Batman: Dark Victory
Medium: comic
Year: 1999
Writer: Jeph Loeb
Artist: Tim Sale
Keywords: superhero, gangster
Format: 14 issues, 388 pages
Series: << Batman >>, << Joker >>
Website category: Batman
Review date: 17 March 2021
Loeb-Sale do a sequel to their The Long Halloween. I thought it was an improvement.
This time, the story's alive. There's another serial killer for our heroes to chase for a year, but what's different is that they're active. Gordon heads up a new investigation team and leads it into action personally. Batman sort of vaguely lives up to his "detective" moniker for once.
The relationships are more interesting. Once again, there's the all-important Batman-Gordon-Dent triangle... but it's very different and nastier now that Dent's become Two-Face. The book's examining the loneliness of those three men, but unfortunately they're all so stoic that this only comes across indirectly. You can't miss the very loud commentary on Batman's self-imposed solitude, but he himself is so inscrutable that we might as well be discussing a tree. Similarly, the remote-seeming possibility of Dent feeling lonely is just one of several possible questions about him, with others including "does he care or even notice?", "is Harvey still in there?" and "does he ever take a break from being such a monster that even the Joker goes 'ewww'?" That loneliness exploration works best with Gordon, the most human of the three, but even he's prone to being a macho stone-waller (in his tired way).
They gain other connections. Gordon has to deal with a new district attorney, Janice Porter. Two-Face is organising Gotham's freaks for purposes of his own. Then, finally, Batman adopts Robin. (He pushes away Catwoman, though, and to my delight she sods off to Italy for a lot of this book.) I'm merely uninterested in the Loeb-Sale Catwoman, but I'm afraid I flat-out disliked their Robin. This isn't due to pre-existing opinions of the character. I don't mind Robin in principle. I specifically disliked this scowling brat. The death of his parents is strongly portrayed in big, silent panels, but after that the book makes no meaningful attempt to get inside the grief or other emotions of a boy in that situation. His adoption happens offscreen, with no suggestion of legal issues or paperwork. Grayson magically appears in Wayne Manor, immediately full of attitude and dismissive of how lucky he is.
In fairness, there's a sequence where the creators probably think they've addressed this. Alfred follows a small, lost-looking Grayson around and answers his questions, while being reminded of a young Bruce behaving similarly after his own bereavement. It's impressively cinematic. It's evocative. Unfortunately, though, I also think it's a bit of a stumble. It's keeping Robin at arm's length, using him as a small, still image in Sale's big, evocative panels and forcing us to guess at what's inside. It's very effective, in its way, but it doesn't take us inside... and then, later, where Grayson's actually talking and doing things, we just conclude that he's a brat.
Oh, and he's also so small that it's hard to believe in his fighting ability. The top of his head is on a level with Batman's crotch on p379. Batman's big, yeah, but Robin can't be much more than three foot tall (or about 90 cm). In the UK, that's the average height of a three-year-old.
The gangsters are back. The Falcones, the Vittis, the Maronis... they're still a strength of these Loeb-Sale series. We know they're going to be replaced by the freaks of Batman's rogues gallery, but they also feel more real than them. They add weight, especially with family members like Mario (who's trying to make the Falcones go straight) and Alberto and Sofia (who blur the line between "mobster" and "comic book character").
I cared more about this new wave of serial killings, because the victims are cops. They're often scumbags from Year One, admittedly, but gangsters being whacked in The Long Halloween barely even felt like news. It was on a par with "cat catches mice" or "rain makes things wet".
Sale's art is still superb, but I had a weird experience with Barbara Gordon. On p156, she so resembles Margot Kidder (i.e. Lois Lane from the Donner Superman films) that afterwards I couldn't unsee it. Sale does sometimes use real actors for inspiration, so for instance this story's Janice Porter is based on Lana Turner. His other character designs are still odd, though. There's a Falcone look, with those similarly stylised faces, while this Penguin seems even less human than the Joker. It's the teeth again. Brrrr. The Scarecrow's weird too.
Overall, it's a strong book. I wouldn't go so far as to call it a version of The Long Halloween that works, because this Catwoman and Robin are such a big part of the story. Basically, though, it does the job. It has darkness, weight, mobsters, shocking events, tragedy and some sincere character exploration of its main characters. (It also has a throwaway acknowledgement of Bat-Mite, which made me smile.) Once again, it does villains well. The heroes are a mixed bag, but I can live with them. It's a grim read (apart from some comedy dialogue for the Joker), but still worth a recommendation if that's what you like in Batman.