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Sunday Slugfest: Batman: The Dark Knight #1

Posted: Sunday, January 2, 2011
By: Thom Young and Robert Tacopina

David Finch
David Finch (p), Scott Williams (i), & Alex Sinclair (colors)
DC Comics
A childhood “friend” from Bruce Wayne’s past has been abducted, and the trail of clues that Batman follows leads him to the nest of one of his oldest adversary’s in the premiere issue of a new ongoing series starring the original Dark Night Detective.

Robert Tacopina:
Thom Young:

Robert Tacopina:

Do we really need yet another Batman book?

That was the first question that immediately sprang to my mind when Batman: The Dark Knight was presented to the public, as there are already a seemingly unending selection of choices on the market for any and all Bat-enthusiasts to partake in--whether you like it or not.

My second question was whether artist extraordinaire David Finch could script a comic book that would wind up as an entertaining and substantial read. I certainly never knew that Finch was capable of producing a quality comic script. Yet here I am, after two reads through, and absolutely impressed with this initial offering that the writer/artist has provided.

Finch injects the often-forgotten mystery element back into the Batman mythos--a fact that was instantly appreciated. Here is Batman, Bruce Wayne, sticking true to his element as he hunts down leads to learn the whereabouts of missing socialite Dawn Golden, who just happens to be a childhood acquaintance. In the course of this issue we get the familiar and expected appearances of Alfred Pennyworth and Commissioner Gordon, both of whom serve to tie the story down on both facets of Bruce’s psyche.

All along, the story progresses with a fast paced fluidity that leaves the reader breathless and exhausted at the end of the issue, which concludes with Batman facing off against one of his most feared and recognizable foes. Finch definitely made me a believer in this title as well as in his chops as a writer. In fact, I am going to say this issue is my absolute favorite Batman story in recent memory, which is quite a compliment towards Mr. Finch when you consider the long list of illustrious talent that has been fortunate enough to work in the Batman universe.

Finch captures the essence and personalities of all of the characters he brings to life in this issue. This Batman comes across as MY Batman, the one that I imagine when I think of the character--a constantly thinking tactician and deductive mind that confronts villainy in all its forms regardless of whehter they are meta-humans or mere street thugs.

As for the illustrations, you only need to read the names David Finch, Scott Williams, and Alex Sinclair to realize that you are getting an absolutely gorgeous display of artwork. Stunning character models and settings wonderfully capture the feel of Gotham City and its seedy underbelly. I could just stare blankly at the pages for hours on end they are so damn beautiful!

If there was any flaw to be found in this stellar premiere issue, it was the confrontation between Batman and one of his two famous foes that are present in this first chapter of “Golden Dawn.” My nitpick is merely the fact that when Batman is in a stranglehold by his vastly stronger adversary, he relies on bringing a marquee down on top of his opponent’s head which serves to knock his foe down face first to the sidewalk--thus creating a huge pool of blood. Yet, a second later, Batman has contained his enemy and is interrogating him with no signs of the just-concluded struggle. It just seemed like convenient storytelling that a sign, which wasn’t particularly huge, would be capable of taking down such a behemoth of a monster.

Thom Young:

Like Robert, I was not sure what to expect from David Finch as the writer of this first issue of Batman: The Dark Knight. Some of my all-time favorite comic book stories have been produced by creators who handled both halves of the story--Will Eisner with everything he ever did, Jack Kirby during his stint at DC in the 1970s, John Byrne with Fantastic Four and several of his other projects (but not all), Frank Miller from 1981 to 1987, and others that are not immediately coming to mind.

However, as much as I appreciate the idea of a single vision producing a comic book story, I don’t believe that every illustrator working in comics can write well. I was especially concerned because I recall how much I disliked (hated is too strong of a word, but disliked is fairly accurate) Finch’s work as an illustrator when I first encountered it back in 2005 in New Avengers, where I thought he had good line work but tended to pose his characters rather than depict them in natural body positions.

However, Finch eventually stopped posing characters and has become a very good illustrator in the last few years. I wondered whether he would need to follow the same learning curve when it came to scripting a comic book story. As far as I can tell, he worked in comics as an illustrator for about seven years before he stopped posing characters (though I have not closely followed all of his assignments from 1999 to 2006), and I was hoping he would not need seven years to become a good writer.

I’m happy to say that the writing in this issue was much better than I feared it was going to be. For the most part, the dialog sounds natural, the plot is interesting, and the execution of scenes is handled well. However, the writing does have two minor flaws.

The first is the characterization of Alfred. This is the Alfred that Frank Miller first gave us in Batman: Year One nearly 25 years ago--the Alfred who’s not afraid to talk back to Bruce Wayne in a facetious manner that no other butler in the world would dare to use toward his employer.

I like that version of Alfred; I liked it 23 years ago, and I like it now. However, Finch overdoes it here. Finch's Alfred comes across as condescending rather than as merely facetious. I think it’s a fine line between disdain and facetiousness, and I think Finch has Alfred cross that line.

The second flaw is also rather minor. It’s so minor, in fact, that I didn’t notice it during my first reading of the issue, but it stood out during my second. The narration is in the first person from Batman’s point of view, which is a rare (but not unique) narrative point of view for a Batman story.

