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Peter Milligan and Kieron Dwyer’s Run on Batman – Dark Knight, Dark City (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 and Kieron Dwyer’s Dark Knight, Dark City shot to prominence when writer Grant Morrison incorporated some of its elements into his expansive Batman epic. This three-issue 1990 Batman story arc garnered a lot of attention and even earned a reprint in 2011 as part of the DC Comics Presents line. That is certainly deserved, as Dark Knight, Dark City is a genuinely classic Batman story.

Milligan hits on a lot of the themes that he would develop over his subsequent Detective Comics run. There’s a sense that the writer is scripting a version of Batman that owes at least as much to the tradition of horror comics as it does to traditional superhero narratives. Indeed, Milligan could easily have reworked most of his Batman stories for Hellblazer with only a minimum amount of changes.

Suit up...

Suit up…

Portraying Batman as a strange and surreal character inhabiting a strange and surreal world, Milligan paved the way for a lot of occult weirdness that would become a fixture of the Batman line into the nineties and beyond. It is very difficult to imagine Grant Morrison’s extended run without Milligan’s influence. It could also be argued that Milligan paved the way for the distinctive and stylised portrayal of the Dark Knight in Doug Moench and Kelley Jones’ mid-nineties run.

Haunting, thoughtful and influential, Dark Knight, Dark City is an underrated masterpiece.

Who is afraid of the big, bad bat...

Who is afraid of the big, bad bat…?

One of Milligan’s favourite recurring Batman themes is the relationship between Batman and Gotham itself. Milligan tends to treat Gotham as its own character. He presents the city as a place that has seen untold horrors over the years, with blood soaked into the foundation. Milligan seems to hint that Batman and his supporting cast are all just products of a city that seems haunted and distorted. People are inevitably shaped by their environment, and Gotham shaped Batman.

In Dark Knight, Dark City, Gotham itself is cast as a character. Portions of the story are narrated in the first person by Gotham, talking about how light Batman’s step is. The story throws Batman into conflict with “the Daemon, calling itself Barbatos.” However, Barbatos claims to be the spirit of Gotham itself. “Are… are you the demon, or Gotham, or…?” the Riddler asks, timidly. “The same,” Barbatos replies, simply. “No difference.”

Riddled with bullets, eh?

Riddled with bullets, eh?

Batman himself seems to reflect on Gotham as a living entity. “All night,” he confesses to Alfred, “I’ve had this feeling I’m being watched, everywhere I go… and I’m in a maze. I’m being watched and I’m in a maze. A very clever maze.” The city feels like an organism – something otherworldly and unreal. As Batman drives through the streets build over a farm that once summoned Barbatos, he reflects, “What is it about this part of town? A shiver down my spine?”

It’s a rather fascinating twist on Batman. Given the character’s iconic design, he lends himself to horror narratives. After all, bats are creatures associated with the night and with horror movie monsters. Milligan stresses this similarity. As Gordon stands near the bat signal, Barbatos/Gotham observes, “He has been summoned.” Dwyer frames the sequence similar to Barbatos’ arrival at the ceremony – a large bat-like silhouette overwhelming the panel. Is Batman just a creature of the night, summoned like a demon?

Down the rabbit hole...

Down the rabbit hole…

Milligan suggests that Batman is just a twisted reflection of Gotham, a man built in the city’s image. “The night is mine,” Gotham narrates at one point, as Batman stalks through a graveyard. Then it corrects itself, “The night is ours. The night is ours, Batman.” At the climax, the demon describes Gotham to Batman. “The city that modelled you, that shaped you, whose darkness and desolation is in your soul…”

Dark Knight, Dark City suggests that Batman was “built” by Gotham. If the city could be said to be a living organism, it “birthed” him. In a grim nightmare at the height of the case, as the occult forces mass, Bruce returns to that fateful night from years ago. He recalls “a labyrinth of streets, moving, shifting, cajoling, beckoning, forcing us onward and onward towards the place…” Solemnly, he admits, “The city has made me.”

A blood bath...

A blood bath…

Grant Morrison would riff on this idea in The Return of Bruce Wayne. There, Morrison suggested that Bruce Wayne himself would be the one to influence Gotham’s history and development. This circle would seem to be recursive – which came first, Gotham’s influence on Bruce or Bruce’s influence on Gotham? It adds a rather interesting quirk to the relationship between Batman and Gotham, and is clearly building on Milligan’s work in Dark Knight, Dark City.

Of course, Milligan proposes a rather literal interpretation of the relationship between Batman and Gotham. Even outside of this story, the argument could be made that Gotham is responsible for Batman’s creation on a more abstract level. From a certain perspective, Joe Chill was just an instrument – a common crook who was simply part of the corrupt and decrepit infrastructure that had infested Gotham. The inequality and social decay in Gotham made the death of the Waynes all but inevitable.

Into the knight...

Into the knight…

Even without considering Barbatos or demons or occult imagery, Gotham was clearly responsible for creating Batman. Milligan’s open-ended resolution of this plot point works because he acknowledges this. He refuses to explicitly state that a demon named Barbatos created Batman, instead reflecting that Batman is unquestionably a product of Gotham. One of the recurring motifs of Milligan’s Batman writing is the idea of forcing Bruce to confront the unusual or the inexplicable.

