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Comics You Should Own – Legends of the Dark Knight #86-88

So what’s the deal with this sucker? Go below the cut to find out!

Is that Jesus Batman or Anti-Christ Batman? Well, that can't be good. So bald ... so bad!

Legends of the Dark Knight by Doug Moench (writer), J. H. Williams III (penciller), Mick Gray (inker), Dan Brown (colorist), and Willie Schubert (letterer).

DC, 3 issues (#86-88), cover dated September – November 1996.

Doug Moench, throughout his career, has loved conspiracies. He’s incorporated them into several of the titles he’s written, to the point where it seems he just can’t help himself. Occasionally this predilection toward conspiracies becomes a bit wearisome, even to someone (like me) who digs the idea of conspiracies (despite not believing in them). So why would this arc, which is titled “Conspiracy,” be a Comic You Should Own? Isn’t it just another crazed fever dream launched from Bucks County, Pennsylvania (hey! I grew up there!), where Moench reportedly lives?

Well, of course it isn’t! If it were, it wouldn’t be so keen. First of all, it has J. H. Williams III on art, and while the J. H. Williams III of 1996 isn’t quite as spectacular as the J. H. Williams III of 2010, he’s still an excellent artist, with enough experimentation with panels and layouts that you can see the explosion of boundary-breaking that was soon to come. Second, Moench is having some fun with his obsession – he keeps reminding us, relentlessly, that Batman is caught up in a conspiracy, to the point that we realize he’s poking fun at the entire thing. Batman keeps finding more and more layers to the plot, which becomes almost kookily self-referential, and then, at the end, Moench pretty much pulls the rug out from under us (in a way I shan’t reveal). The symbol that shows up constantly throughout the arc – the ouroboros, a serpent devouring its own tail – becomes a parodic device, and in issue #88, when Batman says the snake “brings us full circle,” we wonder what the point is. Moench has a point, of course, but he gets to it through an almost subversive Batman story. This appears to be a deadly serious tale, and some readers may have missed the point – Moench is taking the piss, which is why this is a great comic.

The plot, as labyrinthine as it is, remains fairly simple. Batman is tracking a serial killer who drapes the intestines of his victims over their left shoulders and paints – in the victims’ blood – an ouroboros on the wall above them. Batman discovers a bunch of teenagers who call themselves a cult about to sacrifice a dog, so he busts them up. One of the cultists tells Bats that his (the cultist’s, that is) older brother, a biker in a gang called the Satans, taught him the ouroboros symbol, and that this brother is in Wisconsin (Rhinelander, to be exact, which actually exists). Now, the ouroboros is a fairly common symbol from antiquity, so why a) Batman has never heard of it; and b) why he naturally assumes the biker dude has anything to do with the killings is never explained, but that’s part of the fun – of course Meeks is involved in the bigger plot! We also look in on an office in Los Angeles, where a fat man is hypnotizing a man named David Lee Shotwell to believe he’s “Morningstar, King of Hell.” The man, naturally, has an ouroboros tattooed around his bald head. Note the name, too – not only the surname, but the fact that he’s referred to by all three. Remember – all good serial killers/assassins have three names! We learn that the fat man’s name is Tryon, and he reports back to some called “Jessup,” and they’re preparing him for something that will occur on the 23rd, in Gotham.

Meanwhile, Batman finds the bikers, who are of course dealing drugs and receiving them from the Solucci family of … Los Angeles! Handy! Even more handy, Gordon tells Bats that another murder victim with an ouroboros drawn next to the body has turned up in (wait for it) Los Angeles! When Batman arrives at the crime scene, he’s met by Sharon Kraft, an investigative reporter, who tells him two things: Manny Clove, the head of the homicide division of the LAPD, is an ex-CIA agent and may be covering up the Soluccis’ drug ring; and the victim was a member of a secret society called the Order of the New Dawn. Batman remembers that the three murderers of Hiram, the architect of Solomon’s temple, were ritually executed in a similar fashion as the victims (but he doesn’t know an ouroboros?), so he decides to enter the Order’s temple, where he’s confronted by some gun-wielding weird-looking dudes. Meanwhile, Shotwell is training to kill a Senator Judson. Good to know!

