In their 2016 campaign to Make Batman Great Again, Miller and Azzarello have temporarily abandoned all pretense of progress – as indicated by the retro DC logo on the cover – and gone straight back to the source with this one-shot prequel to The Dark Knight Returns. Batman nerds know Miller predicted the death of Jason Todd in the first issue of that series, before DC made it official with the Death in the Family storyline. You know, the one where fans could dial a 1-800 number and cast their vote to not to let Jason survive The Joker’s beating. Thus does The Last Crusade have a weird circuitous purpose: retelling a story whose conclusion is foregone, as the prequel to a story which predicted the event…as a hypothetical aside. Retcon-Elseworlds-Rehashing at its most truly incestuous.
The pleasant surprise is that Miller and Azzarello actually outdo their recent efforts. The Last Crusade is a more enjoyable read than The Master Race has been so far, and a better value at $6.99 for 57 pages compared to Master Race’s $5.99 for 35. Unlike the shallow bombast of Batman and Superman saving the world from Kandorians, this story aims low and deep and hits its target. From the start, there’s a nicely quiet sense of dread on a personal, non-apocalyptic level, building suspense as The Joker orchestrates his escape from Arkham while the division between Jason and an aged Batman grows deeper. The thrust of the action is utterly perfunctory as they investigate the most routine of Poison Ivy schemes, with a little special guest muscle by Killer Croc. Joker is separate from all this to the point of practically being in another book, his portentous importance is telegraphed by the cover. Even for the Batman comics reader unfamiliar with Jason Todd’s death at Joker’s hands, their fatal crossing of paths carries the aura of grim inevitability although the final pages don’t make the actual fatality particularly apparent.
I didn’t grow up in the Jason Todd years of the comics but if his gimmick was being a “Dick” instead of a “Dick Grayson”, it does read slightly weird for the Batman of Frank Miller’s sovereign Dark Knight Universe to reprimand this Robin for being too sadistic or reckless, when he’s been far and away the most inglorious bastard Batman of all time. Under questioning, Miller and Azzarello would probably argue that since this is the near-retirement stage of that Batman, he’s a little more mature and less psychotic than he was in the All-Star Batman and Robin days. Everything about superhero continuity lore has become so cyclical since the 80s, yet Miller and Azzarello still kind of justify this rehash by returning to the idea of Batman as a prize fighter whom everyone knows is past his prime – exploring his shame, the fact he knows he’s slowing down, that his friends and enemies are noticing too. This focus on aging, and on flesh not keeping up with a willing spirit, creates a thematic through-line with Dark Knight Returns and inadvertently kind of points up the absurdity of the sequels, where Bruce never seems to get tired anymore although he’s older than ever. Batman’s internal monologues and narration aren’t as memorable as those of Dark Knight Returns but they absolutely flow from the same vein. Prequel or sequel, this slim volume is so much closer to the kind of follow-up fans wanted than The Dark Knight Strikes Again. Better late than never?
John Romita Jr.’s art provides the work a needed prequel continuity as well. His draftsmanship’s sketchy grittiness is much closer to Miller’s style than Andy Kubert, as is Peter Steigerwald’s pale and muted coloring. The script doesn’t make the insulting choices seen in The Master Race, of padding a thin plotline across pointlessly large action panels. Here the terse writing is thoughtfully staged at a steady pace without filler. As a comic the action feels alive, rather than looking like conceptual art for a film or storyboards for a cartoon.
A few words about The Joker: first of all, he sells comics. That’s why he’s on the cover. But as someone who’s thoroughly tired of the character’s overexposure and hype, I’d forgotten how much I like Frank Miller’s Joker and it’s kind of nice to spend time with him again. Given Frank’s politics, I’m shocked he’s not re-teamed with the Ayatollah Khomeini. Miller’s Joker was conceived pre-Killing Joke and was arguably (unfortunately) more the basis for the modern mainstream conception of Joker, the version who’s supposed to be scary and edgy and never actually funny. This take made the most sense when envisioning an older version of the character to fight an older version of Batman – sort of what the real life Bill Murray became; not so much a sad clown as a clown grown jaded and smug. Miller just writes him so well as a wistful queen, and unlike Heath Ledger Miller’s Joker is genuinely enigmatic and creepy because Miller is kind of crazy himself.
If you haven’t bothered picking up The Master Race yet, you should definitely wait for the trade. But if you’d like a swig of Frank Miller that actually tastes like The Dark Knight Returns, The Last Crusade is a satisfying little one-shot.
The Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade; story, Frank Miller & Brian Azzarello; pencils, John Romita Jr; inks and colors, Peter Steigerwald; letterer, Clem Robins; publisher, DC Comics.