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Legends of the Dark Knight: Marshall Rogers (Review)

To celebrate the release of The Dark Knight Rises, July is “Batman month” here at the m0vie blog. Check back daily for comics, movies and television reviews and discussion of the Caped Crusader.

I do appreciate these nice hardcover collections that DC are putting out, collecting the work of iconic artists on iconic characters. There have been a number of Legends of the Dark Knight and Tales of the Batman collections, and DC will soon be publishing an Adventures of Superman: Gil Kane collection. So it is great to have pretty much all of Marshall Rogers’ work on Batman collected in one nicely-sized hardcover for the reader to digest, especially considering the monumental impact that some of his work has had on the character and his mythology. That said, there are unfortunately some production issues with the hardcover that take away from the experience of having all these stories released in a high-quality format in one place.

Na na na na na na na… Batman!

While DC might have a few of the truly “evergreen” titles in the trade paperback market (with books like Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns), I can’t help but feel like they might learn a thing or two from Marvel’s collection team. Here, for example, we collect a large volume of work featuring artist Marshall Rogers collected together, but with no real division between the various stories, and no real attempt at context.

There are some very different stories collected in the book. There’s the artist’s famous collaboration with Steve Englehart on Strange Apparitions and the sequel miniseries The Dark Detective. However, there’s also a couple of issues with Denny O’Neil, a Secret Origins issue for the “Golden Age Batman” with Roy Thomas and a Legends of the Dark Knight story-arc (Siege) from Archie Goodwin and James Robinson. None of these stories are divided by covers or even by introductory text. They just flow into one another, which is quite frustrating.

What a Joker!

Marshall Rogers’ cover work is collected in the volume, towards the end. I’ve always felt that covers should generally be included in collections of old material. You could, hypothetically, make the case for removing the covers from collections like Ex Machina, where each issue is a chapter in a larger story, but older narratives were far more episodic, and it can seem quite jarring to read them stopping and starting without a cover serving as a sort of “chapter break.”

More than that, though, I am a bit frustrated at the way that DC has collected Strange Apparitions, easily one of the definitive and iconic Batman stories. We’ll discuss how hugely influential it has been in a moment, but I think it’s safe to say that the multi-issue narrative unfolding across several distinct episodes is the highlight of this collection. It has never, to my knowledge, been collected in hardcover before – despite being one of the firstBatman collections ever produced. However, this hardcover leaves a lot to be desired.

People are Strange!

The problem is that Marshall Rogers joined writer Steve Englehart a few issues late, and only started illustrating the saga a couple of issues into the saga. I understand that this is a Marshall Rogers collection, but those early issues are essential to the story. They introduce the character of Silver St. Cloud, who turns out to be the core of this arc, along with Boss Thorne. It is possible to follow the story without those issues, but it feels strangely disjointed and it feels like we’ve missed the first few chapters of an unfolding novel. It is, honestly, a shame that DC couldn’t include the issues here. I would gladly have paid a little more to get the full epic.

Part of me wonders if the issues are excluded because Steve Englehart has been so vocal about his difficulties with DC and their parent company Warner Brothers. The writer was responsible for the first draft of the script to Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, but he has also been claiming that Christopher Nolan and David Goyer plagiarised his Dark Detective miniseries to construct The Dark Knight. I imagine that his loud and repeated claims haven’t made him too many friends at the company.

Reader beware, you’re in for a Scare(crow)…

Being entirely honest, I’ll concede that there is an overlap between Nolan’s film and Englehart’s miniseries, but each is distinct enough that I doubt any “borrowing” occurred. There are some shared plot points (a loved one who knows Bruce is Batman gets involved with a political figure and is targeted by the Joker) and some smaller similarities (the Joker disfigures a clone of Harvey Dent in an explosion, Bruce weighs Batman against the love of his life), but there’s nothing so essential to either that I suspect foul play. Indeed, Englehart and Nolan couldn’t have approached their subject matter in more distinct ways had they tried.

