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Comics You Should Own flashback – Batman #452-454

In an effort to get the archives back, I’m going to post these a bit more often. I think I’ll get one up every Tuesday until I’m done. So hold onto your hats!

Mignola! MigNOLA!! MIGNOLA!!!!!!!

Batman by Peter Milligan (writer), Kieron Dwyer (penciller), Dennis Janke (inker), John Costanza (letterer), and Adrienne Roy (colorist).

DC, 3 issues (#452-454), cover dated August – September 1990.

Peter Milligan is one of the more bizarre comics writers out there, and not in a Grant Morrison “I love superheroes and love making them do mad, glorious things” kind of way, but in a more disturbing way. So it’s strange that he was allowed to write Batman, and not in a prestige format graphic novel like Arkham Asylum, but in the character’s two main books (I’ll get to his brief run on Detective in time). He didn’t write the character for long, but his stories of Batman are almost completely unlike anything the character has seen before or since.

Batman #452-454 was a three-part arc called “Dark Knight, Dark City.” It is simply one of the best stories featuring the Riddler ever. I have never really liked the Riddler, and Loeb’s and Lee’s recent attempt [Edit: At the time I wrote this, it was recent, and I should point out that I LOVE Paul Dini's "Edward Nigma, Consulting Detective" idea] to make him menacing just reminded me of this story, in which Mr. Nigma really IS menacing, and the nice thing is, everyone in the story wonders about it. There’s a perfectly “good” reason for it, too, and not just that it’s the way villains are these days. Milligan puts the Riddler in a situation that makes sense (in the context of a comic book, true, but still …) and the characters comment on why he has become more bloodthirsty and cruel. This is not the Riddler we know, and we wonder along with the characters what has happened to him. As the riddle is revealed, it becomes something much more grand and disturbing than anything Loeb came up with.

Milligan has always shown an interest in the dark side of life and the dark side of superheroes. That’s not to say he’s a depressing writer – a lot of his work is nastily funny (especially X-Force), but he is fascinated with getting under the skin of what makes superheroes tick and finds a lot of icky stuff. He’s also interested in the supernatural, and we get a lot of that in “Dark Knight, Dark City.” Batman is a character well suited for the supernatural, but a lot of writers shy away from it. Milligan embraces it, and we get a fabulous story.

The story of these issues is labyrinthine but never confusing. It begins in 1764 with a strange ceremony in a barn cellar in Gotham Towne. A group of men, who are clearly supposed to evoke Freemasons (Thomas Jefferson is even there!), is performing a ritual that will allow them to summon a demon and control it. The summoning part is easy, but to control it, they need to sacrifice a young girl, and some of the members balk at killing her. Something happens, the men panic, flee the scene, and lock the girl in the basement.

Cut to the present. The Riddler is leaving easy clues for Batman to follow and doing things that seem … a bit off. He puts a noose around a guard at a library and makes him stand on a stack of books (and, strangely enough, shoots the other guard in the head). When Batman arrives, he kicks the stack out and flees, leaving Batman to perform mouth-to-mouth on the almost dead guard. He kidnaps four week-old babies, none of whom came from rich families. He destroys a blood transfusion center, bathing Batman in blood. He forces Batman to a graveyard, where zombies attack him (or are they really zombies?). He kills one of his own henchmen, which is one of those things that makes everyone wonder what happened to him. He allows one of the babies to choke on a ping-pong ball, and only Batman can save it! All of these things are leading Batman somewhere, and Batman knows it, but not only can he not stop because it’s the Riddler, he can’t stop because something else is driving him on. All of this is very disturbing, even in such a usually “dark” comic like Batman. The whole story feels like something different from your run-of-the-mill Batman story, because unlike the usual Batman stories, full of crazy villains doing despicable things because they’re crazy, what the Riddler is doing seemingly defies explanation. As I mentioned, the characters themselves comment on how strangely the Riddler is acting, and Milligan milks this. He wants us to try to figure out what is going on, and he leaves us plenty of clues. This isn’t a true mystery, and we’re not supposed to figure out what’s going on until Milligan tells us, but he does want us to follow along with Batman and try to understand what is going on. We are there with Batman as he goes through these hoops, and we are struggling toward something that is darker than anything the Joker ever came up with. Why is it “darker”? Because of the twist Milligan puts into the story, and that is the role Gotham City itself plays in the drama. Gotham City has fluctuated in the comic book between a wild, fun house place in the 1950s to a sleek, modern place in the 1970s, and back to a gothic horror show. Some writers have made it a character in the books, as in the awful crossover when the city was blown up and replaced by Anton Furst’s designs (not that I don’t like the designs, but the execution of the idea was awful) and some other stories, but I can’t recall any writer doing with the city what Milligan does. Frank Miller was probably the first to suggest that Batman’s origin was more closely tied to the city than previously thought, but Milligan goes further and suggests that Batman could not exist without the city. Some people may cry foul with Milligan’s tinkering of the origin, but it’s one of those things that works well in the story but can safely be ignored by any other writer, which is what has happened. So, no harm, no foul, and it makes the story much more interesting and puts in our mind what really makes someone a hero. Gotham is a truly eerie place in Milligan’s mind, one of those cities that warps its very inhabitants. In my recent post about Aztek, I didn’t go into the city of Vanity all that much, even though it was obvious Morrison was going somewhere with the personality of the city. Gotham, in Milligan’s story, is not necessarily malevolent, but it is a place that has a purpose, and it is trying to achieve that purpose. The city becomes a force, and it’s an interesting take on Batman’s town.

