Welcome back to the Batman News Quarantine Book Club! This week we will be discussing Batman: Dark Knight, Dark City by Peter Milligan, Kieron Dwyer, and Tom Mandrake. This is a story that typically remains under the radar, unless you’re looking into stories about the Riddler. In which case, you’ll typically find it on a “Best of” list.
In this story, which collects Batman #452 – 454, the Riddler sends Batman racing through the streets of Gotham as he moves from one riddle to the next. The intrigue… There appears to be no rhyme or reason to the riddles and tasks that the Riddler is challenging Batman with – a realization that forces Batman into question any and every action he takes. Meanwhile, a story featuring the history of Gotham serves as a backdrop before finally intertwining itself into the present day action.
Josh: Alright, let’s get straight to it… What are your general thoughts on Batman: Dark Knight, Dark City?
Casper: I feel like this is one of those stories where you keep wondering, Where is this going? What is this about? And it’s only when you get to the final issue that you find out how everything connects.
Josh: Yeah, you definitely spend quite a bit of time wondering those very questions. It’s been forever since I’ve read this, and while I remembered that it was about the Riddler, I’d forgotten a lot of the details. And, if I’m being honest, I remembered liking this more than I actually did during this read… So, I have some opinions. Haha!
Casper: It has been a while since I read this, too. I do still like this one quite a bit, though, but there are definitely a few things here that I’ll be criticizing.
Nick: I’ve tried reading it before today and just couldn’t, but I powered through it and got to the end. I can see a lot of comparisons between this story and some of Scott Snyder’s work – the Riddler and Barbathos in particular – which I think is intentional. It’s nice to see those connections, but I honestly am not a huge fan of how these three issues played out.
Michael: It reminded me a lot of a classic Sherlock Holmes story where there’s a huge core mystery that is basically impossible to figure out then you get a big info dump at the end which answers it all. It’s a fun structure once you just give yourself away to the absurdity.
Matina: I totally agree! I spent the whole story wondering how everything would come together, and trying to puzzle it out with each new piece. Then when it had all come together, I really enjoyed looking back and seeing the story with all the information.
Josh: Both of you are right. This does remind me of a classic Sherlock Holmes story. I’m a little embarrassed that I didn’t make the correlation. And yes, you definitely gain a stronger appreciation for the story as a whole when you look back on it, but I can’t help but feel that it’s all a bit convoluted because it does take this approach.
Matina: I can see that! I think this story works well collected together. If I’d read individual issues as they came out I think the style would have frustrated me more, but being able to get all the way through it helped ease that feeling, at least on a first read.
Casper: Yeah, I agree with you, Matina. It’s only in retrospect that you realize that it’s actually a pretty straightforward story. Reading it monthly would have been equally intriguing and confusing, at least for me. In any case, since it’s completely told from Batman’s perspective, the reader can easily identify with Batman’s frustrations and his need to find out the truth. And that is precisely what I like about this story! There’s so much suspense here, and it is just really entertaining.
Josh: Casper, you mentioned the fact that this is completely from Batman’s perspective, so I want to turn our focus towards that.
Because this story is strictly told from Batman’s perspective, and since the first two issues rely heavily on the intrigue of, “Where is this going?”, as a result, the story also relies heavily on Batman’s internal dialogue and narration. What are your thoughts on this?
Michael: I really love Batman’s narration and dialogue in this book as it ranges from him sounding incredibly bitter and annoyed towards Riddler, to near stream of consciousness style prose. A lot of the time writers don’t do a great job of accurately translating someone’s inner thoughts as they think something through. Here, there’s a good use of repetition,and broken sentences that makes Batman’s narration.
Josh: Agreed. The actual technique of how Bruce’s thoughts were written is great for those very reasons. I often find myself frustrated when I find myself wondering those two questions we keep repeating (“Where is this going? “What is this about?”), but having Batman wonder these same things helps take the edge off a little.
Did anyone feel that the internal dialogue made the story feel as though there were too much exposition?
Matina: I did. I actually wasn’t the biggest fan of all the internal dialogue through this story. It takes two different tones for me, one that’s distinctly in Batman’s head and one that’s more lyrical and narrative. It’s that second one I could have done without. I think the story would have worked fine without it, or perhaps with far less of it.
