Friday, June 17, 2016
Hope in Crime Alley: The Importance of Leslie Thompkins
Superhero comics have a language of violence in them that is implicit, if not explicit. Heroes fight villains. There's punching, kicking, shooting, bataranging, webbing, and blasting. It's been part of the lexicon since the formation of the genre. And I've been thinking a lot about violence this past week. Gun violence in particular, but also the fictional worlds I love, the violence in them, and their relationship to the real world. And of course there are no easy answers to any of the questions I've read or I've posed to myself, and I would feel strange writing some paean to better fiction worlds in the face of reality. But when I was thinking about a world that could be a better one, and how that interacts with reality and fiction, I thought about a character from the Batman mythos. Leslie Thompkins isn't exactly an obscure character, but she isn't a top billed one either; she's never been in a movie, and the incarnation of the character on television right now is about as far removed from the actual character in the comics as possible. But I wanted to write about Leslie today, about her history, and about why she's such an important character not just for Batman, but for superhero comics in general.
Leslie Thompkins made her first appearance in Detective Comics #457 from 1975, in a story entitled, "There is No Hope in Crime Alley!" Written by Denny O'Neil, one of the greatest of all Batman writers, and with art by Dick Giordano, this story establishes a bit of continuity that has been played on many times since, that Batman visits the alley where his parents were killed on the anniversary of their death. It also added another wrinkle. After his parents' death, a social worker came to the crime scene and talked to Bruce, and held him, and did her best to comfort him. This little bit of light in that darkest of days for Bruce came from Leslie Thompkins, who appears in that story as a little old lady. one who comes to the alley herself every year to remember the tragedy she witnessed, the one she spent her life working to help make sure never happened again.
Right from the start, Leslie takes the violence she witnessed and went in the complete opposite direction as Bruce did. She does her best to help people to prevent tragedies. And when batman finds her being mugged in Crime Alley, and begins to savagely beat the mugger, Leslie tells him to stop, and condemns his rage. It's a ten page story, beautiful and perfect. It appeared in the excellently curated collection, The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told, that came out in 1988, which is where I first encountered it. At the time, Leslie was a footnote in Batman history, but the story impacted me enough that Leslie being at the Wayne's murder became part of my personal head canon, and my affection for the character was not alone, as I soon discovered.
Leslie only appeared twice more in the course of the next twelve years, once in another O'Neil penned story about Batman returning to Crime Alley on the anniversary of his parents' death, "The Curse of Crime Alley," which also introduced C-List Bat-villain Maxie Zeus, and once in "The Player on the Other Side," Batman Special #1, Mike W. Barr's introduction of The Wrath, one of the earliest anti-Bats. And while O'Neil introduced Leslie, and established the baseline of her personality, it's Barr who would take the character in new directions.
I've written a feature about Mike W, Barr and Alan Davis's run on Detective Comics, one of the most underrated runs on any Bat-title, and the final issue of that run is the one that introduced the post-Crisis version of Leslie Thompkins (there's weirdness in the continuity of this issue, but I won't focus on that right here). This issue, Detective Comics #574, "My Beginning... And My Probable End..." (which is a quote from "There is No Hope in Crime Alley") features Batman bringing a severely wounded Jason Todd to Leslie Thompkins clinic to save his life.
The changes to the character are notable. Leslie is no longer a social worker, but is instead a medical doctor who runs a clinic in Crime Alley. She is also noticeably younger, not an octogenarian, but probably in her fifties or sixties. This is the story that introduces the idea that Leslie was Bruce's foster-mother for a time, taking an active part in raising the boy. It also establishes that Leslie is well aware of Bruce's identity as Batman, and that she disapproves. She does not consider Batman a heroic knight, but a tool that continues to forward the problems of violence in society; while sometimes Batman is necessary, she feels like Bruce would be better without being Batman. And more than that, she feels responsible for Bruce being Batman, that it was partly her failing that put him on the path. But for all the negativity and confrontation, Leslie cares for Bruce deeply, and is concerned that his crusade will lead to his death, and still wants to protect him.
Barr would use Leslie in his next arc on Detective Comics, "Batman: Year Two," which builds off the relationship established in the previous issue, but the next truly notable Leslie Story would be another Barr story, "Faith," from Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #21-23. "Faith" is set prior to "Year Two" but after the events of Frank Miller's "Year One." The story deals with Batman's first encounter with the idea that people may want to follow in his footsteps, in this case a young former addict who he saved starts up the Batmen, a group clearly inspired by the Guardian Angels civilian patrol organization, down to the red berets, but are considerably more violent. Meanwhile, Leslie is furious at Batman and what he;s doing to the city, and it's after Batman is shot by the man who he once inspired for being a disappointment, that Batman comes to Leslie and reveals his identity. Barr does interesting things with the idea of faith, Leslie's faith in non-violence and peace and the Batmen and their faith in Batman.
While Leslie would continue to pop up occasionally in the Batman titles for the next few years, usually when Batman or one of his allies needed medical attention beyond what Alfred could provide, and was further incorporated into Batman's origin in Batman #0, the post-Zero Hour origin of Batman, the thing that I feel helped cement her in the minds of Batman fans as an essential part of Batman's origin and life is her appearance on Batman: The Animated Series. Voiced by venerable actress Diana Muldaur (best known in geek circles as the argumentative Dr. Pulaski from the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and remembered fondly by me as the hardass Rosalind Shays on L.A. Law, who met with an unusual downfall), B:TAS captured everything that Barr and O'Neil had established and distilled it. Leslie was tough but loving, always willing to tell Bruce what she thinks and to try to convince him that Batman, and the violence he represents, is something that he can leave behind. While only in a handful of episodes, Leslie was woven into the tapestry of Batman's origins so seamlessly that she would be a part of it moving forward. There was one notable change to Leslie's backstory made in B:TAS, which established her as a co-worker and longtime friend of Thomas Wayne, Bruce's father. While I can see some problems with this, as it stops her from just being a good Samaritan as Joe Chill is just a random criminal, it explains how she was able to be such a big part of Bruce's life, and does not interfere with her as a strong and loving influence; this change would eventually be adopted by the comics as well.
