The 10 Best Stories From DC’s Original ‘Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight’ Series
Last week saw the release of DC’s Legends of the Dark Knight 100-Page Super-Spectacular #1, collecting two stories from the digital-first series in an oversized single issue. While it could really use a smaller price tag ($9.99!) and a snappier title, it marks the temporary return to print of one of the best Batman books of the last twenty years.
Launched in 1989, Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight featured rotating creative teams, self-contained stories (for the most part: LOTDK was drawn into the KnightsEnd and No Man’s Land blockbusters), and healthy amounts of psychological themes. Unhindered by current goings-on and able to move freely throughout continuity, creators brought their A-games to Legends, and over the decades, the title spawned several Batman tales now considered to be classics, and several more that should be. The entire series is available digitally for your persual, but these are my picks for the best stories in Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight.
There are two Grant Morrisons. There’s the wacky sci-fi high-concept surrealist superhero reconstructionist many don’t get because he’s too far-out, and then there’s the Romantic many don’t get, probably because they think he’s too conventional. That’s the Morrison who wrote Gothic, a “Romance in Five Volumes” about Faustian pacts, child murder, and the untamable, unknowable nature of true horror. Klaus Janson’s gloomy art follows Batman’s confrontation with Mr. Whisper, a monk who made a deal with the devil for the eternal life, and delves deeper into Bruce Wayne’s past to unveil the things that terrify even the Batman. One of the darkest things Morrison has ever written.
A story set in the early days of Batman’s career, just after Year One, Batman is still hated and feared by the police. The mayor of Gotham enlists brilliant psychologist Dr. Hugo Strange to provide some insight into Batman’s personality, and it gets…weird. Obsessed, Strange transforms himself into a twisted mockery of the Dark Knight, has loaded conversations with a mannequin dressed in slinky lingerie, and figures out Batman’s true identity. When we think of Batman’s greatest foes, we tend to forget Hugo Strange, but Moench and Gulacy make a compelling argument for his greatness in this action-packed psychological thriller.
Dennis O’Neil has contributed several enduring stories to the Batman legacy, but Venom is one of the most important. When Batman is unable to save a little girl’s life because he isn’t strong enough – a tense, almost frantic scene drawn by Von Eeden, Braun, and García-López – he turns to the strength-enhancing drug “venom” and slides head-first into a tailspin of addiction. Taut and emotional, Venom pushes Batman to the brink of insanity and brings him back just in time to fight a shark.
When recalling the creators who helped shape Batman’s legend, writer Mike W. Barr tends to get short shrift, but his contributions to the mythos are significant. After all, this is the guy who introduced the idea of a Bat-child in Batman: Son of the Demon, and followed up Frank Miller’s Year One with the gruesome exploits of The Reaper in Year Two. In Faith, a former drug addict saved by Batman founds a group of Guardian Angel-like defenders who might even be worse than the low-lives they fight, and Dr. Leslie Thompkins discovers that the vigilante she loathes is the same boy she’s come to think of as a son. A hard-edged story about poverty, responsibility, and belief, Faith is yet another reason why we should consider Barr one of the greats.
Matt Wagner! Two-Face! Circus freaks! Matt Wagner again! In Faces, the scarred mess that was once Batman’s ally tries to create an autonomous society of the wretched and dispossessed. A byzantine mystery that winds through themes of acceptance, punishment, beauty, and fate, Faces features several of Wagner’s favorite subjects: high society, double-lives, weird sex, complex layouts, and tweed jackets.
While Batman is concerned with Mister Lime, a serial killer who targets the elderly, a new costumed avenger shows up in Gotham, a swashbuckler who calls himself The Cavalier. Gotham quickly embraces this flamboyant new vigilante, who reminds Batman of his childhood idols and provides an image of the type of hero he might have become. But The Cavalier is not what he seems. When Gotham’s new hero is unable to meet the demands of this life, the inevitable confrontation comes to pass, in a jaw-dropping sequence rendered by Sale’s whisper-thin pen lines.
Gotham is filled with junkies, murderers, miscreants, and low-lives, held face-down to drown in the accumulated muck in the cruel streets of a sinister town. When the bad choices turn worse, when the bodies pile up and the lowly are pressed hard against the unforgiving edge of life, they end up at the Terminus Hotel. Delano and Bachalo deliver a chilling single-issue story about murder, dreams, and loss; wasted lives and torment. The kind of urban horror that could only come from two creators who helped define early Vertigo, Terminus is depressing as hell.
Believing that he’s killed Batman, The Joker slips into an alternate personality – that of Joseph Kerr, who likes silent movies and radio shows and falls madly in love with a woman named Rebecca. Meanwhile, the still-living Batman, bleached of his memory and unaware of his identity, falls for his caretaker Lynn. But it isn’t long before The Joker tries to claw his way through the sad illusion of normalcy, and Batman feels his obsession creeping up on him like a shadow. The Dark Knight gives in to his fate, the grinning mask of chaos shreds Joseph Kerr to ribbons, and Batman and the Joker end up right back where they were, the only place they truly belong. I’ve changed my mind: this is depressing as hell.
Gotham is invaded by two super-soldiers, human experiments mutated into living viruses. Ellis’s prose is the perfect shade of purple, and with McCrea’s thick, imposing lines, the “viral soldiers” are Lovecraftian visions of squamous horror, lurking the twisted streets of Gotham beneath opium skies. As legendary a reputation as Ellis has for hating “pervert suits,” and as effectively as McCrea has lampooned them, the pair seem flawlessly matched to bring to Batman a foetid intensity that recalls some of the weirder stories of the thirties and forties.
One of legendary writer/editor Archie Goodwin’s last stories, Siege takes place at an interesting time in the mythos, when Batman is operating out of his downtown penthouse and has no interest in returning to his family home. When Wayne Manor is threatened, Bruce is forced to make a choice: save the Wayne legacy or let it burn. Goodwin and Rogers (along with James Robinson, who finished the story after Goodwin’s passing) construct a weird and twisting narrative about corruption, revenge, family and, most of all, transition. Never collected, Siege is a great Batman story that's even better than I remembered it to be.
Other greats: Shaman by Dennis O’Neil, Ed Hannigan, and John Beatty; Criminals by Steven Grant and Mick Zeck; Engines by Ted McKeever; Conspiracy by Doug Moench, J.H. Williams III, and Mick Gray; Freakout by Garth Ennis and Will Simpson; Terror by Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy; The Demon Laughs by Chuck Dixon and Jim Aparo, and several others I’m forgetting. Did I miss one of your favorite Legends? Behold the lawless lands of the comments section, where feelings don't matter and loud voices reign supreme!