Bat Signal

Issue 643 – “The Library of Souls”

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Welcome back folks for another deep dive into weird Batman stories. We’ve been having a lot of silly Golden and Silver Age stuff lately, and it just so happens that this time we get to jump into the wonderfully weird world of the 90s. Now, the 90s were a pretty bleak time for comics. I know some people have a serious affection for that crazy decade, but most of the comics that came out of it were pretty terrible. Especially Marvel. The 90s were a bleak time guys. But one big exception for that general rule was Batman. Not all of his adventures in the 90s were great, but there was some solid, albeit crazy, stuff that came from there. But the 90s will never be all that appealing to me for Batman, because it was pretty focused on the darker aspects of the character. It’s pretty obvious by now that I don’t have a lot of love for dark, gritty Batman, and prefer my Caped Crusader kind of silly and lighthearted. And after the incredibly bleak and damaging period of the late-80s for the character, things were off to a bad start. So I was a little worried with my favorite 90s Detective Comics, since there was a high chance that it was going to be some crazy dark garbage. And man, with a title like “Library of Souls,” written in scary font, that worry only grew. But you know what, this was a pretty ridiculous issue.

Things start off with an old lady being terrified to find a skeleton just chilling in her bathtub. She basically has a heart-attack, and everyone is pretty confused about the fact that it’s 110 years old. Which is odd. And that oddity draws out Batman, who begins running around Gotham, trying to figure out why someone would leave an ancient skeleton in an old woman’s bathtub. And it just gets worse, because more and more skeletons start showing up in weird places. And it somehow gets weirder, because the first couple skeletons were just skeletons, but after  while they start showing up wearing leather jackets with seemingly random numbers stitched into them. The plot thickens! And the police worry that it’s only a matter of time before it stops being skeletons showing up places, and starts becoming bodies. But as Batman is racing around Gotham trying to find the source of this weird skeleton delivery service, we cut over to the guy doing the skeleton drop-off as he’s abducting a guy using the oldest trick in the book. Asking for the time and then sticking him with a hypodermic!

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We then oddly see the guy in the green drag his victim back to a base of operations, and begin asking him about his employment history. But hey, serial killers have weird quirks, so who knows. Yet it gets weirder, because we next see the guy depositing the man he killed’s body in some random couple’s house, wearing a leather jacket with a number of course, before killing the couple as well, and dropping their bodies at two random locations, also wearing the jackets. Which is pretty baffling. Batman villains have some weird interests. And it’s really starting to piss off Batman. He can’t figure out any rhyme or reason to the murders and body-placement, and the number thing is really irritating him. He heads to the Batcave to try and spitball with Alfred, desperate for any inspiration. But nothing is adding up. People are randomly put in a church, a dirty ally, and a library. All with the same leather jackets with the mysterious numbers. And because Batman needs some new clues, he decides to actually go to the library and investigate the crime scene.

He gets there and speaks with the young woman who runs the library, who is a little intimidated with Batman. She goes over all the details she already told the police, which didn’t amount to much, and doesn’t really have anything to give him. But as she’s talking Batman kind of stops listening, and starts getting fixated on the stacks of books around him. Because they all have numbers under them too, and Batman decides to go with his hunch. So the two start talking about the Dewey Decimal system, which is hilarious because it kind of reminded me of the insane antihistamine thing from last week where it was like Detective Comics was trying to teach us about some new addition to modern life. But I always love Batman tossing out in depth knowledge about incredibly strange things, kind of like when James Bond would randomly know everything there is to know about diamonds or something.

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And after bonding over their love for systems of cataloging books, Batman realizes that that may be the answer. His killer may be a librarian. They start looking through the information of the victims, and realize that the numbers on their jackets correspond with their professions. The first living victim said he was a psychologist, and the number sewn onto his jacket would be the Dewey number for books relating to psychology. The same with a home-maker and a priest. So it looks like Batman has cracked the code. That is until they get to a guy who was a sports instructor, because his body ended up in the wrong place. But that’s enough for Batman to double down on his librarian hypothesis, and he heads out to try and find the killer.

Luckily we’re then treated to several pages of the librarian killer explaining his whole life’s story to some random victim, so we get a conformation that Batman is dead on. Turns out the guy’s name is Stanislaws Johns, and he was the world’s saddest librarian. He lived with his mother well into his sixties, and was a pretty lonely dude. Then his mother died, and he started hearing voices in his head that he couldn’t explain. Compound that with the fact that he happened to get fired from the very library that Batman had been investigation in, because he was obsessed with trying to change the Dewey System, claiming that he’d come up with a better system. So, logically, he decided that the only thing he could possibly do now was demonstrate the superiority of his system is to dig up corpses from the Gotham cemetery and placing them around town as if the whole city was a library. Makes sense! He even explains that the leather jacket thing is because you bind nice books in leather, which was hilarious.

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So Batman goes back to the library to talk to the sane librarian, and the two whip out a map of Gotham and start marking where the bodies were found, making a rough approximation of the library he’s trying to start. They realize he’s killing people by section, getting one from each first, and so figure that his next victim will have to be affiliated with the social sciences, and get dumped in a specific neighborhood. So Batman heads out to catch the lunatic, only to get concerned that something about their investigation is off. And wouldn’t you know, so is the librarian. She’s worried that she gave the wrong information for Batman, and starts double checking stuff, finding that there’s a discrepancy with the guy who was a sports instructor, because he was put in the wrong section. And as she thinks about it, she realizes that it must be Stanislaws Johns, who she fired due to his weird obsession with reshuffling the system. And it just so happens that the crazy system John came up with fits with the places the bodies are being put.

But she has no way to warn Batman, who manages to run into Johns, only to be blown up in a crazy explosive trap Johns set for him. And that explosion was only a distraction so Johns could get away, so while Batman is dealing with the aftermath of the explosion, tending to the wounded, Johns heads back to the library to kill our friendly librarian. He bursts in, attacking the poor woman and chasing her around the library. He finally corners her and straps her to a gurney so he can monologue at her about his insane genius. He rambles on about trying to find order in his life and quell the voices in his head. All while also showing the world his genius at library science! But as he’s busy talking, Batman shows up and attacks the guy. And the resulting fight goes much as you would expect, with Johns freaking the hell out and trying to climb up a bookshelf to escape. Which then topples over from his weight, and knocks him unconscious. So Batman arrests him. I don’t know about you guys, but I think this guy was a real formidable foe.

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I’m going to be honest with you guys. I kind of adored this comic. It was so crazy, and aside from the murders, felt so much like the crazy Silver Age stuff that I’ve been getting into thanks to this series. The idea of a crazy librarian digging up skeletons from a cemetery because he doesn’t think they were cataloged correctly, and then depositing them around town where he thinks they actually should go is pretty great. It’s a super insane idea, but it’s no more crazy than half the crap the Riddler or the Joker were planning in the 50s. The thing that made this comic so 90s and extreme was all the added murders. Actually killing people and putting them around town is pretty damned dark. Not that the skeleton thing is lighthearted and fun, but at least grave-robbing isn’t as severe as serial killing. Plus, I love that one of the guys’ main ambitions was to prove to the world that he was better than Melvil Dewey. What a bonkers life-goal. But in the end, it was a crazy Batman story where Batman actually had to do some detective work to solve a crime. And that’s kind of my jam now.

“The Library of Souls” was written by Peter Milligan and drawn by Jim Aparo, 1992.

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