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The Villain Who Would Be King: Remembering the Pre-Crisis Killer Croc by Anthony M. Caro

With the 2021 mini-series Batman: Reptilian, writer Garth Ennis and artist Liam Sharp deliver an offbeat Dark Knight tale. Batman comes off as burned out and cynical to the point he’s treating the murderous rampage committed by a mysterious reptile monster as little more than a cruel prank. No, the mystery creature is not Killer Croc, but the long-time Batman Rogue’s Gallery member appears in the story. Killer Croc receives the “transgressive treatment,” too, as Ennis hints at beaten-down villain burnout.  Tweaking Killer Croc doesn’t evoke the same passions or controversies derived when a writer tries to alter Batman. Besides, unlike Batman, Killer Croc’s character has not always maintained consistency. At times, he comes off more like Spider-Man’s The Lizard, while other appearances show him to be more street-thug calculating. Animated and live-action versions, combined with different print versions, make Croc a somewhat creatively haphazard character. The first incarnation, the pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths one created by Gerry Conway, truly was awesome. Waylon “Killer Croc” Jones could have been as impactful as Bane would become nearly a decade to the day later. That version became an unfortunate fallout of Crisis.

Batman: Reptilian #1

Shadow of the Croc

Who is that strange, burly figure hanging around low-level street hoods? We know he’s wearing a hat and trench coat to hide his identity and likely not to enter an adult theater unnoticed. We also know his name because one thug refers to him as “Croc,” but we don’t learn anything about his motivations in these first two appearances, referred to as “cameos” in online reference sources. Whether a cameo or legit first appearance, the intro of Croc in Detective Comics #523 (February 1983) serves as a hint of what’s to come, as the issue mainly deals with a one-shot Batman vs. Solomon Grundy adventure. Batman #357 and Detective Comics #524 (Both March 1983) see Batman battle the Squid, slightly noticing the mysterious Croc, and Croc more intently noticing the Dark Knight.

Detective Comics #524

Croc hides in the shadows, and we never see his face until Detective Comics #524, but the reader slowly gains a feeling that Croc is someone special. Wisely, he is not referred to as “Killer Croc” yet, as calling him a killer would take some mystery away from the character. Characters nicknamed “killer” tend to act a certain way.  Detective Comics #523 and Batman #357 lead up to Killer Croc’s “official debut” to build tension effectively for a threatening new antagonist’s arrival. Readers slowly wonder who he is and what role he’ll play. Since so much effort goes into establishing this underworld character, readers come away with the impression he’ll factor into a much larger story arc. He does. And the debut would lose much dramatic impact if Croc’s first appearance rushed him into a plot. Allowing the mystery surrounding the character to build heightens the tension, as does the slow build towards the original pre-Crisis introduction of Jason Todd.

And that’s another vital element found in these three issues. Everything sets a course in motion for the impactful major story arc celebrating Batman’s 500th appearance in Detective Comics. Using an established villain, such as The Joker or Two-Face, would require coming up with an atypical storyline to shake up the old character. Retreading a generic Rogue’s Gallery villain story would be a letdown in the big-time 500th appearance. Coming up with a new, menacing villain helps move the proceedings a bit better since Killer Croc comes with no known backstory. Learning about Croc helps engage the reader, and drives home the true purpose of the 500th celebration: the arrival of a new Robin. Intrigue surrounds the setup, as Killer Croc allows Batman to escape the Squid’s goons, dubbing them “losers.” Croc doesn’t suffer fools, nor does he fear The Batman. That’s quite the confident villain. Who is this tough guy?

By contrast, the Squid comes off as a truly lame villain and a weak crime lord substitute for the recently imprisoned Tony Falco. The goofy character does fit a purpose, more than the role of a placeholder villain until the “real” story arc starts. The Squid provides an effective and exceptional comparison to Killer Croc. Ineffective and buffoonish, the Squid allows Croc to appear far more menacing and serious. We want to know more about the shadowy character, and the preceding issues to the main arc set hooks readers to follow the creators’ lead. And we don’t know that Jason Todd will become the new Robin…yet. Well, that’s how it played out on the newsstands in late 1982/early 1983.

Detective Comics #524

Comprehending Croc

“…I’m facing a criminal whose motives are beyond comprehension,” muses Bruce Wayne/Batman as he tries to figure out why Croc let him escape the Squid’s gang. “Comprehension” comes soon enough since Croc doesn’t hide what motivates him.  Batman #358 (April 1983) continues the slow build towards the eventual confrontation between the Caped Crusader and Killer Croc. One-note villains come off as bland and uninteresting, even when placed in a well-crafted plot. Conway conveys the reasons behind Croc’s cynical and misanthropic nature, as he makes references to being called a “freak” and breaking alligator backs while wrestling them in a grotesque Florida sideshow.