So, enough about the somewhat shoddy job that DC have done in collecting this material. Part of me is just happy to have these sorts of classic Batman stories available in any format, even though I’d rather see it done better. This was my first time to read Rogers’ and Englehart’s celebrated Strange Apparitions arc, so it was a bit of a rare treat. I’ll concede to being a bit disappointed with it, for reasons I will discuss, but it was still a highly enjoyable read. Indeed, I suspect part of the reason I wasn’t as impressed with it as I thought I would be is the fact that it has shaped and defined the character so incredibly thoroughly.

Silver lining?

It’s an unfortunate preconception that there are no good Batman stories before Frank Miller started to write the character. I reject that assertion, and I point to the contributions of a slew of important and iconic writers and artists. In particular, I think Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams helped the character recover from the damage done by the camp Adam West Batman! Still, if I were asked to point to one pre-Miller interpretation of the character that merits attention and discussion, it would be the version collected here, the result of a wonderful synergy between Englehart’s writing and Rogers’ artwork.

Without Englehart and Rogers, Batman would not exist as he does today. You can track the influence of the pair’s contribution to the mythos through multiple interpretations of the Caped Crusader. Even though Englehart’s script for Burton’s Batman didn’t necessarily survive entirely intact, one can feel the influence of Englehart’s ideas on concepts like the Joker’s attempt to poison Gotham. “It’s one part of a binary compound,” we’re told of his venom, “each part harmless itself… but when they’re mixed, they create a poison!”

What a Joker!

The central story in the arc – where Hugo Strange discovers that Bruce Wayne is Batman – was even adapted for an episode of Batman: The Animated Series. One imagines that Hugo Strange might have remained forever in comic book limbo had Rogers and Englehart not pulled him firmly into the Bronze Age. A helpful caption box early in the arc confirms that this is Strange’s first appearance “since all the way back in Detective number 46, no less!” One imagines that, were it not for his pivotal role in this arc, Strange probably wouldn’t be a mainstay of Batman media, even appearing as the major bad guy in Arkham City.

In fact, I wonder if Engelhart and Rogers weren’t among the creators who helped establish the importance of the early parts of the Batman mythology. One can sense the pair looking back to the very earliest Batman adventures in crafting their stories, pulling out elements that might otherwise be forgotten. For example, they take great care to reintroduce the character of Deadshot, who had a single previous appearance over twenty-five years ago. During the well-loved Laughing Fish plotline, the Joker pretty much repeats his sinister villainous plan from Batman #1.

Making a change, the Joker gets the girl!

Englehart and Rogers seem to have a key sense of the importance of the history of Batman, keen to include shout-outs and references to old storylines, and to draw from those old arcs in a way that adds depth to their stories without making them inaccessible to modern readers. Indeed, confronted with a conflict between classic continuity and later revisions, Englehart seems to favour the older character history.

For example, he disregards Alan Moore’s revisionist history of the Joker in The Killing Joke, as the character offers a definitive origin more in keeping with the older stories. “My first life,” the Joker tells Silver during The Dark Detective, “I was an inventor — and a criminal, of course. I created a Red Hood that let me breathe underwater, and seemed to have no eyes. It was creepy… but it wasn’t this.” In fairness to Englehart, though, he does contextualise his decisions, and makes an argument for why he prefers this origin, fitting more comfortably with his version of the Joker. “I’m still an inventor. Only now I invent death traps.”

What a Strange man…

I think this was perhaps the strangest part of reading Strange Apparitions and The Dark Detective from Englehart and Rogers. Given how well respected the duo’s work on the character is, I was surprised at how decidedly Silver Age the writing felt. There are any number of surreal and outlandish plot points and elements that felt strangely disconcerting. Of course, it’s easy to discount anything the Joker might do, because he’s a raving lunatic, but it seemed like a lot of the plots were running on Silver Age concepts.

Batman ends up fighting Deadpool on top of a giant type-writer that could easily have been lifted from a fifties Batman story. After a character dies, he returns as a “ghost” to haunt the man who killed him. I think that’s part of what feels so decidedly strange about the pair’s follow-up collaboration, The Dark Detective, written less than a decade ago. It feels like Englehart can’t acknowledge that comic books have changed in the past quarter-of-a-century, in a large part due to his work here.

