23 October 2011

Legends of the Dark Knight: "Flyer"

Legends of the Dark Knight #24-26
Howard Chaykin - script
Gil Kane - plot/art
Steve Oliff - colors
Willie Schubert - letters
Bill Kaplan - assist. editor
Archie Goodwin - editor
Nov. 91-Jan. 92
Cover Price: $1.75/each

This is where it all began for me as a fan of LOTDK, actually.  I received issue #24 along with a few other comics for Christmas in 1991.  My mom just kind of randomly snagged a few comics from a spindle at one of the bookstores in one of the various malls, not knowing at the time she was putting into my hands one of the most important comics in my entire library.  Is Legends of the Dark Knight #24 particularly valuable?  No.  You should be able to find copies these days for less than its original $1.75 cover price.  But I had just turned 13 and I had never seen anything quite like this in a comic book before.  Interestingly enough, this was also the first issue for Archie Goodwin as editor of the series.  His interpretation of the series, espoused in the letters column, defined LOTDK for me.

"Flyer" takes place 18 months into Bruce Wayne's career as Batman.  Alfred is concerned that Bruce should have already gotten this out of his system and returned to a more respectable life.  Moreover, he challenges that Bruce is now simply a thrill-seeker, and this becomes the theme of "Flyer."  How seriously does, or should, Bruce Wayne take being Batman?

Someone has been killing bats in Gotham City, clearly sending a message to the Dark Knight.  Soon enough, Batman encounters his predator,whom we discover is Curt Eisenmann.  What appears to be a battle armor suit is instead learned to be more of an exoskeleton.  Curt was a helicopter pilot for the Gotham City Police Department when he was severely disfigured and maimed when his chopper was swarmed by bats called by Batman to cover his escape from the police.  What's more is that Eisenmann's mother, Birgit, is an engineering scientist working rather shadily for the U.S. government...and is an Aryan lunatic intent on breeding with the Batman.

The dynamics between Curt and Birgit are completely screwed up.  He has been denied any encouragement or love from her, shown instead only indifference or contempt.  Neo-Nazis and their ilk are often one-dimensional villains; after all, who wants to even know much more about them other than that they're driven by a completely insane ideology?  Birgit is pure evil, but of a fascinating sort.  She displays no maternal warmth to her own son and is the sexual aggressor toward the captured Batman.  I'm not at all rigid about gender roles, but there is something particularly chilling about this woman and her absence of anything feminine.  I could be mistaken, but it appears to me that there may have been some kind of incestuous relationship between Birgit and her father.

I'd never seen a character like her in a comic book before, and to this day Birgit Eisenmann remains one of the most unnerving antagonists I've encountered as a reader.  This was something entirely unlike the run of the mill, colorful supervillains to which I had become accustomed.  She wasn't at all like The Joker, The Riddler, The Penguin or Catwoman.  This was the kind of evil that was really out there, and her motivation and demeanor made me take her--and LOTDK--quite seriously.

Another element I must praise is Howard Chaykin's intelligent script.  Mainstream comics in those days were written for a more "family appropriate" readership; nothing that would incur the scorn of the average parent.  This, however, not only explore more mature themes but also the writing was clearly more literary-minded.  There are references to classic works of literature, for instance, that went right over my head at age 13--and I suspect I was not alone in this.  These little touches are the kind of thing that made Legends of the Dark Knight stand out in its day, and it's why stories like "Flyer" still impress and satisfy twenty years later.