Batman #358

Croc, like so many other villains, wants to become the king of Gotham City’s underworld. Neither money nor lust for power motivates him. Nor is he psychologically driven to prove his worth by defeating the Batman. Killer Croc wants to become the leader of Gotham’s underworld to quell the demons haunting his mind.  Waylon Jones despises the “Killer Croc” moniker, the name bestowed upon him by the exploiters who put him to work wrestling gators. Jones wants to become “King Croc,” someone respected as a leader and not an oddball who abuses animals while suffering personal indignities.

Batman eventually traces Croc to his home and secret hideaway, and the villain goes berserk. “Nobody could call me a freak here!” screams Croc. The enraged villain overwhelms Batman and makes his escape, giving the detective – and the reader – insights into his mindset. Croc feels haunted and traumatized by his past. His present-day actions drive attempts to rewrite his history in the present. None of his actions are about money or mayhem, separating him from villains like the Penguin and the Joker.  Detective Comics #525 (April 1983) continues the storyline, with Croc once again getting the better of Batman. Batman even concludes he’s subconsciously letting Croc escape, perhaps as a reward for Croc not alerting the Squid’s gang. Or, maybe Batman feels some sympathy after learning about Croc’s tortured past. The issue also carefully weaves in the circus extortion subplot, a seemingly disconnected storyline that would lead to the surprise debut of a new Robin the next month.

Before all that happens, Batman #359 (May 1983) plays out. The issue delivers details about Killer Croc’s early days as young Waylon Jones. We learn he suffered from a skin disorder that mimicked reptilian scales. Cruel children taunted him with the name “Croc,” and Jones eventually resorted to violence as a response. Jones found himself sentenced to juvenile hall for petty crimes, and he suffered physical abuse from local sheriffs attempting to beat him into good behavior.  Commissioner Gordon relates the tale to Batman, noting counseling and therapy may have altered Jones’ path. Instead, continual abuse and torment led Jones into violent altercations and a murder charge.

Surprisingly, Batman seems disinterested in Croc’s background. The Batman’s cold lack of empathy suggests he’s more concerned with dealing with Croc now than discussing the criminal’s biography. If Croc needs therapy, he can get it in Arkham Asylum.  Whatever sympathy the reader has for Jones dissipates based on his violent actions in the issue. Jones becomes drunk with power, killing Tony Falco and assuming a new role as a crime lord. Jones renames himself “King Croc,” a bold attempt to sever all the ties to the past abuse associated with the Killer Croc name. Jones is still a killer, though, and a cold-blooded one. Jason Todd’s parents decide to work undercover for Batman, a tremendous mistake since they run afoul of Croc.


A 500th Appearance, a First Appearance, and a pre-Crisis Croc’s Swan Song

Comic book fans had a hard time overlooking the unique cover to Detective Comics #526 (May 1983), as the oversized issues featured the bold and capitalized word “ANNIVERSARY” along with the proclamation that DC Comics celebrates Batman’s 500th appearance in Detective Comics. The bright red cover was atypical, and the outlines of various recognizable villains surround Batman, Robin, and Batgirl.  DC Comics wanted the issue to be unique. Gerry Conway, teaming with artists Don Newton and Alfred Alcala, delivered a fun and eventual conclusion to the Killer Croc story arc. #526 had some wrinkles, though. All the notorious villains in the Batman Rogue’s make cameo appearances, thanks to some organizing performed by the Joker. The Clown Prince of Crime realizes Killer Croc has become too big of a “bad guy star” too soon. The Joker tells his fellow super-villain miscreants that Croc has the greatest potential to kill The Batman, so they better team up and get the job done first or lose their place in the underworld to the new leader Croc. (You’d think the bad guys would realize the Joker certainly is working an angle to benefit himself.)

Detective Comics #526

The 500th appearance allows the book’s supporting cast to shine a bit, and readers follow along as the Penguin, Cavalier, Two-Face, Riddler, Mr. Freeze, the Scarecrow, and others put differences aside to try and take out a common enemy. The Joker still finds a way to screw things up by inviting Talia al Ghul and Catwoman. They aren’t going along with plans to kill Batman, preferring to join him, Robin, and Batgirl in dealing with the horde. A double-sized issue is not enough for the massively villainous team-up. Too many villains compete for equal time on the page, and, not surprisingly, the story drags in spots. The villains end up looking sincerely weak, which takes away from their dramatic impact. If they can’t win after forming an army, how would they win when returning to solo plots in subsequent issues?

