“Subway Jack: A Batman Adventure”
Written by Joe R. Lansdale
Reviewed by Ryan Daly
In 1990, DC Comics published Gotham by Gaslight, an out-of-continuity tale of the Caped Crusader taking on Jack the Ripper in the 1800s. One year earlier, though, Joe R. Lansdale pit Batman against a modern day version of the Ripper in the story “Subway Jack” published in The Further Adventures of Batman anthology edited by Martin H. Goodman.
Lansdale’s story opens with a man named Jack Barrett sneaking into the Old Gotham Cemetery one night in October. Jack digs up a grave on top of a hill looking out over the city, determined to find something in the crypt beneath the grave. What he finds is a box containing an ancient razor blade. He takes the box and the razor and slinks away into the night.
A few weeks later, Commissioner Jim Gordon is called to the scene of a grizzly murder in the subway. The victim is a bag lady, sliced up so bad that what remained of her body didn’t look human. On the subway wall, written in blood, the phrase: “Compliments of Subway Jack.” This is the third such gruesome murder claimed by Subway Jack, and Gordon decides it’s time to bring the Batman in to help.
After receiving a copy of the case file, Batman focuses his tests on a type of clay found at one of the crime scenes, a clay he believes came from the killer’s shoes. His faithful butler, Alfred, applies a fresh set of eyes and deduces that the clay came from Old Gotham Cemetery, which is near an entrance to the subway where the killings have occurred.
Batman investigates the cemetery and finds the unearthed crypt. He learns that the man buried in the crypt was the suspect in a turn-of-the-century murder investigation. The case was described by a writer named David Webb in his book The Followers of the Razor. The book chronicles the long, blood-soaked history of an ancient razor blade believed to be cursed. According to Webb’s tale, if the blade draws blood but does not kill, the victim is possessed by an other-dimensional monster known as the God of the Razor.
Batman’s investigation into The Followers of the Razor leads him to a suspect, Jack Barrett, a criminology student at Gotham University. Batman and Gordon begin to surveil Jack over the course of a couple nights in late October. Reading through Jack’s personal diaries, they discover how he was researching serial killers for his criminology class. One night at the library, he came across Webb’s book and the legend of the God of the Razor. The more he read, the more obsessed Jack became to the point where he believed the cursed razor was buried in Old Gotham Cemetery. He was so fixated on the razor that he robbed the grave, thinking he could use it for a show-and-tell component to his thesis.
After stealing the razor, Jack regretted the act, and also realized he couldn’t use it for his paper without incriminating himself, but when he tried to return it to the cemetery, the blade cut through the box and sliced his hand. For reasons he couldn’t explain, Jack decided to keep the razor.
Based on his diary entries and interviews with Jack’s professors, Batman and Gordon learn that Jack’s sanity began to slip in the weeks after he cut himself with the blade. He stopped going to class, stopped doing anything except thinking about the razor. He would ride around the subway all day, thinking about the homeless and what a blight on society they were. He was obsessed with the glow of the moon, saying it gave the God of the Razor power.
After watching Jack Barrett for days, Batman concludes that if he is the killer Subway Jack, he’ll strike on, Halloween night, which happens to have a full moon with some chance of cloud cover. Gordon and some of his men set a trap for Jack in the subway, but when he goes to kill an undercover cop posing as a bag lady, Gordon witnesses the incredible.
Jack truly is possessed by the God of the Razor, and when the full moon is bright, Jack turns into a hideous monster with a top hat, coal black face, teeth like needles, tattered clothing, and feet like hooves planted in the mouths of severed heads he wears as shoes. Yep, it’s awesome as it is horrifying. The God moves with unnatural speed and power, and he’s impervious to bullets. He slices Gordon’s men to ribbons. In fact, Gordon only survives the initial encounter by rolling onto the subway tracks and pressing himself against the wall just as a passing train separates him from the slaughter of his men.
Batman witnesses the God of the Razor run from the subway. The Dark Knight follows the monster, who appears to change back to Jack Barrett between steps when clouds cover the moon. Gordon follows the two of them to the Old Gotham Cemetery. There, Batman confronts Jack at the open grave where the razor had been buried. Jack confesses to everything but claims the God of the Razor has total control of him. Batman believes him and tries to take the blade away, but the clouds shift, and when the full moon is exposed, Jack becomes the God again and attacks Batman. He grabs the Caped Crusader by the throat, lifting him off the ground. Batman uses all his strength to hold the God’s wrist so he can’t slash Batman.
Gordon rushes them and grabs the God by the leg, but he’s effortlessly kicked aside. Still, Gordon’s futile attack may have stalled the God just long enough as the clouds change again, covering the moon. The God of the Razor briefly turns back into Jack Barrett. Batman manages to kick Jack’s legs out from under him, and the poor man tumbles back into the open grave, snapping his neck on crypt below.
In the aftermath, Batman and Commissioner Gordon agree to bury the case. They cover up Jack’s involvement to spare his family as they both consider him as innocent of the crimes as his victims. They’re also unable to prove or explain the supernatural elements of the case. They put the razor blade back in its box and put the box in a barrel and fill the barrel with cement, let it harden, and then dump it in the middle of Gotham Harbor.
There, no curious soul should ever discover the blade, and the God of the Razor should never return again.
Aside from the story, the most striking and unusual aspect of “Subway Jack” is the unusual format and structure. It’s sort of an epistolary story, but it’s not just a collection of letters or journal entries. Lansdale tells the story in a combination of third person scenes focusing on either Batman, Gordon, or Jack, along with entries from Jack’s diary, Gordon’s journals, and Batman’s case files.
Still, the real head scratcher is the sections of story that seem like Lansdale was writing a script for a comic. Transitional scenes are expedited with descriptions of panel breakdowns, art direction, word and text balloons, and even splash panels. Reading these sections, you have to wonder if this story wasn’t originally intended to be a comic instead of a prose story. Perhaps when Lansdale realized it wouldn’t be illustrated, he revised the character moments, but if that’s the case, why didn’t he do that for the entire story?
As for the story itself, I love it. This is my favorite non-traditional Batman story, first and foremost because of the fascinating and terrifying villain. Jack Barrett is a compelling, tortured soul, driven to commit unspeakable acts against his will. He’s at once a victim of his own ambition and overpowering supernatural evil, like the similarly named Jack Torrence in Stephen King’s The Shining.
And the God of the Razor? Holy crap, is he scary! The description of his physical form is unforgettable, and the savagery with which he butchers the pitiful homeless and Gotham’s finest alike makes you wonder if Batman can really stop this monster. It’s no wonder that Lansdale would return to the God of the Razor in other short stories, as well as the comic series Blood and Shadows published by Vertigo in the 1990s.
Lansdale’s take on Batman and Jim Gordon are also pretty spot-on. This Batman is late-Bronze Age friendly with the cops but on the cusp of post-Crisis on Infinite Earths obsessed, haunted by dreams of man-bat creatures orchestrating the murder of his parents, refusing to touch his food until Alfred forces him to by cracking the case for him. I would love to see this adapted as a comic, but the story is a little too dense for a single issue. The span of time as well as the non-linear story structure would also require more than twenty-two normal pages, but it would’ve made a great forty-eight page deluxe special, or annual, or graphic novel in the the late 1980s.
I can’t recommend The Further Adventures of Batman highly enough, and “Subway Jack” is one of the best stories in the bunch, if not the very best. Read it this Halloween season if you dare!