about_faces (about_faces) wrote,

Review: "Batman: Dark Detective," (2005) Part 1: Introductions and Re-Introductions

While there are many Batman stories which I adore, there are some which I would never, ever recommend to anyone else. Such is the case with Batman: Dark Detective, the long-awaited reunion of Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers, and Terry Austin, one of the the greatest Batman teams ever who produced one of the greatest runs of any DC Comics property in the company's history. Hyperbole abuse be damned, I firmly think that storyline deserves every scrap of praise it gets.

Yes, I really do think that highly of them and their run, as I've written about in the past. Their original epic was a landmark story, one which greatly influenced generations to come, especially Batman: The Animated Series, whose adaptation of The Laughing Fish was one of the show's highest watermarks. Naturally, there was always a market for sequels, and even before Dark Detective was released in 2005, writer Steve Englehart and penciler Marshall Rogers created their own follow-ups:

Englehart's tale, which ran in the pages of Legends of the DC Universe #26-27, took place directly after the Joker fell into the water and vanished at the end of The Laughing Fish. Entitled The Fishy Laugh, the Joker ran afoul of Aquaman, a premise which sounds way more fun in theory than it does in practice. It's got some fun moments and some nice references to the Joker Fish, but Englehart's story doesn't serve much of a purpose, and Englehart himself will be the first to admit that the story was troubled behind the scenes from the very start.

On top of all that, I must admit that artist Trevor Von Eeden makes a poor substitute for Marshall Rogers. That's not to badmouth the talents of Von Eeden, whose artwork in the 80's was nothing less than stellar. To see what I mean, try to track down a copy of Batman Annual #8, The Messiah of the Crimson Sun. If you haven't read it yet, you should. It's a great story with an alarming WTF ending, and Von Eeden's artwork is top-notch. But by the time he drew The Fishy Laugh, I personally suspect that he'd been somewhat tainted by the influence of his mentor Neal Adams (for more info, track down The Comics Journal #298 for a fantastic, must-read interview with Von Eeden by my pal, the great Michel Fiffe), and the result is an artistic style which doesn't quite make up for Englehart's already-flawed storyline in The Fishy Laugh.

Nevertheless, it's an interesting story worth reading, and if you're curious to check it out yourself but are unable to find the actual issues, DC has awesomely reprinted it in the 100-page special, DC Comics Presents: Brightest Day #3, which can be purchased digitally here for $4.99.. If you need more of a taste, check out this great review over at the Aquaman Shrine.

Rogers' story, meanwhile, was a tale of far loftier ambitions: the Siege storyline, which ran in Legends of the Dark Knight #132-136, not only featured the first-ever return of Silver St. Cloud--the love interest from the original Englehart/Rogers run--but was also a posthumous tale plotted by and dedicated to the great writer/editor Archie Goodwin. It served the dual purpose as a sequel to one of the greatest Batman stories of all time and a tribute to one of the greatest (and nicest) editors of all time.

As such, it's with great reluctance that I must admit that Siege is kind of a lame, forgettable nothing of a storyline, despite the best scripting efforts of an in-his-prime James Robinson. It's admirable in its intentions of revealing an old enemy of Thomas Wayne's, but it's not an especially remarkable story either way. In terms of its value as a sequel, Silver's return is largely inconsequential, and even Rogers' artwork isn't up to par with his original work, although that might be partially due to the fact that he wasn't working with his original inker, the great Terry Austin.

In any case, Siege was a noble failure, but I'm sad to report that it was a failure nonetheless, one which did little to further the venerable reputations of both Goodwin and the great storyline upon which he'd attempted to follow up. Still, if you're curious to read Siege yourself, you can find all five issues available digitally on Comixology for $1.99 apiece, and the storyline has been collected with all of Rogers' other, far superior Batman work in the recent hardcover collection, Legends of the Dark Knight: Marshall Rogers. Even though I already own copies of every single story in that volume, oh my god, WANT.

