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Legends of the Dark Knight: Shaman (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.

Given the success of the Batman line in general and Year One in particular, a comic book like Legends of the Dark Knight made a great deal of sense. First published in 1989, the original objective was to tell stand-alone stories that could be positioned at any point in the life of Batman. As such, the book was not tied on any status quo at the publisher or any demands of the on-going Batman or Detective Comics books.

These were continuity-light stories that would allow writers to tell any story they wanted, unhindered by the larger editorial direction of the Batman line. Legends of the Dark Knight filled a pretty great niche in the Batman line. In a superficial way, it allowed the comics to reconnect with the success of Frank Miller’s Year One, giving the company the option of publishing more comics set in the rough early days of the Caped Crusader.

A dark night...

A dark night…

However, the continuity-hopping nature of the title meant that Legends of the Dark Knight could welcome all sorts of creative teams for short runs without tying them down. Batman and Detective Comics were traditionally books where creative teams would enjoy “runs”, with the occasional fill-in. In contrast, Legends of the Dark Knight could rotate through creators, allowing for different flavours at different times.

More than that, free from the burden of having to tie into a larger context of Batman, many of these Legends of the Dark Knight stories were friendly to casual readers who did not care about the on-going titles. Eventually Legends of the Dark Knight found itself tying into events like Knightfall and No Man’s Land, but the bulk of the run was accessible on its own terms. Featuring a varied assortment of creators free to tell the stories that they wanted to tell, Legends of the Dark Knight was a great idea.

I am the lord, your Bat-god!

I am the lord, your Bat-god!

As a whole, the two-hundred-and-fourteen issue run of Legends of the Dark Knight holds up remarkably well. The run contains a number of genuinely classic Batman stories like Gothic or Prey or Faces or Blades or Hothouse or Going Sane. The first twenty issues of the title are remarkably strong, and there is a very series argument to be made that the anthology nature of Legends of the Dark Knight made it the best Batman comic book of the nineties.

However, when it came to launching Legends of the Dark Knight, it made sense for Batman veteran Denny O’Neil to write the first story. O’Neil had been an essential part of the Batman line since the seventies. He was a prolific creator who had contributed an incredible amount of material to the wider universe of Batman. During a short run on Batman with artist Neal Adams, O’Neil had helped to restore some of the character’s darkness and mystery following the bright and colourful sixties.

The mask comes off...

The mask comes off…

In many ways, O’Neil had helped to pave the way from Frank Miller to reinvent Batman in The Dark Knight Returns and Year One. Indeed, O’Neil was the editor of the Batman line during Frank Miller’s revamp of the Dark Knight. That said, even before that, O’Neil had demonstrated that there was a hunger among fans for Batman stories that treated the character and his world seriously. While O’Neil never deconstructed Bruce Wayne to the same extent that Miller did, he did work hard to make the character darker.

Legends of the Dark Knight was an on-going Batman comic that would stretch across the bulk of his tenure as Batman editor and beyond, offering the widest variety of stories about the Caped Crusader from the most diverse creative teams. It would offer the broadest possible sample of Batman stories overseen by Denny O’Neil as Batman editor. With all that in mind, Denny O’Neil was the logical choice to write the first arc of Legends of the Dark Knight.

Cold knight...

Cold knight…

Shaman does a number of things very well. Most obviously, it demonstrates that Year One was a major influence of the series. Initially, it seemed as though Legends of the Dark Knight would be exclusively focused on stories told during the early years of Batman’s career, around the time of Year One. Over the course of the title’s first few years, that focus broadened to the point where Legends of the Dark Knight told stories from just about any point in Batman’s life, and sometimes even beyond.

Shaman cements the association between Legends of the Dark Knight and Year One. There are several points in the story where it seems like Shaman is unfolding between the panels of Year One. It features a summary of his disastrous first night as crime-fighter, including a reference to “a tough hooker named Selina Kyle”, confirming that Miller’s Year One is now Batman gospel. We also get to see Bruce Wayne putting on his costume for the first time, and his second night crime-fighting.

Suit up...

Suit up…

To be entirely fair, a lot of this is gratuitous, and exists merely to assure the reader that Shaman is being told in the same period and alongside Year One. There is no need to dedicate a full page to recounting the events of Bruce Wayne’s failed reconnaissance mission into the red light district, just as there’s no need for the mystery to kick into gear on the night directly following the first night that he wore the mask.

At the same time, however, it does seem that O’Neil is trying integrate Frank Miller’s grounded version of Batman with a slightly more exotic feel. O’Neil is drawing on the imagery and iconography of Year One, but he is also tying in more abstract and more “out there” ideas. Frank Miller’s Year One is a story that pits Bruce Wayne the forces of urban decay – mobsters, corrupt cops, ineffective politicians. Shaman suggests that there’s a more mystical story playing out in the background of that.

