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When The Dark Knight Returns was published in 1986, it helped to change the industry almost as much as it changed the title character.  It’s easy to look back thirty years on and almost take for granted how revolutionary it was, but for better or worse Frank Miller’s magnum opus has become a seminal work in the annals of pop culture.  The dark, gritty tone was, at the time, incredibly progressive and completely different from anything mainstream comics had seen, and with Watchmen it created a desire for “more adult” stories that the industry has been trying to recapture ever since.  Batman himself would become a much more grim, brooding loner for the next three decades thanks to the aged and world-weary portrayal under Miller’s pen.  In his attempt to distance Batman from the playful, dead-pan character popularized by Adam West, Miller certainly succeeded.

Everybody always remembers the big scenes in the book:  Bruce’s first night back in action (a scene which is, even for the most critical of readers, pretty close to perfect in its execution); the “operating table”; and of course the fateful confrontations with the Joker and Superman.  One detail that’s easy to overlook is the fate of Jason Todd.  With scarcely two lines of inner monologue and the now-familiar sight of the costume enshrined in the Batcave, Miller hints at a grave tragedy but never explains it.  Something bad happened to Jason, and that’s all we’re told.

None of this is remarkably shocking today, as Jason has died, come back, and gained a new role in the Batfamily in the years since.  What is shocking is the timing: Miller wrote his work in 1986, but Jason didn’t actually die in mainline continuity until the release of A Death in the Family in 1988.  Whether that small tidbit played into DC’s decision to run the polls and, moreso, if it factored into how fans voted is entirely debatable, but the fact that it was there meant that Miller had a story.

For years, it was just assumed that the Joker was the culprit, killing Jason after the Boy Wonder’s ill-fated attempt to find his mother, but as more Dark Knight Universe canon has come out it’s become increasingly more obvious that this is a world all its own.  So, again: what happened to Jason?

Amongst other things, that’s what the oft-promised and just as often delayed Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade sets out to answer.  More than that, though, it’s an examination of Bruce Wayne himself, and it’s absolutely fascinating.

Taking place at least a decade or two before The Dark Knight Returns (judging by the greying temples on Bruce’s otherwise dark head of hair), The Last Crusade is more about one man’s self-doubts and inner struggle than it is about a driving plot.  Sure, there is a mystery that Batman and Robin investigate, but that takes a backseat to Bruce’s slowly creeping realization that he may not be able to be Batman much longer.

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Miller and Azzarello wisely avoid grandiosity and bombast, instead drawing more attention to conversations and relationships.  The big mystery, after all, “only” involves rich men who begin acting out of character.  Read the solicitation and you can probably piece together where that thread goes, but that isn’t the point of the story.  The point is to show why Bruce would have gone into retirement, to give insight into what made him become such an angry, broken old man.

Remarkably, it’s the writing that’s the standout here, as the script is incredibly solid and almost free of any missteps.  Bruce is serious about his mission while still being relatable and, thankfully, human.  With every creaking joint and muscle spasm he has, Bruce realizes his days in the cowl may be numbered, all of which is made worse by the emotional pain he feels at seeing Jason in action.

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Jason has always been a character who is rough around the edges, but even as the Red Hood he hardly reached the levels of brutality and callousness he displays here.  This isn’t a boy who would allow the circumstances of a man falling from a high rise to remain in ambiguity; no, this Jason is intense, taking an almost perverse joy in stopping criminals.

No, harming criminals.

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We don’t get to peer into Jason’s mind much, as this is Bruce’s story after all, but it’s in his mentor’s pain and guilt that Jason becomes sympathetic.  He’s a man in need of direction, and even though Bruce and Alfred tried their hardest he was still just filled with too much anger.  Naturally, this leads to his doom, and while I wont outright spoil the circumstances I will say that it’s much more poetic and heartbreaking than I expected.  Miller and Azzarello’s words mingle with John Romita, Jr.’s surprisingly gorgeous pencils to create a fateful scene different than the one were used to seeing, but no less tragic.  For a series that can get almost too big and relentless with its violence, the ending is almost poetic: optimistic words for a hopeful future projected against the looming specter of death.  It’s not how I expected the scene to transpire at all, and I mean that in the best possible way.

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That’s not to say the whole affair is grim and joyless.  There are several bits of dry wit and humor, particularly between Bruce and Alfred, and there are a few scenes with Selina that are nice, if not superfluous.  Several of the action scenes are rather stunning as well, a credit to Romita and Steigerwald.

I said before that Romita’s pencils were “surprising,” and I meant it: he’s by no means a bad artist, but his style is so distinct that it’s easy to be taken out of the story.  His figures are oftentimes flat and stiff as well, but not here; the scenes referenced above are just a sampling of his work, and it’s kinetic and energetic with a great sense of movement.

Now what of the Joker?  This is where I feel everyone missed the mark, at least at times.  His escape from Arkham is orchestrated brilliantly, but the first half of the book especially has moments that feel out of character.  He taunts guards rather than joking with them, a minor quibble that nonetheless fell flat.  His look in particular is strange, with features that are almost feline in nature.

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With the long nose and round face surrounded by the mane-like green hair, it may have been a conscious choice to evoke his nature as a predator, but his visual still felt off to me.

No matter.  As I said, minor quibbles.  Truth be told, I came into this book fully expecting to be disappointed, and I even had an Indiana Jones joke or two at the ready.  But no, while not a masterpiece, I was pleasantly surprised by this one-shot.  It’s some of the best writing from Miller in years, some of Romita’s best work in as much time, and a genuinely moving, heartbreaking story on its own.

BONUS: There are quite a few variant covers, and while I can’t say I loved any of them, Miller’s own with Alex Sinclair left an indelible impression on me: image

Recommended if:

  • You like The Dark Knight Returns.
  • You want to know what drove Bruce to the breaking point.
  • In a good way, you want to be surprised at this book’s quality.

Overall: Much better than expected, and absolutely worth the wait.  Miller, Azzarello, Romita, and Steigerwald turned what could have been an unnecessary prequel into a genuinely gripping tale of guilt, self-doubt, and loss.  Bruce feels truly human and vulnerable, and while that does defy the mentality of “Batman can beat anything,” he’s still just that: a human.  He hurts, he doubts, and he grieves, especially at the loss of his family, and in the right hands that can make for good comics.  And this is good comics.

SCORE: 9/10