Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Legends of the Dork Knight

"Shaman" by Dennis O'Neil, Ed Hannigan, and John Beatty

For all the conventional wisdom that superhero movies don't sell comic books (an iffy proposition, if not altogether incorrect), the perpetual exception that proves this dubious rule for armchair market watchers remains Batman and Batman, ca. 1989. Batman the movie ended up selling a lot of comics, and also a lot of everything else. As strange as it may seem now in the year 2015, there were only two regular Batman titles on the stands at this time: Batman and Detective Comics, both continuing their numbering from the Golden Age. So the premiere of a new ongoing solo Batman book was actually an event worth noting, even if the release had been catalyzed by a juggernaut motion picture.

Legends of the Dark Knight was, at the time, an altogether different kind of monthly comic. Instead of launching with a stable creative team, the book was conceived from the get-go as an anthology, with rotating creators switching arcs. Additionally, the book was not set in the present of the DCU, but in the past - specifically, the "Year One" period popularized by Frank Miller in his work (with David Mazzucchelli) of the same name, which had also served as one of the stylistic influences for Tim Burton's movie. So while LotDK was designed to fit into the then-modern post-Crisis continuity, filling in the gaps of Batman's early years, it was still, like "Year One," at a distance from contemporary goings-on. What this meant in practice - although this mandate loosened as time wore on and the "Year One" period became increasingly crowded - was: no yellow Bat-symbol, no other superheroes, and especially no Robin. Oh yeah, the Comics Code was conspicuously missing as well - although, at least for this first arc, the lack was often academic.

The series' first story had all the ingredients of a hit: longtime Batman writer / editor Denny O'Neil paired with experienced draftsman Ed Hannigan for a paired-down, atmospheric mystery starring a young and still inexperienced Dark Knight, in a brand-new mature(er)-readers Batman book. Unfortunately, the end result ended up being, well, not so auspicious.

The story begins in Alaska, just south of the Arctic circle. Young Bruce Wayne is still in his training period, this time following a famous bounty hunter as he tracks a desperate criminal across a windswept snowy mountain pass. (You have to wonder, just how many experts did Bruce shadow in his apprentice years? Did he train under a master sommelier somewhere? The world's greatest cabinet maker?) Anyway, things go awry and everyone dies except for Bruce, who is also about to die before he just happens to be saved by an Inuit medicine man and his comely daughter, who nurse him back to life with the aid of a magical story about bats. After he gets better, Bruce returns to Gotham and decides he's ready to begin his crimefighting career.

Parts of the story take place literally between panels of Miller's "Year One," and not surprisingly "Shaman" manages to step on the toes of that other, far superior story. For instance, the bat story / legend Bruce hears while recovering in Alaska precedes the fateful moment where the bat flies into his study. Think about that for a second: instead of the iconic image of the bat crashing through the window and Bruce deciding just then to become Batman, in O'Neil's version the bat flies through the window and Bruce thinks, "oh, a bat, that reminds me of the bat story my Alaskan friends told me. I think maybe I should follow that inclination and dress up in a bat mask, just like the helpful shaman, and this other bat here which was more incidental than anything else."

There's some other stuff here to pad out the five issue arc. A death cult based on a syncretic combination of Alaskan and Santa Priscan myth pops up in Gotham to take advantage of the fact that Gotham gang members really are stupid enough to believe ritually killing people will grant them mystic protection. It turns out that Bruce Wayne really did those Inuits a solid by telling everybody about how awesome they were because within a year the outside world had descended on the small community, built an airport and tourist industry from scratch, and plunged the previously-seen natives into poverty and drunken dissolution - all within a year if you follow the story's time frame. Bruce feels guilty about this but doesn't really dwell on it. Would you believe the killer turns out to be the guy from the beginning of the story who you thought died by falling off a mountain, but it turns out survived and just so happened to figure out Bruce Wayne was Batman? And of course, when Bruce tries to return the stolen bat-mask to its original owners, they let him have it because he's now . . . The REAL Bat-Shaman.

I could go on but there's no point. O'Neil was obviously stretching here, but the best intentions in the world do little to elevate the story beyond regrettable. If this story had come out thirty years earlier, the cover caption would have invited readers to wonder "What Is The Mystery Behind Batman's First Mask?" That's essentially what this is: another pseudo-origin story superimposed over another, better origin story, adding in details that don't make a lot of sense for no reason other than it seems to be the series mandate.


Mr. K said...

Are you going to do a write-up of GOTHIC as well?

Charles R said...

It feels like Mr. O'Neil was trying to channel some of the mysticism from his concurrent run on The Question into the Batman mythos. His work on The Question was actually pretty good, especially the first 15 or so issues, despite how it reversed much of Ditko's original conception of the character. The moody art by Denys Cowan was pretty good, too.

~P~ said...

Another reason for this to receive derision is that LotDK #1 was one of the earliest books to get the multiple variant cover treatment.

I seem to remember it came in numerous 1980s day-glo colors (blue, yellow, Orange, green?, etc).

~P~ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dale Bagwell said...

This still looks interesting enough to go find on the cheap, but I see what your saying about the unnessary additions to Batman's origins.
And by O'Neil of all people...

Still, the story seems like a good plot and concpet, not to mention that georeous art by Ed Hannigan.
Did he do any other Batman stories, or was this his only foray into the Dark Knight?