Sunday, October 12, 2008

Reading Comics-Batman: Dark Victory

Believe it or not, Robin is a hard character to deal with in a serious, noir way. He's a kid with a colorful costume, with quips that reflect this. The only way he fits in with the Batman mythos in any significant way is his origin, his two circus gymnast parents being killed during a performance. The who and why of this, however, changes in each writer's hands.

To their credit, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale do a good job bringing Robin into their vision of Gotham City in Dark Victory, their follow-up to The Long Halloween. Set a year after the end of that series, which found the crime boss Carmine Falcone dead by the hands of former DA Harvey Dent, and the serial killer Holiday behind bars, Batman now has to contend with a new serial killer in Gotham, the organized crime families fighting for their survival against the costumed 'freaks,' and a new DA with questionable allegiances.

Victory continues the various 'Godfather' references included in TLH, although they aren't as heavy handed this time around. A new Falcone son appears, named Mario, thus completing the triumvirate of Corleone references, (Mario=Michael, Sofia=Sonny, Alberto=Fredo). Mario, however, is attempting to make the family legitimate, with little help from his siblings or the other crime families. The new serial killer continues in the vein of Holiday by striking once a month, but this time targets cops and former cops, and pins a version of the hang man game on them. Frank Miller's and David Mazzuchelli's Year One proves ripe for this 'game,' with the former commissioner and corrupt cops becoming victims to the killer. In some ways, this serial killer is more imaginative than Holiday, but Loeb and Sale don't provide the suspense and pacing that they did in TLH. The mystery feels like a sub-plot to the main plot, which revolves around the battle between the mafia and the freaks.

In this, Dent, now Two-Face, becomes the de facto leader of characters like the Joker, Scarecrow, and Poison Ivy, but his aim is still the same as his former self, to take down the Falcones. His personality becomes a hinge for the plot, split between his devotion to his now-absent wife and the new DA Janice Porter, to the law and his now rengade status. He continually tries to prove that he is not the Hang Man Killer, but is continually reminding his former allies Batman and Jim Gordon that things cannot go back to the way they once were. The other 'freaks' don't get the same thorough treatment as he does, although Loeb and Sale still bring interesting facets to them. Mr. Freeze and Penguin finally enter the picture, Poison Ivy makes a pass at Two-Face (only to be surprisingly rebuffed), and the Joker proves to be a volatile force, particularly at the end.

As for Batman, a continual phrase he uses is 'I am alone.' Due to his self-inflicted guilt for Harvey Dent's fate, he becomes isolated from those who he grew to trust. He no longer feels connected to Gordon and the police, especially since DA Porter does not trust him. His lack of commitment loses both Catwoman in his costumed persona, and Selina Kyle in his Bruce Wayne persona. The one person to snap him out of this is Alfred, the one father figure he has in his life. And the one true bond he can make is with Dick Grayson.

I've long wondered why this is, and fortunately Loeb provides the best rationale I've encountered. Bruce Wayne is essentially in a state of arrested development, he is still a young boy chasing down the man who killed his parents. This is a tragedy that he hasn't been able to overcome, but it has become the only focus in his life. Grayson shares the same situation, a zeal to go after the two bit gangsters that were responsible for his parents deaths. Batman helps him overcome this in a way that was absent to him, becoming a mentor to the young boy and channeling his aggression. And Loeb and Sale also give the Robin costume meaning, a memorial to the Grayson parents. They avoid the questionable associations that have so long plagued the duo, and instead they resemble Ogami Itto and his son in the Japanese manga Lone Wolf and Cub.

While Dark Victory may not be superior to The Long Halloween, it is an equal. Sale's artwork continues to amaze and surpasses his previous work, becoming more fluid and gestural (although his Joker is borderline weird). And Loeb provides not only a great plot, but moving moments as well, such as when a young Bruce Wayne's experience of entering his parents bedroom after their deaths is contrasted with a similar experience shared by Dick Grayson. Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale have officially made their mark on the Batman mythos, an influence that won't fade for quite some time.

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