Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Top 10 Best Legends of the Dark Knight story arcs


After a slew of pretty terrible arcs (not counting issues 116-126), it’s nice to have not only a readable arc, but one that’s actually good. Denny O’Neil usually writes some of the most solid Batman stories, though he has penned a few clunkers in this series (Annual #3 for example). This was a nice return to form for him as he has Oliver Queen play a vital role. In fact, this is the first real “crossover” story to appear in an issue of LOTDK.

I summed up my overall thoughts on Legends of the Dark Knight last week, including my ratings for each and every story arc (except for some that were part of ongoing mega crossovers at the time). As a whole, the series was definitely good - pretty great, in fact. So here are my picks for the Top 10 Best Legends of the Dark Knight story arcs:

Batman_Legends_of_the_Dark_Knight_Vol_1_1_Newstand10: Shaman (issues 1-5)

Written by Dennis O’Neil. Penciled by Ed Hannigan. Inked by John Beatty

It’s clear from the beginning that Legends of the Dark Knight is intended to concentrate on Batman’s early years. It’s also quite obvious that it’s inspired by Frank Miller’s Year One that took place a few years prior in the regular Batman series. That’s definitely one of my favorite Batman stories, and looking back on it, it’s quite amazing the influence it’s had on the Batman mythos and even the way Batman comics were produced in its wake. Some of the events that occur in this particular arc are directly intertwined with Year One, but seen from a different perspective.

I must say that this was rather an odd choice for the first story, since it involves Batman traveling to and from Alaska, occult rituals, and Native American mythology. It was also a bit surprising that the premise and climax are both based on supernaturalism. Batman is one of the few superheroes rooted in “realism” (by tights-n-fights standards, that is), so it’s weird and awkward when magic and the supernatural plays a key role in the story. In the case of Shaman, it’s minor enough that it’s not completely distracting, but still prominent enough to irk me a little.
Otherwise, it’s a solid way to launch this series and still holds up all these years later.

9: Darker Than Death (issues 207-211)
Written by Bruce Jones. Art by Ariel Olivetti.
Sometimes a book is so good that it's difficult to even review it because I don't know where to begin. There are a lot of reasons "Darker Than Death" is one of the best LOTDK story arcs in a long time (and of the entire run, that is), but I'm not going to prattle off a laundry list of reasons. Well, maybe I should...

This is how Batman should be written in LOTDK - a solo adventure that doesn't rely on Oracle, Robin or the extended Batman family to help him out (though Alfred does a lot of the work - but what else is new). The crime in question is a fairly ordinary kidnapping and the villain is definitely not any of Batman's usual rogues, nor is there any cheesy supernatural component to it. Though it is a little too convenient that this case is closely connected with Bruce Wayne himself.

The story starts out simple and straightforward, but becomes more and more complex as the issues progress. In fact, I'd say the major flaw to this book is that it's a little overlong and for rather arbitrary reasons. However, it is told like a standard mystery story so Batman finds a clue with leads him to one suspect who tips him off to another and so on and so forth. Jones's script is breezy enough to keep it constantly interesting and intriguing. I do find it to be rather melodramatic at times, though. There are many moments throughout this arc that seem a bit over the top, even by comic book standards (inter-tangled love trysts, blackmail, family scandals, secret identities, etc.).

I like that there is no apparent villain, though Batman does encounter a few goons along the way. These situations are also a bit generic and predictable, but like I said, the comic is written well enough that it doesn't come across as a crutch or an easy cliche.

My only major complaint is that due to the lack of a traditional villain, there isn't a lot of action throughout any of these five chapters. Even the ending is completely lacking in a showdown - it just kind of ends. I do appreciate the fact that the villain's identity is a mystery to both Batman and the reader, so much so that when it's revealed it comes as just as much a shock to both parties.

