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Batman – Knightfall (Review/Retrospective)

This March sees the release of Batman vs. Superman. To celebrate, we’ll be looking at some iconic and modern Batman and Superman stories over the course of the month.

Knightfall is one of the definitive Batman stories.

That is, to be clear, not the same as saying it is one of the best. Knightfall is far too chaotic and disorganised to rank among the best Batman stories ever told. This becomes particularly obvious when the story enters its second and third act, as everything falls to pieces and the saga sort of sputters out rather than coming to a clear end. Indeed, this problem can be seen even in the nineteen-issues-and-change introductory arc; the creative teams start with a strong focus and clear direction, but this quickly descends into anarchy as the story builds a forward momentum.

Batman just snapped...

Batman just snapped…

At the same time, there is something striking and ambitious about Knightfall. It is no surprise that Denny O’Neil considers it one of his crowning accomplishments as editor of the line. Asked to name his favourite Batman arc, O’Neil replies, “I guess it would be Knightfall because it involved me so deeply–I worked on it as a comic series, a novel, and a radio show. It was a very steep mountain to climb, but we climbed it and that was satisfying.” There is no denying the influence and success of the arc.

In some respects, Knightfall is an astonishingly cynical piece of work. It is quite blatantly designed as a crossover with a high-profile guest cast and killer high concept. Indeed, Knightfall could be seen as a headline-grabber in the style of The Death and Return of Superman, but with the added hook of Batman’s iconic rogues gallery. After all, it was the nineties, the era of sensationalist headline-grabbing sales stunts. It could be argued that comics (and mass culture) have always been stuck in this cycle, but it was particularly evident in nineties comic books.

All of Batman's greatest adversaries... ... and Maxie Zeus.

All of Batman’s greatest adversaries…
… and Moench.

However, Knightfall has two core virtues that go a long way towards excusing the confusion and excess at the heart of the story. The first is that there is a sense that the writers seemed to have a (very) rough idea where they would like to end up, even if the journey was not mapped in advance. While the plot resolves with a convenient and contrived twist, at least it does not hinge on Bruce magically waking up from a coma. More than that, though, there is a sense that Knightfall is actually trying to say something about its central character.

For all the noise and static along the way, Knightfall is essentially a story about Batman means in the context of the nineties.

Armoured and dangerous...

Armoured and dangerous…

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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…

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Legends of the Dark Knight: Jim Aparo, Vol. 1 (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.

The game was old and alluring… but when the Batman and his beautiful ally, Wonder Woman, buy into a sweep stakes of danger and double-cross, they learn too late that their tickets are punched…

– introduction to Play Now… Die Later!

I’ll freely concede that older comics are a mixed bag, and that they’re certainly an acquired taste. As much as I might recognise the importance of certain classic runs on iconic character, reading comics even a decade or two old is a strange experience for me. I can appreciate the care and craftsmanship going into them, but I’m frequently distracted by the redundant thought balloons, the bizarre logic and quaint characterisation. I know that’s my problem, and I freely concede that. Sometimes, however, I come across a piece of pure old-fashioned awesomeness that almost makes my feel that nostalgia many comic book readers recognise.

Legends of the Dark Knight: Jim Aparo, Volume 1 is such a book, collecting a portion of the iconic Brave and Bold run featuring art by Jim Aparo and scripts by Bob Haney. It is insane. It is awesome. It is fun. It is incredible. I was reluctant to put down these delightful unrestrained Batman stories, and I frequently found myself pumping my fist in the air with excitement and… well, awe. It’s never going to be considered high literature, but Jim Aparo and Bob Haney may have mastered the old-school “comic book” artform.

This isn’t even the craziest thing that happens this run…

Some of the more wonderful “comic book moments” captured here include:

  • the Joker forcing Batman and a friend to fight to the death… or he’ll shoot a puppy!
  • Batman accidentally selling his soul… to Hitler!
  • the Atom climbing inside Batman’s skull… and operating his body like a JCB!
  • Batman saving the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence… while tied to the cowcatcher on a train!
  • Batman teaming up with Kamandi… in a future dominated by talking animals and modelled on Planet of the Apes!

If none of these produce even a hint of childish glee, I don’t know what to say to you.

Even this image cannot capture the awesomeness of this comic… They left out the bit where the Joker is coercing them to do this by threatening to shoot a puppy… that has life-saving anti-virals in its blood for a plague the Joker started… to kill off a henchman who might testify against him…

Note: the ever-wonderful Bat-guru Chris Sims has done a whole slew of posts about the awesomeness of this comic. Here, here and here are some highlights.

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