The Dark Knight Returns – The Last Crusade
By Frank Miller, Brian Azzarello, John Romita Jr., Peter Steigerwald, and Clem Robins.
Do you remember the feeling you got after reading The Killing Joke for the first time? Maybe you haven’t read that…well, okay, think about the first time you watched or read Old Yeller, and think back to that feeling. It is a feeling of having an intense emotional reaction to a story because of well-formed connections we have to well established characters. Well, get ready to have those feels all over again from The Dark Knight Returns – The Last Crusade. The story is set at a slow simmer throughout the book, slowly teasing and insinuating something dark and horrible is lurking behind every page.
This book sets up what causes Bruce Wayne to retire and informs the readers to how the Joker shaped his relationship to the caped crusader. Then, the last 4 pages just punch you in the stomach when the story takes a bloody and horrific turn without any explanation afterward. We all knew this book would be rough, it is the prelude to The Dark Knight Returns and Frank Miller said he had a heavy hand in writing this compared to the current Dark Knight III run that is out right now. With all of that in mind, you would assume you would be prepared for what this story shows and does to you, but you’re not.
Frank Miller is undoubtedly responsible for our current depiction of Batman in all media. From the Nolan trilogy movies to our new Batman, Ben Affleck (or Batfleck, if you will), they all have deep influences from the tone Miller set in his works. His famous contributions like Batman Year One and The Dark Knight Returns have introduced Batman as a brooding, tactical, and detective genius who is a reluctant hero at times, but so addicted to fighting evil he cannot walk away from protecting Gotham. The Dark Knight Returns – The Last Crusade has a lot of classic Miller touches, like the talking heads of media providing commentary throughout, the Alfred/Bruce Wayne Father/Son relationship, and Batman shown as self-doubting and vulnerable. The whole book we see Batman watching his protégé, Robin, fight criminals effortlessly and without remorse. Maybe Robin enjoys it a little too much, all the violence and bloodshed. Batman has spent time training Robin to be his successor, but he is in constant doubt and fear about what that would look like. Azzarello and Miller weave a fine story here that shows a more human take on Batman, a reflective one, who is trying to see what shape the next part of his life will take.
Apart from some great Batman moments with Alfred and Robin, we get to see some good villains integrated into the story like Joker, Killer Croc, and Poison Ivy. As Batman and Robin encounter each villain, you are waiting for tragedy to strike. Miller and Azzarello take great care to introduce subtle signs of aging with Batman during each physical altercation that no so subtlety results in a tremendous fight between Poison Ivy, Robin, and Bats. The whole book is building toward something, with Joker making moves in Arkham while Batman is training Robin to replace him despite the fact that Gotham still needs him. The entire time reading this book, you are waiting for the axe to drop and as each page passes you start to worry because the pages keep getting smaller without any relief of what horrible tragedy awaits us. The build up is great, the tragedy that happens is expected, but still traumatic because of the blunt and brutal way Miller and Azzarello leave the story. You finish the book, and there is no dialogue, narration, or discussion of what just happens, or even an explanation; it is just there in the picture and left for your mind to piece it all together.
This book features pencils by John Romita Jr., inks and color by Peter Steigerwald, and letters by Clem Robins. The book does have an overall gritty dark feel, with heavy pencils, and strong facial features highlighted with a heavy use of dark colors. However, Romita Jr. is an acquired art taste, he certainly has his own take on each character design that seems to be reminiscent of some classic Frank Miller, but something is a bit off. Romita Jr. does deliver in setting the art tone along with the story, and the layouts are beautiful, but there is something soft and light regarding his character design that seems askew. The Joker’s face is not long and accentuated with sharp facial features, and there is a huge opportunity with showcasing Killer Croc that was underused in terms of design. As polarizing as Romita Jr.’s art was, the layouts were expertly done to fully present the story in a really engaging way. The last four pages are filled with little dialogue or narration and contain the massive climax of the story. This is a heavy job to lie upon a creative team, to fully capture the story without revealing too much, while also showing exactly what happened is challenging. The creative team really came together to just make those pages as gut wrenching as possible. A huge shout-out needs to go to the colors throughout this book, but especially in the last page of the book. The dark shadowing done throughout the entire book was grim enough to set the tone, but also provided a great backdrop for the occasional splash of blood from the action panels.
The Dark Knight Returns – The Last Crusade is sure to be the talk of everyone’s comic shop for some time to come. This book has been a long time coming (30 years?!?!) and it really did a good job to piece together some stories that were missing from our Batman puzzle. This is a for sure must-read for every Batman fan out there, and this is also a good starting point for any new Batman readers who are looking to venture into comics.