Way back in 1989, back when Batmania was riding high due, to a large part, the Michael Keaton movie, I read every graphic novel, TPB I could find featuring Batman. As such, I read black and white collections of Neal Adams and Denny O’Neil, A Death in the Family, The Killing Joke and of course, The Dark Knight Returns. In my haste to digest and immerse myself in Bat-lore, I missed something that only became apparent to me most recently. The Dark Knight Returns precedes A Death in the Family by a couple of years; Frank Miller either prophesising Jason’s death or at the very least, planting the seed for his demise. In my rush of reading things as I found/bought them, I had always assumed that the death of Jason Todd from the latter series was being channelled by the former.
Now, I am not saying that there are a lot of comic fans out there who are as chronologically challenged as myself, but Frank Miller and Brian Azzarello along with John Romita JR are putting the record straight with this one shot.
As the book starts, we find Batman heading into a twilight period of his crime fighting career. Injuries are taking their toll on with physical malaise seeping into his psyche, cracking that indomitable will power. Public opinion may be swaying against him also, with a charge of endangering children, a foreshadow of what’s to come maybe, being the crux on which that particular petard is hung. Jason Todd is going through his rebellious, vicious stage that would mark the start of his infamous benching and eventually his death. And of course, there is the Joker.
With the pairing of Miller and Azzarello you get the feel of the original story. This book has more resonance with its originator than the current series, which should be re-named “The Justice League Returns”. As such, it reads a lot better, slthough that is not saying much. The beats are the same as the original with issues of age and injury adding to the woes of a Bruce Wayne who is facing his mortality. Reading this book, I can’t help feel that it’s missing something. It may be that the onset of the troubles that will blight Bruce in DKR are too nebulous, to tenuous to act as a counter measure to Batman’s existence. Or it could be the lack of the satire, given lip service in the now ubiquitous TV commentary.For all the smoke and mirrors of the dialogue, I am disappointed with the final act. There is no pomp or grace to the Joker in the final few pages. Here was an opportunity to do something different. Instead we get the banality of an average event and an element of fan service, that some will love. This feeling is cemented by the amount of time given to the Joker and how his ruse to escape plays out.
Controversially, I like John Romita JR’s art work. I liked it on Spider-Man, didn’t mind it on Avengers, loved it way back when he was on Uncanny X-Men (the first time around) and yes, I liked his more recent run on Superman. Therefore, it will come as no surprise that I enjoyed his art in this book. When I first heard about this book, I have to admit I did consider it a step to far for JRJR. Looking at the finished article, I should have had more faith. Like the dialogue, the art carries an element of the same beats from the original book, with JRJR incorporating a more squared of version of Batman. This however doesn’t detract from his core style which is on show through un-cowled faces and action scenes, perhaps giving the book its only tangible feeling of originality. As good as Romita’s work is, a lot of the credit must go to inker Peter Steigerwald, who also provides colors. Most recently , JRJR’s has been inked by Klaus Janson which has given the pencils a rough look. Here Steigerwald, provides a smoother line which in turn, gives the whole artwork a more polished feel. The colors are simply outstanding, with Gotham’s darkness fully on show amidst the hues of the companionship of lovers and family and the contrast of the seemingly sterile Arkham, where the evil and the insane are never cleansed.
Re-interpretation. Rehash. Re-done. Regurgitation. Copy. All of this words can be thrown at this book. Do we really need every last mystery laid bare for us? Does anyone really care how the Robin from an essentially and albeit excellent Elseworld story died? There is nothing really wrong with framing a story in the familiar, but something new has to be thrown into the mix, otherwise there is no point. With everyone knowing the outcome for Jason, it feels like, especially towards the end, that the writers have just thought, “if that’s what they want to see, let’s show it” and done so with a lack of sincerity or craft.
Writing – 2 Stars
Art – 4 Stars
Colors – 5 Stars