Ariel Olivetti's art is fantastic. I'm not sure if it's paint, colored pencils or some kind of CGI (perhaps a combination of all three), but it looks beautiful. Every panel is dripping with detail - from the muscles on someone's arms, to all the knick-knacks and objects in a room. The characters look like real people - not just stock comic book characters. Bruce Wayne bears a striking resemblance to Charlie Sheen, though. Olivetti does a good job layout out his pages and composing his imagery. There are some points here and there that seems a little stiff or static, but otherwise each chapter is a page-turner

8: The Arrow and The Bat (issues 127-131)

Written by Denny O’Neil. Penciled by Sergio Cariello. Inked by Matt Ryan.
In fact, this story is nearly 50/50 Green Arrow/Batman. Well, I should clarify that it’s more Oliver Queen’s story than his costumed alter ego. It’s hard to tell where in his continuity this takes place; after all, we know LOTDK is supposed to tell the tales of a young Batman, but what about the other characters that appear? Not being all that knowledgeable about Green Arrow’s history, I was a tad lost. But it doesn’t matter in the long run since it’s a fairly self-contained story.
I will say that this arc has a rather familiar premise. O’Neil seems to enjoy writing adventures that involve secret societies and international assassins and such. This is essentially a Ra’s Al Ghul comic but with a different villain. The delivery is mixed: sometimes it’s serious and intricate, other times it becomes cliché, predictable and just plain cartoony (seriously, there’s a scene where a giant SAFE falls on someone’s head – is this a Wile E. Coyote cartoon?!). Ollie seems to go a little nuts in this book due to the fact there’s a rival archer who’s better than him (but what’s with that goofy outfit?). What’s interesting is that Batman actually seems to lighten up a bit has a few subtle moments of dry, snarky humor.
I really liked the art by Cariello and Ryan. It’s clean and fairly realistic. The layouts are pretty standard for a comic – nothing especially daring about the composition here. Still, it flows well from panel to panel and page to page. I wouldn’t describe it as gorgeous, but it’s some of the best art I’ve seen in a while in this series.
7: Irresistible (issues 169-171)

Written by Tom Peyer. Drawn by Tony Harris. Inks by Wade Von Grawbadger and Wayne Faucher (issue 171 only).
Probably my most common complaint about any comic is that it’s unoriginal. I feel like everything’s been done by now, is there anything I’ve never seen? Well, “Irresistible” may be such a book. The premise is that a young man named Frank Sharp has a hideously deformed face but also has the supernatural ability to mind control someone simply by touching them.
Normally, that kind of premise would create for a cliché villain and a cliché story, but Peyer takes a completely different approach by making this guy into a fairly realistic (or at least plausible) tragic character. He narrates almost the entire story, a method rarely used in LOTDK. He’s angry, bitter, twisted, megalomaniacal, and also pretty naïve and quite frankly stupid at times. He thinks money and power will make him happy, but they really don’t.
Though there’s plenty of great moments of mystery and suspense, since this isn’t the kind of villain we’re used to seeing, there’s also a bit of melodrama as Frank is constantly arguing with his parents, friends, and business associates. You pity him because he’s so disgusting-looking, but you also hope he gets his comeuppance because he’s such a pig. The way Batman goes about investigating and confronting him is interesting to say the least; though it does involve a few sequences which are bit overboard even by comic book standards.

Tony Harris was the artist on “Ex Machina” and was great on that series. Here, he’s just as good with his style that is clean and cartoony and yet amazingly realistic. The colors are a bit monochromatic and several pages are more effects than art, but overall the arc looks great (except for Frank’s face - yeesh!).

6: 32649-4720-36418-1-batman-legends-of-tMask (issues 39-40)
Written and drawn by Bryan Talbot.
I have to admit that I was beginning to give up on LOTDK after the majority of the story arcs throughout the last 10 issues were of pretty lousy quality. Then along comes Bryan Talbot’s gorgeous two-parter Mask. It has exactly everything going for it that most of the previous books missed: a coherent story, in-depth characterization, mystery, suspense, and surrealism that isn’t arbitrary.
32649-4720-36418-1-batman-legends-of-tiThe premise of this story reminds me of something from the Bronze or early Modern Age series or even an episode of B:TAS. Most of it involves Bruce Wayne in a hospital bed with a therapist telling him he’s an alcoholic and has some kind of split personality. It’s quite clear that it’s a dream or some kind of hallucination, but Talbot plays it fairly straight for the most part. There is, not surprisingly, plenty of surreal moments; which would technically make them hallucinations within hallucinations. No matter, there’s a sense of genuine drama here even though you know it can’t possibly be real. It’s certainly does have an element of mystery as you don’t know what’s really going on or how this situation came to be, or how Bruce really will win the day.
Mask does have some cheesy exposition via the classic fallacy of the villain revealing his entire master plan just when he thinks he’s victorious. Otherwise, it’s well-written and extremely well-drawn. One of the most over-looked runs in LOTDK.