Dead(shot) to rights…

Part of the problem is Englehart’s writing, in a style that seems rather corny and forced by today’s standards, with thought balloons and dialogue bubbles punctuated with awkward exposition. “The Batman has no super-powers,” Bruce remarks, “so I have to make myself the best I can be.” However, there are also the plot points. While the story deals with Bruce’s on-going lady troubles and makes some points about the political system, it seems surreal to see a subplot involving Two-Face getting himself cloned. Twice. In a way that very obviously doesn’t make sense. I am not a geneticist, but I don’t see how getting doused in acid could alter his DNA.

What makes this sort of Silver Age weirdness so incredibly bizarre is that Englehart is actually doing some astoundingly clever stuff just beneath the surface. He’s quietly reconfiguring both Batman and his iconic bad guys, even while giving us giant type-writers and clones and ghosts. The Joker is an insane maniac, but he’s a homicidal maniac with a worryingly co-dependent relationship with Batman. Deadshot is more than just a dandy with a pistol. Boss Thorne is a very serious threat, despite the lack of a flamboyant gimmick.

Monster mash!

Nowhere is this inherent contrast and conflict more evident than in the way that Englehart writes the Penguin, perhaps Batman’s most surreal of foes. The bird-themed foe can be incredibly camp or brutal grotesque, depending on the writer and artist, and Englehart somehow manages to play into the camp side of the character while re-establishing him as a threat worthy of Batman. He very shrewdly plays up his pathology and his camp gimmick, trying to fool Batman and Robin into thinking he plans to steal a bird-like ornament.

Bruce deduces that this is just a ruse, and the Penguin is counting on Batman underestimating him, writing him off as a camp little man obsessed with birds. Instead, the Penguin is planning on kidnapped members of Gotham’s Securities Exchange, a rather mundane (if more profitable) crime, and one that would go under Batman’s nose. Englehart makes us thing the Penguin has managed to evolve past the short man with a penchant for bird-related crime. “Incredible!” Robin declares. “What a plan!”

Midnight caller…

However, Englehart is pulling something of a double bluff. The Penguin hasn’t really overcome his pathology at all. Of the Malay Bird, the statue in question, the Penguin remarks, “I stole it two weeks ago, before it even got to this country!” The point is clear: the Penguin is still much more dangerous and canny than we generally take the silly little man to be, but he’s also still the same character – he hasn’t fundamentally changed. In a way, it reflects what Englehart seems to be doing with the Batman mythos. He’s adding complexity to it, but maintaining the core identity it has always had.

It just feels like there’s a weird disconnect between the strangeness of the world that Bruce inhabits and the psychological complexity that Englehart brings to the table. I think that Englehart’s understanding of Batman and his villains was revolutionary during Strange Apparitions. There’s a sense that the writer really understands what Bruce is about, underneath the cowl, and manages to construct a convincing psychological profile of the character.

Die happy…

Englehart is the first writer to really identify Batman as a childish fantasy that stuck with Bruce into adulthood, as a means of coping with his traumatic loss. The implication is that Bruce simply never grew up, because he never wanted to. And so, as a clever way of generating internal conflict, Englehart introduces a genuine romance, one that Bruce is actually engaged in. Silver St. Cloud exists as more than an editorially-mandated “beard”, a female character introduces to assure the audience that Bruce was straight. Instead, Englehart dares to ask what happens when Bruce finally has a reason to want to grow up?

The writing is just a tad melodramatic, but the idea is clever. Afflicted by Scarecrow’s Fear Toxin, Bruce’s world literally collapses around him. “Silver caused it!” he laments as he regresses to the form of a young boy. “Can’t keep my vow! Made… when I was… a boy…! And what does a boy know of women–? What does he know of love?” Bruce’s love of Silver is finally something that Bruce could embrace as an adult, instead of indulging his own dark childish fantasies, with his little trophy room, gimmicks and outfits.

Taking his shot…

In doing so, Englehart hits upon a beautiful central tragedy at the heart of Batman. Bruce Wayne is distinct among the pantheon of DC heroes because he can’t have the same long-term love interests. There’s no Lois Lane to his Clark Kent, no Iris to his Barry, no Carol to his Hal. This is probably due to the differences between Bob Kane’s vision and the work of other creators, but Englehart instead re-frames it as a piece of characterisation.

