Comics You Should Own – ‘Batman’ #452-454

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 I plan on keeping them exactly the same, which is why my references might be a bit out of date and, early on, I don’t write about art as much as I do now.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!

Batman by Peter Milligan (writer), Kieron Dwyer (penciller), Dennis Janke (inker), Adrienne Roy (colorist), and John Costanza (letterer).

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!]

14 Comments

  1. fit2print

    “It’s strange that Milligan was allowed to write Batman… 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.”

    This is as clear an explanation as I could imagine as to why — at least in my not-so-humble view– 99 and 44/100 percent of superhero comics are so utterly forgettable.

    Far from asking themselves if they should “allow” someone like Milligan to tackle Batman — given that, as you suggest, his stories are unlike anyone else’s — the question for DC’s corporate overlords should have been: “How can we get this guy to do even MORE new and different Batman stories?”

    To an extent, I get the idea of sticking to the tried and true in order to, I don’t know, avoid watering down the brand. However, let’s face it, whenever anyone compiles a list of the best Batman stories, at least in my recollection there are always plenty that messed with the formula to a greater or lesser degree: Miller’s Dark Knight, Moore’s Killing Joke, Pope’s Year 100, the Batman B&W anthology, Brubaker’s Gotham Noir, Motter’s Nine Lives, Seth Fisher’s Snow, Simonson’s Judas Coin, Mignola’s When Doom Came to Gotham, Gaiman’s Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader…

    Hell, pretty much the only reason I even bothered to read any of the titles listed above is because there was some promise that the writer — generally someone whose work I first encountered in the non-superhero realm — would, in fact, color outside the lines.

    Admittedly, I’m not exactly a typical fan — I much prefer crime, SF, horror, war & history, slice of life and non-fiction comics to superhero titles — but in my far-from-expert estimation, DC and Marvel should be commissioning more, not fewer, risk-taking creators like Milligan to tell stories about their characters if they ever hope to (much-belatedly) capitalize on the huge popularity of superheroes in other media and sell more comics.

    1. Peter

      I feel like DC has generally done a pretty good job of hiring writers and artists who “color outside the lines” in recent years, especially with Batman. Even outside the examples you mention, there’s the whole concept of “Batman Black & White,” the entire run of Batman ’66, whatever Sean Murphy is up to now (he’s a better artist than writer, but still cool), Kurt Busiek and John Paul Leon’s recent mini-series, Lee Weeks and Tom King on an Elmer Fudd crossover, etc. The unique thing about Milligan is that they got an idiosyncratic writer to do an idiosyncratic Batman story that was “in continuity” (and has actually become something of a cornerstone of continuity, in this case). The only recent comparison in recent times is getting Frank Quitely and Chris Burnham to do a bunch of Morrison’s Batman stories. I feel like treating idiosyncratic stories like they “really matter” would make the Big Two universes more exciting.

      1. Greg Burgas

        I really don’t know why DC doesn’t do this more often, because you’re right, of course, about getting great work out of creators who can do kind of what they want. I should have been clearer, because as we’re mentioning, most of what we’re talking about is “out of continuity,” which is a stupid phrase but it does, unfortunately, mean something. DC rarely lets these kinds of creators loose on the “real” Batman books, which is why it’s so weird when they do. Milligan is one example, and next week, I’m posting another example. Of all the ones you guys list, I think Gaiman’s is the only one that “counts,” maybe? Morrison’s run does, of course, but that’s a weird beast. Anyway, I totally agree that both DC and Marvel could benefit from letting creators go a bit nuts, especially if it’s “in continuity”!

  2. I thought so, and then research proved me right. This storyline is in the third volume of the Batman: The Caped Crusader books that DC have been doing lately. It looks like it came out in September.

    This is a very good story, and creepy too.

    I’m wondering, because I know Milligan and GMozz are friends, if GMozz had any sort of input on this original story, or if he just loved it so much he wanted to make sure it mattered in-continuity once he was in charge.

    I also agree with the above comments about non-traditional writers doing awesome things with Batman in particular and the big 2 in general, and how the stuff these people do should “matter” more. It’s why I’m really looking forward to Busiek’s new The Marvels book.

  3. fit2print

    @Peter I’m glad to hear there are other, more recent examples of offbeat approaches to the character. It’s heresy to admit this, I know, but I’m not an especially big fan of Morrison’s work — what little of it that I’ve read — but now is probably an opportune time to give at least one of his BM runs a go along with those of some of the others you mention.

