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Revisiting for the First Time: I finally read ‘Batman: Dark Knight, Dark City’

It’s Batman vs. the Riddler for the soul of Gotham.

Welcome back to “Revisiting for the First Time,” in which our writers thoroughly examine a classic comic they somehow missed during its initial release. Does the title hold up? What made it so popular in the first place? Would it still succeed today? Remember: what’s old is always new again.

Title: Batman: Dark Knight, Dark City
Issues: Batman – Vol. 1, #452-454
Creator: Peter Milligan (Shade, the Changing Man)

What’s the Haps: Peter Milligan, part of the ’80s/’90s “British Invasion” of comics and a mainstay in DC horror, took the reins on the Caped Crusader’s main title for a brief period in the early ’90s. To put in perspective how Capital-H Hot Milligan was at the time, he was also launching Vertigo’s Shade, the Changing Man and had just taken over Animal Man from Grant Morrison. So, red-hot. 

Dark Knight, Dark City features interior artwork by Kieron Dwyer and some haunting covers by Mike Mignola, who had just recently wowed DC with his excellent pencils on Gotham By Gaslight. Married with Milligan’s script, the end result of this collaboration is one of the more gothic tales from a period of time when Batman was a little more concerned with invading Dominators and rogue Swamp Things. In many ways, this story arc feels like “Batman Goes Vertigo.”

So 2000 and Late: Look, I’m honestly embarrassed. It’s not often that I have to admit to a blind spot when it comes to Batman. It’s even worse to cop to bountiful ignorance when it involves such a well-regarded storyline from a team held in very high esteem.

Granted, I was around two years old when this story originally hit the racks, but that’s hardly an excuse. I was gobbling up The Dark Knight Returns the second my dad decided it wouldn’t give me nightmares forever (joke’s on you, Pop! I am the nightmare).

My impetus for finally checking out this storyline came from my recent deep dive back into ’80s and ’90s Bat-books, mostly through DC’s excellent Legends of the Dark Knight hardcover collections. In addition to that, I finally caught up with Dark Nights: Metal and its many tie-in issues. With all of the references to the dark god Barbatos in that series, I suddenly remembered I’d heard that name referenced before… which led to revisiting Grant Morrison’s Batman R.I.P., which in turn led to Dark Knight, Dark City, a story that’s become infamous for featuring a much darker version of the Riddler than fans are accustomed.

DC Comics

The Long and Short: Originally published as issues 452-454 in the first volume of Batman, the story follows Batman rushing to solve the latest series of challenges from the Riddler, who has taken on a much more malevolent bent than ever before. Kidnapping babies and murdering people for the fun of it, it seems Edward Nygma has a bit of the devil in him. There may be some truth to that, for as Batman unravels the clues and rescues the children one-by-one, he begins to uncover a demonic conspiracy stretching back to the very beginnings of Gotham City.

Connecting the Dots: As mentioned before, much of this story focuses on a conspiracy among the founders of Gotham to raise a demonic force called Barbathos. This dark ritual was eventually expounded upon in Grant Morrison’s epic Batman run, which revealed that the evil Dr. Hurt was present for the séance all those years earlier.

Barbathos itself was eventually featured in the crossover event Dark Nights: Metal (slightly renamed to Barbatos), this time appearing physically as an impossibly large ancient entity. In Metal, Barbatos is revealed to be behind many of the crises that have plagued Batman’s career, as well as the head of a cabal of evil Batmen from across the Dark Multiverse. The events of Metal evolve the character far beyond the possibly-imaginary threat of Dark Knight, Dark City.

What’s the Deal?!: While not brought up as often as other landmark storylines like The Long Halloween or Year One, this story is usually spoken of with a kind of hushed admiration among comic book readers. It’s a real dive into the darkness of the character and the sickness of the city he protects.

There’s a line in Sam Hamm’s original screenplay for 1989’s Batman feature film, which describes Gotham City as appearing “as if hell had erupted from the sidewalks and kept on growing.” While Anton Furst’s set design went a long way toward capturing that aesthetic in a visual sense, this run of issues really manages to encapsulate the feeling that such a place would emit. There’s a kind of claustrophobic hopelessness to Batman’s narration, a surety that he’ll only ever be a stop-gap measure in this war, and that evil is eternal. Grant Morrison once said, “Batman and Robin will never die,” but Milligan’s words and Dwyer’s pencils almost make you believe it’s only a matter of time.