Milligan isn’t all that interested in making Batman a “dark” character, despite the title of the story and the various aspects I have discussed. The key to Milligan’s Batman is that he is someone who wants to unravel the evil of the world, but he never loses sight of the brightness that can come through the evil. There has been a tendency to write Batman as a crazed avenger of the wronged, someone who drives himself to fight and is brutal when he metes out justice. In “Dark Knight, Dark City,” interestingly enough, he hardly fights. He’s involved in some fights, sure, because we must have action!, but he’s busy pursuing the Riddler, and Nigma keeps him jumping and trying to save victims. This is a Batman completely concerned with saving the victims instead of defeating the bad guys. He doesn’t even get to beat up the Riddler at the end, because he’s too busy saving yet another victim. Although there is something very weird going on in Gotham and there is plenty of creepiness in these three issues, Milligan is too good a writer to indulge in mindless violence. His Batman is a man who cares more about unraveling the mystery and helping the oppressed than beating the crap out of the bad guys. In too many Batman stories, the victims are simply forgotten too quickly so Batman can beat up the perpetrator. Here, that’s not the concern.

There are a lot of great Batman stories. Most of them, however, follow a similar theme of street crime and horror and Batman dispensing some butt-kicking. Ever since Miller’s “Year One,” that has been the thing to do. Batman, however, can be used in a lot of different scenarios, and supernatural stories are a perfect fit. This is one of the best examples of that kind of story, and well worth the time to track it down. The issues haven’t been collected in a trade, but there are only three of them. How hard could it be to find them? And you know you’re dying to check out the archives!

[Edit: Once again, I apologize for not discussing the art more. Kieron Dwyer is a good draughtsmen, one of those pre-Image artists whose work is somewhat yeomanlike and always well done without having an overwhelming style. I enjoy the art on this arc, but it's difficult for me to express what I like about it except that Dwyer doesn't screw it up. When I re-read these posts, I'm a bit bummed that I didn't write better about the art. Again, I point you toward the samples I provide so you can check out Dwyer's work. And beg your forgiveness!]
[Edit Part Two: It's a coincidence that this was the next "flashback" post in the queue, as Mr. Grant Morrison just referenced this story in Batman and Robin #11, which came out last week. Go pick these issues up if you want to know what this "Barbathos" that Alfred speaks of is all about!]

21 Comments

I really wish they would put all of Milligan’s Batman in a trade or two. “Dark Knight, Dark City!” “The Hungry Grass!” “The Executioner Wore Stiletto Heels!” They were all pretty awesome.

Surprised this isn’t in trade due to the reference to this story in Morrison’s Batman + Robin

Probably my favorite run on Batman in the 90s. I also think Milligan’s work on Infinity Inc was hampered by disastrous artwork and a rotating team of artists that simply didn’t fit his more complex ideas.
It’s funny but Marvel seems to understand this much better than DC nowadays.

