Sunday, August 20, 2006

Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #50

Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #50, Early September 2003, DC Comics
writer: Dennis O’Neil
artist: Bret Blevins
colorist: Digital Chameleon
letterer: Willie Schubert
editors: Goodwin & Kaplan

After a weekend of unfortunately brief reviews, I’m hoping to make up for lost time with this anniversary issue of the Legends of the Dark Knight. This series has been touch and go with many Batman fans because of its intended steady rotation of creative talent. Some story arcs have been extremely well written, but visually lacking the impact to elevate the tale to canon status. Sometimes the title has been an obvious showcase for artistic talent with a scab story for momentum’s sake. In this issue’s case, the story and the art are enough to make an impression, if only for forty pages’ time.

I’m a Bret Blevins fan. When I see his name in any given comic’s credits, I’m confident that I will enjoy it on an artistic level, regardless of its plot. I actually liked Marvel’s Sleepwalker, particularly because of Bret’s ability to balance Rick Sheridan’s awkward adolescence with Sleepwalker’s surreal dreamscape. (Proof: I didn’t even have to dig up any back issues to remember Rick’s name.) This experience paid off in his run on Shadow of the Bat, as Bret’s depiction of Batman combined a strategic use of shadow and perspective to help the hero appear mysterious and sometimes even less human. Until I read this issue’s letter column, I didn’t realize that this work was first, prior to Blevins Shadow run, because he handles the Dark Knight incredibly confidently right out of the gate. As a fan, if I picked up this issue at the time of its release, I would’ve wanted more. Mission accomplished.

Denny O’Neil, on the other hand, needs no introduction. His experience with Batman and the hero’s rich history entitles him to handle a story of this caliber: the Joker’s first crime spree. Now, The Killing Joke is by far the definitive Joker tale, featuring his tragic origin and arguably his greatest feat, the abduction of Commissioner Gordon and the molestation of his daughter. As I’ve asserted on some message boards recently, I believe that, since Alan Moore masterfully crafted the hallmark narrative, flashbacks or developments of that story neuter its effects and create an unnecessary logic to the Joker’s supposedly chaotic persona. Fortunately, in this proverbial sequel, O’Neil uses TKJ as a catalyst, not an outline. This Joker isn’t as crazy as his latest incarnations, not unsure, mind you, but simply inexperienced. In fact, the first physical confrontation between Batman and Joker is so ironically anticlimactic, outside of the context of his legend the Clown Prince could come off as a petty pasty one-hit wonder. But we know the truth, don’t we?

I’m listening to the news behind me as I type, with headline reports including the return of that accused child killer to Los Angeles and the pedestrian disguises of international terrorists. The dramatic element to these stories reminds me of O’Neil’s responsibility in this issue: to establish the evil essence and career of a true criminal. The Joker has such a reputation as Batman’s arch nemesis, I wonder what O’Neil endured to prepare for this retelling of the classic Finger/Kane yarn. Of course, only a comic book villain would use a virtually untraceable acid to make his victims literally die of laughter. Still, the implication is the exploitation of happiness to achieve fatal and dreadful ends, happiness derivative from, say, America’s liberty or a child star’s innocence. The name of this story, “Images,” says it all: evil has many faces, but just one mentality. The Joker is a good ambassador. He’s a tough nut to crack.

The Joker’s origin is another potential point of contention among hardcore Batman fans. In the 1989 Tim Burton film, the Joker was a mobster before his uncanny transformation; on the other hand, his awkward inability to pull off a crime in The Killing Joke makes an attempt to establish a sympathetic element to the character. Who knows how his upcoming role in the next Batman film will reshape the villain? No matter how the tale is told, this series best sums it up: it’s a legend. Legends can’t help but find themselves on the lips of many storytellers.

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