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Batman: Dark Victory

This post is part of the DCAU fortnight, a series of articles looking at the Warner Brothers animations featuring DC’s iconic selection of characters. I’ll be looking at movies and episodes and even some of the related comic books. We’re winding down now, having worked our way through the nine animated features, so I’m just going to look at a few odds-and-ends, some of the more interesting or important episodes that the DC animated universe has produced. Earlier today we looked at the Emmy-winning Robin’s Reckoning, so I thought we might take a look at the comic book origin of Robin that it inspired.

“And while the Maronis and the Falcones have often been bitter rivals, they all now share a common enemy,” Batman narrates at one point in the sequel to The Long Halloween“Extinction.” Dark Victory is the story of the death of “the gangster element of Gotham City” as the organised crime families attempt one last struggle against the emerging freaks. It closes the book on the story threads that Frank Miller introduced in his revision of Batman’s origin in Year One, which continued through Loeb and Sale’s The Long Halloween (which itself provided the basis of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight). The book serves as an origin story for Dick Grayson, and thus offers a nice bookend for the early years of Bruce’s crimefighting career.

Face the facts...

If you treat the story as the third part of a trilogy with Year One and The Lang Halloween, Dark Victory seems almost fitting. While Year One gave us the origin of Batman and the initial impact of his arrival on the city’s vested criminal element, and The Long Halloween showed us the point at which the organised crooks were eclipsed by the traditional Batman “freaks” or “novelty criminals”, Dark Victory shows us the Gotham mob as it’s caught in its death throes – trying to strike out even with its last breaths. In its last days, the family finds itself forced to choose between dying out, or evolving into the sort of crazy supervillains that ultimately replaced them. Dark Victory fairly definitively draws a line under the saga of the Falcone family, and yet it hints at something new developing.

However, perhaps what Dark Victory is most noted for is the introduction of Robin. The story gives the cover of its collected edition to the Boy Wonder, despite the fact that Robin only appears within the last chapter of the book, and Dick Grayson’s story doesn’t begin until the latter half of the book. However, the arrival of Batman’s trusted teenage sidekick serves to perhaps illustrate how far gone the days of mob rule in Gotham truly are. There’s perhaps no stronger identifier of the superhero genre than the presence of a young sidekick, so perhaps the presence of Robin marks the moment at which Batman’s story transforms from a noir story into a traditional superhero epic.

Batman & Robin...

The appearance of Robin is treated as the defining event of this miniseries, when it really isn’t. Tim Sale’s relatively brief introduction to the collection focuses almost solely on how tough it was to convince the artist to draw Robin (well, at least Loeb is lucky – Grant Morrison couldn’t convince Dave McKean to lower himself to draw the Boy Wonder in Arkham Asylum). Sale makes the point, and he’s correct in the framework of this story, that Robin’s bright colours don’t really work in the context of a noir atmosphere. Loeb sidesteps the problem that this presents by simply giving Dick Grayson a very tiny role in the story, and not introducing his costume until the last minute. This isn’t really an introductory story for Robin, so much as it’s a story which happens to introduce Robin – it’s a subtle distinction.

Here Robin’s introduction is heavily influenced by the Batman: The Animated Series episode Robin’s Reckoning, right down to the shots that Tim Sale uses to show the death of the Graysons. Much like that episode, we focus on the broken rope rather than the dead bodies, making for a much more atmospheric presentation. He does offer a closing shot to the sequence which explicitly mirrors the iconic shot of a young Bruce with his parents, further underscoring the similarities between Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson – it’s a nice shot which effectively captures everything you need to know.

That's some Joker...

While one can argue that Gotham’s traditional noir underpinnings – the families, the corruption, the ineffective cops – were doomed from the instant that District Attorney Harvey Dent was transformed into Two-Face or the first time Batman wore his cowl or even the night that Thomas and Martha Wayne were shot down, but most would agree that the city passed the point of no return long before this particular saga. However, Dark Victory represents the moment of acceptance.

At the start of the story, Batman still believes that everything can go back to the way it was. “Harvey, we could get you plastic surgery,” Batman pleads to his former friend. “Rebuild your life and –“ Yet, by the time the story has reached its climax, Bruce has come to terms with “a world without Harvey Dent.” The new District Attorney, Janet Porter, is doomed the moment she articulated the words which underpinned Batman’s optimism in The Long Halloween. “I believe in Harvey Dent” is a sentiment that represents a Gotham long since gone. In spite of all his theatrics and schemes – and despite how much he might embrace his other freaks – Harvey still plans to restore order to Gotham, to wind the clocks back. He hasn’t embraced that this is the way thing are now, and that makes him a figure of tragedy. “For all his talk, what did Two-Face really want?” the Joker muses at one point. “Getting rid of a bunch of gangsters. Same as ol’ Harv. He never understood Gotham City like you and me, Bat–“ The implication is clear. Batman and the Joker are no longer just a possible future for the city, they are the city as it exists today. The choice facing the city is to either make their peace with it (indeed, the last chapter of the story is called “peace”) or to get out of the way as these changes come on through.