I been reading alot of Peter Milligan stuff lately so I will will have to check this out. I wish there was someone who talk about his body of work like they do with other writers but I guess his not really having a big hit he doesnt get much notice .

I have plans to write about some Milligan comics in the near future, but academia and basic schlubbery has me unable to pull stuff together right now. But wait and see, my friend, wait and see!

This is one of my all-time favourite Batman stories. Also, it’s personally memorable for my mum’s expression of horror when I casually asked a friend “did you get to the bit where Batman cuts the baby’s throat yet?”

One of the highlights of a great era for Batman (the late 80s/early 90s). Fantastic story with a very high re-readability.

My all-time favourite Batman story arc–impressive how much went into just three issues. In later years, this would have been spread out over a year, much to the story’s deteriment.

Good analysis! I like the pulpy, kind-of-anything-goes Batman tales that regularly mix the supernatural with mad science and weird locales.

Best part of this story is Batman being utterly clueless of what to do with the new attitude Riddler and shows it by trying to very weakly negotiate/reason with him throughout, especially at the end.

Great story from this era.

Been a long while since I’ve read this, but Milligan was far better writer for Batman than he gets credit for. I feel bad Dwyer gets short shrift since it is a rock solid job, but I think a lot of us who read it always felt slightly disappointed Mignola didn’t due the interiors as well as those three awesome covers he did for this.

I have heard of this story before, and I need to read it mostly because I want to know how the bat-demon fits into Batman’s origin. Even if it were just a myth, the idea that there WAS a legend of a Bat-monster who preyed on criminals before Bruce started fighting crime from the shadows would explain why he took the name “Batman” better than the old “because a bat flew into his house while he was trying to think of a name”. (I’ve never liked the “this will scare criminals! They’re a superstitious, cowardly lot!” concept, because, well, MOST criminals aren’t superstitious or cowardly! But if there had ACTUALLY been something looking like a bat (certainly more than Wayne’s costume that’s definitely NOT designed to look like a bat-monster on clear light, and he couldn’t stay in the dark forever) haunting Gotham once, it becomes a little more believable. (maybe Bruce wore a stealth suit first, ala BATMAN BEGINS, then designed a full hero costume once he decided to show himself in public- at the behest of Superman perhaps? And no, the idea most people though Batman was just a myth FOR OVER A DECADE despite his having been a very visible member of the Justice League is not believable either.)

I have been avoiding these columns by you, not because they weren’t good but because you had a tendency to overdo the spoilers. So I started reading them only after I already read the comics being discussed. But I took a chance on this installment and was pleasantly surprised. Great synopsis without excessive spoilage. I’m going to hunt down this arc.

T.: I’ve been trying to avoid spoilers recently (well, I did write this a bit over four years ago, so I tried back then, too), because I know you and others were a bit grumpy about them. I do list when they’re there, and I still defend the use of them when I do spoil things, but I am trying!

I was thinking about this arc the last time I read this column and wondered why it hadn’t been covered yet. This was truly a great story in the middle of a couple of years of mediocre stories in the solo “Batman” title. It would be great to see this story collected. I own the original issues but would buy it anyway.

I love Peter Milligan. I remember seeing his merits debated on a recent message board, so I will introduce some controversy: Milligan > Gaiman.

One of my favourite Batman stories. Love the Mignola covers.

[...] Comics You Should Own flashback – Batman #452-454 | Comics Should Be Good! @ Comic Book Resour… – [...]

[...] Riddler leading Batman on a merry chase (Comic Book Resources offers an excellent review of it here.) Milligan also tweaked Gotham history somewhat, establishing the idea that a centuries-old demon [...]

[...] about what I had just read. This collection’s biggest fault, to me, though is not reprinting the Mike Mignola covers between issues. For the record, there are 88 pages of story in this book, some ads, a 4 page The [...]

[...] Reading: Scans of the Pages A Comics Alliance Note on Intersections Between Milligan and Morrison From a Catalog of Important Comic Runs Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this [...]

I read this one as a child. It was _the_ Batman comics for me. I will never forget the girl and how sad I was about her.

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