One of my favorite prequel books of all time is Batman: Year One, written by Frank Miller, so when I learned that Miller was teaming up with Brian Azzarello to give us a prequel to The Dark Knight Returns, it definitely piqued my interest. Today, Major Spoilers reviews Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade.
A DYNAMIC DUO
Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade is the story of an aging Bruce Wayne going through an identity crisis of sorts. He is addicted to his life as Batman but the aches and pains that come with being the protector of a city such as Gotham are starting to catch up with him. Bruce realizes that he will soon need to hang up the cape and cowl for good, but not until he has a successor. He wants to pass the torch to his sidekick, Jason Todd, aka Robin, but fears that he isn’t quite ready. Bruce’s fears are realized as Robin’s recklessness results in him meeting his maker. While this was only mentioned in passing in the original Dark Knight Returns, it was clear that this was an incredibly traumatic experience for Bruce that ultimately led to him retiring. What we didn’t get in the original story, though, were the inner-conflicts, both emotional and physical, he was having prior to Jason Todd’s demise. Miller and Azzarello show us a Bruce Wayne who is struggling to come to terms with the fact that he can’t be Batman forever (no pun intended). The rate of his physical decline is far outpacing Jason Todd’s ascension towards becoming the next Dark Knight and in the meantime, the ugly, criminal underbelly of Gotham isn’t waiting for them to steady the ship.
The universe in which The Dark Knight Returns takes place is more abrasive than the traditional DCU. That being said, I really liked the interpretation of Jason Todd, a character already known for being the most reckless one to take up the mantle of Robin. Miller and Azzarello dial the intensity up to 11 with Jason, having him opt to throw a Batarang directly into a gunman’s arm rather than simply knocking the weapon out of his hand. His biggest flaw, as pointed out by Bruce, is that he lacks compassion, and the writers do an excellent job depicting this. There’s also the scene where Jason slams a van door closed right onto a thug’s head, resulting in a large pool of blood at the Boy Wonder’s feet. While they don’t outright say that the thug is dead, let’s face it – he’s dead. What seemed off for me was Jason calling the police to intervene in the beat down Batman was receiving at the hands of Killer Croc. This is something I would expect from perhaps Tim Drake’s Robin but for Jason Todd, it felt a bit out of character.
Some of the most prevalent members of Batman’s rogues gallery are on full display in this book as we get some awesome sequences with Killer Croc and Poison Ivy, and of course there is the inclusion of everyone’s favorite Clown Prince of Crime. I touched on it briefly before, but Batman truly gets his cowl handed to him by Killer Croc in this story. The aging vigilante struggling to combat a villain he’s handled on numerous occasions helps further establish just how close to the breaking point Batman really is. The moments with Poison Ivy are a welcomed touch, though not nearly as action-packed. The most intrigue in regards to the villains, though, comes from Miller and Azzarello’s depiction of the Joker. The typically manic and wild Joker is his usual self when he’s being dragged to his cell in Arkham Asylum but he takes on a much calmer demeanor throughout the rest of the story, inciting chaos around him with his mere presence alone. It’s eerily disturbing to see the serene look on his face while simultaneously watching Jason Todd get beaten to death in the final pages of this book.
TEACHING AN OLD BAT NEW TRICKS
The art in this book comes to us courtesy of the incredibly talented John Romita Jr., with inks and colors by Peter Steigerwald. To new readers, the art from the original Dark Knight Returns might be a bit jarring, but Romita adds just enough of his own personal style to the point where he creates a modern interpretation of the classic, gritty pencil work we got from Frank Miller in the 80’s. There is a time and a place for clean, crisp lines and this book is not one of them. JRJR also pays homage to the source material by utilizing the television screen-style panels I so fondly remember but thankfully, they’re not as over-utilized. Steigerwald’s inks and colors lend themselves perfectly to Romita’s art, adding contrast and depth to the rigid line work and casting a pale, muted overtone atop a city once described by famed writer Dennis O’Neil as “Manhattan below Fourteenth Street at eleven minutes past midnight on the coldest night in November”. Romita and Steigerwald work together to create beautifully gory action sequences that, like the seminal work of the 1980’s, show you that comics aren’t just for kids. The lettering by Clem Robins is good, particularly the onomatopoeia that offers some gorgeous contrast. My one gripe is that when characters are communicating off-panel, there’s little to no differentiation between the rectangular caption boxes, making it difficult to distinguish who the diaglogue is coming from.
BOTTOM LINE: A PREQUEL ON PAR WITH THE SEQUEL
Whether you’re a fan of the original Dark Knight Retuns or not, I highly recommend reading The Last Crusade. If you have read the original, you may get more enjoyment out of this book and if not, you might just find yourself wanting to take a trip back to the 1980’s to see what you’ve missed out on. Either way, this was a solid read that as a Batman fan, scratched a very particular itch I’ve had for quite some time.