I sure hope everyone loves my unwieldy and turgid exercises in overkill, because here’s another one coming up right about now. But, hey, Batman’s in it. I know I said comics (plural) last time but this got out of hand so I’ve split the other bit for later, plus I couldn’t quite get that part to work. It’ll turn up though; nothing gets wasted. And now it’s over to…Batman! DARK KNIGHT: THE LAST CRUSADE by Romita Jnr, Steigerwald, Azzarello, Miller and Robins Anyway, this…
DARK KNIGHT: THE LAST CRUSADE Art by John Romita Jnr & Peter Steigerwald Written by Brian Azzarello & (yeah, right, whatever; if you say so:) Frank Miller Lettered by Clem Robins Coloured by Peter Steigerwald Cover by John Romita Jnr., Danny Miki & Dean White Variant covers by Frank Miller & Alex Sinclair, Jim Lee & Alex Sinclair, Lee Bermejo and Bill Sienkiewicz with John Vernon as "The Mayor" Based on The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller - WITH KLAUS JANSON AND LYNN VARLEY (See, it's not that difficult is it DC? “with Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley”, that's all it takes. Try and put “with Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley” in the credits for The Dark Knight Returns before this slipshod cashgrab ends, ey? There's a good multinational corporation. Cheers, from your big pal, John.) Batman created by Bill Finger & Bob Kane The Joker created by Jerry Robinson, Bill Finger & Bob Kane Robin created by Jerry Robinson, Bill Finger & Bob Kane Jason Todd Robin created by Don Newton & Gerry Conway Killer Croc created by Don Newton, Gene “The Dean” Colan & Gerry Conway Poison Ivy created by Sheldon Moldoff & Robert “Bob” Kanigher DC Comics, $6.99/£4.99 (2016)
We all know what happened to Jason Todd in The Dark Knight Returns timeline; we’ve known since 1986. Not precisely mayhap, but enough. So a comic in 2016 about what happened to Jason Todd in the Dark Knight Returns timeline seems about as necessary as a loblolly boy. Ah, but, luckily Brian Azzarello is on the case with his very special reverse Rumpelstiltskin (Nikstlitslepmur?) gold-into-straw magic. What he plumps for is to fill in some of the pre-history for The Batman and The Robin. Turns out that in this timeline Jason Todd is Commissioner Gordon’s nephew, and inspired by The Batman’s example the plucky young fellow takes to the roofs, vigilante style. One night the dynamic duo’s paths cross, and, senses heightened and inhibitions shattered by the visceral thrill of night time crime fighting, they fall upon one another in a throbbing heap of sweat, muscle and appetite. Alas, Batman gets post-coital regrets and blanks The Robin, who cries and is sad. Then the Joker jumps out and smashes his head in like an egg filled with mince and jam. Ha ha ha ha! Only joking. That would be stupid! Not to mention monumentally crass. What kind of a dunderheaded poltroon would write something like that? Ha ha ha ha! Might work with a chick though, huh, guys? Yeah, a chick would fit. Chicks are all emotional and needy, yeah? Chicks, huh, go figure. Okay, yeah, that doesn’t happen here but there’s enough dodgy stuff on show to suggest someone’s a bit confused about this whole sexuality lark; little things like men frequently being taken roughly from behind and the main female character manipulating men into giving her stuff without giving up her, uh, stuff, her, er, you know, her, uh uh uh, sexy nectar. Now I wouldn’t want to read too much into all that, Heaven forfend, but some people might imagine such a toxic combo of hostility towards the opposite sex and tortured self-loathing could, if unaddressed, manifest in later life. For example, in the tawdry sight of a grown man insulting someone much younger who has paid money to be in the same room, and has simply asked a question about the tired rehash of a better writer’s work our (hypothetical and wholly imaginary) adult individual is shilling; most likely by calling the innocent questioner a rude name, quite possibly a derogatory term for female genitalia more suited to the playground. In his 1953 paper “Repression and its Expression: Pundits and Pussies.”, the behavioural psychologist B.F. Skinner dubbed such conduct “classy”.
