I've written before about how one of the best things about Batman is how adaptable he is as a character. Owing largely to the fact that he descends from pulp vigilantes but was refined for the world of superheroes, he can work in almost any kind of story, from gritty, street-level crime to world-traveling adventure, and even the occasional trip to space alongside the Justice League. But the one thing that you very rarely see from Batman is a story where he has to deal with the supernatural.

I think there's a good reason for that, and it has a lot to do with his origin. Ghosts and demons and other assorted haints are, after all, an indication of an afterlife, and the more you remind readers that, in comics at least, death is a transitional inconvenience rather than a permanent state of being, the more they start to wonder just why this guy is so mad about a couple of murders. But that said, it has been done on occasion, and it has never, ever been done as well as it was in Peter Milligan, Kieron Dwyer, Dennis Janke and Mike Mignola's Dark Knight, Dark City, which is out this week in a new paperback.

 

 

That roster of creators should probably be enough to convince anyone that this is a story worth reading. Mignola only does the covers, but Dwyer's work on interiors is fantastic, walking this fine line between moody and horrific and action packed superheroism that underscores how the story is playing with a clash between those two genres, but it's Milligan who really stands out for me.

Milligan is one of the most underrated Batman writers of the era, whose brief run in the early '90s resulted in some truly strange adventures. My personal favorite is a story about a serial murdering librarian who kills people and then dresses them in leather jackets with the Dewey Decimal System number corresponding with their professions and then leaves them scattered around the city, mostly because it reads like a thoroughly bonkers update of Bookworm from the '66 TV show.

With Dark Knight, Dark City, though, Milligan tops himself by a long shot.

 

 

The basic premise of the story is that the Riddler, usually seen as the least violent of Batman's major rogues gallery, embarks on a series of crimes that are far more violent and disturbing than any he's done before. He blows up a blood bank, showering Batman in blood; hangs a guard in the Gotham University library after shooting another in the head; and even stuffs a ping-pong ball in a baby's throat, forcing Batman to save the kid's life by performing an emergency tracheotomy.

Also, a goat is involved.

As the story unfolds, it seems at first like your standard issue '80s or '90s story where a previously silly villain is brought back as a darker, more "credible" threat -- but it's not long before it takes a turn into (appropriately) Gothic horror. It suddenly becomes a story about secret societies, the founding of America, Thomas Jefferson and a cabal of devil-worshippers performing an underground ritual in what would eventually become Gotham City, embedding a horrifying evil right into the dirt of Batman's hometown.

 

 

For a long time, Dark Knight, Dark City was a pretty overlooked story -- which, given how weird it is compared to pretty much anything else going on in the Batman books in 1990, is kind of understandable -- but it ended up being one of the most influential, too. Grant Morrison brought back the demon Barbatos in his long run as writer of the Batman books, notably in the pages of The Return Of Bruce Wayne, and the idea of an evil in Gotham City that's far older than Batman is a pretty central theme of what Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo have been doing in their tenure as well. Plus, it's an amazing story.

There was a re-release for Dark Knight, Dark City as a hundred-page giant a few years back (which is still available at Comixology for five bucks and worth every penny), but if you missed out on that and want to add it to your bookshelf, the new paperback also collects a handful of other Peter Milligan Batman stories, too. Sadly, the one with the librarian isn't in there, but still, it's weird, fun, and incredibly compelling stuff to read that's been overlooked for far too long.