There is a delightful irony in the idea of a man dressing up as a bat to fight crime while insisting on a rational understanding of the universe around him. Milligan highlights that by forcing Bruce to acknowledge that there may be things outside his comprehension. Dark Knight, Dark City confronts Bruce with the idea that his entire life may have been a long game played by a sinister bat-like demon making a bid for freedom from its eternal cage.

Shedding some light on the matter...

Shedding some light on the matter…

However, Dark Knight, Dark City ends on a curiously optimistic note. Having considered the dilemma, Bruce seems to be able to reconcile the two narratives. “You’re born, and your history, your time, your place, is a mold into which you’re thrown… does it make a difference if a few demons are behind it also?” he ponders. “My parents are still just as dead. Gotham is still Gotham. I am still… still whatever I am.”

Naturally, the biggest existential question still alludes him, but Milligan closes the book with some vague hint of hope. As Bruce wonders about his own place in the wider universe, something catches his eye. “A bat, driven by a dark and primitive instinct through the night… I follow.” Positioning it directly after Bruce’s philosophical musing, Milligan perhaps hints at an answer. Maybe Bruce is just “a bat, driven by a dark and primitive instinct through the night.” Or maybe not.

Steeping up to Bats...

Steeping up to Bats…

This is hardly a happy ending, but it is an ending. Bruce manages to save the lives of four babies, and to give some measure of peace to Dominique, the woman ruthlessly sacrificed in the occult ritual. It may be too much to expect absolute answers to all of our questions. A few moments of peace and rest may may have to be enough. In a way, it makes perfect sense to use the Riddler as the villain of Dark Knight, Dark City – a foe who poses questions that our hero must answer.

In Dark Knight, Dark City, the demon Barbatos uses the Riddler as a means to lure Batman into the right place at the right time. The Riddler is able to use his considerable intellect to “trick” Batman into going through the steps of the necessary occult ritual. Naturally, this infers that the Riddler is a necessary part of the process. If Barbatos/Gotham shaped Batman specifically for this purpose, does it mean that it did the same to the Riddler? What about the other iconic villains who shaped Batman?

Danse macabre...

Danse macabre…

The version of the Riddler presented in Dark Knight, Dark City is noticeably more blood-thirsty than usual. “The Riddler’s changed,” Batman reflects. “Become a psycho.” In the first issue, he executes a library security guard, splattering his blood across a copy of In Cold Blood, in one of Milligan and Dwyer’s delightfully dark comic moments. Even the Riddler’s goons realise the change. “What’s happening to the boss?” one asks. “Never seen his so crazy. Or so bloodthirsty for that matter.”

Another goon responds, “Who knows. Maybe’s it’s mid-life crisis or sumthin’.” Perhaps it is, after a fashion. Dark Knight, Dark City makes it quite clear that the Riddler is being driven by “voices” controlled by Barbatos. However, the comic also suggests that this may be the next stage for the Riddler. “You’ve been clever, Riddler, but you were never this… barbaric,” Batman admits. “Killing all these people, almost murdering that baby… Something’s happened to you. This voice, is it you or something using you?”

The light at the end of the tunnel...

The light at the end of the tunnel…

The Ridder replies to Batman’s concerns, “It’s just my true potential, my inner spirit. I’m maturing into a more rounded, more vicious criminal, is all…” Dark Knight, Dark City could be seen as something of a commentary on late eighties and early nineties comics, as the success of The Dark Knight Returns pushed mainstream comics – and particularly Batman – into some very dark and very sinister areas.

It is not too hard to imagine the Riddler becoming a ruthless serial killer in that context, just as it’s not too hard to imagine the writing suggesting that they were simply “maturing” the character and revealing his “true potential.” In many respects, the Riddler can be seen as an embodiment of the Silver Age. Thanks to Frank Gorshin’s iconic performance, he is forever associated with the Adam West Batman! show. He is an adversary with a very silly gimmick and penchant for death traps.

The rite stuff...

The rite stuff…

Writers like Neil Gaiman are fond of using him as a representation of Silver Age innocence. So the inclusion of the Riddler in Dark Knight, Dark City feels rather pointed. It’s a rather bold piece of contrast, and one that perhaps warns against the excesses of “dark and gritty” comic books. Not only is Dark Knight, Dark City a wonderful Batman story. It also stands out as a superb Riddler story – arguably among the finest Riddler stories ever published.

Kieron Dwyer provides the artwork for Dark Knight, Dark City. Dwyer does a wonderful job. A lot of the charm of Milligan’s Detective Comics run was juxtaposing Jim Aparo’s traditional Batman artwork with the author’s rather unconventional stories. Here, however, Dwyer is perfectly in step with Milligan. Dwyer provides wonderfully atmospheric and moody artwork, creating a clear sense that Batman has wandered ever so slightly out of his comfort zone and into a horror comic.

Throwing the book at him...

Throwing the book at him…

Dark Knight, Dark City is a sorely underrated Batman classic.

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2 Responses

  1. “Dark Knight, Dark City” was definitely a great story. It came in at the Number 40 position on the 75 Greatest Baman Stories poll at Comic Book Resources…

    http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2014/07/15/75-greatest-batman-stories-40-36/

    • Deservedly so, I’d argue. It is a classic – well worth seeking out. Like the rest of Milligan’s Batman stuff. There’s a digital sale on at the moment.

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