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[Retrospective]Batman: Shaman

Bobby DerieBobby Derie Registered User regular
I'm gonna finish the Cerebus retrospective, but the last three books are a bit of a slog, so I'm taking a brief break to look at one of my favorite comics from 1989: the Shaman storyline that made up the first five issues of Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight. And this is a story that you can appreciate in five covers:


It's hard to explain how awesome those covers were to younger me. Those covers were the entire reason I begged my parents for extra chores so I could earn more allowance to buy those comics. They were, in fact, the first comics I bought just for the covers. I wanted those covers more than I wanted any of the hologram-and-chrome plated covers that came after in the 90s. Even then, somewhere in my miserable and inartistic soul, I knew painted covers were awesome.

Nowadays, I still appreciate these covers's not just that they go well with the story. They basically tell the story. And that story is awesome. It's a very basic story when you get down to it, a very fundamental story, and that's why it's Legends of the Dark Knight. But I'm maybe getting ahead of myself a bit.

So, Legends of the Dark Knight was a follow-on to Batman Year One - this was the golden era of Frank Miller, after Dark Knight Returns. It's easy to forget, in these latter days when Frank Miller is considered insane and over-the-hill and over-hyped, to go back and read those first issues, Frank Miller at the height of his powers but the nadir of his insanity. This was a guy that was redefining Batman for himself, but he was hitting the notes that turned the World's Greatest Detective from a square-jawed hero into something much more visceral - a vigilante in the purer sense, driven with a near-fanaticism at times, but still very much human.

But that's not even this comic. This comic was written by Dennis O'Neil. You'll remember Dennis O'Neil for doing really awesome, serious, grounded storylines, like his run on Green Lantern/Green Arrow where they're palling around the country in a beat-up pick-up with a Guardian of the Universe, or Speedy getting addicted (and beating) drugs, or John Stewart becoming the first black Green Lantern. This is the Dennis O'Neil that wrote "The Scalp Hunters" and characters like The Shadow and The Question. Dennis O'Neil is the quiet side of the slide towards comics becoming more serious in the 80s and 90s. And this is him writing a Batman story. Not the Batman story, but a classic one that doesn't get a lot of love.

The story skips around a bit, but it's set shortly after the events of Batman Year One - a twenty-five year-old Bruce Wayne has returned to Gotham after a dozen years traveling the world, learning to be a detective, training with ninjas, etc. During that time, he was in Alaska, fell down a cliff and almost died - but he was saved by a Native American shaman, who performed a healing song, a simple story involving masks and a Bat-spirit that carries away sickness (I'm condensing a lot, you should go read it). Fast forward years later, Bruce is funding an exhibition of artifacts from Alaska including a similar mask, which gets stolen - and is apparently being used by a cult-leader who claims supernatural powers. Batman, naturally, steps in to uncover the mystery and foil the villain...which ties back into the events in Alaska.

I don't want to ruin the ending. It's a great ending. If you haven't read it, the ending kind of makes the book. Because as much as I laud it, this is a pretty simple little story. Very noir, very episodic. The art (aside from the covers) was pretty standard for the time, and probably wouldn't be up to snuff by today's standards. But I like the ending, because it ties off the story so well, and fits in with those covers. You look at those covers, and it is a very simple story. Like peeling an onion. The shaman's bat-mask inspires the identity of Batman. Behind the cowl, Batman is Bruce Wayne. Bruce Wayne is just another guy, human, mortal. But the idea of Batman - the identity of Batman - that is immortal. It's fundamental to Batman's character. Bruce Wayne isn't Batman. Bruce Wayne is the persona that Batman adopts when he wants to interact with humanity. Bruce Wayne is as much Batman's identity as Clark Kent is Superman's identity.

I'm gonna stop before I go too far.

Okay, this has been a bit of a long, rambling bit for a mostly-forgotten storyline in comics. People still remember and reference Year One; Shaman doesn't often get the continuity nod. But it's a quality run, simple and unextravagant's very grounded. The hints of the supernatural are just that - hints. It wouldn't work if the Cult of Chubala was summoning bat-demons or something. In fact, this wouldn't really work with any other character in the DCU. It's not a Robin story or a Wonder Woman story of a Green Lantern story - it's a Batman story. And a good one.

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    XaquinXaquin Right behind you!Registered User regular
    Shaman was such an incredible way to begin LoTDK.

    I hate to say it though, but I liked Gothic (6-10) more =P

    You got me to pull out my Cerebus phonebooks, now I have to head over and grab my LoTDK short box!

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    Linespider5Linespider5 ALL HAIL KING KILLMONGER Registered User regular
    edited January 2015
    I just want to take a moment to voice my appreciation for @Bobby Derie‌ and these contributions to the Graphic Violence forum.

    This is some really great stuff, and as much as I like the examinations of Cerebus, delving into other fare with similar scrutiny is really exciting.

    Linespider5 on
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