A lot of that dynamic comes down to this story’s driven, downright sinister take on the Riddler. Far from the leotard-clad goofball of the past, this Riddler is Frank Gorshin mixed with Charles Manson, a calculating, giggling genius sans a shred of human decency. The game is all that matters to him, and he pushes the World’s Greatest Detective to lengths that you’ve likely never seen in a Batman story before.

DC Comics

Lessons Learned: It’s easy to forget that DC had kind of shuffled its more “mature” stories over to Vertigo by this point in the company’s history. John Constantine was no longer sharing the page with “the capes” and could drop all the F-bombs his clogged lungs could muster. That’s why the level of violence in this story really took me off-guard.

It’s not terribly graphic in terms of imagery (save for a memorable sequence in a blood bank), but the sheer depravity of the human spirit is what really shocks in this instance. The machinations of Gotham’s founders and the depths to which the Riddler sinks in his bid to follow in their footsteps go well beyond anything seen in mainstream comics at the time, regardless of whether or not its show on-panel.

That’s not to say it’s all dire. Yes, there’s not much in the way of fun in this story, but the artwork brings a lot of excitement to an otherwise dreary affair. The action sequences are thrilling, especially a chase sequence involving the Batmobile and a last-second slam of the brakes. Also, we get a few precious moments with Jim Gordon taking the piss out of the very idea of the Riddler being a serious threat, seemingly echoing the feelings toward the villain which he expressed in Dennis O’Neil’s The QuestionIn addition to Gordon, Alfred Pennyworth is always a reliable source of much-needed levity, even in a story like Dark Knight, Dark City.

DC Comics

Odds & Ends: The story does stutter in a few spots, mostly in regards to how the Riddler carries out his plot. Without spoiling the hows and whys, there’s a fight scene in the graveyard that feels very at odds with the rest of the story from a scripting standpoint. It’s macabre to a nearly comedic degree, which is sort of the point, but the way the Riddler pulls it off smacks of something the Ultra-Humanite would have pulled in the ’60s (SPOILER: for this version of the Riddler, robot zombies seem a little too…well, comic-booky).

Still, it all adds up into a darkly comedic plan, once all the pieces become visible. In that sense, even the sillier bits stick the landing.

The Miracle of Hindsight: Aside from being a literal baby when this book came out, it’s kind of surprising that I never read any of these issues. I lived in the dollar bins as a kid, so my collection was bursting with issues of Shadow of the Bat and digest reprints of ’70s and ’80s comics. Just the sight of a Kelley Jones cover would give me shivers of anticipation. I definitely would have snagged these if I had seen the gothic artwork adorning each of these issues or the trade cover. 

However, I’m sort of glad I didn’t read it back then. I remember devouring Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle’s “The Last Arkham” as a lad and feeling a little annoyed at how cerebral it was, much preferring the final chapter where Batman wrecked everyone in the asylum at once. I wasn’t at an age where I could fully appreciate the psychological implications of Jeremiah Arkham’s actions, or the true terror of Victor Zsasz’s nightly excursions. When I revisit that story now, I’m struck by how unprepared my soft little brain was for it at the time that I read it, even as a kid who lived and breathed Batman: The Animated Series.

In much the same way, I doubt I would have gleaned much from reading Dark Knight, Dark City at a young age, aside from the general unpleasantness of seeing my hero driven to the edge and a Riddler devoid of reason. That’s why I’m glad it took me so long to come around to it. I could meet the story on its own terms and place it in its proper context as a foundational brick in the Dark Knight’s modern mythos.

Final Thoughts: Dark Knight, Dark City is a mean, fast-paced addition to the Batman catalog. It’s worth a read for fans of Snyder and Morrison’s runs on the character. It’s also worth seeking out for the sheer audacity it has to get really weird and throw Batman headlong into a supernatural sandbox.

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