It's a grave matter...

“I am alone,” Batman explains early in the story, and it focuses on how isolated the explosive conclusion of The Long Halloween left  each of the players. Gordon is separated from his family, and the fiasco with Harvey has left his reputation severely damaged. Bruce is isolated, unsure of whom to trust – the story reveals that Bruce planned to reveal his secret identity to Harvey, so that he might no longer need to be alone. Bruce is solemn and mournful when he confesses this to Alfred – one gets the sense that he needs somebody who isn’t Alfred to know and to share the burden with. Bruce himself compounds his isolation over the course of the story, driving Selina Kyle away and being especially curt with Gordon.

“Batman is infallible,” Bruce informs his butler curtly, but the story shows that Batman has been pushed to breaking point – perhaps even beyond it. He’s becoming increasingly paranoid. When he observes that the new District Attorney doesn’t trust him, he remarks, “Maybe I should be investigating her…” To Alfred, the suggestion that Batman could be wrong represents “the sum of your worst fears.” Although perhaps the Scarecrow’s fear toxin is playing this up, Batman’s attempts to isolate himself began long before his exposure.

Two-Face-Off...

Loeb peppers the story with references to Frank Miller’s Year One. While the earlier collaboration between writer Jeph Loeb and artist Tim Sale, The Long Halloween, built upon the themes and ideas from Miller’s original story, here Loeb seems to be consciously bookending the origin story. There’s the reappearance of Flass, Gordon’s bullish original partner from his time on the Gotham beat. The story even features a guest appearance from one cop the SWAT team members from Miller’s tale – “Didn’t you once punch Pratt through a brick wall?” an officer asks Batman, referring to the officer who attracted the vigilante’s ire for cruelty to a cat. It adds a sense of closure to this chapter of the story, as if all these threads from the original stories are finally being resolved.

Hell, Loeb even manages to resolve the conspiracy in this chapter of his saga particularly well. The mystery plots in The Long Halloween and Hush weren’t really definitively resolved in their respective stories – for example, Thomas Elliot was only heavily implied to be Hush, and there’s a strong fan theory that there was more than one Holiday Killer. It’s almost a joke that Loeb had to write a sequel to The Long Halloween simply to tie up all the loose ends. Indeed, the opening line of this miniseries is designed to serve as a definitive resolution to the last murder mystery. “Alberto Falcone was Holiday,” Loeb assures us through Batman’s narration.

Harvey's become quite two-faced of late...

The Godfather again serves as a rather conscious influence on Loeb’s storytelling. Whether it’s directly lifting the scene of mob-hired “private detectives” who are “licensed to carry firearms” showing up to protect a mob patriarch or somebody waking up in their bed to find they have company (a dead body instead of a horse’s head) or even a social occasion serving as an introduction to the mob (a funeral in this story, rather than a wedding or christening), there’s a very clear sense that Loeb is trying to lift the atmosphere directly from Francis Ford Coppola’s mob masterpiece. Thanks to Sale’s atmospheric designs, it works – evoking a hazily ambiguous almost classic period. There’s no explicit indication of when this story is set (reflecting the rather flexible nature of Batman’s chronology, perhaps), but it could be set in the thirties or forties.

There’s also a hint of The Untouchables, which perhaps suits the way that the story deals more with the police force than other similar stories. Indeed, the overarching plot of the miniseries follows a serial killer targeting police officers in Gotham. Perhaps it’s a sign of how much things have changed that not even the uniformed police offers are safe. It certainly makes things feel uncertain, as though the rules have been altered. “People don’t like it when it’s about cops,” Commissioner Loeb informs his replacement, “Makes ’em feel — uneasy.” There are several sequences which call to mind Brian DePalma’s prohibition thriller, including a meeting with a moustached white-haired beat cop on a foggy bridge.

Gordon needs to cop himself on...

There’s definitely a discernible focus on Jim Gordon, perhaps the most often ignored character in the Batman mythos (I’m looking forward to Scott Snyder’s Gordon stories during his run on Detective Comics, in case you haven’t guessed). However, Gordon seems to be the central character by default rather than design – Gordon’s role as police commissioner is the nexus through which every plot strand in the story connects, and as such we spend more time with him than with most other characters. Still, there’s a strong sense of the nobility of the character who undoubtedly feels that all the chaos unfolding is his fault – if he hadn’t trusted Batman, would any of this happened? The murder of police officers must hit him particularly hard. “Gordon believes it is his job to stop the killings,” Batman explains, underscoring the Commissioner’s sense of responsibility. “He, more than any of them, needs this to end.” Still, the plot serves as more of an epilogue to the character arcs for each of these central characters rather than an exploration of them.

Dark Victory is perhaps too heavily integrated with Batman’s history to be described as a classic or a masterpiece in its own right. It isn’t as strong an introduction to the world of the character as Year One was, nor does it have an emotional arc as strong as The Long Halloween does. There’s no central tragedy that is as strong as the fall of Harvey Dent, although the series does a wonderful job of portraying a city coming to terms with the way that things are. There’s not necessarily a given character to root for or engage with.