And what about Croc and Jason Todd? Killer Croc drifts away from center stage since the villainous army takes up so much of the story. (He doesn’t even appear until page 27) The conclusion loses some impact because Croc’s story competes with a whole new plotline engineered by the Joker. Killer Croc does come off as far eviler than the other rogues. The gruesome discovery of Jason Todd’s deceased parents – fed to alligators in a reptile house – shows Croc’s an awful human being who crosses lines several of the other villains wouldn’t. And it all leads to Croc’s undoing. Killing Joe and Trina Todd led to Jason Todd interfering in Batman and Croc’s mano-a-mano battle, giving the Caped Crusader a much-needed edge and victory.


A Crisis for Killer Croc Post-Crisis

The Killer Croc appearing in D.C. Comics after Crisis on Infinite Earths is NOT the same character from those brilliant 1982 and 1983 stories. If there was one editorial and creative decision that proved positively disastrous for Killer Croc’s role in the Batman mythos, it would be the post-Crisis retconning. After Crisis on Infinite Earths, the DC Universe received a much-needed continuity reset. Things changed. Stories that happened no longer happened. One thing that never happened was Killer Croc didn’t murder Jason Todd’s parents; Two-Face killed his dad not long after Jason’s mother died from an overdose.

The entire mostly excellent Gerry Conway debut story arc for Killer Croc ended up discarded. Unmooring Killer Croc from Jason Todd’s new Robin origin removed the villain from a pivotal storyline, one that had a significant impact on future Batman tales. Had Killer Croc remained responsible for Jason Todd becoming Robin, he would have to remain a prominent character with serious stories. Instead, he dropped down to the second-tier level, if not lower. The post-Crisis characterization of Killer Croc lacked much of the cunning menace and anger that underscored his violent behavior. Shifting from Croc to Two-Face undermined the chance to deliver story arcs with a relatively new “A-list” villain. Two-Face stood as a top-tier villain who could carry a “special event” multi-part storyline. The violent character gained nothing additional by being the focus of Jason Todd’s revamped origin. Keeping Conway’s original Killer Croc stories and characterization might have led to more memorable Killer Croc tales, but that’s not how things worked out.

And along came Bane.


The Bane of Killer Croc’s Indignity

In many ways, the original pre-Crisis Killer Croc had a lot in common with Bane. Both had “warm-up” stories that built anticipation for their eventual confrontation with Batman in a publicized story arc. Bane received much more hype, and he factored into much longer story arcs. Vengeance of Bane #1 (January 1993) told the comic book reading world something big was going to happen. Bane benefited from a connection to a classic Batman tale, the “Venom” story arc in Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #16 – #20 (March 1991 – July 1991), and playing a prominent role in three legendary storylines, Knightfall, Knightsquest, and KnightsEnd. By comparison, Bane’s debuting storylines overshadow Killer Croc’s dramatically. And Tom Hardy’s feature film interpretation in The Dark Knight Rises took the character to mainstream pop culture infamy.

Killer Croc made sporadic appearances after Detective Comics #526, but they seemed like “filler” issues between significant storylines. Since Croc had no connection to Jason Todd’s parents’ deaths, his returns lacked melodrama. Ironically, Croc did face off with Bane in Knightfall, and things weren’t pretty. Bane quickly and brutally dispatches Croc. It was as if the confrontation served as an homage to Killer Croc’s Bane-line pre-Crisis appearances while also intending to use Croc to better establish Bane as what a “real” outside Batman villain can do.


Post-Crisis Post-Script

Crisis on Infinite Earths and subsequent continuity resets have no impact (seemingly) on DC Comics’ Black Label imprint. These adult-themed “alternative universe” books take place on ambiguous earths, with some tales potentially fitting into current timelines or ones in the past. We don’t know that backstory of the Killer Croc in Batman: Reptilian, but he seems closer to the original version. Perhaps he is.


Anthony M. Caro wrote the essay collection Universal Monsters and Neurotics: Children of the Night and their Hang-Ups and the sci-fi serial Why Does Cal Draw Stick Figures at 3 AM in the 22nd Century? for Amazon Kindle. He writes about all things pop culture and contributed to HorrorNews.Net, PopMatters, Mad Scientist, and Jiu-Jitsu Times. Besides working as a professional writer, he handled production duties in radio, TV, film, and theater. He’s currently developing an audio drama podcast.


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