This review contains some spoilers for Dark Nights: Death Metal: Legends of the Dark Knights #1.
DC Comics’ latest one-shot from the Dark Multiverse, Dark Nights: Death Metal: Legends of the Dark Knights #1, is an anthology of short stories featuring The Batman Who Laughs’ The Darkest Knight’s newest cavalcade of evil Batmen. A feast of the unusual and bizarre, this title showcases everyone from The Darkest Knight and Robin King to the most horrifying Dark Knight in existence, Baby Batman. Seasoned with a few dashes of B. Rex, Castle Bat, and Batmobeast to taste, Scott Snyder and the rest of the creative team seek to answer some of the most pressing questions from Death Metal: “How did The Batman Who Laughs capture a Bruce Wayne with the power of Dr. Manhattan?” “What is The Darkest Knight’s grand plan?” and, perhaps most importantly, “How did Batman transfer his brain into a robotic dinosaur?”
“I will be the bullet.”
As with most anthologies, there are always some tales that stand out among the rest. Dark Nights: Death Metal: Legends of the Dark Knights #1 is at its best when the stories deconstruct Batman and force you to reexamine your understanding of the character. “I Am Here” by Scott Snyder, James Tynion IV, and Joshua Williamson and “King of Pain” by Peter J. Tomasi not only stand out for being the longest stories in the entire book, but also for providing the most insight into their evil Batmen. These two stories alone are worth the price of admission to this six-ring circus of hell.
On its surface, “I Am Here” is the origin story for The Darkest Knight. With this entry, Scott Snyder, James Tynion IV, and Joshua Williamson fill in the blanks for a majority of the missing pieces to the main series’ puzzle. The creators do an excellent job exploring not only the creation of the final Bruce Wayne but how The Batman Who Laughs was able to defeat a Batman with godlike abilities. As a result, we are finally privy to the villain’s diabolical scheme as well as his justification against using the name Batmanhattan.
Most importantly, Scott Snyder, James Tynion IV, and Joshua Williamson use “I Am Here” to provide a thematic foundation for the rest of Legends of the Dark Knights #1’s stories. During his rebirth, The Darkest Knight says, “Batman has always been a reactionary idea. He was born in response to those gunshots in the alley.” It was at this moment that I took a pause. I have always considered Batman to be a hero that had a plan for everything. Batman is proactive, not reactive. Yet, The Darkest Knight’s argument makes sense. Batman’s creation was a reaction to those fateful gunshots and “so too are all the twisted Batmen of the dark.” Not to be outdone by the real Batman, The Darkest Knight declares that he must be something more. Then he utters the five most impactful words in the entire book: “I will be the bullet.”
Orchestrated by Scott Snyder, James Tynion IV, and Joshua Williamson and illustrated expertly by Tony Daniel, this is one of my favorite moments throughout Legends of the Dark Knights. This powerful sequence is a dark reflection of the “Yes, father. I shall become a bat” moment from Batman: Year One. Much like Bruce at the beginning of his crime-fighting career, this villainous Batman clamors to be something more. Only now, he aspires to be the “thing that creates the reaction.” Adding to the character’s darkness is that he desires to become that which killed his parents. The parallels that these creators draw between Batman and The Darkest Knight’s origins, as well as the subsequent sullying of the traditional mythos for the villain’s creation, are excellent. Behind all of the outlandish ideas, I think the real power of a series like Dark Nights: Death Metal and its predecessor is that it causes you to reexamine your understanding of your favorite heroes. By viewing the character through a new lens, you can discover new things. With this issue, Scott Snyder and the rest of the creators continue to expand upon a Batman thesis that has me clamoring for more.
“A hero born from tragedy, from bullets fired in a dark Gotham alley.”
One of the things that I love the most about Death Metal: Legends of the Dark Knights #1 is that all of the creators use this pivotal moment from Batman: Year One as the foundation for their tale. Peter J. Tomasi’s “King of Pain” twists Batman’s origin by placing Alfred in the study’s armchair. Here he recounts his battle with a diabolical ten-year-old Bruce Wayne into Thomas’ medical recorder.
