Often when the works of a great writer become inaccessible to later generations, whether due to differences in language or changes in culture, subsequent writers engage in a process that is a strange admixture of adaptation, appropriation, inspiration, and translation. Such is extremely common among the works of Shakespeare. The Taming of the Shrew was reimagined for American audiences as 10 Things I Hate About You. West Side Story had earlier done the same for Romeo and Juliet. And most school children today first experienced the tragedy of Hamlet in Disney’s The Lion King.
A similar process seems to be at work in Justice League: The Darkseid War: Batman #1. Batman has made himself into something more than human, his consciousness expanded like never before. His mind fixates on vengeance against the man who killed his parents. His nocturnal visitation torments Joe Chill, fearful for what might befall him if fellow criminals should learn he made the Batman.
This synopsis of a tale exploring the relationship of Bruce Wayne to his first rogue is an accurate summation of The Darkseid War: Batman #1, but every but as much so the classic story which inspired it, Joe Chill in Hell from Batman #673 by Grant Morrison. Given the similarities of the two issues, it goes beyond plausible that Peter Tomasi should be channeling Morrison. Tomasi’s work on the character in the pages of Batman and Robin vol. 2 was a direct continuation of the earlier volume by Morrison, whose concurrent work on Batman, Inc. set the agenda for Tomasi’s run.
Nor should it be surprising that within his own lifetime Morrison should be receiving the Shakespeare treatment. The British Invaders, whose ranks also include Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, are already the comic medium’s equivalent of the Bard and his contemporaries. Moreover, none of the invaders are particularly populist in their appeal, despite or perhaps because of their more erudite and cerebral stylings, making their works perfect candidates for translation to more mainstream audiences.
Tomasi’s retelling here is strangely aseptic. It begins with a long sequence establishing the new status quo as Batman makes his nightly patrol of petty crime throughout Gotham, albeit as the god of knowledge seated upon his Mobius Chair. After divine intervention in a robbery and an attempted homicide, he says to himself “Now it’s time to get personal” as if the mission had ever been anything but. Yet his reminiscence of the crime to Chill is strikingly impersonal, coldly reducing the remains of Thomas and Martha Wayne to the exact volume and weight of the blood and bodies composing their corpses. This may be Tomasi’s clumsy attempt at demonstrating Batman’s newfound omniscience, but it drains the scene of its emotional content.
Of course, Tomasi’s purpose could very well be to indict Batman for the detachment the chair is bringing to him; such would fit with Tomasi’s general thesis throughout the issue that being all-knowing has compromised Batman’s knowledge of right from wrong, his knowledge of the line between protection and punishment, and between human justice and divine judgement. Such is explicitly expressed by Commissioner Gordon and Alfred, but their vague dialogues with Batman serve to merely tell the reader that chair might be more curse than blessing, without such being shown (beyond a minor nosebleed).
The real highlight of the issue is the cliffhanger on the final page. Johns established at the beginning of The Darkseid War that Batman had learned the true identity of the Joker, and that plot thread promises to be followed up on in the next issue of Justice League. While Snyder’s Endgame seemed to suggest that Batman knew very little regarding the Joker’s history and true identity, given the looser focus on continuity as part of the DCYou initiative, Johns may have the opportunity to explore such even if it contradicts Snyder.
Speaking of the last page, it is easily the most impressive of the issue. Fernando Pasarin gorgeously recaptures classic cover appearances of the Joker, such as The Killing Joke by Brian Bolland, Batman #614 by Jim Lee, (Brian Azzarello’s) Joker by Lee Bermejo, and Batman #17 & #37 by Greg Capullo. It is no criticism against Pasarin to describe the rest of the issue as very much in keeping with the DC house style; it is the company’s style of chose for good reason. Pasarin even goes above and beyond, not a single one of his panels bereft of highly detailed backgrounds.
There is little in this issue that is novel; it is a classic tale told better elsewhere. But in an age of remakes, reboots, and re-imaginings, this also is a story worth experiencing again from a slightly different perspective. Readers should be so lucky if all the one-shot tie-ins to The Darkseid War prove up to the same caliber.