Review by Ian Keogh
Starting in 1986, Legends of the Dark Knight was a series enabling creators unwilling or unable to commit to runs on a regular Batman comic the chance to produce their individual interpretation of the iconic character. The proof of both Batman’s ability to accommodate multiple variations of style, and the editorial wisdom of diversity is emphatically endorsed by this collection of three radically different stories.
It’s doubtful there could be three more diverse artistic approaches to Batman than those collected here. Tim Sale draws on the shadows, supplying a modern take on the Batman of the 1940s, his pages very design led and cinematically composed. Kevin O’Neill’s fabulously hallucinogenic distortions pack in visual asides in a manner not seen since Will Elder’s busy 1950s pages for the early comic version of Mad. P. Craig Russell’s approach is decorative elegance, where possible taking the pre-Raphaelite school of painting as his influence. Each version is equally valid, and each a visual treat.
Sale and James Robinson were both relatively unknown creators when they produced the clever ‘Blades’. There’s a strong emotional undercurrent to a story in which Gotham has a new protector, and a new serial killer, while Batman himself is out of sorts. We quickly learn the new hero is a film stuntman who’s chosen to costume himself in Zorro fashion and use a fencing sword as his weapon. His motives are selfish, to begin with anyway, but Robinson ensures he has a sympathetic air about him, while Sale takes care of the dashing aspects. With this collection long out of print, ‘Blades’ is more easily located in Tales of the Batman: Tim Sale.
O’Neill’s art has always been an uneasy fit with mainstream comics, the Comics Code Authority once delivering a hilarious verdict that there was nothing about it that they could approve. However, it’s just a matter of ensuring the material is tailored to his style, and Alan Grant does that by returning Bat-Mite, the ludicrous 1950s imp who wanted to help Batman, combining him with a crook whose drug ingestion is prodigious. O’Neill throws in some prime visions, distorting the daft aspects of the 1950s Batman and his surroundings, and nutty imp versions of DC’s characters, while there’s a surprisingly spiritual aspect from Grant. It’s very funny and unlike any Batman seen to that point.
A Gotham villain sublimely suited to Russell’s talent for the gorgeously verdant is Poison Ivy, and a script from John Francis Moore set early in her career enables justifiable suspense as to whether or not she’s rehabilitated. The truth of that is revealed early, without conforming to expectations, and part of the story’s strength is Moore providing readers with information that Batman then has to figure out. Russell has plenty of opportunities to shine, and early adoption of digital colouring possibilities from Lovern Kindzierski’s Digital Chameleon company ensure the strip still looks good today.
If you’ve a fixed idea of how Batman should be presented, this isn’t the collection for you, but if you embrace different approaches this is a collection well worth seeking out. Much the same applies to the original comics series. Individual stories turn up now and then in anthologies, but very few of a largely innovative run have been collected.