5: Loyalties (issues 159-161)
Written by John Ostrander. Penciled by David Lopez. Inked by Dan Green.
The only thing better than a good LOTDK story is two of them back-to-back. I might even consider this arc to be superior to the previous one, which is really saying something considering how much that impressed me.
This is old school Batman, very much Year One influenced, but in no way hacky (unlike so many other runs in this series). Some of the better Batman comics are the ones that involve him and Jim Gordon working together other than in Gordon’s office or on the rooftop. It’s easy to forget that Gordon is in fact a cop and not just a bureaucratic paper-pusher.
“Loyalties” delves in Gordon’s personal life and finally explores his pre-Gotham years in Chicago. It’s a messy affair involving the mob, kidnapping and Gordon’s own family. What’s interesting is that in this story, Barbara Gordon (aka Oracle) is Jim Gordon’s niece rather than his daughter; though his wife’s name is Barbara. If you think about it, this would actually seem to make more sense since it’s rare that a mother and daughter have the same first name like fathers and sons sometimes do. In fact, Gordon’s son is James Junior.
Lopez’s art is fairly clean and cartoony much like David Mazzuchelli’s was in Year One. It’s quite possible he’s emulating that look purposefully, though it doesn’t appear to be hacky in any way (it’s not nearly as good as Mazzuchelli’s, though). For some reason, Bruce Wayne looks to be half Asian – this would be fine if this were a Manga comic.
My only complaint might be that there’s a little too much drama within the Gordon family and not enough Batman, but that’s pretty much it. Also, I was hoping for a longer fight scene at the end, but it wraps up entirely too quickly and it’s rather implausible (Batman can fight at the apex of an A-shaped roof, but not some generic gangster goon).

4: Faces (issues 28-30)
Batman_Legends_of_the_Dark_Knight_Vol_1_28Written and drawn by Matt Wagner.
One the best Batman stories I’ve ever read was Matt Wagner’s Batman/Grendel crossover (the first one with the green covers). I remember him writing the Sandman Mystery Theater series back in the 90s, too. He definitely knows how to tell a good detective story and with Faces, it’s a good attempt at one.
Wagner_faces1Two-Face kidnaps a bunch of people with deformities and has one of them seduce a realtor into selling him a private island (that Bruce Wayne wanted to buy) for nothing. It’s meant to be a sanctuary for these “outsiders,” but none of them really have much motivation for this exodus.
What I liked was that this story didn’t just concentrate on Batman and his pursuit against Two-Face, it also tells a side story of the real estate agent. I’ve noticed telling parallel stories seems to be Wagner’s forte, and here it works pretty well.
The art is rather cartoony, though. In fact, it’s rather messy at times. Wagner’s style reminds me of Bruce Timm – the designer of Batman: The Animated Series. It makes for an odd read considering the tone is so grim and the art is so simplistic. I do like how he uses sequential art and creates unique, eccentric page layouts.
3: Testament (issues 172-176)
Written by John Wagner. Drawn by Chris Brunner.
When people ask me what’s so great about Batman, it’s well-known stories like The Dark Knight Returns, Year One, The Killing Joke and many of the epic story arcs that I point to as an example. After reading nearly two hundred issues of LOTDK, many have been excellent, but few serve as a great example of why Batman is an awesome character and how great his stories can be. “Testament” is one of those.
When I first started reading this, I was deeply skeptical for a number of reasons. Firstly, it deals with a gang of vigilantes who go around straight-up murdering criminals. This trope has been used before, including right in this very series (“Faith” back in issues 21-23, for example); the entire character of The Punisher is based on this premise as well. Also the fact the guys committing the murders go by the rather silly name of “Rough Justice” and are kind of fundamentalist yokels seems rather trite. Thankfully, the story is compelling enough so that these aren’t major hang-ups to the plot.
 
