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Batman: Knight of Vengeance (Review/Retrospective)

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’ll freely concede that I wasn’t the biggest fan of Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso’s first collaboration on Batman, producing Broken City. While I could see what the pair were trying to do – to craft a genuinely dark and sinister noir tale within the framework of a traditional Batman narrative – it just seemed a little overwhelmingly stylistic. However, I am actually genuinely awed at their collaboration on Batman: Knight of Vengeance. A three-issue tie-in to the gigantic crossover Flashpoint, Knight of Vengeance is essentially an out-of-continuity alternate reality tale (similar to DC’s Elseworld brand), exploring a unique twist on the Batman mythos: what if Bruce had died in the mugging, and not his parents?

Darkest Knight…

I’ll freely confess that I am a much bigger fan of Geoff Johns’ Flashpoint than most. I think it’s a rather impressive criticism of some of the darker trends in modern comics, a scathing exploration of the tendency to portray comic book icons as edgier and increasingly amoral. I think that’s how the five-issue event works best, and I think that the very best of the assorted tie-ins realise that. Rather than using the story as a springboard for some inane “what if?”, I think the very best stories explore the idea that certain heroes can easily be pushed “too far” in search of that sort of dark and edgy appeal.

A lot of people would argue that an out-of-continuity story is inherently worthless. I’ve never subscribed to that philosophy – a story is either a good story, or it isn’t. That’s really the only consideration. It doesn’t matter whether or not the particular issue “really” happened to a fictional character – if a story uses an icon well, that’s more than enough. In particular, I like alternate continuity stories because they aren’t “tied” like regular stories – they don’t have to leave all the elements in a perfectly sustainable form for another writer to pick up. They can shed new light on old characters and present them in interesting and thoughtful ways. I’d argue, very seriously, that Azzarello’s Knight of Vengeance says more about Batman as a character than Tony Daniel’s Batman.

Don’t beat yourself up over it…

Batman: Knight of Vengeance is a powerful and iconic Batman story because it actually dares to question one of the core notions of the character. A lot of people would argue that Batman is an inherently dark character, a monster created by the death of his parents, prowling the streets and alleys of Gotham City looking to avenge himself upon wrongdoers. Batman is, of course, a somewhat darker superhero by virtue of that origin, but that’s not all Bruce is. Batman is still a superhero with gadgets and adventures and all the trappings – he is, for better or worse, a fantasy figure rather than some horrible midnight monster.

Knight of Vengeance works so well because it realises that facet of the character and makes it all apparent, daring to re-work the Batman mythos so we can see Batman as a grim and sinister avenger. Knight of Vengeance isn’t the story of an escapist childish fantasy to help a grieving child cope with the loss of his parents; instead, it’s the bitter and angry revenge fantasy of a bitter old man left truly empty inside. It’s telling that Thomas Wayne doesn’t wear the iconic yellow and blue that his son does. Instead, Thomas cloaks himself in black and red – decidedly more somber.

Yeeeees!

Many of the Batman trappings are entirely absent from this story. Eduardo Risso’s atmospheric art is actually mostly empty space, coloured and shaded, but illustrating just how hallow this world is. When we visit Thomas’ “Batcave”, it’s surprisingly empty. There’s no gallery of batmobiles, no trophies, no memorials, no giant penny. There’s just a giant computer bank. The only faint echo of the Batcave we know and love is the silhouette of a giant dinosaur, undoubtedly of more mundane origins than the one in Bruce’s possession. We allow for the dinosaur, if only because it seems to represent crusty old Thomas Wayne himself – a lumbering old beast completely out of place in the world.

It’s only in a sparse story like this that we realise how many toys Bruce really has. Confronting Killer Croc, Thomas doesn’t fall back on trip ropes, batarangs, knock-out gas, tazers or any other familiar bat-gimmicks. Instead, he stabs a blade into Croc’s head. When he comes across a poor victim of the Joker’s toxin, Thomas doesn’t run off to do lab work in an attempt to cure the poor guy; he just snaps the victim’s neck, considering it a mercy killing. Dressing like a giant bat might not be the healthiest way of dealing with the loss of his parents, but we do realise just how childish and almost playful Bruce is when we contrast him with Thomas.

Kicking into gear…

Over the years, Bruce has had his share of verbal tics, like Morrison’s “Hh”, but Azzarello actually has Thomas’ verbal tic as a growl. The story opens with a psychological assessment of Thomas. Our young psychologist determines, “You seem to have some anger issues.” Clearly less than impressed with her mastery of the obvious, Thomas responds, “Mmmrrr.” Thomas Wayne is brutal and violent – occasionally animalistic. He doesn’t have any patience or sophistication. All his detective work is done by James Gordon or Selina Kyle. It seems like Thomas just dresses in a Bat-suit and brutalises people until they tell him what he wants to know.