So that’s what Brian “Maturity” Azzarello doesn’t do, but what does he do? Stuck with pages to fill Azzarello does a nifty swerve around expectations, dodges the whole Joker business for the most part, and instead writes a fairly mediocre Batman comic primarily concerned with demonstrating Batman’s feet of clay. If anything Azzarello’s a bit too good at the feet of clay business, because throughout the comic Batman seems to be in the wrong job. Because throughout the comic Batman is basically a bit shit. Sure, he does his bit of detecting, but otherwise he should be renamed Bit Shit Man. I get that this is Batman losing a step just before he hangs his trunks up, but there’s losing a step and staggering about like a drunk who has just hopped off a roundabout going at full tilt. When he’s not being surprised from behind by big men in small rooms, Batman’s being pounded to paste and spectacularly failing as a mentor. There’s something wrong with Robin, see, but Batman just can’t quite put his (Bill) finger on it. Just little things, like literally disarming a man, or standing on a thug so that his face bubbles like cheese on the griddle of a burning car roof. Tiny cracks, hairline fractures, I trust you’ll agree. I’m a ridiculously liberal (i.e. lazy) parent (so I’ll be regretting that in a few years no doubt, officer) but even I might take Jason Todd aside for a talk after he’s just bataranged a guy’s arm off. Seriously, it comes right off in a whoosh, a gush, a sploosh even, of blood. I mean, the whole thing of what exactly a batarang is made of so that it can sever an arm aside, Batman just wrinkling his nose and basically going, “Bit much, old chum, don’t you think?”, seems a bit light on the old response stakes. Dude’s arm just comes off. SPLASH! Seriously. Best case scenario: that guy’s crippled for life, worst case: he just bled out all over his traumatised for life wife. Sweet crime fighting skillz, guys. The streets feel safer already. This, of course, is the kind of stupid horseshit you get when someone wants to be all realismy with something as unrealistic as Batman, and hasn’t got the skill to pull it off. Frank The Tank could pull it off, and that’s part of his genius. But this…Jesus. It’s all over the place, like vomit after a teenage party. Yeah, like a lot of modern North American genre comics THE LAST CRUSADE is sophistimacated stuff.
Because I made it up I should probably define that scholarly term a bit. Sophistimacated is when comics want to be sophisticated, but can’t be arsed to do the hard graft that sophisticated involves. There’s a lot of sophistimication about in comics these days, and Brian Azzarello is a dab hand at it here. In a deluded attempt to seem to be Really Sayin’ Somethin’ (Bop bop soo-be-do-wa!) there’s some silly business about whether or not Batman is guilty of child endangerment. Smack Frank The Tank up all you like, but the satire in THE DARK KNIGHT was genuinely funny and had a point. (Whoa, I didn’t say it was subtle. C’mon, It’s The Tank.) Azzarello tries his hammy hand at a similar thing but…Glycon preserve us! There’s a surfeit of stupid hooey running through the comic which I think is supposed to be satirical, but it isn’t. Satire doesn’t need to be funny, but it does need to have a point. This comic has no point to make about anything. It is squarely set in the la-la land of comics. It has no relevance whatsoever to anything in the real world. Look: A grown man dressed as a bat aided by a teenage acrobat dressed like he’s colour blind. Is it child endangerment? Golly, I better book a day off work just to mull that one over. Deep stuff, huh? No. Why are you even wasting my time with this shit? Is it child endangerment? Yes, yes it is. But it’s a comic; so it doesn’t matter. It not being real and all, you dig? In the real world disturbed American millionaires don’t fight crime dressed as nocturnal mammals, they run for the presidency and insult Mexicans. Ho ho ho! Topical me! Now, I don’t know about you, but I think one of the costs of writing about a young man dressed like a pantomime Peter Pan fighting crime with a grown man dressed as a bat, is that you don’t get to draw attention to that. And you don’t draw attention to that because it is fundamentally ridiculous. That's part of the appeal, genius.
