Nine Lives is still Dark Knight’s ultimate sleuth story

In the Elseworlds story Batman: Nine Lives, the Dark Knight returns to his roots in 1940s Gotham and is involved in the ultimate dark mystery.

In the pop culture realm, Batman is a character who doesn’t need to be introduced. Born out of tragedy and evolving into a finely honed defender of the Gothic dystopia that is Gotham City, Batman has become an icon over the many decades of his existence. At the heart of Batman’s character are his abilities as a detective, which date back to his first appearance in Detective Comics # 27 like a mythical and mysterious pulp figure. While there have been many phenomenal stories highlighting his detective skills over the years, few match those of Batman: Nine Lives (by Dean Motter, Michael Lark, Bill Oakley and Matt Hollingsworth).

Published in the Elseworlds line of books in 2002, this story takes place in a post-war setting reminiscent of the classic properties of black, and remakes the familiar names and faces of the Batman canon into established black archetypes. Dick Grayson comes across as a tough and jaded PI, while Barbara Gordon is his underpaid office assistant. These characters are very familiar with the Batman mythos, and here their stories and personalities have been altered to accommodate the change of scenery. Commissioner Gordon and Batman are pretty much the same as their main universe counterparts, even though the character from the point of view is Grayson as opposed to one of them.

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Conceptually, Batman: Nine Lives is very similar to Batman: Gotham Noir (by Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, Dave Stewart and Bill Oakley). Both stories are set in classic black settings, and each focuses on a perspective other than Batman’s. In each story, the Dark Knight is presented as an almost supernatural presence, appearing only when needed, and the stories are motivated by a murder investigation. In the case of Batman: Nine Lives, the victim is Selena Kyle, known in other continuities as Catwoman, hence the title of the story.

Washing out of Gotham’s sewage system, his apparent murder can be linked to a number of familiar faces, including the Riddler, the Penguin, the Joker, and even Bruce Wayne, all of whom are suspects in this case. In this world, Selina Kyle was a high profile prostitute linked to the most powerful people in Gotham. Working with PI Dick Grayson, she stored her clients’ deepest secrets in a bank vault in order to blackmail these people if the opportunity arose. Each of these familiar faces now rushes to uncover these secrets while retaining their own. Here, gang bosses Clayface and Penguin are at war on the streets of Gotham, with con artist Jack (aka Joker) caught in the middle trying to take advantage of the chaos. The Riddler, a mouse chief accountant of Gotham First Municipal Bank that Selina previously used for “pocket change”, becomes the second victim of this ongoing tale.

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Harvey Dent (aka Two-Face) initially appears to be a true advocate for Gotham’s elite, though his familiar sneaky qualities begin to show as the story progresses. Dent eventually joins the Joker’s bank robbery attempt, revealing that he intended to blackmail Batman, as the two-faced lawyer knew he was secretly Bruce Wayne. Grayson learns of this and works with Batman to unravel this tangled thread. The climax of this story sees all of the major players fighting in the bank vault sewage system that houses these deadly secrets. In the ensuing conflict, Dent is fatally injured by the Penguin, and Joker is presumably eaten by Killer Croc (whom Grayson had known from his days in the circus) and his pet crocodile. As a result of this tragedy, the killer is confirmed to be the Penguin, who accidentally ran over drunk Selina Kyle in the Gotham tank and killed the Riddler to cover his tracks.

The sets of Batman and Gotham City are ripe for strong detective stories. While there are certainly better-known stories about Detective Dark Knight, few are as authentic and organic as Batman: Nine Lives, with every familiar character feeling perfectly at home in this tale straight out of the golden age of pulp comics. Of Batman’s many other different worlds, this one is arguably the best when it comes to showcasing his solid background as a detective.

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