Providing the origin of the fifth of the seven known Dark Knights that have invaded from the Dark Multiverse, Peter J. Tomasi and Francis Manapul's Batman the Merciless #1 spotlights a Batman who was driven to darkness by the loss of Wonder Woman in his world's final battle against Ares, God of War. Like the other Dark Knights, this one has a connection to another DC Comics hero, but unlike the rest, Batman the Merciless didn't start out quite as dark as his name and imposing appearance might imply. Tomasi's focus on this Batman's conflicted character is the issue's driving force, complete with an unforeseen curve at the end that cements the character's brutality, while Manapul's delivery of Tomasi's vision is steeped in the desperation caused by the Dark Knights' multiversal incursion.
A large part of the issue capably deals with A.R.G.U.S.' response to the invasion, which Manapul captures well with his textured, hazy cast that evokes the situation's desperate nature. Where he truly excels, though, is in his commanding, spot-on portrayal of Batman the Merciless – every panel featuring the character is one that bleeds with his threatening and deadly disposition. Manapul's implementation of Greg Capullo's design for the villain is probably the best executed yet – the character's armored and taloned battle suit, coupled with the dragon-winged helmet and elegantly simple red eyes arguably make for the deadliest of the Dark Knights so far, at least in appearance, if not outright power.
Tomasi, meanwhile, matches the personality of the Bruce Wayne inside the armor to its outward appearance – decidedly terrifying and deadly, to be sure, but he also spends time on the character's journey that got him there. This Bruce isn't one who just willingly jumps into the darkness when all is lost, as seems to be the nature of the Dark Multiverse – instead, he eagerly takes possession of a deadly weapon with altruistic intent, only to then be consumed by it. The treatment is not only much more faithful to the nature of Batman, albeit a flawed one, but also to the nature of anyone genuinely regarded as a hero before their fall – Tomasi establishes a palpable sense of good in Bruce before it's ultimately destroyed, making his Dark Knight the most convincing and well-developed up to this point.
Ironically, Tomasi also seemingly makes the most good-hearted Batman of the bunch into the deadliest, by way of his convincing transformation of the character's mindset. Batman the Drowned instilled a phobic sense of fear, The Murder Machine was convincing by way of its cyber-skills, while what's been seen so far of the Batman Who Laughs invokes fear out of sheer creepiness. Batman the Merciless, though, is all macho muscle and determination – he has the powers of a god, sure, but his methods are pure blood, thunder and sword, made powerful by their relative simplicity, and made real by everyone's natural fear of being obliterated by someone far stronger than them.
All of this would have been enough to carry the issue, but then Tomasi throws in a heartbreaking twist at the end that shows Bruce's journey into the darkness started a little sooner than originally believed – and one that's possibly foreshadowed on Jay Fabok and Brad Anderson's beautifully rendered cover. The move reinforces Bruce's tragic journey from hero of a dark place to a villain who embraces the very corrupted, bleak nature of the Dark Multiverse, and perhaps hammers home the very negative essence of this multiverse – that everyone in it, no matter how heroic, is destined to fall.
The next Dark Knight will get the spotlight in Batman: The Devastator #1, on sale November 1. The assembled Dark Knights also make an appearance in The Flash #33, on sale now.