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Gimmick or Good? – Legends of the Dark Knight #1

In this column, Mark Ginocchio (from Chasing Amazing) takes a look at the gimmick covers from the 1990s and gives his take on whether the comic in question was just a gimmick or whether the comic within the gimmick cover was good. Hence “Gimmick or Good?” Here is an archive of all the comics featured so far. We continue with perhaps the very first variant cover, 1989′s Legends of the Dark Knight #1!

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Legends of the Dark Knight #1 (published November 1989) – script by Dennis O’Neil, art by Ed Hannigan and John Beatty

With Comics Should Be Good honoring the 75th anniversary of Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27 over the next few months, Gimmick or Good would like to jump into this celebration as well. Legends of the Dark Knight #1 (LOTDK) is actually a landmark comic to discuss for this column as many believe this issue was among the industry’s very first variant/gimmick covers.

Fresh off the success of Tim Burton’s Batman film in the summer of 1989, plus the popularity of Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One arc two years earlier, DC launched the first brand new Batman title in nearly 40 years in LOTDK. To commemorate this occasion, LOTDK was published with four different “collector’s edition” outer covers.

But what about inside the comic?

The premise behind LOTDK was that DC wanted the series to feature storylines that took place outside the current events of its other Batman titles. The end result of this editorial direction was a number of flashback stories about Batman/Bruce Wayne’s origins, much in the style of Year One.

The opening arc of the series is the five-part “Shaman,” which provides context as to how the image/symbol of the bat became so prevalent in Wayne’s life. The comic opens with Wayne and a bounty hunter climbing a mountain in Alaska when the bounty hunter is killed. Bruce is left by himself, without a parka, in the frigid Alaskan temperatures when a Native America tribe finds him and rescues him. While he’s recuperating, one of Bruce’s rescuers tells the story of The Bat growing its wings in order to help a Raven heal.

LOTDK_01

This tale proves to be prescient as Bruce returns home to Gotham and continues his training as a vigilante crime fighter. With the Shaman’s story serving as inspiration, he dons the mask of the bat and becomes Batman.

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The story of how Bruce put the “bat” in Batman is one that has been addressed by numerous creative teams across multiple media. The mystical angle that LOTDK lends to the origin story is totally serviceable in its own right, At the time this story was published, DC was in the midst of reimagining its Batman universe, so I’m at a loss as to whether or not this is still considered continuity or not. But in reading it 25 years after the fact, I have no problems following along and accepting “Shaman” puts forward.
Something that is a bit tougher to determine is whether or not some of the comic’s dialogue is a bit stilted and awkward by design or by accident. Like in the scene where Batman – fully in costume – confronts a group of thugs for the first time, he warns them that they can either “crawl on your bellies,” begging forgiveness, or “I hurt you.” The syntax of these words lack grace and elegance, but at the same time, it works for a character that is trying to find his footing and is fighting insecurity and uncertainty as a costumed crime fighter.

LOTDK_03

I did enjoy the vintage aesthetic of the Ed Hannigan/John Beatty art team. They are clearly drawing a ton of inspiration from Mazzucchelli’s phenomenal work on Year One. The use of shadows, reds and blues throughout the comic give it a gritty, somber tone, that feels like its straight out of the 1930s or 40s.
Even with the darker tone and aesthetic, the comic manages to produce some very funny moments, most notably a scene with Bruce and Alfred where the butler tells “Master Bruce” that his obsession with weaponry is making him look like “Gotham’s answer to Attila the Hun.” When Bruce asks him where else he could be making some investments, Alfred tells him “here’s a chap who needs money to prove that Shakespeare was really twin pigmies.”

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As a whole, LOTDK #1 reads well and is entertaining enough, especially for a first issue, despite the fact that there’s nothing all that revelatory or groundbreaking about it. This very rarely gets tossed around in the discussion for one of the better Batman storylines, even though it was published at a time where popularity and casual interest in the character was at its peak. But since the column, by name, is Gimmick or Good, and not Gimmick or Groundbreaking, let me wish Batman a 75th birthday by forgiving some of the comic’s clunky dialogue and embracing everything else about it that I thought was a good time.