One thing stands out so far: All of this takes place in one issue. Moench loves dense plotting, and he does it fairly well, so he moves Batman through the story quickly. He has a lot to get to, after all! Batman escapes from the weird dudes, and Alfred calls him and updates him on the Order – they were created by a pulp fiction writer named J. Michael Jessup, who is supposed to be dead (but we, keeping careful track of who’s who, know he’s not). Batman visits the address of the murder victim and finds one of the dudes who caught him at the temple – his name is Joshua Rankin, and he lived with the victim. Before Batman can get any information out of him, he’s shot in the head – oh dear! The next day, Batman, in his guise as punk biker, finds out from a bookseller that Tryon is a big fan of Jessup’s work, and Bats finds Tryon’s name in a Rolodex he stole from the Order’s temple. Meanwhile, the biker, Meeks, confessed to some but not all of the murders, saying they were necessary to open a gateway to “the other side.” And we learn who Senator Judson is – he’s cracking down on organized crime. A motive becomes clear! Sharon Kraft tells Batman she has a person who was almost killed in a ritual murder at a Derek Ridpath’s house, so Bats pays him a visit … right in the middle of a sacrifice! Cool! However, it turns out Ridpath is “financing a movie” – in this case, a bad horror movie, and he tells Batman that he’s trespassing. And the cops show up awfully quickly for Batman’s liking, which is explained when the cop is Manny Clove, and they were simply laying a trap for our hero. Sharon Kraft has more information – Tryon was bragging to some hookers about some of the assassins that the CIA used in the past, as well as mind-control programs they had initiated. Batman, in the meantime, decides to check out the Solucci connection, which is when we learn that Manny Clove is paying Solucci to kill Judson. Makes perfect sense, right?

It all comes to a head in the third issue of the arc, as Batman uncovers secret after secret but still seems to be one step behind. I apologize for recapping so much of the plot, but I wanted to give you an idea of what Moench is trying to do here, because a few characters mention that Batman himself might be part of the conspiracy. This is an inspired idea, because we wonder how much of this is Batman, his brain on hyperspeed, finding connections where none exist. Moench always walks the fine line between poking fun at his subject and taking it extremely seriously, which is really an excellent way to parody something and which many writers tend to forget. Despite satirizing the idea of conspiracies, “real” people were murdered, and Batman does bring the murderers to justice (he’s Batman, after all). This isn’t, however, a straight-forward case, and it ends with Batman unsatisfied and perhaps even beaten. Moench is asking us if his attempts to see everything as connected, which is a staple of superhero comics, is somehow blinding him to the randomness of life. Moench leaves some of the answers inconclusive, which might make this more frustrating than a regular superhero comic but adds some nice tension to the way Batman lives his life. Without being obvious about it (and never referencing it), Moench ties this back into the murder of Bruce’s parents – sometimes you simply can’t stop random crimes. Should we hold Batman accountable for that?

Part of Moench’s tone comes through because of Williams and Brown, who turn this book into a lurid, paranoid nightmare. It’s a very dark book visually, with shadows everywhere, including all over the faces of the characters. Eyes are either hooded or hidden behind sunglasses (including Bruce’s when he’s incognito). Moench gives Williams a ton to draw, so the fact that the pace of the prose is fast means the art speeds up, as Williams packs panels onto pages and speeds Bruce all over the country and all through the plot. Williams’ layouts aren’t as inventive as they are today, but he’s still a wonderful storyteller, and he keeps all of Moench’s feverish plot points perfectly coherent. Williams designs very distinctive characters, which helps in this story as Moench likes throwing them into the story, and we are able to be clear on all of them throughout. Williams’ Batman is more emotional than we expect, too – he smiles at one point, which is unnerving enough, but Williams draws him baring his teeth quite often, which makes him seem almost monstrous. It’s part of Moench’s theme – the conspiracy is driving Batman to be more and more reckless, and Williams does a nice job showing that without Moench being too obvious about it.

“Conspiracy” is one of those books that works on a textual level but also works very well on a metatextual level because of the writer. If you’ve read Moench’s paranoid stuff in the past, you go in expecting this to be more of the same, and you’re pleasantly surprised when he starts messing with you. If you don’t have a history with Moench, it still works … but perhaps the wry humor doesn’t come through as well. I’m not sure. Even if you don’t get the humor, Moench’s final issue does such a nice job showing how these ideas take on a life of their own and how even Batman is ineffective against them that this becomes a grand, ornate tale of Batman’s simultaneous triumph and failure. His life is a double-edged sword, of course, but rarely does a writer do such a nice job expressing that.

According to that most reliable of all sources – the Internet – “Conspiracy” has not been collected in a trade. Three issues of a Batman title, however, shouldn’t be too hard to find, right? This is a beautifully drawn comic with a lot of interesting ideas floating around in it, and it’s always nice to see Batman starring in a perverse comedy. Seek it out! Seek, too, the archives! Nothing but goodness there!

18 Comments

This looks really cool. I’d never heard of this arc, but I’ll have to track it down. Moench’s Big Book of Conspiracies from Paradox Press is one of my most re-read comics. I use it as a bible for screenwriting ideas. Why can’t DC keep putting out those Big Books? They were so good!

I read an issue of this as a kid and now I have to go dig it up! Thanks Greg! Hopefully I still have it!

Really;? Taking the piss? As in fuck you for reading and fuck you for reading Batman? Doug Moench was a great Batman writer. One of the best from what I’ve read. But seriously, a meta-textual fuck-you for reading at all? I’m gonna find these issues and read them. And if it’s really such a fuck-you-for-reading-at-all, fuck you, Doug Moench. Give me a good detective/adventure/Batman story. Not a tell-off for reading it. Seriously, if it’s as you say: FUCK YOU DOUG MOENCH.

