NOTE: This article contains SPOILERS for "Batman Annual" #1
There's no doubt about it: in the pantheon of brooding, tortured, and cynical comic book heroes, Batman stands alone above all others. You can't really blame him, since he was born of the very worst thing that could ever happen to a child, endured decades of harsh "training" that would break most people, and sees the absolute worst of humanity on a daily basis. And in the DC Rebirth, things have gotten even darker. Even as the Dark Knight unites his allies in a one-of-a-kind superteam, current "Batman" writer Tom King makes sure to return him to his tragic core, with an origin story now steeped in suicide, not just sadness.
Since the darkness surrounding Batman has spread to the modern world's most iconic version (some would argue that's a reflection of the world itself), the arrival of "Batman Annual" #1 is something of a ray of sunshine. The collection of holiday-themed short stories from a variety of writers and artists offer plenty of laughs and poignant images for fans, but one stands out above the rest. It was Tom King and artist David Finch who plunged Batman into his current dilemma in "Batman: Rebirth," so it's a relief to see them also turn in the short story "Good Boy" - returning a beloved Bat-Family member to DC's New Universe.
Ace, The (Original) Bat-Hound
Before we get to the current iteration, it's worthwhile to remember that in the long, illustrious history of the Batman, a canine companion was actually one of the more believable additions. At a time when Superman's extended family of heroes included a 'Super' dog, horse, and even a chimp, the idea that a loyal dog would help Batman solve a crime was considered pedestrian by comparison. The dog made his debut in "Batman" #92 (1955) as the dog of a kidnapped engraver. The German Shepherd named 'Ace' wound up in the possession of Bruce Wayne, who posted notices around Gotham to find the dog's rightful owner.
When the dog turned out to be the only witness to its owner's disappearance, and the only one who could actually track him down, Bruce faced a problem. If he was seen in public with the dog (who possessed an unmistakable mark on its forehead) as Batman, onlookers could note the connection to Bruce Wayne, and discern Batman's true identity. The answer was a black mask of his own, and with the dog not only providing a useful tip, but coming to the rescue of Batman and Robin, 'Ace the Bat-Hound' was born.
A few appearances of a Bat-dog in varying breeds and issues paid homage to the original, but in the New 52 (and especially the post-Rebirth version) no such Bat-Hound exists... until now.
The Bat-Hound: Rebirth?
As 'Holiday-themed' as the Annual issue may be, the new rendition of the dog begins with a bloody attack. The first image of "Good Boy" actually depicts the dog savagely sinking its teeth into Batman's neck as its owner, The Joker, cackles maniacally in the background. Jump forward a few weeks, and the Joker has apparently gotten tired of his new shtick of three attack dogs marked as Ace, King, and Queen (see the image above). But as Batman and Jim Gordon stand before the lone survivor - Ace, who has killed the other two dogs - they can't help but rule that this dog is just another casualty of Gotham's infamous villain.
But that's not where the story ends, thanks to Bruce Wayne's butler, Alfred Pennyworth. For unknown reasons, Alfred heads to the Gotham Pound on a mission to adopt the animal, despite urges from the employee that the dog "isn't fit for anything but dying." It's the kind of tragic turn that Batman stories are built on, but a rather large cash donation from Alfred sees the dog handed over - and the Gotham Pound rechristened "The Martha and Thomas Wayne Human Society."
What follows are several weeks of attempted training, with Alfred trying his best to break the aggressive tendencies of the dog previously starved and forced to fight for its life. As Bruce tackles countless crimes throughout October and November, Alfred makes little headway, seeing Ace growling his way through the mansion. Bruce makes his usual case that some trauma shatters a spirit in ways that can't be mended.
While Alfred maintains his belief that Ace - and Bruce, as the reader is clearly meant to understand - can overcome even the harshest trauma, if enough care and support are offered... and the subject in question is a "good boy," of course.
A New Bat-Hound For a New Batman
Alfred's efforts pay off as December begins, with Bruce returning to the Batcave accompanied by a knife embedded in his shoulder. It's a scene comic fans are familiar with as part of the job of policing Gotham - with one new twist. A twist in the form of Ace seeking him out, whimpering in response to the injuries. A few words of affirmation from Bruce to calm the dog, explaining that he really is "fine," and the new relationship is set in motion - just in time for the holidays.
Cut to Bruce Wayne and Ace by a roaring fireside, and the billionaire has changed his story completely, unveiling for Alfred his Christmas present for the newest member of the family. Bruce may explain the black mask away as a potential Halloween costume, but the readers know what they're truly seeing in the arrival of this playfully-titled "Bat-Hound." And, true to his nature, Bruce is clueless to the fact that Alfred has given him yet another broken soul, rehabilitated fully as a loving companion for Gotham's Dark Knight.
Now let's all hope that Ace the Bat-Hound fares a bit better than the rest of Batman's sidekicks.
Batman Annual #1 is available now.