Verdict: Good

35 Comments

I’ve never read this one, but the art seems very good. Damn, more than good, actually. After seeing so many obnoxious 1990s artwork in this column, the artwork here is beautiful, clear, and dramatic for real, as opposed to faux-dramatic-posing-for-the-poster nineties.

The art’s pretty decent, especially for the time, but it really looks like they are trying to imitate Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen work. Especially that 9-panel page.

“Shaman” was a solid story arc that gets short shrift due to the more memorable arcs that followed it, like Grant Morrison & Klaus Janson “Gothic”.

I remember this one! It was great issue.

Shaman is a great one. Definitely reads great as a stylistic offshoot of Year One and Denny O’Neil is the best at balancing the humor and darkness that other writers seem to choose between.

The story arcs in LOTDK weren’t supposed to necessarily be in-continuity, something they stuck with for quite a while before plugging in chapters of a couple of event storylines later in the run. I remember thinking that was a good idea, since they were mostly set in the “Year One” period and making them in-continuity would mean cramming the debuts of pretty much all the major villains into a single year.
Of course, in the New 52, that sort of compression is the rule (eyeroll).

I like the art, but something freaks me out about Bruce’s chest hair in the page where he’s getting dressed. Granted, maybe this is totally how it works in real life and I’m an idiot, but why is it drawn as a stripe with no hair surrounding it?

Agree, good issue, but those covers are straight-up gimmick. Irrelevant and uninteresting. The actual cover is a striking piece by George Pratt, hidden by this weak multi-colored, gotta-have-em-all-for-no-reason design. At least foil or embossed or chromium have ‘ooh shiny!’ visual appeal. These are boring. Too bad, since the story and art inside are strong.

Good opening issue and a fantastic series. Some classic arcs and many great writers . Alan grant, grant Morrison, Denny o Neil, Garth Ennis etc. Great stuff

I actually pulled the trade of this story off the shelf this morning, as I hadn’t read it in about ten years!
It definitely feels like O’Neil was trying to write as if Batman was still figuring out his gimmick.
The art is good, but as I first picked this up after Venom, Gothic and a bunch of Aparo and Breyfogle stuff, it wasn’t anything special – it just seemed like Batman House style version 2, to echo a current theme. The colouring is the best thing about it, with Richmond Lewis echoing her(?) Year One work.

What came after in LOTDK was much better.

Forgot to mention – M Sanchez is dead-on. The gimmick cover served no purpose other than to cover up a great George Pratt painting. The cover of issue 1 featured the Alaskan bat mask, and then each subsequent issue shows the previous cover being peeled away to show Batman, then Bruce, then a skull, and then Batman smashing through the skull.

…ok, it sounds hokey when written like that, but they’re a really powerful set of images.

Like many others have stated, the original cover, which serves as the start to the very cool theme of a mask shattering and revealing what’s underneath (Mask, Batman, Bruce, Skull, Batman) is far more interesting than the multi-cover gimmick. I wouldn’t say it’s the origin of overbearing variants, but it was definitely a sign of things to come.

You gotta love that “The first new ‘solo’ Batman book since 1940!” tagline. These days, you’d, pretty much, have to change it to “The first new ‘solo’ Batman book since last month”.

“We continue with perhaps the very first variant cover, 1989?s Legends of the Dark Knight #1!”

I thought it was common knowledge that Man of Steel #1 had the first variant cover.

As other people have mentioned, this is one of the laziest, most pointless variant cover out there. Even though I’m not a huge fan of variant covers, thanks to the price gouging awfulness that usually accompanied them in the 90s, most of them at least are visually interesting. Not necessarily good. But at least a chrome or glow in the dark or hologram cover are kind of interesting to looks at. This is just so plain and boring, you have to wonder who thought it was a good idea to begin with?

