Comic Book Review: Batman: The Dark Knight Detective Volume 1

Batman: The Dark Knight Detective Volume 1 (2018)
Reprints Detective Comics #568-574, 579-582
Written by Mike W. Barr, Joey Cavalieri, and Jo Duffy
Art by Alan Davis, Paul Neary, Jim Baikie, Terry Beatty, Norm Breyfogle, E.R. Cruz, Carmine Infantino, Dick Giordano, Pablo Marcos, and Klaus Janson

At the same time, Frank Miller was reinventing the Batman mythos in the pages of the titular book; very different things were happening in Detective Comics. It was a very different experience and an example of how DC Comics editorial had not thoroughly planned out the post-Crisis period, much like how the New 52 reboot wasn’t as coordinated as it could have been. Things begin messily with Joey Cavalieri penning a Legends crossover. If you have read the Legends storyline (one I highly recommend), you’ll quickly pick up that this crossover is entirely unnecessary and not coordinated with the actual event. You can see this in G. Gordon Godfrey, who looks like this in Legends and looks like this in Detective Comics. I thought there’d be some sort of editorial guidance for artists when using characters from crossovers so that they would, at minimum, look the same. 

It’s Detective #569 where things get hilariously absurd compared to the grim, noir-ish feel of Miller’s Batman and Max Allan Collins as the Batman books regular writer around this time. This story opens with Batman and Robin taking out a group of Catwoman’s former henchmen. She even helps out, revealing that these men have gone rogue. The Joker learns of what the news calls “The Dynamic Trio” he sees a chance to strike at his arch-nemesis. What stood out to me during Mike W. Barr’s work on Detective is how heavily it leans into the 1966 Batman television series. There’s a moment where the heroes are headed to the public library after deciphering a clue left by The Joker. Robin responds with “Holy Gutenberg!” and is immediately told by Batman never to do that again. Later, the Dark Knight calls the Boy Wonder “chum” in how Adam West would address his Robin. 

While Alan Davis’ artwork is gorgeous here, it also feels, along with Barr’s writing, the whole thing reads like a Mad Magazine parody of Batman. It doesn’t go entirely into that level of absurdity, but there is a constant atmosphere of tongue-in-cheek comedy woven throughout the Barr run. You never feel the weight of the grittier Batman fare. This wasn’t a fluke, though; Barr was intentionally pushing back against the post-Crisis trend of making Batman comics darker. The writer saw the importance of Robin and how when you have that character present, the stories should not be so bleak. He wanted to emulate the Silver Age stories he grew up with and initially drew him into the character’s adventures.

This is reflected in Davis’ art style, complete with opening splash pages that teased the confrontations to come. We get one of these in Detective #571, where the Dynamic Duo is crashing into a storefront where The Scarecrow is ringing up “FEAR” on a cash register. You can also note the classic “Batman with Robin the Boy Wonder” logo, a carryover from the previously mentioned Silver Age. Like the Batman television series, Bruce Wayne and Jason Todd happened to be at the right place at the right time to witness how a famous race car driver was behaving recklessly, without regard to his own safety. This turns out to be The Scarecrow pulling a twist on classic m.o. He uses his chemical to remove fear from his victim’s mind. 

There’s the Detective Comics 50th anniversary issue in issue 572 where Batman, along with The Elongated Man and Slam Bradley, follow up on a case first investigated by Sherlock Holmes, who is revealed as an in-universe character. This allows a few classic DC Comics artists to return to illustrate the many chapters of this story. In issue 573, there’s the return of The Mad Hatter, a very deep cut from the rogues’ gallery. This is a bit complicated, but this Mad Hatter, wearing a brown derby and sporting a ginger mustache, was a Silver Age reboot of the Golden Age version that better resembled the original Alice in Wonderland illustrations. Now, making this confusing, this mustachioed man is Jervis Tetch, also the name of the original Hatter. This was also how the Hatter looked on the 1966 Batman series, so I guess this is yet another instance of Barr wanting to incorporate elements from his childhood he remembered. The Hatter story is a pretty classic “reform went wrong” narrative. In issue 574, we get a retelling of Batman’s origin framed against a tale of the hero seeking out help from Dr. Leslie Tompkins when Robin is injured. This would be followed by Batman: Year Two, a response to the popularity of Miller’s Year One, a story we will review later.

Issue 579 reintroduces The Crime Doctor, a Golden Age villain who serves the criminal underworld. But, most importantly, we get artist Norm Breyfogle’s first work on a Batman book. Breyfogle would become one of the most influential artists on the character in the 1980s and 90s. Along with writer Alan Grant, the two would produce so many stories and introduce multiple villains, some of whom would have staying power like The Ventriloquist and Scarface as well as Anarky. Now, we’ll get to those one day when we look at later iterations of this series of collections, but it’s pretty fun to see Breyfogle already bringing his kinetic feel to Batman’s stories.

Breyfogle doesn’t return for Detective 580 but is back from 581 onward. These two issues tell a pretty clever Two-Face story where another person is scarred, receives amnesia, and believes they are the Janus-faced criminal. Issue 582 is a dreadful crossover with Millennium, a hideous event that I do NOT recommend you read. It was not well-received when published initially and has gotten worse with time. Barr doesn’t write this issue either; those duties are handed to Jo Duffy. Duffy was one of few prominent women in the industry at the time. In the 1990s, she penned over a year of issues for Catwoman’s solo title but did a ton of writing work for Marvel in the 1970s and 80s. I don’t blame her for the subpar nature of this issue; there’s no way to make Millennium palatable.

This collection is such an odd bag, showing all the cracks in DC Comics’ post-Crisis plans. There was a notion of encapsulating specific stories from the 1960s and 70s into their own pocket universe because they felt so outside the norms of the DCU. Examples of this were Steve Ditko’s contributions and a Spectre run in Adventure Comics written by Michael Fleisher and drawn by Jim Aparo. This Barr run feels like the last bits of the Silver Age sneaking into late 1980s comics. I don’t think it was wrong that Batman was being made a little too dark at the time. You will definitely get some surprises reading this collection, and it might challenge your conceptions of Batman.

One thought on “Comic Book Review: Batman: The Dark Knight Detective Volume 1”

  1. Pingback: Spring 2022 Digest

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