Hi, and welcome to Comics You Should Own, a semi-regular series about comics I think you should own. I began writing these a little over fifteen years ago, and I’m still doing it, because I dig writing long-form essays about comics. I republished my early posts, which I originally wrote on my personal blog, at Comics Should Be Good about ten years ago, but since their redesign, most of the images have been lost, so I figured it was about time I published these a third time, here on our new blog. I plan on keeping them exactly the same, which is why my references might be a bit out of date and, early on, I don’t write about art as much as I do now. But I hope you enjoy these, and if you’ve never read them before, I hope they give you something to read that you might have missed. I’m planning on doing these once a week until I have all the old ones here at the blog. Today we have a bizarre three-part Batman story that turned out, in the long run, to be far more influential than you might expect. This was originally published on 27 October 2005. As always, be away that there might be SPOILERS ahead, so tread carefully. And remember, you can click on the images to make them bigger. Enjoy!
Published by DC, 3 issues (#452-454), cover dated August – September 1990.
Peter Milligan is one of the more bizarre comics writers out there, and not in a Grant Morrison “I love superheroes and love making them do mad, glorious things” kind of way, but in a more disturbing way. So it’s strange that he was allowed to write Batman, and not in a prestige format graphic novel like Arkham Asylum, but in the character’s two main books (I’ll get to his brief run on Detective in time). He didn’t write the character for long, but his stories of Batman are almost completely unlike anything the character has seen before or since.
Batman #452-454 was a three-part arc called “Dark Knight, Dark City.” It is simply one of the best stories featuring the Riddler ever. I have never really liked the Riddler, and Loeb’s and Lee’s recent attempt [Edit: At the time I wrote this, it was recent, and I should point out that I LOVE Paul Dini’s “Edward Nigma, Consulting Detective” idea] to make him menacing just reminded me of this story, in which Mr. Nigma really IS menacing, and the nice thing is, everyone in the story wonders about it. There’s a perfectly “good” reason for it, too, and not just that it’s the way villains are these days. Milligan puts the Riddler in a situation that makes sense (in the context of a comic book, true, but still …) and the characters comment on why he has become more bloodthirsty and cruel. This is not the Riddler we know, and we wonder along with the characters what has happened to him. As the riddle is revealed, it becomes something much more grand and disturbing than anything Loeb came up with.
Milligan has always shown an interest in the dark side of life and the dark side of superheroes. That’s not to say he’s a depressing writer – a lot of his work is nastily funny (especially X-Force), but he is fascinated with getting under the skin of what makes superheroes tick and finds a lot of icky stuff. He’s also interested in the supernatural, and we get a lot of that in “Dark Knight, Dark City.” Batman is a character well suited for the supernatural, but a lot of writers shy away from it. Milligan embraces it, and we get a fabulous story.
The story of these issues is labyrinthine but never confusing. It begins in 1764 with a strange ceremony in a barn cellar in Gotham Towne. A group of men, who are clearly supposed to evoke Freemasons (Thomas Jefferson is even there!), is performing a ritual that will allow them to summon a demon and control it. The summoning part is easy, but to control it, they need to sacrifice a young girl, and some of the members balk at killing her. Something happens, the men panic, flee the scene, and lock the girl in the basement. Cut to the present. The Riddler is leaving easy clues for Batman to follow and doing things that seem … a bit off. He puts a noose around a guard at a library and makes him stand on a stack of books (and, strangely enough, shoots the other guard in the head). When Batman arrives, he kicks the stack out and flees, leaving Batman to perform mouth-to-mouth on the almost dead guard. He kidnaps four week-old babies, none of whom came from rich families. He destroys a blood transfusion center, bathing Batman in blood. He forces Batman to a graveyard, where zombies attack him (or are they really zombies?). He kills one of his own henchmen, which is one of those things that makes everyone wonder what happened to him. He allows one of the babies to choke on a ping-pong ball, and only Batman can save it!