This origin story for The Robin King echoes The Darkest Knight’s aspiration to become “the bullet” in “I Am Here.” Only in Tomasi’s tale, this evil Bruce Wayne is already “the bullet” as he is the one who savagely murders his parents in the alley. Moreover, this does not violate Snyder, Tynion IV, and Williamson’s statement that all Batmen are reactionary because this version of Bruce Wayne becomes a Robin. Tomasi’s work perfectly explains the connection that The Darkest Knight feels to this character in Dark Nights: Death Metal #2. The Robin King is essentially what the godlike villain desires to become. This thought is visually punctuated by The Robin King bursting through the window like the bat from Batman: Year One. This ten-year-old Bruce Wayne needs no inspiration to maim and murder the citizens of Gotham City. (Tomasi deserves bonus points here for the Game of Thrones reference in the story’s final moments.)
Although all of the artwork in Legends of the Dark Knights #1 is excellent, Riley Rossmo’s artwork is my favorite. Rossmo’s artwork with Ivan Plascencia’s colors perfectly matches the dark and bizarre tone for this story. Additionally, Riley’s ability to draw an innocent-looking Bruce Wayne in one panel juxtaposed with a murderous facial expression in the next is exceptional. Rossmo’s cartoonish style magnifies this incredible juxtaposition.
“I am aware not only of my entire life but the life of every twisted Batman in the dark.”
At first glance, it would be easy to dismiss the rest of the stories in Legends of the Dark Knights #1 as quick vignettes representing either an evil Batman’s bizarre origins or a glimpse of the character in action. For instance, Marguerite Bennett’s “Batmanasaurus Rex” is the scandalous love child of Jurassic Park and Batman. Only in this version of the story, the park is Arkham Asylum, inmates have replaced Jeff Goldblum, and Batman is the T-Rex. As I read this insane description back to myself, I find myself willing to riot if this doesn’t make it to animated or live-action.
Frank Tieri’s “Castle Bat,” Daniel Warren Johnson’s “Road Warrior,” and Garth Ennis’s “Baby Batman” are all similar stories that provide background information on their titular characters. “Castle Bat” has a special place in my heart because of Francesco Francavilla’s artwork and its ties to Batman #666. However, I will not spoil any of that story in this review.
Of these three stories, Garth Ennis’ “Baby Batman” feels the most out of place. In this tale, Batman finds himself trapped in a baby’s body. Where the other stories have dark outcomes, this one is downright hilarious. I couldn’t help but laugh at the ending because, as a Dad of two, I can honestly say that there is nothing more terrifying than your baby shrieking in the middle of the night.
It’s easy to overlook the value of these remaining stories because of their quick, fun nature. In some cases, it may seem that these stories have no bearing on Dark Nights: Death Metal’s overall narrative. However, each creator does a great job of inserting some variation of “Yes, father. I shall become a bat.” into their story. By doing so, each tale can call back to “I Am Here.” As a result, it becomes apparent that this book is using these stories to justify The Darkest Knight’s thesis that “Batman is a reactionary idea.” These constant callbacks are easy to miss upon first reading. However, the connection between each of these stories makes further readings more meaningful.
A feast of the unusual and bizarre, Dark Nights: Death Metal: Legends of the Dark Knights #1 is at its best when deconstructing the Dark Knight. Although “I Am Here” and “King of Pain” stand out above the rest of the short stories, every creator does an excellent job reinforcing the book’s theme. Additionally, Tony Daniel, Riley Rossmo, Jama Igle, Francesco Francavilla, Daniel Warren Johnson, and Joelle Jones all bring their A-game to this book. Although Rossmo’s artwork is my favorite within this collection, I would be remiss if I did not mention Tony Daniel’s work. Daniel’s two-page spreads throughout “I Am Here” are fantastic and do an excellent job conveying The Darkest Knight’s ethereal situation.