Cross-pollinating Batman with other superheroes tends to yield mixed results at best, especially if those characters have an ethos which is completely antithetical to that of the Dark Knight. For instance, when Mark Millar and Steve McNiven pitched the namesake character of their four-issue miniseries Nemesis as, what if Batman was the Joker, it made me cringe with the fear of the asinine levels a conceit like this could reach, and subsequently brought those fears to fruition and then some. When “what if Batman but [blank]” ideas are under DC Comics' sanction, the results fare a bit better than the hedonistic white-clad nutcase in Nemesis, and now, one of the best version of this thought experiment come to life is the titular anti-hero of The Batman Who Laughs: The Grim Knight #1.
“What if Batman was the Punisher,” sounds insufferable as a premise. But the fact of the matter is that putting a gun (back) into Bruce Wayne’s hand actually makes a lot of sense when you view the character through the cynical worldview one might develop after decades of being inundated with the 24-hour cable news cycle and the constant bombardment of fear mongering from government officials and people in positions of authority who are in charge of shaping your minds. While it could have been a gross power-fantasy about gaining a sense of agency through acts of horrendous violence, The Grim Knight ends up presenting a fascinating what if scenario that feels plausible.
This issue does a solid job of recapping the Batman mythos for this dark version of Bruce Wayne. All the big iconic beats are retread, but how they unfold is different in the not so subtle way of each one ending with murder. There is even a great reference to Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s legendary Batman: Year One, which helped set the stage for the darker version of the Caped Crusader fans know today. But Scott Snyder, James Tynion and Eduardo Risso take things a step farther, making the whole affair much more in line with what Miller has done with the character over the last few decades in his weird little Batman corner.
I won’t get into any big plot details, for two reasons: The first is that the story beats are a bit predictable once you get the gist of who The Grim Knight is supposed to be. Second, even if you do see what’s around the corner from a mile away, it doesn’t lessen the weird enjoyment you get from watching things play out. Much like The Batman Who Laughs, the Grim Knight is wild and shouldn’t work, at least, not on paper. Yet, somehow, things jibe well enough. The story is told through flashbacks that read like the CliffsNotes of a Batman epic from a different dimension, which is to say it broadcasts all the pertinent information to the reader without coming across as a rote “what if?” scenario.
The manner in which the flashbacks are illustrated in comparison to the present day story arc help achieve a lot of the greatness this book has to offer. The flashbacks are softer and in water color, while the present day stuff looks far more familiar to fans of Risso’s work, which is elevated by colorist Dave Stewart’s contribution. Through the different aesthetics, Risso is incredible at building a sense of place in his sequential work. He focuses on small details and brings them to the foreground for the reader. There might be a scene between two main characters in a scene of exposition, but the camera lingers on something that is tangentially connected to the story. It could be a rat scurrying across a dank alley, or a nearby parent chastising their child for some simple infraction, and it all adds to the overall story being told.
I keep wondering if the wheels are going to fall off The Batman Who Laughs train, but The Batman Who Laughs: The Grim Knight #1 keeps things chugging along smoothly. It’s almost defiant in terms of being so over-the-top it finally becomes bad. In the end, The Grim Knight #1 is an unexpectedly strong argument for a character who simply shouldn’t work as well as he does.