As any Bat-fan worth their salt already knows, 1989 was a seismic year in the history of Batman, due primarily to the release of Tim Burton’s film in June.
With that movie’s explosive popularity came any number of attempts to cash in, from T-shirts and toys to trading cards and (I would assume) toilet paper. As the publisher of Batman comic books for fifty years, DC Comics was uniquely positioned to reap the benefits of a hit Batman movie.
And so it came to pass that in November, they launched Legends of the Dark Knight, which they billed as “the first new solo Batman title since 1940!” This was a ham-handed attempt at infusing the launch with more gravitas than it deserved; it may have been technically true, but everyone knew that there had been countless Batman series launched and relaunched in the decades since Batman #1 hit the stands.
Still, it was the late eighties, the start of a heady period in comics publishing, when anything that could be An Event became An Event. So Legends #1 was a Big Deal with five separate covers…actually, five separate cover wraps, which is absolutely cheating. The cover itself was the same, but a separate piece in five garish neon pastels was attached to the book, forcing completists and speculators alike to track down all five colors for their collections and/or future college funds.
This series lasted until 2007. It spanned four additional Batman movies, four animated series, and some OnStar commercials. It told the kind of stories that the “real” Batman books could never tell–stand-alone tales, often just loosely in continuity, and many times focusing on the early years in Batman’s career.
I’ve loved Batman since I was a kid in Underoos and I read and collected many of the issues of Legends as it was published. I’m going to try to read and write about every storyline in the series, as an exploration of the character and his world, and an examination of how a wide range of different writers and artists approached the character. I will probably give up at some point out of sheer exhaustion–there are probably upwards of 100 different stories told over the 215 issues of the original series, plus 10 annuals and specials–but we’ll see how it goes.
“Shaman” is the storyline that kicks off Legends, stretching across issues 1-5. The issues are written by Dennis O’Neil, aka Denny, who also edited the entire line of Batman comics for DC from 1986 to 2000; art duties are covered by penciler Ed Hannigan and inker George Pratt.
O’Neil is a towering figure in the history of Batman; as an editor, by 1989 he’d already had a hand in perhaps the two foundational stories of modern Batman, both written by Frank Miller–Year One and The Dark Knight Returns. Those two stories were themselves influenced by O’Neil’s foundational work with Neal Adams on Batman in the 1970’s, widely credited with returning the Bat to a more grounded, gritty tone after the camp explosion of the sixties.
Year One and Dark Knight Returns effectively bookend Batman’s fictional career–the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents has been covered enough since the 1940s, but Miller used these two stories to expose the psychological underpinnings of that seminal event. It didn’t change Bruce Wayne as much as it transformed him, destroyed him; if there was ever a question before, it was clear from 1986 on that Bruce Wayne was the mask, and Batman was the reality.
In “Shaman,” O’Neil picks up on that dichotomy and explores it as it began, weaving in key moments from Year One and squarely placing this particular murder investigation between the panels of that previous storyline. O’Neil’s intellectual curiosity bleeds through in much of his work, and here it’s an effort to connect bits of Native American mythology to the Batman mythos. Honestly, based on my Google-fu, it’s a little unclear whether the central parable O’Neil relates is an invention or drawn from his research, but either way, it’s an overt tie to the more mystical aspects of Native American history.
There’s definitely something of the Magical Native American trope at play; at the same time, Hannigan’s pencils give these characters a lived-in reality, and he uses a clever stylistic shift to illustrate the actual bat-related parable that lies at the center of the tale.
“Shaman” is not a great Batman story; it suffers from a frequent weakness of stories with long-running characters, where the author feels the need to relate what’s happening to some other landmark event in the character’s history. Here O’Neil stretches a bit too far to suggest that the famous bat crashing through Bruce Wayne’s window was somehow related to the mystical healing efforts of a Native American in Alaska.
But in “Shaman,” Batman is pretty great. O’Neil nails the tense, passive-aggressive banter between Batman and Alfred, and isn’t shy about throwing in some well-choreographed fight scenes. Hannigan’s Batman is all business, lean and powerful, and there are a few classic Batman breathtakers in here that showcase the Dark Knight in all his nocturnal glory.
I think what I like most about O’Neil’s writing is that he’s so well versed in the simple rhythm and style of crime fiction. He writes a great Batman but he also crafts great thugs and cops. His work on the character, especially in the post-Year One era, feels like Batman wandering into a James Cain novel. It instantly grounds the action and provides a helpful context for the activities of a nutty genius running around in a bat costume.
Next: Grant Morrison’s first take on Batman