Despite Christopher’s Nolan’s pompous cinematic attempts to convince us otherwise, the concept of Batman doesn’t work on any realistic level. The last thing a Batman writer wants to be doing is chucking that mutually agreed suspension of disbelief overboard, particularly for boneheaded point scoring about child endangerment shorn by its very context of any actual relevance whatsoever. Woken from slumber the reader starts to ask questions about this whole Batman deal. That’s the last thing you need. Some smartarse asking questions. Better slap him down with a nasty sexual slur, right? But, alas, this reader isn’t in the same room, so your brave and manly verbal abuse won’t work. Nothing can stop the ungrateful fool of a reader now they have awoken. For starters how does Batman get anywhere? By Batmobile? Really? In the city? Have you tried driving around a city at speed? It’s not on is it? Even at night, even in, say, Chesterfield; chances are if you start haring about like your arse is on fire you’ll end up with a drunk smeared across your windshield. It’s simply not do-able. And Chesterfield’s no Gotham, and your family hatchback is no Batmobile. So major carnage is on the cards either way. (“Car”-nage and “car”-ds and, yes, I’m talking about – “car”s! Two can play at rubbish word games, Brian Azzarello! But only one of us gets paid a small fortune for it.) Maybe, you say, Batman travels by swinging about? He’d be Bat-knackered before he got anywhere near his destination. Then upon arrival (at the docks, or the reservoir, or the charity ball) he has a fist fight with a bunch of goons and has to swing back for a Bat-brood in his Bat-cave, before having a Bat-nap and then overseeing a successful multi-national Bat-corporation. Bat-Christ, my Mum’s a work-horse but Batman makes her look like a right Bat-slacker. All this is only possible because, and look, I’m sorry to have to be the one to break this to you (and I certainly don’t want to steal the thunder of that guy who studies Batman (the one in the 2000AD documentary who wears eyeliner and gels his hair like a fourteen year old on his way to his first Cure concert. Aw, bless.)) but…brace yourself…Batman isn’t real. Sorry about that. You know THE KILLING JOKE (which may not be Alan Moore’s finest hour (as he himself admits) but is a lot better than this addlepated guff) isn’t going to work as soon as you hit the panel of the “Bob Kane” signed picture on Batman’s Bat-Desk. In a world where The Joker dresses Commissioner Gordon as an S&M gimp and shoots Barbara Gordon before taking snaps of her in nude distress, there’s no room for an Ace The Bat-Hound or a Bat-Mite. Nor, crucially, is there any place for a gaily costumed child. Robin isn’t in THE KILLING JOKE. Did you notice that? Oh, I know you noticed all the stitches Alan Moore (self-confessedly) dropped in THE KILLING JOKE (Boo! Alan Moore! Boo! Yawn.) but did you notice what he got right? Robin isn’t in The Killing Joke. That’s not an accident. Even Alan Moore on a bad day got that much right. Brian Azzarello? Not so much.
For the most part DARK KNIGHT: THE LAST CRUSADE isn’t even a Batman vs The Joker comic as you might expect. (You fool! Why do you persist with such notions!) No, bizarrely it’s a not wholly awful Batman and Robin versus Killer Croc & Poison Ivy comic. People familiar with Azzarello’s Bat-work have my sympathies, but they also have probably noticed his fondness for using Killer Croc and Poison Ivy. Those uncharitably inclined might say that this is because Croc allows him to dabble with questionable racial stereotypes without risk, and because Ivy lets him have Batman slap a woman about. Which is all kinds of creepy but I think Azzarello often seems to mistake being creepy for being edgy, but then so do Mainstream North American Genre Comics as a whole, so there you go. I really liked the Killer Croc & Poison Ivy bits for the most part, not for themselves, mind; but because they were a throwback to those Gerry Conway, Dough Moench, Gene Colan, Don Newton, Alfredo Alcala, Klaus Janson etc etc Batman comics of my squandered youth. You know, when Batman did a bit of detective work? Sure, here in DARK KNIGHT: THE LAST CRUSADE all he does is find the common denominator between the victims, but credit where it's due, that’s Sherlock fucking Holmes compared to his usual modern day manoeuvres; where he just looks at a computer screen and then pulls stuff out of his Bat-backside. It’s getting to the point where I think Batman is only The World’s Greatest Detective because he exists in a world where his nearest competition is a chimp. And back then, in those old comics, he’d always have a girlfriend who would be thoroughly uninteresting and usually also part of some evil plot; her larger function being to avoid people going on about Batman and Robin having Bat-bum fun. And here, again, in THE LAST CRUSADE Batman has a girlfriend, although it’s Catwoman obvs, because then we can have a reference to them rutting in costume like sexy cosplayers. Yeah, there was a lot of Killer Croc and Poison Ivy back then, I think. My memory could err, but I’m pretty sure they popped up a lot. Black Mask was over everything like a rash, I remember that. Bloody Black Mask. Jesus, it got so it was like, why not just call it Black Mask Comics, people! I don’t even remember who Black Mask turned out to be. Harry Truman? Barbara Cartland? Sandra Bernhardt? A Dog Named Boo? Probably Tom bloody Hardy. Tom Hardy’s in everything. He was in my toilet yesterday; I told him to shut the door because no one wants to see that, Hollywood bigshot or no. Anyway, stop distracting me, so I went on The Comixology to check who made those old comics and found a listing which said DETECTIVE COMICS (1937 - 2011) #255 featured a “tiresome” encounter with Killer Croc. Seriously. “Tiresome”. I do not think that word means what you think it means, Comixiology Precis Writer. That was funny, but not as funny as the fact that the encounters with Killer Croc in DARK KNIGHT: THE LAST CRUSADE are actually tiresome, as in “tiresome”. To be surprised from behind by Killer Croc once may be regarded as a misfortune, to be so surprised twice seems like you’re in the wrong job.
