Monday, April 20, 2015

Legends of the Dork Knight

"Prey" by Doug Moench, Paul Gulacy, and Terry Austin

If the Batman vs. Superman trailer that leaked last week proves anything conclusively, it's that the positive influence of Frank Miller's late 80s work on Batman ran out of gas a long time ago. The people in charge of the franchise don't know anything else to do, really, but keep aping Miller's work (and Burton's films, which followed naturally from Miller as well as Moore) onscreen as well as in the comics themselves. Accordingly, there's a certain breed of comics fan who gets very upset - pants-wetting territorial, really - about any deviation from these same well worn Batman formulae laid out during the Reagan administration.

This wasn't always the case, and the immediate of success of Legends of the Dark Knight is a testament to that fact. Rather than serving up issue after issue of Miller / Moore pastiche, each early arc takes a completely different approach to the idea of telling a "mature readers" Batman story. "Shaman" was a thematic misfire from a veteran creator still stuck uncomfortably between paradigms. "Gothic" was a success that eschewed the strictly ground-level noir of Miller and Mazzuccheli's Year One in favor of an engagement with the supernatural, a horror story well within the literary genre from which the story took its name. "Prey" is something else entirely.

This isn't Batman as supernatural avenger, the "Dark Knight," or even Miller's shadowy hard-boiled detective hero. This is Batman as a man, a fighter and a scrapper without magic gadgets or Super Saiyan finishing moves. He gets cut, he bleeds, he almost drowns, he ends up stranded in the wrong part of town and has to walk through the sewers to get home. This is also, crucially, Batman as a man with definite psychological trauma, one whose scars are never quite so deeply buried as he would like to think.

"Prey" was also notable for reasons other than its status as a Batman story. Although this isn't the first time either Moench or Gulacy worked on Batman - and isn't even the first time they worked on Batman together - it was nevertheless a big deal to see one of comics' most storied teams working on a lengthy prestige format Batman epic. (Remember "prestige format"?) One telling detail here is that while Miller's influence has loomed larger and larger over each successive generation of creators, Moench and Gulacy (as well as Denny O'Neil and, for obvious reasons, Klaus Janson) were either Miller's peers or elders. While the existence of Legends of the Dark Knight is directly due to Miller's success with the character, his vision of Batman was still only the proverbial first among equals - not, as it would later become, the default. I doubt Moench and Gulacy felt particularly intimidated by Miller's influence, even at that point in his career.

(The question of Grant Morrison's debt to Miller is another topic entirely. It's almost tempting to read Morrison's later Batman work as an attempt to come to terms with Miller's disproportionate shadow by forcing the post-Miller Batman to confront the most scandalous elements of his long history - objectified as the "Black Casebook" stories that many longtime Batman fans believed to be dead and buried. Miller himself spent time in the 00s trying to disown his Batman, by tearing him down in The Dark Knight Strikes Again and All-Star Batman. The attempt failed, in any event.)

But anyway, to cut to the chase, this is an excellent story. Maybe one of the best unsung Batman stories, and certainly the best story yet in Legends of the Dark Knight.

"Prey" observes the letter if not the spirit of the series' "no supervillains" mandate by offering the first post-Crisis appearance of Dr. Hugo Strange. Strange occupies a unique place in Batman's rogues gallery. Although he predates the Joker and Catwoman by a few months, he's never been a mainstay, appearing only sporadically and rarely to any lasting effect. The most memorable thing about him is his name - and even that, for obvious reasons, serves as much of a hinderance as a help to his larger career. He began as a super-villain before the rules governing super-villains were established. He was initially another in a long line of interchangeable mad scientists who bedeviled the first generation of super-heroes. His first gimmick was the invention of a super smoke machine to help his gang rob banks. After a couple follow-up appearances - and different gimmicks, like deadly zombies and fear powder (an idea to which the franchise would return) - he got put in the freezer for thirty years, and has appeared sporadically ever since.

In the last few decades creators have mostly defined Strange as a criminal psychiatrist - that is, a psychiatrist who treats / profiles criminals while also being a criminal himself. "Prey" takes place, like the two stories that precede it, in the post-Year One period wherein Batman's circumstances were not yet solidified. "Prey" picks up on Miller's use of the police as early foils for Batman, setting out to tell the story of how Batman won the trust of he police department and the mayor's office after his early splash as, essentially, a violent vigilante at odds with the city's most powerful citizens. James Gordon is stuck in the middle between Batman and the mayor: after Year One, Gordon knows Batman is on the side of the angels, but sticking up for the vigilante could jeopardize his job.