Cory!! Strode

June 5, 2014 at 5:52 pm

I worked in comics retail at the time and DC did not solicit the book as having multiple covers…they saw the initial orders and though that comic shops had made a HUGE mistake and were overordering, since the orders were far above anything DC had done in ages. So, they came up with the idea for the outer cover, told the shops a few weeks ahead of shipping and hoped that collectors would pick up all four and shops wouldn’t be stuck with tons of unsold copies. We had JUST come off the black and white boom and bust, and they felt that shops were getting back into the “This is a collectable” investment mode.

They had no idea how right they were.

You should also feature the Venom storyline from LOTDK(issues 16-20) since that was the storyline editor Denny O’Neil wanted to open the series up with but Warner Bros. didn’t let him because they didn’t want to have Bruce Wayne/Batman portrayed as a drug addict.

Thanks for reminding me, i bought two copies when it came out, and still have one unopened in the attic :-)

@Brodie If memory serves, Man of Steel offers two different covers, a direct edition and newsstand one, something a few other comics also did in the later 80s (like ASM Annual #21)… but LOTDK was the first to actually market multiple variant covers without the distinction of direct and newsstand. It’s a technicality I realize, but in all the research I’ve done for this column since i started last year, this comic has been cited by a few retailers/history buffs as the first true “gimmick” cover.

There are a ton of good stories in the original run of Legends of the Dark Knight. Lots of good artist and writers did a story in that book. That is a good series to pickup in a run or lot of ebay for reading, as they are self contained stories.

Decent, well-crafted and enjoyable. I hope MANY EVENTS/STORIES are equally good similar to the GLOSSY/GREAT cover art/variants.

IIRC, Legends of the Dark Knight started out as a direct market only book. Which was frustrating to me. I had gotten the first three issues through a comic shop at a mall some distance from where I lived. I kept going to the newsstand every week hoping for the next issue only to walk away disappointed. It would be almost two years before I understood what “Direct Market” meant. I was just a kid and pretty ignorant.

I loved the first few years of LOTDK. The book had kind of a Vertigo vibe in those days.

I haven’t read this comic in so long. Thanks for reminding me of how good it is. That is some impressive art!

The first “variant” covers were Justice League #3 and Firestorm #61, testing the alternate DC logo at 7-11′s in 1987. I understand the Direct Market/Newsstand market distinction, but technically THESE two were the first variant covers.

I just grabbed one at random. It was the blue cover. I honestly thought it was silly to have four different covers on top of the regular cover, but it didn’t overly bother me. In any case, “Shaman” itself was a good story.

As Paul B noted above, for the first few years Batman: LOTDK was kinda sorta out-of-continuity. I actually liked this idea, as it gave the different creative teams a lot of leeway to experiment and try different things, tell various types of stories, without tripping over each others’ feet, or worrying about how Bruce fit all of these different adventures into the first two years of his vigilante career.

Of course some of the material from those stories did later become acknowledged in the other Batman books set in the “present day.” The most obvious example is the addictive strength-enhancing Venom drug, which Denny O’Neil introduced in LOTDK #16-20. That, of course, became one of the main components of Bane’s backstory and his ability to defeat Batman during the big “Knightquest” crossover a couple of years later.

If I may correct the review on a minor point, since these issues were intended as a prequel to Miller and Mazzuchelli’s Batman, Year One books, that’s the look I was trying to evoke, not Gibbon’s Watchmen.

And, I might add that these were the highest selling comics I ever worked on. Good thing too, because they came out right as we bought a house in New Hampshire and were expecting our first child, so they paid a lot of bills.

I had the graphic novel of this storyline as a kid, and to this day I still have fond memories of it and a lot of the visuals have remained with me.

But those were seriously the covers for the first issue??? I recall in the graphic novel each chapter began with a new painting. I think it was the Shaman’s mask as the first one, then as each issue progressed the mask opened up and there was either a bat’s head or Batman’s mask behind it. I always assumed those were the issues’ covers, not a two-color graphic thing that looks like those iPod ads from the early 2000′s.