 
You’d think this would be a rather simple story: Batman chases villains; fight ensues; Batman emerges triumphant – right? It’s not quite that simple. Wagner writes this script with a lot of depth to both the story and the characters. There is a sympathetic character – Lonny Hector – within the Rough Justice gang that gets in way over his head. Even his girlfriend becomes a significant supporting character and affects the plot.
There are plenty of fun and suspense action sequences throughout this five-part arc, including the Rough Justice gang storming Wayne Manor and discovering Batman’s secret identity. The problem with using that device is that you know anyone who knows Bruce Wayne and Batman are one in the same will end up dead by the end of the comic – that’s really not a spoiler. Still, this script is balanced well enough between standard Batman comic and action-oriented movie-like thrills and adventure so that it’s constantly entertaining.
The art by Brunner is fine, but not amazing. It walks a fine line between simple and cartoony and over-stylized and messy. I honestly could not distinguish between the main villains – they all look the same! His layouts and composition need a little tweaking as well as there were a few moments where I had to re-read entire pages to determine what was happening. Otherwise, Brunner is a good artist who is largely responsible for making “Testament” one of the best installments in LOTDK to date.


2: (tie) Blink (issues 156-158) and Don’t Blink (issues (164-167)
Written by Dwayne McDuffie. Penciled by Val Semeiks. Inked by Dan Green.

It’s been a long time since I read an arc in LOTDK that made me extremely glad that I did. There was a long spell of pretty abysmal stories followed by an even longer spell of ok or good stories, but “Blink” is the first arc that I would consider great. This is exactly what every LOTDK installment should be: detective work, characterization, surprise twists, dialogue that isn’t overtly “comic booky” and a real sense of mystery and intrigue.
As I’ve often stated, I don’t like it when Batman goes up against the supernatural or against villains with superpowers. That’s because writers use those elements to be completely fantastical and unrealistic (or just as a crutch when they can’t write reality-based stories). In “Blink” the premise is that a blind guy named Lee Hyland can see through the eyes of anyone he touches. It’s a superpower of sorts in that it enables him to be an identity thief, but he finds himself in the role of hero when he sees through the eyes of a killer and attempts to stop him (hey, wasn’t that the exact plot of the movie Unbreakable?).
Batman and Gordon get involved after Hyland stops a murder and winds up as the suspect. They eventually figure out that he’s telling the truth. Meanwhile, we learn that this is no ordinary serial killer but it’s actually a snuff film ring which involves one of Gotham’s more powerful men. Initially, I rolled my eyes when this was revealed since it’s delving into a territory that’s rounded regarded as a myth and also something way too disturbing even for a Batman villain. However, McDuffie doesn’t try to play the dramatic or emotional card as if this were real and trying to generate sympathy from the reader (unlike say, stories about human trafficking or child abuse). It’s basically just another underground criminal ring, but it’s written so much better here than the average comic book.
One thing I really liked about “Blink” was that it was only three chapters and was perfectly paced. It’s not rushed and it’s far from bloated (I wish the same could be said of many of the previous LOTDK installments). The artwork is only okay, though. Semeiks and Green don’t have much of a standout style; mostly illustrative and sketchy somewhere between Neal Adams and Klaus Jansen. Even the coloring is rather gray and drab. Layouts and compositions are fine, but there’s nothing all that memorable. This script in the hands of a better artist would’ve been outstanding, but as it stands it’s still pretty excellent.
 
Don’t Blink (issues 164-167)
 
Written by Dwayne McDuffie. Penciled by Val Semeiks. Inked by Dan Green.
 
It’s very rare that LOTDK has featured the same writing and art teams for more than one story arc (DC repeatedly said in the “Letters to the Editor” section that’s one of the “rule” for LOTDK). Though it’s been done before, I’ve never seen a creative team return so quickly and with just as good a showing as they did the first time, but McDuffie, Semeiks and Green have done just that with “Don’t Blink,” a sequel to “Blink” that had just appeared less than a year prior.
 
The original story strayed into more traditional superhero comic territory by having one of the supporting characters – Lee Hyland - have a super power. He starts out as a villain but ends as a hero. Here, he’s Batman’s right-hand-man as he has the ability to literally to see through the eyes of any person (or dog) he touches. In the first chapter, Batman has to rescue him for a covert government facility where his powers are being used in a Minority Report-type fashion to spy on and track down terrorists. This is the first reference to terrorists I’ve seen in the post-9/11 run of LOTDK.
 