Enter Hugo Strange. After a debate on a local public affairs program (yeah, you can tell this was 25 years ago), Strange catches the mayor's attention. The mayor hires Strange to advise an anti-Batman task force being put together in the police department and to be led by . . . James Gordon.

Moench wastes no time in showing how twisted Strange is. He's a profoundly ugly man with an even uglier attitude towards women - he keeps a blonde department store mannequin as his confident, and seethes with jealousy over Batman's physical prowess and (imagined) erotic potency. He builds a homemade Batman costume in order to inhabit his enemy's mind. But despite all this, he's not stupid: with just a little bit of help from the police, he manages to deduce Batman's secret identity while at the same time framing him for a series of copycat crimes performed by a member of the anti-Batman task force who has been brainwashed into believing himself to be some kind of anti-Batman.

You can tell that Moench and Gulacy were mainstays of Bronze Age Marvel, because there's a lot of plot going on here. It works, though: there are many moving parts, but everything moves logically from one character to the next over the course of the narrative. Although there's a copious amount of actual fighting, the real battle is the contest of wills between Batman and Strange. (Middle-aged Strange, it goes without saying, represents no physical threat to Batman.) With Strange manipulating both the police and the mayor in order to tear down Batman, Batman has to piece together a counter-plan that depends on trusting Gordon in perhaps the most critical moment of their friendship - although we, the readers, know that Gordon eventually becomes Batman's most trusted ally on the police force, they both have to earn this trust, and Gordon's reluctance to fully embrace the vigilante is understandable. The wild card in this relationship is Catwoman, who also appears - in a follow up on her supporting role in Year One - during the early phase of her career, still at the time an unknown quantity who isn't very happy about being caught in the crossfire of the police force's war on Batman.

Although the ideas explored weren't exactly new, the story gains a lot from the assumption of a slightly older readership. Strange is a Freudian, so his ideas about Batman are both on-the-nose but also, as Miller himself acknowledged, fairly accurate. Baseball bats and swords represent masculine overreaching. Caves are dank and dark wombs. Women symbolize either childhood innocence or adult transgression - with Strange himself representing the kind of misogynistic arrested development that Batman needs to move past in order to grow up. Batman's burgeoning flirtation with Catwoman is an acknowledgment of the existence of adult relationships beyond the shallow Madonna / whore complex that fixates Strange, and which threatens to derail Bruce Wayne as he struggles to overcome the grief over his parents' deaths. While Strange is still stuck play-acting sexual aggression, Batman has to embrace the feminine - literally descending into the (womb-like/chthonic) earth of the Batcave in order to be reborn as a cohesive individual, able to overcome Strange's emotional manipulation.

But, really, you're reading a Batman story by the team behind Master of Kung-Fu, so you want to see the fights. Which are uniformly excellent. Gulacy is one of the best fight choreographers in the medium, and every battle throughout the story has a convincing verisimilitude. Instead of random figures colliding over monocolored backgrounds, Gulacy give us real bodies existing in concrete relation to other bodies. If you see a blow in one panel you see the counter blow in the next panel, with scrupulous attention paid to staging throughout the fight. Gulacy's Batman is a superb acrobat but no Superman: he takes as good as he gives, and there's a sense of real peril throughout. Years spent translating the filmic language of martial arts into the language of comics pays rich dividends.

Moench and Gulacy's Batman is one of the best: human and fallible, nowhere near the supremely competent Bat-God that he would become as the 90s wore on and Miller's characterization of Batman in The Dark Knight Returns became the standard approach. You believe that this Batman can be hurt, and that means everything in the context of a franchise where the hero's infallibility is usually accepted as his only weakness.


LAndrew said...


"Prey" was a lot of fun, I thought. Gulacy does a great job with the moodiness of the story, especially when Strange plants the talking dummies in Wayne Manor. The story gets almost overwhelmingly dark.

I also like the way, in that Batman vs. Night-Scourge page, the slashes of shadow and light indicate motion without the need for speedlines.

j said...

What is Paul Gulacy up to these days? That guy could draw.

DanielT said...

This is an unsung story and probably always will be unfortunately, but is my favorite in the series.

I hope you keep up with this series as it inspired me to reread LOTK and I'm very curious what you'll have to say about some of the later stories.

Anonymous said...

This is definitely one of the best Batman stories from the early 1990s. Mention should definitely be made of Terry Austin's stunning inks over Paul Gulacy's pencils.

For those who are interested, info on Gulacy's current projects can be found on his official website...

I obtained a commission from him last year. Of course it turned out fantastic.