A smashing entrance...

A smashing entrance…

Whereas Year One opens with Bruce Wayne returning to Gotham after a considerable absence, Shaman explores that absence. This could be seen as O’Neil’s conscious attempt to reaffirm Batman as a “globe-trotting” superhero, like he did with Neal Adams in the seventies. Bruce Wayne doesn’t just study crime prevention or martial arts in large cities, he also spends time with the Native American people of the Alaskan wilderness.

To be fair, Shaman does occasionally veer into clichés about the Native American people, trading on mysticism and tribal history. It seems odd that Bruce would not respect his promise to keep the story secret, even if he doesn’t buy into the mysticism around it. Wayne’s decision to commission the survey of the region makes sense, but sharing the story feels like a betrayal of confidence that Shaman never really addresses.

Sacrifices must be made...

Sacrifices must be made…

We are also told that the researcher brought “all the glittering junk of what you call civilization.” While O’Neil is very clearly trying to make a point about the cultural relationship that exists between the settlers and the Natives, it feels a little ham-fisted. One anthropologist brought all that booze with him? Surely the corruption would have started earlier with oil companies and the military and other vested interests seeking to exploit Alaska?

Similarly, it is a little awkward when Bruce’s Batman mask lends him Native American healing powers. It treats the Native American tradition as something that can be handed over to an outsider with no training and no in-depth knowledge of Native American culture. What had been a sacred rite to the Native American people becomes a piece if trivia repeated by a rich tourist in his own fancy outfit.

Lights at knight...

Lights at knight…

There’s also the awkward juxtaposition between the Native American traditions and the ritual sacrifices taking place in Gotham. Although it is made clear that the human sacrifices are Caribbean beliefs exploited and distorted to serve the interests of a rich white man, Shaman seems to tie those two non-traditional belief systems together, presenting what feels like a slightly exploitative portrayal of religious beliefs that don’t conform to certain Western expectations. They are both presented as “exotic” and “other.”

Despite these somewhat uncomfortable elements, it is nice that Denny O’Neil tries to connect the character of Batman back to the Native Americans. After all, the idea of a rich white dressing up to punch junkies and shoplifters does have some unfortunate connotations – anchoring Bruce’s decision to dress like a bat in something old and traditional helps to take a bit of the edge off. It also suggests that Batman is something more than just a happy coincidence.

Previously, on Batman...

Previously, on Batman…

While the bat bursting through the window in Year One is an iconic moment, as it the bat more gently flying through the window in the original origin, it does feel a little contrived. As Grant Morrison joked in Last Rites, before presenting us with images of Bruce Wayne as Moth Man and Snake Man, “It could have been worse.” O’Neil takes the powerful iconography of Year One and tries to anchor it to something a bit more substantial.

Searching through the Batcave with Alfred, Bruce reflects on the convenient coincidence that have combined to shape his life in a particular direction. “Bats, fear, darkness, my father… almost as if the elements beyond my control were conspiring to make me what I am.” O’Neil seems to be touching on themes that Peter Milligan suggested in Dark Knight, Dark City and Morrison developed over the course of The Return of Bruce Wayne.

City living...

City living…

After all, despite Bruce’s scepticism about the Native American healing story, he is living proof of the power that a story has to heal a person. “But surely you can’t really think a story and a mask have any real power to cure,” he protests to one of the tribe that rescued him. It’s a deliciously ironic statement, considering that Bruce would soon fashion himself a story and a mask to help him cope with his own loss and his own injuries.

O’Neil makes this explicit in a scene following on from that iconic Year One sequence. Bruce is bloody and beaten, wounded from his first attempt to bring order to Gotham. Alfred is shocked to see his young ward in this manner. “I shall summon a doctor,” Alfred states, like any concerned caretaker would. “No,” Bruce replies, calmly. “Just tell me a story.” It is a beautiful and clever moment, perhaps the best moment in Shaman.

Goin' to Gotham...

Goin’ to Gotham…

With Shaman, O’Neil seems to be hinting at something that would become an essential part of the Batman mythos with Knightfall and No Man’s Land – the idea that Batman-as-a-story that is more powerful than Batman-as-a-man. It is an idea that would inform Christopher Nolan and Grant Morrison’s portrayals of the Dark Knight. It also – rather cleverly – seems like the perfect sentiment with which to open Legends of the Dark Knight, a collection of isolated and displaced stories about Batman.

Shaman is undermined by a somewhat clichéd portrayal of Native American culture, but it is a solid opening arc for a title that would become one of the most consistently entertaining Batman books ever published. It is a statement of purpose for the book going forward, and a reminder of all that Denny O’Neil has done for Batman as a character.

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2 Responses

  1. A wonderful story, I believe they will be another printing of the trade in 2016.

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