story immensely.
Regardless, this is hardly a pleasant story. By the end of Crimson Mist the narrative threatens to descend into pulpish penny-dreadful territory, shocking for its own sake. Even Batman’s final sacrifice, noble as it is, comes as the last act of a creature desperate to escape any more torment. Crimson Mist itself is somewhat redundant, if not gratuitous, considering that the previous book ended with Gordon, Alfred, and Batman similarly situated. The overarching message is that there is no escape from, or cure for, vampirism — which, presumably, is meant as an extension of the dark tightrope the regular Batman walks.
Thus, the tragedy of Vampire Batman isn’t that he was consumed by evil, it’s that he was doomed practically from the start. Red Rain, Bloodstorm, and Crimson Mist paint an apocalyptic picture of the end of Batman’s career, as a superhero is literally transformed into a demonic avenger, eradicating all Gotham’s monsters … including himself.
* [Bloodstorm was inked by John Beatty.]
** [Crimson Mist was inked by Beatty and colored by Gregory Wright.]