In the cases of both The Fishy Laugh and Siege, something was clearly missing. But what? Naturally, it was the fact that the original band of Englehart, Rogers, and Austin hadn't been brought back together again! In terms of recapturing that same magic, perhaps they were akin to Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman: oh sure, they were capable of great things on their own, but they couldn't bring back the same kind of awesomeness until they were properly reunited! Like Meat and Jim, they really kinda needed each other, especially when it came to the subject of bats!

On top of that, they even got the original inker, Terry Austin, who is pretty much my favorite inker of all time. For a perfect example of the brilliance he brings to work, compare his inking of Paul Gulacy's pencils in Batman: Prey to Jimmy Palmiotti's inks in Batman: Terror. The artwork in the former example is far superior, and I think that's far less due to the possibility of Gulacy losing his touch and more a testament to Austin's skill. It'a also worth noting that Austin did not ink Rogers' pencils in Siege, which is just another reason why that story felt lackluster.

So with the three big stars of the original band reunited, coupled with a first-issue Joker cover that guaranteed old-school awesomeness, it's obvious that Batman: Dark Detective was going to be perhaps THE must-read comic for fans of classic Batman... right?

Well... sorta. Look, I love this story, but I'll be the first to admit that it's not without flaws. And even its strengths are not all to everyone's tastes. Maybe what happened was that, in their attempt to recapture the traits that made them so beloved in the first place, they were perhaps a bit too successful. Batman: Dark Detective ramps up a lot of their... quirks, shall we say... to the point where it must seem weird and jarring to readers who aren't familiar with their work, to the newbies who are, in a sense, not "in on the joke." I think it's fair to say that B:DD is like porn for fans of Englehart and Rogers, a slice of pure crack that's largely off-beat, sometimes just plain off, sometimes COMPLETELY BONKERS, but it's never boring. Well, almost never, depending on your tolerance for the romance between Bruce Wayne and Silver St. Cloud.

Did you notice that this issue is where DC changed logos from the "bullet" to the "swish"? Maybe that was another sign of how the times had moved on from this story right out from under its feet. Also, I miss the "bullet," dammit. Hell, I had already gotten used to the "swish" before it too got replaced by the soulless corporate logo they're using now. Sigh.

Ultimately, I may just be really biased in my love towards Dark Detective for two reasons: 1.) it has one of the weirdest--and yet, most strangely charming--explorations of Harvey Dent that I've ever seen, and 2.) it has what I consider to be some of the best Joker moments of all time. Yes, the real focus is on Bruce and Silver's affair, but to quote Max Shreck, "Yawn." For me, Dark Detective is all about the perfect Joker and the wacky Harvey. So let's examine both, shall we?

And while we're at it, let's meet a brand-new character who will play a vital part in this story, someone who bears an eerie resemblance to a certain blond, doomed politician from a recent Bat-related movie that would come out three years later. Coincidence? We'll see...

Right from the very first page, Dark Detective distinguishes itself from the original storyline by bringing Two-Face into the mix! Or at least, Two-Face's hands, keeping him shadows the whole time as if we're not supposed to be able to tell who this is.

This is all we see of Harvey until the last page, which is treated as a big reveal as if we weren't supposed to be able to deduce this scarred coin-flipper's surprise identity. So yeah, it's an odd choice on Englehart's part, one that's largely pointless, but hey, I'm not complaining. The more Harvey, the merrier! We then move to a cool two-page spread of Batman, who is in the process of evading police. If you're wondering why Batman's fighting cops, that's because this storyline takes place shortly after the big War Games event. As such, Batman's an outlaw, targeted by current police commissioner Michael Akins, who took over after Jim Gordon retired following the events of Officer Down.

In retrospect, setting this in the post-War Games continuity kinda annoyingly dates that which otherwise feel like a standalone, out-of-continuity tale from something like Legends of the Dark Knight. To make matters more convoluted, following continuity doesn't even work since apparently no one pointed out to Englehart that Harvey was no longer Two-Face, but was in fact cured and healed followed the events of Hush, thus making this Harvey's only major appearance between Hush and Face the Face, which simultaneously rescarred Harvey and brought Jim Gordon back! So yeah, stuff like this is a great argument for doing more stories out of continuity, especially when it comes to creator-driven oddball projects like this one.