Josh: Matina, you read my mind. This is exactly where I was headed. Haha! For one, there wasn’t much of a variance between Bruce’s internal dialogue and the general narrative, so there were times that I found myself a little confused. The transitions just felt a little rough. On top of it, the narration added little to the overall story, and then when it did, it felt as though it was so exposition-heavy that it actually hindered the quality of the story.
Casper: Yes, I agree with that. Sometimes I started reading the narration in Batman’s voice, only to find out that it wasn’t actually Batman’s inner monologue, and it annoyed me every time. The reason it annoyed me is mostly because it made for a jarring transition, like you pointed out, Josh, and that in turn just kind of takes me out of the story for a second, because it reminds me of the fact that it’s just a story rather than immersing me in the narrative and allowing me to go with the flow.
Nick: This is one of those big connections I found to Scott Snyder’s writing. Exposition is everywhere in this book, and I honestly don’t see the benefit to all of it, especially when, while none of it is awful, none of it is great either. I skimmed the journals set in the past – in part because I’d read them before, in part because most of it is covered in the present, and in part because the font is impossible to read – and lost close to nothing. Batman, Riddler, everyone is so verbose in the story, and it feels a little like the writer doesn’t trust the artist to get the emotion of the story across. It works okay with Snyder for a few reasons, but I don’t feel as confident in Milligan’s work, having read only this story from him.
Josh: That’s a good callout on trusting the artist, Nick.
Matina: While we’re talking about Batman, I have to point out my favorite thing about him in this book, and that’s how worried he is over Michael (the baby he had to do the tracheotomy on). He checks up on him multiple times through the story and he’s one of Bruce’s last thoughts in the whole story. I love seeing him worried about people, and taking time to check back in. I love moments like this because it reminds me of the real reason Batman does what he does, which is protecting innocents and saving lives.
Casper: Yes! Thanks for bringing that up, Matina.
Josh: That human element, for me, is what makes me love Batman. One of the reasons he’s such a badass vigilante is because he’s able to remain hyper-focused on his mission, while also maintaining a key awareness of the innocent lives around him. His goal, above all else, is to protect people, and that’s what drives him.
Casper: Yeah, exactly. What I like about this isn’t just how Milligan writes it, but also how Dwyer illustrates it. You see Batman cradling the babies in his arms, and he has a loving, concerned expression on his face that shines through his scary cowl. Like you said, Josh, that human element is definitely there, and it makes Batman really likable and relatable. That’s how I want to see Batman, as opposed to the sort of cry baby that he’s been in more recent publications.
Nick: Agreed on all counts! Him stabbing the dog felt a little weird though. I know it’s not a human, but like. Yeesh.
Josh: Don’t worry, I felt the same way. Haha! I tend to prefer dogs over people though, so… yeah.
Speaking of the dog though… Riddler and his plan. We’ve got a lot of meat to chew on here because this is where I both love and hate this story.
Casper: Okay, so, let me start by saying that I like how Riddler’s whole plan unfolds and how, in the end, it falls apart and the victory is Batman’s. There’s a lot of classic Riddler stuff here, in the way that Batman has to chase after him by solving all these riddles and keeping an eye out for additional clues.
Matina: I also really enjoyed the classic Riddler stuff with Batman following his trail of clues.
Josh: Yeah, the classic Riddler vibe was refreshing. A little hokey at times, but refreshing.That being said, I didn’t like how he was just standing around at each clue, and then would run away immediately after. I think there were six steps to his plan total, right? Yeah, this schtick got old after the second one. I’m not going to lie.
Casper: I also think it’s just a little bit too convenient. For example, when Batman is struggling with the dog in the bar, he is handed this silver knife. But what if that dog does not directly attack Batman, but someone else instead? What if there are more people inside that bar? Or what if Batman somehow finds a different way to get rid of that dog before the dude can hand him the knife? I guess it mostly comes down to timing in this scenario, and for this all to work the timing has to be exactly right, and there are other factors and variables involved here as well. Besides, seeing as this is Batman, he probably should have a can of dog repellent bat spray in that utility belt of his, you know what I’m saying?
