Long overdue, Batman: Dark Knight, Dark City has finally been collected in its first ever trade paperback. If you’ve never read it before, get ready for perhaps the best supernatural Batman story of all time. And don’t worry, I won’t give away too many details from this thrilling story filled with mystery and some of the most shocking moments ever in a Batman comic — you won’t be able to look at a ping-pong ball the same way again.
The trade paperback Batman: Dark Knight, Dark City includes the following stories from 1990 and 1991 Batman and Detective Comics:
“Dark Knight, Dark City”
Written by Peter Milligan
Art by Kieron Dwyer, Dennis Janke, and Adrienne Roy (Covers by Mike Mignola)
“The Hungry Grass!”
Detective Comics #629
Written by Peter Milligan
Art by Jim Aparo, Steve Leialoha, and Adrienne Roy (Cover by Michael Golden)
“And the Executioner Wore Stiletto Heels”
Detective Comics #630
Written by Peter Milligan
Art by Jim Aparo, Mike DeCarlo, and Adrienne Roy (Cover by Michael Golden)
“The Golem of Gotham”
Detective Comics #631-632
Written by Peter Milligan
Art by Jim Aparo, Mike DeCarlo, and Adrienne Roy (Covers by Michael Golden and George Pratt)
Detective Comics #633
Written by Peter Milligan
Art by Tom Mandrake, Mike DeCarlo, and Adrienne Roy (cover by Michael Golden)
Dark Knight, Dark City
If you’ve read my reviews before then you know I’m a steak ‘n potatoes kind of Batman fan who likes a serious approach to the material the best. When ghosts and goblins or aliens show up, to me, 99% of the time I know I’m not going to see Batman at his best. I like my Bat-books to have the feel of Serpico or Taxi Driver. I also think struggle makes a good story and an even better hero so I don’t like it when things look too easy for The Dark Knight, especially when he takes a terrible beating yet seems to be at 100% stamina in the very next chapter. However, even though I side with a gritty and more “real” approach to the world of Gotham I never much cared for a Batman who was overly stoic or downright rude to those around him. The compassion has to be there, he needs to truly care not just for Gotham as an idea, but for every individual person he’s protecting without falling into an inescapable despair when failure inevitably occurs. Gotham, to me, is a lost cause and Batman knows that those are the causes most worth fighting for. Well, Batman: Dark Knight, Dark City possesses all of those elements I love as well as something ethereal and absolutely horrifying, and it works spectacularly.
Not a page is wasted in Peter Milligan and Kieron Dwyer’s three-part thriller. It is an unrelenting piece that only comes closes to giving its reader the chance to breathe when it cuts to flashbacks of a chilling scene of human sacrifice in the deep dark places of 18th century Gotham, which is also where the story begins. Milligan and Dwyer open with these startling images without the slightest explanation and then with the turn of a page we’re abruptly transported to present day Gotham where we see more traditional Batman imagery: a rooftop meeting between our hero and Commissioner Gordon, who has news about The Riddler. It is jarring to suddenly be in a moment so ordinary to the Batman mythos after the occult scenario we’ve just seen, but the foreboding tone lingers in cryptic narration by a voice claiming to be Gotham itself. Milligan has succeeded in establishing that something is definitely not right here and this will not be the typical battle of wits between Batman and The Riddler, there is something else beneath the surface. In fact, when we meet Riddler it’s apparent to us and The Caped Crusader that something is horribly wrong with Edward Nygma. Riddler’s actions are not only more unpredictable than ever before, but he’s leaving a trail of bodies behind him and even murdering his own henchmen as if he were The Clown Prince of Crime.
As soon as Batman exits the GCPD roof he’s being sent down a strange labyrinth where you’ll see The Caped Crusader do things you’ve never seen him do in any other comic. It’s a great, dark mystery and you’ll be trying to figure out the meaning of Riddler’s seemingly random and surreal attacks just like the world’s greatest detective is, but none of it will become clear until you reach a finale that shares more in common with works of horror than detective fiction.