Batman of course succeeds, but not after single-handedly fighting his way through a bunch of goons much like Neo in The Matrix movies. Batman and Hyland then track down the leaders of a baby trafficking ring. The final chapter involves Batman having to rescue Hyland and his wife from two of the federal agents he fought in the first chapter.
I mixed feelings about this story. On the plus side, it’s clearly written like a movie with a breezy pace and lots of action scenes. And much like a movie Batman is constantly surviving explosions, avalanches, traps, extreme weather and of course being ambushed by big guys with guns. It’s comic book superheroism in its raw form and it’s actually pretty fun. On the other hand, this work is a bit “fluffy” and derivative. It doesn’t seem like you’re reading a comic, it’s like you’re reading a pitch for a movie; and I don’t meant that a compliment. As I already pointed out, “Don’t Blink” has many similarities to other works; I’m not saying McDuffie is blatantly ripping-off those movies and such, just that the influence is quite obvious.
 
Still, this is a fun comic to read and it’s easy on the eyes. Semeiks and Green’s art isn’t especially beautiful or stylized so as to be unique and memorable – it’s simply solid and serviceable. It’s certainly better than a lot of other entries in the LOTDK series, that’s for sure.
 
 


1: Blaze of Glory (issues 197-199)
Written by Will Pfeiffer. Drawn by Chris Weston.
What keeps villains from going all out? The fact that they don't want to die. But when death is not an issue, that's when you get crimes committed on the level of 9/11. Though "Blaze of Glory" is not about Middle Eastern terrorists, but rather a fairly ordinary criminal who has only a short time left to live, so he decides to go out in a Blaze of Glory by hurting a lot of people, blowing a lot of stuff up and eventually killing Batman.
I don't think this is the first time we've seen a no-name villain outsmart Batman. I actually think that's a great premise, since the A-list rogues like Joker, Penguin,Two-Face, etc. always live to fight (and lose) another day. When an unknown outsmarts Batman it's fascinating because Batman is blindsided and doesn't even know how to approach the investigation. The caveat to that approach is that we have to believe a no-name villain is capable of acheiving such a feat. Sure, you can write the character extremely well and make it believable within the context of the story, but in the bigger picture you still have to wonder why this rogue might succeed where all the others have failed.
The rogue in question is a dude named Erik Webber. He's apparently some kind of mercenary as he's an expert with explosives and high artillery weaponry. Pfeiffer doesn't bother building him up from scratch, he just drops him it to current continuity ready to go. There's a flashback where Batman foils Webber's attempt at robbing an armored car which eventually lands him seven years in prison. When Webber gets out he's diagnosed with a brain tumor and vows revenge on Batman. He takes a fairly benign route by causing chaos rather than killing people outright (maiming them is another story). His plan totally would've worked... if the character of Oracle didn't exist.
This LOTDK arc takes place in the present-day DCU, so Barbara Gordon is Oracle. I've lamented about this character before and I'll use this story as a great example of why she makes everything entirely too easy for Batman. It turns Batman into more of a soldier than a detective since Oracle does all the hard work for him. Sure, Batman does some foresenics on his own, but Oracle's ability to hack every computer on the planet in a matter of seconds just makes the story completely far-fetched (yes, even by comic book standards).
 
I think "Blaze of Glory" could've been a masterpiece had the Oracle character not been present. Instead of being confined to three issues, I could easily see this working just as well as a four or five-parter if Batman had to do all the investigation himself. Even the ending is a bit of a downer since it invokes 9/11 imagery only a few years after the event and is also quite reminiscent of Fight Club.
But for all my criticisms, I will say "Blaze of Glory" is still a very good story. Probably what makes it so great is Chris Weston's artwork. It is absolutely gorgeous - I might even go so far as to say it's the best-looking line art in the history of LOTDK. It's exquistely detailed, and yet still fairly clean. It's not messy and sketchy and illustrative, though not cartoonish like Seth Fisher in the previous arc. His style reminds me a lot of Brian Bolland and Dave Gibbons, though Fisher seems to put even more detail into his panels. He also knows how to layout a page and compose a scene. If only the coloring hadn't been rather brown throughout. There's a sepia tone quality that does help give the story a dark, disturbing, bleak mood, but it's also a bit ugly.

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