James Kosmicki

June 6, 2014 at 8:39 am

Cory Strode is exactly right. DC was being a responsible publisher, NOT trying to create a gimmick. This became a gimmick after the fact. I remember at the time that DC was incredibly worried that retailers had over-ordered this book. It’s very clear that they did not intend the cheap colored (and if I recall correctly, it was cheaper paper too) over-cover to be the original cover. Why would they pay for such a night painted cover if they did? And when they reprinted this, they only made use of the painted covers.

DC later joined in on the comic bubble special cover madness, but this was NOT one of those cases, except in retrospect.

The covers are clearly marked “Collector’s Special.” It was definitely a sales gimmick. I don’t think using sales gimmicks is necessarily in conflict with being a responsible publisher. The books need to sell, ya know?

Legends had a really strong first couple of years; Shaman, while still good, was the weakest of the opening four five-parters (Gothic, Venom, and Prey being the others). After that things get less memorable other than Matt Wagner’s Faces and the early Loeb/Sale batman work, though.

This is also a case where the ‘gimmick’ wasn’t so much the covers as much as the rest of the format: a new Batman #1 before that happened all the time, a schedule of miniseries-length self-contained stories rather than either one or two parters or continuously serialized continuities, and the first book featuring one of their mainstream properties in that format and price-point.

Agree with all the positive comments about this, my favorite Bat-book. Even the not-so-great stories were at least interesting. There was some decent stuff past the first couple of years too. I fondly remember the Dixon-written story about a cyberpunk-style future with Gotham getting a private security force. It had a very strange art style.

I remember in the 90s thinking when all the mediocre Elseworlds prestige books (some were excellent, but Elseworlds became its own kind of gimmick and wore out its welcome for me) were coming out, why not just run these as 2-parters in LOTDK?

@Ed- it may have been your best selling, but you were already doing great work on Green Arrow. I remember thinking post Longbow Hunters the ongoing didn’t miss a beat.

@Anonymous…that’s just the love trail…. ;-)

I meant to respond to that comment about the chest hair too – it’s actually his stomach hair, and that’s the way it’s shaped sometimes. I think all the groomed abs and chests in Hollywood give people a distorted sense of what mens’ bodies really look like.

Paul Cassenelli

June 7, 2014 at 6:52 am

I was about 15 yrs into reading & collecting comics when this came out. I was pushing 22 & was at a point I had slowed down the few years before this. So I had the watchmen grafic novel, but didn’treally read it fully at the time. So I didn’t have that on the front of my mind to compare. From what I recall I liked it as much as the reg. stuff that was coming out. I know that we have so many different artist & writers in the industry that alot of stuff looks the same or gives us that de ja vu feeling. What really is 100% original in life? Nothing. So we shouldn’t nit pick about every thing that bugs us in this form of media. Art in comics as in old museums are things for us to enjoy & look for the positive in it. Other wise we would all hate the Kirby’s & Byrnes of our universe.I’m just glad I was able to read & own so many books thru time that has now become classic & the standard. The down size of me not being 100% collector at the time, had me putting over 20 long boxes into a buddies finished basement that never before flooded & as I moved down so to help family on a farm they bought Ended up floating out the back door & ruining my most valuable part of my life all in a flash. It took me over 12 years to just go buy some new batmans every so often. But after going thru some tragic life altering shit, I was on the brink of death & it was comics that brought me back in & saved me from taking my life. So to this day & buy & read over 100 books every month & cherish the memories of what I lost & what I am slowly replacing which is really hard being unfit to work anymore since I was 37. I think the 1 variant version that no one has come up with for new books, is not just a different cover by some other artist. But why not have the complete inside art be drawn by another artist ? Now that would lite a fire with collectors & fans of art alike. Just make sure whom ever does this 1 day, give me my credit for the idea. Thanks for the great memories & may all the different caretakers of our heros live on forever.P.a.C.

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