Matina: I get what you’re saying about parts of the story feeling convenient, and I want to play devil’s advocate and say that if Riddler was as determined to summon Barbathos as he seemed, then he would have been pretty meticulous with his plan, and plant someone with the knife and so on. But I also see your point in there being many ways things could have gone wrong. I think in the end, the enjoyment one gets out of following each event is a case of being able to suspend disbelief temporarily and just kind of go with the flow.
Casper: Just to clarify: I think Riddler most definitely planted that dude with the knife there, and that’s fine.
Casper: I’m just saying that there are quite a few things that could’ve gone wrong in that scenario. That’s why it’s all a bit too convenient for me, and I have a hard time suspending my disbelief when it comes to stuff like this.
Michael: In the moment I didn’t necessarily think of how many things would have to go exactly right for Riddler’s plans to work out, but you’re right in that there’s a lot of conveniences. However, I have to give credit to the book for keeping the plot so fast paced and interesting that I wasn’t dwelling on the details. I love this type of story that whisks you along and introduces a very tangible ticking clock with the kidnapped babies. Also I guess Batman has no problem killing dogs which struck me more than the convenience of him taking a knife from a stranger.
Josh: We’re not alone, Nick! Haha!
Nick: Rest in peace Mr. Woof, the finest mind of his generation. :(
Josh: HA! On a serious note, I can’t necessarily say that I felt a ticking clock due to the babies being kidnapped, mainly because there wasn’t a timeline in which to save them. I just felt like they’d be saved. If anything, I think the driving force comes from Batman and the Riddler, and their growing urgency in their individual missions.
Matina: Yes! I liked how we get to watch Riddler change from how one might normally view him to significantly more malicious as he grows closer and closer to his own goal. I think this change was interesting, especially since I’m used to seeing Edward less menacing and more campy.
Michael: I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about Batman performing a tracheotomy on a baby. There’s a bit of edge to the plot up till this point but I don’t think anything matches the absolutely horrific image of Batman readying a knife towards a small baby (with a strangely manish face).
Josh: Yeah… If they’d made it less melodramatic by not including the whole, “I need a small scalpel, not a large, blunt knife,” then fine. Also, it probably would’ve helped had we seen Batman make more of an effort to actually get the ping pong ball out first. I don’t know.
Nick: I’m not into it. It felt like edge for the sake of edge – I like weird cult stuff like The VVitch and the dark practices that come with it, but this story doesn’t capture that atmosphere. It’s really just a simple Batman story with the usual Riddler shenanigans, except suddenly dying babies are involved, which for me just sounds like a cheap hook for shock value. That said, I really liked the scene where Batman tries to reach Riddler on a level of respect, and they do have an interesting back and forth. One of the best Riddler stories though? I feel like that’s a stretch. I suppose from the perspective of a classic Riddler tale done right, this is one of the better ones, but I don’t think it delves that deep into the character for me to really enjoy it.
Casper: Those are fair points, Nick. I like this story, and I do like Riddler’s role in this, even if the character is more unhinged and bloodthirsty than usual, but I also think that Riddler could have been fleshed out more. So he’s possessed by a demon. Okay, but what’s underneath that? What does that mean beyond it being the thing that moves him to do all these crazy things? I think that this is where the story is lacking a little bit. It’s like the story tries to make us think there’s more to the Riddler, but when you stop to think about it, there’s really not all that much there.
Josh: There really isn’t. This is one of those moments where I kept thinking the story could’ve been improved upon had they scaled back on the narration and actually shown things from different perspectives. Like, if we’d learned during the second issue that Riddler was possessed, not only would it have started tying pieces of the story together a little better, but it would’ve created more suspense, and wouldn’t have relied so heavily on the exposition dump at the end.
Nick: Yeah, plus doesn’t Riddler just dip at the end of the story, running out of a building never to be seen again? It’s not really a great sendoff for the antagonist.
Casper: Actually, you’re right! He just kind of ups and leaves, and there’s no reckoning, no justice. Had there been a little bit of exposition at the end saying that Gordon got him, or something, at least there would have been that kind of closure. But at the same time, I guess that Riddler getting away kind of adds to this sense of tragedy? I don’t know. Now that you mention that, it kind of feels like a loose end, but I guess with this being an ongoing series, it’s not as problematic when you let a villain get away like that.