Stone-cold villains...

However, for all that, there’s a definite sense that this is the end of a particular chapter in Batman’s existence. Sure, it’s a chapter which is frequently and continually revisited by all manner of authors on all manner of titles, but this is a full stop at the end of this phase of his career. This is the point at which Batman has really stopped changing Gotham – the freaks are here to stay, the mob is dead and buried. Batman has discovered that if he’s going to do this eternally he needs help, he cannot do this alone and isolated. Batman has stared into the existentialist abyss. Although we know from countless crossovers – the injuries he receives in Knightfall, for example, or the earthquake in No Man’s Land – that he will go on to face countless challenges, there’s a sense that Bruce has finally found equilibrium with the identity of Batman. He has struck a delicate peace with it.

So maybe Dark Victory doesn’t need to be a classic in its own right – maybe there’s something to be said for drawing a line under the noir-themed early adventures of the Caped Crusader. It certainly reads a whole lot better as the third act in a trilogy. It wraps up all the character arcs and themes in an effective and neat little story which – while probably not fantastic on its own merits – works well enough keep the reader engaged.

This is the third in Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s “Batman” trilogy, a collaboration between the writer and artist exploring the character’s early years (although both have worked separately on the character as well). Check out our reviews of the other entries:

9 Responses

  1. Daz, im a bit of a noob when it comes to comic books, but i went out and bought Batman: Year One the other day and really enjoyed it. great story, great artwork. wondering which Batman tale to turn to next. like the look of the Long Halloween. am put off a bit by Dark Knight Returns as it has Superman and space and all sorts of guff in it. Like Indiana Jones, i prefer Batman when he’s alone. Any advice on what Batman comic to pick up next?

    • The Dark Knight Returns is great. Superman pops in a bit near the climax, but it’s perhaps the most cynically sarcastic portrayal of Superman I’ve seen in a mainstream comic. It’s pretty much a portrayal of Superman for people who don’t like Superman.

      If you’re looking for advice on Batman stories:
      The Long Halloween is very much a continuation of Year One. It also inspired the Dark Knight’s Two-Face arc. Great little story. Just don’t approach it as a murder mystery, because it’ll drive you up the wall. It’s a nice story of the transition of Gotham from New York/Chicago lite to “the most disturbing place in America”.
      The Killing Joke is the best Joker story ever written. It gives him one possible backstory and outlines his character motivation perfectly. It does have some problems (the author, Alan Moore, isn’t too proud of it), but it’s an effective look at the relationship between Batman and the Joker.
      Brian Azzarello’s Joker, on the other hand, is a much more grounded crime story about the character. It’s as grounded in the real world as The Dark Knight was, but it adopts a somewhat different philosophical approach to the villian. It is great, though.
      On the other hand, Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth is compeltely off the rails, but is brilliant. It’s a psychological profile of Batman and his famous selection of villains, with weird and moody artwork from Dave McKean. Google it and have a glance at the images. If the artwork doesn’t turn you off, it’s a must-read – the story is just as fractured and warped, but beautiful.
      Ed Brubaker’s Gotham Central is also well worth a read, it’s basically Law & Order: Gotham, so it fits tonally with Nolan’s portrayal of the city and it’s just a really well-executed idea. Some of the stuff in The Dark Knight definitely came from here. There’s a four-volume lovely hardcover set available.

      Those would be the places to start.

  2. The Year One, Long Halloween, and Dark Victory stories are my favorites. I own all of them and look forward to passing them on to my children.

    I never thought of the references to The Godfather and The Untouchables, Darren, maybe I should give them another read over Christmas.

    • It’s just a great little trilogy which basically transitions from a realistic noir setting to the more gothic Batman transition, at it does it really well.

      • How much, if any, of Dark Victory makes it into ‘Dark Knight Rises’?

      • Given everyone has declared Two-Face dead, I reckon very little. I believe the current wild internet fan theory is that “Prey” will be the basis of the movie, the story of Jim Gordon being instructed to hunt Batman under the direction of “expert” Hugo Strange. I’ve been trying to get a hold of it for a while, but’s like gold dust. Maybe DC will put it back into print in the next few months with the hype.

  3. great tips Darren, will get stuck into a few of those and let you know how i get on

  4. Nice write up Darren. This is the last thing that Loeb wrote that I can read without bursting into hives.

    I think you’re spot on that it works best as the last act to a trilogy, but like most last acts it doesn’t quite have the oomph of the first too.

    Still Sale’s art makes up for a lot, most of the way he draws Batman and his Rogue’s gallery is damn near the platonic ideal for me. But for some reason I’ve always hated his Joker.

    (Spoiler)

    Still that splash page where the rogues gallery invades Dent’s trial is maybe my favorite splash page in super hero comics period.

    • Thanks Bryce. I actually feel sorry for Loeb, even if I’ve avoided everything he’s written of late. You probably know the reality subtext yourself, but I think a lot of Loeb’s writing feels like he’s working through stuff maybe best left private.

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