Alas, if you bought this for the Joker you probably bought the wrong comic. Everyone bought this for The Joker, yeah? To see the penultimate donnybrook between Batman and his maniacal nemesis of murderous mirth. Well, tough titty to you. You don’t get that. What you get mostly, is a Killer Croc and Poison Ivy comic. As demonstrated at soul sapping length above. When Azzarello does deign to show The Joker it’s not even Miller’s creepily withered Camp Bowie, just a wearisome rehash of the old Silence of The Lambs business. You know, the bit where Multiple Miggs flicks man-fat at Clarice, and in return Hannibal induces Miggs to swallow his own tongue via loony whisperiness? That bit (the death by suggestion, not the flying man-fat) is strip-mined once again. More than once. Mrs Leeds in Human form – do you see? Mrs. Jacobi changing – do you see? Brian Azzarello – laughing all the way to the bank – DO YOU SEE? Man, remember when everyone was ripping off Thomas Harris? All those serial killers with their grand pianos and jones for Goethe? Complete bullshit perhaps, but Harris (at least for two books) gave us chillingly well done stuff. Good serial killing times; and here they are again. Only rubbish. Oh, it’s not all stale sub Alex Cross (ugh!) guff though, Azzarello brings his celebrated wordplay to bear to his portrayal of the homicidally jocular one. Mind you, I’m not sure who celebrates Brian Azzarello’s wordplay at this late stage in the game; people who hate the English language? There’s some prime wordshittery on these pages; wordshittery which I’ll not spoil because recoiling in alarm at the latest word turd thrust at your face is one of the few pleasures (if pleasure that be) of this thing. And no, I don’t think I’m missing any subtleties here, thanks. This is a book where a psychiatrist says “You want to tell me why you PULLED OUT YOUR EYES?” And, yes, it is in ITALIC BOLD CAPS. Nice bedside manner there, pal. Credit to the profession. Yup, subtle has done a bunk, old chum. So, maybe you were wondering what the Joker’s madcap scheme is; the one which succeeds in catching the Boy Wonder? Get this strategic shit: he sits in a chair reading, with his gang outside. That’s it. A regular Rommel, eh? Robin tries to pick the lock, but the gang creep up behind him and smash his head in. Worth waiting around forty years, for, eh? That’s right, They sneak up behind Robin and smash his head in. BAM! POW! BIFF! Holy twaddle, Batman! Holy Hole-in-a-cranium, Batman! Azzarello leaves what happens afterwards to your imagination, which is awfully sweet of him, but this comic might have been a bit better if Brian Azzarello had stooped to using his own imagination a bit more, instead of relying on mine.
Reading this book may well be a miserable experience, but looking at it is quite delightful. There’s something seriously bizarre about the art in this. I’m pretty sure the book was solicited as having inks from Battlin’ Bill Sienkiewicz, but there’s no sign of The Sink, or even of inks, at least not as I know them. It looks like John Romita Jnr did his chunky stuff in pencil form and then Steigerwald hurriedly smeared colours atop it all to give it some semblance of finish. Since the book was delayed, a cynic might think this was some rush job stuff to get it out. (Cynics are just awful, aren’t they just.) Wild and unfounded speculation aside, I don’t know why it looks like it does, but I know I like it. The soft haze of the colours blur everything into a dreamlike state; a bad dream to be sure, but one where the writing’s bad and the colours are dreamy. People give Romita some stick these days but I don’t know, I think he’s pretty great. Look at how the smoke curls from the Joker’s mouth; how the blood swings from his nose as his head moves; how Romita repeatedly gets the shock of impact just so; it’s good stuff. And the colours may(?) be the result of desperation incarnate but, you know, sometimes art just happens; things just work. Because this is good looking stuff. I was particularly taken with how Steigerwald gives Joker skin tones with all the allure of a mixture of guano and fag ash, and the liquid chaos of the police lights/flares were another delight. Romita Jnr’s work deftly balances brutality and delicacy, giving the whole thing a visual conviction far in excess of anything the shambolic and self-satisfied mess of a script deserves. Like the kids whom comics are no longer for, the art’s alright; it’s the writing that drags DARK KNIGHT: THE LAST CRUSADE down to CRAP! Or Bat-CRAP! If you will.
NEXT TIME: It’s time to cheer the f*** up, so up next is a bit of Howard Victor Chaykin during which we’ll discover how bananas changed history.
Or something else, because guess what just arrived in the post – COMICS!!!