A serious long-term romance would require Bruce to choose between staying a child (and playing Batman forever) or actually growing up (and stopping being Batman). Due to the nature of comics, he can’t stop, and so there’s a clever hint of tragedy at the heart of the character. “You can’t live with who I am,” he explains to Silver, “and I can’t live any other way. End of story.”It’s a very simple, but a very clever, piece of characterisation, and I think that Englehart deserves a lot of credit for stating it so clearly.

Batman, detective!

In fact, almost as soon as Englehart departs the title, you can see other writers seizing the character hook. Len Wein’s epilogue to Strange Apparitions, The Coming of Clayface, firmly positions Bruce as a tragic figure, albeit with even cheesier dialogue. “This is all your fault!” Bruce rages at a family portrait. “You — my dear departed parents! If you hadn’t died there, there would never have been any need for the Batman! I could have lived a normal life like any other man!”

And Englehart’s characterisation doesn’t necessarily end there. The writer has a great grasp on Batman, but he also has some interesting ideas about the Joker. If I’m not mistaken, Englehart and Rogers were the first team to suggest that the Joker was aware of the fourth-wall, a subtle but groundbreaking idea at the time. The character helps the reader turn the page at one point inStrange Apparitions and rests his hand on a word balloon duringThe Dark Detective.

Praying on criminals…

In fact, his fascination with Batman seems to suggest he’s aware of the laws of narrative. When Silver points out that he tries to kill Batman, despite being co-dependent with the Caped Crusader, the Joker insists that he knows he cannot kill Batman. “Of couse I try to kill him! Because he’s my perfect foe! If I ever killed him, he’d be my im-perfect foe!” Englehart’s Joker is the first version of the character who actually has no interest in Bruce Wayne, or even in discovering how Batman actually is.

It’s a character trait that has become a fairly core part of the Joker’s character, but Englehart suggests it here, as the Joker warns Rupert Thorne away from uncovering Batman’s secret identity. “The Joker must have the Batman! Nay, the Joker deserves the Batman! What fun would there be humbling mere policemen?” Englehart proposes the Joker as a spiritual playmate for Batman, with the two sharing a weird co-dependence.

Freak out!

For Englehart, randomness is an essential part of the Joker’s character, more than any other character trait. He doesn’t offer any grand insight into the character’s mentality, nor does he indulge the more banal psychopathy of some incarnations. Instead, like Batman, the Joker is a child who never grew up, converting his house into a “funhouse” with ridiculous and physically impossible death traps. It’s an interesting character dynamic that Englehart suggests, with both Batman and the Joker existing as childish fantasies rather than real people.

Pondering what to do with Silver St. Cloud, he suggests, in a sinister fashion, “I’ll lock you away in a tower of this house and watch as your pale skin shrinks tight across your paler bones till you become my bride of death…” Then he pauses, and waves the idea off. “Nah–! It was just a synapse firing.”It creates the impression that the Joker has his head flooded with these sorts of grotesque and insanely random ideas all the time, and that’s what makes him so difficult to predict, and so interesting as a foe for the stoic Batman.

Jumping into action…

At one point, the character randomly attacks some nobody, precisely because he has no reason to attack that person. “But that’s the point, you see! People like you — innocent people — they think they’re safe from me.” Bruce created Batman to make sense of the world, but the Joker is the very embodiment of the random chaos that claimed his parents. While he might not have killed Bruce’s parents, like in the Tim Burton film, to Englehart the Joker is the embodiment of that sort of random crime writ large.

There are other interesting ideas suggested as well. I quite like Englehart’s portrayal of Hugo Strange as a character who envies Batman, and seeks to dress up as him. Again, these are themes and characterisation quirks that later writers would mine when it came to writing the character. It’s really quite impossible to overstate how influential Englehart and Rogers were working on the character. Rogers matches the writer every step of the way, offering memorable images that linger, and I think at least part of the reason the story anchored itself so well in the pysche of Bat-fans was because of the style of Rogers’ illustrations.

A Silver of hope?

