Thursday, April 6, 2017

DK: The Last Crusade — The Last Nights of Batman and Robin

Story by Frank Miller & Brian Azzarello Pencils by John Romita Jr. Inks and Colors by Peter Steigerwald Letters by Clem Robins

Frank Miller likes to thumb his nose, to take the piss out of, the fandom around him. Oh, love The Dark Knight Returns? Here’s Dark Knight Strikes Again! gone is all the restraint and methodology of its predecessor and replaced with a perpetual psychedelic trip into sheer grinning madness.  Still want more DC? Here’s DKIII: The Master Race, a comic Miller has all but disavowed creating and he threatens a fourth! Brining us to “The Last Crusade” a prestige one shot comic teaming Frank Miller and Brian Azzarello with Miller’s old partner in crime John Romita jr. along with inker-colorist Peter Steigerwald. The solicit sounds like the kind of corporate mandate that has given us DKIII. So how then dose “Last Crusade” subvert expectations? By being a surprisingly restrained, well crafted, and dare I say empathetic look at the Dark Knights final days.

The Miller-verse or whatever you want to call it, is a theoretical collection of Batman works written by Frank Miller. It isn’t exactly batting 1000 but there is a nice symmetry with Miller’s Year One and Dark Knight Returns, the beginning and end of a Batman. A pair of stories situated at the poles of Batman’s life. Ok, technically, not the polls with DK 2 and DKIII and all those bits in between existing, but I’ve head cannoned them out. The artistry and formal elements of “Last Crusade” give it a sense of continuity with Year One and Returns in ways those other works don’t. John Romita Jr. and Peter Steigerwald’s art is stylistically similar to Miller, Klaus Johnson, and Lynn Varley’s work in Returns. Steigerwald evokes the color pallet of Returns and Year One with solid but muted slowly washing out colors and sharp not scratchy inking over Romita’s pencils. Romita’s flat cartooned style renders everything in a degrading opulent manner, hinting at the fall into dystopia. The TV Talking Heads are back, helping to create the sense of a wider world in a matter of panels. 

I’ve always lived in a world where Jason Todd has died. It’s so common place that the uniqueness of Miller’s inference that it was his death that caused his Batman to retire was lost on me until it was pointed out. The Dark Knight Returns came out in 1986. “A Death in the Family” came out from 1988-89. Jason Todd’s impotence and affect was only hinted at in Returns, he was a “good soldier” and the Joker apprently killed him. That’s all we knew, it was all we need to know about Batman’s ultimate failure. Those looking for this book as a check list of information with some brutal Jason Todd death imagery will likely be disappointed. It’s there, but off panel. It isn’t an important part of the story everyone is telling. As a prequel “Last Crusade” is surprising in how it mostly dodges the oft prequel problem of acting as setup for the thing that came first. It tells its own self-contained story, that can act as a prequel to Returns.

This might sound hyperbolic or heretical but Miller’s Batman was never that great or dynamic a character. It’s Miller’s ability to place him in the spectrum of understanding and history of Batman that gives this rendition importance and weight. As an island, he is simply Bat-Shit-Insane. That’s what Miller wanted to play with that drive and eventual psychosis of a man who dressed up like a bat at night. “Last Crusade” deals with that existential crisis and transformative moment in Bruce Wayne’s life, that moment when good sense turns into sadism (with the requisite masochistic tendencies). This Batman isn’t as old as he will be a decade from now when he Returns but he feels older. Bumps and bruises are taking their toll, not an action sequence goes by where Bruce isn’t commenting on the weak and feeble nature his once proud body finds itself in. The only time Batman appears to be strong and able bodied is when his image is mediated by the TV Talking Head media. This isn’t a Bat-God, but a Bat-Man; a man who would really not want to be eaten by Killer Croc. Ideas of empathy and Frank Miller don’t really mix together, but you can’t help but feel bad for this Batman due to both the text of the comic and the knowledge of what fate has ordained for him.

Batman’s feebleness and failure as a mentor is contrasted with his eternal enemy, the Joker. While Batman battles an existential crisis that ends in bitterness and madness, Joker is confident in his madness. Batman wonders if he’s actually teaching Jason the right things, Joker gets inmates to mutilate themselves effortlessly. “Wolves, sheep…what’s the difference?” he wonders as he instigates as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest inspired plot in Arkham Asylum. Batman's body is breaking down, Joker's body is always broken but improbably resliant.

As previously stated, there is much ambiguity in regards to The Dark Knight Returns. How did Jason Todd die? What caused the Justice League to go their separate ways? Where is Dick Grayson? (Ok maybe don’t answer that one.) Miller and Azzarello lean into that ambiguity with their depiction of Jason Todd, using reader knowledge to fill in the blanks and subvert expectations. After Crisis on Infinite Earths, Jason Todd stopped being the milk toast Dick Grayson knock off and became the petulant brat fans loved to hate so much they killed him. “Last Crusade” doesn’t run counter to that petulant sadistic narrative so much as question its development. As with Year One and Returns readers are given the sole point of view of Batman and he may not be the most reliable type. This ambiguity posits Todd’s latent sadism was just as much a product of nurture as it was nature. Batman trained him to be an attack dog, to his own detriment.

“Last Crusade” feels like it belongs in the company of Year One and Returns, not as quality or influential as its compatriots but good enough with enough formal linkage that fans would should want to read this entry. It’s subtle yet brash depiction of Bruce’s giving into sadism as an effect of feeling helpless and victimized again is mature in a way I didn’t think possible given past efforts. 

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