There are many, many Batman memes. There’s the bombastic phrase “I’m the goddamn Batman,” the sobering “Some men just want to watch the world burn,” and the silly photos of Ben Affleck looking sad. But there’s perhaps only one — that of Batman angrily slapping Robin across the face — that has transcended the status of “funny image” to full meme format.
Though it has been captioned many times in many ways, the Batman Slapping Robin meme format began its memetic rebirth with a simple joke about how Batman’s parents’ are dead. The text is clearly photoshopped into the image, and can’t be mistaken for original comics dialogue. But what about the drawing itself?
I had always assumed the image was a fan recreation, thinking there couldn’t possibly be an official panel of Batman absolutely belting one on Robin. But I was naive and wrong. The meme format is an actual comics panel. It’s been flipped horizontally, and one word balloon altered to overlap the other, so that Batman appears to be slapping Robin mid-statement — but that’s it.
And so the question remains: Why did Batman slap Robin across the face?
The shortest answer is that the panel is from an alternate universe story where Batman is convinced that Superman murdered his dad.
“But Susana,” you say, “that doesn’t explain anything, and, in fact, raises a whole host of new questions.”
To which I’ll say, “I wasn’t done.”
World’s Finest #153
World’s Finest, in case you’re not up on your DC Comics naming conventions, is a traditional title for Batman stories and Superman stories, but it took awhile in the lives of both characters for the two to actually hang out together. The long-running 1941 series began life as a vehicle for reprints of Batman and Superman comics, with a name inspired by a promotional comic given out at the 1940 Queens World Fair — giving it the “world” in “World’s Finest Comics.” The cover of the book always depicted the two superheroes hanging out together, but within its pages the two starred in their own solo stories.
That is, until in 1952, when World’s Finest put a pushpin in history by featuring the first team up story between Superman and Batman. For the next thirty years, if you wanted to see Batman and Superman team up, you read World’s Finest.
Even just by 1965, that was a lot of Batman and Superman team ups. Eventually, things had to start getting weird. Which brings us to World’s Finest #153.
The cover of World’s Finest #153 touts its contents as “an imaginary story,” rather than the usual totally real stories featured within the book’s pages. This is both a little silly and a fascinating refinement of the idea of comic book “canon” into three words.
The story inside is called “The Clash of Cape and Cowl!” and takes place in an alternate universe where Batman’s parents were not killed when he was a child, so his mother lived long enough to die of unremarked upon natural causes instead. Both Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent are teens now, the latter known as the internationally beloved hero Superboy.
Bruce’s dad, a medical doctor, was in the process of researching an anti-Kryptonite serum to help Superboy against his enemies, but he was murdered by a prowler on the same day that he refused to hand the serum over to Superboy, saying that it needed more testing. Fortunately, Bruce managed to catch a glimpse of the killer before they fled through an open window, and he came to some conclusions.
Bruce is an orphan, but nobody will believe that the great Superboy could commit such a terrible crime without evidence. You can probably guess what comes next. Bruce swears to become the world’s greatest detective in order to crack The Case of How Superboy Definitely Killed My Dad.
He takes on a costumed identity “so that Superman won’t suspect me.” Why a bat-themed identity specifically? Writer Edmond Hamilton declines to explain this, and most of the story proceeds as in the main universe.
This is the part where Batman slaps Robin
Just like in the main universe, Bruce Wayne eventually witnessed the death of the Flying Graysons, adopted Dick as his ward, and trained him to become Robin. The problem is that Dick Grayson is a pretty big fan of Superman, and when he found out that Batman’s whole deal is that he wants to ruin Superman’s life, conflict erupts.
“You must be wrong, Batman,” Robin insists, “It couldn’t have been Superboy! He could never ... kill anyone!”
For the fairly reasonable suggestion that maybe Batman jumped to conclusions about Superboy, we get the slap heard round the online world:
After Robin refuses to become part of Batman’s big Superman Revenge plan, Batman wipes his memory of ever being Robin and sends him to an orphanage. Jesus Christ, Batman, that’s messed up.
Later on, Batman accidentally becomes friends with Superman, who turns out to be really nice. He even gives Batman a flight belt so they can zoom around together. And when Batman finally realizes that it is impossible to prove Superman’s guilt, he makes amends and the two live happily ever after.
Just kidding. He actually decides that if he can’t get justice he’ll have revenge and teams up with Lex Luthor. But after the BatLex team captures Superman in a death trap, Lex accidentally lets slip that HE killed Batman’s dad all those years ago when HE was a teenager, using one of Superboy’s own robot doubles, which he had reprogrammed to steal the anti-kryptonite serum so Superboy could never become immune to his one weakness.
Batman frees Superman, takes a super-bullet for him, and dies tragically, gasping an apology with his last breath.
What have we learned
It’s hard to say.
If anything, it reminds me of something very modern: a Dark Multiverse story. The concept of a shadow multiverse of broken worlds was first introduced in Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s 2017 event series, Dark Nights: Metal. The Dark Multiverse worlds are all in a state of decay, dissolving down to atoms in order to be reforged into more functional cosmoses.
Nominally, each universe in the Dark Multiverse represents someone’s (OK, usually Batman’s) greatest fear. In practice, the Dark Multiverse has morphed into a place to put Dark Alternate Histories, treating them as momentary fun rather than superior storytelling than the eternally hopeful main DCU.
These days, we tend to see the parallel universe story as a trope so standard to comics as to be a bit played out. But as any Star Trek fan will tell you that there’s a lot of grist in the mirror-verse. The parallel universe story can interrogate the main universe, or add to it in significant ways. How does World’s Finest #153 stack up against the great parallel universes of modern media?
OK, not well. But it does have a kryptonite batarang in it, and that ain’t nothing.