All of these things are leading Batman somewhere, and Batman knows it, but not only can he not stop because it’s the Riddler, he can’t stop because something else is driving him on. All of this is very disturbing, even in such a usually “dark” comic like Batman. The whole story feels like something different from your run-of-the-mill Batman story, because unlike the usual Batman stories, full of crazy villains doing despicable things because they’re crazy, what the Riddler is doing seemingly defies explanation. As I mentioned, the characters themselves comment on how strangely the Riddler is acting, and Milligan milks this. He wants us to try to figure out what is going on, and he leaves us plenty of clues. This isn’t a true mystery, and we’re not supposed to figure out what’s going on until Milligan tells us, but he does want us to follow along with Batman and try to understand what is going on. We are there with Batman as he goes through these hoops, and we are struggling toward something that is darker than anything the Joker ever came up with. Why is it “darker”? Because of the twist Milligan puts into the story, and that is the role Gotham City itself plays in the drama. Gotham City has fluctuated in the comic book between a wild, fun house place in the 1950s to a sleek, modern place in the 1970s, and back to a gothic horror show. Some writers have made it a character in the books, as in the awful crossover when the city was blown up and replaced by Anton Furst’s designs (not that I don’t like the designs, but the execution of the idea was awful) and some other stories, but I can’t recall any writer doing with the city what Milligan does.
Frank Miller was probably the first to suggest that Batman’s origin was more closely tied to the city than previously thought, but Milligan goes further and suggests that Batman could not exist without the city. Some people may cry foul with Milligan’s tinkering of the origin, but it’s one of those things that works well in the story but can safely be ignored by any other writer, which is what has happened. So, no harm, no foul, and it makes the story much more interesting and puts in our mind what really makes someone a hero. Gotham is a truly eerie place in Milligan’s mind, one of those cities that warps its very inhabitants. In my recent post about Aztek, I didn’t go into the city of Vanity all that much, even though it was obvious Morrison was going somewhere with the personality of the city. Gotham, in Milligan’s story, is not necessarily malevolent, but it is a place that has a purpose, and it is trying to achieve that purpose. The city becomes a force, and it’s an interesting take on Batman’s town.
Milligan isn’t all that interested in making Batman a “dark” character, despite the title of the story and the various aspects I have discussed. The key to Milligan’s Batman is that he is someone who wants to unravel the evil of the world, but he never loses sight of the brightness that can come through the evil. There has been a tendency to write Batman as a crazed avenger of the wronged, someone who drives himself to fight and is brutal when he metes out justice. In “Dark Knight, Dark City,” interestingly enough, he hardly fights. He’s involved in some fights, sure, because we must have action!, but he’s busy pursuing the Riddler, and Nigma keeps him jumping and trying to save victims. This is a Batman completely concerned with saving the victims instead of defeating the bad guys. He doesn’t even get to beat up the Riddler at the end, because he’s too busy saving yet another victim. Although there is something very weird going on in Gotham and there is plenty of creepiness in these three issues, Milligan is too good a writer to indulge in mindless violence. His Batman is a man who cares more about unraveling the mystery and helping the oppressed than beating the crap out of the bad guys. In too many Batman stories, the victims are simply forgotten too quickly so Batman can beat up the perpetrator. Here, that’s not the concern.
There are a lot of great Batman stories. Most of them, however, follow a similar theme of street crime and horror and Batman dispensing some butt-kicking. Ever since Miller’s “Year One,” that has been the thing to do. Batman, however, can be used in a lot of different scenarios, and supernatural stories are a perfect fit. This is one of the best examples of that kind of story, and well worth the time to track it down. The issues haven’t been collected in a trade, but there are only three of them. How hard could it be to find them? And you know you’re dying to check out the archives!
[Edit: Once again, I apologize for not discussing the art more. Kieron Dwyer is a good draughtsmen, one of those pre-Image artists whose work is somewhat yeomanlike and always well done without having an overwhelming style. I enjoy the art on this arc, but it’s difficult for me to express what I like about it except that Dwyer doesn’t screw it up. When I re-read these posts, I’m a bit bummed that I didn’t write better about the art. Again, I point you toward the samples I provide so you can check out Dwyer’s work. And beg your forgiveness!][Edit Part Two: It’s a coincidence that this was the next “flashback” post in the queue, as Mr. Grant Morrison just referenced this story in Batman and Robin #11, which came out last week. Go pick these issues up if you want to know what this “Barbathos” that Alfred speaks of is all about!]
[This story has been collected in a trade, which appears to be out of print, which is sad. With the fact that Morrison used it and it’s, you know, a Batman comic, I find that difficult to believe, but there it is. I still wish I had written more about Dwyer’s art, which is spooky when it needs to be. He and Janke use blacks really well to convey the Riddler’s state of mind, and Dwyer does really nice work with Gotham itself, which is important given how crucial the city is to the story. I’ve also noticed that I’m not spoiling as much as I do in later installments, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. Some people don’t want spoilers because they’ve never the story. On the other hand, in some later posts I feel like I do a better job looking at what the creators are going for because I discuss everything. It’s a fine line! Anyway, this is still a terrific Batman story, and I still love the idea of E. Nigma, Consulting Detective. DC should let me write it!]