I will note, though, that the later collaboration collected here – The Dark Detective – isn’t nearly as strong as those early issues. Rogers isn’t quite as good as we was, although I still really like his work. In a way, it almost looks like etchings, which is a nice touch. It looks timeless, which I suppose fits the story quite well. However, Englehart’s writing seems a bit unfocused, and a bit hazy. We have a strange subplot involving Two-Face and cloning that feels kinda surreal, for example, and I’m not sure what the story actually did in advancing the relationship between Bruce and Silver. It feels like they pretty much end up at the same place they ended up last time. There’s also a rather strange repressed memory from Bruce, which feels like Englehart is adding to the Batman canon for the sake of adding to the canon, rather than because it’s an interesting story point.

Englehart’s writing also suffers a bit from being a little heavy, especially dealing with the political commentary in the story. The Joker remarks of Two-Face, “Trying to influence an election! This ain’t Florida!” Later on, he makes another jab at the political system, suggesting, “Wrestlers and actors get elected, and people recoil at a career criminals? That’s just wrong, in so many ways!” I understand that Engelhart is making a point about the politics of America, which are run – as the Joker observes – on fear, but it feels a little bit too heavy-handed, a little bit too forced.

Calculate those odds!

That said, there are some nice touches. While there’s no reason for Two-Face to even feature in the story, or to be used in the way that he is used, Englehart does offer some meditation on the nature of the character’s coin, and the idea that it abdicates responsibility for his actions to some nebulous “fate.” There’s a connection to be made with Bruce Wayne and his inability to stop being Batman, but Englehart struggles a bit. The inclusion of the Scarecrow is a great idea, given the themes of the story, even if the execution is a bit lackluster. And his characterisation of the Joker is quite solid.

However, this is a Marshall Rogers collection, so it includes work by the artist outside his collaborations with Englehart. Reading through it, it seems like the artist is almost inexorably linked with the “classic” or Golden Age Batman. He provides the art for a nice enough Secret Origins issue written by Roy Thomas for The Golden Age Batman, as distinct from any other alternate versions of the central character. Interestingly, the issue was actually published after the character and his world had been destroyed during Crisis on Infinite Earths. The introduction even warns us that “he’s forgotten now… the very earth that spawned him swallowed up by cosmic catastrophe and replaced by another earth, a newer universe.”

Soon he will pray on criminals…

In a way, it feels somewhat fitting, as this collection is steeped in the mythology of the Golden Age Batman. Eagle-eyed long-term readers might, for example, speculate that the Joker’s derelict and decrepit mansion might possibly be one of the old remote hideaways he used in the very early issues of Batman, even as far back as his introduction. Rogers and Engelhart seem to have quite an affection for the Golden Age, even pulling Hugo Strange out out of mothballs to appear after a prolonged absence.

I wonder how many people reading Batman during the seventies would have recognised the character. That’s not a complaint – Engelhart introduces him with enough skill that any previous experience is unnecessary. I wonder if this could be seen as one of the early examples of the introspective and reflective approach to comic book plotting, pulling old ideas and concepts into the present, drawing from the books that the artist and writer would have read as children. (You can see that with the current resurgence of Silver Age characters at DC, as their current writers would have came of age at that point.) I know that this had been done before for characters like the Riddler, but that was as a result of the character’s popularity on the live action television show.

He’s a Monster, Man!

Keeping with the theme of Golden Age reflection, Rogers also provides the artwork for a Legends of the Dark Knight arc, Siege. The story of Siege was proposed by Archie Goodwin, who dies before completing it. Starman author James Robinson stepped in to complete it for his old friend, and one can spot some of the writer’s trademark dialogue from the two militia men. “Major flaw, Strother,” one remarks as they discuss popular cinema. “Confusin’ the actor — with the director’s vision.”

That said, Siege has another very solid connection to classic Batman mythology, bringing an old Golden Age story back into continuity. (Well, more or less.) This time it’s the suggestion that Bruce was inspired to become Batman by a costume his father once wore to a fancy ball. Apart from that small plot point, and Rogers’ wonderful artwork, the story is fairly unessential and perfectly forgettable.

Thorne in his side…

It is great to see all these stories collected together, and I am glad the DC is making an effort to honour the artists who shaped one of their most instantly recognisable characters. The stories themselves are great, and deserving collection, but I am a bit disappointed with how DC is collecting them. There are a number of small changes that could easily have been made to make this collection practically perfect, to offer a package that matched the quality of the content. Instead, we end up with what feels like a disappointing way of collecting some fantastic work.

