30 May 2010

Legends of the Dark Knight


It's the late 1980s, and word has come down that a major motion picture based upon Batman is in the works.  Anticipating a boost to comic book sales, DC Comics authorizes a third monthly title featuring the Caped Crusader.  It is called Legends of the Dark Knight, and from the very beginning it is distinguished from Batman and Detective Comics by three structural elements.  First, the creative teams change with every story.  Second, the stories are not bound to the continuity of the other books--or even one another, if the creative and editorial team are so inclined.  Finally, Legends of the Dark Knight is meant to showcase different takes on the Batman mythos, from the revolving door of talent responsible for the stories, to the characters and situations explored within the tales.

DC went one step further by making Legends of the Dark Knight a premiere title.  There were just a handful of titles published in the format.  They carried higher cover prices...and were not approved by the Comics Code Authority.  Instead, these titles were targeted at more mature audiences and while you could find them at most booksellers, you couldn't find them alongside mainstream titles from your local gas station.  I was aware of the series long before I ever bought a single issue.  In fact, the first issue I ever owned was #24, which was in an assortment of comics my mom gave me for Christmas in 1991.  I gather she'd simply gone into a bookstore and selected a spattering of current issues that featured characters she knew I liked.  It was another example of her taking a shot in the dark and hitting on something I found very special.

I always thought Legends of the Dark Knight did what an ongoing comic book series should do: offer frequent jumping on and jumping off points for readers.  If you started reading at any point in the run, you only needed to get caught up with the story at hand, not the entire run to that point.  And because LOTDK was rarely included in any crossover stories, readers weren't bound by their desire to keep up with a singular story to purchase issues from other titles.

My favorite story was a four-parter called "Heat" by Doug Moench (writer) and Russ Heath (artist) that was published in issues 46-49.  A sweltering Gotham City endures the escalating frustration of an unrelenting heat wave, while the misogynistic Catman stalks young women.  Catwoman is drawn into the ordeal, the similarity of the killer's aesthetic having wrongfully implicated her in his heinous acts and the burglar seeks to clear her name.  And if that's not enough, racial tensions are running high, and every drop of sweat brings the citizens of Gotham closer to widespread rioting.  It's a great detective story, with a visceral setting and a lot of genuinely fascinating dynamics between characters.

One of the highlights that emerged from this title came in 1993: a Halloween special by Jeph Loeb (writer) and Tim Sale (artist).  "Choices" was an 80-page prestige format book with a hefty price tag of $6.95.  It featured The Scarecrow and was set on Halloween.  The issue was an instant hit with fans; I remember buying an issue from a vendor at the flea market the week it had gone on sale, and it was months before I ever saw another copy for sale.  By then, it was commanding up to $20.00!  DC Comics wisely went back to Loeb and Sale for two more Halloween Specials, which gave rise to their acclaimed limited series, Batman: The Long Halloween (and its sequel, Batman: Dark Victory, and spin-off, Catwoman: When in Rome).  The three original Halloween Specials were eventually collected in a trade paperback, Batman: Haunted Knight.

There was also a three-issue mini-series, Jazz, published in 1995.  I never quite understood why DC felt so strongly about this one story that instead of simply inserting it into the LOTDK line proper, they spun it off into its own limited series.  Or, simply publishing it as Batman: Jazz would have made sense to me.  Branding it with the LOTDK title, though, always confused me.  After all, the title was six years old by then; if they were concerned that readers didn't know about it, I didn't think a three-issue spin-off was going to solve the problem.  Alas, they didn't consult me.

In 1997, Bruce Timm's team at Warner Animation developed an episode of The Batman/Superman Adventures called "Legends of the Dark Knight."  It features three Gotham children, each narrating his or her interpretation of Batman.  Each segment reflects a different period in Batman's wide history, from the goofy 1950s to Frank Miller's gritty The Dark Knight Returns.  Clearly, the episode's title and anthology-inspired structure were a nod to this innovative series.  The recent direct-to-video animated feature, Batman: Gotham Knight is similarly designed, showcasing several different stories about Batman, each with its own style.  It's a convention today, but 21 years ago, it was simply a way to ensure that readers who spent the money to buy a third Batman comic book got something special.

For a complete list of issues, story titles and creator information, you can view the details of the series at its Comic Book Database page here.

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