Josh: Honestly, the Riddler leaving didn’t bother me too much… But perhaps that’s because it reminded me of classic comics, and how villains would just disappear or escape so they could be used again. It felt like a nod to that to me more than anything. That being said, I think the early 90’s is when this stopped being passable.
Nick: Yeah, it was very episodic in its storytelling, with the core story being one and done but one of the characters escaping for the next adventure. I like that as a format, but I think it highlights that the story is never really about the Riddler. I feel who it’s really about is the demon controlling him, Barbathos.
Josh: Yeah, let’s talk about this “lovable” bat demon!
Matina: So, I was excited to see Barbathos as a character here. This is his first appearance in comics right?
Casper: Well, this is — to my knowledge– the first time that the name Barbathos is mentioned in Batman comics (correct me if I’m wrong), but I don’t think it’s the same character as the heavy metal demon from Snyder and Capullo’s Metal. I wonder if it’s a coincidence that they have the same name? I’m not sure.
Josh: I feel like Snyder’s intention was to pull from this. The Dark Multiverse is essentially an evil/demonic verse, so it makes sense. Even if it’s just a nod, it works for me. I’d actually forgotten his name was Barbathos when I picked the book up this week, so when I saw it, I smirked a little.
Any thoughts other than the excitement of seeing his inclusion?
Casper: When all is said and done, I still have a few questions. I feel like it was never really made clear exactly why Jacob Stockman and his pals wanted to summon the demon Barbathos and get control over it. Like, I get that when you summon a demon, you’d probably want to have control over it because that would be a bit safer for you as the summoner … but what exactly was their goal beyond summoning the demon and having control over it?
Josh: I’m right there with you. It almost made all of the flashbacks pointless. You could read the book without these scenes, then have Riddler talk about the journal and the ritual to someone a demon in the last issue, and it wouldn’t have changed the weight of the story at all. Now, if we’d had the context of why the demon was summoned, then it may have hit a little harder.
Matina: I wasn’t all that bothered by the group not having a clear reason for the summoning, but now that I’m thinking about it I wonder how they got the book and why the group was together in the first place. It’s easy enough to assume power was their desired outcome, but when I really look at the story, I want more substance than just “oh a cult summons a bat-demon”, especially if when Edward finds it later he’s equally obsessed with controlling Barbathos.
Casper: Yeah, like, what can Barbathos really do for you when you summon him and bind him to your will?
Michael: To be honest, I’m with Matina. I never really thought much deeper about their reasoning beyond the basic “power” that always seems to come along with summoning a demon. I’m kind of glad Milligan doesn’t spend that much time deciphering it, but that might be partly because I don’t ever want to read cursive in a comic book ever again.
Matina: Haha, yeah that cursive was hard to read.
Casper: Yes. My eyes, they burn! Haha!
Nick: It’s literally what stopped me from reading it to the end the first time.
Josh: Well, I hate to tell yall this, but we’re probably going to encounter quite a bit more cursive in our book club! Haha!
Nick: Then expect quite a few more curse words from me to go with it… :’)
Overall though, I did enjoy the supernatural element – it probably was the most compelling part of the story for me, as I thought Barbathos had a very distinct and sinister voice. Plus, the ending with Bruce “saving” his ancestor felt quite emotionally resonant.
Matina: Talking about the ending, the supernatural element reminded me of something I didn’t really like, which is how fast the ending feels. I do like the emotional notes with Bruce saving his ancestor, but there’s so much that happens once he’s in the tomb and I’d loved to have seen that area slowed down a bit, especially since Bruce just seems to take it in stride that there’s a real bat-demon and he’s seeing the past.
Casper: To be fair, he does question the demon’s existence on the final page, and then decides that it doesn’t matter, because the potential existence of such a demon won’t change his life, or the situation in Gotham.
Michael: An aspect of the story’s ending that I really loved is that it implies Barbathos is behind everything that has happened to Bruce, but also gives the reader the out if they don’t want to go down that path.
Josh: I’m with Michael on this one. I like that you’re open to play with the idea that there is a supernatural presence at play in all of this.
Nick: A thread that continues in Snyder’s Metal: Batman Lost, which really makes me think the story is a kind of sequel to this one.