Leslie became a more steady fixture in the Batman comics starting with the 1999 massive event, "No Man's Land." Leslie decided to stay behind when Gotham was shut off from the rest of the world, and kept her clinic running as a neutral space among the city's warring crimelords, where anyone could come to receive medical treatment or to find a safe haven. Alfred spent much time there with her, and she was befriended by both Azrael and a young woman who Barbara Gordon used as a runner through the wastes of Gotham, Cassandra Cain, Leslie had her own spotlight issue, Batman Chronicles #18, "Spiritual Currency," showing how, even in the darkest hours of Gotham, Leslie kept her hope alive and her pledge of non-violence, even when faced with more violence around her than ever before. It's a great issue, and one of the best spotlights on Leslie.
After "No Man's Land," Leslie would continue to appear regularly in the Batman titles. She befriended Selina Kyle in the early issues of Ed Brubaker's excellent Catwoman series, helping Selina and her protege, Holly Robinson, get their lives in Gotham's East End together. She remained a recurring character in the Denny O'Neil written Azrael series until that character's death. It was even established by Devin Grayson in an early issue of Gotham Knights that she and Alfred had flirted with having a romantic relationship for years, but their duties had kept them apart.
This next paragraph is going to be tricky for me to write, partially because it violates the blog rule about only writing about comics I like, and partially because it takes a good character and drags her through the mud. "War Games," was a Batman event that was released in 2004-2005 and featured a massive gang war in Gotham started by Spoiler, one of Gotham's younger vigilantes, who took an exercise Batman has run in the Bat Computer about how to get control of Gotham's mobs and tried to implement it without thinking of the consequences. It's a messy story for many many reasons, and in the end features the death of Spoiler at the Thompkins clinic after being tortured by Black Mask. After Spoiler's death, Batman discovers that Leslie, who had left Gotham for Africa, let the girl die, not treating her, to give Bruce an object lesson and hope to stop his endless crusade and save further children from dying in it. It's an ugly, out of character twist, and completely violates everything Leslie had stood for for thirty years. I'll be honest: I mentioned head canon earlier, that trove of stories you keep that "count" for you, and while I try to stick close to canon, this was a story I hated from day one and never counted.
Fortunately, Chuck Dixon took over as writer on Robin again in 2008 after a six year or so absence from the book and character he defined, and immediately set about making things right. He revealed that Spoiler, Stephanie Brown, was in fact alive, having asked Leslie to help fake her death so she could escape Gotham and the life she had lived. In one fell swoop, Dixon had returned Leslie to the good, noble woman she had always been. Leslie would return to Gotham and appear briefly in those Dixon issues of Robin, and would get a spotlight in the Gotham Gazette mini-series that took place around the "Battle for the Cowl." Her final pre-Flashpoint appearances would be in Batgirl, when Stephanie was the title heroine.
Since Flashpoint, Leslie's backstory has actually returned to closer to what it originally was, as she seems to now be a social worker for Gotham's child protection services working with children and adolescents. She has only made brief appearances, once in a flashback as Jason Todd's case worker after his parents died but before Bruce took him in, and a few times in We Are Robin, where she is working with Duke Thomas after his parents disappeared in the wake of Joker's assault on Gotham. Her one appearance with Batman in this context was in Batman #52, a flashback to her working with a young Bruce, but it could be taken either way that she's his case worker or a family friend. There is one odd appearance in an issue of Grayson, where Leslie is seen working in a refugee camp in Africa as a doctor, which doesn't seem to fit this persona, but we'll see if that gets folded in. In a recent Twitter interaction I had with him, new Detective Comics writer James Tynion IV said Leslie will be appearing in Detective Comics #935, coming out this Wednesday.
Just as a brief aside, There is a Leslie Thompkins in Fox's Gotham, played ably by Morena Baccarin, however the character is Leslie in name only. In the series she is a former Arkham doctor turned medical examiner who has little to no relationship with Bruce Wayne and is one of the romantic partners of Jim Gordon. She has no problem with violence. So basically she's about as close to her comics counterpart as anyone is on Gotham.
But earlier I said I wanted to not just talk about who Leslie Thompkins is, but why she's important to Batman and comics. To start with, Leslie is a smart, driven, female character who takes no guff from anyone, even if it's Batman, which puts her in a league with character like Wonder Woman and Amanda Waller, which is worth noting. But more importantly, Leslie represents to me the path not taken. In a world where flashy people in flashy costumes fight and destroy everything around them, she is the calm blue ocean, the voice that says there has to be another way. She reminds Batman every time they talk that he could stop, that he could use the Wayne fortune not to fight the results of crime as Batman, but confront its roots in poverty and pain. And while she judges and will never go easy on Bruce or any of his allies, she also always has a kind word and an embrace. In a world where violence is on every corner, whether it's on the pages of a comic book or a newspaper, a person who holds out hope that people really can be better, that peace and non-violence is an option is a rare thing. And because of the laws of comic book plot, Batman can never take up the path Leslie offers, her mere existence assures that the option remains open, and hope for a better, more peaceful world is always available. And that hope is important to have in the dark days of Gotham, and anywhere else.