Slipping back into his Bruce Wayne persona, our hero attends a fundraiser/masquerade for Evan Gregory, a crusading Senator who is now running for Governor. While Bruce is outwardly supporting Gregory, his ulterior motive is pretty much to stalk his ex, Silver St. Cloud, who is Evan's fiancée. The return of Silver is pretty much the backbone of this entire story, and the most significant tie to the original Bronze Age run. When you get right down to it, both story arcs are about Bruce and Silver's tragically doomed love affair. Ironically, while I adore both of these stories with all my heart, the Bruce/Silver relationship is by far my least favorite aspect.

I have to make a confession right here: much as I adore Englehart's storyline and enjoy the Bruce/Silver subplot in that story's context, I don't really care much for Silver as a character. This wasn't always the case, since there was a time not too long ago when I held her up as one of Bruce's all-time greatest loves, an opinion which has been held for decades by many fans, writers, and--not surprisingly--Englehart himself.

In a 1989 interview with Comics Interview magazine, Englehart rated Silver above all the other love interests for Bruce, including Catwoman (whose pairing with Batman "seems like a device") and Talia ("She was just there to be the daughter of Fu Manchu, in effect, but Fu Manchu was the one who was important.") But with Silver St. Cloud, Englehart said, "I set out to give Bruce Wayne a fully developed adult woman with whom he could have a fully developed adult relationship -- they even slept together, can you believe it! I think she is the only real woman in Bruce's entire chronology."

Basically, what I hear from this is that Silver wasn't a costumed or fantastic character, but rather a civilian love interest like Vicki Vale and Julie Madison, except that Silver actually got to learn Bruce's secret ID and have sex with him, which sets her apart from the rest. But this doesn't make her a rich, fleshed-out, three-dimensional character in her own right. In her original appearance, she had absolutely no definition personality traits (name me three personality traits for Silver St. Cloud, I dare you), and she had no agency of her own. Silver existed purely for Bruce's benefit, and for no other reason.

Ultimately, what really wised me up to the hollowness of Silver was the fact that, as Englehart himself has often lamented, the Vicki Vale of Tim Burton's Batman was originally MEANT to be Silver several drafts earlier. Back when the Batman movie got underway, the film more closely resembled the Englehart story, complete with Silver St. Cloud and Rupert Thorne, but by the time Burton and Sam Hamm produced the film, Silver became Vicki Vale. Why? Search me.

But here's the thing: Kim Basinger's Vicki set the template for pretty much every single boring, tedious, shoehorned-in love interest from any of the Batman movies, be they Vicki Vale, Chase Meridian, Julie Madison, or Rachel Dawes. And just like Kim Basinger's Vicki, they've all followed the same beats: falls for Bruce, gets rescued by Batman, learns that they're one and the same, gets Bruce to open himself up emotionally, etc. Even both movie versions of Selina Kyle followed these beats to a certain extent, except that they at least had more of their own agency and character depth going on.

All of those other love interests, Silver included, had very little agency outside of bring Bruce's love interest and Batman's hostage-to-rescue, something which will continue to be the case here in Dark Detective:

Just in case you were wondering if they weren't going to go there with her this time around.

So yeah, I strongly disagree with Englehart's idea of Silver being a "fully developed" woman. She exists purely to show a softer side of Bruce, one that's tempted towards a normal life and relationship which he can never have. There's little of her own character nor agency to speak of, and as such, I can't say I find her compelling. And unfortunately, this story pushes my feelings towards her from "do not care" into straight-up disdain, for reasons which you can probably see coming a mile away with the introduction of the love triangle and Evan Gregory himself:

Heh, nice shout-out to Thorne. Good to know that even with Thorne in Blackgate (after the whole "Return of Hugo Strange" debacle), his cronies still carry on some political power in his name, just as it's neat to finally see some heroic politicians coming up to oppose them. As this story's Anti-Thorne, Evan is a decent, blandly good-hearted guy, which in this kind of story means just one thing: he's utterly screwed. With a character like this, you just know that he's either gonna get killed, get his heart broken, get turned into a villain, and/or be revealed as the villain all along. See also: Lincoln March in Snyder's current Batman run. I won't spoil just what combination of bad fates await poor Evan, but if the above sequences didn't tip you off enough, then let me introduce to you the chap in the Red Death outfit:

Because it just ain't Englehart, Rogers, and Austin without the Joker! One of the reasons why The Laughing Fish is still one of the greatest Joker stories ever is because of how perfectly JOKER his plan was: poison fish with Joker toxin to give them smiles and kill anyone who refuses to grant him the trademark for the Joker Fish. Brilliant!

What I love about that Joker is how it's utterly insane, and yet it still follows a kind of insane logic. This isn't the Joker who follows the Kletus Cassidy school of "kill everyone indiscriminately, laugh," a mentality which plagues the Joker as a character to this very day. No, a perfect Joker has to have a plan that actually makes sense, even if it's only to him, and it's even better when the murderous joke of a plan is actually funny in a sick, twisted way. As such, I think "Vote For Me, or I'll Kill You" is pretty goddamn perfect Joker. It's brilliant, hilarious, and scary all at once.

That said, Englehart's Joker here isn't flawless, especially with his propensity to spout dated references to American Idol and "Do the Dew," but by and large, we're in for some classic Joker greatness here. But as always, there has to be some boring fuddy-duddy who just doesn't get the joke:

Trying to give the Joker orders AND letting him shake your hand? Evan's not too bright, is he? Well, luckily for him (depending on one's definition of lucky, considering where his storyline will be going from here on out), he survives the shocking unscathed. Haney, on the other hand, is clearly a dead man walking, as Englehart is once again pulling a Laughing Fish scenario of having the Joker kill people until his absurdly impossible demands are met. This, I have to admit, does feel like a retread, but it's a good retread that allows for great Joker mayhem and madness, so I don't mind. Of course, before we can get there, we have to have the first fight scene, which features some fun moments.

I have to wonder how many times Bruce was kicked in the crotch by crooks before he thought of that line of defense. Either way, I think it's hilarious that the Joker--the greatest criminal mind in Gotham, or maybe even the world--stopped for a moment and thought, "Hmmm... Imma gonna kick Batsy in the junk!" When that failed, he opted for Plan B: "RUN AWAY!"

HAW HAW! /NelsonMuntz. This leads into a thrilling, high-speed battle in the elevator shaft on top of a runaway elevator that first drops, and then starts speeding up to the top, whereupon Batman makes his escape.

Because why wouldn't the Joker have ketchup on hand, just for such an occasion? Of course he would! Thus the Joker escapes, and our heroes aren't the only ones who are unhappy to learn of his new plan:

Behold, the first time--to my knowledge--that Marshall Rogers has ever drawn Two-Face! Oh sure, he's drawn Harvey once before in the short-lived newspaper comic strip of 1989, but this here marks Two-Face's grand introduction to the Englehart/Rogers subsection of Batman!

That said, I'm not the hugest fan of Rogers' take on Harvey, who looks kinda older and saggier than I'd prefer. Like, right here, he reminds me a bit of Leslie Nielsen. Anyone else see it? Furthermore, Rogers draws what may well be the schlubbiest Two-Face I've ever seen, having him wear clothes that look ratty even on his good side, and never putting him in a tie of any sort. But even if I'm not crazy about the way Harvey's drawn here, the writing more than makes up for it, especially once we get to Harvey and the Joker's confrontation.

After that, Harvey's subplot veers into really, really, seriously weird-ass territory, and I still don't know how the hell I feel about the wacky damn ideas Englehart throws at us with Two-Face. Still, they're a good sight more interesting than the Bruce/Silver dynamic, but we'll stick with that too, since Evan's story shall prove to be more relevant to our interests than anyone might suspect.

To be continued... Click here to read Part 2!
Tags: hugo strange, joker, marshall rogers, other meddling superheroes, scarecrow, steve englehart

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