"The Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade," the prequel to Frank Miller's original "the Dark Knight Returns" miniseries, has arrived. Miller and his "Dark Knight III" co-writer Brian Azzarello also collaborate on this one-shot, which features an aging and aching Bruce Wayne who's not ready to retire as Batman, in large part because he feels his Robin-in-training Jason Todd isn't ready to fill his role. Penciller John Romita Jr. returns to work with Miller for the first time in over twenty years, and along with inker and colorist Peter Steigerwald, illustrate the events that presumably led up to Bruce giving up the mantle of the bat.
Miller and Azzarello's focus on Jason's state-of-mind is a recurring topic throughout the issue. The Joker has once again been defeated by Batman and Robin, and Gotham's TV talk shows sing the dynamic duo's praises now that The Clown Prince is once more locked up in Arkham Asylum. The prophetic question is raised, though, about the negative impact such a villain can have on a mere boy, foreshadowing the tragedy those familiar with the 1986 epic know lies in the Boy Wonder's future.
Contrasting the young and presumably impressionable Jason is an AARP-eligible Bruce, pained and sore the morning after The Joker's capture. Despite his aches and pains, Bruce nonetheless manages to best his younger sidekick in a sparring session, reminding him of the equally painful gap that exists between the possibility of his retirement and Jason's readiness to fill his shoes. The pair's subsequent apprehending of The Joker's goons, and Robin's excessively violent methods, show Batman's concern regarding Jason's darker side.
The writers further stress Jason's extreme tendencies throughout the issue; when one of Gotham's elite is seen exhibiting uncharacteristically threatening behavior, for example, Robin defuses the situation by inflicting deliberate injury on the perpetrator rather than simply disarming him. After another particularly violent attack, Jason is shown hiding his smile at the damage his target sustains.
Batman and Robin eventually track the cause of the socialites' afflictions to the machinations of Poison Ivy, marking her first appearance in Miller's "Dark Knight" continuity. And Ivy isn't the only one of Batman's rogues to make a debut in the darker world of The Dark Knight; while tracking her, clues lead Batman to a nearly fatal encounter with none other than an especially brutal version of Killer Croc. The introduction of these villains doesn't mean that The Joker's role in the story is finished, though, as his mind games with his fellow inmates eventually coerce them to overpower the Arkham guards, allowing his escape.
The fight with Ivy and Croc turns out to be Batman and this Robin's final battle as a team. With Gotham's richest men in Ivy's thrall, she does as supervillains are known to do and turns the hapless captives loose upon the pair. Jason's resulting actions are far from heroic, cutting loose against these innocent victims, and cementing Batman's conviction that Jason is simply not emotionally stable enough to be a superhero, much less take up the mantle of the bat. The pair take down Ivy and Croc, but the cost of the victory is their now-broken relationship.
With Bruce's faith in him destroyed, Jason's mindfulness of Bruce's demands is also lost. When the two learn of The Joker's escape and Bruce refuses to involve Jason in going after him, a shattered but rebellious Jason decides to go after the villain alone, and faces the horrible consequences. Jason is brutally beaten by the villain's henchman; possibly fatally, or perhaps left alive to face more torment, as Miller and Azzarello's script leaves some of the grisly details to readers' imaginations.
"Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade," by Frank Miller, Brian Azzarello, John Romita Jr. and Peter Steigerwald, is on sale now.