In only three issues, Azzarello gives us an example of what a Gotham shaped by a truly dark Batman might look like. The mob appears to still hold some influence, at least more than the traditional “freaks” – the name Maroni still carries weight. Thomas keeps his eye on the mobsters, even though, “with Sal dead now, they don’t pose much of a threat.” There is, of course, a reason that the costumed villains never really caught on in this universe. Without Bruce’s youthful idealism to hold him back, Thomas has an altogether more cynical and pragmatic worldview, and no moral qualms about enforcing it.

A Cobbled together bunch of allies…

“Arkham… It’s useless,” Thomas explains, referencing the infamous comic book mental institution, as famed for its inmates as it is for the ease of escape. Harvey Dent demands, “Then why does Joker always end up there?!!!” Jim Gordon responds with the traditional comic book reason for why Batman’s foes end up locked away inside Arkham, only to escape again. “Joker’s insane.” And then Harvey drops the bombshell, “And a menace – like Hush, Scarecrow, Ivy — and they’re all dead.” No points for guessing who killed them. This is a version of Batman so incredibly corrupt that he employs Oswald Copplepot as a trusted ally.

Thomas is almost a parody of every dark and extreme portrayal of Batman ever – just pushed far enough to make us appreciate that maybe the character isn’t as dark and cynical as we would imagine. Thomas seems like the sort of character who would give even Frank Miller’s borderline psychotic Dark Knight pause. He seems bitter, cynical and disillusioned. When he discovers that somebody’s been preying on the homeless, he’s less than sympathetic to the disenfranchised. He and Gordon dismiss them as “drunks” and “junkies.” Thomas sarcastically scoffs, “Now there’s a demographic…” It’s implied that Thomas is only really interested in their suffering because it might lead him to the Joker.

The last laugh…

I won’t spoil Azzarello’s superb twist in the tale, but I think his take on the Batman/Joker dynamic is as much a brilliantly warped and distorted reflection as his portrayal of the costumed character himself. Batman and the Joker are here, as in the main continuity, two sides of the same coin. They are two different responses to tragedy and loss – one attempting to find meaning, the other boldly defying it. Here, as in regular continuity, Batman is portrayed as inherently culpable in the Joker’s continued crime – his refusal to kill his arch-foe somehow feeling like a failure. Of course, given Thomas’ willingness to kill his other adversaries there’s a mystery at play here, but Azzarello presents Batman and the Joker as two co-dependent characters – almost like comedy and tragedy.

Really, Knight of Vengeance could stand on its own and still be one of the best Batman stories in recent memories – it’s short, effective and to the point. However, it also ties in fairly well to Geoff Johns’ main Flashpoint series. I’ve never been a stickler for tight “event” continuity – I want a full story that makes sense in each book I follow, and I don’t want to have to get several tie-ins to understand a main event. So Knight of Vengeance doesn’t tie in that heavily or that explicitly. You can read Knight of Vengeance without Flashpoint and Flashpoint without Knight of Vengeance.

This boy’s life…

However, it does tie in exceptionally well thematically and fleshes out Thomas’ character beats very well. Johns set out a fairly clear character arc in the main miniseries, and that stands well on its own. However, Knight of Vengeance helps articulate where Thomas’ head is at, and the many multiple factors driving his decision-making process. In Flashpoint, he decides to help the Flash reset the world and restore Bruce at the cost of his life. Johns painted it as the loving decision of a father who never came to terms with his loss. Azzarello simply expands on that beautifully. As Thomas asks Gordon, “This world, it’s a bad place. If you could change it, would you?”

There’s a lot to love here. Risso’s art is dark and beautiful and breathtaking. It’s really impressively atmospheric. I especially like how he incorporates a lot of the Batman iconography – especially, in the final issue, a brutal allusion to Martha Wayne’s infamous pearls. It is absolutely stunning, and Risso is perfectly suited to the material. Of course, Azzarello and Risso have a long history of collaboration, but this is a wonderful example of the two working in tandem.

Has he caved to the pressure?

I will, however, confess that I’m disappointed with how DC collected these tie-ins. They only published the Flashpoint tie-ins as softcover books. It’s a shame, because the Blackest Night tie-ins were all collected in loving hardcover collections. I don’t like softcovers because they don’t transport as well, and because they don’t feel as nice to read. I have always had a fondness for the habit of collecting in hardcover and then in softcover. I’ll make an exception for Flashpoint, but there are many of the New 52 I am not picking up because of the format. (Swamp Thing, Animal Man and Demon Knights chief amongst them.)

Still minor problems with the collected edition aside, Knight of Vengeance is an astonishing Batman story, and truly one of the best featuring the character in a long, long time. Between Grant Morrison’s Batman Inc. and Scott Snyder’s Detective Comics, we really are spoiled with great Batman stories, eh?

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