The third chapter of the Dark Knight Returns arrived a few months ago, but this week we get a prequel. That’s right, we get to see Batman before he was really old. This time he’s coaching Robin aka Jason Todd, and as we all know things aren’t going to go so well. Is it good?
Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade (DC Comics)
The official synopsis reads:
Before the Dark Knight returned…The Joker. Poison Ivy. Selina Kyle. And the last Robin.
Why does this book matter?
Frank Miller and Brian Azzarello write the story for this one, but Miller has pointed out this is more his story than the the third installment that’s still going on. The fact that it’s a prequel makes this story have a bit more impact on our understanding of the original Dark Knight Returns, for example how prominent Joker’s role is in this one-shot.
Plus, comic great John Romita Jr. draws every page of this 67 page story.
Fine, you have my attention. What’s good about it?
Turning the pages, it’s hard to not get excited to see inside this version of Batman. He’s not as bitter, broken, or crotchety as the Batman from Batman Dark Knight Returns, but he’s certainly getting there. Miller and Azzarello paint a pretty vivid picture of Batman’s aging getting the better of him. He’s trying to use the same old tricks that have worked for him for years, but more than once in this issue we see he’s slowing down and losing his edge.
They kind of have a point…
This is perfectly mirrored by the inclusion of Robin in the story. At first glance this Robin seems to be about the same as all the other Robins we’ve seen, but slowly and in small doses Azzarello and Miller peel back to the real Jason Todd. He’s good at fighting, but still green, but deep down there’s a joy of violence that’s not good. Azzarello and Miller use this element to great success as Batman notices this ruthlessness in Robin via his captions. This element progresses throughout the book and reveals that if Joker never killed Robin, maybe Batman would have had to put him down anyway.
Along this journey of understanding, Batman and Robin take on Poison Ivy, Killer Croc and generally do what they’ve always done so well. The added bonus of seeing Batman barely make it out of every fight is intriguing. You read this book knowing who Batman will become–namely a ruthless and merciless old man who uses brute force rather than ninja fighting and stealth–and you can see why he had to change.
Okay that’s kind of sick. Did Robin just kill that dude too?!
And then there’s Joker. He gets his own story in this issue as we follow his incarceration in Arkham Asylum and what his day to day life is like inside. Miller and Azzarello do well to capture his cunning and incredible ability at getting inside people’s heads. We also get some solid captions from Joker that reveal he’s more a poetic killer than a mastermind. The man dances in his own head to a different tune and it’s sheer madness.
John Romita Jr. does, as you’d expect, fantastic work here. The newscasters are back, and he utilizes the curved TV screen panels to full effect. Batman looks great in all his weakness (because he’s truly weak in this one-shot) and Robin is best of all due to the subtlety of his secret enjoyment of inflicting pain. The best element of Romita Jr.’s art, though, is with Joker. He has slicked back hair, a confidence that’s unnerving and a serial killer vibe that suggests he’s almost otherworldly. He’s certainly not a human being and you can see it every moment he’s on the page.
It can’t be perfect can it?
I usually never say this, but the color palette seems off throughout this book. It’s not that the color is bad or wrong; it’s just so devoid of both brightness and darkness that it doesn’t seem to be correct. The tone is dark, but not dark enough to feel brooding or contemplative. There’s really no brightness to speak of, but maybe that suits this world? Peter Steigerwald does a fantastic job with the inking, but the use of color seems to be avoiding attention rather than adding anything to the book, similar to how color is used in flashbacks. Sure, this is a flashback of sorts, but the tone is so subdued it doesn’t do much for the pages. If this were released in black and white it might have had even more impact.
Is It Good?
It’s fascinating to read a prequel to the Dark Knight Returns in large part because we’re seeing a closer version to the Batman we know from the main comics. This book succeeds at showing us how that version could ever become the older and much more brutal version in The Dark Knight Returns, but also the big mistake he’ll never live down. Joker steals the show, but it’s how Batman deals with Robin that you don’t want to miss.