Gimmick or Good? - Legends of the Dark Knight #1

In this column, Mark Ginocchio (from Chasing Amazing) takes a look at the gimmick covers from the 1990s and gives his take on whether the comic in question was just a gimmick or whether the comic within the gimmick cover was good. Hence "Gimmick or Good?" Here is an archive of all the comics featured so far. We continue with perhaps the very first variant cover, 1989's Legends of the Dark Knight #1!

Legends of the Dark Knight #1 (published November 1989) – script by Dennis O’Neil, art by Ed Hannigan and John Beatty

With Comics Should Be Good honoring the 75th anniversary of Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27 over the next few months, Gimmick or Good would like to jump into this celebration as well. Legends of the Dark Knight #1 (LOTDK) is actually a landmark comic to discuss for this column as many believe this issue was among the industry’s very first variant/gimmick covers.

Fresh off the success of Tim Burton’s Batman film in the summer of 1989, plus the popularity of Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One arc two years earlier, DC launched the first brand new Batman title in nearly 40 years in LOTDK. To commemorate this occasion, LOTDK was published with four different “collector’s edition” outer covers.

But what about inside the comic?

The premise behind LOTDK was that DC wanted the series to feature storylines that took place outside the current events of its other Batman titles. The end result of this editorial direction was a number of flashback stories about Batman/Bruce Wayne’s origins, much in the style of Year One.

The opening arc of the series is the five-part “Shaman,” which provides context as to how the image/symbol of the bat became so prevalent in Wayne’s life. The comic opens with Wayne and a bounty hunter climbing a mountain in Alaska when the bounty hunter is killed. Bruce is left by himself, without a parka, in the frigid Alaskan temperatures when a Native America tribe finds him and rescues him. While he’s recuperating, one of Bruce’s rescuers tells the story of The Bat growing its wings in order to help a Raven heal.

This tale proves to be prescient as Bruce returns home to Gotham and continues his training as a vigilante crime fighter. With the Shaman’s story serving as inspiration, he dons the mask of the bat and becomes Batman.

The story of how Bruce put the “bat” in Batman is one that has been addressed by numerous creative teams across multiple media. The mystical angle that LOTDK lends to the origin story is totally serviceable in its own right, At the time this story was published, DC was in the midst of reimagining its Batman universe, so I’m at a loss as to whether or not this is still considered continuity or not. But in reading it 25 years after the fact, I have no problems following along and accepting “Shaman” puts forward. Something that is a bit tougher to determine is whether or not some of the comic’s dialogue is a bit stilted and awkward by design or by accident. Like in the scene where Batman – fully in costume – confronts a group of thugs for the first time, he warns them that they can either “crawl on your bellies,” begging forgiveness, or “I hurt you.” The syntax of these words lack grace and elegance, but at the same time, it works for a character that is trying to find his footing and is fighting insecurity and uncertainty as a costumed crime fighter.

I did enjoy the vintage aesthetic of the Ed Hannigan/John Beatty art team. They are clearly drawing a ton of inspiration from Mazzucchelli’s phenomenal work on Year One. The use of shadows, reds and blues throughout the comic give it a gritty, somber tone, that feels like its straight out of the 1930s or 40s. Even with the darker tone and aesthetic, the comic manages to produce some very funny moments, most notably a scene with Bruce and Alfred where the butler tells “Master Bruce” that his obsession with weaponry is making him look like “Gotham’s answer to Attila the Hun.” When Bruce asks him where else he could be making some investments, Alfred tells him “here’s a chap who needs money to prove that Shakespeare was really twin pigmies.”

As a whole, LOTDK #1 reads well and is entertaining enough, especially for a first issue, despite the fact that there’s nothing all that revelatory or groundbreaking about it. This very rarely gets tossed around in the discussion for one of the better Batman storylines, even though it was published at a time where popularity and casual interest in the character was at its peak. But since the column, by name, is Gimmick or Good, and not Gimmick or Groundbreaking, let me wish Batman a 75th birthday by forgiving some of the comic’s clunky dialogue and embracing everything else about it that I thought was a good time.

Verdict: Good

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