Billed as a prequel to "The Dark Knight Returns," "Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade" by Frank Miller, Brian Azzarello, John Romita Jr. and Peter Steigerwald had a very high bar to clear; despite these expectations, though, the team puts together a tense, action-stuffed story about addiction and its consequences with a Bruce Wayne who can't stop being Batman.
The Batman we met in the pages of "Dark Knight Returns" was dark and uncorked, a man letting go of a rage he'd stuffed inside himself long before. Miller and Azzarello walk us back to the beginning of the end for that man in order to show us Bruce Wayne's rock bottom moment. Before they get there, though, we learn all about how out-of-control those days were. The solicits promised a lot of villains in this story, and it definitely delivers on that front, while also revealing just what happened to Jason Todd.
When the story kicks off, Jason is becoming good at his job -- almost too good. When Alfred mentioned Todd in 1986's "Dark Knight Returns," Bruce responded that Jason was a good soldier; he was loyal. In "The Last Crusade," Jason's loyalty and his devotion to Bruce's tunnel vision come across as heartbreaking, even as Batman tries to deny the effect he is having on his young ward while Jason grows more and more violent.
Then there's the Joker's arc. The writers pull giant wads of his story out, accelerating it a disorienting way, like a trick played on the reader by the Joker himself. Every time we check in on what the Joker is up to, it doesn't quite make sense, but the creative team presents it in a way that makes it feel bad. Like the most evil version of Bugs Bunny, Joker is the eye of a hurricane of chaos; we take our eye off him the way Bruce does, and -- by the time we catch up with him -- it's too late. The conclusion happens abruptly, as the story stops rather than ends in a jarring collision between Jason and the Joker's storylines.
The whole package looks great, too. Romita Jr. and Steigerwald make a smart team. Romita's pencils are tighter than ever, and his layouts feel like an homage to Miller with lots of nine panel-grids opening up to big, wide splash pages. The action is tough as nails and filled with blood; there are some graphic fight scenes with graphic consequences as Batman gets banged up. Steigerwald handles both inks and colors, and they blend together beautifully with the pencil art. The colors and his cinematic lighting choices contribute to the mood of every scene in a big way.
"All Star Batman and Robin, The Boy Wonder" was intended to be the prequel to "Dark Knight Returns," but "The Last Crusade" feels more like a spiritual precursor to the 1986 miniseries than "All Star Batman and Robin" ever did. "The Last Crusade" is focused and fast and well crafted. The voice of the character isn't as in your face, and Batman -- at his heart -- is a good man. Thanks to "The Last Crusade," it's easier to see Batman's trajectory as he becomes the man he is in "Dark Knight Returns." Given the status of that iconic story, that's a lot to live up to, but this book manages to do so nonetheless.