Obscure Comics: Batman: The Shadow Of Sin Tzu #1 – 52, AOL & Jim Lee

There are comic book series almost every comic fan knows, there are comic book characters that most everyone knows, there are specific comic books most every comic reader knows, and then there are the more obscure issues that slip through the cracks. What makes obscure comics so interesting and vital is discovering those books that most don't know were ever printed, or that top tier creators worked on "that book" or on "that character." Obscure Comics are fun to find and interesting to know about, but that border between great reads and terrible comics.

Who Remembers When Jim Lee Designed A Batman Villain For A Video Game?

Batman, The Animated Series, is fondly remembered and loved by many, serving as a very common entry on multiple best of TV series lists, superhero TV series lists, and animated series lists, and is often held as the prime example of great Batman storytelling.  Starting in 1992, the series went through a few iterations, experiencing its last metamorphosis as The New Batman Adventures, where it was partnered with Superman the Animated Series in 1997 through 1999.  However, in 2003 Warner Brothers decided to give the animated Batman another spin on video game systems. Several games were based off Batman The Animated Series canon during and after it's run on television, with Batman Vengeance in 2001 having been the most recent, so in 2003 Warner Brothers did another Batman The Animated Series video game based off the New Batman Adventures, which would be the last Batman game based off the Animated Series.

Batman Rise of Sin Tzu PS2 Cover
Batman Rise of Sin Tzu PS2 Cover

The main draw for fans, and of interest for most, was that the Jim Lee designed and created the new villain for the game, Sin Tzu in 2002.

Sin Tzu Design by Jim Lee
Sin Tzu Design by Jim Lee

Batman The Rise of Sin Tzu was released in October 2003, a month after Jim Lee and Jeph Loeb's run on Batman, "Hush," had just concluded, and fans were hungry for more Jim Lee Batman content.  However, the hype of a Jim Lee created villain did not drive interest in the right direction, as the game only did okay sales-wise and the villain did not take off in the DC Animated Universe or DC comics in general, as Sin Tzu does not appear in the main DC comics until 2012 in Batman Inc. Volume 2. A novelization was produced for the game by Devin Grayson and Flint Dille, who also scripted the game. However, Sin Tzu would appear in many comics from 2003 to 2004 in one very unusual source.

Batman Rise of Sin Tzu Novelization Cover
Batman Rise of Sin Tzu Novelization Cover

Who Remembers Comics On AOL?  

Going back a bit, it is interesting to remember the history of the weird entity that was AOL Time Warner.  Back in the 1990's America Online was massive, and many still remember the noises AOL would make while one was using it to be "online."  Less remember though that from 1989 to 2001, Time Inc. was in the process of several megamergers that made it the largest media company in the world, ending in 2001 with Time Warner's $165 billion meldings with America Online. So being all newly joined in 2003, some cross-promotion really started to take place as all the parts of Warner Brothers starting cross-promotion and mingling with AOL.  This lead to a truly bizarre marriage of DC comics doing an online Batman comic, adapting a video game plotline, based off that video game, that was based off the animated series that was based off the comic book character, to begin with, thus giving us Batman: Shadow of Sin Tzu.

Obscure Comics: Batman: The Shadow Of Sin Tzu #1 - 52, AOL & Jim Lee
Batman Sin Tzu by Jim Lee

Obscure Comics: Batman: Shadow of Sin Tzu #1 – 52 or #1 – 260

Started in October 2003 as well, Batman: Shadow of Sin Tzu was a 52-week comic book, done in five installments, one new part released each weekday on KOL, AOL's kid friend portal.  This comic book, though could be considered not a comic book, and more of an attempt to do a Batman serialized "newspaper strip," something not seen since the early 1990's when during the craze for the Batman movie by Tim Burton, a daily newspaper comic strip was produced ending in 1991. Each weekday strip for Batman: Shadow of Sin Tzu is done like a large "Sunday Strip" edition, with varying panel layouts, and each weekday entry could be taken as half of a comic book page. When released on AOL, the series was labeled as comic strips, with 260 done, but when later collected on the DC Comics website (now gone from there and redirecting elsewhere), it was promoted as 52, five-page, issues.

