Legends of The Dark Knight was a very good idea for a comic book series.
When it launched around the time of the first Adam West-less Batman movie, the concept was more mature “novel-length” story arcs by top creators, set in the pre-Robin, Year One period of the character’s fictional history.
As time went on, the formula became more and more flexible, but, for the most part, it remained a creators showcase, a place where top-notch writers and artists could do a Batman story without having to worry about which make and model of the Batmobile to feature and if that month’s issue of Shadow of The Bat and Batman Chronicles were using the same villains.
Before the title reached its third year, writer James Robinson and artist Tim Sale got their chance to play in this particular sandbox, with Legends of The Dark Knight #32-#34, “Blades.” It must have been a fairly popular story, because looking back now, I see it was collected in one of the earliest LDK trades, the first that wasn’t arc-specific (I believe), 1994’s Batman: Collected Legends of the Dark Knight (I still love this Brian Bolland cover, which includes elements from all three of the stories collected into a single, logical image).
I can remember flipping through some of these issues in my hometown comic shop as a teenager and being impressed with the art, but since my comics-buying budget at that time was about $10 a month, I never took it home. So this past week, when I found a battered copy of that trade in the library, was the first time I read “Blades.”
Doing so in 2010 was a rather strange experience. Revisiting Sale’s art after he achieved his superstardom alongside Jeph Loeb (much of it thanks to Batman work), rereading James Robinson’s writing from that early date after having already read his later, signature work (Starman) and more recent atrocities, it’s hard to separate the work from the resumes they belong on, to not look for clues of what would follow in what’s on the page.
But what the hell, I’ll give it a shot.
“Blades” is probably the most prominent story featuring Batman villain The Cavalier, but this one’s secret identity is Hudson Pyle, rather than Mortimer Drake, so it is also apparently an entirely different one than The Three Musketeers-looking Golden Age villain who rarely does much more than cameo in Batman comics these days.
In fact, this Cavalier isn’t much of a villain at all. He’s a Hollywood stuntman with a rather goofy idea of achieving success in the film industry—he will become a masked crime-fighter like Batman in Gotham City, and once he’s achieved a sufficient level of fame and demonstrated to the world how charming and athletic he is, he’ll reveal himself and accept movie officers.
I say it’s a goofy idea, because if you were capable of being almost Batman, why would you settle for being, I don’t know, Tom Cruise or Mel Gibson or whoever was the most popular leading man in 1992 or so. But then, it’s no goofier than a guy dressing like a bat to fight crime, so let’s just go with it.
Of course, the Cavalier himself realizes it’s a lot more exciting and rewarding to be a Batman-like crime fighter than to play one on screen, and he embraces the thrill of his new role, slowly eclipsing Batman in Gotham consciousness—until he makes the mistake of falling in love with a woman in debt to criminals, and must turn his considerable skills to thievery. That, it turns out, is just as thrilling as crime fighting.
It’s a character arc, and thus a story, rather well-suited to Robinson’s old movie interests, as Pyle is based on Errol Flynn-like, Old Hollywood swashbuckler heroes. Coupled with Batman himself being inspired in-story to become a masked crime-fighter after seeing a Zorro movie, it’s an attractive premise.
Robinson spends the first half of the arc growing the Cavalier’s legend, comparing and contrasting him with Batman, who shuns the lime light the new hero embraces, which leads to scene after scene of Batman being almost comically prickly towards Alfred, Gordon and the city in general. He’s obsessing over the case of a “Mr. Lime,” who slays senior citizens seemingly at random, and ignores everything else, which is also kind of comical, when it comes to Gordon chiding Batman for ignoring all the other crimes just to focus on this one (Saying, essentially, “Well, volunteer harder!” to the guy who volunteers to do Gordon’s job for him).
Eventually Batman frees up the time to notice The Cavalier’s crime spree, and they have the inevitable confrontation, one that ends rather tragically.
It’s hardly ground-breaking or even terribly original, but as Batman potboilers go, it’s a pretty swell one, and the Cavalier makes for a pretty engaging character (which is why it’s sort of too bad it ends the way it does). Robinson’s only real weakness is his amount of verbiage employed…the two masked men take turns narrating, sometimes both in the same panels, which unleashes so many words they can sometimes crowd out the art, Brian Michael Bendis style. There are also a few scenes where spoken dialogue similarly buries the art.
And that’s a damn shame because, wow, what art this is. Sale had yet to perfect his Batman, who is here somewhat slimmer and less exaggerated than the imposing figure he would become by the time Long Halloween launched. While the cartooniness dial hasn’t been cranked as far as it would later, Sale’s art still looks like Sale’s art, albeit a bit more representational than usual (It looks a bit more like Matt Wagner’s than it later would, I think).
Sale’s sense of drama is pretty incredible though, and he gives necessary panels so much punch than sometimes words seem superfluous (the one of The Cavalier flinging open the doors when leaving the warehouse at the climax, for example).
One of Sale’s greatest strengths as a Batman artist has always been the way he renders Gotham City at night, like a big, huge playground of open spaces and obstacles to run on, jump over and play with, and while his panels are smaller here, it’s evident that he’s already perfected the rooftop world in his imagination.
He’s also pretty great at balancing the silly and the serious (as demonstrated in the Shadow of The Bat arc, “The Misfits,” as well as his later Loeb collaborations), which here results in great panels like a grim, triangle-eyed ink blot of a Batman determinedly chasing his prey from the driver’s seat of the Whirly-Bat.
This isn’t either creator’s very best work, not even their best Batman work, but it’s fun, fairly well-made stuff, a perfectly satisfying Batman story, which is often all a comic book reader needs.