Sunday, July 27, 2008

Batman In The Movies - Stories of The Dark Knight

If you liked The Dark Knight, then you'll love these comic stories that the film rips-off... well, sort of.

Chris Nolan and company are not shy about claiming that The Dark Knight takes some bits and pieces from some of the more famous Batman stories. The Long Halloween (an epic year-long story about how the crumbling mob in Gotham was supplanted by the super-villains), The Killing Joke (the definitive Joker story, from 1988), and Batman Vs The Joker (the first Joker story, from Batman 01 in 1940)... these are all cited as sources of inspiration. But there are three stories, unmentioned by anyone, that have an awful lot in common with the current Batman movie. Either it's a coincidence (probably), or someone owes someone a check or an acknowledgment.

Oh, and for the record, despite what writers seem to keep saying, Batman comics were dark, introspective, and violent again by 1969, a full seventeen years before Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. Yes, it was a groundbreaking piece of social satire, but crediting Miller with single-handedly saving Batman from the camp of the 1950s and 1960s is a slap in the face to Neal Adams, Denny O'Neil, Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers, and all of the other writers that did so much good, truly groundbreaking work in the 1970s and 1980s.

Anyway, onto the three unsung (possible) sources of inspiration for The Dark Knight:

Eye Of The Beholder - Batman Annual 11 (1990).
In my mind, this Andrew Helfner story is the definitive Harvey Dent origin story. While The Long Halloween weaves Dent's fall into a labyrinth tale of Batman's second year, the downfall of the Gotham mob, and the rise of the costumed freaks, Eye Of The Beholder is specifically about Harvey Dent. It was the first to suggest that Harvey had issues long before his face-scarring accident. Like The Dark Knight, Dent's downfall here comes not at the hands of a whole crowd of mobsters, but from a single insane murderer (in this case, a socialite who butchers senior citizens). This was the first story to tell the tale of how Batman and Gordon had teamed with Dent to make Batman's captures hold up in a court of law. Much of The Long Halloween's Dent-related story is taken directly from this under read story, even taking the same character names for minor characters. It's not so much that Nolan and co should have credited this story, but rather than Jeph Loeb and Time Sale should have acknowledged in when publicizing The Long Halloween six years later. It's well worth a read as it truly laid the groundwork for the Harvey Dent story as we know it today.

Batman: The Man Who Laughs (2005)
This swan song from Ed Brubaker, the last thing he did for DC Comics before becoming the prince of Marvel Comics (the king being his friend Brian Michael Bendis), is a re imagining of the Joker's first days in Gotham. There are bits and pieces that are used in The Dark Knight, such as The Joker's use of asylum inmates, the bond that grows between Batman and Gordon during The Joker's rampage, and Batman's shock at this very new kind of criminal, the sort that he had not trained for and was not prepared for. None of these ideas are terribly groundbreaking, but the unique element that The Man Who Laughs deals with is the panic of the city, the collapse of morale and the complete pandemonium that sets in as The Joker just keeps on killing. Like The Dark Knight, The Joker does have a master plan, a reason for his madness, and a twisted rationality behind his actions. The story of The Joker's first encounters with Batman has been told at least four times, and this is by far the best version.

Soft Targets - Gotham Central 13-16 (2004).
Also written by Ed Brubaker, along with Greg Rucka, this four-part comic arc basically serves as the blue print from the entire second act of The Dark Knight. Really. Go buy 'Unresolved Targets', the trade paperback of Gotham Central that collects Soft Targets and Unresolved. I'm leery to go into too many details as I don't want to spoil the story. But for those who don't believe me, thar be spoilers...
The Joker targets public officials for death in the week before Christmas. After The Joker kills several people via sniper rifle, the entire city goes into panic mode and life in Gotham grinds to a halt. Bitterness against Batman grows as the cops wearily partake in another game between these two madmen. As the cops and Batman frantically attempt to bring this slaughter to a halt, The Joker turns himself in just before Christmas Eve. Sitting in an interrogation room, he is grilled by members of the Major Crimes Unit, when he tosses off a nasty surprise. He has kidnapped a famous news reporter and hidden her in a bomb-rigged location. In the end, for reasons that I won't reveal but that differ from the movie, it is revealed that The Joker's capture was part of the plan. Allowing himself to get beaten by a police officer, he turns the tables, kills that officer, and then goes on a killing spree inside the Gotham Police station leaving several cops dead in his wake. And, when the location of the missing reporter and the bomb is found, Batman must make a terrible choice between saving an innocent civilian and saving a police officer.


Sound familiar? Yes, any arch-typical Batman story is going to have elements that can't help but be similar to one story or another. But the sheer similarity of the general plot and the characterization and the consequences were genuinely surprising, especially with the Gotham Central story. Again, I bring this up mainly to inquire just why Nolan seemed intent on crediting stories that provided only general similarities to his script while missing other stories that almost seemed to be rough-drafts for the movie he would eventually make.

At the very least, you have three fantastic stories that are well worth checking out. Make that five, if you count the other Gotham Central storyline 'Unresolved' (a dark, sober murder mystery involving The Mad Hatter and The Penguin) and the story that comes with the hardback of The Man Who Laughs (a terrific three-part murder mystery involving Batman's friendship with Gordon and the original Green Lantern).

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