It’s taken dozens of Batman trades for me to realize this, but I’m starting to see a key divide within all of the dark knight’s comics.
Some writers approach the character with a more light-hearted, child-friendly, almost campy mindset. The villains are often more funny than menacing, and the situations Batman finds himself in are often absurd and generally not all that menacing. There’s never a question whether he will be triumphant. It’s a given from the very first panel.
Also, Sassy Alfred. Sassy Alfred always makes appearances in this type of comic, making random quips about anything and everything Bruce is doing and generally lightening the overall mood of the story.
The other side of that coin (Two-Face pun intended) is the darker, grittier, almost demonic aspect of the character. In this type of comic, the writers have Batman lurking in the shadows, terrifying bad guys by bellowing threats and threatening to throw them from a rooftop. Plus, there’s the heightened tension created by some truly fearsome villains. These aren’t the comics in which you’ll find your standard one-off no-name gangster. No, these stories are reserved for the true forces of evil, be it one of the top villain’s from Batman’s Rogues Gallery or even, sometimes, something entirely supernatural or otherworldly.
Batman: Dark Knight, Dark City falls into this latter category, with writer Peter Milligan crafting truly disturbing stories, always involving Batman facing off against a rather formidable adversary.
What separates these from other Batman stories is the very sinister nature of their content. Milligan is not content to simply tell a scary ghost story, or show a simple murder. No, instead he pushes the boundaries, thinking up some of the most gruesome imagery I’ve come across in comics to date, to create a truly stomach-churning scene:
After all, it takes a very particular type of writer to come up with the line, “So Batman takes a deep breath…and slits the little cherub’s throat…”
Okay yes, Batman isn’t actually killing a baby. As the comic explains, he’s performing an emergency tracheotomy, saving the infant from inevitably choking to death. The circumstances are noble, and sure, Batman’s technically the hero in this scene, but it was easily one of the most difficult scenes to read that I’ve come across on “the shelf”.
Then again, “squeamish” seems to be what Milligan was going for.
The imagery in this trade is downright grotesque at times, but I can’t deny that the comics make you think. Be it the concept of fate and destiny or the issue of ongoing white supremacist ideology in the world, the comics present a number of topics for the reader to mull over. The stories in this collection don’t shy away from being graphic in nature, but the effect is undeniable. The stories are jarring, but they stay with you, and force you to think about what you’ve read.
What’s more, this comic made me recognize another popular trope that seems to follow all writers when they’re given the chance to write about Batman: the overwhelming urge to re-tell Batman’s origin story.
At this point just about everyone knows the story of how a young Bruce Wayne witnessed his parents being murdered during a botched robbery. This story has been told and retold countless times, and I’m just basing that off of what I’ve read so far on “the shelf”. I’m sure there are even more retellings of this story that I’ve yet to read.
Sometimes a writer will dedicate an entire issue to this story; others, like Milligan, dedicate a single page:
Still, it seems nearly every writer whose Batman work I’ve read has included at least some allusion to this event. There’s no doubt that it’s a critical moment in Bruce Wayne’s life, and ultimately the single moment which led to his becoming Batman. Still, it’s amazing that this story has been accepted as gospel for so long, and yet every writer wants to add their own spin to it. Some of the minor details will change, usually why the Waynes were in that alley in the first place, but the basic story has remained the same for decades. I find it fascinating that a single element of the story could remain such a central vein to the overall Batman plotline. Even Superman’s origin has changed more than this. For some reason, this element of Bruce Wayne’s life has remained virtually unchanged. Writers continue to reference back to it, keeping the lore surrounding Batman’s past alive and well. In a medium in which backstories and histories are forever being changed or rewritten, it’s refreshing to see that there’s at least one element that has stayed the same.
Perhaps its merely the simplicity of it all. Of the three original comic book heroes (Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman), Batman’s is the only backstory completely grounded in reality. His story could have been plucked from a local headline, be it today or in the 1930’s. The continuing realism of his story leaves little reason to change it. It’s a motif that resonates with any generation; it has in the past, and will undoubtedly do so in the future. It seems a touching tribute that each writer should refer back to this event, reminding readers that this story, just as they remember it, will continue; they are leaving that bit of history untouched.
As I said before, this collection of Batman comics makes you think. Perhaps it’s not always directly about the story you’ve just read, but there’s a certain contemplative air about these stories that keep them with you long after you’ve finished reading.