Grant Morrison wrote Batman #663 (“The Clown at Midnight”) from Batman's first-person point of view (though it wasn’t clear until a year or two after the story was published that the narrator of that issue was Batman), and I think Finch does a better job here than Morrison did there.

Batman stories have, at times, been written as first-person “casebooks” that Bruce Wayne has kept as a written account of his investigations. A recent example is the casebook observations that Batman made of Kate Kane in Batwoman #0. However, rather than a “casebook,” the opening narration of Finch’s script reads more like a memoir as Batman/Bruce Wayne recounts his childhood interactions with Dawn Golden--a somber-yet-fiery redheaded girl whom Bruce first despised and then became infatuated with after she pinned him to the ground and straddled his legs when they were about eight or nine years old.

I have difficulty believing Bruce Wayne would ever have time to write a memoir of his childhood days (at least not until after he has retired as Batman). The opening scene is not written in the style of a casebook narrative, so who would Bruce write his memoir for--at least at this point in his life?

However, once the action shifts to the present, it becomes clear that the “memoir” is actually part of a casebook file as Batman is investigating the abduction of the adult Dawn Golden. Yet now the narrative seems off in a different way as it shifts to the present tense.

Batman seems to be narrating (writing his casebook entries) at the precise moment that the events are transpiring. How is this possible unless he has some sort of mental link to a word processing program that allows him to compose his casebook file instantaneously as he experiences the events: “It’s cold and it’s wet. The waiting is taking its toll. I could go in and try to take him down now, but he’s going to be dangerous enough outside where he’ll be alone.”

(I do want to commend Finch, though, for having Batman state “try to take him down” rather than “try and take him down; most people nowadays like to use and as a preposition, but Bruce Wayne strikes me as a person who would know the difference between a coordinating conjunction and a true preposition--in this case, to.)

Of course, first person narrative is very common in hardboiled fiction--such as in the works of Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett Jim Thompson, Mickey Spillane, et cetera. However, present tense from any point of view is fairly rare in fiction--though I like the use of present tense (and have used it myself in the short stories I used to write more than 20 years ago). I can't speak to whether present tense is common in noir comics since I don't read noir comics--by which I mean Marvel's recent noir/hardboiled versions of their characters or Frank Miller's Sin City stuff.

However, I don't have a problem with a story being told in the present tense from a first-person point of view; I just thought it was an odd (and uncharacteristic) verb tense and point of view to use in a Batman story. As a straight internal monologue it comes across okay, but I didn't read the narrative as an internal monologue. I read it as a report due to the opening scene being written as a past-tense memoir, of which I took the present tense narrative to be an extension.

Again, I think this is only a minor "flaw," and it's one that doesn't bother me a great deal, but it would seem that neither Finch nor his editor gave much consideration to what affect narrative choices might have on the presentation of Batman as a character.

Bruce Wayne doesn't strike me as a person who would slip into "memoir mode" while working on a case--reflections on his childhood emotions, et cetera. He might well reflect back on his memories of Dawn Golden as it pertains to his present case, but he would omit all of the stuff about his childhood feelings about Dawn and about how devastated he was by his parents taking a two-month trip to Europe without him.

As for his report on the investigation of Dawn's abduction, Batman doesn't strike me as a person who would have a linear interior monologue running in his head--especially during a fight sequence--which is why I think the reporting of the story would have worked better in the past tense as a "Batman's casebook" narrative rather than as a present-tense interior monologue in which Batman also reports on his childhood feelings.

However, despite the relatively minor “flaw” in Batman’s narrative (and Alfred’s slight disdain for Bruce), I enjoyed Finch’s story a great deal. I wonder though whether there is some ultimate significance for the allusions to the life of Aleister Crowley in the story. If there’s not, then I found these references to be a distraction rather than as something that adds depth to the story.

First, there are the names of Dawn Golden and her father, Aleister. Reversed, “Dawn Golden” is “Golden Dawn,” which is also the title of Finch’s story. It is also the name of the Hermetic Order that Aleister Crowley belonged to for about a year. Of course, then there is the name “Aleister” itself--an unusual name, and one that was not Crowley’s birth name but one that he took later in life.

In fact, Crowley admitted that his spelling of the Gaelic name is not accurate, but was appropriate for his needs. Thus, it becomes even less believable that Dawn Golden’s father would be named Aleister and have the same incorrect spelling unless Finch is going to directly link the Golden family with Crowley in some way. If that’s the case, then I wonder if Dawn Golden is meant to be some sort of analog for Crowley’s first daughter, Nuit Ma Ahathoor Hecate Sappho Jezebel Lilith Crowley (or just “Lilith” for the shortened version).

As an old Crowley enthusiast (back in my younger days when I was interested in such stuff), I’m intrigued enough with this story to stick with it. Finch’s writing is more than competent, and his illustrations are superb--though I think his Batman is too bulky (he should have the body of a trained gymnast and martial arts master, not the body of a steroid-popping body builder).

Overall, Batman: The Dark Knight is a satisfying addition to the franchise--at least for now.

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