My only complaint with this tale was that I wish Gordon was as well utilized as the rest of the cast. Alfred is perfectly portrayed as confidant and crime-fighting partner and this twisted take on The Riddler retains the character’s brilliance and arrogance while showing off something far more sinister that I won’t spoil. But most of all I loved how smart Batman was portrayed and how human he is throughout this strange story that successfully adds supernatural elements to a Gotham that shares a similar texture to that of Batman: Year One. You see Bruce getting worn down by this race across the city, which not only takes a toll on his body but his heart and mind. You’ll witness some fine examples here of a Batman who’s not just a genius and a bad ass, but a Batman who is deeply concerned about the people he’s saving.
The artwork in this is really well done, too. While some might be disappointed that Mike Mignola only did the covers of these three issues, artist Kieron Dwyer executed some incredibly memorable visuals and maintained an undeniable level of tension throughout this story. And the way some of the tale’s most gruesome moments were portrayed were very cinematic in a less-is-more sort of way that we just don’t see enough of in comics or film. Dwyer may have been censored, but he may also have understood that sometimes it’s best to keep the most gory and frightening images off-panel where our imaginations can make it far more scary than any artist’s pencil.
Some fun facts, Easter Eggs, and random thoughts I wanted to note include:
- Dark Knight, Dark City did some tinkering to the origin of Batman and Gotham to fit its narrative and this was largely forgotten (arguably for good reason) until many of these elements played a major influence on Grant Morrison’s Batman & Robin.
- A few issues of Scott Snyder’s recent Zero Year storyline that featured the Riddler was titled “Dark City” which may or may not just be coincidence.
- Look out for the book “Seduction of the Innocent” in the library scene. This was the real-life book that claimed comic books were a cause of juvenile delinquency and Batman & Robin were gay partners.
- Batman calls his Batmobile “baby” at one point, which reminded me of the great story “Driven” which also showed us a Batman who really loved his car.
- If I were to grade this story alone I would give it a 10/10
The Hungry Grass!
Another eerie outside-the-box Gotham adventure in which something supernatural taints the city streets. This one-and-done tale features great art by the legendary Jim Aparo and a strange narrative in which author Peter Milligan uses the world of Batman to explore the Irish legend of fairy grass or “Hungry Grass.” However, despite this piece diving into the paranormal, I believe the greatest horror found within these pages was the true-to-life actions of a corrupt police force which set these bizarre events in motion.
- Detective Comics #629 “The Hungry Grass” also features the first appearance of Blackgate Prison (later known as Blackgate Penitentiary) which, at the time, was an abandoned institution. Here’s how it’s described: “It was closed five years ago. Built in the late nineteen hundreds, condemned by Amnesty International, its history reads like an Edgar Allan Poe novel.”
And the Executioner Wore Stiletto Heels
Story and art took a bit of a stumble in this one-shot that was strange just for the sake of being strange. The concept itself is quite good: The FBI seeks Batman’s help to track down an escaped convict before the man either escapes the country or is killed by one of the world’s most dangerous hitmen. But then Milligan adds stranger elements like how the wanted man has a supernatural ability to make anyone do whatever he says and that the hitman is actually a pair of Siamese twins who oddly enough are different races. But the oddities aren’t what brought this story down, it was the pacing. There was too much ground to cover and much of the time is spent having Batman explain to us what happened between panels that make rather large leaps in time or location or showcase action that’s kind of indecipherable on its own. The usually terrific Aparo’s artwork also fails to sync up with the narration in many scenes (particularly one that repeatedly emphasizes muddy terrain and a lack of visibility yet is presented as being clean and clear) and there were a couple of panels that had a poor take on perspective, giving the characters and their surroundings a two-dimensional look. There’s a decent story in here, but it needed less silliness and more pages for Aparo to take his time drawing it and Milligan to tell the tale without rushing. Amazing cover, though.
