Dark Knight Returns: the Last Crusade
by Frank Miller (?), Brian Azzarello, John Romita Jr, and Peter Steigerwald
So I wasn’t going to buy this book. Seriously. I wasn’t. But it was so pretty, and curiosity got the best of me, and so here I am doing a long-form review of a two-week-old comic.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Dark Knight: The Last Crusade is sort of a side project to Brian Azzarello’s Dark Knight III: The Master Race. It’s a prequel this time, though, as opposed to a sequel, telling the story of why Batman retired 20 years before the beginning of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns.
Now, that’s an intriguing story idea, I will admit. But I’m not reading Master Race, and I had no intention of picking this up, either. Frank Miller’s involvement in both projects is questionable at best, and unless you’re willing to give me something to match the crazy, operatic heights of his Dark Knight, I’m not interested. But…
In the funnybook store last week, I overheard someone say something about how the colors reminded them of Lynn Varley’s work on the original series. And that piqued my interest. So in spite of the singularly uninspired cover, I flipped through a copy and got quite a surprise.
The colors do indeed look like Varley’s Dark Knight colors. But more impressive to me was the artwork itself. “Is that a… delicate line?” I pondered aloud. “From John Romita Jr?” Romita’s not an artist I generally associate with delicacy, you understand. As time’s gone on, in fact, his stuff has become increasingly brutal. But his work here is indeed delicate in many places, and that floored me. This may be the best Romita’s ever looked. Better, even, than when he was being inked by Al Williamson, one of the best embellishers in the history of comics. And that improvement seems to be down to… Well, I’m not sure what it’s down to, actually. But I have my suspicions.
The inks here are attributed to colorist Peter Steigerwald. It’s his colors that evoke Lynn Varley so well, and so I can only assume that his inks are what’s giving Romita’s line its delicacy. But I’m not 100% sure of that. Because, looking at the issue closely, there are places where I’m pretty sure Romita’s pencils have been reproduced without inks. Look at the woman’s lips in the bottom right of the picture above, for instance. It’s even more obvious here…
…and that would certainly explain the delicacy of the line. Also, there have been question marks hanging over the inks on this book. As Bleeding Cool reported, Bill Sienkiewicz was initially listed as inker on it, but he never got any pages to work on. He was also under the impression that he was going to be inking Miller on the book rather than Romita, but that obviously didn’t happen, and his editor didn’t know what was going on, either. In the end, the only Sienkiewicz work associated with Dark Knight: the Last Crusade was this variant cover:
So that, coupled with my suspicions about the pencil lines, and the way Romita’s art gets sloppier as the issue progresses…
…leads me to think that Romita may have been a last-minute choice here, so much so that maybe there wasn’t enough time for traditional inks over his pencils. So perhaps they got Steigerwald to digitally “ink” the art as part of the coloring process, darkening lines and spotting blacks but not embellishing in the way normal inks would. Now, that’s just a theory. But whatever happened, this is stunning work from Steigerwald. His inking choices (however he made them) are complemented by his color choices. He lays in highlights with an effect that looks almost like colored pencils, accentuating Romita’s pencil lines where appropriate, and just making for some damned pretty panels.
This gives the artwork a level of quality and attention to detail that the story sorely lacks. Because storywise, The Last Crusade is kind of a damp squib. Set during Jason Todd’s tenure as Robin, it reads less like a Dark Knight prequel and more like an abbreviated retelling of the 1980s Batman stories that lead up to Robin’s murder in “A Death in the Family.” Just like in those stories, Jason’s becoming increasingly brutal, enjoying the violence inherent in crimefighting a little more than Batman’s comfortable with.
Also much like in those 80s stories, Batman is a sufficiently poor mentor that he doesn’t deal with the problem in any meaningful way until it’s too late. But Batman is distracted in this version in a way that he’s not in the 80s comics. He’s getting older, getting slower, and the injuries are starting to take their toll. He’s considering giving up being Batman, but quite doesn’t know how to let go. I hesitate to trivialize it by calling it a mid-life crisis, but… It’s a mid-life crisis. The consequences of it are just deadlier than the usual sports cars and bad sex.
Meanwhile, the Joker is orchestrating his latest break-out from Arkham Asylum by slowly turning the other inmates into his willing pawns. The mechanism of this scheme seems singularly unlikely, though, beginning as it does with this:
I think that scene is supposed to say “Joker: Manipulative Genius,” but instead comes off more like “Joker: Ineffective Storyteller.” Because I know those guys are supposed to be crazy, but that doesn’t mean they’re complete morons. So I fail to see how withholding the ending of a story (or THAT story, at least) could condition them to become the Joker’s inmate army.