In general, I think this story would have benefited from a slower pace. Something the book is happy to point out is that Riddler’s puzzles are intended to be easier for Bruce than usual. This is because he intends to make him dance for a show, rather than challenge his mind… but Riddler challenging Batman’s mind is kind of what makes that dynamic compelling. This story kind of bounces about, which is fine, but I feel the cultist undertones, the supernatural ending and Riddler’s plan would have just been more interesting if it focused on quality and atmosphere over getting the story done with.
Matina: Yeah! It would have been nice to draw us slowly through the mystery and let the story take its time over just racing through to the end.
Casper: I didn’t consider this, but you guys might be right in that it could have enhanced the mystery. But, at the same time, I do enjoy this wild roller coaster ride for what it is.
Nick: God, it just hit me how much I love this job. These discussions are really nice.
Casper: Hell yeah, Nick!
Matina: Same! I love talking about Batman, and I love chatting about him with you guys.
Josh: *Stretches triumphantly.* Sometimes I have brilliant ideas! Haha!
Nick: <33333333 @everyone
Josh: Alright, back to the story. Nobody wants to see us gush about how amazing we all are. Haha!
Casper: You know, since we’re talking about things not necessarily adding up, something I’m not entirely clear on: during the GCPD rooftop sequence in the first issue we see this girl that manages to climb on top of the building. Did she scale the entire wall to get up on the roof? Is that realistic? Am I missing something?
Michael: She totally just climbs up a wall with no gear at all, which in a way was a great way to signal me to not think too hard about this story’s plot points. Batman’s attempt to save her is appreciated even if he does inadvertently slam her through a restaurant window. I also enjoy that there’s a sign that says “Michael O’s”.
Nick: It’s funny because your name’s Michael! This article is my Joker origin story.
Josh: Oh Lord… Speaking of the detail of Michael O’s… The art. What were y’alls thoughts?
Michael: I wouldn’t consider it a major weakness, but there’s really nothing too special in the art here. It’s never distractingly bad, but it’s what I picture when I think of standard comic art of this era. It’s especially noticeable when you see Keiron Dwyer’s art compared to Mike Mignola’s covers who is a more striking artist. Dwyer does create a few striking images though, especially in the graveyard sequence with a great splash page where several “corpses” rise from the grave and attack Batman. He also handles some of the more violent sequences well, portraying the violence but managing to downplay some of the grimmer detail. Implication is often more effective than outright depiction.
Matina: I actually liked that it felt like the “standard comic art of the era”.
Matina: I enjoy that style in general, probably because it makes me feel like a kid again reading friend’s comics, but also because it was easy to follow and still dynamic. There were some really striking images! I thought the first few opening pages were really strong perspective wise. You mentioned Batman doing the tracheotomy on the baby earlier, which I totally agree is something I never expected to see Batman do, it’s horrifying, and I’m glad that the scene only shows us his silhouette when he’s doing the actual procedure.
Nick: I don’t have much opinion on the art either way, but I really enjoyed the transition Dwyer made between the shadow of the past and the Batman of the present:
Casper: Speaking of transitions, there’s also this cool transition on page 11 of the second issue, where we go from the old house to modern Gotham. I really like how the different eras blend into each other. The layout and the perspective make that transition flow really well, and Adrienne Roy’s coloring adds a lot to that as well. It’s like the colors sort of bleed into the other time periods, which really adds to this feeling that you’re traveling through time.
Josh: Yes! I went back and went through those panels a few times! I also thought the scene where Batman goes into the sewers was striking despite its simplicity. Good callout.
Casper: And speaking of Roy’s colors, I generally enjoy her work because she colored so many Batman issues, so when I see her on colors there’s this instant sense of familiarity. I like her work here as well, but there were some strange mistakes. Most notably the panels where Batman’s crest wasn’t yellow but blue, or where his shirt wasn’t grey but blue. There is no indication that a different artist did the color separations here. That could’ve explained the mistakes. But seeing as Roy colored so many Batman issues, these mistakes are all the more jarring. I can live with that, though, and it doesn’t diminish my enjoyment.
Josh: There were probably some tight scheduling here. While I noticed it, I just acknowledged it and moved on.
Alright, let’s start to wrap this up.
