Duel (1991) Written by Denny O’Neil, Illustrated by Jim Aparo, Keith Griffen, Joe Quesada, tom Lyle, Dan Spiegle and James Blackburn
Something that always stuck in my maw at the end of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins was when Batman says to the defeated Ra’s Al Ghul, “I won’t kill you. But I don’t have to save you!” Cue back of subway car exploding, cape unfurling, and Ra’s is left to his presumed fate.
It wasn’t just that Batman had taken out half of Gotham City’s infrastructure and public transportation system to get one bad guy, what bothered me was the idea that Batman wouldn’t have saved an enemy even though he clearly had the chance. I suppose it was a marked distinction from Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, in which our hero kills the Joker and a dozen others with relish, but still, it struck me wrong.
Each of us have our own ideal version of Batman which informs our reading of the character, I suppose. My Batman is not your Batman. For me, Duel was a big part of shaping my own ideal version.
It was published in 1991 as an oversized annual issue of the monthly title, Legends of the Dark Knight, and boasted an incredible array of talent. First, it was written by Denny O’ Neil – who was then also acting as the Editor for all the Batman titles, and has been behind many of his most successful story arcs. Illustrators included Jim Aparo – who was at the top of his game during this period – and Joe Quesada whose immense popularity was still a few years off – in addition to an assortment of other pencilers, inkers, letterers, packaged under a single nice cover byHellboy’s Mike Mignola.
To begin with, we’re in the Korean mountains of Paektu-San, during an immense snow blizzard. Batman is seen struggling through it, covering his face with his cowl, and pulling behind him a large, green duffel bag, referred to from here-on out as “his burden,” thus layering it with a bit of the ol’ Pilgrim’s Progress.
“He does not know how long he has been trudging up this trail, not why he drags this burden behind him. But he has a destination and he must reach it soon. Of this he is certain.”
It is this ‘burden’ which is the focal point of the story. What’s in it? A change of clothes? A coat? We will not find out until the very end.
Eventually, Batman finds his way to an 800 year-old snowbound monastery, upon which door he slowly opens. We learn that this is they same monastery which he first came to as a 25 year old supplicant, seeking the wisdom and skills which would eventually lead him to becoming who he is.
His master awaits him within the shadowy, stone halls. “You have arrived,” he says.
“I don’t know why I’m here… what I’m supposed to do. Can you please enlighten me?”
“You have ignored my warning. Some great violence has marked you. Unless you are very lucky, it will destroy you. You have pursued the destiny you yourself have set, and as a result you must now choose.”
“Abandon that destiny, and the pride which fuels it. Become humble and find peace. That is the first choice.”
Batman bows his head in shame. “I’m sorry. What is the second choice?”
“Embrace the destiny. Enter deeply into it. Go further than you have ever gone before until you find what lies at its heart.”
There is a door, covered in mist, to which the master gestures. Batman approaches it gravely.
“You are forgetting something.”
Up to this point, Jim Aparo has been the artist, giving us his nice, clean version of the characters and their environment. He has a very classic approach. But as soon as Batman opens wide the door which leads him – and his burden – tumbling down a rocky passage which in turn leads him on a metaphysical journey through space and time, we are treated to a series of 9-page vignettes, each done by a different artist whose style and vision change significantly, and shows us different interpretations of the character as he’s appeared through the years.
First stop? Hell, of course. The fire and brimstone variety. Demons and devils and flowing lava. Batman battles his way through this until he finds his way into a castle in which lives a beautiful woman, Talia – the daughter if Ra’s Al Ghul.
“You are weary. Come, refresh yourself,” she says, offering him a plate of food, which Batman immediately consues. “Now drink,” she commands, offering him a goblet filled with red liquid. “Drink deeply,” she says, and Batman does, until he chokes on it.
Batman battles an hell serpent, an alien whose flying saucer crashed into the White House, prohibition gangsters in 1930s Gotham, and finally, incredibly, a brigade of undead German SS soldiers commanded by Adolf Hitler. No kidding. It’s actually quite frightening and well done.
It can be at first confusing, trying to figure out how these seemingly random adventures connect to each other. But after a while, the clever reader may note that in each vignette, Batman declines the chance to kill someone who clearly deserves death.
Batman refuses to kill the demon. He refuses to kill the alien. Instead of saving his own hide, he instead leaps into freezing waters to save a drowning gangster.
It is only after each of these choices that he is led to the next stage.
In the climactic sequence, Batman finds himself standing over Adolf Hitler, reaching out his hand to try and rescue him from tumbling over a cliff, and we get this page:
At that moment, we’re transported back to the mountains. The entire adventure has been a fever dream. There was no master. There was no monastery. There is only Batman, dragging the Joker through the blizzard in a green thermal bag.
“Only a half mile further,” says Batman. “You’ll get medical attention. The bones I broke, the frostbite…”
“Why don’t you do it?” the Joker asks. “Kill me? Release the burden that torments both of us?”
“Soon there will be warmth and comfort,” the text tells us. “He will rest, as even he must. Later, he will assume his burden again, and drag it on into the years.”
There are nine and sixty ways of constructing a Batman story, and every single one of them is right.