I hope my thinking here is wrong, becuase Doug Moench has really written some of the best Batman. I hope this doesn’t make his comics a gamble to buy at all.

Are you rereading stuff in your comic collection when suggesting these runs? Were the comic runs purchased when they came out? I forget what the deal is and I couldn’t find an explanation for the series in the post for 300 in the archive. Also, have you always been as eclectic in your purchasing habits as you are now or were you previously more character loyal? In other words, did you pick up all these LOTDK runs based on the creators or because it was Batman?

I’m just curious because I only started to care much about creators, writers in particular, a few years before I quit comics in about 1997. I was pretty character loyal and never even fathomed dropping a title because of a different creative team which I know you do frequently now.

Travis Pelkie

April 7, 2010 at 3:13 am

OK, now I have to reread this arc. I know I have it, I got it with a bunch of other LDK issues several years back. I planned on digging some out because I recently read the Monsters collection of a few cool LDK arcs. This isn’t in there, but I’ll dig this out to read before I read this post. (I’m looking to get out the issues so I can read the letter columns about the James Robinson Werewolf arc that’s in Monsters, so I’ll probably dig out the McKeever arc about “Useless Eustace”, and then I’ll read… it’ll be a never-ending circle — why, an ouroboros!)

It’s interesting how Williams’ art seems to draw primary inspiration from Kelley Jones and ‘Starman’-era Tony Harris at different points.

I’ve reread these issues tons of times. great choice.

I also second the Big Book comment. Those books for the most part were so good. I’ve read the Conspiracies one 5or6 times, and it still creeps me out.

I hope Zory is “taking the piss” on irrationally angry commenters.

It’s interesting how Williams’ art seems to draw primary inspiration from Kelley Jones and ‘Starman’-era Tony Harris at different points.

Kelley Jones?! Hey, hey now, no need to insult JH Williams by saying he reminds you of Kelley Jones.

Zory: Well, I don’t mean it that harshly, but then again, I often misuse British slang. I always thought it was more having some fun, but not in a mean-spirited way. Moench is playing with our expectations a bit, but he’s not mocking us.

Da Fug: I’ve never actually explained how I do these, but basically I’m simply going through my long boxes, which are organized alphabetically. Hence the reason for no OGNs so far (except when they coincide with a run, such as the Human Target and JLA: Earth Two ones) – I store those separately, so I haven’t gotten to them yet. When I first started buying comics, I was much more loyal to characters than I am now – Batman, Spider-Man, and X-Men being my favorites (among the big boys; I have a soft spot for Looker based on the “Mud Pack” story in Detective). But I soon learned that was probably not a good way to buy books (Amazing Spider-Man got really bad during and after the McFarlane run), so I started looking for creators. So while I’m inclined to like Legends of the Dark Knight (for instance) because of the character, I did skip arcs based on the creators, if I wasn’t particularly interested in them. The first one I skipped on this title was the “Flyer” arc by Howard Chaykin and Gil Kane, mostly because I was silly back then and didn’t like Kane’s art. I know, silly.

I actually find conspiracy theorists more interesting than the theories. They’re such a portrait in contrasts. On the one hand they see these conspiracies as bad things, yet create them because they really can’t stand the idea that life is full of unrelated and/or random events.

Humans are designed and trained to look for patterns. It’s how we make pictures out of a bunch of colored dots. It’s why we see faces on the moon and Mars. We create patterns of letters and words to communicate.

I remember reading The Illuminatus Trilogy and being slightly paranoid for months afterward. It shows how nearly anything can be interpreted as conspiracy.

I also remember the Lee Harvey Oswald episode of Quantum Leap which turned out to be a big FU to Oliver Stone. Al’s comment that the idea of a single, lone gunman being able to kill the president is actually a scarier thought than a vast conspiracy hit home for me. It means that there’s really no one in control and in some mind’s that’s worse than some secret cabal manipulating events.

Some neat Tom Mandrake/Kelley Jones vibes in Williams’ art here. (And yeah, T., that’s a good thing!)

Guess who drank and commented.

If you’re not British and you frequently misuse Brittish slang, why use it at all? it just comes off as really fake.

I’m sorry, Christopher. I will remember to always use official “Pennsylvania” slang from now on.

I don’t mean to sound “authentic” – I’m just having fun. That’s why we’re here, right?

When I used to tour the local bargain bins, one of my mottos used to be “Any LOTDK issue is a good comic”. Can’t remember reading one I didn’t like…. must try to buy 1 to 100 sometime before prices become daft.

funkygreenjerusalem

November 16, 2010 at 3:56 am

DC must have read this – the story is getting collected in a 100 Page Spectacular in February!

[…] Originally Posted by Blackfist Anyone remember that Legend of the Dark Knight story "Conspiracy" drawn by J.H.Williams? No, but having read this, it sounds like fun: Comics You Should Own – Legends of the Dark Knight #86-88 | Comics Should Be Good! @ Comic Boo… […]

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