I have seen this sort of thing done before, and to good effect. But to make it work, the story has to be really compelling. It has to be juicy, or salacious, or grotesque. The reader has to be dying to hear the end of it as much as the characters being manipulated by it, and that’s not the case here. I mean, there’s a hint of weirdness in it, I suppose, but it just doesn’t grab me. When it became obvious that the the story HAD no ending, and that it was just step one in a much longer plan, I had a brief hope that things might still pick up, Joker’s manipulations starting small and escalating into true evil genius. But, no. It’s just a series of rote, half-explained instances of the Joker manipulating the other inmates, leading to a riot that I didn’t much care about, or find particularly clever.
Cleverness, and the lack thereof, haunts Last Crusade on several levels. Like in the dialogue. I continually found myself tripping over “clever” lines that aren’t clever. Sometimes, they don’t even make sense:
What?! “Tri-umphteenth?” That’s pathetic! Worse than the worst dad-joke. Hardly a gag worthy of the Clown Prince of freaking Crime. That’s easily the worst example, but stuff like it happens over and over again in this book, characters delivering pithy little one-liners that fall from their mouths like particularly unfunny bricks. It’s bad enough when Robin does it, but for the Joker, it’s dramatic suicide. When that guy’s not funny, something just seems broken.
This book’s broken on a lot of levels, though, especially from a plot perspective. The Joker plot, for instance, functions completely on its own, with no connection to the larger Batman and Robin story on even a thematic level. They’re doing their thing, he’s doing his thing, and the two unmatched arcs just sort of lumber along, occasionally bumping into each other on a transition but mostly staying separate until they collide on the last page. The only reason the Joker’s involved at all would seem to be as a cheap sales gimmick– I mean… Because it was kind of established in Dark Knight Returns that the Joker killed Robin. But only kind of. If I remember correctly, that’s something Miller implied but never actually explained. He did talk about it in interviews at the time, I believe, but in those he gave it a lurid sexual element (something about a Wonder Woman costume and some rope), and that’s completely missing from this book.
In the meantime, the real villains of Last Crusade are Poison Ivy and Killer Croc. And though that’s kind of lame, at least their story has thematic resonance with Batman’s character arc. His obsession with being Batman, the thing that’s keeping him in the cape and cowl perhaps a little longer than he should, is mirrored in the obsession Ivy’s inspiring in the millionaires she’s seducing this time around. And Croc? Well, he’s the living embodiment of why Bats needs to quit. Croc beats him badly, more than once, leaving him with injuries that aren’t healing as fast as they used to.
There’s one problem with that, though: for Croc to hurt him that badly, Batman has to fight stupid. Stupider than I’ve ever seen him fight anybody, much less a super-strong lizard man who could easily shatter his spine. But Batman just keeps going toe-to-toe with Croc, not once resorting to the kind of trickery and stealth he would normally use to beat the guy. As I was reading the fight, I found myself thinking, “Dude! Your utility belt is RIGHT. THERE. Pull out something to blind that sumbitch, or burn him or something. SOMEthing!” But, no. He just goes right on fighting Croc like he’s any other thug.
I suppose you could argue that Batman’s trying to prove something to himself there, hoping that his physical abilities aren’t declining as badly as he’s afraid they are. But there’s no indication of that in the book itself, and the writing’s not quite smart enough for me to assume that I’m supposed to infer it. So Batman just comes off like an idiot.
My biggest problem with Last Crusade, though, is that it just doesn’t feel like a Dark Knight comic. There’s a few news report interludes, but they lack style. They’re not particularly funny, and their tone isn’t nearly hysterical enough. They mostly seem to serve as ham-fisted foreshadowing of Robin’s death, with the talking heads wondering aloud if having a kid sidekick constitutes abuse.
News flash: it does. Of course it does. But that’s not something you bring up in a Batman story unless you’re going to do something a lot more interesting than this to explore it.
Ah, well. Much as I hoped I’d like it when I shelled out my seven bucks, Last Crusade simply fails. It fails as a retelling of “A Death in the Family” just as much as it fails as a Dark Knight Returns prequel. It fails to draw any interesting connective tissue between those two stories, and just generally fails on most counts. It’s not incompetent, understand. I’ve read worse. But it lacks style. It lacks substance. It feels, on the whole, like a tired, rushed-out hack job of a comic from a writer who’s capable of better. And for such an expensive, flashy book, a prequel to one of the greatest Batman stories ever told, that’s just not good enough.
Sure is pretty, though.