The Golem of Gotham
Believe it or not, not every clay-person Batman fights is named Clayface. In “Golem of Gotham” writer Peter Milligan takes inspiration from folklore yet again with a tale that features an elderly Jewish man who creates a golem to defend his community after the neighborhood comes under attack by a band of neo-Nazis. But like in most all golem folklore (and really, the old man should’ve seen this coming) the monstrous creation stops listening to its master. However, unlike most all golem folklore, this time Batman is there to step in when things go pear-shaped.
“Golem of Gotham” is alright, but it’s an example of supernatural elements just not clicking with The Dark Knight. It has solid Jim Aparo artwork, its story held my interest, and it definitely wasn’t short on human drama, but where it was lacking was in the Batman department. In fact, I think it would have been a stronger piece if it wasn’t a Batman story at all– something I don’t say often about anything. In fact, I almost always find myself saying “That would’ve been better with Batman in it” after finishing any work of fiction– I’m looking at you, Steel Magnolias!
The emotional core of this two-parter was the tormented Jew, Saul Zwemer, who battles not only with the neo-Nazis terrorizing his streets, but with the lingering memory of his act of cowardice during The Holocaust. It’s all very emotional and you really see the struggle he’s going through when the golem ignores his orders and begins attacking everyone that crosses its path because the golem isn’t just a weapon to Saul, the golem is his redemption. Although Saul is the only one who can stop the golem, he can’t bring himself to destroy the monster because a part of him feels that he would be giving up against the Nazis and with the golem also taking the form of a man Saul betrayed all those years ago, it would be like sending his friend to his death all over again.
See? That’s pretty interesting. But no other supporting Batman characters play a part, Gotham could’ve easily been any other city, and as for Batman’s role in all of that? Well, he’s basically just as observer and his observations are boring to us because we readers aren’t figuring things out at the same time as Batman. Most of these pages are spent following Saul and so we all know exactly what has happened/is happening way ahead of The Caped Crusader, which makes all of Batman’s scenes downright boring. And remember how I said Saul was the only one who could stop the golem? That holds true.
- I just want to note this great line from Batman’s inner monologue, which I doubt I’ll ever see in another book: “There’s blood in my mouth and curry sauce on my cape. I wish that were the other way around.”
Bruce Wayne is drowning in the Gotham River. He swims to the surface, crawls to shore, and realizes he has no memory of how he ever got into such a horrible situation. Even more distressing is the fact that once he makes his way back to Wayne Manor he discovers that the Batcave never existed and Alfred and Tim refuse to believe that Bruce was ever the masked vigilante known as Batman. Clearly the Batman: The Animated Series writers were influenced by this mystery when they wrote the stellar episode “Perchance to Dream.” And truthfully, I think they exceeded the material that impacted them because while “Identity Crisis” is a gripping read and beautifully drawn by Tom Mandrake, its ending, although undeniably mind-bending, is nowhere near as satisfying as the episode Kevin Conroy declared his personal favorite. I also feel that Milligan didn’t push his brilliant concept as far as writers Joe R. Lansdale, Laren Bright, and Michael Reaves did in the Animated Series. Of course, they had 20 animated minutes to explore the idea while Milligan and Mandrake were confined to 20 pages.
Still, this one is definitely worth a read and I can only imagine how amazing it must have been when it was first published.
Nothing at all, but to many the Detective Comics issues will feel like bonus material because clearly Dark Knight, Dark City is the main attraction here.
Value: FULL PRICE!
It’s wonderful having the convenience of all three chapters of Dark Knight, Dark City all in one book that you can easily pluck from your shelf and if you’re a fan of Milligan’s other work then this is a pretty great collection of about a third of his bat-bibliography at a fair price of $16.99. If you’re only interested in Dark Knight, Dark City and none of the other material, however, you can instead save a few bucks and download the 100-page spectacular from sites like comixology for $4.99. That issue collects all three chapters as well as Detective Comics #633 “Identity Crisis.”
Dark Knight, Dark City is a classic and absolutely required reading for any Batman fan. And while the extra stories from Milligan’s work on Detective Comics vary in quality, this trade paperback remains a terrific choice for readers who love to see Batman stand up against the supernatural.