The first Elseworlds is also the best Elseworlds
The best Elseworlds stories utilize the alternate reality format to gain fresh perspective on the characters and themes they represent. I've always loved the mantra which used to accompany the earliest books in this imprint:
"In Elseworlds, heroes are taken from their usual settings and put into strange times and places--some that have existed, and others that can't, couldn't, or shouldn't exist. The result is stories that make characters who are as familiar as yesterday seem as fresh as tomorrow."
I've always loved that last line. "As familiar as yesterday seem as fresh as tomorrow." So why are there so many mediocre Elseworlds stories? Why do so many follow the formula of "plug in X character in Y time setting, tell basically the same origin"? Asking "What If?" doesn't really matter if that question isn't followed by, "So What?"
That is not the case with Alan Brennert's last (and only) major DC story, Batman: Holy Terror, the first alternate universe DC story to carry the Elseworlds brand. It's that rare Elseworlds (hell, that rare story) which actually has something to say about its lead character and the alternate reality he inhabits.
In this instance, it's Batman in a Puritanical theocracy. This story is not to be confused with a similarly-titled, aborted project by Frank Miller, although the two do play with similar ideas. Except Brennert's is far more subversive, even more so today than when it was published. After all, in this story, Batman is waging a Holy War. And what's another word for one of those? Oh, right, “jihad.” And it’s that very word which Batman himself explicitly uses to describe his mission.
In some ways, this is V for Vendetta with DC superheroes, and just like V, this Batman can actually be considered a terrorist. As such, it’s a story which has gained even greater power over the past decade. Combine that with the fact that this first Elseworlds utilizes the format better than pretty much every other Elseworlds that followed, Batman: Holy Terror is a story that has aged like a fine wine.
But like so many great works, it takes some bold risks. One such risk is the revelation behind the dark project in the heart of the government’s secret laboratories. For some, Brennert’s use of imagery will seem highly clichéd, especially in this day and age. For others, like myself, the twist is a punch in the gut. The real talent of Brennert is that this twist isn’t played purely for shock value, as most writers would just do. Instead, the way Batman reacts to what he’s learned takes the horror and grounds it in a very human, very moving moment which gives that scene its true power.
The ending, too, will likely lose some readers. The finale is neither pat or tidy, and could indeed be considered anticlimactic for those expecting an epic battle between good and evil. Instead, Brennert’s solution is far more meaningful, and it’s the kind of ending that not just stays with you for a long time, but practically begs for a sequel.
Batman: Holy Terror is a must-read story, one that deserves to be in print alongside the rest of Alan Brennert’s all-too-brief catalogue of work at DC Comics. Track it down however you can.