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Peter Milligan’s Run on Detective Comics (Review/Retrospective)

23rd July is Batman Day, celebrating the character’s 75th anniversary. To celebrate, this July we’re taking a look at some new and classic Batman (and Batman related) stories. Check back daily for the latest review.

Peter Milligan’s run on Detective Comics was cut unfortunately short. After writing six issues of Detective Comics, the writer felt a little over-stretched, and so decided to concentrate on more personal projects. While that’s entirely understandable, it’s also a little unfortunate. Milligan’s work on Batman is rather underrated and often overlooked. Grant Morrison’s decision to build some of his extended Batman run off Milligan’s Dark Knight, Dark City helped bring some exposure to Milligan’s work on the character.

Despite the brevity of his run, Milligan is incredibly influential when it comes to the character of Batman. His work prefigures a great deal of the nineties. The way that Milligan seems to play Detective Comics as an existential horror story feels like it sets the stage for the extended collaboration between Doug Moench and Kelley Jones on the main Batman book during the mid-nineties. Although he didn’t stay to see the idea through, Milligan did play a (very) small part in the development of Knightfall.

Hanging on in there...

Hanging on in there…

Even outside of the general mood of Milligan’s work on the title, and demonstrating that a Batman comic could work as a horror story, even Milligan’s individual stories are influential. Dark Knight, Dark City is major influence on Grant Morrison’s work on the character. Perchance to Dream on Batman: The Animated Series seems to owe a debt to Milligan’s Identity Crisis, imagining a version of Bruce Wayne who is not Batman. (Something Morrison revisited during Final Crisis.)

However, perhaps Milligan is most influential in his portrayal of Gotham itself, offering us a damaged Batman protecting a haunted Gotham.

Knight clubbing...

Knight clubbing…

Published in the early nineties, Milligan’s Detective Comics run very cleverly and carefully reconceptualises the character. Reading back over it, it almost feels likethat we’ve stepped sideways into a world that is a little different than Gotham as we know it. Milligan makes Gotham seem like a haunted character of itself, inhabited by ghosts and nightmares. There’s a sense that the entire place is damned, foreshadowing Morrison’s own exploration of the city’s twisted history in The Return of Bruce Wayne.

Perhaps it is an extension of the version of Gotham seen in Tim Burton’s Batman, which seemed particularly ethereal and surreal. The influence of Burton’s vision on the Batman comic books was really felt in the early part of the nineties. The year after Milligan began his run on Detective Comics, DC would organise a special comic book event – Destroyer – in order to incorporate Anton Furst’s designs into their Batman comic books.

Everything burns...

Everything burns…

However, it also feels like Milligan’s own interests are reflected in the run. Explaining his own interest in Batman, Milligan has confessed that the Dark Knight’s relationship to Gotham has always fascinated him:

I was interested – and still am – in the relationship between Gotham City and Batman. Interested in how Gotham is a character in itself, as important and Batman, The Joker or, indeed, The Riddler. Because of the varied nature of Gotham City I suppose it’s a story than can be told in a number of different ways.

Milligan’s Detective Comics run touches on this in a number of ways. Barring the use oft he Riddler in Dark Knight, Dark City, Milligan generally stays away from the tried-and-tested Batman villains, instead preferring to focus on the city’s oddities.

Prisons of the mind...

Prisons of the mind…

In The Hungry Grass, Bruce confronts the idea that Gotham has recorded all the brutality committed within its limits. Trying to account for inexplicable acts of violence, Bruce digs through the archives. “They all match up. The deaths, assaults, accidents all happened before, in the same place. Now they’re happening again, like echoes of badness past… or like scars that never properly healed and are bleeding again.”

The entire city becomes something of a festering wound. When the final confrontation with an angry citizen brings him to Blackgate, Bruce seems to describe the institution as a lingering scar. “It was closed five years ago,” he tells us. “Built in the late nineteen hundreds, condemned by Amnesty International, its history reads like an Edgar Allan Poe novel.” Sure enough, Bruce gets to experience the abuses and the horror and the nightmares first-hand.

Goodness, it's a golem!

Goodness, it’s a golem!

“When there’s a murder or an accident or an injustice, it doesn’t just stop there,” Bruce tells Alfred. “It goes on, killing, destroying, sucking other people in, sending out echoes of evil…” This becomes a recurring theme of Milligan’s run – the idea of cycles of self-perpetuating violence. Knocked unconscious, Batman reflects on his dreams. “Dream, eating their own tails, the old dreams with new faces.” Cycles that recur and repeat.

The Bomb is the story about a sentient weapon – “a human atom-splitter, Oppenheimer’s monster on two legs” – that seems to drive people insane by its very existence. “Walker started off as my friend, but then he went crazy,” the Bomb explains. “It has something to do with spending too much time near me. Being close to something so potentially destructive cracks people up. Brings out the bad in them.”

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb...