Michael: Even if it doesn’t break any storytelling molds, I think Dark Knight, Dark City is one of my favorite Batman stories since it rides the line between goofy and horrific expertly. I love a supernatural twist in my Batman stories, but oftentimes they get bogged down in upping the ante in the violence rather bending the laws of reality to create more fun scenarios. I do think the somewhat generic art keeps the book from being an all time classic, but anyone looking for a classically structured mystery story will find more than enough here to love.
Matina: I enjoyed this story quite a bit. The pacing and the mystery kept me interested enough that I read it all in one sitting, curious to get to the end. Even if there are moments that feel convenient or contrived later, in the moment I didn’t notice those, I was invested and having fun exploring this mystery. That investment and the ability to so suck me into the story really just made it a fun read. It’s something I’d definitely read again, and recommend to anyone wanting a book where Batman’s solving a mystery.
Nick: Look, at the end of the day I’m probably being a bit too harsh on the book. I didn’t hate it, I’ve just seen all the elements of this story done in a more compelling way for me in other books. It’s definitely not a bad story to try out though, because it balances a lot of different elements in the Batman mythos rather effectively, without any of them clashing. That’s no small feat, so I respect the book for that, even if it’s not for me!
Casper: I really enjoy this one for sure, but it’s not necessarily a comic that I would pull from my shelf to read by itself. To me, it’s something that I read on a big Batman binge, where I read all my Bat books in semi-chronological order. That said, I do recommend checking this one out if you’ve never read it before, because it’s a wild, suspenseful ride. Seeing Bruce and Alfred working together to solve riddles is fun; seeing Batman genuinely caring about the babies is great; and the occult elements are thrilling, even if they are presented in a terrible font. Mignola’s covers are fantastic, too. Riddler’s a total maniac, though, and as such a bit of a departure from his regular characterization, so it’s up to you to decide if that’s something you enjoy or not.
Josh: Batman: Dark Knight, Dark City is an interesting revisit for me. While I remember loving this story when I first read it years ago, I found that my favor has waned quite a bit. There are elements that I enjoy – such as watching Batman work the case and try and put the pieces together, as well as the Riddler and how his intellect allows him to easily manipulate people into situations – but I’m now finding the actual confines of the story to be less enjoyable. There’s no doubt that this book is a product of its time as comics moved from campy, fun stories, to darker, grittier works, but the overall execution left me a little underwhelmed. As much as this story does right, it could’ve also done equal elements better.
Thanks for joining us this week! Next week we will be taking a turn to cover content targeted towards younger audiences. So, if you’re a parent who is now serving as a homeschool teacher, then this might be a great way for you to offer up some fun reading assignments! And we’d love to have your kiddos join us for some fun conversations next week! The two books we will cover next week are:
Driven to solve the mystery of his parents’ murders, teenage loner Bruce Wayne hones his detective and combat skills as he scours the underbelly of Gotham City looking for clues. Feeling responsible, Bruce is eager to find someone to pin the blame on so he can absolve himself of the guilt he feels. As he rebuilds his dad’s first car, his quest for freedom-while still clinging to the past-becomes clear. Finding the correct parts forces Bruce to open himself up to new friendships and challenges, ultimately leading him to what he desires most: freedom!
Batman: Overdrive, by New York Times bestselling writer Shea Fontana (DC Super Hero Girls) and artist Marcelo DiChiara, is a heartfelt story touching on the importance of friendship, trust, and forgiveness.
A ruthless new gang of criminals known only as Nightwalkers is terrorizing Gotham, and the city’s elite are being taken out one by one. On the way home from his 18th birthday party, newly minted billionaire Bruce Wayne makes an impulsive choice that puts him in their crosshairs and lands him in Arkham Asylum, the once-infamous mental hospital. There, he meets Madeleine Wallace, a brilliant killer…and Bruce’s only hope. Madeleine is the mystery Bruce must unravel, but is he convincing her to divulge her secrets, or is he feeding her the information she needs to bring Gotham City to its knees?
Adapted by Stuart Moore and illustrated by Chris Wildgoose, this graphic novel presents a thrilling new take on Batman before he donned the cape and cowl.
Nick: Will we finally read a story that doesn’t have a flashback to the Wayne family being shot? Probably not!