Batman #494: “Night Terrors” Written by Doug Moench, Art by Jim Aparo, Colors by Adrienne Roy, Assistant Editor Jordan B Gorfinkel, Edited by Denny O’Neil
By John A. Butz
“Everything exploding…crumbling…collapsing…and the big ones…the one’s like Two-Face and The Joker…they haven’t even made their move’s yet!”
I think that the comic book editor has to be a master of the long game. You have to be willing to take your lumps early on as you let the authors and artists setup a good story, or a powerful twist, or a big reveal for three or four issues down the road. Not everything that the talent tries is going to work. You are going to have the occasional dead spot or dull moment or flat story.
But if you do your work properly, build carefully, guide with just the right touch, the reader will barely notice getting sucked in, that event horizon dividing books you might pick up on occasion from the ones that have a special place in your box down at the comic shop. When weeks or months, the reader will look back over their collection and be able to say, “It all started here”, even if at the time they weren’t aware of it.
Night Terrors is a major setup story, the cornerstone upon which Denny O’Neil will build the penultimate conflict in Broken Bat [KnightFall Vol.1] , a knockdown, drag-out duel between the Dark Knight and the Clown Prince of Crime. It sets up the circumstances that will provide the background for Who Rules the Night?, the next collected volume of KnightFall. It is the first moment where we can see a flash of what Jean Paul Valley will become when he is finally handed the Mantle of the Bat. It leads Batman directly into the last gauntlet and from there into arms reach of his nemesis, the unstoppable Venom-fueled monster Bane.
This is a big deal of a story.
Which is why it is a darn shame that it really isn’t that good.
On paper, it should be excellent. Doug Moench is back as our writer. Jim Aparo returns to work the pencils, reuniting the dream-team that opened up KnightFall with the excellent Freedom of Madness. Moench is a fine writer with an uncanny talent for a fast-paced action story, and Aparo draws a fine Batman, tall and lean and weary under the weight of his never-ending quest for justice. You have a Joker/Scarecrow team-up. You have a plot to murder Jim Gordon. You have Robin barely escaping certain death. I mean, what is not to like?
The story opens with Tim Drake managing to escape the sewers and the danger of Bane. Batman insists that there has to be some sort of overall master plan to Bane’s actions, but Robin is sure that the only plan is chaos. Batman discounts this before putting on his cowl and going out into the night. Meanwhile Bane is recovering from his encounter with Killer Croc and observing the effects of the chaos he has unleashed on Gotham.
We get a three-panel moment with a Jean Paul Valley, and we see that there is something driving the man, something waiting just beneath the surface. Whatever this unknown something is, we get the distinct impression that once it is unleashed, it will be dangerous and wild and unstoppable.
Batman begins to track yet another Arkham escapee, the physic fear-inducing serial-killer and cannibal Cornelius Stirk. I have nothing good to say about Stirk, and I really dislike the way he is used here. He is a perfect example of the struggle to write villains for a darker time that I mentioned when reviewing Red Slash. Instead of being believable, he comes off as a less interesting and effective Scarecrow. He is a totally forgettable addition to the Rouge’s Gallery.
Stirk is being manipulated by the Joker, who wants to plunge Gotham into chaos by kidnapping Jim Gordon. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t see the joke, so I have no idea why the capering madman is working this angle. While Batman hunts Stirk, the Scarecrow tracks down the Joker. As the Bat foils Stirk’s attempt to kill Gordon, the Scarecrow and the Joker team up, and proceed to capture Mayor Kroll himself, intent on doing some grade-A mayhem in Gotham.
If there is an exact opposite of a good Doug Moench vehicle, this story is it. Instead of an action packed romp full of break-neck pacing and desperation, we get a detective story and an introspective commentary on the strain between Batman and Jim Gordon. It’s not horrible, but it lacks urgency or punch. I don’t blame Moench for all of this – as I mentioned last time I think that this story was part of the “keep as many ideas alive as possible” phase of the book, wherein the editor is playing that long game, looking for the winning idea to grab and run with. And to Moench’s credit, he does finally nail it on page twenty-one. But that doesn’t forgive him for writing a pretty flat Scarecrow and a typically unfunny and bland Joker throughout the majority of the book.