    I hadn’t really even considered your point about continuity because, to me the whole concept of continuity serves only to rein in creativity. Why is it that comics readers are so annoyingly pedantic about continuity whereas viewers of TV and movie series and readers of prose fiction series can so easily overlook inconsistencies and, you know, just enjoy the ride? Is it really necessary to try and reconcile every last detail of the … what is it? … 80-year-long Batman saga? Is it even possible?

    It’s as if comics readers see decades-long narratives written and drawn by scores or even hundreds of people as the testimony of a single eyewitness to a crime, which must therefore be painstakingly scrutinized and measured against the statements of every other witness in order to produce a single, seamless, indisputable account that’s so watertight that even the sharpest prosecutor couldn’t punch so much as a pinhole in it. Wouldn’t it be so much simpler if we just did away with the nitpicking and treated comic book stories like myths or legends?

    I can’t testify to this but I’m confident that when the ancient storytellers were spinning tales around the communal campfire in days or yore, they didn’t have to deal with some yahoo leaping to his feet in the middle of the narration, waving a fist and shouting: “Just a damn minute! Three years ago you told us Clymene is the mother of Prometheus and now it’s Themis?! I demand some answers — or at the very least a retcon — before we waste even one more millisecond listening to this drivel! Oh, and by the way, do I get a No-Prize for catching you on that, Stanleeschylus?”

    1. Greg Burgas

      fit2print: Whoops, see above, where I sort-of discussed this. You’re right, of course, and one thing I’m glad about is that I came to comics old enough to not give a crap about continuity. I certainly don’t mind when a writer can make it all work, but man, I don’t care at all. It’s annoying that it sometimes takes precedence over good stories!

  4. Swario

    Another place where this was published was as a DC Comics Presents Batman: Dark Knight, Dark City 100-Page Spectacular. With mad virus running amok in the world the last thing you want to do is go digging around in long boxes at your local shop, but maybe you can find it somewhere online.

    I went and dug out my copy during lunch. It doesn’t include all three Mignola covers, only the one for issue #452 which they reused as the cover of the 100-page special. Being 100 pages long and this storyline being only three issues long, there is a fourth comic included. Another Milligan Batman story with art by Tom Mandrake from Detective Comics #633. Oh, don’T forget that 2 page Brightest Day teaser at the end (yuck).

    So, turns out the version I have is not idea, but it collects the whole thing and a tad more Milligan and Mandrake which is fine by me. I can always oggle the google for those Mignola covers. Especially as an eye cleanser to that Brightest Day teaser.

  5. Andrew L.

    Always really loved this story; for quite a long time, it felt like an overlooked gem, given that it wasn’t collected until relatively recently. I don’t necessarily like everything that Morrison and Snyder have done with the Barbatos concept, but it’s cool that ideas in this story eventually became a bigger part of the Bat mythos.

    I’m also quite fond of the three-part arc by John Ostrander in Detective Comics from around the same time, where the story jumps between a pretty bizarre “Batman” comic, and “real life” murders in Gotham city that were supposedly inspired by said comic. It’s another story that plays around with the Batman formula in some unconventional ways. Hopefully that story might be rediscovered too someday.

    1. Greg Burgas

      Andrew: I dig that story in Detective – it was the first time I’d seen Flint Henry’s art, I think, and I really dug it. I’ll have to re-read it – it was pretty keen, and it would be nice if it got collected somehow.

  6. BB

    Swario mentioned it, but how about those sweet, sweet Mignola covers, Greg?! They’re a great complement to the story and artwork inside, giving just enough spookiness to someone seeing these books on the spinner rack. I’m a fan of having different artists doing the covers, but only if a) they’re good, and b) they are the same artist for the entire arc, otherwise let the interior artist do his/her own covers. Having these Mignola covers is icing on the cake here.

    I actually just found the third installment at the last local con I attended, so I can finally read this!

    Lastly, thanks for firing up these CYSO posts again, Greg! They’re terrific! I have so many comics in my collection from reading these at the old place. Thanks!

    1. Greg Burgas

      BB: Those are nice covers, I agree. I don’t write a lot about the covers here, but I do agree with you that if you’re getting a cover artist, it should be the same one for an arc. Mignola was a good choice for this arc!

      I’m glad you enjoy these posts and that they’ve helped you out. I promise I’ll have an actual new one up soon!

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