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb…

The Golem of Gotham sees a Jewish man dealing with his own guilt amid the rise of neo-Nazism – creating a monster powered by his guilt and anger that cannot be stopped, only causing more death. “It is happening again, Jacob,” Saul reflects, suggesting that history is really bound to repeat itself. “I’m beginning to feel as though I exist in two times at once,” he admits – unable to completely escape the past. Batman describes the Golem’s rampage as “unfinished business.”

The Library of Souls sees a serial killer stalking the streets of Gotham, his pathology driven by some horrific past trauma. He kills to make the voices stop, to silence the ghosts that seem to haunt him. “They’re the voices of terror,” Ms. Holding tries to assure him. “Of chaos. Of your own pain and anguish.” That pain and anguish caused by events long past tends to echo and reverberate into the present, as if channelled through these damaged souls.

Grave trouble...

Grave trouble…

Milligan’s themes are arguably even reflected in And the Executioners Wore Stiletto Heels, in which Batman wrestles with the question of the death penalty. Is it just another iteration of the cycle of violence? A murderer commits a crime against society, and so society responds with the same violence? Milligan rather cleverly suggests that Batman tries to break this cycle – a young boy who witnessed the murder of his parents, but rejects murder itself as a solution.

Of course Batman is opposed to the death penalty, even if And the Executioners Wore Stiletto Heels doesn’t explicitly come out and say it. “I’ve got one rule, Stiletto,” he warns a murderer who killed mobsters. “I do not take human life.” Federal Agent Hughes insists that Batman assist in the apprehension of an escapee sentenced to death. “We don’t want executions on the streets of Gotham, B-B-Batman. We want them where they belong.” Batman rather sarcastically responds, “In Florida.”

Batman goes all Christian Bale on us...

Batman goes all Christian Bale on us…

There’s a delightful surreality to Milligan’s Detective Comics run, as he seems to enjoy forcing Batman out of his comfort zone. In The Library of Souls, Batman seems more disturbed by the randomness of Stanislaus John’s violence than he does with the violence itself. “He’s troubled because he doesn’t understand it,” Milligan tells us. “He’s troubled by what it might mean.” There’s a sense that Bruce is trying to impose his own rational perspective on an irrational world.

When confronted with a blank wall where the entrance to the batcave should be in Identity Crisis, Bruce assures himself, “There’s an answer. There’s always an answer.” There’s something delightfully ironic about Bruce insisting “I’m not mad to himself when confronter with the possibility thathe doesn’t dress up as a giant bat to fight crime.It’s easy to become jaded by all this superhero stuff, to take the weirdness for granted, but Milligan plays it up.

Things that make you go BOOM!

Things that make you go BOOM!

After all, The Hungry Grass doesn’t even open in Gotham City. It doesn’t open in the present day. It has none of the familiar or formulaic elements that readers would expect from a Batman comic. Instead, it opens in the “West of Ireland, 1847”, which seems like a rather strange setting for a Batman story. When the story does return to Gotham, it features a terrorism making all sorts of surreal and eccentric demands. The characters remark on the oddness of the situation. “Why can’t he demand money or something that makes sense?” a police officer muses. “This is seriously unamerican, Batman…”

While investigating the murders in Library of Souls, Batman meets Ms. Holding, a librarian. Unsure how one is supposed to interact with a man dressed as a flying rodent, she politely asks, “Do I call you Batman? It makes me feel a little self-conscious…” Batman is as much an expression of Gotham’s oddity as he is a solution to it. Gotham is not a normal city, you can tell that because it produced Batman. (Bruce himself acknowledges this in The Golem of Gotham, remarking, “There’s only room for one Golem in this town.”)

Knight time adventures...

Knight time adventures…

Despite the strange nature of the plot, Milligan is accompanied primarily by artist Jim Aparo. Aparo is one of the great and most prolific Batman artists. He’s an artist who helped to define what a Batman comic should look like. It would seem that Milligan’s off-the-wall plotting would exist at odds with Aparo’s conventional artwork. However, the opposite is true. Milligan’s surreal and strange plots are enhanced by the fact that Aparo is drawing them in a very traditional style – much like Aparo’s collaborations with Bob Haney. The result is a comic that looks fairly typical, but with something much stranger lurking just below the surface.

Milligan’s Detective Comics run is a massively underrated, and a wonderfully influential, run for the character.

4 Responses

  1. I have fond memories of Peter Milligan’s short time writing Detective Comics and Batman. His stories really had this macabre vibe, a genuinely tangible atmosphere of uneasyness about them. Certainly he was paired up with some very appropriate artists on those issues, namely Jim Aparo, Kieron Dwyer and Tom Mandrake, whose styles very much suited Milligan’s writing.

    • Milligan’s Detective run really is brilliant. It’s a shame he couldn’t stick around longer. It was just a delightfully eerie book. There are actually quite a few Batman-related runs that feel too short – Barr and Davis, Dini and Nguyen, even Layman and Fabok.

  2. What hardcover or trade paperback are these in? I can’t find them plus I don’t know the issue numbers.

    • Actually, I read them via comiXology. I’m running out of storage space, so have been mostly buying comics on-line. The issue numbers are:

      They are: #629-633, 638, 643

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