Ah well. We can hope that it will improve.

8 Responses

  1. I was rather disappointed with Legends of the Dark Knight: Marshall Rogers. The issues collected didn’t have a color scheme that reflected the original issues and a lot of the art on the older issues looked like it was subtly changed with a computer. The omission of the first two chapters of Strange Apparitions was the easily the biggest mistake. Strange Apparitions may not have been an explosive bang like Dark Knight Returns/Year One/Killing Joke/Long Halloween, but it actually had a greater impact on virtually every Batman story done afterwords. It’s really inexcusable of DC to have not reprinted the story in trade paperback, as the first print from 1999 now can run up to 100 American dollars. It just goes to show that while DC may have the world’s greatest graphic novels, Marvel has the greatest back issue collections.

    • DC’s collection’s department really have nothing on Marvel. Marvel’s omnibus line is phenomenal. I love DC’s Absolute Editions, but they are not really reliable and consistent – the second half of Grant Morrison’s Batman run is in Absolute, but not the start of it. The choices with Marshall Rogers were really weird from a practical standpoint, even if they made theoretical sense.

      • I actually purchased the two Amazing Spider-Man Omnibuses shortly after reading your review. They were spectacular. I personally like DC Absolute Editions just to keep them in perfect condition so I can mess up my trade paperbacks of the same stories.

      • Glad that I put you on to those. The Amazing Spider-Man is one of the best comics of the Silver Age, and one of the most consistent runs in comic book history.

  2. I did manage to finally read Strange Apparitions through the reprint series Shadow of the Batman. What I noticed was it had a really great impact on The Animated Series. Considering the fact that two arcs were adapted into the episodes The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne and The Laughing Fish, Rupert Thorne was made the resident mob villain of the series, and that major elements of Clayfaces story here were adapted for Mudslide. I’d say Strange Apparitions was more a classic for what it allowed to happen than what it did itself, considering I’d put all three of those episodes in a Top 10 Batman TAS list (along with Two Face part 1 and The Man Who Killed Batman, where Thorne plays the villain).

  3. I really wonder why comic book creators are so very insistent on accusing Nola and Goyer of “plagiarism”. How else are you supposed to create an amazing Batman film without mining from his most classic story-arcs. It’s obvious that the trilogy used a plethera of various sources of inspiration, and the writers, who in now way own the stories they wrote for DC, should be honored that their work was included in any way, rather then feel somehow slighted. I understand that DC has a bad track record for how they treat the creators who decide to leave the company, sometimes on their own terms and occasionally not, but that should have no barring on what the filmmakers, who probably are unaware of these circumstances and are giving free-reign to pilfer plot points (some alliteration for old times sake).

    • It’s very weird. Particularly given that any Batman film is an adaptation. That process inevitably involves copying and transposing beats from the story material. Indeed, pretty much every comic book writer does something similar with earlier work on the character in crafting their own iteration of the character.

      • If Bill Finger had the same reaction to what happened to every one of the characters he created (I’ll give some credit to Bob Kane here for the record) he would have been the most negative person ever. Almost every character he ever created has been both elevated and bastardized in all different mediums over the various decades, the only difference is he was never allowed to do interviews or even receive the credit he deserved in his lifetime, but I imagine if he knew how things would turn out after he left the bat-books after thirty years, he would have been thrilled to see people embrace his characters all over the world. (Holy long sentence Batman!) Was very touching to see his name in the credits for TDKR though. I feel Nolan and Goyer have been fairly honest about where they draw their inspirations from, not that it isn’t obvious or that they should even have to (if not only to turn people onto these books). If I’m honest, had it not been for Batman Begins, I may have never taken the leap into comics history that I did, and would have never known about let alone read Strange Apparitions, which I now own :D. Needless to say, DC sold a lot of books thanks to those movies, and I still feel as though the comics are the most pure source for Batman fans to see just how varied and complex a character he truly is. I hope Mr. Englehart got a nice check from this collected volume and feels a little less insulted by the fact that he was never outright given credit for the influence of his work the way that Loeb, Miller and O’Neil were in the special features.

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