Jim Aparo presents a different problem for me, because I genuinely like his art. He has this wonderful talent for drawing a Batman totally drained of energy, weary and worn, yet still finding the energy to somehow stand up again. Outside of Norm Breyfogel and the Klaus Janson/Lynn Varley pairing responsible for art on The Dark Knight Returns, I have never seen such powerful emotions spring from the art on the page. Aparo really nails the core element of KnightFall with his Batman.
But the man just can’t draw the Joker.
OK, I know he did the landmark A Death in the Family with all of its Jokery goodness. But I have read that book, and in my opinion, Aparo couldn’t draw a decent Joker in ’89 either. The intervening years did little to improve his abilities in this particular area.
It took me many reads through KnightFall to put a finger on exactly what it was about Aparo’s presentation of the Joker that made me grind my teeth in frustration. Aparo’s Joker never closes his mouth. In every panel he is depicted with a broad, toothy grin. Doesn’t matter if he is talking, yelling, crying, screaming…Aparo can only draw a single facial expression for the Clown Prince of Crime. Instead of having any depth or nuance, in Aparo’s hands the Joker has one and only one setting – grinning idiot. For a man who is known for avoiding the tendency to caricature so prevalent in comic book art, it is disappointing to see that there is one character that will only ever be a caricature in Aparo’s hands.
If you are going to write the ultimate Batman story, you have to have a showdown with the Joker. Tim Burton knew it. Christopher Nolan knew it. Frank Miller, Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, Alan Moore…all of them realized that in the long run, Batman is defined by his conflict with the Joker. Grim and dark and driven opposing wild and maniacal and mad. Both men equally insane in their own ways, both men reflections of each other. For over seventy years they have come together and done battle, the two defining iconic elements of the Batman mythology, the essence of their conflict captured wonderfully by Heath Ledger’s Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight”
“Oh, you. You just couldn’t let me go, could you? This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. Youare truly incorruptible, aren’t you? Huh? You won’t kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness. And I won’t kill you because you’re just too much fun. I think you and I are destined to do this forever.”
In my opinion, of all the writers and artists that worked on KnightFall, none are as ill-equipped to write a Joker story as Aparao and Moench.
You can’t put your second-string guys on a Joker story. You have to use the best you have and hope that they catch the spark that will drive your tale to new heights. There is a lot of competition at the top for that ultimate Batman/Joker showdown. You have to work hard to reach that peak.
The related issue here is the one thing I don’t like about KnghtFall, the one thing that bothers me above all others. The powers-that-be at DC robbed the Joker of his chance, of his one shining moment to win, to beat the Bat, to get the last laugh. I don’t mind Bane as a bad guy, and he is a worthy addition to the Rouge’s Gallery, but in my heart of hearts I wanted the man who broke the Bat to be the mad jackanape. But to do that, DC would have had to be willing to shake up the status quo far more than they were comfortable with. So instead of getting the top billing he deserved, the Joker will end up as the second-to-last challenge, a mere speed bump on the road towards Bane.
So after all this grumbling, it might surprise you to hear that I really enjoy the last two pages of this book. They mark a turning point in KnightFall. From this moment on, no matter who is writing the stories or drawing the characters, this becomes Denny O’Neil’s book. His fingerprints are everywhere. Gone are the single-episode stories, wrapped up and resolved in 22 pages. From here on out, things get complex and deep. Stories span three and four books, with several different storylines running simultaneously, weaving in and out and around each other to create a wonderful tapestry. The pacing begins to accelerate, until it is roaring along downhill towards the inevitable ending. Looking back, despite how much I really dislike the majority of Night Terrors, I can say that this is the point where even had I wanted too, I just couldn’t turn away.
“P-P-Please…wh-what…what do you w-want?”
“It’s time to exercise your city-wide influence, Mr. Mayor…as you trip the fiber-optic light fantastic…to bring this dark city to its knees.”
There are nine and sixty ways of constructing a Batman story, and every single one of them is right.
Next time – A really good prank call, fires in the night, and the Boy Wonder does some detective work. Oh, and there are also riddles.