The comic has a few distinctions, as it was the first online comic DC developed, and was written by Mark Schultz (best known as the creator of Xenozoic Tales, of which the cartoon Cadillacs and Dinosaurs were based on, as well as the current writer for the daily comic strip Prince Valiant since 2004) and drawn by the versatile Rick Burchett (extensive artist for comic material on many Batman the Animated Series comic books, as well as Detective Comics with Greg Rucka, current artist on the Funky Winkerbean daily comic strip, and in a weird connection, recommended to a young Jim Lee he needed to show his portfolio and do comics professionally). Considering the close history, the two creators now share doing comic strips, the format of Batman: Shadow of Sin Tzu is not surprising.

Batman: Shadow of Sin Tzu, however, does not fit into the Batman Animated Series universe canon and instead utilizes a loose continuity with the Batman comics of the time, with Cassandra Cain as Batgirl, having Catwoman in her Darwyn Cooke costume, and mentioning the Birds of Prey.  The comic adapts the plot-line of the game very loosely and introduces Sin Tzu into the Post Crisis universe.

In the story, Gotham's criminals are unleashed on the city by Sin Tzu who has put them all under his influence and control. Batman discovers this while fighting Two-Face, the Joker, and Mr. Freeze and gain details on the plot from Catwoman.

Later fighting and subduing Bane, Batman realizes he is being fed breadcrumbs down a path to a clear trap.  Taking his own path into Sin Tzu's clutches, Batman befriends Sin Tzu's lieutenant and finally confronts the Joker and then Sin Tzu on Sin Tzu's home turf.

Believing they are brothers, Sin Tzu reveals why he was using the Gotham City villains and believing Batman to be a pure agent of order like himself tries to recruit him.  Batman refuses, and in their ensuing battle, supernatural forces Sin Tzu has kept controlled end up loose, consuming the villain.

This co-venture between DC and AOL is obscure but a solid read done by two very talented creators.  The series has never been physically collected and has sadly disappeared from DC's own website for easy consumption.  However, if one hunts enough online, the series can be found and is well worth seeking out.

The press release AOL and DC issued for the series follows below:

The Dark Knight Detective, the citizens of Gotham City and AOL members have a new nemesis — Sin Tzu — who made his cyberspace debut in the original online Batman comic strip created for America Online by DC Comics. Through a special agreement between AOL and DC Comics, Batman: Shadow of Sin Tzu will appear online exclusively on AOL five days a week. This new Batman ongoing storyline was developed especially for the online environment and for KOL, AOL's experience for kids.

In the daily strip written by Mark Schultz and with art by Rick Burchett, two of comics' finest talents, Gotham's most notorious villains have banded together under mysterious circumstances. Batman must discover who is behind this diabolical conspiracy before an all-out war descends on the city. Could it be Two-face, Mr. Freeze, Catwoman, the Joker, or perhaps Sin Tzu – the latest criminal mastermind and shadowy eastern mystic created by comic book superstar Jim Lee and Flint Dille? As the mystery unfolds, kids can go online each weekday and get a new episode in this exciting year-long serial.

"Kids love comics and Batman is one of the coolest, most beloved superheroes of all time," said Malcolm Bird, Senior Vice President and General Manager Kids and Teens, America Online. "We are thrilled to give kids online access to this original online comic series that they can follow online all year. This offering from DC Comics is a great example of AOL's commitment to offering kids cool original programming they can't get anywhere else."

"'Batman: Shadow of Sin Tzu' is the first-ever strip exclusively developed by DC for the online environment, and we are thrilled to give AOL members access to this special online edition of such an exciting comic," said Richard Bruning, Senior VP & Creative Director at DC Comics. "By bringing this world-class superhero to the Internet, we are literally bridging the generational gap between parents who grew up reading Batman stories in comic books and watching him on television and their kids who will now be able to check out Batman's daily adventures online."

This post is part of a multi-part series: Obscure Comics.

About Ian Melton

Japanese Teacher, Comic Book, Manga, & Anime collector, LCBS worker, father of 2, fan of far too many things for far too long...