Legends of the Dark Knight I: The Butler Did It

Legends of the Dark KnightToday, Patrick and Drew are discussing Legends of the Dark Knight I: The Butler Did It, originally released digitally on April 7th, 2012.

Patrick: We blather on about the traditional forms and functions of comic books on this website like we know what we’re talking about. We do it all the time – even though most of our editors have been actively reading monthlies for less than a year. You could call that precocious if we weren’t also grown-ass men and women with educations and jobs. In the DC Universe specifically, but also in comics generally, we are always playing catch-up, assuming that our keen powers of perception and articulation can help us bullshit our way through an article on a subject we actually know very little about. Superhero comics have become so much a part of my life now that the only way to properly express it is to use the phrase “down the rabbit hole.” I suppose “through the looking glass” would also be appropriate – but that’s my point: my experience exploring comics has been like that of Alice exploring Wonderland. Every time I think I know what to expect, a new issue or series or event comes along to dissolve that illusion. Legends of the Dark Knight, the digital-only adventures of a young Batman, has done just that by defying my very base expectations of a modern comic book. 

The story here is simple enough. One night early in his career, Batman does his rounds. He’s feelin’ pretty good about himself because he’s successfully driven all the baddies out of their hideouts. But then he comes across a family of three being mugged by a single dude with a gun – just like… well, you know what it’s just like. Batman disarms the baddie and says “No families. No kids.” It’s a warning to lay off this very specific configuration of people. But the “family” turns out to be in on it and all four of them start kicking the shit out of Batman. Batman starts freaking out: who could have set this up?

Via a flashback I can only describe as LOSTian, we see a boastful (and possibly drunk) Bruce Wayne telling Alfred that Batman is the best hero because he doesn’t have a weakness. Alfred is goaded into making a dollar bet that Bruce does-so have a weakness. Back in the present, Alfred shows up and calls off the goons that he had clearly hired to make a point. Alfred takes the dollar bill out of Batman’s utility belt and makes Bruce repeat back to him that everyone does indeed have a weakness. Then they head home.

The plot – as stated above – already challenges what I’ve come to accept as typical comic book fare. For one thing: I’m not used to reading one-off stories that make sense. Too many writers try to cram heaps of exposition into single-shot stories, and clarity suffers as a result. For another, there are no supervillains, and any illusions of danger are completely dispelled by the end. There’s even a slight mystery that is a) spoiled in the title and b) discarded in favor of a strong character moment. Writer Damon Lindelof’s fingerprints are  all over this thing.

That also comes through in the humor, which is present both in the writing and Jeff Lemire’s art. Lindelof gives young, cocky Batman just enough attitude to make him a compelling braggart. Perhaps a little too Han Solo, and not quite enough Bruce Wayne – but it is neat to get a glimpse of this character before he actually knew what he was doing. He also gets a lot of mileage out of Alfred’s quiet dignity, but never at the character’s expense, which I appreciate. Jeff Lemire’s visual style immediately more playful than anything else I’ve read over the last year. The characters don’t always stay on-model, but they are always fun and expressive. Check out Lemire’s drawing of Batman’s rogues gallery:

They’s so cute, I just wanna hug ’em!

I also really liked how this release is optimized for the digital reading experience. Instead of tall pages that I have to zoom in on to read (or use guided view to experience), Legends of the Dark Knight is presented in what is essentially a widescreen format. All the rules change when one- or two-panel pages becomes the norm. I don’t know why I shouldn’t have expected this, but it really was a surprise to see that this experience was tailor-made for reading on a computer monitor.

My goodness, I reacted really positively to this, and I’m not totally sure why. It’s nice to have some breezy fun with Batman in a story that doesn’t embarrass itself (cough cough Dark Knight cough cough). Plus, it’s a buck (which you’ve probably just got in your utility belt anyway) and you can get it without putting your pants on. I dunno man, am I being too generous with this issue simply because I had a good time reading it?

Drew: Not at all. As you mention, it wasn’t too long ago that neither of us was reading monthlies. Prior to that, my love of Batman had led me to devour every “must read” trade collection out there, so I was on to second-stringers and collections of one-off Legends stories for my Batman fix. The Legends collections quickly became a favorite; the high volume of short stories insured that there was something good around the corner. The stories themselves also had a higher success rate then their serialized counterparts, largely because they forced writers to get creative with their short-form storytelling.

That’s really where you get to see the range of creative possibilities for a character like Batman. Stories can be light or dark, political or irreverent, serious or funny, but they pretty much always had to be clever. The Butler Did It caries on that proud tradition, and has whet my appetite to see what other creative teams can do with their turns at the wheel.

Lindelof’s take on Bruce as a braggart is an interesting one, and it seems to me to be a very literal translation of the kind of discussion we might have on this site about Batman’s “greatest strength.” It’s a different Bruce than we’re familiar with, a casual Bruce who has allowed his competence to drift into cockiness. He’s still driven by the same demons, but a slight tweak in attitude changes his character immensely.

Part of that may come from his apparent drinking, about which Lindelof is frustratingly coy. Batman has always been a teetotaler. Alcohol is a distraction he can’t afford on his mission. His sobriety lends his mission a little piety, but also just makes sense for a guy who never takes a night off. He often plays the drunkard, which Bruce insists he’s doing here, but why would he put on an act for just Alfred, and why wouldn’t Alfred believe it? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, but it’s kind of a weird detail that almost certainly warrants further discussion.

Otherwise, this is an endearing little bon mot, made only more endearing by Lemire’s art, in which his fandom is palpable. Clever details abound, including the boot splash sound effects at the opening, but my favorite moment has to be when Alfred pulls the dollar out of Batman’s utility belt.

Something about the idea that Bruce keeps cash in the utility belt makes me giggle. Like, is he going to need to grab a soda, or is it bus fare? Is anyone really going to accept money from him, anyway? (I know I’d give him whatever he wanted on the house.) The fact that it’s a single is only weirder — he’s a billionaire, and exact change is frankly never that important.

The digital-only format offers a lot of unique possibilities, which Lemire only begins to hint at here. I’m extremely excited to see how artists innovate with this format in future installments. For that matter, I’m excited to see what the writers do, too. Inexpensive, innovative bat-content? Yes, please.

For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page.  Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore.  If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there.  There’s no need to pirate, right?

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