Retro Review: Batman: Dark Victory

Let me preface this by explaining what I love about Batman, acknowledging that it is not necessarily what everyone else loves about Batman. One of the best things about this character is that he can mean something different to everyone. Everyone could have a separate idea of who Batman is that is totally different from someone else’s and still totally valid, because there have been so many wildly drastic versions of the character over the years. You could love the Adam West Batman, the Neal Adams adventuring detective, the monstrous archetype, whatever.

My version of Batman is not necessarily the angry guy who punches people. I think that aspect of his character is real and is there, but it’s not his defining trait. Of course the number one aspect of his character is that he is defined by something that happened to him as a child. He is defined by a traumatic event. That’s true for every incarnation of the character.

But people tend to get into different ideas of what that event means for him as a character. I don’t think it’s necessarily a Punisher situation where the death of his parents creates a hatred of all things criminal. No, I think there’s actually a strong element of sympathy to Batman, even if he doesn’t quite know how to express it, which is an aspect of the character that I think is great.

Here’s my interpretation of the why of Batman—and I swear I’m getting to the review and that this is relevant—this character is dressing up like a bat and frightening and intimidating criminals because he has that one memory constantly running through his mind. This is what I love about Batman: Bruce Wayne becomes Batman, in my eyes, because he does not want what happened to him to ever happen to another child.

This is important because Dark Victory is, among many things, somewhat of an origin story. Which makes it a perfect close to a trilogy that began with Batman: Year One. Dark Victory gives the best version of the origin of a character who needs to be justified more than any other, even though he might be the most important character in Batman’s world, and that’s Robin. Specifically, that’s Dick Grayson. It’s no secret that neither Bruce Wayne nor Batman are great with relationships. But Dick is the closest he has been with anyone other than Alfred.

Keep in mind, Dark Victory isn’t technically a Robin origin until the third act, but the entire book is spent building up to that. On the most basic level, this is a direct follow up to The Long Halloween and deals directly with the consequences of that book. Batman has just lost his greatest ally, the only real partner he had other than Gordon in the war on crime. Harvey Dent understood the law, but he was not as tied to it as Jim Gordon was. Now, we start off with Batman not only having lost his friend, but having lost him to madness. This man he trusted has become just another madman in Arkham and that is literally the worst thing that can happen to a guy like Batman, to have great friends become terrible enemies.

We start off with him as bitter as he ever has been, refusing to let anyone else into his life. Shutting off what could be a partnership with Catwoman and a romantic relationship with Selina Kyle because he simply has lost the ability to trust. At the beginning of Dark Victory, he is absolutely refusing to let anyone else back into his life. He’s done with allies and he has made the decision to go it alone.

This is the perfect time to bring in Robin. It was genius on the part of Jeph Loeb to introduce Robin in like that. He comes in at both the most and least opportune time. I think the key about the inciting incident for Robin is that Bruce is actually there to witness it. Nobody was there to see what happened to his parents. He was not there to witness whatever incidents created the bulk of his rogues gallery. I’m certain, if he was real, that Batman would sometimes keep himself up thinking about what could have been if he had paid enough attention to keep the Joker from falling into that vat of chemicals.

This brings us into a dark undertone of Batman’s relationship with Robin that Loeb and Sale explore in a really interesting way. They basically suggest that it’s not just sympathy that leads Bruce to take Dick under his wing. It’s not just that he sees so much of himself in Dick—although there are great parallels as to how similarly and how differently they deal with their respective tragedies. But it’s not just that. It’s also the fact that Bruce sees an opportunity in Dick. He doesn’t just see himself, he sees the Joker, Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy and—especially—Two-Face.

Dark Victory also brings us back to the plot structure of The Long Halloween. It’s not so specifically mapped out, but it’s there nonetheless and helps keep consistency between the two books. Everything in Dark Victory feels like a worthy successor to Long Halloween. It also, much to my delight, does the thing Loeb loves to do with his Batman stories, which is to include as many villains as he can possibly fit. We get all the bad guys we got in Long Halloween, with the new addition of Mr. Freeze.

I think the only reason it doesn’t get nearly enough recognition as it should is simply for the fact that it is a sequel to Long Halloween, which is one of the most revered Batman stories ever told. It’s sort of like people looking at The Exorcist and saying “Did we really need an Exorcist II?” And when they do that, it’s just completely missing the point of what an amazing companion piece this really is.

Each stage of this trilogy, while not set over a particularly long period of time, brings us three important stages of Batman’s life. Year One is basically the Rocky of superhero stories in that the entire thing is about one man training for a fight that is almost specifically designed to take everything from him and that he knows he probably has no chance of winning. Long Halloween is our true introduction to the World’s Greatest Detective, with a David Fincher-ish murder mystery playing out across the span of an entire year. It’s the biggest of the bunch for a reason.

Dark Victory is a wake up call in some ways because it concludes the story of the Dark Knight’s early solo career. In fact, it concludes the story of his solo career in general. This helps to insinuate that every version of the Batman story is all a part of the same basic character. In Long Halloween, Batman is dark. In the first two thirds of Dark Victory, he’s as dark as he’s ever been. But by the time Robin suits up and they leap into battle, we get to see him smile.

That’s what makes Dark Victory such an underrated piece of Batman literature, for me. It’s not only a truly great book, but gives us one of the best examples of introspection into how Batman became Batman and how his circumstances are reflected both through his enemies and his allies. This is Batman realizing that he doesn’t have to be the Dark Knight all the time. Sometimes he can just be a knight. It’s not just Batman the troubled orphan vigilante, it’s Batman the superhero, and that’s why I love it so much.

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